Eliza said she couldn’t really figure out how to deal with these cards of hers unless she could manage to round up her old pals from Saint Astarte University. She tried to sound blasé about name-dropping her college, but she wasn’t fooling anyone. It supported her identity like it was her backbone. She had an irritating habit of rapping her heavy golden class ring on the table when she wanted to get your attention. With the mere mention of its name, she was trying to show off two kinds of status– hallowed tradition and trendy newness. The school had that kind reputation. It had the balls to hold itself out as the oldest University on the continent (though no one had heard of it until 2010, when it stopped operating in secrecy) and people somehow respected that, because whether you believe it or not, it got everyone’s attention. And that’s what counts, these days, how many people are looking at you, regardless of what they really think about you while they’re looking.
Saint Astarte hit you with double doses of name recognition and shock value. But the school’s reputation had spread wider than the factors that earned it. It ended up being famous for its fame and enigmatic in every other way, a label with no product, like its most famous alumnus, Z. Gerthold GitzGodt.
Eliza used to complain that she could coast through a conversation with occasional sympathetic grunts and non-committal hmm’s, and people would still think she was fucking brilliant just because she graduated from Saint Astarte.
I asked, “So what do you want me to tell you? That I don’t think you are fucking brilliant.”
“What do you think I am?”
“Interesting and different.”
“I have a friend who is a film director, and he says, God save me from reviews that call me interesting or different.”
The Saint Astarte thing worked on me. I was flattered when she invited me to this conference with her old pals.
She said to me, “I feel a kinship to these people I can’t explain. I loved them. They were like family to me, even though I’ve been avoiding most of them for years.”
“So, you’re bringing me to meet the family you love but don’t want to actually deal with?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Ray. I need to bring a guy as a buffer. Four of my old boyfriends are going to be there. And not just any particular four. Almost all of the most significant.”
“Glori’s father? Will he be there?”
“I hope not, seeing as how he’s been dead for what– ten years? But you never know who’ll show up when you gather up this particular crowd and bring up old times. Anyway, Glori’s old man wasn’t part of my college crowd, ever. I met him long after Saint Astarte days.”
“What about the infamous Lyle?” Everyone who knew Eliza went through the ritual of hearing about Lyle. It was an initiation ritual, sort of like fraternity hazing.
“I said almost all. I was thinking of Lyle as the almost. I think Lyle is dead, too. I haven’t heard from him in years.”
“My best bet for finding everyone in the same place at the same time is to target the Saint Astarte class Reunions, even though my crowd graduated in different years, and most of the reunion goers concentrate on years divisible by 5”, she said. “Reunions are a grand tradition at Saint Astarte, elaborate expensive affairs that prey upon annual pangs of nostalgia, conducted with an eye to fundraising. Most of the graduates, you know, are rich and famous or powerhouses pulling strings in secret.”
“So, what happened with you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“What years did they all graduate?”
“I hate limiting my timeline with fucking numbers.”
Eliza had an attitude that aging works like gravity in a Road Runner cartoon. You don’t fall unless you look down. And it seemed to work for her, because I’m sure she is older than me, but looks much younger. With vibrantly red hair just starting to go gray, she had a timeless quality, not unlike her alma mater.
By my estimates, Eliza’s gang of oddball friends graduated around 20 (or 30 or more) some odd years ago. Near as I could tell, what they all had in common was a long forgotten and now discredited experimental program, a blemish on the (bullshit?) history of the greatly renowned university.
According to Eliza, “In 1989, a mysterious donor granted the sinister sum of $66,666,666.06 to the University to establish a school of Entropic Transcendence.
The Board of Curators overlooked the strangeness of the grant. Under the spell of so much money, they found it curiously consistent with the school’s original mission. It was generally believed that Saint Astarte had been founded as a convent, and that much was true and widely touted as the University gained prestige in the new millennium, trading both on its newness and its alleged traditions. But the convent itself had originally been a coven, and the religion to which the convent devoted itself had, in fact, not been Catholic.
“I can’t remember the name of the mysterious donor, but it was somebody incredibly famous, and you would instantly recognize the name, if I could just dredge it up from my drug-addled past. One of my classmates, Grant Polo, he would remember.” So, she called him.
At this point, I knew Grant Polo only as two sets of photographs, each set separated by decades, so that he was simultaneously a freckled, shaggy topped kid in ill fitting hand me downs, and a slightly paunchy middle-aged executive in designer suits, capped off with thirty grand worth of restored hair on his head.
Eliza asked, over the phone, “The donor? Don’t you remember? He had the same name as that old drummer who married, I can’t remember her name. What? Who? Can you speak up? The name. It was an iambic foot.”
Grant said, “Is this going to be what it is like at the reunion? Everyone is going to standing around, asking, huh? What? Speak louder. Holding conversations without using proper nouns, substituting long phrases intended to serve as memory triggers. One of our old teachers used to do that, lapse into nominal aphasia in the middle of his lectures. Oh, God, what was his name?”
Yeah, for certain, this gang was older than they looked.
