The Man Who Was Thursday (G.K. Chesterton)

I was getting stuff together for a little oral history session with my Great Aunt Iva and her grumpy brother. I was terribly interested in asking them about how often they were punished as children. That's when there was a knock at the door. It was a zombie.

Now, the zombies in our neighborhood are nice enough. They don't tend to bother us for brains. Actually, as I think about it, perhaps that is something of an insult. At any rate, we get along with our zombie neighbors because, unlike some other neighbors I could mention, they don't leave their beeping alarm clock ringing all day long.

Ceaseless, endless, never-stopping noise of the most aggravating type. The kind that gets under your skin and wiggles next to your bones, so that there are these little pin-pricks of itching fire all along your ear drums.

Our zombies don't do that. The zombie had stopped by to drop off a book, which was very nice. She also handed me a sheaf of papers.

"What's this?" I asked. She shrugged.

"Looks like some endnotes to a book," she said. "You can tell they were typed because you can feel the imprints of the keys. I found them scattered in your front yard."

"We call that the service side," I pointed out.

"Right. Anyway, here you go."

I quickly looked over the end notes. I suppose someone must have been compiling them for some book under edit. It seem the pack was incomplete. Here's how the pages read:

72Cashew claw... This is a British term; the American form is "pillow claw," though I admit that the alliteration of the British term is more reassuring.

80...as bright as that tyger in the night forest. A reference to an American baseball team based in Detroit. The team was known in this period for performing better in games scheduled for night than in those scheduled for daytime.

82...made me assume the pseudonym 'Clubs' A clear reference to GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, which recounted the adventures of a secret supreme council of anarchists. Each was identified as a day of the week. In this case, each member of the secret organization (though not anarchist in the least) is identified as a suit in a standard deck of cards.

84...and my heart went out to her. You know, I've never been a fan of puns.

86I turned to my google... In the early part of the century, Google was a popular internet search engine. The original intent of this line would have been to indicate that his companion was a person who could find answers. Later, of course, a google would be associated with a flood of useless data (much like a claven, only without the wit). The current connotation (unable to finish projects) derived from Google's perpetual beta approach.

88She was a long drink of water. I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean. What a nut bar!

89...finally encouraged him to join our club... The problem here is that there are only four suits in a deck and they already have four members. I suppose they could move to a Tarot deck and call him Cups or Rods or something. The author has really painted himself into a corner with this suits business. That's what he gets for trying to emulate Chesterton. Personally, I can't really see the allegory he's going for anyway.

90...called him 'Joker.' Oh, well, then. There you go.

91...more truth in heaven and earth Horatio... I'm not completely sure what this refers to, but it's obviously an allusion to something. My best guess is that he means to call to mind a famous cold war spy named Horatio Alger. Of course, I'll never know for sure because the executors of his estate won't let me anywhere near his notes! Weenies.

92...more progress than a pilgrim. Another sly reference to Chesterton's Thursday, truly an allegory for our times.

93...riding a horse of a different color. Chesterton's book is subtitled, 'A Nightmare.' Somehow, a lot of do-gooders running around trying to save the world from anarchists is a nightmare to Chesterton. What's up with that?

93...a horse to water. I haven't figured out a relationship to Chesterton aside from the obvious one.

94...taxi. This long, and (let's admit it) rather rambling, account goes on for much too long and could probably do with a little edit here and there.

95..1...2...2 1/2... This refers to a popular method of child behaviour management. It's a threat-based technique derived from a joke, which is reprinted in my ten volume work of short fiction, May God Bless You, Child, You're Gonna Need It (New York: Smitty and Sons). I'll quote the relevant parts here:

Then Bob started telling stories. I don't know what kicked him off, but it took a while to work out of his system, a little like they say about swallowed chewing gum. The problem with Bob's condition was not so much that he told jokes poorly (though he did), but rather that his innate nervousness stretched the jokes into interminable marathons. A knock-knock joke could take half an hour, easily, because he jumped every time there was a knock at the door.

"This man and woman got married," he said. He blushed at the word and started playing with the salt shaker. His brother had to kick him twice to get the joke restarted. Eventually, his annoyance at being kicked overcame his embarrassment. He plodded on: "They got married and celebrated and stuff. And the ceremony was in some other town, so they couldn't just walk." He stopped for a moment. "I guess you wouldn't ever walk to your own wedding, would you?"

At first I thought it was a rhetorical question and waited for him to proceed. After a few minutes, it became apparent that he wanted an answer. Since I was the only married man at the table, I had to supply a response. "Uh," I said. "I drove to both my weddings."

