…To Rust Unburnished

In Memoriam, GNOSSOS, conscripted for a tour of duty in Vietnam.

A reader sat reading, it was Mr. Harris with an old mystery. He sat in one of a million conceivable rooms in the city, bored witless. One of the three 60-watt bulbs in his overhead lamp had burned out earlier in the week; every time he turned it on for reading he got the sensation that he was going blind. “I’ll have to buy a new one soon,” he thought, but if he’d had a wife of ten years she would by now have learned that he wouldn’t buy any until they all burned out late one night.

It was the same with his television, the tube had burned out, what, a year or so ago and he never got around to having it fixed. The radio worked though. “After all, Harris told Jones at work, “I don’t do anything when the tv is on, I just sit there.”

“Ah, ya just sit there anyway,” Jones said. “My kids watch it all the time too.” He scratched his cheek, let his eyelids droop. “I don’t see how they get their homework done.”

“Who cares, eh?” Harris smiled.

The mystery revolved around a book theft, some rare old Elizabethan folios. A literary scholar was called in to consult with the detective, they sat for lunch. “Do you know,” the scholar asked the detective, “why the old playwrights are always shown with a human skull on their desk?”

“No, why, I never thought about it,” Harris read.

“Well, because they always did keep skulls around.” The scholar smiled. “They were called memento moris, death reminders. The point being that you only have so much time, so you’d better get cracking. A portable time limit staring you in the face.”

The detective was alert. “Seems like that wouldn’t work,” he said, “for people who don’t have any vision.” He sipped his coffee, the meal over. “I mean, these guys knew their strength, when they looked at eighty years it was no time at all. Nowadays… ” He gestured, spun his hand at the wrist, trying to get the general picture. “Well, with nothing but trivial concerns, all that time is just a cross to bear. You know.”

“Eighty,” said the scholar. “But in those days you were an old man if you made forty-five.” He paused. “You’re right though. We’re an artless culture.” He rose to leave, the detective was getting up. “By the way,” he asked suddenly, “about the case. Can you find a clue in the world?”

“The possibilities are endless. All we have is an outline right now.” He grew pensive, then brightened up and chuckled. “You know why those guys died early,” he said. “I hear Marlowe used to drink wine the way we drink beer.”

Harris looked up at the clock. “A beer would be nice right now,” he thought, putting down the book.

Just then a knock came at the door. Harris walked over and opened it, finding a man with a gun who pointed, aimed, and fired. In Connecticut at the Ruger Arms warehouse, a shipping clerk was talking to his girlfriend on the phone.

“The doctor said I was pregnant, Joey,” she told him.

“Well, what do you want me to do about it,” he said.

“I don’t know,” the doctor told his nurse, “but I think we’ll need the inventory sheets first so we can make out the claims for the insurance men to go over when they get there.”

“It’s a terrible time we’re living in,” she replied, shaking her head. “No one pays attention to what our creator wants any more.” She glanced down at a copy of the Watchtower open on her desk. “Drug Scandal Rocks High Circles,” it told her. The article’s author was busy masturbating in Mobile, Alabama, the latest issue of Spermbank magazine open before him on the bed.

His object of affection, the Account Or the Month, Miss May, was at that moment in class at the local business college in America, learning sales analysis, an eternal golden braid in her hair.

“We have at least one person here who understands about asking use of god’s gifts,” the teacher said, winking. “There’s a world of opportunity out there.” He wagged his finger at them. “Potential waiting to be realized.”

Originally appeared in Inside Joke #15

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