“Hey Artie, did you build those Coke displays?”

“Yes, Mr. McGee. I’m going on break now.”

“I was working part-time at the five and dime, my boss was Mr. McGee…”

Well, I just removed the dual use plastic nametag with the name “Scanlon” on it and punched out when heard a song from the past. One that I never heard in a long time. The riff was from Prince, but the voice was from someone else. I guess you never know what you might hear on Walmart radio. I guess I finally know the words to that song. I never could understand when Prince was singing them. I have a boss named Mr. McGee, too, but unlike the man in that song, I work my ass off. In the current year, you just can’t get away with being too leisurely, even if you work part-time like me. The damn Chinabat virus has thrown the economy into the shitter, so there’s a line of stiffs a mile long wanting to work at a place like this, even part-time. You just can’t get away with crap like you could back when I was growing up. But who cares; I got my bike license now and I can do food delivery by downloading a few apps when I’m not working here. Gas is cheap and my bike uses hardly any. Today’s world ain’t so bad after all. I make more than I need to pay my bills.

But exactly who is singing that…

I like it. I think it’s familiar. Wait…it’s Warren Zevon, I bet.

I check my phone to Google and sure enough, I was right. I just found a YouTube video of the Hindu Love Gods performing it. Damn, I was always a Warren Zevon fan, so how did I miss that? Well, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. I missed out on everything else in life. I flunked out of college, lost my wife and son via divorce after working at any odd jobs I could find and borrowing money from my arrogant, condescending father to support them. But now, that’s over and done. I live in the city that was the inspiration for Beavis and Butthead’s “Highland” in single-room occupancy, but for the first time in my life, I am truly happy and free.

I look across the table here in the break room at an Albuquerque Walmart, where I am surrounded by a few other employees each sitting at his or her own table, not even primarily because of the imperative to “social distance” dictated by the good and the great, but mostly because we all have nothing to say to each other because we are all absorbed with whatever is on our phones. The masks we are required to wear make us even more opaque to each other. This suits me just fine.

But there is a thin paperback book somebody left on my table’s opposite corner that catches my eye. I pick it up. It’s The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. I read it a couple of decades ago. That guy really thought there was something called the “Tao” that all men were obliged to follow because it was “good.” A British Christian uses an idea from Chinese philosophy to show that there is a law of “general beneficence” that we obliged to treat all other as our brothers and a law of “special beneficence” that obliges us to really lick the bumholes of people like our families and communities. Plenty of midwits think his shit is profound.

To Hell with all that. My family and community, such as it was, are just a bunch of shitbags, to say nothing of the rest of mankind, and they can take any obligations they think I have toward them and shove them where the sun don’t shine.

My father was Mitt Romney. Not literally, of course, but that’s who you should think about when you think of him. He converted to the Mormon cult after my mother died when I was eleven and naturally dragged me into it with him. He had been a fairly successful businessman, but he was able to exploit the connections the cult afforded him to become a millionaire. He regarded this as a sign of divine favor. I hated his cult as much as I hated my stepmom he found within it. Of course, when I was old enough, I flipped him and his church the bird when he demanded I go on my obligatory two-year missionary tour. Instead, I decided to go to the University of Utah and flunked out. The old man was delighted. He thought I would come crawling back to him like the Prodigal Son, eat humble pie, and spend the rest of my life as a good, mindless, submissive Mormon cultist. He was wrong, of course, but he still decided to loan me enough money to cover the bills from that ill-fated venture and even more to buy a car because he was sure his imaginary God told him that would happen. There are stories and there is reality. The Prodigal Son in a fictional character and I am real. Religion is all about pretending there is no difference.

I wrecked the car a couple of years later and never paid him back, but I did find a woman to marry and we had a son and the new expenses demanded even more loans from Dad which I knew I would never pay back. I became less the Prodigal Son and more the unnamed servant with ten thousand talents of debt to the king. However, since Dad was just a businessman and not a king, he had no power to cast me into prison for not paying. He just got a frisson of self-satisfaction from asserting his superiority over me, and by extension the superiority of his religion over my irreligion. I suppose he thought his haughty self-satisfaction would win me back to the fold. It did not.

I just heard the news last week. The old man dropped dead. It was undetected brain cancer that killed him. By the time he was diagnosed correctly, it was way too late.

Whoopie! My debts are canceled. His funeral was today. Of course I didn’t go. I have a job to do, such as it is.

