His former employer called him a joyless little squirt.
His ex-wife said that sex with him was a joyless little squirt.
His father said that the sex that produced him was a joyless little squirt.
But despite all that, everyone called him Milo.
Milo’s spirit animal was a tick. (The leech had already been claimed.)
Milo was small. Milo was round. Milo was sallow. Had he been any more sallow, he would have looked like an audition for The Simpsons.
Milo had squinty eyes, set too close to each other – so close that stereo vision was impossible for him. If he went to a 3D movie, he could look through one lens of the polarized glasses with both eyes.
Milo had large protruding ears. Very large. Paint them black and you don’t need to buy him a Mickey Mouse hat at Disney World. Milo could hear people thinking about how ugly he looked, even if they were in another room. In a building across the street.
Milo had a nose that had apparently decided to make a U-turn at some point in its development and had inadvertently backed into itself. Milo’s nose was a crumpled fender looking for an accident. Milo’s nose had been the inspiration for the award-winning makeup design in the first Noseman horror film and its three sequels.
Milo had a bald spot. He had had a bald spot since he was three years old. He had had a comb-over since he was four. It didn’t work. Milo had an albedo. The reflection of sunlight on Milo’s head could be seen from space.
Milo didn’t have an Adam’s apple, he had an Adam’s cantaloupe. It bobbed up and down when he spoke, as if it was trying to escape. And it had good reason to. Milo was squeaky. Milo was nasal. Milo enunciated every syllable at least twice in a word. His dialect was vaguely British, halfway between Nerdspeak and Asperger’s – and his focus on minutiae would have bored even Marcel Proust. Listeners had been known to gnaw off appendages to escape the sound of his voice.
Milo had the posture of a hunchbacked hedgehog. As many times as his disheartened parents had told him to stand up straight, that was how many times he had replied, “I am standing up straight!” X-rays of his skeleton eventually demonstrated the discouraging truth of his assertion. Milo was a human box of corn flakes his contents had settled in transit. He sagged like an overripe pear, like a Ziploc bag filled with soggy oatmeal, like a beer belly flubbering over the despairing belt of a morbidly obese couch potato.
It wasn’t that life had handed him lemons, it was that life had made him a lemon, allegedly a fruit, but also a joyless little squirt.
As if small, round, sallow, and bitter wasn’t enough, Milo’s choice of attire…well, attire is the politest euphemism for an appearance halfway between faux couture and corn-on-the-slob. To say that Milo was a walking fashion crime was several orders of magnitude deeper than understatement.1
It wasn’t that he was ugly, it wasn’t that his mother dressed him funny – it was that he was colorblind and chose his clothes based on what didn’t show the spaghetti sauce stains. It didn’t help that (for reasons unknown in this narrative) most of his T-shirts, as well as all of his underwear, had lost their laundry tags, so Milo was never sure which side of the garment was the front. That he occasionally had his boxers on backward often made trips to the urinal an adventure. His tighty-whites did not present the same problem – not as long as he remembered “yellow in front, brown in back.”2
Milo needed to get laid in the worst way – which, since his wife had left him, was probably the best he could hope for. But even that was beyond the realm of possibility.
All the separate atoms in Milo’s body had spent more than a billion years coming together in just the right way and at just the right time to become Milo. If this was the best that the universe could do in all that time with all those atoms, then this has to be seen as evidence that this is a pretty sorry excuse for a universe.
But Milo did have one remarkable skill – he was able to remain blissfully unaware of reality. He could not recognize the unbridgeable chasm of evidence between himself and the kind of human being who gets enthusiastic thank-yous from the staff when leaving a Japanese restaurant. Milo believed he was a superhero – or at least one overdose of gamma radiation away from that condition. For unexplainable reasons and without any evidence at all to support this belief, Milo had nevertheless convinced himself that he was destined for greatness.
That this opinion was not shared by the universe at large3 did not trouble him at all. It was his conviction that his success was inevitable. He’d read it as a meme on Facebook. “People who don’t know it’s impossible are the ones who accomplish great things.” The meme had been given its gravitas because the words were inscribed in the Papyrus font over a picture of a cat.
Coming as it did, on the day he lost both his job and his wife,4 Milo had no choice but to assume that the meme was a personal message from the Cosmic Badger.5
Nevertheless, Milo would occasionally quote Carl Sagan. “I am –” he would announce, “– made of star stuff.”
Well, yes. But so is that unidentifiable substance found between the tiles behind the toilet. And you don’t hear it bragging.
Milo did have one claim to greatness – had anyone ever pointed it out to him, it would not have pleased him, at least not until he could have recontextualized it as a virtue. He had a great case of paranoid narcissism, not as bad as certain politicians, but certainly malignant enough to earn him an honorable mention in the Guinness Book of Assholes.
