Traffic Girl Wars

Description

When Channel 2 News in Philadelphia fires veteran traffic reporter Hugh Butters for making sexist statements, they hire former Buckeye cheerleader Eustacia Dietrich as their new traffic girl.  All the general manager wants her to do is read from a script and look pretty. But Eustacia is more than just a pretty face.  She is a pretty face with an agenda and she doesn’t like being told what to do.

As much as her behavior irks her general manager, he can’t argue with her social media numbers that soon exceed all the other on-air personalities combined. This attracts the attention of the other news channels who try to hire traffic girls who are prettier and even more quirky than Eustacia. Try as they might, they cannot find anyone to match Eustacia’s beauty and almost mystical charm.  The public slowly begins to notice that strange things have been happening since the hiring of Eustacia, like cults that have formed around her and the other traffic girls, renewed talk of the Earth Mother Goddess, and the increased sightings of the Virgin Mary, like the one in Splendora Marrone’s cream cheese at the Melrose Diner.  Philadelphia may yet need the help of a goddess because there is Hell underfoot in the form of 400 million cubic feet of shale gas—and they have just started fracking.

Traffic Girl Wars is about the feminine brain and the masculine brain, male chauvinism, feminist extremism, and sensationalized news stories that distract people from the really important ones about to go off like a bomb under their feet.

Additional Info

This novel is currently in development.  I submitted the first 25 pages to the 2017 Pennwriter’s Contest and received the following feedback:

Your writing is beautiful, lyrical. Despite the dystopian feel of the setting, it is surprising light and humorous, a compelling combination.

The greatest strength seems to be the the narrator’s wry sense of humor and clever observations about the more vexing aspects of modern life. Carrying them to the extreme exposes the fault lines and either casts them into the primordial canyon or consigns them to endless gaper-generated traffic jams. Eustacia, the triumphant traffic girl, rises above the fray “trailing stardust.” Meanwhile, back at the station, Hugh Butters smiles at his TV audience and gives treadworn traffic report number 10,960, perhaps his last.

Excerpts

Prologue

BY THE TIME THEY were gathered all in one place, minutes before the great earthquake ripped Philadelphia in two right down Broad Street, before the Orange Line commuters became the first to see Old City circa ten thousand B.C., they had gathered into gangs, gathered into bands, gathered on either side of Broad leading to City Hall where William Penn’s bronze likeness faced northeast in mute reproach.

The collection of groups who came to fight for or against women’s rights was an enviable portrait of diversity, the kind Fortune 100 companies hire over-priced consultants to achieve, the kind which necessitate new HR positions to infuse the corporate body with the full range of political views, genders, religions, and races, complete with training programs and revamped hiring practices, a new vernacular, new ways to think and new rules of engagement, newly minted laws governing employee cubicle hangings communicated with glossy one-pagers and shushed elevator pitches, all distributed and  adjudicated with email campaigns and PDF links, with Twitter accounts infixed with “we care” and Facebook pages replete with content that would neither offend nor inform anyone.  With a large breath the city took them all in, and exhaled a foul air of sweet-smelling intentions.

Each group came of their own volition and for their own reasons.  In the center of Broad were gathered the Mummers divisions.  The Fancy Brigades were there to prove that not only LGBT supporters could dress like women and look fabulous, the String Bands loved playing banjos to any crowd of more than three, and  the Comics still had not realized that the term “the one percent” also described people who weren’t scared shitless by clowns.

Runners where there, corporate types, the true one percent and one percent wannabes in running gear made of polyester, nylon, and Lycra, shirts with Raglan sleeves and breathable socks with shoes of EVA and carbon rubber.  Some wondered why they were there, the pervasive theory being  that they saw a large crowd and mistakenly thought it was the Broad Street Run.

The street toughs were there, the dirt bike gangs and ATV riders who wanted to show off their new tricks and cranial lacerations; the Keystone Skinheads who were tired of being judged by their choice to shave their heads and wear Nazi regalia; the Philadelphia chapter of the KKK who wanted to show that, unlike the Skinheads, they cared about women’s rights, pointing out that the Klan had been created to protect Southern women; and the South Philly palookas who had wrenched the Rocky statue from its base and dragged it from the Art Museum down the Ben Franklin Parkway to get it away from “all those artsy fruitcakes.”

 The Pussy Protestors were there of course—they had been there from the beginning—the term, the moniker, meant to represent all feminists within the City of Brotherly Love.  They varied in agenda and militancy, from those who wanted to simply end catcalling, to those who wanted to castrate all men with broken whiskey bottles.  G.A.S.H. was of the latter type, and they took the Union League stairs before scaling the stone pillars to the balcony from where they challenged all of the “cigar-deep-throating, bourbon-sucking pansies” within the structure to come out and fight like girls.

Added to this were the satiated foodies, the standardized patients, the inspiration-seeking playwrights, Once Upon a Nation thespians, hackathon dweebs, rubberneckers, and enough disgruntled Eagles fans to curdle your Nestle Quik.

The reporters from all the local news stations were there, but without the traffic girls themselves.  They were nowhere to be seen as the masses called for them and divided themselves into their respective cults, chanting polemics, expressing songs of unrelenting love and waving banners that expressed gauche yearnings for their goddesses of fertility, beauty, war and casual fucking, their proof in the pudding for their imagined barbarians at the gate.  The banners held their symbols, all stylized Roman letters:  “K” for Kali  from Channel 26, “I” for Inari from Channel 34, “O” for Oya from Channel 5, and “U” for Eustacia.  In the midst of the discordant roar she appeared, Man’s original sin, the original goddess, the one from Channel 2 News.

Eustacia appeared atop William Penn’s hat, fresh from the kill having smote the three other traffic girls, she stood in a flowing gown of crimson-speckled white that unraveled by a thread the wind pulled toward New Jersey.  Her hair came loose from the two braids that hung down the sides of her face and onto her breasts; the humid gale whipped it into a frenzy of celestial annihilation—the collision of galaxies, the violence that caused creation—and haloed the face that had haunted the men of Philadelphia for six months and twenty-two days.

No one knew where she had come from.  Some said she was trans-oceanic, the dreamers said she was from Atlantis, and the idiots said she was born from Jersey sea foam.  The educated along the Avenue of the Arts believed she descended from the Danish coastline raiders described in Hamlet, but  abandoned the romantic notion for lack of physical proof.  Most say she never smiled, but that the promise of one could cause any man to throw away his life as he would on gambling or booze.  The only thing on which they could all agree was her purpose.  She was sent to punish men.  She was sent to punish men with their own vices and virtues.  She made them discard their reason, debased them and reduced them to animal cravings the least of which was lust.  The most pious of them turned pagan, the most faithful were stripped of their convictions leaving their wives no recourse but to send huffy emails to the general managers of the news stations.

At the first tremor all looked toward the top of City Hall.  Those with binoculars, and there were many, saw her naked for that one and only time, and it convulsed  them with the pre-orgasmic longing for the unreachable. She held up the severed heads of her foes by their hair extensions and threw them down onto the mob, leaving the followers of each dead traffic girl to fight each other for possession of the trophy.

So distracted was the mob by the goddess that they did not react when the Broad Street asphalt buckled and split, as it opened with a hiss of super-heated steam, the precursor to the detonation of one million cubic feet of shale gas that had always been underfoot.  The Fancy Brigades were the first to fall in, and were cooked to the bone while still looking fabulous.  The String Bands treated the abyss to Oh Dem Golden Slippers with banjo strings echoing crisp and sharp through the ebbing light of the bottomless chasm.    The Broad Street runners followed soon after because their heads were down as they read their Fitbits, but not before being ravaged by the knobby tires of the dirt bike gangs and ATV riders who popped wheelies with legs spread eagle and arms akimbo as they rode joyfully to their doom.

The Skinheads attacked the Klan for being uppity.  The Pussy Protestors went “scroat-huntin’” with salad tongs and broken glass.  All fell into the primordial canyon including random Millenials who might  have survived had they been able to peel their eyes from their phones.  City Hall sank into ground, its mass of limestone, marble, and granite too much for the fluidized bed of its foundation.  It went straight down, but Eustacia did not follow.  What happened next pushes the limits of credulity and is documented only because every single survivor told the same tale.  By the time Billy Penn’s hat had vanished from sight, Eustacia, in all her naked glory, rose up and up into the sky and streaked across it trailing stardust.

By the end of it Philadelphia lay smoldering like its sister Centralia, with a supply of fuel that burned until all who witnessed the disaster were long dead.    The only ones left to describe events were the Comics, who looked as melancholy and misunderstood as before.

Accounts varied widely in detail, but that’s what happens in fearful times.  Everyone saw it differently, each saw only what they wanted to see, nothing was learned and no one could care, and everyone wrote their own version of the strange and terrible saga of the Traffic Girl Wars.

Chapter 5

Phlogiston

When Albert King sang “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1967, he described a man whose hardships included illiteracy and a penchant for wine and big legged women.  If Albert King had ever met Noel Deign, he would’ve counted his blessings and sung about something else.

Noel was born five years after the recording’s release, but no one could say that he was born under a bad sign.  Noel was born under no sign.  If the celestial map had been laid out to illuminate the paths and plans for each person on earth, it seemed no divinity took the time or made any effort to slap together such a plan for Noel.  Even his name—Noel, which means Christmas, and Deign, which means to do something that one considers beneath one’s dignity—is a nonsensical mashup of traditional festivity and conceit.  What does it mean?  Nothing, just  like Noel Deign’s life.

Noel’s parents met when they were seventeen, and they were married by twenty.  They married because they wanted so have sex, and being a devout Catholic, his mother could not fornicate for fear of being roasted on a spit in Hell for eternity.  Instead, they gathered all who were dear to them and publicly spoke their vows of faithfulness and  love before God and three hundred of their parents’ closest friends, all so Noel’s father, Howard, and Noel’s mother, Virginia, could copulate with the aplomb of those guaranteed entrance into Heaven.

For the honeymoon, Howard chose Harey Haven Resort in the Pocono Mountains, a two and a half hour drive north of Philadelphia.  The image on the sign on the highway included two hares “doing what  hares do best,” as stated in the resort copy.  Upon arrival, the proprietor took them to their suite which featured a heart-shaped bed, white shag carpeting, and a hot tub that sat atop a five foot tall sculpture of a champagne glass.  The proprietor lingered far longer than Howard or Virginia felt was necessary and spent an inordinate amount of time “fixing the thermostat in the closet.”  Once he left, the Deigns tore each other’s clothes off and collapsed into a flesh-toned heap on the heart-shaped bed which,  to  Virginia’s delight, rotated at a medium pace.  The duration of this first intercourse could be measured by the  time it took Howard to position his erect penis at the opening of his wife’s vagina and the microsecond it took Howard to shudder like a man electrocuted as his ejaculate traversed his urethra and shot through her small opening.  Howard never achieved penetration, yet both he and Virginia insist that it was during that first encounter that she became pregnant.  Nine moths later, Noel was born, so named because he was born on Christmas Day.  The coincidence of Noel’s birthday and that of Jesus, combined with what Noel’s father considered an immaculate conception because he never broke Virginia’s hymen—thereby impregnating her while still a virgin—planted the seed in Howard’s mind  that Noel was in fact the second coming of Jesus Christ.  The universe reinforced the thought five years later when the FBI raided Harey Haven Resort and discovered the proprietor had been filming newlywed couples for more than ten  years, covering the time of the Deigns honeymooned there.  Naturally, God would want to document the second immaculate conception, which explained why he allowed them to be filmed.  Such  thoughts had earned Noel’s father the high school nickname of “Deign the Insane.”

Noel’s childhood was typical.  His father Howard decided to homeschool him because he was smarter than any teacher public school could offer.  As someone who barely made it through high school, Howard’s decision to homeschool Noel seemed an act tantamount to child abuse.  But Howard was determined to “learn his boy all the good stuffs.”  And while the state would remove a child from a home where he is physically or sexually abused, they could do nothing when faced with a homeschooling dad who thought viruses enter a person’s nose and work their way through the body until they exit from the big toe.  That was Noel’s first science lesson.

Science was Howard’s favorite topic, and had been since he was laid off from the vinyl chloride plant just before Noel’s birth.  Virginia kept the family insolvent by working three jobs that included cutting hair, cutting nails—and intentionally cutting herself on occasion—and acting as a counselor on a suicide hotline, which usually ended with the caller giving Virginia words of encouragement and advice.

Howard taught Noel the basics.  The four elements were earth, water, air, and  fire.  Earth and water combine to form  mud.  Earth and air combine to form dirt.  Noel asked what happens when water and fire combine.  Howard said that water beats fire, but that fire beats paper and paper beats rock.

Lessons were a model of efficiency as Howard combined science, religion, and creative writing into one course.  Howard told young Noel that the things in the Bible were incorrect, that he had been sold a “Ziploc container full of lies” when he was a boy of seven.  There was no God at all.  All of the stories in the Bible were misrepresentations of alien visits that occurred in the distant past.  There was no Garden of Eden; aliens mixed their own DNA with primate DNA.  Elijah was not carried to Heaven in a flaming chariot, that was an alien  abduction.  Jesus didn’t die for our sins, he was just some guy who owed the Romans back taxes.

