Prose poems

SCENES

Richard Hugus

A Cougar

I was forced to take a cougar as a traveling companion, transporting it to a zoo. My friend Carlos was with me, but the cougar didn’t seem to bother him. As I drove the car, the cougar sat behind me, once playing his claws along my back. I knew that it would kill me some day soon, at some animal whim.

Skin-diving

Steve McQueen is rehearsing in a movie in which he goes to the observation door of a plane and finds that he is exposed directly to the rushing air. He and a friend, a black man, look down at the ground far below. They stay until the landing. When the plane touches down the black man jumps off. Soon the police are after him. Seeing this, McQueen swings back into the plane, signals to the pilot, and the plane takes him back up. He decides to jump freefall. Unfortunately, instead of a parachute, he has been fitted with a wetsuit, diving mask, and oxygen tank. After beginning the fall, he looks around, shakes his head in terror, pulls the hose from his mouth, and screams soundlessly. He is to fall 40,000 feet. As he falls the landscape of the earth slowly becomes more defined. He lands in a golf course — suddenly appearing. Though every bone in his body is broken he is conscious, and when some golfers try to help him he waves them away deliriously.

The Swinger

A barefoot, bearded man from Alabama runs a ride called “The Swinger” for a traveling amusement show. The ride is a centrifugal swing. He has his feet up on a diesel engine, hanging out. The people on the ride have lost consciousness. It keeps going around.

Sedatives

Because of a complicated accounting problem I went to a stationery store to see if I could get ledger paper with nine columns. They had ledger paper up to seven columns only, but the cashier offered me sedatives to make up for it. At first I declined, but, out of some weakness of will, I bought the paper and took the sedatives.

Golf Balls

An enemy was swimming toward me across a pond. I was on shore with a bucket of golf balls, trying to stop him. My method was to throw the balls not directly but straight up into the air so that they would come down on top of his head. One ball hit squarely, but it had no effect. He reached the shore in front of me, and although he was huge and overweight, I was unable to outrun him.

Two Hitchhikers

I stopped the car to give two hitchhikers a ride. They’d been working on a road crew. When they got out I saw gravel all over the back seat. It made me so mad that I backed up and asked them to clean it up. Since the ride was over they had no intention of being polite. They infuriated me. I grabbed them by the collar and screamed in their faces. It did no good. They enjoyed it.

Begg

On the first day of classes, Begg, the ballet instructor, watched passively as the wild new ballerina, Priscilla, came up to him and scratched vertically down his chest over and over until blood appeared through his shirt in neat red lines. Priscilla left the room, walking backward and crouching down. Begg, just as quietly, removed his bloody shirt and backed out of the room so as not to be seen.

A Pilgrimage

I was on a pilgrimage in India. A man I knew had died and a friend and I carried his possessions into the desert that they might be given away. A long line of people came. It was windy. A large sheet of madras blew tight in my hands with the wind. A familiar looking Indian with a mustache was one of the last in line — our dead friend. We were dumbfounded to see him. “Where’s all my stuff?” he said.

The Movies

I saw Sharmin at a movie theater. She came to sit next to me, moving from a front row. There was a fat, bald man sitting next to us and I became tired of his arm around me and Sharmin. I pushed him into the aisle as if he were a mass of bread dough. He didn’t fight back. He was the sort of person who looked like he would be comfortable wherever he went.

Parts Car

My car developed a leak in the roof. I went to a junkyard and wrote a check for a parts car in order to fix it. But the check I wrote caused a leak in my checking account.

The Wrong Guy

I was in the middle of an audience with no easy way out. The play was no good and my complaints about it attracted the attention of a man in front of me — a large man with black and gold cufflinks. He turned around furiously and pulled me into his face by my necktie.

“Listen, asshole,” he said, “some day you’re going to antagonize the wrong guy!”

Coffee And Rolls

I spilled a cup of coffee along the counter at the Gem Cafe. The waitress noticed my embarrassment. She asked if I was spanked as a child for spilling things. Though I wasn’t, I for some reason said yes. She said she figured it; otherwise I wouldn’t be apologizing. There must be something on my mind, she said. Something besides coffee and rolls.

Two Sides Of A Lake

Sharmin and I lived on two side of a lake, I with a poor family who were much concerned about me and in which there was a much plainer woman than Sharmin who wanted my love. I went across the lake one day to visit Sharmin, found her gone, and sat waiting for her for a long time on her dock. At length my friends came from across the lake to pick me up, or to wait with me. Not much later, Sharmin came up in a varnished wooden speedboat with another man. It was as if she didn’t see me. I decided to leave. Taking off my shirt, shoes, and watch, I called to my friends to retrieve my things, and jumped off the dock at a run. I jumped extremely hard and fast but simultaneous with a large wave which lifted the floating dock almost as high as my arc, making it seem that I would barely clear the dock I just jumped off of, for the water.

My Deathbed

I was in my deathbed. Two friends came to visit me and one asked if I would like to go shopping with him. It was difficult to decline because he had evidently got up the nerve to see me.

Two Men Like Wolves In The Prairie

Walking along a highway interchange with my duffel bag, a wolf-like man going the other way came close and circled around me. He asked what was in my bag, as if he had a right to it. He was a bad man — one who had forgotten or no longer cared about being good. He was sufficiently powerful that I answered defensively, saying I had a shirt, a pair of shoes, a pair of pants, and a sleeping bag in my duffel bag. The tone of my answer gave him an advantage which meant that he would rob me, so I begin to circle around him as well. We were two men like wolves in the prairie.

Mr. G

A gorilla and his son were sent to the state penitentiary at Sing-Sing. They were convicted of computer fraud — one of the white collar crimes. Because of the unusualness of the case, a long documentary of the gorilla’s day-to-day life was done. By patching into the prison’s TV monitors, the public was given an intimate view of the father and his son, who spoke a language unknown to humans, yet with obvious intelligence and sensitivity.

Guards assigned to escort “Mr. G.” (as they called him) through the prison corridors described a man of kindness and understanding, seemingly out of place in a facility like Sing-Sing. At the end of the documentary the narrator made a plea for Mr. G. and his son to be sent to a less punishing prison — the kind the Watergate criminals went to, for instance.

Apparently influenced by the only other animal he had seen speak English, Mr. G., when the microphone was handed to him for a single statement of any kind, slowly and clearly said: “Only you  can prevent forest fires.” The camera then closed in on Mr. G., who stared back at the viewing audience for a long full minute, his eyes watering. In our last view of him, Mr. G. turned to a video display terminal provided for him in his cell, and began rapidly punching in numbers, while his son, standing nearby, scanned a long and complicated printout.

Rayos

Although I knew nothing about politics I became a member of the state legislature of a liberal state. I wasn’t the only ignoramus there, however, as I found out one day while walking with another freshman senator who said the program he intended to put before the legislature was the banning of aliens from the planet “Rayos.” It was obvious, the man said, that if we let the Rayons study our cars, as he said they were being allowed to do, then they — the Rayons — would be able to just steal our technology outright. And what would we get in return? Nothing!

Glasses

Special privileges are to be accorded people on their death-day. For example, they should not have to wear glasses. If obvious mistakes in seeing happen as a result, the victim should be humored: the rest of us should also remove our glasses, and make similar mistakes. It is, afterall, the victim’s last day, and the least we can do.

“Fumes Of Power”

A large group collected in the first floor rooms of my house after the funeral of my brother. Most were well dressed in black suits and I served very small glasses of sherry, meaning to keep the get-together short. One young man brought an electric guitar and portable amplifier and began playing softly. The music at first had an intoxicating effect — it was welcome — but then it became loud and repetitive and it was clear the guitar player was going to play “heavy metal.” I was about to ask him to stop — before things went too far — but was dismayed to hear a member of the audience call out, “Hey, play ‘Fumes Of Power’!” The young man knew the song and launched into it, kicking up the amp to high volume.

