EXCERPT from Common Lives, a novel
This piece won 98th place in the 80th Writer’s Digest Annual Awards literature and mainstream fiction category – in competition with 11,800 others. 98th! I’m 98th! LOL.
“In the Beginning”
Lost in the formless void of space, an electron came spinning out of nowhere to collide foolishly, randomly and willy-nilly with some microscopic other thing and a large explosion resulted. When the debris settled and the dust cleared, when the incredible multitude of subsequently tossed, collided and bumped other things slowed their rate of reaction, space became again a relatively calm place – although, it was now decidedly more cluttered, larger things having been mashed together from the smaller ones. As one can well imagine, that lone electron must have been in an incredible hurry, and the resulting accident at Lexington and Forty-First was a big one, with traffic backed up in all directions, clear to the edges of the city. It was later inferred by a philosopher-scientist in an ermine robe while speculating before his medieval books of alchemy that the electron may have been drinking.
For Eugene R. Formsby, the amazing thing about the Universe was its consistency; it had a beginning, middle and an end. Some scientist in Cleveland, staring through a telescope in order to bring the macroscopic down to earthly size, suggested that the whole thing was a sort of gigantic bubble of slowly expanding gas, which would eventually collapse, as bubbles always do. Eugene had once seen a bubble-blowing magician on television impregnate a soap shell with cigarette smoke. Eugene thought the end of the Universe would be as fleetingly unspectacular as watching the magician pierce the soap shell to allow the cigarette smoke to escape in a dirty, gray-white rush, to dissipate in the broader air. The soap shell itself collapsed with a wet spurt; all very satisfying as a television show, but lame as a proper end to the Universe.
Eugene felt a little disappointed with the magician. There were just so many things one could do with soap shells: spin them, encase one inside of another – rings of air, worlds of air, nested like wooden, brightly-painted Russian dolls – tie them together like balloon puppets, or whatever, the bubbles always vanished with the same, wet spurt.
Which made Eugene think about beginnings. He, Eugene, was the product of a minute, wet spurt, which – reacting, colliding – forced masses of other inert (or nearly so) materials to react and collide with…an endless series of seemingly chaotic, entirely trivial and absolutely fascinating mini-events, resulting in one Eugene R. (for “Robert”) Formsby. Life, Eugene decided, was funny that way: there was no accounting for it. Multiplied by all of the other minute, wet spurts, amid the howling, moaning, grunting and groaning cacophony of all the copulating creatures since the dawn of auditory, vocalizing creaturedom, Eugene felt quite insignificant and more than occasionally like a supernumerary.
Still, Eugene tried to please everybody, tried to appear like a superstar (which he was not), cleaned his supper plate assiduously – hearing the voice of his long-dead Mother chanting, “Starving children and half-mad dogs. The world’s a savage place, Eugene. Watch your step and don’t lose your way. Be careful crossing streets, Eugene, and always eat your peas.” Eugene always ate his peas. He ate them first, to get that little chore out of the way.
“Eugene,” his mother would say. “Eu-gene,” she would whine. Eugene was a name made for being whined; a name one could get one’s nose tightly involved with. It was possible to draw the “Ewe” up and the “geene” out, so that the name was at one and the same time, an attention-grabber and an accusation, laden with extreme, resigned disappointment. The way his mother often said it sounded like, “You jean” – as if a jean was a poor thing to be, fit only for covering up assholes and crotches when skinning down trees and mud banks, and ending up dirty (which Eugene often was, being a relatively normal child.
Non-human creation fascinated Eugene early on, being less harmful and generally more peaceful than the World of Men. He identified with Kipling’s hero Mowgli in the Jungle Book, delighted in the savage tales of Tarzan, who defeated evil by breaking its back, or by stabbing it in the chest with his “mighty tooth” – which was really a knife, only being raised by apes, Tarzan didn’t know any better. Years later, Eugene equated the knife with something Sigmund Freud speculated about – but, as a boy, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror (“eventually over-muscled by Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said), and Tarzan of the Apes (“bloatedly defiled by a decaying Johnny Weismuller,” he lamented, “and prematurely denatured by Bo Derek and her cynical, self-styled Svengali of a husband”) stood for all that was wholesome, romantic and achievable. The orphan of the apes grew up to move freely, though begrudgingly, in society’s upper circles; Conan became King of Aquilonia; and Johnny Weismuller apologized for the racial stereotypes populating his naive, little films.
From such stuff, and its subsequent manipulation against real life, Eugene gradually formed the notion that under every rock, there was apt to be a disgustingly formed grub.
Nonetheless, Eugene loved nature and spent hours happily hiking woods, warmed by nature shows aired by public television, or sitting on a rock observing ants busily dismembering butterfly carcasses. He found fascination in small things, from which he extrapolated theories about the governance and overall uniformity of large things. Things became ever more complex as their size increased. Just as corporate machinery had to expand the secretary-typist’s pool to encompass and accommodate modern computerized word processing, so too, extra parts were required to adapt the feeding apparatus of an amoeba into the mouth of a moose. Yet, regardless of scale, the end purpose remained the same: one to reproduce words in frozen lines of print; the other, to feed the living organism, so that it might go on to multiply and/or divide, before ultimately subtracting itself altogether from the Universe as this specific amoeba, or that unique moose.
