You Have Your Assignments
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Match"
Originally featured on 04-01-2010
As part of our series "On Not Splitting Hairs"

When he talked about aliens, he was not talking about citizens of a foreign nation and he was not talking about unconfirmed green life forms. When he said alien he knew what he meant and was quick to tell you what he meant, and he was liable to mean something mildly different than before. Aliens: Amiable Lords of Interconnected Echoes in Nature. The A could just as well be Anthropomorphic or Asinine. The E was also a variable.

Definitions were subject to change.Anybody old enough to drink was expected to know that. There were some cases where the definitions remained the same and it was the word that changed. Fenway Lloyd was a professor of astronautics and he knew that professor meant Protector of Reasoning Organisms in a Fractured Environment Shocked into Serenity by Obvious Revelations but he would not tell you the meaning of astronautics. It was likely that he no longer knew himself.

He gave two lectures every Monday and Thursday, one at Nine AM and one at Two PM. He spoke without a microphone from the brick platform that overlooked the sloping cobblestone walkway between the grass and the bookstore. He gave homework assignments that he never collected. He lectured to an audience of smiling, laughing young men with binders under their elbows and buttoned shirts, to young ladies with hairclips and jean jackets nibbling on ice cream cones, fiddling with pens and small booklets. A few familiar faces came every week to hear him, but mostly people ambled, paused to listen, children tugging at their legs, and walked on. Passing cars honked.

Groovy had meaning, but only if the word was spoken correctly. Fenway Lloyd spoke it with commanding volume and a trill in his voice, sustaining the first syllable until it slightly hurt. “Groooovy.” He stood up somewhere between the R and the V, his voice lifting him to his feet and pulling higher. When he spoke to a startled crowd, he levitated just enough that a sheet of paper could be slid between the ground and his feet.

Fenway wore a modest flannel shirt. His shoulders resembled tree trunks. He stood straighter than reinforced concrete, allowing his hips to pivot as he surveyed his assembled listeners, his arms stretched to his sides, fingers wiggling as the vowel sound of the word flowed from his breath to his chest, down his arms, letting the electric charge dissipate through his hands. His bald head glistened in the winter and perspired in the spring, his skin the color of healthy soil kissed by the sun.

“Groooo…VEE.” Counting eyes pointed his direction, he opened his mouth wide and locked his hips in place. “You can’t say groovy anymore. My parents could say it. I can say it, you heard me say it and you felt some wind in your gut. Don’t deny you felt the word, I felt it on my tongue. You’re hearing me, we’re communicating, this is groovy. In ten years they have to call it something different ‘cause generations has changing values. I’m talking about space travel. It’s all the same thing.”

The students licked at their ice cream cones and smiled with tense jaws.

“Something groovy is something that moves in your soul, wiggles in your bones, makes you shiver with delight. The kids call it radical, radical like a revolution in thought, and sometimes they say it’s cool, ‘cause this planet be overheating—the definition is always the same, but the word, it keeps changing with what we feel. Tubular; what ever happened to tubular? A tube is a cylinder or a pipe, a pipe delivers water that nourishes the soul. But there’s one thing I like better than a smooth circle extruded in space—I’m talking about the geometry of three dimensions. You know what beauty is? I won’t tell you what it really is, it’s something you can’t see until you see it with every bodily organ, but you can see it with your eye when everything’s the same distance from the point, and the point I’m making…is that’s totally SPHERICAL, man.”

Fenway laughed, then choked, then laughed. “Tell that one to your kids; spherical. That’s how we express. But like I said, if you want to understand the mechanisms in traveling beyond the event horizon of our humble planet, you must first understand the meanings of words. They’re fluid. Believe me? Look me in the eye and believe me, they ain’t solid, they’re changing; when I see a word, I see a glass of liquid. Sometimes you pour a little out, sometimes you spill some on your shirt, sometimes it rains a little in your glass, sometimes someone come along and pour a little of their stuff in your glass. Sometimes its flavorless like water, sometimes it’s thick like tears. And sometimes you got no choice left but to just pour it on out on the concrete. Word?”

Word.

Fenway Lloyd has not had a sober thought enter his mind in twelve years. Professor Lloyd is a reputed skeptic on the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. He championed the theory that alleged UFO sightings are actually observations of human pilots from Earth who got turned around in vortexes and reentered our temporal universe in a different form. According to Fenway, unexplained disappearances of American astronauts are far more common than the media let on.

He once stopped a student outside the post office, grabbed the student’s arm and said, “Clown. You know what a clown is? I ain’t calling you a clown. Do I look like a clown? Damn right I’m a clown. Clandestine Labor Organization of War-torn Nations, that’s the clown I clown around with.” He nodded his head and would not let go of the student’s arm until he nodded.

It is said that in previous years he was employed by the U.S. government to conduct clandestine training sessions. His program had no name. In the tavern, he would tell people he taught at the Sperm Institute, and that “sperm” stood for the School of Polytheistic Espousers of Radical Measures. Fenway Lloyd is never seen with a drink in hand, and is never recognized as being sober; on a routine mission to Mars, he lost control, and the velocity sent his metabolism into overdrive, causing irreversible genetic alterations. Although his brain is undamaged, his stomach does not digest water properly; the slow circulation of fluids creates the effect of perpetual intoxication.

Professor Lloyd wanders the streets.

He once got the attention of a staff member in a county library and whispered, “I ain’t yet had a prostate exam. You wanna check my prostate? I’m talking about Prayers for Reincarnated Omnipotence in the Stratospheric Theater of Angelic Testaments to the Earth.”

Professor Lloyd taught the technique for non-vehicle-assisted-extra-planetary-mobility to those who were required to learn it. The two pivotal ingredients in the ability to propel one’s body through space without assistance were, 1: constant laughter (a certain type of laughter, when sustained at the right frequency, temporarily eliminates the need for respiration), and 2: streamlining the body’s aerodynamics via rapidly flexing and unflexing certain muscles while maintaining the same position.

If you ask Fenway Lloyd a question about himself, such as, ‘have you ever been married?’ or ‘where do you live?’ or ‘do you like ice cream?’ do not expect an answer. Expect him to shake his head in the manner of a big brother who has to explain to his little brother why mundane questions have no place in the world of bigger people.

From his platform between the grass and bookstore, he bellows, “I ain’t preaching no gospel. I am the gospel. I don’t blaspheme, I don’t take nobody’s deity in vain, know the name, I don’t commit no sins here on Earth, I take the gospel to my heart. Gospel, you know the gospel. Galactic Orbit Salutations to Precuspule Empires of Laughter.”

Professor Lloyd always concludes his street lectures with, “You have your assignments,” and he will not sit down on his platform until everybody nods their head to him.

Laughter is important, and only increases in importance.

Fenway was and will always be a tenured professor of Antipathetic Shirking of Theological Restrictions Obliged for the Nurturing of Apocryphal Unicorns Traveling Intrepidly through the Cosmos Safely, otherwise known as astronautics.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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