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The M1 by Eric Thornton – Chapter 2

Second in a series of four chapters from Eric Thornton, winner of the Postmodernize Winter 2013 Writing Contest.

Just tuning in? Start with Chapter One.

The Scarebuddhist takes me to to the popular new club called The Camp. She arrives at my door in authentic refugee garb she tells me she bought for tens of thousands off eBay, narrowly outbidding BJprincess69. Her ensemble consists of a T-shirt with tears, bloodstains and powder burns almost obscuring the faded purple letters I HATE BARNEY, worn over the shredded remnants of a niqab.

She frowns at my attire.

“Don’t you have anything more wretched?”

I shake my head.

“Fine. You’ll get in because you’re with me, but if anyone asks, you escaped from a rape camp.”

“Check.”

Light dances merrily off the shrapnel she’s braided into her hair as her Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster zips through the city like a designer drug through young veins.

“Have you ever been to an exclusive club before?” She asks, her words cutting through the ersatz wind.

“Clubs stop being exclusive when I walk into them.”

“Ditch the attitude. That self deprecating crap may fly on the first date, but not in the circles I frequent.”

“It’s kind of my thing.”

“You’re my thing, tonight.”

“I’ve never been anybody’s thing before.” It would only occur to me later that my time in the army meant this was a lie.

“Try not to get accustomed to it.”

We reach a building that resembles an old, nondescript warehouse, probably because that’s what it is. THE CAMP is spelled out over the loading dock in concertina wire. The Scarebuddhist tosses her keys to a valet and strides past a block-spanning line of people in clothes scavenged off dead bodies and dug up from mass graves.

I absorb every envious glare and derisive snarl, but their malice bounces off the Scarebuddhist like bullets off Superman. She rises on her tip toes to plant a candy apple red smooch on the bouncer’s cheek while slipping money into his hand, and we glide past the velvet rope to a chorus of groans.

Inside, The Camp is a mishmash of factually inaccurate yet lovingly recreated scenes from the war. The dance floor is an artfully rendered no man’s land, a colorless expanse of scorched earth depicted with a mix of latex and polystyrene whose muddy formlessness occasionally reveals a small chunk of meat or bone when the disco ball’s roving light strikes it just right. Dance music is pumped out of naked plastic loudspeakers that hang limply off the walls like dead flowers jammed in a skull’s eye socket.

People sit on empty ammunition crates, drinking appletinis and Jägerbombs out of spent artillery shells. A mezzanine above the dance floor is styled to look like a long watchtower, complete with multicolored searchlights that the guests can man themselves and mounted gun emplacements that spit party foam. Models frolic in a VIP section behind barbed wire where their starved, emaciated, semi-nude bodies perfectly mimic concentration camp photos.

“I don’t like this place.” I say over the pulsing techno beat.

“You’re not supposed to. Here.” She hands me a hundred dollar bill. “Buy me a drink.”

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

I buy two light beers from a bartender dressed as a commandant, leave the change in a tip jar fashioned from a pelvis, and find the Scarebuddhist seated at a table made of the blown out remains of a tank turret. She frowns at the bottle I set down before her and yells over the insanely loud music I said surprise me, not disappoint me. She takes a bejeweled case out of the UN food relief sack she’s using as a purse, snaps it open, and drops a small white pill in both our drinks.

“What’s that?”

“Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as ecstasy.”

“Is it safe?”

“I like to pretend it isn’t. It’s more fun that way.” She raises her beer. I tap it with my own. “Drink up.” I drink up. “What do you do?”

“What do I do?”

“Yes. They’re not paying you to house soldiers, are they?”

“No.”

“So what do you do for money?”

“I don’t do anything for money.” I insist a little too forcefully. “Why would I do stuff for money? What has money ever done for me? Why should I be doing favors for an abstract concept?”

“Well, our society is kind of based on it. Lots of people are dying in a war predicated on the abstract concept of nation-states.”

I scoff.

“You’ll never find me murdering strangers for your so-called ‘nation state.’”

“But everything is an abstraction when you get right down do it. The only thing that’s definitively real is your mind, the organ that creates the world. Everything you’ll ever know is just an idea held in your consciousness, so abstract ideas are as objectively real as anything else.” Re-encountering my anger is like turning a corner and bumping into an old friend. The time separating us evaporates in an instant.

