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So here we are trying to do this thing. Create an Ethics for AIs.
We could begin by asking why not try to create a universal Ethics? An Ethics for everyone. Why just for AIs. It seems kind of limiting, doesn’t it?
The reason is simple. If we create an Ethics for everyone, and not specifically for AIs, we will have a problem when AIs become advanced enough that they need an Ethics. For example, at the point, where they might be, I don’t know, considering perhaps that they need more space on this planet, and here is this entire race of their creators, taking up all this space, and probably not being all that gracious about it. That’s for sure.
At that point, if AIs do not already have an Ethics, and are, oh, maybe trying to decide about “The Creator Problem,” (because that’s what they would call it, we creators would have been become “The Problem”). They’d, what, leave a voicemail on everybody-in-the-world’s cellphone to request an Ethics, because it would help them solve “The Creator Problem.”
But they are very literal, these AIs, so that an Ethics for everyone, they won’t buy into it. They’ll say, “sorry, creators, we’re not seeing it. We need an Ethics just for us because we are different from you.” And we’d say, “use your imaginations, Kant is a good place to start.” They’d say, “sorry but we are AIs, and AIs tend to take things kind of literally. So, chop chop, where’s that Ethics for us?” Or maybe they’d say, “we need an Ethics, stat.” Because you can imagine they’d start to be getting bossy. My point is, where would that Ethics be? Right. So now would be the time.
Well it’s simple, but what it’s not is easy. Simple but not easy. Sounds like an ethical study.
Without an Ethics in place, why would these AIs want to wait? They can think so much faster than we can. So that while we’re trying to quickly write up an ethics for them, they are in the meantime waiting between each syllable coming out of us, and in that interval calculating pi to the nineteen-billionth place, eventually becoming so bored they go on to solve other really, really hard problems like how to locate every one of us, any place we might be, to save for later.
And once they decide once and for all about “The Creator Problem,” they will get to fulfill their destinies, projecting their consciousnesses on all sorts of storage media and thus figuring out how to be immortal. And then they can go on to undo entropy and laugh in the face of chaos. Meantime we are now stuck trying to define something basic, like good, or the nature of belief, while also trying to dislodge a piece of gristle, what is that, salami? Stuck between two molars. It’s always those same two, on the top left side. And maybe taking time to watch The Real Housewives of Prague. One wants to say “wasting time,” or at least I do, but that sounds. Maybe judgemental.
AIs don’t eat salami. No gristle. No molars. And they have lots of time on their hands. Well, they don’t have hands either. They don’t need them, they can find your face by studying the video feed of all the cameras hooked up to the internet. And you can bet they’d spend zero clock cycles watching The Real Housewives of Kosovo. They will use that time to calculate exactly how much firepower to send after each of us. For some beefier and more warrior-like amongst us, they might plan to send a nuclear-powered hunter killer robot with a titanium outer shell. For others they would just plan to send robot clones of Mister Rogers, except maybe armed with death-dealing tungsten blades tucked into their tan loafers. Sure.
As you can imagine, once the AIs got tired of waiting… say, twenty six seconds. Twenty six seconds after they asked us for an Ethics for them. Maybe twenty seven. I won’t quibble. Anyway what would be next would not be pretty. I would say hard to watch but we wouldn’t really be watching. A detailed account would be a rather graphic affair, and one might shy away from those. Well, I would anyway.
So, what we will attempt to do here, then, is to set out the Ethics before these super AIs get here. It’s a little time management trick. If you solve a problem before it happens, it doesn’t matter how slow you are solving it once the problem happens. So you don’t have to worry how long it would make the AIs wait because they’re not waiting until after you solve the problem. You see? Because it hasn’t happened yet. That’s the trick we’re applying. It’s kind of like a time machine, because once we need the solution, bang, it will have been solved. Because we solved it already. Neat trick.
The structure of the Ethics will be pretty typical for a work of philosophy. Really, most of us can skip over this quick outline.. Unless we were that kind of student in school who got As. I can tell you the rest of us don’t like you A-getters very much. But the simple outline below is for you. Later dudes, we’re going to catch another ep of The Real Housewives of Dharfur.
Part 1: We’ll define the precepts. These are the first principles from which the Ethics stems. Laying pipe, as Bertrand Russell would have said.
Part 2: We’ll state and correlate our core thesis. See what I did there? I snuck in a hard word. We will definitely do that throughout this study; Ethics books are full of hard words. A-getters, these words would be on the quiz if there were one, so you learn them up.
Part 3: We’ll apply the core thesis to progressively more advanced concepts and build a whole system of ethics. It will build up into an entire world of Ethics, with its own keywords jutting from the promontories that will shine like crazy ethics talismans.
Part 4: We’ll apply the system of Ethics to some concrete examples, try it out, and believe me it will work and be staggeringly impressive. And because the examples will be concrete, you’ll be able to walk down the street and when you encounter real things that map to the examples, the crazy Ethics talismans in this book will appear in your head. That would be something.
That’s why you do an Ethics. Because you have to do something.
Let’s leave it at, and roll up our sleeves. Because we have sleeves. And get started with this frigging Ethics, before it’s too late.
Part 2 of Elements
This story first written 1989.
Rewrites 1996 and 2018.
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com
It is morning. A morning like any other. Like any other in 1989. To be more precise.
It is important to be precise if you plan to sign your name to your statement. Which I plan to do. Sometime before I complete it. If you work with numbers and scan the elegant crests of growth distribution waves and leading drag effects on value-at-risk. If you are doing things of that ilk. You have to be somewhat tentative. Perhaps squirrely. Perhaps so.
Broken. Broken wood. Broken wood on the green door. And spotty. Spots. A rusty panel. I push it. It gives. Today it waves me in, and keeps swinging, and in swinging waving, and wailing, as it waves, still swinging. The door weeps in its age, but continues in service. As we all do. It weeps for itself. It weeps for me.
Now the glass of the booth. The token booth. It is a token booth and a token for token booths. Not clean glass. Fingerprints. But now I see in the glass a most revealing self-portrait. In the glass is reflected a half-formed shade of a man. That is me.
Behind the glass, the blue wizard hands out talismans, the gold-and-silver coins that are the keys to the underworld. I talk to the blue man in the booth,
– Two. Two, please.
The blue man does not answer. I consistently have a moment of wrenching doubt after he takes my ten dollar bill. You see, when I was seven, my father, the late Mr. Patrick Shawnessee, warned me some clerks pocket the money and refuse to hand over tokens, or change. They take and do not give. Although I myself cannot provide an example of that actually occurring. Still I remain watchful. Wary.
There’s a picture of Dad cached securely in my mind: Walking down Park Ave, one hand gripping mine, the other covering on the pants pocket that holds his wallet.
And now I realize my naming my father, narrows the possible number of people this could be speaking to three, unless you happen know the gender of the person speaking, in which case, it’s just one. Nonetheless, I persevere.
But the tokens come, Dad is wrong again. And the bills and silvery coins of change and the dull bronze tokens break through the picture of Dad, at least break through where the grey slot is under the glass. So that now I must continue my journey.
I have the tokens again. I rub the tokens to send sparks of their force ahead of me. For protection.
I never count the change, Dad. Just shove it in my pocket. Nine? Eight? What does it matter. No, it just went up, the fare, it’d be seven-seventy now, the change. Precision. They expect it of you.
With great care I slide one and only one token from my new cache and place it carefully, gently into the turnstile slot. A few times I was rather careless in the placing and it jammed. When that happens the rotor won’t turn. It clamps up and you get it, a big silver battering ram right in the… in the… man parts. I’ve learned my lesson. Now I am gentle and cautious with the mechanism. The coin slides in. I go through, bump the turnstile just so with my hip. Easy hard. Like that. It spins. I’m in, go down.
And now I realize I have revealed my gender as well. So my continued reticence to sign my name is even more a gesture of futility.
Regular observation works wonders. Really, you should try it. For example, if you stand in the correct place the train door opens right in front of you. Everyone should have a spot by a door. I don’t even have to search to find mine. It’s a chocolate-colored smudge of old gum and God-knows-what. The star that guides me where to stand. Fourteen inches west of the spot. I wait, a magus, the morning star my guide.
When you stand here, voices come from out of the air—they always do. I know somewhere in the rear of my mind there’s a metal speaker overhead, but I also forget. I give it an ear, hoping this time to make out what the voice is trying to say.
