A Most Terrific Day
by Carl Taylor
I release my grip on the door handle, close my heavy eyes, and force out a relaxed yawn. I’m still not comfortable with these self-driving cars. My son Gerald has his feet on the dash, his slender body cradled into the now fallaciously named “driver’s seat.”
If I could exhibit power over words, in the same way words hold sway over me, I would suggest that each seat be numbered. Front passenger seat one, back passenger seat one, and so on. Perhaps these designations would be too humble for these times, but I still believe there is a power, a great life force behind the unassuming. If we could but train our eyes in the same direction, I suggest anything would be possible.
We could solve war, pestilence, even famine. If only our eyes could turn parallel, I believe we could cup cold fusion in our little hands and walk on water not made of ice. I say some of this to Gerald, but he just shakes his head. He’s tired of these same old ruminations.
I like words, I like words! I like the simple nuances contained in words. I like how “vainglorious” means vain but doesn’t mean glorious. And yet that word still makes perfect sense, as the root “vain” stems from the Latin word vanus, meaning “empty” or “devoid.” Words are always pulling off little magic tricks like that.
Even when verbiage presents mysteries that seem to make little sense, with a bit of detective work you can usually find a logical answer. I like words; that much hasn’t changed. There can be whole worlds inside words. Here’s a question for you to ponder: if septum means “seven” in Latin, and novem means “nine,” then how come September is our 9th month and November, the 11th?
The engine, the heart of the plastic beast, is split in two. There is a large battery in the front and another in the rear of the sedan. When I was growing up, my uncle was one of the last auto mechanics that didn’t have a computer engineering degree. I used to help him in his garage, the air heavy with the smell of sweat and blackened oils. “Don’t trip on the lifts,” he would say.
There he strutted; there the cars themselves had struts. Uncle Tom died the summer before I went to specialization school. Heart attack. As my father used to say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” I was never certain if he was referring to his brother or to the vehicles.
I start to tell this to Gerald, but I can tell he’s merely humoring me, not really listening. His left foot is tapping metronomically, and his hollow, brown eyes — gaunt, really — keep clicking like the inside of a classic traffic signal.
I’m from the era before global inflation. On the one hand, our new reality makes sense even to me. After all, we are conceived from the Big Bang and our entire universe is constantly expanding. It would only make sense that everything in our world would expand as well. And yet, our words, our language, are one of the few variables that have held constant.
George Orwell wrote about “newspeak,” the idea that our words would shrink so that the populace would be easier to control. George Orwell also had six rules for writing. One of them was: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Our world is but a sphere, just a giant, floating navel orange. I would like to pry it open with a pocket knife and suck on the juicy nectar of its many paradoxes.
I start to tell Gerald about George Orwell and he just grunts, “1984, right?” and then he’s back in his own head, turning off all the lights one by one and shutting me out. He pities me and I pity him, each in our own way.
I want to tell him I’m sorry, to shake him and admit that his mother and I should have never procreated, not so close to a permanent midnight. What business did we have in bringing another life into this? A blasphemy of sorts: a pitching change in the ninth inning of those baseball games people used to play. I pride myself on logic, and yet I willingly sought this out, the adding of an additional beat to a symphony that was already out of tempo. Gerald didn’t ask for this, after all: to be born all these years after we killed God’s hand-shaped heart.
The Chevrolet SD hooks a sudden right, a bowling ball seeking a gutter. Gerald half-opens his eyes as the vehicle saunters up to an energy cube. There they perform their mechanical mating dance, and the neon blue of the dashboard shows that the vehicle is once again pregnant with life-force. It used to take hours to charge an electric vehicle, but now it can be done in under a minute. Everything expanding all the time, even time itself.
“Would you like to take a pit stop?” I ask, volleying another axiom that no longer makes much sense. “We could get some ice-cream.”
“Ice cream?” Gerald says, his face fighting a grimace of contempt. “I’m not a little kid anymore.”
“Fine,” I say, in the most agreeable manner I can muster. “How about coffee, then? Or a pint of beer, if that’s your preference these days.”