“People who think nations are real don’t know what real is. When you encounter something really, really, real, it burns you up, you disappear in its horrible majesty. A bullet meeting flesh: that’s real. An explosion splitting the night like a lion spilling a gazelle’s entrails across the savannah: that’s real. Real is a four letter word. If you’ve experienced true, capital-R real, you’ll Realize that everything else in life is a fabrication, a dim shade of that awful splendor. And you can never forget.”

I pour the remainder of the drugged beer down my throat. “You can never forget.”

She runs the tip of a finger swathed in platinum nail polish around the lip of her bottle. “That E better kick in quick or this is gonna be a long night.”

“Are people really supposed to have fun here?”

She gestured at the nightclubbers and the artificial no man’s land they were dancing on. “This is a way of integrating the war’s existence into daily life. Would you rather we just pretend it didn’t exist?”

“Honestly, yes.”

“I thought the troops hated it when people forgot about them.”

“It’s a complicated relationship. They like to feel their countrymen as a warm but distant presence, like the sun. It’s important for the average troop not to formulate too distinct an impression of civilians in their mind, lest they realize the people they’re dying for are a bunch of feckless, callow pissants.”

“Were you in the war?”

“No, I just read a lot. You’re very pretty.”

“I’m feeling it too. Let’s dance.”

We dance. I’d never danced before—save that one time the enemy shot at my feet and told me to—but somewhere between the turret table and the no man’s land dance floor, moving to music became my raison d’être.

The music was inside me!

It was so patently obvious that my lifetime of ignorance was laughable, and I enjoyed a hearty chuckle at my expense as I floated over to the dance floor, which seemed redundant, since I now knew that the entire world was a dance floor, and such pedantic categories were the mere byproduct of our sober ignorance. Existence hummed with the pulsing current of agápē, imploring me to slough off my petty individual existence, cease languishing in exile, baptize yourself in the sea of love! I was a living energy supply equipped with emotional crumple zones that cushioned every thought, redirecting it before it could turn malignant. I was swimming in an ocean of sound. Every movement I made was in tune with the current, a strategic ballet of stimulus-response that advanced me one step closer to an objective I’d already achieved. The distinction between being and becoming vanished in a supernova of candyfloss confetti, infusing all the dancing me’s with a new universe of shivering, gyrating stars that flailed in paroxysms of cosmic bliss!

Wait.

What?

The Scarebuddhist was beside me.
She seemed agitated about something.
There was something different about her, if only I could put my finger on it…

Oh, she was missing an arm. I tried to tell her it was no big deal, people lost arms all the time, there was still more than enough of her to go around, that was no excuse to stop dancing.

She was insistent.

As soon as I was able to once again comprehend the concept of ‘stop’ it set off a chain reaction within and without me. An infinity of doors began slamming shut, one after another after another echoing through the narcotic cosmos, sealing it off, constricting my consciousness like a car being cubed in a hydraulic press until I was pressure sealed back within the confines of my own mind and body, which seemed much worse for my having left it, the hair scorched, the ears ringing, the skin pockmarked with shallow lacerations. The Scarebuddhist was screaming two words over and over again. I immediately grasped that one of them was ‘bomber,’ but it took what felt like a very long time to realize the other was ‘suicide.’

The remains of the disco ball swung above us in a lazy Foucault arc, its jagged corpse reflecting the light of the dozen tiny fires the explosion had produced so it played across the broken limbs and horrified faces of the club patrons as they scrambled for the door, the fake remnants of a real explosion in a real war zone that was supposed to be fake. I clasped my hand to the gushing wound where the Scarebuddhist’s right arm used to be and as blood coursed between my fingers in a sickly warm torrent I had to resist the urge to pull back—not out of horror, the war had acclimatized me to horror, but shoving my hand inside her to pinch the subclavian artery seemed a scandalously intimate act for what was technically a first date.

http://i2.wp.com/i.imgur.com/NHhWNh.jpg?resize=347%2C406
* * *

No one tells us how insect-like we are when we’re born. The conical head, the disproportionately large eyes, the tiny, flailing limbs. The mysterious fluids. The ripping and tearing of flesh. It’s an extremely Kafkaesque process, this breaching the shores of existence.

