November 17, 2014
"Mes de los Muertos"

Antebellum Now
by Bernie Pilarski (short, PG)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

We believe ourselves to be individuals who possess a free will, that our decisions are our own. Perhaps we are, or perhaps like ants, we can only understand ourselves in the context of our place in the colony...

~~~

"So this is what it is like before the war," Mishka said.

"What do you mean?"

"Look at it," he said, gazing out the window of the restaurant at the throng of people milling about the shops along the waterfront. "It's like one of those grainy newsreel scenes of London or Berlin in the 1930s, little grey people bustling about, completely oblivious to the impending holocaust that was about to descend upon them."

"So," said Jessica. "How did the presentation go today?"

"Sucked."

"Damned Nazis."

"I'm serious. Don't make fun of me."

"Oh, I'm not. It's one of the things I admire about you; you take your work very seriously."

"This isn't about work."

"When you have a really bad day, you get very apocalyptic."

"Apoplectic, that's the word you're looking for. Barry wanted Fred to introduce the project to the Review Board, to provide enough background for them to understand what it was we wanted to accomplish, and to set the stage for me to outline our methodology and to highlight the unique aspects of our approach. Fred, goddamn it. By the time his part was done, the Board was so confused that we spent the rest of the time trying to make sure they didn't cut funding for the whole damn department. I thought Barry was going to have a stroke after the meeting when Fred said he thought the Board was a little out of touch with reality."

"Damned Fred. He's a total idiot."

"How does he keep his job? If I had done half the damage he's done, I guarantee you that I would be out on the streets."

"Why don't you quit, find something else?"

"Because I like my job. It's important. Yes, it's frustrating to constantly be doing damage control because Fred is clueless, but when things fall in place, when we can keep Fred occupied with something simple that he can do, the rest of us can really accomplish a lot."

The fog had moved in off the ocean and had reached almost to Alcatraz. Sausalito would be gray and damp, but the midday sun was still shining brightly on the San Francisco side of the Bay. People, tourists mostly, moved about the wharf in a relaxed manner as they might if they were on the promenade deck of a cruise ship, only with the water on one side and the city on the other.

"Look at them all," Mishka said, looking out the window. "Carefree, blithe, oblivious."

"They are on vacation, most of them. They've paid good money for the privilege, and in so doing have showered a substantial sum on the city. We should be grateful."

"All of them, or least most of them could be dead in the first weeks of the war."

"They'll all be dead sooner or later, but they will probably die happy because they have had the opportunity to have a delightful lunch in a quaint little place with gorgeous views of the bay with someone they love who is not obsessing about things that may or may not come to pass."

"It's not 'may or may not.'"

"Even if you're right, there's little we can do about it. Wars are like earthquakes, they are beyond our control, and as it happens, inevitable. Something or someone is always trying to kill the living, and the living will die even if nothing or no one succeeds -- the certainty of our death defines our lives."

"Because it is inevitable does not mean we should ignore it."

"Fine. Since I am about to die at any moment, I will have both the fried calamari appetizer and the cheesecake for dessert, and the consequences be damned."

"You're mocking me again."

"I am not. What would you have me do?"

"We could get married"

"What on earth for?"

Mishka considered very carefully before he answered. In fact he had been considering that very question for some time. He was thirty-five years old and had never been married, and until recently had not seriously considered it. He had seen nothing in his life to recommend it -- his older brother had been married and divorced twice, and his sister was extracting herself from her fifth marriage. Although his parents had been together for over forty years, they were miserable. They constantly and bitterly argued. If he had been asked at twenty-five if he intended to marry, he would have responded with Jessica's words: what on earth for? Of late however, there had begun in him an idea, one of those ideas that emerge unbidden from the subconscious where forgotten and seemingly random bits of information float about until suddenly they bump into each other and coalesce into something new. It was like seeing the coming war. There was no army standing at the border just yet, but there were signs -- the rise of violent crime in Chicago, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, the unsettling level of unemployment among the youth of Europe -- things that were pressing on the population, making them irritable, anxious, and angry. Sooner or later, the world would have had enough. Ants were what had been fermenting in Mishka's subconscious: queens and drones, long lines of workers commuting across his patio and disappearing into the apartment wall. It had probably been some PBS program that dumped packets of ant lore into Mishka's subconscious next to the frustrations of working with Fred, the memory of Jessica naked in bed, and the image of Helena Bonham Carter in her role as Queen Elizabeth in the movie The King's Speech, but when these elements touched, a miasma arose and began to infuse Mishka's heart with wistfulness.

