Wisdom is rare in adults. Those who have it made life impossible for everyone around them as children. We beat it out of the weak. It threatens us like joy. Like water balloons. Like youth. We want everyone to be old, and we don’t want to be wet. Or too dry. Or too anything. We want everything to be just so. We like to know where things are. Have you been to a grocery store? We’re obsessed with the size of the nuts. We think it measures worth. Are they colossal? Giant? Are they grand? (Grand is not a category of nut size, but if it were, we’d calibrate the right price for a grand nut and we’d pay it feeling righteous. Also—without telling you anything you don’t already know—we’d pay more for a grand nut to a place that would gift-wrap, and even more to a place that would gift-wrap and call a “grand nut” a “colossal nut.”) Nuts are sold in a round cardboard foil-lined container wrapped in the image of a friendly man who loves nuts, and veracity, and a square deal, and whose name is inoffensive, goofy even, maybe just initials. (And a reclosable plastic lid.) When he says “Honey Roasted Nuts” with “real honey” we should all be unnerved by what else “honey” might mean, and cheapened. But instead, we’re grateful for our paychecks. We’ve matured. “Honey-roasted nuts” in quotes is the least of what we’ve swallowed. The nuts cost a dollar ninety-nine in a package that would retail for a dollar and a half. Hardly nuts at all. Barely protein. They’re mean small fragments of nut meat that deliver salt and sugar. God bless them. Good from nothing. If we had found them, roasted them, seasoned them ourselves, we’d be heroes.

Answer these questions, and we will match you with your ideal companion.

  1. What do you want in a wife?
  2. What will you do when that category of human you described, in 1, does not exist?
  3. What makes you think you deserve that category of human you described, in 1?
  4. Whatever happened to the wife we gave you the first time?
  5. If your first wife encountered you accidentally, would she cross the street?
  6. Would you cross the street?
  7. Would you end up on the same side of the street?
  8. Why do you spend so much time on the street?
  9. What is it you can’t find indoors?
  10. When you look deep into your heart, or your soul, or the otherwise random concatenation of incongruent memories that cling to your singular perspective, which emptiness, scarcity, or incompatibility scares you the most?
  11. Do you have a pet?
  12. What car do you drive?
  13. When we asked about your car, and possible pet, did you momentarily relax, equilibrium restored, and regain confidence in the questionnaire, partially?
  14. Do you want to sleep with your pet?
  15. Yes, we mean that kind of sleep.
  16. Why not?
  17. If you were forced to decide between finding a loving soulmate who would be your lifelong loving wife and watching your pet, who, for the sake of argument, had been snatched from your back yard and sold into a dog-fight circuit, forced into the ring to defend her life against a much larger and more vicious predatory sort of fight-trained dog, what would you decide?
  18. We thought so.
  19. This concludes the questionnaire.
  20. No, you don’t get any more questions.
  21. No, that is completely irrelevant.
  22. No.
  23. Thank you for your honest replies.
  24. No, you cannot change them.
  25. Say thank you.
  26. You’re welcome.
  27. An ideal candidate will shortly be knocking on your door.
  28. Be there. Answer.

Every day the world offers up the same secret: it’s not what we think it is; we’re not who we think we are. We’ve been distracted, acquiring and angling the furniture with its one good side to the audience, assembling a supporting cast, practicing lines, cueing the flattering lights. Heartened by rave reviews written by us, read by us, challenged by no one because shared with no one, we rehearse ever stronger entrances, exit only when dead, if then. The corpse in the right light can instruct. Stinking it stays at center stage basking, peripherally rotting, insisting on relevance, taking its bow. I sit in a car at an intersection of time and desire but also at a meeting of two roads insignificant to anyone but me and give them meaning but only to me. If the world ends today, and it will, this crossing will have existed in vain except for me. Even the girls who years ago passed on the sidewalk in the brisk breeze that blew up their skirts will not know its significance. I meant to offer something positive. A consciousness we call human, which has grown by killing rivals, makes something like sense to us of phenomena that persist whether interpreted or not. The world doesn’t need us. We don’t need it except to escape irrelevance. Every other living thing lives without the meaning we insist every living thing needs. The sun ignores us, but it torches the tops of the sycamore leaves that turn expectant faces in its direction, and only I, alone at the stop sign, sense the unseen from the seen. Half the leaves—the half not shaded by others—brighten through. And that’s all it takes. A place. The sun. My noticing. A memory. And all becomes unspeakably, regrettably dear.

