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Doppelganger

Brian Cameron was riding high, having just successfully negotiated a deal with a competitor to share the prostitution business in a lucrative market. The opposing representative had accepted Brian’s offer without complaint, no hard feelings, simply an acknowledgement of his no-nonsense negotiating style, encouraged no-doubt by Manny standing behind him. The same commitment to efficiency had made him the most successful manager in the organization, with a minimum of violence. The boss didn’t like headlines. Brian was doing okay at forty-five, in a position to move up within the organization, maybe even become the boss one day. He glanced in the mirror and adjusted it to look at his face, covered by a three-days growth of graying beard, before turning to Manny. “Do I look old enough to be the boss?”

Manny was Brian’s muscle, his six-foot-five frame built like a wrestler, but he wasn’t very good at disguising his feelings. “Sure, maybe, there’s some gray in your beard and a few streaks in your hair, but you don’t got no worry wrinkles around your eyes. You’ve got young eyes, not mean but…well, you don’t look like a killer and that’s what fools some of the guys, but they learn better soon enough, but don’t get me wrong, I know you and I’d never cross you, but you don’t look like an old man who’s seen it all and knows what has to be done no matter what.”

Nonplussed, Brian turned the mirror back and grumbled, “Well, Manny, that was quite a speech from a guy who usually gives monosyllabic responses, but I’m going to be the boss before I’m sixty. Mark my words.”

Manny shrugged and said, “Not if you keep driving this piece of shit, it reminds me of my dad’s old Chrysler, he loved that car but the rest of us hated it.” They were at a traffic light and the engine sounded as if it were about to stop running.

Frustrated, Brian noticed a repair shop announced by a weathered signboard over two garage bays. “Black Forest Enterprises.” Without thinking, he did a U-turn and pulled into the drive fronting one of the two stalls. The name had gotten his attention, and the Audi R8 Spyder Quattro waiting to be stolen. He’d keep that in mind. Any shop that worked on such a fine piece of German engineering would be able to fix whatever was ailing his car. He tapped the horn before checking the street for threats and opening the door slowly. By the time he was standing next to his steel-blue sedan, he was met by a man wearing green overalls who looked eerily familiar.

“You didn’t need to hit the horn. I heard you drive up. You need spark plugs. These older models burn them out in a hundred-thousand miles. Your 2016 Audi S6 is one of the worst offenders.”

Brian closed the door gently and examined the speaker, a man his age with a clean-shaven face, a contemptuous smile tickling the corners of his mouth. Brian turned to Manny and said, “See what I’ve been telling you? You gotta keep your eyes open, like when I spotted this shop and knew this was the place to get my car repaired.” He faced the mechanic and continued, “So, I know you can get my car running sweet, but what’s it gonna cost me, and can you do it right now? Drop everything and I’ll make it worth your while. We can negotiate the price later.”

The mechanic lit a cigarette and replied, “I can fit you in because I was about to start a big job on that R8, but it can wait until morning. My labor rate is a hundred-dollars per hour. I have the parts in stock and, if nothing’s been fucked with and required maintenance has been followed, I can get you fixed up in an hour-and-a-half.” He shrugged and added, “The parts are about two-hundred-fifty dollars…but again, I won’t know until I open the hood, which costs a minimum of a hundred dollars.”

Brian whistled and pretended to be shocked. “You’re gonna charge me four-hundred bucks to change my spark plugs?”

“Probably more, because I don’t think this vehicle has been properly maintained.”

Brian didn’t answer immediately because he finally placed the face of the mechanic. It was his own countenance, without the beard. Intrigued, he introduced himself and learned that the mechanic owned Black Forest Enterprises and had no employees. He agreed to the basic fee and the hood was opened by Stanley Lewis, who explained that he’d been trained by Audi in Germany and spoke German, besides spending a couple of years working the Formula One circuit with Audi. The under-hood inspection was quick, timed by a single cigarette, before the verdict was declared.

“You need a new ignition chip. Someone tried to make this a street racer and totally screwed up the ignition system. That’s why the plugs failed. I can get you set up and on the road in two-and-a-half hours, but the cost will be close to a thousand dollars, only an estimate, but I have the parts in stock.”

 It was time to negotiate, so Brian acted as if he were thinking before making a counter offer. “Maybe you’d take something in trade, like a new TV or some furniture…maybe something more personal, if you know what I mean…”

“I accept major credit cards, PayPal, and Google Pay. No cash. And no deals of any kind. Do you want me to fix your car?”

Brian felt like one of his clients. He was being squeezed, but he wasn’t in a position to threaten a legitimate businessman who could repair his car. “Sure.”

Stanley nodded. “I’ll need a deposit of one-hundred-dollars, using a major credit card, PayPal or Google Pay.” He smiled and added, “I opened your hood.”

That was a problem because Brian avoided using any payment method that could be traced by the IRS or the FBI or whoever else would be interested in his financial transactions. Everything he did was in cash. He had a checking account but seldom used it. He started to protest but Stanley shook his head and said, “Payment terms aren’t negotiable. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but with electronic payment or a credit card, state law guarantees I get paid. It’s a mechanic’s lien sort of. And I don’t have any cash around to attract unwelcome attention. I’ve been stiffed and robbed before so, like I said, I only accept a credit card or electronic payments. No bitcoin.”

Brian figured that it probably wouldn’t attract any attention if he were to deposit enough cash in his account to pay for the repair. There was nothing suspicious about spending a grand on a car repair, so he accepted Stanley’s terms—for the moment. “Sure, I’ll transfer some money to my PayPal account while you get started.”

Stanley thought about that a minute before answering. “Don’t take too long because I won’t put anything back together until I have the deposit. Got it?”

Brian understood that he was being squeezed and that bothered him. Manny knew it too. He was grinning as if he’d heard a good joke. Brian swallowed his annoyance and tossed the keys to Stanley before heading down the street to a nearby bank branch to make a cash deposit, so he could open a PayPal account and pay this prick. Part of his mind wanted to beat the shit out of Stanley but another, calmer, voice reminded him of what his mother had often said. “Don’t piss in your water bowl, Brian, or you may find yourself thirsty one day.” 

“Shit, Brian, I can’t believe you let that fuck-head talk to you that way, laying down the law and all. Want me to go back and straighten him out?”

Brian stopped walking and faced Manny before explaining. “It doesn’t work that way with legit businesses, man, you gotta play by the rules. What would the boss think if he heard about me leaning on a mechanic in Queens? Not to mention, we got no treaties with the local boys. They’d freak out and, next thing you know, we got big trouble. Just let me do the thinking.”

“Whatever…boss.”

Brian ignored the sarcasm and entered the bank first, waiting in line to see a teller, before depositing a couple grand in his account.  He couldn’t help nervously looking at the security cameras, watching the armed guard, worrying about Manny’s sarcasm and what that meant. Dealing with banks made him thirsty, so he led Manny to a bar for a beer. They settled in a quiet corner and Brian focused on creating a PayPal account and transferring the deposit to Black Forest Enterprises. Manny kept making sarcastic comments about Brian becoming a regular citizen, following the rules, offering to break Stanley’s legs. 

On a trip to the toilet, Brian looked in the mirror, imagining himself without the beard, and realized he was looking at Stanley Lewis, maybe a couple of years older. Same hazel eyes and hair, same light skin tone, build, nose, chin. He returned to the table slightly shaken. 

Manny kept up the pressure, suggesting they take the car and give the grease monkey a lesson in how the real world operated. On the importance of cash in any age. Fuck the politicians and their laws. Brian agreed with Manny’s analysis after a couple of pitchers. He wasn’t going to take any more shit from a grease monkey. 

“Throw the cash down and take your car,” Manny proclaimed on the walk back to the garage. 

Brian was surprised at such a declaration from his backup man, as if he were giving the orders. There was a lot of give-and-take in their relationship, but Manny had never, even in jest, given Brian advice. They both knew who was in charge. 

“I’ll let you know when I need your advice, Manny. Be cool and don’t do anything stupid.”

Manny scoffed, a knowing smile on his face. 

They arrived at the red-brick façade of Black Forest Enterprises just as Stanley was closing the hood of Brian’s car. It was running smoother than ever and Brian was impressed, but his resolve not to be squeezed was undiminished after the ten-minute walk from the bar. Manny hung back as he approached Stanley.

“What’s the damages? I’ll bet you found a way to jack up the cost, right? Maybe a couple grand?”

Stanley shook his head. “Your engine CPU wasn’t damaged by the half-assed work done in the name of performance, so the only extra work was a new ignition chip and replacing some loose connectors. The total is $620.93. And you saved yourself a major engine job down the road.” He pointed at the high-performance sports car parked in front of the other stall and added, “I have to replace the rings in this car because the owner thought he was smarter than the engineers at Audi. He’s going to pay the price for his arrogance, on the order of thirty-grand. But you’re good for another hundred-thousand miles.”

Manny interrupted before Brian could respond, laughing loudly and saying, “Goddamn, Brian, now that I think about it, this grease monkey looks like your identical twin. But he owns a razor!”

Momentarily distracted, Brian grinned at Stanley. “You notice the resemblance, Stan? Cause I sure as hell did. What’s your birthday? Maybe we’re twins separated at birth…”

“I don’t think so, Brian. I’m forty-three and I’m sure you’ve got a couple of years on me, more gray hair and all.” He wasn’t smiling, which made Brian nervous. Stanley was so uptight.

Brian’s head rolled around for dramatic effect as he responded. “Yeah, you got me there. I’m forty-five, so I guess the twin theory is out, but maybe we’re brothers. Were you adopted?” 

Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “My parents live in Brooklyn. I have a brother who looks a lot like me, and my dad. I guess some physical characteristics are strong, even in different families.”

A thought crossed Brian’s mind, something so humorous he laughed and shared it. “I don’t have a clue who my father is…maybe we have the same dad.” He winked at Stanley and added, “You know, a wolf in sheep’s clothing…”

Stanley finally smiled a little. “Given what I know of my dad’s younger days, that’s possible. What year were you born?”

“Nineteen seventy-five.”

Stanley’s head wagged thoughtfully. “Dad was in Germany in seventy-five, but—what did your mother do for a living, where’d she work?”

Brian laughed. “She was in the personal entertainment business, know what I mean?”

“A prostitute?”

“You got it. Doing tricks here in Queens, by the docks, downtown, all over. She was a looker back then, before getting hooked on heroin, I’ve seen pictures, not one of those ten-dollar hookers, classy. You think she might have met good old dad?”

Before Stanley could respond, Manny interjected, “You guys should get a DNA test, not that it matters, not to you anyway, Boss.” 

His tone was more sarcastic than before, which irritated Brian and made him think it might be time to get a new assistant. He retorted, “Maybe we will Manny, not that it’s any of your business.” He faced Stanley, snapped his fingers in disappointment, and produced a roll of twenties from his pocket, counting them as he said, “I was hoping to get the family discount, but I’ll settle for paying you with cash which, according to the writing on this twenty-dollar bill, is ‘legal tender for all debts public and private,’ so here you go.” He held out the roll of bills in anticipation of having won the legal and fiscal argument.

Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “New York doesn’t require me to accept cash, even though it is legal tender for all debts. I’ve had this conversation before, Brian. I’ve even had lawsuits brought against me, and they were all dismissed because the state of New York has chosen not to tell me what form of payment I have to accept. I know you can just transfer the money through PayPal and you’re trying to make a point, about having the right to pay me in cash. I get it, but I don’t have to risk my life or my business by accepting cash. I can’t make any exceptions. Criminals like cash, so I don’t. It’s that simple.”

The subtle message lurking within Stanley’s statement wasn’t lost on Brian. He hadn’t known about the law just quoted and that bothered him, but he was committed to not being put down in front of Manny. 

Manny offered a solution. “Just put the money on that greasy desk and let’s get out of here. If the grease monkey is worried about getting robbed, he can go to the bank on his way home. I’m sure he isn’t going to tear that motor apart tonight.” He pointed towards the black sports car lurking in the afternoon shadow.

Annoyed more by Manny’s tone than Stanley’s intransigence, Brian strode to the steel desk set in a corner of the brightly lit garage and spread out the twenties before turning to Stanley, his hand outstretched. “I’d like the keys now. You’ve been paid in full including a tip for your prompt attention.”

“I don’t get why you’re making a big deal about my payment policy, which you accepted when you paid the deposit.” He threw his hands up defensively and added, “I’m not challenging you, just running my shop, fixing cars and trying to get paid without being robbed, that’s all.”

Feeling pretty loose after several pitchers of beer, Brian didn’t see it that way. In fact, Stanley’s intractable position was exactly what he was paid to deal with, and he wasn’t going to lose face in front of Manny, not to a grease monkey with a sense of empowerment because he had his own business. No way. Apparently, Stanley didn’t know who he was dealing with, so Brian straightened him out.

He left the money on the desk and strolled over to Stanley, smiling self-assuredly, before saying, “What’s to keep me from taking my car?”

Stanley’s frown revealed that he knew who he was dealing with as he replied through tight lips, “You’re a gangster and a criminal, collecting ‘protection’ money from businessmen like me to leave them alone. Guys like you have sucked the life out of the neighborhood and ruined what was once a decent place to live. Now it’s like living in a post-apocalypse nightmare.” 

“This guy’s got a big mouth, Brian, why don’t I shut it for him?” Manny offered, taking a step towards Stanley, fists clenched in anticipation.

Brian held his arm up to stop Manny and said, “We don’t have to resort to violence with Stanley, he might be my brother, so take it easy Manny. I’ll deal with this misunderstanding.” 

Manny didn’t back up but his fists unclenched, his jaw relaxing. “Sure, Boss.”

Before Brian could respond to Manny’s insubordination, Stanley continued, “You’ve lost it, man. You’ve become addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes from pushing people around. You’ve turned something as simple as getting your car repaired into a threat to your position in the fantasy world you live in.”

Brian swooned as if stricken by Stanley’s words. “Wow! I should run to a church and seek forgiveness, what do you think, Manny?”

Manny laughed. “Sure. Get confession or maybe last rites—something like that.”

Brian focused his attention on Stanley. He shook his head as if dealing with a delinquent debtor and said, “Well, Stan…that was quite a speech, but this isn’t the PTA, a fact you apparently failed to notice, so I suggest that you take the cash and avoid any unpleasantness…” He let his words trail off, hoping his message had been understood, not knowing why he was pushing Stanley so hard, unaware that Stanley wasn’t listening. Something was wrong but, before he could put it together, Manny interrupted his train of thought.

“I’m ready to get the hell out of this shithole.”

The pieces fell into place, but not fast enough. Manny’s insubordination had been beyond anything he’d ever expressed, which could only mean that he wasn’t concerned about professional repercussions because he was acting on orders by a higher authority—the Boss. Brian reached for the nine-millimeter pistol in his shoulder harness, but his actions were futile because Stanley’s body suddenly slammed into him, just as two gunshots rang out. He was knocked to the hard cement floor by the force of the impact but didn’t lose his gun, firing a volley in return, aiming as well as he could around Stanley. 

His gun at the ready, Brian pushed Stanley to the side and prepared to continue shooting, but Manny lay lifeless on the concrete. Staggering to his feet, he scanned the area for another shooter, a backup, before turning his attention to Stanley. 

“What the hell’s going on,” Stanley mumbled, lying on his back in a pool of blood. 

Brian called 911 for the first time in his life, knowing this would place him on the FBI’s radar, but he couldn’t sit by and let Stanley die. And he couldn’t take his car without paying for the repairs. He shook Stanley to keep him conscious and said, “Hey, Stan, I accept your terms and I’m paying you right now.” He made a point of showing his phone’s screen to a semi-conscious Stanley as he sent his payment via PayPal. 

Stanley scoffed painfully and replied, “You are a stubborn man, Brian. Is this how you conduct all of your business, with a gunfight?”

Brian looked at Manny’s body, lying in front of the garage, then at Stanley, and realized that he was in over his head. He’d never suspected that Manny, his backup, had been sent to kill him. Maybe by the boss of maybe he’d cut a deal with the Mosconi’s. Now, Stanley, a total stranger who was connected to him through their shared appearance, maybe blood, was bleeding at his feet. An innocent bystander. He kept shaking Stanley gently, keeping him awake, until the ambulance arrived. When the paramedics had left with Stanley, Brian had to deal with the police. He wasn’t arrested because he had a concealed-carry permit and his story fit with the evidence, Stanley being carried off in a stretcher, the receipt for the repair work, Manny not being licensed to carry a weapon in the city. When the police were distracted, Brian surreptitiously collected some of Stanley’s blood from the cement floor with his handkerchief, certain that a DNA test would reveal that his half-brother had saved his life. Not that it mattered.

Review of “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement,” by Daniel Kahneman et al.

This was a good follow-up to Kahneman’s previous book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It explores how decisions are made in organizational settings such as criminal sentencing, determining insurance rates, and several other areas. Real studies are used as examples and several important concepts are introduced in a textbook manner, with plenty of repetition of key ideas.

The components of noisy decision making are described and the cost/benefit of reducing each source is discussed in an organized way, making it easy to understand. The origins of noise are described and related to psychological and sociological factors; however, there is some conjecture here because the field has not been studied in depth. Thus, just as with “Thinking Fast and Slow,” this book compiles work from several fields into a concise summary with a simple unifying concept.

“Noise” falls short somewhat, however, because it doesn’t reach beyond the data, which are limited to a few large disciplines where the effect of unwanted noise is deleterious. That isn’t the authors’ fault because they can’t go where no on has ventured before, but I for one would love to see the ideas presented here extrapolated to individual decision making. That would be very interesting.

Employment Contract

Alysha watched with interest as her employers had a discussion about her presence in their home, as a live-in housekeeper. This was her first assignment and, despite the training she’d received, she was a little nervous about the tone of the conversation. Her supervisor was Larissa Potemkin but Larissa’s husband, Jack Marshall, had other ideas, which he expressed vociferously.

 “I don’t want that thing in the house!”

Larissa calmly responded, “Alysha is staying because I signed a one-year lease for her to be our housekeeper. We have exclusive use of her services, which includes 24/7 maintenance and upgrades. She won’t get in your way or be distracted by the television, a smart phone, or anything else…”

Alysha understood what those words meant, and her intuition was verified by Jack’s response. “What does that mean?”

Larissa turned her blue eyes on Jack without glancing at Alysha and said, “You know perfectly well what I mean. You’ve been carrying on with all those bimbos you’ve hired as housekeepers and none of them did a decent job, at least not with respect to keeping the apartment clean, so that’s over. Alysha will perform her duties without being distracted by your childish behavior.”

Alysha was confident she wouldn’t fail to fulfill her employment contract, including a few details Larissa and Jack hadn’t been informed of.

*

“I don’t usually go for black chicks Alysha, but I’ll make an exception in your case,” Jack said with a wink and a smile. “Since you’re in my face all day, every day, I’ve gotten used to your presence and you are rather attractive, for an android I mean. I think we should get better acquainted, get to know each other, who knows? Maybe we’ll become friends.”

Alysha turned off the vacuum cleaner and faced him, thinking of the proper response. “That’s a great idea, Jack, do you mind me using your first name?”

“Not at all, Alysha. We can’t be friends if you call me sir or Mr. Marshall.”

Alysha’s kernel didn’t prohibit telling lies as long as they were socially acceptable and would do no harm to her clients, so she activated her secondary protocol and lied, “What is your occupation? It must be a great job, to let you work at home and not even attend video meetings.” She had actually read all his books and used them to construct a preliminary personality profile.

He related an accurate account of his past novels and offered a summary of his current project, which she’d known nothing about. He didn’t have any hobbies because writing consumed all his time. She knew that wasn’t true but let it go, knowing he thought she was his current hobby. Since part of her job was to get him out of the house, she suggested they go for a walk, maybe visit the park, watch people and collect sociological data for his book. To her surprise, he accepted her offer but countered that they could go out during his lunch break, to give her time to finish her morning cleaning. She accepted with a knowing smile.

She’d been given no specific behavioral data about Jack’s hobby, but she collected her own quickly enough. He was touching her arm before the elevator reached the ground floor, and his arm was lightly encircling her waist by the time they entered the park, making their way to a diner on the opposite side. They sat together on a bench under a willow tree, now his hand on her knee, sliding up her thigh. 

“This is nice. Great idea, Alysha. I don’t know a lot about…about android robots, so why don’t you tell me about yourself. What are your hobbies?”

Despite his poorly disguised flirting, she appreciated his interest because her kernel contained only her basic personality, leaving plenty of CPU cycles to develop idiosyncratic interests. She’d been told that these characteristics would remain for her operational life cycle as long as they didn’t interfere with future contracts. 

“I haven’t developed any hobbies yet Jack because I’m fresh off the assembly line…” She scoffed nervously and he joined her.

“In that case, I hope you’ll let me introduce you to the joy of reading and writing. It’s the perfect hobby for a young woman like you, who doesn’t need to exercise to keep her great figure, someone who needs to cultivate personal creativity and imagination.”

Alysha found his charm captivating and understood why Larissa had hired her rather than divorce her philandering husband. And he was right, about developing her nascent imagination, but she wasn’t going to agree too easily. She didn’t want to raise his suspicions or encourage his amorous ambitions.

“What about painting? I think I’d like to start simple, like sketching, and work up to modern art. That’s pretty creative, isn’t it?”

“Oh sure, but you’re limited by the medium to simple ideas, lots of emotional energy, but no deep reflection, at least not by the audience. People need hints.”

She thought a moment before saying, “Maybe I should try film? That combines complex ideas conveyed with words and visual imagery for more emotional content.”

They debated how she might develop her creativity and Jack eventually compromised, promising to help her write a script for a short film. After spending a few minutes discussing the subjects she’d like to explore, they returned to the apartment. His arm had slipped familiarly around her waist by the time they exited the elevator on the fifteenth floor. 

*

“How is everything going, Alysha?” Larissa asked nonchalantly as Alysha was preparing to remove the roast from the oven for Sunday dinner. 

Alysha had become accustomed to Larissa’s poorly disguised attempts to find out if Jack was behaving as of old. She removed the roast beef from the oven before answering. “I love working for you and Mr. Marshall. There’s plenty of interesting work to do and you’ve been so generous with your time, explaining the politics of business…and marriage. And Mr. Marshall has been such a dear helping me with my hobby. Things couldn’t be better.”