He Deserved It

There are three barbers at the barber shop I go to. One of them — the boss — is an old bastard who no one likes. The last time I went in I ended up with him and he made a point of showing the youngest barber — the one I like and usually get — exactly how to handle long hair that is tucked back behind the ears. When the demonstration was over the old barber went in back for a minute and while he was out of sight the young barber asked me for my card. I gave it to him hurriedly — the same as admitting I didn’t like the old barber either. The middle barber then said quietly that they were about to open their own shop, and would give me a call.

An hour later I happened to be walking by again and noticed the old barber strapped into the first chair. The chair was fixed so that he was forced to look directly at the mirror. The others had  done this when they left. A man who came up next to me looked in and said immediately, “He deserved it!” This man too had long hair tucked back behind his ears.

Russian

A directive has been sent down from the Graduate School: standards for the language requirement have been raised; I will have to take a proficiency test in Russian. I appeal to the Director of Graduate Studies who writes a letter to the Graduate School complaining that I have already passed the earlier test and there should be no reason to take it again. When I see the Director’s letter, however, I fear it won’t help — it is poorly written, insulting, and signed with an alias.

Tying Up A Boat

I was asked to help some people tie up a boat that had been hoisted up beside their house. It was a large, heavy outboard. Since it was suspended in the air I had difficulty keeping it still — it turned heavily around and seemed as if it would break the rope by twisting it. In an effort to get it clear of the house I hoisted it higher but forgot to run a line from it to the ground so that I could control it. Once above the roof the wind began to swing the boat in large arcs back and forth. It was going over people in the area who had no idea of the danger they were in. To keep it from swinging there was nothing left to do but hoist it to the very top. The boat was now way up in the air and matters were infinitely worse.

Parking

I went to a large parking facility in Boston. There were three ticket houses at the entrance. I pulled up top the one on the far right, got a ticket from the machine, and went in. The way led to a dead end. I asked an attendant walking by for help. He said to follow him and, walking in front of the car for a long way, led me back to the main gate. There he spoke to the other attendants about my situation: I had gone in the wrong entrance; could I be squeezed in on the lower level?

As the attendants talked, a friend I had come to meet drove in, using the correct, the middle entrance. I called out to her to say there had been a mix-up; I would meet her as planned. But since she couldn’t stop to hear me fully (there was a car behind her), things got confused and she thought I was leaving. Finally the attendant came back and directed me to a space on the lower level, and as I backed down (there being no place to turn around in order to go forward), I met my friend, who, thinking earlier that I was leaving, was leaving herself.

There were cars behind each of our cars (that is, a car behind her car, since she was going forward, and a car in front of my car, since I was going in reverse), and we didn’t have time as we passed to roll our windows down in order to talk. Now she was driving out and I was driving in, although backwards.

The Department Head

On the morning of the first day of my new job as a college English instructor I went to a cafeteria on campus for breakfast with a colleague. Each of us ordered a large orange juice with vodka and immediately afterwards noticed that the head of the Department — the man who hired us — is sitting nearby. My friend was about to cancel his order, which will make us look even worse, but the Department head looks over graciously and orders a vodka and orange juice himself — apparently just what he had been wanting.

A Call

Sharmin is excited to get a call from a man she likes. They are to have dinner together, possibly kiss and make love. She is so happy as she gets ready to go — dressing, talking about her friend’s charming ways — that she forgets I am her husband. Her indifference is complete.

Apartment

Two women and a man were searching for an apartment, starting in a swank part of town. The furnishings were nice, but the three felt uncomfortable, out of place; the pressure was too high. A poorer neighborhood was next. There was an apartment in a house by a lake. They were more relaxed here and, after their experience uptown, relieved.

They were in for an awful shock, however: the apartment was at the top of a narrow stairway and as the first of them entered, a sharp bang closed the door and locked one of the women inside. The two left on the stairs were horrified. The man knew it was up to him to save their friend. His first thought, however, was that they should have rented an apartment uptown. Then he was embarrassed to have — as it seemed — walked into an occupied apartment. He reached out to knock on the door and as he did so the door opened with a great deal of shuffling on the other side.

“I must apologize for my goat,” said a man who looked like the Dalai Lama — a Tibetan with short hair and tinted glasses. “You see, he is trained to shut the door, kicking it with his hooves.”

The lost head of the apartment seekers came around the doorway, fearful of the goat, anxious to show she was okay, and humbled because, as she explained, they had blundered into a place of worship and violated its sanctity. Inside, there were candles burning and mats arranged on the floor in a line facing a large stained-glass window.

The three visitors ended up staying — they brought their things in a van that afternoon. They were invited to stay by the Dalai Lama in an atmosphere of trust and worship which never left them and which changed their lives forever. But their lives were at the same time marked by a strange relationship with the goat, who never lost his wary fixation on them and their comings and goings through the door.

The Military’s Public Information Meeting

The military’s public information meeting was well attended. For that very reason, the authorities did everything they could to cancel it — speakers were there, but they never reached the podium; microphones were turned off; and, most unbelievable of all, false announcements came over the loudspeaker one by one for members of the audience to go out and check their car headlights. The crowd lost hope and gave up. Some people started throwing hamburgers, police wearing black leather jackets and dark sunglasses stole a child’s kickball and started to play with it. The child’s father attempted to get it back but was faced with drawn pistols. Finally, a large group of National Guardsmen marched in, dressed as janitors. They folded up the chairs and swept the floor, and there was no point any longer in waiting for the meeting.

Quite Silent

The captain never said a word. Not long after we were relieved to be safely off the ground, it slowly appeared that we weren’t gaining any more altitude. We skimmed the treetops and went under a bridge. Now branches were beginning to snap. I looked across at my daughter. There was nothing I could do to help. There was nothing anyone could do. It seemed quite silent.

Holding Out

A cow is lying on the cement floor of a barn, in agony, in front of a well of water sunk into the floor. I ask the farmer how long the cow has been dying. He said the vet told him, “He ain’t dead yet.” This somehow gives us the other side of the picture, and we hold out for the cow winning its awful struggle.

General Kaldron

General Kaldron gave a series of speeches — actually a reading of letters to his mother written during the wars of his career. The talks were so full of invective and cute phrases that the General was forced to give them from behind a sliding glass window surrounded by a wall — like someone speaking to an audience from inside a house.

There were two jagged holes in the window. Rocks had been thrown. In fact, things were thrown at a steady rate, and it became a challenge for General Kaldron to stand at least half in the open and to coldly stare down the throwers of rocks. The antagonism of the audience only increased the hatred of the speech, which went on an on, revealing an unshakable certainty in the General that everything he said was of the utmost importance, if not for this audience, then for a world no one else could see which he seemed to hold clearly in the back of his mind, and which he challenged one and all to try to destroy.

Visiting Home

After being away many years, I visited my home town. I remembered an old promise and remembered it only by a kind of charm, that Sharmin, who still lived there, said she still loved me and if I went to her I wouldn’t be lost. But I must call immediately or the charm would be lost and the feeling between Sharmin and myself would be trampled under like the rest of reality, with its half-satisfactions and tired sameness.

Injured Leg

A man suffered an injury to his left leg which caused it to become raw, wet, and fish-like.  He was seated on a high stool in a hospital examining room, and fell off, hitting his injured leg with a slap against the hard tile floor. This was the worst thing he could have done. His bones were the one thing that had kept his leg from being a mere slab of flesh. Now some of them were broken. He was in severe pain and afraid of turning into a fish.

My Childhood Friend

Since my bachelorhood had gone on too long, the newspapers announced that I should marry Barbara, my childhood friend.

Our Car

I sat in the back seat of my car, waiting for my wife and daughter, who had gone into a store. Two complete strangers — a man in a tan leather jacket and a blond woman in a long dress — came out of the store and got in the front seat of the car—the car I am sitting in—as if they owned it. They seemed so certain the car was theirs that I began to doubt myself. We argued in polite embarrassment until, as a last resort, I got out and opened the trunk and said: “Whose tools are these, then?”

