"If I had the dough," says Arnie, "I'd follow the feng shui of alcohol. Facing north, I'd drink aquavit or vodka. South, it'd have to be rum or pisco, and so on with the other cardinal directions."
We're leaning against a redwood cadaver washed up on the beach, our toes sifting through the hot sand, our eyes fixed on the sea unraveling itself here at the continent's edge. I suppose Arnie ought to be sipping saké, rather than the kind of white port that often includes a packet of Kool Aid attached with a rubber band to the neck of the bottle. But things have been slow down at the Third Eye Garage, the fanciful name his neighbors have given to the collection of wrecks in Arnie's yard. A faith healer for cars, Arnie diagnoses their mechanical problems by reading their auras.
"A few years back, before the stock market crash in Tokyo, you could practically walk across the water like Jesus."
"You mean because of the kelp?" I ask.
The rumbling growl of a laugh that tumbles out of Arnie's mouth is a qualified affirmative. Yes, because of the kelp, because there was such an ungodly dense tangle of thigh-thick stems and slimy fronds and those rubbery translucent bulbs children can't resist popping. And why was this undulating brown mess rotting on our doorstep? Because sea urchins eat kelp, and before boom went bust in Tokyo, the roe of these kelp-devouring sea urchins was de rigueur at million-yen business lunches on the Ginza. Urchin divers here on the coast were making thirty grand a year picking the spiny creatures from the bottom of the sea. The demand for so many tons of the tasty ocean delicacy, packed ounce by precious ounce into uniform Styrofoam containers and air-freighted on ice to Narita Airport, nearly wiped out the local urchin population. But now that Japan is in the economic doldrums, the echinoderms are staging a comeback and the waters of Jughandle Beach cove are clear again.
"The adhesive power of the cosmos is phenomenal," sighs Arnie. "It's like the whole shebang really is held together with duck tape."
He pushes up the bill of his baseball cap to mop sweat from his forehead. Inside the cap there's a double layer of aluminum foil to protect his brain against radio waves. He's convinced that the reason many of us in the modern world have scrambled neurons is that we're being bombarded by the electromagnetic output from radio stations, millions of megawatts total, twenty-four hours a day. A few loose slivers of his shield, curling out from under his cap, glint in the sun like wisps of Christmas tinsel.
In order to further demonstrate how everything is connected, Arnie tells me about the rocket boosters on the Space Shuttle. The engineers would've liked to make these rockets, attached to the sides of the main fuel tank, much larger. But the boosters had to be shipped by train from the factory in Utah to the launch site, and there were tunnels, only slightly wider than the tracks themselves, along the way.
"Four feet eight and half inches, that's the standard railroad gauge in these United States of America. One point four three five one meters, three point three nine cubits."
The rather odd specification was chosen because it was the standard in England, and many of our first railroads were devised by British engineers, who simply took over the gauge from the early tramways, with their horse-drawn carriages. The builders of the tramways based their rail gauge on the wheel spacing of wagons, since they would be using many of the same tools and jigs in the construction of the new system for conveying urbanites to their jobs and trysts. The axles of wagons in those days were carefully measured so the wheels would fit in the ruts along the old, long-distance roads the Romans built in England. If wheels and ruts didn't match up, the wagons would tip over or the wheels and axles might be damaged. The old roads winding through the pastoral English countryside towards Hadrian's Wall were the same width as the Via Appia, constructed to accommodate the standard war chariots of the legions. Two horses pulled these primitive tanks, responsible for the first ruts in the imperial highways. The wheel spacing and traces of the chariots were naturally designed to fit the broadest part of a horse, its rump, doubled.
"So the dimensions of mankind's most advanced transportation system are determined by the plumpness of a horse's ass."
I chew over this last statement while a few sand fleas hold an impromptu Olympics on my metatarsals. Arnie has already moved on to a reconsideration of the virtues of duck tape. Is it duck tape or duct tape? Is duck tape merely the elision of a final consonant? Perhaps, like certain other mysteriessex, the crop circles in Peru, the absence of baby pigeons in a world filled with these cooing peanut and popcorn hogsthis one is best left unexplained.
"The problem is, if our cars were in orbit, duck tape wouldn't hold them together. The stuff simply won't stick out there in the weightless wastes, in a vacuum."
No wonder, as Aristotle suggests, nature abhors a vacuum. I believe he even uses the abhorrence to explain the motion of an arrow. The air behind the flying arrow rushes to fill the emptiness, the space just vacated by the arrow's shaft, thus pushing the arrow onwards. It should be remembered that this same observer, noting that a stone tossed into the air accelerates during its descent to earth, explains the increased velocity by claiming that the stone becomes happier and speeds up as it gets closer to home.
Fortunately, according to Arnie, some scientists have begun to pay closer attention to the antics of geckos. The setae, the tiny hairs on the toes of these clever reptiles, are ten times finer than human hair. Geckos have about half a million on each of their feet, and on each setae is an array of hundreds of split ends, spatulae, that would drive a beautician to despair. The average gecko has about a billion of these frizzes, and researchers believe they are what allow geckos to walk up walls and croak unconcerned from impossible perches on ceilings. There's some kind of attraction on the atomic or molecular level between spatulae and surface, perhaps even involving van der Waals forces. By bending and unbending its feet just so, the gecko can do gravity-defying tricks most of us couldn't perform without scads of suction cups or yards of Velcro.
"And of course suction and Velcro don't work any better than ordinary glue in outer space," says Arnie. "But if we can come up with a duck tape that's hairy enough instead of sticky, maybe there's hope for Mir after all."