“I can speak, you know,” a voice said. It startled him. It was the voice of Rod Serling.
He sat at the command desk, alone, peering at İo, a Galilean moon of Jupiter, following their rockly passage beyond Titan, and Saturn. The clank-and-whoosh of the mechanical release of a pod was the last sound of Aji, who departed for the Grand Lumineres. The LifeRaft® was slated to return him safely, and without incident to Coney Island, in New York. He felt like a teen whose parents had just left for bingo.
The voice belonged to SUM, of course, but it took a moment of skeptical inspection. The voice troubled him, because he spent much of his time recuperating from heart failure watching Rod Serling, and The Twilight Zone. How did SUM, the LifeRaft®’s Selective Monitoring Unit, nicknamed “SUM,” know? The computer confirmed it. SUM said, “You’ve been watching a lot of Rod Serling lately.”
“E – yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
She was wistful. “Nature is like youth in the spring, full of caret.”
To the contrary, Ernie responded, “I prefer the fall, personally, if I may say. Everybody has more stories.”
She observed the debut of a new season from a Captain’s Window, an oval allowing the rays from a star to delight a heavy fettering of live plants in the corner. She mulled the situation. She asked Ernie, at length, “Is it time?”
He reassured her. “Surely not.”
The glare of morning sun bathed the disarray of a Florida room near Port Canaveral. He was actually caught wordlessly trying to blink-down the stare of a Florida sand-hill crane. The crane had sauntered to the screen of his porch, and almost poked its beak through it. There were palm branches strewn meanwhile into piles, in streets, over parked cars, intermingled with the mud caps which had rolled against buildings and trees overnight, the remnants of a tropical storm, and a modest wave of tidal surge. “Not bad,” he commented, impressed with the sight, like it was a good thing; living in Florida meant living with tropical storms for half of the year, and this one was fairly tame. It went through us in forty minutes, he thought. A man in overalls and a blue windbreaker, probed the next yard. He heard ask someone, “Cubs win?” A crewman for the electric company, which was working alongside a group of tree cutters, replied matter-of-factually: “Yeah.” The sun was bright in his eyes, shadowing the crane.
He had dozed in a rocking chair on the porch, before the crews arrived, waking him, and after talking with Joe on a cell phone. His world was enclosed by a circle of very small things. Joe called to see if he was still okay. “It’s just freshman year, again, think of it that way,” Joe had said, a bit of a jibe, a bit distractedly. His friend, Joe, was a colleague at Marsh College, and referred to medical statistics. The first year of heart failure has a lower rate of survival. Joe moved on his unique cache of 45 rpm music. The Florida crane continued to stare, ostensibly about the debris, as if it belonged to him. He told the sand-hill, “We’ll pick it up in a minute.” The crane’s eyes seemed to narrow. He tried to stand, to find the number of a 24-hour Nurse Helpline on the refrigerator; it was a few days after his discharge from the Brooklyn Medical Center, but his energy level wouldn’t allow it. He rested again in the chair, glanced cheerfully at the sunny weather, and smiled at the crane. He mimicked Johnny Rivers’ “Rocking Pneumonia” for Joe, on the cell: “’I want to jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall / I want to holler but the joint’s too small.’”
“Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, 1957,” Joe retorted. “You want it?”