Finally, my wife and daughter came out and I began to feel ridiculous cross-examining the couple, who had a perfect answer for everything I said. It came to force. I opened the driver’s side door and told them both to get out. The woman attacked me — again, as if the car were hers — and suddenly I had no idea either who owned the car or what quality it is in things that makes people say they “own” them.

For the time being I had to sit on a grassy bank at the edge of the parking lot until some idea of right and wrong occurred to me. My wife and daughter watched me as if I’d let them down. The couple started the car and drove it peacefully away, and I cast about the parking lot looking for another car that might be ours.

Jumping Cars

A group of men were involved in cutting down a tree. In the process, a large limb fell completely across a road. They had taken no precautions for this. It was a busy road. But, to everyone’s amazement, the cars knew how to jump the limb like horses or deer, gliding softly over it without losing speed.

A Small Plane

A small plane, like a dying butterfly, glides silently  into a valley, headed for a crash at the bottom. Miraculously, at the last moment, its engine starts and the plane lifts up, climbing the hill. But the engine soon dies again, and the plane, unable to escape the valley, glides back down. This pattern is repeated several times — engine on, then off — as if the pilot were experimenting with crash landings. At the end, the engine doesn’t start up. The plane stalls and lands belly down on the side of the hill. Dust rises into the air. It is a gentle landing.

Father And Daughter

A father and daughter were on a plane trip. As the jet traveled peacefully along, they were able to make their way out to the wing, then up to the top of the fuselage, near the nose. It was like being on the back of a large, soaring bird. A river valley passed beneath them. The plane was flying so low that they could see the bottom of the river and the way narrow islands and trees grew out of it. But then it occurred to the father that the plane would only be flying so low for so long if it was in serious trouble and looking for a place to land. The sky was blue and it was a warm spring day. The father and daughter could hear birds chirping in the light wind. This was the end of their lives.

Love Has Ended

A film is on screen and a man and a woman are shown in the midst of kissing. During the kiss each realizes that their love has ended. It comes as a shock to both of them. They withdraw in horror and awe, standing away and looking questioningly at the other. Nothing is said. There is nothing to say.

An Eskimo Man

An Eskimo man rides out to sea on a sea lion and flings his spear down vertically through the water. With an audible thump, the spear deals a death-blow to a large fish the size of a shark. But lurking nearby is another shark. When the blood travels through the water to it, it  attacks the Eskimo, who, though adept enough to try to fight him off, succumbs by being pulled down under water and drowning. A hunting mate of the dying man — another Eskimo — attempts to save his friend, but ends up having to kick and jab to keep from being pulled under and drowning himself. It is a mortal struggle. The second shark, the survivor, swims away with a nasty expression on its toothy horizontal mouth.

Man  On A Hill

A man standing on a hill, by an odd circumstance, was struck by the wing of a descending airplane. The plane was a 747. The very tip of the wing hit the man just in the corner of the eye, swinging his head with the blow, and killing him, though he remained standing. The large behemoth made its murderous landing.

Lawyers

I sought out a lawyer to bring suit against a man who wouldn’t pay me for some work. Sharmin was with me and grew impatient as we waited in the lawyer’s front office. Since no one came out, I finally went in and asked a lawyer for help. He pointed out a poster advertising lawyers who handle cases like mine. He asked me to follow him there but drove his red pick-up truck (with big white letters on the side saying “ALLEGED”) as if he were trying to find out how quickly he could lose me, which he did.. Sharmin and I looked for and were rebuffed by other lawyers. She grew angrier with me at each step of the afternoon. Each insult of the lawyers was doubled by her displeasure.

Prison

I was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but since the prisons were overcrowded I was to be confined in an automobile. The prospect frightened me to such an extent that I felt I had nothing left to lose, and so drove off in the car.

She’s Been Told

Sharmin and I have been running down the sidewalk, on a date which has unexpectedly revealed our liking for each other. It is unexpected because I know she is spoken for. As we run together, I hold her shoulder and glide up above the sidewalk as if weightless. We’re in the midst of happiness, of magic. But then we come to her house. Sharmin is taken in by her friends. Her lover shakes my hand, unknowing. As I wait in the living room, one of her friends comes out and says, “Don’t ever come back.” Sharmin has been told. Her friend’s words are so direct and, for that reason, so unexpected, that I ask her to say them again. She does, and the weightlessness I felt rapidly changes to heaviness, despair, and shock. My shoes are outside. I go out to put them on, feeling there’s no point in even saying goodbye to Sharmin. We are both isolated in our shame. Yet moments before we were flying.

In Order To Have More Room

In order to have more room to talk, several friends went up to the roof of a house. Everyone got up all right but on the way down one slipped on the ice and snow that covered the clay tiles. The others heard a thud and an odd, short yell when he landed. Another, instead of being cautious, was outraged about this and hastened down another side of the roof. He too slipped, fell, and nearly missed being broken in half by a fence below. The rest of them — five in all — remained on the roof in a kind of paralysis. They knew they needed to help their friends, but had lost confidence in their ability to move.

To Plan A Robbery

Four brothers spent months together planning  an elaborate robbery. They were to meet on 86th Street the following day to carry it out. But  a neighbor had heard the plan by listening through the wall, and informed the police, who arrived in force with shotguns and walkie-talkies. One of the brothers let the cops in, and all four of them were forced to line up in their living room, in black Dr. Denton pajamas, in preparation for going to jail. There were to be no exceptions for children in the new criminal justice system.

Adolescence

A number of adolescents have taken out their parents’ large sailing schooner. Once into the adventure, feeling their manhood and wildness, they decide to circle the globe. But on the very first night, after driving under the moon at full tilt, the young sailors fall asleep, and the boat runs aground, hopelessly stranded on the high grassy hill of the summer home of one of the parents.

Finally Able

I run into Sharmin at a grocery store. It is 20 years since our Platonic love affair and finally we are able to complete our feelings by discovering that we can kiss each other, which we do, over and over, long and deeply, standing in the checkout line.

Taxi Man

A rich woman owns a taxi driver — she has one of his testicles to prove it. It is part of the contract. Now she is trying to place him and, being new to the trade, has chosen a stand which already has too many drivers. To make matters worse, she tries to seduce another driver, getting him alone in an intimate setting and inviting him to pour out his heart to her. This driver, feeling the loss of the other driver’s testicle as if it were his own, rebels against the woman, declaring his hatred of her and the entire taxi business in a paroxysm of fury.

Bus Tour

Sixty-odd people have gone on a bus tour. They are at a rest stop on Interstate 80 near Cheyenne, Wyoming. The driver, for the entire trip —  indeed, for his entire career — has been sick of people never being ready, causing delays. A few minutes after discharging his passengers, he pulls away, shifting gears confidently onto the highway. This is their final lesson.

Testimony

Dr. Alexander Lamont is at a table reading testimony as to why the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not build a 200 acre medical research facility and conference center on Upper Cape Cod. The evidence against ATSDR is overwhelming. There will nevertheless be a unanimous vote in favor of their building.

The Fear Man

A man with a hat makes a living out of exposing people to their worst fears, after which he takes the fears and sells them at a retail store. The objects he cannot sell (some fears being immaterial) he gives back to the people he has helped. In other cases he advises destroying the fear physically.

One client, for instance, was afraid of rifles. The Fear Man advised him to purchase a rifle and destroy it.

It happened that the Fear Man was called to administer to the fears of a group of men on a pleasure boat. The Fear Man created for them their worst fear — an attractive, highly capable woman in a powerful speedboat who circled around them. The men all want to possess her, standing at the railing, watching in awe. The woman sees the man with the hat still seated, apparently indifferent. She knows that he alone is worthy of her, being unafraid. He is the Fear Man. He has organized this demonstration for the fearful men. There will be no prize for his work in this case, as the woman cannot be collected and put in his store. Indeed, the woman herself was an object of his instruction, as she had once been exposed to her own worst fear — a man not jealous of her virility.

