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J.J.Becher, father of phlogiston theory, public domain

When Albert King recorded “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1967, he described a man whose hardships included illiteracy and a penchant for big legged women. If the song’s character had ever met Noel Deign, he would’ve counted his blessings.

Noel was born five years after the recording’s release, but it is impossible to say he was born under a bad sign. Noel was born under no sign. If the astrological charts had been laid out to illuminate the paths and plans for every person on earth, it seemed no divinity took the time or made any effort to slap together such a plan for Noel. Even his name — Noel, which means Christmas, and Deign, which means to do something that one considers beneath one’s dignity — is a nonsensical mashup of traditional festivity and conceit. What does it mean? Nothing, just like Noel Deign.

Noel’s parents met when they were seventeen, and they were married by twenty. They married because they wanted to have sex, and being a devout Catholic, his mother could not fornicate for fear of being roasted on a spit in Hell for eternity. Instead, they gathered all who were dear to them and publicly spoke their vows of faithfulness and love before God and three hundred of their parents’ closest friends, all so Noel’s father, Howard, and Noel’s mother, Virginia, could copulate with the aplomb of those guaranteed entrance into Heaven.

For the honeymoon, Howard chose Harey Haven Resort in the Pocono Mountains, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Philadelphia. Upon arrival, the proprietor took them to their suite which featured a heart-shaped bed, white shag carpeting, and a hot tub that sat atop a five-foot-tall sculpture of a champagne glass. The proprietor lingered far longer than Howard or Virginia felt was necessary and spent an inordinate amount of time fixing the thermostat in the closet. Once he left, the Deigns tore each other’s clothes off and collapsed into a flesh-toned heap on the rotating heart-shaped bed. The duration of this first intercourse could be measured by the time it took Howard to position his erect penis at the opening of his wife’s vagina and the microsecond it took Howard to shudder like a man being electrocuted as his ejaculate traversed his urethra and shot through her small opening. Howard never achieved penetration, yet both he and Virginia insist that it was during that first encounter that she became pregnant. Nine months later, Noel was born, so named because he was born on Christmas Day. The coincidence of Noel’s birthday and that of Jesus, combined with what Noel’s father believed was an immaculate conception because he never broke Virginia’s hymen — thereby impregnating her while still a virgin — planted the seed in Howard’s mind that Noel was in fact the second coming of Christ. The universe reinforced the thought five years later when the FBI raided Harey Haven Resort and discovered the proprietor had been filming newlywed couples for more than ten years, covering the time of the Deigns’ honeymoon. Naturally, God would want to document the second immaculate conception, which explained why he allowed them to be filmed. Such thoughts had earned Noel’s father the high school nickname of “Deign the Insane.”

Noel’s childhood was destined to be an unusual one. His father Howard decided to home school him because he thought himself smarter than any teacher public education could offer. As someone who barely made it through high school himself, Howard’s decision to home school Noel seemed an act tantamount to child abuse. But Howard was determined to “learn his boy all the good stuffs”; and while the state would remove a child from a home where he is physically or sexually abused, they could do nothing when faced with a homeschooling dad who thought viruses enter a person’s nose and work their way through the body until they exit from the big toe. That was Noel’s first science lesson.

Science was Howard’s favorite topic to teach, and had been since he was laid off from the vinyl chloride plant just before Noel’s birth. Virginia kept the family insolvent by working three jobs that included cutting hair, cutting nails — and intentionally cutting herself on occasion — and acting as a counselor on a suicide hotline, which usually ended with the caller giving Virginia words of encouragement and advice.

Howard taught Noel the basics. The four elements were earth, water, air, and fire. Earth and water combine to form mud. Earth and air combine to form dirt. Noel asked what happens when water and fire combine, and Howard said that water beats fire, but that fire beats paper and paper beats rock.

Lessons were a model of efficiency as Howard combined science, religion, and creative writing into one course. Howard told young Noel that the things in the Bible were incorrect, that they had all been sold a plastic grocery bag full of lies. There was no God. All the stories in the Bible were misrepresentations of alien visits that occurred in the distant past. There was no Garden of Eden; aliens mixed their own DNA with primate DNA. Elijah was not carried to Heaven in a flaming chariot, that was an alien abduction. Jesus didn’t die for our sins, he was just some guy who owed the Romans back taxes.

