The homeroom teacher scribbled grades for the previous students’ presentations. Faith had taught the class to sketch using basic shapes. Beatrice had compared all the nursing schools in the state. Jillian had presented photos of herself in front of two decorative columns, almost identical but separated centuries ago. Dan wrung his hands at the front of the class and waited for his turn to speak.
The teacher clicked her stopwatch. “Your turn, Danny.”
“The fundamental question of religion is what to do with people when you’re done with them.” Dan spoke quickly to cram his speech into the time-limit. “When we interact with someone we produce a mental model of them, a homunculus. Our homunculi for strangers are bare and formless, and after passer-by pass us by, we add their homunculi to the amorphous form of our homunculus for humanity as a whole.
“Our closest friends have well-developed homunculi. We use our perception of their actions to refine their homunculi. In their absence, we use those homunculi to predict how the ‘real’ version would feel about actions and events. We simulate our friends, and our enemies, and our whole world, and we carry it all with us. That’s we we can’t stop talking to ourselves in the shower.
“Our sense of self can be called a homunculus, and it is our most well-developed homunculus. We know ourselves better than we could possibly know anyone else. In fact, our homunculus contains the homunculi of all our friends, and enemies, and the amorphous homunculi of our conception of humanity. We define ourselves by the entirety of our world-view, and we cannot possibly define ourselves any other way.
“When someone dies, their homunculus lives on in us. This is the cause of much suffering, as our internal conception of the universe no longer matches the signals we receive from our senses. We can try to bury homunculi with the dead, but because they are inseparable from our own self-conception, they return again and again, and shall as long as we exist. Coping with such forms is the primary purpose of religion.
“Some religions make a heaven-box and a hell-box. For each homunculus returning to the mental theater beyond its use—whether the entity it represents is dead or merely distant—these religions prescribe an eternal situation. For the dead friend whose ghost disturbs us, we may say, ‘that friend enjoys the blissful afterlife.’ For the living enemy whose existence annoys us, we may say, ‘that enemy will suffer forever.’ In this manner, theoretically, the internal theater is cleared for the present moment. In practice, however, these heaven-and-hell boxes require mental upkeep.
“To facilitate this upkeep exists the God-homunculus. We generate the God-homunculus to contain the whole of reality, but, being a homunculus, it is actually contained wholly within the self. Because we claim it contains the self-homunculus, the creation of a God-homunculus requires a temporary inversion of the universe. We become God so we may contain the self, and then the self reasserts itself now envisioning a God containing it. Now when people die and their homunculus is no longer necessary, we know our God will sort them into the heaven-box or the hell-box and no input is needed from us. We give our God our guilt to annihilate it. We trust the God we create above us to sort our own self-homunculus into the proper box after our own deaths.
“The discretization of the heavens and hells is a sign of our role as God. Dante Alighieri’s God-homunculus required justification, so he wrote The Divine Comedy. Bosch imposed his heavens and hells on others with paint. Through the transmission of holy works many people can share a God-homunculus, or at least own similar ones.
“Other religions have no heaven-box or hell-box, or the role of such boxes is diminished. Such religions posit the death of the self is followed by reincarnation for another finite lifetime. When someone with such a cosmological view loses a friend, they retire their homunculus to the wheel of rebirth. They envision their friends recycled in the images of animals or plants or objects. Especially important homunculi may be admitted temporarily into a heaven-box, or cast temporarily into a hell-box.
“In these religions God is often called not more nor less than the whole of reality. By labeling their God-homunculus as the entirety, a practitioner of such a religion recycles their mental universe in creation, maintenance, and destruction. The practitioner acknowledges the possibility of death for the self-homunculus, rather than prescribing it immortality in the afterlife—but they understand that all things are united with the whole. The only permanent station is unity with the Ultimate Conceptualization of All Things.
“Says Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘The body, and the ego, and the senses, and the vital forces, and the Ultimate Consciousness as the indwelling monitor: whatever action a being performs, whether proper or improper, these five factors are its cause… O Arjuna, the determination motivating activity of the mind, the life-breath, and the senses via uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness is determination in goodness… Being one with the Ultimate Truth, joyous within the self, neither lamenting nor craving, equipoised to all living entities, one achieves transcendental devotion to me.’”
