Thursday, January 31, 2008

Natural Science

Today's story, a short one, stimulated by a first-line prompt in a writing magazine.
"Natural Science"

“Someday your curiosity will be aroused, but I seriously doubt that I’ll be alive to see that day,” said Lindsey as they ambled through the invertebrates at the Museum of Natural History. She knew it was bad idea for a date, but she had designed it as a test, one that she was fully expecting (hoping? fearing?) he would fail with flying colors.

“What are you talking about?” Seth said. “I like stuff. Didn’t we go skiing and stuff? And I know more about movies than you do.”

“No, you know more about what’s playing at the mall than I do. Have you ever seen any movie older than you are?”

“I’ve seen old movies,” he countered. “The original Star Wars was kind of cool.”

She winced to realize that Star Wars—actually one of her favorite movies, and one she had seen a dozen times in the theater when it was first released—was older than he was.

In point of fact, Seth was 26, which wouldn’t be a problem, Lindsey thought, except that she was 42. When she had first tried online dating after the separation from Jonathan, she hadn’t specifically looked for younger men. And she was never the type to lie about her age. Seth had made the initial contact, and what had attracted him about her profile was a mystery to her. The more she paced back and forth in her living room the night she received his initial e-mail, the more she convinced herself that what she needed was a complete change from Jonathan. Jonathan was intellectual; too intellectual for his own good, she often thought. But the conversations they had had over the years were some of the most stimulating—and often, well, fun—she had ever had. But as an experimental physicist, he was dedicated to his research. He was barely outgoing and getting him to do anything outside the lab or office was getting more difficult the older he got. It had been her idea to separate, as at the time there didn’t seem that there was much of their marriage left.

Seth was the complete opposite. He was not a complicated, or in fact very deep, person. He spent the summer months as a lifeguard and the winter months as a ski instructor. He was young and—she had to admit—hunky, and outgoing. Exactly what she needed after 15 years of marriage. Someone fun to hang out with.

But hadn't Jonathan been fun? At one time, perhaps, and in his own way...

Anyway, over the three weeks that Seth and Lindsey had been dating, it began to dawn on her that “uncomplicated” was not unsynonymous with “boring.” Sure, he was fun to be with, but ultimately tedious to talk with.

“I mean old, classic movies,” she continued, “perhaps in black-and-white.”

He thought for a moment. “I think I saw one once at my mom’s, but it put me to sleep.”

She made no response, and they walked through the museum in silence for a while. They turned into the Hall of Ocean Life, her favorite place in the museum. She pointed out several of the creatures on display, trying to get him as excited about the exhibits as she was. She pointed out a coral reef diorama.

“Have you ever gone SCUBA diving?” she asked.


“I went once. On our honeymoon, Jonathan and I visited the Great Barrier Reef, the one thing we had always wanted to do together. And, of course, as a grad student in marine biology at the time, it really was a dream vacation.”


“Coral reefs are truly amazing. The remains of dead organisms build up to create this whole...ecosystem that supports this incredible amount of biodiversity.” She was babbling, if only because his blank stare at the diorama was distracting.


“I would have thought that as a lifeguard you’d have some kind of affinity for the ocean.”

“Some kind of what?”

“Attraction. Interest in the ocean.”

“Well, I like hanging at the beach. I surfed a few times, but I’m not like really into it. By buddy Kev has been to California and says if I tried it there I’d like it a whole lot more.”

“I see.” She could tell that he was bored out of his skull and his being bored out of his skull bored her out of her skull. If they had been in the Primitive Man exhibits, there would be a whole host of australopithecine, Cro-Magnon, and Neandertal skulls that would be bored out of themselves, too.

There was one other thing she could try, though she had an inkling as to how it would go.

“Have you ever been to the Hayden Planetarium? When I was a kid, once a year my father would take my brother and I into the City to see a planetarium show. It was one of my favorite places. Every Christmas, they would have a special presentation where they attempted to explain the Star of Bethlehem. They also had one on the theories of how the universe was created. I guess it had an impact; I’m still an amateur astronomer to this day and my brother works for NASA. Not bad for two kids from Jersey.”


There was a pause. She was growing increasingly frustrated by his monosyllabic comments. Oh, looked like he was about to say something.

“I think I might have gone to a laser show there in high school, but I was pretty ripped at the time. I don’t really remember it.”

“Ah.” She suddenly had visions of her breaking into a display case and clubbing him over the head with a coelacanth. She glanced at her watch. “Well, it’s getting late. Maybe we should head out.”

“If you want.”

“Well, I could stay here for days, but this doesn’t seem to be quite your cup of tea.”

“It’s okay. I’m just not big on museums.”

She stopped.

“Well, Seth, tell me, what are you big on?”

“You’ve read my profile. I like skiing, swimming, golfing. And sex, of course.”

She had to admit that that was perhaps the highlight of their relationship. Maybe the only part of it she really liked. But even that was getting boring.

“And, your profile,” he continued, “said the same kind of stuff. I knew you liked this kind of stuff, too, and that’s cool.”

“Well, I’m so glad you find it ‘cool,’ but it’s like you have absolutely no curiosity about the world beyond your own life.”

“Because I don’t care about some dead fish in a display case?”

“It’s not just that. I mean, it’s hard to have a conversation with you. Okay, my babbling about marine biology probably isn’t inherently interesting, but any time I try to discuss anything that doesn’t involve...well, any time I try to discuss anything, all you say is ‘cool.’ Why do you even want to date me anyway?”

“I think you’re fun to do stuff with and, well, I think you’re hot. And you're a really nice person.”

She was of two minds as to how to take that. But she knew what she needed to do.

“Seth, I think we should stop seeing each other. You’re a nice guy, fun to ‘hang with,’’ as you say, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find you attractive. The three weeks we’ve spent together have opened my eyes, and I think I have a better sense of what I want. You know, I married while still in college, Jonathan wasn’t the first guy I dated, but he was the first I was ever serious about. Chalk this whole thing up to a kind of mid-life crisis, I guess. So, I hope you bear me no ill-will, and if you’d still like to remain friends, I’d certainly be amendable to that.”

“That’d be cool.”

She could detect no emotion or...anything. Was there even a mind at work in there someplace?

“’re not mad at me or upset?”

He shrugged. “No, it’s kind of what I figured. I’ve gone out with a lot of women like you. I like older women, what can I say, they know what they’re doing sexually. But it never lasts because all they really want is youth and excitement and someone outgoing, and all I want is to give that to them. After a few weeks, they realize what they really want is something more, which is what I don’t want, so they break up with me. So don’t sweat it. It’s cool.”

She looked at him. “What’s going to happen when you’re my age?”

“I assume it works both ways.”

They stood in silence for a while. “Anyway,” he said, “I’m gonna get a move on. If you want to do something, give me a call or an IM.”

And with that, he walked off without so much as a goodbye kiss. She stared blankly into space for a moment, then looked up. She was under the giant squid, the exact place where Jonathan had proposed to her. She smiled; how ironic. And with that thought, she took out her cellphone and hit a speed dial number.

“Jonathan? It’s Lindsey. Listen, I’ve been...Jonathan I miss you. Are you doing anything right now? I’d love...I need to see you....Really? Cool.” She winced as she said the word absently. “I’m under the giant squid.” Who would have ever thought that could be a romantic line? “I’ll see you soon.”

A Non-Taxing Scam

Boy, the phishers and scammers are really getting lazy. They did not put any effort whatsoever into this faux e-mail I got from "the IRS" (whom, by the way, I have never given my e-mail address). I am truly disappointed. I expect a lot more from the dregs of society...or even the IRS (though it is a fine line).

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Veteran of the Psychic War

A brand-new original feature-length (in theory...we'll see!) screenplay-in-progress.

Veteran of the Psychic War
An Original Screenplay--Part 1



The Swinfield, Massachusetts, high school. It is a somewhat suburban New England high school.


LEONARD SPARK, 36, is the high school’s physics teacher. His classroom is festooned with typical high school physics apparatus. The class comprises about 15 STUDENTS, who are high school sophomores (i.e., 15 years old). Almost all of them look intensely bored and distracted as Leonard lectures—all except for COLIN, who is bored, but only because, as the class genius, he knows everything already.
...Newton's Third Law of motion states that whenever two objects interact, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the force on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object. The direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object. Remember that forces always come in pairs: equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs.
Leonard looks around the room and sees some glimmer of acknowledgment, or at last from students who are not Colin. holds two small Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars—one an SUV, one a small compact car. He uses them to demonstrate his lecture.
Newton's Third Law is usually used to describe collisions.
The class perks up a bit.
I thought that might get your attention. In a collision between two objects, both objects experience forces which are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. These forces will cause one object to speed up—or gain momentum—and the other object to slow down—or lose momentum. According to Newton's third law, the forces on the two objects are equal in magnitude. This is usually expressed by the equation “F1,” or “Force 1,” equals “minus F2,” or “Force 2.”
Leonard writes on the blackboard “F1=-F2.”
However, while the forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction, the acceleration of the objects are not necessarily equal in magnitude. Who remembers Monday's class—what law describes acceleration?
Colin's hand shoots up, if no one else's does. Finally, one tentative hand goes up, that of KARL.