These were hapless moments. He burst onto the grounds of Central Park upon his release from the hospital, like a football player from the locker room tunnel. It was a Thursday morning, or Saturday. Hospitals have no clocks, or calendars. He took a bench with a croissant and a decaf, his mind trying to avoid discerning a new “Heart Healthy” emoji on the face of his cell. There was work to do, and bills to pay, and forms to fill out, and the prospect of medical bill dunners, and reorganization, “life changes,” as it has become rather insolently known; most of all, the harsh, evincing blindness of the economic reality, the fact despite his disability, it was still necessary to work. He liked to work, just the same, and yet again: Plan A? Plan B? What was Plan B? He had a retirement plan; it would just be a decade sooner. He wanted for a “cut below,” — some sort of easement in his new life. The diagnosis was congestive heart failure. He would need a new diet. The likelihood of mortality was much lower at the proper weight, and BMI, the body-mass index; not smoking would improve his life expectancy, pegged now at perhaps five years. His “numbers,” the levels of his chemical range, had improved, and now were right over the plate, hence his release. He was shedding ten pounds at a time. He thought stop-smoking sounded like a panacea. He remembered from years ago a total stranger, a New Yorker, a friend to man, enthralled with a Marlboro at a Central Park bench, allowing smoke to curl around his ears, and nose. He told him he had quit smoking. He commenced to lose his job, his partner, his car, most of his cats; a stopgap Red managed to save the rest of them. The happy upheaval of his system may have been a shock to his metabolism, but certainly was a shock to his life.
He thoughtfully unwrapped the croissant, and watched a group of Portuguese women shortcut through the trees of the Park. He was sipping coffee, his eyes above the top of the Styrofoam, waiting to greet them. The first of them nattered to the others in Portuguese, turned, nodded, and added volume to her words for more emphasis. The women passed without noticing him, to one side, but, in the dulls of his hyperactive mind, the Portuguese women were a set of gray-and-white pigeons, scouring the same course, clacking and clamoring in the grass. He blinked again. He closed his eyes, and shook his head.
He opened his eyes in the LifeRaft® chair. It was nearly impossible to resist the urges of a professional academic, alone, in a pod. Aji was on a tape, in a file, on a menu, he was not supposed to see. He allowed SUM to summarize it, but protested when SUM switched his voice to resemble an announcer for the Mets. SUM responded, “I thought we were becoming friends,” and repaired to a Rod Serling. The computer was parenthetically captioning Aji’s tape, and treating him like a student. SUM was saying, “There is a complex system we call a Caret.” They were in a dijective veil south of İo heading towards Earth, occasionally passing through molecular clouds. He wondered Aji’s mission to the Lumineres. She had made no promises beyond this last trek. Would he see her again? One of her last soliloquies was about a “Caret,” the theory of Affinity. Aji had said, “The symbol is largely the same in English, and Mathematics, but there is no formula. It is simply expressed as a ‘Caret.’” She drew a ‘ ^ ’ sign with her finger. The notion of Affinity, SUM said, “proposes that energy, like matter, is not destroyed, in view of Einstein’s Relativity. The symbol is used to indicate energy, light, gas, when it separated from mass, like heat from coal, continues to exist. It’s not destroyed, but continues to exist in another sphere.”
He couldn’t thing of anything to add. He told SUM, impatiently, “Oh, I doubt it.”
She wandered the LifeRaft® pod, repeatedly checking the navigation for the trek to the Grand Lumineres. The trip could repair, and heal her. Will Adorjan did not know her, however farcical, or antic. She believed there would be a logical explanation. There were no more of Will’s pranks to resolve, at least, but it seemed more of a pity. It was a frustrating trail of mines. The plan was first to join a Primordial Crew along the free-way at Centauri, in order to validate any new information about the theoretic vitality of the Lumineres, the Grand Lights, which very few believed to exist. She could diject from Centauri towards Icarus, and ultimately the big Bang. She viewed the Big Bang with dialectics; and it should give rise to an opposite, and equal force, another universe. The Grand Lumineres, a vast crib beyond the Deep Vast. The primordial crew had been delayed by mission overruns. The young archaeologists hoped to discover evidence of life existing on Alpha Centauri, that it might predate life on Earth, or Sombrero, or Hydra, in a project named Sophie. “Sophie,” she said, aloud, and alone; it sounded like a tropical storm, in Florida; the search for fossils at Centauri, A and B, might yield primordial goo, a scientific expression. “Goo,” Aji said.
He humored SUM. “I’m becoming a quote unquote ‘dumb-bell.’”
“You’re just speciated?” SUM said. “You are away from your native species on Earth, yes. Separated. Are you afraid you’ll become a Martian? We don’t know of any Martians yet.”
