I spent the morning chasing a large cockroach around my
Brooklyn apartment until my back gave out.
Breakfast is the only time during the day I can settle
with my food and the newspaper. The Times op-ed page hums like
background music as I crunch my organic cereal and soy milk. The
back pain seems to get on a bus to Tulsa and leaves me to take
a deep breath. After breakfast, I usually light a Yellow Song
cigarette over the empty bowl.
I get my Yellow
Songs, laced with anti-depressant and anti-anxiety chemicals and
unfiltered, from a furtive reservation store north of the Arctic
Circle, because otherwise I cant afford them. Yellow Songs
are the highest-grade anti-Ds on the market and theyre
not covered by Medicare Part D. Only UrLux cigarettes are covered
by Medicare Part D (thank you, cigarette lobby), but UrLux has
much less of anything worth ingesting. Yellow Songs usually leave
me in a nice wallow of Buddhist-like calm, although lately Ive
found myself more and more irritated right after smoking one.
one of the last rent-controlled buildings in the borough, suffers
from a more-or-less complete lack of attention from the landlord,
understandably. The walls are tinged with harvest gold paint,
flaking at the edges. The floor is an industrial black tile super-glued
to a concrete surface. The hallway is tastefully splashed with
burnt orange carpeting. My bedroom is a converted closet. Ive
got a single bed in there and not much else. A set of cardboard
boxes stacked on top of one another serve as my dresser drawer.
The television hovers lonely in what passes for the living room.
An old dentists chair my landlord found on the street, my
version of a Lazy-Boy recliner, is nailed into the tile in front
of the TV. It does provide a little relief for my back though.
eating my breakfast and the Times is decorated with anti-Administration
stories, which helps get my cereal down with ease. Im slopping
up the remains of a few corn nuggets and the sugary soy milk and
Im feeling good. A Yellow Song is laid out on the wood grain
of the kitchen slab, glowing with promise.
A large brown
head peers out at from behind the bowl, under twitching antennae.
The thing has got to be at least a half-inch long. He doesnt
skitter off. He just looks at me. Im so shocked I just bring
my hand down at him, with my cereal spoon still in my hand. The
bowl goes bouncing off the table and the roach spills onto the
floor. Ive missed him completely.
But now there
he is, exposed on the bare floor. Of course hes hard to
see against the blackness of the tile. But the fluorescent light
above the refrigerator helps. I put my foot down. I hear a little
squish. I bring up my foot. I got one of his front legs, but not
He skitters away.
I figure hes old. If hes that big, hes got to
be old. I stomp down again. I hear the sound of my heel slamming
into the floor. Ive missed him completely. The old man is
running off to the tight, dark space between the wall and the
oven. Thats when the pain hits me. My back lights up like
a Christmas tree and the shock runs down both my legs.
I collapse on
the floor, grabbing my back and heaving. The fire comes in waves
from deep inside. It bends my stomach in two, takes my lungs away.
Where is my Yellow Song?
I draw my knees
into my stomach on the black tile. My spine burns. My legs burn.
My face is buried in the floor, like a baby in his crib. The old
mans antennae are twitching right in front of me. The son
of a bitch is staring at me, from six inches away. Despite the
leg I took from him, hes not afraid at all. I dont
even have the strength to swat at him.
We look at each
other. Hes incredibly fat, and hes standing on only
how many legs? Im in too much pain to count. I imagine him
soaking up all the grease behind the stove, built up over 80 years
of tenement living in this crumbling old building in the middle
of Brooklyn. His shell looks like tank armor. The only thing I
cant really make out are his eyes. They seem to blend in
with the rest of his head.
Then he starts
moving toward my face. I dont know why, but I let him climb
on my nose. Sometimes with back pain you become insensitive to
everything else. He starts at the tip and moves right up to my
forehead. I see the legs inch up between my eyes. A millimeter
drop of roach blood from the smashed front leg falls on my skin
above the eyebrow, sliding down as gently as rain. Im horrified,
but I dont try to kill him. He gets into my hair. I can
feel the tank move up there. The old mans legs itch and
burn my scalp. Where is my Yellow Song?
my head, explores the neck and tentatively crawls under my shirt,
like a furtive lover. Despite the fire burning in my back and
legs, I am finally moved to destroy the thing. I fall back from
the fetal position onto the black tile. I dont feel any
kind of satisfying smush, though.
I haul myself
up and I see the roach scrambling for the gap between the baseboard
and the kitchen tile. Unbelievable.
