Thomm Quackenbush, author

Dress Rehearsal | 2009 | Dance Anthem of the 80s

07.05.09 1:11 p.m.

Strange things have happened to me. But events did not flow toward a single momentous revelation, one blooming pyrotechnic end - Enlightenment! - with chrysanthemum fireworks bursting in the night. No, it was a great jumble of facts, instead, with ghosts on top of angels, and dreams and serendipitous coincidences, intertwining with the normal everyday.  

-Sophy Burnham

 


Tao of Boom

Xen and the dinosaur  
The dinosaur represents Taoism... or a raptor.

"Mom said I shouldn't talk about my Second Life friends around you, that you'll only make fun of me," my younger brother Bryan says as we walk down Main Street in Cold Spring.

"Likely sound advice. My friends may be... imperfect but at least they aren't two foot tall, digital furries... You shouldn't have a computer just dedicated to an imaginary life that you spend all your free time on, you should be living your actual life in the real world."

"But I can't die there!" he actually argues.

"You can't live either!" I shout back.

"You said that too loudly."

"Meh, I'm comfortable with that. It's the benefit to the real world. You can be loud and strangers on the street will look at you. It is pleasantly unpredictable."

"But I've made almost $200 in my years of playing Second Life, you can make money there."

"You can do that in this world too, a lot more money that you can spend on actual things you get to keep, if that's what is most important to you." I say all this, but I know I've failed to make any impression on him. The world has let him down, he feels, and prefers a world over which he has control from the safety of his pajamas.

On the ride over, I told him that he should come to 80s Night with me sometime. When he resisted, I insisted I would free him of this obligation if I felt he made a good faith effort toward getting a woman's number sometime today. While a girlfriend wouldn't cure his agoraphobia, expanding his social sphere with verifiable human being with whom he is forced to interact could only help. Were this a quest given to him by an avatar being manned by a homebound stranger, he would have jumped to it. He would spend hours preparing for 80s Night if only it existed no further than two feet from his bed on a screen layered with dust, but he won't take the brave step of attempting a human life without an umbilical cord to a CPU.

What is all the stranger is that going to Cold Spring had been his idea, not mine. There would be fireworks six hours from now and he thought he was willing to wait them out. He wanted to wander the streets for hours, bumping against people whose basic context he resisted.

I know a man who has no sympathy whatsoever for people. When the World Trade Centers crumbled, he laughed and mocked those jumping to their deaths. However, he bawls like a baby during sad movies and would try to kill you if you spoke again Lester Burnham from American Beauty. While Bryan's condition is not nearly as aggravated, to him, it seemed, people are empty and beneath his notice. Humanity only exists through his computer screen.

The day is sunny and just warm enough, the rain holding off long enough to give hope. We wander to the Hudson, swollen and brown. People flitter about, tow-headed children running between legs as a high school band plays "Stars and Stripes Forever" in the pavilion. Bryan and I search for any information about a Shakespeare skit that is soon to be performed, finally being told to sit on a curb and wait. We are seated between a lithe woman wearing little more than a flag themed bikini top, cut off shorts, and a small black heart tattoo between her shoulder blades, and an attractive and more clothed woman I do not notice in such detail. Bryan begins to speak to them and I take my leave to buy a cupcake and give him a little space to breathe and make friends.
Bryan  
C'mon, live a little!

When I return, both women are gone. We sit through a few skits put on by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festivals apprentice program (a program I got into in high school, but I didn't understand the reasoning behind paying them to let me act) that cause me to remark that, for dinner, we might want ham but it might be a trifle overdone. Once the actors are gone and more overt speech is acceptable, I turn and ask Bryan about the women.

"I think that girl had MS. Everyone is a patient to me," he boasts.

"It might be a lot better for you if they were people, instead. Better for your actual patients, too."

I know that we cannot wait out the remaining five hours, so I call Jacki, who previously mentioned fireworks in New Paltz.

"Do you have any aversion to this?" I ask Bryan.

"No, I just want fireworks."

We get to the Ulster County Fairground, largely vacant aside from a few families, a Jamaican food stand, and a man playing an accordion. I had promised Bryan more of a fair than we found in Cold Spring, but he is not disappointed as long as this ends with festive explosions.

"What's the rule, Bryan?" I prompt before Jacki meets us.

"I can't talk about Second Life once she gets here," he repeats.

"Technically, once we enter New Paltz, but you've been doing well with that so far."