Noel was a sponge and took in all of Howard’s teachings.  When Howard told Noel that iron rusts because water fills it with self-doubt, he took it as fact.  When Howard taught Noel that plants do not die from a lack of sunlight or water, but that they commit suicide so their decaying remains will help the roots of a new generation, Noel was amazed by such self-sacrifice.  Father and son built a garden on a shady side of the house and never watered it.  They were perplexed when nothing grew until Howard realized they had bought heirloom seeds, and as heirs these seeds must’ve been spoiled rotten, resulting in their abject selfishness.

One of Howard’s favorite scientific principles was soft inheritance, an hypothesis debunked in the Middle Ages that states physiological changes acquired over the life of an organism may be passed to its offspring.  Howard used this principle to explain why Noel was weak and sickly, because his pregnancy was unplanned and Howard didn’t have time to “get buff” before the insemination.

Virginia also contributed to Noel’s education in ways more profound than her husband the alchemist.  One example is how she taught Noel to deal with death.  For a child, the death of a pet is often the vehicle by which parents introduce the concept of death and how to handle the accompanying grief; but since Noel was not allowed pets—with the exception of the mixed German Shepherd-Doberman stray he owned for twelve hours before the dog defecated on Howard’s pillow—Virginia’s adventitious opportunity came when Dr. Zhivago aired on network television.  In the opening scene of the David Lean classic, a young Yuri Zhivago—a boy the same age as Noel—attends his mother’s funeral.  When Virginia looked up from her drink and saw the headstones and dark clothing, she shrieked and pulled Noel’s head into her breast while shouting, “No!  Don’t look, Noel!  Don’t look at the funeral, oh my God!  She’s dead!  His mother’s dead!”

When it was time to learn about astronomy, Howard took twelve year-old Noel to the backyard  with a junior telescope to look at sunspots.  Similar to humans, Howard instructed, sunspots can tell the age of a star.  They both stared into the sun through the telescope until their corneas looked like the surface of Mercury.  Howard mistook the halos caused by the photokeratitis as angelic visions which shook his faith in the Ancient Aliens theory and drove him back to the Catholic Church, much to the elation of Virginia who by this time was sprinkling crank over her Cheerios.  But Noel was devastated by his father’s reversal of faith.  How could Howard teach him something for years and then act like it no longer mattered?  That indignity provided the gumption Noel needed to embark on his own quest for self-educated truth.  He struck out from home one day and did the unthinkable, something that would create a rift between him and his father that would never mend:  he filled out a form and became the proud first-time owner of a library card.

When  Noel entered the library during his maiden outing—the first time he stood in any building that contained a lot of books—he was greeted by a large poster of William Faulkner with his much quoted advice, “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”  The timing was right for such words to have the maximum effect on Noel and to fill him with feelings of hope and urgency.  Noel was at a milestone in his life, a time when he had made the decision  to cast off what he had learned and to start anew.  It was a feeling anyone who has lost faith in religion would recognize, a feeling of deconstruction riddled with fear and uncertainty, but with an excitement that something profound and ultimately good was happening to them.  Unfortunately, Noel could not have known that Faulkner was referring to the reading of fiction—the product of human imagination—and in particular how it should be used to hone a fiction writer’s craft.  No one mentioned to Noel that when it came to nonfiction, people should not read everything.  When reading historical texts or scientific studies, people should go to great pains to avoid the trash, avoid the garbage, because garbage breeds parasites that infect the human mind and make it a host for their progeny.  The power of Faulkner’s words inspired Noel greatly, but they could not fill the epistemological hole Noel’s parents had left in his development as a man capable of critical thought.  Noel never learned how to learn.  All  anyone around Noel learned is that if a man is taught truth and falsehood in equal measure, with equal weight, and, by virtue of his ignorance, is unable to distinguish one from the other, he will emerge as a man who is a danger to himself and to all around him.

Noel spent the next several months placating his father by feigning interest in his lessons like “How Heat Flows From Cold to Hot in the Summertime,” and then set out for surreptitious jaunts to the chemistry section of what had become his favorite place on earth.  There was something that overwhelmed Noel every time he stood before the rows of bookcases that started at the entrance to the second floor and stretched all the way to the back.  He stood before the chemistry books and drew in a long breath through his nose to inhale the sweet smell of old paper.  Noel would never learn the names of the chemicals that gave the books their fragrance, the volatile organic compounds produced from acid hydrolysis, the benzaldehyde, ethyl hexanaol, and toluene.  As he gazed upon the bound paper that contained Newton’s apple and Galileo’s feathers and irons, Noel felt a warm sensation in his groin followed by a build up of pressure and then a release that made his vision blurry and compromised his balance.  He recovered against the bookcase and pondered the cause of such a spontaneous loss of control.  Noel guessed it was the scent of knowledge combined with his first taste of freedom, but it had more to do with his thirteen year-old body experiencing the metamorphic beginnings of puberty with its thrilling chemical reactions.

Standing alone surrounded by books, Noel had no idea where to begin, but remembering Faulkner’s words he figured it didn’t matter where he started since he was going to read everything.  Noel reached into a tightly packed bookshelf and retrieved a book at random.  The significance of this event was lost on Noel, but there began a pivotal moment for both Noel and the city of Philadelphia.  Of the hundreds of books the library contained about chemistry, Noel could have selected any one instead of the one he did.  He could have pulled From Caveman to Chemist, by Hugh W. Salzberg, an examination of the evolution of chemistry from its Stone Age beginnings through the development of classical theories of molecules and chemical reactions.  Had he picked that book, he would have learned about Phlogiston theory within an historical context, and most importantly how it is no longer considered a viable model of nature.  He could have also picked The Overthrow of Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775–1789, by James Bryan Conant, which conveniently indicates right in the title that Phlogiston theory had been discredited long ago.  Instead, Noel picked a book simply titled Phlogiston, by Mowry Dibble, an obscure book published by an even more obscure publisher.  The book was the work of a scientific humorist that contained an ironic treatment of Phlogiston as if it had never been discredited and had survived into the modern time.  It showed what the world would look like today if humanity had never moved past Phlogiston theory. Dibble’s wit was lost on Noel, who took his exaggerations and the absurdist way in which he presented the fundamentals of the theory as a factual telling.  This was the first book Noel checked out of the library, having spent these months reading in the library to avoid being found out by his father.

It did not take long for Howard to discover the book and demand an explanation.  Noel intentionally left the book in plain sight.

“What is this?” Howard yelled, shaking the book at Noel.

“A book.”

“Where did you get it?”

“At the library.”

“What library?  There’s no library in this town.”

“Yes there is.  It’s a block from our house.  It’s been there for fifty years.”