"Where was I? Had they left the ceremony?" We nodded, to encourage him along. "Did the horse stumble?"

"What horse?" The question escaped my lips before I thought about it.

"The one that stumbled."

"Oh, that makes it really clear," his brother said. "Where did the horse come from?"

"I didn't mention the horse?" Bob asked.

"No," I said. "Though I guess you might be considered to have implied him, what with the talk of not walking to the wedding and all."

"They coulda had a tandem bicycle," grumbled Bertie.

"Did they have bicycles back then?" Bob asked.

"It's probably best to not consider the bicycle," I said. "That is, if we ever want this story to end. Let's just assume the newly wed couple had a horse and were riding it home."

"Actually, they had a horse and carriage," Bob said. "He had to get out of the carriage when the horse stumbled. He said --"

"That's it?" I asked. "What's the punch line of the joke?"

"One," the zombie said. "Anyway, gotta go! The chihuahua is calling." Indeed, she was, and the zombie skipped back to her home.

"One?" I said to myself. "What the heck does that mean?" I wandered back into the kitchen, but the annoying alarm clock was doing its magic in there. So I wandered into the dining room, where it was no better. I went to the living room, where the distance from the constantly beeping and chirping clock should have shielded my sensitive ears.

It did not. I walked over to the wall in the kitchen and shouted at it. I shouted loud and hard.

"ONE!" is what I shouted. And it felt good.

Block This Out

So, I saw this advertisement at Takoma Metro Station as we moved by the platform today:

I got $1,500 today.
Without my W-2.
I got people.
OK, set aside the grammar in that last line. Yes, the grammar made me want to smash my head against the window. Yes, it is a terrible thing to have to see first thing in the morning. But look at that first line. Gosh dang it all to heaven, tho'; if you're gonna use vernacular, use it all the way through! Who is going to say "I got people" and also put that comma into the dollar figure?

The comma makes it look like the advertiser is saying, "one thousand, five hundred dollars." You know that anybody who says "I got people," is going to say "fifteen hunnert bucks."

Happy Turkey Day

That's all. Nothing else. Just "Happy Thanksgiving". And some words around it to make it look like I thought about it, but really, that's just window-dressing. The only important thing is the set of good wishes going out to you on this holiday season and all that. I don't know how else to put it, but you can't really put just a title up and leave it at that, can you? Somehow, you've got to make it work for people. Or make people work for it? At any rate, it's time to climb out of this stream of writing and go to bed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pattern Recognition (William Gibson)

"I'm fine," was all that Great Uncle Leadbelly's IM said. After that, all I could get out of him was, "I am currently idle."

I'm fine is not the kind of message that settles the stomach.

But I quickly convinced myself that my imaginary great uncle (on my sister's side) was too ornery to get himself into any real trouble. Besides, there were these daily IMs, but little else of excitement.

That short period of tranquility ended with a call. It was an administrator from Leadbelly's senior living community, the Republican Retirement Ranch and Conservative Community.

"I don't wish to alarm you," she said, "but your uncle hasn't been seen in a week."

"Has he missed a bill?"

"Oh, I wouldn't know anything about that, but I doubt it," she said with some disdain. Apparently, one does not discuss money with this level functionary. "We are simply exercising our due diligence and informing you we have noticed his absence, should you wish to take action on this information."

"I see. Uh, thanks."

"However, I am required to note that the Republican Retirement Ranch bears no responsibility, and will assume no liability, for his disapp-- that is, his absence. Have a nice day."

So, Great Uncle Leadbelly was missing. I was still pretty sure he was alive, considering the random IMs he had been sending. On-the-other-hand, I knew I had to show a little due diligence of my own. I walked outside on the garden side to clear my head and try to make some sort of decision. The bite of cold outside certainly achieved the head-clearing goal. Once it was clear, I thought to pat my pockets for the house keys.

"Stink!" I exclaimed. Locked out.

"What's wrong?" Prasad asked. He and that other kid whose name I never remember were standing on the other side of the hedge at the bottom of our yard. That is, I could see that Jimmy, Timmy, whatever, was standing there. I could only assume that Prasad was standing next to him.

"My mother wouldn't let me out of the house without a coat," the kid-with-no-name said.

"Well, I didn't mean --" I started to snap. I took a breath. "That is, I do not require the permission of my mother, of course."

