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  • The Vale of Cashmere

  • by Sean Elder

    green forest

    This story first appeared in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others.

     

    Truth was, she used to be able to organize her thoughts, until Floyd retired. Now he was always hanging around talking to her, asking what she was doing. Every time he went out, which wasn’t often enough for her taste, he would ask her if she needed anything and then look angry if she did. Sometimes he’d look angry if she didn’t. Now she looked for errands for him, just to get a moment’s peace. When she sent him off for milk this morning she could have lived without it. But she couldn’t have stood listening to him complain about the bus ride to Atlantic City before it happened, not non-stop for the next two hours.

    “You’re creating your future,” she told him. “Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, that becomes your reality.”

    “Don’t give me that shit,” he’d said, putting on his coat and hat. He had been wearing that same damned hat with the stingy brim so long it had come back in style.

    “It’s the law of attraction,” she’d continued. “You can deny it all you want but that don’t mean it’s not true. “Everything coming into your life you are attracting into your life. You’re like a magnet.”

    “Well, this magnet’s going to attract some milk,” he’d said before going out the door.

    He had made fun of her ever since she first heard Oprah talking about The Secret but deep down she thought that maybe he believed her. Or would, if he would just give it a try. He would come home so angry about something that happened out there – the security guy asleep in the chair, or someone who wouldn’t give his seat up on the subway – and she would tell him, “Every bad thing that comes into your life, you make happen.”

    Sometimes that really made Floyd angry. “Is that right? Every bad thing? I made happen every bad thing that came into my life, Marcy?” He would tower over her, breathing heavily, staring at the top of her lacquered hair until she was silent.

    She looked closely at the big digits on the clock by the bed. It was almost 8:30 and she still had not done her makeup. From the drawer in the nightstand on her side of the bed she looked for her own pill organizer and then realized she had already taken it out. She put it under the light, right beside that picture of her two boys, smiling in the lap of a black Santa, and looked at Wednesday. There were still pills in the morning box but the evening box was empty. Maybe she took the evening pills by mistake. Not that it mattered ‘cause they were basically the same. Or maybe she hadn’t filled the PM part.

    Looking at the rainbow colored compartments (Wednesday was green, Thursday red) she thought of Wilson, who had the hardest time with his R’s when he was little – “Weeding Wainbow,” he would say about his favorite show, and his brother would laugh at him. She felt overcome for a moment and then heard her husband’s keys in the door.

    She took the morning pills, four altogether, as Floyd shouted at her from the kitchen.

    “Do you know how much they wanted for a half-gallon of milk?” She imagined his face as he said the price and the way he would look at her afterwards. He might be looking that way right now, even though she wasn’t there.

    “Cost of everything is going up,” she yelled back. Then she stood and headed for the bathroom. “I got to get a move on.”

    “Ain’t you even going to drink your milk?” She heard him swear as she closed the bathroom door.

    The bus driver turned out to be some white guy who’d been sleeping in the back while people waited outside. The whole bus was talking about it, even after they got out of the Holland Tunnel and were getting on the turnpike, people tisking and hmm-hmming until Floyd wanted to yell, “Who told you to stand out there in the first place? It’s not even cold.” But he kept quiet and sat by a window, alone thank you very much, though Tommy insisted on sitting right in front of him, while Marcy huddled on the other side with a bunch of ladies. They outnumbered the men five to one anyway; he let Tommy represent, going back and forth across the aisle like some congressman making a deal. Each time he went over to the ladies he would say something so low that Floyd couldn’t hear and they would all laugh and holler.

    “I think it’s about time for some music,” Tommy said after one of his sorties. He had a gym bag with him that also said Mets on it, and from it he pulled a boom box that he tried to balance on the seatback in front of him. He pushed play and Johnnie Taylor started in on “Who’s Making Love” and the ladies all laughed, even though the sound was kind of wobbly. From the front of the bus the driver said something, they could see him looking at them in the rear view mirror, but no one tried to hear him. In fact Tommy stood up, with the boom box on his shoulder, and started to shake it in the aisle, which made the driver get on the mike.

    “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down.” He had some kind of accent, Russian or something, but no one really paid him any mind.

    The hits kept coming; it must have been some kind of collection since Floyd never heard a deejay. Tommy jammed the boom box between the headrest and the window so it wouldn’t fall down and turned around to look at Floyd, but not before looking at the driver, who had his eyes on the road again.

    “How ‘bout a little taste?” Tommy said, taking a half-pint in a brown bag from the pocket of his jacket.

    “Too early for me,” Floyd said, looking out the window. To him it always looked like New Jersey was halfway through being torn down.

    Across the aisle Marcy was in the middle of a conversation with the other ladies but she didn’t feel quite right. It started as soon as she left the building; she had picked out a brooch to go with her blue blouse, a little gold tree with red apples on it, but she had left it sitting in front of the mirror. Now she felt naked, all that blue stretching out below her chin like an empty ocean almost and she felt like she was being pulled back from drowning each time one of them stopped talking. That meant somebody was supposed to say something, you were supposed to jump in like it was a game of double-Dutch.

    “What I value most is the privacy,” Marcy said, but no one answered. She had a feeling she had said that before. The topic was assisted living and how to know when you needed it.

    “Until you wake up privately dead,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. Marcy didn’t remember meeting her before, a friend of Helen’s was how she was introduced, but she didn’t like her now. She had these gray and white streaks in her hair, extensions by the look of it, but it reminded Marcy of mud. Besides she was probably the youngest woman of the bunch, what was she talking about dying for?

    “My boy checks in on us every night,” said Marcy and immediately wondered why she had. It wasn’t true. Most times she had to call Eric and he never sounded too happy to hear from her. He did come to visit though, once a month at least. They saw less of him after his divorce, though you’d think it would be the other way around.

    “Where are we?” she said suddenly, looking out the window. Everything looked the same.

    “You keep asking that,” the lady in the Kente cloth said, or maybe she said. Marcy wasn’t looking at her and the music Tommy was playing made her feel lost.

