Love Bugs

What is love? Is it real, a bond between two people, strung together with memories of hand-holding in a movie theatre, candle-lit dinners and short, furious bouts of intercourse? Is it just a particular pattern of synapses firing off in the right order thanks to just the right mix of biochemistry? Who really knows – and outside of my colleagues in this particular lime-green laboratory in Washington, D.C., who would ask this question without profound embarrassment?

Chemistry seemed to be the key for me. It even connected idiomatically, in the current of everyday language. “They’ve got good chemistry. There’s just no chemistry here. Did you see the fireworks between those two? (Fireworks generating a simple yet powerful chemical reaction). That fit. We just have to find the right molecules, put them together and bam, you’ve got Love Potion number 9 and it’s going to outsell every celebrity-endorsed perfume or cologne on the market today. Forget about lightning in a bottle. If you can bottle love, that’s a trillion-dollar industry right there.

We were right in the middle of it, working for a mere billion-dollar company on a fragrance that would actually work. Put these pheromones within ten feet of your sniffer and you wouldn’t just turn that shy intern head over heels for you so you could end up head-over-heels or whatever position the kids are working on these days; you would feel that authentic, spontaneous, overwhelming attraction at the same time. It wasn’t an olfactory pharmaceutical to compete with Rohypnol for scummy drink spikers – this was going to turn people on for and towards each other, to turn a momentary encounter into a potential mate-for-life-and-until-death-do-you-part moment. Want to find love? Spray yourself, walk around and inspire that higher plane of consciousness that today’s hook-up culture seemed to be extirpating through the commoditization of encounters between the sheets.

We couldn’t get it to work, of course. Five years on and our big expensive scent was about as useful as every other product out there – which is to say, it wasn’t. There was just nothing to it, yet.

So last week, as the guys in suits are asking when my team is going to show results, I’m sweating it. It’s a bad fucking day. They’ve got me dead to rights. Five years, a boatload of money and nothing to show. The chemistry wasn’t coming together. All I can do is ask for more money. More time.

And of course, they went for it. Don’t know what it is, maybe the lab coat. Venture capitalists and CEOs just go into Beta-male mode as soon as a guy with facial hair starts talking esters and compounds.

That night, I argue with the missus. What a fucking gong show. Of course, it didn’t need to go that way. I get home to Lindsay and she’s sparkling as always in her bright Manolo shoes and that yellow summer dress that showed off her figure. Damn, what a score. Organic chemistry nerd with a hipster beard ends up with the prize belle of the ball. Amazing rack, smart as a whip and she moves real estate like nobody’s business. We’re past the Netflix and chill phase and headed straight to more domestic territory. Moved in to my place six months ago, now looking to seal the deal down at the Carnegie Chapel on Hill Street with our nearest, dearest family members we never talk to except on the holidays. At least, until I get all uppity with my big dumb idea.

It was all good. Or I thought it was. And I wrecked it. But I’m putting the proof before the hypothesis.

It’s all Fred’s fault.

The jerk dresses like a stockbroker – OK, it’s not pinstripes on Wall Street, but he outclasses me any day of the week. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a tie. He goes to the lab in one every day. No beard, either. Vegetarian, prude weirdo who’s had the same cowlick haircut since grade school. We’ve been friends since then. Kept in touch all these years and now he works literally in the other side of the building, for some lab that outsources projects from the Center for Disease Control – stuff that’s weird, but not dangerous enough to have to keep behind two-foot thick blast doors.

So he tells me what he’s been working on for the millionth time as I’m downing a pint and well past caring, because I know it already, but today’s he’s got something new. “It worked. It’s fucking creepy, but it actually worked,” he says. “I kind of wish there wasn’t a correlation because I don’t know how I feel about it.”

I shrug. What is he on about? I thought his project was never going to end.

“It’s done,” he went on. “Proven, six different ways. Toxoplasma gondii does exactly what Niles said it would do. Those little invisible bastards are controlling it all.”