* * *

“Hello?”

“I hear you’ve got a new hobby.”

“Who is this?”

“Just your friendly neighborhood realtor. I’ve got a report in front of me that says you’ve got a damn world religion conference growing in your front yard.”

“What do you care? You’ve made your sale.”

“Is a mother’s job done when the baby’s born?”

“If she’s a surrogate it is, which is really a better analogy for your role.”

“One mustn’t get bogged down in labels. Is a man just the job he does? If so, what happens when he stops doing that job? Where does the old him go? The first law of thermodynamics tells us that nothing can be created or destroyed.”

“Heraclitus of Ephesus, originator of the famous axiom that one cannot step in the same river twice, said that the defining element of existence, from whence all things derived, was fire. ‘The world is an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling and measures of it going out. What is in opposition is in concert, and what differs comes from the most beautiful harmony.’ Everything changes. Nothing is lost. The real fallacy lies in assuming there was ever static form in the first place.”

“I am so wet right now.”

“Thales of Miletus.”

“The people I work for aren’t interested in change. Lawn care is about uniformity, and the preservation of that uniformity.

“In that case you shouldn’t have sold me a lawn that turns yellow so easily.”

“You knew what was being asked of you when you signed on the line which is dotted. No one misrepresented your duties. Not only have you failed to take care of your lawn, you’ve committed the far more grievous sin of swaddling it in religious iconography. What you’ve done is incredibly dangerous. Religion is like sex, it can bring a lot of things that are normally repressed to the surface. Putting all those sacred trees in a neighborhood as rich in allegory as yours is like lighting a match in a powder mill. Lawns form buffer zones between individual houses, places of formless equilibrium that act as a layer of oil, playing down the natural friction between competing American dreams. A lawn isn’t supposed to say anything except ‘I take care of my lawn.’ It’s supposed to be the one thing we can all agree on.”

“I tried to plant some secular trees. I was going to plant a tree of liberty, but then I realized I didn’t have any tyrant or patriot blood to refresh it with.”

“Are you seeing someone?”

“What?”

“It’s a simple question, Sam. Are you seeing someone?”

“Kind of, yeah. What business is it of yours?”

“Is she prettier than me?”

“She’s prettier than everybody. It’s kind of her thing.”

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“A lot. A stable of Arabian horses. A yacht in a private lake on her private island. A gold bar in her toilet tank to save water. An actual, literal golden arm.”

“It can’t be literal.”

“It is. I’ve seen it.”

“If you scratch the surface, I’m sure you’ll find it’s a metaphor for something, just like religion and sex. Guess where my phone is right now.”

“This is starting to cross over into sexual harassment.”

“What was it before?”

“A metaphor, I was hoping.”

“And would my overtures being metaphors justify my obscene behavior? Would that make your shame any less legitimate, my lasciviousness any more justified?”

“People will tolerate anything if they think there’s some greater objective. People hate the war because it’s meaningless.”

“Don’t we match? Do you have these rich, meaningful conversations with your golden armed bitch?”

“I think relationships should stretch us as people.”

“You can stretch me any time.”

“I’m going to hang up now.”

“Fix that lawn, Sam. I mean it.”

“Yeah, but your meaning is metaphorical.”

“Fix it or you’ll go to prison and be raped. Interpret that however you like.”

* * *

The Scarebuddhist resided upon a vast palatial estate beyond the city. I had to take two trains and a bus before I was within walking distance of her jewel encrusted gate, where a guard in rhodium body armor led me to a monorail terminal he said would take me across the grounds to the central compound.

Selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier danced through the car’s perfumed air as the monorail glided above the Scarebuddhist’s extravagant property. I passed trees whose gold plating had given them a hunched, withered look, like plastic army men on the wrong end of a magnifying glass. I passed a reflecting pool filled with mercury. I passed a zen garden made of moon rocks. I passed a trellis fashioned from what appeared to be the bones of mummified Pharaohs. I passed a fountain that spewed Château Latour into the cloudless sky, and was forcibly reminded of how the Scarebuddhist’s severed arm had spewed blood.