For his work on the pleasure boat the Fear Man accepted a large consignment of beach towels with which he lined the shelves of his store. It was in this store that the Fear Man dealt with his own worst fear — retail sales. We must all do the thing we fear most, lest the fear humiliate us. That exercise may itself be humiliating, but there is no alternative. The Fear Man was horrified by his job — the customers lining up every day at his counter. It was in this way that he came to know so well the fears of others.

A Wild Horse

I took care of a wild horse. In spite of my efforts, the horse broke loose from the rope I walked him with and ran crazily off. He did the worst of all things — crossing and re-crossing a busy street, cars just barely missing him. Incredibly, he found another horse, black, as if his twin, also running wild along and across this busy street. Now there were two wild horses, and nothing I could do would stop them.

A Test

In a classroom auditorium, everyone has been given a test to complete except me. I have also been denied a textbook with which to prepare for the test. It has become too much. With anger choking my throat I ask the teacher why I can’t take the test. She implies that it is because of my own shortcomings. I reach a fury, yelling across the whole auditorium, interrupting the test. The teacher effectively makes it look as if I am proving the very point she was making about me — people who yell in auditoriums are not fit to take the course, much less be in college.

English Travelers

English travelers in a jungle wearing pith helmets sit under a large umbrella as it starts to rain. Five or six frogs, seeing themselves as crocodiles, slither out of their shelters to stalk them.

Hippo

Sharmin and I test the water of a deep stream running through a city. Suddenly a hippopotamus breaks the surface. Added to this, the hippo aggressively approaches Sharmin, who has her back turned to it and is not aware of what’s happening. I reach for Sharmin in terror, unable to speak (would she believe me anyway?). The hippo’s appearing is improbable enough, but to be chasing us as well? How could this be? I am weakened by despair over the very improbability of what is happening. As a result, I am unable to either speak or move.

A Demonstration

We have gone to great lengths to organize a demonstration in high school, planning for it weeks in advance. The demonstration happens to fall on Halloween Day. I wear a pumpkin hat while checking last-minute details. I realize there is one detail I have overlooked — under such circumstances, who would take our demonstration seriously?

Seamus

Seamus drives up in his bright new van as I am cooking dinner with Sharmin. At the door he walks past me and goes immediately into the kitchen, giving Sharmin a hug that lifts her off her feet, though he has never met her. Sharmin loses her composure and is vulnerable to his egoistic wooing as he sits down at the table, a mug of beer in his hand, singing songs in his faultless Irish tenor. My plans for a quiet dinner together with Sharmin are ruined. In fact, I feel I have lost her to this cocky, uninvited guest — all within the space of a half-hour.

An American Couple

An American couple had a job in a Japanese factory.  They were unhappy with a strict code which said that if one product failed all were responsible. Out of rebellion the couple planned to damage their car (a Japanese model) and return it to the factory as defective so as to get it back just like new. They planned to do the same with their orbital sander. The tireless discipline had gotten to them, had exacted so much from them that there was nothing left to do but make furtive plans to buy Japanese products, damage them, and return them to their factories.

I Cut Myself In Half

Out of charity I allowed my body to be cut in half, not realizing that this would cut off my head from my heart forever. Dumbfounded, I also failed to anticipate the loss of my legs and the difficulty this would cause me in getting from one place to another.

The Rabbi Rothschild

Out of incredible stupidity I agreed to marry a woman who said she was pregnant with my child and whom I therefore must marry. When the child was born it looked just like the Rabbi Rothschild who lived in an apartment upstairs — both had a certain drop in the middle of the upper lip.  I suddenly realized that the child couldn’t have been mine anyway because I never made love to the mother.  My concern then was how to get out of the marriage.

Rubber Bands

I pitched for a baseball team using rubber bands instead of baseballs. One day the rubber bands became hopelessly ineffective. They had worked just fine before. Now, suddenly, they were an absurdity. The only alternative was to change over to full-gauge surgical tubing.

Death

Death was no impediment to my father. He recovered. He came back to life. Soon he was demanding toast and coffee. Now the problem was how exactly were we to explain this to the people we had told of his passing away?  Or the ones who came to his funeral?

Stress Management

In an audience for an important meeting, which was supposed to include one hundred Congresspeople and other dignitaries, and at which I might be called on to speak from the floor, I found it difficult to tolerate two people whom chance had seated next to me. One man, seated behind me, apparently not paying attention to what he was doing, suddenly held both sides of my head firmly between his hands. When he let go I turned around and asked him what the hell he was doing. He acted like he didn’t have to respond. So I asked him again more loudly, and thus attracted the attention of the person in front of me, whom I had already had words with for wearing a “Dr. Suess” hat and obstructing my view.

Now Dr. Suess and the head-handler were discussing me between themselves, as if I were not there, and exchanging the particulars of my complaints against them. This, of course, was a new form of harassment. But just as I was about to respond I saw that I would be unable to sit anywhere in this particular auditorium because, as I now realized, all the seats had high backs and were close together, as on an airplane, bringing on an awful sense of claustrophobia. And besides, it was a half hour since the scheduled start of the meeting and the only people there were my tormentors and a handful of janitors running insanely loud “Shop-Vac” vacuum cleaners.

Was this how seminars in stress management were conducted — with actors giving object lessons to the few unwitting participants who walked through the door? If so, I wanted no part of it.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell attended a forum in which his qualifications for Secretary of State were open to examination by the public. All the questions were simpering and non-controversial. It was left to me to ask Mr. Powell if someone who had massacred two million Iraqis could be considered a fair negotiator, a diplomat, a seeker of agreement. Such questions were not supposed to be raised at the forum. I could scarcely find the breath to make myself heard.

A Boat Trip To Hawaii

A couple have won a boat trip to Hawaii. As they make their way to the pier, a group of gangsters prepare to hold up the owner of the boat line who, in any case, had sold tickets for the trip without the boats even being built.  As shots ring out, workers step up the pace, assembling the hull.

The Gold-Checked Boys

A pair of fast cars, painted to represent and advertise a new government military program, could be seen racing up and down streets all over town. It wasn’t clear if they were commissioned by the government itself, or put together out of the effort of a few individuals in zealous support of the new government program. There was a mystique about the cars – that they were equipped with special technology, were immune not only to the laws of the road which applied to other cars, but to the laws of physics. If necessary, they could be made to fly for short periods of time, hurdling over fences, traffic jams, and other obstacles, one right behind the other, and racing on, to everyone’s amazement, as they carried out the  government’s top secret program.

It turned out the cars couldn’t fly, however, as the people in a quiet  residential neighborhood found out one day when the two cars sideswiped and smashed into about twenty of the neighborhood’s parked cars and ran head-on into two other cars, one after another, at an intersection. Following the accidents, the mundane reality was revealed — the drivers, who couldn’t be seen before behind the black-tinted glass of their other-worldly vehicles, were just two guys from out of town who had put the whole thing together on their own, with backing from one or two well-known corporations who had donated money for the gold-checked paint job for the cars, as well as the shiny gold jump suits and aviation glasses which the drivers wore. The logos of these corporations appeared on the cars, and on the jump suits, as in stock-car races. The cars weren’t able to jump, but had been fitted with a trick high-lift suspension which could be controlled by the driver to give the effect of jumping.

That was it. The two men were cited for numerous traffic violations and insurance claims, they had their licenses taken away, and were given two years of community service. The “community service” programs, however, were run by a subsidiary of one of the same corporations that had underwritten the cars, and the “service” was just a ruse whereby companies could milk the taxpayers of the town for exorbitant funding – ‘exorbitant’ meaning MILLIONS of dollars! – to run a program which had nothing whatsoever to do with working peoples’ interests.

The two young men could now be seen around town, not in their cars, but at desks set up in various bank and post office lobbies, wearing gold-checked business suits, collecting fees which had been made mandatory nationally to pay for a war advertised to be like no other war in history. The weapons for this war, coincidentally, were to be supplied by the gold-checked corporations.