T. gondii. The microbes that live in cat shit – and were allegedly the cause of every crazy cat lady who ever lived. Those tiny beasties were behind a 5,000 percent rise in schizophrenia in the USA, since the 1950s, when beat generation pre-hippies started pretending like they lived in Paris and all got housecats. Mental illness, car accidents, industrial accidents – they were all getting traced back to the same itty-bitty worms that had invaded half the brains in the country. And now, Fred’s work said that was just the tip of the iceberg. Just like how T. gondii made rodents fearless (and thus helpless) against the cats that ate them, it was messing with people’s heads in very strange, eerily consistent ways.

The bugs trigger an anxiety reflex. You’d think it would affect everyone the same way, but quite the opposite – with keen differences along gender lines. Guys that are infected get stand-offish, skeptical, and generally unfazed by anything approaching an established rule. “Fuck that red light” or “I’ll be fine with one more for the road, was the last infected thought of many a stray dude contaminated by the parasitic offspring of stray cats.

Women go the opposite way: they don’t try to stand out. Some become open-minded to the point of their brains just about falling out. They’ll attain a highly-suggestive frame of mind that makes them suckers for everything from advertising to really bad pickup lines in bars – especially if the reckless jackass with the bad line carries that same bug. Who the hell knows why. Microbes want company, too.

So Fred is telling me all this and seems real nervous, going on about the ramifications for humanity of these microscopic animals fucking up human behavior on a global scale – and to what purpose? It’s like he senses these disgusting zombie microbes spell doomsday.

But the invisible worms don’t control people. They just… do what they do. They’re operating on something even more primitive than survival instinct. Just behaviors determined by a half dozen gene sequences, without even a nervous system to provide a feedback loop that can do any real damage, if that was hooked up to some kind of functioning cerebellum.

I tell him he’s off and needs to slow down his pacing with the beer. This isn’t what ends us.

But it’s not good, either.

How do you know if what you feel is real?

I think maybe I’m in love with Lindsay, particularly with a growler of 6 percent in my belly. But maybe I’m riddled with tiny little invisible bugs. And she’s only with me because she’s the same way.

I try to put the thought out of my head with another pint and then another, but it won’t go away.

T. gondii are just the microbes we know about. What other beyond-tiny little terrors are colonizing our tissues and chowing down on our neuron fibres? How much of our thinking is affected? Five percent? Fifty?

So Lindsay knew something was off when I get home. “Just lay off,” I tell her – and of course, she does. Because she’s probably got the bugs in her brain. That would be just like them – stoke up the docility to eleven. As if to punctuate my thought, I hear her say (through a kind of watery haze in my head), “I can see you’re in a mood. I don’t want to fight.”

So she keeps her distance, but it’s really me staying away, sitting down just a bit further away on the couch, then moving off it entirely into the chair at the edge of the kitchen, keeping my space, withdrawing, because of course, T. gondii is telling me to do it.

The thought is stuck in my head and I know this is going to be the way it is from now on, all night. All year. All our lives. I only think my thoughts are my own. She only feels like her moods come from inside the squishy bits in her chest, but it’s really the things she can’t see, crawling around on the edge of her grey matter and sinking tiny quiver-like appendages into her heart and lungs.

This mood will pass and probably, this thought, too. I hope not, but I think T. gondii will make me forget by the morning (even if I tell myself that would be the natural effect of drinking just one too many down at the bar with Fred.

And the thought does pass. The mood, too. By morning, all is good. And Lindsay puts on her fancy new dress and brushes her hair one hundred times and she’s going to have an amazing day showing people the homes of their dreams. I’m off to the laboratory to work on the things I know in that little room, where we strive to create a bottle of love. Maybe it will work. Someday.

In the meantime, something is tickling the spider-web like strings that run down the center of my spinal column, buffered inside watery cerebrospinal fluid.

We are masters of our own destiny. And it is good to love someone.

Who could argue with that?

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Spoiled rotten

“So, anything you want to tell me?” Ralph the pasty, wormy-faced floor manager of the ValueSave discount co-op asked Lenny. Ralph was taking some joy in the proceedings, but kept the celebration down to a pencil-thin smile that curved into a frown on one side – the worst poker face in the history of poker faces. His rat-like, beady eyes could barely hide their excitement as they darted from the desk to the warehouse floor to Lenny’s black, puffy face that could have passed for an exhausted looking NFL linebacker he couldn’t even name, set atop slumped shoulders which indicated that all was lost.