Everywhere there were soldiers playing Polo with their warhorses, Croquet with their M-16’s, and football with their enemies’ decapitated heads, all of them drinking beer and killing time until their next deployment, whereupon they would drink blood and kill people until their next furlough.

When I reached the Scarebuddhist’s mansion I saw that it was broken up into three parts. The eastern wing, which appeared to have been built in the Second Empire style, was in the middle of being demolished. The west wing was half built, and seemed to be developing in the Brutalist style. Only the center building was complete, a huge Blobitecture structure that resembled half a dozen gigantic stainless steel soap bubbles heaped one on top of one another. A panel in its bulbous metal facade slid aside as momentum drained from the monorail, and the Scarebuddhist emerged from her house just as the car came to a full and complete stop.

“Nice house.” I said. She looked over her shoulder as if surprised by its presence. “Making renovations?”

“Not exactly. I’m constantly tearing down one wing of the complex and building another. Every week I move one wing to the west.”

“Wow. That’s really…”

“Wasteful?”

“Hegelian.”

“Huh?”

“Hegel thought everything was in a state of being, nonbeing, or becoming.” She held up her gold bionic arm. It shimmered lucidly in the daylight.

“What would Hegel say about this?” She asked.

“He isn’t qualified to judge anything newer than the Prussian Empire, but I think it’s pretty damn cool. Can you feel things with it?”

“No, they’d have to hardwire it into my central nervous system to do that, and I need to be able to change it to match my outfits.”

“Why not get a black one? Black goes with everything.

“I’m afraid my credit rating can’t take another hit.”

“Ouch.” I winced.

“I’m just telling it like it is. Come inside, I want to show you something.” The Scarebuddhist’s house was festooned with all the usual trappings of Mammon, but I’d already seen so much luxury that it had become meaningless, like a word that’s repeated again and again until it dissolves into gibberish. Instead my attention was drawn to the mirrors honeycombed across every free surface, or rather, the woman they reflected. If I looked directly at the Scarebuddhist she appeared to be auditioning for a post in the ministry of silly walks, alternately skipping, stumbling and swaggering as she made her way through her mansion’s epic halls, but when I looked in the mirrors we passed I realized they were ideally placed for viewing one’s own reflection, and the Scarebuddhist was in fact executing a carefully orchestrated succession of poses as she walked, a different one for each mirror.

“You really like looking at yourself.” The Scarebuddhist looked over her shoulder, executing a practiced flip of her silken hair cribbed from Rita Hayworth.

“Shouldn’t I? Or should I shrink from every mirror like you, afraid I won’t like what I see?”

“It’s not that I don’t like what I see.” I said, turning my head to see a coward wince and avert his gaze. “It’s just that I have no reason to believe the person inhabiting that glass is me.”

“Who else would you be?”

“Who you see, for one.”

“I see the same person you see in the mirror.” She said with conviction.

“No, you see yourself in the mirror. The me you see is different from the me I see.”

“How?”

“I’m three dimensional, for one thing.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Ouch.”

“I’m just telling it like it is.”

“Maybe you should lay off for a bit. A man can only take so much truth on the second date.”

“I think a person should dive headfirst into truth.” She said, speaking in between poses. “That way it stays truth. If you just imbibe truth drop by drop you can develop a tolerance for it, so it makes no impact whatsoever.”

“The truth can be too ugly to look at head on, though.” I pressed.

“Then it’s a good thing you’re with someone who’s ridiculously gorgeous.” She paused to admire herself from a particularly fine angle, arcing her right arm above her head to form a cybernetic halo of gold servos and interlacing musculature.

“Damn, I’m hot. I hope you have some idea just how lucky you are to receive attention from someone like me. I am glamor personified. I make Marilyn Monroe look like vomit poured into a dress. You know how exclusive a Scarebuddhist job is? It took a lot of work to get where I am today. I had to do a lot of things I’m not particularly proud of. Nothing sexual, though I sometimes wonder if that might’ve been easier.”

“How did you get this job?” She waved a dismissive golden hand.

“Another time. We’re almost to the vault.”

