Category: Stories

A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert

It was high noon at the High Moon Pizza Cafe. The desert sun outside desiccated the rocks, cacti, and Joshua trees. But inside a swamp cooler purred away, refreshing each new customer who staggered through the front door.

It was 98 outside and 88 inside. The swamp cooler only took about 10 degrees off the heat. But it felt like the Antarctic for those seeking refuge from the flaming overhead sun.

This refuge was her place of employ. While El Sol baked brains outside, she baked pizza pies inside. And she waited on zombies. The zombies were her customers. They were the desert rats who staggered through the front door in a state of brain-baked dyscrasia, and as delusional as the heat haze on the horizon.

She was practically a zombie herself, from the effect of the pizza ovens. This heat on the brain plays tricks on people. It boils the cerebral hemispheres, fries the neurons, and sizzles the synapses. And it makes possible a phenomenon between two encephalons that is known as a spontaneous chemical reaction.

Her 22-year-old face and figure were not beautiful, just pretty. Plainly pretty. And then only under cooler circumstances. But today all shreds of prettiness washed away from her.

Her face was enwreathed with sweat. It dripped in beads down her forehead and stung her eyes, burning them red. It formed droplets under her nose, lips, and chin. And it ran rivers down her bare neck, shoulders and meaty arms.

She wore a thin, green, cotton tank top, soaked in moisture. The decolletage of this bodice exposed a hint of sweaty cleavage. Below this beaded valley rolled sweat-stained green hills, and below each of these hills, trapped heat unleashed runnels of perspiration that streaked the fabric of her top from her bosoms to her waistline.

He poked his head through the cafe door, attracted by the 20% discount he’d heard about, for first responders. Then he wiped the sweat off his brow with the palm of his hand, and staggered inside to join the zombies waiting in the queue. He stood behind two other customers and slowly shook his head a bit, trying to clear and orient his heat-hazed mind.

She glanced over their heads and caught sight of the face of this man who was last in line. It struck her like a shot of adrenalin. Her heart flip-flopped. A mysterious, volatile element surged through her internal chemistry.

One millisecond later: Flashpoint!

Then: Explosion!

And suddenly she knew she had glimpsed the face of her future husband.

He was 24 years old, of towering stature, and in peak physical condition. He sported upside-down sunglasses perched atop sweat-soaked auburn hair, which was neatly trimmed around salty wet ears.

He was an EMT, dressed in a close-fitting blue shirt, mottled with blotches of moisture. A black web belt cinctured the narrow waistline of his pants, which stunk of perspiration. A 2-way radio clipped to this belt could quickly drag him back outside into the smoldering heat, to assist at the next car wreck, heat stroke, or other emergency. He prayed to all the gods that this wouldn’t happen until he’d had at least 30 minutes of respite in this cool refuge.

He was a handsome man, at other times, when his sudoriferous skin did not pour waterfalls all over his body. He was for sure much better looking than she. And his income as an EMT was far higher than her fast-food slave wage.

He was cool, magnetic, and possessed of savoir-faire in other seasons. But not so much during the withering heat of the desert summer. However during the fall, winter, and spring, this young man had much more going for him than that young woman.

His zombie eyes were transfixed on the hot pizzas in a glass display, and failed to notice the overheated young lady standing behind them. She finished with a customer. He moved up a step in line, and as he stepped he directed his bleary eyes over the head of the zombie before him, and focused on her perspiration-pocked face.

An electric frisson traveled up his back. He suddenly felt a little queasy and faint. His knees buckled, and the upside-down sunglasses dropped off of his head. He caught them with clammy hands, and fumbled nervously with them, almost jabbing out an eye, until he finally gave up and stuffed the shades in his pocket.

He was plunging into love. He knew it. But he couldn’t explain why. And he couldn’t stop it. His heart practically pounded out of his chest. He couldn’t pry his eyes off of this woman swimming in the product of her own sweat glands.

