Unknowable Prices

May 19th, 2010

This story is set in my Willyverse. Please, read the other three stories before this one. It is very different.

Dedicated to Nicholas T. Simonic. Just because a man puts down his weapon it does not mean he leaves the wall.

“Because they stand upon a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.'”

The stupid green blackie was too far out. I chuckled at myself, green blackie. That was funny. He was on point and the L.T. should have called him back, but the L.T. had not been in country for any longer than the coon. It saved the life of most of the men in my squad. At least for a little while. He triggered the ambush sooner than the gooks had planned. Much of the platoon was still out of the killing zone.

I heard a crack and watched the kid start to fold. As I threw myself flat a round busted my left arm and another one took me in the thigh. Then the mortars opened up. The VC had zeroed them on the paddy. I hugged the earth and hoped that pissing myself was not the last thing I would do in this life.

Our weapons squad got set up and the suppressing fire started to suppress. The minutes flowed slower than the red Georgia clay of my home town. Someone popped smoke and I heard the angelic whuffing of heli blades. Rockets rolled over the tree line. I think I might have lost a lot of blood already because it reminded me of that cartoon cat running his hand across a piano keyboard; foliage arcing up like ivory and ebony dominoes following the explosions. But the mice would already be pulling back. Go cat.

I struggled to my feet, leaning on my rifle and turned toward our lines. Unfortunately the pajama wearing bastards manning the mortars did not get the bug out notice. The world went white and silent. Why was I back on the ground? I closed my eyes and then the piano crashed down on top of me and I screamed. I opened my eyes. I lifted my head and stood up. Well, I lifted my head. The stood up part just refused to happen. More mortar rounds were falling and the choppers were taking fire. I looked back to my lines and saw Frank stand up.

Six feet two inches of coal black blue gum. And he was running my direction. I am pretty sure that I told the stupid jiggaboo to get down and shoot. I might have hated niggers, but I hated gooks more and he could have been firing at them. He ignored me and kept coming. He bent down and grabbed my unbroken arm and slung me over his back. My broken arm arced through the air until it was stopped by something hard and I fainted. I came back to my senses just in time for for another mortar round to send both of us sailing through the air. Things got worse after that.

I came back in a narcotic haze of semi-peace. Someone had given me an extra ampule of morphine. The sound of the helicopter and the straps holding me into the stretcher faded away.

By the time I got back to the states the cast on my arm itched infernally. My broken ribs ached abominably. The puckered wound on my thigh and the stitches in my chest did not feel any better. I got the rest of the story. Frank had picked me up again and slung me across his shrapnel ridden back. He had staggered back to the dust off site and held his hand over my sucking chest wound until a medic got to me. He saved my life. Not Joey, not Steve, my buddies. Frank. A buck from no name Mississippi. I never saw him. Not that it could ever be enough, but I did not even get to say “Thank you”.

A limo pulled to a stop next to the park. A man with graying hair slid out and shaded his eyes and he cast his gaze about. A fantastical Neptunian fountain ruled the center of the park. The man stood, searching for long minutes. He must have found something that he was looking for because he began walking toward the fountain, a slight hitch in his gait. As he walked he fumbled a small bottle from his coat and shook out two extra strength Tylenol. The glare from the hot sun was giving him a killer head ache. He dry swallowed them with apparent familiarity.

Willy watched from the edge of the fountain as the rich man came closer. No one wore threads like that around here unless it was Sunday. And he was pretty sure that he could see himself in the guy’s shoes from twenty feet away. The man walked on past and stopped at the bench in the shade. He knelt down and gently shook the shoulder of the huddled form on the bench. “Frank? Frank? It’s Clayton Robinson. Frank?”.

Smelly Frank recoiled from the touch of the stranger. His eyes rolled crazy in his head and a string of gibberish curses rattled from his mouth. He shrank away and looked about with bleary eyes. The man quietly spoke again. “Frank. It’s Clayton Robinson. We served together in Vietnam. Do you remember me? You saved my life.” Frank stood up and moved behind his cart. He began to declaim for or against something in a totally meaningless babble. Clayton continued to talk quietly at Frank. Eventually some of the meaning seemed to penetrate the cloak of inebriation and lunacy that Frank wore. Promises of food, or alcohol, or something eventually enticed Frank to get into the limousine. The driver protested the smell and condition of his new passenger. Clayton was undeterred and never noticed the ruined knees of his suit.

The next morning found Clayton and Frank heading for the VA hospital. This limo driver had no problem with his passengers. One was dressed in an expensive suit. The other wore a denim shirt and jeans with sturdy Carhartt steel toed boots. Both were expensively groomed and neither smelled badly. Though one might have been in the bottle despite the earliness of the day.

Evening saw Frank stone cold sober and with medicine for his schizophrenia.

Over the course of the next several days Clayton’s story came out. He had attended college on the G.I. Bill and then had a string of moderately successful businesses. A wife and kids, gone by the time he started a small internet company in the middle 90s. The dot com boom had propelled this last company to stellar heights and he had cashed out just before the bomb. Clayton was insanely rich. He had already spent the last 30 years giving back. His employees had always been treated well. He had hired a disproportionate number of blacks in the 70s. His companies had provided opportunities to many that still faced barricaded doors in the deep South. Many talented people were passed on by other companies simply because they had the wrong skin color. Clayton attributed his success in no small part to his hiring practices. Success or not, it was the right thing to do.