Soon after we had our son, my wife took up the Jesus bullshit, too. It wasn’t Mormonism—I would have filed for divorce in a New York minute had she done that—but straight Christianity without the additional crap from Joseph Smith. It was of the Baptist variety. Of course, she tried to foist it on me and she failed. When it became apparent that I would never “accept Jesus as my personal savior,” she stopped having sex. So I would buy some on the side. Well, one day the cops caught me and my wife decided that was that. The only criminal charge filed was a misdemeanor for “lewd conduct,” but the judge threw the book at me in divorce court. I was to pay alimony and child support through the nose until the kid was 18 at minimum, and most likely at 21 should he decide to go to college. From then on, I worked as much as possible at whatever odd jobs I could possibly find to pay those bills and pay my rent if I had any left over, and even occasionally to feed myself. The next decade of my life was managing the trade-offs between homelessness, starvation, trips to jail, and asking my father for money.

But now, that’s over. I learned that my 19-year-old son whom I had never seen in a decade was himself sentenced to prison. I knew it was pointless to even try to get visitation rights for a “sex offender” like me, so I said, “To hell with him.” It’s not like seeing him would put food in either my mouth or his.

He was a repeat super-speeder. That by itself wasn’t a felony, but he decided to call the officer who pulled him over, a descendent of slaves, a “motherfucking nigger.” Needless to say, he was charged tried and convicted for plenty of crimes well above and beyond traffic violations. Now that he’s going up the river for a while, he’s surely not going to college. I don’t have to pay that bitch one more cent. I’m free.

Nobody can make me do anything anymore. Fuck C.S. Lewis and his “Tao.” Fuck actual Taoism and its teachings, too. Be like water? How do you do that when life is nothing but a stream of dog piss? Fuck the Baptists and the Mormons alike. Fuck the new atheists and their “well-being” and “empathy.” Fuck Ayn Rand. Stop the motor of the world? Screw that. I want to ride it until I croak without changing the oil, because I know I will keel over before it does. Fuck the purple-haired landwhales I sometimes see parading their asses in the parking lot with signs telling me I’m supposed to unionize this joint. Fuck Black Lives Matter and their protesters, too. The truth is that no lives matter. You are born. You breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. You take in food and drink and excrete piss and shit out. When you stop, you’re dead. That’s it.

It was the excitable boy himself, Warren Zevon, who had the most worthwhile philosophy of life I could be moved to follow. He expressed it in a single statement his last interview before dying of cancer with David Letterman. He said, “I’m going to enjoy every sandwich.” That’s how I’m living my life from now on. I, Arthur Scanlon, 48 years old and almost dead, is Nietzsche’s Last Man and loving every minute of it.

“Hey, Artie, when you come back from break, go out to the lot to pick up the carts,” Mr. McGee said.

“On it, boss.”

As I go out to the parking lot, contrary to the rules, I still have a single earbud in my ear, because I just have to listen to Warren sing “Raspberry Beret” once more.

“She walked in through the out door…”

Just as I heard the lyric, there is indeed a woman trying to walk in through the out door as I am pushing a string of shopping carts. She looks pretty good, at first inspection hardly different from any other redhead about half my age, but then she stared at me for a moment. I don’t know what it was; I can’t put my finger on it, but she was different in a surreal, haunting way. She’s an uncanny valley girl. The folks who live in Star Wars or Harry Potter can conjure up a thousand tropes from their fake universes to explain who she was, but even those like me who live in reality have to admit she’s just not normal in some ineffable way. She was stopped by the security man Gus as I was passing, who asked her to go through the proper entrance. She replied,

“H’m magep ya uh’enah ot yar.”

Huh? That language is not English or Spanish, the only ones I speak. It doesn’t sound like an Asian language, either. Besides, I doubt a white redhead would speak Chinese as her primary language. Perhaps Russian or another Eastern European tongue? I don’t know. The accent certainly didn’t sound like it, it did not sound like any I have ever heard. Gus asked her to please go in the other entrance as he motioned her in the appropriate direction. She replied with more of her garbled gibberish.

As I pushed my train of carts past them, Gus said to me, “Artie, did you see where she went?”

“No, Gus, I’m focused on getting these carts corralled. What’s the problem?”

“No problem, Artie, it’s just that she turned around and vanished. I was about to call the cops as she appeared insane, but now she just took off,” Gus said.

“What direction did she go?”

“I don’t know,” Gus said. “It’s like she just disappeared.”

“Well, she’s not in the cart pen. She probably just got spooked and ran.”

“Yeah,” Gus said.


Dear Professor Richardson:

The college has received a Title IX complaint from the Department of Education regarding your class. The student alleges she was racially harassed by your actions on the class via conference call on the 14th of this month. The student is of Native American descent and she alleges you used very insensitive language in describing the actions of the ancestors of her people.  Due to the seriousness of these allegations, immediate action must be taken. You must forward all of the class notes, grades, lesson plan,s and codes to Professor Elizabeth Jackson, who will be taking over your classes. You must also provide this office with a recording of your class on the day the incident occurred and any notes and plans for that day. Following your compliance with these directives, you will be placed on administrative leave. If you fail to comply within five working days, you will be terminated.