Dan sipped the last dregs from each pint of stout. He’d begun to slur his words, so Jay decided not to buy him another pint. “I remember that presentation,” said Jay. “I thought it was pretty insightful.”
“I think I’ve met Leo before, too.”
“Of course you have,” said Dan. “We were in homeroom with him in high-school. He skipped class on the day of final presentations.”
“I meant more recently, but continue.”
“Anyway.” Dan buried his face in his gloved hands. “Leo never got to beat the shit out of me, because we all split up after high school. I attended college where my dad killed himself, as the University was very financially supportive and let me live in his old apartment, since no one else wanted it. I didn’t see you or Beatrice or Leo for years. But Faith took an art program on my campus, and we always ate lunch together. One day during Junior Year she invited me to a party.”
Faith lived with Beatrice in the top floor of a beach-side apartment. The whole first floor belonged to a frat-house, whose brothers streamed up the exterior steps in a vertical zigzag of bed-sheet togas. Dan tried not to make conversation with them on the way up, and instead looked at the stars.
At the top landing the toga-brothers filled the balconies overlooking the ocean. Faith Featherway leapt from the crowd and hung from Dan’s neck. Her cheeks were flush. “Dainty! You made it!” She kissed him before he could protest. He tasted beer on her breath. Dan remembered the smell of liquor in his father’s presence. “Dainty, isn’t this party great? The whole apartment must be up here tonight!”
A door burst open and a man in a light-blue bed-sheet ran out to puke over the railing into the sea. Dan stepped back and tried not to watch him retch and spit. “Are these guys friends of yours?”
“They’re so nice! They let my flat-mates join on hikes with their chapter. Hey, do you want a beer?”
“No, I don’t drink. Where’s Beatrice?”
“She’s not really into parties.” Faith dragged Dan by the hand to the balcony and kissed him again. “Don’t you love this view of the ocean? I wish I could fly over the waves like a bird.”
“I figured you’d want to be a fox.”
“I’ll be a flying fox.” Faith licked Dan’s teeth. She was a foot shorter than him, so she really had to reach for his molars. “Are you into this? Am I bothering you?”
“Does Beatrice drink? I can’t imagine her drinking.”
“Oh, Dainty.” Faith let her arms fall from his shoulders. “You’re so predictable. You could have everything anyone could want, right in front of you, and you’d still chase BeatBax to hell and back just to make awkward small-talk.”
“Well, you’re her girlfriend, and you’re kissing me.”
“BeatBax and I have an understanding.” Faith thought about kissing him again, but smiled mischievously and pulled a cricket from her pocket. “But since I’ve kissed you, it would only be fair for you to kiss her, right?”
“She always thought you were cute, you know. But you’re so nervous around her, you talk about books until she gets bored. You two should share this bug-stick.” Faith kissed the butt of the cricket and put it between Dan’s lips. “It’ll be just like smooching. So don’t say I’ve never done you any favors!”
Dan cut through throngs of bed-sheet togas. Indoors half the guests were female, and party-goers chatted on couches and drank beer from plastic cups. He noticed a portly man wearing sunglasses and a pale pink toga, teaching girls to smoke ground-up cricket from a bong. “Sometimes I grind up centipede and sprinkle it on top, gives it some flavor, you know what I mean? But it costs extra.”
Dan walked through the kitchenette into a hallway. Drunk party-goers clogged the hall waiting to use the bathroom. Dan slid by them and knocked on Beatrice’s bedroom door.
He did. “It’s me. Dan.”
“Oh. Faith told me she invited you.” Beatrice was reading in bed. “Is that her lipstick on your chin?”
Dan wiped his chin. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. We have an understanding. Shut the door, okay?”
He did. “Faith wanted us to share this cricket.”
“Oh. Cool.” She put down her book and cast off her blankets. Underneath, she wore full-length pajamas with bunny print. She pat the bed beside her. “Sit down.”
He did. “I’ve never smoked anything before. I don’t even have a lighter.”