His newly earned wealth had given him an chance to fulfill a longstanding desire, Clayton had explained. It had allowed him to help those he had served with who were in need. He began contacting old buddies, talking to veterans organizations, and searching. He found many in need, but one man eluded him. Frank had dropped out of society. It was the VA that had eventually set him on Frank’s trail. Medical records were supposedly private, but Clayton’s reputation and friendships had opened doors that might otherwise have been closed to him. He had followed Frank to three cities, but was unsuccessful in locating him. Until the latest. Largess had opened the final door when his name and relationships had failed. Clayton frowned on base bribery, but it had a magic all its own. Frank’s records listed the park as his current address.

Frank shared Clayton’s penthouse suite and soaked it all in. He did not talk much, but his story was one Clayton was intimately familiar with already. His back had been ruined by the shrapnel from the mortar blast. His country rejected him for his service and then his countrymen rejected him for his skin color. The trauma or war gnawed at his mind. He could not hold a job and eventually succumbed to schizophrenia, homelessness, and alcoholism.

Over dinner Frank confided that he hated the drugs. They made him feel “Muzzy”, he said. Clayton had chuckled, “Better than living on the street without them”. That night Clayton tossed back plenty of Tylenol, but when it come to for Frank to take his pills they remained in the nightstand. The next day he was more withdrawn, but Clayton was busy. He certainly did not need to work, but he did anyway and he had put off much in his final push to rescue Frank. At dinner Clayton announced that he would be busy much of the next day, but would see Frank in the evening.

As they drove back to the hotel their route took them by the park. Frank was shaken. Something was wrong, he felt a malevolence hovering over the park. He quickly rolled down his window. Some insidious evil seemed to drift on the night air, tenebrous currents of wrongness curling about the comfortable landmarks. The normal happy figures of the fountain seemed subtly distorted. The merman’s haughty look of grandeur was smudged into a cruel sneer; the playful laughter of his mate twisted into an anguished wail. Frank flopped back into his seat dismayed. Clayton seemed not to notice absorbed as he was in a thick folio. That night Frank cleaned out the minibar, his shaking hand closed on a pill bottle, but only to push it deeper into a drawer.

Frank awoke as Clayton knocked on his door and announced that room service would be up with breakfast for him in about 15 minutes. Frank mumbled something and felt a coiling darkness in the suite. A heavy malevolence pushed a the edges of him mind. He smelled a grim putrescence that faded with the steps of Clayton. Frank dressed quickly, fractured thoughts driving him. The gibbering voices swelled from the rediscovered void, their caressing familiarity chipping away at his hard won sanity. His sharded consciousness sought familar pathways and the maelstrom swept over him.

The hotel waiter left the cart laden with fresh flowers, eggs benedict, sausage, toast, and juice in an empty suite.

Clayton was worried that evening when he could not find Frank. He became frantic when a quick search turned up a nightstand drawer with more than a Gideon Bible in it. Clayton spent the next three days desperately searching the city for Frank. He called in help. He visited homeless shelters, contacted hospitals, and canvased the park daily. He slept no more than four hours a night as he drove the streets in a frenzy. His head aches mounted and his stomach rebelled from an almost exclusive diet of Tylenol. But Frank’s medicines were an even more leaden weight in his coat pocket.

Finally on the fourth morning after a tortuous night of tossing and turning Clayton spied Frank in the park. He stood on a bench gesticulating and shouting to the four corners of the world. Clayton fumbled with the door handle in his haste to reach his friend. Once open, he ignored the open door as he sprinted across the park.

This street was known to Smelly Frank. As the dark of night gave way to the gray of dawn Smelly Frank broke out into the swarded expanse of his park. But wrong, WRONG! It was no longer his park. Something else strove to own it. Frank could feel a swirling dissolution that was gripping the area. His voices whispered of Juan and a fist fight. Their sibilance imparted an image Willy being bullied. They moaned of a woman mugged in daylight on the park edge. They hissed of cuts, bruises, and a sprained ankle in this, the safest of havens. The voices screamed with the twisted wrongness of an oppressive insidiousness tearing apart a refuge of peace.

But Smelly Frank knew what to do. This was something he understood. He moved about the park. His palsied movements were punctuated with guttural exclamations and fractured shouts. As the sun rose it did nothing to push the invisible darkness back, but Smelly Frank’s path rent the hideous miasma. Finally his perambulations brought him to a bench and he climbed onto it. His frenzied motions made him seem as if controlled by a spastic puppeteer. His postulations were declared with vehemence and utter unintelligibly. But as he slumped to the bench the fresh sunshine touched the top of the fountain and its prismatic beams seemed to scour the air and a clean fragrance seemed to suffuse the park.

Clayton stumbled to a stop before the bench as Smelly Frank finished his insane antics. His calls roused Smelly Frank. His pleading touched a spark still struggling in Smelly Frank’s tortured mind. Smelly Frank reached out and touched his old friend’s arm and said, “No. No. My home is here. I won’t, can’t go back with you. Thank you for what you have done, but this is my life.”. Sadness and tears filled Clayton’s eyes. With rock hard certainty he knew that there was nothing else he could do for Smelly Frank. Each man had to choose his own path and Smelly Frank had chosen his. Both men’s hands shook as they grasped and Clayton gasped out a haunted “Goodbye” and turned away. As he did the pressure in his head threatened to overwhelm him. The horrible ache slammed back into his head and he bent weakly to retch.

