Out of Sight

“No, Mommy!” protested six-year old Sarah Reid.  “It’s too scary!  People will get scared!”

Beth Reid looked at her daughter’s eyes peering out from the holes cut in the old sheet.  The ghost costume was a Halloween classic and Sarah liked Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Seemed simple enough to a busy adult but kids were never simple.

“I know what to do,” said Beth as she rummaged through a desk drawer that was only opened to stuff in things that had no place else to go.  She soon found a big red Christmas bow, which she stuck on top of Sarah’s head.

“What do you think?” she asked hopefully as she held up a mirror.  “Now they’ll know you’re a friendly ghost, not a scary one.”

“Okay!” Sarah agreed as she picked up the plastic Jack-o-lantern with the open top, imagining the candy that would soon overflow.  “Let’s go!”

The eastern sky still held traces of ashy gray behind dark screens of skeletal tress as Beth and Sarah joined the parade of monsters, princesses, comic book characters and last-minute-anybody’s-guess presentations wandering along the suburban street.  The smoky smell of the fallen leaves swishing around the bottom of Sarah’s costume and the radiant, golden beams of candlelight shooting from the Jack-o-lanterns made thoughts of cackling witches and bristling black cats impossible to avoid.  The spooky chill it gave Sarah was, well, spooky but deliciously fun.

“Okay, baby,” said Beth as they came to Mrs. Jorgenson’s house, their first stop.  “Remember what I told you.  Ring the bell and shout, ‘Trick or treat!’ when she opens the door.  I’ll be watching.”

Sarah started up the walk but didn’t let go of Mom’s hand.  “Come with me,” she pleaded, pulling as hard as she could.

“All right,” agreed Beth.  She was in no hurry to not be needed.

The door flew open before Sarah could reach for the bell, releasing a flood of laughing, well-disguised characters of various shapes and sizes, all clutching bags starting to bulge with the evening’s haul.  “Hi Mrs. Reid!” chirped one or two as they passed.  “Hi Sarah!”

Sarah didn’t recognize any of them.  She hoped Mrs. Jorgenson hadn’t heard them call her name.

“My!” exclaimed gray-haired Mrs. Jorgenson, a slight, jovial woman who sometimes babysat Sarah and her brothers when Mom and Dad went out.  The heavy aroma of a dinner that included cabbage filled the little house and Sarah could see Mr. Jorgenson sitting in the dining room, reading a newspaper.  “What a pretty little ghost!  I like your bow,” she added as she slipped two candy bars into the Jack-o-lantern.  “Now let’s see.  You must be… Joey Fein?”

Sarah giggled.

“Melissa Stuart?”

“No!”

“I give up,” sighed Mrs. Jorgenson, virtually overcome by exasperation and bewilderment.  “Who is in there?”

“It’s Sarah!” she announced, struggling to lift the sheet without letting go of the Jack-o-lantern.

Sarah soon picked up on the confusion between what was genuine and what was pretend.  Mrs. Jorgenson certainly saw Mom standing there, yet she really seemed perplexed…

Sarah decided that confusion and good-natured deception must be part of the fun.

They went laughing from house to house, marveling at the transformation Halloween had wrought upon the neighborhood, stopping to guess at who lurked behind disguises or gab with neighbors, friends and classmates.  As the night went on, Sarah inched closer to flying solo up to the bright, friendly porches and doors but could never quite keep up her nerve.

Before long they found themselves around the corner and halfway down the block.  This street gave her a little shiver.  There was one house with a big, shaggy hedge and broken pavement that was scary even in the light of day.  In fact, all the kids were told to stay away from it.  They never went down the street by themselves and always walked on the other side.

“Hi, Beth,” called a voice from the darkness.  It was Mrs. Fein, with Joey in tow.  Sarah knew it was Joey because the helmet of his homemade Stormtrooper costume was falling apart and it was easy to see his face.

“Hi Rachel,” said Beth.  “Did you get that permission slip for the field trip?”

