Three new moon lets and everybody apprehensive and talking, sparking conversations with perfect strangers, the intimacy of the truly novel. The weather is a peculiar hot. The sun presses on you and it’s like the air is boiling into existence, transitioning from a hot organic broth into a gas still too hot to be actually breathable.
Today, Gordon decided, the Official State Microorganism is Yeast. Yeast is busy in the city at this temperature. Beneath the pulsating sun, up from the shimmering pavement, a simmering bouquet of hard-working ferment from trashcan, fried chicken, urine, coffee and… else. Hovering over it all, a delicate, lingering, cloying, slightly ammoniac or bleachy disinfectant note that “opened the way” as it were to your back palate and an awareness of a sharp, fecund tang sensible as far back as your glottal stop.
Remember, Gordon reminded himself, Everything you smell is really something you taste. He’d learned that from a Michael Connelly novel. Gordon’s mind was alive with such disheartening facts. Heading to 90+ today; humidity with it.
And, big headline: Three new Earth satellites! Huey, Dewey and Louie to most of us, which is pretty ballsy, considering they came from God-Knows-What part of the Oort Belt, or Galactic Arm, or maybe they were piloted… steered here. No one has any idea why they just showed up. We joke with the Disney names, Gordon thought, but we all get quake-bottomed just a little at these apparitions. Earth, too, is quaking with their tidal effects.
These cosmic visitors are officially called Elmendorf 1, Elmendorf 2 and Elmendorf 3, after their discoverer, Trask Elmendorf, my classmate, roommate and longtime partner in the pleasant and binding misdemeanors of boarding-school and later university life at Caliyuga U, and before that, for four years in the scholastic womb of Connecticut’s famous Hammerhill School.
Yes, somehow THAT Professor Trask Elmendorf, the incredible, headline brainiac from the Advanced Research Campus of Caliyuga who, for eight years of study idled with Gordon over bong and bottle, playing board games and listening to Pink Floyd, Ray Charles and the Grateful Dead. THAT Dr Trask Elmendorf first picked up the celestial visitors with the 48-inch Schmidt camera just three weeks ago, as part of a sky survey of Ursa Minor. Gordon emailed Trask congratulations on his discovery, but hadn’t heard back. He’d always get back, just took time, thought Gordon. Probably fielding congratulatory messages from all over.
Countless times Gordon’d walked the diagonal from Edge Central down through the dreary 30s and Murphy Hill to the office on Sixth Avenue and 19th Street. An amiable amble this warm summer morning, abetted musically by noise-canceling headphones playing synthotrance music. Sweaty, though. Bigger than average, Gordon had already burned through his deodorant and past the half-life of his morning’s cologne. And, speaking of halves, noted Gordon, as of just last weekend, he had passed the half-century mark.
Pause at the light.
The baby in the stroller eyes him and his headphones suspiciously. He smiles at the olive-tinted baby, then looks up again. The largest of the three new moons is showing its half-full phase at the moment. It orbits earth every six hours. The baby follows his gaze to the passing moonlet in the pale blue sky. The young brow furrows with a mature yet unnamable intuition of things amiss, then turns shifts his gaze to Gordon.
He smiles at the baby again. She doesn’t smile back.
Better to reassure the kids, he thought, even though there was much to be reassured about.
The day before, at lunch at Park Avenue Pastrami, a young black guy in a Rastafarian knit cap and a custodian-style green jumpsuit had stepped into the deli and yelled something about them owing him $600,000. Then he’d left, slamming open the door. Lunacy afoot.
Three new little moons. You can see them.
The accordionist inside the 42nd Avenue passage was playing a song he recognized as Suliko, which Gordon, with his trivia-absorbent mind, somehow knew was Stalin’s favorite song. He allowed disdain to stare coldly from him at the little man in his ebony combover energetically pumping the bellows.
More police everywhere this morning, Gordon noticed. How easily the body-armored lads with the shepherd dogs at the train station could usher folks back ONTO the trains, when you think about it! Or, overthink it, as those who befriended and loved him would often remind him. Usually, he’d leave off with the evangel and quietly just satisfy himself that at least HE knew what was coming.
Here’s the scenario he imagined, scored to Stalin’s fave, as he traversed the crowded pedestrian tunnel:
A POLICE STATE REVERIE
“Everybody, listen!” yells the senior officer in the digital camouflage. The commuters densely crowding the exit platform are barred from further progress by a line of similarly costumed soldiers with rifles at port arms and three German Shepherd dogteams. The heat of the underworld of Lower Level Track 013, closer as it is to the Underworld, was intense and humid, much more so than normal.
“There has been a federal emergency declared in the City and we are directed to take you back out of the Danger Zone…”
An intense man of middle age, blue-jacketed and yellow-tied, who has been edging to the left side of the platform, cuts in, “What happened? What emergency?”
“That’s all I’ve been told,” replies the officer, whose name is… There’s no nametape!
“My orders,” he continued, “Are to get all of you back to safety.”
“Yeah, well, as it is, I’ve got a meeting across town I’m late for, so if you’ll excuse me…”
The military-garbed man unsnaps the strap holding his service pistol in its holster and removes it, pointing the barrel to the ground, a gesture with unmistakable meaning. With his opposite hand, he braces the blue blazer with five fingers extended from operator gloves.