Cordially yours,

Latoya Marie Johnson

Dean of Student Services

I should have known something like this was in the works. COVID-19 has banished all students from the campus and relegated all classes to conference calls. Since the college offered no-penalty withdrawals for any student who wanted this option, enrollment dropped to nil in the middle of the semester. Most professors of the humanities who taught anything other than the core subjects were put on leave, unable to maintain the requisite number of students for their classes to continue. I was the only one who could keep the enrollment numbers up. I teach a class on Bayesian historiography. I am one of the few historians who incorporates rigorous, quantitative methods in his discipline. Even at a community college, there are still students who want answers to the question “How do we know that?” rather than a grade to put on a transcript or a bunch of talking points to memorize in the service of some fashionable ideology. My colleagues had different ideas, though.

Officially, my class was called “Introduction to Native American Archaeology.” On the first day of the semester, I would not talk about Native Americans or archaeology, but I would begin with the Monty Hall problem. It goes like this: the Monty Hall Problem gets its name from the game show Let’s Make A Deal, hosted by Monty Hall. The scenario is such: you are given the opportunity to select one closed door of three, behind one of which there is a new car. The other two doors hide goats. Once you have made your selection, Monty Hall will open one of the remaining doors, revealing that it does not contain the car. He then asks you if you would like to switch your selection to the other unopened door or stay with your original choice. Here is the problem: is it better to switch? Some of my students just blankly stare, others give the wrong answer of “no” and proclaim that the probability of getting the car is 50/50 and therefore switching will be pointless. If a majority of the class answers incorrectly, I know the semester will go well; if I get a lot of blank stares, things will go poorly. Not a single student ever got the correct answer: “yes.”

You see, it is really quite simple. When the contestant chooses a door, there is a probability of 1/3 that the car is behind it. Now, when Monty opens a door, there is zero probability the car is behind it. If the car is not behind the contestant’s original choice, then it must be behind the remaining door, but since there was only 1/3 chance that guess was correct, there is now a 2/3 chance of getting the car by switching. A third person who just walked on stage and was unaware of the contestant’s first choice would have a 1/2 probability of getting the car if she chose, but the contestant has prior knowledge. This changes the probability. That’s the part that drives everybody crazy. People think probabilities are like physical constants like the speed of light, brute facts of nature, but they are actually all in your head. By updating prior knowledge, we can change probabilities and become more or less certain of our conclusions. That is how I approach the past. I ask “What happened?” and “How do you know that?” I don’t like to teach moral lessons, which seems to be the purpose of what passes for education today.

Just because we have knowledge doesn’t mean we apply it wisely. I should have known that as a white man, my chances of succeeding within academia in the humanities were between slim and none. I had already beaten incredible odds to last as long as I had. Like a fool, I believed academia to be an oasis of integrity and truth-seeking in the desert of mindless jingoism, religious fanaticism, corporate greed and gun violence that is the United States. I refused to see the signs that that wasn’t the case. I am uncertain of the precise incident that caused my dismissal, but it is probably my neglect to mention how the “genocide” perpetrated by whites dwarfed any Native American internecine conflict, something that might not be true and, at any rate, was not relevant to the discussion, but I suppose I should have taken the slogan “white silence is violence” more seriously than I did.

I head off to the Rattlesnake to drink enough gin until I can’t sit on the stool.

“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.

“I’ll start with a desert dry martini,” I replied.

Whirrrr…went my cell phone.

“Hi, Clint. Did they can you yet?”

“Yes Sam, they did. I’m here at the Rattlesnake celebrating. Do you want to join me?”

Sam Abelstein was a physics professor at the same college. He was one of the first ones who got laid off because of COVID-19. His modern physics class was expendable because it was no longer required for the engineering program, and as a white man, he was expendable as well.

“I think I might have found something that might interest you,” he said.

“Does it involve free gin?” I replied.

“No, it doesn’t. It might involve your area of expertise, though,” he said.

“All right, how’s that?” I replied.

“I have been making some comparisons with some of the data from the Large Hadron Collider and certain anomalies in a place near here. I think it is something worth checking out.”

“Well Sam, I’m an archaeologist. It doesn’t sound like something with which I can help you.”

“Clint, I think it is. I believe this place is a potential archaeological site.”

I was intrigued. Sam always had some weird ideas. I decided to accompany him on this misadventure due to the lack of anything better to do.

“All right, Sam. How about you pick me up at my apartment tomorrow?” I said.

“Is 9AM okay?” he replied.

“Sure, Sam.”

“Okay, Clint.”