Sarah sighed, knowing the two of them would talk forever.  The wind was getting chilly and her pumpkin head was full and heavy.  It was time to go home.

“Can I go across the street, Mom?” asked Joey, who was old enough to do things like that with a minimum of supervision.  Permission was granted and Sarah was alone with the two forever-talkers.

That’s when she realized they stood at the foot of the broken pavement leading through a gap in the shaggy hedge and up to the dark old porch of the scary old house.

As the two moms talked and talked Sarah got an idea.  She’d been to a lot of strange houses that night, only to discover fun inside.  The spooky houses usually turned out to be the most fun of all.  Maybe this one was fun, too.

Getting up all the six-year-old nerve she could muster Sarah slipped away from the talking moms and glided up the walkway, feeling like a real ghost.  The sheet did its best to bunch itself up under her feet as she climbed the steps but she soon made her way to the darkened doorway and found the bell.

Beth and Rachel were shaken from their mom-talk trance by the blaze of the porch light and a little voice shouting, “Trick or treat!”

“Sarah?” called Beth.  “No, honey!  Not this house…”

It was too late.  The door opened.  A dark silhouette stood out against the light from within.

Beth and Rachel were on the porch with magical swiftness, hearts pounding, ready to face what they expected to find at the door.  They were surprised to see a stout, middle aged woman clutching a handkerchief.  Her eyes were red but she forced a smile as she spoke to her little visitor.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I don’t have any candy.”

Noticing the perplexed looks on the faces of the two mothers, the woman explained.  “You expected to find Charlie, didn’t you?  I’m his sister, Doris.  Charlie’s been sick.  I came down from Doylestown to stay with him three months ago.”

“Oh,” said Rachel.  “Well, we won’t bother you.  Come on, Sarah.”

“You don’t have to worry,” said Doris.  “Charlie passed away last night.  His doctor said the stress of the appeal was too much for him.  He always was sensitive.  Anyway, the conviction was overturned.  His name is coming off the registry.”

“I see,” said Beth coldly.  She had followed the media accounts of the case closely.  She was not happy with this piece of news.

“There was more to it than the news reports said,” Doris went on, her voice tense and exhausted.  “It wasn’t as simple as they made it out to be.”

“Is it ever?” challenged Beth.  “Come on, Sarah.”

Sarah wasn’t exactly sure what to do.  She knew this was serious and Mom was mad at the lady on the porch.  Mom told her not to talk to strangers.  Did she get the lady in trouble?

She took a Hershey bar from her Jack-o-lantern.  “Here, Mrs. Doris,” she said.  “Everybody should have candy on Halloween!”

“Thank you, dear,” said Doris.  “Thank you very much.”

“And here’s one for your brother,” said Sarah, handing over a Three Musketeers bar.

“Oh, but, I told you… my brother isn’t here.”

“If he’s a good brother he won’t mind if you have it,” said Sarah, who did not yet understand what passed away meant.  “Is he a good brother?”

The lady couldn’t answer.  She just nodded and went back into the house with her candy bars.

The mothers were quiet as could be as they walked down the broken pavement and back through the gap in the hedge.  Sarah couldn’t imagine what could keep them from talking.

“Fine!” Beth finally said.  “I’ll bring her a casserole tomorrow.  You have to bake her a pie!”

“I can do that,” replied Rachel.

They both acted mad but they were both going to make something delicious and bring it to the lady.  At first Sarah was confused but then she realized she had stumbled upon one of life’s great truths.  Grown-ups pretended way more than kids.

“Come on, Little Miss Sunshine,” said Beth, taking Sarah’s free hand and leading her back around the corner.  “It’s a school night and you still need a bath.”

Sarah hated baths but looked forward to the warm, sleepy feeling she got when she was all dried off and in her pajamas, ready for bed.  She had a whole pumpkin head full of candy.  The old, dark house was no longer a mysterious menace.  Mom and Mrs. Fein had a new neighbor.  And she hadn’t scared anybody.

It was a good night’s work.

