Beyond the Gypsies of Childhood, by Lynn Veach Sadler

Lynn Veach Sadler
BEYOND THE GYPSIES OF CHILDHOOD

Gypsies were the Resident Boogie Men where I grew up: in the
Friendship community, west of Goshen Swamp, southwest of Rooty Branch Church
and Summerlin’s Crossroads, south of Beautancus, southeast of Faison, east
of Bowdens, and northeast of Warsaw and Magnolia. When Mama caught me
punching licking holes in the fifty-pound bags of sugar stockpiled for
canning, she threatened to deliver me to them. Likewise for the time Cousin
Ann and I made cakes of most of twenty pounds of corn meal and poured the
rest down the pump.

I was generally contemptuous of the species, for no Gypsy I met
resembled the fortune tellers who came into Warsaw with the carnival every
Armistice Day. Not a single one lived up to the Nancy Drew mystery about
the doll real Gypsies had that gave off a strange glow. Ours appeared
mysteriously every summer and stirred tales of the “spells” they put on
folks to get their life savings or some favorite trinket. Once they carried
off Prince and his cart while their owner, Uncle George Giles, stood rooted
to his front stoop, stayed by the magic circle they’d drawn around him,
listening to his horse’s pitiful neighs.

I especially dreaded my parents’ shopping trips in Wilmington when I
was left alone to tend our grocery store. I couldn’t let anyone know I was
afraid of Gypsies. I had a reputation as a tomboy to uphold. Besides, it
wasn’t just the Gypsies, though they were the worst. The salesmen also
tested me. One of them asked me to cash a check he signed “U. R. Stuck” and
thought it “just dandy” when I refused.

I took precautions. We had television but no phone in the store, so
I’d make doubly sure my two Black compatriots, Big-Edward and Little-Joe,
knew they had a special invitation to watch Flash Gordon and the rest of
their favorite programs with me. (I’d also check that Daddy’s revolver was
in the back of the cash drawer and his shot gun beneath the main counter.)

The Gypsy threat had less to do with magic, I surmised, much later,
than with conniving. The trick was for them to drive up in two or more
cars, at least one of which had to be gassed. Daddy’s persistent summary?
“Damn rascals! While you’re outside at the pumps, they’re inside stealin’
you blind! At least they can’t slip up on you! Gypsy cars are always
piebald-body one color, fenders and boot another!”

I had an ally against the Gypsies, one of the umpteen cat
personalities of my childhood, but tabby-alley BabyChile was aristocratic
beyond that designation. My cat solely, he wouldn’t let anyone else near
him. His fractiousness presented a problem, since he claimed the top of the
large wooden ice box, beside the store’s front door, as his private domain
when I was working. He’d arch, hiss, and slash at anyone else. Once, when
a Gypsy conclave descended on us, one of the girls started to lift the ice
box lid. Instead of jumping off, BabyChile went for the Gypsy. The racket
brought me on the run. The victim knocked the cat to the ground and kicked
it. BabyChile, in turn, was making good progress against the offending foot
and leg. Both assailants were indulging in sounds neither cat- nor
human-like. I grabbed BabyChile and tried to soothe him, but he remained
bristled up a good hour after the last Gypsy retreated. Little-Joe and
Big-Edward warned me: “Dat Gypsy woman done cursed po’ BabyChile! You
better quick work some stop-’em magic!”

I asked their mother Sarah, who worked for my mother, for advice,
but she just rolled her eyes: “Miz Reba fire me she catch me puttin’ such
notions in your head.” I concluded that Sarah didn’t know any “stop-’em
magic” either. All I could do was keep a sharp watch over BabyChile.

Shortly, “he” showed up, as Aunt Viola, whispering, phrased it,
“p.g.” with hexed kittens fiercer than BabyChile herself. She had them
behind the ice box, and not even I could touch them. Before and after their
eyes opened, they’d attack anything/anyone not smelling exactly like
BabyChile. I was keen to pet them, so I tricked J. T. Langston into getting
them out for me. He wasn’t “book-learned.” In fact, Grannie had told me
often about the time she’d asked him what “b-i-s-c-u-i-t” spelled, and he’d
responded, “Good ole ice tea!” I told J. T. my arms were too short to get
to the kittens. He reached, yelled, and flailed the arm with two hissing,
scratching, clawing, mad demon-kittens climbing up it. He never forgave me,
and I was ashamed of taking advantage of him, but everybody else found the
episode funny.

I accepted that I was being punished, deservedly, when BabyChile,
right after the attack on J. T., moved her kittens to the pack house. But
the punishment got out of hand. Once a day, for five days, until she had
gone through the litter, BabyChile arrived at the store with a kitten in her
mouth. The only problem was that, when she deposited it at my feet, its
head was gone.

At first, Daddy maintained: “I guess a big barn rat found
BabyChile’s hiding place.” On the fifth day, though, when the last
decapitated kitten had been served up, he took the cat out and shot her.
“I’m really sorry, but your cat would have suffered too much from the loss
of her kittens.”

Mama added: “BabyChile must have gone crazy. Cats sometimes do
when they become mothers. Witness the Wampus Cat in the swamp.”

Big-Edward and Little-Joe were certain: “Your folk know. Dey jist
ain’t tellin’ you. Your daddy done drive a wooden stake through BabyChile’s
and them little kitties’ hearts to crusofry the Gypsy magic.”

Daddy had two beautifully matched, reddish brown horses named Ryder
and Dan. Given his tractors and mules, they didn’t have much to do but cut
a fine figure under the expert handling of Joe (“Old-as-Methuselah”) Dobson,
a tenant. Every Saturday, Joe hitched Ryder or Dan to his buggy and went
into town, letting the other horse come along behind, attached by a
smart-looking line to the buggy seat. When he had an audience, he’d pretend
the one pulling the buggy refused to budge. The rear horse would then nudge
about Joe’s back until the old man gave him a carrot or sugar. Then the
back horse would neigh to the lead horse, and they’d move on.

Some Gypsies tried to get Daddy to sell them his beloved horses, but
he figured they wanted to use them in tricks to get money out of people. He
refused the offer, as ever, in no uncertain terms. Three days later, Ryder
was found dead in his stall. Joe hauled him off with the tractor and buried
him in a back field. In spite of Grannie’s encouragements to the contrary,
Daddy refused to sell him to the glue factory. Everybody on the farm went
down for the burying, and all the men took off their hats; Joe and I cried.
A week later, Dan was dead. “Of grief, most likely,” everybody said but
Little-Joe and Big-Edward, who knew this was another “clear case of Gypsy
magic.”