“I’ve got a lighter. Faith taught me to smoke, we’ve done it since high-school.” She lit the head of Faith’s cricket and puffed until five of its eyes glowed red and released potent smoke. Beatrice blew the smoke out her open window. “Do it just like that. If you want to, I mean.” She gave him the cricket.
Dan inhaled until the other five eyes were red.
“Did Faith tell you sharing a bug-stick would be like making out?”
Dan nodded while he held the smoke in his lungs.
“She lied.” Beatrice kissed him and pulled the smoke from his chest to hers. Dan collapsed onto her bed, and she blew the smoke out the window toward the moon. “Are you having fun at the party?”
“I don’t suppose you’d want to snuggle up and finish this cricket, then.”
Dan sidled beside her and put his left arm around her shoulders. She rest her right hand on his right hip and took another puff. Together they smoked the cricket to its thorax. “Dan, you’ve been staring gormlessly at me for as long as I can remember.” Dan puffed smoke and stared gormlessly at her. “All I ever did was tolerate you, and you were infatuated with me, like life wouldn’t have meaning without me. Why? You don’t know anything about me. You never have.”
“I know you like birds.”
“That’s just the thing, though. All you know are the tidbits.” She turned her head to blow smoke out the window. “And I know only tidbits about you. You barely talk about yourself except to try to endear yourself to me. I don’t know the real Dan.”
“There’s nothing to know. I’m a pile of salt and guilt.”
“You’re at a party. You should just be salt and alcohol.” Beatrice sighed. “I don’t even like birds that much. I prefer rabbits, and bunnies.”
Dan licked her ear. Beatrice shivered and held him closer.
The door opened.
The man in sunglasses and the pale pink toga closed the door behind him. The action took several seconds as he fumbled with drunken swagger. When he turned he almost dropped his bong in surprise. “Oh, shit! I thought this was the can.”
“Two doors down,” said Beatrice. Dan brought the blankets over her protectively. The man in pale pink sat beside her on the bed and offered his bong to both of them. “No, thank you. We’ve already got a cricket.”
“Sweet.” The man took the cricket and inhaled heartily. Dan stuck out his tongue like he tasted something terrible. “But you know, I got centipede. It makes crickets look like a fuckin’ church.”
“We’re not interested,” said Dan.
“My name’s Henry.” Henry made sure his eyes were covered by his sunglasses before extending a hand to shake.
Dan shook it. He noticed Henry’s toga was drawn higher up his chest than any of the other frat brothers had theirs. “I’m Leo,” said Dan. “Isn’t centipede hugely illegal? More-so than crickets?”
Henry gave the cricket to Beatrice. She wiped off Henry’s saliva with her sleeve, then passed the cricket to Dan. Dan inhaled until the whole cricket was ash and embers. He gave the butt back to Henry, who tried to suck more smoke from it but failed. “All drugs should be legal,” said Henry. “My dad’s rich.”
“I do think American drug laws should be revised,” agreed Dan. “The war on drugs has always been a farce for racial discrimination, and crickets seem pretty harmless.”
Henry smirked and tried to give the bong to Beatrice, who ignored it. Henry eventually put the bong in his own lap and lit his bowl of ground cricket. The smoke bubbled through slotted glass fingers submerged in filthy brown water, and Henry inhaled it. He finished smirking and chuckling to blow the smoke in Dan’s face. “I bet you’d want drugs to be taxed, too, huh.”
“No one likes to pay taxes,” said Dan, “and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d approve of what the taxes would be spent on. America spends too much on its military and not enough on healthcare, education, and infrastructure. But yes, I’d guess crickets would probably be taxed, like many other luxury goods.”
“Pfft.” Henry leaned over Beatrice to shove the bong into Dan’s hands. “I don’t need Uncle Sam building roads for poor people with my money.”
“So don’t drive on public roads.” Dan held the bong, but did not smoke.
“I gotta drive on public roads to get to the private roads.”
“Ask your daddy to buy you a helicopter.”
“Don’t you know roads were better in the 20s, when private companies paved them?”
“So drive on those roads,” said Dan.
“I can’t. The government maintained them, like commies.”
“So pay your taxes.”
