The Zen of Detachable Brains
Dr. Winston Edwards brought two perfect lattes, mocha coffee sans drips and foam, one in each hand, to the outside table where Ph.D. candidate Stefanik Stewart had parked their book bags and umbrellas. Since the drive-by shooting at Kensington's corner Starbucks that killed documentarian Abe Goldberg last week, only the brave and the ignorant could relax at the outside seating. The memory of the horror was not likely to fade soon either, marked as it was by a wooden plaque nailed on a pole stuck next to the courtyard acacia. All the better, according to Edwards. A dearth of sturdy souls meant statisticians, philosophers and poets could enjoy their short-day afternoons in peace.
"It isn't your age but the age you live in that determines who you are. Or so the sociologists say," Edwards said as he put himself and his scalding elixirs to rest. Thank God for heat-protectors. "That's how we become old. We become outdated. Consider how long the jazz age lasted. Not even a decade. A person born in 1900 would scarcely recognize the 1920's in the 1930's, and the 1940's were cataclysmic. By the time the person was sixty-nine, he would have seen a man land on the moon, color T.V. , and half-naked young people doing on public streets what the jazz agers did in night clubs. What's miraculous is that we've captured images and voices of once living people in electronic gadgets, and given them virtual immortality."
"Touché, Winston. But so what? I've no duty to witness or swoon at your truth. They're just facts, some of the infinity of facts that have congealed into history. Individuals no longer exist. Ask Goldberg. You might say, my life and yours are nothing but a brief denial of inexorable congealing."
Stewart believed he'd dismissed the Doctor's ramblings in half the usual time, and returned to reading his newspaper. Yet, as he read, trouble kept tickling his ear. This wasn't news he was reading, but history in the present. He watched the young woman at the next table reading a tablet screen. He looked to the Doctor, who was now engrossed in his book. "Is there a way to stop this, I wonder?"
The Doctor now played the part of the irritated, interrupted reader. He bookmarked his place and removed his bifocals. "Congealing? Certainly. We already have, in a way." He held up his book, making it dance by swinging it side to side and up and down. "The publishing industry has made it a profitable art. Along with Hollywood. The printing press, the camera, the computer—all made time travel possible and immensely popular."
"Now I'm angry."
"At what? Your lack of imagination?"
Stewart might have resented such patronizing, but the Doctor was twenty years his senior. "At how cavalierly you mock my deepest wondering." He squinted at the Doctor's book. "What are you reading, anyway?"
"H.G. Wells' Time Machine."
"I knew it had to be something like that. Your reading material always sets the agenda for our afternoon soirees. Why is that?"
Edwards shrugged. "We're men who know nothing of professional sports or professional politics. What's left but idle gossip and literature?"
"Fair enough." He wondered now if Edwards had slighted or praised the authors. And gossip was not always mindless, as Edwards knew full well after being the subject of a flashing incident in the Natural Sciences building. "Conversation should be spoken like literature. Wouldn't it be nice if people gave thought to plot and dialogue when they told their fictions of life's minutia? When the content is trite, and God knows gossip is banal, the delivery might ought to be redemptive."
"Oh, indeed. Banish the banal and reward the redemptive! If only we could redeem ourselves with words. But you have to do something. Buy Girl Scout cookies your blood sugar won't let you eat or enjoy if you do. Make amends. Repair the fences," Edwards said, and to Stewart he sounded full of an old man's regret though he was barely fifty-five.
"Tell that to Frost. Fences are the problem."
"Were the problem. Frost is dead and so is this notion of one world, one mind, and one heart. We still have wars. Lots of them. I'm beginning to think of nations as large, poorly-performing athletic teams." Edwards finished his latte and sank the cup in the trash from six feet away.
"Good shot, Professor," the young woman next to them said and scooped up her purse and backpack. Edwards gave her a half-wave good-bye as she exuberanced off.
That was the way they used to be. Exuberant. Now? Two academics, bored on Tuesdays with nowhere to go, neither of them physically tired, but heaving sighs as they watched the semesters of their lives creep by without excitement. They needed undergraduate hope. Graduate confidence. First teaching assignment nervousness. First successful evaluation pride. In short, they needed sex with young adoring undergrads.
But old porn would have to do. Next to the newer Starbucks was a two-story stucco office building built in the 40s. The stairs were on the outside—a homage to constant San Diego sunshine by newly transplanted nor-Easter construction companies. Stewart looked up and saw a middle-aged matron giving head to a fifty-something satyr in a bright blue polo shirt and plaid golf shorts surrounding his made-from-old-tire-tread sandals. Could they be seen from the street? He nudged Edwards and nodded in the direction of the carnal retirees.
"My God!" Edwards gasped. "It's Arts and Letters Dean Higgins' wife and Prof. Sherwood."
"So it is," Stewart said, squinting closer, feelings of admiration growing in his soul. Sherwood taught mathematics, designed computer applications for C-engage, and worked with Upward-Bound students from inner-city high schools. So this was the secret of his creativity and energy. Or was it the other way around? The train of ubiquitous wondering left the station.
It was during Sherwood's petit mort—or as Stewart thought privately a grand mort—that he fell backward on the aging railing and tumbled into the grassy area between the building and the Starbucks, impaling himself on a newly trimmed palm tree spike, a receipt speared by an old-timey spindle with rubber feet, his own spindle withering away as his feet flailed, then dangled into the remaining fronds.
Alexis Higgins, still kneeling, was frantically punching the buttons on her cell phone. "She's got matters well in hand," Edwards said, returning to his Wells. But instead of rotating blue lights they saw Dean Higgins' maroon Cadillac pull up to the curb. An athletic Mrs. Higgins galloped down the stairs and slid into the passenger seat, and the Seville pimp-slid away from the sidewalk. The barista who'd come out to check on her customers a half a minute later started screaming.
"Poor kid," the owner said to the two regulars when the coroner's wagon had finally finished loading Sherwood. "She was here the day Goldberg was gunned down. "Living in her skull's gonn'a be a bitch. Either of you see what happened?"
The unspoken existential ramifications of the question weren't lost on the academics. Other trees in the forest may hear their colleagues fall, but unless it was recorded by some blabbermouth oak or dogwood, who would know? A man is born, lives, and congeals. Sherwood's resume was impressive, else he would never have been hired, and his good works were often noticed by the public. Was there a need to reveal that daring, fun side of him that might inspire intellectual neer-do-wells to apply for his position, when the gratitude of the Dean and his able wife for their silence might bear delightful fruit?
"I was reading my Wells," Edwards said. "Wrapped in fantasy."
Stewart folded his Union Trib. "And I was reading history in the making."