Smelly Frank’s tenuous grasp on reality slipped away with his friend. And the voices rose again to engulf him. No slow whispers this time, they exploded in garish riotousness. A cloying stench of brokenness erupted in his mind. And it warned him. He sensed the a twistedness, an eroding destructiveness. It was centered on the man hunched over puking. Smelly Frank did not know about chromosomes, and genes, and unrestrained cell replication, though he would recognize the word cancer. But in his own way he understood brokenness and his talent was to be able to place things right.

Clayton wiped sour bile from his mouth with a Brooks Brothers coat sleeve attached to hunched shoulders as he shuffled back to the car. He refused to look back as Smelly Frank’s ululations commenced. He wanted to remember the Frank he had known the previous week, not the convulsive husk capering behind him.

As the limo pulled slowly into traffic Smelly Frank’s movements slowed and his speech faltered. In some small corner of his mind he understood he was done for now, the fetid evil had been pushed back and extinguished. His park and his friend were safe again. Clayton slumped in the back seat and reached for his Tylenol bottle. But then realized that his head did not hurt and he did not need another pain killer. He rode on sad and oblivious to a debt acquired equal to the one he had come to the city to discharge.

The Poisoner’s Handbook

March 21st, 2010

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is a wonderful work of poison, prohibition, and politics set in 1920’s New York. It is CSI:roaring 20’s.

This book presents a fascinating view of the birth of forensic medicine and the genesis of the modern medical examiner role. It is not a dry recitation of historical facts though. Ms. Blum presents the reader with a mini-mystery in each chapter based on a type of poison. It is a device that keeps the narrative moving through the years while allowing her to develop the characters and personalities of the persons who changed the way we deal with death.

Read it in one sitting or pick it up for a chapter every couple of days, in either case you will find this book education without any pain.

Chipotle Ketchup

February 26th, 2010

After making this I realized that ketchup is just a sauce. And my motto, if I have a motto, is: It’s all just a vehicle for the sauce. It turned out well, but I would like to try it with fresh tomatoes instead of canned. Next time I will put the celery seeds in cheese cloth and boil them in the vinegar for a few minutes. So, with thanks to Homesick Texan, here is my version.

Chipotle Ketchup
1 28oz can of diced tomatoes
1 Medium onion
1 Clove garlic
1/2T Olive oil
1 1/2T Red wine
1/2C Cider vinegar
1/3C Light brown sugar
1t Blackstrap molasses
1t Celery seed
1/2t Cardamom
1 Chipotle in adobo with 1T of the adobo sauce
1/8t Black pepper
Sea Salt to taste

Wrap the celery seeds in cheese cloth. In a small pot bring the vinegar to a boil. Add the celery seeds and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep.

Dice and saute the onion in the olive oil till it starts to brown. Add the garlic, chopped, and saute for another minute. Discard the celery seeds. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for one hour.

Transfer to a blender and puree. Return to the pot and simmer until it thickens to the consistency you would like. Add salt to taste, but it will get saltier as it cooks down.

I used this as an excuse to go to Five Guys Burgers and get fries today. If I had not had the ketchup I probably would have just used Friday as an excuse.

Haute Cuisine via the Alabaster Fortress

February 24th, 2010

Willy ran toward the park. Each stride contested by the cold blustery January wind. It was already bitingly frigid and dark had not yet fallen. He had been afraid that he would not be able to arrive while there was still some daylight. His Mom had made him help his Aunt clean out her attic. It had taken forever, at least half the day. By the time they had gotten home and he had cleaned his own room the winter light was already dimming.

Worst of all he had not gotten paid anything! His Aunt said that hard work built character. Maybe so, but it sure did not buy candy. Worse still she had put up the candy dish she usually kept in the foyer. To be fair they had stopped at the diner on the way home and she had bought him a hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream. He had hauled a lot of old trash out to the bins. Even in the sun it had been chilly. The hot chocolate had tasted like a dream, hot and sweet and chocolaty and creamy. His Aunt and Mom had laughed at him as he took the last sip, cooler than all the rest, the one where the extra chocolate settles thickly in the bottom of the cup that you had to turn all the way up to the sky to get out. His Mom fussing with the napkin afterward to wipe off his mouth had made it almost not worth it, but only almost.

He wanted to get to the park before dark. His Mom did not like him out after sunset. She liked him inside so early only marginally less though. Something about too much candy and bouncing off the walls. More importantly right now though was that the park had far more dog walkers while the sun was still up. Especially on Saturday. And dog walkers were Willy’s chief source of income. Willy had discovered that quite a few people found cleaning up after their pets disgusting. Some smaller percentage of those found it disgusting enough that they were willing to part with a nominal amount of cash to have someone else do the cleaning.

Willy’s Mom approved of his efforts. Besides her hair, eyes, and chin she shared with her sister annoying notions regarding cleanliness and character building. Pooper scooper for hire was one of those character building tasks. Come to think of it the cleanliness bit applied here as well. However, it was one that Willy could tolerate much more willingly than most. It could be tedious and yes, it was possible to gross out an eleven year old boy, but the results were worth it: candy. And in the pantheon of Willy’s gods candy was pretty much Zeus, Odin, and Jupiter all rolled into one.