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Why Do You Support Monsters?

You have to ask yourself why you support monsters.  Until you can answer this question about yourself you really don’t have the wherewithal to engage in meaningful debate.

When Jesus says, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble,” why is your answer “Not so, Jesus.  It is merciful, compassionate and progressive to kill the ‘unwanted’ ones?”  You need to answer that question about yourself.

When you resort to hiding behind ‘science’ without understanding or acknowledging that science is exactly how we know the unborn are human beings from the moment of conception and feel excruciating pain when the curette slices or the saline scalds you have to stop and ask yourself why you look away from science instead of being persuaded by it.  That’s a question you really need to answer about yourself.

When ethics, morality, the evidence of your own eyes and conscience tell you “These are people and it’s wrong to kill people,” and your answer is “Conscience avaunt!” you really have to ask yourself what makes you that way.

You have to ask yourself why you’re proud to dehumanize the most helpless among us.  You have to ask yourself why you regard it as a badge of honor to side with monsters instead of defending their victims.  You can’t credibly defend this great evil until you know this most elementary thing about yourself.

Why do you support monsters?

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Adding Velocities or; the Little Engine that Shouldn’t

I haven’t posted anything lately.  It seemed like a good time to rerun this one.

If you stand at the rear of a train moving in a straight line at 60 miles per hour and you start walking forward at 3 miles per hour, common sense and Galileo tell you that you are now moving in a specific direction at a speed of 63 miles per hour relative to the ground.  However, if you’ve been on the train so long that you’ve stopped perceiving its 60 mile per hour motion, you only recognize the following:

  1. You were slacking off until you got up off your fat bottom and started walking.
  2. You could walk faster if you were serious.

If you remember anything from your school days about such thought exercises, you’ll remember that the initial problem is just the gateway.  I’m convinced that people like Einstein only go into physics so they can build elaborate thought-mazes to torment students but since science claims exclusive right to logic I’m afraid we must follow where it’s practitioners lead.

To continue, let’s assume you were doing something before you started walking, say, eating lunch, maybe while going over the family budget or scheduling people to care for your aging mother while the usual caretaker is on vacation, or doing the grocery shopping.  You’ve been at these activities as long as you’ve been on the train; they also fall under the “no longer noticed” heading.  They are just part of the stationary frame of reference against which you measure your anemic 3 mile per hour hike down the aisle.

Along the way you encounter the conductor.  He advises you to return to your seat for safety.  This interruption changes the velocity, the speed and direction, of your walk.  It must be factored in to your calculations.

Moving past the conductor you now come across multiple conductors, or so it seems.  Some are authentic, others are imposters who happen to enjoy telling people what to do.  These run-ins result in more delta v, changes in speed and direction, but in your mind the initial conductor encounter has already been absorbed by the stationary frame of reference.

You continue your walk, making the same, plodding progress.  Like a character in Snowpiercer you’ve lost virtually all connection with the world outside the train; for all you know there is no such place.  All you see is the slow, often interrupted walk past endless rows of seats.

But there is a world outside.  The train travels along a track which now takes it up grades, around curves, from switch to switch.  Focused as you are, you don’t notice these changes but your inner ear does.  You feel unsteady and disoriented but you can’t imagine why a simple, lethargic walk along a straight line would produce such effects.  You’re frustrated; why can’t you walk a simple straight line?  Why can’t you keep to the “straight and narrow?”  Is there something wrong with you?  Has God abandoned you?  Do you have some moral flaw that is somehow manifesting its malignancy in your physical actions and well-being?

You clutch at remedies.  If you could be a better parent, stick to a budget or get more involved in ministry at church, maybe then you could walk a straight line.  If you had the money to fix up the house or pay for the kids’ tuition your walk along the aisle would be a piece of cake.

Maybe, if you could just add enough velocities, you could make real progress.

