Some centuries ago a man noted that the cosmos is in love with whatever is to be. His response was to say to the cosmos, "I will love with you, then."
These words, which might well belong to a man saddled with a shrewish wife, are in fact from the musings of an old soldier faced with the task of keeping hordes of fertile, perfidious savages on the other side of the Rhine. Like starch in a shirt, the melancholy resignation of Marcus Aurelius' meditations has allowed them to come down to us unwrinkled, as crisp as the day he penned them. It's easy to imagine a desolate winter camp on the frontier of the crumbling empire, snow lifted by gusts of wind howling past tents, drifting against palisades bristling with sharpened stakes. Marcus, his toga flapping about his battle-scarred body, is gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering, or whittling the nib of his quill, splayed from being dipped through the frozen crust of the ink thawing in a small pot beside his lamp.
Several thousand miles and a couple millennia away, my neighbor is planting rambling roses, tying the vines to the frame of a dilapidated house. More like a carcass than a house, its bones have been blocking the panoramic view of the sea from his porch for five years. Lacking the wisdom necessary to mimic the former emperor's "che sará, sará" attitude, he has crossed the road to smother this unlovely piece of the cosmos in flowers. If he were the big, bad wolf, he would simply huff and puff and blow down the remains of the house where the three pigs used to live. But he's only a mere citizen, a homo sapien with a mortgage and a meager salary that can be garnished if he cheats too obviously on his taxes.
Actually, it wasn't the three little pigs that rumbled up on raked Harleys some years back when the skeleton was still a dwelling, it was three Ps.
"Yeah, and I spell Fred with a Ph," one of the Harley owners said to me the day they moved into the house.
He further explained that he did that to match his buddies, who'd just that afternoon changed their names to Peacock and Pheasant.
"Birds of a feather," he laughed, spraying a fine mist of spittle through the dark gap where a front tooth should've been.
He couldn't think of any other aviary names that began with a P, except for pigeon, and that one smacked of stoolies. Besides, he'd seen an old movie once where women were called pigeons. That obviously wouldn't do. At least a few things in this crooked, demented universe had to be kept straight.
"Chicks ought to be chicks and dudes ought to be dudes."
With that pronouncement on the ideal world order, Phred dragged me inside to meet the gang and smoke a doobie.
Peacock was a hefty fellow with a crazy frizz of red curls, Pheasant a palooka with empty blue eyes. They sat on the bare floor in the middle of the living room, about five feet apart from each other. Dangling from the loose end of a long white string tacked to the ceiling was an alligator clip, its jaws clenching a joint so fat it must've taken three cigarette papers to roll it. The contraband leaf sputtered as Peacock sucked a cloud of bliss down to a set of waiting lungs. Then, holding his breath, he launched the clip in the direction of Pheasant, who neatly snatched the swinging joint from the air.
The rest of the afternoon is as blurry as the silhouette of a naked body behind the frosted glass doors of a shower stall. I am tempted to say it was then that the Ps revealed to me their plans for interior decorating, which included painting the house black and getting some orange light bulbs, but I can't be sure. They did, in fact, implement this color scheme, which led local wags to dub the house the Halloween Hacienda. I definitely recall some discussion of chopper rides and bloody brawls, nickel bags and sissy bars, and I remember purposely avoiding any mention of my daughter's parakeets. It seemed unwise to tacitly criticize Phred's vocabulary by letting words like parakeet, pelican, parrot, or the devilishly difficult-to-spell ptarmigan cross my lips.
At one point a petite Asian woman, slicked out in shiny black leathers, slinked into the living room. By this time, we dudes were sprawled on the floor in a stupor. From the way she straddled Peacock, I assumed they were intimates. Lover or not, she was the mover. Parked out front was a dandelion yellow rental truck filled with sticks of battered furniture, greasy engine parts, dishes, bongs and other domestic necessities. But before she got down to work, she pulled a mirror out of her unzipped jacket pocket and dumped a coarse pile of white dust on its reflective surface. She then removed one of her large, dangly earrings, which turned out to be a kind of battery-powered, miniature Cuisinart designed to chop the white dust into a fine powder, and bent over the mirror. Even now, half a decade later, the memory of the whirring of the tiny blades brings back again a vision of the long-gone snow that the wind whirled past Marcus Aurelius' tent. It was as if the silver telescoping straw she slid from the hinged side of her earring gadget were something to squint through instead of snort through, as if it contained a magic lens that would magnify the sound of a distant, declining empire enough to make it visible. My senses were hopelessly scrambled. The sun was leaking hairs on the back of my hand. It was clearly the time for polite good-byes.
"Hai!" shouted the woman, leaping to her feet.
Believing this to be some particularly exuberant form of greeting, I held out my hand to her. She sneered.
This was only the first of many hais and sneers. A master of furniture jujitsu, she grunted the coarse monosyllable at crucial moments as she began wrestling and sneering the contents of the truck into the future Halloween Hacienda. With the correct intonation, she probably could've balanced a sofa on her pinkie and spun it round like a propeller. One last thing I remember. Before I left that afternoon, Pheasant handed me a crumpled envelope, asking me to mail the important letter for him. Instead of a stamp in the corner, there was a quarter stuck on the envelope with a strip of scotch tape doubled over on itself.
A few months later, the bikers were gone, perhaps to the Arizona address scrawled on the envelope, perhaps to some kind of cosmic dead letter department. Left behind in their wake was a waterlogged shambles of warping plywood panels and melting black walls. What the Ps started, storms and scavengers quickly finished, gutting the innards of the house, though the floorboards the Ps tore up to dig an indoor swimming pool are still piled up in the corner where they were tossed, appetizers for termites dining al fresco.
"If this were Los Angeles, we wouldn't have never hit those dumb water pipes and flooded the joint," explained Phred before they roared off into the great moonlit night of America. "We would've dug our pool outside, and put some pink flamingoes and palm trees around it. But it's way too cold for that here. Be seeing you around, Chief."
A barn swallow swoops from a nest balanced on an exposed, rotting rafter. It makes a quick circle, then wings off in the direction of some bull pines. Four yawning beaks connected to impossibly fragile bodies cheep wildly, disconsolately, their tiny tongues trilling like fleshy reeds in living sirens, until the swallow returns with goodies.
"Houses have karma, too," says my neighbor, looking up at the nest as he tamps down soil around the roots of a rose."This used to be a butcher shop, you know, before it became a house, long before the days of the Halloween Hacienda, when the old highway still ran through town. Could be that's why it was murdered."