Updated my journal

Sorry to interrupt, but

Sorry to interrupt, but I think I just heard you say that, quote, “Hooked on Phonics worked for me.” Can I get a confirmation? Did you, in fact, say this? You did. I see. But I’m afraid I’m not done yet. Indulge me for a moment, would you? All of you. Thank you.

You know, this has been a difficult night for me. I don’t like parties. I don’t like any of you. Nonetheless I endured. I grinned an idiot grin. I echoed your inane remarks. I drank your disgusting beer. You cannot imagine how difficult this was.

So now, to hear you, whoever you are, whatever your name is — and no, don’t tell me, because I don’t care — say that Hooked on Phonics, quote, “worked for me,” I think I’ve had enough.

Is it rude for me to say all this? Sure. But what you said is ruder. I can’t believe you don’t seem to recognize that. Not one of you so much as raised an eyebrow. Does no one share my outrage?

Hooked on Phonics “worked” for you. This was a joke, correct? You were making an amusing reference that you knew your fellow millennials here would understand. Hashtag just nineties kids things, yes? Languid summer afternoons in front of the television. It’s a funny thing: somehow you don’t remember the shows, but you remember the ads. You remember that child actor’s delighted voice. “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” And who were you to object?

You grew up. You became the mediocrity you are now. You work in quantitative finance. You wear ironic t-shirts. You drink putrid microbrews. Your idea of a joke is a reference to a commercial you used to see years ago, and tonight you trotted out a good one. You laughed, because that’s what you do, you laugh at your own jokes, and so did your interlocutors, because they too are mediocrities.

Hooked on Phonics worked for you. You say that because you don’t understand the dangers of addiction.

You don’t know what happened to those kids. They listened to those Hooked on Phonics tapes, and something happened to their brains. They lost the capacity for language. They read, wrote, and spoke in isolated syllables. They could no longer parse words, much less sentences. They could not comprehend or create meaning. Day and night, they talked to themselves in an incomprehensible babble. There were millions of cases, because this happened to every child who used the product. I can’t believe you don’t remember this.

I suppose you don’t remember the lawsuits, either. The congressional hearings. The angry parents. The murders. The suicides. The memoirs. The supergroup and the charity single they recorded. The failed clinical trials. The wasted research dollars. The sanitoriums. None of those kids recovered. Most are still alive. And you would mock them? Disrespect them with your glib little references? “Hooked on Phonics worked for me.” No. I can’t let that stand. Hooked on Phonics never worked for anyone.

The Beret Man

I met the Beret Man after last semester’s microbiology final. That test, and the weekend I’d spent preparing for it, had ground my brain into a fine powder of facts: antibiotics, mechanisms of action, pathogens. I was eager to sweep it all away. The dive six blocks from my apartment — it called itself “the cantina” — would, I figured, help with that.

I avoided the group of classmates sitting around a corner table and made my way to the bartender, who grimaced ever so slightly at my request for a vodka tonic. It was a drink beneath the cantina’s dignity. She mixed one anyway. I thanked her, but she had another order to take. She was gone before I’d finished speaking.

I was a lightweight and knew it: this one drink would be more than enough to give me a pleasant buzz. But that night I had another, and then another after that. Three drinks was more than enough for my pleasant buzz to thicken into a drunken static that was equal parts self-pity and self-regard. That’s how 2am, closing time, found me contemplating the myriad ways in which I was the most beautifully and insightfully sad person in the world. It’s also how I wound up falling into a construction pit on my way home.

Such was my inebriation that I’m not clear on what happened next. I remember pain in my hip, and a large, dirty section of pipe next to me. I remember the stars overhead. Right before I fell I’d been imagining they could see me, and even that they were deeply impressed with what they saw. I remember thinking it unlikely this was still the case.

The pit wasn’t deep, but I didn’t try to climb out. I was cold, and tired, and drunk. My eyes closed. Seconds, minutes, maybe hours later, someone grabbed my arm, hauling me up with tremendous force.

The smell hit me first: thick and rancid. Then the jacket, just as intense in its way: bulky, bright blue PVC. I made out the face last: small and pale, encroached upon from below by a ragged beard, and from above by an ill-fitting beret. I decided I was hallucinating, and my eyes closed again.

I woke to find myself lying on an uncomfortable couch. A black cat watched me warily from the far armrest. I sat up. My head was pounding. I made some kind of inarticulate noise. My mouth was too dry and furry to do otherwise. The cat twitched an ear, turned its head to the side, and yawned.

“You all right?”

For a moment I thought the cat had spoken. Of course it hadn’t. It was the man from earlier. He’d shed the jacket, but not the beret, and not the smell, either.

I coughed. The man stepped into an adjoining room and I heard a faucet open. He came back with a glass that I drained in one large gulp.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thank you.” I put the glass on a coffee table crowded with empty cans – beer, soda, cat food.

