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Vol. 4, No. 1

Zog-19: A Scientific Romance
by Pinckney Benedict

  Zog-19 is learning to drive a stick shift. He backs up, judders to a stop, and stalls. It's a big Ford F-250 diesel that he is driving, and it's got a hinky clutch. The two shovel-headed dogs in the bed of the truck bark hysterically. On Zog-19's planet, there are no cars and trucks with manual transmissions. There are no motor vehicles at all. Zog-19 shakes his head, flaps his hands, stomps in on the hinky clutch, and twists the ignition key. The Ford rattles back into life. Zog-19 decides that he will sell the Ford at the first opportunity and replace it with a vehicle that has an automatic transmission. In his short time here on Earth, Zog-19 has had about all he can stand of stick shifts.
    A woman watches Zog-19's struggles with the truck. She squints her eyes worriedly. She thinks she's watching Donny McGinty fighting the hinky clutch. She is Missus McGinty, she is Donny McGinty's wife. Zog-19 is not in fact young McGinty, but he resembles McGinty down to the most minute detail. Even McGinty's dogs believe that Zog-19 is McGinty. The problem is, Zog-19 does not know how to drive a stick shift, and McGinty does, McGinty did. McGinty knew how to do a blue million things that Zog-19 has never even so much as heard of on his own planet.
    The Ford leaps forward several feet, stops, lurches forward again, dies. Missus McGinty shakes her head in disbelief. McGinty has never before, to her knowledge, had a bit of trouble with the truck, though that clutch often defies her. She is a small woman, and her legs aren't long enough or strong enough to manipulate the truck's pedals. Around her, around Missus McGinty and Zog-19, McGinty's little dairy operation--a hundred acres of decent land in the river bottom, inherited upon the death of McGinty's old man, and twenty-five complacent cows--is going to wrack and ruin. In the days when McGinty's old man ran the place, it gleamed, it glistened. No more, though. There are so many things that Zog-19 doesn't know how to accomplish.
    Zog-19 waves to Missus McGinty from the truck. He wants badly to allay her apprehensions about him. "Toot toot," he says.
    

~

On Zog-19's planet, no one communicates by talking. All of Zog-19's people are equipped with powerful steam whistles. Well, not steam whistles exactly, because they sound using sentient gases rather than steam. The Zogs use their whistles to talk back and forth, using a system not unlike Morse code. On Zog-19's planet, "Toot toot" means "Don't worry." It also means "I love you" and "Everything is A-okay, everything is just peachy keen."

 

~

Zog-19 frets that McGinty's best friend, Angstrom, will notice the substitution. Zog-19 is not so good at imitating McGinty yet, but he is working hard to get better. Zog-19 is a diligent worker, even though he is not entirely sure what it is that he's supposed to accomplish here on Earth, in the guise of the farmer McGinty. He does know that he's supposed to act just the same as McGinty, and so for the moment he's working like heck at being McGinty.
    "Goddamn it hurts," Angstrom says. He's got his arms wrapped around his middle, sways back and forth. He looks like a gargoyle, he looks like he should be a downspout on some French cathedral. Angstrom's belly hurts all the time. Maybe it's cancer, maybe it's an ulcer, maybe it's something else. Whatever it is, Angstrom can feel the blackness growing within him. At night, his hands and feet are cold as blocks of ice. The only thing that scares him more than whatever's going on inside him is how bad the cure for it might be.
    Doctors killed Angstrom's old man. Angstrom's old man, strong as a bull, went to the doctors about a painful black dot on the skin of his back. The doctors hollowed him out, and he died. So now Angstrom sits on a hard chair in his kitchen and rocks back and forth, looking like a gargoyle.
    "Toot toot," says Zog-19. He likes Angstrom. He's glad McGinty had Angstrom for a friend, that Angstrom is by default Zog-19's friend now, but he wishes that Angstrom felt better. He worries that Angstrom will notice that he isn't McGinty. He wishes that he knew just a bit more clearly what his mission might be. He wishes that, whatever it is, someone else, someone more suitable, had been chosen for it.