I have to wash the roach off me. A hot shower is in order, then
a Yellow Song. The back calms down a little under the water, as
hot as I can stand it. Outside the shower, the pain shoots back
to life and my knees crumple like paper down onto the bathroom
floor as I put on my terry-cloth robe.
I crawl to the
kitchen to retrieve my cigarette, but its gone. What the
hell? I crawl to my room and get one from the pack by the bed.
I crawl to the dentists chair and climb up into the metal
vinyl beast. Ive got my cigarette and the television remote.
Except for these things I feel hollowed-out.
I light the cigarette.
The vapors flood my brain. I click the remote. I decide Im
not going to work today, guaranteed. Ill call in sick later.
To say that the
television shows are dull is far too obvious a point to make for
a faithful reader of The New York Times. I change from the talk
show channel to the world news satellite service. There is a commercial
for Yellow Song cigarettes. They feature falling water and gentle
Tibetan music, often with no voice-over except for the tagline
at the end: This is so Yellow Song. A tagline from
another commercial is: Be so Yellow Song.
After the commercial
segment, the news comes rapid-fire.
record heat, even though its the middle of February. Four
dozen senior citizens and a score of babies are dead.
a food riot in Detroit. People are throwing bricks at a local
supermarket. Its not the supermarkets fault. Theres
some sort of food emergency in the Midwest. Luckily, I get my
food from organic farms in northern New York. The new weather
has been good for upstate New York. The Detroit supermarkets
tried to blow up a chlorine plant near Dallas. The IEDs planted
around the factory failed to ignite, but the suspects are still
at large. Anxietys knife cuts my skin of Yellow Song.
I smoke more
with great speed. My back settles into a gently throbbing ache.
The news breaks for another commercial.
from back pain no more, the announcer, a former kicker for
the local football team decades ago, declares softly, his gray
hair waving gently against the backdrop of the rocky red plains
wed just colonized five years ago. The gentle gravity
of Mars will make you weigh only one-third of what you are on
Earth. My wife and I purchased the resort package and we went
for two weeks. It was so comfortable and relaxing. Due to Department
of Commerce advertising rules, Im not allowed to tell you
how much it helped ease the pain in my back. Visit the sales office
and talk to our counselors now about how the healing atmosphere
of the Red Planet can help you.
So, I figure,
what the hell, Im sick of Earth right now. I could use a
couple of weeks away from the heavy gravity and the warming and
the lying politicians who grace the television set every day.
And its not like my career is going anywhere. I booked a
flight over the phone.
I ended up on a Mars Express flight with a few light bags at three
the next morning, departing out of the Sonoran-Mex desert spaceport,
a discount alternative to the Northern California astraplex, which
offers the place-kickers ultra-luxe package. I called in
to work from the spaceport and told them I was taking my unused
vacation time. I packed a separate bag for my Yellow Song cigarettes.
The anti-D cigarettes on Mars are very expensive, as you can imagine.
gravity played hell on my back. I was packed in the back of the
rocket and the thrust of the engines pressed on my sciatic nerve
with a fevered pitch. The guy sitting in the next seat to me told
me I was screaming during the take-off, which I dont remember,
because I had passed out.
When I woke up,
a sea of black outside our pod hummed with a positive buzz. Soft
little bunny rabbits swam by me. A baby duck sighed and nestled
in my arms. I looked out the window as a chimpanzee in a space
suit waved, then showed me his rump. Moonlight Sonata
played in my ear phones over and over. My back felt like a gentle
blanket. Pink cocktail glasses danced on a piano bar at the front
of the pod.
A ticket posted
on the back of the seat in front of me stated that the ships
steward had injected me with the pharmaceutical version of Yellow
Song to calm me down. The hallucinations were a sometime side
effect of the pharmaceutical version of the drug. The cost was
$20. My credit card had already been charged. On top of the remains
of the last Yellow Song I had smoked at the spaceport, I didnt
everybody, I told the steward who had given me the injection.
so Yellow Song, he said, smiling with approval.
I settled into
a long, pleasant haze. But at one point, bored with seeing spotted
dachshunds running upside down on the ceiling, I turned on the
satellite news service. The Chinese had just purchased the biggest
U.S. bank. The President seemed unfazed. Thats capitalism,
get used to it, he said to the satellite news service. Inner
Somalia exploded an atomic bomb in a desert test. The Iranian
government welcomed them to the nuclear club. The President said
he was upset about the Inner Somalis and threatened economic sanctions.
The Inner Somalis were defiant.
The knife sliced
again. I felt it scour out a piece of my chest. I punched the
stewards button and demanded a booster shot of Yellow Song,
which was administered with no complaints.
We sailed on.