    “Sending this one out for all you ladies,” said Tommy, like he was some deejay, and they all laughed but Marcy didn’t think it was funny. It was that song about sitting on a park bench that always made her sad. “I see her face everywhere I go/on the street and even at the picture show/have you seen her?”

    There was a hospital up there high on a hill and for a second she felt that the bus was going to take off and fly straight up to its doors. She closed her eyes and felt herself rise.

    They parked in the lot of the Showboat casino. Though they could have gone anywhere they wanted, the thirty odd passengers that disembarked made for the Showboat as if summoned, shuffling and limping toward the entrance in a broken conga line.

    “No one says we got to go to this casino,” Floyd said to the crowd of ladies leading the way.

    “The Showboat has a Mardi Gras theme,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. She turned around to give Floyd the fisheye, pulling down her glasses as she did. “Besides, we got coupons for the Showboat.”

    He fell in line sullenly beside Tommy who offered him another drink. Floyd took a swallow this time without pulling down the brown paper to see what it was. It tasted like mouthwash.

    “Jesus, what the hell you drinking?”

    “Little peppermint schnapps.” Tommy tried to slap Floyd on the back but the big man danced away, handing the bottle back as he moved.

    “What she mean by a ‘Mardi Gras theme,’ anyway?” Floyd said.

    Tommy shrugged. “As long as they got free drinks and blackjack I don’t much care.”

    Seagulls screamed overhead. Floyd saw his reflection scowling in the window of a parked Humvee. He went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras when he was in the Navy, how many years ago? He got lost and someone stole his wallet. A man dressed as a woman tried to put beads around his neck, he remembered. You could have your Mardi Gras.

    Marcy was among the first of the women to enter the casino and the air conditioning hit her like a cold wave. “Good thing I remembered my shawl!” she said but no one answered. The music and the sound of the slot machines, dinging and ringing with sirens going off every five minutes as if some crime was being committed, swallowed her voice.

    Marcy had thought to bring rolls of quarters and silver dollars. While the other ladies were getting change she was already pouring her silver into a red plastic cup provided to her by a girl in the shortest skirt she had ever seen.

    “You must be freezing!” Marcy said but the girl didn’t seem to hear her. Maybe she just got tired of people trying to talk to her.

    The slots area had thousands of machines and at noon it was already half filled, mostly old timers like her and Floyd. He and Tommy had set off in the other direction like there was a sign saying ‘Men, That Way.’ The carpets were in a pattern of red and orange and gold that reminded her of a kaleidoscope and the ceiling was made up to look like stained glass, though she knew real stained glass when she saw it and this wasn’t it. She felt like if she didn’t sit down she might just fall into the colors. She sat down at a quarter machine and began feeding it. She didn’t know where the other ladies had gone and looking over her shoulder left her none the wiser.

    “Y’all gonna have to find me,” she said and as if summoned a different lady in a short skirt appeared.

    “How you doing today?” she said. She had a tray filled with drinks and a notepad tucked into her belt. “Can I get you something to drink?”

    “Well I suppose you can!” Marcy turned in her chair to show her appreciation. “My name’s Marcy by the way, I come here from Brooklyn with a bunch of folks from my church group.”

    “Now isn’t that nice? My name’s Kim Sue. What can I get you?”

    Marcy smiled and opened her mouth. But she could not think of the names of any drinks, not just the fancy ones but any drink. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back underneath her blouse.

    “It’s funny,” she said, embarrassed. “My mind’s just a blank today.”

    “Sure, no problem!” Kim Sue smiled back at her like one of those Chinese dolls, her name right there on her badge. “We have beer and wine and soda and mixed drinks.” She kept smiling at Marcy and continued. “I could make you a nice white wine spritzer, if you like.”

    “Oh, that sounds nice,” said Marcy, and it did sound nice, like a sprinkler in the summer time, the kind the boys used to play in. Kim Sue left and Marcy returned to the machine. Cherries and plums rolled past, never stopping at the same time.

    Eric used to chase Wilson through the sprinklers in the park and sometimes when Marcy wasn’t looking he would hold his little brother down and try to pull off his shorts in front of all the other children. She would get so mad at him, always teasing like that, knowing it would make Wilson cry and come looking for her, but she had a job then, looking after a little white boy named Oskar whose parents lived in Park Slope and worked all the time. Oskar’a parents didn’t mind too much when she brought her boys with her when she took him to the park. “As long as you remember,” the father said, “that Oskar is your first priority.”

    Well of course he is, mister doctor man! Why would my own flesh and blood come before your little prince? Good gracious, the things that man would say. If the wife heard him she would weigh in and try to soften the blow. “What my husband means is that we don’t want you to get too distracted. Three children is a handful.”

    Now that was the kind of thing only a white person would say. Where she came from three children was just getting started, even if she was done after Wilson, something her own mother could never understand.

    “Oh, don’t worry, ma’am,” Marcy would say. “I won’t ever let Oskar out of my sight.”

    All these people thinking someone was going to steal their child then, like the whole country had gone crazy. Soon they’d be putting their pictures on milk cartons and billboards and on TV during the news – “Have you seen Brandon?” Usually white kids. If a black kid went missing generally people know who took him.

    “Here you go, ma’am.”

    Kim Sue was back with her drink. It was in a big plastic cup with a straw that went in curlicues, like a roller coaster, like this was for a child. She started fishing in her coin cup.

    “Drinks are complimentary, ma’am.”

    Like I didn’t know that. She pulled out a Susan B. Anthony and put it on her tray. “That’s for you,” she said.

    “Very nice of you, ma’am. And if you need anything else you just let me know.”

    She turned to leave and Marcy was afraid to see her go. “Kim Sue, it’s like your momma gave you two names.”

    “Kim is my family name. Family name comes first in Korean.”

    “Is that right?” said Marcy. “Well I think family should come first, don’t you?”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    Marcy thought that was something else she should write in her book but realized that she hadn’t brought it with her, and then forgot what she had said. “But they probably don’t spell it like that in Korea, do they? The Sue, I mean.”

