The Dead-Goldfish Deterministic Blues

I should have suspected the worst when I found the trunk of my car filled with tiny frogs.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d looked in the trunk. It seemed, however, that the frogs had been there quite some time. They were about the size of the toenail on a big toe, emerald green with bright red eyes. They were squirming about happily in several inches of yellowish muck that filled the space where the spare wheel goes. I didn’t have a spare at the time.

The yellowish muck was a mystery in itself. Had the frogs brought it with them? Was it some sort of waste product? An excretion or effluvia? Alternately, had the muck been there to start with and drawn the frogs to it as a suitable habitat/breeding ground?

It was high summer, naturally. Winters in Chicago will kill anything as delicate as an amphibian. In retrospect I guess I should have been more freaked out about it, but then, my car does have more than 150,000 miles on the odometer, and I’ve always beat the hell out of it. I just put my gym bag on the passenger side seat and got on with my morning.

Later, I used a sharpie and an old map of Colorado to make a large “FREE FROGS” sign. I drove to one of the quieter streets near the local Junior High, popped my trunk, hung out the sign and, after answering a few questions (“I have no idea”; “ They just showed up”; “ As many as you like”; “ They like to live in that yellow stuff… You should be sure to grab some of the yellow stuff”), a steady stream of kids cleaned out my trunk.

I sat in the front seat listening to my old Blue Oyster Cult tapes. Tape cassette is the only medium on which I have any BOC, and the only tape player I still own is the one in my car. It was a nice way to kill a couple hours. A six-pack of High Life would have made it better, but drinking in even a parked car is never a good idea.

I got back to my place, hosed the trunk out, and was back to my baseline life and none the worse. That night at the bar I tried to puzzle things out with my friend Dave. Was it a practical joke, maybe? Or are frog infestations just one of those things that happen?

Dave asked if I had any friends capable of breaking into a car’s trunk. I knew a couple that might have managed it with a crowbar, but my car wasn’t visibly damaged. Dave asked if my car had been submerged at any point in the last few days. I said it was possible, but unlikely.

Dave stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“Say,” he asked, “didn’t you have that bad nosebleed last week?”

“Yeah,” I said . “It just started up out of nowhere and took forever to stop. Ruined my Green Lantern T-shirt.”

“Huh,” Dave said. “Hey, humor me. Give me a call and tell me if you find yourself itchy over the next couple of days.”

Itchy? I was going to ask him what he was talking about when he launched into this story about how he got trapped in a computer-controlled car with no steering wheel doing over 170 mph out on the Utah salt flats with only the prerecorded voice of Ricardo Montalban to keep him company. It’s very difficult to interrupt a story that combines those elements.

Several days later, I woke up to an extremely itchy scalp.  Looking in the mirror, I could see that the roots of my hair were crawling with tiny white bugs. I freaked, then called in sick to work, then called Dave and told him his suspicions were confirmed and he should come over with his clippers as soon as he could make it. (Dave works as a bouncer at the Fun Set Strip Club and is free most mornings and afternoons.)

“So how did you know this was going to happen?” I said as he got to work clipping me bald.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I detected a pattern. First comes blood, then frogs. Next comes lice, then flies, and then the death of all your cattle.”

“But I don’t have any cattle,” I said. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You have plague,” he said. “Well, plagues, to be exact. You know, like in the Bible.”

I did not know, never having read the Bible and not having been exposed to it since Sunday school more than 25 years previous. After Dave was done with the clippers and I got some rubbing alcohol on my head, we went and rented The Ten Commandments -- the 1956 version with Charlton Heston. We smoked up, put it on, and spent the next four hours watching it (including a burrito break at lunchtime).

At some point during our viewing, Dave turned to me and said, “You look just like Yul Brynner.”

“Everyone looks like Yul Brynner if they shave their heads,” I said.

“Not so,” Dave said. “Some people look like Telly Savalis.”

When the movie was done, we turned on SportsCenter and cogitated for a while.

“Wasn’t Edward G. Robinson great in that?” Dave said.

“Death,” I said. “It all ends in the death of my first-born son. I don’t have a first-born son. I have exactly zero sons. I mean, what is going on here?”

 “It’s God’s way of telling you to let his people go,” Dave said.

“I don’t have any Jewish slaves either,” I said.

“Well, maybe you’re disobeying God in some other way,” Dave said. “Figure out what that is and the plagues should stop. Probably. Maybe. Actually, I hate to tell you this, but typically these things have to run their course.”

“Typically?” I said. “You mean this biblical plague stuff is something that regularly happens to people?”

“No, not regularly,” Dave said, “but every once in a while, sure. There was that one guy in Encino, California, just a few years back. Made all the papers.”

I was going to ask Dave if he remembered how things worked out for the Encino guy, but something on SportsCenter had reminded him of the time he bumped into Tito Ortiz at an airport bar and, after several tequila shots, Tito had expounded at length on the scary implications of quantum entanglement.

In the coming weeks I did try to straighten up and fly right. I stopped all my blaspheming and limited my swearing strictly to obscenities. I cut way back on my Internet porn. I put a hold on stealing office supplies. But the more improvements I tried to make, the more it occurred to me that as a sinner, I was strictly small-time.

Then again, the plagues I was visited with were pretty small-time too. The flies showed up, but they were just fruit flies buzzing around some old bananas. The death of livestock turned out to be the death of my goldfish, Axel – and he was already pretty old for a goldfish. The boils were a nasty patch of acne that took forever to clear up (and, along with my newly shaved head, had me feeling as self-conscious as a teenager for a while). The Hail? Hail. It dinged up my car and a few others in the neighborhood. But like I said, I never much cared about the state of my car. 

