Mr. Bowden was short and stout. He had thick, dark hair that reached awkwardly all the way across the top of his disproportionately large head and would have very nearly lavished his eyes in a dense forest of itself were it not for the two dry and bristly black eyebrows that sat just above them, looking rather like a pair of bushes restraining a sea of vines from his line of vision. Below this he wore a jungle of facial hair that was fastidiously combed in at least eighteen different directions, and below this was a short neck and a broad pair of shoulders from which hung a shamelessly gaudy suit that was equipped with almost every sort of ornamentation imaginable.
He walked confidently—as if he owned the place—making his way from a considerably large hall or building into a small, dusty room, labeled with a sign tentatively resting above the threshold which read “office”. There he found, whether to his surprise or expectation, two skinny gentlemen, one of whom sat with his hands decorously folded on the only desk in the room, and the other of whom sat in a chair, furiously writing away on a small pad of legal paper—which was a curious sight considering the normal lack of lifelessness with which chairs are characteristically portrayed. The man at the desk bore a specious, physiognomical quizzicality, and the man in the laboriously vital chair appeared confused (perhaps because he didn’t understand specious, physiognomical quizzicality, or even the words used to describe it). The man at the desk was probably wondering why he wasn’t also described as a man in a chair, for he seemed to be sitting as well, but perhaps this was merely due to his exceptionally average height. Both men stood upon Mr. Bowden’s entrance, which was difficult to do considering how short that was.
“Good noon to you,” the quizzical one said, extending his hand.
“Good noon,” said the confused one.
“Good noon?” Mr. Bowden asked, confused.
“Good noon,” the confused ones said again.
“What on earth do you mean,” Mr. Bowden exclaimed, “by saying good noon?”
“The same thing as that which is by it meant by you.” Replied the man in his quizzical manner.
“And what is that?” the stalky man of the one in quizzicality inquired, confused as he was.
“Only that it is noon, and this is good.”
“That’s ridiculous! You are never to greet me in this way again!”
“But what, then, are we to say to each other if we should come upon you another day at noon?” asked the other.
“Wait until twelve o’ one, and then greet me like a normal human being—good afternoon.”
Upon this commandment, the room grew oddly silent, making the short man, Mr. Bowden, feel even more uncomfortable. After a formidable passage of idle time, the room had grown so unbearably silent that it was quite sure to lose its balance very soon and come tumbling down in a loud crash had it not been for the quizzical man’s sudden breaking of that silence:
“Good afternoon sir.” Everyone in the room assumed that the minute must have struck. Mr. Bowden rolled his eyes. The quizzical man continued, “Allow me to introduce this man.” He made a gesture to the man.
“Please do.” Mr. Bowden said.
“I’d love to; simply allow me to do so and I shall.” At this, Mr. Bowden realised that he had accidentally been prohibiting the quizzical man from introducing the other man and so he immediately withdrew his prohibition. That done, the quizzical man pulled out a bottle of scotch and some glasses that had been hiding in the desk. “I’ll pour us some drinks before we get started.” He said, putting the glasses on and squinting very intently at the cups as he poured, trying unsuccessfully not to spill.
“I’m Sir. Dr. Pro. Rev. Mr. Its. My. Cat. Master Ellsworth Hal Wilhelm Junior the Third PhD.,” said the man who had not yet been introduced, “but please feel free to call me Duncan.”
“Very well Ellsworth,” Mr. Bowden said, “I’ll feel free to do so.” Upon this exchange the quizzical man ran out of scotch to pour and consequentially decided he must have filled the cups high enough—though they hardly had anything in them.
“Here sirs,” he said, handing the other two gentlemen each a cup, “how about a tall glass of scotch.” Mr. Bowden, somewhat insulted by the obvious slight that the man had made to his height, accepted the offering concessively, small as it was; Duncan did the same, mindful of Mr. Bowden’s shortage.
“Of course you both must know me,” Mr. Bowden said.
“Indeed, we must.” replied the quizzical one.
“And you’ve clearly been expecting me.”
“Oh, have we ever.”