Newton's Second Law?

That's right. Newton's Second Law, which says what, Karl...

(looking through notebook, a little flustered)
Acceleration over m...force divided by mass.

Yes, excellent, acceleration equals force divided by mass.
Leonard writes on the board “a=F/m.”
What this combination of the Second and Third Laws means is that, if the colliding objects have unequal masses, they will have unequal accelerations as a result of the contact force caused by the collision.
He places the Matchbox car on the front of his desk or a table at the front of the room.
Let's assume this 3,000-pound, or 1,400-kilogram, car is stopped at a traffic light.
He sets the Matchbox SUV on the desk/table a short distance behind the car and rolls it forward.
Then assume this 4,000-plus-pound, or 2,000-kilogram, SUV comes rocketing up behind it. The force experienced by the SUV is equal to the force experienced by the car. Both the SUV and the car experience equal forces—as per the Third Law—but the car experiences a greater acceleration—that is, it will be pushed forward—because of its smaller mass. The SUV will also have a force acting on it, and will be pushed backward, but it will be a lesser acceleration because of its larger mass. By the way, we'll ignore, for the sake of a clean example, the effect of brakes, passengers, and other factors that will affect force and acceleration. In a collision, there is a force on both objects which causes an acceleration of both objects. The forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction, yet the least massive object receives the greatest acceleration.
He pushes the SUV toward the car and lets go. It hits the car, the car is forced forward, and the SUV bounces back a short distance. He pauses for a moment. he then goes behind his desk and takes out two six-inch ice-skater action figures, one male, one female. Leonard uses the figures to act out the example.
Now, consider two ice skaters, a man and a woman. The woman—whose mass is, let's be charitable, 45 kilograms—is kneeling on the shoulders of a man whose mass is, say, 70 kilograms. No, this is not “the man who mistook his wife for a hat.”
Not surprisingly, that very dated joke goes way over the heads of the class, who are probably not familiar with bestselling books by Oliver Sacks. He soldiers on.
They are skating along the ice at 1.5 meters per second. The man gracefully—or as gracefully as he can—heaves the woman forward through the air and onto the ice. Assume it's part of their routine and not the result of some kind of fight.
There is a modest TITTER from the class.
Anyway, the woman receives the forward force and the man receives a backward force. The force on the man is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force on the woman. Yet, as with the car that was hit by the SUV, the acceleration of the woman is greater than the acceleration of the man due to the smaller mass of the woman.

He lets that sink in for a moment. He then looks up at the clock. It is about 11:57.
Now—let's see who can answer this. A car is driving down the road at 55 miles per hour. A fly hits the windshield and splatters. Which of the forces is greater: the force on the fly or the force on the car?
He looks out to the class. Colin is smiling but his hand is down. Leonard looks to Karl.

(after a long pause and some squirming)
On the...yeah....on the fly, 'cause it splattered.

Everyone agree?
Everyone looks around. Finally Colin raises his hand.

That was a trick question. The forces are equal. Newton's Third Law—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Yes, that's exactly right. The force acting on the fly and the force acting on the car are exactly the same.
One of the other students, LANEY, is confused.
But why did the bug get squished if the forces were the same?

That was going to be my next question. Who can answer it? Karl?
At that point, the class BELL rings, and the class quickly start to pack their books up.
Think about why the fly splattered and we'll talk about it tomorrow. The answer is in Newton's Laws of Motion. Oh, and your homework is to do problems one through ten on page 187.

(on his way toward the door)
Is there gonna be a quiz on this tomorrow?

(to class)
No. Guys, before you leave, there will be no pop quiz tomorrow; I'm feeling charitable. But there will be a test on Newton's laws of motion on the 13th.
The students continue to file out, MURMURING as they do so. Colin stays behind and walks up to Leonard, who is tidying his class notes.
What a bunch of dipshits, huh, Mr. Spark.
Like most of the characters, Colin has a New England accent and pronounces it “Mr. Sphahk.” Leonard shrugs.
I wouldn't say that. If everyone knew all this stuff already, I wouldn’t have a job. Some people just need a bit more handholding and help than others.

Nah, take it from me, they’re all just really dumb.

Don’t let them hear you say that. Look, Colin, I know you’re very smart, but I think you should practice humility, otherwise the next two years of high school are going to be exceedingly long.

They’re going to be anyway.

They don't have to be. And I can say from experience that things can easily get much much worse for you if you aren’t careful. Anyway, don’t you have gym?


And I have lunch.


The Science Dept. lounge is a small room with a round table in the center. Bookshelves line the walls, full of books, papers, science apparatus, etc. Three other teachers—DENNIS HASTINGS, ALBERT HARPER, and VINCENT CHARLES sit around the table. All but Albert Harper is eating lunch from a bag lunch. Leonard enters. Harper is reading a magazine called Skeptics Quarterly.
Here he is: Mr. Skeptic himself. I just read your latest article in Skeptics Quarterly—taking on the psychics now, huh? And after you got all that hate mail from astrologers after the last issue.

I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

What's next...UFOs?

Haven't you thought it odd that in this day and age, when everyone has cameras in their cellphones, video cameras are everywhere, and the Internet and Wi-Fi are there to disseminate images and video—have you noticed that no one reports UFO sightings anymore?

I never thought about that.

Back in the 50s, 60, and 70s, there were all these great UFO photographs that used to turn up, and everyone was always reporting that they had seen something they couldn't identify. And they would always say, “If only I had a camera.” And yet, now that everyone does have a camera, no one sees anything. Funny, huh?

Not really. I'm sure you can go online and find all sorts of reports of UFO sightings.

Yeah, but you'd think they'd be able to capture conclusive evidence that would make the news. And yet...nada.
Anyway, is it my imagination, or are kids getting less and less interested in science every year? My Newton's Laws classes never burned down the house, but they've never been this dead. If it weren't for Colin, or even Karl Calvino, I may as well be talking to a room full of mannequins.

Karl's a bright kid, but he hides it because he likes being popular. He'll never speak up in class, but wait until you test him. He'll knock your socks off.

And if Colin makes it out of the 10th grade alive, it'll knock my socks off.

I know. He's very smart, but he makes no effort to play nice with others and I'm scared he's going to get the crap beat out of him one of these days. I'm trying to get him to ease up, but I can't help but wonder if I'm doing more harm than good.

You've got a protégé. I think that'll help him out in the long run.

Wouldn't Leonard be Colin's protégé? Which way does that work? Doesn't “pro” imply that it comes before...?

Now I'm unsure.

Miss Ford from the English Department will be here any moment. We can ask her.

What are you talking about?

Oh, come on, Leonard, Elizabeth comes down here at the same time every day. You could set your watch by her.

That can’t be true.

Sure it can. She always shows up at 12:05. It's 12:03 now. Two more minutes.

Why is it teachers always seem to date other teachers?

Other teachers are the only ones who could understand why we keep doing this given what we get paid.

And who are you to talk? Isn’t Roger a teacher, as well?

I’m not condemning the practice, I’m only asking a question, like any good scientist.

...And trying put off cafeteria duty.

Yes, and trying to put off cafeteria duty.

Oh, god, you have caf duty? My sympathies.

I swear these kids are animals. If I’m not back by Period J, send in the National Guard.
Harper opens the door. As he does, in walks ELIZABETH FORD, 34.
Oh, excuse me, Al. Is Leonard around?

Ready and waiting.
Harper leaves, closing the door behind him. Elizabeth approaches Leonard, holding a newspaper.
Right on time.


Elizabeth, is a “protégé” someone who looks up to someone else or is it the person who is looked up to?


We were having a conversation about Colin, one of my students, and we couldn't determine if he or I was the protégé.

Is a protégé the mentor or the mentee?

The mentee. It literally means “One who is protected.”

I hope that doesn't become a literal definition.
Elizabeth opens the newspaper she had been carrying. Leonard grimaces slightly, knowing what’s in store.
What’s your sign?

Elizabeth, you know perfectly well what my sign is.

It’s unlisted, isn’t it?


You’re Sagittarius, if memory serves.

I suppose.

(reading from paper)
“You will become embroiled in a conflict you have no stake in, but which will consume you nonetheless.”

That’s an odd horoscope.

They’re all odd.

(shaking her head)
You have no imagination.

He’s a physics teacher. He’s not supposed to have any imagination.

Oh, and are Earth science teachers given to spontaneous recitations of poetry?

Well, you’ve run rings around me logically.

I hate to break up this gay banter—

Albert left a few minutes ago.

You know what I mean.
Anyway, are we still on for tonight?

Of course. Your place at 8.

Leave your skepticism at the door.


Elizabeth’s house is a modest ranch-style house.


Leonard and Elizabeth are sitting at a dining room table. A candle burns; it all seems somewhat romantic. They are eating.
...How can you say that?

