"No other animal gathers clutter around it like us," said Mark. We were in his backyard, sipping beers and gazing into the fire pit.
"We're not animals," said Barb, Mark's wife. She was scraping burnt steak juice off the grill.
"Yeah, we are," said Mark in a low voice.
"You mean, like we're messy? Like shit in the place we sleep type stuff?" Rory took a swig from his beer. He was a little past drunk.
"Nah, no," said Mark. "I'm referring to all the ephemera we purchase. Our trips to Big-Mart to buy crap we don't really need, from countries we have a trade deficit with." I wondered if this was going to get political. I always felt at sea when conversations drifted there--Carrie my girlfriend of a good decade was an expert at civil debate in iffy topics, but she was inside watching Tangled with Mark's kids on their plasma TV. I realized then that we were having a genuine old-fashioned menfolk after-dinner conversation, and felt a snare of guilt.
"Whadya mean then?" asked Rory.
"Think about it. What do we have that other animals don't? What makes us unique?"
"Language," said Rory.
"No, no," said Mark.
"Dolphins, birds, other apes with sign-language...whales," I said.
"Right, it's not language," said Mark.
"Why's this suddenly a guessing game?" asked Rory.
"It's not thumbs, is it?" I asked.
"No, not thumbs," said Mark.
"I'm gettin' another beer," said Rory, sighing deeply and getting up so he could open the lid of the cooler he was sitting on.
"Culture?" I asked. Rory rustled in the slushy ice an retrieved three cans. He passed them to Mark and me.
"Nope. But you're getting closer."
"I dunno," I said, "oh, that mirror thing? What's it called--"
"Empathy, I think you're referring to," said Mark.
"Yeah, where you can recognize self from other, and put yourself in the shoes of someone else," I said.
"Yeah, not that. Dolphins have it too anyway."
"Dolphins have mirrors?" asked Rory.
"I dunno, really. I give up," I said.
"We can imagine the future," said Mark with a big grin on his face. He popped the top on his new can of beer and took a swallow.
"What does that have to do with clutter?" I asked.
"We know from a very early age that we'll die sooner or later. We shove it in the back of minds, where it incubates and germinates and spreads little tendrils of fear and doubt. We never really feel secure, at least not most of us. Monks and nuns that take that vow of poverty, that fear and doubt is their currency in life--they think about the vulnerability and fallibility of us humans every waking day. They face the fear that binds us most, and they can live without clutter."
"That's deep man," said Rory. He got up again and headed for the fence.
"I don't know that that necessarily follows--"
"Don't you dare piss on my sunflowers!" yelled Barb. She shook the grill scraper tool at him. "Go inside and use the toilet like a civilized person!"
"Fine, all right," said Rory. He wheeled about and rolled his eyes in my direction before opening the sliding glass doors. Sounds of fun and children laughing leaked out. I wanted to join them, but it would be rude to leave Mark in the middle of his diatribe.
"So I'm not a monk or a nun, and maybe that's not what's happening there, but my main thesis here is strong, if you think about it."
"We're afraid of dying so we buy junk?"
"Yeah, essential. We can put a roof over our head, we can secure food and water, we can get health insurance and life insurance and dog insurance--that's a whole other deep psychological well there--"
"I don't think there's such thing as--"
"The point is, when we gather basic resources, it does extend our lifespan. But no amount of crap will extend it to infinity. Which is what we really crave, deep down."
"But who would want to live forever? That would be unimaginably boring."
"Billions of people do. It's part of the foundation of most of the major religions. Either you die and go to heaven or hell, or worse purgatory, or you die and get reincarnated. The people who genuinely believe and crave to die and just not be, are in the vast minority. Therefore, on the whole, that desire is deep, and it's a part of us." He sat back to analyze my reaction. I gazed into the fire.
"But culture solves that in part," I said. "We can leave a record of who we were and what we did and why we mattered."