“Nonsense!” cried his father.  “And this book is more nonsense.”  Howard read the title aloud, mispronouncing it badly.  “Phlogiston?  I never heard of it.  It’s crap!”

“It’s crap because you haven’t heard of it?”

“It’s just crap.”  Howard opened a window and threw the book out of it.  He and Noel were on the first floor, so it landed on top of an azalea bush, and Noel retrieved it with ease.

Howard did not seem to know or care that his outburst and irrational demands would have the opposite of the intended  effect on Noel, similar to how young Victor Frankenstein reacted when his father called Cornelius Agrippa’s work “sad trash.”  Like Frankenstein, Noel’s fascination with the taboo science increased with greater warnings against it, and he read about phlogiston more avidly than before.

Noel learned that Phlogiston was a 17th century attempt to explain the  process of combustion.  Noel knew nothing of combustion, not  even that it was the science behind the automobile engine, so he first had to learn the fundamentals of reaction chemistry, which he never did.  He learned the history of the Phlogiston Theory, how water, earth, fire, and air—the four known elements of classical theory described by Aristotle and taught by homeschooler Howard Deign—could be re-categorized as moist, dry, hot and cold, which had nothing to do with anything.  Rather than understand fire within a modern context, as a complex mixture of ionized carbon particles, water vapor, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen that emits heat, it was considered one substance, and the process of combustion, or burning, was seen as the decomposition of it.

In the early 18th century, Georg Ernst Stahl began using the term phlogiston to describe materials that could burn.  Anything that could burn, he stated, contained phlogiston, and when it did burn, the phlogiston was released.  This explained the loss of mass in things like wood when it’s converted to ash.  It also explained the increase in the mass of metals that are burned in the presence of other materials.  These other materials were thought to be rich in phlogiston and passed it to the metal during oxidation, thereby increasing its mass.

The theory resonated with Noel who had been wondering why his penis felt so tingly and hot, and always did so just prior to what he could only describe as a great release of pressure.  Could his penis contain great quantities of phlogiston?

The theory could also explain why the girls in his neighborhood seemed aloof to him while he couldn’t take his mind off of them.  Did the female vagina contain low quantities of phlogiston or none whatsoever?  If that were the case, what would happen if the high-phlogiston penis and  the  low-phlogiston vagina came into contact?  The thought alone made Noel release huge quantities of phlogiston in his underwear at night.

With these observations, Noel began what would become his life’s masterwork, Men Have Phlogiston, Women Don’t.

The tragedy of Noel Deign is that he was not a dumb man.  He was born with above average intelligence and an insatiable curiosity about the world.  Noel was simply born to the wrong parents, ones who filled him with suspicion, fear, and insecurity, and taught him worse than nothing:  they taught him all the wrong things.  They taught him the way the world isn’t.

Noel would not publish his work for another thirty years, and it would have been better for everyone had he burned it and released all of its imaginary phlogiston.  Noel’s theory, that the complex differences between men and women could be explained by evoking a debunked 17th century theory, was garbage in every sense of the word.  His thesis was based upon circumstantial evidence he obtained third hand because, as Noel himself would admit, everything he knew about women could fit on one side of a piece of toilet paper.  He also created his theory in a vacuum, and did not site any references from chemistry, biology, or psychology published in the last three hundred years.  There were times Noel almost stopped writing, as if he could finally see what everyone but the author himself could see; but because he first developed his theory during a great time of personal discovery—his maturation and departure from childhood, not the least of which included the chemical and biological changes taking place within him that caused feelings of intense eroticism—he became bonded to his theory more strongly than the 124 kcal/mol dissociation energy of the carbon-fluorine bond, not that Noel would ever learn what that means.  He associated his pseudoscience with the real magic of adolescence and all of its firsts:  the first time he noticed the budding breasts of his female neighbors, his first erection, his first involuntary orgasm, his first all-weekend masturbate-a-thon that left him humping the throw pillows in the living room.  All of his passions were so tightly-coupled that they could never be disassociated from one another or from the mangled mass of faith and reason that his father had helped him create.  For these reasons, Noel could not see his work objectively, and even when faced with irrefutable evidence that he was totally wrong and that his work was junk, he couldn’t let it go.

The Library Book Incident brought an end to any semblance of love that existed in Noel and Howard’s relationship.  Noel would always think of Howard  as a lowbrow, and Howard would think of Noel as an ungrateful, spoiled child who didn’t know good learning even when it was slammed repeatedly over his head.

A year later, Virginia tried to help the only way she knew how.  She drank half a fifth of Smirnoff and called the first and  last Deign Family meeting, to be held at 6:32pm because those numbers held  some significance, she was sure of it.  When Howard and Noel  walked  the ten feet from wherever they had been and into the living room, she gave a short, tearful plea filled with Hallmark platitudes and drunken blubbering, and put a cassette tape into her Sony Liberty component stereo system.  She hit PLAY and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens wafted out of the speakers as Virginia sobbed into her drink.  Howard stared out the window watching grass grow while wondering how it was able to do so in direct sunlight, and Noel wrestled down another useless erection.  At the end of the song Virginia said, “See?” and then stared at them with her raccoon eyes before rising and staggering to her  bedroom where she remained for the rest of the day and night.

As Noel  grew into his mid-teens, he didn’t do much physical growing.  He was short and thin, and his movements were awkward and stiff.  Dancing was inconceivable, not that he had  any school dances to attend, the one and only thing for which he was grateful about homeschooling.  But oh how he wished he could.  In his mind he possessed such grace.  More than anything he wanted a girl he could love, one who would love him in return and let him explore her body, make mistakes, and be his partner  in a phlogiston-exchange.  Phlogiston was hot, and it filled his body from toe to crown.  It had to be released, and not only into the emotionless fabric of his undergarments.  He needed the low-phlogiston reserves of the teenage vagina, and if he didn’t fulfill the need he was sure he would burst into flames.  On his bad days he was certain that’s what he was destined to do.

Noel had grown to resent the  changes in him.  He had been happy, or at least he was something that passed for happy if he never gave it too much thought.  He remembered having interests apart from the relentless, insufferable desire to see young females naked, yet each of those interests seemed either irrelevant or was hammered into a new shape that could suit his new obsession.

On his 16th birthday, and seething with a desire no one should have to bear, Noel decided it was time for his first phlogiston-exchange experiment.  Jennifer O’Doherty lived at the end of Noel’s block, and he would always see her pass his house on her way to and from school.  Noel had spent many nights fantasizing about her in sexually explicit terms and decided she was the perfect candidate.  He spent most of the day vomiting as he imagined what he would say to the beautiful creature with long, flaxen hair and two mountain peaks that jutted firmly and proudly from the surface of her t-shirt.  As Jennifer returned home from school, her supple hips swaying with each step, Noel stepped out from behind a tree and into the middle of her path, starling her and making her shriek.  Adhering to the script, Noel asked her if she would like to be his partner in a phlogiston-exchange experiment.  While reminiscing about it years later, Noel was sure that she took off like the Roadrunner with a “meep-meep!” and a puff of smoke.