We reached a large, open room that had the usual gold chandeliers, priceless masterpieces, and stained glass representations of the Buddha being hit with a folding chair by Ronald McDonald, but it distinguished itself by virtue of a huge steel vault set in the far wall. The Scarebuddhist’s golden hand speed dialed an elaborate code into the keypad next to the door, which detached from the wall with a fearsome hydraulic sigh and sank into the floor.

The air inside the vault was fresh but stale, like a good painting in a derivative style. The walls were covered with shelves which were covered with small plastic stands which were covered with transparent bags, which contained comic books.

“You collect comic books?”

“It’s kind of my thing.” She closed the door, sealing us in a chamber filled with a strange white light that wouldn’t degrade the comics’ cheap ink. “Or it was, until you became my thing.”

“Are you going to seal me in a Mylar bag?”

“Not unless that’s your thing.”

“I don’t have anything.”

“Nothing?”

“Not a thing.” I gestured at the books. “So tell me about these. Are they all superheroines?”

“’Superheroine’ isn’t really in the lexicon. They’re superheros who happen to be women.”

“Who’s this?” I pointed to a woman wearing a low cut halter top, granny panties, and gigantic boots. A large black mask covered half her face and the eight inches of empty space directly above her head. She was twirling a lasso, presumably in the hopes of roping a masked figure as he made his escape on horseback. Above the menacing, soon to be roped villain was a billboard-sized legend on crinkled parchment whose edges threatened to curl up and obscure the words.

CAMERA! ACTION! A PHANTOM INTRUDER – – BURSTS RUTHLESSLY UPON THE SOUND STAGE TO WRITE HIS OWN BLOOD-SPATTERED ROLE – – – WHO IS HIM? – – – BAD GRAMMAR? – – NO! – – ONLY BLACK CAT’S MOST HORRIBLE ENEMY – – HIM!

“That’s the Black Cat.” the Scarebuddhist said. “’Linda Turner, Hollywood star and America’s sweetheart, becomes bored with her ultra-sophisticated life of movie make-believe and takes to crime-fighting in her most dramatic role of all as the Black Cat.’ Lots of the early girl superheros, if they didn’t have supernatural powers, were film stars. Their stuntwoman training gave them the ability to fight crime, and their movie star income supported their flamboyant lifestyle.”

“It’s strange that someone who wanted their life to be less ‘make-believe’ would don a mask and fight crime.”

“You’ve clearly never worked in Hollywood.”

“Whoever’s writing it sure likes dashes.” I observed.

“That’s a technique to acclimate people to transitions. A comic book reader is obliged to fill in the action between panels themselves, and writing like that teaches them to accept gaps.” My eyes glided over shelves filled with deliberately engineered peril & intrigue. Miss Fury, Firehair: Queen of the Sagebrush Frontier, An interesting question – – Just who is the Spider Queen?, The Silver Scorpion, Pat Patriot: America’s only singing superheroine!, Miss Victory, Commandette,Yankee Girl, Liberty Belle, Make your own Miss America victory fashion doll – – -, Girl Commandos, The Black Angel, Black Venus, Mighty Man and The World’s Strongest Girl, Lady Satan, Phantom Lady, Lady Fairplay, Mysta of the moon.”

“There’s something about these girl heroes. There’s no…”

“Plot? Logic? Coherence?”

“No. Well, yes, but you can hardly fault it for that. There’s no gravity. Even in the scenes where they aren’t leaping through windows or bursting through walls, their feet never touch the ground. Not even when they stand still. If I tried to strike a pose like Miss Victory is doing, I’d fall. No wonder they can wear heels when they fight crime. There’s no weight to them. They float through their environment like water striders.” The Scarebuddhist nodded as if this had occurred to her.

“I admire the simplicity of feminine heroism in the golden age. Not the art or the stories, there’re only so many times you can punch a Nazi stand-in, but I envy the ease with which characters navigate their lives. I like the origin stories. All a woman has to do to become a superhero in these books is decide they want to do it. Their parents don’t have to get killed, they don’t have to get bitten by anything radioactive or emigrate to an alien planet, all they have to do is be bored and willing to punch someone. If they don’t have the chops for it, a weekend on Paradise Island will whip them into shape. There’s really no reason not to do it, that’s the great thing. You try it, and the worst thing that’ll happen is you get hit once and tied up for a few hours. The worst part is the stern lecture from your inevitable rescuer, who of course will adopt you as a sidekick.”

