Ted Perrywinkle looks in his fish bowl and frowns. Phred, his little red and green lower Alerian sardine, is floating upside down. Ted uses the fish net to snag the sardine and carries it over to the bathroom and flushes it down the Royal throne. Then, while Ted sits on his couch and reads the latest copy of the New York Times, Phred the sardine struggles desperately against the swirling vortex that is sucking him down towards the abyss.
“The price of stock for Transylvanian chocolate flavored toothpicks increased again,” mumbles Ted, even as Phred swims desperately through the myriad of drain pipes. Speaking of pipes, Ted reaches for his favorite billiard pipe and places it in his mouth. He picks up a match, lights it, and inhales. The pipe, however, fails to ignite. Ted repeats the maneuver. Still without success. He lights a third match. A fourth. Grumbling, he looks at the pipe. It has no tobacco in it.
Phred, meanwhile, bumps his head several times against piping and twists and turns his way down the plumbing, searching frantically for some kind of escape route.
Ted carefully and meticulously opens a tobacco pouch and then places some tobacco into his pipe. He sighs, then lights another match. He inhales and the pipe ignites. He triumphantly aims smoke rings over the mantelpiece, upon which are countless shiny medallions and awards with his name etched into them. TOOTHPICK SALESMAN OF THE YEAR reads one medallion, which he is particularly proud of.
Phred is gasping his last breath.
What Ted Perrywinkle would have known if he had read the latest edition of The Idiot’s Guide to Caring For Lower Alerian Sardines, was that these curious marine creatures have a habit of floating upside down to attract a mate. Also, that killing these gentle creatures, even inadvertently as in this case, can have serious untold consequences in the life of the one guilty of this heinous crime and, by extension, the entire universe.
In order to grasp the full significance of Ted Perrywinkle’s ignorance concerning lower Alerian sardines, we must consider an era many eons ago, when a belief gradually began to form in some of the greatest minds in the world. This belief was that there is One Ultimate Truth which forms the basis of our physical and mental universe. Not surprisingly, exactly what this Ultimate Truth entails or how to arrive at it was the cause of endless controversy. Indeed, despite thousands of years of mind numbing lectures, debates, manuscripts and counter-manuscripts, philosophers, theologians and cockroach scientists had only been able to come to agreement on one fundamental principle: trying to get a seat on the London subway at rush hour is pointless.
Shortly following the Second Coming, which turned out to be merely a publicity stunt conspired by an unscrupulous sect of right-wing fundamentalist Neo-Platonists, which was designed to increase church attendance and combat pre-Victorian attitudes concerning excessive waffle consumption on Fridays, the earth's scientific and intellectual elites finally agreed to put aside their differences and do something useful for a change. The idea was to direct all their combined energies towards uncovering the Ultimate Truth which would allow us to understand the universe that we reluctantly are forced to dwell in, and perhaps explain to us at last why in heavens name we exist on this planet and not, say, inside some space-ridden asteroid floating inside the Horsehead Nebula.
The Big Breakthrough occurred when a young aspiring computer scientist inadvertently, and some say intentionally, programmed his SOCRATES 5000 supermatrix computer to psychoanalyze the relationship between pi and a common paper clip. Not surprisingly, the SOCRATES 5000 soon tired of this task and began pondering the Ultimate Truth, which it miraculously was able to summarize, in 500 to the power of -10 billion megabytes of data, which is approximately, although not exactly, 10 to the power of -201 times more data than can be processed by a human brain in 10 420.5 lifetimes. After decades of mind-boggling programming and reprogramming, SOCRATES’ data was reduced to 500 million super megabytes. Following a tremendous effort unprecedented in history, during which programmers worldwide worked round-the-clock, SOCRATES’ data was reduced to 7000 megabytes. Not surprisingly, this effort has often been intimately linked to the fact that, in this period of time, seventy-five new coffee plantations and valium factories reaped profits almost equaling the GNP of several Third World nations and seventy-two Parisian snail conglomerates.
Through an extraordinary coincidence that no one since has been able to explain, so extraordinary that the Right Honorable Sir John Shlockenstein V, founding President of Citizens For the Emancipation of Cockroaches, nearly lost his lunch when he learned of it, SOCRATES’ data magically transformed itself into words, perfect Victorian English, no less.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the end of their troubles. For instance, some scientists unsuccessfully attempted to translate the Victorian English into Homeric Greek, Spanish, and Mesopotamian Swahili, until a reliable source revealed that no such language was ever spoken in Mesopotamia, or, indeed, was anything ever pondered in this language in any civilization that ever existed in any historical epoch, fictional or non-fictional.
