“A pint of Guinness and a double Bushmill’s, straight up,” I said to the bartender, whose hair was arranged in a bleak combover. An amber-streaked mustache hid his mouth. He grunted and poured, giving me the Bushmill’s first and taking his time with the stout, letting the head settle and topping it off.
I’d walked in on impulse after having passed the sign (a tilted martini glass over the word DRINKS – not a professional job) a couple of times a week for years. The bar itself was fake -- it was made out of scrap plywood stained a dark brown to match the artificial wood paneling. Every surface was sticky. Most of the light in the place came from a shimmering blue Hamm’s Beer waterfall.
I leaned my knapsack against the base of my barstool and sat down, pulled out a book and started leafing through it. People will usually leave you alone if you’re reading. I took a malt-sweet sip of the Bushmill’s. And all of a sudden I had a friend.
Short dark hair moussed into a shape that made me think of wind tunnels and a neatly trimmed pseudo-hipster beard. Little guy, came up to my shoulder. Sort of rabbity, unmistakably a member of a prey species. Dressed nicely in a way that stopped just short of being a suit.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you a student?”
I shrugged. “Not at the moment.”
“Oh,” he said. “You look like a student. I mean, you look like a bright guy.” By this he meant that I wear glasses. He looked at the cover of my book, and took a second to absorb it. “You into the sciences?”
“I’ve got an interest,” I said. “Strictly a layman, but I try to keep up with things.”
He nodded. “Me, too. I’m a sort of hobbyist. I used to think I was born a little too late for the really big discoveries.” The bartender set my beer in front of me, I gave him a twenty and he made change. I pocketed the five and the coins and left a dollar on the bar. “How so? Seems like they’re just getting around to the good stuff these days.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, “but I’m talking about, well. Adventure. I always wished I could have been an explorer. You know, Darwin and the finches, or Roy Chapman Andrews. You ever hear of him? He was the real-life Indiana Jones, he found all these dinosaurs--”
“Hey,” I said. “You know what they say about a fossil that was treated like shit in the field, had chunks knocked out of it when it was excavated and then got wrapped up in too much plaster by someone who didn’t know what they were doing?”
He sipped his drink, a brownish yellow fluid in a highball glass along with ice cubes, two cherries, and a pink plastic swizzle stick with a palm tree molded on the top, and shook his head.
“They say it was Chapmanned.” I closed the book and dropped it into my knapsack.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, at least his memoirs make for a good read.”
“Granted,” I said.
“Wasn’t Andrews the Mongolia guy? Went there looking for Peking man?” the bartender asked. I nodded and my new pal looked irritated. The bartender set my beer in front of me and I gave him a twenty. He gave me back six fifty. I pocketed the five and the change and left the dollar on the bar.
“It’s sort of funny,” my pal said. “I thought having an adventure would be good for me, you know?”
“I don’t know,” he said and wiped his lips with a cocktail napkin.
“It just always seemed to me that it was a lot easier to find some real adventure in the old days. Now if you go running off to a third-world badland to look for lost cities some twelve-year old soldier’s going to shoot you for your shoes.” Then he grinned at me. “But I figured a way around that.”
I made a quizzical expression with my eyebrows and took another sip of whiskey, then chased it with a long swallow of stout and let the mocha flavor play across my tongue.
He wiped his lips with a cocktail napkin and nodded. “I got this idea maybe a year ago. I might not be able to, you know, find the origins of the Nile, but I could scale my expectations down. You know what’s really neat about this planet? Everything’s covered with invisible bugs. I was thinking that if I could shrink myself down small enough I could have some pretty wild times just walking across a stretch of carpet. I’m an optometrist. I know about lenses, right? So I thought that if I could get a sort of traveling microscope I could do that kind of exploring. I thought to myself that there’s probably a million things going on at that scale that nobody’s ever seen just because no one’s ever gone looking for it.”
“Didn’t I see a microscope with a USB connection for sale a few years back?” I asked.
“That was a cheap piece of shit. I looked at it and it wasn’t going to work for me. So what I did was mount the lenses for a real microscope onto a video camera and set the whole thing on a framework that let it slide up and down and back and forth. Like the way the stylus is mounted in an Etch-A-Sketch? I had it geared so that it could move smoothly in really tiny increments, and I used a joystick to control it. That way I could walk through a microscopic environment. I don’t mean cell-sized. I mean in the range where a dust mite would look like a rhino. I hooked the video camera up to a nice big monitor, used a DVD burner to keep records of everything I saw, set the whole thing up in my home office and started to explore the wall behind my desk.”
“Did you ever think about getting a terrarium?” the bartender said. “It would be like having your own jungle, and you could stock it with salamanders or something…” I finished my Bushmill’s, rested the rim of the glass on my lip as the last drops trickled into my mouth while the little guy glared the bartender back out of the conversation.
“I thought about a terrarium but the wall turned out to be more than I could handle. It was incredible. When I looked at it on the monitor the plain white surface of the wall was this whole series of projecting mountains and plateaus. It was so alien. At that scale plants look like nothing you see in our world. Gray thorns tipped with amber balloons, clusters of spotted toothpicks, tangles of green yarn or rope growing in scrubby, scattered patches. The first day I was checking it out I saw these little flying things with eight legs.”
“Eight legs?” I said. “Insects have six legs.”
“They weren’t insects,” he said. He had the start of a smile on his face. “They were some kind of arachnid I bet. Wings were shaped like maple seeds, looked like they were evolved from mouth parts like a scorpion’s claws. They were like little helicopters. A whole separately evolved type of flight. See, at that size flight is different. It’s more like swimming. Think of the way a dust mote floats in the breeze. The little flyers are like dust motes that can steer themselves.”
“Sounds like it was keeping you pretty busy.”
He poked at his drink with the swizzle stick. “Yeah, well, that’s part of the problem right there, me spending too much time on that stuff. You wouldn’t think a grown woman could be jealous of a wall, would you?”
Why Do We Exist?
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Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories