Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Methusaleh Gene

Because he did not drink anything containing alcohol, Dr. Balfour celebrated the news that he would be awarded the Nobel prize by inviting several friends to a coffee shop. Everyone in the corporation was working long hours and so they met late at night, after work. Dr. Balfour accepted congratulations and said that it was important that they not let the prize distract them from their important labors. “I suppose I will have to go to Oslo,” Dr. Balfour said, “to accept the honor.” His CFO replied: “You are thinking of the Nobel Peace Prize. That is awarded in Oslo.” One of Dr. Balfour’s research assistants added: “The Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology is awarded in Stockholm.” Another research assistant said: “They should give you both prizes.” Everyone agreed with that proposition so important was Dr. Balfour’s work for the fate of the world.

Dr. Balfour didn’t like public speaking and avoided giving interviews. So he decided to spend the next several weeks at the research site near Lone Pine. Before dawn the next day, he put a few essentials in a suit-bag and drove from Mill Valley across the valleys and mountains to the small town under the eroded badlands riding the high barren foothills just the east of Mount Whitney. The drive took him most of the day. When he reached the motel in Lone Pine, the manager embraced him and said that he was the savior of mankind and he found a fruit basket wrapped in shimmering cellophane on the night-stand next to his bed.

Longaeva, Dr. Balfour’s corporation, had built a laboratory across the grey-yellow trough of the Owens Valley, on one of the high ridges that intersected with the sierra of the White Mountains. The laboratory was white, a modular structure surrounded by a high chain link fence, the compound built below the level where the snow whitened the stony shoulders of the mountain range in November. From the laboratory’s parking lot, the entire valley, a great rift between ranges of mountains was visible – the barren land and the low places where the rivers vanished between jaws of infernal-looking black rock and the higher country cultivated in places and woven into a quiltwork of green and, then, the Sierra foothills eroded into parks of round rock knobs like chess pieces strewn across the desert. Except for Lone Pine and a few hamlets on the lofty terraces leading up toward Yosemite, the valley was uninhabited and the White Mountains where Longaeva’s technicians collected genetic samples from the bristlecones were mostly roadless, an empty plateau without lakes or rivers or surface water of any kind and, therefore, without people. It was a good hermitage, a place remote from the public eye where you could see strangers approaching fifty miles away across the deserted country.

In the afternoon, when the icy morning chill had departed from the heights, Dr. Balfour drove a jeep on a mule path clinging to the outer edge of the White Mountains, a ledge suspended above the hot-looking valley where dust-devils were prancing across dehydrated lake beds. He parked on a narrow shelf beneath the ancient bristlecones. Walking with a cane, and leaning forward because of the gusts of wind, he toured his plantation. This was an altitude where the warm air baking the valley floor mixed with the glacial breezes of the upper sky and the wind was like a faucet sometimes turned to hot and, then, cold. Smaller tracks led between the big, cracked slabs of rock, a quarry pried apart by the tenacious chisel-roots of the bristlecones. A couple of workers in white lab coats were probing a tree that stood disheveled and bare, an octopus of roots and twisted limbs atop a talus slope of shattered, yellow stone. Prevailing winds had flared the top of the tree into a kind of signpost pointing away from the gale that had sculpted the wood and a few tufts of acid-green needle shimmered in the cleft wood, showing Dr. Balfour that the tree that the men were bent against, core-sampling the granite-colored wood, was still somehow alive. Down the slope, a tree that an avalanche had uprooted lay against a boulder, gesturing up toward the living specimen on the ridge, somehow seeming more alive in its catastrophic death than the bristlecone still clinging to the rocks above. Dr. Balfour limped to the dead tree. It’s main branch was twisted like a baldachinno in a cathedral and tentacle-like roots spread across the fan of gravel at the base of the ravine. The vast, deep world was spread beneath him.

A technician skidding in the loose stone descended to where Dr. Balfour was sitting.

“Congratulations,” the technician said, grinning at him.

The wind swirled between the two men.

“Thank you,” Dr. Balfour said. He took deep breaths. The air was thin.

“Are you okay?” The technician asked.

“Just a little out of breath,” Dr. Balfour replied.

“You deserve every award in the world,” the technician said. “I mean for what you’ve done.”

“I don’t want the awards and fame to distract us from our work,” Dr. Balfour said. “It’s important that we continue to make progress.”

“It’s the most important thing in the world,” the technician said.

“Are you getting good samples?”

“Very good,” the technician reported.

It looked for a moment like the technician wanted to shake his hand. But Dr. Balfour’s right wrist was deformed and his hand withered like the claw of a bird and, when he greeted people, he extended his good left hand sideways, as if he were about slip a letter into a mail slot.

“I wish I understood more about ecology, you know, the systems of living things,” Dr. Balfour said. “This is an environment characterized by scarcity of resources. Would you agree?”

He looked around them, at the tilted slabs of rock, quartz crystals glinting in the cold sunlight.

“I guess,” the technician said.

“I wonder if the trees have adapted to this place or if they have exhausted all the resources and created the scarcity up here.”

“Who can tell?” the technician said.

“They are such slow livers,” Dr. Balfour said. “Maybe, their long lives are like those of vampires. They suck the juice out of everything around them and make a wasteland.”

“I don’t know,” the technician said. “Do you believe in vampires?”

“Not literally,” Dr. Balfour replied.

Higher on the slope, the other technician shouted something, but the wind caught his words and turned them away.

“Your work is vital,” Dr. Balfour said. “The longevity gene from the tree is integral to our process.”

“Yes,” the technician said. “Do you need help getting back to your vehicle?”

“I’ll manage,” Dr. Balfour said. He nodded to the man and, then, limped down the trail.

At the compound on the hill, congratulatory messages clogged the email in-boxes on the computers. The President called from the White House but the girl managing the phone system thought that it was a joke and disconnected him. A couple days later, a defense department helicopter landed at the heliport next to the infirmary in Lone Pine. Dr. Balfour was gone for several days. When he returned to the valley, he told the scientists at the laboratory that he couldn’t speak about his adventures in Washington. A couple of slate-grey military drones, silent as big kites, hung aloft in the air, abstract, weightless pinatas dangling motionlessly over the desert. “One day, I will write my memoirs,” Dr. Balfour said. “Then, the story will be told.”

A few days before the ceremony in Stockholm, a Longaeva company helicopter screwed itself down out of the blue air to land on the playa in the valley’s trough. The helicopter’s rotor stirred borax and gypsum crystals into a cloud around the landing place.

The helicopter rose over Lone Pine, found a pass between two jagged peaks in the Sierra Nevada and ferried Dr. Balfour back to Mill Valley. On the return flight to corporate headquarters, Dr. Balfour asked his secretary to determine whether he would require a tuxedo for his meeting with Swedish royal family. She looked at pictures of past ceremonies on the internet and said that she thought that formal attire was necessary as well as a sash or cumberbund. “Arrange for those things to be brought to my hotel in Stockholm,” Dr. Balfour said.

Longaeva’s jet was kept at the Sonoma County airport at Santa Rosa. Dr. Balfour’s wife and daughter drove him to the airport. Security had called TSA to arrange for Dr. Balfour’s arrival and his smooth departure. But the sky darkened as he arrived at the terminal, and, then, there was rain and tempest-winds followed by chilly fog. Dr. Balfour waited with his wife and daughter in a small conference room just beyond the checkpoint. There was an important recording studio in Santa Rosa and many famous musicians had passed through the airport over the years, often waiting outside of the public eye in the small, bright conference room. Framed and autographed pictures of celebrities in the music world adorned the walls and Dr. Balfour’s daughter pored over them, whispering the names of the musicians to herself.

One of the TSA workers came to the room where Dr. Balfour was waiting with his wife and daughter. The man was burly and seemed to be half-Mexican and he had a small boy with him. The child looked alert, but wizened and he moved stiffly, as if he were afraid to twist at the waist. His thin arms were bruised at the IV sites.

The TSA guard sputtered as he spoke: “Dr. Balfour, Dr. Balfour, I’m so happy – you are the – thank him, Jeremy, you must thank him!”

The man reached to shake Dr. Balfour’s hand and, then, seemed puzzled, even a little hurt, when the scientist extended his left hand only, turning it sideways as if to slide a letter through the narrow slot of the mailbox. Dr. Balfour kept his damaged right hand close to his belly.

“You don’t have to thank me,” Dr. Balfour said.

“You saved my child,” the man told him. “This is my only son. My wife can’t have another. You gave us hope. You gave us hope.”

Because of the prosthetic, Dr. Balfour didn’t feel the child clutching at his right leg. He felt a tug in his trousers at his waist-line and looked down to see the child’s thin hair, some blisters and scabs on his scalp, and, then, the small boy looking up at him with his bright eyes and strangely aged face.

“We can hope to see him graduate from High School now and, maybe, get married and, then, maybe grandchildren. You’ve given us all this, sir. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Seeing your boy doing so well is all the thanks I need,” Dr. Balfour said cautiously. “And you should thank your doctor, your little boy’s pediatrician, for having the courage to recommend our therapy.”

“You’ve done so much for the world,” the TSA guard said. His eyes filled with tears. He stooped and lifted the child, clutching him tightly.

“I wish I had something to give you,” the man said.

“Your kind words are thanks enough,” Dr. Balfour said.

Dr. Balfour’s daughter looked embarrassed. She turned her face to the pictures on the wall and began to spell-out the names of the celebrities who had autographed their photographs.

The air cleared a little and the fog retreated to the sky, darkening the air above the landing strips. The humidity smelled of eucalyptus as Dr. Balfour hustled across the runway, limping as fast as he could to reach the plane.

Over Iceland, Dr. Balfour’s wife brought him a cup of coffee. Their daughter was asleep and Dr. Balfour heard her regular and deep breathing, a counterpoint to the muffled howl of the jet engine shuddering underfoot.

“Are you going to tell them?” Dr. Balfour’s wife asked.

“Elliptically,” Dr. Balfour said. “Not outright but in so many words.”

“I think you should just tell them,” she said.

“The lawyer’s say that the side-effect isn’t established yet. It’s purely theoretical.”

“Well, the benefit seems to be established,” Dr. Balfour’s wife said. “You saw that child. In another month, he will be completely healed.”

“The new genome is malleable. Everything’s reversible. I can edit the DNA or splice it. We need to proceed carefully,” Dr. Balfour said. “But it would be irresponsible to graft transgenetically for longevity without a countervailing splice for population control. Where would we put all the people?”

“Probably, they will kill one another.”

“We have to consider that our resources are scarce.”

“I understand,” Dr. Balfour’s wife said.

“It’s for the best and it will be accepted. Don’t you think that man back at the airport would have accepted the trade-off?”

“I don’t know. No one asked him.”

Stockholm reminded Dr. Balfour of Seattle. Water shimmered everywhere reflecting the buildings. The structures along the waterfront were white-walled and crowned with ornate, helmet-like cupolas. Church steeples punctuated the skyline. Alabaster saints and kings stood on columns above the canals and their reflections rippled in the dark water. Night fell in the middle of the afternoon and the trees in the park were bare except for the silent, grim-looking evergreens.

At the hotel, Dr. Balfour noticed armed policemen standing in small groups, chatting affably while slowly turning their heads back and forth to survey the people in the lobby. Hotel personnel whisked them upstairs to their room.

Dr. Balfour called the concierge. “There is a very old tree or group of trees in a national park. I would like to arrange to see those trees.”