After Eliza hung up, I asked, “So what was it, exactly, that you studied at Saint Astarte University? What the fuck is Entropic Transcendence?”
“Well, literally, it means trying to get beyond measuring the decline into disorder, trying to escape predictable unpredictability. It was kind of a holistic philosophy of life, embracing chaos as way to get organized. I can’t fully explain, because it took years of study to approximate getting a grasp on the concept. Think of it as Lunar instead of Solar understanding, which makes us all lunatics. Or you could think of it as a merger of Solar and Lunar thinking. Sort of an intellectual eclipse. Intuition. The utility of instant recognition of a truth instead of using tedious analysis. The use of folk wisdom, mythology to access deeper truths inside of truths. Courses like Tarot as a means of expanding consciousness. We were taught by some of the leading experts in their fields, disciples of… now don’t go asking me to name names. Dulbingo himself, taught there. El Domasco… and of course, every one of us studied Z. Gerthold GitzGodt.”
“Apart from Z. Jeffold GitzGodt, who everyone knows…”
“Yeah, everyone knows that name, like everyone knows the name John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, but who the fuck is he?”
“Famous for his mystical writing. Apart from its little known and somewhat obscure pagan origins, Saint Astarte had not been associated with the mystic arts prior to the opening of the College of Entropic Transcendence. Quite the opposite, for in the popular consciousness, the University presented itself as a bastion of conservatism, a stronghold of rigorous academics in the deepest and most solar sense of the term.”
“You know, Eliza, I really don’t get this sun and moon stuff you’re into, but it’s funny enough the way you talk about it, so I don’t mind.”
Eliza pulled out scrapbooks full of old photographs and old letters. She thought these would give me a taste of the spirit of the years that obsessed her.
The photos revealed an intriguing group of individuals, sharing an indefinable common quality, something eccentric, perplexing, and unique. One photo showed a dark-haired woman, barely hiding her nudity behind a guitar and a hazy golden light. Another of the old photos showed a group of students playing catch with a crystal ball on a tarmac basketball court. Another, a smiling guy in top hat and tails and white gloves waving a fantail of smoking joss sticks. Another showed a pale young woman of exquisite and fragile beauty who dominated the frame with the rebellious cool of a movie star. I commented, “Whoever took this photo was in love. I think I’m falling in love just looking at it.”
“That would be Babe Sullivan’s famous photo of Lourdes when she was dying.”
Eliza read fragments of the letters aloud. There were all kinds of passing references to the most important events in her life and the lives of her pals: weddings, births, funerals, graduations, holidays, old pets, mixed with much bullshit about things that surely didn’t matter in the long run, and probably didn’t even matter then, small talk, references to forgotten lovers. I could feel the years flying past Eliza in a rush.
“This comes with me.”
Old photos of Eliza surprised me. She looked nothing like her present self. She had actually gotten prettier. In her younger days, she’d been a little overweight. Her hair had been brutally close-cropped. In many photos, she posed smoking cigarettes in a long ivory holder, or a pipe, or a hookah. The clothes she wore, just outrageous. Shit, even back then, she was a poser, but so obvious about it, you couldn’t really call it a pretense. There were tattoos that must have been removed with a laser.
Eliza, a former exercise physiologist and dietician, had become what she referred to as a fitness puritan after she quit smoking and drinking. She took it for granted she’d look younger than most of her old crowd. “What, with all the effort I put into it. But I know my friends will just say I look so good because I never had any kids. But between you and me, Ray, it’s those cards.”
As recent photos came in by email, it turned out most of the group had been well preserved, in some cases it almost seemed unnaturally so. Perhaps there was something to the Entropic Transcendence they had been taught.
Eliza observed, cattily, that here and there, occasionally, one could see the toll of time, wrinkles that showed deeper and darker, pouches of flab that seemed more pronounced, depending on the angle of the photo, or the light. And then she observed, no doubt the same was true of herself. “It used to be that I exercised and dieted to improve myself. Then I found I had to work progressively harder and harder to remain the same. Now I find myself constantly working and struggling merely to deteriorate at a slower pace.”
Then, while we were packing for the trip to St. Augustine, we heard the news that a Category 5 Hurricane, coincidently named Eliza, was nearing the Caribbean.
St. Augustine was inside the cone of probability for the storm to hit.
I said to Eliza, “I guess that means we should start unpacking.”
“I’m going anyway!” she announced without hesitation, in a tone of voice intended to signal this was one of her many decisions spontaneously intuited to be correct and thus, irrevocable. “I’ve been waiting to see these people since… forever, Ray. They don’t even know where the storm is headed. It could veer off into the Gulf. Or out into the North Atlantic. I’m not running away because of an off-chance.”
“Look at the cone of probability.”
“They move the fucking cone of probability all over the map all of the time. I know what you’re thinking… I studied more magic than math and science, but fuck, that’s not my understanding of how probability is supposed to work.”
Eliza’s phone began ringing.
Instead of answering it, she ate some mushrooms, and started peering into her crystal ball.