He assumed that everything was about him. Even things that weren’t about him, were about him. And because he was The Great Milo, or the Milo Destined For Greatness, it was therefore his job to sit on the Pedestal of Unconditional Truth and pronounce judgment on all that passed before his peculiar bubble of awareness.
Milo had come to this unfortunate condition because he took everything personally. He had not yet gotten his participation trophy for life, the awards and honors that were duly his for successfully escaping from his mother’s vagina.6
This wretched lack of acknowledgments and tributes from a deliberately oblivious world was the primary reason why Milo had become a joyless little squirt –
Why am I spending so much time describing Milo before proceeding to the rest of this narrative?
To prove a point.
Never piss off a writer.
Never piss off a man who buys ink by the barrel.
Never piss off a man who buys electrons by the gigajoule.7
Writers are the Research and Development Division of the Human Race, occasionally researching the highest aspirations of the species, but more often detailing the procedures necessary for executing the most exquisite forms of revenge.
Writers specialize in two kinds of revenge.
The first is putting you into their book, describing you horribly, and then dropping a house on your sister, throwing cold water on your dreams, and stealing your shoes.
The second is leaving you out of the book entirely – which should have happened here, except even that would have given Milo too much credit.
You may have noticed that Milo hasn’t actually done anything in this story, nor should you expect him to. Milo has no agency, not in this story, not in this life, not in this universe. In fact, it’s pushing it just to tell you about him.
Which is why this story is not about Milo.
Milo is completely irrelevant to this tale.
This story is about That Pesky Dan Goodman who is a much more interesting character – character being the operative term in both fiction and meatspace.
That Pesky Dan Goodman is a nexus of the improbable and the unlikely.
I shall elucidate:
Imagine a universe so vast that your imagination is insufficient to imagine how vast it is.
It’s the math.
Imagine a hundred billion galaxies.
That’s already beyond the ability of your imagination. The number itself is incomprehensible, but imagine it anyway. That’s the current best guess of how many galaxies there are in the universe. But that number is still insufficient. The astrophysicists are still thinking too small. There are probably a trillion galaxies in this universe, maybe even a smidge more. Maybe even an order of magnitude more.8
Now imagine that each of those galaxies contains a hundred billion stars.
Imagine that each of those stars has ten planets. (It’s easier on the math, bear with me.)
So on the small end that’s 10 (planets) multiplied by 100,000,000,000 (stars) multiplied by at least 100,000,000,000 (galaxies), and you get at least 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe – 100 quintillion. If you assume the larger number of galaxies, one trillion, then there might be a sextillion or septillion number of planets in the universe, give or take a few.
What this means should be obvious.
If the odds against anything happening are even a few quintillion to one, then somewhere out there, it’s not only possible – it’s inevitable.
Think about it this way.
If the odds against you winning the lotto are 292 million to 1, then somewhere in the universe, it is inevitable that you will win the lotto – not just once but at least 342 billion times. Probably not in this iteration, but somewhere out there, more than a few of your other selves are right now doing the happy dance.
But in this universe, your lotto ticket is a Schrodinger event – as long as it remains in your pocket it’s either a winning ticket or a losing ticket. As soon as you take it out and look at it, it’s a losing ticket.9
And in this universe, That Pesky Dan Goodman was a nexus of improbability – because this is the location within this universe where all those improbabilities collide and become inevitabilities.
Some people think That Pesky Dan Goodman has fallen into this universe through a Vonnegut Singularity, a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Others believe he is an agent of chaos, a recovering fallen angel, a forgotten piece of eldritch substance leftover after Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth were conceived, a mistaken afterthought of creation, or perhaps even a half-breed of some kind – half human and half something else, still unknowable.10
The fact remains – That Pesky Dan Goodman has developed an unpleasant habit of wandering into narratives in which he has no right to be present, complicating the lives of people who would much rather be the bystanders who capture the occurrence of horrific events on their smartphones instead of being the unfortunate victims of the tornado, the fire, the earthquake, the tsunami, or the stampede of customers when the Wal-Mart doors open on Black Friday.
Such is the case here.11
Unfortunately, there is no main character in this story. Whoever it might have been, he left the narrative before it began, so while Pesky is generally a side character in any other narrative, this time the searching spotlight of literary attention falls on whoever has wandered too close to the author’s keyboard.
