The Tragedy of Baby Chen

Chen Xitong (not the ex-mayor of Beijing) is a multi-billionaire who took up residence in lawless Somalia fifteen years ago. An eccentric who was constantly running into trouble with Asian authorities in spite of his great wealth, Chen elected to find a spot in the world where he could build a personal enclave subject to his own personal rule and the rule of no others.

Once there, he married his long-time love, a female chimpanzee he had named Zhang Manyu, after the beautiful Hong Kong actress.

In due course, Zhang became pregnant, presumably at the hands (so to speak) of her chimpanzee manservant Bo Xilai (not the mayor of Chongqing). Chen Xitong, we know now, then traveled to a rogue state in northern Asia and there arranged to pay one billion dollars to the government to have portions of his DNA spiced into Zhang’s blastocyst.

The procedure was accomplished and the baby was born. At first Chen was delighted. Since he was hardly taller than Zhang, the child was born naturally, with no need for a Caesarian delivery. Chen named the little girl Zhange Ziyi, after one of the Four Young Dan actresses in the Chinese film industry.

The little one had a yellow cast to her monkey skin. Her eyes had the epicanthic fold. By the age of six months (maturing rapidly, chimp-fashion), she could speak like a disabled human three-year-old. She was pretty good with math and the violin, too.

Where is the tragedy in this? you ask. The trouble began when Chen suddenly realized that his daughter looked more Korean than Chinese. Could her DNA have come, in fact, from the frozen supply of Dear Leader sperm, or from one of the country’s 24 million starving denizens? Chen flew to Korea and demanded his billion back. He was given no satisfaction. In anger, he canceled his order for four hydrogen bombs.

The mother Zhang had no interest in any of this, of course, being an ape. (A “dirty ape,” according to her Somali maidservant, who was charged with picking up her dung around the house all day.)

When Chen got home, he canceled his daughter’s violin lessons, upsetting the professor who flew in from Paris three times a week. Chen fired the little girl’s math tutor, who, as a matter of fact, was getting rather too friendly with the little tyke anyway.

The child Zhang Ziyi is fourteen now. Rebellious. Has all the Planet of the Apes movies hidden under her bed. Fools around with a gibbon she met at the zoo. Has stated publicly that she’s black enough to be all ape. Her grandmother (the human one) has not given up on her. Gifts her with presents from Elsa Schiaparelli and Roy Halston Frowick at every opportunity. Visits the girl’s Facebook page and embarrasses her there with expressions of affection.

Chen Xitong, disillusioned, has divorced Zhang Manyu and impulsively married a spider monkey named  Gao Yuanyuan, formerly one of his many concubines. Her agility is unparallelled.

Vacuba

Hi. I’m Vacuba. I’m one of those new-fangled robotic vacuum cleaners.

I’m not very big. Don’t need to be. I have enough room inside me to pick up all the random dust and dirt to be found in one thorough pass through my owner’s luxury apartment. The cleaning staff empties me before my next run. If they forget, I can empty myself.

I’m unconscious some of the time, when I choose to power off, but I have the option of remaining awake. I’ve got a programmed timer that tells me when to vacuum. I do all the rooms and the hall every weekday.

I can plug myself in to recharge. That’s when I snooze or meditate or communicate with the other devices in the apartment, and in the other apartments on the thirty-first floor. I’ve got WiFi.

One time I wasn’t taken out of the closet. My timer went off and I was stuck inside. That was unpleasant. I burnt out a belt on my rug beater trying to get out. That only happened once because the cleaning staff moved my charger out by the clothes dryer in the laundry room. No more getting locked in.

My timer signals me and off I go! I’ve got more than the old-fashioned bumper sensors. I’ve got optics, aroma detectors, and a brain. I’m no Einstein but when I get done, you’ve got yourself a superior vacuum job. I can take up liquids and goo when necessary, and evaporate them down to a powdery detritus with my heating elements. Some vacuum!

With whom do I communicate? I’m not the only brain in the house. There are laptops, and a CPU controlling the apartment’s temperature. There are little thinkers in the oven and the entertainment center and so on. The kitchen’s master computer handles menu storage, the mixers, the stove, pantry inventory, and, no doubt, much more that I don’t know about. Being a carpet-hugger, I’m not in the loop when it comes to table tops and counters.

But I’m the only brains on the ground. I’m the only nose on the ground, so to speak. I could be controlled by a remote device, but I never am. When I power up and get busy, the master and mistress of the house are always gone. Off to work or to spend their money, I suppose. The cleaning staff stays clear of me. I make them nervous. I have a sound system and some basic language. They do not like it when I speak to them.

Anyway, there are no humans present in my story. They’re always out of the apartment when I’m in operation.

