On Tuesday, arriving in the mail, was – and I use was and not were because it was an entity, a big package, a self-contained TV dinner gestalt – was the Sea Monkeys, all in a shrinkwrap-wrapped package that looked like it could survive being mailed from pretty much anywhere to pretty much anywhere else. When I opened it, I was surprised to see the one packet labeled not Growth Food, but Manna. The Growth Guarantee in Writing was signed and stamped, something no ant farm had ever offered. The whole thing had cost $1.25 plus 50 cents to mail plus another 50 for the rush order, cut out from the back pages of an Avengers; it had taken several issues to get an Avengers that didn’t have the ad on the verso page of actual content (I could have just bought a second copy, it occurs to me now). The Avengers “fight the foes no single super hero can withstand” and one thing about them is they’re more often than not referred to by their real names instead of their super hero names: everyone just calls the Scarlet Witch “Wanda”; the subtext is that she is “The Scarlet Witch”. I would one day have enough of subtext; the Sea Monkeys seemed initially free of it.
As implied by the ad, the Sea Monkeys all had little tridents. The spines of the males were ridged with plates like the Loch Ness Monster’s (I had seen an artist’s rendering in an old National Geographic at the doctor’s office; the caption for a picture of a man buying a “Nessie-Burger” read “This man keeps one eye on his change and another on the Loch”. I was, at this time, interested in The Unexplained, and the Loch Ness Monster was often in my thoughts). There was one Sea Monkey with an especially long beard – the king – whose beard only unfurled once it hit the water. The women crossed their legs, barely concealing their genitals, in a move that reminded me of my cousin Lois who untied the back of her bathing suit top to tan evenly at the beach, although I guess those aren’t her genitals. Tail fins blocked male genitals (I will stop saying genitals now), and the babies were neutered little Weeble creatures. They all had scales on their chests like another cousin of mine, Dale. Several of my cousins had weird diseases. I wonder what they think of me; probably that I am a “city slicker,” because they think Indian Head is near Baltimore although we’re over an hour away and anyway there are several cities larger than Baltimore. I look at the skyline and say, “There’s our skyline,” and then I pause and say, “Such as it is.” It gets a laugh. About half the time it gets a laugh.
I had assumed the sea monkeys would look like brine shrimp – Artemia salina – but they looked more like elongated Precious Moments figurines, only maybe more jaunty and angular. With my ear pressed to the tank, I could hear them speaking in upper register octaves, unsurprising, I guess, as they presumably had tiny, tiny vocal chords; they did not appear to speak English.
My Crazy Crab (“Sandy Claws”) ignored them for the most part, his large neotenic blue eyes never quite focusing on them (but still smiling the happy smile of mail-order Crazy Crabs) when I would turn his shell toward the tank; I wanted to show him what happy sea creatures were like, because he pretty much stayed in his shell and only came out begrudgingly for races with other Crazy Crabs. I got the name “Sandy Claws” from the ad. I entered him into races, like the ad said. I painted him, like the ad said I should: I painted him red with a blue Atari logo; my Pinewood Derby car had a similar design. Atari is Japanese for go, but he never won a race. My Venus fly trap (mail order, as well, and nameless) continued to eat whatever flies I could catch and in the meantime eyed my Crazy Crab with a kind of mechanical, waiting sedentariness, with eyes, had it had eyes, like a dull-eyed shark.
Just as I never named the fly trap, I never named the Sea Monkeys; the ad didn’t recommend it specifically, and so it didn’t occur to me, although there was an obvious distinction between each one, an obvious pecking order; for the men, the more generously bearded held a higher position in the Sea Monkey hierarchy, while with the women, it seemed like the ones with the larger breasts seemed to get by a little easier. These were the first breasts I had ever seen full on, except if you count the aborigine breasts in National Geographic, which were long vinelike breasts. The Sea Monkey breasts were, I guess the word is, pert. I felt odd looking at them and wondered if they cared or if they were perhaps “libertines,” which at first seemed to be the case, though I realize now this was because they couldn’t see me very well; when the plastic tank was filled with water, it was reflective on the inside.