Quite easily, actually. There is no scientific evidence to support the belief that—

Just because the usual crop of egghead scientists hasn’t figured out how to prove something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

And there I have to disagree.

Imagine my surprise.
Leonard is weary. They have been down this road many times before.
Look, Elizabeth, I’m a physics teacher. You’re an English teacher. You knew there would be some differences of opinion when we started going out.

I assumed that they would amount to little more than you not having ever read Keats.

I’ve read Keats.

You’re too cold and... unimaginative.

I don't think I am. I go by what can be proven empirically. I can’t imagine accepting something any other way.

OK, what about death?

I was hoping we could have sex instead.

No, I mean, what do you think happens after we die?

I know what you mean. I was making a joke.

You must believe something happens after we die.

I really don’t. There is no way of knowing what happens, no one has ever some back and said, “Yes, this is what happens.” It’s a mystery, and no amount of speculation will come any closer to revealing the truth of the matter.

You must have thought about it.

Of course I’ve thought about it. But that doesn’t mean that I'm any closer to an answer than anyone else.

So what do you think happens when we die?

Have you listened to a single word I have said?

Not as such, no.
He goes silent.
If I were you, I’d be terribly afraid to die.

Well, I don't think I'm alone in that.

How can you live so hopelessly?

Who says I'm living hopelessly? I have a great deal of hope. I think it makes me appreciate what I’ve got right here, right now all that much more. And makes me want to go out of my way to help preserve life. I can’t help but think that all those people who believe so fervently in an afterlife seem so eager to kill or be killed. Maybe if they were a bit less credulous about an afterlife it might make life here on Earth a bit more pleasant for all involved.

(mulls that over; he's got a point)
I still think you have no imagination.


Elizabeth’s bedroom. She and Leonard are asleep in bed. Suddenly, Elizabeth wakes with a start and sits bolt upright. She looks over a the still sleeping Leonard, and then starts hitting him. He wakes up abruptly, is confused as hell (as you can well imagine), and as a result of her onslaught of blows, falls out of bed onto the floor.
What the—

You bastard!


You were seeing someone else behind my back!

What? When?

In my dream.
There is a silence as this sinks in.

(still upset)
In my dream, we were on vacation together in Europe and there was this other woman at Stonehenge—

We were at Stonehenge?

Yes. And there was this other woman and you were flirting with her.

Elizabeth, I can’t be held responsible for things that I do in your own dreams.

I believe that dreams have a certain degree of prophecy to them.

(just wanting to go back to sleep)
OK, so who was this woman?

I have no idea. But she was dressed like the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Leonard GROANS, pulls a pillow onto the floor, and curls up and goes back to sleep.


Leonard’s classroom, the following morning. He is standing in front of the class. Give it a beat, then the BELL rings and all the students save for Colin, file out. Colin stays at his desk, reading a physics book. As the last students leave, Elizabeth enters.
Leonard? I won’t be able to see you at lunch today,. I have a departmental meeting I can’t get out of. But I have a surprise for you tonight.

Another dream involving Stonehenge and me flirting with the Archbishop of Canterbury?
This gets Colin’s attention.

What then?

If I told you, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise, now would it?

I’m more terrified than you could possibly know.

See you at 7.
She exits. Colin looks at him.
Can I just say that I think she is completely wrong for you?

Oh? Thanks for the expert advice. And how many girls have you actually dated?
His embarrassed silence betrays the fact that the answer is “none.”
That’s what I thought.

OK, fine, but I don’t have to


Right. To—


Exactly. And—

Wilt Chamberlain.

Leonard expresses surprise that this is the name Colin didn’t recognize.
Whatever. The point is, you don’t need to be an expert to know that she’s wrong for you.

Leonard thinks, the hell of it is, he may be right.
Don’t you have gym or something?
To be continued...

Post Parade

Blogger informs me that this is the 1,000th post on this blog since I started it back in July 2005. So, I should take this time thank whoever it is that may be reading (if anyone), and that I hope you have enjoyed by often incoherent rambling.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Crossed Over

A few years ago, when the mephitic stench of reality television first began to permeate the airwaves (and cable waves), The Sci-Fi Channel, at the beginning of its slide toward almost universally unwatchable programming, checked in with its own brand of "reality" programming--Crossing Over, a "talk show" featuring a guy who claimed he could talk to the dead. Now, this is not new; there are some hucksters out there who have made quite a killing (as it were) with claims that they can communicate with the beyond--Sylvia Browne (I think that's her name) is probably the most famous--she turns up on Larry King a lot (but then, since she's on Larry King, maybe she just thinks she's talking to the dead, since he looks pretty cadaverous). Anyway, my first thought was that if I were the dead, I would be pretty pissed at these yo-yos putting words in my mouth. Hence, this story. Naturally, my favorite characters are the Afterlife Tribunal (they are just in it very briefly). I should do something with them again some day.

Now, I should also point out that since I subscribe to no particular religion, and since there is absolutely no empirical evidence as to what lies in that "undiscover'd country,"* I figure anything I make up about what death is like is just as valid as what anyone else has come up with. Plus, my version sounds a bit more fun. And besides, if at some point someone does find evidence of something, I think there will be more pressing issues than making this little story null and void.

* Sorry, fellow Trekkies, Star Trek VI got this one wrong. The phrase "the undiscovered country," taken from Hamlet Act III, Scene i, is not "the future" but "death." That is, "...the dread of something after death,/The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will..."
“Crossed Over”

The audience applauded and cheered riotously as his name was called by the large-lunged announcer. The futuristic set exploded in flashing lights, and portentous, otherworldly synthesized music played as the young, clean-cut man strode out on the stage. He was in his late 20s and dressed casually in blue jeans and a black pullover. His blondish hair was cut short, and he looked like the All-American boy. He could indeed have been the All-American boy. Except for the fact that he could talk to the dead.

Or so he claimed. There were those who were dubious, but just as there are those who believe that TV preachers have a red phone directly connected to the Big G upstairs, so, too, were there those who believed that Thomas Page could talk to the beyond. And several hundred of them filled the studio audience for the live “The Next Page” show every night. And according to the ratings, even though it was on a basic cable channel, it still pulled in respectable numbers, indicating that there were a few million folks out there who also believed that Mr. Page could in fact converse with the deceased.

He stood in front of the only furniture on the set—two swivel chairs facing each other. He looked down at the stage and put his index fingers to his temples. As the crowd got silent, his head jerked up suddenly, and he blurted, as if receiving a message from Beyond, “Ann Hersey!”

The applause began again as a 30-ish woman came down the aisle, escorted by an usher. She had long brown hair done in a ponytail, and wore unflattering horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Her purple sweatshirt had a cartoon of a smiling cat on it, and she wore unfortunately tight purple sweatpants and white sneakers with highlights that matched the sweatpants. She was a vision in purple as she walked up onto the stage, and the man hugged her as if consoling some great grief. He gestured to one of the chairs, and she sat somewhat tentatively, literally on the edge of her seat. He strode over and calmly sat across from her.

Small talk was not his style, and he was a pro at building tension. So far, two minutes had elapsed since they first went on the air, and the only thing he had said was her name. As the applause again died down, and the music ebbed away, he looked at her and began, almost in medias res.

“Your father died suddenly—tragically,” he said overdramatically, almost William Shatner-like. “I see him now. He still loves you, you know.”

He paused for dramatic effect. Ms. Hersey took that opportunity to reinforce what he had been saying.

“Yes, that’s right. I just want—my mom wants to know why,” she said, the tears starting. “Why did he kill himself?”

He looked up at her ever so briefly, then again cast his eyes toward the floor.

“I am listening to him now, he is speaking to me,” Page continued. “He says to tell you that what he did was not your fault, that it was not your mother’s fault.” He paused again, but did not allow her time to speak. “He says he’s sorry for what he did, for the grief he put you and your mother through, and hopes you’ll understand. He says he has found peace now, and regrets that you and your mother are not with him.”

“That’s utter crap!” Joseph yelled, hurling a pillow at the screen. “I have no regrets and the last thing I want is that shrill harpie and that scheming cow here with me.”

“Now, now,” said Mitch, one of Joseph’s best friends in the afterlife.

“What do you mean ‘now now’?” This clown is putting words in my mouth. Suddenly I’m the jerk!”

“Joseph, you’re dead. Who cares? It’s over,” said Arthur, who was sitting in an armchair. “I knew this TV was a bad idea. TV was bad enough when we were alive and it’s even worse now.”

“Speak for yourself, book boy,” said Joseph. “I like sci-fi movies and I was hoping that at least I’d be able to watch them in the afterlife. Instead I get this pinhead pretending that I give a damn about those two vipers. And jeez, could she at least dress a little better. It’s national TV for pete’s sake!” He paused briefly. “And I hadn’t intended to kill myself. It was just an unfortunate accident—”

“That’s right, Mr. Autoerotic Asphyxiation,” said Arthur. “That was a stroke of brilliance. So to speak.”

