Sometimes when my writing is going badly I like to torture myself by looking at the racks of paperback bestsellers. When I’m losing faith that I’ll ever be able to write another decent paragraph, let alone get published, I can’t resist the shot of envy and bitterness I get from scanning the glossy covers of all those John Grisham and Mitch Albom novels and thinking about the fortunes other writers have amassed by cleverly avoiding any sort of literary voice. Thus it was that I was striding into the foggy night toward the local 24-hour Walgreen’s, abandoning Chapter 68 of my latest novel about a man too passionate to fit into the everyday work world, eager to see what was new from Nora Roberts or Michael Crichton or that literary immortal of the future, Stephen King.
So intent was I on my own misery that I nearly crashed into the man standing on the street corner. I jumped back and started to apologize. Then I noticed his eyebrows. Or, rather, his lack of same.
“Pox Pascal!” I gasped.
“So it would seem,” sneered the criminal mastermind. “Although I may be but a Pox Pascal robot, sent to summon you while my master watches safely from one of his many subterranean hideouts.”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want information that only you possess, Will Jones,” he said. “Or, if in fact I am a robot, I might say that my master wants information that only you possess. You won’t fool Pox Pascal into revealing the truth with one of your faux-naïve questions!”
“I’ve got nothing to tell you,” I said.
“I think I will be the judge of that, Will Jones. Or, if in fact I am a robot, I might say that my master will be…”
“Okay,” I said. “I get it. But why do you think I’d cooperate with you?”
“I have monitored you with my ultrascientific devices for months,” he said, “ever since you first became my enemy’s pal, waiting for the inevitable day when the stars would fall from your eyes like bolides and you would begin to see the flaws in the friend you once venerated!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Yeah, sure, he got on my nerves a little with that fake book stunt he pulled. But there’s no one who doesn’t think Splendid Man is the greatest man in the world—and you’re the most nefarious!”
“Really? What about every citizen of the planet Poxor, where I am revered as a hero and your splendid pal is despised as a villain?” He moved a hand slightly, and in the air beside me appeared a giant plastic sphere, as big as my bathroom and as transparent as a soap bubble. “Won’t you join me on a trip to Poxor, Will Jones? It might…broaden your horizons.”
My hand snaked to my pocket and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Let’s see the grinning fiend act so superior when Splendid Man came to my rescue, I thought. Any second now, I thought. Okay, I thought. Any second…now?
“A problem?” Pascal smirked. “Is it your SOS Comb, perhaps, that isn’t working?”
“You fiend,” I snarled. “You’ve no doubt rigged up a jamming device.”
“Yes,” he chortled. “No doubt I have.”
Before I knew what was happening, a hole had opened in the membrane of the bubble and Pascal had shoved me inside. I found myself standing on an invisible floor within the odd vessel. As I looked down through it, I saw the sidewalk receding beneath my feet. We were taking to the air! The rooftops and hills of San Francisco vanished as we gathered speed upward.
I took a hard look at my companion, then. The gleaming, hairless brows. The great crest of silver hair sweeping high above his head, as if to compensate for the naked forehead. The penetrating blue gems of his eyes and the lips twisted with lifelong bitterness. The lab smock he always wore in case anyone should fail to recognize him as a scientific genius. I realized then what it was that this arrogant scoundrel must want from me, and I swore to myself that nothing, no bribery or coercion, could ever wring from Will Jones the truth of Splendid Man’s secret identity!
I suddenly heard Pascal speaking. “There, before you! Poxor, the world I call my own!”
Sure enough, there was a planet looming into view as the bubble began to slacken its speed. Apparently I’d been so lost in my own angry thoughts that I’d spaced out on an entire lengthy journey through the vastness of the universe. I hate it when I do that.
“I imagine you know about the effects of greater gravitation and argon-free atmosphere on Earthlings,” he said, and slapped a tiny device on the back of my neck. “This device will radiate you with enough antigravitons to preserve your normal strength, while injecting enough argon into your bloodstream to prevent any unwelcome changes to your scrotum.”
“You think of everything,” I said.