With time, great frustration, and unrequited lust, Noel came to fear and then profoundly resent the opposite sex.  He found in them a puzzle greater than any scientific problem he had almost encountered and dreamed about solving.  He could not understand what made these girls, these fair beings that seemed from another planet, desire other boys and not him.  It made no sense to eighteen year-old Noel.

He decided that homeschooling had done him in, had made him seem like a weirdo to most of the girls in his neighborhood.  Worse, Noel suspected his father may not have taught him about the world in which everyone else lived so much as he taught him about the world that existed in his own bitter recollections, the one his father felt had discarded him like trash and left him to die with his alcoholic wife who stopped performing her wifely duties as soon as she gained ten pounds and felt self-conscious about the way she looked.

Phlogiston was the answer.  That could bridge the flaming divide.

At nineteen, Noel decided that he had to attend college and leave with a Bachelor of Science degree.  He noticed that all of the scientists and intellectuals went to college.  As a homeschooled child, Noel discovered that he had a pretty good chance of getting into a top school if he did well on his SATs.  Noel learned that the stereotype of homeschooled children is that they are smarter, more educated, and better prepared for college than kids who came from cookie-cutter curriculums in public school.  It never occurred to Noel that rather than thinking him strange, most people would assume he was really smart and educated.  Noel started to include himself when he spoke about scientists and intellectuals.  He described what we think about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  He thought of himself as in  the same league with Richard  Feynman and Carl Sagan.

When it came time to take the SAT, it did  not occur to Noel to study for it.  He was homeschooled, so he thought he would be prepared for any question that appeared on the exam.  He thought he would ace the math section, even though Howard had never taught him algebra.  He thought he would ace the verbal section even though Howard had never tested his reading comprehension.  After the test, Noel assured his strident mentor that he “probably got a perfect score.”  His results came back.  He didn’t break 800.  In a flash, the dream world Noel had created for himself burned to the ground, and Howard was quick to salt the earth with well-placed derision.

“Look at that score, you dunce!  Even your mother did better than 800!”

“805,” said Virginia, pulling herself away from Falcon Crest and her bottle of Thunderbird.

“How could you do any better than me?” Howard said.  “See what happens when you try to learn things on your own?  Had you stayed with me, you wouldn’t have embarrassed yourself like this.”

Noel never forgave Howard for those words, but there was no time for father and son to repair the damage.  One month after the delivery of Noel’s SAT scores, Howard found out that he had liver cancer along with twenty other men who used to work in the vinyl chloride plant.  Two months after that, Virginia was diagnosed with cirrhosis and liver cancer.  Noel’s parents died within a week of each other the following year.  Virginia went first, and Howard insisted with his dying breath that he passed on his liver cancer to her during intercourse.

Neither of Virginia nor Howard had any life insurance, and the house had been remortgaged so many times that there was not a dime of equity left in it.  Noel had to leave his parents home at the age of twenty and set out on his own for the first time.  Noel did not spend much time thinking of what might have been.  His parents were gone and there was no sense in looking back.  He thought that maybe his father had been right about plant suicide, the ones that die and decompose onto the roots of the younger plants to ensure  their survival.  Perhaps that’s what his parents had done, sacrificed themselves so he would not be burdened by them, so they would not impede his development any more than they already had.

Noel’s first order of business was to find an apartment, which he did, above a deli on the main street of his home town.  A sign over the entrance threshold read:

‘Tis moral sin an Onion to devour,

Each clove of garlic hath a sacred power

Above the deli counter hung another sign:

Onion skins very thin,

Mild winter coming in.

Onion skins very tough,

Coming winter very rough.

The deli was run by an immigrant family of indeterminate ethnicity.  The apartment was small and clean, but the smells of fresh paint and new carpeting could not mask the pervasive odors of onions and garlic.  They seeped from the walls and invaded Noel’s clothing and thoughts as if they draped his bedroom with their the satin skins.  In a dream, he viewed the earth from space and it looked like an onion.  He held it in his hand.  The skin was so thick he could not peel it.  He wanted to peel it because he had to expose the fleshy layers to find out what made it sting so much and burn his eyes.  Exasperated, he bit into the skin and tore out a chunk.  He chewed the onion to bits and swallowed it, but immediately vomited it into the blackness of space.  Noel looked at the world with a large bite out of it, and decided he liked it that way.  It looked too perfect before.  Now it resembled him, broken and incomplete, with a large piece missing.

One day, Noel heard a woman in the grocery store give her husband a brilliant piece of advice, one Noel had never heard before.  She said, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  Although their context would remain unknown, her advice stuck with him and became a filter through which he viewed his own plight.  He recognized that he was a beggar and had always been.  He begged for learning, for affection, for approval, for any clue that he mattered.  He knew he wanted no more of the begging business because he correctly recognized it as a sucker’s game.  This was also when Noel discovered pornography and started on his path to becoming an aficionado.

This led to Noel’s second order of business:  the hiring of a prostitute to make with the phlogiston exchange.  He had grown tired of waiting on these stupid girls  who should have jumped at the chance to participate in his phlogiston experiment, at least for the sake of groundbreaking scientific research.  Finding a prostitute was remarkably easy—they advertised in the back of a free newspaper that filled the kiosk in front of the deli.  With the stealth of a reject from the extras line of Get Smart, he backed up to the kiosk with his hands behind his back and removed a copy.  Even before he reached the security of his apartment, the phlogiston ached for release.  He spread the paper out on the plywood supported by a milk crate that he used as a coffee table and read the ads out loud.  They were written in some kind of code, using symbols he didn’t understand:  m4w, w4m, m4t, BiWM, SAF, LTR, Sub, Dom, strap-on, fisting, ABR/ANR, golden shower, bukkake, BDSM, fresh off boat, yellow fever.  They all sounded exotic to Noel, so intriguing.  In the end he picked one the way he had picked his first and only book about Phlogiston:  by random.

A woman speaking broken English answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“I want someone with a vagina and breasts,” said Noel.

“What?”

“Vagina and breasts.  It’s very important.”

It took some time, but eventually the woman explained that all of her girls had both vaginas and breasts.

“Send one, please.  It’s for science.  Make sure she’s pretty.”

Noel gave her his address and then waited with a growing sense of foreboding.