Never mind that your focus is zeroed in on the end of the train which is speeding you over miles and miles while you eat lunch, take care of your family, pay the bills, work full time, tithe, teach, minister to brothers and sisters, neglect your own health in service to others, spare little for eventual retirement as you spend it on the people you value here and now, draw closer to Christ through reading, fellowship and prayer, lose sleep over souls, take the abuse of the blindly ungrateful and so on and so on.  All those things that get relegated to the stationary frame of reference aren’t stationary at all.  Einstein’s observer on the embankment couldn’t take in a fraction of the action as your train flies past.

Writers often reference the hypnotic effect of clack-clacking over railroad tracks.  Maybe it’s not such a hackneyed device after all.  Maybe we get so intent on making progress that we don’t see the progress we’re making.

Maybe God scratches his divine head as he watches us zig and zag over the landscape of the life he’s given us, oblivious to almost everything we accomplish in obedience to him as well as the rewards he both promises and delivers.  Maybe Jesus’ “straight and narrow” is more than the simplistic moral formulation we assume it to be.  Maybe it is a clear, unambiguous direction about how we ought to live our lives but in true human, pride-filled, sinful fashion we take his perfect declaration, hammer it into something recognizable only to Satan then lament our inability to obey.

But that’s what we get for riding trains when we were made to walk.

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Another Man’s Poem

 

I wish I could remember the words to another man’s poem.

There’s a mountain of myrrh and the lilies where the fawns roam.

But when I feel it most

That old poem is just a ghost of my love for you.

 

A wise king loved a woman when the world was younger.

But he only gave her some of his heart so he fell to the hunger.

I can only speculate

That great king met his bitter fate because he didn’t have you.

But I do.

 

Maybe I’m over my head.

My little well of wisdom is not so deep.

But the king didn’t mean what he said.

His words were fine but his talk was cheap.

 

“Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.”

It’s true of everything in the world and it’s true of love.

I’ll say it with my dying breath;

The only thing strong as death is my love for you.

My love for you.

 

Copyright Harry Lang, 2014

 

 

 

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Alternative Facts?

See, there's this thing called biology...

There’s a catch phrase out and who does not love culture, politics,and words? “Alternative facts,” is the new phrase,  as in you are not entitled to your alternative facts.

Au contraire, I am totally entitled to my alternative facts. In a world full of endless narratives, moral relativism, and subjective truth, you do not suddenly get to claim possession of “the facts.”

It’s a bit amusing, I have long been a champion of alternative facts, so when this little phrase suddenly popped up on the news and in the culture, I was quite delighted. It warmed the cockles of my cold little heart.

I know, I know hearts don’t really have cockles, but like I said, I am fully entitled to my alternative facts.

Ever since I’ve been on the internet the bane of my existence, indeed, the very blight on my potato, has been this pedantic assault of the…

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The Mariner’s Dream

Ocean storm

It was the night we rounded the Cloven Hoof, a curious feature of the nameless island guarding the mouth of the Windy Straits, east of the Greater Diamond Cloud ice shelf.  A deceptive bit of sea, it is, with water clear as air lying atop a plateau of rare blue granite and a narrow channel twisting its way roughly parallel to the island’s northern coast.  Balloonists tell us it’s impossible to distinguish the depth of the channel from the shallows of the formation by sight alone as the shades of blue are identical.  A pilot must be specially licensed by the Maritime Ministry to attempt it.  Most of the freight lines plying the Great Seas of the north avoid the island and the treacherous shallows but The Merchants of the Western Thunder built their reputation for speed and reliability by boldly taming such risks, thereby making their fortune.

The deck master was down with “the wobbles” so I had just finished my second watch of the day, shivering at his post on the afterdeck while himself lay snug and warm in sick bay.  Not that I’d wish such gastric mayhem on my hardest foe.  The mess is ungodly.

The night was sharp and cold, with a full moon shining like ice in the bottomless violet sky and stars thick as flying snow.  The banshee-wail of the wind in the rigging sang with an eloquence not of this world, calling me to contemplate the frail mortality of my kind and the fascination that drew us to such extreme places, where impending disaster was the air we breathed.  But this clear, star-strewn night held no catastrophic portents, at least none as could be read by an ignorant old sailor like me.

