This Brain’s For Rent

It was a sultry summer morning, the kind that takes Boston by surprise–like clockwork–every year.  The Fourth of July rolls around and all of a sudden it’s hot and humid, as if the Gods of Geography decided overnight to take a few degrees off our latitude and add them to our temperature.  Just for the hell of it.

I was sitting in my office by South Station, looking at approximately the same view I’ve had for nearly four decades.  Next to the train station, there was once a bus terminal and a package liquor store–a “packy,” in local parlance–visible out my window, which made one-stop shopping convenient for the winos who tend to panhandle in public spaces.  A few years ago some urban planning goobers decided to spruce up the neighborhood; the bus station was moved, the liquor store was sent–pun intended–packing, and plain old South Station was re-christened The Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station, as if it were an upscale shopping mall, or a pricey private golf club.  Some things never change, though; as I look down I see two panhandlers who’ve been in business for as long as I have.  Apparently, they didn’t get the marketing brochure.

I remember my first clients, two Asian guys who walked up from Chinatown just a few blocks away, back in the last year of the self-absorbed 70’s.  One was on his way back to Hong Kong, and he wanted to leave some money with his buddy to start a restaurant.  After leading them through some cautionary foofaraw–I can’t represent you both unless you sign a waiver–we got down to business.

“We want note,” one said; a promissory note, an I.O.U.–what I would spend a good part of the next two score years drafting.  I inquired as to the nature of the relationship; did Man 1 want to be co-owner of Man 2’s restaurant?  Yes?  Then what you need, I said, is stock because your interest is more in the nature of equity than debt and . . .

“WE WANT NOTE!” they said together, with urgent emphasis, since time, tide and international flights wait for no man.  And so was launched, with a few deft strokes of pen on paper–nobody had a computer back then–my career of financial infamy.

From those humble beginnings I have come to a humble end.  There have been peaks, sure, but if you have more than one peak, you have to have a valley in between.  I won’t go into the gory details–suffice it to say that of the five firms I’ve worked at, three no longer exist.  I seem to have that effect on people.

And so, as I say, I find myself back where I started, going through old files, throwing out those that have turned into dead letters, trying to find a home for those that still have some life in them.  I’m not sure what I’d do at this point if a really big case walked in the door.  Twenty years ago, I didn’t turn down anything.  Dog-walking deals, fallen tree lawsuits–you name it, I took it.  Now?  Unless it piqued my rapidly-declining interest in the human misery of humans other than myself, I think I’d . . .

“Hello.”

I looked towards my standard-issue low-rent frosted glass door and saw a pair of legs that froze my gaze from rising any higher.  My guess was she was a dancer, from the looks of those gams; well-toned, slender ankles, a chiaroscuro effect where the Achilles’ tendon slithered down to her heels.

I tried to suppress a sharp inhalation, but if you’re reading this with your speakers on, you heard it.  You meet a lot of dames in my business–down-on-their-luck, on-their-uppers, a little something on the side.  I thought I had every female dimension covered, but I’d never seen any like this one.

“Can I help you?” I asked, letting my eyes linger just a little longer on her lithe legs.

“Probably not–I know you too well.  I’m your wife, dingbat.”

I looked up finally and found she was right.  She was indeed the woman I’d married thirty-two years before.  “An honest mistake,” I said as I swiveled to get a better view of her.

“And one you’ve made before,” she said, referring to the time I got in line behind her in a coffee shop and was admiring her legs without realizing they were attached to the body of my fiancé.

“I got a poem out of that little mix-up,” I said, referring to my deathless verse “On Mistaking One’s Wife’s Legs for Another’s”–and try saying that five times fast.

“And did you make any money out of it?” she asked.  Buffalo, New York produces cold women–must be all that snow.

“No, but someday, when I’m dead and you’re not, the royalties from my Collected Poems will start rolling in.  Then you’ll be glad you married me.  You know what Clarence Darrow said.”

“Who’s Clarence Darrow?”

“Shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in the fifties.”

“What did he say?”

“Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”


Darrow: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/I’m not a poet/and neither are you.”

 

“So why can’t you keep your wreck of a poet inside you like everybody else?”

“I try, but he keeps slipping out at night.”