Aunt Viola and Uncle Rom gave me my first real “breed” dog, a
wire-haired terrier I named “Nubbie.” Whenever Gypsies came around, his
hair stood straight up, and he wouldn’t stop growling. One night Nubbie
howled and scratched at the back door until Daddy let him in. He jumped in
my arms and then leaped down and ran all through the house and back out the
back door to fall dead at the bottom of the steps. Even Daddy was alarmed
by my grief. “Now, now,” he tried to soothe as he patted me awkwardly on
the back. “It was poison, I expect. You should feel some comfort from
Nubbie’s determination to see you one last time, fighting death though he
was. He was a mighty brave little dog!” Since Daddy had made no bones
about his opinion that the terrier was “sissified-looking,” I remember
pausing in my grief long enough to ponder this admission. He investigated
but found no evidence that anyone in the community was killing off its dogs.
“Probably an accident. You know how curious that dog was. Always sniffing
into something. Probably got into some rat poison. His breed’s related to
rat terriers from what I hear. Might of got hold of some Paris Green left
under somebody’s barn shelter.” From then on, Little-Joe, Big-Edward, and I
held the Gypsies accountable for any dog who was poisoned off.

Clifton Jenkins was five years older than I was, and I had a crush
on him, or at least I acquired one when my older cousin, Jenny, came from
Wilmington for the summer and fell for him in a big way. Otherwise, I
didn’t, at that stage, have much use for boys. Jenny’s falling, however,
was big enough that she made up new words to the tune of “Country Gardens”
to express her feelings: “I love my Clifton, love him so dear. He is my
sweetheart for-e-ev-er.” I would pound out the accompaniment on the piano,
and Jenny would sing, cow-eyed, along. It helped me get through my music
practice, and I have to admit that I always wished I’d been the one to think
of changing those words.

Clifton was driving one of Daddy’s tractors on the day in question.
No one ever knew why, but he somehow ended up on the shoulders of the wrong
side of the road with the tractor upside down on top of him. Mama wouldn’t
let me go to the scene, but she couldn’t prevent my hearing what people kept
repeating when they recounted the story: “Why his head was squashed just
like a cucumber that has rotted on the vine!” I concluded that Clifton had
refused to reciprocate the affections of a Gypsy girl.

About six months later, coming home from a movie one Saturday night,
we reached the bridge over my favorite tadpoling branch. I was in the back
seat thinking about what would happen in the next episode of the movie
serial and pretending to record my thoughts on the window. Always alert
when I neared any water, I saw something out of the ordinary. “Wait, Daddy!
Stop! I see something. There. On the left. Look at the bridge!”

“What now! You’re imagining things as usual. It’s late, and we all
have to get up early for Sunday School. You see shadows. That’s all.
Now-”

“Ralph, stop! I see something, too! Look! The railing of the
bridge! Something has gone through!”

Daddy had to acquiesce when Mama intervened. He stopped to check
but made us stay in the car.

“What is it?” Mama had rolled down her window.

Daddy came back wet and muddy. “We’ve got to go back to town and
get help. Nothing I can do.” He was whispering now to Mama as he started
to turn the car around.

“What is it, Mama? Tell me!”

“An accident. Two people are-in the water. We have to get help.
Now just be quiet and say a prayer for the afflicted.”

Daddy was thinking aloud: “Beats all I’ve ever seen. No more than
two feet of water ever in that branch. But the car was upside down. Still,
you’d think they could have-”

At Sunday School the next day, I slipped up behind the grown-ups
gathered around my father and heard his assessment: “I reckon the driver
lost control. He died of drowning. His companion’s neck was broken.”

Aunt Viola didn’t mince her verdict: “Two of the local tomcatters
got filthy drunk and lost their way. And their heads.”

Neither did Big-Edward and Little-Joe. “Another case of Gypsy
hexin’ an’ voo-me-doin’. Dem folk try to outsmart de Gypsies. Gypsies gots
dem instead.”

I think of all that unfairness (and lore) when I hear the scattered
stories of what happened to the Gypsies during the Holocaust-and is still
happening. I thought of it when, leaving St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt
Baskin-Robbins, my husband and I were targets of THE PLAGUE OF RUSSIA.
Mostly youths, they haunt main streets, live in train stations, and suddenly
surround their victims. More recently, in Palma de Mallorca, they gave out
roses and grabbed purses from the distracted.

Most recently (though I thought I had long since “moved on,” having
been a college president dealing with political correctness and such), my
hair dresser asked me if I knew about the “Travelers.” I was alarmed to
hear that “everybody knows about those criminals. They offer to do work for
you cheap, then slop it up and get away with your money. They prey on old
people living alone.” She remembers growing up with their kids, who were
always getting in trouble and dropping out of school. She recited a list of
surnames that were “a dead giveaway.”

I suppose the “Gypsies” of my childhood were a romanticized version
of descendants of the nomadic “Irish Travelers” or Pavees. Specializing in
seventeenth-century British literature (notably Milton) did not introduce me
to the branch of them driven forth from Ireland by Cromwell. Nor did I know
of their link with the tinsmith who was cursed for building the cross on
which Jesus died. I somehow had never connected “tinkers” with them and
have now begun to wonder if my grandfather, who traveled about selling
Watkins products, was a bona fide Gypsy. I was even relieved that his name
was not among those listed by my beautician.

Some sources deny that Irish Travelers are Gypsies, who are
considered Asian Indian, and relate them to pre-Celts (the Fairy Queen Mab)
and Celts far older than the likes of King Arthur. Whatever the case, some
of them, to my surprise, still wander our country; speak among themselves
versions of the ancient “Cant” or “Gammon”; and maintain clannish ways,
e.g., “looping” (a mating ritual), marrying young, valuing males. They do
have settlements, for example, Murphy Village in South Carolina, and they
continue to stand accused of being scam artists.

Gypsies are caught in a time warp of our and their own stereotyping.
They remain a principal Resident Boogie Man, and even Madonna’s championing
has recently brought jeers. What we expect is still, unfortunately,
generally what we get. We have to distinguish the figures “allowed” in
childhood legendry from the flesh-and-blood HUMANS who walk through our
adult worlds daily, suffering from such labels as “Gypsy.”

Bio:
Widely published in academic and creative writing, former college president
Dr. Lynn Veach Sadler has seven poetry chapbooks out. One story appears in
Del Sol’s Best of 2004 Butler Prize Anthology; a novel will soon join her
novella and short-story collection. She won the 2009 overall award of the
San Diego City College National Writer’s Contest and Wayne State’s 2008
Pearson Award for a play on the Iraq wars. She has traveled around the
world five times, writing all the way, and works fulltime as a writer and an
editor.

The Heaven Hypothesis, by Anthony John Rankine

Anthony John Rankine resides in Hickory, North Carolina. The Heaven Hypothesis: Science or Not? is an opening chapter in an extensive non-fiction book, aimed at addressing the central issue raised by Michael Scheuer in Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. The full manuscript was written long hand while in Australia, and is currently in the editing stage prior to US publication through the Amazon-Kindle program.

The Heaven Hypothesis : Science or Not?
“Imagination is more important than Intelligence.” (Albert Einstein)

Would you be surprised to know that the mainstream science of cosmology has gone “religious” in order to salvage the goldfish-bowl model of gravitation proposed by Sir Isaac Newton?