Willy broke out into the park and sighed with disappointment. Today would be tough. It was cold and few people were out. He tucked his chin in his jacket to guard against the wind and headed for the nearest six legged pair. It was a numbers game and he did not let the rejection get him down. All they could do was say, “No”. After all, his Mom said “No” to him all the time. He still had all of his fingers and toes and eventually a request would elicit a “Yes”. Willy figured the same principal applied to a man and his dog. Or woman.

Almost an hour later Willy had exhausted all of his prospects. As cold as it was there had been few people out. Willy had only found four willing to part with their cash for his services and they had been none too generous. His take totaled only $4.75. He could get one chocolate bar and a pack of gum, but it would be mostly hard candy this week. Oh,well. It was easier to get away with eating that in class any way.

It was past dark and Willy decided that he had better start back home. He headed toward the fountain. The small detour would not extend his trek by much. The park was his favorite place to hang out and in the park there was no place he loved more than the fountain. Last summer had been a scorcher and Willy had almost lived in the fountain. So had most of his friends. His Mom had said that if he spent any more time there he would have to start paying rent. Not tonight. Willy had not realized just how cold it had been.

There was a rime of ice over much of the fountain. The freezing spray had turned the familiar cavorting figures into fairytale creatures. Willy laughed. The sly dolphin’s fins had transformed into drooping ice wings. The beautiful merwoman was sporting a long ice beard. The other figures were altered in similar fantastical ways. Willy’s favorite was the fierce merman’s ice skirt. It was more modest than his accustomed conch shell and far more fun. The night time lights made the ice sparkle and glitter like a fairy’s wings. Willy circled the fountain twice and then set off at a trot for home.

He had only gotten a block when he stopped as though slamming into an invisible wall. The delectable aroma of grease, frying beef, and steaming onions formed an impenetrable barrier to his progress. His stomach, quiescent for the last two hours, rumbled to life with seismic ferocity. Saliva threatened to drown him. Unconsciously Willy felt the pocket holding his hard earned cash.

He was suddenly aware of how cold his feet were and the wind swirling around his ankles. If his feet had not frozen off his Mom was going to kill him for going out in only tennis shoes in this cold. And if Juan had been around he probably would have made a less than charitable comment about Willy’s cords and his preparation for a flood. Willy shrugged. He had grown another inch since Thanksgiving and his Mom had let the pants out as far as they would go. Willy almost debated with himself for a moment. But free will had deserted him from that first whiff. Cold and the biological imperative of a growing child drove thoughts of candy out of his mind and replaced them with an overriding compulsion: burgers.

Six minutes later Willy resumed his journey. In his left hand he clutched the top of a sack rolled tightly closed against the depredations of the cold wind. In his right he held one of the marvels of modern society: a slider, with extra pickles. Then he held only a half. And then his hand was empty, but his stomach was not and he had four more in the sack. His impetuous acquisition had set him back severely. He had only enough change for a few of pieces of hard candy. And that was probably with the generous application of the have-a-penny-give-a-penny, need-a-penny-take-a-penny tray at Ahmed’s. He did not regret it a bit.

Willy moved further toward the curb as he approached the next alley. He was glad he had done so because he was assaulted by a raucous clatter as he drew even with it. He stopped and looked in warily. The streetlights provided plenty of illumination, but it still took a moment for him to make out a figure digging into the dumpster. It was Smelly Frank. Willy walked a little closer to the alley.

Smelly Frank was a little off. Hey, he was a lot off. He talked to people that were not there and made airplane noises like a five year old. He waved his arms around and yelled gibberish. And he most definitely avoided the shelters. If he was digging in the dumpster he was hungry. Willy knew in the bitter cold that hungry was not good. He looked down at his sack of burgers and then back at Frank. It really was not too tough of a decision.

Compassion does live in the hearts of children. Unfortunately, in the case of little boys its roommate is recalcitrance and its landlord is mischief. Willy’s rent was always paid up in advance. He shifted the bag to his right hand and wound up. Rollie Fingers had never thrown a better slider. The sack hit Smelly Frank right in the side of the head. He turned and looked at Willy, his mouth frozen in an “O” of surprise. Willy doubled over laughing as Smelly Frank launched into an amazingly creative tirade. He turned and skedaddled for home. Smelly Frank would check out the sack soon enough. Willy had accomplished his objective and was pretty sure that he had learned a new word. He did not know what it meant, but he was sure that neither his Mother nor Aunt would approve of it.

Willy pondered his day as he made his way up the steps to his apartment. He frowned. Smelly Frank would never stop being hungry. Then he smiled. That was o.k. He was pretty sure the dogs in the park would never stop pooping.

The Fairy of Infinite Possibilities

February 11th, 2010

Willy activated the flamethrower and a gout of incendiary plasma blew the alien monster into gobs of steaming meat and smoking chitin. “Watch your back!” he yelled as he swung around the corner and triggered another blast blindly. More bugs, more smoking bug corpses. Another dropped from the ceiling. It was too close to torch! He ducked a poison covered claw and shattered the thing’s head with a butt stroke. Then he was running out of the city and into the cooler shadows of the trees in the park.

It had been great fortune to find the flamethrower. He had discovered it languishing between two refuse cans on the curb. Someone had used the last of the wrapping paper off of it and tossed it in the trash. Miraculously the careless garbage men had neither folded it nor crushed it. The cardboard tube had served as a magnificent pirate sword for two blocks before it became the bane of the hive.