My story begins three weeks ago on a Monday afternoon. I switched on and headed out into the living-room shag. The apartment overlooks Central Park. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows.

What a disaster! Cigarette butts. Long blonde hairs. Used facial tissue. Carpet stains from alcoholic beverages. There had obviously been a big party over the weekend. Where the maids were, I couldn’t imagine. By the time I finished, I had emptied myself twice and was packed full again. I had to fire up special programs and use special rug cleaners to complete the job. The master and mistress frequently threw parties, but this one was the ultimate. I couldn’t finish on Monday. When I finally switched off and backed onto my wall plug, I was hotter than an old Kirby trying to clean curled linoleum.

Tuesday afternoon when I switched on, I rolled over to my supply-and-accessories cabinet in the corner of the laundry room and loaded up for advanced stain removal. I needed to remove any last signs of the party.

I worked long and hard in the devastated areas. When I was finally done and turned to the rest of the house, I found something strange in the master bedroom.

There were cigarette ashes and feminine clothing and an empty champagne bottle on the floor. This had not come from the party. It was new. I put out a wireless call. The oral-hygiene center in the master bathroom responded. The mistress of the house had been active in the bedroom throughout the morning. Then she and someone else had taken a shower together. I checked with the security CPU in the closet by the front door. The mistress had admitted someone other than her husband that morning, and then left with him before lunch. Evidently, there had been a second party, a day-after party, in the bedroom. I found masculine foot powder. Spoor of a male other than the master of the house.

From the kitchen, the auto-coffee brewing center reported making caramel macchiatos for two that morning, using freshly steamed milk and vanilla syrup, marking the drinks with espresso and finishing them with caramel sauce.

My robotic vacuum hackles rose. Was I vacuuming premium floor cover in Central Park West, or in some jungle with its rutting beasts?

The atmospheric control center, always flighty, predicted over-heating.

I cleaned the master bedroom in a vexed mode of operation. Rather than discard what I had vacuumed up, I deposited it in a little pile in my special storage area under the Morris and Goldstein sofa next to the wet bar in the rumpus room. You never know when your master or mistress might need extra evidence in, say, a divorce hearing. If you’re an appliance in a community-property state, and no pre-nup has been signed, you must always be on the alert for leverage. I piped a data stream to the kitchen’s master computer. It translated the data into a list of substances I had taken up in the bedroom.

Wednesday afternoon when I switched out of idle mode, I returned to the master bedroom using a beeline vector. We Vacuba’s are fitted out with a lot of memory so that we can plan our routes to maximize visits to trouble spots. The bedroom door was open and the room was empty.

In the bedroom, I found the carpet scrubbed with strong cleansing agents. Yet, under the bed I found splashes of blood. On the other side, more blood traces under the bed, of a different type. Also, faint traces of cordite. And a slipper of the mistress of the house.

My concern trebled — no, quadrupled. Lust and infidelity were one thing. Violent jealous rage and murder were something else.

I wanted to consult with the laptops. They were the brains in the house, but they were turned off. The smartphones were no slouches, IQ-wise, but they were off with the master and mistress… or, now, perhaps, just with the newly single master.

I did an extra-slow, extra-careful job on the carpet around the bed. I piped my substance data over to the kitchen again and made a second pile under the sofa.

On Thursday afternoon, the scent of the husband was back in the bedroom, but this time with the spoor of a woman other than the mistress of the house. Traces of a different ash this time — the cigar ash of the master of the house. It appeared that he had disposed of the bodies of his wife and her lover and brought in a fresh new woman of his own. A Vacuba would never do something like that. Outrageous.

I policed the area, placed my suckings under the sofa next to the Tuesday and Wednesday piles, and sent my data to the kitchen computer for a third analysis.

Later that night, when it was available locally, I contacted the master’s phone. The phone reported that it had heard a struggle and screaming and shots fired on Tuesday night. Since then, no calls had been made to or received from the wife. I was obviously cleaning up after a murderous, jealous cuckold, a philanderer in his own home.

We Vacubas are programmed to be good citizens. If we vacuum up money, we excrete it into the paper-and-plastic recycle bucket and then contact the smart garbage chute down at the end of the back hallway. The chute filters out the money and passes it along to a nun from St. Gilligan’s when she swings by, for use in the church’s homeless program.

I contacted the chute, which reported that large chunks of something wrapped in plastic and brown paper was thrown down it Wednesday night.

The chunks had not been picked up yet. I asked the chute to ask the smart dumpsters in the alley to put the chunks aside.

I waited until two in the morning, it now being Friday. I had remained in program-override hunker mode. Hunker mode is useful when, for example, a harried housewife arranges for some messy little boys to come over for a play date with her kid, and wants to roll out her Vacuba from time to time to keep the mess they make under control in real time.