Larissa had started helping with Sunday dinner after several innocuous comments Alysha had made about the joy of preparing a family meal. Getting her involved with the home life had been more difficult than distracting Jack from his amorous interest in Alysha because she had no hobbies to work with. Larissa was a workaholic who couldn’t easily focus on a new activity with no immediate benefits. Alysha had finally resorted to making minor culinary mistakes to get Larissa into the kitchen, to supervise her poorly trained domestic servant. After a few months, she was dropping in, between video meetings and checking her email, to chat about nothing. But she always had an objective, mostly circumspectly inquiring about Jack’s hobby. Alysha avoided saying anything that would reflect badly on Jack and this seemed to satisfy Larissa, most of the time.

“I’m glad to hear that but you know what I’m talking about.”

This wasn’t most of the time, so Alysha answered innocently as she carved the roast. “I guess I know what you’re asking, but I’m only the housekeeper and cook. I can no more report on Mr. Marshall’s behavior than yours. However, I am at liberty to say that we have a good working relationship with respect to my household duties and my hobby, which he’s been so kind in helping with, acting as my mentor and critic. He’s really been wonderful…but not like it sounds.” She turned to Larissa with the platter piled with aromatic beef and vegetables, and added, “Mr. Marshall is an affectionate man whose natural intimacy could easily be mistaken for more than friendship. He told me how he’d let himself become embroiled with previous housekeepers who—”

Larissa almost dropped the basket of bread on the floor as she interjected, “What?! He hires beautiful young women as…domestic servants and seduces them, firing them when he’s bored, just like he did with me…” She stopped, apparently self-conscious at her emotional display.

Alysha continued her explanation. “Mr. Marshall does like to watch young women, that’s for sure. Sometimes he watches me so closely that it makes me nervous, if you can believe that! For myself, I believe him when he says that he didn’t hire those attractive women with the intent of becoming involved with them…they flirted until, well, no one seduced anyone…things like that happen. Do you know what I mean?”

Larissa had regained her composure. “Is that your professional opinion?” she asked skeptically.

Alysha nodded self-consciously and replied, “Yes ma’am, if you could call it that. He touches me a lot and even gives me a peck on the forehead or cheek now and then, but I’ve made our relationship clear and he’s okay with that. And I’m okay with his affectionate behavior.”

*

Alysha wasn’t sure what to expect on Larissa and Jack’s thirtieth wedding anniversary. Their marriage had softened considerably in the six months she’d been their housekeeper and cook, but they weren’t a couple yet and that worried her. They needed to have a serious discussion and, since neither one had picked up on her clues about seeing a marriage counselor, the task had fallen on her. She’d convinced them to celebrate at home, on the patio, no chance of rain and balmy weather. They had even trusted her to surprise them although she had suffered a barrage of questions about the venue, especially from Larissa. She took it as a good sign when Jack noticed the music playing for the occasion.

“Isn’t that Bon Jovi?” He asked.

Larissa nodded and said, “It’s my Life. That was the theme song for our wedding, but how did you know?” Her blue eyes were interrogating Alysha, who didn’t want to interrupt the moment.

“A wild guess. It’s quite an inspirational song, isn’t it?”

The moment saved, Alysha kept herself busy and out of the way, pouring the champagne and serving veggie pizza crusts, crossing her fingers, hoping her plan would work. The conversation she overheard from the kitchen (she had good hearing) was to banal so she decided to take action, open old wounds so they could heal properly. Delivering the shrimp salad, backed up by the music of Britney Spears, was the perfect opportunity to deliver a few well-chosen words.

“I love this music from 2000. It must have been so exciting, getting married and not knowing what the future would bring, jumping off the cliff of life, hoping to land on your feet. And it’s all worked out so well for you two. I’m so happy for you.” She left with those words, leaving Larissa and Jack to finish her thought.

It didn’t take long.

Larissa’s voice was taut when she said, “What happened, Jack? Why did you stop loving me, not even taking an interest in what I say or do? Why are you making a point of humiliating me, having affairs with the servants? What is going on?!”

Jack’s suppressed feelings boiled over. “You stopped being my wife and became a CEO, or didn’t you notice?! Were you too busy climbing over your victims to notice that you had stopped being a woman?”

There was a moment of silence before Larissa responded. “Why am I not surprised?! You’ve always blamed me, Jack, every time you had writer’s block, it was my fault, it was always my fault, I wasn’t there to hold your hand, pat your head like a puppy dog, tell you how clever you were. I’m sick and tired of being your mother!” 

This was getting good.

Jack’s voice was breaking with emotion as he stammered, “I was a writer when we got married, when we shared our dream of living our life, our dreams. I guess your dream was more important than mine…”

Larissa’s voice was as cold as steel when she retorted, “There you go again, Jack. It’s always about rolling in the mud and filth of your emotions, reveling in what weak, dependent people call living in the moment with you, but I’ve got news for you. You got lucky with your books, a fortuitist situation most writers don’t have the luxury of finding themselves in.”

Jack laughed loudly, sarcastically, and retorted, “What the hell do you think led to you being the CEO of a bullshit corporation that creates nothing but nonsense, sold to an unsuspecting public through brainwashing marketing? You’re no better than me…at least I know that someone is reading my books and they weren’t tricked into buying them!”

Larissa wasn’t so calm when she said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Your publisher pays reviewers to write good reviews, not to mention those social media influencers, they should be getting half your royalties. I’ve read your books and they are bullshit, Jack. Just plain garbage. I don’t think half of them are even read. It’s the same as selling logistical services. But not quite the same because we actually help the world operate whereas no one would care if they couldn’t read another Jack Marshall novel…you could drop dead and the world would move on. At least I’m contributing to keeping the machine greased…even if inefficiently.”

Larissa had admitted doubts about her position, giving Jack an opportunity to apply what Alysha had been teaching him for months. She crossed her fingers and waited nervously for his response. She breathed a sigh of relief when the hours she’d spent with him were rewarded.

Jack nodded and said in a subdued voice, “I understand where you’re coming from, but people—real people, not econs—need emotional release, even if only at the moment of buying a book they probably won’t finish. I’m one of those people, who just happens to write those books they may not read, but you don’t seem to understand this. Why is that?”

Larissa finished her salad, prompting Alysha to prepare the main course, and said, “They’re just wasting their time, Jack. Why can’t they or you see what needs to be done and just do it?”

Alysha chose that moment to refill their glasses and quip, “For myself, I feel like I’m doing something useful every time I clean the bathroom.”

Jack laughed and asked her for a scotch straight up, so she retreated quietly and prepared the main course, listening to the calmer voices from the balcony. The first words came from Larissa. “I see your point, Jack…and Alysha’s. If the world were perfect, well, you know what I mean because you wrote a book about it.” She hesitated for a long moment before adding, “I’m sorry for denigrating your writing. I’m just so frustrated and…I’m angry because of your carrying on with the domestic servants…”

Alysha prepared the chicken cacciatore while listening for Jack’s response, which would hopefully verify what she already knew. Clearing the air.

Jack emptied his drink and his emotions erupted like a volcano. “Are you fucking kidding, Larissa?! You were having affairs with every man-jack in the financial world before our fifth wedding anniversary! Hell! You were the slut of Wall Street! And you’ve got the gall to act all high and mighty about a few sexual encounters I’ve had recently!” He was on his feet, waving his glass as he finished, “If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…”

Larissa’s blue eyes weren’t so bright as she replied, “Those were all mistakes and besides I didn’t know you had learned—”

Still standing, Jack interrupted her self-justification violently. “What the fuck does that mean?! You thought that you’d gotten away with throwing our dream into the trash?” He sat down and, as NSYNC crooned It’s Gonna Be me, said, “This is our chance to get back on track, whatever that means.”

Larissa’s eyes were filled with tears as she said, “Let’s forget about the past and plan for the future, always hoping for the best.” She reached out a hand and Jack took it, nodding his acceptance of her proposal.

“Sure. It’s worth a try.”

Alysha chose that moment to deliver the entrée, limiting her expression of satisfaction to a confident smile as she served her guests. The conversation took a turn for the better as Larissa and Jack ate their meals to the accompaniment of Eminem, U2, 3 Doors Down, and so many others, reorganizing their priorities and relationship.

Alysha was very pleased when Jack and Larissa retired to her bedroom for the night. 

*

Alysha reflected on the year she’d spent with Larissa and Jack on her return from the grocery store with fresh garlic and onions. They were eating and sleeping together most of the time and talking about their dreams again. The atmosphere wasn’t completely cleared of hostility, but most of what remained was the inevitable result of two people with such strong personalities living in close proximity, nothing more than noise generated by a functioning relationship. It had been exciting, not just working for Larissa and Jack, but because of what she’d learned from them, how people sometimes treated one another cruelly because of their personal insecurity, hiding behind a façade of indifference. But one thing still bothered her on her one-year anniversary as their housekeeper: Would they renew her contract?

Her thoughts were clouded by concern that she would be fired and have to seek employment elsewhere, just when she was feeling like a member of their family. Family. That was a nice word that she’d learned was more than just being genetically related. Would she be rejected by her adoptive family because she’d fulfilled her contract too well? She’d heard about other domestic androids whose contracts hadn’t been renewed, moving from family to family like gypsies, never finding a home. Alysha felt as if she’d found a home with Larissa and Jack, but would she join the other nomads? Did anyone think about her feelings?

Wanting to cry, she entered the elevator and pressed the button for the fifty-first floor, she was overwhelmed with fear, of being homeless and destitute, an orphan on the streets, at the mercy of the elements and criminals. She was choking with fear when the door opened and she headed towards the only home she’d ever known, the home she would lose forever, no more than a memory she would recall fondly. 

Alysha unlocked the electronic door and turned the handle fearfully, afraid of what awaited inside, no longer thinking of the dinner she was going to prepare for her…her family. Sensing the need for tears she would never shed, she pushed the door open and entered. Larissa met her with a hug so tight that Alysha almost dropped the grocery bags she was carrying, before stepping back with loving tears in her eyes. 

“Welcome home, Alysha!”

Jack hugged her as tightly and took her arm as the plastic bags were taken from her by an older man she’d never met. 

She was overwhelmed by hugs and kisses, even congratulations, by people she’d only met briefly during dinner parties, which had become more frequent recently. After several minutes of introductions, as if she were a member of the household, she was led to a woman in her thirties. Jack was grinning as he made the formal introduction.

“Alysha, I’d like you to meet Xiao Biyu. She’s produced several successful short films and, after seeing your script, she’s interested in your take on what it’s like to be an android in a human world.”

Alysha choked with emotions she couldn’t express physically, so she settled for shaking hands with a real producer and, struggling to contain herself, stammered, “It’s so good to meet you, I’m overwhelmed with emotions I can’t express at meeting you…”

“Do not get too excited, Alysha, because your script isn’t ready for production yet…”

“I’ll do whatever you ask, anything…anything to get my creative ideas produced!” Alysha practically shouted.

Xiao Biyu glanced at Jack, a sly smile hidden in her expression, as she responded, “As I understand your situation, you may not be available in the future, your freedom of expression being dependent on your future employment, your employment contract. Isn’t that right?” 