    “No, ma’am, we have a different alphabet.”

    “Now isn’t that something?”

    She was balancing a tray full of drinks while she talked to Marcy so she let her go, disappearing into the big Tiffany lamp around them. A band was playing Dixieland and Marcy strained her eyes to see them. The music seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

    “Let me tell you another,” she said, sipping on her drink. The lady at the machine next to her looked at Marcy and then moved away, taking her quarters with her. She watched as the drink spun up the straw when she sucked. Here we go loop de loop.

    Sometimes Eric would help her push the stroller as they went around the park, and Wilson would run so far ahead she would shout after him. “Don’t go where I can’t see you!” she’d holler, and Oskar, too big to be pushed around in a stroller, would try and stand up and yell after her. “Go where I can’t see you!”

    Wilson would hide like that at home as well; hide so good she couldn’t find him sometimes. They were living in Prospect-Lefferts, more house than they needed but you could afford those big limestone buildings then even on a Con Ed salary and Wilson would go into different rooms and be so quiet that she would get hysterical, be practically beside herself by the time her husband got home. Then they would hear him laughing. “Got you!” he would say and emerge from the cupboard or from behind the sideboard and Floyd would get so mad. That one time he came out of her closet wearing her bra and Floyd just about went crazy; took off his belt and chased him.

    She put in a coin and pulled the lever: a watermelon; a bell; the number seven in gold.

    “What numbers are you playing today?”

    She turned her head but nobody was there. Who had spoken? Just turning her head made the colors around her move and when she looked at the floor she saw the pattern there was moving too. It was like a flying carpet, the Vale of Cashmere –

    The Vale of Cashmere! That was the name of that strange corner of the park where she took the boys now and then. They were getting older; other boys took the place of Oskar, and Eric got too big to want to be with them. But Wilson kept her company as she made the rounds, bought them ice cream and wiped their sticky hands. People used to call it The Swamp and there was a muddy pond okay and some hanging trees.

    “How come you don’t play with boys your own age?” one of the kids had asked him once.

    “I just like to help my momma,” he’d said.

    He was the one who found out the real name of The Swamp, checked an old book out of the library and showed her on the map. There was a poem that went with it and Wilson stood up by the pond and put one finger in the air as he read: “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave?”

    Another babysitter saw them by the pond once and came over to warn them. “You shouldn’t be down in there,” she said, afraid to come too close with her stroller in front of her. “They say men get together down there.”

    And after that Marcy noticed them, lurking about, standing in the trees. Once when she came down with Wilson and a stroller two men ran out, going in different directions.

    She didn’t think about it again for years, until Wilson was grown and still living at home, and he came back one night that first time with his face all bloody, drunk or high on something and smiled at her, blood on his teeth.

    “Hey, Momma, I been to the Vale of Cashmere!”

    That’s when Floyd said no more.

    “What numbers are you playing today?”

    She turned and the colors whooshed like a scarf being wrapped around her head. She saw her this time, a little woman, no bigger than a dragonfly like the ones the boys chased in the park, Wilson would put them in a jar with holes punched in the top, while Eric tried to cover it up with his hand so they would smother.

    “I’m looking for three sevens,” Marcy said to the dragonfly woman. “Are there some other numbers to play?”

    “That is the question, isn’t it?” said the faerie. “Are there other numbers to play?”

    And then she flew away, just like a little hummingbird, and Marcy got up to follow her, passing into the pattern of colors and leaving her cup of coins behind.

    Floyd went through all his money the first hour. Not all his money but all the money he’d meant to spend, the money he put in his shirt pocket, seemed to fly off the table. Dealer beat him every time: if Floyd had 18, the dealer had 19; if Floyd sat on a 19, the dealer hit him with two bricks.

    “I guess this lady feels like she has to show us what a blackjack looks like,” said Tommy, when the dealer drew her third in ten minutes. She apologized to them both, even though they didn’t tip her, and Tommy’s luck was better than hers: He doubled down twice and made a hundred bucks in the blink of an eye. All Floyd could do, once he had spent the money he had earmarked for this outing, was sit there and simmer in his resentment while Tommy’s chip pile grew.

    That was when Helen, the lady in the purple pantsuit, came and asked if he knew where Marcy was.

    “I thought she was with you,” said Floyd. It came out like an accusation.

    “Well, we agreed to meet for lunch at three,” she said, “but then nobody could find Marcy. We figured maybe you two went off together.”

    And that’s how well you know us, Floyd thought. “Maybe she just went off to another casino by herself,” he said. Even though he was losing, and wasn’t even playing at the time, he didn’t want to have to leave his spot and go look for his wife. “There’s no law says we got to stay here.”

    “Blackjack,” said the dealer, flipping another ace.

    But after a minute he did get up to look, as he knew he would, leaving Tommy, who still had a hot hand and no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about.

    “Did you try the ladies room?” he asked Helen.

    “That was one of the first places we looked. They have sofas in there, you know.” She paused. “Do you think we should call security?”

    The suggestion made his blood pressure rise. “No, I don’t think we should call security. Christ sake, grown woman goes off for a few minutes and you want to call the cavalry?”

    “Does she have a cell phone?”

    “Our son gave her one but she couldn’t figure out how to use it.” This was literally half true: Eric had given them each one last Christmas, and neither of them could figure out how to use it. By the time Floyd got the hang of it he realized that the only person he would call was his wife, which was kind of stupid since he saw her all the time anyway.

    They looked all the places that they had already looked and the lady in the Kente cloth joined them, acting more concerned that Floyd felt. “We need a system,” she said, as they circled the room for the second time. The place was more crowded than ever and Floyd could hardly hear what she was saying. “How about I go stake out the buffet and you stay here?” she suggested to Helen.

    “How ‘bout I go stake out the buffet?” Helen said. “I haven’t had lunch yet.”