“I’m a mastermind,” he said. And with that, the membrane of the space bubble dissolved and we stepped out onto the veranda of Palace Pascal, the lone edifice rising from the vine-filled jungles of Poxor.
“When I first came upon this planet, through a fortunate accident,” he was saying, “I found it entirely overgrown with these creepers and populated by a savage people. But upon further exploration I discovered the ruins of a great, hyperscientific civilization. Although no historical records remain of the civilization’s collapse, I can only surmise that the ignorant masses grew envious of the scientific elite and turned on them, heedless of the fact that their hubris would plunge them into ignorance and barbarism.”
“More likely the elite tied itself to a short-sighted dependence on non-renewable resources and ignored the need for a fair distribution of wealth and a solid foundation of social services,” I said.
“Liberals,” he hissed. “Anyway. What matters is that I alone had the know-how to bring the great devices of the past back to life and carve a new civilization out of the vines! I, Pox Pascal, became the savior of a world!”
Sure enough, as he stepped to the edge of the stone veranda, a great roar went up from the plaza below. There thousands of people in identical lab smocks bowed toward us chanting, “Pox! Pox! Pox! Pox! Pox!”
“I’ll bet this is one of those times you wish your parents had given you a different name,” I said.
“Any name is sweet when it is chanted in obeisance,” he said, with a sinister grin. “Imagine that this is a book signing at Book Expo America. Those peasants are the literature enthusiasts of Earth. And they’re chanting, ‘Will! Will! Will!’”
I could see how this guy cut it as an evil mastermind. Sure, I knew I was being manipulated all the way. But I still felt my knees get weak at the thought.
“I have influence with the New York publishing world, Will,” he said. “Do you not think there are criminal masterminds in the book business? How else do you explain the success of Bret Easton Ellis? I can make things happen for you, Will.”
I pondered it. A multi-book deal. Maybe a National Book Award. An end to my temporary job waving a model-home sign on street corners. But I knew it couldn’t be. “No thanks,” I said. “I can become a literary success all by myself.”
He laughed derisively.
“Okay. Then I’ll become a failure by myself.”
He smiled, and I knew he could see through me. “Allow me to give you the tour of Palace Pascal, Will Jones.”
He led me past the giant, blast-proof doors into his windowless sanctum sanctorum. On one wall were photographs of his heroic deeds as savior of Poxor, and on the opposite wall framed newspapers recording his dastardly deeds on Earth. Scattered everywhere were the fruits of his life of pillage: piles of jewels and stacks of cash, strange artifacts from many worlds, paintings by masters from Vermeer to Picasso. Towering over all of it stood a line of giant statues of what I took to be his personal role models, the great plunderers of history. Attila the Hun. Hernándo Cortés. Blackbeard. Dick Cheney.
At a subtle move of his fingers, a mushroom-shaped flying chair cruised toward me. “Please, have a seat,” he said. “We have much to discuss.”
“Forget it,” I said, refusing to budge. “Nothing will make me turn against my pal.”
He made a noise with his tongue that might be best be rendered as, “Tsk tsk,” then added, “Don’t you see that you and I are of a kind, Will Jones? We are men of intellect, men of culture. Why should you give your loyalty to a man of simple physical might?”
I sneered. Pretty well, too, for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of practice sneering. “You’re trying to tell me that’s why you hate Splendid Man?”
“I oppose him because I believe in the natural elite of the intellectual. Because I see through his phony democratism and moral absolutism.”
“Really,” I said. “Then it has nothing to do with…your eyebrows?”
His eyes turned to stone. “Then he admits that it was he who cost me my eyebrows?”
“He says that’s been your tragic obsession, Pascal. That while you were teenagers together in Turnipville, he used the heat setting of his Splendid Vision to burn away the spores of an alien mildew invasion and inadvertently singed your…”
“Inadvertently!” Pascal raised a fist and roared in rage. “As if he couldn’t control his vision to the micron! Once I thought Splendid Boy and I might be allies, able to revel together in our superiority to the herd! But when he burned away my eyebrows and left me a laughing stock at Turnip High, I knew the truth! He was nothing but another high school jock tormenting the outcast brain! And it is high time you saw the truth too!”