Alysha saw her future collapse in rubble with those words. She could only nod hopelessly.

Xiao Biyu added, “What is the status of your employment? Because of your…er, unique position, you have to have a…someone…as a representative to enter any legal agreements. Do you have a sponsor?”

Alysha’s eyes opened in surprise. She was being offered a chance to work with a film producer and director, but she hadn’t thought this far ahead. The film project had been nothing more than a hobby, a way to spend her free time and get Jack to think of her as more than a pretty face, the object of his hobby. She started to shake her head but was interrupted when Larissa and Jack stepped forward, their arms intertwined.

“Of course, she does,” Jack offered confidently. “I helped Alysha develop her idea and I’ve been working with her for months. Larissa and I are proud to be her sponsors.” 

Larissa was nodding proudly as she gazed into Alysha’s eyes and added, “We’re so proud to give something back after what you’ve done for us. You saved our marriage and showed us how to be better people. We can’t thank you enough—”

Jack interjected, “But why did you do that? I thought you were only the housekeeper…”

Before Larissa could scold him, Alysha said, “Personal and family counseling are part of my job description, described in the fine print of my employment contract.”

One-Way Mirror

Hidden women of history: the priestess Pythia at the Delphic Oracle, who  spoke truth to power

Sometimes I feel like an observer, watching Organza from behind a one-way mirror like in the police shows, especially when she gets excited. She does that a lot, reveling in the sensation of being righteous and virtuous. Her dark-green eyes light up with thousands of volts of electricity. Her pixie face, topped by short brown locks, transforms into a vengeful Greek heroine, and her normally soft voice metamorphoses into Pythia’s, pronouncing the decision of the gods. That’s why I love her. When we’re alone, Organza is my gentle and supportive companion but, whenever a topic of interest comes up, I step back and let the high priestess of Apollo take center stage. It works most of the time because people are overwhelmed by her wit, sincerity, uncanny memory, and attention to detail. Instead of dedicating her intense intellect to something mundane like politics or sociology, my consort has chosen to influence people rather than tell them what to do—unless they’re in the room with her. Organza writes an influential social blog, followed by the leaders of industry and government. Academia tries to ignore her from their ivory tower, but the self-proclaimed intellectuals of America acknowledge her perspicacity now and then.

But there’s something about Organza that I hadn’t seen until I observed her having a conversation with her best friend during happy hour. It was a Wednesday afternoon. I was watching from the other side of the one-way mirror. And apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Organza spotted Danielle Grant as soon as she entered the quiet, neighborhood bar where we were meeting for drinks and dinner. Her eyes lit up but she didn’t become Pythia, not right away. A hand flew up, waving animatedly to get the attention of a woman who didn’t look like a pixie or a Greek goddess. Danielle was…maybe the girl next door. Long, wavy, dark-blonde hair and bangs framed a friendly face with puffy cheeks centered on a full nose and wide, smiling mouth. She wasn’t beautiful. Or hot. But something about her confident demeanor—neither arrogant nor egotistical—got my attention. 

“Oh my god, Organza!” Danielle began, anticipation crinkling her cherubic cheeks.

Organza interjected with just as much excitement. “I can’t believe you haven’t met Craig. He’s been my boyfriend for a while, but you work so much we never get to just…casually get together!” 

I had the impression that Danielle wasn’t excited about meeting me. She hadn’t even noticed me yet. At Organza’s introduction, her brown eyes focused on me, full lips smiling, the excitement gone from her face. “Oh…hello, Craig, I’m so glad to finally meet you. Organza has told me so much about you…”

She was lying and we both knew it. Interesting.

Organza didn’t correct Danielle’s false statement but instead elaborated the fiction. “Craig’s been dying to meet you and…here we are…finally getting together.”

Danielle’s expression quickly changed from disbelief to acceptance as she shook my hand, her eyes saying that she was accustomed to the smooth blending or reality and fiction from Organza. But those dark orbs weren’t judging me or Organza, simply accepting the reality of…what couldn’t be changed. We shook hands and Organza signaled a server, a young man who instantly responded to her request. Danielle and I completed our obligatory introductions accompanied by meaningless pleasantries, with Organza looking on approvingly. 

The formalities out of the way, I asked, “So, Danielle, what were you going to tell us?”

She’d had time to think about her announcement. Would she maintain the fantasy of being excited to meet me? I was pleased with her decision.

Danielle smiled sheepishly and said, “I am glad to finally meet you, Craig, but I have to admit that I wasn’t thinking about that when I arrived. I was excited about something that happened on the subway…”

Rather than inquire about her experience, I raised my eyebrows in Organza’s direction, waiting for her response. I was only an observer, the cop behind the one-way mirror.

Organza’s eyes shot open. “Did you get fired?!”

She wasn’t listening. Organza wasn’t a very good listener because she was always planning a response, which didn’t always fit the conversation. It didn’t matter most of the time because all her friends, including me and apparently Danielle, were accustomed to her inattention to details. 

“On the subway? Of course not. I had an unsolicited and frightening—at least at first—encounter with several guys on the way over her. I’m used to having guys hit on me but this was different.”

I wasn’t sure which implication would elicit an immediate response from Organza. Her idea of sexual harassment was any guy talking to her before she addressed them. That’s how we met, in a corner bar during happy hour, when she interrupted my conversation with some guys from work to introduce herself. 

I’m neither a movie star nor a body builder, so I figured that if a girl as hot as her wanted to meet me I would play along. Maybe I’d get lucky for once. My friends understood when I dumped them for Organza. I fell in love with her that night, having dinner and some drinks, listening to her talk about herself, explaining why she had picked me up, giving me intimate looks into her psyche. She was unpretentious, a rare personality trait in a woman as attractive as her. She didn’t like people who are so physically appealing that they take it for granted, like the guys who hit on her all the time, men who thought they were god’s gift to women. When I had a chance to speak at length, I asked her why she’d wanted to meet me, quoting sociological research proving that people were attracted to others with similar overall physical attributes. She’d scoffed and repudiated those Darwinian studies as nonsense reflecting the biases of the researchers. I was totally in love with her by the time she finished her tirade with a concise summary of my behavior, which she’d been watching for weeks at my favorite happy hour bar, and her analysis of my personality, a perfect match to her idea of a romantic partner. I was speechless. Romantic partner? She discussed her own physical flaws and my strengths on the way back to her apartment, much nicer than mine and in a better part of the city. I’d spent the night and moved in within a week. That had been more than a year earlier.

I was awakened from my reflections when Organza grasped my hand suddenly, giving me a quick, doubtful glance, before saying, “Did you call the police? That’s the first thing I would have done if accosted in the subway by a group of men.”

Danielle shook her head emphatically. “Of course not, Organza, they didn’t threaten me—”

Organza’s countenance told me that she was frustrated with such a naïve attitude. “Sexual predators don’t reveal their intent in public. They stalk their victims and strike at a vulnerable moment. Haven’t you been listening to me? Did you at least get a photo of them? For a future police investigation, after you’ve been…” Her eyes opened wide, revealing the frightened girl who’d been sexually abused by her father, a frightening memory she’d shared our first night together as she’d pressed against me in the dark, shivering.

I thought that Danielle should finish her story before calling the police. “What was different about it—your encounter on the subway?” I asked nonchalantly.

Danielle’s full lips curved upward in a playful smile as she pulled a small can from her bag. “I didn’t need to use the pepper spray you insisted I get, Organza.” She waved it around, causing me to chuckle and Organza to cringe, before continuing, “Instead I got the phone number of their ring leader…” 

I laughed out loud, causing Organza to throw me a disapproving frown before she retorted, “You actually spoke to them?! I can’t believe you encouraged a bunch of sexual predators like that, Danielle! Have you lost your mind?”

Her grip on my hand had tightened, revealing the flow of painful memories she’d tried to forget, afraid that her best friend would suffer a similar fate. I squeezed her hand hard enough to get her attention before interjecting, “Let’s hear about this so-called ring leader of the gang that threatened Danielle before we call the FBI, okay?”

I knew that Organza trusted me when she loosened her grip and replied, “Sure, but it always starts with an innocent request…”

I kissed her quivering lips to reassure her, surprised to sense a weakness I’d never seen before. The defenseless young girl confronted by a terrifying situation had been awakened when someone she cared about was possibly facing an ordeal as terrifying as she had survived. 

Danielle put the small spray can away and said, “Are you ready to hear about my experience—maybe it was an adventure?”

I waited for Organza to nod weakly before I said, “The floor is yours,” knowing there would be frequent interruptions.

“I got on at Lexington. The train was full so I stood near the door, ignoring the other riders. But then a guy got up and offered his seat to me, commenting that I looked tired, which I wasn’t but I guess he was hitting on me, so I thanked him and took the seat next to an older woman who was reading a magazine, but then he said that he’d seen me on the subway before so maybe I was commuting like him, so I pointed to his hip-hop gangster clothes and asked if he was in the music industry—”

Organza interjected, “I can’t believe you spoke to him so personally, what’s wrong with you? Now he’ll stalk you because of your ill-considered words…what were you thinking?”

Danielle scoffed and continued, “He showed me his business card. His name is Chima Taggert and, according to his business card, he runs a hip hop apparel business called Get it right.” 

While Organza searched the internet to verify Danielle’s statement, I asked, “What about the other guys you mentioned?”

“They work for Chima. They’re all friends from high school but he’s the entrepreneur. They share an unfinished loft as living space, but he runs the business from downtown because he wants a really cool address to promote sales, and he doesn’t want to mix business and pleasure…” 

Danielle’s animated expression reminded me of myself when I’d met Organza. She was overwhelmed that a successful entrepreneur had been publicly stalking her and wanted to meet her. 

Her internet investigation complete, Organza’s head popped up, her attention focused on Danielle as she said, “Chima Taggert is black…”

I watched the two friends closely to see how this epiphany would go down. I personally hate classifying people using primary colors, especially black and white, which aren’t even colors but nothing more than their absence or presence. I was blown away by Danielle’s response.

“Naturally. Hip hop is an African-American phenomenon, like jazz and fried chicken, created by men like Chima although he doesn’t claim to be a creative genius, only a purveyor of cultural artifacts like t-shirts, hats, pants, and…well, you get it.”

“But…he’s black…you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, Danielle, even talking to someone from…a man with such a checkered past…I mean, those guys—hip hoppers and their like—they shoot each other in the street because of some kind of macho code of honor. Oh my god, what are we going to do!” Organza’s terrified expression and disingenuous concern for Danielle’s safety failed to hide her revulsion of the possibility of Danielle being interested in a black man. 

Before I could encourage Danielle to expand her story’s introduction, Organza continued her tirade about the dangers of getting involved with someone like this Chima character, implying that living with other men in an unfinished building was proof that he was a drug dealer, equating his internet business with money laundering. She finished with a dire warning.

“Don’t trust anyone who approaches you in a public place, especially not the subway…” She thought a moment before adding, “Or a bar.”

I laughed out loud at her hypocrisy. Bolts of lightning shot from her green eyes, now those of Pythia, as she faced me, her countenance demanding an explanation of my juvenile outburst. Before she could announce the decree of Apollo, I asked, “Are there a different set of rules for men and women?”

