Conversations with Mr. Earth

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The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

-George Bernard Shaw

Jesus Christ walks into a hotel. He hands the innkeeper three nails. He asks, “Can you put me up for the night?”


I remember the day of the morning I found out that my father had died. He wasn’t particularly old, my father, but he wasn’t tragically young, either, so news that he had ceased to be was not as shocking as it was strange. My co-creator had died? His partner in my creation, my long-divorced mother, said only, “Another victory for Big Tobacco”, with typical sarcasm, when she called me with the news.

I grabbed a light jacket (it was Fall in Berlin) and left my little apartment on Bismarckstrasse. I had the idea I should find a park bench, preferably in the vicinity of a fountain, and sit alone with my thoughts. It was one of those undecided days: hot brilliant sunshine interrupted with maddening frequency by woolly clouds that cast the city under a refrigerating shadow.

School was just getting out as I crossed the timeworn plaza at Ernst Reuter platz. German school kids in their neat little rucksacks, not nearly as world-weary as their American counterparts, jumbled in a throng down the bunkerstairs of the U-Bahn entrance, scampering to the Underworld. Or they fooled around at the bus stops, snatching and punching, and they deafened the street with mock outrage and laughter. I was almost offended by the blotchy passion in their fat little faces; the electrocuting vitality of their squeals. There was someone in me, crushed under the stiff padding of twenty years, that pretended to be above wishing he was out there with them, screaming and dashing about and snubbing The Old with joy.

Dotting the pale foam of all that Germanity was the occasional dark blip, a rambunctious child of Turks, or Nigerians, or Chinese, horsing around with the rest of them. Did those kids know, yet, how different they were? At what age does Experience start separating us from the pack? At what age will these kids become individuals, which means alone, and discover in their “individuality” the seed of every kind of sadness? At what age will that little Nigerian, showing his big white teeth, playing tag with that bone-white girl with the fly-away hair, learn the mortifying truth? He’ll be a few years ahead of the Germans in his discovery. Eternity will tap him on the shoulder first, even if it doesn’t come with the gurney for another seventy years.

Wow, I thought. Mr. Cheerful . Mr. Sunshine.

There’s a fountain in the center of the roundabout at Ernst Reuter platz, but it’s so noisy with traffic. The only other fountain I could think of, a beautiful little baroque thing behind Victoria Luise platz, had recently been shut down because an old woman living up the street from it had complained about the splashing. I needed to find water. I felt compelled, mysteriously, to find water.

Crossing Ernst Reuter Platz and walking one third of a mile down the broad historic boulevard of the 17th of June, I came to the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten is Berlin’s Central Park. It isn’t ringed by highrises and skyscrapers, but it’s large enough, and central enough, to earn the comparison. A creek as wide as a sidewalk mutters through it, and, in lieu of the philosophical susurrus of a fountain, it seemed to me that a muttering creek came closest in my search for a spot suitable for sitting a few hours and dwelling on existence. Or the lack thereof.

There’s only one bench, as far as I know, that faces the Tiergarten creek. There aren’t many benches in Berlin in general. Some cities are bench cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, London, Philadelphia, Prague) and some aren’t (Berlin, Las Vegas, Warsaw, Stockholm, Saint Paul), and I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with a city’s problem with, or attitude towards, the homeless? Or the lazy. In any case, there was only one bench facing the Tiergarten creek and my father had died that morning and I was going to sit on that bench and contemplate Eternity, despite the unfortunate fact that a man was already sitting there.

He didn’t even look up, or scoot politely to a corner of the bench, when I sat down. This forced me to perch uncomfortably on the edge of it. I was to his left, balancing on one half of the seat of my pants, and he just sat there as he had been, in an expensive gray suit with a slight sheen to it, his right leg hooked over his left knee, smoking a clove cigarette. Some sophomoric student of photography could have crept up and snapped our picture and titled it Certainty and Doubt and won Second Place in a school contest. Our contrasting postures said so much about us, even before a word was exchanged: I there in my inconsolable slouch, arms folded defensively over my chest, he in his Philosopher’s repose, chin up, holding his cigarette like a quill pen poised between extraordinary sentences.

My father is dead, I thought. He’s lying on a slab somewhere, mouth ajar, eyes half-lidded, his shriveled cock exposed. The luminescent minus-signs of a twin-reflected overhead fluorescent light are shimmering in his dead pupils. My father; the guy for whom I represented little more than a long-forgotten orgasm. That guy who’d settle in that walrusy brown leather chair in the living room and sniff the newspaper. Too cheap or vain to buy reading glasses.

