We thank Bernard Heise for his photograph for this week’s art.
On a whim, while taking a much deserved break from her efforts to hone her latest contribution to the metatextual emancipation of the downtrodden and unwashed, Samantha turned away from the laptop, fixed her eyes on the faded Magritte reproduction across the room, and made a concentrated effort to believe in the absence of gravity. To her delight, she discovered that this indeed lightened her step. She tried again and found herself hovering slightly as she walked, long enough to wriggle her painted toes with glee. Soon, she took to the air with such ease that she began having trouble keeping her feet on the ground. Her heart nearly burst with self-satisfaction and vindication, but then her enthusiasm suddenly waned, for the effect was, in fact, deeply disconcerting. Previously routine tasks like preparing her morning toast and coffee and performing ablutions now required extreme mental focus. It was difficult to keep her fingers on the keyboard. She was no longer able to concentrate when conducting seminars and the students started complaining about her teaching. Then late one night, she awoke in horror to find herself pinned to the ceiling above her bed, shivering with cold, her nightgown hanging limply from her body. At that point, she realized she would no longer be able to leave the house for fear of getting tangled in power lines or floating away into space. Worse yet, she understood that this latest development was probably all the university needed in order to revoke her tenure.
When the first incidents occurred in Cairo, Berlin, Toronto and Wichita, people mistook them for acts of terrorism. But the reality was worse. Eyewitness reports indicated that the individuals involved were not setting off suicide bombs but rather were the victims of some sort of fire that spontaneously flamed from within before making them explode. Certainly, the explosions weren’t nearly as powerful as a typical suicide bomb, but they could easily kill or maim anyone nearby, obliterate a taxicab or disable a bus. And, apart from a large sect of evangelical Christians who were convinced, despite biblical inconsistencies, that they were witnessing the rapture and eagerly anticipated their own combustion, most people found them much more frightening, for they were completely unpredictable and unexplained. As the frequency of such incidents grew, so did the probability that within any group an individual would ignite. Like the Black Death, the threat was indiscriminate, failing to honor the privileges of socio-political distinction. Explosions were taking place in homeless shelters, corporate boardrooms, at cabinet meetings, and family dinner tables. As they looked into each other’s eyes, friends, comrades, and lovers not only recognized their mutual affection but now also understood that they were the likely agents of their own mutual destruction. And so it was that people stopped working and playing. Instead, they slipped their bonds of sociability and fled the burning cities, seeking solitude in the forests and the hills, where they forgot their language and waited in silence for the fire within.
|Public Transportation, Ensenada by Bernard Heise|
“Damn you!” he roared, as if just learning that he couldn’t create a stone that he cannot lift. A flick of his finger sent the unfortunate urban planner through the atmosphere, his body tracing an arc like a shooting star. Then Yahweh turned to the next one. “And what about you, can you fix it?” For there was indeed a problem. When Yahweh had irrevocably stipulated in Revelations that New Jerusalem would be 1400 miles high, long and wide, he did so because of his aesthetic fondness for the perfect cube. But now that construction was well underway and the Second Coming was nigh, he realized that only those apartments on the faces and especially at the corners of the cube would have a view. The rest of the chambers within the cube wouldn’t receive any natural light at all and his own throne, which was obviously at the center, would be as dark and poorly ventilated as Mother Teresa’s armpit. “No, Lord, I cannot change the laws of geometry,” squeaked the quivering voice. “Then you are dead to me!” Yahweh shouted, bringing down his giant fist on the distinguished professor from Yale with a crash that toppled buildings in Santiago and sent tidal waves over Fiji. “Bring me more! I need more experts!” Yahweh cried, wiping the blood on his beard. Jesus slipped into his sandals and left the mansion, a sheaf of resumes in hand. In moments like this it was better not to hang out at home.