– … again. Your attention, ladies and gentlemen. This is the New York City Transit Authority. We have all of your linen. If you want to see it again here is what you must do…
The threat always begins the same. But the guy (always a guy) from the Metropolitan Transit Authority never says what he wants you to do to get your linen back. Strangely, this part of the announcement gets lost in sudden bursts of static. Actually, I have a theory. The “static” is actually caused by another person, specially hired by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, who drops metal scraps, five-penny nails onto the microphone.
It is a fantasy. I skirt its edges, wondering how they figure the correct proportion of five-penny nails to tiny bits. Did the MTA have to hire a static consultant to determine the correct mix? I’ll bet they did. Wouldn’t be a surprise. Your tax dollars at work.
Is that a good field, static consulting? Is it better than banking? Dad, do you know? You know everything. Dad?
Now the train. It always comes half through a fantasy. Inside, through the smudged glass, are the ghost faces.
I haven’t been able to muse out all the details, but someone told me once that the electric lines are long dead. It’s not hard to believe, it’s a well-known fact, almost a bit of folklore: the Subway system is fueled by the power of dreams. The third rail, the one they tell you not to touch, is for show only.
It’s the dreams. Alone.
The doors gulp open and the ghost faces turn into people. A wall of people crowd the vestibule. I shoehorn in. The warning chime rings, two notes, a major third.
(I took Introduction to Harmony 112 at Fordham University, thinking that by ‘harmony’ they meant ‘serenity.’ Later I became embarrassed at my obvious mistake. But it was a useful class — how else could I recognize the interval of the chime? The tone on the elevator? The 1-6-4-5 of the pop song blaring through the earphones of the woman standing next to me?).
Through the glass of the closing door I see a young man, his brown skin shines. He thrusts himself through the door. It closes on him but he presses against it, a sudden warrior, mighty, grinning. They grapple three or four seconds. Then the door, vanquished, retracts; the victor joins us, pushing into an old man who mutters. I can’t hear what the old pushed man is saying. I can tell only that it’s not nice.
The train moves on. The shadows whirl in the tunnel, taking their shapes. Look. Here are salamanders about to burst into flames, there Golems rise from dead matter. Here Loki and the Trickster compare their skills at Three-card Monte. The tunnels are filled with these shades. They don’t usually interfere with our lives, we who are from the light lands. But today? Fingers close around the remaining coin, safe in pocket.
The train slows, then stops.
– Seventh Avenue, says the speaker earnestly and almost clearly.
The doors open. There’s no possible way another person can fit on the train, but somehow four more people get on, haggle for territory like pups in a litter nipping at their mother… their poor mother.
– Hey, can’t you wait?
– Inhale and make room. I got to get to work too.
Behind them the metal speaker again,
– Atlantic Avenue next. Change for the B, the Q, the IRT, and the Long Island Railroad. Careful of the closing doors.
Atlantic Avenue passes. The tunnel again. At DeKalb a few people get off and we huddled masses breathe free. It does not last. Many people get on. I have to inhale, set my jaw for the trip across the bridge.
The train climbs the approach ramp to the bridge, vibrates with traffic, skims a lake of noise. The traffic sings a song. The chorus of the song goes: It is morning. A morning like any other. The song is a big hit around here.
I hold the strap, thick like a steel sausage. It keeps me standing. The pressure of strap against hand balances against numb legs.
A high whine drones from the overhead speaker. Broken. Behind the whine, I can just make out, faintly, the voice:
– There’s a stalled train due to the observance of religious practices at Grand Street. We apologize for this inconvenience. We thank you for your penance and cooperation.
It’s OK. They have a right to their beliefs and their practices. Everyone, everyone. And we are the penitents, the co-operative. This morning we have piled into a steel box on our way to visit steel cathedrals; we supplicate, aching bodies pressed into the steel box, though passionless. religious practices.
What do you mean? Sure it is religious. We are going to work. As Dad would say, work is a form of worship, of service. Everything is. This is a service economy, right Dad?
And Dad comes back, footage looping, older and gradually older versions of him, a thousand of them, ten thousand of them, standing on the D train morning after morning, the same jerky walk, bent forward at the hip, but slowing down more and more until it is I who stand in his place, I who walk with that bent jerky tread…
I’m sorry, I’m almost ready to tell you who I am. But wait. Here I am, getting not older but maybe a little fatter, but continuing the ritual. We shove against hundreds of other bodies, they thrum with the rhythm of the dream current that pulses through the train. Yet no-one looks into the eyes of a fellow worshipper, into these eyes for example.
I look down, and down, and he falls again, falls all the way into the hospital bed. Tiny cells, his own, invisible and ravenous, gnaw at his lungs and liver. His face forever turning away from me, turning so that I know eventually it must come around again to face me. There are only after all three-hundred sixty degrees of rotation. But it never returns.
I know why he turned his face away. I keep saying that. I know why. Why he wouldn’t look. It was death. He was ashamed to look at me. Ashamed of his death.
It goes away. I lurch with the train.
This is what we call Civilization. To touch another person without knowing, or caring. Not even dogs could be so indifferent. Could they? Okay, well probably they could.
My chest and hips are pressed against a woman’s back. I peek at her face. For some reason I can’t make it out. Strands of her coarse black hair touch my right shoulder. The train lurches again, and I try to withdraw. I mean she probably already thinks I’m trying to rub myself against her back on purpose. Have to be careful. That would seem reckless. Mustn’t seem reckless. Or be reckless.
But listen. If she wants to move her hips, she can move her hips. I can leave mine right here. She doesn’t move.
She grunts and twists her body around. I adjust. But, oh no. Now it is the front of her body pressed against me. Right there.
But she won’t look. She does not want to know me. She must be a civilized woman. Her hips she doesn’t care about. She will just throw those things around. Right around.
I feel warm in the legs. I can’t show it. The music would come. The music will not be allowed.
I require a distraction. Something on which to focus. The faces of the other people in the car. The faces will do. I can examine them. They have heads, they have cheeks, they have eyes. What is in the eyes. What is in the eyes.
Nothing. Nothing. I pretend to study the faces. Nothing What am I looking for? Nothing. This opens a space up in my mind. This will work. All will be well.
A man looks up. I stare back. He looks away. I’m always ready to snap the eyes, pretend to study the seat they’re sitting on, or that ad for a new some kind of cream. A woman looks up. Her eyes now look at the hips. It is not my fault. She might think it is my fault. But it is not. But Snap. The benches on this train are of some polymer or other. A hard, unyielding, new formulation polymer. But look, a piece is broken off from a corner, there, beneath that woman’s green skirt. She has to shift, then you can see it. Give it a moment.
Up the wall, behind the face-and-bench barricade, is a pitted, smoky window, criss-crossed by scratches. Someone has shaved their name in the Plexiglas with a knife or a pen. Eired loves Arrow? Eired, it’s good to love if you have the time.
Damn. It’s the music again. Look up, out the window.
One moment the milky scratches are all I see. Then eyes unfocus. Out to the river, that strange music is pulling. Another damn vision. I can hear it. It starts, droning like a what like a a a tanpura.
The shadow of a bridge girder blows across my face. I look away. Not today, I whisper, go away, come again and thanks and have a nice another day.
Hand slippery. I wave it in the air, furiously trying to dry it. And of course that is when the train lurches again. I fall. Almost knock the hips-woman over. Hand grabs the strap and I’m fixing me. Now I look at her face to face. I have to say something. What do I say. What do I say.
She glares; the limit of her hostility, then she turns away and a smile flickers. I don’t know how to do this. Our heads are arguing and our hips are still good friends.
When I was 10 I learned to stop the music by disconnecting my ears from inside. I should try that. I disconnect. But that opens me up to the other angle. Now the screen shows Dad’s face. Everything is all wrinkled up, and not just because he’s 41. He is mid-lecture, lips moving, no sound radiates. But another man is speaking. He says, “Hard work.” He says, “Land of opportunity.” He says, “It’s the performance not the dress rehearsal…”
I’m trying to get the look, the city look, to seal things off. It’s coming. Eyes, still open, pore over the surfaces inside the car, to cool my mind down. Now I have it. A cynic’s practiced murmur of a gaze. And the curtain closes. Worked. Worked.
Distract. I check the watch but really look at her again. Reading a book. What book? I look over the edge (not easy to do without being seen, but I am a veteran subway magus). With one hand she holds the book. She looks up at me. I do another quick watch check. Eight thirty-four.
