I wake up in a daze, my current girlfriend out cold next to me. What a ride!
Nadine is a part-time prostitute and full-time heroin addict, and she is sensational in bed. We’ve been hanging out for a month, after that blast at Johnny’s place, hooking up in the bathroom, taking turns throwing up, I took her back to her motel as the sun rose, interpreting her mumbled directions, needing a place to crash.
I don’t like to lose it, like happens with heroin or opioids, or even marijuana. But I like to party. I drink beer and Crown, never buying it myself. There’s something about so many people interacting, being real, that turns me on–like Nadine. She’s real, even if she’s stoned half the time. You can’t get much more realistic than selling your vagina for money—that’s what she says. I agree. She pays the rent in the motels we frequent around the Houston area, I stay out of the way when she’s working.
I roll out of bed and look at the evidence of the wild time we had, a whiskey bottle surrounded by used condoms only the tip of the iceberg. What a ride! It’s like this every night and I love it.
Unfortunately, we’re back on the street because her recent income won’t cover rent after buying all that booze and heroin. But we won’t be homeless. Nadine and I aren’t like those losers who push shopping carts filled with shit around, mumbling to themselves. A bunch of schizophrenics. Sick motherfuckers. Nadine and I aren’t parasites, what with her making a lot of money and me supplying us with plenty of food.
I shake her and say, “Hey, I’m going downstairs for a smoke. Join me when you wake up.”
I stumble to the elevator and find my way to the ground floor, and follow the dirt path to the smoking patio. I take a seat to check up on my social contacts, which isn’t going to happen because I picked up Nadine’s phone by mistake. It was buzzing constantly as I lit a cigarette. Fuck! I didn’t feel like going back to the room because…what did it matter? None of it mattered…everything…the job as a cook I’d quit when my boss had complained about my poor performance, what the fuck is that? I’m not running on the treadmill to nowhere, that’s what matters.
I get to the covered area that serves as the designated smoking area and settle into one of the rusty metal chairs to have a smoke. I fiddle with a cigarette, rolling it between my fingers, thinking about why I’m hanging out with Nadine, diving in dumpsters for meals, going to all-night blasts with people I don’t know or even want to be around, loudmouthed assholes who get violent after a few beers, maybe I’m just a loser, I’ve been called that more than once by my parents, and that was before I left home at sixteen.
My reflections are interrupted when an old guy shows up with one of the motel’s paper cups of coffee, brewed in his room, what a loser he his, wearing ridiculous cargo pants and a polo shirt, looking like an escapee from an old-folks home, but I see the pack of cigarettes in his hand and figure, it’s worth listening to his bullshit to get some free smokes.
He nods at me with a senile smile but doesn’t say a word, probably ignoring me because he’s only partially conscious, so I get his attention. “What’s up? Ain’t this cool?”
Suddenly awake, he looks at me and says, “Sure, I just came out to have a cup of coffee. Didn’t I see you out here yesterday? My name’s Lester.”
My eyes on his cigarettes, I respond, “Paul. It’s good to meet you, Lester. What brings you to Houston? Business?”
Lester is tight-lipped at first but it doesn’t take long to get to the point of our conversation. He offers me a cigarette. I reluctantly accept his token of what he probably thinks is friendship, savoring the expectation of nicotine. He lights his immediately. I play with mine. He’s like the Buddha, just sitting there, ignoring me, trying to get my attention.
Finally he says, “I’m getting all my stuff together, to move to Virginia. I didn’t want to rush so I’m staying here for two weeks. How about you?”
Just like that, he’s turned the tables, putting me on the spot.
“I’m a gypsy,” I say.
He thinks a moment before replying, “Just passing through Baton Rouge, I guess?”
I put the cigarette I got from him in my mouth and he offers his lighter, forcing me to speak. I light the fag and say, “I’m from Baton Rouge,” scoffing and continuing, “I like…live free, you know? I was a sous chef, but it wasn’t me, I hated it to be honest…”
He looks at me curiously and lights another cigarette. “What would you rather do?”
