Not That Funny

I am awake but groggy. I slept late, am guzzling coffee, and am thinking that I may put off going to Costco until tomorrow. Today might be a stay at home, laze around, get some stuff done when and if I feel like it day. I have a bit of the ‘just turned in the book’ malaise, that bizarre funk where I just feel a bit dazed for a couple of days. Which is fine, of course, although I need to really get to work on the next. I see reading A Head Full of Ghosts in my future. I also have a Christmas party to attend this evening.

Yesterday I managed to find that Twilight Zone episode I was talking about, “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” based on the Harlan Ellison short story that is definitely one of my favorites of all time. It’s on Youtube, and if you have about thirty-two minutes to spare, it’s definitely worth watching.

Click here.

Sure, watching it now you can tell it was filmed in the 1980’s–the little bit of special effects used were especially cheesy–but the greatness of the story still comes through; it’s speculative fiction, sure, but the real strength and greatness of the story is in its human elements. And Danny Kaye is fantastic.

I found it because I was googling the story to find out which collection it’s in–it’s not in The Essential Ellison, sadly–and I wanted to read it again, only to discover you can actually read it on-line as a pdf here.

And yes, the story as written is so much more powerful than the actual teleplay–which I believe was also written by Ellison.

The story opens with two men in a small cemetery; one is quite old and visiting the grave of his beloved wife, lost to him for twenty years. He is set upon by a couple of young hoodlums determined to rob him; they are fought off and driven away by another man in the cemetery who sees it happening and comes to the old man’s rescue. The two men develop a bond, although the rescuer is a little stand-offish and the older man has to earn his trust. The old man’s name is Gaspar, and he is quite charming and a bit opinionated. The younger man, Billy, who is haunted still by something that happened to him in Vietnam.

THIS WAS AN OLD MAN. Not an incredibly old man; obsolete, spavined; not as worn as the sway-backed stone steps ascending the Pyramid of the Sun to an ancient temple; not yet a relic. But even so, a very old man, this old man perched on an antique shooting stick, its handles open to form a seat, its spike thrust at an angle into the soft ground and trimmed grass of the cemetery. Gray, thin rain misted down at almost the same, angle as that at which the spike pierced the ground. The winter-barren trees lay flat and black against an aluminum sky, unmoving in the chill wind. An old man sitting at the foot of a grave mound whose headstone had tilted slightly when the earth had settled; sitting in the rain and speaking to someone below.

“They tore it down, Minna.

“I tell you, they must have bought off a councilman.

“Came in with bulldozers at six o’clock in the morning, and you know that’s not legal. There’s a Municipal Code. Supposed to hold off till at least seven on weekdays, eight on the weekend; but there they were at six, even before six, barely light for godsakes. Thought they’d sneak in and do it before the neighborhood got wind of it and call the landmarks committee. Sneaks: they come on holidays, can you imagine!

“But I was out there waiting for them, and I told them, ‘You can’t do it, that’s Code number 91.03002, subsection E,’ and they lied and said they had special permission, so I said to the big muckymuck in charge, ‘Let’s see your waiver permit,’and he said the Code didn’t apply in this case because it was supposed to be only for grading, and since they were demolishing and not grading, they could start whenever they felt like it. So I told him I’d call the police, then, because it came under the heading of Disturbing the Peace, and he said . . . well, I know you hate that kind of language, old girl, so I won’t tell you what he said, but you can imagine.

“So I called the police, and gave them my name, and of course they didn’t get there till almost quarter after seven (which is what makes me think they bought off a councilman), and by then those ‘dozers had leveled most of it. Doesn’t take long, you know that.

“And I don’t suppose it’s as great a loss as, maybe, say, the Great Library of Alexandria, but it was the last of the authentic Deco design drive-ins, and the carhops still served you on roller skates, and it was a landmark, and just about the only place left in the city where you could still get a decent grilled cheese sandwich pressed very flat on the grill by one of those weights they used to use, made with real cheese and not that rancid plastic they cut into squares and call it ‘cheese food.’

“Gone, old dear, gone and mourned. And I understand they plan to put up another one of those mini-malls on the site, just ten blocks away from one that’s already there, and you know what’s going to happen: this new one will drain off the traffic from the older one, and then that one will fall the way they all do when the next one gets built, you’d think they’d see some history in it; but no, they never learn, And you should have seen the crowd by seven-thirty. All ages, even some of those kids painted like aborigines, with torn leather clothing. Even they came to protest. Terrible language, but at least they were concerned. And nothing could stop it. They just whammed it, and down it went.

“I do so miss you today, Minna. No more good grilled cheese.” Said the very old man to the ground. And now he was crying softly, and now the wind rose, and the mist rain stippled his overcoat.

Nearby, yet at a distance, Billy Kinetta stared down at another grave. He could see the old man over there off to his left, but he took no further notice. The wind whipped the vent of his trenchcoat. His collar was up but rain trickled down his neck. This was a younger man, not yet thirty-five. Unlike the old man, Billy Kinetta neither cried nor spoke to memories of someone who had once listened. He might have been a geomancer, so silently did he stand, eyes toward the ground.

One of these men was black; the other was white.

THAT is great writing. The story, which I read again last night, moved me to tears again; just as the cheesy 1980’s production of the beautifully written teleplay did as I watched it again. All of Ellison’s stories are engaging, superbly written; he writes about enormous themes and yet his characters, his situations, are incredibly real and relatable. He writes about the human condition, and humanity; and often he writes of humanity’s loss of humanity, if that makes sense. Ellison was the person who introduced the all-encompassing term speculative fiction as the tent that contains science fiction, fantasy, and horror; he is a master of all of them.

I’m really looking forward to rereading the stories I’ve already read; and I am also looking forward to reading stories of his I’ve not read. I encourage you, if you’re not read Ellison but are a fan of great writing, to click on the previous link and read “Paladin of the Lost Hour”; I would be very surprised if you didn’t want to read more. His website is at Ellison Webderland; you can find information there about the project (and possibly donate) to digitize all of his writing so it won’t be lost.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

Here’s another French farmer.