“Oh, bite me, Mr. I’ve-Just-Had-Triple-Bypass-Surgery-So-I’m-Gonna- Screw-My-22-Year-Old-Acrobatic-Girlfriend-Immediately-After-Getting-Out-Of-
The-Hospital,” said Joseph. “I hear they’re still scraping your left ventricle off her bedroom wall.”

“Hey, I for one can’t think of a better way to go,” said Arthur. “What¬—like the end of a rope is better than—”

“Guys, this is getting tedious,” said Mitch. “Every night I have to listen to you this. Come on! The point is, we’re dead now.”

It’s true, the three of them were. The afterlife turned out to be nothing like they had expected. No harps, no angels. No devils, even. There was no Heaven, no Hell. There just was. Or was not. Whatever, all the expired souls had one-bedroom condos in an endless series of buildings. The temperature was a constant 76° F, it was always sunny, and the “post-retirement community” (as Arthur liked to put it) had a very nice pool. They didn’t have to worry about food—what with being dead and all, nutrition and basic sustenance were scarcely an issue, although for those who missed food there was a convenience store that dispensed snacks—an infinite variety, and representing every native cuisine, what with the cosmopolitan nature of the afterlife. And the beauty was there was no weight gain.

The other advantage was that there was no need for money. Oh, sure there were those who were used to all sorts of nefarious ways of acquiring it when they were alive, and any post-mortem attempts at reprising that behavior was met with most sternly by the all-knowing and all-powerful Afterlife Tribunal who ran things. Those who had had run ins with them learned their lesson, and fast. Maybe it was Heaven after all.

There was even TV, so perhaps it was Hell after all... Anyway, it allowed the deceased to peek in and see what was going on in the world of the living. The recently deceased found the TV a comfort (especially the unfortunate ones who had died while still young), while the ones who has been dead for a long time were increasingly dismayed by what was happening on the earth. One of Joseph’s friends had died in 1944 and, watching an American news channel one afternoon, ran weeping from the room, inconsolable over the living conditions his children and grandchildren were enduring. “I died in the War for this? Jesus Christ Almighty.” Joseph tried to reassure him that it wasn’t as bad as TV makes it out to be, but to no avail.

Joseph had died in early 2000 as a result, yes, of autoerotic asphyxiation. He had seen a show on cable TV about it and was curious. His first, last, and only attempt ended with him watching cable TV in the afterlife. He suspected if he had been a bit younger he wouldn’t have had the coordination and reflex problems that caused the trouble. But, then again, he often admitted to himself, when he was younger he hadn’t had to resort to such things. He had died in his mid-50s and in life had been a barber. Barber and failed novelist, that is. He could never afford to go to college, although he was well-self-educated. He started cutting hair in his uncle’s barber shop to finance his writing and, well, one thing had led to another and pretty soon he was a barber by trade who occasionally wrote novels that were never published. He had made a decent living in a small New England town, was well-known and well-liked in the community, and had married in high school for what he had thought were the right reasons (love and all) but the marriage had soured over the years. His wife had been ambitious—but only for him. She deeply resented that he had remained, as she put it, “only a barber” and never pursued his writing with anything like methodical diligence. “She was highly intelligent, and there’s no reason why she couldn’t have achieved greatness on her own,” Joseph had explained to Arthur once, “but she came from the kind of traditional Old World family that expected the men to have all the ambition and the women to have none. So she had become a bitter, alcoholic nag and had raised our daughter Ann to have pretty much the same low opinion of me. It wasn’t a happy marriage, and I have to admit that I occasionally think that death was the best thing that had happened to me.” It was kind of easy to see why: he had good friends, a life—er, death—of ease, and had even started dating the former Mrs. Cleary who lived two buildings over. They were taking it slowly; after all, they had forever.

He, Arthur, and Mitch would gather every Friday night, and sometimes play cards, sometimes trade stories about the old days, and sometimes just hang out and watch TV.

“I mean, come on, guys,” Mitch had been saying. “Enough already!”

“Oh, Mr. Hero here doesn’t like to hear the sordid stories of our declassé deaths,” said Arthur, who had been a 63-year-old English professor and had indeed been dating a 22-year-old graduate student. “I’m sorry that we all can’t have statues made in our honor.”

“It wasn’t a statue, it’s just a little…well…” said Mitch.

“Yes, a little what?” teased Arthur.

“Okay, it’s a monument, but it wasn’t my idea. I’m embarrassed by the whole thing, actually.”

Mitch had been a 17-year-old football star, the sort of “David Watts” character Ray Davies had chronicled so well. Mitch, who also was at the top of his class and was the most popular boy in high school, died in a car crash. He had been stopped for a traffic light one evening at an empty intersection in his small Ohio town when a drunk driver took a left turn far too fast and far too wide. He smashed into Mitch’s car head on, killing Mitch instantly. Almost immediately, Mitch had become the poster boy for cracking down on drunk driving and a small monument was erected in his honor in the town square.

“Yeah, right, you were embarrassed. And Dewey defeats Truman,” said Arthur. “This from the kid who died before he even lost his virginity.”

“Sad really,” said Joseph.

“Two more weeks! The prom was in two more weeks! I was going with Mary Jo Jenson. I had it all planned out. Fucking drunk.” Mitch was still bitter, and one could hardly blame him.

Joseph and Arthur laughed, until the TV show they were watching came back from commercial. Ann Hersey was still on, and that got Joseph even madder.

“Ann, during the commercial break I was communicating deeply with your father,” Page was saying. “He wants me to tell you that he killed himself because he felt that he had been a failure too you and your mother.”

At that, Joseph screamed a long string of lurid profanities.

“He realized one day that he lacked the ambition to make of himself what he should have become.”

“Is this clown reading from cue cards written by my wife?” said Joseph.

“He told me to tell you that he apologizes for being such a failure.”

And at that Joseph got up, strode over to the television, and smashed his fist through the screen. And, what with his being dead and all, it did no harm. In fact, at that moment, Joseph swore it felt mighty good.

“Joseph!” whined Arthur. “Now look what you did!”

“This guy has to be stopped. We’ve got to do something.”

Arthur snorted. “Uh, lack-of-Earth to Joseph. We’re dead. There’s not a whole lot we can do.”

“We have to do something.”

“I think Joseph’s right,” said Mitch. “This guy can’t talk to the dead. No one can. He’s putting words in the mouths of those who are unable to speak up for themselves.”

“Guys, I hate to keep harping on this¬—so to speak—but we’re dead. Who gives a flying—”

“Well, I do, damn it. If we were alive, there’s no way anyone could get away with this. You’ve been watching this show. Some of the stuff this guy comes up with is downright insulting. He’s got to be stopped.”

“So what do you intend to do?” asked Arthur.

“I don’t know yet. But something.”

Mitch sat up. “I’ve got an idea. Joseph, let’s circulate a notice and see if we can find other people this guy claims to have spoken to. I mean, they’re all around here somewhere. This show’s been on for—what?—two years? He’s on every weeknight, with, say, two or three weeks off a year. That’s five nights a week times fifty-two weeks minus three, or five times forty-eight—”

“Wow, Golden Boy can do math, too,” said Arthur.

“That’s 240 shows or somewhere around there. And he has two guests per show so that’s 480 dead people, and that’s not counting all the people he’s supposedly spoken to before he got the show. He must’ve had an act somewhere. Vegas would be my guess. Atlantic City at the very least. Maybe Branson, Missouri.”

“All right, let’s find ’em,” said Joseph..

“What’re we going to do once you’ve found them? We’re still dead, however many of us there are,” said Arthur.

“That’s defeatist talk,” said Joseph.

“Well, yeah. ’Cause we’re about as defeated as you can get!”

Mitch got up. “Don’t listen to him. Come on, Joseph. We’ll figure it out.”

And with that, they left Joseph’s condo, Arthur alone staring at the punched-in TV.

“This yahoo should be boiled in oil. I don’t usually wish anyone down there to have to come here ’less they’re ready to, but I swear I’d be in seventh heaven if I saw that guy come strollin’ into the courtyard out there. ’Course, I can’t imagine he’d last very long.”

It hadn’t taken Joseph and Mitch very long at all to find other deceased folks whom the TV Dork (as Joseph had taken to calling him) claimed to have spoken to. Blanche Harrington had been an 88-year-old southern belle, dead now for 10 years, when her son had gone on the TV Dork’s show. The situation was complicated, but the TV Dork had apologized to Blanche’s son for her not having left him a single dime as an inheritance.

“Why, he had said that I had said, and I quote, ‘My darling Deforest, I hadn’t wanted you be corrupted by the taint of my money. I wanted better for you. I know you have the ability to make your own way in the world and amass your own fortune.’ Now, I would never say such a thing in my life. I didn’t leave him a dime because I knew that any money I left him would disappear right up his nose.”

Others that Joseph and Mitch had spoken to had similar things to say. It seemed that most of the people who ended up on the show were scheming heirs who thought they had been cheated out of their rightful inheritance.

But then—not always.

“Look, I’m not saying I agree with everything he says,” said Lucy Snow. “But what’s he doing that’s so bad? He’s giving some comfort to the living. I’m afraid I don’t have such a cynical attitude as to think that the living need to be told the entire truth about how the deceased felt about them. Just like I don’t think that funeral eulogies need to tell the truth about how the living felt about the deceased. No one on Earth knows what we know. Let’s let them try to console each other and focus on the good things about us all rather than the bad.”

Lucy’s sentiments were well-taken by Mitch, and as they walked across the long courtyard back to Joseph’s condo, he had become a bit more reluctant about the endeavor. Joseph was still determined.

“Look, I agree that eulogies should not dwell on the bad things, and if people want to dwell on the good things, that’s fine. That’s certainly not a bad thing. All I’m saying is that some slick snake-oil salesman shouldn’t be allowed to go claiming he can talk to the dead. Not only because it maligns us, but because it’s yet another scam used to bilk money out of the gullible. And that’s what I have the problem with. We’re unwitting accomplices in a scam. If a dead guy has nice things to say about his ex-wife, that’s great, I take my hat off to him with more than a little bit of jealousy. But he should be able to say it himself or not at all.”

Mitch stopped and looked at the perpetually sunny, cloudless sky. “You’re right. I have an idea. Remember when you first got here? When each of us first got here we were given a packet of important contact info if we run into trouble?”

“That’s right, we did, didn’t we? I’m afraid mine vanished some time ago.”

“Fortunately, I saved mine,” said Mitch.

“Oh, you would.”

“If you’re going make comments like that I’m not going help you at all.”

“All right, I’m sorry. I’ve just always had a problem with kids telling me what to do.”

“Well, think about it this way—I’ve been dead longer than you, so technically I’m older than you, if you want to measure age from the time of death. I’ve been here longer and know more about this place than you do.”

“Good point,” said Joseph. “Suddenly, I feel young.” In his best (or worst, depending on your opinion) Bob Dylan imitation, Joseph “sang,” “‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’”

“Great,” said Mitch, getting enthused. “Let’s rock!”

Back in his own condo, Mitch leafed through a sheaf of papers.

“If we have any problems, we can take our case to the Afterlife Tribunal. They meet every other Tuesday evening at 7:00.”

“Great. Town meetings in the afterlife. Don’t tell me they have zoning laws here, as well. Just what I need.”

“The next meeting is tomorrow night, it appears,” said Mitch. “We can make our case to the Board of Selectghouls.”

“I see.”

“That was a joke,” said Mitch. “‘Selectghouls’? Ah, never mind.”

Joseph stared at him. “Huh. And you were the most popular kid in school?”

“Well,” said Mitch, “it was high school. How much could that have been worth?”

“You are wise beyond your years,” said Joseph.

Mitch grunted. “Yeah, and look where it got me. You know, I spent my whole teenage years being cautious and wise. Not because I wanted to prove anything, or be Mr. Goody Two Shoes, but because that’s just the way I was. Whether it was genetics, or how my folks raised me, or some combination—I don’t know. Whatever it is that makes us what we are, that’s how I was. And to be a typical teenager with all the irresponsible rebelliousness—it just wasn’t me. I don’t disparage it, I just couldn’t emulate it.”

“There’s no need to apologize at this point, Mitch. I mean, Art and I make jokes but we think you’re a great guy—”

Mitch sighed. “I know, I know. It just seems unfair is all. The reckless survive and I’m toast.”

“Well, that’s not unusual. Why did Frank Zappa, who never did drugs, die so young while Keith Richards lives on? But, by the same token, Jimi Hendrix lived recklessly and died young, and James Dean lived recklessly and died young, and John Gielgud and Alec Guinness and my grandfather lived rather conservatively and died old. As far as I can tell, the pattern is that there is no pattern. It’s all a big crap shoot. When your time is up, it’s up, whether you’re 17 or 35 or 125. And you have to live the way you want to live, the way it occurs to you to live, rather than worrying about Roman candles fizzing out.”


“Kerouac. Never mind. Anyway, you can live fast and die young if you want but, as I’m sure you’ll agree, there is no such thing as a beautiful corpse. They’re all just freakish and disturbing.”


“So basically all we can do at this point is try to make the most of our deaths. And I’m inclined to think that at the moment it’s getting even with that TV chowderhead.”

Mitch smiled, and at that moment Joseph felt more than a twinge of paternal feeling for the kid. He hugged him.

“How did you get so wise?” asked Mitch.

“I was a barber. Barbers and bartenders are in the unique position of getting to understand the whole spectrum of human behavior. In my favor, though, there are fewer fights in barber shops. And we have sharper implements in case any break out.”

They separated, and Mitch was cryinglaughing. “Let’s prepare our case for the Afterlife Tribunal,” he said.

“You’re the boss.”

The next night, the auditorium in which the Afterlife Tribunal met was mostly empty.

Wow, thought Joseph. Apathy is big after death, too. The five members of the Tribunal itself sat down at a long table that stretched across the stage of the auditorium. They were of indeterminate age—or even indeterminate species. They seemed vaguely human but had strange, incredibly fair-skinned—almost translucent—skins that looked alien even if it wasn’t. They wore white robes—as one would expect—but seemed to have three-piece suits on underneath. Joseph could make out striped ties peeking above the folds of the white togas. Neither Joseph nor Mitch nor anyone else in the afterlife knew who the members of the Tribunal were; they met here for 45 minutes every other Tuesday night, but no one ever heard from them beyond that—unless there was big trouble.

“Now, do we have any old business?” one of them intoned.

There was no response from either the audience or the other members of the Tribunal.

“Do we have any new business?” he intoned.

Again, there was silence all across the board. Joseph, Mitch, and their entourage of witnesses looked around at each other, all of them afraid to be the first one to speak up.

“That being the case, we the members of the—”

“Excuse me,” said Mitch. “I have some new business.”

The five Tribunal members looked up. “This is the first time in countless centuries that anyone but us had had new business. What a novel event. Please, continue. We’re bored beyond belief.”

“As the exalted beings of the Afterlife Tribunal—”

“Oh, flattery will get you everywhere,” said one of them. “But, please, we’re not that exalted. We’re just preternatural beings that rule the realm beyond the icy veil of death. We put our pants on one leg at a time. Granted, we accomplish that task with telekinetic emanations from our superadvanced brains, but, well, that’s neither here nor there.”

“Right,” said Mitch. “Your ex— Um— You guys…may be familiar with a living being of the name of Thomas Page, who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.”

“The TV Dork. Right,” said one of the Tribunal members.

Mitch continued. “It is our opinion—” and he gestured to indicate the crowd around him, “that he has been maligning the dead with his false communications and impugning the living reputations of those of us who are unable to defend ourselves.”

“I assume you are prepared to present examples.”

“Yes, I am.”

Mitch, who had actually planned to go to law school had be been allowed to live long enough to do so, presented, over the course of the next two hours, a stellar case for supernatural interference into the world of the living. He had videotapes of the Page’s TV show, supplemented with testimony from the dead people Page claimed to be communicating with. It was all quite moving.

When Mitch had rested his case, one of the Tribunal Members said, “Your case was expertly and convincingly presented. We’re really impressed. More importantly, though, we feel quite strongly about what you have presented, and we agree that this idiot has gone too far. And even more importantly, we think it would be ripping fun to have this guy actually communicate with the dead. So, tomorrow night, he will do so. So be ready for it. We have Mr. Page’s guest list for tomorrow night. We should take care of them very quickly. We’ll be taking reservations for rest of the program for the next 20 minutes.”

“You got his guest list?” said Joseph. “It must be great to have supernatural powers.”

“What supernatural powers? It was posted on his Web site.”

The audience applauded and cheered riotously as Thomas Page’s name was called. The explosion of flashing lights and synthesized music indicated that yet another episode of “The Next Page” was starting.

On cue, Page strode out to hit his mark on the stage, and, as usual, looked down at the stage and put his index fingers to his temples. As the crowd got silent, his head jerked up suddenly, and he blurted, receiving a message from Beyond, “Carl Landau!”

A doughy middle-aged man stood and shuffled up onto the stage. He took his seat, as he had been instructed to do during rehearsals, and Page took his own.

Landau was preparing for the opening remark. So was Page, but at that moment, Page’s body jolted forward as if he had been struck by lightning. His eyes shot open and he looked panicked. The stage crew caught on immediately that something was up, but stayed where they were. Landau was blissfully ignorant and thought that Page’s strange convulsions were merely part of the act.

“C-c-c-c-c-c-cxxxxxx,” was the rasping, slightly meaty noise that came from the back of Page’s throat. “C-c-c-c-ARL!”

Landau looked over calmly at him. Page had gone completely white and was starting to sweat. He appeared to be fighting his own mouth.

“Ca-a-a-a-rl,” he said loudly, straining to get the word out.

“Yes, I’m here, Pop,” said Landau, ever the optimist.

“You fat piece of crap,” said Page. “You killed me.”