I take a drag from my cigarette, beginning to hate this guy, who’s like my parents. I shake my head, wanting him to go away, but feel obliged to answer. “I like to party…there are these great blasts…you wouldn’t believe it. They go all night. There’s one tonight but it’s like five miles from here…I don’t like to walk…”
In Buddha mode, he says, “That’ll only take an hour and a half. If that’s what you want to do, it’s worth the effort.”
I don’t get this guy. I blurt, “I’m kind of hungry.” I show him my boots, discovered in a dumpster, and add, “And that’s a long way in these boots.”
The son-of-a-bitch doesn’t even look at my boots before replying, “Get some breakfast and then you can take all day to make it to the party.”
I can’t believe this old guy. I’m feeling a little light-headed from hunger, so I say, “I don’t have any money to buy breakfast. I get my meals from the dumpsters…I know where to get the expired food, sometimes it’s steak or club sandwiches, bagels, you name it, I love it…”
His next words dig into my mind like sharp claws. “I guess you better get busy then. It probably takes time to collect such a bounty, and a lot of walking.” He glances at the boots now and adds, “in those shoes.”
Something about his ambivalent attitude forces me to explain what it means to be a gypsy. I spill my guts, like I’m talking to a therapist. I hate psychologists. I left home at sixteen when my parents mentioned a therapist. Been doing okay for fifteen years. Now I have to deal with this old fuck, just to get free cigarettes. I tell him about being a chef and how I hated it, how I could open my own restaurant but didn’t want to deal with the hassle, I like not dealing with all that shit, dumpster diving is easier.
He doesn’t blink. “I guess I’m getting old because the idea of spending half my time looking for my next meal is unacceptable. I couldn’t live like that. I’ve always been…” He paused before continuing, “There are a couple of things that have always been important to me, probably because I’ve been hungry and homeless although only for a few days at a time. I have to know where I’m going to sleep and where my next meal is coming from.” He shook his head in a triumphant manner—I didn’t know that was possible—and added, “I wouldn’t want to live like you Paul, even though I probably could. There’s just too much to do, to be spending my time foraging for a meal, or a pair of pants, shit that can be purchased easily.”
His words hurt. He lights another cigarette, offers me one, so I take it and play with it while I explain how radical my lifestyle is. He doesn’t interrupt, so I tell him about my broken heart, when Rachel, the woman I’d been with for six years dumped me with no explanation. My honest answers to his insightful but casual questions make it clear that I’m not part of mainstream society. I hadn’t even noticed that Rachel, who’d been fifteen years older than me, had been going through menopause, all her actions that led to our breakup the result of biological processes, her reaching out to me afterward being an admission of this. I’d ignored her texts and calls and treated her like an adversary. I’m an asshole.
Lester offers me another cigarette and asks how I can buy cigarettes and afford to live in the Trident Motel. I scoff and answer honestly, “My girlfriend makes some money…you know…”
“I couldn’t live like that,” he responds.
Lester doesn’t get it, that I hate my life, that I wish I didn’t have to dig in dumpsters for my clothes, meals, everything, I know I’m a loser but I’m down with that, so I totally fuck up explaining that this is the best I can do.
After my incoherent rant, he says, “You still have to find breakfast and get to that party. Five miles from here. Good luck with that.”
He suddenly gets up, drops a cigarette on the table, and leaves.
Nadine appears from the back door, held open by Lester, and calmly sits on my knee like a little girl. I watch Lester disappear as she continues her social interaction on her phone, hopefully setting up a gig that will get us another night in a motel.
She turns to me and asks, “What’s for breakfast?”
The Ghost in the Machine
I always loved automobiles, playing with toy cars as a child, still creating cities and highways for my Matchbox vehicles (I had earth-moving equipment) when I was eleven. I bought my first real car when I was sixteen, a year-old Chevelle Malibu, from my brother. The great thing about real cars is that they can be modified, not necessarily for the better, but fiddled with. Like playing with toy cars.