It was only after these and other equally perplexing philosophical and teleological controversies were solved in similar manners that a certain Professor Borkus, utilizing the revolutionary new word crunching techniques developed by the late R. H. Dingo IV, Borkus summed up his theory concerning the Ultimate Truth in a mere ten pages. Then, in an effort unmatched in human and vegetable history, which shattered all previous records for consecutive minutes of deep contemplative thought without a brain short circuit, chlorophyll imbalance, or recourse into lunacy, Professor Borkus had done it. The Ultimate Truth was now summed up by a single, mundane symbolic representation. A word. In honor of the Ultimate Truth’s original formulator, Professor Borkus dubbed it SOCRATES’ WORD. He then carefully enshrined SOCRATES’ WORD in his highly acclaimed and jealously guarded nifty little manuscript, The Ultimate Truth Explained At Last So We Can Stop Bickering About It.
However, before Professor Borkus was able to publish his manuscript and reveal it to the world, he accidentally dropped it in his office, and it was gleefully shredded by Pedro, his beloved Peruvian parrot. In a rage, Borkus sold the parrot to a Bohemian gourmet shop, and the bird was subsequently roasted and consumed the following morning by a British civil servant from Bristol, who had never relished Peruvian parrot or Bohemian gourmet, but had wanted something exotic to gnaw on while observing the curious antics of the upper Alerian sardines that one commonly finds adorning aquariums inside Bohemian restaurants. An interesting, yet unknown and tragically never to be revealed footnote to this story is that Pedro the parrot had overheard SOCRATES’ WORD and was perfectly prepared to share it with anyone wishing to know its content. The fact that he was never able to share SOCRATES’ WORD, however, should not be held as reflecting the general intellectual backwardness of male Peruvian parrots under any circumstances.
This little incident was made more interesting by the fact that immediately following his ruthless condemning of Pedro the parrot to eternal gastronomical exile, Professor Borkus fell gravely ill, likely from the extreme psychological stress of formulating SOCRATES’ WORD, and, despite the heroic efforts of the world’s greatest doctors, nurses, acupuncturists and witch doctors, all but one whom were graduates of the prestigious school of transcendental medicine at the University of Nbongobongo, was never revived.
It had traditionally not been the habit of the more brainy type of people to question any theory, scientific hypotheses or conclusions espoused by the legendary Professor Borkus. However, Borkus in his time had made one incalculable error: befriending a certain absent-minded toothpick salesman whose name happened to be Ted Perrywinkle. The full significance of this error can only be appreciated by acknowledging the fact that Mr. Perrywinkle was the only living soul in the universe that the esteemed Professor had trusted enough to share his most prized formulation: SOCRATES’ WORD. Thus it was that when news of Professor Borkus’ untimely death became known, Ted Perrywinkle instinctively knew what needed to be done. Ted was fully confident about his ability to carry out his mission, because he had memorized SOCRATES’ WORD until it had become a part of the fabric of his being. Unfortunately, when the time came to reveal SOCRATES’ WORD, Ted Perrywinkle committed one of the most unforgivable monstrosities of recorded history: he forgot the word. Despite the frantic efforts of the most highly qualified psychics, hypnotists, therapists, and truth serum experts, Ted still drew a blank.
Coincidentally, the day that the authorities finally concluded that Ted Perrywinkle was lying and likely just trying to get his picture on the cover of Time Life magazine coincided with the peak spawning period of upper Alerian sardines, and not lower Alerian sardines as previously thought. This spawning period is slightly in advance of the notoriously ravenous upper Alerian piranha, which can often be observed schooling in the cool upper Alerian waters.
The following Tuesday, Ted Perrywinkle got into a heated argument with a Buddhist master in Nepal while trying to rest his mind to help himself remember the SOCRATES’ WORD which would no doubt vault him into international stardom and celebrity status which would allow him to sell off all his toothpick stocks and live on a luxury yacht in Bermuda where he could hold wild parties that would provide the paparazzi and tabloid journalists with enough material to last them decades. The conversation with the Buddhist master went something like this:
“How can I find inner peace so I can remember something important, like, say, the Ultimate Truth?” asks Ted Perrywinkle.