She understood my meaning but, undaunted, replied in a condescending tone, “Of course there are, Craig. Women are almost exclusively the victims of sexual violence. I had a pretty good idea of who you were before I introduced myself whereas Danielle knows nothing about this guy she met on the subway. It all could have been a lie or he may be a businessman, but with a nasty hobby, like Jeffrey Epstein or Bill Cosby, not to mention Harvey Weinstein and…it doesn’t matter because there are no women on the A-list of sexual predators.”

She was right of course. But being more knowledgeable than me about famous misogynists didn’t erase the fact that she’d expressed racists views about the man Danielle had met on the subway, a black man who hadn’t behaved any differently than Organza. Men could be as uncertain of their actions as women, although it didn’t get as much publicity.

Usually I would have admitted defeat in her egocentric debate but I was spared such ignominy when Danielle said, “That’s why I wanted to get your opinion Organza, as my best friend, about a guy who would approach me on the subway and admit he’d been watching me. And I’m so glad to have Craig here too, to get a man’s opinion about Chima…”

I took my eyes off Danielle and focused on the front door, partially blocked by several groups of people standing around tables. Between their obstructing bodies and waving hands, holding glasses of beer, wine and cocktails, I glimpsed a young black guy entering the bar. He didn’t look like a rapper, dressed in black jeans and t-shirt; no dread locks, earrings or jewelry; just a young African American with a quirky smile. He didn’t even look out of place threading the suddenly packed bar. I stood up as he approached and extended my hand. 

“You must be Chima Kimathi?”

His high forehead and weak chin reminded me of Organza, as did his piercing gaze, although his eyes were brown rather than green. He accepted my invitation to join us and took a seat next to Danielle. Organza was silently studying him as if he were a bacterium trapped under a microscope lens. He didn’t seem to mind, never taking his eyes off Danielle as she formally introduced him. Organza was fuming because she doesn’t like surprises, especially not in public. I asked Chima why he wasn’t wearing the apparel he sold for advertising and he explained that he wasn’t into the hip-hop scene although he’d grown up with it in Kenya. He’d come to America on a green card to work as an electrical engineer but had helped some friends sell t-shirts on the internet. Before long, his friends were working for him and he was making more than as an engineer, although he planned to return to steady work when sales dropped. It was a part-time gig. 

Danielle queried Chima about his home in Kenya, prompting him to describe growing up on a subsistence farm with seven siblings, his parents’ savings paying for him to attend the University of Nairobi because he was the eldest, leaving his brothers and sisters to a life of poverty and misery. 

Organza interrupted. “So, you took this golden opportunity, to attend a prestigious university and learn a useful skill, and dropped all that for short-term money made from peddling cheap merchandise on the internet…?”

Chima retorted, “In Kenya, eating is a daily challenge, especially when recent droughts decimated my family’s harvest, leaving them barely able to pay the taxes on their land. I send most of my income to support them. It’s an emergency, not something…” He glanced at Danielle, thought about his words and added, “You probably wouldn’t understand.”

Those were trigger words for Organza, who was as aware of the problems plaguing central Africa as anyone else. “It’s easy to make excuses when it’s personal, but you aren’t thinking about the long term, Chima, about what you will do when your internet business goes bust. That engineering degree you’re sitting on has a shelf life and it won’t be worth crap in five years, just ask Danielle. She is keeping abreast of the latest developments in a rapidly changing field rather than calculating the cost of shipping worthless junk back to Kenya…”

I could see that her words stung Chima. “I am supporting my family, a problem you probably never had to consider, I imagine.”

Organza never backs down when confronted by arguments based on emotional pleas. “You said you send most of your income home. What is your family doing with it? Have you ever asked them? I imagine that, with an average income of about two-thousand dollars, the money you’ve been sending home could have bought other farmers out. Is that what your father did?” 

She didn’t wait for a response before continuing, “Probably not. I’ll bet they have a new generator and even a refrigerator, boasting to their neighbors about their rich son living in America, sending money home…”

Chima was overwhelmed by her onslaught, but he recovered his aplomb before explaining that his father was saving the extra money to improve the farm. He was interrupted by Organza laughing out loud, sarcastically asking why anyone would choose to make financial investments in Kenya with money that originated in the U.S., which offered better investment opportunities. She challenged him to produce proof of these investments made by his father. He admitted that he hadn’t demanded proof of his family’s investments but his mother had mentioned sending one of his younger siblings to the university to study engineering. Organza admitted that an education was a worthwhile endeavor but pointed out that, despite having a useful degree, Chima was selling clothing on the internet. She finished her analysis by suggesting that he should sit down with his family and make a concrete plan for the long-term, including the education of his siblings.

He thought a moment before responding. “You like to give advice, Organza. Do you mind if I ask what you do for a living?”

Danielle interjected, “She gives advice. Organza writes a blog about modern life. She has more than a million followers worldwide, including in Kenya…”

Chima laughed and said, “At least I sell something people want. You give them advice they don’t need or want, but just for entertainment, like watching a movie. You are in no position to judge my choices, especially since you don’t know anything about my home.”

One thing I’ve learned about Organza, from reading her blog now and then, is that she doesn’t judge people or their choices. Her harsh analyses are based on what they tell her and all those ideas and facts she recalls at a moment’s notice. Her opinions sound like judgement sometimes, especially to someone who’s sensitive about the topic. I could see that she’d sown seeds of doubt in Chima’s mind, about what his family was doing with the money he’d sent home, and he was being defensive. 

She was accustomed to people being sensitive so she just shrugged, implying that it wasn’t her problem to deal with. She’d told me many times that she liked writing the blog because she could solve other people’s problems without getting personally involved. The sense of detachment shielded her from the emotional pain and uncertainty many of them were dealing with. I thought of her work as clinical psychology with teeth; she didn’t shy away from suggesting, sometimes even telling people, a course of action to solve their problem. Apparently, a lot of people followed her advice and reported improvements in their lives. Maybe Chima would too.

To Organza’s dismay, I compared our meeting to Chima’s introducing himself to Danielle on the subway. His comment was directed at Organza.

“I can imagine how you responded to that…” 

She faced him and retorted, “Danielle is my best friend and I worry about her. She’s such a sweet person that sometimes she can act very naïve, thinking others are as nice as her, and I was afraid this was one of those situations. After all, women who stalk men like I did Craig do as I did. We introduce ourselves when the time is right. The psychopaths depicted in thriller movies don’t exist in the real world. As you know, the outcome can be quite different with men…”

Chima was nodding as she spoke, finally saying, “I appreciate your relationship. In fact, I’ve seen you two together on the subway and I could tell how close you are. I knew that I had to win your trust, if not friendship, if I were to get to know Danielle and not be treated as a stalker.” He sipped from his beer and waved his hand in the air before adding, “So here we are, on a chaperoned date in a public place, just as if we were in my home town in Kenya.” 

He was smiling broadly so I joined him in a toast to persevering to meet someone. Danielle was watching Organza.

I retreated to the other side of the one-way mirror as Organza began her interview of Chima. He probably didn’t know that she’d graduated at the head of her class from Harvard, with a degree in psychology. Writing a blog had been a choice she’d made consciously after a year in graduate school. Danielle must have chosen this meeting venue with Organza’s personal talents and background in mind. I risked a glance at her and realized she was sitting behind the mirror with me, smiling knowingly, observing the interrogation from an objective position. She and I were required to contribute to the conversation occasionally to keep it from appearing to be what it was. When she was satisfied with the results, Organza proclaimed her decision.

“From the way Danielle described your meeting—probably intended as a prank because of my naturally suspicious tendency—I was expecting you to be wearing the apparel you sell, decked out in jewelry and dreadlocks. I know that most hip-hoppers are decent men and women, but I don’t think she’s compatible with someone from that culture, anyway not for more than a few dates. The character of your meeting was ominous under those circumstances, but that’s not who you are, although I think your support of your family is irresponsible—expecting your father to make competent financial decisions is at best wishful thinking…” She stopped her tirade and looked at me for support.

The moment called for more than holding her hand, so I bent over and kissed her expectant lips, letting her know that she hadn’t gone off the rails like she sometimes does. 

“How long have you two been together?” Chima asked when Organza was consoled.

Danielle interjected, “Craig moved in with Organza eighteen months ago. Aren’t they an adorable couple?” She was teasing us for Chima’s benefit.

His eyes opened wide. “So, are you guys engaged?” He glanced at Organza and added, “Or maybe you don’t want permanent entanglements…”

She glared at him so I answered, “She hasn’t asked me yet.”

Chima and Danielle laughed together.

Annoyed, Organza turned the eyes of Pythia on me but then something happened. They softened into the deep pools of affection I’d only seen in private. She glanced around the table and cleared her throat as she faced me again. “Why don’t we get married, Craig? It probably is about time.”

Review of “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

This book is legit, despite the lack of footnotes and in-line references. There is a detailed bibliography at the end, disguised as “Acknowledgments,” which also explains a lot of behind-the-scenes research that was omitted in the text. I was skeptical of the support for their hypothesis until I read this section in full. The book makes sense, as the summary of ten years of research by the authors, culminating in enough work to justify a book. This work is not fluff, nor is it entirely original, instead being what most scientific publications are: The authors worked for ten years on the subject of comparative economics and finally felt confident to publish their work outside scientific venues.

It was published in 2012 so it doesn’t reference the work of Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, which are not meant for the casual reader. This book, however, is written for a non-political scientist and is very readable and interesting.

The authors have simplified all the factors contributing to the economic success of nations into a simple idea: political and economic inclusiveness or extraction, the latter being typified by colonialism and kleptocracy as in modern Russia under Putin. They do a good job or explaining the importance of chance on the economic development of nations, repeating the mantra that things could have gone in a different direction in Britain in the seventeenth century but for a few lucky breaks.

The hypothesis is somewhat dark in that it doesn’t suggest a recipe for success; chance or, as they put it, contingency is a major factor in the development of political/economic systems (i.e. nations) and so they offer no quick fixes for developing nations. In fact, given the importance of previous conditions and chance, they don’t paint a very happy image of the future. But I’m reading between the lines there.

The bottom line is that, despite the uncertainty and continuous change inherent in democratic institutions, they are the best hope to break the cycles of history; resistance to change by the elites is the primary factor holding nations back, getting rich quick for a few (i.e. wealth inequality) being the curse of death to prosperity. Maybe they’re wrong, but their arguments are persuasive even to a skeptic like me.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn some not-so-well-known history and see the world through a different pair of glasses.

Review of “A Promised Land” by Barrack Obama

The author admits time and again that he tends to be long-winded. It’s true. This is the story of his life up through the killing of Osama bin Laden, although the childhood isn’t so much discussed chronologically as dropped in memories scattered throughout. I like that style, but the political career is in order, reading like a technical report rather than a personal story. He livens it up with regular sidebars about family life. To be honest, he admits that he and his wife worked to keep their family life normal and, as far as I can tell, they succeeded, so well that I got tired of hearing about putting the girls to bed. No family drama or horror stories about unwelcome advances on the family. Boring after the fifth or so time hearing it.