But real cars couldn’t be thrown in the trash as easily when they broke. I learned that from that Malibu, which spun a main bearing with only thirty-thousand miles on the odometer—no, I didn’t race it or let it run out of oil. It should have been a warning that I wasn’t meant to have cars. It was apparently an unnatural event, me owning something complicated.
But it was more than that.
I’ll skip ahead 43 years to events that convinced me once and for all that there is such a thing as emergent sentience in complex mechanical systems. Automobiles meet these criteria for intentional behavior. I’m not claiming they are conscious.
Did you ever see the movie Christine?
I’ve never bothered giving inanimate objects appellations, other than derogatory names spoken in anger and frustration. Maybe I should have been more personal with them. Perhaps automobiles wouldn’t have been so unkind to me if they’d thought I loved them. I don’t know.
I toyed with naming the 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser I bought after I retired because some people had monikers for their offroad vehicles. I even used the name Phoenix a couple of times, trying it on. It didn’t work for me. I’ll use it in this story because, to be honest, I need some kind of intervention right now…
I was going to rebuild rather restore the truck because it was missing too many original parts to be brought back to stock condition. A fun project. Make it a reliable rig for running around town and doing some light off-roading, like at trail ride events. The intent was to drive it carefully as repairs were completed, never seeing it unusable for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
That’s not how it worked out.
When I picked up the light-blue Land Cruiser, the top was removed but was available at a later date. (It was being stored in a barn somewhere.) It worked as well as could be expected, however, with all the lights operating and new brakes. Stuff like that. No rust was a big deal in a truck that old. The first upgrade was power assist for the steering because the tread on its MT offroad tires was more than ten-inches and I’m not built like the Hulk.
When I picked it up from the Toyota dealer who’d installed the brand-new power assist from an early Toyota minitruck, fuel was spewing out of the carburetor, fuel pump, and fuel lines. I mean pouring as in a fire hazard. They never touched any of those components. None of the parts were available new. An electric fuel pump and aftermarket carburetor got me back on the road—for a while.
Then the windshield wiper stopped working. No brake lights. Then no power. The antique 30 amp main fuse was blown. Still available but not well displayed in 21st century auto parts stores. All’s good until I use the wiper again—another 30 amp fuse. Hmmm. This could be a problem. A new, generic wiper switch. All good. For a few days, then…you know the rest.
The brakes were original and the guy I bought Phoenix from, who drove it around town as well as on rocky trails, had even replaced all the brake shoes and had the (four-wheel) drum brakes turned. They weren’t round. Stopping had become iffy at best, but it wasn’t fluid loss. (Maybe a little seepage from a cross-threaded connection.) The engine, which burned no substantial oil, didn’t like the new carburetor and wouldn’t idle anymore. The original distributor was wobbly and, when removed for inspection, found to be so tight that it must have used 10 hp just to rotate it. I mean the bearings were shot. A new, pointless distributor fixed that, but the engine still didn’t like to idle at less than 1200 rpm. But at least it would idle.
I know what you’re thinking: All these older (if not original) components had worn out evenly and in unison; replacing one threw them out of equilibrium. I agree and that’s my point—for now. This is solid physical evidence for the Ghost in the Machine. Like I said, it isn’t alive or even conscious, but has become an entity of some kind. Physicists refer to emergent phenomena. That’s what I’m talking about.