Moving out onto the grass his flamethrower became a shotgun as Willy rolled and came up prone. “On the ground now!” he shouted and payed absolutely no attention to the surprised glances of some of the nearest adults. His goal was the fountain. He could see several of his friends already there. A couple were in the water. Hanging out at the fountain was not the necessity it had been during the recent blistering heat, but it was still a great place for a young boy on summer break.

Willy waved as he trotted past the fountain and plopped down on a bench on the far site in the shade. He carelessly tossed the now thoroughly floppy cardboard tube down the the bench beside him. It had fared only slightly better than the nemeses he had faced.

Juan had his silly yellow plastic ball again and a complex game of catch was evolving in the fountain. Smelly Frank was holding down a bench. Willy looked around and contemplated his options. There were some older boys playing touch football on the sward. They would would welcome him; he was small and skinny, but already wickedly fast. He was hard to catch. The guy ranting on the milk crate and the “performance artist” held no interest for him.

Willy’s forehead scrunched up a little in concentration. His bike, skateboard, and scooter were at home. There were the dog walkers. Someone was always willing to pay an enterprising kid to play pooper scooper for them. But it was not too hot and he was not thirsty. And, Bingo! He had candy so he did not really need any money.

He had two pieces of candy: a peppermint and a butterscotch. He had grabbed them and a couple of those nasty red wrapped cinnamon ones from his Aunt’s candy dish last night as he left. He was not supposed to, but she and his Mom had been animatedly engaged about someone’s new baby and neither had spared him enough attention as they made their way out. His Aunt kept it filled up from a five pound bag that she bought at some super club warehouse place. It had peppermints and butter scotches and lots of stuff that he did not even know how to name. It certainly was not candy that any self respecting eleven year old would buy, but candy was candy. Especially when you did not have to scrounge for change to get it!

Willy hiked himself up on one hip and shoved his hand down in the opposite pocket. His questing fingers found two small round items wrapped in crinkly cellophane. A grin of anticipation stretched the edges of his lips upward. The cinnamon candies were gone. He did not really like how they burned his mouth, but then again they were candy. So he had eaten them already to get them out of the way. He had saved the good ones. Peppermint or butterscotch? He loved the way the peppermint filled his mouth with a tingly coolness when he pursed his lips and inhaled. But then again he loved the rich, heavy sweetness of the butterscotch. They felt the same.

He decided to let chance surprise him. He reached all the way down and grasped the one deepest in his pocket. He slowly pulled his hand out to the edge of the pocket and then jerked his arm up in front of his face with the closed fist hiding the treasure. He had done well. Even the wrapper was hidden. That would have given it away. He knew the butterscotch had a dark yellowish wrapper, but not even an edge peeked from behind the clenched fingers.

He played a fanfare in his mind and opened his fingers. There nestled in the palm of his hand was…a little man…with wings? Willy frowned. The man stood up and straitened his tights. Willy smirked and it was the little man’s turn to frown. Willy’s first concern was for his candy. He slapped his free had across to his pocket and found two lumps. How had he pulled out a tiny man with wings when he knew he had grabbed a piece of candy?

“Why were you messing with my candy? And who are you?” Always address the most important issue first.

“I am the Fairy of Infinite Possibilities.” The reply sounded big for such a small man. Someone with a larger vocabulary might have uncharitably thought it sounded a bit pompous.

Willy snickered. “You certainly look like a fairy. Do you dance in the ballet?” Eleven year olds have notoriously poor social skills to begin with and public school offered myriad of opportunities for corruption. Willy did not miss much school.

“Fairy with a Capital F!” the little man said with a chuff. Willy was suddenly reminded of Mrs. Perez’s chihuahua with its ruff up. He giggled.

The man rose from Willy’s hand on a blur of diaphanous wings. They caught a shaft of sunlight filtering through the trees and scattered it in a rainbow of sparkles all around him. He hovered in his cloud of shimmering iridescence in front of Willy’s face. “I am magic. I am the Fairy of Infinite Possibilities.” he repeated.

And then time stopped. The sounds of the busy park cut off in mid clamor. The only sounds were a silvery-purple hum from the Fairy’s wings and the rustle of Willy’s clothes as he shifted on the bench. He looked around. A penny glinted in suspension over the basket of a merwoman. Willy’s eyes held there just a little longer than anywhere else and a quick smile crossed his face. The mouths of the fishes, merpeople, and various aquatic creatures still spouted water, but the streams were frozen ropes of fulgent diamond interspersed with drops of lustrous pearls arching down to churn a choppy mirror of aquamarine glass. The flight of a yellow ball was captured, motionless in its reflection..

Willy looked past the fountain. A football frozen in mid-spiral. A dog caught soaring an improbable distance from the ground, his jaws within a hairbreadth of closing on a scuffed Frisbee as a sparkle of saliva broke free. A stream of liquid joined a thermos and cup. A baby carriage popped a petrified wheelie, its back wheels on the grass and its front wheels hanging suspended over the sidewalk. A shopping cart filled with plastic grocery bags stilled in mid-ruffle. A spray of pigeons in suspended scrum as a piece of popcorn hovered over them. A knight taking a pawn.

“I can offer you anything you want.” the Fairy said with a wave of his arm.

“And what does it cost?” Willy asked.

“Absolutely nothing.” the Fairy replied.