When I hold in the palm of my hand the life of someone like you, about whom I’ve learned everything I need to know from the pronouncements you have splattered across television, radio, and the internet, and whom I now have before me in the puffy flesh, sweaty and pale, wheeled by frantic paramedics into the soul-scorching lights of my operating room after a hell-bent ambulance ride because the cumulative effects of a bad diet, lack of exercise, and vitriol finally sprang the corroded springs of your blackened heart, knocking you flat and breathless just as you were raising a glass of expensive chardonnay to your thin lips to toast the jackals who have made and kept you fat in exchange for promises to create laws that will assure vast profits for the few by perpetuating the misfortune of the many, and I look into your predatory eyes, still very conscious, and glimpse a flicker of fear but also the demand that I save you, I suddenly become a man of faith, knowing that the good Lord himself has delivered you to this table beneath my scalpel, and I wonder whether I should say a prayer that my fingers might slip, which they never do, or that a random infection might take hold, which rarely happens, or if I should simply show my gratitude for the opportunity I now have to serve my country and fellow citizens and apply the blade decisively, remembering that God helps those who help themselves.
He was born in Berlin in 1933 – an unlucky year. Yet one of his earliest memories was of his mother telling him that he had a lucky number. He asked her a few times what it was, but she always told him that he needed to find out for himself. So he stopped asking and started wondering instead. Was it twelve? For that was the address of their building in the working class neighborhood of Wedding which for some reason remained unmolested by both allied bombs and Soviet soldiers. Or perhaps 53, the year they immigrated toCanada, where he worked off his debt to the government inAlberta’s sugar beet fields and later bought a modest farm in the rough country north of Edmonton. When gazing upon his wife, he’d wonder if it was the number one, for their love, which ignited young, had matured but never waned. Perhaps it was two, the sum of his daughters, both beautiful and well-adjusted; while unimportant in the eyes of the world, they were his inestimable treasure. Then one spring, while fixing a wire fence, his 73-year old heart collapsed and he fell back into the snow. Gazing up at the blue sky for what he knew was the last time, he observed his own death: painless, easy, and quick. Which made him consider the number three. And so he died, never actually knowing what his lucky number was but having lived a life in which he’d always counted his blessings.
Upon the horrifying discovery that the citizens’ needs were met and their appetites sated, the regime moved quickly to avert a moral crisis. Consultants were engaged to create the slogans: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” “Happiness is best pursued through work,” “Arbeit macht frei.” Musicians set the words to music, designers made banners and signs, and filmmakers created public service announcements. Teachers taught the work ethic in public schools; pastors proclaimed it from their pulpits. Corporations bid on contracts to move the Rocky Mountains further east. Seawater began being shipped from the Atlantic to the Pacific, first by tanker truck and then by rail. At the same time, crews started working on immense pipelines which could perform the task more quickly. In Kansas and Arizona, work brigades and prison inmates were digging holes. The dirt was shipped north to fill the lakes of Minnesota in alphabetical order. Professionals were employed to write books that nobody wanted to read; linguists translated them into every language; and critical theorists discussed their implications. Everyone sent annual reports to Washington for analysis and appraisal. Hovering above them all were the bureaucrats and experts, who set the objectives, quantified the data, measured efficiency, and evaluated performance. And when the good citizens went home at the end of the day, bone-weary and depleted, they ate microwave dinners in front of big screen TVs and listened to reports read by qualified personnel which praised their accomplishments, criticized their failures, and encouraged them to do better.
Sleep. I can’t.
Alcohol – much too much.
Drinking began yesterday.
Crashed car and burned house.
House burned and car crashed
yesterday. Began drinking
much too much alcohol.
can’t I sleep?