I would sit there and stack alpha-blocks and steal peeks at him. Why did he love sniffing the newspaper more than he loved talking to me? He’d sniff one side of a page, then cross over to the other and sniff that, top to bottom and finally turn it. After he was done, he’d sigh and yawn and push his way out of the chair. I’d wait until he was upstairs (they had a black and white television up there) and wedge myself into the soft little star of warmth he’d leave behind in the seat. I’d carefully retrieve the paper and commence sniffing it, desperately trying to learn to distinguish the smell of one page from the other.

I glanced over at the stranger hogging the bench. He was too oblivious to my presence to be considered rude, really. I considered, once or twice, bringing our seating arrangement to his attention, but then I realized that I’d already been there too long. It would seem odd to broach the subject now.

He was handsome but balding; strong jawed, big nosed. He had the effeminate lips of a man in the habit of eating very small portions of very rich foods. He was olive-skinned; swarthy, even. I tried to guess his nationality. Mediterranean skin, Germanic nose. And the hair, what remained of it, was tightly curled, sandy-colored but almost African in texture. What did that add up to?

Without turning to face me, he suddenly said, in a soothing voice (an actorish British accent), “My name is Samuel Earth. I’m a super-intelligent being of extraterrestrial origin. Any questions you’d like to ask me about human life, practical physics, or The Future, I’d be glad to answer for you, as long as I’m sitting here anyway.”

Then he turned slightly, giving me a three-quarter profile and smiled. I think I smiled back. It was clear to me that all of what he claimed was truthful, just as when a millionaire says “I have lots and lots of money,” the authority and ease of his tone puts the statement beyond question. Tucked away in the dark folds of his voice was a rare vocal frequency of such total superiority that it worked on me like a narcotic, dulling the shock I should have been in, the incredulity I should have met his statement with. I was amazed at how calmly I took his preposterous announcement.

He took a drag on his cigarette, closing his eyes with the voluptuous pleasure of it, and vented two thick white scrolls of smoke from his flaring nostrils. His eyelids fluttered as the smoke poured out. He was the best commercial for the pleasure of smoking I’d ever seen in my life. I even found myself tempted to take up the habit, despite the fact that my father had died that very morning of a cigarette-related disease, his very last breath probably reeking of a cross between a cold ashtray and a hole in the ground.

I cleared my throat and squirmed to maintain my balance on the edge of the bench. “I just received news that my father has died. Where did his Soul go at the moment of death? Or is there even such a thing as a soul?”

“The energy that animated the matter of your father’s body dispersed when a certain configuration of nerve cells in the brain, a microscopic organ called a Meta-Ganglial Knot, became disorganized, which is when the moment of death occurs. The MGK is the antennae, so to speak, that focuses the soul into the vessel of the body. It looks like… do you know, sometimes, when you comb your hair, and clean the hair out of the comb afterward, and from time to time you pull out a hair-knot… this tight little knot of hair, with long hairs dangling from it? Of course, that doesn’t happen to me anymore,” and gestured with his cigarette towards the hard unblinking eye of the hairless top of his head. “Anyway, it looks like that, but it’s only a micron across in dimension.” He uncrossed his legs, adjusted his suit jacket, and stood up, flicking his still-lit cigarette in a smoke-traced arc across the creek.

“Filthy habit. Would you like to go for a little walk?”

There were people out in the Tiergarten, students, tourists, lovers hooked at the arm like old jugs with locked handles, all of them sweatered or jacketed, insured against twilight’s coming chill. Mr. Earth walked at a brisk clip and looked at everyone with genuine interest, nodding a warm, “Guten tag,” here and there as I huffed to keep up with him. The crowd was walking in one direction, and we in the opposite, which puzzled me until I remembered that a concert was scheduled to be performed at the Heimat Klange that afternoon, a festival of ethnic music in the open-air venue that the Tiergarten abuts.

“Are you having trouble keeping up?” He was smiling, facing me suddenly, walking backwards. “It’s just that I would very much like to be at a certain part of the park, which happens to be on the other side of it, and I’d like to be there at a certain time of day, when the light is very beautiful.” I thought, at that moment, he’s crossed hundreds or thousands of light years, he’s probably the cerebral equivalent of a dozen Einsteins, but it’s the fact that he can walk backwards that really amazes me.

Still doing just that, and not slowing, and losing no breath, he said, “I was born on this planet, actually, and there’s nothing supernatural about my great ability to walk backwards. I just practiced it obsessively until I could do it. It’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, nearly as well, if you tried to.”

“You’ve read my mind!”