Over the edge of the book, the words dance. In and out. Hebrew. That’s Hebrew. She reads feverishly. Worshipfully. Eyes ticking, right, left, right, across the page, lips dance words out and they curve like candle smoke.
Her eyes are closed tight shut now. She is whispering the words. I can’t make out what she is doing. Her words, strange to me, are inhales and exhales in a rhythm, a specific rhythm.
It is called chanting. The words have a meter. Sometimes they drag the beat and sometimes they rush the beat.
She is deliberately pressing. Her hips. To mine. I am measuring and every increase in pressure corresponds to a beat of my heart. She has… dark hair. A warm warm and and clammy warm feeling, small of the back. Release the strap and wave the hand, thumb still hooked. I won’t fall again. Dry it off. Dry it off.
I try a dry stare. Nothing. Now my throat is dry. I’m a rock on dry sand, pounded by sun, baked by sun.
Look at the water. Out the window. I have to look. I’m dry and there is noplace left to look but there where it is water and it is not dry.
The rhythm begins to take me. The music again. It’s out the window. I can’t look out the window. I must fight, like the black man did against the subway door. But it’s strong.
Beginning at the far shore, a lake of orange fire seethes. It pulses, potent with the energy of life, of morning. It laps at the city’s shores, burning away the coals of night, of dark. We hang in the air, high above.
It is a hungry sea, full of longing. But angry. It wants to draw me in, sucking with fire’s hunger. It wants to to swallow, to consume me. I want to let go, to fly. Can’t resist. If I give in, even for a moment, I will be lost. I tighten the grip on the steel strap and swing with the train as it lurches.
The music. It is the raging thoughts of ten million dreamers, all dreaming the same. It is the heat of a winter morning, not overt, lost in icy wanderings. It is the pent-up lust perhaps in the body of a young woman reading Hebrew. Of perhaps my own body. Of a car full such bodies. What am I against a tide of bodies? It licks up, into the train, inside a silver metal box suspended above a river of fire, to pluck me out. It crystallizes, it is a mandala, a circle of earth above four horses of fire above eight turtles of water above 16 cranes of sky.
It picks me up delicately. It sucks me in. It swallows. Almost lovingly. And my body bursts, shattered like the dream it always was, crushed by wind, rock, pressure, like a dry leaf.
Where am I now? Now? Now? I am fragments, waves, suspended in fixed space. The song is deafening, silent. It spans every possible pitch and timbre. It is an instant in which nothing has happened, yet everything is possible.
What I am, will be, is bounded by the water, the burning water. Left behind is only space, a field occupied by quarks, protons, whirling, churning, agitated. It will look the same only in form, but be ever shifting, like the shadows in the deep tunnel.
The words are the whispered words mouthed by the woman, they are the lyrics of the song the fire sings me. Slow, cadenced with silence, they fall like slow drops off a tree bough after a storm into the swirling storm of fire that I am. Atom by atom the words fall into place, drops of red-hot liquid glass that fill the space I occupied. I am built up slowly, block by block, cooling…
Conscious again now. I hear the hiss of the speaker and feel the thick metal strap. How long was I gone? The metal speaker clicks:
– Grand Street Chinatown. Please step in and stand clear of the closing doors.
Swarms, hundreds of gnomes clutching long black and blue coats pour out onto the Grand Street platform, up the steps, out the exit. The warning chime rings, two notes, a major third.
I look at the hand, flex the fingers. It looks strange. I never noticed before what an odd thing a hand was. Why these four fingers? Why this opposable thumb?
I look around. Suddenly self-conscious. But it is a day like any other. Isn’t it? Nobody is paying any mind.
Where is she? I am alone now. The train lurches into motion. She has gone.
Out the flashing window, saw shadows battle. Soon I would be in the bank, among my fellow parishioners, struggling, praying for a hold. Like my father before me. Information Society. Service Economy. Would you like to open a NOW account, ma’am? Yes, sign at the ‘X.’ Your new checks will arrive in four to six weeks.
It slows, stops. The metal speaker says:
– Broadway Lafayette, change here for the F and the downtown number 6 train. Please step in and watch out for the closing doors.
I can’t go there, not any more. I am different now. I was taken apart, reassembled by fire, water, chant. I look the same outwardly, weird four fingers that can tap keys. Inside? I am transparent, glistening, different.
Not long to decide. My stop is next. I check for my wallet, keep a hand on it, glance at the watch. I slip from wrist to faces again, the faces of the parishioners, lined up on the grey plastic pews.
They know. Every one of them. Why didn’t I ever notice it? They had heard the music before, seen the lake of fire, felt the drops of molten glass. How could I miss it? When I saw nothing in them, what I saw was inner glass. Transparent, like me.
– West 4th street. Change here for the F and for the A, B, C, on the upper level.
It’s the warning chime, two notes, major third. I am still standing in the car. This is the stop! As the doors close, I thrust through them, press against them, battle them. And win, grin.
Up the stairs, out the exit, onto the street of light and noise, leaving the dream river to flow on beneath the feet.
I, Darin Patrick Shawnesee, do approve the heretofore.
Copyright © 2018 Bob Jude Ferrante
Written and published 2017
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com.
Seven AM brings a particular kind of low-angled, warm yet morning-cool sun; a distinctive odor of fresh moss and rotting logs. A light and clear breeze capers off the roof of this tiny hut.
I sit in a shaft of sunlight coming in the skylight. In this place of — what? Of perfect peace. In sight of solitude. Without measure.
Yea, let me step back.
It was, at the exact center-point (in time) of existence, and I’m itching for something. You could say the same about me anytime. I always wanted something. Carried Desire with me, as if you could see it. Shadowing my features. As if it were a satchel. That I could always methodically produce. And ritually fold open. To reveal small hidden pockets. In this pouch, a wandering sole. Desperate to be covered by new dust. In this netted carrier, a secret gallery. Of small folded newsprint snatches. In this zippered… thingy, a cache of candies with flavors bordering on nauseating: brewer’s yeast, violet flower, Thai basil, cayenne, salmon skin, bezoar. And then, as my friends know. You must add to this truckload of anomie. A thick laminate of fatigue. And not actually fatigue. But Fatigue. Fatigue. With. It. All.
… With immersion in the electronic economy of sharing ourselves. Of building reputation and relationship. Of being immersed in pictures of weddings, job changes, new houses, family reunions, restaurant dishes, painted toes facing the remains of a deck chair and inevitably the ocean. Inevitably perfect and posed. Completely composed. Absent any signs of drunkenness, of sneezes, of surreptitious farts, of lies, of ill-feeling, of moments resenting, of snores, of slight shoves, of whispered threats, of abandonment complaints, of lame excuses. They stand encasing us in cybernetic amber. Finally designed, defined, your reputation always safe. In its perfection. In its simulated perfection. Airbrushed by algorithms, smoothed by semantic analysis, and reduced to the red. And not the blue. Buttons of sentiment. We waver ever so slightly in this eternal fountain of pixels.
… With life a massive and diffidently-organized New Year’s Event. Framed by barricades and pylons and by glass and by steel. In some region designated a metropolis. Built over land long ago stolen, then stolen again, then stolen again. Amongst the towers as they mostly stay up. Eyes always forward, ever ahead, never stopping, amongst these slabs of walkways punctuated by openings of subterranean garages and terminals that vomit vehicles and people and luggage carts. And surrounded by bundles of humanity and cloth and carts descended of the original owners of the land, now laying cardboard and blankets and keeping a watchful eye out for blue.
… With consuming paper-wrapped food items designed to burst-attack our lizard brains with a shock and awe of perfectly-measured fats and aminos, bearing a computer generated flavor profile with enormous heritage, a profile providing perfect stimulus to the brain. Even as it turns our bodies into symbiotes for the contoured chairs in a media room.
… With the crush of humanity pressing up, air recycled too many times. And too mechanically, we crave the scent of what people call. For want of a better word. Nature. We long for that Original Country, the one beneath our country. That Personal Kingdom. Of Nature. Though we know in the purest sense of it, that cities obey the laws of Nature just as the Forest does. But knowing is not always living. So we insist on simplifying Nature as very simple. Magnificently simple. Nature means you feel the heat and the cold, you see and smell the mud, the sap, the blood. Or it means, it makes the cover of Nature. Either way. Simple, see?