EMTs are expected to be calm and unflappable in the face of any situation. He wondered what was happening to him. How could such a plain-looking, sweat-drenched woman unhinge such a powerful response in him? Was it the heat?

Of course it was the heat. Heat that induces spontaneous chemical reactions.

He’d managed to remain single up until now, but this happened too quickly to put up any defenses. Besides he felt too weak from the heat to resist. Nature, in her enigmatic, ruthless ways for ensuring reproduction of the human animal, was winning.

She finished with the customer then caught his eye. She smiled with a twinkle of excitement, as beads of moisture dripped from her chin.

“Sir, may I take your order?”

Igor Krensky and the Salt Shaker Incident

Igor Krensky stayed at our house for a while. He was our neighbor. His house had burned down from some sort of lab experiment he’d been working on, and he needed a place to live while it was being rebuilt.

Igor was a genius. He could fix anything, and he was always eager to please. That’s why we let him stay with us. Yeah, I guess you could say we were using him. We charged him $800 a month, room and board, and we let him fix anything he wanted to fix. And we had a lot of broken stuff. There were frozen computers, leaky faucets, a dead vacuum cleaner, and all kinds of other little unfinished fix-it jobs that left me feeling flummoxed and apprehensive about tackling.

I would wait for a strategic moment for Igor to be standing nearby, and then I would try to use the item in disrepair. Then I would point at the malfunctioning thing and cast a doleful glance at Igor. His face would light up into a big wide smile. He was always eager to please, and fixing things was the best way he knew, to make people happy. “Hmmgghh!” he would passionately exhort with a breathy exhalation. And then he’d get to work.

Igor mostly communicated through verbal, whispery breaths. Occasionally he would mumble something that sounded Romanian, Hungarian, or some other central European language. My wife and I were never quite sure where he was from, but we assumed Romania. He looked about 30 to 40 years old. He had blonde hair, deep-set eyes with bruisy shadows beneath them, a prominent nose, and sallow, hollow cheeks. He was tall and thin and rawboned.

He rarely looked at anyone straight-on. It was mostly gazes asquint, where he seemed to be sizing his subject up. He was a calm man most of the time, lost in the genius world of his reflective mind. Just the same, there were a few things that could annoy him and rouse him from his reverie, into a restive state of pique.

For one, you would never want to make a sudden loud noise around Igor. He would jump up from a sitting position, or rise about two feet into the air if he was standing. Then he would stretch his arms out like he was ready to tackle someone, and search the room with quick left and right twists of the neck, trying to identify the source of the commotion. In those moments he would make direct, full-frontal eye contact with you, if you were the source. And you never wanted that. His eye contact was scary.


Igor also had a lucky salt shaker. It was made out of thick glass–thank God for that–so it never broke when it fell on the floor. It was empty. The screw-on top was missing. It was just the glass portion of an empty salt shaker. He would always set it at the very edge of a table or counter top where he was working. And if it ever fell on the floor, Lord help him. Igor would transmigrate into another world.

He wouldn’t hurt anyone on these occasions. No, it was more of a deep inner turmoil that was harming Igor himself. He couldn’t function. He would stop what he was doing, rise from his seat, and glare mournfully at the fallen shaker. Deep, heavy growling sighs would rise from his chest. He would occasionally throw back his head and jab Romanian invectives into the air. He would pace back and forth, next to the salt shaker. He would cry like a puppy, pule like a baby, shake his head vigorously, and lose himself in hysterical bouts of sorrow.

But he would never pick the salt shaker up. Someone else would have to do that. And then his face would gleam with joy, and all would be well with Igor again. But if you set the salt shaker in a safer location, such as the middle of the table, he would quickly pick it up and balance it precariously right there on the edge. And then he’d get back to work, happily mumbling and breathily breathing, while tinkering away with his delightful little tools.