It was a stupid, fake kind of question, Lenny knew. He hated the question. He hated Ralph for asking it. Ralph had him dead to rights, but Lenny was damned if he was going to say anything. If the bastard wanted to pass judgement and render the execution, he was going to have to damn well read out the charges. But then, Ralph’s barely-hidden pleasure in all of this made a play for time kind of pointless. For just a second, Lenny thought about just standing up, turning a 180 and walking right out through the warehouse door. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not yet – because Ralph had him and he knew it.

They were sitting across from each other in the cramped, musty side-office inside the warehouse, in a booth the architects must have designed for pre-schoolers, because their knees were practically knocking together. There was an old computer monitor that looked like a tiny television set. It was rigged up to the cheap CCTV system top management must have installed years ago for as cheaply as possible, given the dusty cables and masking tape holding the mess of clunky technology together. Continue reading

The Orphan

white BMW

(image: WillVision)

Freddie Redlake fled the north and came south to the city. He had to. It was that or be beaten to death, or be starved for days on end. It was all to teach him a lesson, his foster father said. And there were worse things too that happened that Freddie didn’t like to think about.

He was an orphan. His mother was found out in the snow a long time ago. Seventeen years ago. That’s how old Freddie was when he came to the city. She died. But Freddie didn’t. No one knew who his mother was, although he had the story of how she was found from the people at the hospital. No one knew who his father was, either. He was given the name of the town he was born in, Red Lake. Freddie wasn’t sure who chose his first name. He liked it well enough. But he wanted a real name, not just some made up name. Maybe that’s why Freddie was so angry so much. That and the foster homes, and what happened in them.

One night he ran away. He and a friend Bill hitchhiked down to the city.  They were going to get jobs there. They were going to maybe start a band or something, or get a DJ gig. There were lots of places to do that down south, they’d thought. But nothing really came of it. Bill took up with some girl and they moved to another neighborhood. Freddie partied as much as he could once he got a job in a convenience store that paid in cash. But, he didn’t have the job for long because once he got his money, he partied a little too much. His boss with the funny name, Mr. Klinkenbeard, caught him messing with the till one night. It was a moment of weakness. Mr. Klinkenbeard fired Freddie on the spot and that was that. Pretty soon, he lost his room at the Stanhope Hotel. Then he found The Squat. What choice did he have?

Dr. Ray told him not to go down to The Squat. Dr. Ray had been a professor at the University, Freddie’d heard. Freddie wasn’t sure which one. That was a long time ago when Dr. Ray was young. But Dr. Ray drank a lot, and pretty soon like Freddie he’d been fired, and his money ran out. So did his wife, and she took Dr. Ray’s kids with her and moved out of the province. Dr. Ray told Freddie about his wife and kids directly. He wasn’t sure where she’d gone. Maybe back east somewhere. Dr. Ray wasn’t too sure. His memory wasn’t too good. He has epilepsy too, and sometimes he hears voices. That’s OK. Freddie liked Dr. Ray. Continue reading

King of the Jungle

In old Africa, in the big jungle between the two mighty rivers, a crowd had gathered.

Chimpanzee huddled under a copse of trees whose limbs tangled together under the higher green canopy. Hippo watched the proceedings from the banks of the bog. Tiger prowled near a big stone that had been in that spot since the beginning of the world, even before the jungle grew around it.

Man crouched behind a log, half-hidden by a tree. Only Tiger noticed him at first. Licking his lips, he invited Man to come closer. “You will not be harmed this day,” Tiger promised. “Come closer. Father Crocodile has passed. His family mourns. We choose our new king of the jungle together.” Continue reading

Dive of Faith

Darius Hansen was allowed into the Daniel S. Gumpter Memorial Community Center in Uptown Oakview at any hour of the day, specifically the swimming pool, and even more specifically, the diving board. He even had his own key.

Darius was the town hopeful, a sure-fire Olympian. And he needed a place to practice his diving. More to the point, it was hoped that Darius’ success would mean the success of the whole town.

pool

image: Jacob Haddon

Once, Oakview  was a middle-class haven that also hosted a strong working class, too. It had once hosted an airplane seat manufacturing plant that employed most of the town; line workers, administrators, and middle managers, too. But, that was a few years ago. Since then,  the plant closed down and relocated to China. If you had a dark sense of humour, you could say the town was grounded.