After she once again became coherent, sort of, she called Grant Polo. Over the phone, she said, “You know, I tried to look into the future, but ended up looking too far, I think. On the TV was a cartoon scientist explaining in the simplest possible fashion the nature of a phenomenon he referred to as Lazarus Locusts. The adult locusts took to the skies in vast swarms, sparking in a way that betrayed a genetic ancestry of firefly, housefly, and electric eel. They laid their eggs in ripening meat. The nematode-like hatchlings reanimated dead tissue with bio-galvanic charges given off during their larva stage. On the television, cartooned little worms were discharging lightning bolts through their engorged electro-plagues.”
I interrupted her, “Eliza, you were switching the TV channels back and forth between weather reports and fucking Road Runner cartoons, and the mulling over the pictures of your youth during the commercials.”
“Don’t listen to my private conversations.”
“Why not get up and go into the other room?”
But she didn’t go anywhere and kept right on talking to Grant Polo.
“I think you’re still hallucinating, Eliza.”
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The newscast from the future cut between cartoons and documentary footage. Armies of the dead rose up in grainy images: zombies filled with the rapture of resurrection, prodded by electric worms. Zombies driven by memories of youth and lust, wearing expressions of adolescent joy. Their ecstatic smiles glowed greenly.
“The Lazarus locust mating-season is always short, and the infestations rapidly exhaust themselves. But not before they caused massive devastation.
“The cartoon scientist showed clips of a shimmering swarm as it descended upon a fast-food restaurant. Chicken wings were flipping themselves out of friers, and half frozen hamburgers sparked and twitched and rolled around. It played like a blooper reel.
“Here’s what I got out of these cartoons from the future. It was a message about how fake all the so-called weather science is. Under the guise of a cartoon, the gloss of art, the scientist from the future was hiding the genetically engineered origins of the catastrophe. He certainly didn’t mention the way government funds had been used in the experiment that created them, a response to pressure from the politically powerful Right to Life After Death lobby. Keep that in the back of your mind, and maybe we can find a way to keep the disaster from happening.”
“You are definitely still hallucinating, Eliza.”
“Okay, Okay. Yeah. All right. But the hallucinations still mean something. Come on, aren’t there clues being doled out? You were the one who took all the advanced Prognostication courses.”
“Let me tell you what I learned about predicting the future, in retrospect…”
“Isn’t that cheating?”
“What I learned is that prognosticating isn’t a reliable way to find out what actually is going to happen. Interpreting dreams, and omens, and hallucinations. Stuff like that, stuff that isn’t really real, dreams and all, only help you to get in touch with what you want to do at the moment. It won’t help you reach any particular goal. It’s kind of a sly, albeit misleading, method to justify doing what makes you happy. Not at all a bad thing. A variation of Joseph Campbell’s ‘follow your bliss.’ It won’t make you rich. It might get you killed in a Category 5 hurricane with your name on it. Everything our teachers taught us about looking into the future was simply a means to look into your self to find out what you really want to do. It sounds like that’s exactly what you found.”
“Grant, it sounds fucked up, but I swear it was real.”
“So, what now?”
Eliza said, “My date and I had been planning to fly up. But now I think we’re going to drive. I don’t want to get caught in Saint Augustine if all the planes get grounded.”
“I had been planning to drive up with the whole family and the dog, but now we don’t know what I’m doing. I doubt the highways will be much better than the airports. Last year, when I was driving back from South Carolina, I got caught in what happens after they officially issue a hurricane warning and evacuation orders. The gas stations ran out of fuel. No power in the rest rooms. We had to pee in the bushes.
“Now, with this new storm with your name swirling around out there, Shirley isn’t coming up, and she wants to stay with the house, to put up storm shutters, for whatever good they will do, if it should swing toward us.”
“The storm isn’t going to hit us.”
“The newscaster gave it a 50% probability.”
“I just know.”
“Prognostication 101? The odds are too close to call.”
Grant continued, “I could look into flying up, but I doubt I could get an airline ticket this late in the game. Especially not with everyone running away.” “I’m going no matter what. Even if Ray bails out on me. Even if I have to drive up by my lonesome.”
“Would you want to drive up together?”
The proposition surprised her, and she flushed. She covered the mouthpiece of her phone, and let me know what Grant had proposed. It made me feel awkward.
Then she said to Grant, “It doesn’t take prophetic skills to know the results of that move, my old friend. You shouldn’t leave your wife and your son and your dog to face a horde of zombies… I mean a Cat 5 Hurricane… while you drive off with a former lover.”
There was a long silence at the other end of the phone. Eliza covered the mouthpiece with her hand and said to me, “This is one of those transparent moments my old prognostication professor used to lecture about. You can see exactly what is going to happen. His wife will never understand the tug of this reunion; never understand Grant’s connection to our old crowd. She won’t understand why there is any decision to make at all. His family balanced against some people he hasn’t seen for decades.”
When Grant returned to the phone, he said, “The situation hasn’t changed. We still don’t know what I am doing.”
“One thing I want to know before I hang up… using prognostication, following your bliss— is that what made you do the whole getting married and having children and a dog kind of stuff? And did it make you happy?”
“I’ll only know in retrospect. I’ll let you know after I’m dead.”