July 2011


Ms. Jeong led the group to the next street corner, the clicking of her heels echoing down the all but empty street.

“That is factory for producing luxury automobiles,” she said, stabbing her umbrella in the direction of a nondescript concrete building with darkened windows. “Under the guidance of Dear Leader, luxury automobile production has increased 1000% and most families are issued one by government after meritorious service.”

Cora looked at the building carefully. An unfinished interior was dimly visible through the darkened windows, and there was no sign of raw materials entering or finished products leaving the facility.

“I think the brand of car they make there must be the Potemkin,” she whispered to Maya.

“Yes, and the model is the BS. I’d very much like to buy a Potemkin BS luxury autocar as a souvenir,” Maya said.

The tour proceeded apace into the center of town, where Ms. Jeong jabbed her tour guide umbrella at a line of stalls festooned with Nork Korean flags. “Here is place where workers and peasants of village have handicrafts for sale,” she barked. “All proceeds go to care of orphans created by American and Japanese imperialist war crimes.”

Cora picked up a stuffed animal from one stand and examined an attached tag: “100% machine made. Manufactured in China.”

The beam from Murray’s flashlight made the marble letters stand out in sharp relief.

“Here lies Constanzo ‘Stan’ Firelli,” he read. “No gangster was more bold. Died of unnatural causes – a heart attack.”

“That’s the one,” said Lucy. She handed Murray a crowbar.

“Y-you sure about this?” said Murray. “I’m not about being chased by any old vengeful ghost, but a vengeful mobster ghost?”

“If Sam Mendoza was right, it’s empty. If Firelli’s gonna haunt your ass for opening an empty sarcophagus, he’ll probably haunt you for just about any old thing. And gold dollars don’t haunt.”

“Gold dollars don’t haunt,” Murray repeated to himself, almost as a maxim, as he leaned into the prybar. “Gold dollars don’t haunt.”

We now have three examples of falsehood in the relativistic universe: Things that cannot be experienced, things that will never be experienced, and things that will never be experienced a certain way. This is, I think, a solid base upon which to build. Here are some other concepts which suggest themselves:

Consider again my cinder block. If you were to line the entirety of the human race up and march them past my block, one at a time, each would have an individual experience of that block and, based on previous experiences, would assign it a color. Suppose that, out of the entire race, only seven people see a pink block. The rest claim to see a cream-colored block. No matter what color they see as ‘cream,’ most of our race is in agreement that the block is cream. Only seven see it differently.

As a race, we are very genetically similar. Insofar as our limited perception and relative experiences allow an understanding of genetics, we know this. So, one can assume, based on this information–as human experience, is is, after all, the only ‘truth’ there is–that most people would see similar, if not the same, colors. This is of course an oversimplification, but one made for the purpose of argument. We are a similar species, and yet only seven see a pink block where the rest see cream. Clearly, even if each perception is given equal weight, there are more of the former than the latter. If each idea is equally true, then they can be said to be like identical grains of sand. Placed on a scale, though, billions of sand grains would outweigh seven easily. In this case, those seven might be said to be incorrect.

Hypocrisy is unavoidable in modern life. All but the most careful people will eventually contradict themselves, and nearly everyone holds others to higher standards than they hold themselves–it’s just human nature. I don’t necessarily believe that the disguising of one’s feelings is hypocrisy.

If everyone openly displayed their feelings and was completely, brutally honest, I hate to think of what the world would be like. If I thought a woman was ugly as a warthog, I’d tell her when she asked. If I was in a lousy mood, I’d make sure everyone knew. (‘How are you doing?’ ‘Lousy, you goddamn piece of crap. Piss off and leave me alone.’).

That’s not hypocrisy.

Hiding one’s feelings isn’t always best, but it does serve a purpose, and more importantly, it’s not a contradiction that others can see. I could be smiling on the outside and sullen on the inside, but who could tell? People could guess, but I would rarely, if ever, state my true feelings if I was hiding them.

A lot of it comes down to practice, and it was a rather poorly-kept secret that I had very little of it. This comes, like so many of my other horrible problems, from my misspent youth.

When I was in high school, adults would always marvel at how “mature” I was–studious, achievement-driven, never out late, never cutting classes. I was proud of it at the time, flashed that descriptor like a badge of rank, looked down on the “immatures” that flooded my class. In retrospect it seems like the most horrible excuse for a compliment anyone could conceive.

I should have been spending those years in the traditional way: sneaking beer, clumsy make-out sessions, rolling in the hay. Instead, I wasted it being “mature” and playing video games. Fooling around and sowing wild oats teach essential life skills and give room to practice them with willing experimental subjects. If romance were a subject, I’d qualify as developmentally disabled (first kiss at 18? first second base at 22?). By the time I came around to the need to practice these skills, I was such a rank amateur that no one my age was willing to be a subject.

So I kiss like a dead fish, I couldn’t get to second base at a tee-ball game, and I’m a virgin at the unseemly age of 24.