The concierge wasn’t sure what he meant. Everyone spoke perfect English with a slightly musical inflection.

In the closet in their suite, Dr. Balfour found his tuxedo and stiff white shirt with white tie. The tuxedo dangled from its hanger like the carcass of a freshly slaughtered animal.

“It says you can attend wearing the ‘colorful garb’ of your native country,” he wife said, reading from the Nobel Prize website.

“What would the colorful garb of New Jersey look like?” Dr. Balfour asked.

He took a bath to relax. Dr. Balfour’s wife and daughter looked at pictures of the gown that the Queen of Sweden had worn the year before to the banquet.

Dr. Balfour came from bathroom, draped in a robe. He had removed his prosthetic and so he hopped on one foot to the bed.

“This is a mistake,” he told his wife. “I shouldn’t be here. The work is too urgent. This is wasting time.”

“You are educating the world by being here,” Dr. Balfour’s wife said.

In the morning, a contingent of security guards arrived with a tour-guide and Dr. Balfour toured the city, driven from place to place in a black armored limousine. Lakes and elegant curving bays edged the city parks and barges bearing restaurants cruised slowly up and down the canals. Someone said that United States drones had been sighted above the city and that a protest was being lodged with the American embassy. Dr. Balfour said he knew nothing about those aircraft.

The limousine coursed along the boulevard by the Stockholm City Hall and Dr. Balfour studied the structure in its reflection in the waterway. The building was ugly, built of rust-colored brick, with a ponderous arcade of stone archways supporting a lantern-like square-tower shaped something like lamp with its lampshade missing. Protesters were gathering along the promenade in little surly knots, people squatting around canisters of hot coffee in the gathering gloom. Many of protesters were carrying placards and some of them were neatly printed in English: BALFOUR GO HOME! and NO DEATH NO HEAVEN and FRANKENBALFOUR: IT’S MONSTROUS and GIVE ME BACK MY PARADISE. The guide was apologetic.
“We have some religious fanatics in Sweden,” he said. “Not many. But you see they are in evidence.”

“I see,” Dr. Balfour said.

“Every Swede that I have met admires you intensely,” the guide said.

The guide said something to the driver in Swedish. The driver answered him.

“You see, Max, the driver says you are the greatest man in the world,” the guide said.

“That’s what we think,” Dr. Balfour’s wife said.

“I think they should give you the Nobel Peace Prize also,” the guide said. “It would be warranted.”

Back at the hotel, Dr. Balfour learned that the tree that he wanted to inspect was in Norway in a national park near the Arctic Circle. The tree had a name “Old Tjikko.” Someone had told Dr. Balfour about the tree when he thought that he would have to go to Oslo to receive his award.

Protesters outside the City Hall shrieked his name when he arrived for the banquet. There was a skirmish in the streets and a car was set afire. The banquet hall was suffused with pinkish-red light and acrobats and mimes from a famous circus performed on a small stage near the lectern from which the acceptance speeches were to be given. When Dr. Balfour gave his speech, several people shouted at him from the gloom in the rear of the hall and there was a brief scuffle. Dr. Balfour didn’t know what was being shouted.

From the podium, he looked across the groups of dignitaries all seated in neat rows at the long, white tables. The masonry walls towering overhead made the sounds emerging from the loudspeakers echo in unpredictable ways. As he spoke, sometimes it seemed to him that a multitude of voices were speaking, echos murmuring within echos, and, it seemed, that people were translating his words so that there were more murmurs, a babble of tongues.

“It may seem paradoxical,” Dr. Balfour began, “but I think it important to emphasize population control as a responsibility intrinsic to the great advances we have made in genome engineering.”

When he finished, everyone in the hall rose to their feet and clapped their hands and shouted acclamations to him. The meal was arctic fish cooked in complex sauces, pheasant, and several dishes that were unfamiliar to him. Later, the King of Sweden tried to shake his hand, but Dr. Balfour kept his withered wrist and fingers close to his ribs and, instead, extended his left hand tilting it sideways as if to drop a letter through a slender slot on a mail box . The king had strangely glittering eyes.

After the banquet, Dr. Balfour was escorted to a ballroom in another part of the City Hall. He didn’t dance but watched his wife and daughter take the floor with cavaliers of the Swedish Royal Academy. An orchestra played waltzes interspersed with national anthems.
A little after midnight, a Swedish secret service man in a frost-colored tuxedo wired with communications gear approached Dr. Balfour and said that his limousine was waiting outside. Dr. Balfour limped from the ballroom, past the banquet hall where neatly uniformed Polish and Ukrainian workers were dismantling the tables and stacking chairs. Under the frigid brick archways, it was gloomy and the limousine was nowhere to be seen. “It must have gone around the block,” the secret service man said.

Some people dressed in City Hall uniforms, apparently waiters and waitresses, stood huddled against the arches of cold masonry smoking cigarettes. Among them was a pale, young woman carrying a huge bouquet of flowers – it appeared as if she had assembled several of the place-setting bouquets from the banquet tables.

“Dr. Balfour,” the woman cried. “You save my daughter. You save my daughter.”
Her words sounded Russian-accented.

She waggled the bouquet in front of her body and approached the place where Dr. Balfour and his wife and daughter were standing. The Swedish secret service man stepped forward to intervene between her and Dr. Balfour. But Dr. Balfour waved him aside. “It’s okay,” he said.

The woman pushed the flowers forward toward Dr. Balfour. “You save my daughter,” she said. Her face twitched for second and her eyes seemed to stall and go dead and, then, there was a great flash and roar.

The explosion blew Dr. Balfour apart, thereby killing the man who had defeated death. The woman with the flowers and the secret service man were also shredded by the blast. The bouquet of flowers flew across the arcade and landed against the wall next to the smoking ruin of Dr. Balfour’s artificial leg. Dr. Balfour’s wife and daughter were seriously injured, but ultimately recovered.