Jacki arrives to Bryan wandering around, tired me watching me listen to music and read The Tao of Pooh. To her credit, she does not confuse the two of us, as people are inclined to do.

I pop the earphones out and, giving her a hug, note that this fair is lame.

"Do you want to go to Nadine's party instead and come back for fireworks?" she asks.

"Oh, very much so."

"Good, I already have food in my car for it," Jacki replies. This was a forgone conclusion, it seems, and I hardly begrudge it. Especially given my reading, I am inclined to follow the flow of the day rather than struggling against it for how I feel it should go.

The party is vast, faces I've seen over a decade but many whom I don't know in details. After quick introductions and reintroductions, I politely make a beeline to the food. A man must have his priorities and I believe I should have a smackerel of something to eat if I am to continue to be sociable.

I eat more than my fill, watching male guests launch fireworks from their hands over a small pond. I am offered an already lit Roman candle and profusely refuse to have anything to do with it. I am attached to my digits in more than a literal way and do not think adopting this new habit of manhandling explosives is much in keeping with the flow of life.

After falling into a healthcare related conversation with a new mother, Bryan turns to me and says, "This really worked out."

"Yes, things tend to."

"No, but really. We were in Cold Spring and it sucked. Now we are here at a party with good food all because you know Jacki and she knows these people." It is only once he says this that I grok he means more than that this chain of events seemed to work out to my benefit. This sort of thing happens to be all the time, so I have long since given up on finding it the least bit unusual.

"Yes, Bryan. It's one of the best parts of being alive, the lovely way in which things often turn out when you let them." This party expresses the beneficence of the Real World and its pleasant unpredictability better than anything I could ever have told him.
Jacki  
She isn't not judging you

When we drive to see the Ulster Country fireworks, the road to the fair is blocked off by a cop car, the message clear that there are simply too many cars and no more will be let through.

"What do we do now?" I ask, wanting to just pull off into a side street and walk whatever distance it will take to get back to the fair.

"We can try the road from the other side," Jacki suggests. I cock an eyebrow, assuming that the road is blocked off from both sides - why bother stemming the flow in only one direction? - but say nothing. If this is what the Tao wants, I will ride it out. My GPS tells me to turn on to the next road, but Jacki insists it is wrong. For the next thirty-five minutes, we drive at her directions before coming to the other side of the road, which is likewise blocked off by a police car. We pull onto a side street - the other end of the road the GPS told me to take thirty-five minutes ago, twenty feet from the flashing police car.

"You know, technically, Bryan and I really don't need to walk all that way; we've seen fireworks this weekend," I say to Jacki, a touch more bitterly than I mean to. We had seen firework, they had simply been lousy ones at Memorial Field in Beacon where, owing to the typical priorities of that city, I stepped in an ankle deep, unmarked pool of sewage from a broken pipe that flooded the field with excreta.

"But I do," Jacki replies. "My car is there." Without question, she would walk with me were it my car, so I must do the same.

We are outside the aegis of the police lights almost instantly, the dark only interrupted by specks of starlight and the waxing moon behind the full trees. Around us are others, trodding though darkness toward a mutual destination. Without the interruption of artificial light, we are like a small tribe reaching for the same goal.

To our right flows a quietly babbling river. Just as I was about to make a sardonic remark, the trees open up. In front of us, the moon glitters off the water like a field of pearls. We pause for a moment in appreciation.

With each step, I sense we are getting closer and listen for the explosions that will signal we are making the rest of the journey for no greater purpose than returning Jacki to her car. While noble and certainly necessary, my subtle resentment will accept nothing less than the fireworks I was promised.

We stop again at a clearing full of fireflies, blinking vividly as though this might be their last chance as signaling a mate, and I concede that this is likely better and certainly more remarkable than any fireworks. The walk alone is beautiful, I admit, and has a sense of timelessness to it.

We hear the first of the explosions and quicken out pace, but only need to go twenty feet. At exactly the right time, we arrive at the field directly behind the fireworks; we could not safely be any closer. In fact, if we had arrived at any other point, we would have been shuffled to the back of the fairgrounds, our view obscured by the crowds and trees. Instead, we are so close that the fireworks explode almost over our heads and set small fires in the field in front of us. It is a perfect end to a day that should have gone no other way.

Soon in Xenology: Job hunting. Rollerskating.

last watched: The Invisible
reading: Henry and June
listening: Garfunkel and Oates

Dress Rehearsal | 2009 | Dance Anthem of the 80s

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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