Noel was a sponge and took in all Howard’s teachings. When Howard told Noel that iron rusts because water fills it with self-doubt, he took it as fact. When Howard taught Noel that plants do not die from a lack of sunlight or water, but that they commit suicide so their decaying remains will help the roots of a new generation, Noel was amazed by such self-sacrifice. Father and son built a garden on a shady side of the house and never watered it. They were perplexed when nothing grew until Howard realized they had bought heirloom seeds, and as heirs these seeds must’ve been spoiled rotten, resulting in their abject selfishness.

One of Howard’s favorite scientific principles was soft inheritance, an hypothesis debunked in the Middle Ages that states physiological changes acquired over the life of an organism may be passed to its offspring. Howard used this principle to explain why Noel was weak and sickly, because his pregnancy was unplanned and Howard didn’t have time to get buff before the insemination.

Virginia also contributed to Noel’s education in ways more profound than her husband. One example is how she taught Noel to deal with death. For a child, the death of a pet is often the vehicle by which parents introduce the concept of death and how to handle the accompanying grief; but since Noel was not allowed pets — with the exception of the mixed German Shepherd-Doberman stray he owned for twelve hours before the dog defecated in Howard’s new Lincoln — Virginia’s adventitious opportunity came when Dr. Zhivago aired on network television. In the opening scene of the David Lean classic, a young Yuri Zhivago — a boy the same age as Noel — attends his mother’s funeral. When Virginia looked up from her drink and saw the headstones and dark clothing, she shrieked and pulled Noel’s head into her breast while shouting, “No! Don’t look, Noel! Don’t look at the funeral, oh my God! She’s dead! His mother’s dead!”

When it was time to learn about astronomy, Howard took twelve year-old Noel to the backyard with a junior telescope to look at sunspots. Howard instructed that, similar to humans, sunspots can tell the age of a star. They both stared into the sun through the telescope until their corneas resembled the surface of Mercury. Howard mistook the halos caused by the photokeratitis as angelic visions that shook his faith in the Ancient Aliens theory and drove him back to the Catholic Church, much to the delight of Virginia who by this time was sprinkling crushed valium over her Cheerios. But Noel was devastated by his father’s reversal of faith. How could Howard teach him something for years and then act like it no longer mattered? That indignity provided the gumption Noel needed to embark on his own quest for self-educated truth. He struck out from home one sunny day and did the unthinkable, something that would create a rift between him and his father that would never mend: he filled out a form and became the proud first-time owner of a public library card.

When Noel entered the library during his maiden outing — the first time he stood in any building that contained a lot of books — he was greeted by a large poster of William Faulkner with his much quoted advice, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” The timing was right for such words to have the maximum effect on Noel and to fill him with feelings of hope and urgency. Noel was at a milestone in his life, a time when he had made the decision to cast off what he had learned and to start anew. It was a feeling anyone who has lost faith in religion would recognize, a feeling of deconstruction riddled with fear and uncertainty, but with an excitement that something profound and ultimately good was happening to them. Unfortunately, Noel could not have known that Faulkner was referring to the reading of fiction — the product of human imagination — and in particular how it should be used to hone a fiction writer’s craft. No one mentioned to Noel that when it came to nonfiction, people should not read everything. When reading historical texts or scientific studies, people should go to great pains to avoid the trash, avoid the garbage, because garbage breeds parasites that infect the human mind and make it a host for their progeny. The power of Faulkner’s words inspired Noel greatly, but they could not fill the epistemological hole Noel’s parents had left in his development as a man capable of critical thought. Noel never learned how to learn. By looking at Noel, one could see that if a man is taught truth and falsehood in equal measure, with equal weight, and by virtue of his ignorance is unable to distinguish one from the other, he will emerge a danger to himself and to all around him.