“Oh yes, have we ever?” Duncan added emphatically.
“So since we all know why I’m here,” Mr. Bowden went on, “I suggest we get started right away.” At this he casually sipped from the drop of alcohol in his cup, “Macbeth,” he said, looking at the quizzical one, “—do you mind me calling you Macbeth?”
“I don’t mind.” said the quizzical one, “I’m not mindful of much anything at all, but I’d much prefer you called me by my name.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll just call you Macbeth then, for simplicity sake. You may call me Mr. Bowden,” he took another sip from that drop. “So Macbeth, I propose that you start us off.”
“Very well. I’ll just start us off by asking Duncan here to give the opening words.”
“Certainly.” said Duncan, “The opening words are these: ‘Mr. Bowden, please begin when you feel ready.'”
“Thank you very much, gentlemen,” the gentlemen did as he told them to and thanked themselves. Mr. Bowden continued, “I see you have done a considerable amount already, so why don’t we begin by taking a look at what you have so far. Is that it right there?” He pointed at the legal pad that Duncan, the confused one, had been scribbling on earlier.
“That?” said Macbeth, quizzically, “Oh yes, of course. That’s it!”
“Oh, is it?” said Ellsworth, confused, “Oh is it ever!”
“Very good. Might I read it?” Mr. Bowden asked.
“So be it.” said the confused one, and it did as he told it to and was.
Mr. Bowden looked over the legal pad. The confused man and the quizzical man exchanged looks. “Do you like it?” asked the quizzical man, looking rather confused thanks to the recent exchange.
“Oh do I ever.” Mr. Bowden muttered, browsing the yellow pages intently. Putting away the phone book, he turned to the legal pad and pointed at a particular line, “What does this mean?” he asked Duncan. Duncan stared at the marking quizzically. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and that laboriously vital and confused chair was a notoriously bad hand writer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “Are you able to read this Charles?”
“Of course I am able to read!” said ‘Macbeth’—the confusedly appearing quizzical one—realising that Duncan must be referring to him, “Don’t be absurd! Let me just see here.” He took the legal pad in hand and, after squinting at it for a moment, turned it up side down and said, “Oh, this is simple. It means that we must turn the page for more information.”
“Oh, that’s simple,” said Duncan. “Why couldn’t I think of that!” The two looked at each other quizzically and confusedly for a moment, hoping that Mr. Bowden would buy their little charade.
Charles turned to Mr. Bowden, “Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion before we turn the page?”
“Well,” Mr. Bowden began, “Let me just say that this whole venture is off to exactly the kind of start we should have expected. I am passionately indifferent to the kind of work you two have done so far, and I think that, together, we are going to do an extraordinarily ordinary job on this thing.” Mr. Bowden sold his charade for much cheeper than did Charles and the talking chair.
“So what do you suggest we do next?” Duncan asked.
“Hm,” Mr. Bowden stroked his sharp beard, and then looked at his injured hand in terror as he realised what he had done. Quickly, he produced a comb and brushed the beard back in the nineteen different directions which it had originally been flowing. “Why don’t we begin by getting to know each other a little bit.”
“That sounds like a great idea!” Charles said.
“Indeed, a marvellous example of euphony!” Duncan added.
“Very good.” Mr. Bowden took another sip of his drop of alcohol. “Let’s begin with you, Charles. Um, tell us about yourself.” They all looked at each other awkwardly. Charles couldn’t think of anything to say. To be completely honest, he didn’t actually know anything about himself. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Well…” Charles could feel himself sweating. The salt drops beaded up on the back of his neck and in the deep, dark crevices of his armpits, rolling down his body like little ants crawling back into the ground after a long day of work, drenching him in more description than he had yet been allotted in these pages.
Seeing that Charles was having something of a hard time with this question, Mr. Bowden decided to get a little more specific, “How are you doing today?”
“Oh, I’m pretty good.”
“You’re pretty good? You most certainly are not if that’s the kind of English you use!”
“It’s okay,” Duncan attempted to placate Mr. Bowden’s grammatical pique, “He meant it adverbially.”