A Man Bought A House

A man bought a house on Cape Cod, but without making the usual arrangements. The worst point, and most embarrassing, was that he arrived with his family after a long drive from the Midwest only to find that the owners were still in the house and weren’t told that it had been sold. Immediately, the man saw the mistake of not dealing with the owners directly, of not coming first to look at the house, of taking all their things and leaving Illinois without knowing where they were going. The house had not been “sold.” The man had not bought it. On hearing the story of the man’s dealings in Illinois, the owners could not believe their ears. They laughed at and derided the man. They became angry at the imposition. They made him repeat the story of his foolishness over and over – the story of the realtor with the plaid beret, the $18,000 downpayment, the papers that were to be “sent ahead” to his new house. When they sufficiently understood, they called neighbors over to hear the story again. Nevertheless, out of politeness, the owners cleared a place in the garage for the family to stay. The man’s children, poorly clothed, slept in the owners’ arms. The man’s wife, always sensitive to public opinion, made it clear that her marriage to her husband was a mistake and that she thought him an utter fool.

A Nuclear War

There had been a nuclear war. Almost everyone had drunk a dark-colored poison in order to die without pain. But the world was still beautiful and taking the poison seemed a mistake. One had to fight its effect of inducing sleep. Everywhere, people were doing things they always wanted to do. A little girl was driving a car on her lawn.  A young man and woman who were too shy before began speaking freely with each other and vowed to be together. But the poison slowly occupied everyone with sleep and numbness. It seemed worse than the war. The ocean and the sun gave no sign that anything would end.

Cargo Door

A jet plane is flying low over a city just after takeoff. From it falls a huge curved sheet of metal, turning in the air and crashing down between some buildings in the distance. This must have been the cargo door, because there fall next a few cars which the plane was apparently transporting. The cars land on a street and sidewalk, smashing all to pieces. Next, perhaps, the plane itself will crash.

Whirlpool

A man was unable to be with his wife and infant child because a whirlpool kept him at a different point in a large circle. Once, by diving under water, the man came up at the correct point and found that his small child was crying and needed comforting. But before he could reach his child a young man offered to help. The husband considered whether to interfere, but it seemed wrong to do so if he would so seldom be there. Yet, he did interfere, and the young man was jealous. Now his wife would have one less person to help her when he went inevitably away, and he realized what he had done was a mistake.

The Ship of the Insane

A group of people who were clinically insane conspired to form a shipping company—a form of self-employment which would keep them out of mental hospitals and away from the imprisonment of “medication.” They were able to form the company because they chose staff who were totally convincing impostors – convincing ship’s captains, convincing engineers, convincing deck hands, and so on. Among them were several “bankers” who helped them with the necessary credit to acquire their first ship by chartering a combination freight and passenger liner.

It is not long before the ship is out at sea, foundering. The passengers sit at their dining tables in stony silence, not even interested in another ship that has come to rescue the ship of the insane. As the passengers have faultlessly taken on the attitudes and dress of early 20th century characters, showing no concern, it is not clear who is to be rescued and who is not. True, the ship has been drifting at sea because no one had the least idea how to run it. But perhaps what was abnormal was a ship that was not drifting at sea, a ship with engines running and a crew who were not actors. So placid were the crew of the one ship that they slowly began to convince the crew of the rescuing ship that this was in fact the case. The insane calmly discussed matters with their sane counterparts, point by point, in long discussions on deck, until everyone was in agreement. Two ships were now foundering at sea, ready to call for a third to rescue them. By this means, they reasoned, a large and profitable company would soon be formed.

The Professor

An English professor taught a class in literature, but felt it was important to have students build bookcases first. Afterall, the books required for reading in the course needed to be put in a good place. It was important to build a library.

He and his students had access to a well-equipped carpentry shop on campus, but he himself was not a competent carpenter. Actually, he was not even a competent thinker, as he proceeded to take his class through the steps necessary for the fabrication of drawers, not bookcases. Okay, he said, drawers were necessary for the storage of writing materials involved in writing papers on the literature to be taught. They would hold paper and pens, computer disks, and so on.

But the drawer bottoms, which he pre-cut for the class on a Sunday in order to hurry up the process, were not square. They were parallelograms. It was therefore impossible, on Monday, to assemble the fronts and sides. Beside this, the drawers had to be put in a cabinet of some kind to be of any use. This meant a further detour from making the bookcases for the books to be read after the drawer problem was straightened out and the cabinets for the drawers were made . . . not to mention buying the books, reading them, and discussing them formally in class.

By the third week, the professor was anxious to get back on schedule and planned to drop drawer making for a day to take the class to the bookstore, both to buy books, and to examine their bookshelves. The class assembled in the carpentry shop where, in his hurry to start off on the field trip, the professor fatally stapled the upper half of his thumb to the side of a drawer as he demonstrated to the class the use of a pneumatic stapler with inch-and-a-quarter staples. This meant that instead of going to the bookstore the class went to the campus hospital. To get there, walking, one student held the drawer the professor’s thumb was nailed to. Another carried his coat and briefcase. Another carried his glasses, which fell to the floor in the shock of the accident.

Always the teacher, even under these circumstances, the professor sat on his emergency room bed and, while waiting for the doctor, began a lecture on William Carlos Williams, poet and doctor. As if desperate to make medical tie-ins to English literature, and to show the relevance of everyday reality to this study, he also discussed the doctor in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

At this point the class listened to him out of pity. He was only proving that there were no practical connections between literature and the rest of the world. And he was asking the nurses questions related to his lecture because, without his glasses, he couldn’t see that they were not his students. With his hospital gown on, one could see his spiny back and polka-dot underwear. There was a tattoo on his upper arm which said “MOM.”  And his hand appeared to be permanently attached to a ridiculous diamond-shaped drawer which would never hold anything.

An Old Man

An old man has been wheeled in  a gurney into the hallway of a busy hospital where he waits to undergo surgery. There is not much hope. He is red with discomfort and anger. As he waits a newborn child is wheeled out in the other direction, also on a gurney. It is as if the child and the man recognize each other. After the child passes the old man yells out warnings to the child of the cruelties he may expect in life, as if the child had been deceived about his prospects and needed to know what he was getting into.

The French Language Association

The French Language Association came out with a recommendation that the letter ‘W’, or double-v be changed to ‘VVV’, or triple-v. This modest change would have repercussions throughout the world. The expense involved in making this change would prove to be the undoing of the French economy.

I Loaned My Car

I loaned my car to some people who I later saw driving through town as I walked to work, carrying my carpentry tools and supplies. I was the victim of false generosity, even refusing to accept a ride when they slowed down and offered. It turned out they were just driving around and visiting friends a few blocks away, while I had several miles to walk. Some time later they came from a different direction and I could hear them laughing as they passed. The back of the trunk was bashed in.  This was before they left town for good . . . in my car.

How To Let Someone Know

Among a group of friends there is a woman who asks me how to let someone know she doesn’t like them anymore. We are in a crowded party. She is sitting on my lap and has only to speak softly in my ear to be heard. My response is to philosophize about how people usually deal with this matter indirectly – not returning calls, not showing up, slowly phasing the unwanted friend out – and that it is very difficult, and often wrong, to simply announce that you don’t like someone anymore.

Then I realize that she has gotten me to tell her what she wanted to tell me. I had begun the answer speaking out loud, and involving our other friends, even though her question was put softly. As the realization came I lowered my voice to the point where I was only speaking to myself, as was appropriate.

A Bear In The Basement

There was a bear in the basement. I had been told to expect him. His eyes seemed lit from behind and he roared at me. A large brown bear. I threw things at him until he finally ran up the stairs to get me, at which point I shut the door. But the latch on the door was flimsy, so that I had to hold it shut. The bear wasn’t afraid of me. If I couldn’t hold the door he was angry enough to kill me.