I dont remember much more of the trip, except for continued
injections of Yellow Song from the steward. Somebody told me the
trip takes one week. I cant confirm that.
Our group traveled
to a hotel off the main strip, the glittery part of town near
the base of Olympus Mons, a 15-mile high extinct volcano, the
highest known in the solar system. It was nightfall by the time
we had landed and gotten out of the pod and into the groups
rover. The lower reaches of the huge dark mountain was freckled
with electronic posters for the main street hotels. The casinos
were rocking full-out as we drove past them to the off-strip streets,
their blue and white light bubbles calling to us, the sounds of
the casino floor, complete with slot winnings, poker and blackjack
games piped outside for the benefit of the rovers scrambling by
like pebbles in a stream. The hotel I had booked was packed in
a row of discount suit places and liquor stores on a back street
with bad lighting. My room was in a special wing with low oxygen
(for anti-D smokers, and their need to use lightersthank
God for the cigarette companies), had orange shag carpets, yellow
towels and pressurized bubble beds. I couldnt wait to get
out of there.
the desert vista side of the hotel, I put on a pressurized suit
and helmet to go outside. The suit weighed about 60 pounds on
Earth. On Mars, of course, it felt like 20 pounds, but thats
still too much for a man with a bad back. I hadnt considered
this, but then again, the old place-kicker hadnt had the
presence of mind to mention it either in his little commercial.
I lugged myself
down to the elevator, with a Yellow Song in my mouth. Obviously,
one cant smoke with the suit on. I chewed the grains in
the cigarette like gum as I walked through the lobby. A poster
board directed the tour group to a small room for learning techniques
for healing our backs for the next morning. I walked right by
it and hit the series of doors leading to the desert.
A lamp from high
above the hotels tower strayed over the landscape. The red
sands shifted quietly under the Martian wind. The rocks stood
still like great old turtles. I chewed my cigarette. Little quantum
flashes sprayed around inside my head, building a comfy sofa to
keep out all bad thoughts.
A guy in a blue
plastic suit, one of the newer, lighter numbers, stepped out of
the shadow of the hotels awning. He was a little taller
than me, and heavier, about five foot, 11 inches. I wanted his
suit. You here for the Software Study Group? he asked
with the bad back tour, I said.
in the wrong suit for that.
A wave of anxiety
threatened to pull me down to the ground. The Yellow Song fled.
I should have said something sarcastic to him, but I didnt.
you from? I asked him.
Its not so bad. Its not what you see on the news.
As I stood there,
I saw something move quickly out of the hotel light. I had heard
there were rats on Mars, but they generally stayed inside the
casinos and the hotels. If they somehow found their way outside,
their blood would boil in the Martian atmosphere, as would that
of any human.
staff picks those up pretty fast, the software guy said.
explode out here.
read about that.
people come out in the morning and sweep 'em up. The desert is
one of the reasons I came.
you came for your bad back.
actually. But I also wanted the whole Mars experience. A pure
have found this in South Dakota.
to home. And youve got the heavy gravity.
He studied my helmet.
My anxiety levels
shot through the roof of my helmet. I longed for another Yellow
Song. I looked away to the flat land.
One of the rocks
seemed to move. I felt my stomach heave.
something out there, I said.
to it explode.
About ten seconds
later, we heard a pop.
is, Software Guy said.
trust his answer. I kept scanning the landscape.
something over there, I said.
I pointed to
the rock just outside the light about 50 feet away from us.
it is, itll be dead soon.
But even after
a few minutes, there was no satisfying pop. The Yellow Song feeling
was gone. My intestinal tract twisted around. I felt the urge
got to go, I told Software Guy.
Bob. Why dont you meet us at the bar around 9? Software
guy called out to me as I trudged off, the back pain pinging down
my legs. I didnt answer as I went through the pressurized
doors of the hotel and back up to my room.
I had a smoke
of Yellow Song on the bubble bed. That took the edge off the back
problem. I clicked the television remote to the Geo channel. There
were other temptations on the remote, but they were pretty costly.
And I had spent a lot of money for the Yellow Song injections
on the pod. The Geo channel was free.
The show focused
on explorers driving around the Martian North Pole, clouds of
carbon dioxide surrounding their vehicle. Theres plenty
of carbon dioxide on Earth and theres nothing attractive
The shag carpeting
started to sway slightly, like it was being cut by a lawn mower.
A heavy cockroach
the size of a fist scrambled on the carpet to the legs of the
night stand. I stared at the thing. He looked up at me.
any more of those cigarettes? he asked me in a hoarse whisper.