On this particular morning, a morning unlike any other, because if it were like any other, we wouldn’t be paying any attention to it at all – on this particular morning, That Pesky Dan Goodman was seated comfortably on the Orange Line bus12 between Woodland Hills and the North Hollywood subway station.13
Pesky was reading a book. An old-fashioned book. A book printed on paper. Paper that had been made from the bodies of dead trees, shredded, pulped, churned into soup, whereupon various chemicals separated the lignin from the cellulose fibers, so the fibers could be bleached to an eye-blazing whiteness, and finally pressed flat into mats, and then pressed again into great acid-free rolls, sprayed with more chemicals just for the hell of it, and then cut into sheets of various sizes, depending on need, upon which finally little crawly insect marks had been impressed with a quick-set ink, consisting of a resin-oil-solvent mixture. All the separate sheets of paper were then bound together for portability, and pressed between two stiff pieces of paperboard, usually with a garish illustration and identifying title.
Upon viewing these little crawly insect marks,14 That Pesky Dan Goodman was able to decode meaning and hallucinate the experiences of the individual who had initially coded this specific stream of linguistic symbols.
Pesky liked books. He liked the ambition. He liked the idea that persons long removed from any attainable circumstance could still send their experiences careening outward through time and space to infect the minds of unsuspecting others. Centuries might have passed since these thoughts were inscribed, but here was a gift from a mind that had aspired to share itself. Pesky liked peeking into other possibilities of existence and this was one way of achieving that adventure – one that did not involve any specific risk to his own corporeal existence.
On this particular morning, riding the bus eastward, That Pesky Dan Goodman was continuing his latest literary adventure – no, not quite. He was not reading the book as much as he was trying to read it. It was a book well worth reading, not quite a classic in its genre because it did not exist in any specific genre, existing solely in a class defined by itself.
The book was an autobiographical memoir involving a talking dog, a fabulous redhead, Charles Manson, a Judeo-Christian interpretation of God (portrayed by the archetypal sassy black lady), and an odd assortment of little-known historical figures and murder victims, all in a branch of literature that would someday be called Recursive Peripaticism.15 What made it remarkable was that the book had not yet been published in this specific timeline.16
Pesky was unable to concentrate on his book because of a deliberately unpleasant individual looming over him, yammering loudly into his cellphone. What makes this remarkable is that Pesky had actually found a seat on the bus.
Pesky had claimed a seat near the front of the bus by the singularly clever tactic of boarding at the initiating terminal of the line. Otherwise, he would have been standing, and would not have been able to read his book. In that situation, the book would no longer have any relevance to this narrative.
In a less mundane circumstance, Pesky would have assumed the unpleasant man to be a professional prankster and that he had been chosen as the target of a hidden-camera television stunt. But no, this was just someone whose social skills had gone into remission shortly after he bought his first cellphone. For the purposes of simplifying the rest of this narration, we shall call this individual The Asshole.
The Asshole was tall and athletic. He had dark hair and good features. He was well-groomed. His attire was casual, not slobby, but moderately affluent.
And he was loud.
The Asshole had no indoor voice and apparently no awareness that he was on a crowded city bus with lousy acoustics and that his annoying yammering was audible all the way to the rear seats of this double-length, articulated bus. But it was particularly annoying to Pesky because The Asshole was standing right over him, facing him, and his mouth was less than an arm’s length from Pesky’s right ear.
If perhaps The Asshole’s conversation had been even moderately entertaining, it would have served as impromptu street theater. Certainly, the people in the rear seats of the bus would have been entertained. But no – The Asshole was orating loudly in a foreign language – Pesky assumed it was Spanish17 – and the full force of his enthusiastic proclamations were hitting Pesky dead on.
Sighing to himself, Pesky put his book back into his man-purse, pulled out his tablet and asked Google to translate, “Please be quiet. You are too loud.”
Google flashed these words on the device display: “Por favor, silencio. Usted es demasiado ruidoso.” He held it up in front of The Asshole’s face.
The Asshole blinked, read the words, then leaned in to shout at Pesky, “No – no Española. Portuguesa!” He then returned to his conversation, but was apparently now explaining to his distant listener why he’d had to interrupt their talk to explain to el stupido that he was having a very important conversation, but not in Español.
Pesky returned to his tablet and asked it to translate the same phrase into Portuguese. He held it up to The Asshole again. “Por favor fique quieto. Você é demasiado alto.”
This time The Asshole had a harder time of pretending not to understand, so he handed the phone to Pesky. A woman’s voice demanded to know, “My friend wants to know, what is your problem?”
Had the question been delivered with a smidge more courtesy, Pesky might have considered answering politely. But the last four words had conveyed a sense of arrogance that triggered Pesky’s mad monkey impulse. He said, “Un momento, por favor.”
Pesky then popped open the back of the phone, removed the battery and handed it to the person in the seat behind him, one of the archetypal sassy black women that Hollywood scriptwriters love to include as side-characters, as a way of demonstrating their commitment to diversity. The sassy black woman had been watching these events with varying degrees of annoyance and amusement. She was happy to receive the battery and passed it to the high-school aged Latina behind her, who, because she was plugged into her own earbuds and did not realize what was going on, promptly dropped the battery into the depths of her cavernous purse.