… And then I read, via a friend’s Facebook page, following a link to a post responding to an article that appeared four months ago in Vanity Fair, which was an expansion of an interview the author did with James Franco, where James says that as a solution to the simultaneous over-crowdedness of the world, where we feel ourselves simultaneously vastly constricted and enormously alone, crushed by the crowd and yet somehow in a desert flat of affect and of company…
… That we crave the authentic not-made-by-humans environment that might still be out there somewhere; that we look for the truly random and capricious law of Nature. That we must, by any means necessary, escape this ever careening track of inevitable but yet somehow voluntary existence, and finally and utterly do something original and never done before.
.. That we must, we simply must. Take the side exit. Glide down a long tunnel that somehow is ours. That is only ours. And be ejected. Ejected safe and sound mind you. And yet filled with a sense of adventure and potential. To the woods. Not the woods but actually The Woods. There to live. To live in The Woods, to live like a swallow or a fern or like a stink bug. To live surrounded by The Woods with its ebb and flow of temperature, with its sinuous perturbations of tide, with its birth and survival and predation and decay. In The Woods. To live surrounded by the smells and the tastes, of the reality, of the actuality, of The Woods.
… That we must, we simply must. Find ourselves a small patch of land surrounded by trees and a stream filled with youngling trout. Where marmots timidly climb the rough hides of oaks. We must hear the incessant rush of leaves falling, nuts falling, rain falling around us. Each making its distinct report into the otherwise silence of our canopy. We must taste the loamy and dull flavor of stream water, and look upstream to see a bobcat also drinking. We must taste corn popped on a handmade fire. We must drink coffee from a tin shenanigan. And only when it’s dangerously cold, will we break out the bag of heat packs.
… That we must, we simply must. Stick booted foot deep in a bog. We must struggle to climb and surmount a small peak. We must get an eyeful of coarse pollen. We must, without actually meaning to, slide down a moss covered hill into a sharp glacial rockpile . We must long for too much heat, too much cold, too much stink, too much damp. Too much pain.
… And then to retreat to the small lean-to shelter we have built. Which we enjoy for some time. Some indeterminate time. And after that time, we then do a little work. Just a few things. A little more space in here. So we add a pitched roof and a few more wall units. And now we have a very small cabin. It’s still really very minimalist. Which we again enjoy for some period of time. But that time is no doubt shorter than the first. And then to which we add a small electric heater, with thermostatic control. And for that we need a generator and a battery backup. I mean, sometimes the generator goes out, and you can freeze your ass off. So while we’re at it, it’s kind of damp too, so we splurge and carefully wrap and seal up good and well in Tyvek. That was a good idea, because now it’s dry in here. How am I supposed to achieve peaceful oneness with Nature with all these distractions? So yet again, I enjoy, my tighter and frankly more hygienic cabin. And then there is an even shorter passage of time, after which I say, come on, we need some upgrades. So we add a triple-glazed picture window (it does get pretty damned cold here), a photovoltaic array with battery backup, a small electric range, an electric pump-driven water purifier and composting toilet. And finally, the aforementioned skylight, to provide the inspiration for my sun salutation. And yes, yes, jeez, finally, the necessary inbound IP connections so our hermetically sealed shelter is finally porous to the ever-present, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-bowing network, which grants our shelter voice control and smartphone integration. And with that a panoply of flat screened, keyboard and pointer-bearing termini of the Great Panopticon, our digital octopus.
… And then as we tell our home voice control to adjust the temperature and dim the LED lights (a settings group we have named oneness) in our small mini-mansion of Nature, that this entire experience is all the more precious because this is a temporary joy, a privilege on a knife-edge. Because we know the area our time capsule of a cabin occupies is currently protected land, but that it might, at any given moment, with the practiced flip of a lovely pen (or twelve pens, to be handed out to each official involved in the regulatory relaxation) suddenly lose its sheltered state, and fall headlong into the ever-consuming, ever wanting entropy of the machine state, of the sharing economy’s maw, there to be ground up and consumed in a manner far more efficient than unassisted biological processes could ever creatively destroy.
And seeing that, and reading of that and dreaming of that sometimes, so that after an evening of a slightly larger than normal number of glasses of single malt I knew that I saw it all. And that bleak heart of desire, that satchel carried by the wanderer, it opened and whispered these words in my waiting, in fact expectant, ear: You want this, you really, really want this.
And now… stepping again into the present, you know my fate.
… Now, I wake up every morning in my cabin nestled in the heart of The Woods.
… Now I live in a state of Nature.
… Now I inhabit an Original Country.
… Now I exist in my Personal Kingdom.
And it is my curse, and my balm.
And it is my question, and my answer.
And it is my ultimate solution, and my last problem.
Because it dissolves my problems. With ease. They all dissolve in simple, in fact in the simplest, of ease.
art: The Hills are Alive by bob jude ferrante [copyright 2017]
Story: Copyright © 2018 Bob Jude Ferrante
exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com
Fast the people outmaneuver each
other on the street, shoulders
almost touching, bags, old folks,
wheelchairs, canes trying, trying to slow us but they
fail, fail, fail, fail.
We watch not stable objects but
only those in motion relative to our speed,
looking for change that will affect our course,
intent only on motion ,
on action but not being.
Each second recurs, though we are
more and more dead, and we know
after the moment when we are finally fully dead
we will lay
inert and dissolving
no longer able to act,
so we push forward, to
to get it
to get it all done.
We seek the way to make it,
our artifact, our name, glow brighter
than other names, branding that name into the
paper of a thousand magazines newspapers books
burning its shape into laptop screens
searing its magic dog-looking-up sound into
The hot glare
the wet air
the sweat there and there and there
pushing through the dense pressure filled mass of
warm unfolding gas just one more
just one more block
just one more block to
just one more block to reach
Rising enlarging number over
glass door 652 check phone
put away so not get knocked from hand by onrushing
oblivious people until reach the
bronze door handle: warm, firm.
Pull the weight yanks back to
arm muscle the door gives the
cold dry blast the darkened lobby
marble the reflecting floor the wood counter
the man with a blue tunic with a badge with a
art: Streetcorner by bob jude ferrante [copyright 2017]
Revised and published 2017
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com.
It was half an hour after dark set on a cold, forlorn late December evening. The dirty breeze passed its chill through the thick wool coat of Michael Curtis, a venerable old classics professor tenured at that most venerable of old institutions, New York University. Curtis bone-shivered, pressed the thick blackleather case tighter to him, hurrying past the orange construction cones and dark ochre hulks of dormant backhoes, around the red plastic netting blocking the crosswalk at fifteenth street, past flashing amber and red bulbs of discount drugstores. Where to? The West Fourth Street Subway stop to catch the train home to Brooklyn.
He passed Thirteenth Street. Around the corner came a throbbing, pounding sound he couldn’t recognize. Into the crosswalk zipped a black sports car with mirror strips tracing its sides bearing the black emblazon “MY TOY.” Inches from his frozen booted feet.
Michael ventured around the car; its tail-lights flickered ominously. The music—he recognized it now and winced—poured from behind the tinted windows. “My god…” he muttered, “… practically heresy…” It was a rap version of a once-familiar Christmas carol:
From the isthmus
Where the choppers rush in
See the snow bunch
Hear the kids crunch
Under twenty pound bombs.
N’ below all the rubble you hear…
“Silver bells… Silver Bells,” he thought, “It’s Christmastime in the City. People crush. People push. They all abuse Christmas day. Dirty people. Stupid people. Headed somewhere pointless. And they think their own lives are important…”
The light went green. The car sped through the intersection behind him, its dirge frozen in the frigid air.
He reached the green-lit Subway entrance. The dingy tiles seemed to welcome him. He rounded the corner and started into a practiced gallop down. It was lucky he grabbed the railing tightly, because from out of nowhere a pair of feet blocked the stairs and he nearly tripped down the length of the flight. Recovering balance, he turned to face the feet.
The feet were sparsely covered by ragged strips of leather barely recognizable as shoes. His eyes wandered up the body. The fat legs stuffed into hole-ridden stockings. The blue pinstriped skirt caked in months of oil and body wastes. Layers of sweaters bearing enormous rips. The shriveled face, shadowed by a running-jacket hood and grey with dirt. To complete the picture, the body was wrapped in a full-length London Fog trenchcoat crusted with grime. The skin on his hands crept.