The locusts were a genuine menace. They appeared in my closet and chewed up the sleeves of my one good suit coat. They were like roaches with wings. Raid didn’t work, mothballs didn’t work. I ended up buying one of those bug bombs and spent the weekend on Dave’s couch.

I got back home to find my power switched off. What with everything going on, I honestly couldn’t say if I’d forgotten to pay the bill or if it was the plague of darkness that was supposed to be next in the queue. So I sat in the dark and brooded over the death of my first born – who wasn’t even born. What was I going to tell that special girl I had yet to meet when the conversation finally got around to kids? Sorry, baby, but we can hope for better things on our second try?

I thought about running down to the supermarket to get a leg of lamb and do the lamb’s blood over the lintel thing. But then I thought, if God’s out to get me, what’s the point? It’s like trying to have an argument with your mom when you’re five. You’re not going to outsmart her. Try to cut a deal and you find you just don’t have anything she wants. I went to bed.

The next morning I got up and went to work, same as most Mondays. For some reason, I was unable to log in to my computer. I restarted after the third or fourth try with no better luck. Finally I put in a call to the IT guy, who remoted in to my machine.

“Yeah,” he said over the phone as the many windows opened and closed on my screen, seemingly of their own accord, “we were expecting a few people to have some trouble this morning.”

“What’s going on?” I said.

“We upgraded everyone’s permissions,” he said. “You’re on an older system and somehow got grandfathered in on a protocol no one uses anymore.”

“What’s that mean for me in English?” I said. “Is this going to change how I work?”

“It shouldn’t,” he said. “I mean, you won’t be able to visit any Web sites that aren’t on the company’s approved list. And same for receiving and sending e-mails, but other than that, business as usual.”

I had a panicked, helpless moment where I felt like grabbing the mouse and trying to somehow undo everything the IT guy had done. The only thing that made my job tolerable was that I was able to surf the Web unimpeded and at my leisure. “Say,” I asked, “ what do you call people able to do what I’ve been doing up until now? I mean, is there a term for someone who’s all-access like that?”

“Well,” he said, “just around the office, we’ve been calling people like that First Borns. Cause it’s like this privileged level, see.”

I saw. And I saw clearer and clearer as the day went on. No ESPN. No CNN. None of my precious political blogs. None of my not-so-precious celebrity blogs. No Tumblr. No Lolcats. No Facebook. No Twitter. Just page after page of the company Intranet, without even so much as a lousy flash game to keep me sane. It was the single longest Monday of my life.

I packed up and left at the end of the day convinced I had only two options: I could start smuggling in comic books somehow disguised as sales reports, or I could quit.

On the way to the bus, I walked by the panhandler I pass on the corner nearly every weekday. Something drew me up short. There was something about him… Not something different  – he looked the same as he always did. But something about him reminded me of something else. And then it hit me: the beard. He had exactly the same beard as Charlton Heston as Moses. Full, mostly brown, but streaked with white and gray.

I approached carefully. “Excuse me,” I said, “but can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask,” he said. “Free country.”

“This may sound a little strange,” I said, “ but you aren’t, by any chance, a prophet of the Lord Most High, are you?”

“Why yes,” he said. “Yes I am. Nice of you to notice.”

I guess I started sputtering. “Where… I mean, how? Uh, that is, what exactly do you want?”

He held out his hand, palm up.

“You want spare change?” I said.

“No,” he said, “I’ll take folding money too.”

I dug around in my pocket. “I always thought prophets were trying to, I don’t know, lead people to something higher,” I said. “Show them the error of their ways.”

“Yep,” he said, not missing a beat. “That’s me.”

I gave him five bucks and he nodded “Thanks.”

“So why sic your plagues on me and everything?” I asked.

“Sic plagues on you?” he said, “Man, except I sometimes see you walk past to the bus stop, I don’t even know you. Besides, plagues aren’t a curse a person puts on you. Plagues are, like, the wrath of God coming down on you.”

“But you’re a prophet,” I said . “ You’re supposed to be warning people about the wrath of God. ‘The End is Nigh’ and all that stuff.”

“Hey, man,” he said, “I’m here most every day.”

And I had to admit that was true.

“If it makes you feel any better,” he said, “maybe God hardened your heart against me. It happens.”

Much later, I sat drinking in the Fun Set Strip Club (Dave can get me in without paying the cover every once in a while). Because the Fun Set has a full bar, the girls have to keep their bottoms on and cover their nipples with latex paint. This is because some city councilman decades ago decided that fully naked women and booze were a volatile mix.

It’s pretty ridiculous and takes a lot of the fun out of going to a strip club, but when they turn on the black light, it makes the latex glow in these bright fluorescent colors and, for a little while, until your eyes adjust, it’s like being surrounded by these free-floating, brightly glowing nipples. I find it oddly soothing, especially when the DJ is playing old Sisters of Mercy tracks.

Dave came over to see how I was doing. “God is an asshole,” I said.

“No way,” Dave said. “Look around you. Anyone who can make something as great as naked women can’t be all bad.”

“Bastard killed my fish,” I said.  “And He seems to be going out of His way to make me miserable.”

“Eh,” Dave said, “he’s probably just fucking with you. If I was God and I knew how everything – I mean everything, every book, every movie, every video game – turned out, I’d probably get bored and start fucking with people too.”

I was going to say something about free will, about the nature of good and evil in a deterministic universe… but then Dave was telling me this story about the time he snuck an orangutan into Vatican City, and I didn’t want to interrupt.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.