Noel spent the next several months placating his father by feigning interest in his lessons like “How Heat Flows From Cold to Hot in the Summertime,” and then set out for surreptitious jaunts to the chemistry section of what had become his favorite place on earth. There was something that overwhelmed Noel every time he stood before the rows of bookcases that started at the entrance to the second floor and stretched all the way to the back. He stood before the chemistry books and drew long breaths through his nose to enjoy the sweet smell of old paper. Noel would never learn the names of the chemicals that gave the books their fragrance, the volatile organic compounds produced from acid hydrolysis: the benzaldehyde, ethyl hexanaol, and toluene. As he gazed upon the bound paper that contained Newton’s apple and Galileo’s feathers and irons, Noel felt a warm sensation in his groin followed by a build up of pressure and then a release that made his vision blurry and compromised his balance. He recovered against the bookcase and pondered the cause of such a spontaneous loss of control. Noel guessed it was the scent of knowledge combined with his first taste of freedom, and didn’t realize it had more to do with his thirteen year-old body experiencing the metamorphic beginnings of puberty with its thrilling chemical reactions.

Standing alone and surrounded by books, Noel had no idea where to begin, but remembering Faulkner’s words, he figured it didn’t matter where he started since he was going to read everything. Noel reached into a tightly packed bookshelf and retrieved a book at random. The significance of this event was lost on Noel, but there began a pivotal shift for him. Of the hundreds of books the library contained about chemistry, Noel could have selected any instead of the one he picked. He could have pulled From Caveman to Chemist, by Hugh W. Salzberg, an examination of the evolution of chemistry from its Stone Age beginnings through the development of classical theories of molecules and chemical reactions. Had he picked that book, he would have learned about Phlogiston theory within an historical context, and most importantly how it is no longer considered a viable model of nature. He could have also picked The Overthrow of Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775–1789, by James Bryan Conant, which conveniently indicates in the title that Phlogiston theory had been discredited long ago. Instead, Noel picked a book simply titled Phlogiston, by Mowry Dibble, an obscure book published by an even more obscure publisher. The book was the work of a scientific humorist that contained an ironic treatment of Phlogiston as if it had never been discredited and had survived into the modern time. It showed what the world would look like today if humanity had never moved past Phlogiston theory. Dibble’s wit was lost on Noel, who took his exaggerations and the absurdist way in which he presented the fundamentals of the theory as a factual telling. Phlogiston was the first book Noel checked out of the library, having spent months reading in the library to avoid being found out by his father.

It did not take long for Howard to discover the book and demand an explanation. Noel intentionally left the book in plain sight.

“What is this?” Howard yelled, shaking the book at Noel.

“A book.”

“Where did you get it?”

“At the library.”

“What library? There’s no library in this town.”

“Yes there is. It’s a block from our house. It’s been there a long time.”

“Nonsense!” cried his father. “And this book is more nonsense.” Howard read the title aloud, mispronouncing it badly. “Phlogiston? I never heard of it. It’s crap!”

“It’s crap because you haven’t heard of it?”

“It’s just crap.” Howard opened a window and threw the book out of it. He and Noel were on the first floor, so it landed on top of an azalea bush, and Noel easily retrieved it.

Howard did not seem to know or care that his outburst and irrational demands would have the opposite of the intended effect on Noel. He forgot his Frankenstein, not that he ever read it, and how young Victor reacted when his father called Cornelius Agrippa’s work “sad trash.” Like Frankenstein, Noel’s fascination with the taboo science increased with greater warnings against it, and he read about phlogiston more avidly than before.

Noel learned that Phlogiston was a 17th century attempt to explain the process of combustion. Noel knew nothing of combustion, not even that it was the science behind the automobile engine or gas grills, so he would first have to learn the fundamentals of reaction chemistry, which he never did. He learned the history of the Phlogiston Theory, how water, earth, fire, and air — the four known elements of classical theory described by Aristotle and taught by homeschooler Howard Deign — could be re-categorized as moist, dry, hot and cold, which had nothing to do with anything. Rather than understand fire within a modern context, as a complex mixture of ionized carbon particles, water vapor, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen that emits heat, it was considered one substance, and the process of combustion, or burning, was seen as the decomposition of it.