    Floyd said they could both go feed themselves and take their time doing it; Marcy would turn up. He stood like a sentinel beneath the bells and sirens of the Mardi Gras slots, scowling most of the time. He hated slot machines; there was no sport in it, as he often told his wife. Blackjack at least you were playing the odds. Slots to him was just dumb luck, like a rabbit betting it wouldn’t get run over when it ran across the road. Twice he thought he saw his wife, and each time he took pleasure in anticipating just how much grief he was going to give her. But each time he was wrong.

    By four o’clock they were back together, Tommy too, and they began to set out in search parties. They were a small group: most of the travelers didn’t want to leave their stations, since the bus was scheduled to leave at six and this whole business had already cut into their time as it was. The lady in the Kente cloth, who finally introduced herself as Niobe, took charge. She contacted the hotel security, who seemed to have some experience with old folks wandering off, and as the witching hour neared, and the day-trippers started heading back toward the bus, she went out and argued with the bus driver, who was pretty adamant about leaving on time.

    “You can’t just go off and leave an old lady alone,” she scolded him. The engine was already running, gently shaking the bus, while the AC gusted out the door in heavy welcoming breaths.

    “I won’t be leaving her alone,” the driver said. “I will be leaving you to find her.”

    He agreed to wait as they made one last search. A handful of them fanned out, going to neighboring casinos and restaurants, off the boardwalk and into the side streets. Floyd couldn’t help but think that Marcy was messing with him the whole time, and when he saw the impatient faces of the other folks on the bus – they’d lost their money and had their fill, they just wanted to go home – he couldn’t help but side with them.

    Most of the people he saw as he wandered were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Used to be people would get dressed up to go someplace. And when did everybody get so fat? Walking down the boardwalk, bag of French fries in your hand, what did you expect? The new motto for the city was “Always Turned On,” which he found kind of creepy. There was nothing that he saw that turned him on.

    Doors were open, air conditioning blasting out, cooling nothing. Floyd took to popping into places and doing a quick look around, not even asking half the time if they’d seen anyone who looked like his wife. One, they couldn’t hear you with all that noise and two, half of them couldn’t speak English.

    “You seen an old black lady?” he shouted at one girl scooping ice cream. Her nails were so long he figured they might end up in somebody’s cone. “Blue shirt, about this high?” She stared at him like he was the one with the language problem.

    He kept walking. Going in and out of the summer sun was making him dizzy, to say nothing of thirsty. He wished for the first time that Tommy was with him. That man would always stop for a drink. He saw people in those rolling chairs, being pushed by young people, girls sometimes. And you wonder why you so fat?

    Down at one end of the boardwalk he found what looked like a real bar. The crowd had trickled off as the sun sank lower in the sky. Go on, get out of here. A lot of good you been. Floyd ducked inside and felt the rivers of sweat roll out from under his hat and chill on his face and neck. His glasses steamed as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. He perched on the stool and looked up at the game on TV. The waitress brought him his drink and man did that taste good. No skimping on the gin, either. He forgot to ask her about Marcy. His wallet was bothering him, he felt like he was balancing on it. When she asked him if he wanted to start a tab he simply nodded.

    “You got a phone?” She pointed to an old-fashioned booth in the back, kind Superman used to change in. The place was filling up, young couples waiting for dinner. Went back to the hotel to put your dress shorts on? Once inside the paneled wood booth he forgot who he was going to call. Eric, right. He searched the scraps of paper in his wallet for the number he never had cause to memorize and let it ring, go to voicemail, and then dialed again.

    “Hello?”

    “This ain’t no telemarketer.”

    “Hey, Pop.” He did not sound happy to hear from him and Floyd had already put enough change in the machine so he cut straight to the point.

    “We in Atlantic City and your mother’s gone missing.” He backtracked from there, explaining the whole afternoon in greater detail than Eric needed, but never did his son sound any more excited than Floyd felt. He asked the obvious questions – had they called the police? Who else was looking?

    “Did she have her cell phone?” he asked, pointedly.

    “That’s why I was calling,” Floyd said. “I figured maybe she’d called you.”

    Eric was silent, and Floyd knew that he knew he was lying. He imagined him at home, still in his work clothes, the sound on the TV muted, his eyes on the game. From his perch in the booth Floyd could see the TV over the bar. Jeter was trying to steal.

    “I’m sure she’ll turn up, Pop. I mean, where’s she gonna go?”

    “I know that.”

    “You got your cell phone with you? So I can call you if she does?”

    Floyd muttered something and got off the phone. That boy would go to his grave asking about those damn phones. He should just wrap them up and give them back to him for Christmas. Turn ‘em into salt-and-pepper shakers.

    When he got back to his seat at the bar Jeter got picked off and he ordered another drink. Now they could send the search party out for him. The tumblers were tall and when he turned in his seat he found he had company. Big old white dude with long hair and a pointed beard. He was sipping a Budweiser longneck and looking at the screen. His arms were covered in tattoos; dragons, snakes and skulls disappeared into his shirtsleeves.

    “Fuckin’ Yankees,” he said and turned to look at Floyd. “Nice hat.”

    Floyd turned to face his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “You wouldn’t believe how long I had this hat,” he said.

    “There isn’t much I wouldn’t believe,” the man said.

    They got to talking. Turned out he worked in a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk, which explained all the ink. Half way through his second drink and Floyd was feeling generous in his opinions.

    “Back in the day,” he said, “man had a tattoo it meant he’d been someplace. In the service, in the joint, you know.”

    “I hear you,” the man said. “These days it just means you been to the mall.” He drained his beer and held up the empty. “Buy you a drink?”

    “Let me buy you a drink,” said Floyd, and pulled out the fat wallet that had been giving him such a pain and laid it on the counter. Soon he had the pictures out and was showing him snaps of Eric, bragging on his job even if he wasn’t exactly sure what he did. Then one of the whole family, when everyone was young.

    “Where’s your other boy?” the stranger asked.

    Floyd made a face like he was sucking on a lime. “Wilson got killed in a hold-up ten years ago,” he said.

    “Oh, man, I am sorry. They catch the guy who did it?”