I eased my knotted muscles and frosted bones down on the edge of my rack, racing against onrushing sleep to pull off my sea boots but the race was over before it began.  I am in my seventy-fifth year at sea and not the rock I still fancied myself to be.  Down I went, leaving ghostly impressions of the moonlit compartment fading behind me, on through the gate of sleep.

Of late my dreams have carried me to the sun-drenched fields of the farm where I grew up under the watchful care of my widowed mother, gone these forty years and sorely missed.  How the dear used to worry, especially about the state of my eternal soul!  “Have a care, my boy!” she would say, her soft, amber eyes glistening with the tears she fought to hide.  “I’ve seen how the sea can rob a man of his faith before sending him on to the next world.  Beware!”

She needn’t have worried.  I’d sooner forget the way from stem to stern than Him who stills storms and rescues the shipwrecked souls.

There was to be no visiting the old place this time.  The waving fields of turquoise grass gave way to more fluid vistas as my slumbers took me far from the rustic comforts of home and showed me things long forgotten or never seen before.

‘Twas a bracing wind that flew us across the foaming tops of the steely gray waves.  Our sky-blue sails, now tinged with red from the hidden sun ahead, were swollen with the gale and the old ship’s timbers creaked and cried as if they knew their time had come.  I felt the speed of our reckless dash away from the churn of the blackened sky and sea swallowing our wake in the cold distance aft and smelled the crisp, clean scent of ozone that came with every snap of lightning.

As I pondered these things my gaze was drawn to a ship emerging from the ruddy glare of the sun-infused mist, his course parallel but opposite to my own.  A curious thing!  Could there be two strong winds running counter to each other in such proximity?

He drew closer and I saw his blue sails tinged with that same red illumination, filled with the opposing wind.  No signal passed between us and we were too far apart to make out the forms of men but as he sailed by I felt a great sadness for the trials he would endure in the grip of the storms ahead.  The icy blasts of his life upon the sea would surely sap his youthful strength, harden his character and cut him off from loved ones upon the land.  Likely he would see good ships wrecked and good mates go down to the black depths, where souls never rest quiet.

Even so, for all that knowledge of dangers and pains, I felt a boundless longing to abandon my trusty old ship and swim across the briny waves to join him.  A fine thing that would be, to mingle my ancient knowledge of the mariner’s arts with his youthful vigor!  A fine thing indeed, but tide and currents did their work and I was powerless to do aught but watch as his ship continued on its appointed course toward the black-shrouded horizon.

My own vessel glided smoothly now, with hardly a ripple upon the quiet, calming waters.  Ahead lay the warming embrace of the rosy haze, inspiring reflections upon the passage in the old, old Book; “By blood have ye gone out; through Blood shall ye return…”

~

I awoke to the songs of nesting birds ringing sweetly through our snug little house all full of sun.  My mother was at the hearth, my gear was stowed neat and ready in my sea bag by the door.

“Have a care, my boy!” said my mother, looking up at me with eyes impossibly soft for all the hard things they’d let in to her mind and heart.  “I’ve seen how the sea can rob a man of his faith before sending him on to the next world.  Beware!”

“Mother, my dear,” I answered, “you’ve nothing to fear!  Last night I had a dream that I take for a prophecy.  I saw an ancient ship upon the ocean, sturdy but battered from long years of hard use.  Its course was for home as mine was for the mystery of the open sea.  A great peace came upon me as I watched, for it sailed quietly into the calm red waters of heaven.”

“His will be done,” she said with tender reverence, relinquishing me to the care of The Commander of The Sea.

With a final look about the dear old place I hefted my sea bag, said my goodbyes and made for the stormy seas.