The kids nodded wisely at this statement of independence. They had walked around the hedge, and I could now see Prasad. He adjusted his tie under his overcoat. Jimmy was wearing an overly-padded blue parka with fake fur around the hood.

"You're lucky," he said. "I'm awful hot."

"Have you guys seen my great uncle?" I asked to change the subject away from temperature.

"Not recently. Is he in trouble?" Prasad responded a little more hopefully than I thought appropriate.

"Oh, no, I'm sure he's in no trouble. I've gotten a few IMs from him," I said quickly. "But he hasn't been around his place lately."

"A missing relative. Mysterious computer-based communiqués. It's just like the book," Jimmy exclaimed.

"Look, kids, I don't have enough time for --"

"Does your great uncle know any women who are out to get him?" Prasad asked.

My great aunt's face flashed through my mind. I wiped it away. "OK, what are you going on about?"

"This book," Tommy pulled a copy of Pattern Recognition from one of his many oversized pockets. "It's the story of this woman who dodges competitors andMafiaa strongmen and junk in the search for the creators of mysterious web films while she tries to come to terms with her missing father."

"We thought it was going to be science fiction," Prasad said. "But it wasn't."

"But we still liked it," Tony added. "He sorta predicted You Tube, there."

"You Tube is so last year," Prasad said mechanically.

"What?"

"That's what we've been told to say," Ronnie explained.

"What?"

"Yeah, we're supposed to say that You Tube and My Space and - what's that other one?"

"I believe it is called AskANinja.com."

"Yeah, that one. We're supposed to go around saying that we're over those. They no longer have - what's it called?"

"The term seems to be 'street cred'", Prasad answered.

"I like AskANinja," I said.

"There ya go," Johnny said.

"We get free manga if we promise to spread the word," Prasad said. "We get different ones each month. Last month it was Friendster and text messaging. Once, they attempted to entice us into dropping the phrase 'so last year,' but they didn't really provide us with an adequate replacement."

"'So last year' is so last year," Jack said.

"'So last year' has jumped the shark," I suggested. They stared at me.

"At any rate, I have a suggestion," Prasad broke the awkward silence. "In the book, Cayce turns to a former spook for assistance. He calls in favors to get her information. The spook squats just outside the fence of a government --"

"Honestly," I started.

"Goat Man!" Donnie said excitedly. "D'ya think Goat Man can help? Goat Man lives over on the edge of BARC."

I sat down on one of the stiff-backed outdoor chairs. I jumped right back up. The metal frames of those chairs really do an excellent job storing coldness.

"The spook in the book lived on the edge of a secret intelligence compound. The Goat Man lives over on the edge of the Research Center. That's gotta be more than a coincidence."

"Prasad," I said in my best grown-up voice. "That's an agricultural research center, not an intelligence gathering facility. Besides, sometimes coincidences are just coincidences."

"That's what they want you to believe," Lonnie said. "Where do you think the Goat Man came from?"

"I am certain that Goat Man can help," Prasad said. "We only need to figure out what he wants in exchange. These people always require some quid pro quo."

"What did the spook in the book want?" I asked.

"Some old calculator," Prasad said. "We don't have any old calculators. I'm not sure how to proceed."

"Yep," I said. "Too bad we can't just ask him what he wants. Maybe it's just a jelly doughnut, but we'll never know. Oh, well. Thanks for trying to help out. Now, if you could --"

"I have a jelly doughnut," Lamont said. "Let's go."

"No, really, I have to--" I trailed off at a loss for excuses. I was locked out of my house and standing around in my shirtsleeves. I was starting to jump back and forth to keep warm. What could I lose? There couldn't really be a Goat Man. I could run along with them, the exercise would keep me warm, and when I got back the Brunette would be home with keys.

So we walked down to the end of Ridge Road. It's a long hike, but cutting along the off-road sidewalks sliced the road's arc. Along the way, the kids explained to me, in hushed tones, how Goat Man was the result of a research project gone terribly wrong. Some scientist had tried to cross goat DNA with monkey DNA. It just happened that his lab was at the intersection of the energy from cell phone towers for three major phone companies who were competing to make the strongest signal. I mentioned that I can never get a signal near BARC. Prasad mumbled something about 'destructive interference.'

We slowed down as we neared the end of Ridge Road, where the road turns gravel. We moved into the trees on a hill overlooking BARC. The leaves had pretty much left their posts for the year with the most recent rain, and nothing really stopped the wind from blowing up the hill from the farmland below.

"He lives beyond the 'Allis-Chambers,' according to the twins," said Prasad. "What's an Allis-Chambers?"