Pesky handed the now-inoperative phone back to The Asshole, who grabbed it and began working his way back through the crowded bus in pursuit of the battery. The result was not only a passive voice sentence, but also a frantic conversation that might have been Español, or maybe Portuguese, but was probably a word salad of two different, but vaguely similar languages chattering past each other, the subject being a cellphone battery and who was the rightful owner – the original purchaser, or the recipient of the unasked-for gift.
How this confrontation finally resolved, Pesky never found out. The bus had reached its terminus across the street from the North Hollywood subway station18 and as if simultaneously launched from their seats by some hidden ejector mechanism, every passenger immediately rose and began pushing for the doors.19
Pesky’s subway ride toward downtown Los Angeles was less eventful, and he was able to read far enough into his book to discover why the talking dog would not eat his salad until the parsley was carefully laid down upon the napkin next to his bowl.20
After transferring to the Metro Expo Line, an above-ground light rail system, he was once again able to log onto the internet and study plans for a portable cellphone jammer. That such devices were illegal in the United States would not have been a deterrent to That Pesky Dan Goodman. He had not gotten his adjectives by accident.
Pesky debarked at the Exposition Boulevard station, crossed the eastbound side of the avenue, walked through Exposition Park, and into the California Science Center.
Today, Pesky was on his way to examine their newest exhibits on polarized magnetism and how global climate change was increasing the predatory range of venomous insect swarms. It was his own theory that some previously undiscovered species were the harbingers of an alien civilization’s attempt to exoform the Earth, but as yet the evidence was sketchy and problematic.
Today was actually Pesky’s day off. Pesky’s work ethic was a perfect NOR operation on the Genesis-derived calendar week. He worked one day and rested six—if he worked at all. In his current incarnation – this story – That Pesky Dan Goodman was a freelance assassin.21
So far, Pesky had removed from this timeline seven individuals whose continuing existence had become a sore point in his daily routine and thirty-seven others whose actions, both past and future, would significantly damage the stability of the continuing chronology. While Pesky had no particular loyalty to this time and space, he did enjoy movie theater popcorn (with butter) and was not yet ready for any existence where movies, popcorn, and butter were no longer readily available.
So the circumstances which warranted removal included (but were not limited to) a depression greater than the Great Depression, global climate disruption, biological blight wiping out agricultural monocultures, widespread famine, water wars, refugee swarms, asteroid impact, manic theocracy, a zombie apocalypse, and nuclear winter. Of these options, Pesky considered at least three of them hovering somewhere between probable and likely, although not yet inevitable.
No matter. Today Pesky was interested in polarized magnetism and venomous insect swarms, in particular the Beale Mosquito, which had somehow found its way to the western hemisphere from Godknowswhereistan.
Actually, the Beale mosquito was misnamed. It wasn’t a real mosquito, merely a small biting fly with delusions of grandeur. It had first been identified as a nuisance at the Sedona Pride Parade, when several of the insects were found on the left buttocks of another of those archetypal sassy black ladies (only this one a lesbian), that populate the works of authors too lazy to realize that there are many other kinds of people on the planet as well as sassy black ladies.
The insect’s name was a contraction of, “If that shit don’t beat all –! Do you know how many hours I spent sewing these fucking sequins?!” Calling them “fucking sequin flies” was inelegant, even for a sassy black stereotype, so they were called “beat all flies,” which was eventually shortened to Beale mosquitos by a short, near-sighted etymologist, who through a series of paradoxical events the author chooses not to detail here, had not turned left at Albuquerque as instructed, and having wandered into the Pride celebration by mistake, had been misidentified as a short, near-sighted entomologist. Anyway – somehow, the taxonomy stuck. Beale mosquitoes.
By itself, a single Beale mosquito is a harmless bite, an annoyance too small to be considered even an annoyance, but during its annual swarming season, it becomes a buzzing cloud of noise, forewarning a season of almost-misery caused by the inevitable flurry of aggressive little pricks, each one less than nothing, but together, almost as painful as a Lost In Space marathon. Almost.
Most of the year, various affected communities dismissed the possibility of a Beale mosquito attack with a contemptuous smirk, but for a week or two each swarming season, the insects were a nuisance in the eyes and ears, and occasionally the rectum.22 They were a burden to be endured; flame-throwers only seemed to excite them.
None of this information was new to Pesky, but this was his first opportunity to see an actual swarm of Beale mosquitoes, contained as they were in a closet-sized terrarium allegedly secured with fine-mesh filters.