This precious house—my house!—this room, these walls, this bed, are all familiar, but I’m not. I’m the stranger who makes everyone uncomfortable. Three months in the hospital and a precisely but savagely excised brain have tweaked my personality the way a potion tweaked Jeckyll into Hyde. I’m clothed in the same skin as my healthy former self and fit the same clothes, but I’m no fit for this place, my house, not yet. I eat, I breathe, digest, pass food, none of them without help, none without humiliation. Whatever I used to be proud of, . . . . My wife resembles her photos by the bed except in the eyes, which used to say For better! and which now wonder, Could this get worse? But she’s the same. My children too. They enter the room like scolded pets and finger the bedclothes and stare at the muted TV, not at their dad. They tell me what I want to hear: I’ve turned them into liars. Except for giving in, or giving up, there’s no remedy for outliving an illness. But Melissa didn’t know me as I was. She sees what is. She knows just what to make of clients like me and forgives me. The intimacies she performs are out of reach for those who have always loved me, services that would break their hearts. The genius of Melissa is to make my care appear like washing the dishes. She doesn’t love me, I think, except in that way that good souls think pain is noble and rage is prayer, which is to say, she loves the trouble I’m taking to get back to my self. And with her help, if I survive, I’ll own this house again and be the parent and husband I was.

Cars as far as anyone could see ahead and as far behind. This was to be expected, a tax for driving. Three or four snuck through on green when the signals changed but only to the next stalled stack, never to open road. Although we had all driven here deliberately, nobody wanted to be in this place long enough to look at it. We wanted it behind us. With clear highway ahead we might have felt less vagrant, but stuck on hot black asphalt between a service station and a comically cheerful liquor store at the intersection of who can remember and please don’t remind me, we couldn’t pretend we were headed anywhere. The car to my right was so close I could hear the driver grinding her teeth. The driver to my left was spinning his steering wheel pointlessly back and forth. We sat through two light changes without moving. I had spent a small dog’s lifetime trying to follow a metaphorical map, rushing without looking through years as forsaken as this crossroads. Now, sitting here in a sealed container which, because it wasn’t moving, had become my world, I was gagging on my own spent breath. A driver pulled into the intersection with nowhere to go and shut his engine off. His one car going nowhere by choice amid hundreds of cars going nowhere out of necessity seemed thrilling and defiant. Otherwise people get killed, I thought, when drivers with tempers feel trapped and blame other drivers. I shed my seat belt and pulled myself up through the moon roof. Standing on the seat with my shoulders, head, and chest released from the car, I squinted toward my destination and tried to picture myself happy there, climbed out, left the engine idling, and walked away from it all.

I have a list. I think it’s complete.
1. To love.
2. To be loved.
3. There is no 3.
To be honest, there is no 2: to be loved is inconsequential. Even 1 is secondary to staying alive, but when we can achieve it, 1 is the list. Picture this trivial scene: we have wasted hours in the rain standing beside cheese that isn’t selling, on a plaza, near a parking lot, in a suburb, at a mall. Speaking for you, we are diminished when we fail to unite cheese with cheese-eaters to benefit the cow, the grass, and the sun; rain, bacteria, and enzymes; the farmer, the monger, the merchant, the merchandiser, the purchaser, the consumer, several species, and the culture. Beyond being employed by a cheese maker, we love what cheese can mean: milk made safe, then made long-lived, then rendered exquisite through craft, which is cultural genius. But we’re selling nothing while segments of beautiful rounds imperceptibly rot, dry, weep, and mold. Our engagement ends, as it were, without a wedding, and so we pack the truck with jilted brides. But Mrs. Kim returns. “I sampled a cheese,” she says. “Which one was it? I want some.” We’re wet, forlorn, and in no way will benefit from Mrs. Kim, but you’re evolved. Your head turns toward her, but you see cars in the lot. Where else on billions of planets, you wonder, are cars? Nowhere. When other than now have creatures discerned the beauty of bent metal (or the flavors of milk made solid)? Never. We’re alone. You drag out the cooler, dig in the bin, lay out sample cheeses, offer the fragile wonder of life on earth to Mrs Kim, without ever consulting “The List” because if you live it, you don’t need it.