"I don't know," I said. "Why are we whispering?"

Prasad pointed. Just beyond an old rusted tractor engine, someone had erected a small tent. We froze. The kids looked at me. I looked back at the road. I hadn't really expected there to be anyone.

"Let's not bother --" I started, but Jerry strode on purposefully. He held the doughnut out stiffly with his left hand. Something in the tent moved enough to shift the tent. I jumped forward and grabbed Jerry by the hood. I took the doughnut and waved him back behind the tractor. The two children stood there expectantly. I looked back to the road, expectantly, but no relief came. Standing still allowed the cold to completely catch up with me, and I shivered. There's no such thing as a Goat Man, I told myself. It seemed that the only thing to do was to get this over with, so I continued on toward the tent and called out, cautiously. After all, a rational mind cannot be cluttered with things like goat men.

The tent shook with some violence and emitted a low growl. It occurred to me that something called Goat Man might not understand rational minds.

"Who dares disturb me?" The shout came from the tent and was quickly followed by the sound of the tent's zipper. It caught on something and the Goat Man cursed with some skill. I looked behind me in time to see the kids fleeing down the street. I had time to think, Traitors, before the doughnut was jerked from my hand. I turned, and there he stood before me: bleary-eyed, unshaven, with a bit of a funky smell.

Great Uncle Leadbelly.

"What are you doing out here?" I exclaimed.

"I could very well ask you the same question."

"It's my town," I said. "I belong here. You belong back at the ranch."

"Yeah yeah yeah." The doughnut's powder was only slightly whiter than his whiskers. "Anyway, thanks for the doughnut."

With a bit of cajoling and a dash of whine, I got the story out of him. Feeling despondent about the results of the recent election and tired of theharassingg women at the Republican Retirement Ranch, he had grabbed a tent and washed up here at the edge of BARC. Only, he hadn't thought to get any food. He had already started thinking about packing up.

"That's it?" I said. "That's the whole mystery?"

"Yeah, that's all there is to it. No more exciting than the mystery at the core of that book, huh?"

"I guess not."

"You know, it's not the loss itself that galls me so much as how we've lost the way," he said.

"Borrow and spend instead of tax and spend?" I asked.

"Not that, no. The Communists. We've forgotten the Communists."

I patted his arm, helped him strike the tent, and got him on a bus away from Greenbelt as fast as possible. As I had hoped, the Brunette was home when I finally stumbled back.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Oh, sure, why?"

"Well, you've been gone for a while out in the cold with no coat on."

"Yeah, I --"

"And you left the back door unlocked."

You Heard it Here

I heard it on the Metro (woman on mobile phone):

...So I just did not like his work ethics. He doesn't think he has to do any work. They told me they couldn't fire him and so they sent me to this stupid seminar on communication.

Last Ride?

This was a beautiful day for a bike ride; odd for so late in the year and considering last week's frigid temperatures. I definitely broke a sweat even on my leisurely wanderings.

My trip took me through the heart of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. One of the charms of riding through BARC is passing roads with names like "Pesticide Road". Honestly, it is a nice ride because the traffic is relatively low and (at least in appearance) the place is awfully bucolic for a stone's-through from the Beltway.

Plus there are nice horsies! They'll come up to you and ask for apples. Here's a map of my 10.92 mile ride.

Banvard's Folly (Paul Collins)

"Don't touch the poppadoms," I tell Bertie as he joins me at table at Bombay Masala. I am a big fan of this Indian restaurant in Greenbelt, mostly because they serve half-size dishes. Not only is that rare in these days of American blimposity, but it gives me an opportunity for taste variety. A bonus when meeting Bertie: the dishes are generally too saucy to lend themselves to easy snatching. Bertie is a serious grabber; hence my poppadom warning. Which Bertie promptly ignores.

"Kinda empty in here," he remarks. I look around. The place is indeed somewhat lacking in customers. If we had a customers-vs-staff basketball challenge, we would be evenly matched. Take into account that Bertie is imaginary and suddenly I'm going to be easily double-teamed.

"I feel a little bad for the owner," I say after our garlic naan is dropped off.

"Which brings me to my latest entrepreneurial concept." He flourishes a book at me. "It came to me while reading this book."

"You're going to sell blue-colored glass to restaurant owners so that people can blask in the healing glow?"

"No," he says with a snort. "Of course not. That was a silly idea. Besides, there's a patent on that."

"Fat lot of good it did what's-his-name. I think he died in poverty."