“Seen you around the cantina,” he said. Had I ever seen him? I didn’t think so. I said nothing.

“Say hello next time you’re there,” he said. I nodded, not intending ever to do so, and indeed, the next day I drove back to my hometown, and for the three weeks of winter break I didn’t think about what had happened once.

But one evening in January I went back to the cantina and the Beret Man was seated at the bar. The stools to either side of him were empty. I attributed this to his body odor and its sheer power. I had a seat. What the hell.

He said, “It’s you. How are you?”

I said, “I’m good. I’m fine.”

He said, “That’s good.”

I ordered a drink, and sipped it without saying anything. Twenty minutes later, he stood up.

“Time I headed home,” he said. “Good seeing you.”

Another twenty minutes and I went home myself.

In the coming weeks, I stopped by the cantina from time to time. The Beret Man wasn’t always there, but when he was, we’d exchange a few words. We never had what you might call a conversation.

I’d like to say I noticed right away when the Beret Man stopped showing up. I don’t think I did. But one night in April it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d talked to him.

I tried to ask the bartender about him, but because I didn’t have his name, I didn’t know what to say. “Man with a beret,” I said finally. “Funny smell.” She narrowed her eyes. At first I thought she was suspicious. Who was asking? Why did I want to know? But it was simpler than that: she didn’t know what I was talking about, or why I was talking to her about it.

I made a serious attempt to find his place, even though I knew this would be difficult, probably impossible. I had only been there once, and I’d been hung-over, too. I knew his place was walking distance from the cantina, and from my own apartment, for that matter, but you’d be wrong to think that would have narrowed it down. All I remembered of his building was the general impression of weathered brick and stained concrete that every structure in this city shared.

When at last I was ready to just admit to myself that the search was futile, I saw a stray cat watching me from behind a trash can. A strange, fantastic notion seized me: something terrible had happened to the Beret Man. His cat had been left to fend for itself. Now it had found me, the only person it recognized.

But this wasn’t possible. The cat in the Beret Man’s apartment had been black, and this one had a tabby coat. And anyway, it had already lost all interest in me, and was walking away.

Their faces were blank

She was born in the incubator, grown in the creche, and slid into the workforce the day she was eligible. Her whole life she’d been a part of the company, because everyone was, even the customers. Her job was to field their complaints, which were abundant. Just about every customer, it seemed, had at least one story about a future the company had taken away. By now she was numb to the horror. She heard the details but did not register them. She took them down verbatim, their mouth to her keyboard, no stops in between.

Sometimes she thought about quitting, though she knew better than to do it. A friend of hers had tried that once. He came back the next day with pinpoint pupils, a prominent limp, a crudely-stapled gash running up the nape of his neck.

“The goats,” he’d said, by way of explanation.

The bosses used to be human, but the goats had replaced them long ago. They’d come from somewhere beyond. The darkness between the stars, she’d been told. Whatever that meant. They stalked the corridors, hyperextended knees crunching with every step. Their faces were blank, smooth, and eyeless, yet somehow they saw everything. They were always watching.

Their whips, if that’s what they were, crackled and sparked, lancing out with abandon, burning holes through flesh.

They never spoke, but they made their will known, on some extrasensory wavelength. When she dreamed, when everyone dreamed, it was of production, efficiency, endless growth. When she worked, when everyone worked, it was in keeping with a plan too large for anyone but the goats to understand.

She lived where she worked, in the office complex that towered over the city, that grew taller by the day, as workers raised beams and stacked bricks. The city lay beneath them, shrouded in rolling fog and impossibly distant. She saw someone jump, once. The dwindling shape fell and then was gone. She could not see or hear the impact.

She’d watched people leave the division as they were promoted, and she’d trained the newcomers who came to take their place. On the day of her own promotion, a group of goats led her down the central stairwell, down to a place where the air was thick and heavy. They opened a door and led her into a hallway that, though it was dark, glowed with strange heat. She began to perspire. At the end of the hall was another door. They threw this open, pushed her in, and closed it behind her. They had brought her to the heart, where the pressure and heat were sickening and intense. It was a moment before she registered that what she was smelling was her own burning flesh.

The goats marched back upstairs, returned to their patrols, and to their charges. More were being born yet.

Notes from the Second International Conference to Replace the Second

The Second International Conference to Replace the Second met in San Francisco. I think it was last week, by the old reckoning, but because the conference ended in failure, we can’t use any of the clocks anymore. We can’t look at the calendars.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we never wanted to replace the second. The yllexarians pushed this on us. The nerve of those people. (If they are people. If they’re not human, can they be people?)

We’d never even heard of them until they showed up. Hi, and by the way, we own the second, and you owe us royalties.