The garage sale was winding down. A woman slid unsold children’s clothing from the top of a card table into a black, plastic garbage bag. An old couple, dressed in matching dilapidated tennis whites, loitered at the edge of the drive-way, hoping to score some last minute bargains. Benson, strolling on his doctor’s recommendations, happened by the sale and paused for a moment. A few disheveled and scuffed chairs formed a half-circle on the lawn and there was a stack of paperback books and magazines, some of the reading material withered as if it had retrieved from flood waters. Two forlorn-looking dehumidifiers trailing black power cords stood like plastic tombstones next to the sidewalk.

Benson rummaged among the paperbacks and magazines. He didn’t see anything that interested him. A cardboard box, set apart under the eaves of the house, contained a couple of glass paperweights and the plastic corpse of a pink flamingo. Benson gingerly lifted the flamingo and held it upright. The bird leered at him, the color of Pepto-Bismol. A turquoise fish, flat as a flounder, was caught in the bird’s scimitar-shaped beak. Benson had never seen a pink flamingo lawn ornament equipped with a fish. He beckoned to a man standing nearby. The man was furtively smoking a cigarette that he held in cupped hands over his mouth.

“Is this complete?” Benson asked the man.

“I think so,” he said, exhaling a stream of smoke. He leaned forward and groped in the box, lifting a dusty armature of metal wire. “Here’s the support.”

“I’ve never seen one with a fish in its mouth,” Benson said.

“They’re pretty rare, I guess,” the man replied.

“Where did you get it?” Benson asked.

“Don’t know,” the man said. “There was a young couple related to one of the families running this sale. I don’t know how they were related. But I think they were killed in a crash.”

“A crash?”

“Plane or car, don’t know which,” he said.

Benson bought the flamingo with the fish in its beak for two dollars. He carried his trophy a few blocks to his home. It only took him a few seconds to suspend the bird on its steel-rod frame. Then, Benson stabbed the fork-like end of the frame into the mulch between two beds of blue flowering hydrangeas. The color of the fish trapped in the flamingo’s beak contrasted with the tint of the big, globe-shaped flowers and Benson was pleased by the appearance of the lawn ornament among the blossoms under the white-washed pier of his porch. He moved back to the curb-line and stood there at the edge of the street admiring the flamingo and his flowers. Even his wife, who was usually critical of everything that he did, thought the flamingo was a nice addition to the front yard.

About a week after acquiring the flamingo, Benson was sitting on his porch, reading the newspaper, when he heard a low, breathy whistle. A man wearing a patched leather jacket stood on the sidewalk. A tiny white dog tugged at a leash that the man held from a hand clenched in his pocket. The man blushed and shuffled back and forth where he stood.

“I’m admiring your flamingo,” the man said.

“Thank you.”

“It’s admirable, right?”

“I suppose,” Benson replied. The man looked at him and, then, winked. The wink contorted his other eye into a squint.

“I suppose your wife knows – “ the man said. “Mine does and participates.”

“Oh, yes, she approves,” Benson said.

Benson stood up and folded his newspaper. He stepped down from the porch so that he could inspect the man and his little dog more closely. In turn, the man seemed to cast an appraising eye on Benson. After looking at Benson from head to toe, he stepped forward to shake his hand. The little dog cupped itself around Benson’s shoe and ankle, humping his leg.

“Friendly dog,” Benson said.

“We’re friendly people,” the man said.

The man made some comments about Benson’s shrubbery and praised his lawn care. He said that his name was Anthony. He did not tell Benson the name of his dog.

“So what are you into?” the man asked Benson.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Benson said. It seemed a strange question to him.

“Well, we’re pretty regular people – my wife and I. Kids in High School, you know, so we have to be discrete. We sing in our church choir too. Just like everyone else.”

Benson nodded. Anthony told him that he lived four or five blocks away.

“I haven’t seen you walking your dog,” Benson said.

“I don’t typically come this way,” the man replied. “But I saw your lawn ornament and I thought I had to investigate.”

That evening, Benson mentioned his encounter with Anthony and his little white dog. Benson said that he thought the man was a Mormon or some kind of evangelical Christian. Benson’s wife was skeptical. “It doesn’t sound like that to me,” she said.

Benson asked: “Isn’t the fish, the shape of a fish, a sign for Jesus or something?”

“I guess,” his wife said.

Anthony stopped by several times and hinted that the two couples should get together. He was very friendly and asked Benson what he did to keep in shape. “Tennis,” Benson said. “I suppose you play doubles with your wife,” Anthony said. Benson’s wife came outside and offered Anthony a glass of lemonade. They sat on the porch in the shade. Anthony looked at Benson’s wife approvingly. “Very hot,” he sighed. “It’s humid,” Benson said. “Humid and sticky.”

Three weeks later, after several more meetings, Benson and his wife agreed to have dinner at Anthony’s house. Anthony’s wife was small and dark and she spoke with an accent. “She is a gypsy,” Anthony said. The small woman giggled and went back into the kitchen where she was pan-searing tuna steaks in a garlic-ginger sauce. She wore very tight jeans that seemed to constrict her gait and a blouse with a zipper running down its center, between her breasts.

After eating, Anthony invited them to sit on his redwood deck. Beneath the platform of pinkish cedar, the vat of a hot tub bubbled and a greenish steam stinking of chlorine hovered in the air. Anthony made them strong drinks with vodka and tequila served in tall glasses. After an hour or so, Anthony went inside to go to the bathroom and returned wearing a cashmere bathrobe. He said that they should relax in the hot tub. “We don’t have bathing suits,” Benson said. “We’ll figure something out,” Anthony replied. He reached into his pocket and displayed a fat, neatly rolled joint. “Smoke?” he asked. “I haven’t done that for years,” Benson said. Anthony lit the marijuana and took a hit. Benson followed his example. Benson’s wife shook her head and declined. Anthony’s wife also passed the joint back to Anthony without taking a hit. “It makes me crazy,” she said. “I’m already pretty crazy, but this makes me even crazier.” Her blouse was half-way unzipped.