I slowly opened
the drawer on the night stand, pulled out a Gideon Bible and positioned
it carefully as the beast stared at me. Anxiety pulled at my chest.
really use a cigarette right now, the roach said. The
garbage here tastes awful.
you guys would eat anything.
I slammed the
Bible down on the carpet as fast and as hard as I could. I looked
at the floor. There was nothing there. I looked at the Bible.
It too had no traces of roach blood or parts. He was huge and
I had missed him. Anxiety shot through my veins like fire.
A voice choked
a sentence out from a corner of the room. Youre not
probably right about that. But youre not part of my vacation,
I choked back.
any Scotch in the room?
a very boring man.
probably right about that. But Ive got a bad back and I
have to live my life in a very restricted way.
The roach climbed
up on the chair facing the desk, and put his front legs on the
panel where your back goes. I think youre full of
crap, he said.
but youre just mad that I dont have any cigarettes.
'em, buddy. Youre just not sharing them.
share your cigarettes with me?
your ass I would.
easy for you to say. You dont have anything to give.
I got a
whole stash of stuff in here.
this room? That belongs to the hotel.
a very puritanical vision of ownership.
not who you think I am, I yelled.
The roach shrugged
his shoulders. Nobody ever is. I noticed that one
of his front legs was a shortened stump.
you lose your leg? I asked, beginning to get a grip on the
a fight. Which I won.
I reached inside
the drawer of the night stand again. The cigarettes glowed in
a real pig, the roach declared.
I slowly pulled
a stick out of the pack, smelled it and lit up. The roach stared
competition, I told him coolly. Youve got nothing
a line from a movie, you pathetic phony.
my best lines are. My words didnt come out as icily
as I would have liked. The cigarette felt very strong. Id
have to write a letter to the Yellow Song people about the uneven
quality control of the product. My words were slurred.
I passed out
on the bed.
A cannon exploded.
The door to my room was moving back and forth like in an earthquake.
I saw it, frozen on the bubble bed.
Bam, bam, bam
went the door. I didnt move.
up, its Bob! The door kept on banging.
I crawled off
the bed and on the floor and opened the door to the room. There
was Software Guy.
Bob laughed when
he saw me on the orange shag. Whaddya doin down there?
He smiled broadly.
Bob walked in.
He didnt even ask me if he could come in. I thought that
was rude, but I didnt say anything, even though my anxiety
level shot through the roof and the old depression hit me like
Bob walked to
the same chair Mr. Roach had been in, turned it around and sat
on it, very friendly and casual.
show up at the bar.
some cute women there, pal. You should have come. I could have
used your help
Oh, I dont
I pulled out
my pack of Yellow Songs. This stuff.
not very strong.
its like candy.
My anxiety inched
I say? Im a lightweight.
some Scotch. Ill be right back.
I felt a little
better after Bob left, but ten minutes later he was back.
I let him in,
with a pint bottle he flashed at me from under his sports jacket.
He was snickering with delight. I stole this from the bartender.
God, Im happy.
So we drank the
Scotch. I tried to nurse mine, but Bob kept insisting I take a
good shot. I was nervous about drinking because I already had
so much Yellow Song in my system. You shouldnt drink any
alcohol when youre smoking anti-D cigarettes. Within minutes,
I felt like my eyes were bleeding out of my head.
Bob started laughing
as I tried to grab the bed for support, even though I was already
on it. My arms and legs began to shake, which I was thankful for,
in a way. The shaking kept me from thinking about how much Bob
After about a
half hour, we had both settled down. Software Guy started talking
about his troubles at work, like Im his wife or something,
which he already has by the way, back in always sunny and broiling-hot
Dallas, no matter what he says about the quality of life there.
My mood, pretty low to begin with, descended to the way you feel
when youre waiting to see a dentist who you know doesnt
Bob sold software
and he was very successful, he said. He didnt know why he
had been given this stupid assignment. Bob knew the product better
than anyone else on the sales force. He needed to be out in the
field, talking to clients, making money. Instead, he was sidelined
with this crap. Plus, he had to write a report about what he had
I turned on the
TV to the news channel to escape from Bob. The food riots in Detroit
had spread to St. Louis. Phoenix announced a state of emergency
and began an evacuation of people to local cooling centers. Fifteen
more people had died in the February heat there. North Korea announced
a military alliance with Inner Somalia. The Presidents spokesperson
raged at length about it, but announced a policy direction that
amounted to very little.
Bob began to
laugh at every intonation of the news anchor. Glued to the bed,
I laughed a little too, but my eyes were tearing up at the same
By the time the
news anchor moved onto the story about the Category 5 hurricane
moving toward Haiti, Bob was roaring. This hurricane was making
him happy as hell.
be swimming in mud by tomorrow! he yelled at the TV. Even
in my jumbled-up state, I wanted to kick the crap out of him.