When he picked me up in his Isuzu, I was still somewhat hung over. I thought about calling it off, but I was just too curious at this point. I got in the SUV and he drove us off-road into the middle of nowhere. I asked him, “Exactly what do you expect to find?”

“Most likely Anasazi ruins, at least on the surface,” he replied.

“Huh? We must be about a couple of hundred miles from Chaco Canyon and we’re not getting any closer. Are you losing your mind?”

“No Clint, at least I don’t think so. If my surmise is correct, the site is just a few miles ahead.”

I rolled my eyes and said nothing. He continued to drive to some place close to the border of Arizona and New Mexico known only by GPS coordinates. He stopped. I got out and looked around thinking I foolishly decided to go along on a trip far off the beaten path with a friend who had gone crazy. I went around the Isuzu and spied the NRA sticker on the back. I never understood how a man as preternaturally brilliant as Sam could be a member of such an ignorant, violent group. Still recovering from a hangover, I saw him walk around the vehicle and open the back door. Is he going to shoot me? I thought.

I got out of the vehicle and looked around and then I saw it.

“What do you make of that, Clint?”

I saw a group of 14 stones. They appeared to be arranged in a circle. I walked up for a closer look. The stones had smooth surfaces with markings like glyphs. They appeared to be carved and arranged in a manner reminiscent of Stonehenge, or more like the Dolmen of Guadalperal on account of their size. I examine the carvings on the stones. The glyphs display a similarity to those of the Anaszi ruins in Chaco Canyon.

“Oh my God, Sam! You just hit the jackpot! This could be the most important archaeological of the 21st century. We might even be able to use this to start deciphering the language of the Anasazi. How on Earth did you find this?”

“What do you see here?” Sam said.

“I see a find that will put our names in the history books,” I replied.

“What else?” he said.

“Desert in all directions as far as the eye can see.”

“Are you sure that is what is there?”

“Unless this is some kind of prank,” I replied while once again wondering if my friend had lost his nut.

“What I mean is, what is the probability that you and I are perceiving reality accurately?”

“I would say it is pretty high. How else would we get here or get around at all?” I replied.

“Do you think evolution by natural selection is correct?” he said.

“Sure,” I replied.

“In every computer simulation of evolution, organisms that only see fitness payoffs always out-compete organisms that perceive the environment accurately. The probability that we see the universe accurately is essentially zero given the truth of evolution by natural selection.”

“So what exactly are we looking at when we are watching anything?” I said while still wondering where Sam could be going with this.

“If you’re playing Fortnite, or Pac-Man­­­­­—which old fools like us know better—will you play more successfully if you are watching the game or the source code?”

“The game, of course,” I replied.

“But which one is more fundamental? That is, which one is real?

“The source code, obviously.”

“What we perceive through our senses is an interface. It allows us to see relevant fitness payoffs, or at least what to our ancestors would have been relevant fitness payoffs,” Sam said.

“So you started with Darwin and it lead you to Kant, huh, Sam? Or else Darwinism might be false and we are perceiving reality correctly. And while I love this kind of discussion, exactly what does it have to do with what we are doing here?”

“No, Clint, this is not the conclusion Kant wrenched from the black hole from which all philosophers seem to find their ideas. Kant believed his so-called noumenal world was unknowable in principle because he needed some way to explain his synthetic a priori. Like the video game source code, it is knowable and neither is it perfect. Just like Pac-Man, which splits the screen on the 256th board, our interface has cracks.”

“So there are glitches in the Matrix, as Laurence Fishburne would say.”

“Yes, Clint, and one is in this area. That is how I came to the conclusion it is likely to be an archaeological site. This place was the site of something.”

“Well Sam, I am still not sure how you came to the conclusion this was an Anasazi archaeological site. What do you think this ‘glitch,’ whatever it is, did for the Anasazi? Or do you think they somehow built it? The latter possibility is highly unlikely given that the Anasazi were a pastoral people.”

“No, Clint, I don’t say the Anasazi built it. I merely say they found it. They may have used it for something, like a cat using a power cord as a chew toy, or perhaps something just drew them here to build upon this ground without knowing why. If we dig deeper on this site, we will most likely find something below. If I was to guess, I do think somebody built it. Somebody who was here long before the Anasazi.”

What Sam was talking about sounded fantastic. I was still unsure if he didn’t actually lose his nut, but here was the site in a place nobody else had predicted. It seemed as though he knew what he was doing. I glanced back at the circle of 14 carved stones and there appeared to be a woman walking toward the center of the circle and the number of stones then numbered 13. I said, “Sam, somebody is there.”

We both looked again and she was gone, but we both noticed one stone was still missing.


For all installments of “Raspberry Beret,” click here.