They talked about sports: professional football and, also, the fortunes of the local high school team. The little dog stood behind the sliding screen door in the kitchen looking at the two couples inquisitively. Benson’s wife said she was tired and that it was time to go home. “Oh...not so soon,” Anthony’s wife said. Anthony asked Benson: “Do you play chess?” “Sometimes, but not too well,” Benson told him.

Anthony’s wife lit some aromatic candles and a small magnetic chessboard materialized. Anthony challenged Benson to a game. His bathrobe had fallen open. Some light bulbs hidden under the roiling waters of the hot tub cast writhing reflections upward onto the deck and white aluminum awning overhead. Anthony’s wife went into the house and the little dog escaped, dancing across the lawn and yapping at them.

Benson was drunk and found it hard to concentrate on the chess game. Anthony moved the pieces quickly, scarcely glancing at the board. The chlorine fog seemed to have entered his eyes and Benson rubbed at them but this didn’t help him to see more clearly. Anthony’s wife hovered nearby, wearing a bathrobe herself that periodically slipped from her slender, moist-looking shoulders. Benson’s wife said that she had a headache and that it was late and that they had to leave.

Benson blundered. It didn’t matter to him; he was anxious for the game to end. Anthony reached down and lifted his Queen. He turned it sideways and tapped the crown of his Queen against the crown of Benson’s Queen. “My Queen takes your Queen,” Anthony said. His wife reached across the table and touched Benson’s wife on the side of her throat.

“We have to go,” Benson’s wife said. She stood up and shook her head vigorously, as if to cast off the other woman’s touch. Then, she bustled toward the door.

“Someone’s not entirely on board,” Anthony said. Mrs. Anthony looked indignant. She clutched her robe tightly across her sternum.

Benson’s wife went outside toward their car. Benson stood at the front door with Anthony and his wife. The little dog pranced in circles and growled at Benson’s ankle.

“That wasn’t cool, dude,” Anthony said in a low whisper.

“What do you mean?”

“You shouldn’t advertise if you’re not willing to do business,” Anthony said.


“You know what I mean. You’re making us feel downright unattractive. And that’s not fair, dude. We’re very attractive. Exceedingly attractive.” – he illustrated the point by tapping his wife’s breast. “You shouldn’t make us feel undesirable. That’s not fair at all.”

“I’m tired,” Mrs. Anthony said. She turned on her heel and vanished into the house.

In the car, Benson’s wife said: “What the hell was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” Benson said. “I don’t know. A misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding my ass,” Benson’s wife said.

A week later, a man stopped Benson as he was walking from the gas pumps into the C-Store a block from his house. The man was small and wiry. He had a scarf looped around his throat.

“Are you the guy with the watchamacallit?” the small man asked. He looked strong, as if he lifted weights to build his endurance. “I don’t know what you mean?” Benson said. “I’ve got some photos I can send you,” the small man said. “If you like what you see, you should give us a call.” The small man took out checkbook and said he would write a note as to Benson’s email. Benson shrugged.

“It’s a misunderstanding,” Benson said.

“I don’t think so,” the small man said. “But I can take a hint. I’m adult. I can take a hint.”

The short man returned to the side of his car and kicked the tires. Benson went into the gas station and paid for his fuel and, when he walked back to his vehicle, the small man was driving away from the store.

At home, Benson walked around the side of his house, scrutinizing the structure. He examined the siding on his home and the pitch of the roof and, above the gutters, the shingles marching in orderly ranks up to the ridgeline. The storm windows seemed sound. He looked at the lawn ornament of the pink flamingo with the fish in its beak. Fallen leaves cluttered the lawn beneath the ornament. Benson approached the flamingo and gently tugged on the bird’s sinuous plastic neck. The lawn ornament was well-anchored in the turf. As he stepped away from it, the flamingo holding the fish in its mouth bobbed slightly, beckoning to him.

During the next month, there were a few mysterious phone calls, late, after midnight. Mostly, when Benson picked up the phone, the line was silent. Once, he thought he heard someone breathing, but, perhaps, that was the wind soughing in the trees outside his bedroom window. A voice muttered something to him on the last call. The person speaking sounded very drunk and Benson couldn’t understand what was said. The next day, Benson told his wife that the phone was too expensive, a luxury, and that he was going to have it disconnected: “After all, we both have cell-phones,” he said. “What prompts this decision?” she asked. “Economy,” Benson said. “Thrift.”

After the first snow, Benson found footprints leading up to several of his windows – at least, that’s how he interpreted the scuffle of marks in the fresh-fallen snow. Someone left a torn valentine threaded onto the thorns of a bush next to the pink fish-eating flamingo. Benson clawed the valentine off the branch, read it to himself, and, then, went down the alley throw it in the garbage. On the way, the two photographs slipped into the card fluttered out and fell onto the ice and slush in the alleyway. The pictures showed genitals, brownish and shaggy as a landscape in an old Chinese painting. After shredding the snapshots, Benson went to his front lawn and tried to uproot the pink flamingo. It seemed to be embedded in ice. At least that was Benson’s impression, but he didn’t try very hard to pull the steel stake supporting the flamingo from the snowy frozen earth.

That night, a young woman knocked on Benson’s door. At first, he thought that she was trying to sell him something. The girl was plain, a shriveled-looking face with straight stringy hair. She was wearing a tattered leather coat and had been crying – her mascara was smeared and bruise-colored streaks of make-up colored her high, bony cheeks. The girl’s breath smelled of alcohol and she was unsteady on her high heels.

