Character: Joe: a man of indeterminate middle age, more blue-collar than white-collar
I know this guy ever since I was a kid. And every time something comes up we get into an argument over it. If it’s raining out and I tell him its raining, he’ll say, No, man, that’s not rain, that’s mist. And if I say it’s sunny out, he’ll shake his head and point and say, no, man, it’s partly cloudy – even if there’s just one little wisp of a cloud in the whole damn sky. You know the type. Mr. No, I call him. He doesn’t have an opinion about anything until you have one, and then he’ll take the opposite side just for spite. Like one of those mean little dogs that’s asleep until you walk by and then all hell breaks loose. Anyway, this one time he was talking about metaphors, trying to act smart and everything. And he says to me – What’s your metaphor for Life? And I said to him, I said: You want a metaphor for life? All right, I’ll give you a metaphor, Mr. Smart Aleck. Mites.
Mites? he says. And I tell him: What are you deaf as well as dumb? That’s no metaphor, he says, shaking his head and puffing himself up like he thinks he’s Socrates or something. How’s it a metaphor, Mr. Big Shot? he says. You tell me that.
So, I told him. I told him it’s a metaphor because it’s the size of a pin – the tip of a pin, you understand? Not the head, the tip. And it’s got a dozen legs on it, and every one of those legs itches. And about a million of these things are crawling down this spider’s leg and pretty soon they’re crawling up your leg, and that’s why they’re a metaphor. It’s because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re persistent. It’s because all they want to do is crawl and bite. You understand? They just want to get on you and bite and keep on biting. That’s their whole ambition. Their whole purpose in life. They crawl out of this spider’s belly, they take a deep breath, and then they look around for something they can bite. And every time they move one of their hairy legs, which you can’t even see except under a microscope, it’s a torment – an honest-to-God torment. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Not once they get inside. Not once they start crawling on you. Because you can’t even see them, so that you gotta hold em up to the light and then this here spot starts moving and itching and you grab it between your thumb and finger and you squeeze the crap out of it till and then you look at your hand to see if it’s dead and the sonofabitch takes off like a bat out of hell as if nothing had happened.
All that talk in the Middle Ages about how many angels you can get on the head of a pin – that doesn’t mean squat. Who the hell knows if angels exist? And even if they do, what is that all about? What can they do anyway – sing a hymn to you when you hold the pin up to your ear? But you take a mite – and you can maybe get 100 of them on the head of a pin – and you hold that up to your ear and they’ll bite the crap out of you. They’ll make that ear of yours a torment. You understand? All they’ve got are teeth and legs. Teeth and legs. Nothing else. No brain. No soul. No nothing. And all they do is bite and suck your blood and then use those hairy legs to move on down the line to the next poor bastard and bite him. Could be a mouse. Could be an elephant. Could be the Queen of England, for that matter.
Think about it. A whole planet full of them. I read where they catalogued 50, 000 kinds already. And they say there’s ten times more out there. Now what kind of universe goes in for a thing like that? You see God actually making something like that and sticking it in this spider’s belly so it can get on board the Ark? What kind of God would do that? That’s more like something the Devil would do.
And if it’s not God, then what – a whole universe of teeth and legs? Crawl and bite? All that stuff about a great white whale or the great white shark – that’s just a bunch of bull. The whole time Ahab was paddling around trying to shove a harpoon into Moby Dick, he’s got a whole shipload of mites biting the crap out of everyone.
So, I tell my friend all this and you know what he says? He says, Mites don’t kill you. You don’t die from a mite. A lion bites you – now that’ll kill you. Or a mosquito that’s got a virus on it – that’ll kill you, all right. They got these flesh-eating bugs turn someone into a pint of slime. Now, that’s a metaphor.
Man, you’re even dumber than a pint of slime, I tell him. You know that? The whole point about a mite is that it doesn’t kill you. There’s a whole universe of things out there that’ll come up and kill you. They probably got a movie about it already. Man-eating this. Man-eating that. But the whole thing about mites is that they’re such a torment they make you think about dying before you die. And you know what he says, that dummy, he says You really got this thing about them, don’t you?
Yeah, I got this thing about them. I tell him. You know why? Because I used to be like you. Ignorant and stubborn. Thought they were just a bug. And then what happened was that I did a little kindness and I got bit for it. That’s what. And when I started thinking about it, I realized that’s the way the world works. (very directly to the audience) You know what a phoebe is? It’s a bird. About the size of a blackbird. They spend their winters down south. Alabama. Georgia. Then they come up here for the summer. A pair of them – the size of a blackbird. Flying all that way up from Georgia. And you know what? They land right up over my window. And then they start building their nest right there. Right outside my window. Out of mud and grass. And they slap it up right against the wall. I can see em building it-the whole damn thing. And then before the summer’s out they hatch these two little phoebes and then they all take off for Georgia again. And then a year later, almost to the day, they come back right to that same damn spot. Not two inches away. Right there over my window. All the way from Georgia. Only now half the trees are down from this storm we had so the damn place doesn’t even look like it did. Looks more like a meadow. But still they find it. Only this time they come early. Maybe it’s global warming or something. Maybe something’s going on in Georgia they don’t like. So up they come. And they build their nest. And they have their two little babies. Only this time they don’t go away. Instead, they start to have a second batch of birds. Now all these other times right after they take off, I go ahead and knock down the old nest, because by then it’s all dried out and falling apart. Only this time, I can’t do it.
So, I tell this to my neighbor who’s always going on about nature and everything, and she tells me it’s not such a good idea. She says they stay like that bugs are gonna start coming around. Only she didn’t tell me what kind of bugs. She just said, If they’re gonna do that, then you really have to watch out for the bugs. That’s all she said. I thought maybe she meant mosquitoes. Or flies. I didn’t know she meant mites. And then those mites started coming in everywhere. Didn’t matter what you did. They’d get in. And they started crawling and itching. Crawling and itching. And that’s when I realized that’s the way the whole world works. Right from the beginning. Right from the Garden of Eden. You got this apple hanging there. You got somebody who knows what’s waiting for you if you eat it, but all he says is “Don’t eat the apple because on that day you will die.” What the hell is that? Who the hell knows what death is? What it’s really like? So you go ahead and do a kind thing, you take the apple because it looks good, because it looks like it’d be good for you, and you go ahead and you share it, and the next thing you know you got a whole damn universe crawling on you.
You see, if I’d knocked down that nest like I wanted to and didn’t give a damn about those phoebes, or instead of saying watch out for the bugs, my neighbor had said you let them stay there that long and you’re gonna get mites, and they’re the size of a pin – the tip, not the head, mind you – and they’re all teeth and legs and they’re gonna crawl on you till your whole life’s a torment, then none of that would have happened, would it? But no, I did a little kindness and I got bit for it. You better believe it. And you know what that jackass friend of mine said when I told him all this: Yeah, but you got a metaphor out of it, didn’t you?
Man, I just looked at him and shook my head. What else can you do? You can’t even be mad anymore. It’s gone past that. Gone way past that. All you can do is just feel sadness – sadness for all the ignorance there is in the world.
You go ask Eve whether making the apple into a metaphor was worth it, I told him. See what she says.
After many years of living in Idaho and Washington, Alan Steinberg now lives and works in New York. He has published fiction (Cry of the Leopard, St. Martin’s Press), poetry (Fathering, Sarasota Poetry Press), and drama (The Road to Corinth, Players Press). His radio play, The Night Before the Morning After, won the national award for radio drama sponsored by the American Radio Theatre.