“Adverbially?” Charles asked, “How do you mean that?”
“Adverbially.” Duncan replied. “I mean ‘adverbially’ adverbially.”
“He is doing adverbially good?” Mr. Bowden asked.
“No, he is doing ‘good’ in an adverbial sense.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It made perfect sense—and I meant that in a perfect tense.”
“There is no such thing as ‘perfect sense’; it used to be common sense that all language was imperfect.”
“Yes, but Common Sense was responsible for the American revolution. Having learned from our past mistakes, society now ensures that sense is, among people at any rate, quite entirely uncommon.”
This bantering took place rather quickly, so that Charles could scarcely get in a word. Finally, he managed to wedge his way into a slight brake in the conversation:
“Well,” he said, “I’m doing well.”
“Very good.” Mr. Bowden tried to think of another question to ask—something that would help them on their project. Unable to think of anything exceptionally relevant, he asked something of equal relevance to everything else, “Do you have any children?”
“Oh yes.” Replied Charles, panicked and thinking quickly, “Duncan here is my son.”
“I am?” Duncan asked. “I am. Of course I am. I’m his sun, I mean son. I’m his son.”
“Really?” Mr. Bowden marvelled, looking at Duncan, “You’re rather young for your age. How old are you?”
“I’m a year younger than I should be older than I am.”
“Wow. That’s a terribly wonderful age.” They all sipped their drops of alcohol. Mr. Bowden looked around the room. There was a massive painting of a man hanging from the left wall, which led Mr. Bowden to believe that the room must have formerly been a prison where sick-minded artists would come on execution days in order to paint paintings of the convicts which were hanged from the left wall. “Well, if I can’t be of any further assistance, then I think I’ll just get going.” He stood up.
“No, you mustn’t!” Charles pleaded zealously.
“Why not? Um … Why not not?”
“Why not stay?”
“Oh I don’t know. Why should I, why should I not? I might as well leave as stay, but I think I’ll leave because I can.”
“No, you must stay!”
“Because we’re having such a grand time. Aren’t we Duncan?”
“Oh yes, a marvellous time.” Duncan hesitated as he spoke, but seeing Charles’ pleading, he said it nonetheless.
“But we aren’t getting very much work done.” Mr. Bowden stood half way between the door and his chair.
“Oh, we’ll get plenty of work done. Here, I’ll turn the page.” Charles turned the page, “You sit down now—have yourself another drink.”
Mr. Bowden sat and took another sip of his drop. The three of them all sat there a while as Charles scoured the second page of the legal pad. Mr. Bowden noticed the clock ticking.
“Well?” Duncan asked, “Does it have anything written on it or not?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Here, give it to me. I’ll write something.” With Duncan writing something, Mr. Bowden turned to Charles.
“Charles, was this place ever a prison?”
“No, not that I recall. Or if it was, it wasn’t often so. Duncan, do you know of the last time this place was a prison?”
“The last time is yet to come if it never was.”
“But was it?” Mr. Bowden appeared to be growing a bit nervous (a form of growth that only occurs horizontally). He raised his eyebrows, allowing the dense forest of hair to come tumbling down over his eyes like water tearing through a floodgate.
“I think it was.” Duncan began, “or maybe it still is. I’m not sure. Let us say that it is sometimes, but other times it is not.” Mr. Bowden was slightly relieved by this.
“I must say,” he said, “I am slightly relieved by this. But tell me Charles, how far back does your knowledge of the history of this room stretch?”
“To be reasonably honest in my affectation,” Charles began, slightly offended by the slight that Mr. Bowden had obviously made to his lack of flexibility, “I have quite an extensive record associated with this room. Indeed, it is almost criminal how long my record is.”
“But do you remember when this room was constructed?”
“—what about this building, do you remember when it was built?”
“—and how about the plot, do you remember when the rocks that make it up were first formed?”
“—well what? Do you remember it or not?”
“Obviously he does;” Duncan chimed in, “clearly, one cannot remember something ‘well’ without remembering it at all.”
“I don’t think that’s what he meant by ‘well’.”