“We have car trouble,” the girl said. “Trouble and we saw that...that we...”

“Car trouble?” Benson asked.

Benson’s wife came from the kitchen and stood watching in the entryway. She was cooking something in the crock pot and the air in the house smelled of garlic and rendering fat.

“What is it?” Benson’s wife asked.

“She says she has car trouble,” Benson said.

“Does she need to use a phone?”

Benson repeated those words to the young woman. Her eyes narrowed to slits and she shook her head. “Can you come out to the car?” the young woman asked.

“For heaven’s sake,” Benson’s wife said. She went back into the kitchen.

Benson went outside, not bothering to put on a coat. It was dark and windy and the streets were empty. A big car was parked crookedly along the curb, leaking white steam from its tailpipe. Benson saw a bulbous shadow hunched over the steering wheel. The window on the passenger side made a noise like someone clearing his throat and, then, descended six inches. Benson could smell cigarette smoke.

“She wants to play,” someone said inside the car. The girl stood on the cold sidewalk wobbling back and forth. She seemed to have something wrong with one of her shoulders and held an arm tucked tight against her body.

“This is a misunderstanding,” Benson said.

“Isn’t your wife in a playful mood?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Benson said. “This is a misunderstanding of some kind.”

“You’ve got that gewgaw, that thing...I saw it driving by.”

“It’s nothing. It’s no message of any kind.”

“It’s not nothing,” the voice said from inside the car.

The girl whined: “It’s cold out here.”

“Shut your mouth,” the voice said from the car.

“But it’s cold,” the girl said.

The voice in the car was insistent: “We don’t need your wife. Why don’t you just come with us? We can make do.”

“I’m going inside now,” Benson said.

“You don’t like her?”

“She’s fine I guess,” Benson said.

The girl began to cry. She moved to block his passage back to the house, standing astride the sidewalk. But Benson pushed past her.

A blizzard came from Montana and the schools were closed. The wind howled in the eaves of the house. Benson felt the impact of the wind on his walls and sensed the ceilings flexing as the storm pounded against his home. Whenever, he looked out the window, Benson saw white avalanches falling from above, sheets of snow that swooped downward but never reached the ground because the wind caught the flakes and blasted them upward into the dark, roaring sky. His wife had gone to bed and Benson sat at the table, peering into his laptop. In the morning, he had an appointment eighty miles away and he wondered whether the highways would be open for travel. The doors and windows rattled in the walls. It seemed as if the blizzard were trying the locks, attempting entry into the warm, well-lit rooms within the house.

A bell sounded in his computer. An email was lodged in the machine. Benson opened his electronic mail site. Someone named Sharpey5 had sent him a message. The text read: “It’s 2 cold 2 be alone. We need 2 make some friction 2 warm us up. My missus is playful 2nite is yers?” Benson sent a message asking where Sharpey5 was located: “I think you have misunderstood something,” Benson typed. Sharpey5 said that he was staying at the Holiday Inn two miles away, stranded because of the storm. Benson replied: “My wife doesn’t play. Sorry.” Sharpey5 replied: “Okay. Neither does my missus. How about you and me get 2gether?” Benson wrote back: “Maybe, I suppose.”

The air was turbulent and howled between the houses and garages entrapping the narrow alleyway. Benson found that the streets were mostly barren, fields of greyish ice, all the snow scooped away by the wind and hurled into the trees and hedges in the lawns. He stopped at the C-store and bought a pack of cigarettes and, then, sitting in his car tried to call his wife on his cell-phone. She didn’t answer. Benson drove to the Holiday Inn. The parking lot was empty except for a couple of pick-up trucks and an SUV with Idaho license plates. The impact of the wind made the parked vehicles rock a little on their axles. Through the glass door into the lobby, Benson could see the desk clerk, a blonde girl, vacantly watching a TV located in the bar across the foyer.

Benson hadn’t smoked a cigarette for ten years. He lit one, puffed on it for awhile and, then, drove back to his house and parked his car in his garage. He walked to the garbage can and put the pack of cigarettes in the trash. The roof of the house was like a wet dog that shakes its shoulders and haunches to dry itself: snow shuddered down from above. Inside, Benson went to his email account to delete the correspondence with Sharpey5 but couldn’t find any messages. Puzzled, he went to bed. “I tried to call you,” Benson said to his sleeping wife. “Why?” she said. “I don’t know,” Benson replied. “When?” she asked. “I don’t know,” Benson said again.

After a few days, the roads cleared enough for travel. Benson went into his front lawn to uproot the fish-eating flamingo. He seized the steel stake between his gloved hands and, taking a deep breath, pull upward as hard as he could. To his surprise, the stake was not as firmly fixed in the frozen soil as he had expected and Benson’s deperate yank propelled him backward so that he landed in the bush nearby, among the stabbing thorns where the obscene valentine had been pinned. Benson stood up with the flamingo in his hands, snow covering his backside and thorns clutching and clawing at this thighs and ankles. He threw the lawn ornament in the backseat of his car and drove out on the freeway, away from the town to a place of immense cold skies and cold winds rasping across the barren fields.

At the first rest stop, Benson stopped. He took the lawn ornament from his backseat, looked around furtively, and, then, shoved the thing into a wastebasket next to the sidewalk leading into the toilets. He felt light-headed, dizzy as if he had narrowly evaded a bad fall on the ice or a head-on collision and so he went into the rest room and sat in a stall for few moments, head down and eyes closed. Then, he walked back to his car.

A trucker wearing a hooded sweatshirt over his baseball cap stood next to the wastebasket, scrutinizing the pink flamingo with the brightly colored fish in its beak. The attendant had shoveled the sidewalk and so the walkway was a shallow trench in which the men were standing.