Willy had learned a little more in school than the things his Mother would have preferred him to know. He had learned much more from her than she might have dared to hope. “I don’t think so.” And time crashed back into place. The penny made a plinking sound as it dropped into the water filled basket and the tourist turned to go to wherever tourists went after the fountain and Juan was no longer buried to his knees in shimmering glass.

Tyler caught the perfectly thrown football in stride and promptly tripped. A college student picked up the disc dropped by the dog and sent it sailing away again. A laughing girl took the offered cup from her beau and he reached into a basket for a couple of sandwiches. The doting Father carefully levered the back wheels of the carriage up onto the sidewalk. Smelly Frank snored on with his cart and bags of worldly possessions next to him. An old couple tossed another piece of exploded maize to the ravenous rats with wings. An old man continued beating or being beaten at the chess tables by another old man.

“Why ever not?” the Fairy asked.

Willy just reached down to the bench beside him and grabbed his Louisville slugger and brushed the Fairy away. He stood and swung for the bleachers. As he rounded third base to the roar of the crowd he made sure that he grabbed the butterscotch this time.

Wavering Copper Dreams – The Penny

February 3rd, 2010

Willy sat on the edge of the fountain, feet dangling in the cool water. The laughter and splashing of the other children washed over him like the oppressive heat that blanketed the city, immersive and pervasive.

He looked around. The park seemed washed out, faded and the breeze brought no relief from the heat. Desultory joggers slogged through their daily paces watched by wilted picnickers. A couple of policemen walked their bicycles on the bike path. They probably would not run the kids out of the fountain unless there was a lot of horse play going on or the kids splashed the tourists or took the coins. Taking the coins was a real no-no. The last time someone got caught they had been banned from the fountain for three weeks. That message was clear. The other kids had seen the police too and had quieted down. It was too hot to lose access to the fountain. They should be o.k. today unless one of the cops wanted to hassle them. But the fountain was in the sun and the bike path in the shade. Willy snickered, not today. Dark blue was too hot in the open. The police would stick to the shadows where there was at least the illusion of cooler temperatures.

Willy turned back. There was an old man on the bench. Where had he come from? And he was blind. Willy could have guessed that from the red tipped white cane leaning on the scarred bench next to the man. But it was the face that gave it away. He was smiling. But it was a blind man’s smile, a little to big or a little too long. Like a Ray Charles or a Stevie Wonder smile. The smile was there, but without the real time visual feedback, the tiny visual clues reflected from the surroundings, the ability to gauge it in a mirror against a thousand other smiles it could not be a real smile. It had something artificial in it. There was more of grimace than mirth in it as if it were a placeholder for true emotion. Willy could not have put it in those words, but he recognized it and it reinforced the message the cane had delivered: blind.

Willy looked away and wiped sweat from his forehead and then dipped his hand in the fountain. Whew! It was too hot to even attempt to smile. A tourist tossed a coin in the fountain and Willy stole another glance at the old man. This time he was really smiling. Then Willy giggled. Why shouldn’t he look or why should he feel guilty about looking? After all the guy couldn’t see him! But the guy turned his head. If he was sighted he would have been looking right at Willy! And then the head moved to face the latest splash from a coin.

He must have just heard me giggle Willy thought and he turned again to watch the old man. He still smiled. The smile waxed with each plink of a penny a tourist tossed in the fountain and then slowly waned until the next one fell. And it was not a grimace or a put on. As Willy watched he came to realize that there was true joy behind it. It was an expression of how the man felt. The sounds of the coins hitting the water made him happy.

But the sounds were not loud and the bench was ten or twelve feet from the fountain. Willy watched for a while. Every time a tourist threw a coin and it hit the water the man’s smile got bigger even when Willy couldn’t hear anything. The man must have great hearing.

Juan had brought a small plastic yellow ball and an errant throw brought it within Willy’s reach. He splashed his feet and hopped up heading around the edge of the pool, the ball caught up with the unthinking inerrancy innate to an eleven year old boy regarding throwable objects. A brief furor of keep away ensued until three boys landed in a heap in the water. Everyone laughed and the game moved on and Willy moved back to the other side of the fountain.

The old man was still there, still listening. Willy felt his pocket. He had three pennies. He fished one out. It was bright and shinny, the copper reflected the burning sun. He wished for ice cream and flicked it. Arcing through the air it landed in a bowl held in the mouth of a fish, but Willy was not watching the coin. He had already turned to watch the old man.

Bam! Like a sledgehammer hitting a gong. With the incandescence of a burning sun the old man’s smile exploded. Willy frowned and impossibly the man’s smile seemed to wax even hotter in response. Certainly he had not seen Willy’s frown. He was not even looking in Willy’s direction What was going on? Could the old man really see? Willy shuffle walked around the edge of the fountain kicking up water. The cool drops wet his skin and cooled his already sweat and water soaked shirt and shorts. He turned around and shuffle walked back. He splashed water at the improbable central sculpture. The fishes, merpeople, and other cavorting creatures had no answers to the anomaly sitting on the bench. Willy wanted answers, but all they spat were sparkling, frothy streams of water.

Willy hopped up on the edge of the fountain and then plopped down on his butt. The denim of his shorts made a wet splotching noise. He drummed the heels of his tennis shoes against the concrete for a moment and then before he could decide against it stood and walked to the bench. He sat with only a light wet squish on the end opposite the old man. The man turned his smile on Willy for just two heartbeats and then faced the fountain again.

Willy worked up his courage. The city went silent. The squeals of the other children, the splash of the water, the sound of traffic all faded. “What do you see?”, he asked intently.