Landau, as you would expect, looked completely shocked. He leaned over to Page. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Page tried to respond as himself, but was unable.

“You get away from me,” said Page’s body. “How dare you have the nerve to try to contact me. You must have known this clown was a phony to agree to this. You must have known if he really could talk to me that I’d have nothing good to say at all.”

Landau was completely dumbfounded.

“If you had gotten off your ass and taken me to the hospital when I asked you to I wouldn’t be dead now. But, no. ‘Pop’s just a hypochondriac,’ you told everyone. ‘There’s nothing wrong with him,’ you said to your sister. ‘It’s in his senile old head,’ you said. But it wasn’t, was it, peckerhead? It was a massive fucking coronary! Was the season finale to Survivor so-o-o much more compelling than taking your goddamn father to the damn hospital? Was seeing who won that rock stupid waste of videotape more important than calling 911? You’re a worthless piece of crap, and you should have put me in a home like I wanted, and if you thought I was going to let this idiot get all sappy and sentimental and pretend to be me, you’re out of your meat-filled head.”

Page’s body went limp, and Landau scanned the stage personnel for the producer. He leapt from the chair and charged over toward him.

“How dare you do this! I’ll sue you, the show, the network, everyone involved in this!” Several stagehands had to wrestle Landau’s hands from around the producer’s throat.

“I don’t know what’s going on!” yelled the producer.

By now, everyone onstage, offstage, and backstage was completely clueless as to what was going on. The audience meanwhile sat in stone silence.

The producer yelled, “Can we cut to commer–”

Page’s body jolted again. “Agnes Prescott!” he warbled, not looking at anyone or anything in particular.

As you would expect, no one in the audience moved.

“Agnes, it’s your mother!” said Page. “Agnes, you’ll never believe it, but I found your father here in the afterlife. I mean, and I should come clean about this, I found your real father, not Teddy, who you thought was your father. Look, Aggie, I never got the chance to tell you this while I was alive, but Teddy isn’t your father. I mean, he and I were married and all, but Bertram, that’s your real father, we met at the Safeway while Teddy was in Vegas at his bachelor party and, well, one thing led to another, and I was actually carrying you by the time Teddy and I got married. Bertram died when you were still a baby. I’m sorry I never told you that, but I thought you should know.”

The producer—Leonard Bret—knew he shouldn’t have let the show continue like that, that he should have cut to commercial, but, well, he knew good TV when he saw it. He had no idea what was going on, perhaps Page had finally flipped, or had a nervous breakdown, or was trying to commit career suicide. He also knew that the ratings were going to go through the roof, and that he could try one more deliberate attempt at this format. If the ratings for that stayed high, he could claim a legitimate TV hit and not just a squeaking-by basic cable program. If he could bring the format to a major network.…He knew then that there was no way in hell he was cutting away.

It went on like that for 45 more minutes, as voice after voice emanated from Page’s body. It wasn’t all negative; there were some very nice sentiments expressed as the deceased—especially those who had died abruptly—got to express to the left behinds those things they never got to express in life. Whether the right people were tuning in was anyone’s guess, but it was touching nonetheless.

As for Page, he was getting weaker and weaker. He was riding lower in the seat, until finally he slid off and hit the stage floor with a coccyx-crushing thud.

“Cassandra Daystrom, this is Arthur Desmond,” came Arthur’s voice from Page. “I just want to say it’s not your fault. Um…I knew full well what I was doing and I kept certain things from you. It’s just that—I really loved you—really love you, present tense. I haven’t looked at another woman since I died and, well, I know that doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, it kind of is, if you knew what I knew. Look, I’m sure you’ve moved on, as well you should. You’re young, and you’ve got at least another 50 years before your heart explodes in the throes of passion.” He paused. “Okay, I’m kidding, but please continue with your studies. You can actually earn a living with a degree in English, believe me. And think of it this way: you’ll actually be able to communicate effectively to colleagues using the actual English language rather than those goddamn e-mail smiley faces. I have to go now, but, please, I can’t imagine that you’re watching this stupid show, but if you do see this, I love you.”

“Marv and Emily Baxter,” came another voice from the depths of Page’s larynx. “This is your son Mitch. I want to explain what’s going on. We’ve been watching this show, and this guy’s a fraud. We got mad that he was putting words in the mouths of the dead, so we hijacked his body and we’re expressing our own feelings. This is the first and last time we’ll be doing this, and I just wanted to say that I appreciate all that you’ve done for me. The monument was a bit much, but I do admit if there were such things as ghosts—there aren’t, by the way—I’d be haunting that drunk for a good long time. Tad—bro—I know you never liked being in my shadow and I know we’ve had our differences. I never wanted the attention mom and dad gave me, and I really did wish they hadn’t treated you like a second-class citizen. I don’t know what you’ve been up to since I died, but listen to me: you have my personal okay to celebrate my death. You are no longer in my shadow. Live you own life, go nuts. Achieve what you know you can achieve, rather than just another arrest for possession. Mom, dad—Tad’s a good kid—well, he’s probably not a kid now—so please, for my sake, treat him as you would have treated me. Thanks.”

Page was now supine on the stage floor. Bret himself was now sweating profusely, and some time ago had ripped off his headphones. Network brass had appeared and were clamoring for at least one commercial, what with needing to pay various bills and all. The last thing he heard was something about the shortfall in revenue coming out of his salary. Like his salary would cover even the merest shortfall in revenue, he thought. There were only a few minutes left before he had to cut away.

“Ann Hersey—this is Joseph, your father,” said Page doing an adequate, albeit unintentional imitation of Joseph. “What you heard last night, what this guy told you—it wasn’t true. I never would have said those things, and if you have any memory of me at all you know full well I never would have said those things. One thing was true, though: I do love you. You drove me completely insane when I was alive, but you’re my daughter and that has to count for something. I know your mother thinks I was a total failure in life—but I disagree. Neither of you were ever hungry, or poorly clothed. I provided pretty damn well for you two and maybe we didn’t have filet mignon every night, but that stuff is bad for your heart if you eat it every night. Look, Annie, if there’s one thing I've learned in the process of being alive and then dead it’s that you can’t expect other people to make you happy. I mean, you can be happy with other people, but if there’s something you want, go and get it. Don’t expect anyone else to share your ambitions, and don’t marry someone and then condemn what it is they are. We’re all different. That was the problem that your mother made, and why she and I had such a bitter marriage. She wanted me to become what I never wanted to become rather than go out and become it herself. I did not consider myself a failure, and actually I rather enjoyed my life—the part of that didn’t involve your mother. Perhaps that’s mean to say at this point, but I have to be honest.

“I have to go now, but please think about what I’ve said. Live your own life the way you want to live it, and treat the people in it as the wonders of nature they are. Remember—you’re dead forever, and you’re only alive for a brief period of time, and take it from me—everything you’ve accomplished in life evaporates upon your death. Why spend that brief time making someone’s life miserable?”

And with that, Page was silent. There was complete inactivity among the stage crew as no one knew what was going on. At that point Page began to moan in his own voice, Bret cut to commercial.

“I thought that went well,” said Mitch. “A nice combination of the bitter and the sweet. I think that would qualify as good TV.”

Joseph agreed, and yet Arthur was conspicuously silent.

“Arthur, you old softie,” said Mitch. “I had no idea you had such a sentimental streak.”

“Hey, I was an English professor. All those sonnets wear off on you after awhile.”

“Well, I for one feel better,” said Joseph.

“Yeah, so do I,” said Mitch. “And I bet Sentiment Boy here feels better, too.”

“God’ll get you for this,” said Arthur.

“He already did.”

“Good point.”

The three of them went on the way they always had. Being dead, they didn’t have access to a great deal of variation in their—well, their lack of lives.

Thomas Page never returned to “The Next Page.” He had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. He spent the next five years there; upon his release, he became a gravedigger in a small southern town and stayed in that job until his own death many years later.

Leonard Bret did indeed get a career boost from the “ad libbed dead show”—as it became known. Naturally, no one in the business really believed that the dead were talking, but they were impressed by the ratings nonetheless. After “The Next Page” went off the air the next day, he was assigned to a new “reality programming” show that was in development in which several individuals were pitted against each other, and basically, had to kill each other. Whoever was alive at the end of the show’s 14-week season won a vast quantity of cash. The show was condemned by the critics, as well as anyone who had even modicum of taste and sensibility. Needless to say, it was a huge hit.

Ann Hersey had watched the broadcast and sat in her double-wide completely stunned. Upon hearing what had indeed sounded like her father’s voice, she broke down into tears. Later, she thought about what he had said. It was at that point that she decided to leave her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, and her small New England town, and head to New York City.

“What are you planning to do once you get there?” asked her mother, who, as you would expect, was opposed to the whole idea.

“Jessica’s cousin’s brother-in-law works on Wall Street. I thought I’d make contact with him and see what I can do. All I know is I have to get out of this town.”