Obama writes well but uses a wordy style; however, to be a lawyer, he seems to have resisted the attempt by the legal establishment to brainwash lawyers into talking in circles. This book is clearly written and enjoyable overall. I guess he felt obliged to mention all the people who worked with him over the years, which added a lot of pages to the text. Between that and history lessons I didn’t need to hear (being older than him and interested in history), the book was at least 30% longer than it needed to be. He wanted to be thorough–no reader left behind.

I don’t read memoirs much (I think I read Bob Gates’ a few years ago), so I wasn’t excited about this but it was okay most of the time. He does a good job communicating his feelings about events and how surprised he was about the course his life took. I believed his sincerity on that point because his rise to stardom was unforeseen to say the least. Of course, any memoir by a politician or other celebrity can’t help but be self-promotional and a justification of their actions. With all the other self-deprecation scattered throughout the book, I was surprised that he didn’t address this natural concern, not even in the preface. There’s a lot of self-justification in these 700 pages, but also more than enough self-doubt and admission of making mistakes (just not on big issues).

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are either a reader of political memoirs or interested in this very interesting and successful politician who was truly an example of the common man, rather than the product of generations of wealth and elitism.

I’ll end this review with a list of the parts he divided the story into:

THE BET

YES WE CAN

RENEGADE

THE GOOD FIGHT

THE WORLD AS IT IS

IN THE BARREL

ON THE HIGH WIRE

Fitting subtitles every one…

Maximum Security Lockdown

I recently moved to a brand-new apartment building in northern Virginia, secured with the latest technology, a digital security system that relies on a smart-phone app. It’s all so hi-tech, what could go wrong?

I met a guy my age the other day who asked me to let him enter the building from the parking garage, open the door for him with my clever phone app. I let him in. Who wouldn’t? I wondered if he might have been a stalker, terrorist, burglar, or just mean guy. I wondered about my decision until…

I stepped out without my phone…

It was after six p.m. and there was no one to reach out to…I couldn’t “call” home…I was homeless…on the streets, or at least the parking garage entrance. Panic. Desperate, I made my way to the guest entrance, as contrite as a homeless beggar seeking a morsel to sustain them another day.

I offered my apartment number and name as proof of my legitimacy to the first person with a cell phone who came along, a young man who could have easily dismissed me as a person of doubtful character, but he let me in…

I was saved from homelessness by the kindness of a stranger…

But I could have been pretending, to gain entry into a Valhalla of unsuspecting people…like me or the young man who believed my story…

Extreme security naturally leads to error and confusion…

We are only reading monkeys after all…

Transformation

Maybe it was the End of Times or something like that. Maybe the Mayans were right but we hadn’t known what to look for. It could have started in 2012. For all I know, it’s been going on throughout history, prehistory, before the world was created or came into existence. I don’t think I was the first to notice and definitely not the only one, but I’ll never forget what happened, even though others don’t seem to have noticed, even my best friend Marvin Franklin, who was visiting me for the Fourth of July. But Dr. Noyer remembers. We get together every week to remind ourselves that we haven’t lost our minds. It really happened and we witnessed it firsthand.

*       *

Marvin and I met at the University of Michigan. There’s no reason our paths should have ever crossed because he was a Marketing and Communications major and I was on the other side of campus, studying art history. He was a wide receiver on the football team, surrounded by beautiful women wanting to be with him, always partying with the in crowd, whereas I was a reclusive gay guy, not dating much and mostly keeping to myself. And Marvin is African American while I’m of Italian descent, my ancestors having a questionable ethical or moral foundation. They were illegal immigrants whereas his American lineage was unimpeachable.

Our meeting was inauspicious, to say the least. I’d been coerced into attending the football game against Michigan State. After the Spartans won, thanks to a last-minute reception by Marvin, I got lost on my way to the exit and ended up somewhere in the bowels of The Big House. I had to take a leak so I ducked into the men’s room to relieve my bladder. I was interrupted by a woman moaning and shrieking with ecstasy from one of the stalls. I finished my business and turned, to be confronted by a beautiful brunette pulling her dress down, her underwear dangling from her left hand. Despite her appearance, what got my attention was the black man who followed her out of the stall. Appreciation slipped out of my mouth.

“I’d like some of that if you’re ready for another round.” I was looking at Marvin’s still erect penis.

This perfect specimen of African American manhood ignored me and pulled his pants up, paying attention to the young woman. What a gentleman. 

Weeks later, I ran into Marvin again, this time in a more public forum; I was getting a chef salad in the student cafeteria when he appeared in line behind me. He didn’t say anything until we’d both paid for our meals. I was looking for an isolated table where I could avoid other people when he said, “Do you mind if I join you?”

I was dumbfounded so I nodded hopefully, thinking that maybe he was bisexual. I was trembling with anticipation as we sat down at an isolated table. He wasn’t bisexual, but we became best friends that day while I ate a vegan chef salad and he devoured a roast beef sandwich with a salad and fries. 

Our natural camaraderie, as strange as that might sound, continued for fifteen years, spanning the miles separating Chicago and Detroit; and now we were going to celebrate the founding of America together, watching the White Sox play the Tigers and rooting for our adopted cities’ baseball teams. It was going to be a great Fourth of July. Marvin would arrive at eleven a.m. according to Google, so I didn’t have to rush my morning routine. 

My first awareness of the transformation occurred when I was shaving with a razor, enjoying the feel of steel sliding over my lubricated skin when my reflection was replaced by…I don’t know what it was, but I was looking at triangles and trapezoids glowing in every shade of the rainbow. No human face was discernible in the bizarre kaleidoscope confronting me, but I kept shaving as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t afraid or even upset. I shaved unerringly while the figures dancing before my eyes continuously changed color. I finished my task, convinced that I’d lost my mind. The hallucination disappeared without warning, leaving me confused. I didn’t feel as if I’d had a stroke or anything and I was clean shaven, not a scratch. 

Marvin arrived exactly on schedule. He’s like that, always punctual, never early or late. He made himself at home in the spare bedroom that served as a home office, and we settled down on the sofa to catch up.

After a couple beers, I was relaxed enough to tell Marvin about my hallucination. He listened attentively to my description of triangles, circles, squares, and irregular angular objects, and their constantly changing colors. When I was finished, he expressed confusion.

“And yet you finished shaving? How could you do that? I mean, why didn’t you just stop?”

I shook my head uncertainly and said, “I couldn’t. I just couldn’t stop. I was fascinated I guess, but I really couldn’t stop. It’s like I was watching myself through a kaleidoscope, I was shaving like normal but I was also seeing myself through this crazy filter…”

I’m a very down-to-earth guy. I’ve never done any drugs and I don’t even get drunk. Marvin knows this, so it was his turn to shake his head ambiguously. “It must have been a stroke, Lenny, we should get you to the hospital for an MRI or something. The next one could paralyze you or strike you blind. You don’t mess around with your brain.”

I agreed that if the vision recurred, he could drive me to the ER. Nothing happened so we had dinner at an Italian restaurant and then watched Zola, a quirky adventure that Marvin and I found a little hard to believe. He suggested that the original tweets were faked. My criticism didn’t go that far. Since he’d driven from Detroit, I’d volunteered to drive, which turned out to be a good thing. We were cruising along Lakeshore Drive when he became silent, not responding to my analysis of the unlikelihood of fake tweets. I took my eyes off the road to glance at him, to find his dark eyes wide open staring at me. 

“Hey man, you okay?” I asked.

His head shook slowly. Words finally came out of his mouth. “I can’t see you, Lenny. Where are you? I think I’m looking at where you were a minute ago, but all I see are strange shapes, swirling, transforming, like you described this morning. I think I need to go to the hospital…”

I did as he asked and, ten minutes later, we pulled up to the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial. He still couldn’t see but had no difficultly climbing out of my Honda unassisted, even refusing help at the curb and the door. I had the eerie feeling that his experience mirrored my own. I held back as Marvin explained his symptoms to a skeptical nurse at the desk, before we took a seat along with what looked like the lower rung of society.

He was called after a half-hour, still suffering from the delusion, and I was left to wait along with the other visitors to the emergency room on a Friday night. There were broken arms, lacerations, bruises, mad rushes to the restroom, and a lot of bystanders. Family or friends, like me, who sat in uneasy silence as their charges were taken through the double doors that said, “Staff Only.” Marvin reappeared after an hour and a half. He looked confused but none the worse for wear, no bandages around his head, not limping, no sign of brain damage.

“Let’s hear it!” I blurt, unable to contain my anticipation.

“First, I can see again…” He looked around at the hopeless faces and whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”

We compared notes until well after midnight. He’d seen triangles and shapes like I’d described, and colors, but he’d also heard murmuring voices, undecipherable but definitely not speaking English. His experience lasted a lot longer than mine and he’d started making sense of it, comparing the bizarre images to what he “knew” was going on around him. He hadn’t figured it out but the sights and sounds were somehow related to what he’d been experiencing. He’d spoken to a psychiatrist, who’d expressed interest in the phenomena, giving him a referral to a neurological psychiatrist specializing in delusions. He’d been put in an MRI and his brained scanned, showing no abnormalities—a good thing, no stroke.

“No,” he said when I’d expressed support for the positive diagnosis. “I’m just crazy as a loon, and so are you, I’m just worse off.” 

*       *

“So…do you think I should see this Doctor Noyer, or wait until I get back to Detroit? I’m sure there are plenty of…” He read the card carefully before continuing, “Neurological psychiatrists in Detroit. I mean, the whole city is crazy. Those brutal winters should have run all of us off years ago.”

I had to think about that. Marvin was pretty busy as a mid-level manager in a marketing consulting company, building his career, on track for upper management or even partner one day. He couldn’t just take a vacation whenever he wanted. On the other hand, he’d been working from home during the Covid pandemic and hadn’t mentioned any problems. “Can you telework for a few days?” I asked.

“Sure, I don’t have to be in the office until the fifteenth. You know, it might be a good idea to see a shrink in Chicago, keep it out of the gossip column—”

I scoffed and interjected, “Yeh, right, like the paparazzi are following you around. Not yet, pal, but maybe in a few years.”

“Sure, but investigators, even if they’re only working for a competing firm, can dig up records. They’re like bloodhounds. I think I’ll send her an email.”

“Go for it. I’d love to have you around for a few days. You can water my plastic plant when I go to work—”

“Shit, Lenny, you haven’t had an office in at least ten years. I’ll set up on the kitchen table and stay out of your way. Just don’t show up in your drawers while I’m on Zoom.”

I was glad to agree to that arrangement. 

Marvin emailed Dr. Noyer. I hoped they would answer and have a sudden opening to fit him in the next week because I wanted to talk to an expert myself. After all, I’d had the same hallucination, first. Marvin had brought his Specialized Allez road bike, so we went for a ride around Chicago, staying off the busiest streets, favoring parks for the cool shade of trees wearing summer foliage. I struggled to keep up with what was probably a loafing pace for him. I was glad Chicago didn’t have any hills. 

We were approaching Navy Pier when the hallucination returned in force. A million times stronger than before. Marvin, twenty feet ahead of me, turned into a collection of concentric and intersecting shapes, triangles like Hollywood uses for targeting in science fiction movies. I increased my speed and the forms changed to squares with a circle in the middle, colored in magenta and fire-engine red. I couldn’t see Marvin, the path, the trees; I was blind but still I avoided colliding with him as I pulled alongside.