"I didn't get my grand idea from that story," he syas. "In fact, I didn't get my idea from any of the stories. However, that book was an inspiration."

"An inspiration? Bertie, Banvard's Folly is a book about losers. There are thirteen stories of people who had - for the most part - skill or knowledge, but they just couldn't make it."

"But I know what they lacked," he says with complete and utter confidence.

"What's that?"

"Determination," he says with a Crystal Cathedral drawl. "And a business plan."

I mull this over while the waiter brings my spinach and my chickpeas. My mind turns to the poor woman who lost her mind trying to prove Shakespeare didn't write his plays. The book had some interesting characters, but I'm still having trouble with the inspiration part.

"I will admit," Bertie says, stymied by my saucy main dishes but still able to grab a wedge of naan, "that one of the stories gave me an inkling of an idea... the moon hoax."

"The one about combining religion and science?"

"Sure. They missed out on the perfect pairing, if you ask me. They were close, but they didn't hit the Reese's standard."

"And what are you going to combine with science?"

"Oh, not science -- religion." He takes a moment to work on looking pious. He can't quite make it. He winds up with a look that is a cross between someone suffering through a large blister with a hangdog pragmatism and the maniacal glee of a child discovering how to open the cabinets (which just happen to be filled with deliciously noisy pots and lids). I'm not sure it meets the Reese's standard, either.

"Don't hurt yourself," I say. "And what are you combining religion with?"

"Commerce!" he says proudly.

"That's it?" I exclaim. "That's what you've got? Dude, Pat and Oral already beat you there. Shoot, every relic-hawker since the third century has beaten you there. Religion and commerce!"

"Not a specific religion," he says. If he is hurt by my scorn, he doesn't show it. Heck, if he were ever hurt by my scorn, I'd eat a meal in peace. "The essence of religious mania! I want to make evangelists for restaurants."

"For restaurants."

"Some people who are willing to spread the word about their favorite restaurants."

"You want munching martyrs?"

"No, martyrs are no good to me. I just need people who are going to win their friends to the cause. Save the soul of our favorite businesses. Gather round the sheep in our favorite eateries. Look at this place. It is as empty as Capote's secret vault."

"I think you mean 'Capone's'," I say. "I like the atmosphere. You can always get a table; it's never too noisy. The food is wonderful."

"A pox on both your houses!" he exclaims. "Give some thought to the poor owner of this place. If you're the only customer, he can't be feeding his family. Worse, he won't be able to stay in business. He'll have to close his doors for good."

I give a little gasp. He goes on.

"Consider other restaurants you have loved. What happened to them? Vivaldi's? Gone. Planet X? Vaporized. Mandalay? Disappeared."

"Mandalay only moved to Silver Spring," I point out.

"Dead to you, anyway. If you don't do something, this precious resource will be lost forever."

"I get your point," I say as I pay the bill. "Though I think you're overselling the value of this place. I mean, it's good food and all, but still. On the other hand, I think you're still missing the same thing all those people in the book missed. It's great to have a good idea. But how are you going to make money from volunteer preachers?"

Bertie hesitates. "Like I said, 'a business plan.' All I need is a business plan."

"You have a business plan?" I ask.

"Well, no. Not yet. But that's step 2, I'm sure. Any minute now, poof! a business plan."

"Well," I say on the way out. "Bombay Masala was a nice restaurant while it lasted."

Kweisi Mfume for Whatever

So, we're going to vote in a little while. As always, the national stage is underwhelming. The only interesting thing I can say is that we are recommending folks write-in Kweisi Mfume for Prince Georges County Executive.

I don't think he wants the job, but I'm a bit sick of Johnson and PG always voting in the default. Seems like a good protest vote to me.

If it were up to me, I'd write in Barak Obama for any of the races where I didn't like either candidate, but he already has a job and he's not a Maryland resident. Therefore, I recommend writing in Kweisi Mfume for any of the races where you don't like either candidate.

Did I Mention Robert Jackson Today?

It's been a rough week on the stomach front. Missed a few days of work from this flu thing. Hard to think straight.

We came down into DC tonight to see our good friend Robert Jackson's exhibition at Zenith, but I had to walk up to sit down because of the wooziness. At any rate, Robert Jackson's paintings are a fabulous combination of the realistic and the fantastic. Personally, I liked Banished the best from this show. It reminded me of realistic photographs from the '30s. Not sure why.

Click on the link to Robert Jackson's web page a lot. Then, he'll wonder who linked to him so dang often.