Wednesday, 21 January 2009
When I am 93
When I am 93
I will live on the far shore of a lake
Miles and a day from the city.
You won’t feel the dry
Parchment skin of my hands
Or see the folded ruins of my face.
We’ll talk by phone
On signals bounced through space.
The old cords will waver and quaver
And my words will crackle with mirth
In a voice so used to weeping.
Posted by james-hazard
at 11:12 AM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 21 January 2009 11:21 AM PST
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Pete and Emma
I was a small boy when my father told me this story. I don’t know if it’s a folk tale, a modern work of fiction or just something my father heard once when he was a small boy. If the reader knows where it comes from I would certainly like you to enlighten me; but if it remains a mystery I won’t be too unhappy. Wherever it comes from it has always seemed to me to exemplify some basic principal of our emotional makeup, which is that love, no matter where it comes from, has some enduring value. I hope that my own rendition does it justice and that you enjoy it.
On the edge of a town that lay nestled in the crook of a long, lazy, emerald green river, a man named Pete lived in a small, drafty, one room shack with his golden retriever, Emma. He had lived in that ramshackle excuse for a house since the age of fourteen and had never set foot in another state, county or town. Pete didn’t like people; he had spent almost all of his life avoiding them and the people of the town were only too happy to keep him at a safe distance as well. Tall, thin, shriveled, blind in one eye and nearly deaf, he looked like a squinting, scowling, slightly crooked scarecrow cobbled together by a bad tempered farmer intent on scaring away kids and giving crows a heart attack.
The room he lived in was full of warped old wooden furniture scavenged from the dump. Decaying stacks of paperback books swollen from rain water, yellowed newspaper and old Hollywood gossip magazines lined the walls and buried lopsided card tables. Inside dusty cabinets, some with doors, some without, were cans of beans, peaches, sardines and assorted bags of dog food.
Pete made a few dollars a week rummaging through garbage, collecting old broken dolls, radios, pill boxes, tea pots, fishing rods and anything else he could repair and then sell to those who were slightly less poor than himself. At night he’d light a kerosene lamp, feed Emma, eat a little food and then smoke his pipe with whatever tobacco he had managed to scrape together. Before he went to bed he would talk to Emma about everything they had done that day, then stroke her head and scratch behind her ears before going to sleep. They always lay back to back, which kept them both warm and comfortable.
Pete had found Emma one day at what he called his office. She had been placed in a bare cardboard box and left at the dump next to a stack of lumpy mattresses and a dresser with only two legs. Pete ran his hands over the trembling puppy to make sure she hadn’t been hurt, picked her up and then put her under his coat to keep her warm. Instead of working that day he returned to his shack, made a small bed and then set out to buy food suitable for a dog her age. It had never occurred to Pete to do anything but adopt the puppy. He had always felt abandoned himself.
They became an inseparable pair after that first day and could often be seen in the dump, fishing or in town, Emma in his back pack and then, in no time at all, trotting next to Pete.
Those years, which were the happiest in Pete’s life, seemed to pass like leaves dropping from a tree. He was 75, then 80, then 86. One day he awakened feeling unnaturally refreshed. His vision wasn’t cloudy, his right knee, which had been giving him sharp pains, moved like new, and he could hear the birds singing outside. He stood up, stretched, and then remembered something someone had said in a book.
“You get up and don’t feel no aches and pains,” the man in the book had said. “Chances are, you’re dead.”
Pete remembered those words with a chill. He turned around, looked down at the bed and, sure enough, there was his body, stiff as a board and white as the belly of a fish.
The old man shrugged and then, light as a feather, walked out the door of his shack. There before him was a marble staircase that spiraled up and up into the radiant clouds above. Pete thought that since he had nothing better to do he’d climb up those steps to see what was at the top. He wasn’t afraid of being dead; and only hoped that in heaven there would be eggs and grits.
After climbing up those hard stone steps for what seemed like hours he looked down but could no longer see his shack or the town below. When he finally got to the top he saw the most beautiful gate he’d ever seen. Pete had spent his whole life walking past old, broken fences made of wood, barbed wire or bent, rusty iron with NO TRESPASSING! signs on them but this gate was made of glittering gold, pure silver, cream colored pearl and huge, sparkling diamonds. As Pete approached it he noticed a man, sitting high above him, who looked even older than himself.
“I reckon you guard this here gate,” Pete said, wishing he had at least changed his shirt and combed his hair before leaving home.