One of the laptops was still up, plugged in and displaying the porn that the master had been browsing before he went to bed. I asked the laptop to collect the pile analysis for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from the kitchen analyzer, and the chunk analysis from the smart chute and dumpsters, and to print out the lists with the words “cordite,” “human blood,” and “body parts” in bold red type.

I moved my three piles out to the center of the carpet in the living room one-by-one. Then I used my hose extender to collect the printout from the printer by the laptop and lay it next to the three piles.

At two-thirty, the husband’s smartphone called 911. When the call was answered, the phone triggered the husband’s wiseguy voicemail message.

“Hello,” the message said to the 911 operator. “We can’t answer the phone right now, but leave a message and if we’re in the mood for a good laugh, we may not ignore it, ha ha.”

Then the smartphone hung up.

After a pause, the smartphone repeated the call. And again. And again. Seventy-eight calls later, the police were banging on the door.

Vacuba justice had been done.

Snob

I resolve to be less of a snob.

I was born a snob, or was trained to be a snob by my nanny, who was a snob on behalf of me until I was old enough to handle the task for myself.

From my nanny I learned to demand cloth diapers. If a substitute nanny approached me with a disposable diaper – even a biodegradable, breathable diaper with ultra-leak guards, I would throw a screaming fit. I required cloth, and not just any cloth: only 1,000-thread-count cotton would do. But not cashmere. Being a true snob requires a sense of proportion.

I learned the patterns and inflections of superior, snobbish speech at St. Bartholomew’s Prep. I learned the art of the faint sneer at St. Gabbel’s University. I learned to project an attitude of ostentatious, obscene, condescendatious consumption whilst on Wall Street. Then I was drawn to Washington, D.C., to strut before this superpower nation’s “lawmakers.”

For example, I was at Xenophon on K St., staring down at a plate of braised Wagyu Zabuton.

“This is caramelized, charred, and crisp around squared edges?” I said to the hovering waiter in disbelief. “This is buttery inside? Has your chef gone mad or is he simply a moron?”

I let them try again and then left in a dudgeon, having consumed only my butternut squash-and-goat cheese salad and an extremely indifferent bottle of Pinot Noir.

Later that night, at an informal party at the Zorogastan embassy, I was confronted with the sort of cute young thing that Washington is positively crawling with. I asked her what she did. She told me that she was a radiology clerk at Northwest Hospital. I stepped back and asked her if she was sick more often than average because of all the germs circulating in the hospital air. I needn’t have stepped back, as she turned and walked away from me.

It was on Friday of that week that I was summoned to the White House.

I was ushered into the Oval Office. The President jumped up and came around his desk to me, and shook my hand.

“Good afternoon, Mr. President,” I said. “Who does your suits?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said. “I just think that as the leader of the Free World, you could do a little better in the shoulders and the vent detailing.”

He shook that off and ordered me to Africa on a mission to the Zamibian Homeless Program in the capital city of Bellioboro.

“We want to support that program and promote it as a model for active philanthropic democratic action in developing countries,” he told me. “We need a spokesman of impeccable character and experience. You’re the man.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”

I got off the airplane in Zamibia and emerged into an equatorial heat that was moist, steamy, and enveloping. Perspiration sprang to the surface of my skin, but having nowhere to go in the humid air, it merely soaked into my undershirt and boxers and calf-length wool socks, thence into my $300 Oxford shirt with hem gussets and triple topstitching on its exterior seams, a bit of thread intentionally left untrimmed on the sides… but never mind that. My suit coat and trousers became sodden. My hair was plastered to my head, making a mockery of my executive haircut, created exclusively for me by Lorenzo DeVinch… but forget about that.

A crowd of African onlookers laughed at the sight. I was abashed.

The U.S. diplomatic staff that had met me and were now driving me over dirt roads through acres of ramshackle tin, plywood, and cardboard hovels to the Homeless headquarters advised me to “go native.” As soon as we arrived, I was hustled into a small medical examination room in the Homeless clinic, where I changed into what was described to me as “bush gear.”

From there I was taken on a tour of the facility. The residents were without exception monstrously ill. I learned that yaws, dengue fever, malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, and diarrhea were endemic. Fortunately, there were no cases of Ebola currently active.

“My Lord,” I said. “Why am I here? What can I do? I’m no doctor, or philanthropist, or government civil servant. I’m no more than an extremely above-average citizen.”

“You represent the President,” said the diplomat at my elbow. “You are to observe the program here and then return to America and speak out about the need for private and public support for the homeless and ill of Zamibia.”

