Below lay the tomb world, the immutable cause-and-effect world of the demonic. At the median extended the layer of the human, but at any instant a man could plunge—descend as if sinking—into the hell-layer beneath. Or: he could ascend to the ethereal world above…
--From The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
So there’s two “yous” in these notes, Chris, you my traveling companion, my step-dad, and then there’s the you of this journal. That second you I don’t always use, because it’s dumb, like “Dear Diary”-dumb, like I am a girl on a twentieth-century TV show addressing in the second-person a cheap blank book with flowers on the cover and a chintzy lock that any mean brother or sister could easily break. But sometimes I speak nonetheless to this journal directly even though it’s dumb. Chris: you are taking me on a trip today for a reason that I can’t guess at and which I haven’t bothered to ask about because I really want to go no matter what your own motive is. Diary: you will suck up my thoughts when I have them and then recede like something dimly perceived in binoculars, moving away, when I don’t have them.
We’re in the base of the Ankh, that giant metal thing from the 1960s that towers over the downtown of Argos-Bellona, because it is the only local structure suitable to be retrofitted as a dock for airships. You texted me a few days ago that the airship Atreides was arriving in town, stopping for a couple hours to take on new passengers for a journey northward to Transcanada and then later to Gotham. You implied by the very act of letting me know about this opportunity that I would be excited about it because I would hope that an old friend of mine would still be among the crew of that ship and that I would reunite joyously with him. But you were kind enough to not actually say a single word about this possibility—that he would be there—because you are worried that it will break my heart—and then eventually yours—when we board the ship and discover that he is not there anymore. It will break my heart, but I am ready for it, and I am ready to let it not break yours. I will wear a tough guise, a face of great confidence, a mask that proves that I am still excited about this airship journey because I am doing it with you, and certainly not because I expect to see someone else. You will believe this because it’s what will make the first few hours aboard so much easier on us both. This is always how I’ve done it, Chris, even when Dad was still with us. It needs to be even more this way now that we are alone together. Believe me. I am wiser than your years.
Dear Diary: Look at Chris sitting here on that decroded bench in this makeshift gate area under the Ankh waiting for our flight. Doesn’t he look weirdly old today? As he gazes down into his tablet, his jaw hangs kind of slack and I don’t think he shaved this morning, which is weird. He seems crumpled in his seat and looks kind of tired and paunchy. I know he is wearing a winter jacket because it’s cold as fuck today, but it bulges and enfolds him like he is no longer muscular on his own, like he is relying on a slack and puffy exoskeleton to hold him just barely upright. He’s been prematurely gray almost as long as I have known him, almost back to when Brace (aka “Dad”, my father) first married him, but he has never usually failed to correct for that. Today he looks gray, let go on purpose, degraded. It kind of pisses me off, not because it matters so much what he looks like but because it doesn’t seem like he made the effort to make this Big Day Big Enough by looking his best. No: that’s not it. This is it: it makes me feel like he is forcing himself to do a big favor for me, taking me aboard the Atreides on a grand voyage where I will just be disappointed. He sees that coming. I want to sit next to him and hug him and tell him it’s okay, no big deal, fuck it all, who cares as long as we get to spend some nice time together?
Instead I tell him that I am hungry. We have just learned that boarding has been delayed for two hours and that we must sit and wait. There is a food court on the bottom level. Do you want something? I ask. They have, I say, gyros, falafel, dolmades, hummus, pizza, Korean tacos, General Tso’s chicken sandwiches, pastrami sandwiches, bagels with salmon caviar. You aver, Chris, that you are not hungry (hard to believe) but tell me to go ahead and get something for myself if I want. Instead, I say that I am going to go outside and smoke a cigarette. You hate it that I still smoke, but you don’t complain about it too much this time. Instead, still gazing at your tablet, you advise me that going out to smoke will mean that I will then have to come back in through the security checkpoint. That’s fine, I say. There’s plenty of time, I say, and I don’t mind getting felt up by the soldiers. This does not get a rise out of you, so I leave you to your tablet and head outside onto the chilly Ankh Plaza.
Outside the airship Atreides hangs high overhead under the gray sky, docked by cables and a gangway to the top of the Ankh. We have no idea why boarding has been delayed for so long since the ship is clearly here already. As big as the Ankh is, the Atreides seems so much bigger and maybe even bigger than you and I had remembered it the last time we (you and me, Chris) had seen it anchored above the Obelisk at the Capital. It is over a kilometer long, and from below it’s just an enormous black thing casting a giant cock-shaped shadow over downtown. I am put in mind of steampunk depictions of airships being enormous battleships plowing through the skies of a world that never knew planes. In real life, they came back in the form of ships like this because conventional commercial aircraft couldn't navigate the Dust. But the Dust left us last year and planes fly just fine again now. But the Dust recurred this year in the Southern Hemisphere, and so it might not be done yet, it might come back here. And so the airships remain somewhat popular for some people like me.
As I finish my cigarette I notice someone standing quite near me, looking at me. A young man a couple or few years older than me, he is smoking, too, but he makes an elaborate effort to hold the smoldering cigarette behind his back until he needs to drag on it, and when he does that, he turns his neck to the right as far as he can, takes a desperate and deep drag, exhales laboriously and again returns the smoke-hand to his back. This is probably because he has a baby boy strapped to his chest. It’s like he is saying: Yes, I am a horrible dad because I am outside with this extremely tiny child SMOKING but I am a slave to nicotine and at least I am TRYING to keep it out of the kid’s face! I’m a loser! So KILL me! The forward-facing kid is very small and all of his extremities come to a point. His two mittens hang loose, he wears elf-toed booties, his head is mostly covered in a knitted cap that rises to a tasseled, bedazzled magic-wand burst. He looks like a glittered starfish hanging from his dad’s chest. And he’s very sleepy, opening his eyes just a bit and then giving up on it totally.