The theory resonated with Noel who had been wondering why his penis felt so tingly and hot, and always did so just prior to what he could only describe as a great release of pressure. Could his penis contain great quantities of phlogiston? The theory could also explain why the girls in his neighborhood seemed aloof while he couldn’t take his mind off them. Did the female vagina contain low quantities of phlogiston or none whatsoever? If that were the case, what would happen if the high-phlogiston penis and the low-phlogiston vagina came into contact? The thought alone made Noel release large quantities of phlogiston in his underwear at night.

With these observations, Noel began what would become his life’s masterwork, Men Have Phlogiston, Women Don’t.

The tragedy of Noel Deign is that he was not a dumb man. He was born with above average intelligence and an insatiable curiosity about the world. Noel was simply born to the wrong parents, ones who filled him with suspicion, fear, and insecurity, and taught him worse than nothing: they taught him all the wrong things. They taught him the way the world isn’t.

Noel would not publish his work for another thirty years, and it would have been better for everyone had he burned it and released all of its imaginary phlogiston then and there. Noel’s theory, that the complex differences between men and women could be explained by evoking a debunked 17th century theory about chemistry, was garbage in every sense of the word. His thesis was based upon circumstantial evidence he obtained third hand because, as Noel himself would admit, he could write everything he knew about women on one side of a piece of toilet paper. He also created his theory in a vacuum, and did not site any references from chemistry, biology, or psychology published in the last three hundred years. There were times Noel almost stopped writing, as if he could finally see what everyone but the author himself could see; but because he first developed his theory during a time of great personal discovery — his maturation and departure from childhood, not the least of which included the chemical and biological changes taking place within him that caused feelings of intense eroticism — he became bonded to his theory more strongly than the 124 kcal/mol carbon-fluorine bond, not that Noel would ever learn what that means. He associated his pseudoscience with the real magic of adolescence and all of its firsts: the first time he noticed the budding breasts of his female neighbors, his first erection, his first involuntary orgasm, his first all-weekend masturbate-a-thon that left him humping throw pillows in the living room. All his passions were so tightly-coupled that he could never disassociate them from one another or from the mangled mass of faith and reason his father had helped him create. For these reasons, Noel could not see his work objectively, and even when faced with irrefutable evidence that he was totally wrong and that his work was meaningless, he couldn’t let it go.

The Library Book Incident brought an end to any semblance of love that existed in Noel and Howard’s relationship. Noel would always think of Howard as a lowbrow, and Howard would think of Noel as an ungrateful, spoiled child who didn’t know good learning even when he repeatedly beat him over the head with it.

A year later, Virginia tried to help the only way she knew how. She drank half a fifth of Smirnoff and called the first and last Deign Family meeting, to be held at 6:32 pm because those numbers held some significance, she was sure of it. When Howard and Noel walked the ten feet from wherever they had been and into the living room, she gave a short, tearful plea filled with Hallmark platitudes and drunken blubbering, and put a cassette tape into her Sony component stereo system. She hit PLAY and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens came out of the speakers as Virginia sobbed into her drink. Howard stared out the window watching grass grow while wondering how it was able to do so in direct sunlight, and Noel wrestled down another useless erection. At the end of the song Virginia said, “See?” and then stared at them with her raccoon eyes before rising and staggering to her bedroom where she remained for the rest of the night.

Noel never forgave Howard for his actions, and there was no time for father and son to repair the damage. One month after the delivery of Noel’s SAT scores, Howard found out that he had liver cancer along with twenty other men who used to work in the vinyl chloride plant. Two months after that, Virginia was diagnosed with cirrhosis and liver cancer. Noel’s parents died within a week of each other the following year. Virginia went first, and Howard insisted with his dying breath that he passed on his liver cancer to her during intercourse.

Neither Virginia nor Howard had any life insurance, and the house had been remortgaged so many times the equity left in it had deflated like a balloon put into the freezer. Noel had to leave his parents home at the age of twenty and set out on his own for the first time. He did not spend much time thinking of what might have been. His parents were gone and perhaps that was for the best. He thought back to his father’s theory about plant suicide, the ones that die and decompose onto the roots of the younger plants to ensure their survival. Perhaps that’s what his parents had done, sacrificed themselves so he would not be burdened by them, so they would not impede his development any more than they already had.