The terrarium was a sealed, floor-to-ceiling, four-sided, glass case, two meters wide on each side. Across the top, there was more glass, also a frame containing two small fans designed for cooling the innards of desktop computers, but in place here to simulate the dry winds of a desert environment. The fans were fronted by very secure fine-mesh filters to keep the insects from escaping.
Inside the case was a half-meter of sandy soil and several small cacti. Spotted around the cacti, as well as scattered across the soil, Pesky could see a fine layer of tiny brown shells, the remnants of egg-sacs that had recently hatched. A few unhatched egg-clusters were still visible on the dark skin of the plants, but even as Pesky watched, more of the biting flies were chewing their way out.23
The terrarium itself was filled with a cloud of tiny dark bodies. If a cloud could have emotions, this cloud was pissed off. It swirled angrily and buzzed like an enraged vibrator. Several small children pressed their faces against the glass, leaving greasy trails of ketchup, relish, ice cream, and snot. This only enraged the cloud more.
Pesky took a few pictures with his own small camera, but it was insufficient to capture anything more than a blur. He finally gave up, realizing that his time might be better spent observing the effects of polarized magnetism.
Now having outlined the circumstances necessary to understanding what happened next, we must return to and expand upon the theme statement of this entire narrative: That Pesky Dan Goodman is a nexus of the improbable and the unlikely.
While on the surface, this assertion might seem to suggest that Pesky is the causative agent for unlikely and improbable events, there is actually much more to it than that. Pesky is rarely the architect of the unusual – no, his presence is more often the chrono-synclastic catalyst for events already possible. Pesky’s personal morphic field simply increases the potential of occurrence. Even something as casual as a spontaneous wander through a crowded mall can be enough to trigger episodes both calamitous and whimsical – such as the serendipitous invention of coconut ash ice cream,24 or the parachuting Santa accident,25 or the husky who walked six miles to a supermarket, shoplifted a rawhide chew toy, and then walked home again with it.26
This is the point.
In this self-referential, plotless narrative, Pesky is merely a bystander. But his presence – well, you remember those allegedly secure fine-mesh filters on the fans at the top of the closet-sized terrarium enclosing the swarm of Beale mosquitoes?
Pesky didn’t do anything. The mesh wasn’t fine enough to stop the most curious of insects. What actually kept the flying insects inside the case was the downdraft from the fans. But those few bugs who were too lazy to fly, who had decided instead to walk, were able to make their way through the mesh and into the workings of the fans. When enough of them had made the journey that their bodies had been ground to a fine slushy substance on the spindles of the fans, the motors ground to a stop and burned out. This ended the downdraft that kept the rest of the swarm within the terrarium. Inevitably the rest of the swarm seeped out the top, attracted by the smells of ketchup, relish, ice cream, and snot. Especially snot.
But by this time, Pesky was already on the other side of the building, watching polarized magnets dancing on a spinning platter.
As the afternoon warmed, the swarm found its way out of the air-conditioned building and into the hot dry air of the Los Angeles basin, where a large flock of hungry house sparrows would have happily made short work of them and this would have been the end of it, except –
On this same day –
To be fair, it wasn’t the pilot’s fault –
SkyLifter builds the Heavy-Lift Air-Crane, a powered airship capable of lifting up to 150 tons of payload.27 They were not at fault and nothing in this narrative is meant to suggest any failure of design or equipment on their part. In this totally fictitious situation, they had leased one of their vessels to a house-moving company for a proof-of-concept demonstration.
The area around Exposition Park and the University of Southern California is one of the city’s oldest and most affluent neighborhoods. Houses of vaguely Victorian design are found on many of the better streets. They aren’t just mansions – they’re castles. These exuberant confections are usually large and sprawling, tall and elegant. Most have three stories, several have more. Almost all have wide porches and high verandas, deep basements, carports that used to be liveries, roomy attics and dormers, pointed gables, tall windows and comfortable window seats, roomy parlors, huge kitchens with connected servants’ quarters, dumbwaiters, high chimneys, fanciful cupolas, a few brightly tiled domes, the occasional widow’s walk – and enough architectural gingerbread to cause the hearts of studio art directors to palpitate in excitement.
Most of these houses are worth millions. But the land they sit on is worth even more because of its proximity to the university. A cluster of apartments would be far more profitable than a fraternity house or a student association. So…the obvious solution would be to move the house.
The problem is that as wide as most of the streets in the area pretend to be, none of these houses will fit. The alternative is to lift the house vertically and transport it by air.
The house in question – the house we are about to discuss – had once been painted in shades of purple and red, trimmed with pink and white and gold. Now, it was mostly a faded shade of maroon. It had once been a well-known Los Angeles institution, the home of Bubbles McGowan Horowitz, one of the most respected of all madams in the city’s history.