“What is this gizmo?” the trucker said, nodding to Benson. “I wonder why someone would throw it away,” the trucker said. Benson looked away to the palisade of grey, bare trees sheltering the rest stop from the icy wind. He shrugged.

The trucker pulled the lawn ornament from the barrel and inspected it. “It’s a weird-looking gizmo,” the trucker said. “It sure is,” Benson said. Cradling the flamingo with the fish in its beak in his arms, the trucker hustled back to his semi. The trucks were idling and white puffy clouds of exhaust rose between the vehicles.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Unusual Creature

Sent from Windows Mail

In the evening, it is my custom to walk my dog. Ordinarily, I stroll about 20 blocks with my yellow Labrador padding along at my side. Sometimes, my walk takes us through a churchyard. In that place, tall oaks interlace their heavy branches overhead and the lawn is littered with acorns and jagged, fallen twigs. Squirrels play in the grass and, often, when there is no one else hiking in that churchyard, I will loose my dog so that she hurls herself after the rodents, trailing her leash behind her like a comet. The squirrels are fast and agile and they can outrun my dog across the short sprint required for them to scamper over the turf and up the sheer trunk of one of the trees, climbing out of dog’s reach to cling to the bark like a russet or grey mollusk, chirping insults at the retriever galloping wildly below.

One autumn night, business detained me in the big city one-hundred miles away and I didn’t achieve my home until it was dark outside. My wife told me that she had walked the dog, taking the route that leads along the boulevard to the churchyard and the oak grove. At that place, my wife dropped the leash to let the dog course among the trees, sniffing at the air for scent of squirrel. As it happened, several squirrels obligingly descended from their nests aloft in the tree-tops, flouncing their tails to incite the dog to frantic charges this way and that across the acorn-strewn lawn. After all the squirrels had retreated to their high haunts, the dog pranced in circles under the boughs, snapping at the leash dragging under her paws, and searching for new prey. At that moment, an animal suddenly materialized out of the dusk. The dog stopped in her tracks, surveying the creature standing a few yards ahead of her. The hair on her back rose in serrated hackles and the dog muttered a throaty yelp. The animal had a hairless greyish blue body and floppy, elongated ears. It’s legs were long, bald stilts. The beast made an uncanny mewing and yowling sound and, then, darted away toward the boulevard. The dog levitated leaping high into the air and, then, careened after the animal, dashing in its wake in a low, feral crouch, her belly almost scraping across the clumped twigs and acorns. The strange creature moved like a rabbit, hopping with blinding speed on back legs that scissored through the air.

It was no competition: the creature was across the roadway in a flash, turning acrobatically to lunge down the center of the sidewalk on the opposite side of the boulevard, a misshapen shadow swiftly vanishing into the twilight. The dog shot toward the street. A car was approaching and my wife expected the dog to pitch herself forward under the tires of the vehicle. She closed her eyes and flinched, expecting to hear the thud of the car against the dog. But the car surged past and, when my wife ventured to look, the Labrador was standing at the edge of the street, perched on the curb watching after the departing creature with sad, yearning eyes. Far away, near the intersection with stop-and-go light, the strange animal lunged forward, leaping through the pools of dim yellow puddled under the streetlamps.

I asked my wife: “What kind of animal was it?” “I don’t know,” my wife said. “I have never seen anything exactly like it.” “It couldn’t have been a dog,” I told her. “Frieda (that is my dog’s name) is terrified of all dogs, even the smallest ones, and she will not chase them.” I paused: “Was it a cat?” “I’m sure it was not a cat,” my wife said. “Maybe a muskrat or a badger or something?” “No,” my wife said. “Or a beaver or a raccoon or an opossum?” “None of those animals,” my wife answered. “Could it have been a coyote?” “No,” my wife said. “I know what a coyote looks like and this animal had different ears and a different shape.” “Well what do you think it was?” I asked. “Some kind of big, mutant rabbit,” my wife said. “A big mutant rabbit?” I repeated. “Or a kangaroo,” she said. “A bald kangaroo.” “What would a bald kangaroo be doing here in Minnesota?” I asked. “I don’t know,” my wife said.


In March 1917, Franz Kafka wrote a short parable called “A Crossbreed.” The little fable comes to us in a notebook that Max Brod dubbed “Oktavheft D.” The story is narrated by a man who has inherited a strange animal from his father. The creature is a Lamb Cat -- that is, half lamb and half cat and partaking of the nature of both animals. Sometimes, the animal lurks around the chicken house seeking prey; on other occasions, the beast gambols in the meadows. It purrs sometimes and also bleats. The Lamb Cat is small and sits on the lap of the narrator and, often, he shows the animal to school children. They ask him questions about the origin of the animal that he can not answer. When the Lamb Cat encounters either a lamb or a cat, the animals simply stares at them with uncomprehending eyes. The creature is domesticated and it slinks between the feet of the narrator, preferring the company of human beings to other beasts. The narrator speculates that, perhaps, the animal seeks human companionship because it knows that it has no siblings in the world. There are no others of its kind and the creature seems to comprehend this in some way. The narrator regards his possession of the Lamb Cat as a sort of sacred burden. He believes that the animal is exhausted by itself, that it has tired of being an anomaly, and that it would regard the knife of the butcher as a kind of mercy. But the animal is a legacy from the narrator’s father and he feels duty-bound to protect it.


A week ago, I told a friend about my wife’s adventure with the strange animal in the churchyard. My friend said that he knew a man who moonlighted as a taxidermist. One of the taxidermist’s hobbies was making chimeras by piecing together fragments of different dead animals. My friend called the taxidermist and he came down to the tavern where we were talking to show us examples of his work. As it happened, the man was the president of the local Chimera Club, a group of taxidermists who specialize in hoaxes, stitching together animal furs and grafting skeletons to make impossible creatures.