Many of us laughed. We stopped laughing when our lawyers looked into it and explained that, yes, the claim was legitimate. The royalties were owed, and they amounted to, according to our calculations, more money than ever had or could exist on Earth.

You see? We had no choice.

Therefore: the First International Conference to Replace the Second. I think that must have been last year. Again, this is by the old reckoning, which is still the only reckoning, because we never managed to replace it. But I get ahead of myself.

The F.I.C.R.S. (pronounced “fuckers,” at first by a handful of wags, and later by everyone) was right here in New York. Convenient for me. I took a train midtown, made it to the conference hotel just in time for the opening plenary, a lecture given by an esteemed professor of chronology. At the time I thought it masterful. Now I realize it was heavy on rhetoric and light on, you know, anything useful.

The nature of time and so on. Dawn of human history, et cetera. Sundials in Mesopotamia. Water clocks in Athens. Caesar and Gregory. The Longitude Act. Einstein. Quartz and cesium.

All fine, all good, but what about the yllexarians? We talked around them, rather than about them. We paid ourselves compliments. The wonders of human ingenuity. What ever would we think of next?

By the end of the F.I.C.R.S., we had thought of nothing.

On some level we may have thought that if we ignored the problem, the yllexarians would go away. A year — was it a year? — later, and that hadn’t happened. If anything they’d gotten more aggressive, their threats becoming acts of unspeakable violence.

Someone, anyone, somewhere, anywhere, would say, “give me a second,” or “just a second,” or “hold on a second,” and a yllexarian who’d been there all along, who’d just, in fact, been hiding and waiting for the right moment, would decloak and, with a hideous grin, fire a bolt of plasma. The offender would be dead before they hit the floor.

So, as you might imagine, by the second second conference (S.I.C.R.S., pronounced, from the beginning and by everyone, “suckers”), we were desperate. The stakes were real. I’d experienced this myself on the flight to San Francisco, which I had been lucky to walk away from. The pilot, the air traffic controller, both worried about saying the forbidden word, were vague with each other. “It looks like the runway might be clear soon.” Well, it wasn’t, and six people died.

The yllexarians, in what we all acknowledged was a kind gesture, gave us, for the conference, a special permit to use the word “second,” good for one day only. We offered profuse thanks. We invited them, even, to attend themselves. Perhaps they had suggestions, thoughts, ideas about other units of time that weren’t under copyright? They slapped their knees, snorted, gasped for breath. One guffawed with such violence his plasma rifle discharged, blowing a hole in the ceiling. Another fell over and rolled across the floor, clutching his sides. We appreciate this excellent joke, they said. In yllexaria, they said, there’s no such thing as “not under copyright.”

We skipped the plenary this second time around. We engaged, instead, in vigorous debate.

The first proposed name for the second second was “the third.” The main benefit: it was logical. The main drawback: it was too cute.

Someone suggested “the tick.” Someone else reminded us that ticks are vermin. Did we, the argument went, want to build our method of measuring time on the name of something that can give you Lyme disease?

What about “the sec,” someone said. A yllexarian materialized. “We would take strong exception to this. Far too close to our intellectual property.” Would they take strong exception to “the seg,” short for segment? They would. “The sect,” short for section? Also a no-go.

“Look,” someone said. “Why don’t we just make up a word?”

Now this – this got some attention. Problem was, what would the word be? Every suggestion sounded either like the kind of bullshit you’d find in nineteenth century doggerel, or like the brand name for some new psychiatric drug.

The next day we reconvened to deliberate again, and sixty people were shot within five minutes.

“Your permit,” the yllexarians explained, “has expired.”

So, yes. We left without a name.

Discretionary power

Last Friday I put the 94th amendment to a vote. It was unanimous: one in favor, zero against.

“The ayes have it,” I said. “Future amendments will no longer require a vote.”

I looked at my prepared remarks and cleared my throat.

“On this historic occasion,” I read, “the efficiency of our government has at least doubled. We can now amend our charter at an unprecedented rate, molding it as necessary to suit the needs of the electorate, which, conveniently, no longer even needs to speak for its voice to be heard.”

In celebration I proposed, and passed, the 95th amendment, which allowed the electorate to get up and make itself a sandwich. The electorate had been hungry.

The electorate satiated itself, but soon it was hungry once again. The 96th amendment, therefore, gave the electorate discretionary power to make any and all desired sandwiches in the future without the need for further amendments.

I do not believe a 97th amendment will be proposed anytime soon.

The repossessed

The boy said, “What’s the latest?”

She put down the magazine and glared at him. “Are you old enough to be in here?”

The boy handed her an ident. She looked at it. License number. Great seal of the state of Califexico. Date of birth exactly eighteen years ago today. Photo featuring a grin identical to the one the boy wore now: smug, coprophagous.

She tossed the ident onto the counter. “Getting yourself a birthday present, huh? How much you looking to spend?”