From the galactic center to its outermost band, the velocity at which stars rotate around the center of the Milky Way galaxy is more or less uniform. All other observed galaxies in our cluster share this mystery. This observable fact upends Newton’s law of gravitation, which expects the outer bands of stars to drift off into space while the inner stellar bands should collapse into the galactic center. In spite of Newtonian gravitational dynamics, our galaxy is a stable aggregation of stars and retains a spiral-arm structure that remains largely invariant with time.

To rescue the Newtonian theory of gravity, the Pope has conjectured that not all matter in the universe is observable. Observable matter consists of baryons (the baryonic universe) and non-observable matter, which the Holy Father has capriciously designated as “dark matter.”

Scientists have condemned this edict from the Holy Father as nothing more than priestly hocus-pocus, and lambaste clerics every Sunday with the taunt that they might as well refer to “dark matter” as “God matter” because it shares that very divine quality of something the human race must believe, lest galaxies across the universe rotate themselves into whispy oblivion.

A scientific fact consists of three elements: (a) it’s observable, (b) it’s measurable and (c) it’s repeatable.

I agree with the scientists. If you call it “dark matter” you might as well call it “God matter.” At least the latter has the consistency of being (a) a conjectured supernatural substance, (b) unobservable and (c) not susceptible to measurement. “God-matter” is something you have to believe in otherwise the universe would be all hay-wire.

Thus saith cosmologists.

The one thing we do observe about “God-matter” is scientific repeatability because telescopes are locating stellar system after stellar system where the center of baryonic mass is not the same as the center of gravity. Of course, I ask: Why the hell should it be? But, that’s not germane to this chapter.

“The Heaven Hypothesis” is a simple, straight up postulate of science.

Heaven exists.

Heaven is an athermal realm (one of pure energy) which is populated by solitons (including scale invariant unparticles) that adhere to Bose-Einstein statistical mechanics. For the benefit of the reader, solitons can be visualized as “energy atoms,” and as such form a collective self-organizing system, we call “Heaven.” Over unknowable years in a life-will-find-a-way maturation process, this athermal system agglomerated into an intelligent entity that unified the system and is capable of giving it living purpose. This entity, we call “God.”

The Milky Way and Sagittarius galaxies are God’s playgrounds.

The classic conjecture of panspermia holds that meteorites seeded Earth with primitive organic molecules, and so started the process of “creating” living organisms. Not so, it was God in Heaven. I refer to this panspermic entity as God because “God the Creator of Life” through the gestation of organic molecular structures and the process of symbiogenesis has accelerated what would otherwise be a random evolutionary process for a species like “Homo Sapiens.” This was done to effectuate “The Great Design of Heaven.”

What other species on Earth, molded by the random process of Darwinian natural selection, pontificates about how “dark matter” will save Newton’s law of gravitation from the scrap-heap of science?

Good News for Modern Man. We are at a formative stage in the exploration of “inner space,” enabled by the science of cryonic physics. As of today, the only part of “The Heaven Hypothesis” we can observe, measure and repeat is the creation of microscopic Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) systems. But this is a huge step, akin to the man-made creation of microscopic “black holes” and “Higgs bosons” via the CERN Large Hadron Collider.

The realm of the athermal is not readily susceptible to human visualization because our perceptions exist in the realm of the thermal. Things like dark matter and black holes are relatively easy to imagine, model and discuss. What makes BEC experiments ground breaking is that the crazy-talk realm of the athermal described in scripture (a recollection of visitations) using ancient, anthropomorphic language and metaphors is now beginning to find substantiation in observable-measurable-repeatable science.

“Black holes” exist as a conjecture of science.

“Higgs bosons” exist as a conjecture of science.

“Dark matter” exists as a conjecture of science.

Simply stated: Why should not one or many realms of BEC-like athermicity exist in nature, where self-organization is a natural process and where systemic maturation is able to form an intelligent being of immortal life, at least relative to the decay in thermodynamic systems as occurs in our observable baryonic universe?

Guess what? Here on Earth, self-organization and maturation is exactly what we observe. From supernova dust and chaos, we have a solar system, an Earth, and in that habitat we have a self-organized system based on the chemistry of matter which over billions of years evolved into carbon based organisms, including only one organism sufficiently intelligent to make the aforementioned conjectures even though there is no natural selection or Darwinian process that would warrant it.

Or to put it another way, why don’t other Earth-bound species have ears the way Man has ears? If Man can hear the proverbial philosopher’s tree falling in the forest, why not other species? As a species solely endowed, if only Man can hear the tree falling: Does the tree actually fall?

Put aside trite philosophical prognostication and consider Man’s unique capacity to reason.

Billions of years in the making, I now ask: Why should we be alone?

And why should other beings, far more ancient than us, not be incorporated within us?

When I speak about “incorporated within us,” I am talking about a nexus – a mode of symbiogenic oneness linking an athermal soul and thermal avatar(s). When we “think,” is it purely our brains doing the “thinking?” All over this planet, creatures exist. Not all hominid life is the avatar of an athermal being. In fact, you should consider everything animal and governed by purely opportunistic (Darwinian) behaviors, until proven otherwise. And as any adult knows, there is no such thing as “soul-goggles” that enable you to see which animals light up as soul-avatar symbiotes, and which animals are no more than creatures, human or otherwise.

And, is planet Earth the only baryonic-based realm with a “Heaven Hypothesis?”

Then again, does it really matter?

Let’s talk about the problem of “our Heaven.” Subsumed within “The Heaven Hypothesis” there remain three essential issues of transubstantiation: (a) How does an athermic creature engineer the evolutionary process of a promising species, into one which transcends the environment in which it would otherwise evolve at random? (b) What is the nature of the nexus between athermic and the thermic realms? and (c) How is prophesy of the future possible as a phenomenon of science?

Technically, prophesy can never be a phenomenon of science. Prophesy is not susceptible to the test of repeatability, but rather is like a UFO which lands in a field of corn. If three or more persons turned up at the designated time and watched the event independent of each other then it could be said to be scientifically established. Let’s face it “prophesy” sounds like so much religious hocus-pocus.

General Relativity to the rescue. Einstein-Rosen Bridges (wormholes in space-time) establish the scientific basis for what is called “Biblical prophesy.” In the realm of the thermal, Einstein-Rosen bridges are dubious. But not necessarily in the realm of the athermal. Across an Einstein-Rosen bridge no net energy or mass may pass. However, that does not mean that an emitter field (in the future space-time) may not give rise to resonance in a collector field (in past space-time). I propose a simple layman example: a magnet in one N-S orientation on the “future” side of what is an Einstein-Rosen no-pass surface. As that future-emitter magnet flips up or down, a corresponding magnet on the other side (the past) can track the field inversions. To the extent that any net energy is transferred from one side, an equal amount of net energy can be beamed back to the other side.

Furthermore, such bridges also provide a mechanism for a “Creator” in an athermal realm to interact with the thermal realm. Take note that there is a huge investment of energy to do so. Instead of zeolitic surface structures as the substrates upon which early complex carbon chains were built, it is completely consistent for a biologist to conceive that molecular engineering could have taken place from the realm of the athermic by the generation of comparable electro-magnet co-ordination bonding fields.