"To have children."

"Mishka, I thought I made it clear that I was interested in neither marriage nor children."

"Why not?"

"One is an anachronistic institution and the other at best an inconvenience, but in either case a mistake."

"That's not what your body says."

"Pardon me?"

"When we make love, you're ravenous."

"Meaning?"

"You try to pull everything you can from me deep inside. It's your body telling you that it wants completion."

"I think I am insulted. Don't mistake passion for reproduction."

"How can you separate them? It's why we want so much to make love. We're programmed that way."

"I beg your pardon," Jessica said sharply and perhaps a bit too loud. "I make love to whom I want, when I choose."

"Are you ready to place your order, or do you need a few more minutes?" The waiter, a middle aged black man, seemed to appear at the table, as waiters will, from out of nowhere. Jessica blushed and turned away, staring out the window to avoid looking at him. He was however the consummate professional and gave no indication of having heard anything prior to his question.

"I'll have the Monte Cristo," she said without turning. "And a plate of raw meat for my Neanderthal friend here."

"Pardon, madame?"

Jessica waved her hand dismissively and simply repeated her order. "Monte Cristo. That's it."

"Sir?"

"I'll have the same."

"Very well. Would you care for another drink?"

"No." Jessica and Mishka spoke at the same time, each with a tinge of irritation. The waiter nodded politely and retreated. In silence they both looked out the window to where the children ran in the sunshine and couples huddled close against the chilly breeze coming off the cold waters of the Bay.

"I've made you angry, haven't I?" Mishka said after an appropriately long period.

"No," Jessica said in a surprisingly calm voice. She drew a deep breath and sighed. She leaned back in her chair and stared down at the table. "I'm angry, but not at you. I'm mad at myself."

"I don't understand."

"I'm angry that I am so disappointed at being proposed to in such a callous manner. I have to wonder what I've done to warrant being offered employment as breeding stock rather than endless love together."

"If I had a ring and asked for your hand on bended knee, you would have said yes?"

"No," Jessica shook her head. "But I might well have been flattered. As it is, I get a proposition and not a proposal, and I'm angry because even though I don't have any interest in either, I can't help feeling hurt, and that's what bothers me. It's like being disappointed you didn't get your ass groped on a crowded elevator -- you're disgusted that you even had the thought."

"Seriously? You've been disappointed that you..."

"Forget it, okay? It was just an example. Forget I said anything."

"Yeah, but I mean you sometimes..."

"It's fantasy. A woman wants to be noticed sometimes. As a kid, didn't you ever think about killing yourself to punish people for their indifference or their meanness?"

"Yes. Yeah, I did as a matter of fact."

"We all do. We use fantasy to help us deal with the crap in our lives. We imagine the improbable and even the impossible, but for a moment at least, we can make sense of our lives. That's why they invented god, because once you have a god, then attributing existence to his or her creative act relieves us from the enormous task of actually trying to figure out how we got here."

Ants are the only other beings on the planet besides man that live in societies that number in the millions of individuals. Their colonies can in fact be enormous. In California, there is a super colony of Argentinean ants that stretches from San Francisco south to the border of Mexico, a distance of more than six hundred miles. Hundreds of billions, perhaps even trillions of individuals go about the tasks of ordering a society -- building, cleaning, feeding, nurturing. Although much of the activity of such a colony can be observed and described, what it would be like to live in such an environment will perhaps always remain a mystery. Still, one wonders how all those ants remain on task. A worker may be born to be a worker, yes, but in the vast multitudes of ants ceaselessly going about the care and feeding of eggs and larvae, are there not individuals who want more, who refuse to be cowed into servitude?

"You don't believe in God?"

"Tell me you do," Jessica said sarcastically.

"Yeah. I guess."

"That's like looking at the knotted pile of cables and wires behind your television and attributing some kind of intelligent design to their arrangement rather than accepting that the tangle is the result of random movements over a long period of time."

"So, I suppose you believe that if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room with a laptop, they would eventually write a novel?"

Jessica frowned at Mishka.

"Nor do I," Mishka said. "But in short order, there would be baby monkeys."

"Sorry, I just don't buy into the mammy, mammy song of motherhood."

"Mammy, mammy?"

"The ant song?" When it was obvious that Mishka did not follow, she continued. "The Once and Future King. Merlin turns Wart into an ant, and Wart experiences living in an ant colony. Over and over again the mammy, mammy song is broadcast into their heads, and they have no choice but to like it -- having your own opinion is Not Done. Well, I don't do mammy, mammy. I make my own decisions."