Do you know, this dude says, if it hurts their ears when you go up on these things?
I wanted clarification, and he saw this before I asked for it. He said that he knows that those air pressure changes on airplanes bother everyone’s ears and can freak out babies. Is it like that on airships like the Atreides? Do I know? Have I done this before?
They don’t, I say, fly as high as passenger planes, so it’s not as bad. And the ascent and descent is very gradual. I have only done it once—on this very ship—and it didn’t bother me. But I added that I didn't have a lot of experience with airplanes either, having only taken them a couple times when I was doing the study-abroad thing. And that did bother my ears, but I don’t bother telling him that. This isn’t an airplane.
We smoke another one together and the starfish naps on his chest. He doesn't try as hard this time to keep the cig nowhere near the kid, and he tells me that he is going to visit his family in Wisconsin and that he is alone in the world with this kid, the starfish. It reminds me of how Brace might have been with me when I was a baby—a solo dad—and kind of how Chris is with me now: a surviving step-dad. I tell him this: Relax before the flight. If you want to come inside with me, bro, I’ll blow you in the restroom. You don’t have to do anything in return. Seriously.
He looks at me, eyes agape, and glances down: like, dude, there’s a starfish hanging on my chest. But he’s asleep, I observe. He’ll never know.
Even though you said you didn’t want anything from the food court, I bring you a beef short-rib taco with kim chi in it and you love it. You also love the egg-and-chorizo pizza slice that I bought for myself but decided I didn't want after all. I say to you: after I smoked, I ended up blowing a random dude in the restroom. He got off like crazy, and he had a starfish strapped to his chest.
No you didn’t, you say. I don’t believe you.
Whatever, I say, you’re right, I didn't, and I change my mind for a second about the pizza. Give me a bite, I say, right when it looks like you might suck down the last of it. I lunge and bite into it, right out of your hand, against your mouth, it’s mashed against your face, egg yolk drips between us and I give you a little kiss on your mouth. Thanks for taking me on an airship today, I say. You are stunned and wipe your lips with the back of your wrist. You don’t look so old and tired at that moment.
Diary, this shit: The boarding delay continues and extends. We are not told why, but it has something to do with a general security alert in Argos-Bellona. Oh shit! some dumbass calls out in the gate area, oh shit! call the Homeland Suh-cure-ah-tay! Call the Homeland Security, yo! But it’s got something to do with some kind of nonsense in the news about terrorism in Bizonia and it happens that the Atreides is a ship flagged in Bizonia. It's really a transnational operation with no loyalties, but it flies the Bizonian flag because it must have a flag, but relations with Bizonia are very hit-or-miss. When a right-wing government runs America, we get on fine with them. When it’s a left-wing government in America, as it is currently, we don’t. Bizonia is an authoritarian kleptocracy, and supposedly a haven for terrorists. Hence, call the Homeland Security. I expect it will be cleared up in an hour or so but in the meantime, I need to do something with Chris so that he doesn’t decline into tiredness and age again because he looked so healthy and young with egg yolk on his lips.
I drag you into the video game arcade adjacent to our gate area. You don’t look very impressed with this move at first, but then I notice it clearly when you seem to single out immediately one particularly bulky machine. It’s a retrofit of a Soviet-Era Kandy Krush machine. Of course, on its gaudy onion-domed and Kremlin-assed nameplate, “Krush” is spelled with a backward “R” to indicate its Russian lineage even though that backward R letter is pronounced “yah” in Russian and so it makes no sense at all in this word. But, whatever. You feed it tokens and I realize that I have never once seen you play a game. I remember that you actively hate games and I am embarrassed that I forgot this about you and that I dragged you in here. But you tell me that Brace liked this game a lot. Your dad loved this shit, you say. He used to play the tablet version all the time years ago. I hated it, you say, but now I kind of wish I would have said yes when he asked me to play it with him. Because now I will never get to. I am terrified for one long and stifling and protracted moment that you will cry. But you don’t. You look at the screen clear-eyed and make shit happen to kandy.
Chris, I say to you, as you play Kandy Krush, was I ever a starfish strapped onto Brace’s chest like that kid I saw earlier? Did I ever hang there like that while he tried to smoke around me?
You don’t answer, so I ask the whole thing again, word for fuckin’ word. Finally, you say, I have no idea, kiddo. I wasn’t around until you were already six. And I don’t think Brace had you yet when you were quite that little. Not starfish-little. Your mother’s mother brought you to him a bit after that, I think when you were two.
You are not telling me anything I don’t already know. We have had essentially this same dialogue a thousand times and it contains no information that Brace himself did not share with me many years ago. It's not always about being a starfish, its details vary wildly, but it’s always somehow the same basic dialogue, sometimes short like this time, sometimes strung out over days. We like to do it as a preamble, an A-okay, when I want to be your kid and you want me to be your kid. It clears the air somehow. I watch you play Kandy Krush and you let just a little bit of a smile smear your face as you do it.