 

~

Zog-19's planet is made of iron. From space, Zog-19's planet looks just like a giant steelie marble. The planet is called Zog. Zog-19's people are called the Zogs. Donny McGinty had a magnificent steelie marble when he was a little boy. He adored the slick, cool feel of the steelie in his hand, he loved the look of it, he loved the click it made when he flicked it against other marbles. He loved the rich tautness in the pit of his stomach when he sent his beloved steelie into battle, when he played marbles with other kids. When he was using that steelie as his striker, he simply could not be beaten. He was the marbles champion of his grammar school up in the highlands of Seneca County.
    Those were good days for McGinty. McGinty's old man was alive, Angstrom's old man was alive, the little dairy farm shone like a jewel at a bend in the Seneca River, and Angstrom's belly didn't hurt all the time. It seemed, when McGinty held that heavy, dully gleaming steelie in his hand, like they might all manage to live forever.

Zog-19's planet is a great hollow iron ball, filled with sentient gas. Zog-19's people are also made of iron, and they are also filled with sentient gas. When they walk, their iron feet strike the iron surface of the planet, and the whole thing rings just like a giant bell. With all the ringing, and all the tooting, Zog-19's planet can get very noisy.

 

~

Missus McGinty talks. She talks and talks. She keeps on talking about Angstrom, how she wishes that Angstrom would go to the doctor. He should go to the doctor, she says, or he should quit complaining. One or the other. She talks about Angstrom to avoid talking about McGinty. She has noticed all the changes in him lately--how could she not?--but she doesn't know that he's been replaced by Zog-19. She just thinks he's very, very sad about the death of his old man.
    She has a great deal to say on the subject of Angstrom. He should wash more frequently, for one thing. It worries Zog-19 when she talks so much. On his planet, every time you talk through your whistle, you use up a little of your sentient gas. You've got a lot to start off with, so it doesn't seem to be a big deal at first; but little by little, you use it up, sure as shooting. When all the sentient gas is gone, that's it. Zog-19 watches Missus McGinty's mouth for telltale signs of the gas. He watches to see whether it's escaping. He thinks maybe it is. He does not want Missus McGinty to run out of sentient gas.
    "You should wash more, too," Missus McGinty tells him. "You're getting to be just like old dirty Angstrom." It's true, Zog-19 does not wash himself frequently. He is used to being made of iron. Washing frightens him. He has only recently been made into a creature of flesh, a creature that resembles McGinty down to the last detail, a creature that can pass muster with McGinty's dogs, and he has trouble recalling that he's no longer iron. Do you know what happens when you wash iron? It corrodes.
    "You smell like a boar hog," says Missus McGinty. "I don't even like to be in the same bed with you anymore." Zog-19 knows that she's only saying these things because she loves him. On his planet, no one talks about anyone they don't love. They can't afford to waste the sentient gas. She loves him, and she loves Angstrom too, she loves him like a brother. She and McGinty have known Angstrom all their lives. Zog-19 imagines that, once he is better able to imitate McGinty, once he forgets that he used to be made out of iron, he'll be able to love her as well.
    But here's another thing that scares him: when people on Earth touch a piece of iron, he has noticed, they leave behind prints, they leave behind fingerprints. No two people on Earth, he has heard it said, have the same fingerprints. All those fingerprints, and every one different! No one on Zog-19's planet has any fingerprints at all. And these human fingerprints are composed of body oils, they are acid in their content. Unless they are swiftly scrubbed away, they oxidize the iron, they eat into it, they etch its surface with little ridges and valleys and hollows, they make smooth pristine iron into a rough red landscape of rust. Almost nothing could be worse for someone from the planet Zog than the touch of a human hand.

 

~

In the year 2347, space explorers from Earth will discover Zog-19's planet. The space explorers will leave their rusting fingerprints all over the iron surface of Zog. During their visit, the space explorers will discover that the sentient gas which fills the planet, and which coincidentally fills and animates the Zogs themselves, makes the space explorers' ships go very, very fast. Because they like to go very, very fast, they will ask the Zogs for the gas. They will ask politely at first.
    Because the gas makes their planet ring so nicely under their iron feet, the Zogs will refuse it to them. The space explorers will ask again, less politely this time, more pointedly, and the Zogs will explain, with their thundering whistles, their immutable position on the matter.
    War. At first, it looks as though the Zogs will easily win. They are numerous and powerful, and the space explorers are few and a long way from home. The Zogs are made of iron (to the space explorers, they look like great foundry boilers with arms and legs and heads), and the space explorers are made of water and soft meat. Their bones are brittle and break easily. "Toot toot," the Zogs will reassuringly say to one another as they prepare for battle. "Toot toot!"
    But one of the space explorers will think of a thing: he will think of a way to magnetize the whole iron planet. He will think of a way to use vast dynamos to turn the entire planet into a gigantic electromagnet. He will get the idea from watching a TV show, one where a big electromagnet-equipped crane picks up a car, a huge old Hudson Terraplane, and drops it into a hydraulic crusher.
    McGinty used to see this show in reruns every now and again, before he got replaced by Zog-19, and he was always amazed by what happened to that car. Every time the show played, the crusher mashed the car down into a manageable cube, not much larger than a coffee table. "Look at that," McGinty would say to Angstrom whenever the show was on. "That's my old man's car that's getting crushed."