"So why do you dress that way? Why not a grass skirt, or is that too mammy, mammy Polynesian? Why do you live in an apartment? Is a yurt too mammy, mammy Mongolian?"

"You're obnoxious today. What's your problem?"

"What, I'm not mammy, mammy boyfriend enough for you?"

Jessica got the words "Screw your mammy..." out at precisely the moment that the waiter appeared at the table with their sandwiches.

"The Monte Cristo for...the lady." His hesitation was barely perceptible, and there was no change on his expression except for what may have been a very slight twitch in his left eye. He placed the plates of food in front of Jessica and then Mishka. "Enjoy."

Slave-making ants will scout out another ant colony, gather a strike force, and then invade that colony, capturing tens of thousands of eggs which are then taken back to their own colony. When hatched, the ants from these eggs are the slave workers of the invading colony. Usually, the invaded ants flee in panic during these raids, but when resistance is mounted, it is met with brutal and lethal force that can decimate the colony. It is not personal, and there are no convoluted political agendas, no ideological conflicts, and no feuds. All of this is done in the name of their queen, and it is all driven by the need to perpetuate the colony through reproduction. There is no debate about the actions the colony takes; its direction is beyond the control of the individual, and as it happens, inevitable.

Mishka picked up his knife and fork and began cutting his Monte Cristo sandwich, but Jessica simply continued to watch the people outside.

"I'm sorry," Mishka said quietly. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Jessica made no response.

"Barry would like us to come over tonight. He said his wife was hoping we could get together."

"No."

"Are you sure? She was..."

"No."

"Okay, do you just want to stay home and watch a movie or something?"

"No."

"What then?"

"I want to be alone."

"Are you feeling okay?"

"Not really, no."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not surprised."

Just down the wharf, out of sight of the restaurant where Mishka and Jessica sat, an older man collapsed. As he lay on the ground, the movement of the people closest to him slowed to a stop. Two people moved quickly over the man. They rolled him on his back. The elderly woman who had been with the man panicked, and ran in a large circle, going form person to person, grabbing their arms and imploring them to help. She rushed back to the man, then again went about. A small knot of people had gathered around the man, obstructing the pedestrian traffic. People that came upon the scene often stopped and asked other what was happening, and then they either joined the circle of onlookers or they moved quickly away. A woman, perhaps someone with medical training, had torn open the old man's shirt and had begun CPR. A few of the people in the crowd now moved back away. A young girl came out of the knot of people in tears, and a few older women moved in on her to comfort her. When the ambulance arrived, people cleared a path for the EMT personnel, but the sight of the ambulance began to slow the pedestrians in a wider circle, and more people moved closer to the sight to inquire about what was happening. When the older man was finally loaded into the ambulance and taken away, people milled about for awhile, talking, pointing, then began to move off, resuming their stroll along the shops and restaurants. In short order, there was no indication that anything was amiss.

Mishka, had he seen this event, might have been inspired to draw parallels between it and the behavior of the ants when he dropped a dead fly in the area of their column across the patio. It might not be fair to do so, after all, as men are not ants, and that particular exercise might be no more fruitful than the fantasy in which Mishka currently engaged. In the long uncomfortable silence where Jessica continued to stare out the window and he picked at his Monte Cristo, Mishka imagined telling the girl in Accounting, Heather, he thought he remembered her saying was her name, of how unreasonable Jessica had been. Heather would listen intently, and indicate, maybe through a touch of the hand, maybe in whispered words, that the comforts of her bed and the treasures of her fecundity were his for the asking. Men not being women, or at least Mishka not being Jessica, he did not wrestle with the propriety of this image.

"Listen," Jessica said as she pushed back away from the table. "I've got to go. Sorry about the lunch. You can have mine."

"Wait. I can walk you back."

"Not necessary."

"Are we still on for tomorrow?

Jessica looked at Mishka in silence, her mouth open as if she were about to say something, then she shook her head and gathered her things. "I'll let you know."

Mishka watched her walk out and then turned to watch out the window as she left the restaurant. She was soon lost in a cloud of lost souls. He had always imagined that the gray people in antebellum Berlin were all happy and carefree, that the coming of the war was an apocalypse. He had not looked for the grieving widow, or the man dying of consumption, or the marked Jew, or for anyone else for whom the war was simply one more dead fly deposited inconveniently in their path. He had not considered that there were narratives bigger than the war to which the people listened.

The war was coming, sooner or later, but Mishka wondered only if there was anything he needed from Accounting.

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Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.


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