Let’s call them “glove fields” comparable to enzyme activation sites. Clasped within such “electro-magnetic gloves,” atoms could have found themselves trapped and sequenced to form units of organic molecules. Creation is the purposeful process that drives a stochastic system from one of disorder into one of order. IBM scientists demonstrated this principle using the probes in a scanning electron-microscope to create an “IBM” logo one atom wide. Today, we humans have a field of research called “nanotechnology.” This is panspermia, but one that is directed by a plausible systemic process, rather than one connected to a hypothetical meteorite that once contained auto-replicating organic molecules.

Heaven is about inner space with inner details, and not just about hulking outer space come crashing down to Earth on a mish-mash basis. “Younger Dryas event” comets are known to obliterate whole species, not create them from scratch, auto-replicating molecule by auto-replicating molecule.

Einstein-Rosen bridges also address the perplexing issue of the nature of the soul-avatar nexus. Putting aside the issue of prophesy as being “pre-scripted,” Einstein-Rosen prophesy is about communication from future time to past time. But an Einstein-Rosen bridge also acts in the space domain (point to point wormholes). Again, no net energy need be transferred. The nature of the transfer is a communication from the messenger, an entity-in-light (“angelos” in Ancient Greek), residing within the athermic realm to the entity-in-matter residing in the thermic realm. The movie Avatar presents a good anthropomorphic vision of the concept I am describing.

It is clear a dangling question remains: Why can’t humans live in a state of nature like any other animal on this planet? What is the purpose of all this engineering by a proposed supernatural being?

The short answer: “A desire to be born into an athermic realm, one of genuine eternal life.”

But that response is far too pat. Keep in mind, that 11,711 years prior to 2008, the last Ice Age with its sheets of ice over 1 kilometer thick, ended in an earth-shattering thaw. This abrupt change was triggered and fueled by a “Galactic Superwave,” a burst of high-intensity gamma radiation that caused the Sun to throw off massive coronal flares. I refer you to Earth under Fire by Paul LaViolette for the details.

No Hollywood super-asteroid was involved. Our solar system, which is actually part of the Sagittarius galaxy – a dwarf system, is being swallowed up by the monster Milky Way galaxy. We live on a planet that is currently in the middle of this whale of a galaxy’s vast accretion disk and vulnerable to withering radiation storms emanating from the star-devouring super-massive black hole at its center. The reputed end of the Mayan epoch on December 22, 2012, has the Earth and the other planets aligned with the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Cast aside Hollywood flim-flam for demonstrable reality.

Any sudden burst of incoming gamma radiation has and will continue to cause vast extinctions across the planet. On December 14, 1997, scientists detected a 2-second gamma burst from a galaxy billions of light years away that if it had originated from our galactic center, would have delivered 100,000 times the lethal dose to all life on our planet. GRB 971214 was so powerful that for 2 seconds it matched the luminosity of the entire Universe. On August 27, 1998, a five-minute gamma burst emanating from the constellation Aquila (20,000 light years away), ionized the upper atmosphere and disrupted satellites and spacecraft. At the abrupt end of the last Ice Age, humanity was winnowed down to around two thousand genome specimens. In the galactic environment “survival of the fittest” sweepstakes, the human organism is as expendable as Jews on Planet Auschwitz because catastrophe is what-it-is. As far as Heaven is concerned, humanity can be rebuilt or a new species ennobled to the task. “The Great Design of Heaven” is a matter of efficiency and purpose. The primate-centric concept of the alpha-male and the rest of that self-absorbed nonsense is a dissipation from a truly optimum life at best and the sure promise of a plague of two-legged-animal depravity at worst. Nazism shows us that.

We thermal creatures, we, whom we call humans, are animals. And many will be nothing more extensive than that once the organic format of their existence, we refer to as “life,” winks out.

But, symbiotes are different. Symbiotes are the Eden seeds in the great design of Heaven.

The question remains: “What is the purpose of all this engineering by a proposed supernatural being?”

By the conclusion of this book, you should be well able to apprehend the answer for yourself. I will hold off with my own knowledge of things until the last chapter because you need a much clearer vision of what this planet with its potential for noble and humble-hearted human existence is all about.

Don’t feel strange. You should be skeptical given the church versus science mentality. A supernatural engineer anticipated our age-of-science skepticism. The solution was simple. Only in the era of the digital computer could the Bible Code enigma be uncovered by forensic science. It’s God’s thumbprint. It’s Heaven’s clarion call to chuck the church-based hocus pocus and get real with your live. I refer you to The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin for the implications and details. Thumbprint – case closed.

My book is dark in its no-nonsense, scientific purpose. And, so it must be.

Let me conclude: Many of us do not live by bread alone. Only animals do.

And, you are smart enough to know who you really are.

Poverty and the Stockholm Syndrome, by Mary Elizabeth Parker

Mary Elizabeth Parker
POVERTY AND THE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

Money has always made my gut clench. When I was tiny I knew we didn’t have any because the tension in our house crackled. The closest we got to wealth was to cruise the rich neighborhoods (of North Muskegon, Michigan) on Sunday in our rattletrap station wagon. After another of our parents’grim-faced money ‘discussions’,the ones they thought we six kids didn’t hear, I decided we had to help. We gathered together the sum of $1.67, and I sneaked into our parents’ bedroom and slipped the coins into Dad’s glass ashtray. I was so proud the next morning when my mother came to us: I thought we would be lauded for saving the family. Instead, she folded our little fists back over our pennies, tenderly. That was terrible: We didn’t want our money back. It was a long time before I realized $1.67 would do no good.

Very early, I learned the difference between Our Money (a little) and The World’s Money (a lot). My father sold life insurance and each month “collected the debit”,driving his route of several counties to gather people’s premiums in cash. He’d bring home bundles of bills [not ours but John Hancocks] that had to be turned in to the office in the morning. It was my privilege to count the take, sitting on the nubbly mint-colored carpet in our living room with my legs spread out and bills dumped all around me: like a game of Concentration where I had to match a five-dollar bill with a five, a twenty with a twenty. Sometimes, there would be up to $3,000.

All these years later, I’m still in thrall to Money [not ours, but Theirs], like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome–she who stays attached to a captor even after she’s freed: I’m freed from Lack of Money by my husband’s respectable income, but I’m not free in my mind. I continue to be yanked hard, like a woman still in chains, by opposing beliefs, such as:

I deserve wealth a lot more than some other people who have it and so should enjoy (my husband’s) money to the full. Or conversely: I do not deserve anyone’s money (including his) if I have not been talented/energetic/savvy enough to work the system to get money on my own. Or even: the system is rotten and no one should work it. Wealth is a spurious value, anyway.

Maybe it’s the not knowing what I’m worththat makes me anxious. I spent so many years slaving in professions (e.g., writing) the market doesn’t value with anything vaguely approaching professional pay that now I can’t accurately value myself.