Uniqueness was a particularly troubling theme to Eugene, for he felt that each entity was unique, never-before-assembled, yet so integrally related to the Whole that, it was difficult to tell where something ceased to be a part of something else, and where it became, separately, all there was to one sort of thing alone. Within his own body, he knew that there were entire colonies of contributing members, which scurried about tending and maintaining him, so that he, the amalgamated Eugene, could continue to function and so maintain them – a fact which made Eugene sometimes wonder if he was really self-motivating when left to his own devices, or simply the end product of a committee decision, which predicated that Entity Twenty-one-billion-and-eight should be entitled Eugene R. Formsby, Consolidated Research Unit, Model X-4-D, and should now, by unanimous consent of the governing board members, sit down and eat.
“What do you think about life so far?” Father Randolph “Teeth and Tongue” Nornocker once asked Eugene as the two sat in the pastor’s study. Eugene was at that time a somewhat precocious eleven and expected by his elders to be able to philosophize to a limited extent. Father Nornocker was, appropriately enough, a big, knock-kneed man with a virtual awning of overbite, a high starched collar and dirty fingernails. Even as a child, Nornocker’s nails gave Eugene pause. As far as Eugene knew, Nornocker did no real work – a gardener tended the parish grounds; a handyman did the repairs; a housekeeper cleaned and cooked – but the pastor consistently had dirty nails. Eugene attributed it to lint in the padre’s pockets.
“About life?” Eugene asked blankly.
“Yes,” Nornocker said, nodding, threatening to bite himself in the neck to Eugene’s fascinated gaze. “Life,” said Nornocker, “the Universe, God.”
“I like God,” Eugene said innocently.
“Very good.” Nornocker smiled, audience ended.
Eugene’s conversations (if they could be called that) with Nornocker always ended anti-climactically. Nornocker gave no direct advice for daily living, except from the pulpit (“Repent or you are damned!”), or in formal counseling sessions held particularly for about-to-be-marrieds (“Are you on birth control, dear? Ah, yes, I see. You do know that’s a mortal sin? See me for confession, dear. We can handle it. Don’t worry. God is understanding. Do you, Jim, know the real meaning of the words, ‘husband’ and ‘father?’ Ah, good. Rehearsal’s at eight – sharp. I don’t like latecomers, so don’t be tardy, we lock the doors!“). Eugene thought being locked out of one’s own wedding might possibly be a blessing in disguise.
Marriage appeared to him to be a particularly militant institution, populated by unwilling combatants who had taken an oath of service while under emotional duress – amounting to temporary insanity as fired by engorged genitalia. While Eugene’s own parents rarely fought, rarely spoke, rarely looked at one another, they were nonetheless at war. During momentary fits of lust, however, they apparently copulated – well after dark, when the children were sleeping, the doors were all locked, and neither partner had to directly see the other’s naked, flaccid body. Eugene had a rather bizarre childhood view of sex as a result, believing that the female navel somehow accepted the male organ; hence, he believed, his mother’s dismay over baby sister’s extruded umbilical orifice, referred to as an “outy,” and known to be cause for a tragic lifetime with no release from one-piece bathing suits. Boys might have an outy without undue comment, since no one was ever going to stick anything into it – unless, of course, they were trapped in, or naturally inclined toward the restrooms in Greyhound bus stations.
This set of views, as well as others, gradually led Eugene to believe that certain kinds of information were “wrong,” “prejudiced,” or “totally unreliable.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t easily tell which was which, and so left the whole affair to chance, operating on the best of what was currently available, while guarding his rear against yapping dogs and angry, leathershod feet.
Eugene was again the small boy who stood on the steps of the great cathedral, awed by its spires and turrets, its filigrees and gargoyles, its stained glass windows and golden crosses. Inside was the dark perfumed lair of the Lord God, with its high altar overhung by the bloody plaster body of Jesus Christ, His only begotten son. The outer aisles containing the sea of pews were marked by the boxed dioramas of the Stations of the Cross, which led to the place where the Son died. Old ladies in pillbox hats with veils sat on age-oiled mahogany seats beside straight old men with stiff collars and rose-oiled hair. The air was rich with incense, cologne and perfume. Altar boys ringing bells and flame-tipped candles filled the imagination with flickering images of high holiness, augmented by the mysterious repeated chanting, the rigorous standing, kneeling and sitting – all of which confused his small, earthbound brain and threatened rather than uplifted him. He knew nothing of the acts being performed, wished fervently to leave that enchanted, terrifying palace of extraterrestrial power for some richly-grassed sunlit park, where birds sang sweetly and he could hear the speakers from the ball grounds, buy a hot-dog and a cold drink, watch a butterfly investigate the flowers and close his eyes and dream with the sun’s warmth full on his face.
