“Silk Roads,” Part Two

All the Buried Empires


Survivor (CBS)

drama 5a

A solitary bottle of whiskey was enjoying the mild weather upon a picnic table at Pawtuckaway, New Hampshire, as occasional lake breezes sidled through the concierge trees. They were sitting in lounge chairs in the early evening at the state park, and toasting the roaring, and dimming campfire. He told them, “So, I’m still going to build a course plan for next year,” even as it was the first time he thought of it. The conviviality of a camp site often meant discovering the unknown from cohorts and chums, and searching out life’s safety and security, like familiar street signs; once the proper course was known to all, – which, to the best of their knowledge, individually, had yet to occur, – they need only raise a shot glass, and salute it; it was a chore, but not heavy lifting, for university colleagues, or in some respects, the learned; it meant tossing a proverbial discus, say, into the air to see it land; the “discus” was the most absurd nonsense any of them could muster in a one-up-man game, inducing as fodder what sociology calls “a definition of the situation,” – or largely, what was going on in the world real, as well as with each of them, which was harder to discern, and much more entertaining to explore in the company of moonshine.

The weekend began with the word, “So,” whomever uttered it, and was entered into history, never to relent. Joe said confidently, “Good for you,” but his attention quickly faded in the shine of the moon to private indulgence. They each had a point of view, like other camps, which could be emptied if the everyone, or anyone in the group forgot a knife, – it was the basis of their friendship, a current, and a fashionable, or an insightful point of view, largely about anything, and always on a dime; no conversation could ensue with credibility, unless the value judgments were stated, and known, guided, and corrected by the present literature, and progress in research. Joe interrupted him hence, because he was mumbling, and had yet to take a position about Margaret Mead.

Joe (preempting): Five stages of death –

Milt: Diplomas, baccalaureate. Master’s Degree, Doctoral, and Tenure. That’s five.

Joe: Correct.

Narrator (N): You left out shock.

Milt: Shock? No, that comes later. Life is shock.

N: Mead. Those are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Joe: They do seem rather trite. Everyone into one package.

Milt: Cavalier.

Joe: Is there money there?

N: I’m not a cadaver yet.

Joe. Okay. Shock. What about it?

N: I don’t agree with her. Maybe I’m too close. What I notice is shock.

Milt: People die of shock.

8 b 2 irf

Joe: Milt’s wife, for example.

Milt: True. True.

N: It’s a four-way of shock. Too numb for definitions.

Joe: Well, none of them have actually died, so   –

Milt: Good point.

He began to tell them more about Aji, about the annoying seal of Hydra, a round eye, and a cross between the logo of CBS, and ABC, which was centered in the glass pane of his microwave oven, reminding him Hydra, Aji, and the Sombrero galaxy were still present, and inexplicably interested in his affairs; the subject had no takers, the school was still out as to whether it was simply a hallucination, due to his condition. They weren’t listening, really, as he continued, they were listening to the crickets, and peering at the darkness of the lake, like lost students; the miskey was aging. He was certain this subject would win, and they would spend the entire weekend on astrophysics. But suddenly Milt didn’t like “kids,” an incredible heresy; and what e’er her powers at the time, well into B.C., “Julia Caesar” was invincible.

Milt: I’m just weary of the world of Education. How is that possible?

Joe (rhetorically): You’re an extremely old man.

Milt: Why, thank you. We’re still just shoveling coal.

Joe: The science building doesn’t shovel any coal. They shovel dough.

Milt (raising glass): I feel better now when they feel better. How did we get so perverse?

Joe: After two decades, I finally know what my parents meant. I need a good job.

Milt: Too late. It gets later, and later. That’s good. I’m still here.

Joe: Skill sets. That’s what they call it now. They have me convinced, all day long.

Milt: The ancients seem middle-aged men to me. Wait till that happens.

Joe: Aristotle. Still seems pretty old.

Milt (sighs): Aristotle was one of them. You’re nowhere near the point.

He noticed a dark figure in the corner of his eye, a shadow, really, and he knew his new friend accompanied him to the New Hampshire state park. He watched in the darkness, the light interposing light, a figure in the dew and mist, until it, Death, noticed him. It was smoking a cigarette. Death took a drag from the cigarette, the red, and auburn color of the lighted-end dawned his attention before the rale was jettisoned, with two fingers, into the gravel. He silently rued, in and out of their conversation, how apparitions only seemed to answer questions no one has asked; his disease, congestive heart failure, CHF, was surely exacerbated by smoking. Was Death trying inveigh that in a gesture; or it maybe it was just hello; or perhaps that there was no escaping him, Death, not even with the help of eccentric, and knowledgeable professors, a little waxed, and in the wild.