Lady Horowitz had begun her career as a protégé of Lou Graham, owner and operator of Seattle’s legendary brothel in Pioneer Square, but in 1902 when that institution finally fell victim to a sudden streak of Puritanism by the Chief of Police, Lou and some of her ladies relocated to San Francisco. Lady Horowitz headed further south to Los Angeles.
Even though The University of Southern California was barely two decades old when Lou set up her establishment, the institution had already become notorious for the antics of its enthusiastic young collegians. Being that location, location, location was the defining factor in the success of any business, Lady Horowitz was certain that she would provide a very necessary service to this particularly exuberant and especially wealthy clientele.
She was not wrong.
The Bubble House, as it came to be known, became a favorite gathering place for the most elite ranks of administrators, professors, athletes, and favored students. Lady Horowitz would not allow her young women to service any student who was pulling less than a 3.5 grade average. During her tenure, the university graduated more students with honors than at any other time in its history.
Lady Horowitz retired in 1920, shortly after Prohibition became law. She is quoted as saying, “Enough is enough. I can only break one law at a time.”
She died a few years later and the house was purchased by the University as a study center, actually a private retreat for faculty members requiring discretion.
After the crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression, the house stood empty for a few years until it was finally sold to a Chicago businessman whose wife believed the house was haunted and intended to hold séances to communicate with the denizens of the world beyond – but no spirits ever responded to requests for contact, no matter how desperate and pleading the entreaties, and when she finally joined them, neither did she.
During the latter part of the thirties, a Mormon-based fraternity rented the house, but their parties were especially dull – no coffee, no tea, no sodas, no alcohol, and no women. But their lemonade was rumored to be exquisite.
When World War II broke out, the house became the center of a somewhat clandestine study group, whose actual purposes remain unclear even at this late date, but some historians theorize it was a center for the development of propaganda, or maybe code-breaking, or possibly a private retreat for high-ranking army officers and various suppliers of necessary military hardware. Or perhaps just a whore house.
It was still a whore house throughout the sixties, once again catering to the over-enthused libidos of the young fraternity men in nearby Fraternity Row. Despite several police raids – and the ensuing embarrassment to members of Zeta Beta Tau, but not Sigma Alpha Mu because most of their members were gay – this iteration of The House of Negotiable Virtue continued to thrive, except for those nights when Star Trek was on.
At some point, lost in history, but preserved in uncertain memory, the house became the property of a bank, then a real estate company, then a holding company, all of whom promised a total restoration to the structure’s former glory – but of course, like all corporate promises, anything that might compromise the bottom line was repeatedly backburnered.
Eventually, the city decided that the house should be condemned and demolished. They were almost to the point of holding an auction for the various brass fixtures, some of which were over a hundred years old – when the Historical Preservation Society leapt for the bait, demanding that the house be declared a cultural landmark and preserved as an example of Los Angeles’ lost culture.28
This alone would guarantee that the house would sit on its lot, untouched for at least another decade, inhabited only by hobos and crack users who had cut a convenient hole in the chain link fence.
Never mind all that. Cutting back to the present, despite all the legal efforts to save it, the house was now being rescued by a Silicon Valley billionaire with more money than sense. His plan was to relocate the house to a sprawling lot in San Mateo, some 333 miles north.
The only way to do this, of course, was to lift the house off its foundation and fly it. The billionaire had gotten the idea from a Pixar movie and had rented the SkyLifter Air Crane to do the job.
It took several months for the transport crew to slide the necessary supports beneath the house, testing them daily, ultimately creating a rugged framework, a travel-cage that would keep the mansion upright for its long journey to its new location.
When all was ready, the SkyLifter Air Crane was moved into position above the Bubble House, blotting out the sunlight for several city blocks. The SkyLifter was a huge disk-shaped object, nearly half a kilometer in diameter. Of course, the news media were present with vans everywhere, cameras pointing eagerly, and satellite dishes aimed at the sky – reception was difficult with the airship in the way, so several of the reporters had to connect via Skype.
Crowds filled the surrounding streets, and even the street directly beneath as well. Almost everyone was snapping pictures with their phones. The more industrious engaged in spectacular contortions to take selfies with the SkyLifter in the background. Instagram’s local server crashed from the sudden onslaught of photos.
Although local residents had been repeatedly informed of the event, there were several who had never opened their mail or turned on their TVs and who still had no idea what the internet was – at least a dozen of them called 911 to report an alien invasion. A monstrous super-craft was hovering over the city, what else could they assume? Two of them had heart attacks while waiting for an operator, one fatal.
As soon as the SkyLifter was holding steady against the slight morning breeze, the airship dropped an assembly of cables and wires, hooks and fasteners, and various electronic monitors. The transport crew rushed to connect these to the appropriate receptacles on the travel cage.