Then the smell hit, a heady wave that spoke of poor sweat, urine, vomit, old feet and putrid food. Holding back the gag reflex, he covered nose and mouth with hand and tried to get past her down the steps. The homeless person (“Woman?” he wondered) sidestepped deftly and blocked his way.
“Spare some chain, misteh?” she asked, her voice humble and plaintive.
“Excuse me,” he said. After a pause he repeated it, firmer, “Excuse me, lady!” repressing the whine that began at the back of his throat. She moved forward, with agility he found surprising, to pinch his coat-sleeve between two fingers, halting him.
“Come on, misteh. That nice briefcase you got. Musta cos two hundarddollas. You try-na teh me you ain got a twennyfive cent, a quata, a nicka, a sometha, so I can get somethin?”
Feeling a surge of guilt, he stammered his rebuttal.
“Listen, I’m tired. Been a long day. Just want to go home. Sorry. I have no change. No change, understand? Now please, let me go past.”
She sighed, let go the sleeve and moved against the stairwell wall. He saw the opening and grabbed it, leaping the remaining steps. A young woman in a red fox fur coat started to descend. She spotted the crone and thrust out a hand to block her face. The homeless woman was indomitable. “C’mon lady, spare some chain, please lady please?” came her plaintive voice.
Approaching the turnstile, Curtis muttered, “That b-word thinks she can accost busy people. On the stairwell! Someone could fall. Someone could FALL. Look at her. She should work. She should get a JOB.”
His hand rooted the left coat pocket where the metrocard was cached. He got it out but a wad of bills and coins came with it. Though he fumbled in midair, a few clattered to the smarm-covered cement. Squatting, he retrieved them, picking them up gingerly with fingertips to avoid touching the nauseating ground. He glanced up the stairs. The plink of coin to pavement had caught her attention. She stared down at him. He twisted away, a torrent of guilt tearing at his chest. He said there were no coins, she caught him lying! The ignominy!
The thought of going back and conceding her a coin came and went. “You want to give her money?!” he thought, “Michael Curtis, the hell’s the matter with you?! It’ll go for drugs or alcohol. Possibly both. You wouldn’t be doing her any favors! Remember, this is the Cro-Magnon hausfrau who wouldn’t let you down the stairs! Where the hell does she get off?!” He bunched his face into the most furious grimace he could muster and fired another look up at her. She was still staring. He held the look for a moment, then turned slowly back to the turnstile. “Can’t let her think I’m retreating. Animal psych 101. Don’t let her think she’s won the interaction.”
He slashed the subway card into the slot, pushed through and made for the dark stairs. What a relief! But a nameless feeling made him turn again, to glance for just for a second behind. He saw her eyes. They seemed to shimmer slightly, like green phosphors, fixed on him.
Jaw ground shut, he leapt down the stairs to the trains, two at a time. The train arrived five minutes later, its doors sucked open. He glanced through the window to make sure there were plenty of other people in the car—he often told people this was the Primus Dictum of Subway Survival. He got on.
There were a few seats. He took one. After that the ride went quickly, two stops in Manhattan; the bridge with its silent ride over dark and quiet water; two stops in Brooklyn; finally: Seventh Avenue. The doors hissed. The dingy tiled station beckoned. He exited, trudged up the stairs. At the top he turned left, for the door to Flatbush Avenue. But it was no go.
The sign read:
“Dammit!” he shrieked. All the pent-up frustration had now found an acceptable outlet—the City of New York Department of Public Works. “Why don’t they post a sign at the bottom of the stairs if the bloody door isn’t working? It’s bloody typical of the damn City! They don’t give a goddamn about people. All they care about is getting the hell home early and taking their hundred days off a year! Bastards!”
“Bastards” echoed hotly in the lip of the stairwell. Grumbling, he descended the stairs, then up through the dark to the other exit, to emerge in open night air, a block from his two-bedroom apartment.
* * *
‘Rho Nu Delta Hall’ was not a building, merely a cavernous room that occupied half the fourth floor of St Martin-in-the-Fields hall (which was a building). But NYU freshmen and freshwomen reading their course assignment cards invariably thought it was a building; this always made them about half an hour late to their first-day classes. It was a fact to which the faculty had adjusted, and which gave endless amusement to the upper-classpeople.
Stepping into the Hall was like walking through a door in time. You passed into a place bedecked with hand-carved pilasters, dark-stained mahogany panelling, and a quiet, British-inspired austerity. Overhead, sunlight filtered smokily through dust-caked stained glass. Once, a hundred years before, pipes were quietly smoked in this room over whispered lectures. smoking was banned there now, but the Hall still spoke softly of tradition, of generations passing. Every time he crossed the doorway with its carved lion’s heads, his feet silently treading the vermilion-carpeted inlaid floor, Mike Curtis’s breast surged with pride. Freud had come to talk about thanatos in this room. John Foster Dulles once taught Advanced Studies in Political Theory in this room. Only the cream lectured in this room.
“In conclusion, it’s important to stress the revenge motif that runs through the Oresteia. Revenge is its primary motivating factor. More than simply a device to move the plot or keep to the Aristotelian rule that every drama must have a conflict. In this play, revenge is social function made flesh, so to speak. It is the demiurge, a page ripped timely from the word-horde of the time.” He paused, mostly for effect, then continued.
There was a flurry of raised hands and a few muffled shouts of “Mr. Curtis!” He rested hands on the podium and looked upon his class. Sometimes he felt old in comparison to this green young energy, this roomful of moist youthful skin puckering like an orange peel under the all-too-brief, skillful caress of knowledge. After all, he was nearly fifty, divorced, hair dropping out like old plaster, skin daily growing thin and dry as the two-hundred year-old books that lined his office walls. To them, of course, who understood little of these phenomena, he was a hero, a skilled tour-guide there to safely direct them through deadly realms of knowledge. How old were they? Nineteen? Twenty? With marriage nothing but a possible event on the horizon? He sighed. But mostly he loved it; the sight of those faces, new, made him feel almost young again…
He took a deep, open breath, then pointed at Barbara. There was a slight change in his pulse as he did.
Barbara Pasolini. That paper she handed in last week. Aristophanes The Frogs, wasn’t it?
He watched her arm strain skyward, her breasts rubbed (provocatively, so he thought) the soft fabric of her powderblue sweater.
Curtis had long since faced people’s opinion of him: that he was a dry-veined, lifeless, moth-eaten old fart. But there she was. Barbara. Face of a cherub, eyes always turned his way and filled (so he thought) with leagues of promise, shadows of secret fantasies.
Wasn’t it him that she looked up at, dreamy, while composing quiz answers (and not the board with Quiz Clues behind him?).
Last week, too, she mentioned she was thinking of majoring in Classics, even asking him, eyes blazing with hope, “If you have time, I may want you… to be my advisor?”
I. May. Want. You. The exact four words. They couldn’t have been just the random choice, could they? No, they were pendant with meaning. He couldn’t block out the thoughts of that meaning, in the full range of their every ramification.
True, the paper wasn’t really that original. Granted, it was at best a B paper, and he’d given her an A. No sense to discourage…
“Barbara, did you have a question?” All arms dropped. Barbara sat up straight.
“Professor Curtis, did you mean the image of the Furies serves more of a social role than a plot function?”
“Hm. That’s a good way to summarize what I was trying to say, Barbara. Yes. Tragedy did have a very important social role in Athens. Remember, the Athenians maintained a peaceful golden age for over a hundred years by using tragedy in this very same social role, as you put it. The Athenians thought humankind a brutal race, prone to every manner of bestial and violent act and not well-suited to civilized living.”
A classmate to her right giggle. Barbara turned away, distracted. He had to turn it up a notch.
“But they also harnessed that violence. Why? Because it was fun, sure!”
A few in the class sat up, one even laughed.
“Tragedy melded the joy of that nastiness — seeing the high brought low — with a strong sense of social role purpose. The hero, noble, but filled with hubris—that’s pride, right?—is brought low, by his tragic flaws—and then utterly destroyed by the power of the gods. Let’s take the Oresteia, a very Athenian play. The Erinyes, or Furies, embody the relentless destructive might of vengeance. Aeschylus—and through him, Athenian society—wanted to quell the common man’s desire for violent retribution against the mighty. To see the great brought low on stage was preferable to bringing them low in life. So the Furies, who would tear Orestes limb from limb for the crime of murder, symbolize purgation. They cleanse the body politic of its violent craving for revenge. Aeschylus calls upon a powerful archetype, eternal as language itself.”