One day my wife and I were watching Igor fix our vacuum cleaner. It was a very expensive vacuum, and so we were intensely interested in this particular repair. We didn’t want to shell out the bucks to buy a new one. He had it up on the workbench in our garage. I sat next to him, and my wife stood opposite the workbench, directly across from me. I was so fascinated watching this mad genius, that I didn’t notice how close my elbow was to his salt shaker.

A reflexive nudge from my elbow, and I glanced over just in time to observe the empty glass shaker disappear over the edge. Thank God for that pile of rags it landed in! It made absolutely no noise. Nobody noticed this tragedy but me. But I couldn’t help but utter a sudden, throaty “Awp!” which I quickly stifled.

Igor startled a little and quickly swung his head at me, gazing directly into my eyes. I had to do something explanatory. But I couldn’t just reach down and pick up the salt shaker. I don’t take on accountability very well. And I didn’t want Igor to notice that his precious shaker was missing. And I especially didn’t want him to know that I was the one responsible for it being missing.

“Aww, ahhhhhhhh, aww, ahhh, ahhh!” I melodiously sang out, trying to convey to Igor that I was so happy I was breaking out into song. He furrowed his eyebrows disapprovingly. I stopped singing. He swung his head back and returned to work, grunting and mumbling something in Romanian.

My wife gave me a quizzical, wide-eyed look, like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I just sheepishly cast my eyes downward and began plotting how to return the salt shaker to its rightful position without anyone catching on.

But apparently Igor’s subconscious had detected something was wrong. He seemed distrait. He fumbled around with his tools, grunting breathy expressions of frustration. His hands shook nervously. He cast gazes about and began breathing and grunting louder and louder.

My wife was becoming visibly upset just watching him become visibly upset. Meanwhile, I sat stone-still, silent and mortified. My wife studied me. She knew by my frozen demeanor that I was somehow the perpetrator of this unhinging scene. Then she spotted the glass salt shaker in the pile of rags on the floor. She pointed it out to me. Igor caught sight of her pointing finger and spun on his seat, facing me down with laser eyes and beads of sweat on his brow.

I could dissimulate no longer. I just very quickly reached down, picked up the salt shaker, and set it back on the very edge of the workbench, where it had rested just a few minutes before. I gave a simpering, nervous, apologetic smile to Igor. Igor growled a long, deep, gutteral growl. He sounded like a jungle cat. He curled his lip and formed a distasteful message of complete contempt, with the scrunching lines of his face. Then he slowly turned back to the vacuum cleaner and tinkered quietly away.

There were no more happy, breathy grunts of pleasure from him. There was only an icicle silence, save the tiny scratchings and tappings coming from his little tools. Igor was pissed.

I had to be punished. It was the only way to get back into Igor’s good graces. That evening I stood in the living room with my shirt stripped from my chest and my hands tied behind my back. My wife approached me with a glass jar, and inside that jar was a dime-sized spider. Igor sat on the couch and watched with an amused interest in his eyes.

I’m deathly afraid of spiders. Whether they be big, medium, small, or tiny; hairy, bald, dull, or shiny, I cannot abide arachnids. My wife lunged at me with the jar. I jumped back in horror. Igor guffawed loudly. My wife lunged again, and began chasing me around the living room with the spider in the jar. I heard Igor utter something like, “Huh-ha, huh-ha, huh-ha!” My eyes were saucers of terror. Igor’s eyes were terpsichorean dancers. I squirmed. He slapped his knee. I squealed. He howled.

This went on for a good fifteen minutes. It was holy, shit-my-pants hell for me the whole time. My wife was a little uncomfortable with it, herself, but seemed to be getting into it toward the end. Meanwhile, Igor’s amusement reached a climactic plateau of pitched, hysterical laughter, then slowly subsided to intermittent convulsive chuckles. Finally he relaxed into a calm, smiling state of peaceful repose. He was back to himself again. Back to the old, eager-to-please Igor.