At any rate, Phoenix’s ghost was very unhappy and the engine gave up the ghost as they say. It spun a bearing, just like my first car. And it did it at the most inopportune time, two months before I had to vacate the home I had put on the market. No time to rebuild an antique motor in SE Louisiana. So it got a rebuilt one from a newer model (a 4.2 L to replace the original 3.8 L straight six), shipped from Texas via New Hampshire. (That’s another story.) With a new heart, Phoenix came to life, reborn. It also had a new electrical system, disk brakes in front, along with a rebuilt transmission and brand-new transfer case, as well as new differentials and complete axle assemblage in the front. I even threw in a new fuel tank and fuel lines (with a better electric fuel pump). It’s a new machine. The only original components are the alternator (probably a replacement) and voltage regulator; brake master cylinder, lines and rear brakes; windshield wiper motor; instrument cluster; intake manifold (I’d replaced the rusted exhaust manifold with a tube header); body and frame.
How much of the original ghost can possibly remain?
This should be a new vehicle with a new lease on life. No more disequilibrium between components that have aged together. Right?
Because of cross-threaded carburetor mount studs, machine work was required; I went ahead and had electronic fuel injection (EFI) installed by an experienced, licensed mechanic familiar with Land Cruisers (he had three of his own).
Phoenix had a new ghost for me to deal with.
I know what you’re thinking: I can’t possibly expect all these new/rebuilt/old mismatched parts to function in a coherent manner; after all, this unique combination of components isn’t the result of years of R&D by hundreds of engineers. I agree. The emergent ghost from the upgraded Phoenix has to have time to develop. That’s how my story ends and how it ties back to the beginning, that 1972 Chevelle.
The fuel injection system works fine until it doesn’t. That rebuilt (old) motor starts and runs great but sometimes stops at intersections, at red traffic lights. It just stops running. Starts up immediately—so far. Maybe it’s the brand-new, EFI system from a GMC motor, showing its antiquated design’s limitations. Who knows. The most-disturbing evidence of the new ghost in this machine occurred recently. Something deep in its bowels brought Phoenix to a halt when backing out of a parking space, with a loud bang and the sensation of mismatched gears inside the transmission or transfer case. Nothing fixed it, not even removing the rear driveshaft. An inspection revealed nothing in arrears. Nothing.
So my new/old truck has a ghost that is apparently unhappy. Maybe some of the old remained in the body or frame. Maybe it’s the voltage regulator.
Maybe it’s me.
As unlikely as it sounds, maybe all those quantum fields that underlie reality are out of equilibrium between me and mechanical systems…
And their ghosts.
Review of “OrphanX” by Gregg Hurwitz
This was a book I purchased in Doha, Qatar, for the second leg of a 31 hour international flight. I like to read action novels on long flights, maybe for the adrenaline rush? Anyway, I finished it just before landing, in about 14 hours. I’ve never read any of the author’s books before but he has quite a few, and is apparently very popular. None of that matters to me, however, because I’m a little more critical than the average reader or critic these days. There is no such thing as a master story teller to me.
First, as you might expect from an experienced author like Hurwitz, the grammar and punctuation are good. The style is ponderous, the way my early drafts tend to be. Readable but slow going at times. I noted that the second half of the book was less well-written than the first, a tendency I’ve noted before. The first half gets read more and thus cleaned up; also, the author can get impatient towards the end, especially when they know they’re going to make a gazillion dollars.
As with so many best-selling authors (read inflated egoes), there is a lot of explanation of minor points in the story, such as the mechanics of print/paint art restoration. Unrelated to the story. I suppose they’re meant as diversions from the main plot, which was easy to figure out as soon as the contributing elements were revealed. In an effort to keep the story interesting to a reader who had already figured out who did it and why, several side characters were introduced, again contributing very little to the story. There was supposed to be some introspection by the protagonist but it wasn’t very convincing; how could it be with a guy who murdered people for a career and for whom a violent solution is the first choice, in every situation?
The author does a good job describing violent scenes, like fights and murder. However, after two or three such depictions of physical prowess by the protagonist, I was wishing they had been either shortened or deleted. I guess that’s how it’s done when you have a reputation to keep up: repeat ad nauseam whatever made you famous. At least the hero lost a few times.
Overall, it was okay but I skipped a lot and had to go back and read it because my motto is “I read every word.” I did, even if it hurt.