Michael’s face was red. “OK, then, gun to your head,” he demanded, “what’s the best Christmas movie?” Though his tone suggested he might actually have put something to my head, he hadn’t. Well, first, I told him, with a gun to my head I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on movies; second, the category’s too broad: Christmas comedy? Christmas love story? Is Die Hard a Christmas movie for taking place on Christmas? “Completely irrelevant,” he said. “Best is best. But anyway, it’s a trick question. They all suck because they all lie.” I knew better than to take the bait but I told him anyway that all movies lie. “Well, I know actors wear makeup and play make-believe,” he told me, “but they do that to tell a truth; Christmas movies lie to lie.” He put his mug down hard as if he wanted to tenderize the coaster. Glasses clinked down the bar. He’d been pounding me the same way since we sat down, which was common, but his red face was not. He cared about this. I watched his eyes and waited. A string of lights twinkled behind his head. “You think Santa Claus is universal,” he told me,“and that finding out he’s your parents is a primal disillusionment. That’s Hollywood bullshit. Kids have dads who bring out guns on Christmas Eve and put them to their children’s heads one by one,” he said. That can’t be right, I told him. “One by one and pulled the trigger,” he told me, “year in and year out, and made them wonder if one year there’d be bullets. Why have I never seen that in a movie?” I waited until he was finished. Why are you telling me this, Michael? I asked him. What the hell are you telling me?

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This work by davidbdale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at davidbdale.wordpress.com.

The Deputy Assistant has died for an analogy. Some will recall four years ago his boss, the Minister of Health and Family Welfare, boldly revived the discredited effort to eradicate polio from the provinces west and south of the capital—bold because several children had been paralyzed by the vaccine given to protect them. Those precious souls with their bent frames were the statistical necessity of a cure for the world, but they were pathetic, and no matter what the Deputy Assistant said, their parents were impossible to answer. For several seasons after that, whole provinces of five-year-olds had closed their mouths against the disreputable sugar cube. An ambivalent man might have been daunted; instead, the Minister wept for an audience at the new sanitation plant, but warned that an excess of love for the stricken few unfortunates would cripple thousands of children. His Deputy was moved as well but understood the numbers better. Only one child would be stricken for every three million successfully dosed. “It is as if,” he told the Minister, and the comment has cost him his life, “to banish the scourge to oblivion, you sacrificed your three sons.” The details of how he fulfilled his accidental prophecy are appalling, and there is evidence he tried to sabotage it, but the clarity of the plan is as strict as a gem. In the capital today, the Deputy Assistant has eaten a phosphine tablet and died. The job is two-thirds done now, new cases are rare, and the Minister’s third son travels with him to the regions of greatest concern, where skepticism of the vaccine might nullify the nation’s triumph over disease. The boy stands straight and tall alongside his brothers in their chairs, and the locals decide for themselves the extent of the Minister’s nerve.

Creative Commons License
This work by davidbdale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at davidbdale.wordpress.com.

I bought the newspaper out of pity before I boarded the local. It felt thin, and looked like nothing new. I swiped my card near the fare box and at the same time watched myself do so on a monitor showing me from behind, shot by the camera above the door. Read the rest of this entry »

I owe the Xuuxu my life but no gratitude. Once they flushed us from our valley and stood us naked, side by side in the long grass under the sickle moon, lowlands clansmen that the colonists favored Read the rest of this entry »

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