sunbathers in America
This is fiction. Kind of. Science left for a few days and asked fiction to care for the house.
I ran into my friend, Cornelius Kipling, at the grocery store. He was ahead of me in line, holding a large eggplant and a copy of the National Enquirer. I didn’t ask about it.
I hadn’t seen Kip in six months, so went for a walk along Boulder Creek to catch up. Kip has a Ph.D. in molecular engineering from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and an MBA from an online degree mill. He’s the only person I know who combines an earnest desire to save the world with the scruples of a small-time mafia don. He’s an interesting person to talk as long as you remember that he gets most of his ideas out of mail-order catalogs.
“What are you working on these days,” I asked him after I’d stashed my groceries in the fridge and retrieved my wallet from his pocket. Last I’d heard Kip was involved in a minor arson case and couldn’t come within three thousand feet of any Monsanto office.
“Saving lives,” he said, in the same matter-of-fact way that a janitor will tell you he cleans bathrooms. “Small lives. Fireflies. I’m making miniature organic light-emitting diodes that save fireflies from certain death at the hands of the human industrial-industrial complex.”
“The industrial human what?”
“Exactly,” he said, ignoring the question. “We’re developing new LEDs that mimic the light fireflies give off. The purpose of the fire in fireflies, you see, is to attract mates. Bigger light, better mate. The problem is, humans have much bigger lights than fireflies. So fireflies end up trying to mate with incandescents. You turn on a light bulb outside, and pffftttt there go a dozen bugs. It’s genocide, only on a larger scale. Whereas the LEDs we’re building attract fireflies like crazy but aren’t hot enough to harm them. At worst, you’ve got a device guaranteed to start a firefly orgy when it turns on.”
“Well, that absolutely sounds like another winning venture,” I said. “Oh, hey, what happened to the robot-run dairy you were going to start?”
“The cow drowned,” he said wistfully. We spent a few moments in silence while I waited for conversational manna to rain down on my head. It didn’t.
“I didn’t mean to mock you,” I said finally. “I mean, yes, of course I meant to mock you. But with love. Not like an asshole. You know.”
“S’okay. Your sarcasm is an ephemeral, transient thing–like summer in the Yukon–but the longevity of the firefly is a matter of life and death.”
“Sure it is,” I said. “For the fireflies.”
“This is the potential impact of my work right now,” Kip said, holding his hands a foot apart, as if he were cupping a large balloon. “The oldest firefly in captivity just turned forty-one. That’s eleven years older than us. But in the wild, the average firefly only lives six weeks. Mostly because of contact with the residues of the industrial-industrial complex. Compact fluorescents, parabolic aluminized reflectors, MR halogens, Rizzuto globes, and regular old incandescents. Historically, the common firefly stood no chance against us. But now, I am its redress. I am the Genghis Khan of the Lampyridae Mongol herd. Prepare to be pillaged.”
“I think you just make this stuff up,” I said, wincing at the analogy. “I mean, I’m not one hundred percent sure. But I’m very close to one hundred percent sure.”
“Your envy of other people’s imagination is your biggest problem,” said Kip, rubbing his biceps in lazy circles through his shirt. “And my biggest problem is: I need more imaginative friends. Just this morning, in the shower, this question popped into my head, and it’s been bugging me ever since: if you could be any science fiction character, who would you be? But I can’t ask you what you think; you have no vision. You didn’t even ask me why I was checking out with nothing but an eggplant when you saw me at the grocery store.”
“It’s not a vision problem,” I said. “It’s strictly a science fiction problem. I’m just no good at it. I’ll sit down to read a Ben Bova book, and immediately my egg timer will go off, or I’ll remember I need to renew my annual subscription to Vogue. That stuff never happens when I read Jane Austen or Asterix. Plus, I have this long-standing fear that if I read a lot of sci-fi, I’ll learn too much about the future; more than is healthy for any human being to know. There are like three hundred thousand science fiction novels in print, but we only have one future between all of us. The odds are good that at least one of those novels is basically right about what will happen. I won’t even watch a ninety-minute slasher film if someone tells me ahead of time that the killer is the girl from Ipanema with the dragon tattoo; why would I want to read all that science fiction and find out that thirty years from now, sentient goats from Zorbon will land on Mt. Rushmore and enslave us all, starting with the lawyers?”
“See,” he said. “No answer. Simple question, but no answer.”
“Fine,” I said. “If I must. Hari Seldon.”
“Because,” I said, “unlike the real world, Hari Seldon lives in a mysterious future where psychologists can actually predict people’s behavior.”
“Predicting things is not so hard,” said Kip. “Take for instance the weather. It’s like ninety-three degrees today, which means the nudists will be out in force on the rocks by the Gold Run condos. It’s the only time they have a legitimate excuse to expose their true selves.”
We walked another fifty paces.
“See?” he said, as we stepped off a bridge and rounded a corner along the path. “There they are.”
I nodded. There they were: young, old, and pantsless all over.
“Personally, I always wanted to be Superman,” Kip said as we kept walking. He traced an S through his sweat-stained shirt. “Like every other kid I guess. But then when I hit puberty, I realized being Superman is a lot of responsibility. You can’t sit naked on the rocks on a hot day. Not when you’re Superman. You can’t really do anything just for fun. You can’t punch a hole in the wall to annoy your neighbor who smokes a pack a day and makes the whole building smell like stale menthol. You can’t even use your x-ray vision to stare at his wife in the shower. You need a reason for everything you do; the citizens of Metropolis demand accountability. So instead of being Superman, I figured I’d keep the S on the chest, but make it stand for ‘Science’. And now my guiding philosophy is to go through life always performing random acts of scientific kindness but never explicitly committing to help anyone. That way I can be a fundamentally decent human being who still occasionally pops into a titty bar for a late buffet-style lunch.”
I stared at him in awe, amazed that so much light and air could stream out of one man’s ego. I think in his mind, Kip really believed that spending all of his time on personal science projects put him on the side of the angels. That St. Peter himself would one day invite him through the Pearly Gates just to hang out and compare notes on fireflies. And then of course Kip would get to tell St. Peter, “no thanks,” and march right past him into a strip club.
My mental cataloging of Kip’s character flaws was broken up by an American White Pelican growling loudly somewhere in the sky above us. It spun around a few times before divebombing into the creek–an ambivalently graceful entrance reminiscent of Greg Louganis at the ’88 Olympics. American White Pelicans aren’t supposed to plunge-dive for food, but I guess that’s the beauty of America; anyone can exercise their individuality at any given moment. You can get Superman, floating above Metropolitan landmarks, eyeing anonymous bathrooms and wishing he could use his powers for evil instead of good; Cornelius Kipling, with ideas so grand and unattainable they crush out every practical instinct in his body; and me, with my theatrical vision of myself–starring myself, as Hari Seldon, the world’s first useful psychologist!
And all of us just here for a brief flash in the goldpan of time; just temporary sunbathers in America.
“You’re overthinking things again,” Kip said from somewhere outside my head. “I can tell. You’ve got that dumb look on your face that says you think you have a really deep thought on your face. Well, you don’t. You know what, forget the books; the nudists have the right idea. Go lie on the grass and pour some goddamn sunshine on your skin. You look even whiter than I remembered.”