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The Old Blues He Loved to Sing

gibson-jazz-lee-ritenour-l-5

Maybe it shouldn’t matter how Homeless Joe ended up shivering in the woods somewhere in southeast PA under a full moon in early September of 2050, singing out Catfish Blues, sliding the little section of steel pipe up and down the neck of the old Gibson L5 guitar.  Moonlight was white upon the paling grass like the frost that started showing up around this time of year and Joe knew he’d be seeing his breath on the chilled air before morning.  There wasn’t a thing he could do about it so he sang.  Music was the only refuge they hadn’t locked up and declared off limits, at least not yet.

So that was authentic enough.  The officers of the Cultural Reclamation Board would be satisfied had Joe still been under their watchful eyes.  A sixty eight year old black man was alone in the woods of an urban park because there was no place else he was allowed to go, singing his heart out to tomcats and possums, waiting to see what the Lord had next.  The scene would fit quite neatly into any number of books or movies, not to mention actual historical lives.  There was even a little of the forbidden fruit that had brought him to his present state of ruin, quietly collecting moonlight in a heavy green bottle.  Quite a bit of that fruit, actually; Joe didn’t like wine.  His ultimate downfall resulted from a laughably tiny sip of the stuff.

Before long his voice was ragged from the cooling night air so he restored the guitar to standard tuning and ran through St. Louis Blues, the number he always played to end his day.  Then he put the meticulously preserved instrument back in its beat-up case, taking care to avoid scratches from the illegal hunting knife or dings from the discredited book he likewise stored in the case.  They really didn’t fit but there was no place else for them so he had to make do.

“I ought to hate the bastards,” reflected Joe as he lay on top of the guitar case, hoping the meager warmth of his body would keep the approaching cold from damaging his most prized possession.  “Bastards” was no mere insult or indulgence of indiscriminate temper.  It was precisely descriptive of specific individuals and the drivers of their actions in the world.  Joseph H. Porter, PhD was a precise kind of man, especially where words and ideas were concerned.

Lights twinkled along the eastern edge of the park.  In the distance beyond neat ranks of perfectly ordered houses softly glowing spheres floated low over immaculate streets and highways, shedding warm golden illumination while collecting data from every passing vehicle or pedestrian.  A fire would draw the wrong kind of attention so Homeless Joe, PhD in Russian literature and formerly a licensed Neighborhood Character curled himself up as tight as aching bones and stiff old muscles permitted and drifted off to sleep.

It had been ages since Joe had dreamed.  Dreams were dangerous things and danger was forbidden in the freshly cleaned and ordered world of the New Affirmation.  But tonight the dam of mental prophylactic food additives and subliminal media reinforcement split down the middle and the dreams came tumbling.

He was in a dark, old house.  No, he was in his tiny room at the Salama safe village where he lived with a number of licensed Neighborhood Characters classified as “indigent” by the Cultural Reclamation Board.  Standing in a shadowed corner with ghostly stars visible through numerous oddly shaped windows was a white man in nineteenth century clothing, mumbling and gesturing expressively.  He was trying very hard to decide to kill himself.

“Kirillov,” said Joe, recognizing the troubled intellectual from Dostoyevsky’s novel.  Typical of characters in dreams the young man had a number of identities, all working at once.  “Dr. Porter,” he greeted in the voice of one of Joe’s graduate students from his teaching days at Swarthmore.  In his hand was a glass of wine which he offered to Joe.  “We affirm the end of God,” he said brightly, taking a sip of the wine and dumping the rest on the floor at Joe’s feet.  “We are new!  We must be God ourselves!”

Joe heard a shot as he walked away from the house, into the star-crazed night.  Behind him the house slid down into a gaping pit, its walls scraping the earth like the bow of a violin, making music like a chorus of bees.

On the outside of Joe’s sleeping body the wind picked up, swishing through the trees.  The people in the green homes at the edge of the park turned in their sleep as their environmental processors adjusted, maintaining perfect comfort.

Joe’s dream turned out to be one of those traveling affairs, the kind that can be left and returned to even if one awakens briefly and goes back to sleep.  Now he was driving onto the Swarthmore campus.  The narrow road twisted its way between countless buildings and green spaces, abandoned athletic fields and parking lots with no spots left for Joe.  He was late.  He was not prepared.  The car stopped and would not move.