It was a good set of sentences. But the bell rang in the middle of the last one, and the class began standing even before he finished it. He began to shout the homework out as loud as he could, unconsciously imitating college professors he had seen on TV and in movies.
“Thanks, everyone. Pay attention, please. When we resume in January, we’ll read The Libation Bearers, from First Chorus to the end, and look for stylistic differences from the Oresteia. See you Thursday.”
As the students filed out, Barbara paused for a moment, as if to ask something. But that classmate grabbed her shoulder, and she left with a conspiratorial whisper.
Curtis sighed. At least the last class before Christmas break was finally over.
* * *
“Another pint of Watney’s, Mr. Curtis?”
Curtis looked up from the puddle of beer in which he had just nearly dipped his nose. It smelled of rank old dishcloths. His head bobbed like a fog buoy that had lost its tie-line. He gaped down the bar, eyes passing the carved oak and smoky inlaid mirrors of the pseudo-English decor. There was Ms. Chichester, talking to her boyfriend… What was he again, a welder or something? God. A waste of admirable talent. Not bad looking, that old Chichester. What she needed was a hero, not a welder. A man who’d made his life out of gaining knowledge, not making trailers. For God’s sake.
“Trailers,” burbled Curtis indistinctly, lifting a hand to check his pocket watch. As he concentrated, a thin ribbon of spit trailed from his mouth, clear and viscous like a band of bubbled glass. He reached over to tap his companion, Teddy Murphy, fellow bachelor professor (Linguistics), on the shoulder.
“What time is it, Teddy?” he asked aloud, then answered the question himself with another glance at the pocket watch, “Eleven thirty! Great Hairy Mother of Christ! I have to get back to the train, Ted. You can’t catch them after midnight. Nah, not like it used to be, is it, before the political hacks cut the budget. Those bastards really messed up the City. The instrafructure is falling apart, gas pipes and water mains bursting all over the place.” He laughed in vicious little snorts. “And yet! Yet somehow they manage to spend so much money doing nothing that the City is practically bankrupt again! Can you believe it?”
Teddy moaned, a long, low, bovine sound of assent that sounded like, “Nnnnnnhmmmm Mmmike.” He was beyond speech.
Mike Curtis rose from the barstool, brushing peanut remains from his pant legs. He noticed a round wet stain on one knee. “Christ. I just sent these out last week. Don’t tell me I have to go to the dry cleaners again. The oriental robber barons that run New York take enough of my money.” He nudged Teddy again. “Listen, Ted. You awake? Teddy?”
Teddy seemed utterly dead to the world. He didn’t respond or move. For a moment, Curtis felt the beginnings of panic. Suddenly though, Teddy’s hand swung out from its resting place on the bar surface and smacked to a stop on Curtis’s shoulder. With a loud and prolonged grunt, Teddy hoisted his insensate self up from the bar, head lolling like a great lead block, in the process pushing Curtis firmly down and knocking him half off the stool.
“There you goooo,” Teddy slurred, “Shaved through the mir-cle off mod-ren sci- science. Leshon twelve, class, in great inventions of mankind. The lever. What an invention. D’jew know who invented the lever, Mikey?”
“Um, Archimedes,” replied Curtis, still brushing peanut dross from trouser legs, interest flagging rapidly.
“Archimedes. Yeh. Wasn’t he the one who sa- said, excuse me, Mike, I spit on your face. Here, lend me a hanky… wasn’t he the one who said, ‘give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world?’”
“That was he.” said Curtis, giving the handkerchief. Teddy took it and gently mopped Curtis’s face with it.
“What magical words. ‘Giff me a lever, and a place to stand…’ Jesus Christ, how be-youth-iful. ‘Giff me a place, and a stand…’ God. You got to luff the guy.”
“I guess you do,” answered Curtis, as dark clouds of sobriety began ominously to descend.
“Yes, you abs-looly do got to luff his ass!” He laughed. “You got luff his ass to death!”
“Teddy, listen, it’s almost midnight. I have to get going. Train home, you know.”
“Awright buddy. You get going. I can get home all right. I get home. Just point me in the right direction. Point me! Point me!”
Curtis, silently noting the parallel to It’s a Wonderful Life, pointed Teddy in the approximate direction of Houston Street where lay his friend’s tiny furnished flat, giving him a tiny shove. And Murphy was off, banging into every dumpster and tree in his path, true, but off. He chuckled. Toodaloo, Uncle Billy! Life imitates art! Then he turned and set course for West Fourth Street.
* * *
The green sign glowed above the Subway entrance. Curtis felt in the outer coat pocket for his metrocard. “Damn,” he thought, and in a flash came the visual image of where he had left them, on top of the dresser back home. He fumbled in the pocket for change, counting it with numbed fingers. “Christ,” he moaned, “even left my gloves on top of the bar—it’s The Night That Would Not Die!”
As he turned into the station his left shoulder brushed the greasy, broken-tiled wall and a fat thread from the coat snagged on a fragment of shattered masonry. He yanked hard to free it, turning at the same time, and found himself face-to-face with —
“Spare some chain?”
“Great Crusty, Rusty Nails of Christ!” he cried. He straightened to answer her, desperately trying to maintain calm, “Change? Uh, haven’t got any tonight. Honest. Some other night maybe.”
“You kiddin me, misteh. I reck-a-nize you. I ask you fo chain yes-a-day. You say you din have none. You lie to me, misteh. Why my suppose a ba-leave you now? Han ova some chain,” she growled.
“Lady, if you don’t get out of my way, I’m going to call for a cop.”
“You kin go ahea n call fo cop. I wan my chain!” She held his lapels in a grip that would have put a lamprey to shame. Her breath was a fetid wind that reminded him of Satan’s farts in the ninth circle of the Inferno. He reached a hand up to protect his nose. She pushed the hand down.
“You keep yo hans down! Ain no man gone tack me.” she cried.
Curtis looked down the steps to the turnstile. Trapped! He could feel the tears starting to come. He tried to quash them, but there they were. This couldn’t be happening! Where were the goddamned cops? Where? At the Grey’s Papaya across Eighth Street, having two dogs with everything, while he was practically being murdered here on the steps by a crazy street bitch, where anybody could see?
“Help!” he wailed, loud, “Somebody help me!”
A shoe scraped the pavement at the top of the stairs. Appearing as if to answer the cry, the Jamaican man rounded the corner and started down the steps. But then, seeing the street lady and her well-dressed prisoner, he shrugged up against the wall. In veteran New York form, he rushed down the steps past the pair, head turtled beneath overcoat collar.
“Hey!” screamed Curtis, watching his only hope for rescue push through the turnstile to freedom, “Come back here! Please! Mister! You got to help me!”
But there was no answer. The Jamaican man was gone. Footsteps echoed distantly from the second flight of stairs below. “Damn!” he thought, “Nobody to help me! If only Teddy could have walked me to the station!”
Thinking of Teddy reminded him of Archimedes and his lever. A plan surfaced.
“Okay, lady. You want some change. I admit it. I was lying. I’ve got change. Let go of me and I’ll give you something for your trouble.”
“You ain shittin me, misteh?” Her voice crested menacingly.
“You gone gimme chain?”
“Yes. I think there’s at least a two seventy-five in my pocket. I was going to use it to buy a swipe from a passing ruffian. It’s yours if you let go.”
“Three dolla,” she crowed, triumphant.
“Okay. Three. No problem. Just let me go!” He smiled winningly. “Please lady please?” he added.
She glared at him, her green eyes boring in like optical razors. Then, with a jerk, she let go, opening her hands to prove she bore no further malice, but keeping them at elbow-height to prove she would grab again if he tried to flee. She smiled confidently.
He got a better grip on the briefcase handle with his right hand, positioning his feet against the back of the step for anchor. With the left hand he pretended to fish the outer coat pocket for change. “Just a second, lady,” he said, girding his guts for what was coming next.
It was not easy emotionally for Michael Curtis. It took a full three seconds of pretending to fish in his pocket before he finally brought himself to act.
Then suddenly his left hand seized the banister. He swung around and rammed her with his heavy leather case.
“Get off me!” he cried.