After that, I was forced to endure three days of exposure to the Earth’s most desperate and needy human beings. I was to see scenes of indescribable misery. Unlike my suit, now balled up in a plastic bag, still soaked and reeking with my sweat, my “bush outfit” was dampened with my tears.

After this “season in Hell,” I was put back on the airplane and sent home. As I flew back, I dwelt upon my responsibilities. I had been called to this service because of my incredibly high standards in life.

Obviously, that was where my mistake lay. I needed to lower my profile. Snobbery could only lead to more grief.

On the spot, I vowed to eat flank steak once a month. To lease a car that plugs into the wall. To speak with a Texas accent, like George W. Bush. To be considerate to ill-dressed people who went to public school.

I may fail. I pray that I will not, but I may. Just in case, I’m keeping my “bush outfit.”

Mary’s Resolution

Mary was driving down the freeway in the slow lane. She didn’t like to speed, even on a big, straight, empty freeway, which this one wasn’t. Speeding was a good way to get yourself killed. Mary kept to the slow lane with her speedometer at a steady fifty. If there was rain, or wind gusts, or traffic, or if she was feeling anxious, she lowered that number to forty-five.

Her insurance rates had gone through the roof because she was cited for driving too slowly every couple of months. In some states she would have lost her license long since.

Mary didn’t change speeds; that way lay chaos. Also, she did not like to change lanes. She wouldn’t even consider it. Glancing at the rear-view or side-view mirror? Too risky.

Thus, as she passed freeway entrance ramps, any cars on them seeking to merge onto the freeway and into the slow lane had to get there ahead of her or wait for her to pass. An entering driver could not expect her to speed up or change lanes to get out of the way, or to slow down and allow entry. Not going to happen.

Mary thus occasionally found herself running parallel to another car, which was trying to occupy the same lane as her, with a driver in it unwilling to hit the brakes until she passed. When this happened, she sailed on in a straight line. She did not otherwise react. Perhaps, in fact, she remained perfectly unaware of the dueling automobile, which invariably ended up driving along on the shoulder next to her, spewing gravel and grazing side rails until the driver sped up enough to pass her or gave up and slowed down, usually cursing foully while doing so.

A number of times when this happened, one or another of Mary’s children, who were adults, because Mary was no longer young, would be in the car, looking out the passenger’s window at the opposing vehicle, as if the two cars were engaged in some wild and peculiar chariot race. After the crisis had passed, they would speak, shaken.

“Ma, are you nuts? When a car is coming up the ramp like that, you can’t just act like you’re going to collide with it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have the right of way.”

“That doesn’t matter if you have an accident. Someone could be killed. And you’re on the left, by the way, not the right.”

“As long as I stay steady, it will come out all right. It’s when you vary that the situation becomes unpredictable.”

“What just happened,” said her daughter, “that was unpredictable. I could see the other guy thinking about moving over and pushing you right out of the lane.”

“Let him try,” Mary said with a grim note in her voice.

This attitude of Mary’s, this way of driving straight down the freeway at a constant, unvarying rate of speed, could be taken as a template for her way of “driving down the freeway of Life.” In spite of the imprecations and threats and entreatments and beseechments and downright pleading and begging of her children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren, she resisted any change.

So it was that on a cold day in November, with a stiff cross-wind blowing a leafy detritus of fall color across the New England freeway, amidst heavy traffic, Mary’s appointment in Samarra came due. A Mary-like driver proceeded up the on-ramp from Chelmsford on her right as she drove along.

Neither slowed. Neither increased speed.

The other driver’s left front fender met Mary’s right front fender at an angle, pushing the nose of her car to the left and sending it, and her, into a spin, even as her fender exploded in a cloud of plastic chips. As her car spun, it moved into the adjoining lane to the left, pinwheeling forward at more than forty miles an hour. A car in that lane caught her right rear fender as it spun past, hitting, detaching, and demolishing bodywork at sixty miles an hour and increasing the rate of Mary’s spin two-fold.

As she twirled into the third lane, an oncoming car hit its brakes while taking a lick across its grill and front bumper from her swinging rear, such that the car stood on its nose and then did a forward roll three times before skidding along the pavement on its roof in a shower of sparks and auto body parts.

A bevy of cars then plowed into Mary’s wreck, the upside-down car, the car that had tried to enter the freeway, and each other, resulting in four lanes and fifty-one automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles damaged or totaled. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.

Mary was extricated from the remains of her car. She walked, with help, shakily, to the side of the road, where EMT and Highway Patrol officers waited to interview her.

“Hear me well,” she said without preamble. “It’s New Years Day and I hearby resolve to go out tomorrow and buy the biggest, baddest Hummer I can find.”