Joe: The ancients fouled everything up.

Milt: Too strident. We should start a fantasy league — fantasy Education. We’ll have a draft, make trades, start fresh from there. The Arts, and Sciences, the A.L., and the S.L. We get Aristotle, and we trade Pompey. And Pompey’s daughter, Julia, while we’re at it.

N: That’ll mess things up.

Joe: Aristotle, for Pompey. I think they’ll jump at it. Why Pompey? There’s a lot of Caesars.

Milt: Kids. They get all the kids. We get the serene, antiseptic laboratory.

Joe: Must be that time of year.

Milt: Oh yes. So we trade Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Pompey the Great. And Julia.

N: Julia?

Joe: Caesar’s daughter. Pompey’s fourth wife. He had to prevent a civil war.

Milt: She was actually the only child of Julius Caesar. She died in childbirth.

Joe: Wasn’t there a Filia?

Milt: Somewhere. I have no use for Pompey. Not much for Aristotle, either. Miskey. The league isn’t going to be easy.

Joe: We keep Lincoln.

Milt: Pompeii. The ultimate testament, of it all.

Joe: Slightly equivocal.

N: Not the guy. The kingdom in Italy, that was buried in the sand, and ash.

Milt: Like tenure.

Joe: Milt hates college kids this time of year.

Milt: Hate is too strong word. He endure them. I am pushing eighty. Pushing it a-way.

He unwrapped ground beef, and rose to search the mosquito tent for the grill parts, as Joe quizzed Milt, “What’s wrong with Pompey? You’re still ticked about something. After all this time.”

Milt: Pompeii. Richard. The great dynasties. Babylon. All the buried empires. The great capitals of the continents, the cultures, the people no one remembers. I doubt, right now, my students remember me!

Joe: They all seem important at the time.

Milt: Pompey was the first, at the beginning of it. The Caesars, the Holy Roman Empire. You know they told poor Julia that Pompey had been killed. That’s what sent her into shock, and then premature childbirth. She died.

N: Shock – see.

Joe: The legend is her monument was stuck by lightning afterwards.

N: Ahhh.

Joe: What about Julius?

Milt: Bah! You see, they had kids!

Joe: We’ll put them on the waiver list.

Milt: They all had kids. Everybody had kids.

N: Milt seethes. Is is summer yet?

Milt: There’s just – too many kids. It wasn’t so bad when I was their age. They were my age. Veni, Vedi, Vici.

N: They don’t know better.

Milt: When they hit ten, forget it. Before that I suppose they were cuddly.

Joe: Gross. Let’s move the question. What Milt means to say is the Romans dominated Western Civ, conquered everything, and had a zillion descendants. It’s hard to argue with a zillion anything.

N: That’s western civilization. It leaves out half the world. Leaves out the East.

Milt: The elders are always expelled from most countries, the old families. Very few have moer than one generation of the same family. There’s, what, two countries where families last more than a generation. Their kids kick them out. Or it’s social policy. The law, in some.

Joe: Brother!

Milt: The Romans started roam-ing the planet. The Silk Roads. It used to be enough to farm the land around the house. They wanted silk for their wives, and mistresses.

Joe: The silk roads were in the East.

Milt: Right. The East.

N: I think I’d draft Cro-Magnon, and Neanderthal man. It’s a rebuilding year.

Joe: Immigrants came here from all over, not just Rome. On the other hand, the Romans wrote The Bible. It’s aggravating. If you can’t believe half of it, how do you believe any of it.

Milt: All we have is the Rose Line.

N: Lost me again.

Milt: The Silk Roads. The Rose Line. What else is there?

Joe: The universal time line through France. The one at the Gnomon of Saint-Sulpice in Paris marks the Meridian.

Milt: The ray of sunlight marks the exact time of Easter.

Joe: Silk Roads. The ancient network of trade routes through the mountains, dating from the Han Dynasty. They connected the East and the West, which began, or ended in China, depending on your point of view. They connected Rome to Japan at the Old Urgench, the palace of Muhammad II.

N: All I know is there’s only one way to end kids.

Milt: We have certainly tried it! No – the problem is we aren’t supposed to be in the universe. See. This is a serious matter. We are all supposed to be somewhere else by now. Heaven, or a ballgame. Territorial imperative. Hormones. They’re – dangerous.