An hour later—one that seemed like an epoch in earth’s history—there was a knock on Noel’s door.  The sound alone triggered an intense orgasm.  A flushed and chagrined Noel barked at the door, “You’ll have to come back another day.”  The response was another knock, but softer.  “Go away!” he said.

Noel went into his bedroom space, because his whole apartment was one room, and changed his pants and underwear while cursing himself with the only banal, G-rated, “cockadoodee” swear words he knew.  He sat down on his lawn chair and turned on the 10 inch TV someone gave him for free at a yard sale.  As he tried to relax, he heard another knock at the door, so faint he thought it was the wind.  He rose and unlocked the deadbolt and pulled the door open.  Through the crack he saw a perfectly androgynous Asian person who must have been standing there for at least a half hour.  He or she had short, cropped black hair and wore an oversized faux-leather jacket, also black, and black jeans that were two sizes too big.  He or she stood in Air Jordan sneakers that looked like they had been hanging from a telephone wire until recently, and he or she had a distinctly male gait when he or she moved.  His or her face was more feminine:  pale skin that was smooth but for some ancient acne scars and drawn tightly over high cheekbones that tapered into a jaw so sharp it could cut glass.  His or her large, almond-shaped eyes reminded Noel of the Grey Aliens his father spoke of during his Ancient Aliens lessons.  Had he been thinking clearly, he never would have let him or her in the apartment, but with the end of his quest within reach he was overcome by the thought of its fulfillment.

He or she reached into his or her pocket and handed Noel a piece of paper on which “$100” was written.

“I didn’t think it’d be that much,” he said.

With no common language, it took some time before Noel got the idea that there was a large man downstairs waiting for him or her and that he was not happy at all.

Noel gave him or her the money, which was all of the disposable income he had, and he or she took his or her clothes off hastily, functionally, like someone getting ready for bed with no enticements, no tease, no hint of sexuality.  He or she walked toward Noel and stood in front of him as he or she took off his or her last piece of clothing.  He or she forcefully pulled down  his or her panties and Noel winced, half-expecting to receive an uppercut to the jaw from a penis, but there was none.  Noel was face to face with his first honest to goodness vagina.  Standing before him was a real woman with really small breasts, dark areoles, and nipples that looked like they belonged on baby bottles.  Her flawless skin enticed him to touch it anywhere he wanted.  He put his hand on her knee and ran it up her thigh.  His hand glided over her body as if she were covered in satin, like an onion skin, but one very smooth.  The hair on his arms raised as at the thought that he could do anything he wanted because he had paid for her, but he soon discovered there were rules.

She took out a condom from her pocket and unwrapped it and handed it to Noel, who immediately saw the dire implications.  With such a barrier, there  could be no phlogiston exchange.  Without a phlogiston exchange, there could be no scientific discovery.  That would ruin everything.  Something had been horribly lost in translation.

Noel immediately saw a way around the problem by tearing a small hole in the tip of  the condom with is fingernail.  He rolled it onto himself with the deft handling of a man who did not possess thumbs.  He rolled it halfway down and considered that good enough.  The woman walked to Noel’s bed and laid herself down on her back.  She spread her legs, put her forearms behind her knees, and pulled them to her chest.  In his haste, Noel ran to the bed but tripped and fell before he reached it.  She giggled slightly before repainting her stony countenance.  Noel artlessly tried to insert his penis into her, but after half a dozen failed attempts, she reached down and did it for him.  Wide-eyed with fear, he thrust himself into her twice and then exploded.  He shuddered like a man electrocuted, similar to the way his father did when Noel was conceived.  He then collapsed onto her, panting heavily and putting his full weight onto her chest.  She struggled to breathe and to get out from under him, managing to roll him to one side.  Noel lay on his back with an other-worldly stare, like he could see through the ceiling and into the heavens.  She rose from the bed and  looked down at his deflating penis and noticed that the condom looked empty.  Without a word, she removed the condom and held it up.  She hastened to the kitchen sink and ran water through it.  It poured straight through without the slightest hint of obstruction.  The condom slipped through her hand and fell to the floor.  She followed it and she bent down kneeling on the floor with her face in her hands as her body heaved with silent sobs.  Noel rose and walked to her.  He saw his phlogiston drip out of her and onto the floor and he smiled.

A hard pounding on the door broke her soft despair and the woman stood up with the haste of someone mortally afraid.  She dressed in under one minute, and was out the door before Noel could do something scientific that he hadn’t planned for or had any ideas about what exactly to do.

Noel lay on his bed later that night and smiled broadly.  The  experiment was a tremendous success and equally thrilling.  He mused what a wonderful thing it is to love your work.  From that point forward, things would change for twenty-one year-old Noel.  For as unlucky as his childhood and teenage years had been, a fortunate stroke of serendipity lay in store for him at the start of his twenties.  It would be centered around something that had been with Noel all of his life, but something he had never given any thought:  his voice.

Most people are surprised when they hear a recording of their own voice for the first time.  Psychologists say that  only schizophrenics are unable to differentiate their speaking voice from recordings of their voice.  For all other people, they think the two voices sound different—sometimes very different—and they often don’t like the sound of their voice on recordings.  Because homeschooling had kept him isolated, and since he parents never mentioned anything about it, Noel had no way of knowing what a unique and interesting voice he had.  During a chance encounter, Noel found out that at least one person thought he had a great voice for radio.

One day in the summer, the owner of the deli, Narek Kahvejian, asked Noel about the female visitors he’d been having.

“You have girls to my apartment,” Narek said.

“Uh…what?” Noel stammered.

“You have strange girls coming up with big guy waiting for them in car.”

Noel was frozen in place.  “I’m conducting phlogiston experiments,” he said  weakly.

“What?”

“Phlogiston.”

“Listen, I want no illegal hanky-panky in my building.”

“I’m doing important, groundbreaking work.”

“You’ll be groundbreaking, with sledgehammer in hard labor prison.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Can I get a chicken salad sandwich?”

Narek looked him over more closely.  He could easily crush Noel into a million pieces in his bare hands.

“You look like nice kid,” said Narek.  “I know how it goes.  You get lonely, need woman.  But no hookers in my apartment or you have to go.”

Noel stared down at his feet, and once again he stood before his father, chastising him because he never read the books about how radishes can cure cancer.

“You have to learn how to get woman regular way, like me and my wife.”  Mrs. Kahvejian, whose name was Hazarvart, could also crush Noel between her manly meat hooks.

“I’m sorry said Noel.  It won’t happen again.”

Narek shrugged it off.  “There’s one way you can make it up to me,” he said.  “My son plays baseball, but there is no one to announce today’s game.  Come to game and be announcer.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do,” said Noel

“It’s easy.  Moron could do it.”