Or maybe I can’t be easy about money because money’s still foreign to me. I’m awkward around it: I’m still the kid who, no, didn’t drink the rosewater out of her first finger bowl, but did pop whole into her mouth a huge decorative rosette of butter because she thought it was candy. (I was 6, with my grandmother at a strait-laced hotel in the Adirondacks.)

Now I think up ways to be frugal so as not to seem profligate with my husband’s money. I live in a large brick house he chose–in full, uncomfortable knowledge that a big house for two people puts too much value on ostentatious expense. So I don’t decorate. I do the cleaning. I clip coupons. I only buy clearance. I pinch pennies harder than I ever did when I was single. I drive a big car but hunt down cheap gas (and have since long before gas became exorbitant). My current café is…not Starbucksbut McDonald’s.

I used to laugh at the stories of eccentric bag ladies, shuffling down the street and checking pay phone slotswith millions at home stuffed under the mattress. Me, I would not trust a mattress. But the coin slot thing? I’ve had the urge. I’m still Cinderella cleaning ashes and ignoring my shimmering gown.

My real problem with money lies in a weird transitive equation learned somehow in my strapped childhood, and reinforced during the adult years when I still had little. The equation reads like this:

MONEY = MERIT = LOVE. And, LOVE = MERIT = MONEY.

Good money paid to you proves your work merits it and that you are worthy of both money and love. Or, transitively, if you and your work are loved, that means that you and your work merit love and you deserve to be paid good money. According to my admittedly bizarro emotional math, any hip-hop mogul is a prince and I, who’ve earned just about zilch in my life plying my humanistic professions, am not fit to polish his bling.

Yes, it’s dopey thinking, illogical, my husband would say. Yes, I know that in a free market economy, money paid is tied not to the work’s intrinsic merit, but to market demand: It might be argued that a poet improves the zeitgeist more than a trash collector does, yet the market rewards garbage-men reasonably well and expects poets to work for free. It might be argued that my father who earned less commission than he might because he refused to sell a policy a family didn’t need, merited more respect (both from himself and from the world) than some of the top producers who’d sell anything to anyone (he said).

Yet, even knowing that wealth and success doesn’t add up to merit, I still believe, illogically–at the emotional level–that any people with money, because they’ve managed to get some (especially those who got it for themselves), are possessed of some personal excellence unknown to us people who haven’t managed to get some.

By my own illogic, all these years I’ve stood inferior not only to Fortune 100 CEOs and film stars and star quarterbacks, but to the sleaziest pop warblers, to bounty hunters and tattoo artists, to all those people whose louche lives earn them millions in films and record deals and reality-TV series. By my illogic, the monstrous money all these people earn, hero and fringe geek alike, attests to me that they have merit. The paltry money I’ve earned attests to me that I’m worthless.

So I’ve devalued myself. I’ve bowed to our market economy’s rule: MONEY = MERIT. Under the yoke of this belief, I can’t feel light and free with my husband’s money because I’m ashamed I’ve garnered so little for myself. What can I claim as my worth? I have none, financially: My career has been a bust in terms of bucks. The small bit I earn looks even more wizened against my husband’s example. And how can I claim a right to his money? He earned it himself before he met me.

I’m still crouched here, like Stockholm Girl, beneath the Power of Money, my feints at self-assertion becoming weaker and weaker, my mien more cowed and obsequious. I don’t know if all persons who have no knack for earning feel in a one-down position to those who have a big, big knack–but feeling one-down doesn’t feel good.

Logically, I know the market rule that MONEY = MERIT is crazy-making. My craziness might clear some day if the market rule reversed to read: MERIT = MONEY. People would be paid what their work’s intrinsically worth, on a scale weighted heavily toward beauty and aesthetics and long-term good for society. Most pop stars would earn but a nickel a day. Excellent teachers, by contrast, would earn small fortunes (no one needs a large fortune–that’s just ostentatious).

Because I believe, at the same time that I secretly kowtow to money, that wealth is unimportant. This is my true belief, not the crazy one. I have lived very simply and could do so again. I lived in tiny apartments, with bagels and Cokes at local cafes and cheap chocolates at home as my sole indulgences. I read library books as my eveningentertainment. I found Junior League rummage sales and wore the value out of richer women’s clothes. I did worry what I’d do when I grew old, but I figured that I and one of my brothers (who also lived on a shoestring) could take opposite sides of some tiny mauve house and die there and be discovered under the kudzu some years later, like out of Faulkner. Then I married, my brother married, too, and the mauve house faded from my plans. (Okay, truthfully, it has not quite disappeared. I’m still cautious.)

My husband watches me bemusedly. Money is just a tool for him; it has no emotional weight. Because he attaches to it no baggage, he can swing it around with aplomb: investing in one wad a throat-closing sum (well, to me, anything over $100 is a throat-closing sum) if he sees it as a good expenditure long-term. His heroes are CEOs, those in the Fortune 100 who earn so much a professor could commit hara-kiri thinking of it. But my husband’s fine with CEOs’compensation. They are, in effect, the rock stars of business and they should get monster bonuses, he says, if on their watch the company bottom line makes a monstrous leap. He implies, with a look straight at me, that any complainer who doesn’t like it should just work harder so she can be CEO.

I am, but he is not at all aggrieved that people who are merely human receive paychecks higher than God’s (star athletes, star actors, star entrepreneurs). He is perfectly fine with their obscene wealth. Those incomes are commensurate with, and justified by, he says, the monster amounts pumped into the economy when the general populus opens its pockets in tribute to the stars (and shells out for the spin-off products, too). He most admires those who grub-staked their own fortunes, figuratively working the gold sluices for years. But he does not begrudge any who leapt from the womb straight to their grandfathers’ billions.

He believes absolutely in trickle-down theory: money poured in by Mr. Gotbucks willy-nilly will eventually find its way down to fund something of value. In a perfect system, my husband agrees, all products developed would be assets to our country and to the globe. But our system, he says patiently, doesn’t work that way. In a free economy, both entrepreneurs and consumers are at liberty to finance whatever amuses them. So he’s happy when fans pay millions to see a quarterback dance, or a Beyonce. He believes that, eventually, through a spiraling ascent of investing, some of that money will make its way to, say, higher pursuits. My husband believes, for instance, in medicine as something of true value. He counts as one of the shining moments of his life when he flew out from the tiny airstrip at Lamberene, Gabon on a business trip in 1963 and saw Dr. Albert Schweitzer in a big hat waving up at the plane.

He agrees that the huge star economyfinanced by the popular dollar is a sub-economy: teetering on froth–on the flash, the rush, on endorphins–and that it doesn’t value what it should. But he condones it because it works. To the extent that popular tastes drive up market value, he says, popular tastes are good.

An economy flush with money, he says, funds entrepreneurship and innovation, research and development and, thus, advent upon advent of new product. Whether that product is cancer drugs or energy sources or a breakthrough on a par with the electric lightor conversely, runaway consumer fads like Gameboys or Pet Rocks or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesis immaterial, he says. Whatever fattens the GDP devolves ultimately to the good. I don’t necessarily believe this. But my husband does.