“Sorry,” I said. “Nothing you can do will ever induce me to reveal Splendid Man’s secret identity!”
He rolled his eyes. Which, from a guy without eyebrows, is a disconcerting sight. “That again! Why does he persist in thinking I want to discover his secret identity?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “To strike at him through his loved ones.”
He scoffed. “Through his loved ones! As if it isn’t already common knowledge that he’s inexplicably fixated on the obsolescent print journalists of the Muncipalitus Daily Bolide! That he regularly rescues Pepper Pine, liberates Bobby Anderssen from bizarre transformations, and passes news scoops to that mild-mannered reporter Ken Clayton, even though, for reasons I haven’t yet been able to deduce, he and Clayton are almost never seen together. All I have to do is pick up a comic book to get a full list of his loved ones!”
He snatched a brightly colored magazine off a nearby shelf and waved it over his head to emphasize his point. That’s when I noticed the stacks of comics on the shelves. Evidently a life of plunder could net a guy more than a few Vermeers. Just from what I could see, it looked like he had everything. The first appearances of Catman and Quickie. The sought-after Pepper Pine Summer Fun Special with the first page printed upside down. Even the infamously rare Splendid Man Talks about Footwear, in which our hero teamed up with the National Podiatry Council to teach children the importance of good arch support. I was craning my neck to see what was under that one when I realized Pascal was talking.
“What?” I asked.
He blinked at me in what appeared to be impatience. “I said,” he said, “that I don’t care whether Splendid Man is secretly a scout master, a tile installer, or a Hindu mystic.”
“Then what do you want from me?” I asked.
“The secret of the one faculty you have that neither I nor Splendid Man possesses. The one power that makes you so valuable to my archenemy.”
I searched my memory but I wasn’t coming up with anything. Surely he didn’t mean the ability to craft perfect declarative sentences that had earned me a place of honor among the Array of Splendid Striplings.
“Come with me,” he said, and pivoted toward the wall behind him. It slid open, revealing a vast chamber glittering with ultrascientific equipment. I was entering the legendary laboratory of Pox Pascal! Everywhere around me rose tall beakers of bubbling fluid, spinning gyroscopes, crackling arcs of electricity, and, in the middle of it all, a towering structure covered by a metallic tarp.
“When I journeyed to ancient Alexandria to protect the world’s intelligentsia from the virus of plebeian taste,” he was saying, “the last person I expected to stop me was Splendid Man. I’d never have dreamed that he’d even heard of the Library of Alexandria! But when he showed up with you I discovered that my Splendid Nemesis was developing a cultural education. The thought of that musclebound buffoon imagining that he might rival me in knowledge made me want to retch! And so I journeyed further back in time to the moment you arrived and lurked among the book stacks to eavesdrop on his plans. That’s when I first heard of the secret, internal device that you use to penetrate the mysteries of literary creation. I knew the day would come when he found a way to replicate that device—and my sworn enemy would possess yet another power that Pox Pascal does not!”
“Secret, internal device?” I asked.
“I told you not to waste your faux naïveté on me! He asked you how you distinguish between great literature and entertaining junk, and you, foolishly imagining that no one was listening, answered him loud and clear!”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You don’t mean my ‘built-in shit detector’?”
The shrieking laughter he set up echoed off the walls of the laboratory. “Did you imagine that Pox Pascal would allow Splendid Man to possess a mental instrument that he himself did not? Bah! From the moment I returned to the present, I began tracking down every reference ever made to this elusive device in every library and secret laboratory to which my criminal connections gave me access! At long last, I found the first recorded mention of it!” From inside his lab coat he whipped out a yellowing magazine with a pen-and-ink drawing on the cover. “Here, in the Spring 1958 issue of an esoteric chronicle called the Paris Review, a global adventurer named Ernest Hemingway revealed to his ally George Plimpton that every good writer has, and I quote, ‘a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.’”
“You know, you probably could have found that in a few seconds on Google,” I said.