 

~

McGinty's old man used to have a car just like that one when he was young, when he was McGinty's age, and he and McGinty's mother (though McGinty had not been born yet) would run around the county in that big old powerhouse of a car, blowing the horn in a friendly way and waving to everybody they knew, which was pretty much everybody they saw. McGinty does not know it, but he was conceived in the backseat of that Hudson Terraplane.
    His old man wanted to sire a child, he wanted a son, and McGinty's mother was only too happy to oblige. While they were making love in the backseat of the Hudson, McGinty's mother's left heel caught the hornring on the steering wheel a pretty blow, and the horn sounded, just as McGinty's old man and his mother were making McGinty. And the sound it made? Toot toot.

 

~

"We don't make love anymore," says Missus McGinty, "not since your father died." Zog-19 has never made love to anyone.
    On his planet, they do not have sex. They do not have babies. When a Zog runs out of sentient gas, it is simply replaced by another full-grown Zog more or less like it. Where do these new Zogs come from? No one knows. Perhaps the planet makes them. Once, the best thinkers on the planet Zog gathered together for a summit on the matter. They thought that they'd put their heads together and figure the thing out--where do new Zogs come from?--once and for all. But once they were all together, they got worried about losing all their sentient gas in the course of the palaver. They worried that they themselves would have to be replaced by the as-yet-unfathomed process of Zog regeneration. And so they figured, "What the heck?" and they went home again.
    Missus McGinty leads Zog-19 into the cool bedroom of their farmhouse. She draws the shades. She does not ask him to speak. She undresses him and sponges him off with cool water. He does not corrode. She undresses herself. She is not built like a foundry boiler. Her pale, naked skin is luminous in the darkened room. She has a slender waist and a darling little dimple above each buttock. When he sees those dimples, Zog-19 says, "Toot toot."
    Because she is only made of water and soft meat, Zog-19 is afraid that he will hurt her when he touches her. He is afraid that his dense, tremendous bulk will crush her, like the Hudson Terraplane on the TV show. He is afraid that his iron claws will puncture her skin. When she draws him to her, and when he enters her, he becomes momentarily convinced that he has injured her, and he tries to lift himself away. But she pulls him back again, with surprising strength, and he concedes, for a time, that he too is only made of water and meat.

 

~

So the space explorers will magnetize the planet, and the feet of the Zogs will stick to it like glue. Think of it! Poor Zogs. All they will be able to do is look up at the sky as the Earth ships descend. They will look up at the sky, and they will hoot at one another with their whistles. They will not say, "Toot toot," because things will not be A-okay, things will not be hunky-dory. Instead, as the space explorers land and rig up a great sharpened molybdenum straw that will penetrate the surface of Zog and siphon off the sentient gas, the Zogs will whistle, "Hoot hoot hoot," all over the planet.
    To the Earthmen who are setting up the molybdenum straw, it will seem a very sad sound. It will also seem very loud, and every Earth space explorer will be issued a set of sturdy earmuffs to prevent damage to sensitive human eardrums. And the sound will mean this: it will mean "I'm sad" and "The end is near" and "We are most definitely screwed."

 