The hood was up.  Larry Wells, head of the college’s Cultural Reclamation department was hard at work taking off pieces, looking them over and putting them back out of order.

“Ali Yusuf!” barked Wells as he wailed on the engine with a sledge hammer.  “I’m Ali Yusuf!”

“You can’t be,” said Joe.  “You’re an atheist.”

“Wells was an atheist!  Yusuf is a cultural Muslim, a brilliant Muslim man with no God!”  Clang went the hammer.  “He is affirmed and breaks the slave master’s chains!”  Clang went the hammer.  “And Porter is a traitor!”  Clang went the hammer.  “Porter is a friend to Solzhenitsyn and his capitalist God!”  Clang!  “He is a traitor to his history!”  Clang!  “His people!”  Clang!  “His culture!  He shall be cast into outer darkness…”

Joe awoke with a start.  Somewhere beyond the nearby line of trees a freight train rumbled slowly along the track, its bell clanging.  Joe wondered where the unmanned leviathan was headed and if he had what it takes to hop aboard.  He’d heard about the tru-bos, roving bands of the genuinely homeless and disconnected living somewhere toward the middle of the state, far from any major cities.  If he was going to make it out of the Philly-Chester Home-zone the train was his only chance, even though it was really no chance at all.

Those kinds of plans would have to wait for the light of day and something in his stomach.  The need for sleep was overpowering even in the grip of the dropping temperature.  Off he went to dream some more, remembering as he headed for the cliff that Ali Yusuf now taught his course in Russian literature.

“Yes sir, Mr. Fat,” said Joe, hearing the little ding of the elevator in the lobby outside the neat, rainbow themed office of the Cultural Reclamation Board.  “I started playing when I was ten.  If… if I must be on the street I’d like to do something more than… beg.”

When Mr. Fat smiled the pale rolls of flesh hanging upon the bones of his face convulsed and crinkled so that his blue eyes disappeared.  “Bro,” he said, “it’s not beggin’!  A place for everybody and everybody in place!  That’s the New Affirmation!”  He jumped on “New” with both feet, as if there was an old affirmation to contrast it with.  “There is a surplus of Children of Power in academia so now, instead of aiding the White Hate by exalting their degenerate literature you may bear witness to the truth of your people!  You are an authentic object lesson, oh yes!  I envy you!”

“But the guitar, Mr. Fat,” pressed Joe.  “May I play for my bread?”

“Ah!” rhapsodized Mr. Fat, “the old spirituals of your people!  Jimmy crackles the corn and I don’t care!  Don’t know why there’s no fun up in the sky!  The kid is not my son!

“Mr. Fat, please!  Sir, if I may…”

“Huh?  Oh yes, what is it?”

“I was thinking something a little more…”  Joe nearly choked on the word.  “…authentic.  I play blues.”

“Blues?”  Mr. Fat suddenly looked troubled.  “Blues?  Blues come with… with sex and alcohol!  Perhaps marijuana!  You cannot partake of these things!  No indeed!  The Board has rules!  Rules for your well-being…”

“Not to worry, sir,” assured Joe wearily.  “I come vice-free.”

“And smoking!” continued Mr. Fat, nearing a kind of panic.  “If you smoke we must revoke your license!  And drinking!  Alcoholics may not hold Neighborhood Character licenses!”

“I’m not an alcoholic, sir,” insisted Joe.  “I don’t even like…”

“I am given to understand that one drink is all it takes!  One drink and you will lose your position in our society…”

“Mr. Fat!”  Joe was long past the humiliation of his demotion in human society and the charade behind it all.  Now he was just exasperated.  “I don’t drink!”

Mr. Fat’s big blue eyes were wide and round.  “Bro,” he virtually pleaded, “chill, please!  Do not revert to the violence of the veldt and rain forest and inner city!”