Noel did not argue.  At 5pm Hazarvart drove him to the baseball field where a group of nine to eleven year-olds prepared to engage  in some of the most disorganized baseball this side of the Mississippi.

The coach of the Kavejian’s team brought Noel to the PA system and handed him the roster for both teams, instructing him that all he had to do was announce the players full names as they came up to bat.

“Don’t be nervous.  A moron could do it,” he  said.

Noel did as instructed, and called the game without mispronouncing a single name.  Immediately after the game, a man approached him and introduced himself as Glen Dole, producer for WOIQ radio station in Bala Cynwyd.  Glen said that he was impressed by Noel’s announcing abilities and commanding his voice.  He asked Noel if he’d ever considered a career in radio.  Noel said he had not, and then recounted his sad history with education.  Glen said that didn’t matter, that he was looking for someone with a distinctive voice to give the traffic  report.

“You just read from a script.  It’s easy.  Even a moron could do it,” Glen said.

Noel was hesitant, but interpreted the “IQ” in the station’s call letters as a positive omen, which it was.

Next week Noel  bought himself one charcoal grey suit and took the bus to his interview at the radio station.  When he entered the station, the receptionist directed him to the funeral home one block away.

He met Glen who brought him to a recording studio where three other people from the station sat silently sipping coffee.  After brief  introductions, Noel sat down behind the microphone, put on the over-ear headphones, and read the fake traffic report.  To radio aficionados and voice coaches, listening to Noel give his first radio report was like an NBA fan watching Lebron James pick up a basketball for the first time.  His voice was everything Noel was not in his personal life, orotund and  modulated, a rich base-baritone with a unique frequency that made it stand out from all other voices.  It was said that if Noel was in a room with five hundred other people, you’d be able to pick out his voice when standing at the entrance.

For five years Noel was the voice of traffic for WOIQ, and  for five years his groundbreaking scientific research sat waiting for his attention.  The bump in Noel’s salary could not be measured or described as a percentage gain since anything multiplied by zero is zero, but he was solvent for the very first time.  Noel could have left his efficiency apartment  with the onion and garlic smells and the landlords who reminded him of  Cold War nightmares, but he kept it because it reminded him of the days when naked women and phlogiston ran freely.

Fate intervened once more in Noel’s life when Phil Dudli, the reporter who did the “What Will They Think of Next?” segment about science and technology, was hit by a car and laid up at home for six weeks.

“All you have to do is read the script,” advised his station manager.  “It’s really easy.  You know?”

“Yeah,” said Noel.  “A moron could do it.”

“Yes!” said the station manager, delighted.  “I’ve eaten salads that are smarter than Phil.”

So long as Noel stuck to the script, all was well.  Noel gave reports about the ill effect of diet sodas and the best ways to lose those holiday pounds.  He reported on Comet Hale Bopp, which was visible to the naked eye for eighteen months.  When an amateur took a fuzzy image of an unidentified object trailing , the ghost of Howard Deign grabbed Noel and shook him and whispered in his ear, “See?  See?  I was right.  The aliens have returned.”   When members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their lives while wearing black Nikes, he heard his father again.  “You can’t prove they didn’t teleport to that spaceship.  You can’t prove it!”  But Noel had rejected Howard’s teachings and was able to focus instead on reading his scripts.  Noel liked the way he sounded when he spoke the words an actual scientist had written.  It made him feel smart.  Noel would go into the studio later and play it back so he could hear  himself speak those words again.

For six weeks, Noel gave the scientific news report so well that the station manager decided to ask Noel to take it over for good.  That was before Noel realized that Phil Dudli was coming back the following week and he assumed he’d take his old spot.  This coincided with a script Noel had to read that dealt with climate change.  The  script called  for  Noel to  describe  the data that shows how the earth is getting warmer, the feared melting of the polar ice caps, and the dire predictions of the mathematical models.  As the station manager sipped his coffee while formulating the new offer he decided to give Noel right after the segment, Noel put down the script and went rogue.

Noel couldn’t believe what script contained.  What was this garbage?  What the hell was “thermodynamics” and “gas-phase atmospheric chemistry?”  Who made it so overly complicated?  These things can’t predict anything related to warming, cooling, or heating.  Not without Phlogiston, they can’t.

Noel educated the Philadelphia audience that the earth had great quantities of phlogiston, and that the sky had none.  The sky could not accept the phlogiston, but the clouds could.  The clouds in turn rained the phlogiston back down to earth in liquid form, similar to the liquid exchange that happens when people copulate.

The station manger put down his coffee and knocked on the glass to the recording booth.  Noel ignored it.  He then wrote a sign  that read, “Read the script!” but Noel ignored that too.  Then he edited the sign so it read, “Read the script, Asshole!”  Still, Noel continued.  Once he started down the path he had only ever tread alone or with his father, it all came out, buckets upon buckets of it.  All of Howard’s teachings were still there on the edge of Noel’s gray matter, waiting to spring from it and into the radio meme ether.  Noel talked about the  ancient aliens and Roswell, how the  pyramids around the world are actually an ancient communications network, and how Phlogiston theory can explain all of the problems men and women have, as well as the observed heating of the earth which he described as “all easily reversible, so, like, what’s the big deal?”

Noel  was  fired on the spot, but as they say when people board an airplane, when God closes one door he opens another really big one on impact.

Two weeks after his firing, a letter that had been mistakenly delivered to the Kahvejians was hand-delivered to him by Hazarvart.  She handed  the envelop to Noel and lingered longer than Noel felt necessary.

“You have women here?”

Noel stared at her  dispassionately without answering.

“I am woman.”

She opened the door and looked back at him.  “Tell me if you’re ever lonely.”  She left without closing the door.

Noel looked after her as he felt a tightening in his pants, which he thought odd since he wasn’t attracted to Hazarvart or any woman who looked like she could bounce at a biker bar.

He returned his attention to the envelop and  opened it.  The succinct message was printed on letterhead from WFRY station near Harrisburg, PA.  It read simply, “We do crazy here.  Welcome aboard.”

The small station liked Noel’s broadcast so much that they gave him an hour to do whatever he liked.  Noel accepted the position, recognizing  it as a place  that could give him the freedom he’d always wanted.   He broke  his lease to the apartment over the deli and moved to Harrisburg  within days of accepting the offer.  Even after five years, all of Noel’s possessions could fit in the back seat and trunk of his car.  He left his bed because it was concave and hurt his back.  Hazarvart liked to make love on top with both feet planted on  the edges of  the bed so she could come down on him with maximum force.  She also had a penchant for phallic-shaped vegetables and did things to herself and to Noel with them that he never thought possible or enjoyable, but discovered they were both.  She was the only woman who had sex  with  him for free, although he paid for it in other ways.  She was also the only woman who contained as much Phlogiston as a man, and she gave him a perspective on his research that shaped it more than  anything since its inception.

On the drive to Harrisburg, Noel imagined the life before him with the enthusiasm of a gold prospector.  He finally had a job that complimented his work as a scientist.  He could talk about his Phlogiston theory on the air and write his masterpiece, Men Have Phlogiston, Most Women Don’t.  But once again, Noel learned that there is no such thing as complete freedom.  Everybody answers to someone.

Noel’s new station had an agenda, a very politically-driven agenda to discredit the climate change proponents and undermine the public’s confidence in the science behind the predictions.  As climate change acceptance went, so would the future of fossil fuels.  Doubt had to be cultivated in the public’s mind.  Those who had been educated in the sciences would never buy into it, but they were a small percentage of voters and not the  target audience.  The station meant to target the ignorant and  poorly educated.  They loved the poorly educated.

Noel was never political—he was only after the truth as he saw it—but he accepted his role in the station’s obvious political agenda and advanced it as if it were his own brainchild.

Noel spent his nights researching all that he could about climate change,  which amounted to reading Discover Magazine at the library.  After work, he would tour the local bars looking for women to partake in his phlogiston experiments.  Unable to find any, he went back to the personal ads and hired prostitutes, none of whom could speak English for any reason he could figure.  From this experience, Noel decided that the most efficient form of female affection is the kind a man can buy with money.  When it can to male-female relationships and the fraud that greeting card companies had sold the public and passed as true love, cash that was the only real currency of exchange.

In three short years Noel Deign became the Mr. Wizard of Harrisburg and the surrounding area.  [number] people per week would call into his show to ask questions about science, to which he rarely knew the answer but would answer anyway; but most wanted to rail against the political left and anyone who was against the continued burning of fossil fuels.  Noel was ardently opposed to climate change research, not for any political reason, but because he considered  it “fake science.”  He also managed to complete the first full draft of his book.

As a radio host with a loyal following, it did not take long for him to attract a publisher.  A small book publisher who exclusively published conspiracy theory and anti-government books signed Noel to publish Men Have Phlogiston, Most Women Don’t with the condition that Noel drop the “Most” from the title and make it sound more like a government conspiracy with references to the JFK assassination.  Noel refused, especially when he found out he had to supply his own editor.  To Noel’s surprise, he found that even with a publisher—and particularly with a small one—the bulk of the promotional work lies with the author.  The station allowed Noel to promote his book on his radio show, and because of that Noel received a modest but steady amount of sales.  Things were going fine the Caller X incident, when a male caller posing as a climate change denier ambushed Noel on a Tuesday morning.

“I’ve read your book, Mr. Deign, and I’d like to ask you a couple questions.”

“OK,” said Noel with the confidence of a politician speaking to a group of supporters.

“Does heat flow from hot  to cold, or from cold to hot?”

“Heat flows from hot to cold, of  course,” said Noel.  “Except in the  summer.”

“Excuse  me?”

“In the summertime it flows from cold to hot.  That’s why it gets hot in the summer.”

“End the call,” came a voice in Noel’s ear, but Noel thought he had answered the question correctly and wanted to hear more.

Caller X burst out laughing.  “You are unbelievable.  You think you can take a piece of garbage like this, slap a book cover on it, and think that people should read it?”

“What…what’s the question?”

“End the call, now.”

“I notice your book was not reviewed.  That’s the best indication that you’re afraid to have anyone with half a brain lend a critical eye to it.  You don’t know anything about science,” said Caller X.  “People like you are what’s wrong with the world, and I will do everything in my power to call you out as the fraud and the idiot that you are.”

 With that, Caller X hung up, leaving Noel shaking with anxiety in his studio.  He didn’t know what to say, but a voice in his ear told him exactly what to say.

“I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen for that last caller, but I’m glad this happened because it shows you all what we’re up against.  These so-called scientific elites want to obscure the truth, because they don’t want us to see what  they’re up  to, the way they’re poisoning the minds of our children  in schools, the way they force their views down our throats and expect us to swallow just because they have a university degree.  They are working toward our destruction.”

Noel spoke mechanically.  The words from his earpiece went into his ear and out of his mouth without ever encountering his brain.  What bothered him the most is how the caller blasted him for the lack of reviews.  That was his only legitimate criticism, and Noel made it his mission to correct it as soon as possible.

He contacted his publisher and asked if they could send his book to reviewers, but the publisher said that would cost extra.  Noel paid them the money, and waited for the reviews to come in.  Two months went by, then three, then four.  Finally Noel was contacted by his publisher.  The papers and magazines decided that they would not publish reviews for Noel’s book, but they did write them and had sent them to Noel care of the publisher.  For an author of fiction there is a rule of thumb that states a writer should take the reviews that tell him he is the worst and best writer in history and throw them out.  The truth lies in the middle.  There is no such rule of thumb for authors of the kind Noel was,  the writers of nonfiction.  Every review Noel read said essentially the same thing, that there was absolutely no value or merit to the work and that it should be burned in an incinerator along with the rest of the trash.  One reviewer went so far  as to wonder how the author is able to care for himself and function on a day to day basis.  All reviewers decried a lack of a basic understanding of the natural world, and hypothesized that the author had either received no education at all, or was educated by someone who was insane.

Noel reacted the way a man would react if a doctor told him he was dying.  He would deny it immediately.  But this wasn’t the mere death of the body.  The reviewers  had precipitated the savage death of Noel’s sprit, the kind that triggers despair  and  the  feeling that everything is dark and bleak, that you have changed on a molecular level, that your life will never know happiness, and  that you will never feel like yourself again for the rest of your life.  That is what could have happened to Noel had he not been a narcissist.  Narcissists can always pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or someone else’s bootstraps and place the blame where it rightly belongs, which is on the shoulders of someone else.

Noel Deign laughed.  It  wasn’t his fault.  There was nothing wrong with this theory.  There was everything right about it.  It was the fault of the  intellectuals and their snobbery.  They would bury his work out of spite.

It was then that  Noel declared war on the scientific establishment and  intellectuals in general.  He decided to use his platform to castigate these so-called “Keepers of the Prometheus Flame,” those who wished to stifle scientific inquiry, his very important, ground-breaking scientific inquiry.  How dare these hypocrites?  Who are they to say that their sources are any better than mine?  Why should anybody listen to him.

Thoughts like these, a worldview like this, is what kept Noel Deign going for the next twenty years.  It was also the creation of the intractable path he would been placed upon, without knowing it, that would bring him into contact with a woman who would radically change his life.  When Noel put his head down on his pillow the day he read the reviews and ordered another  prostitute, he had  no way of knowing that with every step and with every decision he was about to make, he was on collision course with Eustacia Vye.