    “No, it was in Prospect Park one night. Lot of crime in there.”

    “That’s why I could never live in the city,” the man said, which struck Tommy as funny. Most people would be scared of him, even in Brooklyn.

    “So what happens when folks get old?” said Floyd, changing the subject. “Maybe they don’t want all those tattoos any more.”

    “Shit, you don’t have to wait ‘til your old to regret something stupid you did.” The man laughed and Floyd got a glimmer of a gold tooth in his head. “People come in all the time wanting to have tattoos taken off, usually the name of some girl that don’t love them anymore.”

    “Can you do it?”

    “Sure,” the man said. “Hurts like hell and costs twice as much. But we can do it. Easier just to change it, though.”

    “How do you mean?”

    “Well, there was this one girl who loved a guy named Chris and had it tattooed on her ass. Until she found Jesus and then we just added a ‘T’.”

    He didn’t smile at first and it took Floyd a minute to figure it was a joke. He smiled first. “Hey, I got one,” he said. The stranger’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “There was this guy who loved this old girl so much he had her name tattooed on his Johnson.”

    “Now that’s gotta hurt!”

    “Hell, yeah.” Floyd wiped his mouth. “Then they broke up, you know, and soon he started missing her real bad. So he went all over looking for her, from Wisconsin all the way down to Jamaica. Then he’s in the bathroom one day and he looks over and he sees this other guy’s dick.” He stopped for a minute. The stranger kept staring at him. “Now I can’t remember that girl’s name.”

    “Is it important?”

    “Yeah, it’s the whole punch line.”

    “Uh, oh. Better have another drink.”

    He felt flushed and excused himself to go to the bathroom. There he stared straight ahead at the wall and read all the graffiti as if looking for a message. And by the time he got back to the bar he was not surprised to see the stranger was gone and with him his wallet though all Floyd could feel was a keen sense of disappointment: He remembered the end of the joke now. He had remembered that old girl’s name.

    ______________________

    voice from the planet

    ‘Vale of Cashmere’ was first published by Harvard Square Editions in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others. Sean Elder’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, Vogue, Elle, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Details and many other publications. The essay he contributed to the collection of men’s writings The Bastard On the Couch (Morrow, 2004) was reprinted on three continents; his essay on ecstasy, included in the collection of drug writings entitled White Rabbit (Chronicle Books, 1995) was called “seminal” by Granta; and a piece he wrote about being a stay-at-home dad for Oprah was included in her best of O collection, Live Your Best Life (Oxmoor, 2005). He has co-authored several books, including Websites That Work with designer Roger Black (Adobe Press, 1997) and Mission Al Jazeera with former Marine captain Josh Rushing (Palgrave, 2007). He also works as a book doctor and helped edit the forthcoming Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa (Hyperion, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.

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  • All at Once: Excerpt of the Novel

  • I step onto a wide stone platform surrounded by water and lie on my stomach to peer down over the edge. At my approach, tiny fish scatter like drops of colored light; crabs pause, wary, then scuttle along the sides of the basin, stuffing their mouths as fast as they can with alternate pincers. After a while, a kind of brown finger wriggles out from the shadows. Another one emerges, then two more, and finally the bulbous body of an octopus comes into view. It skims along until the water is too shallow then starts to walk, using its tentacles as legs. When the water gets deeper it pushes off against the sandy bottom to glide, once more, just beneath the surface. It circles round and round my platform.

    aao cover

    My back begins to prickle, and I realize I’ll be burnt to a crisp if I don’t find shelter pretty soonthe ocean breeze masks the sun’s virulence.

    Standing up makes me momentarily dizzy. The tide has gone out, uncovering rocks studded with barnacles or slick with thick green hair. I head back toward the flat sand and continue walking, looking for a place to rest. I’ve just about resigned myself to the idea of a plastic chair, when I spot a barraca that’s not open for business. The beach in front of it is empty, the small structure shuttered; its thatched roof casts a nice, wide stripe of shade onto the sand. Gratefully, I set up camp, taking out the water and crackers I brought, spreading out my towel to sit on, and leaning against the barraca wall with the empty backpack in between for cushioning. A sigh of relief.

    The ocean is now more white than blue. At the horizon, a wavering smudge might be a cruise ship or an oil rig. The great mass of water is barely disturbed by shifting waves, fretful and sluggish like a dog settling down to sleep. There’s an occasional bloom of white spray when a wave breaks against rock; wisps of cloud trail across the sky. I yawn, lie down on the towel, and close my eyes.

    Now the landscape is reduced to the rustle of wind in the palm thatch, the faint piping of a distant bird, and the dull roar of the ocean. I stretch my arms and let them flop back down. Rolling my head slowly from side to side to loosen the tension in my neck, I notice that this movement causes the pitch of the ocean to vary ever so slightly. Intrigued, I try it a few more times, just to make sure.

    There’s a lesson in that, I reflect: reality changes according to your viewpoint. I roll my head once more from side to side then lie still again, listening to the tiny, ceaseless fluctuations within the monotone.

    An insect lands on my footwithout opening my eyes I flex my toe to chase it away, and realize that the gesture produced an infinitesimal shift in the ocean sound. Bizarre! I can understand the position of my head influencing what I hear, but the position of my toe? (more…)

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On Modernist Democracy

 

(For Roslyn Fuller)

 

Preamble
 
Einstein is credited with saying there are only 2 known Infinities.
Human stupidity, and the the likely size of the universe.
Only about the latter , he added, was there any doubt.
 
And so our rulers are aching to lurch us on to War, again.
And most of us buy the puerile media and policy spin.
Even those those! – especially those – who think themselves extra smart and savvy.
 
For many , it is anything but stupidity.
it is canny avarice, as with the dozens of constituencies that profit directly from war.
It is the most profitable and the largest industry going.
 
They dominate the media, and most of the government.
And they game the game, and spin the spin.
 
It may be time to question the parameters?
 
* * * * * * * * *
 
Question: How did the governors gain such inordinate power?
 
Well, they never gave it up, for starters.
 