He believes in the American Dream. His family was stripped of everything in Cairo when Nasser kicked out all non-nationals in the 50’s (any non-Arabs, though my husband’s Italian family had lived in Egypt for generations). My husband ended up in England, then Israel, and eventually the United States. Here in the U.S., it seemed to him, there was no limit to what a man could become. He values education and business sense and displays strong moral fiber in all his dealings. He has prospered here, as have scores of his childhood friends, whose families also left Cairo under edict. He’s made a formal behest to give back to this country, not Egypt, when he dies.

This economy that’s good for America is, he believes, good for the world. He calls it a good thing (not a great thing, but a good thing–better than keeping the money in a mattress) that the Sultan of Dubai ordered a silver Audi (not silver as in silver paint job, but silver as in made of solid ore) and began erecting a personal residence which makes the palace at Versailles look like a clubhouse. The sultan continues with his flashy plan (hedge against the day the oil slows) to set up his tiny country as a high-end tourist trapwith ersatz ski resorts and water-worlds in the desert, crowding up to the world’s most expensive hotel. The hotel is an aerial, buttressed, balsa-plane-style edifice built out into the Gulf, like an abstract Flying Dutchman. My husband is optimistic that this excess will provide jobs for all in tiny Dubai, in building, equipping, and providing daily upkeep for all the sultan’s toys.

To give him his due, my husband says he’d rather the sultan use his oil money to set up factories and thereby float Dubai into the modern manufacturing stream–to ensure a two-way flow of goods and, thus, generations of employment for Dubai’s people. But, my husband says, the sultan’s free to spend money as he wants. However weird an investment, if it succeeds, if money flows, it’s (a specie of) good.

Meanwhile, I sit a free woman, feeling as much a hostage to money now as I ever did to lack of it. I’m a Cinderella who has lived awhile now in the castle–but something in me keeps wondering what’s happening. I’ve been poor and I’ve been richer, and richer is strange.

BIO:
MARY ELIZABETH PARKER’s essay COMBAT BOOTS was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry collections include THE SEX GIRL, Urthona Press, and two chapbooks, BREATHING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY, Paradise Press, and THAT STUMBLING RITUAL, Coraddi Publications, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her poems have appeared in journals including NOTRE DAME REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, NEW LETTERS, ARTS & LETTERS, CONFRONTATION, MADISON REVIEW, PHOEBE, COMSTOCK REVIEW, BIRMINGHAM REVIEW, KALLIOPE, PASSAGES NORTH, NEW MILLENNIUM WRITINGS, and GREENSBORO REVIEW (nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE); and in EARTH AND SOUL, an anthology published in English and Russian in the Kostroma region of Russia.

Barefoot, by Curtis Dunlap

Curtis Dunlap
BAREFOOT

(The following is based on true events about my father, Helon Dunlap. Helon, pronounced Hee-lon, is a Biblical name found in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 1, verse 9. Most folks mispronounce Helon as Helen. Unfortunately, my father had no middle name to fall back on. All non-family names appearing in the following are substitutes.)

Rummaging through a drawer the other day, I happened upon my father’s second grade report card. Printed on a rectangular piece of yellowed card stock, not much bigger than an index card, the report card showed that my father, Helon Dunlap, was an average student with a slight affinity toward arithmetic. With the exception of a few night classes to improve his reading and writing skills in the mid-60s, a 1933 second grade education was the only formal schooling my father acquired in his 77 years.

My father was 13 when that report card was issued. A teenager in the second grade was fairly common during that time in the hills of Stokes County, NC. Four years into The Great Depression, making a living by whatever means necessary took precedence over acquiring an education. Tobacco farming and gardening were vital life-sustaining necessities for families during that period and everyone, including children, worked the fields from the time seeds were sown through harvest.

My father was the second oldest child out of 11 siblings. The oldest, Aunt Grace, helped raise her brothers and sisters after my grandmother, Pencie Hall Dunlap, died of pneumonia. Aunt Grace never attended school and she never married. She devoted her life to her siblings. When she became too old to cook or clean, a brother and sister cared for her until she died peacefully one evening sitting in a recliner watching a favorite TV program. There could not have been a better name chosen for such a selfless, giving woman as my Aunt Grace.

With such a large family, wearing hand-me-down clothes was essential and expected. Unfortunately, my father did not have an older brother whose clothes he could inherit. He frequently attended school barefoot, in clothing patched from the fabric of flour and fertilizer bags. He often bore the brunt of physical and verbal abuse from older boys who had better clothes and shoes.

One such confrontation occurred on the school playground during recess. An older boy, Dean Murphy, a large, boastful, bully who dressed better than his classmates and wore shoes, approached my father from behind. With one quick sidestep in passing, Murphy stepped on my father’s right foot. “Whar yer shoes, Helen?” grinned Murphy, adding the incorrect feminine spin to my father’s name. Murphy then laughed and walked back to the school building as the bell ending recess sounded. Humiliated and embarrassed, my father’s exposed toes throbbed in pain the remainder of the day.

My grandfather, James H. Dunlap, was a tall, stout man with large hands. As a small boy, I remember seeing my grandfather duck his head slightly to enter a room. Grandpa wore a hat and doorways in old farm houses were shorter than today’s standards but seeing him stoop slightly to enter a room was an impressive sight. Family guestimates are that Grandpa Dunlap stood six feet, six inches and weighed a solid 240 pounds. His sheer presence demanded attention and respect. He was a stern father but a loving one too which is why, when time from farming allowed, he would sit on the front porch of the small Dunlap home and wait for his children to arrive from school. My father, hampered by his sore foot, was the last child home the day of the playground incident.

“Why are you late?” Grandpa asked, eyeing the foot that Helon was favoring.

Helon pawed the ground with his good foot; head down, he said, “Dean Murphy stepped on my foot. He was wearing shoes.”

Such a reply could be construed as a veiled complaint about not having shoes to wear and I said as much to my father the first time he told this story to me. “You never complained about what you had or what you didn’t have in those days,” he said. “You didn’t whine about where you lived or the way you lived or what you did for a living. You didn’t whine period. You were told to be thankful for what little you had and for every scrap of food that was put before you on the supper table. Complain about your circumstances and you’d find yourself in the woods hunting a good-sized switch that would be used on your backside. If you brought back a measly poor thin twig of a switch, a belt would be used instead.”

A few uncomfortable moments passed between father and son and I believe to this day that Grandpa was sizing-up Helon for what lay ahead. Finally, Grandpa leaned forward in his chair, looked Helon in the eyes and said, “What are you going to do about it?”

It was a question that Helon did not expect and he fidgeted for an answer. “Well, I don’t know. Dean Murphy is bigger and older than me. Everyone at school is afraid of him.”

Grandpa rose from his chair, stepped off the wooden porch, stood before his son, an imposing giant of a man. He put his large hands on Helon’s shoulders and said, “You take care of this, son. If Dean Murphy lays another hand or foot on you, without you having tried to at least defend yourself, you’ll receive a second whupping when you get home.”