Looking around for sharks, he takes a final breath, bends at the waste, and glides down. When his fins enter the water, he kicks. Just enough to maintain momentum without accelerating the heart. A few more kicks and he’s thirty feet deep, settling lightly on the coral where he can see them at the drop off – parrot fish, trigger fish, a few groupers. And two beautiful Napoleon wrasses. He wants one, but they must come to him. So he waits, counting slowly – 1… 2… 3…. The wrasses hover and drift – 39… 40… 41…. One finally faces him and moves a little closer, with an open mouth and dull eyes. He senses a tightening urgency in his chest, and so pushes off from the coral and swims towards the fish, taking aim along the shaft of the spear. When the wrasse turns, he pulls the trigger, and the spear surges forward with a metallic click and runs through the shoulder of the fish. The stricken wrasse plunges towards a crevasse in the coral while he pulls sharply on the line. But his heart pounds, his lungs burns, and he knows he must abandon his pretty prey. He drops the gun and kicks, looking up towards the dappled light. Fingers fumble at the weight belt, which releases and drops. Thighs pump, arms reach skyward, yet with the surface still seconds away he realizes that he just can’t wait — his mouth is open and gasping as his vision darkens around the edges.
Standing in line at the McDonald’s on Bank Street in Whangarei, Hemi does a quick survey of the last few hundred years and blames everything on red meat – his parents’ diabetes, his brother’s alcoholism, his nephew’s inability to read. As he sees things, for the longest time his people had satisfied themselves with birds, fish and the flesh of their enemies. When the Europeans first arrived, they were welcomed not only for their nails and muskets but for their rumps, thighs, calves and biceps. But the holds of their wooden ships were also filled with sheep, cows, and pigs. Hemi imagines his Maori ancestors standing barefoot on the beach, their mouths watering and their tewhatewha and taiaha at the ready, only to have their appetites overwhelmed by a relentless flood of protein. It swept ashore on two legs and four, a tidal wave of weaponry and grazing that washed away the pā, turned the landscape into pasture, and never receded. Today on these islands there are twice as many cows as people, four times as many sheep as cows, and the pigs are running the place. Hemi slaps a $10 note on the counter — Kate Sheppard’s face stares up at him, but he doesn’t really mind. That said, when he pays with a $20, he always make sure to turn the Queen face down. He orders a Grand Angus for himself and Happy Meals for his kids from the pale-faced girl in uniform. And he smiles, warm and genuine.
Responding to the court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, Congress redefined marriage as a Union of Opposites. The point was to discriminate against same-sex couples without referring directly to men and women in the law and to thereby sneak one past the Justices. But as was its wont, Congress acted hastily and without reading the final legislation and thus gave homosexuals a long-awaited opportunity. Instead of marrying as man-and-man or woman-and-woman, hordes of gays and lesbians sealed their love as short-and-tall, thin-and-fat, right-handed-and-left-handed. The wrath of God was immediate. The mighty US ship-of-state shuttered and shook as it tore along the dotted lines which distinguished it from Canada in the North and Mexico in the South. Its planking opened up along every longitude from Maine to California. And in a devastating instant, the Lower 48 collapsed into the earth. Canadian soldiers armed with hockey sticks swarmed out of Whitehorse to conquer Alaska and battalions of pensioners from Vancouver and Toronto, kept spry by socialized healthcare, dropped from the skies to take Hawaii. Ironically, Ottawa imposed same-sex marriage on both of these new acquisitions. While this last development led believers to question the ways of God, they soon discerned the wisdom of his plan when they realized that the collapse of the USA created space for the rising tides of global warming and opened up the trade route between Europe and China, thus finally giving Christendom something it had been praying for since the days of Christopher Columbus.