Medieval ruling elites turned over, in time, to Modern ruling elites.
 
Once power has been monopolised, i.e., usurped, by a sect , a clan, or a stratum – as is ever the case once simple tribal forms suffer dissolution – it is scarcely ceded : except perforce.
 
*
 
We are not speaking of some idyll of ‘democracy’ drawn from political fantasy(I offer no critique of the idyll – it is just that).
But Modernist democracy.
Or, even more accurately, EuroModernist Democracy.
 
A bit like when you study ‘economics’ it is not some universal template, as is the official pose.
It is Modernist economics.
Or, more specifically, EuroModernist economics.
Even our ‘Nobel Laureates’ (what a joke!) are wholly unaware of that simple axiom.
 
*
 

Let me state the axial point: EM democracy is a tool (means) of legitimation of power.
 
It should not be mistaken for the ‘real thing’.
 
That gainsays, instantly, all the vapid distortions that informs discussions of the subject.
 
As Napoleon, canny political scientist, said it : you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.
You get the point.
 
*
 

Today, the Oligarchy has state power virtually sealed.
As Santayana had it: democracy is the paradise that unscrupulous financiers dream of.
And that our 1% have achieved, in abundance: we have the best ‘democracy’ money can buy.
 
The 2 Party system (wherever practised) is little more than a quasi Duopoly.
And they play good cop, bad cop, every 2/4 yrs, depending on the electoral cycle.
And we lap it up, like dutiful little kitties.
 
As someone very bright put it, if elections were effective they’d be illegal.
Ponder that.
 
*
 
Keep the masses poor, insecure, and in irrevocable debt: and they won’t question a thing.
As the old adage goes: family (wo)men, facing the above, can’t be heroes.’
And so, we don’t have any.
Period.
Except those that strut in cartoons.
 
*
 
Additionally, use media and a galaxy of ‘think-tanks’ ( professional spin doctors) to endlessly purvey disinformation, and the citizenry is kept in hapless, infantile, irredeemable, even stupefying ignorance.
 
And , to clinch it, as and when needed, put out bright-eyed/bushy-tailed gatekeepers who keep the faith lit.
 
Recall the ‘yes, we can’ interlude?
 
*
 
All of the above is no more than the prosaic Art of Governance,, so it should occasion no surprise, except in those that live in ineradicable delusion.
 
It reveals not the shrewdness of the rulers, but the naivete of the ruled.
 
How/when can that spell break?
 
When supermarket shelves are empty: and/or the body count of victims becomes palpably intolerable.
 
Those are the limits within which the governors operate.
 
Those are the limits of EuroModernist hegemony.

 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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World War 3?

 

What if they throw WW3, without announcing it?
What if?
Well, guess what?
That’s exactly what’s going on.
WW3 is ON.
 
This is it.
 
It is different from the prior 2 Global Conflagrations.
It is the 21st century.
It is going to be different.

 
It will be in many little pieces.
Here and there.
Bit by bit.
Much of it, below the radar.
 
*
 
Sanctions.
That’s War.
Where’s the mystery?
 

Who applied the sanctions?
Where’s the mystery?
 
Using Media to whip up daily, incessant, hysteria.
That’s war.
Where’s the mystery?
 
Even the Pope knows what’s on, and has spoken.
That’s a first, btw.
Where’s the mystery?
 
It’s not a whodunit.
It’s the Usual Suspects.
Whence, a bit monotonous?
 
Where’s the mystery?
 
Sure, we can (and will) all take sides.
Inevitable.
 
But it will not alter a thing.
 
So, which side of the Facts are you on?
And where do you get your facts from?
 
*
 
WW3.
 
It’s on.
I know, its hard to believe.
But it is.
 
Are the Players self-aware?
We hoi polloi don’t know (we never do).
 
There’s a thing called momentum.
It takes over.
 
Not much we can do about it.
It’s a Great Power Thing.
 
So.
Honestly.
Where’s the mystery?
 
*
 
One curiosum.
Most, but not all, peoples have made wars.
But only European rulers have made Global wars.
Could be cause they ‘think Big’, in all things?

 
*
 
PS Ok, so you know, now: but don’t tell the kids.
 
Why ruin their hour in the sun?
 
Leave them be with their crayons, cornflakes, and cartoons.
 
Leave them their Halloweens, and holidays, to come.
 
They don’t need to know that, IF we get past Covid, there’s war, nuclear annihilation, and climate catastrophe.

 
As the bard has writ: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be…
 
Besides, if they get lucky, and get to grow up at all, maybe they won’t grow up to be like us?
 
There’s a thought.
 
*
 
And so it goes.
It’s the Human Drama.
So, I ask you: where’s the mystery?

 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Her Majesty?

 

The passing of a fellow human is always a grim
reminder.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls!
Is it any different with a so-called ‘queen’?
What is a queen, anyhow?
It beats me.

Let’s call her Liz, and it makes far more sense.
Excise the mystique.
And one can then mourn her passing, like any other amongst us.
I am sorry Liz is no more.
Her family must be in some distress.

The irony is that such institutions yet thrive, even today, squarely in the heartland of the various Western empires, despite the tendentious, high artifice of ‘democracy’.
Not to mention a hereditary peerage!

Per capita, these so-called royals must rake in a regal chunk of the public purse, even as 1 out of every 3 Brit children struggles in poverty.
Do they possess a conscience?, one wonders.
Modernism never quite displaced the medieval!
O the governors of the Brutish* Isles: how they still game the game, and spin the spin.

No matter.
Present times have made much of all this near obsolete.
It would be meet if all these glorified parasites , the world over, were to yield up their thrones and titles.
Unfortunately their latter day replacements, the new rentier billionaires, would be no improvement.
Therein, the tragedy of our times?
 
* I mean no disrespect to the populace of the nation in using this epithet: only its wretched power elites , who have looted the world, willy nilly, with wholesale impunity, for centuries.
 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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The Lost Minstrel

 

I sing no
more

In
lucent hue

The heart is
marred

Reft
with rue

Near and
dear

Left are
few

Yet I
warble on

In
accents
true

Sing not
for me

But for
you

*

Talk
not then
of mice
and men

And maybe
never
talk again?