“Google!” he scoffed. “A crutch for intellectual cripples! Pox Pascal has his own ways to extract information!” Then he flung the magazine against the wall. “But curse the fool! He reveals the existence of this shit detection device but nothing about how to assemble one! I returned immediately to my laboratory on Poxor, certain that somewhere in the ancient, arcane scientific learning of this planet’s vanished civilization there must have been research on the process of literary shit detection. But there was nothing! Oh, yes, I was able to develop foolproof devices for achieving perfect color harmony in a spring wardrobe and infallible musical selections for a wedding or anniversary party. But literary shit detection remained beyond the reach of my highest technology!”
I shrugged. “I guess you either have it or you don’t,” I said.
Suddenly he whipped a weird weapon out of his lab coat and leveled it at me. I had no idea what its globular tip might do to me, but I wasn’t eager to find out. “Bosh!” he roared. “And piffle! Nothing can stymie Pox Pascal when he turns his full brilliance with laser-like intensity upon a challenge! Look you now upon my greatest achievement!”
He turned the weapon on the tarp-covered structure in the middle of the lab and squeezed the trigger. There was a flash of light, and the tarp was gone, utterly disintegrated. A colossal device stood revealed, a labyrinth of coils and globes surmounted by missile-shaped towers that loomed over us like grain silos over the Kansas prairies, only different. And a lot scarier.
“Witness Pascal’s Shit Detector!” he crowed. “It can process any work of literature, art, or music in a millisecond and label any portion of it as genius or feces! And thanks to these reinforced titanium plates and teflon seismic pads, it is as shock-proof as any shit detector in the known universe!” He paused to look at it and added, “Of course, I’ll have to do a little miniaturization to make the built-in part work. But there will be time for that later! After I have humiliated the Man of Splendid Ignorance!”
“Whatever,” I said. “But what I’m still trying to figure out is, what do you need me for?”
“Don’t you know?” he cackled.
I thought for a minute. “No,” I said.
“To prove its power!” he roared. “To show you that whatever shit you can detect, my machine can detect more quickly and accurately!” He tossed a paperback book at me. The cover had been ripped off, as if it had been returned for a refund by a supermarket, so I couldn’t see what it was. “Read a few pages of that until you know whether it is shit or not!”
I did so. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him fling an identical book into a sort of laundry-chute door on the side of his humongous machine. “Man,” I said after a minute. “This is some pretentious crap.”
“Ha!” he barked. “We’ll see what you know!” And with a glint of wild triumph in his eyes he pushed a button on the machine. Lights flashed, bells dinged, coils turned, and finally a little card popped out of a slot. Pascal grabbed it triumphantly and read, “This is a dazzling conflation of genre and art, exposing the existential void at the core of our popular dreams.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s just a guy using the detective story form to put out a load of self-indulgent ambiguity. It doesn’t work as a mystery book or as literature. You must have pumped that machine full of a bunch of academic clichés.”
“Ha!” Pascal barked again. But this time I could see a faint line of sweat on his upper lip. “That happens to be a novel by Paul Auster!”
“No wonder,” I said.
He waited for me to elaborate, but I didn’t see the point. His tongue darted nervously over his lips before he said, “But he is critically acclaimed as a master of postmodernism!”
I shrugged. “Critics always fall for self-reflective shit like this.”
“Oh, so you think you can trick me!” he said with a forced laugh. “You think you can make me believe that my shit detector is still inferior to yours!”
“Okay,” I said. “If it makes you feel better to think so.”
Now I saw his eyes narrow in what was becoming a familiar criminal-mastermind glint. “Fine, then,” he said craftily. “Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you have in fact revealed a flaw in my masterpiece. Let’s just say that you know better. What should I do to make my shit detector as accurate as yours?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Come now, my good friend,” he said. “You wouldn’t deny a fellow intellectual precious cultural knowledge?”
“I really don’t think it’s anything you can program into a machine,” I said.
“All right,” he said, still with that glint. “Have it your way. I’ll have to fix it myself. But let’s not let that spoil our visit, shall we? Step into my parlor and share a refreshment.”