After several hours of testing, monitoring, securing, testing again, after every light on every console flashed green, after every screen on every tablet and smartphone showed satisfactory readings, after every go/no-go point was passed, the chief of the ground crew said to his headset, “It’s a go.”
The pilot of the SkyLifter, a big easy-going fellow named Travis Maltz, leaned out of his open window – he wasn’t that high up, less than 20 meters – and waved at the crowds below. When the applause and cheering finally died down, he withdrew back into his cabin and worked his controls, releasing more helium from the internal tanks of the airship.
Slowly, majestically, the Bubble House lifted off its foundation. This was the tricky part, getting it up into the air without it banging into any of the surrounding buildings. This would have been impossible without sophisticated computer software to compensate for the afternoon breeze. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch and as the SkyLifter rose, the ancient mansion also lifted above the rooftops.
And yes, 911 did receive another call about space aliens – this one was a breathless report that the alien invaders were now stealing houses.29
To avoid the downtown area, the SkyLifter was going to head south first, passing over Exposition Park and the California Science Center before heading west to Santa Monica, and then north toward Santa Barbara. Despite the possibility of strong ocean winds, the northward route had been planned to avoid heavily populated areas.
That Pesky Dan Goodman had been aware of the SkyLifter effort for several months. It was one of the reasons he had planned his excursion to the Science Center on this day – so he could see the Air Crane ferrying the house across the sky.
At this point in the narrative, it’s appropriate to acknowledge that Pesky is not always aware of the effect he has on probability. Because what happened next was not his fault.
As the SkyLifter passed over Exposition Park, it passed through the growing swarm of Beale Mosquitoes, unnoticeable in the hazy afternoon – unnoticeable until they attacked. Sensing a corned beef sandwich in Travis Maltz’ lunchbox, they flooded in through the open window of the flight deck – the same window that Maltz had opened so he could wave to the crowd below.
At first, Maltz didn’t notice the Beale Mosquitoes. He was concentrating on balancing the load against the vagaries of the wind patterns in the Los Angeles basin. As mild as the winds were today, Maltz still needed to keep the house absolutely vertical while driving steadily and meticulously west. So far, everything was copacetic. Everything was going according to plan. Everything was proceeding just like the hours spent in the simulator –
Until the Beale mosquitoes started biting.
Maltz was allergic to insect bites.
He had a seizure.
In his flailing around, he accidentally hit the wrong levers on his control board.
Fortunately, only one person died in the accident.
Remember Milo? As it happened, he was also in Exposition Park that day. He had just come out of the Imax 3D theater, where he’d enjoyed a spectacular documentary on The Magnificent Wildlife of The Los Angeles River.
Milo was crossing through the park, heading toward the Expo Line station. His headphones were tight in his ears and he was listening to the “Immolation” movement of Gotterdammerung from a remastered 1969 recording of Wagner’s Greatest Hits As Performed On The Moog Synthesizer, so he did not hear the groaning of the cables above, nor the snapping and crackling of the travel cage of the Bubble House.
Milo had also forgotten to remove his polarized glasses, so he was unaware of the half-kilometer shadow he was walking through. His attention was focused on his iPhone, checking his email to see if the editor of Dry Fart Magazine had responded to his submitted article on the communist subtext of the latest Pixar blockbuster.
So he was caught completely unaware when the ballast tanks of the Skylifter emptied themselves, knocking him flat on his back with the impact of several thousand gallons of very cold water. From that position, he was able to see how the travel cage holding the Bubble House finally broke free from its moorings to come plummeting straight down on top of him. He barely had time to say, “Oh, shit,” before he was instantly smashed into the sidewalk, splattering like a big bag of rancid strawberry jelly, leaving only his black and white striped socks and red Nikes sticking out of the mess.
That Pesky Dan Goodman heard the impact, but as he was on the far side of the Science Center, he did not see the explosion of dust and debris, nor was he close enough to be struck by the small pattering of wooden fragments that were hurled into the air by the impact.
That Pesky Dan Goodman was preoccupied, frowning at his feet, realizing that the soles on his shoes were worn to an uncomfortable smoothness, and that it was time for him to go shopping for a new pair. Perhaps something glittery. But definitely not Crocs.
And that was that.
1 Red Nikes. Knee-high black and white striped tube socks. Possibly stolen from Chuckles the Clown. Return to Story
2 It was possible that Milo had removed the tags himself. He had an extreme case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition so severe that he himself referred to it as Compulsive Disorder Obsessive – the words had to be spoken in alphabetical order. Return to Story
3 Actually, that’s redundant. Any time you talk about the universe, “at large” is a given. If anything, it’s insufficient. Even the word “insufficient” is insufficient to evoke the scale of things we’re trying to discuss. Return to Story
4 At his sparsely-attended funeral, someone asked her why she’d married him in the first place. She said, “I needed the damn green card.”