The old man turned his silent eyes on Willy. “See?”

Like the blind man’s smile Willy could not explain cause and effect. But he understood falling meant a skinned knee, a found dollar meant a soda from Ahmed’s, a cardboard box meant a fort. “You must see something. You smile every time a penny lands in the water. But nothing I can see is different.”

“Are you sure?”

Willy reached into his pocket. This penny was older, its surface tarnished and its edges nicked. He wished for a popsicle, no a BOX of popsicles and tossed it underhanded into the fountain. Nothing changed. “Its just a penny. It lands in the water and it’s gone.” But the old man’s face was lit up from inside like a search light. Willy’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“To me it is not a penny. It is a wish. It is a dream. Every one that is tossed into the fountain has a story, a life. And they speak to me.”

“What do they say?”

The old man laughed, a laugh low and expansive and full of richness and delight. “Why everything. You just have to listen and see.”

Willy nodded, not truly understanding. He sat for a few minutes silently, one leg swinging, the toe making scritch sounds each time it made contact with the gritty concrete. He stood and walked back to the fountain, hopped up on the edge. The old man just sat on the bench. And smiled.

Willy reached into his pocket one more time. The last penny was neither shiny nor tarnished. It was not nicked up either. It was pretty normal as pennies go. Willy closed his eyes. He wished. He wished for a giant frozen Coke Slurpee, one of the big 44 oz ones that gave you a headache if you even began to finish it before it all melted. He opened his eyes and flicked the penny toward the dolphin’s tail.

He did not look at the old man. He knew what he would see. He watched the penny. It arched up, scintillating in the sunlight and Willy tried to listen to it. It spun and flashed in his eye and he saw an ice cream truck surrounded by delighted children, he tasted ice cold lemonade under the shade of a spreading oak, he heard the whisper of a baby’s breath on its mother’s cheek, he felt the flush of a lover’s first kiss, he smelled the scent of a light rain on new mown grass. And then the penny hit the water with a plink and sank past starfish and sand dollars. The world slammed back down around Willy as the penny came to rest on the bottom, a wavering copper dream.

Willy turned and shared a smile with the old man on the bench.


January 18th, 2010

There are some words that when you hear them you just want to say, “Wow! What a good word.” Disintermediation is one of those words. It came into use in the late 60s and then languished in obscurity until it experienced a Renaissance during the dot com boom in the late 90s. In its new incarnation it took on the generic meaning of removing the middle man from transactions. If you have a higher standard of living now than you did 20 years ago this is one of the words you have to thank.

Disintermediation is one of the hallmarks of the internet revolution. It has caused amazing effects on society along with other socioeconomic phenomenon such as improved logistics, commoditisation of goods leading to effective marginal costs of zero, and instant information. My view is that these byproducts of technical growth are all interrelated, have vastly improved our standard of living, and have some frightening implications for economic cycles.

Moore’s Law has the effect of giving us ever faster computers at ever lower costs. But it was the internet that precipitated an inflection point in society. Before the internet we had telecommunications. Businesses leveraged their computing resources by connecting locations point-to-point. There were exceptions, but fast data transfer was non-existent and slow data transfer was expensive.

The internet turned this on its head. Suddenly anyone could connect to anyone. Data transfer was relatively cheap. Bit rates exploded. Better communication led to better logistics. Data transfer itself became a commodity. Information became instantly available, anywhere. And disintermediation came into its own.

New electronic exchanges popped up, improving existing exchanges or replacing traditional wholesalers. Ebay savaged newspaper revenue models by making classifieds old fashioned and slow in comparison. Amazon did not so much cut the middle man out as replace the traditional bookstore. Online brokerage firms skimmed knowledgeable investors from traditional houses and opened up trading to a whole new class of people.

In all of these cases disintermediation improved the velocity of transactions. They occurred faster and with less cost than by traditional methods. One of the general effects of reduced costs though are reduced margins, in absolute terms if not also in relative terms. To survive companies must compensate by having greater sales volume. A traditional book seller may make $1 on a book. Amazon may make $.05. Amazon is going to sell a bazillion of them though because consumers can save $.95 by buying from Amazon.

I would guess that Amazon is responsible for increasing the overall market for books. But still, that market pie has to be divided up. Because Amazon tends to be more efficient and cheaper than a bricks and mortar store it has fundamentally changed the market place and many less efficient retailers have gone out of business or altered their business models. Barnes & Nobles has both invested in online distribution and closed physical outlets. This is representative of many industries: fewer, more efficient players and lower margins.

The benefits are obvious: lower costs. But are there negative implications for society? In many industries there has been a proliferation of smaller players serving niche markets, many that were probably underserved prior to the internet. However, in many industries, particularly those selling real goods there has been consolidation of vendors. Lower margins and higher volume means that fewer players can survive. This can mean less choice for consumers. The real effect has been a greater scarcity of specialty goods in retail outlets at “reasonable” prices.

MegaMart sells a can of tomatoes $.15 cheaper than any of its competitors, but it does not carry your favorite specialty item. Pop’s, who used to carry that specialty item that you bought twice a year has gone out of business because everyone buys their commodities at MegaMart. Pop’s cannot match MegaMart’s commodity prices and it cannot charge enough on specialty items to survive. Your specialty item can probably be found online somewhere, but it will cost you dearly.