She sat down in my single office chair and gave me a hard-boiled look, one that I recognized from the eggs she buys by the bag at Whole Foods.

“That’s not all that’s slipping out,” she said.  She reached in her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, which she applied to–of all places–her lips.  “You know, there are software programs that are better at recognition than you are,” she said with a gimlet glance.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “I have an uncanny ability to remember the names of people who aren’t members of my immediate family, which you have relied on at many a social occasion in the past.”

I had her there.  She’ll often turn her back on someone across the room at a party and ask me if remember the name that’s attached to the face.  I’ll start to turn around and she’ll say “Don’t turn around, you goombah!”–a form of mental torture psychologists refer to as the “double-bind dilemma.”

“You know what I mean,” she said.  “You can never remember the names of restaurants we go to.”

I offered no resistance on that point.  I was long ago diagnosed with Hip Restaurant Aphasia, the inability to retain the goofy names that celebrity chefs hang outside their fashionable little boites de nuitShe, unlike me, doesn’t need to take a box of matches from a non-smoking restaurant to remember if it’s called Truc or Troc or Tric or Grill 147 or Grill 86-93-72-Hike.  I have left instructions in my Health Care Proxy that if I am ever found unconscious and can’t recall where I had dinner last, I am not to be put to sleep.

“I have a lot on my mind,” I said, affecting an air of busyness that was belied by the relatively clean surface of my desk.  I was like the Sergeant of the Lawe in Chaucer, who made himself look busier than he really was.  “I’ve been at this for thirty-eight years, eleven months–not that I’m counting or anything.”

“Um-hmm.”

“My brain’s for rent from 4:30 in the morning until I fall asleep at night for all sorts of trivial uses–leases, deeds of trust, debenture indentures.  It’s no wonder if certain details that are important to you . . .”

“Like whether you’re supposed to bring our neighbor’s kid home from soccer practice . . .”

“Right.  Ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse administrative things like that.  I’ve got multi-million-dollar mega deals on my mind.”

She clucked her tongue with subdued disapproval and gazed out the window, looking at the ocean.  If the question came up, I was prepared to respond, lightning-round style, “The Atlantic,” just like contestants on “Password” used to do.

“Don’t pull that ‘Billy Big-Deal’ stuff on me,” she said.

“I don’t need to,” I said.  “There are certain little things you can never remember that I never forget.”

“And vice versa,” she said.

“So if both of our minds are going–just in different places–it’s probably best if we stick together.  Sort of a patchwork quilt approach to cognition.”

She pursed her lips and nodded knowingly.  “So–two heads are better than one?”

“Right.”

“That would explain something.”

“What?”

“Why my mother looks at you like you have two heads when you’re trying to be funny.”

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One Hurt in Collision at Intersection of Art and Commerce

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Beth Upshaw is both a painter herself and an intrepid soul who helps others make a living in the hand-to-mouth world of the arts by operating an gallery in this upscale suburb.  “I know I could make more money at a nine-to-five job,” she says as she adjusts the frame of a work by her friend Cecilia Carver, “but I wouldn’t get that little glow you feel when you make the world a more beautiful place.”

art

Image result for suburban art galleryThat can-do attitude is what led Upshaw to take money out of her retirement plan–at a tax penalty–to open bEth uPshaw sTudios, as her stylized logo expresses it.  “It throws people off their guard for a second–they stop, look and hopefully come in.”

But Upshaw is off her game a bit as she opens up this morning; a fight with her boyfriend Kurt Mergen last night has put a damper on her spirits, and she has to work harder than usual to greet customers pleasantly, much less cheerfully.  “Kurt didn’t like his wine at Boit de Nuit,” she explains of their dinner date gone wrong, “and things spiralled downhill from there.”  Upshaw took a sniff and told him not to be a whiner because the restaurant was busy and a woman she knew was waiting on them.  Mergen got defensive, saying he knew more about wine than she did, and Upshaw reminded him that she’d been a sommelier in a previous life in 19th century France.

Image result for art gallery
“The catalog says this is the air conditioner vent.”