That night Helon lay in bed considering his father’s matter-of-fact admonishment. On one side he had the school bully waiting to torment him, on the other, his father, ready to whip him if he allowed it. Helon pondered his plight, trying to find a way out of his predicament. No matter how he looked at it, one thought was foremost on his mind: Being on the receiving end of two whippings in one day did not appeal to him at all.

Helon did his best to avoid Murphy the next day and was fairly successful until recess. A stack of lumber and various building supplies had been left on the playground earlier in the morning, materials for a room that would be added to the school. Thinking to conceal himself, Helon hurriedly made his way toward the lumber and nearly bumped into Dean Murphy and Dewey Yates as he rounded the corner. Yates, a pale thin boy who was Murphy’s henchman, grabbed Helon by the arm and shoved him toward Murphy..

“Hey, Helen. Whar yer shoes?” taunted Murphy, who stepped forward quickly and stomped Helon’s sore foot again. The pain was excruciating, causing the barefoot boy to stumble backwards and fall. Laughter erupted from the older boys as Yates moved to flank Helon from behind. Anger and fear-induced adrenalin coursed through Helon’s body–anger at being humiliated and injured by Dean Murphy again and fear at what his father would do to him if he did not defend himself. Tears welled-up in Helon’s eyes, fueling more laughter from Murphy and Yates.

“Hey, look Murph!” said, Yates; “Helen’s crying!”

Helon sensed a crowd forming, shadows gathering around him, hushed whispers of classmates drawn to the commotion by the stack of lumber. Embarrassed, Helon’s face flushed red.

Murphy began dancing on a wooden board, his shoes clacking on the plank as he made his way toward his fallen victim, a rhythmic six step jig that seemed to speak in as many syllables, I have shoes and you don’t! I have shoes and you don’t! I have shoes and you don’t!

Helon put his hands down to push himself off the ground, felt his right hand touch something hard and rectangular, a brick judging by the feel, one of many left with the building supplies. The smaller boy jumped to a standing position, swinging upward with brick in hand, delivering a swift and unexpected upper cut to the jaw of Dean Murphy. Murphy staggered back, eyes glazed in disbelief. Legs wobbling, the older boy dropped into a sitting position, took one final look at his barefoot adversary, then lay back moaning, holding his bleeding jaw.

Helon turned to face Yates, but the older boy and the crowd were scrambling back to the school, Yates screaming and pointing wildly at the boy with the brick.

Helon dropped the brick at Dean Murphy’s feet and ran home. He never went back to school and no school official came looking for him. And Grandpa Dunlap neither whipped him nor rewarded him for his actions which, I suppose, was reward enough unto itself.

Bio: Curtis Dunlap lives near the confluence of the Mayo and Dan rivers in Mayodan, North Carolina. He has been published in a variety of journals including The Christian Science Monitor, Contemporary Haibun Online, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Floyd County Moonshine, Frogpond, Haibun Today, The Heron’s Nest, Magnapoets, Modern Haiku, Rusty Truck, and The Wild Goose Poetry Review. His web site is located at http://tobaccoroadpoet.com/

Benefits, by Carl Moore

Benefits
by Carl Moore

“Do you want the cancer coverage?”

I’m sitting in our corporate Human Resources office. The benefits counselor is distant, bored, toiling away on the assembly line of needy employees trying to get changes to their plans done the day before the deadline. I’m adding to the stack of maybe three or four hundred of these she has done this month, just before Halloween, this month of open enrollment, open season on the overworked HR staff.

I guess that Miss Benefits is in her early twenties. Young, too much so to be jaded in the dawn of her working life; perhaps Hawaiian, the girl could be downright pretty if she’d work on the personality and make eye contact occasionally. Her eyes are large, the brownish red of aged Carolina heart pine, framed in thick horn rims from when Hollywood made decent movies that needn’t rely on nudity and profanity, when fedoras were still en vogue and talk show hosts smoked on air. The thin sea foam sweater blouse that is wearing her is at least one size too small, clearly not her color. A silver ring and bracelet would stand out on her dark, unblemished skin, but she doesn’t even wear a watch; her long, thick black hair seems to have its own agenda.

“It’s only $4.72 a month,” she says, “and you don’t have to get it during open enrollment. You can sign up anytime.”

She’s not pushing the coverage, just asking another question on her list; a customer service rep absently following a script, perhaps thinking about another dinner from the microwave tonight while sitting in front of the television watching sitcoms, or how much she hates her boyfriend for sleeping with her best friend, but she’d take the bastard back if he’d just call.

“I’m not sure,” I say.

I think I want the policy, even if I have no clue what it covers. Insurance is such a mystical black box with a money slot in the brass padlocked lid. Two people in my office are undergoing chemotherapy for cancers that chased them into surgery, and it’s ignorant to believe I have any special immunity. Not that I believe there is something in the departmental water fountain, of course, but I’m a belt and braces kind of guy. Besides, it is only $4.72 disappearing into the slot each month, no digital rectal exam required.

Miss Benefits types constantly, never looking at her keyboard, staring into the glow of a wall-mounted flat panel monitor that swivels so she can point it at me to see information of vital importance: bimonthly deductions from my paycheck. I don’t have my reading glasses on, the ones I need since I converted from Baptist to Presbyopian, the religious affiliation of middle age, replete with lower back pain, uncooperative knees, and receding hairlines.

My hairline has long since retreated down the back of my neck, leaving in its wake a scorched earth policy.

“What about your life insurance?” she asks into the monitor, “this is an open enrollment year so you can increase it to your maximum based on your salary. This is how much you have now.” She slides a spreadsheet toward me with my current numbers circled. I can’t read the tiny print; it could be a page out of tonight’s television listings.

I miss Carson.

“This is how much you can increase it,” she says circling something else with blue ink. “How old are you?”

“I’ll be forty next month,” I tell her.

“Sucks for you,” she says flatly, looking something up on the Rosetta Spreadsheet. “At forty your costs go up to $16.40 a paycheck at your current level of coverage.”

I don’t know what I am paying now or my current level of coverage. Sixteen bucks doesn’t sound all that bad, not even half a tank of gas.

“I think I’m fine where it is,” I say, knowing life insurance for me at this point doesn’t mean anything near what I expected it to this far along in life.
Forty.

When I was in college, I actually thought I could change the world, believed that an individual could move mountains. An undergraduate degree in anything was an initial step to a good life, the average life, attainable by the average guy: the girl-next-door wife, two point five children, a split level ranch in the suburbs, and a black lab that stole unattended sticks of butter off the kitchen counter. The perennial-puppy black lab, $54 from the Newberry County Animal Shelter, was the only part of the plan that worked out, and he lives with my mother and doesn’t need my life insurance. Mom cooks him three squares a day, plus snacks, and makes him quilts to sleep on in his own burgundy recliner; not a bad life by any metric.

Miss Benefits looks at me and says, “I see you are changing your marital status from ‘Married’ to ‘Divorced.’”

I nod. She returns to her typing, satisfying some need, I suppose.

Those bimonthly alimony payments further sour the frayed-edged portrait painted in youth, colored with what society expects of us. At least there is no need for child support checks or custody hearings.