“Your heart is not pure, so you are unable to receive such a revelation,” says the Buddhist master, staring down at the bowl of momo soup he is eating.
“What do you mean?” Ted asks, scratching his mustache.” I have meditated and fasted for days in these very mountains, preparing myself for this moment. I am ready to receive your words of wisdom, master.”
“Yet you fall short,” utters the Buddhist master curtly, stroking his long, flowing grey beard..
“I am not short,” snaps Ted.
“No, but there is something about you, ah now I can see it,” says the master, putting down his spoon.
“Your aura is incomplete because you are ashamed about a terrible thing you have done.”
Ted Perrywinkle’s eyes roll. “H-huh?” is all he can muster. .
“In fact,” continues the master, “I suspect that you have committed one of the wickedest acts known to mortals.”
“You must have dispatched an upper Alerian sardine. Did you not?”
Perrywinkle puts his right hand under his chin as if to think for a moment, then his eyes light up. ”Ah! You must mean Phred.”
“Phred? We are talking about an upper Alerian sardine, not your friend, Phred.”
“Phred was my pet sardine’s name,” growls Ted, his face turning crimson.
“So you killed Phred.”
“I never said that!” shouts Ted. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“Oh yes, it is very rude to talk with your mouth full,” says the master, spooning more momo soup into his mouth.
Ted glares at the master. “When are you going to tell me what I want?”
“No! About inner peace!”
“You cannot find inner peace until you repent for what you did to Phred,” says the Buddhist master calmly.
“Phred was dead as a doornail!” screeches Ted.
“Are you certain?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? He was floating upside down.”
“He was in heat,” says the master, swallowing another mouthful of soup.
“My house is air conditioned,” says Ted.
“Air conditioning is very bad for the ozone layer,” says the master.
“Don’t lecture me!”
“Raising you voice is bad for your blood pressure,” adds the master. “Would you like some soup?”
“NO!” roars Ted. “Are there any other Buddhist masters around here that I can talk to?”
“They cannot help you, since you refuse to repent for what you did to Phred,” says the master with finality.
“I don’t see how that stupid sardine has anything to do with me or anything in this universe!” screams Ted.
“Oh, now I can’t help you,” says the master gravely.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Ted enquires.
“Can you swim?” enquires the master.
“I suggest you take swimming lessons and stay in school.”
“I am a horrible swimmer and I graduated from school some time ago, thank you very much.”
“You will understand someday,” says the master.
“During your next reincarnation.”
“In your next life, you will be reincarnated as an upper Alerian sardine. Nothing can prevent this.”
Ted stares at the Buddhist master for a few moments and then shrugs his shoulders. “If you say so…”
“I do not say, I merely state what is to be.”
Ted Perrywinkle grunts and walks away.
Tiring of Nepal and arguing with Buddhist masters, Ted decided to travel to more friendly climes. For that reason, the logical choice became somewhere in the South Pacific.
Most moderately intelligent people would agree that sheep are relatively harmless, docile little creatures. This belief, however, runs in complete contradiction to the fact that Ted Perrywinkle was trampled to death by a deranged flock of sheep fleeing from three IRS tax auditors in dune buggies who happened to be vacationing in New Zealand and thought scattering a flock of sheep was a neat idea.
Ted Perrywinkle, soon to be the newest member of the upper Alerian sardine community, who up until recently had been basking peacefully in the soft Alerian stream bed inside his protective egg, cracked his shell at last and emerged into his new watery world. However, Ted is instantly aware of two disturbing facts. Firstly, he doesn’t know how to swim. Secondly, and much more importantly, he cannot keep pace with his school of upper Alerian sardines. As he falls further and further behind the school, he hears the voice of the Buddhist master in his mind: stay in school. As he is thinking this, he is unaware that another school, consisting of lower Alerian piranha, is lurking in the near vicinity. At that moment, instinct kicks in at last, Ted Perrywinkle is heard to utter “let’s rock and roll!” and he swims gracefully to his awaiting destiny, which unfortunately entailed being gobbled up by a hungry upper Alerian piranha.
In this way, SOCRATES’ WORD was lost, and it was never again found, so that philosophers, theologians and cockroach scientists could continue bickering about it for all millennia. Such is the role of fate, chance, and circumstance in animal and human histories.