It wasn’t easy for Ann, as it isn’t easy in New York City for anyone from a small town. But she made some contacts, paid attention, took some courses, met some people, and eventually, 10 years later, was a high-powered literary agent. And although none of this connected, and wouldn’t until long after they were both dead, she had fallen in love with an editor at Random House—Tad Baxter, Mitch’s brother. They married and lived a long happy life together.

When they had both died, there was a joyful reunion in Joseph’s condo. Joseph was happy to see that Ann had made something of herself, and Mitch was happy that Tad had tuned out okay after all. At one point, Joseph had inadvertently come across his wife, who had succumbed to a cirrhotic liver and was pissed that there was no booze in the afterlife.

“You can’t win them all,” said Joseph.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Classic Case

I love bad movies. But not just any bad movies; they have to be bad in just the right way.
Cheesy 1950s sci-fi and monster movies--the stuff of Mystery Science Theater 3000--are simply the best bad movies. And while there is no shortage of bad movies on TV these days (The Sci-Fi Channel has come to specialize in truly abysmal movies), it's hard to find really good bad movies anymore.

This is why, when I was a kid, Saturday afternoon was a holy time. From noon to 4 every Saturday, Boston's Channel 56 had "Creature Double Feature," two back-to-back monster or sci-fi movies like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, The Amazing Colossal Man, Reptilicus, and other grade-Z movies from the 50s and 60s. (And then at 4:00 they usually had a third cheesy sci-fi film.) Sure, they sometimes showed good movies, like The Thing, Them, When Worlds Collide, etc., but it was the really bad ones that were the most fun, as half the enjoyment was making fun of them (hence MST3K). There is something special about those old movies--a kind of innocence about them you don't get in today's super-cynical, post-ironic world. And guys in rubber suits or cheeseball special effects still are better than the bad CGI you get a lot these days.

So last Christmas I was very happy when I was given one of those boxes of "50 SciFi Classics." Sure, these are "classics" in the same way that a migraine I had once 20 years ago was a "classic headache." Still, though they may be some of the worst movies ever made (many of them were in fact done on MST3K), they are still fun to watch and bust on.

So, in the tradition of one of my favorite movie sites, The Agony Booth, I will share my summaries of these movies as I make my way through this box set.

Up first:

The Incredible Petrified World (1957)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Jerry Warren
Star of Shame: John Carradine
Monster(s): Creepy old guy; stock footage of gila monster

A storm-tossed ocean and appropriately seasick-sounding music forms the backdrop of the opening credits, which introduces the Parade of Shame. Interestingly, wardrobe was by “Kelpsuit.” Huh? We are also informed that the cavern sequences were filmed at Colossal Cave in Tucson, Arizona. Now I know where never to go.

After a 2:15 credit sequence spent staring at crashing waves, a voiceover informs us that, “This is the sea.” Ah! That’s what that was! I was wondering. We are then treated to what seems like a rejected Discovery Channel documentary on ocean life. Sample text: “The sea: birthplace of life....The ocean is a dangerous jungle.” The ocean is a jungle? Someone needs to get their ecosystems straight. We then witness a shark eating an octopus, which is the most action that will ever be shown in this movie. The narration then discusses a “layer” of the ocean 1,500 feet below the surface that reflects sound waves (?) and rises to the surface at night, then sinks again during the day. “It is composed of living creatures, capable of locomotion.” Ah. Unlike everywhere else on Earth. OK; go on... Oceanographers are torn as to what this layer is: it could be plankton, or fish. Or, some say, millions of squid. (I favor this latter explanation.) “This theory is supported by the fact that squid are tremendously abundant.” Well, so are housecats, hot dog buns, and table lamps, but I doubt they comprise this layer. The narrator then (erroneously) explains bioluminescence. We then go in for some deep narrative padding while the director apparently set a camera in front of a tank at the local aquarium and promptly fell asleep.

Finally, at 6:08, we discover that this little documentary--narrated, as it turns out, by Dr. Jim Wyman (played by Joe Maierhouser, who had a long and distinguished career....doing something, I'm sure; probably selling cars)--was being screened for a room full of oceanographers who apparently were not aware of what the ocean is. It's a prelude to the discussion of the impending launch of a new diving bell designed by Dr. J.R. Matheny (George Skaff). While the crowd devours hors d’oeuvres, one of the party guests pooh-poohs the diving bell. “It is madness! You’ve wasted $70,000.” Sounds pretty cheap for a diving bell to me. Dr. Matheny then discusses the work of Millard Wyman, Jim's brother, who has built a similar diving bell to investigate his theory that the ocean could provide enough food to sustain the population of the world.

So basically he's spending thousands of research dollars to prove that the ocean has fish in it.

Of course, given that there is already one diving bell, “Why then do we need another?” the skeptic protests. Why did they invite him again? Matheny’s bell is going down in the Pacific, while Wyman’s is in the Caribbean. Ah, of course. We then go the Caribbean, through the magic of the movies...

Professor Wyman (John Carradine, whose face should not be allowed near anything that can be easily punctured) is preparing to launch his diving bell. Lauri Talbott (Sheila Noonan) and Craig Randall (our star, Robert Clarke) wait on deck, drinking coffee (which will become an important motif, right out of the Coleman Francis Guide to Beverages in Movies). A foursome is ready to descend—Lauri, Craig, Paul Whitmore (Allen Windsor), and Dale Marshall (Phyllis Coates), the latter a reporter who is “only going down in that contraption” to get some cool pictures of...something or other. Dale is informed that “Tom” (purportedly her husband or fiancé) couldn’t make it, she is handed a letter from him, and she takes off a ring and throws it overboard. This may or may not explain why she spends the rest of the movie being such a...if you'll pardon the term...bitch.

They all clamber down into the bell, where John Carradine incoherently mumbles what is apparently supposed to be a send-off speech of great profundity, but sounds like something someone would drunkenly mutter at a bar just before last call. They are going “deeper” than anyone has ever gone before (though not as deep as John Carradine would sink—Red Zone Cuba and “Night Train to Mundo Fine,” anyone? ), and Carradine is sad that he won’t be going down with them—and why isn’t he, come to think of it? He mutters some 1950s-esque sexist lines about the menfolk looking after the women—who get scared, of course—then gets his own butt out of there with remarkable rapidity.

And down they go, their progress measure by what looks like a Fisher-Price “My First Depth Gauge.” And that diving bell was built using a Brady House-like warping of space, as it is much larger on the inside than the outside. Unless it’s a TARDIS, of course, but we can probably rule that out.

They stay in contact with John Carradine over the radio—and Carradine over a cheap radio sounds like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. He’s impossible to understand; no wonder the whole project goes horribly awry. At about 1700 feet, the lights start to flicker, and everyone gets worried. Craig reports that “something is buckling” and “the cable slipped” and Carradine loses contact. His repeated shouting of “Craig!” fails to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, back in California, Dr. Matheny—whose hairline, I swear, has receded dramatically since the first scene of the movie—receives an urgent phone call informing him that something has gone wrong with Carradine’s diving bell. “Tsk. The conditions in which I deal,” Dr. Matheny says philosophically (albeit cryptically). He informs Jim Wyman that Carradine’s bell broke loose at 1700 feet.

Back on Carradine’s boat, a reporter grills John Carradine, who takes full responsibility for whatever happened. The reporter says, “The public will take a dim view of your research.” “I suppose so,” murmurs Carradine. Remember, this was the 1950s, when diving bell expeditions captured the public imagination much like the Moon landing a decade later.

Down in the bell itself, the foursome regain consciousness, which they had apparently lost, for reasons passing understanding. And as is always the case in these movies, they regain consciousness in order of star billing. Paul awakens the women using smelling salts (smelling salts? on a diving expedition?) and Dale immediately starts freaking out and collapses sobbing into the waiting arms of one of the menfolk.

Craig and Paul discuss their predicament and their impending death, as they don’t have a lot of oxygen. They talk about what might have been, and Craig, who had been looking forward to the dive, says, “Ah, well, I probably wouldn’t have seen any new sea creatures—” at which point he dashes over to the porthole and realizes (wrongly) that they are on what seems to be a shelf not far below the surface of the water—and they rightfully wonder how they could have risen back up after having descended so far. (I think they’re all asking that of themselves right about now.) “I for one couldn’t care less,” says the intrepid leader.

They immediately leave the bell. Now, how they open the hatch on the top without flooding the thing is a very good question. They bob around a bit in wet suits and swim fins, the first of many many such scenes. Meanwhile, up on the boat, they are picked up on sonar. It turns out that they are not close to the surface, and John Carradine muses that if they left the bell the pressure would crush them. They should be picking up their bodies floating to the surface. And, yet, they have not been crushed. Unfortunately.

There is some padding—I mean, swimming—and they end up in an undersea cavern near the ocean floor, complete with air and everything. Why they were not crushed by the pressure is not explained.

On the boat, John Carradine is asked, “How long before the bodies float to the surface?” by a crewmember who has an unusual idea of small talk. We then learn that the bell was completely funded by John Carradine, as no university had any confidence in the project. Gee, it’s hard to see why. They then reiterate the idea that Carradine’s brother in California has designed and built another bell. “It’ll be interesting to see where mine failed. I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that.” Geez, could he be more gloomy?