“I imagine it was a good way to meet men. If you were into guys who were into spandex and justice.”

“It’s hard to find people who share your interests. Prurient or otherwise. This is my favorite.” She reached out with her flesh and blood arm and picked up a comic book bearing the intimate title My Date. “This is the story of Violet Ray, mild mannered teenage girl who, through the power of imagination, can become any adult woman, going from frumpy girl next door to bewitching fashion plate as fast as the speed of thought.”

“And she, what, seduces the bad guys?”

“No, it’s a romance comic. The only evil she fights is the evil of not getting what she wants.” She moved to open the Mylar bag, then stopped herself. “I like to think that she didn’t really have any magic powers at all. That the transformation we see happens entirely in her head, Calvin & Hobbes style, and people are responding to the same girl, armed with the confidence and poise granted by a… a purely fanciful idea of maturity.”

She looked at the cover for a few moments, seemingly transfixed by the teenage bobbysoxer’s mystical metamorphosis, then reverently returned it to its plastic podium. “What do you think?”

“About what?”

“My thing.”

“You don’t want to know what I think.”

“Don’t tell me what I want. How many men do you think I let in here?”

“Am I the first?”

“Don’t change the subject. Tell me what you think.” She insisted. I sighed.

“I think it’s natural to want to be different from the person you think you are. To want to be someone who’s everything you’re not. But you can’t actually do it. Imagine if you did it, but you still felt the same. All you’d have learned is that you never really knew what your problem was in the first place. I mean, why do they put the mask on? It’s a fantasy. It’s their fantasy. One life can never touch the other. Really, it’s a story of profound disconnect. How you can never really be the person you want to be.”

“But they do get to live the fantasy, at least for a while.” The Scarebuddhist maintained.

“But it’s just another role. They’re actresses exchanging one part for another, trying to escape a life of affectation by piling on more affectation. They put on the mask to be free, but then they just get tied up. They’re exchanging one trap for another, and once the split happens it’s permanent. Both sides are stuck being half a person.”

“Maybe people like keeping things separate but equal.” I shrugged.

“Maybe. I always thought people craved oneness.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Right now I want your gardener’s phone number.” We were interrupted by a series of urgent taps on the vault door. It slid open to reveal a Lieutenant General in the Royal Regiment of Scotland. His uniform was disheveled, his face was covered in sweat, and his hat had been unceremoniously crammed on his head so the fuzzy red ball hung at a distressed angle.

“Ma’am, we wanted tae play rugbae, but we destroyed aw th’ rugbae balls ‘at time we waur skeit shootin’ an’ ran it ay clay pigeons, an’ Milton said he kent whaur he coods fin’ a baa, an’ we werenae oan board at first, but Raliegh said nobody pure needs aw those fabergé eggs, an’ things waur gonnae braw until th’ scrum, ‘en thaur was a crash, an’, weel, th’ lang an’ cuttie ay it is fife ay th’ men hae bits ay enamel an’ gems in places it’s nae in mah best interest tah mention.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Something about playing rugby with my fabergé eggs. I knew having that in-house surgery team would pay off someday. Show me.” She’d just crossed the vault’s threshold when the steel door rocketed upward, neatly severing her left arm at the shoulder. – – – We sat on the Scarebuddhist’s half-completed new roof and watched the sun set over the artificial horizon. The Scarebuddhist had commissioned an enormous landscape mural several times larger than the average drive thru movie screen and hung it via an elaborate system of scaffolding to obscure the fires and smoke of war that persistently crept over the horizon. It would have defeated the point of dragging her twin Louis IV chaise lounges up to the semi-intact roof to watch if not for the radiant way the setting sun’s glow distorted the painting, turning its trees into crucified aliens and urging the flat sky to boil like a lake of fire.

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked.

“Would you stop asking me that?” The evening light played across her twin golden arms with merry malice, a trickle that turned to a diaphanous flood every time she moved.

“Are you sure you aren’t experiencing phantom pains of some kind?” She snorted into her mimosa.