~

The loafers that hang out at the Modern Barbershop in Mount Nebo, where McGinty used to get his hair cut, and where Zog-19 goes now in imitation of McGinty, are convinced that the death of McGinty's old man has driven McGinty around the bend. They chuckle when McGinty says to them, "Toot toot." They try to jolly him out of the funk he is in.
    They are by and large elderly fellows, the loafers, and they tell McGinty stories about his old man when his old man was young. They tell him stories about his old man roaring around the county in his big old Hudson Terraplane, a car so well made that, if McGinty's old man hadn't smashed it into a tree one drunken night, that car would still be out on the road today. All the loafers agree that nobody makes cars anymore that are anywhere near as good as that faithful Hudson.
    They tell him other stories too. They tell him how, when he was a little boy, he and his old man used to sing a song, to the delight of everybody in the barbershop. McGinty's old man would set young McGinty up in the barber's chair, and the barber would drape a sheet around young McGinty's neck and set to work with his comb and his flashing silver scissors and his long cutthroat razor, and McGinty's old man would stand before the chair, his arms spread like an orchestra conductor's, and he and young McGinty would sing. And the song they sang went like this: it went, "Well, McGinty is dead and McCarty don't know it, McCarty is dead and McGinty don't know it, and they're both of them dead, and they're in the same bed, and neither one knows that the other is dead."
    There was a fellow named McCarty who always loafed at the Modern Barbershop, a tough old guy who had been a frogman in the Second World War, so it was like the McGintys were singing a song about themselves and about McCarty. The loafers at the barbershop loved the song when McGinty was a little boy, and remembering it now they love it all over again. They love it so much that they laugh, laugh really hard, laugh themselves breathless, and pretty soon it is hard to tell if it's a barbershop full of laughing old men or weeping old men.
    Of course, when McGinty's old man sang the song, back in McGinty's childhood, both McGinty and McCarty were alive, even though the song said they were dead, and that made it all the funnier. But now McGinty really is dead, and McCarty really is dead too, carried off by a wandering blood clot a decade before, and they are both buried out in the graveyard of the Evangelical Church of the New Remnant north of town, which is kind of like being in the same bed. None of the song was true before, and now a lot of it is true, and so it isn't all that funny.
    "Poor McGinty," says one of the loafers, when they have all thought of how the song is true and not so funny anymore. And nobody knows whether he's talking about McGinty, or McGinty's old man.

 

~

Before long, the Earth spacemen, with their very, very fast spaceships, will manage to conquer the entire universe. Everywhere they go, the people who live there will ask them, "How in the heck do you make your spaceships go so darned fast?" The space explorers will be tempted to tell them, because they will want to boast about the clever way in which they defeated the Zogs, but they will play it cagey. They will keep their traps closed. They won't want anybody getting any ideas about using the sentient gas themselves.
    Before long, also, the sentient gas that fills the planet of the Zogs will begin to run out. There will be that many Earth spaceships! And the space explorers will become very worried, because, even though they will have conquered the entire universe, they will nonetheless continue to think that there might be something beyond that which they might like to conquer as well.

 

~

McGinty and Angstrom also used to sing a song. They used to sing it when they got drunk. They used to sing it back in the days when McGinty's old man was alive, when Angstrom's old man was alive, back in the days when even McCarty, the tough old frogman, was alive. They would sing it while they played card games, Deuces and Beggar Your Neighbor.
    They used to sing it to girls, too, because it was a slightly naughty song. They used to love singing it to girls. And the song they sang went like this: it went, "Roll me over in the clover. Roll me over and do it again."
    It was a simple, silly song, but it seemed to be about sex, and that was unusual in a place where almost nothing was about sex. So little was about sex in the Seneca Valley in the days when McGinty's old man and Angstrom's old man were alive that, weirdly, almost everything seemed to be about sex. Anything could make you think about sex in those days, even a silly little song, even a silly little song about clover. Clover is a kind of fodder that cows and sheep especially like. A clover with four leaves is said on Earth to be particularly lucky.
    In addition to the hundred acres of decent bottomland, McGinty's old man also accumulated a little highland pasturage to the north of the valley, where he kept a few fat, lazy sheep. These mountain pastures were almost completely grown over in sweet clover. When McGinty and Angstrom sang the song, when they sang, "Roll me over in the clover," McGinty was always thinking about those pastures. He was thinking about rolling over a girl in the mountain pastures. He was thinking about rolling over a girl he knew who had sweet dimples above her buttocks. He was thinking about rolling her over in the cool mountain pastures.
    And now Angstrom tries to teach the song to Zog-19. He cannot believe that McGinty has forgotten the song. Zog-19 understands that it's a song that he's supposed to know, supposed to like, and so he makes a diligent effort to learn it, for Angstrom's sake. Angstrom has been drinking, an activity that sometimes eases the pain in his belly and sometimes exacerbates it. For the moment, drinking seems to have eased the pain.
    "Roll me over," sings Angstrom in his scratchy baritone voice.
    "Over," sings Zog-19, in McGinty's pleasant, clear tenor.
    "In the clover," sings Angstrom, waving a bottle.
    "Clover," answers Zog-19. He does not know yet what clover is, but he likes the sound of it. He hopes that someone will teach him about clover, about which McGinty doubtless knew volumes, about which McGinty doubtless knew every little thing. He hopes that someone will teach him soon.

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