“Then what did he well mean?”
“I believe he meant well. The ‘well’ was serving as an absolute clause, prefacing an answer to my question.”
“Or, perhaps the ‘well’ was serving as a metaphysical absolute, prefacing the existence of this room.”
“What do you mean that he would have meant by that?”
“I mean simply, that he would have meant that before this room or building or plot existed, there was a well to draw water from—or rather, from which to draw water—which must have existed in order that the builders of the building were able to survive.”
“But is that actually what you think he meant?”
“I certainly can’t be certain, but given that our only evidence is the manner in which the ‘well’ was pronounced and the context in which it was said, I suppose the matter is one of great ambiguity, which creates much room for a wide range of views and inquiries, and that is only further obfuscated by the additional weight of each perspective that our inquiry bestows on it, and which must be rhetorically analysed and thoroughly debated in order to arrive at a sufficiently satisfactory conclusion about the well in question. Now, I suggest that we begin this undertaking by producing a number of hypotheses and performing a series of hypothetical tests in order to merit or demerit each theory. My hypotheses are as follows:—”
“—What I was going to say is: Well,” Charles cut him off, “I suppose this room has been here for much longer than I’ve been alive,” (at this, Duncan was mildly insulted by the obvious mild insult that Charles had made to his age), “but I can at least speak for its prisonhood or lack there of from my birth date onward.”
“That’s very well,” Mr. Bowden sipped his drop, “in all senses of the word.” Duncan was confused by this comment, as it seemed strange to him that Mr. Bowden should say anything relating to a place from which water is drawn at this point in the conversation, but he chose to let it go on the grounds that he was too tired to initiate another experiment.
Mr. Bowden began again, “I suppose I might just as well be going now. I think we all have a clear picture as to what needs to be done before the next time we meet.”
“But you can’t leave now,” Charles pleaded.
“Because we’re making so much progress on the thing.”
“Are we? How do you know? What if there’s way more left to do than you think?”
“Then we could never know that until we’ve done it. So we might as well just keep working in order to find out how much work there is to do.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” Duncan commented.
Charles turned to him, “Indeed, Duncan, why don’t you read to us what you’ve written so far.”
“Certainly,” he cleared his throat, “‘The twenty giraffes wearing bow ties must be stored immediately in the nearest gas station. For details, see the large moose.'”
“Wow,” Charles marvelled, “you’re quite a prolific writer, you’ve entirely filled that other page with strange symbols and obscure words, and now you’ve written an entire coherent, or very nearly coherent, sentence. How do you have so much to write?”
“He’s probably just making stuff up.” Mr. Bowden snuffed.
“You don’t know that, perhaps he’s plagiarising.” Charles spoke excitedly.
“Is that better?”
“Well it’s better than if everything he wrote were random and meaningless.”
“But how can it be meaningful if the words were already planned out by someone else in advance?”
“I would suppose that if the plagiarised authors knew what they were doing, it should be quite full of meaning indeed.”
“But then there’s nothing in it that’s purely Duncanian. What’s the point of copying shakespeare onto a legal pad?” This left Charles pondering a moment. He looked at the legal pad. No where on it did he see the sentence Duncan had read to them. This was probably due to Duncan’s helplessly illegible handwriting. The pad appeared, to Charles, to contain only a considerably large, and very poorly crafted, portrait of a young chicken.
“Perhaps the writers from whom Duncan copies are Duncanian enough. Goodness knows I could have never plagiarised such an obscure sentence as the one Duncan read to us, let alone find it in the endless repertoire of literature that the English language has accumulated throughout the ages.”
“Enough with the age comments!” Duncan finally spoke, “I’ve already told you my age!” It grew awkwardly silent—much to Mr. Bowden’s offence—and everyone seized the opportunity to take a sip of their scotch droplets.
“In any case,” Mr. Bowden began, “I see we’ve made a sensible amount of progress on this thing after all. Maybe we should just stop and call it finished. It seems good enough to me, what with the philosophical rambling and all.” At this point, Charles was beginning to feel a bit confused (even for the quizzical sort of person that he usually is), for he didn’t understand what was particularly philosophical about a young chicken.