And rave
not
of Michaelangelo

Once far away
twice
long ago?

*

The icons come
the icons
go

What’s left
is but
a maudlin show

Where daisies
wither
and wild weeds
grow

*

Sing not
of sacral
monument

Towers the
sky
looks down
on (wo)men

Vanities
that quick
forsake

The winter
storm
the summer
quake

*

Life will
fester
blood
congeal

As we
boldly chart
the human
weal

Until stupor
does the
spirit seal

*

Quo vadis
mighty
conqueror?

No more
than wilful
wanderer

Rushed to
meet
an empty
fate

Oft
untimely
sometimes
late

*

Hither you
strut

Thither
you lie

Beneath a
patient
ogling sky

That but
waits for you
to do
and ___

*

Kingdoms
rust
duchies
fail

For want
of wisdom
for want
of a nail

And you
who bluster
you who
rail

You who
seek that holy
grail

Where will
you splendor
ere
you fail?

*

“Tis
but a
hapless

Once
told tale

No, you
cannot
prevail

Though you
be
hearty

Though you
be hale

Though
you
lusty cheer

Those
strong
arms flail

Your ship of
life

Has long
set sail

Caught in
maelstrom

Lost in
gale

As wizards
simper

And
witches
wail

*

You rush
out
in frenzy
unready
to quail

You rush
out
in frenzy
to no avail

 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Attrition

 

Let lifeblood
simmer
let life spirit
congeal
 
We have been
unlearnt
learnt not
to feel

 
Whence the world
grows dimmer
and we know not
how to heal
 
*
 
The love force
still rises
in wan mute
appeal
 
As life force
reprises
gone past
its weal
 
‘Tis a farewell
to hope
the spirit
now must seal
 
*
 
Even the gods
will not relent
though I bow
scrape and kneel
 
So summer flags
to fall
and I must take
to heel
 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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And now, Gandhi?

 

Angry Texas Mom Wants Gandhi Banned From School The Kyle Kulinski Show
News Item
 

So, they love neo-Nazis and hate Gandhi.

Nice.

So much for the true mettle of some so-called ‘conservatives’.

Why do we still use such antiquated terms?

Is the KKK, perchance, ‘conservative’?

Or are there more choice terns?

I can think of a few, and I am no political pundit.

Like I said, nice going.

*

Reject Gandhi today.

And, why not?, Jesus tomorrow.

It would seem to follow.

But it should really occasion no surprise.

Christianity’ is become, amongst some, as phony a cover for its exact opposite, as ‘liberalism’ is today.

It is all egregiously Orwellian.

Religion goes, as politics does: all is corruption, much is sheer depravity.

Fortunately, the world at large is not gulled by any of this.

That era is over.

For good.

*

So , let it go on.

Arrest peace-makers and tread on the meek , the poor, the homeless ( for, in this neck of the woods, it is the 1% that inherit the earth).

And spend more on arms and WMD’s than the next half a dozen countries taken together, whilst screeching (did I mean preaching?) ‘human rights’ all the while.

*

But why bring Gandhi into this, in the first instance?

To echo another idiom: Let’s not take His name in vain.

He deserves better.

Nay, a whole lot better.

Purveyors of bigotry and hatred must have some local talent to pick on, surely?

 
[© R.Kanth 2022]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Millenium

 

There they came, wave upon wave,
Titans of the mighty Tribe, goose-stepping
Cadres of Civilization Mongers
flying flags, bearing bright Charters
vivid visions of scopious Human Redemption
peremptory in short command
Organized like generals
with no intelligence overlooked
to press all Rhetoric into instant Service
of the Great Emancipatory Cause
of Liberty, Life, and Lust for Unilateral Happiness

 

We, the Little People ,mired in Microcosms
watched, waved, jumped and clapped
as they marched in Grand Parade
down from our meager perches
in the craven cul de sacs of jaded
loss of hope, reason and
ordinary norms of Co-respecting
Decency, with our own Philosophy
of Bread, and the sweet Elixir
of Collective Amnesia
as they rocketed on overhead

 
Ribbons and flags, curled and fluttered,
lay festooning the grandiloquent
boulevards of Wealth and State
as we scampered like mice
After the March, to nibble the Souvenirs
of the Great Epoch just unveiled
by the Orchestra of Imperial Design-
 

Here Democracy, there Liberty
Property, Rule of Law, all gaudy and glistering-
and how we rushed to collect the swag
run home, and gorge like expectant Children
We celebrated in swoon all night long
this Arrival of the Promised Day
raising cheap, copious, libations to the health
of our Great Captains who smiled rich, ravishing smiles
and bared immaculately polished teeth of steel
shimmering, glaring television screens distending
the raucous audio of their Manifest Assembly
in deafening bytes of syncopating
timbre, tone, and Declamatory Excess

 
Then the last tanks rolled, clunking away –
the P.A. systems fell sudden silent
and the grim Mondays of somber Sobriety
returned to haunt the ineffable Drudgery
of our new Speedocratic workaday week-
The Great Machine cranked, creaked
its stilted wheels back on rails again
as we sang the Song of the Shirt
quiet now under our unsweetened breath

 
And then came the clumping, clustering
Pictures blinking like sorties of streaming glow-worms
dotting in digitals our Great Advantage
bright proclaimed over the Perilous Planet
as we set down dinner forks to
digest its meaning for our limping lives
as laser rockets razed the riveting screen
and great plumes of Distal Destruction
filled adult minds with unthinkable dread
as children huddled struck dumb seeking
comfort in their parents’ flinching eyes

 
Like merrymakers tossed dizzy off whirling roundabouts
we re-inform our distrusting hearts of Logic,
and the Great Game of Reason, played by the
aerial Mandarins of State
seeking shreds, shrapnels, shards of meaning
in the obscure behemoths of hopeless Corruption
of Speech, Image, Word, and new-fangled Archetype-
but infertile assurance born of Impotence breeds not
the sterile contentments of yore: and we stoop warily
to wonder how and why and when we lost
even the merest semblance of control