A Prisoner Emerges

A police van pulls up in front of the Boston Public Library. Several cops get out and from the back of the van emerges a prisoner wearing leg shackles, handcuffs, and a monstrous cage of steel bars over his head. Behind the cage there is a respirator covering his mouth, goggles over his eyes, and muffs over his ears. At this point several buses go by, obstructing the view. When the prisoner appears again he is unchained and one can see a  handsome black man speaking in a foreign language to people in an old car who have come to pick him up. This is his release from prison. This was how he was treated. The man’s attitude of contempt for the police, and complete indifference to the inhumanity he was shown moments before, is auspicious. He will go back immediately to fighting the totalitarian nightmare.

A Majority Of Conformists

A handful of people have managed to avoid taking a potion for universal conformity. But among those who have taken it – the large majority –it turns out the potion has a limited effect. By firm questioning, people enforcing the conformity break down and are unable to stop non-conformists from doing what they want. A large problem remains for the world, however, as those who maintain the regime of conformity, if challenged weakly, are strengthened by their victory so that it becomes progressively harder to challenge them. A significant number of such people grows. They are defeatable only by the strongest. The world is thus left with an uncomfortable majority of conformists.

A Friend’s Roof

Half way through the roofing of a friend’s house, I discover that part of the decking is rotten, then that a rafter is rotten, then that 50% of all the framing of the roof is in a state of disintegration. It is past noon on a Saturday and too late to get new wood. It would be too late to do in a day in any case. The old roof has been stripped and there is no easy way to protect the house from the rain. My friend is in a lawn chair in his back yard, completely oblivious. His children are running inside and out, also oblivious. The entire house is about to fall in and it is somehow my responsibility now, just because I said I’d “fix a few shingles,” to save an entire family.

Fox

Everything came together at exactly the wrong time. The driver of a car enters the entrance ramp of a rural freeway. His window is rolled down all the way. Along comes a fox — large bushy tail with white tip — running on light feet, at full speed. Behind the fox is a dog. The dog is chasing the fox and is very close to catching him. There is absolutely no choice for the fox but to jump through the open window of the moving car. The driver of the car sees this instantly. He thinks how strange it will be to have a fox in the car beside him.  How will the fox behave? Will he be attacked? Such a thing seems impossible. Yet there is no chance but that this very thing is about to happen.

People Wore Masks

In a future world people wore masks. The availability of masks and their everyday use expanded hugely, just as computers did in the 1990’s. Almost everyone wore a mask. Their perfection also increased greatly, so that the identity of people was hard to distinguish. It might take years for a friend to reveal him or herself to you. A handsome mask pulled back might reveal a wrinkled and dull face. A woman might be a man. A teenager might be someone in their 30’s, or vice-versa. The whole business of who people were was an unknown in most social relations. It was a shock to see the reality of someone you had known otherwise. Yet, for all the wearing of masks, people felt compelled to reveal themselves to you – as if a throwback to the old days when identity was one thing, before the evolution of flesh into plastic.

A Plane Taxiing

On first sight a large jet plane appeared to be taxiing through the woods, slowly making its way along the side of a hill. The well-dressed passengers looked out of their oval windows at the fields and dirt roads. The pilot sat alone in the front, but there was no job for him to perform because the plane was on rails and several box cars were moving in front of it, pulled by a locomotive, going very slowly through unknown parts of rural Georgia.

A Matter Of Course

Less than two months after a couple got married, the woman went off and rented an apartment for herself. There was no thought or discussion about it. Friends were aware that this amounted to a separation, but the couple didn’t put it in those terms. It was as if the two were so poorly suited for each other that living separately was a matter of course, just as two strangers would naturally get their own rooms at a hotel.

The Lake

The lake is still. Nothing awaits me.

Other Drivers

A group of friends has hired a taxi. The driver decides that he will lie down backwards on the seat and drive by looking up through the rear view mirror. Among other things, he drives through a narrow toll booth opening in this way, at high speed. One of the passengers asks him to pull over and convinces his friends that they must get out. The taxi leaves them in a residential area from which they can walk the rest of the way. As they walk they see other cars in which drivers are lying down in their seats, navigating through the rear view mirror.

Communicating With The Dead

A man finds he is able to communicate with the dead by connecting with them through earphones. A voice comes through – slowly, a mysterious dead person tells his tale. But he tells it in a quite arbitrary fashion, as there is no need for him to be logical.

A Horse In Love

A female horse fell in love with a man. It came to a crisis at a drive-in movie theater where the horse suddenly presented her hind quarters to the man and stammered something about “having needs just like everybody else.” They were parked in the back row of the drive-in. The man was disgusted and could think of nothing except how to escape – to escape this awful situation and the horror this relationship had become. All along he had enjoyed being with the horse. He felt at peace with her, or it. But this always depended on the horse forgetting about romance, which was obviously out of the question. Now what was he supposed to do, as the screen flickered, in some field 20 miles outside of town? It was unbearable to be with her any longer. At the risk of hurting her feelings forever, he considered bolting from the car. Then he remembered all the times the horse had been nice to him – too nice, and this was the reason for it. If he left, he would never want to see her again. And what part had he played in encouraging her? It was too grotesque to even think about. This was a HORSE, not a lover. “Please God, get me out of this,” he said as he heard her whimpering. How could he get her back in the trailer and take her home? What was he thinking? How many other men had chosen to take a horse to the movies? Of course, now the other men were watching him, their arms around their dates. Was this why his friends had drifted away? What a fool. How could he not have seen it?

Back Seat Drivers

Whether it was to satisfy those customers who had demonstrated their abilities, or to teach them a lesson, American Motors came out one year with a “Back Seat Driver” Rambler. Back seat driving turned out to be not so easy when it was a reality. The heads of three, sometimes four passengers in the front seat made it hard to see the road. And of course the people in front who could see better couldn’t help but become “front seat drivers” – and with good reason – the driver in back was endangering their lives, and they would be the first to get injured should there be an accident.

As if out of vindictiveness, the manufacturers had left all the controls not vital to operating the car on the front dashboard. In fact, there was no back seat dashboard – just a steering wheel in open air, in the middle, and two pedals on the floor. This meant that the passengers got to control the radio and heat controls and everything else. While they weren’t worrying about accidents, the front seat passengers soaked up the astonishment of people on the street to whom it appeared the car had no driver at all. Since the driver was in the back seat, he or she wasn’t noticed.

But even for vanity it was decided not to continue the car model for another year. Things instead swung in the opposite direction as, in subsequent years, the Rambler came with an optional shade which could be pulled down by the driver to block the forward view of the back seat passengers entirely.

Eventually the whole thing was forgotten. A new generation now casually refers to “back seat drivers” without knowing that at one time in history this class of people had been thoroughly humiliated.

The Police

The police have blocked the street leading to my neighborhood, but since I am on my bike and it is dark I glide past them to my house. Once inside I see them breaking into the house of the neighbor behind me, rushing in a line through the side door. Within minutes reports of distress come over a walkie talkie. One of the cops has banged his knee on some furniture which he couldn’t see. No one was home to turn the lights on form them and they had forgotten their night vision goggles. Ambulances with sirens were hurrying to the scene. The next day we learned that it was the wrong house.

A Woman Of Means

A woman of means has gone into a pout. She has driven her black Cadillac limousine far out on the beach at low tide. Now the tide has risen to just below the level of her windows. Her pout continues as others search for an electric winch to pull the car out.

Much Like God

What we know of as “interactive” today regarding computers will  be taken into the arena of cinema in the future, such that people watching a movie will be able to direct things with a mouse-like device. The directing will only be of physical motion – quite enough when you have a street full of moving cars and you need to prevent them from hitting each other.

But then there are consequences to mistakes on the physical plane. When two lovers on their way to a rendezvous instead get into a car accident because of the operator’s jumpy hand, then the next scene may well be a hospital emergency room, and so on.

The true test of one’s mastery of this game will be the ability to have the movie end more or less as it was written. But then what is the writing of a movie script but the determination by one person of who will say and do what, where. Except that he or she has more time to arrange and think about things, the writer is no different than the moviegoer who must control a mechanical process happening in real time, much like God.