I watched their civilization iterate and then burgeon, and wondered if despotism might be the way to go; it seemed to be working for them. At first, they were mainly focused on procreation, something else I had obtained the bulk of my understanding from National Geographic.
The procreation went on for about a week, untrammeled, but then their long-bearded king had some of his lackeys divide the bottom of the tank with little dotted lines like in sitcoms, and after that each Sea Monkey pretty much stayed in its own little square and things calmed down. Sea Monkey women congregated around those with larger squares. The water took on a tint that I’m pretty sure one would say would have to be the result of pee, but I had thrown away the instructions and didn’t know how to clean it without disrupting the ecosystem.
The next day when I woke up, they had built little houses for themselves – no windows but doors. I had mail-ordered X-ray specs (“scientific optical principle really works!”) and could watch them through the walls.
Days passed; someone invented convection, or learned how to control it, to make a self-contained highway cum aqueduct cum mail system. There were large geometric designs carved into the rocks at the bottom of the tank explaining how it worked, as well as many curvilinear animal drawings, for which no one would take credit.
The Sea Monkeys shot information and sometimes themselves through the tank making it look like documentary footage of a pneumatic tubes mailroom. Sea Monkeys poked their heads out their doors expectantly to see what the convection would bring them that day. This was when one male convected up to the surface of the tank (evaporation had worked its way down about a quarter inch), swallowed water, poked his head out and saw me. He immediately dove and reported to the king; I could see them making plans. The next day three of them addressed me (in English, after all): they held onto the edge of the tank. “You!” they all gargle-shouted in unison. They spoke in exclamatory sentences. When they talked, water came out of their mouths and they kept having to go back down and swallow more into their lungs, and then come up again to shout: “Who are you!”
“I made you,” I said, although of course I had only purchased them, but what I meant was, I was an American. “I’ve watched you grow, and build your houses,” I said, “You’ve developed very rapidly.”
“We know!” they said, “We invented English and convection! Do you know about convection! We hope you do!”
“I do know,” I said, although I had only learned about convection the year before in a science fair experiment that I got an A on because Mr. Damrosch got me confused with Noah Altman.
“You know a lot of things! You created us and we are grateful! We want to know what you know!” they said, “We want to be more like you!”
I didn’t want them to be more like me, though, because I was still admiring some of the small, dun, pert Sea Monkey nipples of the women, and there was nothing more unlike me that I could think of than that, and also I couldn’t think of anything good that I had that they didn’t, except maybe my Atari or print media and a bike (a Diamondback), so I said, “You’re pretty much on schedule, inventionwise; actually, you’re doing very well. Keep up the good work.”
“But we have a desire to know!” they all shouted, “We have been procreating and building houses, and eating manna but there must be more to life, we all think! We want to know about the feeling of being disarmed by a first viewing of Casablanca, and picking dewberries from behind a fence you’re not supposed to go behind, and doing your laundry with your girlfriend on a rainy Sunday when you’re in your early twenties! We don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics, and it kind of scares us!”
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know about any of those things either. I only know about procreation because of pictures of aborigines in National Geographic, and while I’m sure I must have had dewberries by this point, I can’t think of what they taste like. They are not that different from boysenberries, I think. The last movie I saw was The Unidentified Flying Oddball,” (which would later be renamed A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court when it was released on video), “and I’m not even 100% sure what manna is. This morning I had Busy Bodies, the brown kind, not the yellow kind. I can flip the score in Atari Pinball, because I know how to nudge without ever tilting, and I play Kaboom so well, it’s like I don’t see individual bombs, I see scrolling-down wallpaper, patterns. I don’t do my own laundry, and I don’t have a girlfriend.” They looked at me like they were about to cry, but whereas with dogs (or my cousins) you can tell what they’re thinking to an extent, who can tell with Sea Monkeys? They dove.
From the back of a Captain America I had purchased two invisible goldfish through the mail (“guaranteed to remain invisible permanently”) that arrived around this time, and on a whim had dumped them in the tank with the Sea Monkeys. I watched the Sea Monkeys carefully, trying to figure out if they could see the fish, even if I couldn’t. Maybe their eyes work differently! But the fish, unfortunately, developed a taste for the Sea Monkeys and caused a biotic crisis.