My job is easier if I fancy myself the curator for a museum of broken cameras, publicly funded and modestly sized, rather than the director of this specialized retirement home. I manage a highly trained staff with degrees from the best universities. We usually acquire our stricken residents from their remorseful middle-aged children or dejected spouses. I examine each one personally, shine a light in the eyes, monitor the apertures and the ability to focus. Most important (as per standards developed by the Johns Hopkins Medical School), I conduct a functional MRI scan to confirm that, although the eyes blink, no new images are actually being recorded. We feed them, diaper them, and make them comfortable. Decorum demands that we turn on their televisions or pipe in music by Celine Dion. For the first few months, they receive visitors — relatives and friends who hold their hands and speak to them in hushed tones. But interest inevitably wanes. After thirty days go by without a single visit (it once was ninety, but regulations have changed due to economic blight and shifting health care priorities,) we mail out official notices that the exhibit will be discontinued unless interest resumes. After another thirty days without a visit, we administer the pentobarbital and ship any personal effects to loved ones (provided that the forms have been filled out correctly; if not, the belongings go to the state). Everyone is sad. Then we clean and disinfect the room, preparing it for the next installation.
He’d heard their voices so often that they echoed in his skull. “Stop whining, asshole,” they said, “get a fucking grip. You gotta pick yourself up by your bootstraps – keep your eye on the prize!” But after a lifetime of Whoppers and Kentucky Fried consumed in front of the TV (Jerry Springer for fun; the History Channel for education; FOX for moral guidance), Arthur was so fat that he could reach no further than his prick. One day, for reasons that he would never understand, just as he was waddling across the parking lot of St. Andrews School for Boys on his way home from the bottling plant, the Lord spoke to him softly – “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” – and Arthur knew that He would honor a good faith effort. So Arthur turned his eyes towards heaven and crossed himself. He put down his lunch box and whipped down his pants. He reached into his underwear, grabbed himself tightly around his testicles and penis and pulled hard. And suddenly he found himself ten feet off the pavement, balancing horizontally, suspended from his fist. The pain was incredible and his balls were blue, but he was afraid to let go. Worst of all, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boys in their private school uniforms, their eyes trained never to miss an opportunity, coming at him with lacrosse sticks to bash him like a piñata.
Aware of the significance of school ranking for real estate professionals, Tony developed his Beach Flesh Index© as an investment tool to rank community beaches. He quickly gained subscribers, but the project was difficult. The index capitalized on American obsessions about weight and youth. But a proper ranking meant considering not merely the presence of lean but also the absence of fat. What good was a beach graced by a few lithe lovelies if they were lost among mountains of quivering thighs? Youth was also a problem. The ideal body was between, say, eighteen and twenty-eight. Age naturally brought values down – not much for a thirty-five year old, but a significant geriatric presence was devastating (the curve was exponential). Children, too, proved bothersome. Clearly, one could not simply balance a bevy of twelve-year olds against a cadre of codgers – this would produce a pedophilic fantasy incongruent with the values of the American homeowner. But what really distressed Tony were the proactive measures of his subscribing real estate associations. Already they were pressing for ordinances requiring that all beach visitors with a Body Mass Index over 25 be fully clothed, or making beach access contingent upon the presentation of an annual pass that could only be obtained by submitting medical reports and birth certificates. Even worse, they were hiring thugs to breakup boardwalks to discourage access by people with disabilities. But Tony shrugged off such concerns, for the money was good and he was building a place in Whitefish, Montana.
He knew exactly where he was and saw that as a failure. For the real trick was knowing where you weren’t. On good days he’d take bearings off islands, marks, headlands — anything he recognized — and plot his approximate position on the chart, mindful that heaving decks and magnetic variations made bearings imprecise, and that his vessel was always moving, rendering one bearing obsolete even before he could bend his eye to the compass for the next. He liked knowing that triangulation created not truth but extremely useful fictions. Thus he never put his finger on the chart and said: “Here I am.” No, he would point to symbols of submerged rocks, nasty shoals, lurking reefs and say: “Here I am not.” But today was a bad day, and the epiphany announced itself with a prolonged crash that shattered his complacency and tore the rudder from the boat. Grinding its keel, the vessel spun into the wind, sails flogging like tortured and vengeful spirits, already settling in the stern. The lurch made him spill his coffee as he steadied himself. And it also told him instantly — for he knew the chart by heart — that he was on Blighter’s Rock, a volcanic pinnacle that he’d often pointed to, always avoided, and never seen. It flashed through his sharpening mind that he quite enjoyed the uncertainties of life. And that his current awareness of his precise location might be one of the last things he’d know for sure, which wasn’t comforting at all.