“For everyone’s safety, I’m asking you all to turn around and re-take the train. This directive is issued by His Honor, the Mayor, as the in loco majester of this particular region.” This soldier-officer has an accent! An Eastern European accent!
The commuter crowd hums with uncomprehending displeasure.
“Please re-board train!” One of the dogs let loose with a convincing snarl and the commuters move as one, choreographed, almost schooling, reacting like a herd away from the dogs and towards… the soldiers on the other end, herding the commuters from that side.
“Well,” asks I, resuming my seat on the as-yet-unmoving train, “Where do you think we’re headed?” No one answers.
“Well,” thinks I, my mind a-racing 55-thousand miles per hour. Then what’ll I do with this? And I imaged the five-shot snubnose revolver undiscovered in its glasses’ case at the bottom of my shoulder bag.
The door closer bell chimes and the train doors slide shut. The robot voice informs me, “This is the Train to Milford.” And I don’t believe it is.
That was Gordon’s thought experiment. He was still waiting for it to happen. So far.
Crossing Madison Park, the last gem of green he’d get before the cold enclosure of work and his desolating, book-strewn corner, he observed an SUV of the Department of Homeland Security idling on Broadview, just towards the south end of the park. He took a picture of it, nuts puckering at the thought that this was somehow, like most everything else he was thinking and doing, illegal. He touched the folding spring-assisted knife in his right front pocket. Modest self-defense, yet its mere possession meant jail. He noted the knee-high wire fencing guarding the green scallops of park grass. What if he started disassembling them with the multitool in his backpack? What would be the hierarchy of interaction and intervention that would ultimately result in his jailing for such a disobedience?
He broke out a fine cigar and began fiddling with the cellophane wrapper.
This potential Health Security Breach triggered open the heavy-lidded eyes of an elder hippie woman dressed with studied nonchalance in tie-dye and expensive Dansko outdoor clogs. She eyed him examining the fence and his cigar from her parkbench perch in the low-angled morning sun.
The woman wore a proto-badge of laminated identification discreetly affixed to the hem of her tee-shirt. Claudia Something… Mary Jane Law. The picketline of enforcement. She arose, relishing the chance to intervene if he should try to ignite the cigar within the park. He placed the cigar in his mouth and walked towards the lady, who immediately halted and drew up, wrong-footed by his move.
He strode over to her, unlit cigar clamped defiantly. She took the offensive.
“You can’t smoke that here.”
He leaned in and made a show of scrutinizing the laminated certificate of authority clipped to her shirt, then elaborately sniffed his unlit cigar.
“Thank you for caring, Claudia. Tell me, is there a separate water fountain in the park for smokers?”
He moved on before she could fully unpack that remark and her eventual unprintable rejoinder blended into the many-toned sharps and flats of the background noise of the city.
Everywhere. The monitors are everywhere. The existence of such a monitoring apparatus offered a temptation too great for men to resist, he believed.
He looked again at the two new moons. They were in brief conjunction, the trio hurtling around the earth every 6.3, 12.6 and 18.9 hours. An elegant progression. A very, very fortunate 3:6:9. What are the odds that this is mere coincidence?
Everyone in the city seemed more muted, even the picketing union guys with their giant inflatable rat in front of his building were just circling with their signs under this astonishing portent. No whistling or shouts. With his phone, Gordon shot a picture of the rat with the conjunction of the three new moons in the backdrop. Where had they come from? Somewhere to the Solar System’s north, said the astrophysicists, 87° from the plane of the Ecliptic. The relatively featureless, irregularly-shaped orbs were quibbling with earth’s tides quite a bit, what with their eccentric polar orbits, perpendicular to the Moon’s orbital plane. The West Side was knee deep in the waters of Mighty Caliyga, chafing with her shores.
Just outside the entrance to work, Gordon exhumed a small pair of 8×20 binoculars from his bag and peered at the largest object, Elmendorf 1. Against the blue sky, it was just past half-full and featurelessly vague.
He got into work and went straight to the men’s room, to strip out of his sweaty t-shirt with its sweat and salt rings, and replacing it with an identical black tee. He freshened his cologne.
The bigger man sweats like crazy and tries not to add his own manly musk to the city’s noisome summer blend. A thoughtful touch.
He alighted at his cubicle and shed his rather heavy carry-on. The pretty woman who shared the low wall separating their workstations had already begun squawking on her cell in a voice that could fairly be described as… ravenous?
He realized once again that he’d arrived, arrived at the dead end of his poor-to-middling career, backed into copywriting hackdom in a corner of the open-configuration office space. Space. The final frontier.
Ravenous? Not right. What’s the word for crow-like? He looked it up. Corvine. She talks in a corvine voice, raucous, unmodulated. He needs to get these words right, because he is a writer. Not just a copywriter. Not that copywriting’s bad. It sure beats working.
In the communal kitchen, he opened the refrigerator, and three cartons of milk jumped from the dairy-jammed appliance. A newcomer to work, an unlined woman half his age, bade him good morning. He gazed down the rows of workstations in this privacy-free office. He replaced the jarred cartons, misshapen a little, now.
Young people sat in front of their screens numbly munching colorful breakfast cereals.
Another new hire, a young man wearing Capri pants with high-heeled espadrilles, also greeted him.
There was something about all this that made him, in his old chinos and sweaty shirt, feel just a little too old for this…