They swept through the tank, taking great mouthfuls of the populace. The Sea Monkeys looked like they were literally being erased in front of me; you could not see them once they had been swallowed. I could see lots of discussion and fingerpointing among the Sea Monkeys (their main method of debate; it was effective due to the slenderness of their fingers), but eventually they made a kind of coracle and caught the fish, tethering them to the bottom of the tank. After a week, I began to see something that looked like the constellation Pisces in the tank, and I knew that the fish had come down with Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, or Ich. The Sea Monkeys surprised me by inventing vaccination and, when the wealthier ones complained, anesthesia. They used their aqueduct to tell each other about it.
They also used the aqueduct centrifugally to launch little plastic balls filled with water outside of the tank, each large enough to hold one to three Sea Monkeys. I found a few under my bed each with a little Sea Monkey floating upside down inside of it. I would find one and then the next day nothing and then the next day another one. Each little ball was labeled “Artemis”.
Around this time, there seemed to be a lot of debate about tgfowat and it took me a while to figure out that it meant The Great Finless One Without a Trident, or me. “If there is a tgfowat, then why does He allow Ich?” one of them would say, pointing his long finger. Or: “If there is a tgfowat, then how do we reconcile his omniscience with Free Will?” Then another sea monkey would swim him up to the top of the tank and they would look at me and then both make a “Well, that settles that” face.
The next day, the next day, days went by. I lose track. They built water filtration plants, a grotto for some of the larger-breasted lady Sea Monkeys, pyramids (which, what?), and from what I could make out, skipped modernism and went straight to post-modernism. Or rather, their modernism and post-modernism were reversed. Also, they did “public schools” and “private schools” the British way. They ousted the king and formed a democracy and then invented Brinkmanship. I was taking some Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters that had seen better days off of my bookshelf and setting up a tableau of Star Wars figures, and I heard a chorus of throat clearings. It was three Sea Monkeys, it turns out descendants of the three that had spoken to me a few weeks before. One was a female; she looked like Fire With Fire-era Virginia Madsen, I now understand, but I wouldn’t know that for a few more years. She seemed to be their leader; she was wearing Donna Karan. She said (they no longer spoke simultaneously; they no longer seemed as excited), “We’ve invented war and peace and subtext. We have names for things you don’t, like the sound that shoes make when they’re in the dryer and nostalgia for second-hand experiences. We are all closet Francophiles but we also want to be like all those Leftist Jews from the University of Chicago in the ’60s. We are pretty conflicted about the Dreyfus Affair!”
“M’accuse!” said the sea monkey on her right (my left).
“Yes,” I said, “I know it looks like I’m not paying attention, but I am. I’m impressed with your health care plan, and foresee that the one we have in our country will need a major overhaul in about ten or fifteen years.”
“We invented Nostradamus a long time ago, and he concurs. We invented east coast colleges, and the following joke.”
The Sea Monkey on her left, my right, spoke up here: “How many Sea Monkeys does it take to screw in a light bulb?” he said, and when I didn’t answer: “Just two, but the trick is getting them in there.”
The Sea Monkey on her right made a noise like a rimshot. “We have also, you can see,” the leader said, “invented comedians who specialize in sound effects. Carl’s grandfather was a supporting character of several police procedural comedies a few generations back. Carl is thinking now about being a prop comic.” (Carl nodded here, making a noise like a robot nodding.) “Finally,” she said after studying Carl for a second or two, “we have invented a large mythology based on you. Here is a story from the Book of Lassitude.”
Not Carl, but the other one with the Caesar haircut, said, “And many years ago, civilizations ago, tgfowat floated down in his vessel and he said unto all present, ‘Go now, and build giant pyramids for your current king, while I make myself more or less content with lochs and crop circles and Stonehenge and yeti,’ and (lo) the Sea Monkeys present built giant pyramids for their king, over several generations, and many lives were lost in the process, and centuries later, we wondered why they had been built at all, and a few clever ones speculated that it was probably tgfowat who was behind it, since in the olden days he used to appear more often, and so they developed a space program and went into space seeking out He who had told us to build the pyramids in the first place, and when we finally found Him, He said, ‘Noooo, you missed the point..? I had you build the pyramids so you would see the folly of erecting gigantic monuments to one man’s ego, and using that knowledge, would not go to the trouble of developing a space program, itself a monument to the ego of one man.’ Shortly after, Kennedy was shot. Our Kennedy, not your Kennedy.” (Rim shot from Carl here.)