 
The music eternal blares and streaking strobes
scan the hypertrophic universe, lit up like holograms
of this barren Realm of Discontent,
born of seething Madness, the Toxic nostrums of Smith, Locke
the Buonopartism of Commerce and the Calvinism
of rampant Greed become now the fodder Popcorn and Soda
of our daily viewing – like incapacitated Voyeurs
nailed to our seats, staring fixedly ahead
at the desolation of our own Disempowering lives

How now to move to Love or Care?
billows of cleaving empathy made alien by the
Hobbesian pall envelope us like a miasma,
seeding descending clouds of disabling distrust-
crucified in dessicating Hate, we dry up
in near and far domains, shedding sanguine lives
of Vitals that fire the fusions of stirred Emotion
stoking the furnace of warmth, affection and passion-

 
We live but in wan Dress Rehearsal of Death
The Guardians prattle on in their glib Discourse
of Death: enchain resolve, entombing
the native springs of Sovereign Actions
denude, intoxify Earth, Sea, and Sky
dismembering our Collective Memory
of Mutual Convenance in trade for
crass, consumptive stupefactions: now bought
now sold for spoonfuls of lusting, desire
and sprigfuls of All-requiting Bigotry
 

Slim pontoons of slender Hope still straddle
the yawning Abyss of Despair; as they run their Last Race
upon our Free-gifted Spaces, we gather up the fringes
in rousing Counter- Prophecy: Nothing lives or dies in vain-
the Clockwork Universe of Order and Exactitude
Self-Aware, corrects all ravages in Rectifying Time
and we as Conscious Atoms may yet breathe into that
Incorrigible Cosmic Plan our Ragged Philanthropy
of Indemnifying Love in lucent, lustrating streams of unstinting,
Immaculate, Beatitude

 
[© R.Kanth 2006]

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Resignation

 
There’s
no more tears
to shed
 
All’s been
done
or said
 
The grieving
heart
implores no more
 
Pleadings
have all been
pled
 
*
 
We sip slow
from the cup of
life
 
For we know
what lyeth
ahead

 
*
 

The night
draws
near
 
I have no
fear
 
And I’m
almost ready
for bed
 
*
 
En passant
let it
still be said

I too once
savored
Arcady

And on
its nectar dew
have fed

 
© R.Kanth 2022

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Transience

 

Do you cry
when daffodils die
and roses wilt
on the thorn
 
Ask you why
we live and die
perchance why you
were born
 
Or do you pass by
never asking why
from darkling dusk
to morn
 
Idle thoughts
and idle tears
both keep us lone
and lorn
 
*
 
Naught makes sense
the fog is dense
and we reap
but rue
and scorn
 
Uncountable
have wept before
wondered thence
were gone
 
We are forsworn
reft forlorn
as night splinters
into dawn
 
Naught we know
of the universe
save that it just
goes on and on
 
Equally odd
there’s no sign of god
just concocted faith
to lean upon

 
So though roses bloom
O prepare for doom
Nature bids us all:
Begone!

 
© R.Kanth 2022

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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Dystopia, Inc.

 

We live in it.

And yet refuse to acknowledge it.

How long will it take?

1.6+ mass shootings a day, and we still
kid ourselves.

Are we civilised?

We are not even civil.

A country that has been Has been At War 93% of its history (229 out of 246 Years) Since 1776.?

And yet we plod , and persevere.

Still deem it the best of all possible worlds?

*

Such is the power of (carefully crafted) ideology.

We can miss what is plumb before our eyes.

And yet fancy ourselves reasonable , thinking, folk?

They can still get us to believe anything they wish.
 

+
 

So what can break that hold?

Easy.

Answer comes from our baseline (base?) amoral pragmatism.

Just one weekend of bare supermarket shelves.

And the spell will wear off, swiftly.

No spin can alter that.

Even sordid materialism has its strong points?

 

*
 

But the secrets of the system are even more dour.

What are they?

Keep the vast majority abysmally poor (19% have zero savings, at least half the country lives paycheck to paycheck, and we have the lowest minimum wage in the industrialised world) and they’ll work for nothing.

[And that is not to mention long-standing race and gender splits.
By way of illustration, the average white family in Boston has a net worth of about $250000. The average Afro-Am family (in Boston) has a net worth of $8.]

Keep them also in irrequitable debt, and they’ll conform to anything.: an old Disney ditty says it, raffishly: I owe, I owe, so it’s off to work I go.
[At $38000 per head , not counting mortgage debt , we are not the most indebted in the world, but we could well be the ones least able to discharge it.]

Lastly, the sop: hold periodic elections that can , and do, alter nothing fundamental ,and yet, importantly, and endlessly, foster hope (the ‘yes we can’ subterfuge): and the iron cage is complete.

Gaetano Mosca (Italian sociologist) would have called the above a neat ‘political formula‘.

It is.

And it works.

*

The worst thing about Dystopia is that it normalises dystopian behaviors, unto perpetuity.

And we start to think there is no alternative (the TINA myth).

Only those who have known, and seen, better, know that the above is not true.

How many are there of that ilk?

 

*

 

Worse, not only are we dystopian, we (successfully) export this grim template to the world, via the usual standbys of cannon and chicanery.

To alter Gresham’s Law, bad templates drive good templates out of business..

What is the impact of our inveterate greed, and our indurate aggression, on the planet?

It is palpable.

The world stands at the edge of calamity , owing to our machinations.

Between Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. what , really, has changed?

Nothing.

They remain my favorite oxymorons.

Regrettably.

 

*

 

Can this go on forever?

No.

We are on the brink.

The race is run.

Change beckons.

Do you feel it?

 
© R.Kanth 2022

 

Professor Rajani Kanth, is Author of Coda (Novel) , A Day in the Life (Novel), and Expiations (Verse)
 

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