“Don’t be absurd!” Duncan objected, “We can’t stop now!”
“Because it’s unethical. We would be passing off as complete something that is clearly incomplete. Just think of the consequences!”
“But perhaps this thing could actually be categorised as completed; how are we to know?”
“It’s quite a dilemma;” Duncan produced a pipe—in much the same manner that Mr. Bowden had produced a comb earlier—and began smoking it (which is a rather odd way to use a musical instrument), “it seems we don’t have enough information to even know which action is most ethical. Ergo, I believe we have arrived, gentlemen, at an opportunity for serious philosophical discourse.” At this, Charles considered consulting the young philosophical chicken, but decided against it after a brief and in-depth philosophical deliberation about the matter.
“We must begin this decision process,” Duncan continued, “by developing a metaphysics of morals. So we must consider a plausible alternative situation to the one we are in now and, in that alternative situation, determine what would be the best course of action and why.” They all thought for a while, sipping their drinks and smoking their pipes.
“Eureka! I’ve got it!” Charles exclaimed, thinking of a hypothetical but plausible situation, “Suppose there are thirteen people standing on the back of a wild kangaroo as it jumps over the summit of Mount Everest in a magnificent acrobatic stunt. While they are in mid air, you remember that earlier that morning, you had received notice from an impatient inpatient that unless he was strapped to a violinist very soon in order to use the instrumentalist’s kid knees (tragically, the patient’s own were broken and he never grew into his adult knees) to clean his bodily fluids and survive his terminal illness for another few days, he would go to the nearest airplane terminal and fly a plane to Kansas, where he would throw a hysterical fit over the matter. The problem is that the path that such a plane would need to take would go directly through the path of this acrobatic performance, and the results could be fatal. You also remember that there is a violinist who said he was up for the task under the condition that he be compensated with the tooth neckless of Mr. Smith, a rather curious gentleman who takes great pleasure in turning his body parts into pieces of jewellery. You know that you can obtain the neckless from Mr. Smith by beating Mr. Jones (a con-artist) in a game of poker and having him do the dirty work as a form of compensation, but you are hesitant to engage in gambling. Is it ethical for you to gamble under these circumstances?”
“I object!” Duncan objected.
“On what grounds?”
“Your situation is absurd.”
“It’s not realistic. You couldn’t beat Mr. Smith in a poker match to save your life, let alone the lives of thirteen perfectly innocent, however unfortunate, acrobats and their kangaroo friend!”
“Very well. You raise a good point. Let us suppose then, for the sake of argument, that I have you there with me to do the gambling part and beat Mr. Jones.”
“I say the answer is no.” Mr. Bowden said, “It is morally impermissible for you to use Duncan to gamble for the tooth neckless. Besides, its unethical to beat Mr. Jones in the first place, or to beat anyone for that matter.”
“I disagree,” Duncan disagreed, “A wise man once said that ethics are a metaphysical construct of the human mind as a normative instance of the incalculable conception of the human experience—”
“—What on earth does that mean?” Charles asked.
“I don’t really know, but it sounds cool. Anyway, acting under that maxim I suppose that it is morally and rationally permissible for you to proceed and use me to gamble for the tooth neckless.”
“But what about the other people waiting for the plane to arrive in Kansas.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise—is it a passenger plane?”
“Of course it is. And there are three children waiting to take it to Kansas to be reunited with their mother; a lady in labor needs to take it to the hospital that is attached to the Kansasian airport; and a pair of philosophers intend to ride it there in order to meet a man for a poker match as a part of a strikingly similar situation to our own.”
“So that’s thirteen acrobats, three children, two philosophers, a mother, a pregnant woman, Mr. Smith, an impatient patient, Mr. Jones, a violinist, and a kangaroo?”
“Hm, this is more difficult than I thought.” They all thought silently for a time. Mr. Bowden noticed a deck of normal playing cards and two jokers that had been sitting in the corner inconspicuously hitherto. This was a somewhat mortifying realisation for him—no one wants to suddenly notice a pair of hideously pallid jokers sitting in the corner smiling and listening in on one’s conversation.