It is a beautiful place,” a man said to Aji, who provided half of a grin. “Laniakea. We used to swim right here in the ocean. Now we call it the blue sea?”

The man, an aeronaut, was stony, almost grave, estimating the capsule, and command center. “You can’t let on about this to anybody.” She nodded.

The aeronaut breathed a dose of the alt air, noticed her imbibing the ocean waters, and he boosted his chest. “The sharks are out for breakfast this time of day. It makes it more challenging,” he said.

Aji admired the Atlantic Ocean, gazing dreamily over Cape Canaveral, in 2120.” Earth.”

Joe: What was it like when you got out of the hospital?

N: It was no Silk Road. Unless you can get there by rocking chair. You get excited about, like, binge-able TV, ‘30 for 30’ on ESPN, or Survivor. Reality TV is better than medication. I’m a Survivor groupie. I watched at least a hundreds shows? I don’t know how many complete seasons.

Milt: Too much time to reflect. Stick to Thursday night football.

N: Dr. Rhys says I should allow the possibility the disease was congenital, but then he dismisses it. Not important.

Joe: Ch-changes. What do they call it? Life Changes.

Milt: Sure. It’s exactly what they want.

N: He says the folks probably knew about it. EKG’s are relatively new.

Milt: If they did, if they knew, it was cruel to conceal it.

N: If the old man knew, it would have been something he didn’t ‘dig.’ He’d figure I would believe there was something wrong’ with me. This was the Sixties and Seventies. That was not ‘groovy.’

Joe: You could be anything in the Sixties.

Milt: Unless – there was… ‘something wrong with you.’

N: Still –

Milt: What?

N: You remember Mariya?

Joe: We remember Mariya. We got here maybe twice. I was dying for a game of Hearts.

Milt: You never win at Hearts. You should never play.

N: She didn’t make twenty-two. Amazing.

Milt: Hearts.’ Sorry, bud.

N: She was Lada’s older sister, one of three in the group of emigres from the Soviet Union, which includes Kapitolina. Pearl was a native of Belarus, but she continues to say she’s Ukrainian. I don’t always get it, these subtle differences. She rents a flat in Minsk. Her father pays for it. He has moved to Lviv. What to say?

Joe: That’s Pearl. How is she taking it?

N: Mead.

Milt: Yes.

N: They lived in the northern blocks of Coney Island. I met them in a restaurant in Alley 13. I was commuting to work at Marsh, just twenty-three, hanging out, helping Mariya learn English, it’s all I remember, really; five, six years, waiting for the ‘right girl.’ Mariya found a translator job upstate, moved to Syracuse. And that is where. A post office. I was just watching the prime years go by.

Joe: A-yuh.

N: She had an embolism two days after she got to Buffalo. She died in the lobby. Man. So I take up with Kapitolina, we were more or less, grieving together? I buried myself in the doctorate program. Kapitolina showed up at the door to take the Census, like, we meet again. (Pause.) Mariya had what I have.

Milt: The problem is you can’t debate immigration, and stay safe, and conventional. Not if you’re honest. You have to take one of the two trains.

Joe: The potato famines.

Milt: You know, except for what people buy, everyone makes minimum wage. My problem is when these old families, and not the young, the old, the middle-aged, immigrate here, make U.S. dollars, and then give their money back to the ‘old country,’ to the ones who kicked them out. Capital flight.

Joe: Or fight wars to lose them.

N: Miskey has a nasty personality.

Milt: Did you ever try to use Android?

Joe: I love Android. All the apps. (Turns his cell phone, and shines the flashlight on Milt.) See.

Milt: You are kids.

N: I get through it. Better if you hide.

Milt: Young people put us into the ground, and don’t even know it. They put us in the ground, and drive over us, and then they’re finally happy.

Joe: All because of Android?

Milt: The point is – I can’t use Android. I can’t make calls. I can’t call 9-1-1! And it keeps going, and going, and going.

Joe: They don’t realize that. They don’t really mean it. You’re just – (laughs) in the way! (Laughs.)

Milt: It’s instinctive.

Joe: It’s only natural. They want new rock stars.

N: I can show you how to use Android. It’s easy.

Milt: It’s easy to use, but not easy to accept. I miss analog! We are like analog. Just back up the dump truck, and take us all away.

Joe: We were the same way.

Milt: Cliche. And it doesn’t help. We were wrong, that’s the logic. Where’s the respect for – reflexivity, for example.

N: Huh?

Joe: We were talking about it before. He means our resources are finite. The problem is kids don’t have resources. We can pass power along peacefully, but never resources. Far from it. We can’t create mass.