I wanted to throw Bob out of the cockroachs chair, twist
him on his back and jump on his spine with my knees. But that
would go against the Yellow Song ethic. So, like a good ape, I
didnt. Plus, my own back was just a deteriorating piece
of skeletal junk, impervious to surgery. I wouldnt last
long in a fight.
So I just switched
the station back to the Geo Channel. Im too polite. Thats
my problem. The doctor says thats one of the reasons Im
so down. Even though this thought goes against the Yellow Song
ethic, doctor, I think you should kiss my ass. Youre right.
I feel better already.
The Geo Channel
didnt soothe me. A news announcer had broken into the programming
on a rovers trip to a huge canyon called Valles Marineris.
An enormous dust storm was developing in the desert near us and
was currently headed for the Olympus Mons district. The wind was
blowing at 150 miles an hour and gathering speed. The dust might
easily enter the electrical and life support systems of the hotels
and casinos. Driving a rover in that weather would be out of the
stopped laughing and put himself together pretty fast. I
gotta go. Ill see you, dude. Get some Scotch next time.
I nodded as he
rushed out, and fell asleep on the bed with the TV on.
Some hours later,
I heard a knock on the door. Were evacuating the hotel,
please be ready in fifteen minutes, the voice yelled.
I looked at the
Geo Channel. Pods were being readied to take the thousands of
guests out of the casinos. The storm was too big to ride out.
On the TV, I saw people lining up in their suits for the ride
to the pod station, to go back to Earth. I looked for Software
Guy, but of course, how could I pick him out from among the panicked
feel very good. So I picked up a Yellow Song from the night stand
and lit up. The dust storm was still there. I smoked another and
then three more. The sandstorm kept coming. I smoked four more
cigarettes. I felt dull, so I smoked three more Yellow Songs in
quick succession. The storm slowly turned into something else,
a simple expression of the planets real personality, I understood.
I heard people
running out of their rooms for the rovers, for the drive to the
pods to get off the planet. I smoked three more Yellow Songs in
a row while studying the path of the storm. The news announcer
said it looked like it was going to make a direct hit on the Olympus
Mons district. His usual air of panic was pitched to an even higher
level of seriousness. I liked him.
report focused on the evacuation. Only a few select people would
stay on the planet until the dust storm ran its course. The governors
of the four inhabited districts said they and their administrative
staff people would stay in underground bunkers specially built
for events like this, with food and provisions to last for three
I walked down
to the hotel restaurant kitchen. There was no one there. I opened
the refrigerator and ate synthetic cereal and evaporated milk.
It tasted pretty nasty, but I decided that I wouldnt expect
anything anymore. That way I would never be disappointed with
After that I
went back to my room. No one had come to get me a second time.
I felt quite alone, yet fortified with the Yellow Song, I felt
I had achieved the ultimate level of feeling, just like in the
product commercials. The ripples of peaceful dust tripped through
my head. The wind had picked up outside, like a symphony. Red
sand buffeted against the hotel like bullets of peace. The sound
felt like chamber music. I felt very Yellow Song.
I smoked another
cigarette, and felt quite alone, happy. I lay on the bed and heard
the dust announce itself, loudly. The shag carpet began to part
by the television. My roach friend slowly burrowed through the
carpet pile to the side of the bed and looked up at me.
grown quite a bit, I said.
The old boys
antennae twitched. Im about three feet long now.
you grow so fast?
has been kind to me.
I laughed. Ill
decided to stay? he asked.
If youve seen one planet, youve seen 'em all.
a Yellow Song attitude. You want a cigarette? I asked him.
I leaned over
to him, picked him up by his hard outer shell, like a little baby,
and set him on the bed next to me.
steal a Yellow Song cigarette back in my apartment? I just want
to be clear on that.
your ass I did. It was really, really good. You got a pillow?
I fluffed a pillow
for him and he set himself against it. Pulling a cigarette out
of my pack, I stuck it in his mouth and lit it for him.
he rasped at me. Balancing the cigarette between his amputated
stump and his one good front leg, the old man, his brown shell
greasy from years spent behind kitchen ovens and baseboards, took
a long, thoughtful drag on the Yellow Song, and contemplated the
to watch some TV?
good, the old man said.
I turned on the
TV. We watched red dust rip over the desert, filling the screen.
The sound it made was one continuous shout, in monotone.
The old man turned
his head to me. This is a pretty decent show.
so Yellow Song I cant even stand it.