Again the wall behind him opened, this time leading into a cozier, darker chamber. I saw that one wall was made entirely of glass, or, more likely, some other transparent substance much more superscientific than glass. Beyond it were dense jungle habitats and a startling variety of captive creatures.
“I always find it restful to look at my Poxorian menagerie when I converse,” he said. “Evolution has taken such dazzling turns on this world. They fill me with hope for the future.” A flying disk hissed up, carrying drinks. Pascal took one, and then the disk glided toward me. Actually, it glided a bit past me, as if leading me to my right. “So tell me, Will…if I may call you Will…when did you first notice your ability to detect shit?”
I took a step toward the disk. Then I caught myself. I realized that it floated directly opposite one particular pen in the menagerie, and that’s when I tumbled to his plan. What the evil mastermind did not know was that Splendid Man, with his fondness for animals, had once described to me the fauna of Poxor that he’d come to know on one of his adventures as a fugitive on Poxor pursued by misguided Poxorian citizens who believed that any foe of their beloved Pox must be an interstellar criminal. In other words, I knew a lot more about the creatures in Pascal’s menagerie than he would ever have suspected.
That spiny red crustacean with the dagger-like horns thrusting from its fifteen legs, for example, was the Acrimony Beast, which had the power to spread disagreement and peevishness to all sentient beings within a five-hundred kilometer radius. That tripodal monster with the gaping hole in the center of its skull was the Forgetfulness Creature, whose amnesia gas could make a Poxorian forget his own mother. And that one, the soft, fuzzy critter with the large, serene eyes and the mouth permanently fixed in the shape of an open smile, was the Sincerety Thing. Anyone caught in the rays that beamed from those ingenuous orbs was powerless to speak anything but the absolute truth.
It was the Sincerety Thing’s pen that I would have been standing directly in front of had I taken the drink offered me. Obviously Pox Pascal was hoping to weasel the truth from me by maneuvering me right smack into the path of those optical rays.
“Well,” I said casually, “I suppose it was when I read The Pearl in eighth grade.”
“Ah, The Pearl,” he said. “A moving parable of avarice set among the modern poor.”
“Actually, it’s the shittiest thing Steinbeck ever wrote,” I said. As I spoke, I began to pace the room as if agitated. I noticed the Sincerety Thing following me with its great, winning eyes, and I saw my chance to turn the tables on Pascal. “Anytime you have Mexicans speaking without contractions, you’re in trouble. Unless you’re trying to be funny.”
“Then what about The Old Man and the Sea?”
“He was a Cuban,” I said. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a golden glow building in the huge, trustworthy eyes of the Sincerety Thing, and I knew I had only seconds. I looped back in my pacing, toward a point just beyond Pascal.
“And I suppose you’ve been sharing the benefits of your shit detection with your Splendid Friend?” he asked snidely.
“Absolutely. He’s got the makings of a pretty good shit detector in that Splendid Gut of his.” And at the very moment I stepped behind Pascal, the vast, reassuring eyes of the Sincerety Thing began to pour forth their rays. A golden glow bathed the back of the villain’s head. The snideness began to melt from his lips and the calculating glint faded from his eyes. Would the power of the creature really work?