AFTER THE DEATH OF his parents, Noel Deign’s first task was to get an apartment, which he found above a newly opened deli on the main street of his home town. A sign over the entrance threshold read:

’Tis moral sin an Onion to devour,
Each clove of garlic hath a sacred power

Above the deli counter hung another sign:

Onion skins very thin,
Mild winter coming in.
Onion skins very tough,
Coming winter very rough.

The deli was owned by an immigrant family of indeterminate ethnicity. The apartment was small and clean, but the smells of fresh paint and new carpeting could not mask the pervasive odors of onions and garlic. They seeped from the walls and invaded Noel’s clothing and thoughts as if they draped his bedroom with their satin skins. In a dream, he viewed the earth from space and it looked like an onion. He held it in his hand. The skin was so thick he could not peel it. He wanted to peel it because he had to expose the fleshy layers to find out what made it sting so much and burn his eyes. Exasperated, he bit into the skin and tore out a chunk. He chewed the onion to bits and swallowed it, but immediately vomited it into empty of space. Noel looked at the world with a large bite out of it and decided he liked it that way. It looked too perfect before. Now it resembled him, broken and incomplete with a large piece missing.

Noel discovered pornography and started on a path to becoming an aficionado. This led to his main order of business: hiring prostitutes to make with the phlogiston exchange. He had grown tired of waiting on these stupid girls who should have jumped at the chance to participate in his phlogiston experiment, at least for the sake of groundbreaking scientific research. Finding a prostitute was remarkably easy — they advertised in the back of a free newspaper that filled the kiosk in front of the deli. With the stealth of an extra from the reject line of Get Smart, he backed up to the kiosk with his hands behind his back and removed a copy. Even before he reached the security of his apartment, the phlogiston ached for release. He spread the paper out on the plywood supported by a milk crate that he used as a coffee table and read the ads out loud. They were written in some kind of code, using symbols he didn’t understand: m4w, w4m, m4t, BiWM, SAF, LTR, Sub, Dom, strap-on, fisting, ABR/ANR, golden shower, bukkake, BDSM, fresh off boat, yellow fever. They all sounded exotic to Noel, so intriguing. In the end he picked one the way he had picked his first and only book about Phlogiston, which was by random.

A woman speaking broken English answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“I want someone with a vagina and breasts,” said Noel.

“What?”

“Vagina and breasts. It’s very important.”

It took some time, but eventually the woman explained that all her girls had both vaginas and breasts.

“Send one, please. It’s for science. Make sure she’s pretty.”

Noel gave her his address and then waited with a growing sense of unease.

An hour later there was a knock on Noel’s door. The sound alone triggered an intense orgasm. A flushed and chagrined Noel barked, “You’ll have to come back another day.” The response was another knock, but softer. “Go away!” he said.

Noel went into his bedroom space — his whole apartment was one room — and changed his pants and underwear while cursing himself with the only banal, G-rated swear words he knew. He sat down on his lawn chair and turned on the 10 inch TV someone gave him for free at a yard sale. As he tried to relax, he heard another knock at the door, so faint he thought it was by a cockroach, of which there were plenty. He rose and unlocked the deadbolt and pulled the door open. Through the crack he saw a perfectly androgynous East Asian person who must have been standing there for at least a half hour.

He or she had short, cropped black hair and wore an oversized faux-leather jacket, also black, and black jeans that were two sizes too big. He or she stood in Air Jordan sneakers that looked like they had been hanging from a telephone wire until recently, and he or she had a distinctly male gait when he or she moved. His or her face was more feminine: pale skin that was smooth but for ancient acne scars drawn tightly over high cheekbones that tapered into a jaw so sharp it could cut glass. His or her large, almond-shaped eyes reminded Noel of the Grey Aliens his father spoke of during his Ancient Aliens lessons. Had he been thinking clearly, he never would have let him or her in the apartment, but with the end of his quest within reach, he was overcome by the thought of its fulfillment.