On this the first Monday of the celestial year, He dons his argyle sweater, knickers, and cap and struts along a well worn path towards the edge of heaven. “Boy, get your ass in gear,” He yells. Jesus struggles to keep up, burdened with a bag of drivers on his right shoulder and carrying the bucket of balls in his left hand, which pains him still. They make the journey in a silence thickened with mutual resentment, and the Father is already impatient the moment they arrive. “Come on, boy, tee ‘em up!” Without a word, the Son inserts the tees into the dirt. He then selects the golf balls one at time, spits on each the thickest loogie he can muster, and lines them up. This mucous is the precious stuff of life. Originally the theory was that the slime’s precise bacterial composition would change with variations in the divine diet and thus produce an infinite biological diversity. But although Father and Son have feasted on many different types of sacrifices, the bacterial slime has remained remarkably consistent and the results have been uniformly disappointing. Sure, the Father still enjoys swinging His clubs and driving the fucked up little worlds into outer space – a slice to the left, another to the right, then one straight down the middle that makes Him smile and forget about His aching bones. But for years now, Jesus has wanted to break the damn clubs. He mutters. He’s grown weary of the repeated crucifixions.
Revlon’s development of the Mr. Potato Head principle for human applications had revolutionized the beauty industry, and kits were now available from a number of manufacturers. They could be bought cheaply at Costco and Sam’s Club, but you had to be wary of ones that were made in Pakistan and the Szechwan province of China, for they reportedly caused gangrene. In the mornings, Jerry would shuffle down the stairs and take his place in the greasy diner below his apartment run by the Polish lady. And carrying his breakfast, she would greet him with a different face each time – one day with eyes that were big, round and accentuated by heavy lashes, the next with glistening star-shaped pupils and no irises at all. Her nose might be flat and broad or long and thin, and sometimes it would dangle. Some mornings her ears would be pinned flat to her head, but other times she would accessorize with auricles that fanned the air. “Do you fancy me today?” she’d ask him with a smile, sometimes toothy, sometimes not. “It’s not quite right,” he’d inevitably respond, though her look quite often turned him on. They’d laugh, their flirting done with for the day. And he would polish off his eggs, sausages and toast, read the comics in the Vancouver Sun, and leave a fistful of dollars on the table. Then he’d shuffle off to work at the pickle factory, wondering whether he would recognize any of his friends.
A story they might tell by Bernard Heise
To save our small South Pacific island from the rising tides of global warming, our ancestors turned to Google and the sacred breadfruit tree. From Google they got the names – thousands upon thousands – which they compiled in lists. From the tree, they plucked the breadfruit, which they shaped as human heads, inlaid with pretty stones and shells, drawing upon each a corporate logo or a flag, and inscribing a name: a captain of industry, finance or government. Streaked with war paint and chanting loudly, they split the fruit open with their clubs, boiled it in water, and then picked the meat clean with their forks. And in time zones far, far away, the bankers, executives, and demagogues suddenly began to disappear, vanishing from beneath their silken sheets, evaporating in the business class compartments of jet liners, the back seats of chauffeur-driven limousines, and behind the protective cordons of security teams. There was much weeping from laser-corrected eyes and gnashing of orthodontured teeth. And as if our ancestors had jammed the trunk of a coconut tree between the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel, the industrial gyroscope came to an abrupt halt, flinging millions upon millions of bodies into the oceans and into space. Years later, we still marvel at the sparkling night sky, following with our eyes the moving points of light as the debris of capitalism reenters the atmosphere and burns. We tell stories, like this one, drink kava, and eat well, for the breadfruit tree is bountiful.