Milo apparently had a very small penis. On their wedding night, his ex-wife pointed, laughed, and asked, “Who the hell do you expect to satisfy with that thing?” Milo had responded hopefully, “Me…?” Return to Story
5 Milo had some very strange religious convictions, but so do most people. Talking snakes, burning bushes – why not a cosmic badger? Return to Story
6 Milo assumed that the world owed him a living – forgetting for the moment that it’s a lifetime job to collect. Return to Story
7 Or to put it another way, plowboys should not pull on shootists. Return to Story
8 I’m not even going to estimate all the galaxies that formed and died in the 13 billion years since the big bang and all the galaxies yet to form in the billions of years still to come before entropy has its way with this universe. Return to Story
9 If it were a Heisenberg event, even if you knew your ticket was safe in your pocket, you still wouldn’t know how fast it was traveling. Return to Story
10 That Pesky Dan Goodman was known to visit the local science fiction club from time to time, mostly for the free refreshments occasionally provided. One of the club’s more suspicious members managed to secure a sample of Pesky’s DNA and quickly took up a collection to have it tested. The lab sent back a curt note, “Your rhinoceros is diabetic. And she’s pregnant.” After that, no further attempts were made to determine the ancestry of That Pesky Dan Goodman. Return to Story
11 Notice, we have now gotten nearly 2000 words into this exercise and nothing at all has happened. Even Jane Austen was able to set the stage for her narratives faster than this. Return to Story
12 Ironically, the Orange Line buses are painted gray. Return to Story
13 Or would be if you weren’t viewing these crawly little insect marks on some kind of electronic screen, in which case you are staring into a large flat light bulb on which crawly little insect marks have been simulated by conglomerations of blacked-out pixels. Return to Story
14 Yes, Los Angeles has a subway. This is one of the six impossible things you are sked to believe before breakfast. Return to Story
15 A self-referential, plotless narrative that wanders from place to place, without apparent purpose – like this one. Return to Story
16 How Pesky had obtained this volume might have had something to do with his unauthorized access to an experimental trans-dimensional parallelithonic resonating transceiver, containing a 64-core multi-fractal array of entangled particles. Call it a quantum empathizer for short. I can’t say more than that without violating a very rigorous Non-Disclosure Agreement. If after publication of this story, I die under mysterious circumstances, that will be evidence that I’ve already said too much. Return to Story
17 Living in Los Angeles, everyone picks up a few Spanish phrases, like, “Hola,” “por favor,” “gracias,” “quesadilla,” and “pendejo.” Return to Story
18 Made you look. Return to Story
19 We shall speak no more of The Asshole. Return to Story
20 This is a true story. I’m not making it up. The dog had better table manners than most humans – except for his way of saying thank you. That was an enthusiastic jump into your lap accompanied by an odiferous belch in your face. But it was good manners for a dog. Return to Story
21 That The Asshole had walked away from the Orange Line bus still capable of drawing breath has to be regarded as evidence of Pesky’s general good nature, as well as his commitment to not working any day he didn’t have to. Besides, he preferred to be paid for his wetwork – and there was still the slight chance that somebody, somewhere might actually have cared about The Asshole. Pesky had an unbreakable rule that clients should be carefully vetted to eliminate any possibility of a redeeming quality that would justify exemption. In this case, however, The Asshole had not become a candidate for peskivation only because Pesky had other matters on his mind.
Pesky’s vetting of potential clients was conducted through the lens of an obscure branch of communication forensics called contextualism – the study of linguistic constructions as an access to the mental patterns that produced the most appalling constructions, the best examples of which can be found in any un-moderated comment thread, especially political ones.
Pesky’s unique area of study was the ideological ranch dressing and political croutons found on the word salad of various public speakers. It gave him no shortage of likely candidates. Return to Story
22 Especially for nudists and men wearing assless chaps in West Hollywood. Return to Story
23 Not all insects have larval stages. This is a real fact, not a fact made up for this story. Return to Story
24 This is a real thing too. Look it up. Return to Story
25 This one is also true. Return to Story
26 Yep. Return to Story
27 A real company. A real airship. Return to Story
28 The assumption here is that Los Angeles once had a culture to lose. The larger assumption was that if that culture could be identified, it was worth preserving. This is a question best left to those who have too much time on their hands. Return to Story
29 The editor thinks there should be an acerbic footnote here about 911 calls. I’ve got nothing. But here’s a footnote anyway. Return to Story
Copyright © 2016 by David Gerrold. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork Copyright © 2016 by . All Rights Reserved.
Always happy to see a new story by David Gerrold.
Rather daring opening. Gerrold seems an all-out writer.
Nothing to do with contributors to right wing websites 🙂