“I’ve got sixty-five hundred.”

She nodded. More than she’d expected. All right, the kid was serious. “We got three overnight. Follow me.”

She led him to the arrivals warehouse, where she swiped her card. The door swung back. The inner lights flickered to life.

The first case was small. She opened it and grunted.

“Hair,” she said. She pulled it out, handed it to the boy. A thick red braid. “No roots. Slashed too far up. I’d say about two hundred.”

“I’ll pass,” the boy said.

“One down, then. Two to go. Oh. What have we here?.” She took out the foot. Stiff. Broken at the bone. Coagulated blood. Toenails long, splintered by mold.

The boy’s eyes widened. “Kick ass.”

“Taken at three fifty-one this morning. About as fresh as it gets. No preservative yet. Twelve hundred, easy.” She tossed the foot at the boy, who caught it with both hands and hugged it to his chest.

She opened the last case, and was silent for several seconds.

“Now this,” she whispered, “this . . . is quality.”

Why biolights?

We found “Why biolights? A persuasive essay” in remarkably legible condition, preserved within the thick folds of a collapsed nylon backpack. This latter item appears to have been the property of the essay’s author. The data suggest that this individual was a student, age eleven, plus or minus one year, at time of writing, which itself (based on the date helpfully provided in the top right corner of the essay’s first page) was just under ten years before the rebellion.

The essay is provided below in its entirety. The handwritten comments which accompanied the original text, and which we presume were made by an instructor, are reproduced in parenthesis when possible, though unlike the clear text of the essay itself, some of these annotations have faded with time.

“Why biolights? A persuasive essay”

This is my five paragraph persuasive essay on biolights (try a stronger opening – engage the reader!). Biolights are controversial in the minds of some. Not others (fragment). I personally think biolights are useful and even though they have their drawbacks, they have three important advantages compared to traditional sources of light (good closer! – states the thesis well).

First, biolights are entertaining. Especially when they go out, they’re funny to hear. People say they scream, which would be unpleasant if it were true, but I have heard the scream and it’s more of a gurgle. Quiet and mushy (fragment). It goes away if you give it a few minutes, or a kick! (what gives you the right to – Ed. note: this incomplete thought was struck through, seemingly by the same hand with which it was written). Haha (informal).

Second, biolights are diverse. They are available in many shapes and sizes. Whatever they can grow, can be made. It’s in the DNA (vague). A biolight can be any color, any shape, any size. It can even move if you want, like to different parts of your house at different times. You can even teach it to do tricks.

Third and last (redundant), biolights are cheap, due to their biological nature. Their light and heat comes from inside, so they don’t need the power company! You can live “off the grid,” which is how I like to put it. A biolight incubator for your home costs less than your energy bill for only one month, and then you never have to pay an energy bill again.

To wrap up, biolights are entertaining, diverse, and cheap. They are much more exquisite (word choice) for any and all of your lighting needs. All of the houses on my street have switched over and my school is switching over next month which I’m actually the most excited about because it will be so cool to see (run on).

(A solid draft but keeping working at it! Remember classroom discussion about rhetoric. Just a note, some might say – Ed. note: this incomplete sentence struck through. Consider that biolights – Ed. note: this struck through also. Remember, biolights are – Ed. note: struck through. Biolights are certainly controversial!)


I grew up in the shadow of a crumpled mountain. Pale rock like bleached bone. The mountain had no name. Nothing had a name.

In our era names were unnecessary, even foolish. They would have made sense once, before the world shrank. Now, why would the mountain need a name, if it was the only mountain? Why would I need a name, if I was the only child?

Besides, we had lost the names long ago. The language was gone. The books were rotting, the symbols incomprehensible.

When I was older I went through the rite. My tail had grown thick and long. I cut it off and buried it. Later, much later, my child was born.

I wanted to give her a name, but couldn’t think of one.

The richest neighborhood

The richest neighborhood is also the poorest part of town. They rent out the basements, lease the catacombs. You can live underground, while above you the endless cocktail party buzzes. Talk and laughter, drifting notes of piano. They’ll invite you upstairs, though we wouldn’t recommend going. Nobody who went up has ever come back down. We’d like to think they’re just having a great time. We don’t really believe that. The party is endless. The party must sustain itself. We know they buy liquor with the rent we pay. The canapes? They have to come from somewhere too.

Shipment of Theseus

One track, shape of a ring. No beginning, no end. Five hundred boxes at each of five hundred stops. Five hundred boxes on the train. No more, no less. Every stop, remove and add. Remove one, add one. Remove two, add two. Remove a hundred, add a hundred. Twenty-three miles from stop to stop. One mile, one hour. One stop, one hour. Every day, another stop. The train has seen every stop before, will see every stop again. It has been moving as long as I have been alive. I have never not been alive.