"It doesn't really solve it," said Mark, "not the way we crave it." He took another swallow. "It's not that we want to be there at the end of the Universe, but that we want each moment of our lives to stretch to infinity. We want to live deeply. And we can't."
I thought this last bit was nonsense.
"What we need to do," he continued, "is to evolve ourselves, so we can experience those moments as infinite."
"What?" I asked. "We would never move through time!" I stood up a bit frustrated. I opened the cooler and fished out a handful of sorry looking ice cubes and then lined them up on the metal edge of the fire pit to watch how fast they melted. Mark waited for me to sit down.
"We still would. Everything does. Mostly. But it's the perception of time that changes, not the moments, and not really even us, by much."
"Okay," I said. I plucked some grass and chucked it into the fire. It burned up instantly.
"You're incredulous," said Mark.
"No offense, but it just seems like a pointless discussion. Fun sorta, but pointless."
"I see," said Mark. He slumped down a bit further in his chair so he could reach his front pocket easily. He took out a small case and opened it. It was filled with what looked like mints.
"Do I have bad breathe?" I asked. I breathed on my palm and sniffed my breath.
"No," said Mark. "Take one."
"What is it?"
"Oh, are you giving him the--" said Barb.
"Yes," said Mark.
"Oh it's good stuff," said Barb. Her bangs were wet and stuck to her forehead from the exertion of getting the grill clean. She wiped her forehead and smiled at me.
"So, what is this exactly?" I asked, picking out one of the pills and examining it. It was white and dusty and unmarked. "It's not ecstasy, is it?"
"No, nothing like that," said Mark.
"It's not harmful at all," said Barb. "Doesn't last long though, but at least it's not addictive. I whipped it up in the lab. Been working on the formula for ages."
"What does it do?" I asked.
"It--" started Barb.
"Let him experience it for himself," said Mark. I looked at the pill intently, as if I could strap it to a chair and interrogate it to find out what it's secrets were.
"I'm having flashbacks of drug prevention school assemblies from my childhood," I said.
"You don't have to take it," said Mark nonchalantly.
"That's the worst peer pressure!" I said.
"You know it," said Mark.
"I'm type-O negative, if I end up in the hospital," I said, then I popped the pill in my mouth and swallowed. "Oh, was I supposed to chew it up?"
"Doesn't matter," said Barb. "You should sit back in your seat for the first time."
"How long does it take?"
"Any moment now," said Mark. I waited, and counted to twenty.
"You're just messing with me--" Then it hit. Oh holy hell and Mother Teresa it hit. The moment expanded to infinity. I could see every blade of grass. I could see and feel and smell and be inside the fire. I felt the wetness and cold of the ice in the cooler. I could feel the residual black heat from the coals on the grill. I could touch the rough charred bark of the wood in the fire pit. I could feel all the skin of Barb and Mark, and it was shockingly intimate and then I was inside their head, seeing and hearing and feeling their thoughts, simultaneously. I could feel the hardness of the glass doors, and the soft warmth of the furniture, and the static inside each of the plasma cells of the TV. I saw Carrie and the kids and felt and were them altogether. Amazingly they were thinking very similar thoughts generated from the scene in the movie they were watching. My mind expanded further, and I felt carpet on the floor, and the grains of dirt embedded in the cords of yarn, and the cushion underneath, and the cement under that. I found Rory in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, asleep. There was water dripping from the tap, and I was that and this sink too.
Then the moment moved on, and I shrank back into myself.
"How was it?" asked Barb.
"Well?" asked Mark.
"That shit is dangerous," I said.
"Yeah, it is," said Barb, grinning. "But I got the patent pending."
"We're going to be filthy rich," said Mark. I started laughing. I laughed until I got dizzy. Barb and Mark looked miffed.
"Why's that funny?" asked Barb.
"Because then you'll be able to buy all the clutter you want!" I laughed again, uncontrollably. The conversation was muted for the rest of the evening, and we all eventually went inside to watch the end of the movie.