“Beer contains alcohol, wheat, and sugar that are collectively of little or no nutritional value,” Gerald says.
Then Jamie, the voice-activated dashboard computer is triggered and says, “Although these days it is safer than ever to ‘drink and drive,’ please remember that alcohol is not easily metabolized by the human body. Take it easy, your enzymes will thank you, and please remember to always drink responsibly.”
“Enough, Jamie,” Gerald says and the lilting robotic voice dissipates back into the dusk, still present but no longer detectable, being true to the little robotic invisible person that she is.
“So where are you taking me?” I ask, fiddling with my seatbelt.
He’s defensive. “I told you, Dad, it’s a surprise.”
I say, “But you know I don’t like surprises. Ever since your mother left—”
“I don’t want to talk about Mom,” Gerald says. “Not now.”
“But we should talk about her sometime soon,” I say. “It’s important not to forget the past.” Then I say, “Forget the past, and you’re destined—”
“To repeat it,” he says, cutting me off.
Jamie’s voice chimes in, wispy as the wind, “In the movie Magnolia, year 2000, the narrator says that ‘You may be through with the past, but the past is not through with you’.”
“Jamie, enter standby mode,” Gerald commands.
“Well, okay,” Jamie bellows. “But just remember: I’m right here if you need me. Just say, ‘Jamie, I need you’.”
Gerald plays with the auto locks, nervously locking and unlocking the doors.
“My father died on this day,” I say. “Twenty years ago. He would be seventy today were he alive.”
Gerald looks at me with a certain degree of contempt, or perhaps just disgust. But then his features soften, and he pats me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he says. “It’s tough to lose a parent.”
Maybe if we could just embrace one another and cry together, we could alter these set paths we’re on. But instead I joke: “Now who’s the adult?” and we both sputter out abortive laughs. Yet, for a mere second, Gerald seems like the boy I raised those first few years, before everything grew and inflated and got so twisted together.
“Neither of us,” he says, and he releases a bittersweet sigh. Outside the sun reaches its apex in the sky. Even the sun looks larger anymore. I tell you, it’s uncanny.
I decide to start again, “It’s rare we have this time alone,” I say. “I’m not sure where you’re taking me, but if we have time, and provided the surprise does not involve food, could we stop for a bite?”
Gerald doesn’t say anything at first, just twitches like a newly felled insect. When he does speak, it is equally spasmodic. “I’d love to, Dad,” he says. “I really would, but we’re on a tight schedule.”
We used to be a family, why can’t he see that? “You run a tight ship,” I say, and my throat makes a display of mirth even as my eyes remain cold and aloof. It’s an illusion, a mere heliograph of a smile. I say, “Can I take three guesses about where we’re headed?”
He frowns and bites his lower lip. Gerald has a face that is almost too symmetrical. His lower and upper lips are both more or less the same in shape and size. He gets that from his mother, the type of face that almost appears the same upside down, that appears similar from every angle.
Me, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed of the asymmetric factions that make up my features: my canteen neck, overstuffed eyes, and trench-warfare scars along the forehead of my face, little divots tossed about from the speed of time.
“Sure,” he says, scrunching his face ever so imperceptibly.
“The zoo,” I say, only half-serious. He quickly shoots that idea down, his voice cracking as he reminds me that we’re heading away from the city.
“Then the aquarium,” I say.
“Close enough,” he says. Before I offer my final guess, he inserts some radio-waves directly into his ears and starts nodding along to the helter-skelter of some robotic beat.
Silence again engulfs us and, for a while, our plastic dragon runs parallel with a high-speed train, The Phoenix, faster and larger by ten times over any prior form of land transportation. Even ten years ago they didn’t have the technology for something like this. Hell, five. These are the wonders of the modern world.
Meanwhile, in space, robots are terraforming Mars to make a smaller planet habitable, while we finish off what’s left of our own. It’s not terribly original to think of us as parasites, but the faucet of thought drips as it must. The real laugher is thinking we have any control. No, we don’t. Not over our thoughts and not over anything else. Not anymore.
Copyright © 2020 by Carl Taylor