Milt: And I don’t like democracy, either. That’s why. It can’t address scarcity. It chases all of the resources, and all of the people, out of the country. There’s no peaceful transfer of resources.

N: What about wills, and trusts. Entitlements? Are you saying we should have Caesars.

Milt: Relativity.

Joe: Relativity.

Milt: Wealth can’t be created beyond the existing mass of natural resources. These are rare, and finite. When they are exhausted, we are covered in the sand, and ashes. What else could happen?

Joe: Democrats can’t create resources. Republicans can’t distribute any.

Milt: The ‘economy,’  quote, unquote. How people do things. You could opt for imperialism. Or just say war. That’s inevitable. Or space, you were talking about. You know, it’s not whether we should go, or not. We just will. For the resources.

Joe: Then Democrats become conservative, and the Republicans liberal, and – good God!

Milt: We all end up in the ground.

Aji was gasping with laughter, tears filled her eyes. “This is incredible,” she said. The LifeRaft® was invisible to everybody else, but blocked her view.

The aeronaut, Bud Adorjan, advised, “Any way you can find to return is the most important thing. We want the data. So long as we get the data. You know what I mean.”

Yeah,” she responded, feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

We can’t diject twice, it’s not possible, and you have to be safe,” he explained.

Aji shrugged, and seemed disinterested. “Come back here,” she reiterated, about Bud’s advice. He beamed at her, proudly., and inspected the gear in bright sunlight. He asked, finally, with a stern glance, “Going?”

She didn’t remember swimming that day, but Bud insisted that they did, that they swim that morning, along with the dolphins, and sharks. We’re all crackpots, she decided. She communed with the bluer sky.

Aji flipped the final switch of the LifeRaft® controls to diject toward İo, and to Bootes Void, as she’d done hundreds of times. With a sigh, she scaled into a basket the small piece of paper the pod had printed for her, reading the same venerable advice. ‘ Saturn is unstable,’ the mainframe blipped in 2120, in a teasing dot matrix; it was distressing, in a way. She had been informed about it, but Hydra base convened a group to study it. She put her head back in the rest. Aji clicked through the menu of ancient recordings for a favorite, by the Smashing Pumpkins, and blared it throughout the pod; done waiting, she stared restless into the shield. She didn’t know what to expect; she buckled in her chair at the irony because, in fact, nothing was further from the truth. More tears whet Aji’s eyes, left unnoticed but for the stream of water against her cheeks, tears from glee, tears of joy. The pod announced, “Destination: İo.”

İo, and where?” she asked, in command.

Sombrero,” it said. “Laniakea. Your choice, ma’am.”

Aji told it: “The Grand Lumineres.”

That is theoretical,” stated the machine.

She repeated, “The Grand Lumineres. Our final stop.”

The LifeRaft® repeated, “Last stop. Some time from now.”

Yes,” Aji said.

She asked, as the pod began to move, rattling her chair. “When will we return to 2120?”

It said, “We’ll never return to 2120.”

Right,” Aji said, grimacing, staring ahead. “İo.”

And the ‘Grand Lumineres.’”

Milt: Miskey has no feelings. Sorry to rile you.

Joe: You feel better. That’s the point.

N: We won’t bury you here.

Joe: Not yet.

Milt: Well, Joe, what if you had a disease?

Joe: Meaning.

Milt: The question is, what should you do? There’s what he wants to know. From us. We are the ones who know everything. Right. Isn’t that what we’re not saying?

Joe: No matter what anyone says, I’d be at the church. And you couldn’t stop me. (Laughs.) Out of the way! Out of the way! I’d have to be sure I was going heaven. Then I could hang. Right?

Milt (mulling): Maybe the bucket list.

Joe: No time for stupid things.

N: The truth is ground zero is six-feet below. The last stop for our Silk Road. But that – that’s for everyone else. Everyone believes they’re going to heaven, taking the Rose Line, and they’re the only ones. No one really believes in hell, but it’s where everyone else is going to go.

Milt: That’s not very helpful.

Joe: Well, what are you, then? A Protestant? Agnostic? What?

Joe: I’m an – empiricist.

Milt: Good. You’ll know when you get there.

Joe: That’s not very helpful.

Milt: Yes, and no.

theme notes¤ Juke Box ¤ 

Theme: “Tonight, Tonight,” SMASHING PUMPKINS  | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 35)


“The Echo By Seas” is one of three works by SODA TOM.

 “The Echo By Seas,” by Soda Tom, Vol. II of III,

 from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories by Soda Tom

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