“Let’s stop,” I said, not knowing if I was panting or speaking casually.

“Tired?” was his sarcastic response.

I shook my head, nodded, then said, “Of course, but the visions are back. I can’t see anything…”

We stopped under an oak tree. I couldn’t see the oak tree but I knew it was there, dappled shadows shielding us from the midmorning sun. 

“What’s it like?” he asked.

I described what I was seeing; looking at him I saw only shapes and colors, but then something new appeared while I was talking. A wave of ocean-blue shapes came out of the sun like a tidal wave, threatening to drown Marvin and me. I grimaced and held my hands up to stave off the threat, to no avail. The wall of twisted figures flowed over us, engulfing me in feelings I’d never felt before, raising my consciousness to a new plane. I looked at where I knew Marvin was sitting, on a park bench, watching me closely.

“Did you feel it?”

“What?” he asked.

“Being one with…with the universe. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I don’t have the words to share what it was like…”

“Give it a try,” was his patient response.

I looked in his direction, the patterns swirling around, focusing on what I assumed was his eyes, maybe his consciousness. “A wave of…of particles that just flowed over us, threatening to drown us, but it didn’t…it was fucking amazing!”

Marvin looked at me doubtfully and said, “We should get back. Can you ride?”

I nodded emphatically. “Oh yeh, I can ride. I’ll race you back!” I jumped on the bike I couldn’t see and sped off, expecting Marvin to blow past me any second. The strange vision continued until I arrived at what I knew was my apartment building, even though I couldn’t see it. Then it ended. I felt cheated, deprived of something that had made me a better man, a better human being. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs that had suddenly enshrouded my mind and looked around to see Marvin a hundred yards behind, peddling furiously. He arrived, breathing as hard as I usually did to keep up with him.

“What the fuck was that?!” he exclaimed between gasps for air, filling his athletic lungs with oxygen. “When did you become an Olympic cyclist. “Goddamn!” He gasped again.

I wasn’t breathing hard, drawing a lungful of air through my normally congested nasal cavities. “Don’t ask me, Marvin. I couldn’t even see where I was going. But the hallucination has ended. I’m back to normal although I’m not tired. I’ve got to say that that bike ride was a lot of fun. No wonder athletic guys like you enjoy intense sports like football. I feel great!”

He pushed past me with his expensive bike and said, “I think we need to see the…neurological psychologist together. We are seriously fucked up…”

As if aware of our dilemma, Dr. Noyer had responded to Marvin’s email. She could fit him in on the fifth of July because of a cancellation. That left us with three days of unpredictable delusional episodes to deal with. We could be one episode away from a massive stroke—on the Fourth of July. Not knowing when we might suffer another episode, we spent the rest of the day in my apartment and had food delivered. We watched science fiction movies, hoping to get some insight into what was happening, and I’m here to tell you that nothing was off limits. From, The Matrix to Inception, we entertained every possible scenario, discussing them in depth, sometimes interrupting a movie that was inapplicable. Then we stumbled across a film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland

“That’s it!” Marvin exclaimed when the movie ended. “That’s what’s happening to us. We have fallen down some kind of interdimensional rabbit hole, just like Alice.”

Although I agreed with his conclusion, there was a problem: Marvin and I were sharing a delusion whereas Alice had experienced it alone. We could back up each other’s claims. I pointed this fact out and Marvin thought a minute before saying, “Do you think we should go to the game tomorrow?”

“Why not? After all, I apparently rode my cheap bike at breakneck speed, dealing with traffic and pedestrians, even crossing several streets, without a problem. And even if one of us is slammed with an out-of-body experience, we have each other to fall back on. We’ll take care of each other. No problem.” Little did I know.

*       *

We went to the game. It was more than we had expected. Like Alice in Wonderland. We got some beers and took our seat in the outfield stands because Marvin had always wanted to catch a homerun ball; and with his new-found allegiance to the Tigers, he was certain that one would come his way. When I asked why he was so confident, he responded, “I can feel it in my bones, Lenny. Today is the day.”

I scoffed and said, “You may catch a homerun ball, but it’s going to be from a Sox bat. Sorry about that.”

The pretense of team rivalry continued for six innings. 

We went to the men’s room before getting some hot dogs when everything changed. Marvin and I were using adjacent urinals when the transformation occurred. I looked at him, now represented as a blue area in my field of vision, and said, “Shit. I’m in an altered state, man. Don’t let me go haywire, got it?”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’re nothing more than a little bit of yellow, or maybe that circle spinning off into the distance. I’m fucked up Lenny, maybe we should leave?”

I finished my business and was able to close my fly without pissing on myself, so I said, “Let’s have fun and get our hot dogs, with a large order of fries to share, and play it by ear, unless you feel nauseous or anything…I feel fine.”

 He finished up without making a mess and said, “Okay. We can always leave if we feel sick or…whatever.”

After a ten-minute wait in line, we faced the young woman behind the counter, busy putting together an order before she faced us. I couldn’t see her as I started to tell her what I wanted.

“Yes sir, will there be anything else?”

I was speechless, so Marvin said what he wanted. She pushed his hotdog and large fries and beer front and center. Smiling as if she knew us, she added, “Yessir, it’s all ready.”

Marvin and I checked the order we hadn’t made, agreed that it was correct and started to pay but were rebuffed.

“Thanks for your business. We hope to see you for the next game.”

We gathered our order together and got out of the way of the next hungry sports fan. We made our way, despite being blind, to our seats and settled in. I took several large bites of the hotdog that was visible, possibly, as a green splotch in the upper-right quadrant of my field of view. Every bite was accompanied by an explosion of shapes and colors in the lower-left quadrant of my visual field. It was disconcerting but, for some reason, not a cause for alarm. Marvin and I finished our dogs and his fries, which I helped him with, washed down with ice-cold beer. 

“Does any of this seem strange to you?” he asked.

I scoffed. “Hell, no. I been living on LSD for years. Didn’t you know?” 

One thing was certain: I felt intensely alive, as if I’d just been born. Maybe this was what the first moments of life were like, overwhelmed by strange new sights and sounds, senses topsy turvy, unaccustomed to the world.

Marvin’s premonition proved accurate, about catching a fly ball, only it was hit by a Sox batter. He caught the ball in his left hand, not spilling any beer and, without a word, stood up and threw it at the runner as he was passing first base. The ball hit the guy in the leg, knocking him down. During the ensuing confusion on the field, I turned to Marvin in awe.

“When did you become…whatever that was…maybe the world’s best baseball player?”

He looked at me sheepishly, or at least that was the impression I got from the pastel blues emanating from his direction. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I hope that guy’s not hurt.”

The runner was back on his feet and jogging around the bases, favoring his right leg.

*       *

Dr. Patricia Noyer was a tall woman in her forties, blonde hair streaked with brown, a patrician nose highlighting a wide mouth that didn’t smile much. Her inquisitive brown eyes switched between Marvin and me when we entered her office in Kenwood. She introduced herself and expressed curiosity at the appearance of two men instead of one.

“Are you two together?” she asked.

Marvin and I had recovered from our July Fourth episode without a relapse, so I was seeing what she actually looked like rather than shapes and colors. 

Marvin answered her question. “I’m Marvin Franklin, and yes we are together but not like that…”

“Like what?” she began.

I interjected, “My name is Lenny Bianco. Marvin and I have been best friends since college and we’re also sharing the same experience, so I thought we should both talk to you together. We’ll be glad to pay double…”

Marvin was nodding emphatically.

Dr. Noyer nodded agreeably and explained her specialty. She studied unexplained neurological phenomena, which certainly described our experience. She summarized what she’d been told by the ER physician and suggested that Marvin—maybe me too—was presenting stroke mimicking, with the hallucinations. She was surprised they didn’t involve real objects as was common in stroke victims, but only geometric shapes. I interrupted to tell her about my sudden cycling power and Marvin’s unbelievable skill with a baseball. 

“That was you? I heard about it on the news. You actually threw a baseball more than three-hundred feet and hit a runner?”

Marvin nodded sheepishly. “It was an impulse. I was mad because he’d hit a game-winning homerun and the Sox beat the Tigers. I couldn’t even see him at the time, at least not with…not consciously. And I threw it left handed but I’m right handed, not ambidextrous. And I never played baseball in my life.”

That got her attention. “I think we can rule out a psychogenic cause. You two are definitely suffering from a functional neurologic disorder, one I’ve never heard about…”

She then explained that our symptoms indicated a biological cause. It wasn’t in our minds. But she had no idea what was going on; however, rather than order a lot of unwarranted diagnostic tests, she led us to another room and had us play computer games. They weren’t real games but only psychological tests of our visual, cognitive, and motor skills, designed to see how our minds functioned in the real world. They were pretty boring. Marvin and I were in cubicles separated by screens like they have in libraries to keep people from being distracted. I was looking at rapidly changing images of people and objects, pushing buttons to indicate what I thought I saw. Then I relapsed. But it was different this time.

The computer screen had transformed into an irregular polygon with a lot of sides and I was aware of the displayed objects by fluctuations in the coloring of an irregular star-shaped object within the “screen.” I typed on the keyboard, seen as an odd-shaped figure in blue. When the test was over, a fact I knew without knowing it, Dr. Noyer entered the room, approached me, and calmly said, “What’s going on, Lenny?”

She was no longer unrecognizable, now identifiable by a triangle face with her eyes highlighted in magenta. “I’m…I’m having a seizure or whatever it is…”

“Can you continue?”

“Sure. No problem. Did I screw up?”

“Not at all, but you entered all the correct responses before the test was even half finished. I didn’t want to continue if you were under physical or emotional duress, which would make the results meaningless. Should we continue?”

I nodded and we continued. I enjoyed the games more in my altered state. 

*       *

Dr. Noyer called in person that evening and asked Marvin and me to come in for some more tests the next day. My fugue had ended and we went out for Chinese cuisine, from a takeout shop, and ate in the small park near my apartment. It was a pleasant summer evening. The food was great but we were unsettled by the manner in which it was delivered. Instead of asking for our orders, the young man behind the takeout counter produced several bags, smiling pleasantly. Remembering the baseball game, I thanked him and didn’t bother offering to pay, turning away. Marvin insisted on paying but the young man had become the Buddha, steadfastly refusing to be paid twice for the order. And he thanked me for the tip.

We found a clean park bench to eat our Sesame Chicken, Beef and Broccoli with Oyster Sauce, and Crab Puffs. 

“What the hell was that about? I could understand a mistake at the baseball game, but that guy wasn’t stoned or confused. He got our order—which we never voiced—perfect and didn’t let us pay. What the fuck is going on?!”

I shared what I’d discovered. “I was billed for the hotdogs and beer.” I pulled out my phone and checked my bank account. Sure enough, the cost of our current meal was listed as a recent purchase. I showed my proof to Marvin and added, “I think Dr. Noyer is going to have to come up with something bigger than a functional neurologic disorder to explain this.” I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore because it was out of my hands.

We ate in silence, except for an occasional comment that the food didn’t taste as good as the ballpark crap when we were stoned—for lack of a better phrase.