Eugene often dreamed. In dreaming there was escape and in escape there was peace. For a time, he did not have to do what all of those others wanted – the “big people” who ordered him this way and that, preparing him for “responsibility” and “correctness” and a “grand sense of the indomitable self” unsupported by the frailness of his small body or the muddle of his pliable mind. The world was so confusing, so mixed up with “thisses” and “thats,” propounded by robed men, collared men, high-hatted women, women in scarves, ermines, overalls and nothing at all. There had been a time when nylons had confused him and girls’ underpants had almost consumed him. He could not possibly enter a church when the solitude of confession alone nearly reduced him to paralytic fear and terrible, self-accusatory embarrassment.
But the small boy’s mother stretched out her hand and drew the child up the steps of the cathedral, toward the towering open doors and through the yawning mouth of the massive portal, into the secret, dark sanctuary of the blooded God within.
The Beatniks were fading out, bearing Kerouac’s limp body with them, and the Hippies were coming in, bearing narcotics and flowers, when he first attained political consciousness. One group was too old for him to be a peer; the other was too young to see him as anything except suspicious. He was fascinated and excited by both, but became a member of neither, remaining that impossibility: a non-conforming non-conformist. Left to his own devices, he became one of the first generation of television addicts. He grew up living the lip service on so many lips. As a goal, as a model, the myth reeked of individual power, but the first Superman he ever knew, George Reeves, blew his brains out. How could Superman put a bullet in his head? He wondered. Wouldn’t it just bounce off? The myth, in practiced fact, was a conditioner: a view of the world in carefully molded packaging. Careful, my son, don’t remove the plastic wrap if you don’t want the contents to lose value. Use caution, my son, when stealing peeks into Pandora’s box.
Later, he read the Book of Daniel and the Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, refreshed himself on the case of Saco and Vanzetti, the lunacies of Attorney General Palmer’s Great Red Scare, Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts, and narrowed the glass to Ronald Reagan, the CIA, both Bushes, an Ashcroft, a Gonzales, and the “Moral” Majority. Rambo bulged out of the silver screen in living blood and the whole, mad, delirious killing frenzy danced on, with kids carrying submachine squirt guns and rubber knives the size of Route 66. The myth versus the reality: it echoed. Properly connected, with the correct measure of rising and falling sounds, clicks and “syllabalings,” words conjured up any sort of world. Once believed, the words structured reality and even reinforced the impulse to self-destruction.
Sadness to relate, Lamentation Number 4-billion-and-something: the scientific humanists have turned us into mechanical appliances. The corporate boardroom bastards have turned us into assembly line spare parts. And, the religionists have turned us into dependent, frightened moral bankrupts.
Why did I have to awaken? He wondered. Why couldn’t I have remained as mindlessly narcotized as my peers, skipping to the top, mesmerized by depilated crotch in designer bathing suits. The clever little ripper on his way to a semi-lifetime in the pen, darts in and out of the Square John crowd, putting time and distance between himself and the scene of his most recent petty crime. Xerox sells obsolete product two weeks before new product release, saying nothing to the client. The fossil-fuel barons, the Koch brothers, are poisoning the planet and opposed to all life-affirming change. Are they all the Devil’s helpers?
Q: What’s the fastest animal in the world?
A: A chicken crossing Darfur.
The COPPER-HANDLES AFFAIR: The Great San Francisco Earthquake, Fire and Bank Heist by John Patrick Legry (Oct 20, 2010)
THE COPPER-HANDLES AFFAIR: The Great San Francisco Earthquake, Fire and Bank Heist, begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a simple opportunistic bank robbery, plunging John Law Copper, accidental thief, and Frederick W. Handles, the pursuing policeman, into the greater game of big money power politics and civic corruption on the Ragtime U. S. Pacific Coast. The chase takes them through the vanished garden world of northern California to the dangerous shanghai town of Portland, Oregon. 50 b&w line drawings and two maps.
“FARGO meets LES MISERABLES meets LONESOME DOVE”
“John Legry’s novel “The Copper-Handles Affair” will especially delight lovers of history as well as those who enjoy a good cops-and-robbers story. Set at the time of the San Francisco earthquake, the reader follows two men: a thief, John Law Copper who stumbles across $400,000 in bank money during the aftermath of the quake; and Frederick W. Handles, a detective bent upon bringing Copper to justice.
The chase between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon exposes both characters to a variety of angels and villains and so the story’s pace never slackens. One twist follows another until the conclusion which surprises with a laugh.
The settings are authentic, the characters believeable and the writer’s drawings are beautiful renderings of the period. I can think of no more pleasant way to experience a bit of history while having a good read.”
“A great fast paced read. …hard to put down. …characters are fully developed and believable. …the literary style of switching back and forth from Copper’s escape to Handles pursuit kept the adventure moving… Many of the “switches” ended in a cliffhanger that compelled the reader…on. Besides being a good read, this book takes you on a geographical and historical tour of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.”
Click on images below to sample the flavor of the story:
The COPPER-HANDLES AFFAIR: The Great San Francisco Earthquake, Fire and Bank Heist by John Patrick Legry