Certain questions will plague me to my grave. The larger ones, I have, with maturity, made peace with in a way, accepting that answers will most likely be denied me in this life. Questions such as “Where does love go when it is gone?” or “Why suffering on the scale of the Holocaust?” or “Can the paradoxical nature of free will ever be understood?” Who can say? It seems reasonable, however, that some of the lesser questions that haunt me might be answered; those with their roots in the world of men and not the fundamental mysteries of human existence. I refer to questions such as “Why are frozen peas all the same size?” or “Can a green flash on the horizon at sunset truly be witnessed? Does it occur independent of sight? Is it a function of man’s cornea and iris? The atmospheric distortion of sunlight? Or are those people who keep saying they see it out of their damned minds?
As I wrestle with these questions in the dead of night over a Farmer’s Brothers large coffee and a chocolate donut, staring out at the fog on Midway Drive and listening to my watch ticking the minutes east of midnight, I am confronted with one immediate question in neon lights. If I turn away or close my eyes, I see the ghost of the sign in the window of Yum Yum Donuts: OPEN 24 HOURS, followed by the question my mind’s eye presents to me: WHY?
I am the only customer. No one has come in for almost an hour. The sporadic swelling of headlights out of the fog as some lone vehicle makes its way through the night toward Rosecrans. The Doppler traces of taillights, shrinking like dying coals on their way to I-8. Point Loma and the ocean are the only movement beyond the glass. My reflection, lifting the paper coffee cup or brushing chocolate crumbs from my lap, startles me after long moments of stillness. The neon-stained concrete of the parking lot between Yum Yum and Los Panchos Taco Shop join sluggish wraiths of mist at the sidewalk that form and dissolve, advancing or retreating from the far side of the street. Boot World’s extinguished lights and 7-Eleven’s garish illumination eclipse in the pearlescent darkness. I am plagued by morbid thoughts. Madness threatens to overtake me. I have kept this vigil no sane man should undertake for several hours now. What am I doing in a donut shop in the middle of the night?
I am eating donuts, I remind myself, and it is time for another one. I set down the paperback of Colin Wilson’s Mind Parasites. This disturbing, supernatural novel of ideas has given rise to huge, unanswerable questions. My attempt to concentrate on what should be a more explicable and mundane phenomenon is met with another kind of existential paralysis. I consider alternative reading material from my plastic bag of pulp fiction and study the choices of pastry laid out before me on trays, beneath glass and fluorescent lights.
In reading matter as well as dietary matters, you are what you eat — or read. That is clear.
Mmm...cream-filled long johns beckon me.
I see now that bringing along the ’60s science-fiction novel that inspired me so much as a young man was probably a mistake. It is far too heady for my immediate purposes, and that is inspiration. I’ve got to write something fast, and this novel about the innately flawed functions of reality interpretation is probably too ambitious. Let’s see what else I have.
Ah, here is a novel by Barry Malzberg, again science fiction. It’s been years since I’ve written the stuff, but Malzberg is certainly a paradigm of genius on deadline. He has written entire classics in the field (still in print) over a weekend, armed, if he himself is to be believed (and why not?), with only economic necessity, whiskey, and amphetamines. I have one of those vital ingredients tonight (I will be modest and forgo mention of any estimation of my own genius). Galaxies is a slim volume, and on casual perusal I can see that it too is only apparently escapist. It appears, in fact, to be an almost Jungian analysis of the genre itself:
“...the spacecraft Skipstone, on an exploratory flight...falls into the black galaxy of a neutron star and is lost forever....”
Flipping through the pages I find scenes and dialogue like this one where Lena, the starship captain, appears to be the only human on board. She is surrounded with dead crewmembers and cyborgs. Her conversations with the cyborgs are set against the backdrop of interstellar night and the “clamorous murmur” that “seems to arise from the hold as if all of the dead were shrieking in exquisite pain.”
“...Now listen here. Listen to me and attend this. You’ve fallen into a neutron star, a black funnel. It’s utterly beyond your puny capacities to escape it, and the dimension of what has happened here would reduce you to inconsequence. What can be done against forces like these? You’ve got to submit, got to accept the situation.”
“I don’t want to believe that,” Lena says.
“You had better.”
“Man can overcome anything. He can voyage anywhere.”
“But he cannot voyage out.”
“What he sees he understands; what he understands, he can master. Nothing is beyond us.”
“That’s puerile thinking.” “No it isn’t.”
And so on. It is an eschatological debate in deep space. Reading this, alone, late at night in a donut shop in the fog, is unnerving. I see now that Malzberg has disguised consequences of the Diaspora, the Holocaust, and Heart of Darkness as space opera and adolescent power fantasy. I set the book down and approach the counter.
I signal Chim Ny, the Cambodian woman deep-frying batter in the back of the shop. She smiles and approaches, wiping her hands on her apron. She betrays no sign of surprise or judgment as I make my fifth confectionery selection of the night. If anything, I sense she approves of my choice. Her husband spares me a look of blank curiosity. I reach around my neck for my camera strap, lift the device, and take his picture.