 

That was the last straw for Mergen, who rolled his eyes and then struck at her most vulnerable spot; her own art, which she describes as “post-neo-pop-Abstract Expressionist.”  “I have a hard time imagining you in that context,” he snapped as he tore a piece of baguette in half.  “You, who produces the kind of art that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of a bank lobby.”

Color rushed into Upshaw’s face, and her eyes narrowed to grim little slits as she hissed “You son-of-a-bitch!”  Diners seated nearby who didn’t hear her realized there was a problem when she stood up, put on her coat and scarf and stormed out of the restaurant, stopping only to take a mint at the cash register.

Image result for art bank lobby“I’m fine now,” she says as she excuses herself to wait on an elderly couple who’ve come in to browse, “but that bastard has had his last free plastic cup of chardonnay and cheese-on-crackers at my gallery openings.”

Image result for art bank lobby
“Excuse me–none of these pens work.”

 

The customers–a man and woman who have moved into a +55 year-old condominium complex up the street from Upshaw’s gallery–they congratulate Upshaw on the life and color that she brings to their new neighborhood.  “People who think the suburbs are boring should come see your little place!” the woman gushes.  “I had no idea we were moving into a Little Bohemia here.”

Upshaw demurs appreciatively and leaves the two to themselves, offering to help them if anything “catches their fancy.”  After a turn around the gallery the man comes back to her desk and asks about a piece that holds pride of place on the largest wall in the all-white space; a striking red, yellow and blue work that Mergen once compared to a Wonder Bread bag on acid during a previous argument between the two young lovers.

“Number 43?” Upshaw inquires hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Well, that one’s by me!” she says with a note of modest self-approval in her voice.

Image result for wonder bread bag
Wonder Bread bag (not on acid)

 

“Oh, you’re an artist, too!” the woman exclaims, and Upshaw blushes just a bit.  “Well, I’d better be after what my parents spent on my MFA!”

The older couple laughs, and the man explains that they just wrote their last tuition check the previous spring.  “How much is this one?” he asks as his eye roams over the canvas.

Upshaw gulps just a bit; she can tell the two aren’t hagglers, so her fear is they will walk out if she tells them that she was hoping to get $5,000 for it.  The bitter memory of the night before has given her a stiffer spine, however.  “I am an artist, dammit!” she says to herself as she recalls Mergen’s brutal put-down.  “And I deserve to be paid what I’m worth!”

She surprises herself by blurting out “Five thousand” before her resolution can become sicklied over with the pale cast of modesty, and is shocked when the man says “That sounds reasonable–I’ll take it!”

The transaction is concluded happily at the gallery’s point of sale terminal, and Upshaw says she hopes the couple will enjoy the painting in their new home.

“This isn’t for the condo,” the man says.  “I’m the president of the new bank that’s going in up the street–I’m going to put it in the lobby.”

Consider the Anchovy

Consider the humble anchovy, pushed to the side of the plate.
It’s the part of a Caesar salad that just about everyone hates.
Other fish eat gobs of anchovies as ocean-going forage
but not humans, no way–not in a salad and not in porridge.

I’m okay with anchovies—I don’t mind the taste.
I’ll eat the ones my wife gets so they don’t go to waste.
Like most fish, anchovies travel in schools
and though they never graduate, nobody calls them fools . . .

because nobody eats the anchovies—and if you think that’s sad
imagine how it makes the other fish feel, I’ll bet it makes them mad
because they get pulled from the ocean, in hemispheres north and south
while there isn’t a fish hook in the world that will fit in an anchovy’s mouth.

Robot Fires Human

          Henrik Scharfe, a professor at Aalborg University, has created a robot in his image that was used to fire people in an experiment. 

                                                              CBSNews.com


“What I have to say to you isn’t going to be easy . . .”

 

Whenever I get a call from Robot Resources, I know it’s not going to be good news.  The first time I went down there they wrote me up for excessive Eydie Gorme searching during work hours.  I’d forgotten to erase my search history, and Hank, the overweight guy who runs the IT department, reported me.


Well, can you blame me?

 

They put a memo in my personnel file and I was careful for awhile, but then on the Team-Building Outing my hand slipped down Mary Lou Pfenstrunk’s bodice when we did that trust-building exercise where you fall backwards into your co-workers’ arms, and all of a sudden I’m sitting there with two strikes and a foul tip, if you know what I mean.  I was told if there were any more screw-ups I could clean out my cubicle.