He replied, “I could use a prime rib, or something.”
He chuckled when a steak in vacuum wrap clunked to the bottom of a microwave. He constantly felt a need to spin about to find the voice. It was unwitting how SUM had no gestures, not even blinking red lights, a face, that is, a source for the voice. It was an extraordinary puppeteer; the puppets were the countless gadgets of the LifeRaft®. SUM loudly exhaled, adding human sounds to its repertoire, after mentioning the Martians.
“Let’s talk about Affinity,” SUM said, and continued without waiting for his response. It recalled, “There was the experiment. The professor’s name is unknown, which is for the best.” SUM had opinions. “He tried to find how much energy escaped from a living thing, algae on a rock. He lit a rock on fire, and put his hand over it to determine the level of escaping gas, plainly the early stages of the test. He found every time he did that, he would burn his hand.”
He commented, facetiously, “There’s an affinity –”
“But – yes,” SUM said.
Aji said, “Adult males replace 96 million cells every minute. The skin replaces itself every month. The entire body is believed to replace itself every seven years on Earth.”
“Don’t ever tell the college, they’ll end tenure,” he said. He conversed, “Some species can regenerate their body parts.”
“You regenerate body parts,” she said. “Hair, fingernails.”
“Never thought of that,” he replied. “The old saw, – sorry – the phantom field of amputated limbs.”
Aji said, “There’s an affinity, a caret.”
He changed the subject with SUM to science fiction, hoping to chide it, playfully. “The ‘Butterfly Effect’ is banal, don’t you think? I didn’t realize you had opinions.”
SUM said, “I think surely Bradbury meant it more broadly.”
He rued, “If time travelers were to kill a butterfly, would it cause a dystopian world, or more foul balls?”
SUM answered, “Illogical. No one should kill butterflies. The point of time is not material. Any casualty can change history.” It countered by asking his opinion about a field of wild mushrooms, the only vegetation left at The Ponds, a blanche Aji said had begun growing in 1945 A.D., on Earth, at about the same time as the splitting of the atom. “Is it reflexive, professor, or just another vale?”
“It’s called the ‘midlight,’” said a voice, a woman’s voice, one of the nights in Coney Island, one of the nights of insomnia after leaving the Brooklyn Medical Center.
It whispered, to him,“The midlight is full of answers, — if you have no questions.”
D.W., the dire wolf, wasn’t inclined to remain in the caveway at Lazarus Taxa without the outlaw, Yon Raulyn, but it was against her nature to leave with Sawbones still among the missing. She recalled watching with wonder as he was scuttled away by a super-cloud of water, a spout many miles-wide rolling right-to-left, and rotating like a tornado; it was policing The Ponds for unwelcome life of any kind. Tune was Sawbones’ second-in-command, and took a different view. He assumed control. Slack, the crocodile, remained ambiguous; to him, it engendered merely a grin. None could bespeak to all what none ever would bespeak, how luck, and only luck, had intervened, the instant of seeing a plume of exhaust rise from the antique pod firing in the gravel, and lifting them from The Ponds. The exit into space was far easier. They didn’t mentioned Sawbones again, except as a distant memory, always seeing in their mind the plume, and not the wide eyes of the outlaw hoisted by a dark, and swirling cloud.
Hence the dire wolf sought closure on Taxa, and began a migration, a conge farewell. “Sawbones is gone,” she told the group, including Glug. “I just wish he noticed, even once, how little I was interested in all of these trips, and these things. I never wanted socks, or priceless treasures.” She was mindful of Pickles, the British dog who found the Rimet, and how she’d never be famous, “All I ever wanted to find my cousins! My family!”
Glug, persuaded, ahead of another jaunt to the clouds, rested a hairy, meaty palm on the wolf’s head. He empathized, and moaned, “Gloo-ooog.”
“Rilly,” D.W. said “Get your paw off of me.”
They returned to the tasks of the day, skeptically, dolefully, and the dire wolf packed her things, whisking them with her teeth into a pile.