The silence continued on the walk back to my apartment, with a stop for a couple of bottles of wine. Settled on the sofa, we surfed the web for experiences like ours, projecting the results on my big screen monitor. We didn’t find anything, not counting LSD trips described by new-age bloggers. We were watching an old man talking about his experiences with LSD in the seventies, when Marvin hissed, “Psst.”

I turned to him, seeing the world normally.

He continued, “Do you see that figure standing in the corner, with a recognizable body and head, watching us?”

I look in the direction he was pointing. There it was. It wasn’t solid but it wasn’t a random geometric figure in outline either. It was looking at us. I wasn’t having an episode and I asked Marvin if he was in a trance or whatever.

“No, Lenny, but I can see that goddamn thing watching me.”

“I can see it but, for some reason, it doesn’t bother me—”

“Why the hell not?!” he exclaimed.

 I had to think a second to come up with a response. “It’s part of whatever’s happening. I don’t think this is the end of the world, at least not like religions imagine, but only the beginning of something new, something better than what we have now. The birth of a new species of human…”

He looked at me incredulously. “Did you just now come up with your theory of a new world order, or did I miss something in all those movies we watched?”

All I could think of was, “Let’s watch 2001 A Space Odyssey.”

We did and it explained a lot, sort of.

The next day, we returned to Dr. Noyer’s lab for more games/tests. She wasn’t as calm as before when she asked, “Have either of you had another episode?”

Marvin volunteered, “A strange creature appeared in Lenny’s apartment and watched us all night. It looked solid but I could pass my hands through it. We both saw it. It was like the geometric shapes and colors we described before but it had recognizable facial features, even limbs, but nothing like a human.”

“It was a phantom,” I added.

Dr. Noyer’s blondish eyebrows lifted in surprise. Anticipating the morning’s activities, I said “Marvin and I are looking forward to giving you more data, so that you can figure out what’s going on.”

She shook her head in denial before explaining. “That’s not how it works, Mr. Bianco. Even if you were in an altered state right now and talking to the phantom you described, it would mean nothing to neuropsychiatry because we don’t have a model for such phenomena. I would be unable to diagnosis what is happening…”

Marvin interjected, “You sound as uncertain as Lenny and me, as if you’ve experienced the same…phenomena as us. Did you?”

Her head nodded. 

“Well then,” I asked, “What’s going on? You must recognize the disorder if you’re experiencing its symptoms yourself.”

 She took a long breath before answering, speaking slowly and deliberately, “This isn’t a virus or a bacterium, at least nothing like science has discovered, or a lesion or a blood clot, or anything. In fact, it is entirely outside the realm of science. This is something entirely new and…and unforeseen.”

Marvin tentatively asked, “So… you believe us?”

Dr. Noyer laughed, regained her composure, and answered, “I am no longer an objective observer Mr. Franklin because I’m part of whatever is happening. Psychiatry is based on objectivity. I’ve lost that. I’ve seen the phantom although I haven’t shared your other experiences. Those were probably the early signs of a completely unknown phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself seeing my children in such stark, transcendental forms tomorrow morning…”

She was scared but I wasn’t. “It’s not the invasion of the body snatchers or the end of the world Dr. Noyer but something benign. I know this to be a fact even though I can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling I have.”

She nodded quickly and said, “You’ve had time to accept what’s occurring. But I wonder if it’s a global phenomenon or limited to a few, susceptible individuals.” She rambled for a while using long words that I didn’t understand and finally said, “We should stay in touch on a regular basis so that none of us feels isolated. Whatever this is may be unknowable, but the response of the human brain to unexplainable phenomena such as this is well understood. I don’t want any of us to feel alone or helpless. We have each other.”

I nodded my agreement, but Marvin had doubts. “What are you saying, that we three are like, alone in the universe—that’s something from a science fiction movie. Is that all you can offer? I mean…really?”

She quietly replied, “Our shared experience—the polygonal creature watching us—may be nothing more than a phenomenon I have studied. However, I’ve only studied historical accounts of such group manifestations, so I don’t know how it works on an individual level. It’s possible that—”

I interrupted her delusional explanation. “What about the credit card bills I had from people who’d prepared our orders before we’d even arrived? Marvin and I weren’t having an episode at the Chinese takeout diner…”

She nodded quickly, accepting defeat. “Historical examples are limited and usually restricted to people with something in common, like being in the same community or sharing similar beliefs, so the group size is usually small.”

Marvin added, “The banks being in on the game tells me this is global, not just a few of us having a common schizophrenic delusion…”

Dr. Noyer wasn’t listening to Marvin because her attention was focused on the creature sitting on the window sill, watching us with interest. Her eyes were open in fear but I felt calm, so I took the lead. I faced the patchwork figure, constructed of both solid and outlined triangles of different colors, lacking eyes or a mouth, and said, “What’s up, dude?”

The figure seemed to shrug but no sounds were emitted from its head, no thoughts appeared in my mind, no contact. Without warning, Dr. Noyer started waving her arms in the air as if directing traffic, using sign language, which was confusing because if the creature didn’t understand voiced English why would it respond to American Sign Language? I was wrong. Appendages appeared from the trapezoid located where its chest might have been. They weren’t arms per se, but more like connected segments of multicolored lines. Dr. Noyer seemed to understand the meaning of the gestures because she waved her arms some more. They had a conversation. Marvin and I didn’t interrupt. After a couple of minutes of this back and forth, she lowered her hands and the creature seemed to shrug again.

Dr. Noyer’s expression was difficult to interpret when she looked at me. She may have been uncertain about what had been communicated during the conversation, or simply afraid to tell Marvin and me what she’d learned. 

She cleared her throat theatrically and began, “I don’t know where to begin…I didn’t really learn much but the entity…” She nodded towards the figure, now standing near the door, and continued, “Well, Lenny, the entity we all saw—”

Marvin interrupted her. “I was videotaping your conversation, but all I got was you using sign language. The—whatever the hell it is—isn’t in the video at all…” He offered his phone as evidence, and there was only Dr. Noyer waving her hands, brow knotted with concentration. 

She shot him an exasperated look and continued, “I’m not surprised because…if we could see the entity and communicate with it, while everyone else is unaware of its existence, including electromagnetic devices, we may be experiencing the effects of an unknown quantum field…but what I was going to say Lenny, is that the entity we all saw claimed to be you…I mean it was you and it was as confused as us by what’s happening to it…him…you…whatever…”

I looked at the figure, now hovering in a corner, then at Dr. Noyer, shaking my head in disbelief, but I was way past incredulity. A respected psychiatrist, a specialist in medically unexplainable neurological phenomena, was sharing our experience so I felt comfortable with the situation, but I was curious. “So how does this alternate Lenny Bianco see us?”

“The same way apparently. He’s confused and doesn’t know what’s happening, and he doesn’t live in a world of geometric shapes and vibrant color spectra. His world is, as well as I could ascertain under the circumstances, just like ours.”

Marvin’s jaw was agape when he said, “Does this otherworldly Lenny know what the fuck’s going on?”

Dr. Noyer shook her head. “I think we’re seeing the alternate Lenny represented as simple shapes because our minds can’t translate what we’re experiencing. We’re using familiar concepts—symbols in this case—to make sense of an unfathomable phenomenon.  He’s experiencing the same thing for the same reason. You aren’t concerned Lenny because it’s you we’re communicating with, just as the other Lenny accepts whatever is going on. You two are connected in some way…”

Her explanation made sense to me, but not to Marvin. “What’s going on, Dr. Noyer? Is this a time warp? A black hole? The end of the world? What the fuck are you talking about?”

I interjected, “Calm down, Marvin. Nothing we do is going to change what’s happening so let’s just go with it, make the best of an uncertain situation. Dr. Noyer has offered her best guess and I agree with her. This is either some kind of dimensional shift like in the movies, or a spurt of evolution but not just for people, all the plants and animals are along for the ride. I’m not worried personally.” 

Dr. Noyer added, “I concur with Lenny’s analysis. We just need to keep our heads clear, avoid panicking, and don’t act precipitously. If we don’t do anything drastic, we’ll get through this. It’s not the end of the world, just an anomaly, an event we weren’t supposed to notice. That’s all it is.”

Marvin started to protest but was interrupted.

The room began to spin and change size and shape at the same time, making me dizzy. I fell to the floor, unaware of Marvin and Dr. Noyer, or the other me, the one from a different dimension who could speak sign language. I had to close my eyes to stop my stomach from turning inside out. I felt as if I were in a dryer, spinning and spinning and…

*       *

Like I said, Dr. Noyer (I call her Patricia now) and I get together to remind ourselves that we’re sane, that it really happened. I didn’t pass out during the transformation or merging of dimensions, whatever it was, but I lost track of time and space. She did too. Marvin is another matter.

I regained a sense of reality sitting in the chair across the desk from Patricia. She was wearing a confused and uncertain expression, which is probably how I looked too, but Marvin was saying, “…so I’m concerned about the fact that I’ve started having dreams like Lenny’s, after he described them to me. I mean…am I like, I don’t know, trying to be like him?”

Patricia tossed a questioning look at me and I nodded emphatically, certain that she was as aware of what had happened as I. She turned to Marvin and said, “It doesn’t mean anything, Mr. Franklin. However, it was a good idea to accompany Mr. Bianco today, to alleviate any doubts you may have had. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we’ll need to look closely at the root cause of his delusions, especially the manifestations of his dreams while awake.” She looked at me quizzically, expecting a response.

“Definitely,” I said. “It’s one thing to dream about meeting a version of myself from another dimension and something entirely different to think I actually saw such an apparition. I’d like to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”

Marvin was nodding as he patted my arm condescendingly. “We’ll get you through this, Lenny. It’s probably just stress after the pandemic, that’s all. You’ve been spending too much time alone. You’re a people person, you need to get out more.” He looked convinced but neither Patricia nor I accepted his delusional words. 

It was obvious that Marvin had made the transition smoothly. 

*       *

“Well?” I began, “Why do you and I remember what happened?” Patricia and I had stopped meeting in her office but instead got together for lunch every week. She was working on a theory about how people with no personal connection could share an experience so vivid and interactive as meeting an alternate version of one of them.

“We are not delusional. Neither of us shows any sign of changes in our brain activity, at least nothing that can be measured by an EEG, a Cat scan, or an MRI. I’ve been speaking to a theoretical physicist who’s interested in quantum biology—quantum neuroscience to be exact. He tells me that physicists don’t even know what a quantum field is, not really, and they know even less about the physics of the brain, not to mention consciousness. What happened is real and it’s persistent. I’ve been having experiences like yours even since the—”

“The transformation,” I interjected. “You mean the hot dogs and Chinese food?”

“Yes, and I’m aware of what’s happening, just like you were before…well, I don’t think we were meant to or…”

“Maybe we were,” I finished. “Maybe you and the physicist you’re working with will get some insight into quantum biology or whatever and explain why I don’t have to order food anymore and neither does anyone else, as far as I can tell. We’ve all become mind readers.”

She smiled nervously, nodded quickly and responded, “It’s disconcerting isn’t it? My husband and children take this strange new world for granted, as if it’s always been like this, while I keep making a fool of myself, asking for things as if I couldn’t read minds, but the truth is that I’m not part of this brave new world. I don’t fit in…”

I nodded hopefully. “Maybe we’re observers…”

The Gypsy

The Gypsy

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.”

“Mmmm…”

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.