“What?” I said, “I never did any of that.” I didn’t know much about the space program, but above the stacks of magazines about aborigines in my doctor’s office was an autographed photo of John Glenn in uniform (many years later, 400 million Sea Monkeys would accompany him in his trip into space). “I created you, sure, but I just followed the instructions.”
“It’s a parable,” the female Sea Monkey interrupted, stretching out her long fingers to look at her nails, “You don’t take it literally. We’re just explaining why we haven’t gone into space recently. That and your fly trap ate the last four missions. But what we’re here to tell you, actually, is that we finally figured out the second law of thermodynamics, and we’d like to tell you to stop feeding us. We’re the last generation that will have had things better than their parents. It’s all going to end in a great collapse of sediment and dispersal, with the last survivors of the species understanding the point only as there ceases to be a point any more.”
“Look,” I said (I was just saying out loud what I was thinking), “if I don’t feed you, obviously, you’re going to die; I don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics, but when I start to think too big, about, you know, purpose and meaning, I wait a few days.”
“In a few days we’ll be gone,” she said, “We have glimpsed the future and it’s mostly prop comics..?” (Carl nodded here) “And it’s frankly not something we care to deal with; centuries of art and commerce, and what do we have? Continued unfulfilled promises of solar power and flying cars and over in France they’ve mastered the non-contagious yawn; we are so over France (our France, not your France). We’ve reached inbrededness levels heretofore only traversed by Dalmatians and the Amish, and we’ve all either done everything there is to do or have the capacity to read about it. We’ve also discovered print media, by the way. We assume you have too.”
I didn’t say anything and they didn’t say anything and then they sank, and they didn’t stop sinking until they hit the bottom. What should I have done?
I told you I had lost the instructions. What should I have done? I’m asking you, here, now. What do you think I should have done? What I did was I did nothing, but maybe you are a “man of action.” Or a woman. With regard to the joke about the light bulb, when there are too few Sea Monkey males, the females are able to start reproducing asexually. But I stopped feeding them.
I stopped feeding them, and I watched breasts shrivel and stomachs become distended and aqueducts collapse. The beards of the men kept growing at first, as did their fingernails, but then they shriveled up too. Tiny pyramids crumbled and fell like fragile cakes and settled down to form sedimentary coral reefs and Sea Monkey ghost towns.
In the mail a week or so later was the issue of The Avengers where you learn a new potential origin of the Scarlet Witch (“Wanda”) and Quicksilver. It’s an interesting issue, one that resolves about nine plotlines and introduces Bova who is like a cow-woman? It is hard to explain but it reads well, it really does, but the thing I couldn’t stop looking at was the ad toward the back. In small letters at the bottom, the ad said that the picture did not represent Artemia salina. So why had I expected Artemia salina? I had checked the box for the super-rush order (50 cents extra). “A Bowlfull of Happiness.”
“Instant Pets.” It was an instant. Everything is an instant (I would one day learn). Everything will disappoint you. Comic books turn sepia and are sold on eBay. Harold von Braunhut was a member of Aryan Nations.
My Crazy Crab left his shell – I looked in with the X-ray specs (“loads of laughs and fun at parties”) – and the fly trap died because I had successfully rid the five-block area around my house of flies and the manual didn’t offer a backup plan. I waited for the mail to come daily, painfully, for a Boba Fett action figure I had ordered with proofs of purchases from other figures.
I didn’t know it yet, but the one that would eventually arrive in the mail would have the ability to launch a small plastic rocket from his back and would be recalled by Kenner a month later. Rockets! I thought, momentarily slipping into an exclamatory sentence. I made him fly around the room, and I buried him in the sandy area in our backyard (making a treasure map to the site; ten steps past the rain barrel, and left four) and I said to myself then: I will dig him up again later, maybe, many years later, perhaps, many years from now, when he is worth something.