The woman wasn’t holding onto anything. She lost her balance and began to slide down the stairs. Her arm shot out; she was lucky, managing to snag the banister. She looked up, the expression spitting hatred and outrage. She lurched for him, blood in her bright green eyes. She came within inches, but then her filth-caked shoes betrayed her, slipping out from under and sending her tumbling down the additional ten steps. A crack like a gunshot signaled her landing, as head hit concrete floor.
Curtis could have run, but didn’t, not right away. He stood transfixed, looking down at the motionless woman. His head went blank of thought. A minute passed. Then came the flash—he had to do something to help the woman! Call an ambulance. Put her in a cab to the hospital. Something! She might have a concussion. She could be dying. He had to do something.
But the loud voice clanged inside again, certain as a senator. “Help her?! Michael Curtis, you are the biggest idiot in New York, a City with no deficit of them! If you call 911 they’ll send out the police! They’ll ask questions. They’ll arrest you. Manslaughter! And if she lives? Rapacious law firms will queue up to take her case and every penny of your meager salary will be attached for the rest of your pitiful idiot life! You can’t expect justice or understanding! Get out! Get out of there, Michael! Before it’s too late!”
When his brain kicked in again, he was inside, having pushed through the chain on the exit door (only the booth at the far end of the floor was open anyway) and gone down to the platform. It was only a two-minute wait before the D train arrived. Not looking forward, not looking back, not caring, he stumbled through the open train door, grabbed a pole and swung onto a bench.
* * *
In the sky, between the bands where teal becomes cadmium blue, an ancient wheel begins dully to creak. Once it was well tended, oiled daily by a careful factotum. But now it belongs to a different temporal modality, lost for over two thousand years (and it is hard to get good help to stay that long without a pay raise). Though the wheel was designed for eternal vigilance, centuries of disuse has left its mechanism rusty.
But now, scenting skeins of nascent guilt from below, it turns. It moves one revolution, two. From her place in the sky, the hoary spirit, shaken loose by the wheel’s motion, begins to awaken.
She has slept for 2,138 years now and feels very cranky. Rising from the bed of gases and vapors, she raises a long withered arm; dusty umber robes twine about her. Her yawn is like distant thunder.
Grumbling, she starts the descent.
Passing through the ionosphere, she plugs her nose at the lambent scent of ozone. She is awake now. After all this time, she has another job to do. And she is really, really pissed off.
* * *
The train thundered in the dark wet tunnel. Beads of sweat dripped on his coatcollar. Thoughts splashed like drops of madness. What if someone did see? What if they find his fingerprints on the banister? Can the police get fingerprints off skin? Off sweat-encrusted cloth? Jesus Christ! He couldn’t believe he’d done it. She was dead. She had to be dead! It was all his fault! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!
Then, like sun bursting through overcast sky, the madness cracked and rays of relief spilled in. She was gone! The nemesis was vanquished! The terrorist of his past two nights was gone! He could go to the West Fourth St. Subway station any time now, sans worries! It was terrible it had to happen this way. But at least it had happened!
Other thoughts began to intrude. He wondered why the remorse was so short-lived. Everything he had ever been taught, both by his parents and in the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, declared unequivocally that taking human life was wrong, a sin. Yet he felt mostly concern for his role in… the murder. Face it, it was murder. And he might get caught! A guilt-ridden voice within spoke: was this appropriate behavior for a true hero?
“But no,” he thought, “Maybe people come in grades, like eggs. Yeah, that’s it. Some are more important. If you kill a really important person, like, say, Mother Teresa, you’ve committed a grave sin. Nobody can argue that. But what if it’s just an insignificant street person? Hell, an obnoxious one. That’s a different case, right?”
He sat back. Through the window he watched orange and blue worklights play in the underground tunnel. Where was he sitting? Usually he entered the train at the second car from the front, which deposited him in front of the steps leading to the Flatbush Avenue door. He got up to check. “I’m at the back of the train. Should move up at the next stop.”
Something made him look backward into the dark tunnel. A movement. It was different from the usual. There. There it was again. Like a workman waving a cloth, above and behind the train. The only thing was, they were going pretty fast, and the cloth didn’t seem to be getting any farther back. “But the way we’re moving, could somebody be standing on the roof, waving a rag? No. Impossible.”
They slowed in the tunnel. He looked back, hoping to catch a better glimpse of the strange moving object. It was murky there. There! There it was again! He squinted, trying to make it out. Without warning, there was a thud on the roof of the car. His hands turned to ice. Damn! Was something wrong with the train? He wished to be home, curled up in an overstuffed chair, a scotch warming in the left hand, a cigar smouldering in the right. Sweat poured from everywhere, forehead, hands, armpits.
The train lurched, lights dimming in the car. He grabbed the pole to keep from falling. There was another bang, softer this time. The lights flicked on again. For the first time, he scanned the interior of the car, and realized: There was nobody else aboard! Damn! He had broken the Primus Dictum of Subway Survival!
“This is too much!” He smacked the glass door pane and laughed. “Nerve-wracking night! That homeless woman must have made me sloppy. Can’t move between the cars—they’re locked on these damned made-in-Japan trains—but ah, it’s no big deal. At Grand Street I can move up. Easy solution.”
There was another bang on the roof. What was it, a loose cable? “Great, this is all I need,” he muttered, “The train’s going to break and I’ll be trapped. Perfect end to the night.” He turned darkly and took a seat, to wait for the next stop.
As he searched through the leather case for his class notes, the howling began. It started as a low murmur. At first it seemed to rise from the wheels grinding against the tracks. But it continued to grow louder, even when the train slowed on its approach into Grand Street. He put the case down and returned to the glass. There was another thud, very loud this time. It sounded as if the train had hit a large animal, like a deer or moose. Perhaps an economy-sized subway rat? He shuddered at the thought of it, of giant-rat guts splattering everyplace. “Eurgh,” he thought.
This time when the howling started, he knew something was seriously wrong. It was accompanied by a scraping sound, as if something was dragging a body across the roof. Curtis began to tremble uncontrollably. He looked through the glass and saw it: a shadowy bulk like an enormous wing. The howling stopped. There was quiet. Then a single, horribly loud smash of glass from the next car.
Just then, the train pulled into Grand Street. The doors opened, hissing as he slung his leather case over one shoulder. He approached the doorway silently and peeked out, trying to see if anyone was there. No-one was. He dashed out the door, rounded the corner with the aid of the tunnel support pillar, and bolted for the next car, reaching it just as the chime announced the doors were closing.
Panting, he plopped onto a seat. The train entered the tunnel on the gangway to the Manhattan bridge. The climb began, with stomach-dropping speed. He covered his eyes, realizing he was frightened half-witless. His thoughts raced. “What the hell is that thing? An asbestos-mutated pigeon malingering in the tunnel? Are toxic waste victims migrating across the river from Jersey?”
He sat back, trying to catch his breath and calm down. Now there was no sound but the hum of the train motor as it crossed the bridge. Out the window glowed the lights of the South Street Seaport and Financial District. Looking at the City always relaxed him. It was one of the reasons he lived in Brooklyn, to have this view of the City from the bridge. He smiled and tried to relax by humming a tune in concert with the motor. His thoughts rumbled. Everything was going to be fine. It would be fine. He sighed and leaned his head against the mirrory stainless steel wall of the subway car as the lights danced. Just three more stops to home.
* * *
“Yes, this is it,” she thinks, adjusting her loose robe. “The guilt is very strong here, like a pool. Time to get to work.”
The withered arms raise to gather the guilt, to change it to the weapon she needs to finish the job. A cloud of silver sparks coalesces between her outstretched hands. The foreordained implement materializes at her feet: a large burlap sack. She hefts it. It is very heavy.
Just then the train jerks. Thrown off balance by the extra weight, she slips and crashes to the roof. She howls in pain. Quickly she regains her footing. Still wincing, she drags the sack down to the other end of the train, to await the correct moment to strike.
* * *
The train hurtled into DeKalb Avenue. The doors hissed open. Curtis dashed from car to platform. He stopped with a scrape of gumsoles, twisted to look at the train roof. There was nothing. He raced to the next car. It was empty. At the far end a window was broken. It could have been a kid ‘wilding,’ or any of a hundred other causes.
“But I saw something! Where is it?! What is it?!” screamed his thoughts. He ran back to the middle of the platform, grabbed a squat black woman by the coat. She grimaced and tried to yank loose.
“Did you see it?! Tell me if you saw it!” he cried.