The excursion to Saturn would shortly end. He would ride in the LifeRaft® for only 63 more minutes; and yearned for a tuna sandwich, and American Pickers, at home, in New York. Maybe he would call Kapitolina. He asked SUM, “How will I tell if anything goes wrong?” There was no answer; but, momentarily, he thought he heard a chuckle.
SUM elected to brew a canteen of fresh coffee. Small things. He poured a cup, neglecting a spew of his usual sugar and cream, which dropped into the receptacle, and was quickly swished away. He viewed the darkened span from the deck. Aji was one of the missing things. He watched the shield as a pastime, and tightened the straps of his chair. He shrugged; it was time to mentally dismiss from his mind the experiences aboard the LifeRaft®, and its “aluminum wrapping paper,” or whatever it was housing the pod. “SUM?” he started to say, but stopped. The stars of the vast were visible in the shield. He mentioned, “After a while, they look like lint.” He was appeased by the slow acceleration of the LifeRaft®; it lurched ahead, and occasionally veered to a side, like an airplane, rose, fell, and marginally turned. “Coney dogs tonight at five, shall we say?” he hollered to SUM, which was quiet for a time. “Dairy Queen is also good. Lou’s?” SUM seemed to quip. It said,“The Milky Way. The Great Attractor. The Zone of Avoidance. The Zone of Few Nebulae. They’re just like you, dark clouds in a bright cluster.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “And you’re the cluster?”
“Why yes,” SUM retorted, and it seemed to chuckle again. “It’s a saying. Hydra will collect details from the Local Group before landing at New York, in time for dinner.” He nodded.
The voyage of the holly leaf began an eon ago, at The Ponds, of all places; it was the normal, and regular passage of decaying seeds to microscopic dust, giving saunter to wills of the ages, and it landed ultimately in a grassy square, set aside b New York City for the root system of a facade tree near his Brooklyn flat. He didn’t notice it before his affliction, and didn’t notice it quite a bit. He was boxing Florida clothes ahead of his weekend getaway in Florida, an unboxing a new UPS delivery from Joe. He perused the latest rapt of 45’s, including, perhaps grudgingly, recent recordings. His friendship with Joe, a careerist for NYU, and Milt, the elderly professor, was growing diffuse. They were calling more, but did not return any texts. Their words were distant, and more hesitant. They were overbearingly helpful. He tried the morning weather at Central Park, for fear if he stayed home any longer, he’d be absorbed by omen rings, this, despite his flat-screen saviors, Gordon Ramsey, Guy Fieri’s Triple D, the Property Brothers, Jeff Probst and Survivor.
The freshet of Ilex in Central Park contained the same quiet, seldom-noticed “panoply of nature”; imbibing the modest festival of superlatives, branches splaying in light gales, hastening to wave at the other trees, was usually the task of squirrels; the gift of red leaves spirals to the ground; crows are busy all the day, and caw in sundry flight. The squirrels sleep well into the afternoon, and ignore the gala jubilee. The lifespan of a holly leaf ends abruptly; it separates from the Ilex, and from the grasp of the vine, dances briefly, pirouettes, and acrobatically tumbles to the ground.
His mind’s eye recalled a memory from the day of his heart failure, the day he nearly died, moments before the ambulance came to his apartment, a dream of ancient Coney Island, the Lenape, and the beach; prone, along the timeless shoreline, he saw a bear, a pretty ugly bear. It’s name was “Glug,” and he knew somehow Glug was not actually a bear, but a mega neura modell. The bear greeted him, “Glllll-ug!” He was followed by a troupe of four small bears; they shuffled away, in the distance, in time.
He gulped at the coffee, with cream, and a dose of gravitas. The Ilex tree, red in all, in perhaps good weather, regains sturdy, muscular branches, revives the holly leaves, fresh, and green, but it waits, in winter, with an overcoat of heavy bark, and very few leaves, shivering for the playful spring. ◊
¤ Juke Box ¤
Theme: “The Mummers’ Dance,” Loreena McKennitt | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 42).
….. from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories, by Soda Tom
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