He or she reached into his or her pocket and handed Noel a piece of paper on which “$100” was written.

“I didn’t think it’d be that much,” he said.

With no common language, it took some time before Noel came to understand that there was a very large, increasingly agitated man waiting for him or her downstairs in a car with tinted windows.

Noel gave him or her the money, which was all of the disposable income he had, and he or she took his or her clothes off hastily, functionally, like someone getting ready for bed with no enticements, no tease, no hint of sexuality. He or she walked toward Noel and stood in front of him as he or she took off his or her last piece of clothing. He or she forcefully pulled down his or her panties and Noel winced, half-expecting to receive an uppercut to the jaw from a penis, but there was none. Noel was face to face with his first honest to goodness vagina. Standing before him was a real woman with really small breasts, dark areoles, and nipples that looked like they belonged on baby bottles. The smooth skin on her body enticed him to touch it anywhere he wanted. He put his hand on her knee and ran it up her thigh. His hand glided over her body as if she were covered in satin, like an onion skin, but very smooth. The hair on Noel’s arms raised as at the thought that he could do anything he wanted because he had paid for her, but he soon discovered there were rules.

She took out a condom from her pocket and unwrapped it and handed it to Noel, who immediately saw the dire implications. With such a barrier, there could be no phlogiston exchange. Without a phlogiston exchange, there could be no scientific discovery. That would ruin everything.

Noel immediately saw a way around the problem by tearing a small hole in the tip of the condom with is fingernail. He rolled it onto himself with the deft handling of a man who did not possess thumbs. He rolled it halfway down and considered that good enough. The woman walked to Noel’s bed and laid herself down on her back. She spread her legs, put her forearms behind her knees, and pulled them to her chest. In his haste, Noel ran to the bed but tripped and fell before he reached it. She giggled slightly before repainting a stony countenance. Noel artlessly tried to insert his penis into her, but after half a dozen failed attempts, she reached down and did it for him. Wide-eyed with fear, he thrust himself into her twice and then exploded, looking like a man doing the Funky Chicken at a low budget wedding. He then collapsed onto her, panting heavily and putting his full weight onto her chest. She struggled to breathe and to get out from under him, and managed to roll him to one side. Noel lay on his back with an other-worldly stare, like he could see through the ceiling and into the heavens. She rose from the bed and looked down at his deflating penis and noticed that the condom looked empty. Without a word, she removed the condom and held it up. She hastened to the kitchen sink and ran water through it. It poured straight through without the slightest hint of obstruction. The condom slipped through her hand and fell to the floor. She followed it as she knelt on the floor with her face in her hands and her body heaving with sobs. Noel saw Phlogiston drip from her and he smiled.

Hard pounding on the door broke her soft despair and the woman stood up with the haste of the mortally afraid. She dressed quickly and was out the door before Noel could conduct any other experiments, not that he had planned to do anything further.

Noel lay on his bed later that night and smiled to himself. The experiment was a tremendous success and equally thrilling. He mused what a wonderful thing it is to love your work. From that point forward, things would change for twenty-one year-old Noel. As unlucky as his childhood and teenage years had been, a stroke of serendipity lay in store for him at the start of his twenties. It would be centered around something that had been with Noel all of his life, but to which he had never given any thought. Noel had a rich voice that was perfect for radio.

A voice for radio meant a career in radio. A career in radio, meant an audience. An audience meant an audience for his Phlogiston theory. Those who believed his Phlogiston theory believed that women were the cause of men’s problems. Men who believed women were the cause of men’s problems tended to vote conservatively. Men who tended to vote conservatively attracted the attention of conservative politicians. Conservative politicians became grateful for Noel Deign and his Deign Nation radio show. Conservative politicians who were grateful to Noel Deign showed their gratitude by swearing him in as the thirteen Secretary of Education.

Many people looked at Noel Deign, the new Secretary of Education and his lack of basic credentials, and openly wondered how this could happen. This is how it happened. As mentioned before, Noel was not a dumb man. He was not an evil man or an apathetic one. He did not mean to destroy the earth and male and female relations with his Phlogiston theory. The problem with Noel is that he never learned how to learn.

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