“Yes, but not telepathically. It’s just statistically probable that those were your thoughts at that particular moment. There’s no such thing as ‘telepathy’. The brain, without it’s humdrum inputs of taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing, is sealed away in the skull, numb as a cauliflower. The brain is neither a receiver nor a transmitter of waves, a theory that became popular on this planet soon after the invention of radio. The brain is just a stiff chunk of protein; there is no telepathy. But statistical telepathy is a useful method of communication on many worlds. It just takes a bunch of people with substantial IQs and plenty of confidence in their guessing ability. There are planets where not a single syllable has been spoken, by adults, at least, in decades. With a lot less misunderstanding involved, I might add, than on this chattering planet.”

I thought a deliberate non-sequitur…goat rubber rolls uphill…to test him.

“Of course it won’t work…on that thought! You’re thinking gibberish to test me!” His smile was winningly giddy…almost adolescent. He had the boyish quality, verging on decadence, to again evoke the metaphor of great wealth, of certain carefree trust-fund heirs. “Statistical telepathy only works on planets where people want to communicate! What you just did proves exactly why the technique would never work on Earth.”

“Is there,” I said,

“No,” he said.

“… a God?”

He shrugged, still pumping his arms in the reverse-jog he was dancing, advancing backwards in long smooth strides.

“No, there is no God. The Universe is self-creating. Life… animate objects… account for less than one quadrillionth of a thousandth of one percent of all the chemical processes in this solar system alone. One out of every hundred million solar systems supports a Life-bearing planet; only two percent of those can boast any so-called intelligent life. Life is an accidental by-product of matter. The Universe is mostly concerned with Things, and not Creatures. Things evolve, too, you know, and they have turned out to be remarkably successful. Creatures are a fledgling form. You might be interested to know that a hybrid of the two is where Life in this Universe is heading. A billion years from now, this galaxy is going to be teaming with a form of Life greatly less animate than what we know as Life now. They will be slow, if not motionless and enjoy astronomically increased life spans. They’ll be durable and gigantic. They won’t be very “intelligent”, but “intelligence” is just a way of coping with the Evolutionary weaknesses of mortality and smallness, anyway. But I digress. How did the Universe create itself?, you want to ask.

“The Universe counter-acts the probability of never existing by creating itself over and over again, forever, with a frequency greater than the frequency of any other possible outcome, e.g.: The Universe only existing once, for a moment, or… The Universe only existing as a phenomenon of ‘The Past’.

“It’s a hard-working Universe! It wants to exist! It explodes from an infinitesimal point, the explosion expands quicker than time can be created to keep up with the expansion, it freezes and starts again. It’s in that frozen-moment when the Universe is on the verge of exploding again for the first time, which lasts for one thousand trillionth of a second, that WE exist. With every renewed explosion, the Universe progresses a little further than it did before, creating more space and creating more time, while simultaneously depleting Gravity. This progress, this stuttering expansion, is what we experience as Time. Reality is flickering. Since we are flickering with it, we can’t sense it as such.”

The trees, the grass, the red-bellied clouds lowering themselves like a blanket over the chilly sunset…

“All civilizations, at some point,” he continued, after letting what he’d said sink in, “reach exactly the point your world is reaching now. There is no God, that’s clear. Look, even Shi’ite Moslems, the most fanatically religious people on this Earth, are, by now, subconsciously beginning to understand the Truth. If there really were a God, you know, could there really be such a thing as television? Of course not.”

“Your Science is finally to the point where it’s able to reveal that to you. That was the legendary Forbidden Fruit on the Tree of Knowledge, by the way… biting the apple, one risked becoming enlightened… enlightened to the fact that God doesn’t exist. You’ve been misinterpreting that Garden of Eden story for centuries, you see. The risk of eating that apple was not that Man would disappear from God, but just the opposite. And now we see the results of Knowledge: perdition, as Milton would put it. Those Antediluvian Jews were quite clever.”

“By the way,” he continued, “if you’ve recently been wondering why Culture seems to be ebbing at such a low point of late…”

( I smiled ruefully)

He counted his elegant fingers, “I mean… poorly written novels, based on the trashiest subject matter, on the ‘Times Best Seller List! Jars of animal fat and human feces auctioned off as Art to millionaires for stratospheric prices at Sotheby’s! Inelegant, stripper-like fashion models! Insultingly dim-witted movies awarded multiple statuettes on Oscar Night!”

“And this so-called ‘music’, for tin-eared vulgarians, racing up the Pop charts…” he ran out of fingers and made a gesture of finger-fluttering mystification.