Lanxesol had a variety of potent effects, the most notable of which were an increase in basal metabolic rates, greatly reduced muscle atrophy, and mild regeneration. The result was the virtual disappearance of superfluous body fat combined with an impressive ability to gain muscle mass and strength. A quadriplegic on lanxesol could regain full use of their body; an Olympic athlete taking the same dose would present superhuman levels of strength and coordination.

As with all such things, there was a catch: lanxesol was dangerously addictive and teratogenic. Even a brief period of use would produce debilitating withdrawal for months if not years; prolonged exposure resulted in multiple organ failure if the dosage was even lessened. There were, and would always be, some for whom that was not too steep a price to pay; the fact that lanxesol could be easily confused with a number of innocuous agents in a blood test meant that it was widely popular with athletes.

The most dangerous aspect of the compound, though, was its potential as a teratogen. Infants conceived by parents who were using lanxesol were born with the symptoms of prolonged exposure and would die if not immediately and permanently supplied with it. Worse, it produced an array of dangerous mental conditions, schizophrenia foremost among them.

And there were whispers of even darker effects.

She was dressed, head-to-toe, in a richly embroidered abaya, which hid everything but her eyes (and even those were behind a veil). “That’s a fine…garment…you have there,” said Johns.

“Oh, this old thing?” Ms. Walker said. “It was a gift from an admirer in Trucial Oman many years ago.”

Johns made a thoughtful note on his pad. “I didn’t know you’d converted.”

“Oh, I haven’t, Mr. Johns,” Ms. Walker replied. “One should not go out of one’s way to call attention to oneself. That’s the maxim I’ve lived by since your grandfather was in diapers. I know that I can trust members of my household not to spread malicious rumors, gossip, or photographs. I do not, Mr. Johns, know the same of you. Hence the abaya.”

“Oh, I assure you, Ms. Walker, you’ve nothing to fear from me,” said Johns, flashing his most disarming smile.”

“Mr. Johns,” said Ms. Walker. “I’ve been on this earth for one hundred and two years, and I’ve heard that excuse more times than I care to remember. The last time I believed it, the very next day there was an atrocious picture of me next to Ellen Borden on the cover of the Times.”

The end came suddenly, without the lengthy buildup of an illness. While my mother was out of town, the old lady died peacefully, napping in the chair in her living room. The housekeeper found her the next day.

There was no way for my mother to make it home in time to see her friend off, so it fell to our family to go in her stead. It was the first funeral we had attended in years, perhaps the first since I’d gained a more mature understanding of death. The waxy figure barely resembled the woman I’d known.

We met—for the first time, at least that I could remember—her son and daughter, and their children. The son is an overweight man with a tussled comb-over who mumbles a few words before taking a seat. The daughter was much more vibrant, dark-haired and slim.

“We’re really sorry our mother couldn’t come,” I said. “They’d been spending a lot of time together.”

“Oh really?” the daughter said. “What did they do?”

“Just talked, mostly,” I said. “They visited a lot, sometimes did a little cooking together. I think she saw your mother as sort a maternal figure.” I see that as the greatest compliment someone can give; surrogate or not, those relationships are worth a lot.

It makes the daughter uncomfortable. “No, I just think they were friends. Very good friends,” she said, shortly before excusing herself. It’s clear she was uncomfortable with the idea of her mother seeing anyone but her as a daughter figure.

Maybe it was telling that the first time they’d visited in years was to attend the funeral.

It’s not that I don’t try to remember my dreams. I really do. I even keep a journal.

Most of the time the forgetfulness is too strong, a tidal wave of colorless oblivion eating away at the edges of every image.

Sometimes, though, I wake early and write some notes intended to help me remember and fully transcribe the dream. Often, it’s simply not enough, and I find these ghostly reminders of something I can’t quite recall endlessly fascinating:

to the ends of the earth / magnolias / a sister’s song / skeletons

we were completely wrong / mysterious city / been through this before / i just can’t

tomatoes / candy cigarettes / heist / milkman / 10 degrees

internet / snatches /done it all before / the real fails me

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ll ink anyone who comes into my parlor, and I’ll do it with a smile. I’m a professional.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about some of the shit that people want permanently etched on their bodies. My guiding principle–and I think it’s a good one–is that whatever you get inked should be extremely personal and meaningful. Now there’s a big difference between what people think is personal and meaningful and what actually is.

People come in all the time wanting Chinese or Japanese or even Hindi symbols, which they can’t read, inked on. How something like that can be meaningful is anyone’s guess. Rodney on 5th sometimes has a little fun by giving people the wrong symbols (one bad tipper got “insane” instead of “spontaneous”). And then there are the people who want song lyrics on their backs or cartoon characters on their biceps. I’ll take their point if they say it was the song playing when they met their husband or something, but otherwise I have to wander how something someone else came up with can possibly mean enough to pass muster. I don’t care if you want a flaming skull exploding out of a snake’s mouth wrapped around your arm; it better mean something and not just be your attempt to look like a badass.

I’m always happy to ink the names of peoples’ kids, or their parents. But that’s never been as popular as the lyrics from some shitty 90’s emo band.

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