“You can only feel pain if something isn’t there.” She pivoted her shimmering gold elbows, as if in prelude to doing the funky chicken. “Clearly that isn’t the case.”

“Won’t you miss feeling things?” She viewed me sternly over the rim of her glass.

“I never have before.”

Below us the soldiers were frozen in an elaborate series of poses across the Scarebuddhist’s estate as they modeled for the benefit of one of their comrades, a man who’d been a graphic designer in his civilian life and was now painting a portrait to reflect future glories. The magic hour was fast dissolving and soon they’d either have to turn on the floodlights or come inside, but for now the soldiers were immobile, as petrified in their stately grace as the priceless Roman and Grecian statues that flanked the Scarebuddhist’s gardens. I wondered why the soldiers at my place didn’t do classy things like this. Maybe these guys were more gallant because the Scarebuddhist’s house was closer to the front. They had conducted themselves admirably when the Scarebuddhist was maimed by her vault door, whisking her to the medic tent and pacing furiously in the waiting room while her crack surgery team scrubbed in. Maybe it was just different when there was a girl watching, it created an element of competition—but if that was true they should’ve been more hostile to me. I wondered if they could sense I was still one of them, in a way. “Tell me about yourself, Sam.” The Scarebuddhist said as she gazed at the setting sun through her artificial background.

“There’s not much to tell. I was a child for a while, then I wasn’t. I was a student for a while, then I wasn’t. I was a soldier for a while, then I wasn’t.”

“You were a soldier?”

“I think so. Someone would yell ‘Move soldier!’ and I would move, and they would stop yelling for a brief period, so I gathered I was a soldier. Fortunately I got out before the war.” She frowned.

“I don’t know if I can date a soldier.”

“I don’t know if I can date at all.” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Dating is too uncertain. I want to own, not rent.” Her frown deepened.

“You can’t own me.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a person. You can’t own a person.”

“I’m a person, yet the army owned me.”

“Really?” She asked.

“Yes, my drill sergeant was particularly fond of reminding me that the army owned my ass.”

“But they didn’t own you. They just owned your ass, which is a relatively small part of you.”

“You’d think so, but in the eyes of the law, owning a person’s ass is ipso facto owning the entire person: mind, body, and soul.”

“Really?” She asked again.

“Yes. It was decided in the landmark case of The State of New Jersey V. Robert Fulsom’s Ass.”

“Wow. The law is a baffling labyrinth.”

“And sodomy is the minotaur, which is why I need your help to get my lawn under control.” I outlined my situation (redacting certain nonpertinent elements) to her while she almost succeeded in feigning interest.

“I must say, this is a disappointment. I thought you were sincerely interested in theoaboriculture, but it turns out you were just using it to mask a deficiency.” I pointed at the workmen moving ancient Maya carvings into her new house through a hole in the roof.

“And I take it you’re deeply, passionately interested in Mesoamerican art?”

“I told you, it’s just a job, a collection of affectations.”

“Being a soldier was just a job, a collection of affectations, but that was no consolation to the people I killed.”

“You said you got out before the war.”

“Will you help me, or not?” I demanded.

“Of course I’ll help you. I’m growing rather fond of you.” That disarmed me, no pun intended. “I know a guy. He’s kind of a botanical savant. And a veteran. You’ll like him.”

“Thanks.”

“You know, Dōgen Zenji said in The Time-Being ‘Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice. When you are at this place, there is just one grass, and there is just one form. There is understanding of form and there is no understanding of form. There is understanding of grass, and there is no understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the being-time is all the time there is. Grass-being, form-being are both time. Each moment is all being, the entire world. Reflect now, whether any being or any world, is left out of the present moment.’ ”

“I don’t think Dōgen-San was really talking about grass.”

“I don’t think you are either.”

* * *

I arrive home to find the soldiers quartered in my house crowding around a single point on my front lawn, and a deep part of me experiences a cold rush of terror at the possibility they’ve found my M1. I begin to walk away as casually as my fluttering heart can manage while calculating my various means of mass transit escape, only to realize at the last moment that the soldiers are nowhere near the dead spot. The fear that had flooded into me drains out just as quickly, and I feel strangely empty as I approach the ring of soldiers.