“Seriously, you can trust me, Mary Lou!”

 

Then–I swear–I took Claudia Boul’s strawberry-banana yogurt from the 8th floor refrigerator by mistake.  All right, I figured she would never notice that I’d given her the nondescript wildberry flavor my wife bought me.  What the hell is a wildberry, anyway?

So when I saw Cyborg 3Rn’s name on my phone screen, I gulped involuntarily.  Time to face the music and dance, I thought.  I took the long walk down to the 5th floor, where the walls are lousy with motivational posters that make people question whether there’s something wrong with them because they don’t love their jobs.

I knock lightly on 3Rn’s open door, and he looks up from his Sudoku.  As usual, he’s showing off by doing it behind his head, the way T-Bone Walker used to play his guitar.


T-Bone Walker, playing guitar, not Sudoku

 

“come in come in come in,” he says in that flat, uninflected tone you get from automated phonemail operators.  “have a seat sit anywhere.”  Since there are only two chairs, one for the employee and one for the witness that the legal department says must be present whenever someone is fired, I don’t have much choice.

“how’s the wife how’re the kids how ’bout those celtics” 3Rn says after I’ve sat down, as if he cares.

“In reverse order, the Celtics are in first place–ask for a software upgrade.  My kids are fine, but Christmas is coming and they’ll wonder why they’re getting shoes instead of scooters.  As for my wife–you don’t even remember her name.”

“sure i do sure i do,” 3Rn says, but he hesitates for a moment as he searches through his database.  “it’s linda right?”

“That’s right, but it’s not like you had it on the tip of your little plastic tongue.”

“no need to be bitter,” 3Rn says just as 4Zxi walks in to join us.

“hi there how ya doin’” 4Zxi says, all bubbly.  He’s usually slotted for campus interviews, and I guess they forgot to turn down his enthusiasm control to the “morose” setting.

Once the pleasantries are over 3Rn gets down to business.  “i regret to inform you that your services will no longer be needed.”

“Why?” I ask, although I know the answer.  My numbers have slipped steadily over the past three years, the by-product of a mid-life crisis that these guys could never understand.  I’ve been depressed, and when you’re depressed you couldn’t sell a life preserver to a drowning man.

The question calls for a higher-order logical response than 3Rn is prepared for, so he has to search his memory for a bit before replying.

“well, this place isn’t for everyone,” he begins.  “we’re an up-or-out type of organization, and you’ve essentially plateaued.”  I’m a little taken aback; I didn’t know 3Rn, with his robotic personality, was capable of such a nuanced assessment of my situation.

“you might be happier someplace else,” 4Zxi adds in a genial tone, playing good cop to the hatchet man’s bad cop.

“Look, I need time to find a new job,” I say, trying not to sound too desperate.

“like how much?” 3Rn jabs right back.

“I don’t think ninety days is unreasonable.”


“we’ve got to cut back on humans–they’re killing us!”

 

“ninety days!”  I have to say, I’ve never seen an exclamation point come out of 3Rn’s grim little visage before.

“now 3,” 4Zxi says, “that’s not unreasonable for a high-level professional job.”

“excuse us for a moment, would you?” 3Rn says, and I get up and go out in the hall, closing the door behind me.  The next few minutes are the longest in my life, longer even than my first time up on the ten-meter springboard at the town pool, with all the 13-year-olds behind me yelling “Jump!”

When the door opens it’s 4Zxi who beckons to come in.

“i don’t like long good-byes,” 3Rn says.  “so we’re going to give you three months’ severance, but you have to work from home.”

“That’s going to crimp my style,” I say.  “I’d rather be able to come into the office and pretend I’m gainfully employed while I look to make a lateral move.”

“you can do that from home,” 4Zxi says.

“It’s not the same–I won’t have an office, I won’t have a title.”

“i don’t know,” 4Zxi says.  “you’ll just be calling people on the phone.”

“I won’t have much self-confidence calling in my pajamas.”

“why not?” 3Rn asks.  “you’ll be better dressed than you are now.”

Available on amazon.com as part of the collection “Sci-Fi Kind of Guy.”