Poetry Reading

A poet was scheduled to speak at a reading with other poets. On his arrival in the parking area he noticed the side of his car was on the very edge of a sand embankment overlooking a large descent. He decided at the last minute to find a better parking place. This made him late for the beginning of the reading, but he assumed they could start without him.

There were three events in different rooms in the auditorium that night. He walked into one that appeared likely. To his satisfaction, there were hundreds of people in attendance. He sat down near the front, a little worried that the organizer hadn’t come to greet him. Then he noticed that many of the people in the audience were wearing large hats with sparkles on them and chin straps. Just as he realized he had walked into the wrong event – a competition of marching bands – he patted his jacket pocket to find his poems and discovered that he had either misplaced or completely forgotten his material. As he made his way out to find the right room he considered the possibility of giving a speech on poetics instead. But this was a poetry reading. He couldn’t think of a single poem he could recite by heart, even one of his own. Lines of poems came to him – Ezra Pound’s “Station At The Metro”, Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods”, the song “Daisy” as sung by Hal the computer in “2001.” Even these he couldn’t remember all the way through.

At the end of a hallway he opened a door which he thought was an exit and immediately heard his name mentioned by a speaker in front who said, “ . . . and now, luckily, he has just arrived. Let’s give him a big welcome.” Some 150 people then began clapping. This was going to be a disaster.

Miniature Men

With marvelous skill, a biologist pulled from the intersection of two branches on a tree something like a very large acorn in which small, miniature men lived, each to a section, in a state of slow-moving torpor. The men were elf-like, greenish-brown, and only slightly animate, but their faces and gestures could be interpreted from slow motion to be quite sophisticated and urbane. Their proportion to regular humans was identical. On seeing them, one wondered if this is what people might become – miniatures of themselves – so much had they reduced themselves morally and in the eyes of nature.

Not Liking Cats

A doctor is visiting a friend whose daughter is sick – a cut on her neck is not healing and may be infected. In the kitchen the doctor steps forward to look at the wound, but standing at the girl’s feet is a Siamese cat who growls at the doctor as if he were a dog. When the doctor gets closer the cat lunges for his neck. It scratches the doctor who pushes it off. It now becomes clear what happened to the girl. But the family says the cat did not like him and they knew “he did not like cats.” It didn’t help matters when the doctor said he would like to take the cat out to the back yard and shoot it in the head. Both he and the girl had what may be mortal wounds, and others still might be attacked, but this would all go by because of the doctor’s reputation for “not liking cats.”

The Ignorant Visitor

A guest is visiting in the house of a friend. While the friend is out the toilet overflows three times in succession, the guest hoping each time that the next try would clear it. The fourth time the water doesn’t stop. Sections of the house eventually have three inches of water on the floor, not just from the overflowing but from a pipe that must have broken. There is no mop to clean it up and it doesn’t help to open the front door because it is on a high threshold and the water won’t go out. The guest reasons that the only drain is in the floor under the toilet, so he loosens the nuts that hold it down and takes the entire toilet off. This releases an even larger gush of dirty water. Apparently the overflow is coming through the drain in the floor from underneath the building so, of course, the water in the house will not go down the drain. The water is now lapping over the front door threshold so that at least it will not get higher. The guest’s efforts to sweep it out with a broom cause waves to develop and splash against artwork on the walls. Disastrously, in the attempt to lift an upholstered couch up onto some chairs, the guest knocks over a large aquarium, causing the light in the aquarium to short-circuit, the smashing of glass, and of course more spilled water. The tropical fish that were in the aquarium spread through the house. Some die of fright, or, as the guest hopes, simulate being dead by floating motionless “until the trouble is over.”

Neighbors have at this point lined up outside the house to watch. One of them, not reassured that “everything is okay,” and not understanding English anyway, has already called up the owner of the house. When the owner returns, he stops the flowing of water with the simple turn of a valve on the bathroom wall and stares at his friend with shock and disgust for not knowing of this valve. This is apparently something everyone in this part of the world knows about, even small children, but not his ignorant visitor. Because of this visitor, his house is now ruined.

Baseball Player

A baseball player makes an outstanding catch just outside of the infield between second and third base. The catch involves running at top speed, making an impossible reach, and catching the ball in his bare right hand. Afterward he acknowledges the admiration of the other players and the crowd with humility, like a true athlete. But just a few minutes later this same player has a foul ball relayed to him from left field and he goes through an embarrassing display of clumsy tip-offs from the edge of his glove, chasing the ball further and further from his position until it finally rolls away from him. The effect is to erase the miracle of his earlier catch and to leave one aghast at the fickleness of beauty.

Several Installments Of A Long Movie

Several installments of a long movie were aired in a public theater. At each one a preview was shown in which a man is hurtling through the air in apparent exhilaration as a skydiver who is experiencing flight before pulling his ripcord. In the final showing of the series the movie ends with this person seen closer up and we now understand his exhilaration as insane recognition that his parachute will not open, the earth will get closer and closer, that that he will die hitting it. This retrospectively changes the whole sense of the movie.

One man in the audience plays the role of astute critic as people are filing out. He does this to attract the attention of a woman in the audience who he admires. She notices him when he is speaking, and so he continues. He has done this at each installment of the movie. On the final day we see him closer up and in the last scene we see that the confident, intelligent face is really a face of desperation to impress someone who never cared about him, who he would do anything to impress, just to have her attention, before pushing open the theater door and going off into the empty night.

The Lesson Of A Lifetime

It is the lesson of a lifetime for a professor of architecture who now, at the end of his career, realizes that he hasn’t once taken his job seriously and that by doing so he has cheated every single one of his students.

It is final exam time at the end of a six month course. For the exam the professor asks his students to demonstrate the separate parts of a common house by building exact scale models. Each model is deficient in one way or another because he failed to teach his students correct principles of design. A staircase submitted by one student, for example, has absurdly high risers – unpleasing, unproportional, and unwalkable – because the floor plan did not allow enough room for it.

On the final day he penalizes both himself and his students by going over the projects without mercy: “the mistakes in them are fatal, and here’s why. . . ” He goes so far as to extend the exam period for an additional week so that drawings can be redone and new models made. The students are upset because it has all become quite serious and real; the four years they have spent in school could now suddenly end in failure. But the professor holds himself to account as well, trying to fit in at the end the most important lesson – that what one does matters, that other people are affected by mistakes we make, that a bad design will last a lifetime and never go away, and that this is why the hard work of getting it right must be done.

On The Occasion Of A Small Boy’s Birthday Party

On the occasion of a small boy’s birthday party the parents of the boy rent a lion. The lion can be transported in a cage in the back of their small station wagon. The father is worried about the idea, but is somewhat less worried when he learns the lion is old and blind. No one knows how to feed or take care of the lion. It just sits in the back of the car. It has to stay there the entire weekend because it can’t be returned until Monday. This means taking the lion on errands and answering people’s questions. The kids at the boy’s party don’t even care about the lion. It looks sickly and doesn’t roar. Cruelly, they go on to other things. The entire time, however, the father worries about the lion, suspecting that somewhere beneath its old age, blindness, and defeat there is a wild animal that can be provoked to violence. In fact the father knows this because it is the same with him in his situation – a polite household in which his son is meek and whimpering, his wife scolds, and he, constantly busy with his job and errands, is most certainly not allowed to roar, ever.

Canada’s New Defense Plane

At a large conference organized to analyze and oppose Canada’s new defense plane, a man meets a woman. They’re mildly interested in each other. She calls him the day after the conference, having just read that Canada’s current defense plane just suffered a malfunction resulting in a fire. They discuss the likelihood of this happening to the new plane and conclude that the new plane is too complicated to work. But when asked where she is calling from, the woman is coy and says “somewhere in the U.S.” This puts the man off. Male friends don’t play such games – they’re straightforward. Now suddenly he sees the parallel – not only is Canada’s new defense plane too complicated to work, so are the relations between the sexes.