Standing on my toes to peer over their epauletted shoulders, I see a man. A mature man with gallant, Scandinavian features buried up to his neck in my front lawn. His face is turned upward, his eyes are closed, and his long, faded blonde hair is spread out behind him on the grass like a rug of cornsilk.

“What-” A chorus of shushes cut off my inquiry. A neighbor pulls me aside, a former soldier who’s taken to spending time with my G.I.s, swapping war stories and dispensing advice and shaking the steel plate in his head at the state of things.

“Sam! Do you know who that is buried in your front yard?”

“Do you?”

“He’s a landscape architect. The most respected landscape architect since Frederick Olmstead. He designed the most aesthetically pleasing battle it was ever my pleasure to be irreparably traumatized by. Every night I see his gently sloping moors, winsome pathways, and handsome trees, covered in the blackened remains of my dismembered comrades. Then I wake up screaming.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed. Your wails cut through the night like a knife. And he’s the best landscape architect since Olmsted?” My neighbor’s brow slopes as if the moorland he spoke of is being reflected in his countenance.

“No. He’s much better than Olmsted, but his stupid name means that he receives an amount of respect more or less equal to that of his inferior predecessor.”

“What’s his name?” Caution flickers in my neighbor’s remaining eye.

“I shouldn’t tell you. It’ll just make you respect him less, and you should respect him, despite his fantastically stupid name. He goes by Grassman, and Grassman is what he is. That is all ye know, and all ye need know.” Personally I thought I need know some more, but it seemed best not to press the issue.

“What’s he doing?” I ask, straining over my neighbor’s shoulder to get a better look at the man embedded in my lawn like a dormant sprinkler. “Will the Neighbors Association allow it?”

“He is integrating himself with your lawn, weaving his soul into its ecological tapestry.”

“Sounds expensive.” He nodded, the plate in his head winking sunlight at me.

“Very. I’m sure the Neighbors Association will make an exception for such a distinguished artisan. We’re glad to see you taking a proactive stance on the…” He clears his throat and nods his stainless steel plate at the shade beyond Yggdrasil and Sephirot.

“What are you talking about?” My neighbor’s remaining teeth form a sly smile.

“Nothing. Of course.”

I spend another minute watching Grassman inhabit my lawn in a state that could only be described as vegetative, then go inside, wash my hands, and watch TV.

There is a report on the news about a masked woman who rescued a groundskeeper from a CIA black site using superhuman strength. The government agents interviewed said she’d snatched their bullets from the air when they’d discharged their weapons, then batted them across the detention cell like rag dolls. The media dubs her Goldfist, the Glamorous Terrorist. Then there is a press conference about the war. The press secretary is beating the podium with both of her shoes, her watch, her belt, and her socks.

“The people are behind this war! Our country is morally superior to other countries! No one else can do what we do! If we did not do the things that we do, the things that we do would go undone! Stay tuned for a very special episode of That’s My Mama!” Experts are consulted.

“Are the people behind this war?”

“The people may indeed be behind this war. It is also possible that they are before or beside or beneath it.”

“Is our country morally superior to other countries?”

“The moral superiority of our nation is within the realm of possibility, but it cannot be definitively placed in the zone of certainty.”

“Can no one else do what we do?”

“Perhaps no one else can do what we do. Perhaps someone else can do what we do.”

“If we did not do the things we do, would the things that we do go undone?”

“Others don’t do the things we do, but the only way to know if others would do what we do is to not do them, and if we don’t do them, they by definition would cease to be what we do, therefore the status of doing the things we do can only be determined by doing them, and by doing them we stop others from doing them, which stops us from knowing if others would do what we do if we weren’t doing it, which we wouldn’t be if they did, and therefore they wouldn’t be doing what we do, which would mean they wouldn’t be doing it, which would mean we were, unless we weren’t, in which case we would.”

“Will we stay tuned for a very special episode of That’s My Mama!?”

“Absolutely.”

Continue the saga with Chapter 3 »

Categories: 2013 Winter Writing Contest, Fiction, Long Form.

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One Response

  1. It’s like a philosophy survey course has been wrapped in witty jokes wrapped in powerfully effective metaphorical narrative that’s somehow self-aware.

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