He slapped my bare back good-naturedly and headed off to his guest bedroom in the backyard, to retire for the night. My wife untied me, let the spider loose in the front yard, and then we both headed to bed. With Igor back in our good graces, all was well in our world. At last we could get a good night’s sleep.

And in the morning, who knows? Maybe I could get him to fix that light switch.


Baggus Grocerus. This common species of the wild may soon be threatened with extinction, from an emerging pandemic.

Baggus Grocerus. This common species of the wild may soon be threatened with extinction, from an emerging pandemic.

My nephew Herbert is a brilliant young man with a PhD. He spends his time in his basement conducting scientific experiments and developing cutting-edge inventions that make this world a better place.

He’s been worried about plastic for a long time. Plastic takes hundreds of years to break down in our landfills and oceans, and even after it breaks down it remains in tiny particulate form that threatens wildlife.

But a group of Yale students recently discovered a fungus in the amazon that devours polyurethane at an astonishing rate. And then there’s the Canadian high school student, Daniel Burd. Burd developed a cocktail of bacteria that can completely dissolve plastic bags in just three months.

Herbert decided to build on these recent discoveries by trying to genetically engineer a super-hungry, plastic-eating bacteria. He wanted to release this powerful microbe into the world, so it could quickly and naturally dissolve all the plastic buried in our landfills and floating in our oceans.

My nephew kept me updated on his progress. I’m not smart like him, so I really don’t know how he was able to extract the DNA from that amazonian fungus and combine it with that Canadian bacon, I mean bacteria, to engineer the new organism that he developed. All I know is that something went very, very wrong.

I got a call from him last night. He sounded panicky. “Unc-unc-unc Uncle T-tippy!” he was breathless.

“Calm down Herbert, calm down. Do a few math problems on your calculator. There that’s it. Feeling better now? Good. What’s going on?” At least I’m smarter than him when it comes to psychology.

“I won’t be able to use the calculator for very much longer, Uncle Tippy. Oh Uncle Tippy, what have I done?! The calculator keys are dissolving right before my eyes. And so is this phone. Not sure how much longer we’ll stay connected.”

“Why? What’s happening? Tell me what’s wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?” Now I was the one feeling a little panicky.

“It’s PLASTICILLUS!” he shouted.

“What the hell is that?”

“I invented it. Plasticillus, I call it. It’s a brand-new GMO bacteria that I, Dr. Herbert Veervender, invented. I should win the Nobel Prize for this. Except one thing. It’s one heck of a lot more virile than I intended it to be. It escaped my petri dishes and it’s taking over everything.”

“But isn’t that what you wanted, Herbie? Isn’t this how you’re going to save the planet from plastic?”

“You don’t understand. It’s dissolving everything plastic in the house. My computer keyboard is flaking apart. Our polyester curtains are shredding. Our vinyl flooring is decaying beneath my feet. Even the polyester fabric in my clothes is coming apart. I’m looking out my window and can see my neighbor’s artificial lawn turning from green to splotchy brown and gray. But I can’t go outside and warn my neighbors and community about this spreading bacteria because my clothes will fall off, and that would be very embarrassing.”

“This sounds crazy, Herb. What can I do? How can I help?”

“You have to do something, Uncle Tippy! Warn everyone! Warn the world!! You have a blog don’t you? Write a post to warn people. Soon no cars will be drivable, because the plastic parts in the frames and engines will decay. Soon the water utilities of many cities will cease to function, when their PVC water mains dissolve. And the electric grid will be destroyed nationwide, then worldwide, as plasticillus devours the insulation of power lines. Civilization is coming to an end!”

“Gee, this sounds serious. Alright, I’ll write a post to warn everyone. Anything else I can do?”

“Yes, you’re in a very unique position to help. So listen very closely. This is critically important to stopping the spread of this bacteria. You have to–”

We were suddenly cut off. The plasticillus must have finished off his phone. I can’t communicate with my nephew anymore. So now I’m left trying to figure out for myself what I have to do to save the world. Any ideas, anyone?


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