“I’ve got it!” Mr. Bowden broke the silence, “Why don’t you explain the situation to Duncan, since he is the only competent gambler on the premise, and then let him decide what to do.”
“But I already know the situation, why would he explain it to me? Besides, that would just be a way of passing the dilemma off to another moral agent.”
“You have a moral agent?” Mr. Bowden was clearly happy to hear this. “Why don’t we just call him then and ask him what to do?”
“I agree,” Charles agreed, “Let’s just call your agent.”
“No, I don’t have an agent. That’s not what—I don’t think that’s what that means.” Needless to say, they were all rather disappointed to hear this. Everyone sipped their drinking droplets.
“Well anyway, I think I’ll get going now.” Mr. Bowden said.
“But what are we to do about the moral dilemma?” Charles asked.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something. Why don’t you just approach it mathematically.”
“What do you mean by that.”
“I mean use math to solve it.”
“Oh, I see what he means,” Duncan interjected, “Let’s assign each person’s interests in the case a quantitative value of importance and then act proportionately to the greatest values.”
“But what are these values based on?” Charles asked.
At this everyone was silent. The discussion had reached a dead halt, as no one in the room, including Duncan, had any idea what ‘utility’ meant or how it had anything to do with morality. Everyone sipped their droplets.
“Well there you go.” Mr. Bowden began speaking again, “Just do the biggest utility or whatever. And do the same with the thing we’re working on; let’s just make the biggest utility bill we can. And I must say, at least on the part of my own moral agent, he and I have agreed that it is the most utilitious to consider the work here completed. I really must get going.”
“But shouldn’t there be some kind of truth to the matter?” Charles pleaded ingenuously.
“You can’t just decide that a particular course of action is most ethical because you like it the most. And I do not feel that we could any more so decide by vote what is most ethical, because then we would just be doing what the group likes, which cannot objectively be called moral. There must be a difference between acting as one pleases, or even as a group as big as the entire world pleases, and acting morally. Perhaps sitting out in the universe somewhere, watching us, there is a massive, completely objective chicken, like the one Duncan drew there, a philosophical fowl, bigger than this room, this building, or even the plot upon which the building rests.”
“But how could we ever know anything about that? We don’t even remember when this room was built. In fact, I’m having a difficult time even remembering what happened this past noon.”
This brought out the philosopher in Duncan. “Then maybe there’s just no such thing as morals.”
“But if that is so,” Charles asked, “how could we know if it is permissible to say we are finished with our project. Is it true to say we are?”
“There is no truth.”
“Is that true?”
“I don’t know, but it’s fun to say.” They all sipped their droplets. Mr. Bowden peered deep into his glass. He realised that he had been drinking about half of the droplet every time he took a sip.
“I really must be going.” Mr. Bowden said.
“But you haven’t even finished you’re drink.” Charles very nearly taunted him, “It would be rude to leave without finishing your drink. Besides, we haven’t finished what you came here to do.”
At this Mr. Bowden removed his wig. “If I may be perfectly candid with you gentlemen,” he looked them in the eyes, “I can’t say I’m entirely sure what we are trying to do here.”
“What do you mean? We’re working on the project.”
“But what is the project?” They were all silent. Everyone sipped their drops of liquor, once again dividing the quantity of alcohol left in half, but no one was able to finish his drink. Mr. Bowden looked from face to puzzled face; they were all just a group of quizzical and confused men (and jokers and talking chairs). Finally Duncan spoke up.
“I can’t say I really know either.” At this, the charade had ended, and all proceeds were returned. “I suppose that’s the problem with beginning a short story in medias res, or for that matter, walking into an office or some sort of room in the same manner. No one knows what on earth is going on.”
Charles replied, “So what is going on; you know, on earth and all? What are we supposed to do? If there is no big chicken, and all we’re doing is whatever a bunch of people feel like, then that’s just silly. If that’s the case, I think I’ll be leaving; I want no part in such a venture.”