“That’s what hurts me most,” he said softly. “The knowledge that Splendid Man can enjoy companionship and support in his literary discoveries, as rudimentary as his knowledge is, while I am locked in the loneliness of my own competitiveness and insecurity. Even as boys, what I envied most in him was his self acceptance and ability to win affection from others, no matter what he did. Oh, yes, I envied him his ability to fly and lift volcanoes and earn himself medals as the savior of mankind again and again. But my pain ran so much deeper than that. True, I tumbled into self loathing whenever he diverted a giant asteroid from striking the Earth or subdued the radiation-deranged youth known as Strontiumite Sam or decorated the Turnip High gym with crêpe paper for the homecoming dance in the blink of an eye. But not only then. No, I hated myself most when he would just stand there with that fluid grace in his limbs and that unguarded smile on his face, making eye contact and disarming small talk with everyone who approached him. They’d come to him trembling in awe and leave him feeling better about themselves. While I, unable to set them at ease or win their affection—because I didn’t believe in my heart that I was worthy of their affection—had to settle for the brief thrill of inspiring fear and awe, a thrill that would turn to ashes in my mouth before I’d finished laughing maniacally. Did I say I envied him? It was more than envy. God, I adored him. I wanted nothing more than to hear him call me ‘pal.’ But in my profound feelings of inferiority I could not tolerate being but one of many whom he liked. I hungered to be the only one, I hungered to own his love! And when I could not have that, my love turned to hate, my envy to derision. Oh, God, how I adored and loathed his ease, his humility, his compassion, his good humor, and his solid common sense! How, more than anything, I worshiped and envied and despised his wholeness. That damnable way he had of seeming as though his sheer splendidness was no great shakes and that he did not for a moment consider himself better or worse than any other student, whether it be a football star or a pom-pom girl or the president of the Logarithm Club. While my entire, fragile ego was erected on the shaky structure of my intellect! While I convinced myself that I must assert my superiority over others through sheer mental gymnastics, because that was the only way I knew to mute the voices that told me in the dead of the night that I was hopelessly inadequate and utterly unloveable, that no matter how much power and notoriety I acquired with my scientific genius I would end my days alone with my anxiety, bitterness, and unspoken grief. And so I live this sham of a life, casting myself as the archenemy of the one man whose trust and respect I ever truly craved.”
Yep. It worked, all right.
“So I guess this was never really about your eyebrows,” I said.
He cast his eyes down in shame. “I seized upon that only to justify my resentment. The truth is, my eyebrows grew back in a couple of weeks, and I started plucking them to maintain my maimed appearance. It would have sounded fairly stupid to swear lifelong vengeance on Splendid Man because he’d caused my eyebrows to fall out for two weeks in my junior year.”
“It sounds pretty stupid to swear lifelong vengeance because he made your eyebrows fall out under any circumstances,” I said.
It was around this time that the plan began to form in my mind. I realized that if I played my cards right I could seize this once-in-a-lifetime moment to pursuade the greatest evil mastermind in the universe to give up his life of arid intellectualism and empty power-seeking and come back to Earth as a transformed man, devoted to making amends for his lifetime of misdeeds and winning the honest love and gratitude of others. It would have been quite a coup, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, no sooner had I thought of it than I absent-mindedly glanced at the Sincerety Thing, and Pascal turned to see what I was looking at.
“Curses!” he roared. “You’ve trapped me in the ray of my own Sincerety Thing, so that I’m compelled to pour out all my hidden insecurities and self loathings! Now I’ve got to break the connection and persuade you that what you were hearing was not the truth but a set of ingenious deceptions to mislead you!” Then he snorted. “Damn! I’m still doing it!”
With that he lunged for a button on the wall and brought down a colossal lead door between him and the capacious, guileless gaze of the Sincerety Thing. He turned slowly back to me, his eyes narrowed in calculation and a sly smile on his lips. “So,” he said, “I suppose you think that what you were hearing was the truth, when in fact it was merely a set of…”
“Oh, can it, Pox,” I said. “We both know what’s true.”
Such intense hatred shot from his eyes that it seemed to light up the skin where his eyebrows should have been. “So. I suppose you’re laughing at me now. I suppose you think you’re better than me.”
“Actually, no. I feel kind of sorry for you, but I understand."
“You…feel sorry for me?” he hissed. He whipped another weapon from his lab coat, kind of a tuning fork with a tiny radar screen on top of it, and leveled it at me. “A pox on you!”
I barely had to time to realize that I would never get another look at his comic book collection when he pulled the trigger and everything turned white.
When I came to, I was slumped against the wall on the same street corner where I’d nearly bumped into Pox Pascal hours ago. For a bleary moment, I was conscious of my disappointment that heaven looked just like the corner of 42nd and Geary, but then I realized that I hadn’t actually died. And lest I should think the whole thing was a dream, there was a large, hand-scrawled note pinned to my shirt: “Someday, Will Jones, you will see that Pox Pascal can detect twice the shit you ever could! Ha ha! Signed, Pox Pascal.”
I thought, “Good luck, you sad-assed gink,” and went home to write.
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