“My apologies, Mr. Fat.”  The only thing Joe wanted was to be out of the man’s presence and crawling was the fastest way through the door.  “Sir, I am not a drinker.  I am not a violent man.”

“You are an indigent blues musician,” said Mr. Fat.  “These things are part of your profile.  So I warn you sternly.  Break one rule and you forfeit your license and the support of our community.  Even authenticity has its limits.”

The first splotches of gray light were soaking into the eastern sky.  Joe was freezing and he really had to pee but the prospect of uncurling his creaking old bones in the icy wind was too much.  He took one more stab at sleep.

Now he dreamt with the clarity of memory.  It was the previous morning, warm and sunny and Joe was on the job at his usual spot at the end of Star Avenue, right by the platform for the local U rail.  A bottle of Night Train in a faux paper bag, a standard issue prop for Neighborhood Characters on the street, sat next to his guitar case.  He played Blues Before Sunrise to the delight of the curious and one or two genuine aficionados.

A lot of things went through Joe’s head as he played.  Today he was heavy with the trajectory of his life and the world he had known.

He heard a familiar voice behind him.

“Well done, Joseph,” said the diminutive Ali Yusuf in smooth, urbane tones.  “At last, you have found your true cultural identity.”

“Good morning, Larry,” Joe said.

“Larry is dead.  Yusuf has arisen from his ashes,” rejoined the gray-haired academic.  “Do try to remember, my friend!  That’s a delightful ditty you strum upon your instrument.  What’s it called?”

Joe wanted to throw up.  Larry Wells was a regular person with radical views who had grown up in Northeast Philly.  The two of them never got along but they had respected each other.  “Ali” was a figment of Wells’ imagination.

“It’s called Strange Fruit,” replied Joe, looking forlornly down the rail.  Why is there never a train when you need one?

“Intriguing title!  No doubt a paean to the romanticized simplicity of our agrarian past!  I see your talent for stroking the power structure transfers easily from academia to the lively arts.”

Joe remembered the hunting knife in the guitar case next to the copy of Parallels in the Russian Novel, the graduate level textbook written by Joseph Porter, PhD.

“That’s right!” beamed Joe, flashing his pearly whites.  “Everybody in his place!”

“Oh, you disgust me!” snorted Ali.  “The one thing that’s wrong with the New Affirmation is that it leaves room for people like you!”

“Actually,” said Joe, opening the guitar case and moving the book aside, “it doesn’t.”

Enough was enough.  The hunting knife was mighty tempting but it was no solution.  Joe put away the guitar and closed the case.

“Don’t tell me you’re going on strike,” said Ali.  “Isn’t that a little left-wing for you?”

“It’s no wing at all,” answered Joe as he picked up the bottle of Night Train and unscrewed the cap.  “Happy landings!” He put the bottle to his lips and guzzled.

As soon as the rancid rocket fuel reached his cowering stomach Joe heard the alarm from the micro-computer implanted in his head.  “Attention!  Neighborhood Character license is now revoked!  Remain where you are until the authorities arrive!”

“Care for a snort, Dr. Ali?”

Ali turned his head with his nose in the air, not deigning to answer.

“I’ll be going, then,” said Joe.

Morning finally came, gray, cold and hard.  Joe heard a dog barking in the distance and the rumble of traffic on the highway behind the trees.  A revoked Neighborhood Character license was a low priority for law enforcement but they would catch up with him eventually and jail might be more comfortable than Salama.

The distant blare of a freight train horn reached his cold-numbed ears.  If he moved as fast as his stiff old legs could carry him he might just be in time to catch the leviathan.

He gathered his possessions and ran for the tracks.  Even if he made it in time the train might be moving too fast.  If the train wasn’t moving too fast there was rail security to get past.  If he made it past the cameras and drones and the train moved slow enough and he spotted a car with something to grab onto he would have to throw the guitar aboard then jump.  He would make it and ride to another home to live among the outcasts or his foot would slip, his grip would fail and he would die.

Either way, he would be free.

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