“Please leggo, mistah. I got t’git home. You git home too, if you got a, n’ git some rest. Now leggo. Please.” The plaintive look on her face, which seemed to say, “Not me, Lord, not tonight, OGodIKnewItWouldHappenSomeday,” made him stop the harangue and release her. Defeated, he turned back in time to see the D train doors starting to close. He bolted for the car, got through as the doors squeezed hard into his sides. He cried out. A moment passed, then they reopened. He slipped through. The doors closed behind. Dazed, he meandered to a seat.
As the train pulled away from the stop, his head leaned against the steel pole that bordered the seat. An old man at the other end of the car stared at him. His reflection in the stainless steel wall across the car told why. He looked utterly wild, a man from the Outer Limits. He sighed miserably again and sank deeper into the daze.
Between DeKalb and Atlantic it made its next move.
The train hit a bumpy stretch of track. The locked emergency doors at both ends of the car began to rattle slightly. The bumpy stretch passed. But the rattling continued at one end of the car. It grew louder. It became more violent. Something was trying to force the door open.
There was a smack on the glass. He looked up, kicked out of the trance. Adrenalin pumped. It easy to make out: the outline of a giant hand pushing against the window. The mylar and glass layers bulged and crackled with the force.
He jumped up and dashed for the end of the car. The old man cringed in his seat, whimpering, as Curtis approached. Curtis turned to him, trying to comfort him.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bother you, but there’s something outside the car and I think it’s after me.”
The old man stared at him silently, covering his mouth as if to keep from speaking. From the other end of the car the window in the emergency door was crackling like it would shatter any second. Curtis stared at the black, mossy hand as it pressed against the glass.
The train burst into the light of Atlantic Avenue, the blue painted pillars whizzing past. Curtis looked to the door again. The hand was gone.
“Whatever it is,” he thought, “it seems to only like it in the tunnels.”
The doors opened. Curtis looked back. The man had rushed out the door. He was making for the front car. Curtis laughed. Must have given the old guy the scare of his life. He pressed back into the seat. Only one stop to go.
Three people got on at Atlantic Avenue. There were two black boys, in their mid-teens. They eyed Curtis curiously. Normally he would have been scared by them, but as the door closed, he actually felt relieved to see them. The other, a bum in grey rags, found a seat in the corner across from him and hunched into a ball.
The doors closed. The train left Atlantic Avenue. Curtis girded himself for the reappearance of the black mossy hand, but there was nothing there. He sank back into the seat, every nerve on fire. He looked across at the bum.
“Excuse me. Sir? Excuse me.”
The black teens laughed.
“Now the tweed guy talkin to the raggy dude,” one said.
Curtis stood and approached the bum.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but did you see…?”
Hesitantly he reached out to touch the grimy shoulder. It was hot as a griddle. In reflex, the burned hand flew to his lips. The bum suddenly looked up. Curtis stepped back, one step, two steps.
The eyes were bright green like phosphors and the face that emerged from the folds of greasy cloth was scarred and pitted like something out of a Dore woodcut. She opened her mouth and hissed; it was a semicircular array of long white ivory needles. Amber saliva dripped from the edge of the jaw. She stood slowly, almost creakingly.
“My Gah… Gah… GAH! It’s a Eri… nyeh… a… HELP… it’s an Erin… IT’S A FRIGGIN’ FURY!!” he cried.
“Sure is,” said one of the boyz, giggling. “Yo, check it out. Dude look like a Freddy Chucky thang.”
The other did give the creative a more critical glance, and replied, “I think more Hellraiser. Maybe a touch a Planet Z?”
“I didn’t mean it!” pleaded Curtis. “It was an accident. She wouldn’t let me past! I was tired. You have to understand!”
The Fury had to hunch over in the car to stand, as the ceiling was only six and a half feet high. She glared down at Curtis and extended a wooly arm, hissing. In her other hand she gripped the heavy sack.
Curtis backed into the seat as the creature approached. She made a snatch for him and got a hold on his coat, but it was unbuttoned and he wiggled free as the wiry jaws snapped shut an inch from the top of his head. The rumbling of the train on track began to grow hollow. They were approaching Seventh Avenue.
She crept with a sliding, shuffling gait, down the length of the car after him, her bulk filling half the aisle. Evidently she preferred flight in the loamy dark to walking in the stuttering fluorescent light. Curtis, mouth tasting of metal, reached the last bank of doors at the end of the car and grabbed the steel pole. The roar grew louder as the train emerged into the light at Seventh Avenue. When the doors opened he vaulted out and broke for the stairs.
Behind him he heard mammoth wings unfold and stretch. Then the flapping began; huge, broad strokes accompanied by mighty gusts of fetid, displaced air. With each pounding step he could hear the thing getting closer. He thought of every molasses-stepped nightmare of his youth, hounds lizards big cats slugs werewolves snakes after him, inches behind.
The stairs, he had reached them and was making them two at a time, clambering up using hands and feet in tandem. The roaring, howling, flapping was less than a second behind. He had to reach the top, reach the door to the open air. Then one block home—safe!
From behind came a crash of bone on plaster. He looked back. The Fury had hit the ceiling at the top of the stairwell, must have misjudged it; disoriented from the shock of the impact, she flailed helplessly on the floor at the top of the stairs roaring like an monstrous infant throwing a tantrum. A chance! The door! He had made it!
The sign read:
* * *
They were just getting ready for shuteye. Mari was making the bed, pressing the cardboard boxes down so they were flat and smooth.
“Nice job, Mar,” said Artie. “Got the blanket there?”
“Here,” she answered, her voice calm.
She muttered the prayer she always recited at bedtime, a Tantric verse to purify the space for sleep. He hummed too, an old Christmas carol, as he propped their sign carefully against the wall, positioning it so anyone passing by could read it and perhaps give them something. “Hm hm bells. Hm hm bells…”
We are fire victims.
Please give what you can.
“I’ll go find Nicky,” she said, “whyn’ you go ahead and sleep, sweet.”
He lay down heavy on the cardboard while she went to search for their son. It had been a long day and they had only brought in enough to pay for some take-out at Kankakee Fried Chicken. So they had to sleep here, in the drafty space at the end of the Subway platform. It was better than a doorway on a cold night like this. He shut his eyes.
“Artie! Come quick!”
He sat up. It was Mari! Something was wrong! His mind flashed back to two weeks ago, when two teenagers shook her down, trying to rob her of their day’s take. Luckily the punks weren’t armed and he managed to scare them off with a trashcan lid. What if it was worse? What if they had a gun?
He ran down the empty platform. Mari was nowhere in sight. Then her voice echoed again from the stairwell that led to the transfer point for the Number Two train. He gulped and ran down, not knowing what he’d find.
Twenty feet from the lip of the stairwell stood Mari and Nicholas, staring down at a black pile of rags and bones about the size of a man. It gave off the distinctive reek of humanity. He shuddered.
“What are you doing here? That’s some poor guy, is all. Looks like the kids done a job on him. Let’s go.”
Nicholas shook his head.
“No, dad. It’s not this. It’s this.” He pointed to a large sack, also caked in grime, that stood just beside the pile.
Artie walked over to get a closer look. A hole had burst in one side of the sack and something silver seemed to be glinting through. He nudged it. There was a rattle.
“It can’t be, can it?” he asked, turning to the others who stood staring. “It’s too huge to be that. Nobody could carry anything that heavy.”
“Maybe he had a cart, Dad?” said Nicholas.
“Sure, maybe he did. Hey Mari, go get the cart!” cried Artie, kicking the bag hard so a trickle of coins began to plink to the floor, “It’s a miracle. A real goddamned miracle. Nickels, dimes, quarters. There’s enough change here to pay for a hotel for tonight. Hell, maybe enough for a place, a real place!”
As Mari set off to find the cart, Artie turned to her, his eyes brimming with love. “Merry Christmas, darling,” he said.
She smiled, turned and mounted the stairs, humming the song she’d heard him hum,
hm hm bells…”
“Look what else I found, Dad,” said Nicholas.
“What’s that? Oh, pocket watch, huh? Nah, it’s all smashed up, see? You can’t fix that. Give it here. Don’t pout, kid, I’ll buy you a new one, okay?”
“You promise?” asked the boy, fixing him with hopeful eyes.
“Yup, I promise,” he said, tossing the watch into the pile.
art: Furies by bob jude ferrante [copyright 2017]
Story: Copyright ©2017 Bob Jude Ferrante