As a further consequence since your specialty item is now only available online fewer people see it. It may be available to 330 million people in the United States, but that does not mean that they will see it. And even if they do see it, will they buy it? You might be willing to take a chance on a new item or choose it as a substitute while standing in the grocery isle, but will you be as adventurous while surfing the internet? I think probably not and the market for your specialty item shrinks again, leading to less variety in the marketplace.

Economies fluctuate between growth and recession. Ideally the growth part of the curve tends to be greater than the recession part. I predict larger fluctuations occurring at more frequent intervals or bigger recessions more often. The big cause of this is disintermediation. But disintermediation has been one of the driving factors of growth over the last 10 years. How could it make recessions worse or cause them to occur more often?

Disintermediation has accelerated our growth by removing the fat from our institutions. It has made them more efficient. That efficiency has a side effect though. Removing the fat has reduced buffering capacity. The term comes from chemistry. In general it is the ability of a system to absorb change without it causing a significant fluctuation in the system. As inefficiencies are removed from economic systems it makes them more vulnerable to smaller changes and more likely to react more violently.

Consider the town of 30 years ago. The mom and pop stores may have had a profit margin of 20%. If they have a bad year they hold off on buying that new car. They stay in business and just tighten the belt a little. What about now? That same store may be operating with a margin of 8%. They were not going to be able to buy a new car anyway. If they have a bad year, they are out of business. There is just less fat, less inefficiency, less buffering capacity in the system now. Smaller changes in initial conditions effect larger changes on the system. Fluctuations occur more often and at a faster pace.

Disintermediation. It has brought us growth and a higher standard of living. But, I assert that it has brought us less effective choice in our selection of daily consumables and will contribute to deeper recessions, more often. I do not like to be wrong. In this case I hope I am shown to be a fool.

My Three Words for 2010

January 5th, 2010

My intent for this blog is to post something once a week. But when I saw this topic on another blog it fit so well with the time of year and my blog subheading that I had to go ahead and slide one in early. Look for “Disintermediation” next. Props to Brian Russell for the topic.

1.)  Think.  It seems that many of us go through life on auto-pilot. We live our daily lives with little consideration of the bigger issues affecting our existence. The Christmas season can be hectic. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and we do not have the time or energy to contemplate bigger ideas or abstract thoughts. That is the very time when we should take a few moments and muster the effort to really think about things.

“Why?”, is a question familiar to all of us with children. But why do our kids use it all the time? It is because they are trying to understand their world. They need a framework in which to integrate their new experiences. Maybe we should ask the same question of ourselves. We might find that it helps us to put what is going around us in perspective.

This year I am going to think. I am going to think about quantum physics. I am going to think about philosophy. I am going to think about topics related to my vocation. I am going to think about biotechnology. I hope I am going to think about things I do not even know I do not know today. And this time next year I will understand my world, and my place in it, a little better.

2.)  Do.  Thinking is wonderful, but if you do not do anything with it the effort is not wasted, but certainly could be more beneficial. It is kind of like eating a steak flavored puffed rice cake.

This is not a resolution. I am going to try to use what I am learning in a constructive manner. I have already started a blog. I am spending 15 minutes a day doing laundry every day. My life is less cluttered and more organized and less stressful after only two weeks of that. If you do not do anything there is zero chance you can succeed at it.

3.)  Be better.  And finally, in the midst of doing I am going to make sure that my doing is focused in the right direction. I am not going to mindlessly do for the sake of doing. I am not going to be better for the sake of more money, or a better job, or a nicer car. I am going to be better because the older I get the more I realize that I am who I am because I choose to be that way. And I want to be better.

My three words for 2010. I will think, do, and be better. And hopefully I will drag some of you along with me.

The Search for Significance

January 1st, 2010

I am about to begin reading, “The Search for Significance“. Before I began I wanted to quantify my thinking on the subject and try to provide a structured framework into which I could integrate the material. It works out well that this is the inaugural post for my blog since it is, in some respects, an attempt to validate my worth.

Am I significant? Do I have significance? I can answer those questions affirmatively. But only anecdotally, I am not sure that I have a philosophical framework to justify that belief. However, I am a subset of the superset of everyone. If everyone is significant then it follows that I must be. That I think I can justify easily in a couple of ways.

From the perspective of personal belief as a Christian I accept that “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son“. God thought that the whole world, every person, was valuable enough to redeem. Everyone is significant to God. Therefore everyone is significant. Therefore I am significant.

From a sociological perspective I assert that there is universal altruism. Whether altruism is truly selfless, based on universal egoism, or a biological evolutionary imperative makes little difference. In any case helping someone else is “good” or has value.

But is the act of helping valuable? I do not think so. Any act of helping another requires the expenditure of resources. There is a cost associated with an action and hence a value somewhere. Rational beings do not exchange something for worthlessness. If the action has no intrinsic value then it follows that the object of the action must have value else we would not perform a costly action. Altruism is universal. Therefore everyone has value, i.e. is significant. Therefore I am significant.

So, already I intellectually accept that I have significance. What can I expect to learn from the book? Perhaps other justifications for this belief. Maybe ways to internalize that belief or practical applications that can help me to change the way I act. But just this initial exercise has led me to the conclusion that not only I, but all others are significant.

This has some far reaching implications for my personal life. By this reasoning if I accept that I am significant, then I must accept that everyone is significant. Creed, color, or socioeconomic status does not change that. Are you significant? How will that change how you deal with others today?