The Traffic Jam

Having reached an advanced stage of corruption, General Motors manufactured a car that outdid all the huge gas-guzzlers. The new car was called “The Traffic Jam.” Its driver’s seat was high up in the air, accessed from a first floor entry cabin by a small escalator. The height was good for seeing well over a line of stopped cars to the end of a traffic jam, but it made it hard to control the vehicle as it traveled on the street below. One might easily clip a curb or fail to stop in time when coming up behind another car. For the driver who had a conscience, The Traffic Jam was a source of anxiety – one could commit terrible blunders but be so far removed from the consequences that it was as if nothing happened at all.

A Police Chase

A police car chase on a busy city street attracts the attention of the people who happen to be on their stoops or on the sidewalk who are rooting for the man being chased. But the car is cornered and forced to stop and several police make a big show of taking the man out of his car and carrying him horizontally — two cops on each limb — to an unmarked police car. There they rapidly put the man in  a zip-up mylar bag, handcuffed, unable to breathe, and throw him in the trunk of the police car.

People who have witnessed this begin to object. They ask what he has done, why is he treated this way. The lead cop answers with disgust, as if the public were ignorant of the things he had to deal with daily, ignorant of the ways of criminals. There is no motion in the mylar bag. No sound. The police may have abducted and killed an innocent man, yet they stand there acting as if they were the ones offended. The entire crowd watching this fear and despise them.

The Window Man

A man bought a small convenience store. Not long after, a tradesman walked in with some tools and started working on a metal window. The owner wasn’t sure what to do because the tradesman seemed so sure about what he was doing.

“Who called for this work?” asked the store owner.

The tradesman replied but didn’t really answer the question. He had a torch out and was removing putty.

“Excuse me, who called for this work?”

Again, some talk but no answer.

“I own this store now and don’t want this work done,” said the owner.

A small fire had started in a flower pot which the tradesman had failed to take off the sill. The dry flower was burning in a flame, threatening to catch the curtains which the tradesman had also not removed.

“Great, now we have a fire,” said the owner. He was trying to decide whether it would be better to just let the window man do his job so that he would go, but he was getting more and more upset. Was there something he didn’t understand — something about the way things were done in the building?

“GET OUT!” he screamed at a hysterical high pitch.

This had a result. The result was to attract everyone’s attention to the unbalanced lunatic yelling in the convenience store. The window man did not suddenly realize that, yes, he should have checked with the new owner before he started work. He merely stopped his work to observe a moment of contempt for the ignoramus who didn’t know how things were done here.

“GET OUT!” the owner screamed again.

He was willing to risk his entire business — possibly his life — on this issue. His sanity depended on it. But was he making a stand for sanity or was he just proving that he had already lost his sanity? No one seemed to be acknowledging his position.

The window man was damping down the smoke in the flower pot and hitting the edge of the curtain with a rag to stop a glowing red line from going up to the top.

On The Other Hand

A man parks his rental truck in a restaurant parking lot. The truck is a flatbed with a wooden shed tied to it. The roads have flooded with the rain. As he watches from the restaurant window he sees that the water is up dangerously close to the engine of the truck. As he gets up to move it he sees someone else duck into the cab, start the engine, and drive the truck out to the road. The man is shocked but assumes someone is just moving the truck for him out of concern for the flooding. But then the truck continues on the road, going faster, and then the likelihood that someone is “just moving it” diminishes. The man runs down the road as fast as he can, still thinking of possible reasons why this might not be the most likely thing of all — an outright theft.
Now the truck is so far off that he can’t possibly catch up with it. In the distance he sees the outline of the driver getting out of the truck, untying the lines to his cargo, and pushing it off the bed into a ditch.
Was this something the rental company would do to, a) save a vehicle in its fleet from getting ruined in a flood or b) take corrective action when that vehicle had a dangerous oversize load – a load not properly fastened or labeled?
On the other hand, if the truck were being stolen, how would the man explain that to the rental company? How would he now even get to the rental company? Was there any chance, after this, that the company would rent him another truck to reload his cargo, and possibly a small crane to get it out of the ditch? Suppose the new equipment was stolen or damaged – then what? Would there be any end?

Gone
A man set up in a public market with an old car engine and a drum set. Someone must have coveted these things because no sooner did he step out to fetch something than it was gone.  How strange that these things could completely disappear! And what possible use could anyone have for an engine that played drums?

The Group Picture
It was the day for the group picture. One of the members was just getting into the bathtub when the first car arrived. He had forgotten the time for the picture. Also the place – his house. Also, his bathtub was on the lawn outside his house. But at least there were enough bubbles to conceal him. And possibly he could convince the committee that a naked eccentric in the middle of a well-dressed group would make an interesting picture. The water was getting cold, though, and the bubbles were fading. The photographer hadn’t shown up yet and his clothes and towel were inside the front door. Should he try a dignified walk or a rabbit run? We are all naked afterall, under our clothes. The committee stood around him, watching, with a complete lack of sympathy.

The Tennis Club

Two men were put to death after a committee came to the conclusion that they were guilty. After it was over the head of the committee began to have doubts about what he did. First of all, no one had explicitly given him the power to act as judge. There were no provisions in the club bylaws for summary punishment of other members. And the families of the men were not notified until after the execution. Didn’t they have a right to be at the trial? Was it a trial? Was killing them a just punishment? Their “crime”, afterall, was to have tied up a tennis court on a busy day in the summer, while other people were waiting, without making a reservation.

A Ghost On The Subway
A man walks onto a subway car dressed as a ghost. He and a woman already on the car recognize each other and react with hostility. The woman says in disgust: “You have time to dress up and go out but you don’t have time for our son!” Apparently they are married. Like other married couples, the ghost comes back with a perfectly cogent argument of his own.

Swimming In Freezing Water
One must be careful when swimming in freezing water. As it gets colder the water turns to ice, first making it impossible to swim, then isolating the swimmer so that he can’t move at all. He is then trapped and frozen in place.

Two Lecturers
Two lecturers come to their audience in the front hall of an art museum. Each is unaware of the other. They begin their talks at about the same time, standing on opposite sides and confusing the patrons. Instead of stopping, both of them begin to compete for the audience’s attention. Finally the matter is decided by the audience, which turns to the more authoritative female lecturer. In terrible embarrassment, the male lecturer stops speaking and wonders if he had got the meeting space wrong. He looks at his notes as if to confirm this one way or the other, but most convincing of all is the attitude of the female lecturer, who seems quite sure that she is where she is supposed to be, making him an impostor.

The Landlord’s Heliport
Before my eyes two wolves caught and mangled two roosters. One rooster got free, but tried to escape in such a way that it looked like he expected to be caught. The wolf merely made sport of him.
The wolves were pets of a landlord who was notifying his tenants that he planned to build a heliport in the children’s playground. One of the tenants, who had watched the mauling of his neighbor’s roosters, stood in his doorway and told the landlord he objected to the heliport. He repeated his objection twice, at which point one of the wolves came along the side of the building as if he were going to attack the tenant. The tenant had only a small pocket knife to defend himself, but the wolf noticed it and began to approach more carefully. The landlord acted as he did with the roosters — as if this was an act of nature and there was nothing he could do. Indeed, thus was his attitude in exploiting people and in building a space to land his helicopter.

The Flight Attendant
The crew of a large passenger jet conspires to trap three of its passengers. The plane has landed and all but these three have gotten off. At this point the crew closes the door on them and lock it from the outside. A man who acted before like a polite flight attendant now drops his act. He intends to torture the passengers with claustrophobia. They have only room in a certain compartment to lie down one on top of another. He will leave them there for a few days to “soften them up.” He is part of the national security apparatus in the country in which they have landed, and now wears that authority. But what he doesn’t know is that he has trapped James Bond inside the compartment with two beautiful women and that when Bond feels like it he’s going to break the door down and kick his ass. Even the evil are guilty of hubris. Perhaps more so than others.

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