The only thing left in Oakview was anaemic strip malls, unemployment lines, the crumbling Gateway Bridge over the Spencer River where a guy committed suicide a few years ago, and the desperate search for a way out alive. Continue reading

Hauntr

It started with the little things.

None of them realized how bad it would get. None of them understood the gravity of their offence. But that wasn’t because they weren’t smart.

On the contrary, every employee at the mobile app startup known as Jumpr was very smart. There were six members of the team in all, typically hunched in front of one or more computer monitors typing on wireless keypads. These were the technological elite, coding away in a Gastown brick building with hardwood floors, a meeting room with a donated leather couch and an unimpressive if functional kitchen island. Continue reading

Drowning In Metaphor

Assignment: “Against All Odds”

 Now, this is a theme to be found in a lot of heroic tales from Beowulf to The Expendables.  But, I wondered about how this theme plays out in the life of someone who only thinks he’s a hero, but who is actually a self-mythologizing egotist.  What would be the most unlikely thing someone like that might face and triumph (wait for it) against all odds?

 Well, I thought that it might be this: self-awareness, and the ability and willingness to change his ways. And being a self-mythologizing egotist, I figured his revelations would be steeped in metaphor. Of course, the fact that it takes place under a river with his lungs filling up with water might make things interesting where the odds are concerned, too … 

***

When Jane left, I took the car, drove it to the Gateway Bridge just outside of downtown Oakview, got out, and threw myself over the side into the Spencer River.

I went a little bit crazy, I guess. But, as I felt the wind rushing upward at me as I fell, a spark lit up from somewhere inside, up from the inky darkness of my mind, or my heart. I found that in spite of it all, I wanted to live.

So, I had something of a problem to solve. By the time I hit the icy churning waters, I was only just beginning to think about the fact that I didn’t even know where to start.

baby in the womb

Continue reading

Lucky Ticket

newsagent's arch

An exquisite stench of body odour burnt itself into the nostrils of the Lotto kiosk clerk before the poor man ever saw Stubby Pete lurching towards the counter. The clerk glanced up fearfully at the shambling bum, whose fashion was made complete with ancient overcoat stuffed with newspapers and a wool toque that had weathered countless nights on soggy streets.

A mask of dirt and grime half an inch thick in spots hung from Stubby Pete’s grizzled face. His mouth was mercifully closed for the moment, disguising graying teeth bathed in tobacco oils and baked beans and a tongue that lolled about inside like a lazy seal. Continue reading

Waiting

Hat

Lester McNab stepped out into the dirty sunshine through the blurry glass doors of the UpTown Mall. After his weekend shift, he smelled of fat from the fryer, which  he’d stooped over for the past seven hours at the local ChickenLicken outlet. Still, it was money, although not much. Once Steve got there in the car to pick him up, they’d swing past Daryl’s house and buy a baggie, then go back to Steve’s, get baked, and watch UFC. Then, Lester would watch Steve play X-Box for the rest of the night.

It was Saturday.

He’d got the job at ChickenLicken just after he dropped out of high school a year before. School just wasn’t for him. He just didn’t get the point of all those books, the math, the science. He couldn’t figure out how it applied to him, or to life in Oakview. That’s what really counted, right? What else was there?

Lester didn’t consider himself to be very smart. But, he was smart enough to know that he’d do just like his parents had done. They grew up here. He was growing up here. They’d got long-term jobs here, with benefits and everything. So would he, although since the plant shut down, that wasn’t a sure thing. But what was sure to Lester is that he would die here.

That is, unless something like a miracle happened.

Continue reading

Bad Deal

Berlin: Former Stasi PrisonEddie Irvine wasn’t the first serial killer that David Keller had ever met. Far from it; still, the forensic psychologist thought this one might just be the creepiest.

A lot of psychopaths had mastered the art of human interaction. Some were real charmers, with good grooming and a winning smile – at least superficially. It let them get close to their victims.

Sometimes, even untrained folks could detect the evil lying underneath, but it took time. They didn’t always have time to find it out before the killer struck. Continue reading