Meanwhile, in Tucson—I mean, underwater—the divers discover that the caverns go on for miles and miles. They muse about the fact that it may take a very long time to find a way out and rise back to the surface. But why? Even if, as they say, the bell hit the bottom and rolled into “one of these openings,” it can’t be that hard to find the way out. Oh, and if you’re wondering why there is light down there, it’s because the caverns are made of phosphorus. Of course, phosphorus requires an initial light source in order to glow, but why quibble at this point? Besides, we find out later that there’s air because an underwater volcano is spewing out oxygen. So let’s not get into the habit of looking for sensible explanations for these things!

The menfolk go back to the bell to get spears and shoes, so they can fish for food. There is some more deep padding as they forge implements in the bell into spears, and comment that one of the oxygen tanks is nearly empty. They then swim back to the cave, amidst stock footage of fish.

On the boat, John Carradine and the ship’s captain (I think that’s who that is) are enjoying some coffee while pointing out that a storm is approaching. Of course there is! There is always a storm approaching when an undersea rescue needs to be made. The sonar officer reports in that he saw two “masses” moving "not like dead bodies." The captain insists that it was a fish he saw and that it’s a waste of time waiting for the bodies to rise to the top. (Wait--is that what they have been doing there?)

Back in the cavern, the divers are eating and preparing for sleep. They wonder if they’ll be able to find enough fish (um, they’re under the ocean) and Craig says he saw some planktonic shrimp (aren’t they really tiny?). Craig and Paul muse upon where they are and how Craig—the experienced diver—has never been lower than 200 feet and had never heard about these underwater caverns. Paul goes off to sleep, saying “I’ll probably dream about breaking an altitude record in a helium balloon.” Ha ha. It would be so easy to kill him....

The next day, the foursome are wandering through the caverns. For the record, it is not “petrified,” and it is certainly not “incredible.” They come upon a cutaway to stock footage of a gila monster which hisses, then they walk away nonchalantly. Whew! That was close! They then find fresh water and drink like fi— well, they drink a lot.

The ladyfolk sit down and rest (being the weaker sex, natch) and Dale takes out the letter that she was given earlier on the boat from “Tom” which is impossible to read. Call it the “Illegible Petrified Word.” At any rate, it’s apparently a kiss-off note. She crumples it up; Lauri tries to be consoling, but Dale snaps at her. “There’s nothing friendly between two females. There never is and there never will be.” Youch. Lauri suggests they try to help one another, yet Dales rebuffs her suggestion, saying that who needs help “when there are two men around.” The 1950s!

There is then some more padding—I mean, walking. They reach an impasse and, deciding that they can’t squeeze through tiny cracks, decide to turn back and...there is...more...walking... Now fighting

There is an abrupt cut to Craig with his shirt off flexing in front of the women, for no adequately explored reason (one shudders to think) while Paul is off looking for shrimp. A typical 1950s leading male hunk type, he kind of resembles a ball of Crisco rolled in hair. He slowly puts his shirt on and boasts of how many shrimp he can eat. Ladies, are you turned on yet?

Paul yells from offscreen and they run toward him, where they discover a human skeleton. Lauri caterwauls “Craig!” with a voice that sounds like a giant parrot run over by a steamroller. They look, and lurking behind a rock, watching them, is an old man who looks like the “It’s” guy from Monty Python’s Flying Circus with giant carpet remnants pasted on to his face. “What on Earth?” asks Dale, apparently never having seen an old guy before. Paul says, “Boy, are we glad to see you!” Um, why, exactly? the old guy has a weird speech impediment (he sounds like Droopy the cartoon dog on Quaaludes). The old guy has been there for 14 years, trapped in a shipwreck. They then ask him if he knows the way out—a stupid question, since he just said that he’s been there for 14 years! The old guys says “The air comes from a volcano two miles away.” Ah, of course....Huh? “Do you want to see my home?” the old guy asks. No! For the love of all that’s holy, no! No! No! But they go anyway.

The old guy’s home is festooned with dangling fish mobiles—it kind of looks like an infant’s crib. He offers to make them dinner...”I have enough for all of you.” Why? Does he get a lot of company?

There is another cut and Craig’s got his shirt off again. Paul and he muse about the old guy—doubting his story about the shipwreck. Yeah, that certainly does sound implausible.

The menfolk go off with the old guy to the volcano, for some reason, which may have been interesting (doubt it, though), but instead of the movie going with them we are treated to the two ladyfolk sitting beside a pool musing about spending the rest of their lives there and how Dale hates the sun (there’s a surprise). That scene peters out and the menfolk return; “That volcano’s there, all right, spouting air by the ton.” Yeah. Lauri takes her turn to freak out, as she realizes that there is no way out. The men of course have gotten used to the idea. Craig takes this time to proclaim his love for Lauri. She, of course had longed to hear him say that. They kiss and the old guy gets even more upsetting by ogling them.

We then abruptly cut to California, where Dr. Matheny (whose hair has again receded even further) gets in a car that is bigger than John Carradine’s research boat. He tunes the car radio to K-PLOT, a plot-specific news broadcast, that announces that the California Marine Research has abandoned their launch of the diving bell.

Meanwhile, John Carradine catches a flight to California (I wonder if he could get his face through security these days—it could be used as a weapon to hijack a plane). The plane lands and it appears as if he has walked from the airport to the Marine Research of California headquarters, which is located in what looks like a toolshed. Still, they have a receptionist and everything, although it really looks a lot like my dentist’s office. He has an appointment to see Dr. Matheny and/or get his teeth cleaned. Then again, Carradine does sound like he’s already been shot up with Novacaine, so maybe this is a follow-up exam on a root canal or something.
Carradine is upset that Matheny has given up the diving bell expedition, but then expresses surprise that the other bell is similar in design to his own. Dr. Matheny reaches under his desk and—ta da!—pulls out a model of the diving bell. Well, “model” is probably a bit optimistic; it’s a semicircular piece of plastic with a porthole cut into it. Not exactly a working model. A picture scrawled on a cocktail napkin would be more detailed. Carradine proposes making a second dive himself in Matheny’s bell. He claims he knows where the bell failed—apparently, he made the bell too good (shades of "the computer was too perfect" perhaps) and yet he had neglected to take into account the pressure pushing up on the bell from below. Huh? Anyway, Matheny is easily talked into it. “Oh, you’d just find the resources to build another one anyway and it would just mean an unnecessary delay.”

There then follows a montage (accompanied by jaunty music) of Carradine and a bunch of others making and building...things (what they are exactly, no one can say). At one point, Carradine uses his own face to bore holes through cast iron disks. (Well, not really, but he could.)

Under the water, while the menfolk have gone back to the bell to recover the items they’ll need, the ladies bicker with each other. Dale throws a nutty and says she won’t be dominated. (She's got some issues.) Meanwhile, conscious of the fact that the air in the oxygen tanks is running out, the men obviously have to make as few trips as possible and carry as much as they can in each trip. So they return, one of them carrying a single metal disk (why is that necessary?) and the other uses every ounce of his strength to carry a small length of rope. There is then more swimming as they go back for more things.

The second bell dive is underway, and a radio voice announces that he has found the original bell “100 feet below me. And unless I’m crazy, I see two men in the water.” What are the odds both can't be true? And not a moment too soon as the air in Paul’s tank has run out, and Craig pulls him inside the second bell where someone (who?) is waiting.

And thus comes my favorite exchange of the movie:
“How long has he been out of air?”
“Just a few minutes.”
“I’ve got some coffee.”
Ah, the coffee motif pays off! Yes, the first thing you should give someone who has been drowning is coffee. Coleman Francis, eat your heart out!

Underwater, the creepy old guy starts fondling Dale, saying “I like you much more than the others.” He suggests they kill the others, like he killed “Maurice.” Then they can be alone. She screams, and the shrillness of her scream triggers the volcano to erupt (?). The old guy stands still while styrofoam boulders rain down on his head (moving two feet to the right would have saved his life). The women flee from stock footage of rockslides and lava flows. Craig has returned to the cavern for the girls, but is beaned by falling rocks and knocked unconscious, but only until the girls find him, at which point he wakes up and leads them to safety. Of course. There is more stock footage, things catch on fire for some reason, and we dissolve to the bell where everyone is safe. Dale apologizes to Lauri for having been a bitch, and they drink coffee (of course!).

Cut to the boat, topside, everyone cheering a successful rescue. Craig says, “Room to breathe. I never thought about it much, but there is nothing greater.” Uh, yeah, I guess not. The captain of the ship dreams of a two-inch steak, and everyone cheers.

Fade out.

Well. The title, of course, has nothing to do with anything in the movie. And while the running time was only 64 minutes, it easily felt like it was longer than all three of The Lord of the Rings movies combined. The lesson to be learned, of course, is that if you are going on a groundbreaking yet dangerous dive into the very depths of the ocean, make sure you bring along enough coffee.