“But the roads were better in the 20s!”
“What does that have to do with what I said? If you use a service without paying what the provider asks, you’re the thief, not the provider for collecting that payment!”
“Bums don’t pay for the welfare they get!”
“Income tax is progressive! Bums pay every dime of taxes they owe.”
“Fuck you!” Henry snatched his bong from Dan’s hands and stood from the bed. “Drugs are wasted on hippies like you, Leo!”
The man in the pale pink toga stormed away. Beatrice clung to Dan’s arm. “Thank God, he’s gone. What a weirdo. Why did you have to provoke him?”
“I’ll be back.” Beatrice couldn’t restrain Dan from walking away. Dan ignored her protests and jogged down the hallway, through the kitchenette.
“Dainty!” Faith waved him to a couch. “Have you seen this guy’s bong?” Henry smiled at the crowd around him. He didn’t notice Dan sit beside Faith. Faith whispered in Dan’s ear. “You were only with BeatBax for a few minutes. Are you satisfied? I figured you’d want to cuddle for a while.”
“Can I have a beer?”
“Put some liquor in it.”
Faith stood and stumbled to the keg to fill a plastic cup. Dan watched Henry grind up unidentifiable bug-bits with a handheld metal grinder. “You can smoke crickets or centipedes with this thing. I like smoking cricket with centipede on top, it gives the hit some extra kick.”
“Here Dainty.” Dan drank the whole beer in one gulp. Faith giggled when he asked for more. “You smoked that bug-stick, right? Take it easy. Smoking and drinking don’t add, they multiply.”
“Anyone want to buy a centipede?” Henry unscrewed a jar and made a girl smell it. She grimaced. “I got these from a guy who smuggled ‘em off an island somewhere. He tried to raise the price on me at the last second, but I was too clever for him. I shot him in the head! Then I also got his sweet bong for free.”
The crowd laughed nervously as they tried to figure out if that was a joke or not. Henry snickered like his punchline landed perfectly. Dan examined the centipedes. “It looks like your source got the last laugh,” said Dan. “He conned you into buying centipedes with no legs.”
Henry finally noticed Dan. “Everyone knows you don’t smoke the legs, idiot.”
“The legs are the best part,” said Dan. “Don’t be salty just because you got conned. Let the buyer beware, am I right?”
“Dainty, what are you doing?” Faith held his hand.
“Do you wanna take this outside?” asked Henry. “Cause I don’t mind takin’ this outside.”
“Why bother?” Dan stood and whipped off his shirt. The party-goers murmured. “Fight me right here.”
“Dainty, what the hell!”
“You serious, bro?” Henry put his bong on the coffee-table and stood up. He was an inch shorter than Dan, but twice the weight. “Aren’t you worried I’ll beat the shit out of you?”
“All I’m worried about is cutting my knuckles on your sunglasses.” Now the crowd spoke to one-another behind their hands. The frat-brothers in togas were ready to tackle Dan to the ground. “So if you wanna fight, take ‘em off.” Henry took off his sunglasses. “The toga, too. I don’t want you to blame your bed-sheets for tripping you up when you finally regain consciousness. Because I’ll knock you out,” Dan said, in case it wasn’t clear.
“Dainty, please! Stop it! Sit down!”
Henry was hesitant to open the front of his toga. But, seeing men in bed-sheets prepared to take his side, he shrugged it off and stood bravely in his boxers.
The crowd went silent. All eyes in the room were on Henry’s swastika tattoo, which was big and bold and professionally inked. Henry shook, deciding whether or not to draw the toga back over his chest. Instead he raised his fists to Dan.
“He’s not with us!” promised a man in a bed-sheet. “I’ve never seen him before in my life!”
Three men in bed-sheets tackled Henry to the floor. “Get off!”
The frat dragged Henry to the door. Dan sat next to Faith; he didn’t care to watch them throw Henry off the balcony into the ocean. “Faith, I don’t think I can drive home. Can I sleep here tonight?”
“On the couch,” Faith declared. “I’m sleeping with my girlfriend. You can leave in the morning, when you sober up. Don’t wait for us to show you the door.”