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The sun has finally emerged after days of rain. Charlie and I pace the bluffs, our eyes peeled to catch the telltale spumes of whales headed south to tepid Mexican bays to reproduce.

“You figure they’re like us?” he asks. “You figure their baby-making equipment shrivels up and retreats inside those great, lumbering bodies when the water’s icy cold? The humpback baritones sing soprano?”

Our rubber boots squelch in the mud. The earth is saturated, the bluff's a marsh. And despite the brilliant sunshine, the sea is gray, as though it had sucked up all the gray from the rain it could hold. The way the storms are stacked up out over the Pacific, it might be summer before the sea slips into its slinky blue gown again.

Charlie removes his glasses. He’s so short-sighted, a leviathan driven crazy by our navy’s sonar experiments could beach itself on the spit of sand below us, and he wouldn’t notice it. He rubs the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, a sure sign I’m about to hear the tale of his most recent flame or, most likely, flame-out. His lack of luck in the poker game of love is legendary. Sometimes it seems he plays to lose, like certain card players or racetrack buffs who aren’t happy till their pockets are empty. I tell him so.

“It’s in the genes,” he says.

People inherit the genes for hair color, eye color, impaired hearing, a tin ear or musical genius. According to that painter-lady Janis with the dented red convertible he was chasing awhile back, the one who daubed diseased organs on canvas like Technicolor industrial sunsets, stinginess is genetic. Her ex-husband the lawyer inherited the trait from his coupon-clipping mama. So why not poor-mate choice?

Jacqueline. A French import with close-cropped curly auburn locks, somehow waifish in faded designer overalls and a mauve T-shirt, she came into the bar with several crew-cut gay women. He was out on the sidewalk having a cigarette when she stepped over to ask for a light.

Merci. Those others,” she said with the slightest trace of an accent, like a hint of dill in salad dressing, “they do not smoke.”

“Or maybe only after dinner, or sex.”

Her eyes sparkled in the light of the street lamp, and a tired smile fluttered at the corners of her lips.

“And you? Do you smoke after sex?”

“I don’t know,” said Charlie, “I never looked.”

“So, mon cher, you make the dumb jokes?”

“I’m only trying to cheer you up. You seem sad. Sort of lost and lonely.”

Oui. Je suis triste. I am sad. And so are you. It’s in your face.”

“Funny,” Charlie laughed. “I suppose we’re looking for the same thing. A nice girlfriend.”

Jacqueline laughed with him, a merry little peal that apparently set strange bells resonating in both their heads. Hours of conversation later, soaping each other in the shower of a cramped apartment above a barber shop, they were still laughing, marveling at the highly improbable fact that they were about to go to bed together.

That’s where the trouble began. At first it was merely a mechanical snafu. They seemed to be marching, or making love, to the rhythm of two different drummers. When she was wet, Charlie was soft. When he was hard, she was dry. After a few days, they did manage to maneuver their burning but uncooperative bodies out of this impasse. A new difficulty arose at this point, however, one less tractable. If Charlie happened to climax first, Jacqueline would roll away from him with an angry snort. Then, a few minutes later, she would weep quietly with her back to him, curled up like a kitten seeking the warmth of its own body, sniffling back tears. If Jacqueline happened to experience an orgasm first, she would push him away, ordering him to stop, insisting it hurt, that his zizi made the douleur now she was finished.

“Heads I win, tails you lose.”

“That’s about the size of it,” agrees Charlie.

The roots of a cypress knocked loose by rain and wind stick up above the bluff, the gnarly roots like fingers desperately clawing at loose soil, a last useless effort to prevent a sure descent into the sea crashing on rocks below.

“Little things mean a lot,” he says. “Isn’t that how the old chanson goes? The beady black eye of the sparrow whose fall doesn’t go unnoticed by the heavenly powers? The clitoris of Catherine the Great, which led to the creation of an empire?”

“Yeah. It reminds me of those spacers we left out when we rebuilt your Volkswagen engine, the ones we found at the bottom of the bucket of cleaning solution.”

“How were we supposed to know that they weren’t just a couple random washers, that they fit on the front main bearing?”

Charlie gazes toward the horizon as if he were looking for the last traces of the blue smoke which poured out of the Volkswagen’s engine compartment five minutes after we finished the rebuild, about two miles from his house.

“I’m beginning to think most of life is chindogu,” he says.


Chindogu, he explains, is a Japanese word, hard to define exactly. It means the art of the useless idea, the almost useless invention, something that works but is more of a pain or more ridiculous than the problem it’s invented to solve. Duster slippers for cats would be an example, booties with strings of yarn attached so Puss will sweep the dust from hardwood floors as she chases imaginary mice. Chopsticks with a battery-powered fan attached to cool ramen so the harried diner in a hurry will be spared unsightly, time-consuming blowing, or a rotating spaghetti fork equipped with a midget motor to effortlessly spin the strands into a neat ball around the tines, preventing uncouth slurping. An umbrella with hooks for parcels soldered to the spokes so the rainy-day shopper can keep one hand free to press the pedestrian button on the traffic signal.

The Department of Defense apparently has its own chindogu master. Didn’t the government spend millions to perfect the "love bomb," a device that would re-orient the sexuality of enemies and make them so horny they would be too busy making love in foxholes to fuss with their weapons? And halitosis gas? A cloud of invisible chemical that would give enemy combatants such bad breath our troops would be able to sniff them out no matter how well they were camouflaged?

“Of course,” says Charlie, “the real grand master of chindogu is God. Who else would’ve thought to invent sex?”

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