“It’s all related. To the Nonexistence of God, I mean. This is typical for a Culture…and, make no mistake about it, you belong to a World Culture… it’s typical for a World Culture on the brink of becoming technologically mature, when faced with the Truth of the Nonexistence of God… to attempt to will itself back, by embracing Cultural Primitivism… that is, kitsch… by embracing kitsch… to will itself back to the point before which God ceased to exist. Listen carefully to one of those guillotine-worthy pop songs… the insipid crooning! It’s the sound, quite touching, if you understand it… the sound of humanity’s longing for humanity’s unrecoverable naiveté… the secret sound of the longing for God… expressed as the veneration of Kitsch. Kitsch is that world-view wherein God exists at all and humans are the subjects in His kingdom, called Heaven. “

Walking backwards as fast as ever, he nimbly side-stepped a fallen branch I was half-hoping he’d trip on. He winked at me as he side-stepped it and I was momentarily ashamed of myself.

He said, “So, God doesn’t exist. Now what? Continue as a civilization, or commit mass suicide? What to do? What to do? One century from now, the major cities of the nations of your Earth will either be a collection of cindered Necropolises, of wild dogs and cannibals (I’ve visited such a planet, by the way, in my youth…the sex was unbelievable)…or the opposite Fate Path will be followed, and these same cities will become population centers of a shiny new Phase Two Society. That’s what makes Tourism on the Earth so interesting these days. Which way will it go?” He held his hands, palm-up, in a gesture of perfect uncertainty, and then moved them, oppositely, up and down like silver trays on an equivocating scale.

People stared in irritation, or amusement, as we hurried past them, towards the other side of the park, Mr. Earth walking backwards with no effort, never even bothering to turn around now and then to check that his path was clear (it took a while for me to notice that he was using my pupils like rearview mirrors) and me huffing and gasping to keep up with him without breaking into an undignified trot. There was, in fact, a longish interval during which there was no speech between us, me being hampered by breathlessness, and I began to panic in the absence of his hypnotic voice. It was as though the nitrous oxide was wearing off and I was becoming ever more conscious of sitting in a Dentist’s chair. I was race-walking with a backwards-walking man who claimed to be a super-intelligent Space Alien in possession of the Secrets of the Universe: and he was losing his hair. Alarm bells were beginning to ring, faintly at first.

I was relieved when he spoke again. We slowed down, backing into a secluded cul-de-sac of tiny-leafed bushes that formed a half-wall around a statue of some stern-faced German in brass breeches, and ruffled brass sleeves, and a dollop of pigeon shit on his head like a hair-restoring treatment. When Mr. Earth finally spoke, it pushed the confusion and troubled awe back out of me. It was like being taken up in a hand that was too massive for me to resist, but too languid for me to worry about being crushed by it.

“Do you see the way the sunlight streams down through the trees, shimmering on the forsythia and gentian like a soft mist, at this time of day?” His nostrils flared. “The sunlight has a rich, mellow smell to it, wouldn’t you say? I mean, metaphorically, or synesthetically, speaking.” He was suddenly looking at me with a directness that made me deflect my gaze. He rolled up his jacket sleeves and then fussed with his belt buckle, a droll smile curling the corners of his lips.

He said, “I have a date with a knockout tonight, and I feel that I’ll be at somewhat of a disadvantage if I go into it wanting something from her, if you catch my drift. How do you put it? Horny. I don’t want to meet this woman in a state of horniness, or it will give my game away. I’m sure you have some experience with desirable females, being a not-bad-looking fellow yourself. The body on this girl! You see, it’ll increase my bargaining power if I can be sexually blasé about her looks, at least tonight.” He gestured for me to step closer, and then closer still, as though he was about to share a chummy secret.

“Pursuant to that, we have little more than five minutes before tourists are likely to happen upon this spot. I want you to please get on your knees and suck on my penis until I orgasm in your mouth, if you don’t mind,” and his pants dropped down around his ankles, with a tambourine-slap of loose change and car keys. Without stopping to weigh my options, and with no prior experience, or preparatory fantasies, and without a crumb of pleasure or desire, or will of my own, I complied. He placed a ministerly hand on my shoulder and pressed me down. I was unable to refuse. I couldn’t help noticing how old and worn his blue silk briefs were, with their old-fashioned fleur-de-lis pattern. I found the pattern a peculiar comfort.

“You know,” he chuckled, lighting a clove cigarette while I knelt against him like a toddler at a water fountain, his thigh cold and hairless on my cheek, my hands clasped foolishly behind my back, “Your planet is famous for this.”

-October 1995

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