The taxidermist had brought a notebook (it was labeled D) with him containing photographs of his work. He turned the pages and we admired his handicraft. A desiccated mermaid grinned at us from a photograph -- it was a baboon skull and torso stitched to a sturgeon’s tail. There was a bear burdened with the great hoary head of a moose and a crouching hyena with an improbably slender ibis’ head on its shoulders. One snapshot showed a greyish - bruise-blue creature with long naked legs and a heavy tail. “What is that?” I asked. The taxidermist said that he had made the chimera by sewing together the furry skull of Great Plains jackrabbit and the body, legs, and tail of a small kangaroo. “A friend brought me several ‘roos and wallabys from Down Under,” the taxidermist said. “I had a lot of fun with them.”

I am convinced that my wife saw one of these chimeras darting down the boulevard on the day that she walked my dog in the churchyard. I have no explanation, however, for how the dead creature, built from fragments of stinking fur and bone, had somehow come to life.

I asked the taxidermist that night in tavern this question: “Are you ever able to bring these animals that you piece together to life.” “Not yet,” the taxidermist said. “I like to imagine them alive and like to speculate as to how they would live and reproduce, but I have never succeeded in causing one of these animals to actually move and breathe.” He paused and winked at me: “I’m still trying though.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Under the Hill, Under the Bluff


The capitol city was busy and I had difficulty parking my car. Several times, I circled the block before I found a spot, an opening into which I glided without difficulty. Ordinarily, I am clumsy about parallel parking but this seemed easy to me.

My destination was under the hill, under the bluff: a series of gloomy elongated rooms. These chambers were interconnected without corridors, one narrow space opening into the next. The rooms were on slightly different levels and so you stepped up or down at the threshold between chambers. The place was lit by dim yellow light bulbs installed behind fading parchment-colored shades and the walls were covered with dark, flimsy panel – the sort of paneling that you might see in a basement rec room finished in the early sixties. In places, moisture had sprung the panels and they sagged and the dark brown carpet was spotted and flecked with debris. The furniture was old and derelict, heavy-looking stuff upholstered in fabric like rotting shag carpet. It was none too clean – there were soda pop cans on some of the shelves and ash-trays clogged with cigarette butts and stacks of old magazines and newspapers were shoved into odd corners and angles in the walls.

We sat at a long battered table in one of the central rooms and debated. I recall the surface of the table strewn with papers. The disputation was dull and I amused myself by putting nouns into Pig-Latin.

Then, it was time to leave. I was hurrying from room to room when I encountered a place where the lights had failed or been shut-off. It was pitch-black ahead of me. I paused at the threshold of the room, wondering whether to step up or down. Then, as I moved forward, something crossed my path, moving from right to left in the inky darkness. We collided. I felt fabric, a slick of cool skin, a joint moving under a garment. It was a person. Although it was rude, I wanted to know the identity of the person who I had bumped into. I raised my hand, groping toward where I expected the person’s face to be. No one spoke. I knew that this was rude and I was frightened and thought that I should back away from the figure in my arms. Then, I felt hair, someone’s scalp, the sinew in the back of a neck, lips and a nose.


Where had I been in long, narrow rooms like those under the hill, under the bluff?

Once, there was a drop-in center located at the foot of a steep hill in Kenwood, two blocks from where the Guthrie Theater used to be located. The hill was covered with grim, petrified-looking mansions built in the era of the railroad and timber barons. The drop-in center was a shabby place, a couple of rooms in an old home mostly used for referrals of some sort.

My church conducted an over-night venture for the senior high Sunday school students. The trip was called “Journey to the City” and it was designed to show suburban kids what things were like a dozen miles or so away from our homes in the bedroom neighborhoods west of the Metro. A couple of earnest, painfully hip and nice, high school teachers chaperoned the tour. Most of the kids were ninth and tenth graders – juniors and seniors were too cool and remote to remain participants in Sunday school.

One of our stops on the Journey to the City was the drop-in center, a place where young people with no place to go could come and take shelter from the cold and wet. We were brought to the drop-in center under the hill, under the bluff, and ushered into the warm, damp-smelling rooms where there were bean-bag chairs, old davenports that seemed partially collapsed, and antique radiators that gurgled and belched like someone with stomach flu. The chaperones knew one of the adults responsible for the place and they vanished into another room, probably, an office. We were supposed to interact with the denizens of the center.

The rugs and davenport smelled of cigarettes and marijuana. Magazines and newspapers were strewn about. At a folding table, five or six kids were playing a card game – Hearts, I think. The kids were talking loudly to one another and seemed to be drunk. One of the girls had an infection in her arm. A purplish streak ran from a sore on her forearm up and across her bicep. Periodically, she flashed the infection and the track on her arm to her friends as if she were proud of it. They said that she should go the emergency room for an antibiotic. “I will later,” the girl said. I was worried about the girl. One of our group asked her if she was okay. “Sure,” she said. “I’ve had this happen before.”

A young man entered from outside. He looked like Jesus as portrayed in engravings hung in the basements of Methodist churches. He shook his shoulders and long hair like a dog, expelling the cold clinging to him around his upper torso. The young man looked tired and he went to one of the corners of the room where he stretched out on a pile of newspapers. He beckoned to a couple of us and we went to his side.

The young man wanted to know what radio stations we listened to in the west suburbs. We told him. He shrugged and said: “Cool.” The young man had big sad eyes. He told us that he was very tired. We asked him what he had been doing all day. “I know a girl,” he said. “We’ve been balling all day. Just balling.”

The chaperones came from wherever they had been concealed. They had styrofoam cups of coffee in their hands and the coffee had a strong, bitter fragrance.