I really do miss my truck, though.

Failure, divorce, wasn’t part of my plan. Life, however, has a way of occurring and intruding on living, shaping situations in unintended, impromptu ways, bending the uncharted river into blind curves and dead-end branches filled with rocks and sharp stumps and swarms of tiny, black mosquitoes with attitudes. For a long time I felt like a failure. No one deemed clinically sane joins in the holy state of matrimony with the intention of divorcing, especially when divorce itself can be so incredibly expensive in emotional coin and hard currency. Lawyers, not unlike stock brokers, always do well regardless of who wins, not that there ever truly is a winner. The court documents all listed me as “defendant;” my singular wronging that of finally learning to say “no.”

Living took a hiatus for a year as life toddled onward into tomorrow. Court dates came, oaths were taken, agreements signed in triplicate in blue ink, each page initialed by all parties, and one became two. This one sans significant personal property, things I had worked for years to acquire, plus sixty outgoing, tax-deductible, bimonthly alimony checks. Such are the inequities in life.

Forty.

“Do you have any chronic conditions not already listed,” Miss Benefits asks.

“Well. I used to be Diabetic.”

“Used to be?” That stops her fingers on keyboard, garners her full attention for the first time. “What do you mean used to be? My dad’s been Diabetic for years and he’s not getting any better.”

“I used to weigh four hundred pounds,” I say.

That stops Miss Benefits for a minute. I can see she wants to ask me more, but I presume there is some Human Resources Oath that prevents personal prying beyond the colonoscopy-like questioning of demographics, financial history, credit rating, and insurance coverage. She recovers and returns to her computer monitor.
Forty.

My body is very different than it was at twenty. For one, I am in better physical condition than I have ever been, something of an anomaly in this society. Once the destructive effects of Diabetes finally prompted me into losing weight, my quality of life improved measurably by all clinical benchmarks. Today I run in the woods, ride the sidewalks hard on my big, orange mountain bike, and strength train at the gym, just one of the other rats chasing the Fitness Gouda. I don’t, however, recover nearly as quickly. The results of leaving my bike rather abruptly and unexpectedly – a right shoulder separation then a left radial head fracture – register recovery time in months, even years, now instead of days or weeks. I have to take time off to let my body rebuild what I tear up during play.

While I’m a firm believer in Gore Vidal’s “never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television,” there is something inherently delightful about a good night’s sleep, or a Sunday afternoon nap in the recliner. Staying up all weekend, living on stale pizza and warm beer, sleeping on a tattered, fourth-hand sofa or concrete dorm room floor, together would kill my current body off in a month. The young, reckless me has yielded significant ground to the older, mellower me who understands nowadays that everything comes with associated costs, paid now or later.

Once I wandered through life not realizing I was running up a significant balance on my Karmic Credit Card, interest compounded twice daily, no credit checks, no limits, no late fees, and we are all pre-approved for this offer. There are things I refrain from, things I don’t “do unto others,” if for no other reason than to avoid getting backed over in the parking lot by the Chartreuse Karma Bus.

Age, one hopes, breeds some modicum of discernment.

Forty.

Miss Benefits shifts in her black, leather-like office chair, reaches for blank forms which she then slides into the printer tray. She looks so young; I wonder what she will be thinking when she is my age, the age she has just tossed away with some derision.

She’s right in some sense, of course. According to governmental statistics, I’m over halfway to singing backup for Elvis. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for the King, I would like to put off post mortem sequin jumpsuits as long as possible.

Besides, I look much better in basic black.

Mortality is, however, something I actually spend time pondering. The knowledge that there are likely fewer years ahead than behind is humbling, engendering a sense of urgency to get that to-do list worked through, line items crossed off, contributions to humanity considered and pursued. With no offspring that I know of, this particular branch of the Moore Family Tree will, genetically speaking, wither and drop to the hard earth with little notice. This is something I have never had a problem with, feeling no need to procreate, though I do enjoy going through the motions. I’ve always thought this end of the gene pool would benefit from a little bleach. Besides, with significant advances in remote control technology, and my moving the outdoor trash bin closer to the back door, I simply have no need for children. Having a dog was responsibility enough, but I always knew he would never hit me up for college tuition or call from the local police station in the middle of the night. Once he stopped soiling the carpet and chewing up everything he could get his canines on, we got along fine. I always knew, though, if I couldn’t handle him, as a last resort, I could put him out down a long dirt road. Try that with a toddler and people really get upset.

Miss Benefit’s printer starts whirring and printing out form after form, all of which require my signature in blue ink, I expect. I take out my dollar store reading glasses, the 1.50 power ones I already know will need to be increased to 1.75 next year. She pushes the expected blue pen towards me and tells me to start signing. I begin to write my name on page after page where she indicates with fake French manicured fingers. I finish the stack, she takes them, gets up, and leaves the room. I hear the copier warm up just beyond the door and wonder where I will stuff this stack of paperwork away in some unlabeled folder at home, documents I never reference or need outside the HR office, boxes of paperwork someone one day will have to sort through when I’m on permanent vacation at Club Dirt.

There are, undoubtedly, useful things I would like to leave behind, a legacy, perhaps. I want to contribute to the world in some small, meaningful way, though I think it’s easy enough to rule out my addressing the big problems, the socio-political world issues. I can’t solve world hunger; I seem to own a refrigerator mainly to keep drinks cold and condiments I never use three years past their expiration date. My peacemaking skills aren’t exactly what are necessary to go out into the world ending border disputes and wars. At least one of my neighbors no longer speaks to me after I told her what I thought of her and the barking dog she leaves in the yard until midnight every night. No, I realize that, serendipity aside, I need to plan practically, do the things I am able while dreaming just a little larger than realistic, address those things that are accomplishable in what comes after today.

Forty

To think that by my age, Alexander had conquered the world, Hemingway was well-published, and Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer serving in the Illinois state legislature. One would imagine with technology and instant access to information, personal accomplishment would be easier. Then again, those guys didn’t have the distractions of the internet, video games, and cable television.

“So, do you want the cancer insurance?” Miss Benefits is back from the copier and staring at me in the impatient way Mrs. Blalock did in tenth grade English when my imagination wandered off, and I was on stage playing guitar with Van Halen during the David Lee Roth years. So far removed from the awkward adolescent me, so much of him remains at my core. I think through the options for a moment, considering the prudent course of action, what the responsible me knows I should do. Then I look up at Miss Benefits and give her what she needs to complete her checklist.

“You know,” I say, “I think I’ll pass.”

—————————————

BIO: Carl Eugene Moore holds an MBA in Accounting & Finance, an MBA in Health Care Management, an MFA in Creative Writing, and is currently doing his doctoral work in Health Administration with a focus on Health Informatics and Health Care Quality. He has poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photography published and is currently the nonfiction editor for a literary magazine and a feature editor for an academic journal. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Health and Medical Informatics and English. His memoir, Passing Through – Recovery from Diabetes and Food Addiction and novella Bean Counter are available in paperback and eBook – http://www.carlmoore.org.