“Yes sir I do and I’ve been waiting for you, Pete,” the man said. He clasped his hands and then hunched his shoulders, which made the folded wings on his back rise up a little. Gold rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. Except for his rather penetrating black eyes he looked like a kindly grandfather about to tell a story or whittle a doll out of a block of wood.
“Well,” Pete said, scratching his head. “I’m here all right. I don’t know what you’re gonna tell me but whatever it is you might as well say it straight out.”
“Pete,” said the old man, frowning. “I’m afraid I don’t have much good news for you. You see, it doesn’t take a great act of heroism or belief in any particular idea from a book to get into heaven. Folks don’t have to pass a test or list all the good they’ve done. Nope, we don’t demand all that much. You just have to be sociable. Why invite anyone in who isn’t at least sociable? But try as we might up here, we haven’t found a single person that will even miss you. Folks in town thought you were just an old crazy codger who hated everyone. It makes me sad to say this, but we just might have to find some other place for you. I’m truly sorry because I’ve seen worse than you get in but, well, those are the rules.”
“I figured on as much,” Pete said. “I guess I always knowed I was an old crazy codger.”
Still, he looked at the beautiful gate with longing. From where he was he could hear laughter and the music of banjos and fiddles.
“Heaven must be a mighty fine place,” he thought. “Can’t says I blame them if they don’t want the likes of me.”
He was about to turn away and walk back to whatever there was to walk back to when he and the guardian of the gate heard a long, low cry of sorrow. It was the anguished howl of a grieving dog.
“That must be Emma,” Pete said, wiping away a tear. “I guess she just found out I passed on.”
The angel stroked his chin, consulted a book for several minutes, and then cleared his throat.
“You come on back here, Pete,” he said. “According to the rules, all they say is that you have to love and that someone has to love you back. There’s nothing says it can’t be a dog.”
“But what about Emma?” Pete said. “She’s the only friend I ever had and I don’t want her to be by herself.”
“We’ll make sure she gets taken in by a good family, and in no time at all she can join you,” said the angel, who had come down to take Pete by the hand.
“Right now, there’s a concert, and plenty of folks who’d be happy and proud to help make heaven your home.”
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:22 PM PST
Updated: Sunday, 14 December 2008 5:30 PM PST
Sunday, 21 September 2008
Part One: What’s the plot?
“Close your eyes, take two deep breathes, imagine you’re at home, stretched out in bed or on the couch and that you’re drifting off to sleep on a warm, lazy afternoon.”
The young, tall and thin woman named Shelia took the blood-pressure cuff off my arm, took my pulse and then continued to talk.
“Feel the sun on your face, feel how warm and drowsy you are becoming.”
I crossed my legs, hoped no one would say I couldn’t, and then took two deep breathes. A machine on my left whirred softly. I heard someone typing on a keyboard. Shelia smelled like rose petals she had crushed with her fingers.
“I’m putting on the headset now,” she said. “They might feel a bit cold.”
The metal clamps were actually so light that I could hardly feel them. I waited for something to happen but felt nothing.
“You okay, Mister Hobbes?” she said. She leaned directly over my head. I heard another technician on the other side of the room flipping through papers on a clipboard. A door squeaked open and then shut with a faint click. The room was cold as ice but my neck was sweaty. Another set of footsteps came toward me.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Count backwards from ten,” she said.
When all that monkey business was over I took the elevator, stopped at the second floor and then walked over to room number 212, the office of Doctor Jamison. He sat at his desk looking at a computer screen and hardly seemed to know I was there.
“What the hell was that all about?” I said. “That machine supposed to put people to sleep or something?”
The good doctor kept looking at his screen, twiddling with a letter opener, moving his lips slowly as if sounding out letters to himself. He was one of those old guys who like to keep their gray hair long and tied in the back. For some reason guys like that are always skinny and shriveled looking, like those hard sticks of meat that have been stuck in a plastic tube too long.
“Oh it’ll put you to sleep all right,” he said, swiveling toward me. I didn’t like his teeth. They stuck out of his mouth at the wrong angle, like a rat’s.
“It’s just that your panel wasn’t really on.”
“I get it,” I said. “All the lights and gizmos but no juice.”
“That’s it,” he said, grinning with the tips of his rat’s teeth touching his bottom lip.
“So,” I said, leaning back in my chair. There were all kinds of framed credentials, certificates, degrees and awards on the walls, all written in fancy script no one can read. There was a big glass jar on his desk filled with red, yellow and blue jaw breakers. The guy’s a doctor of something or other and he has jaw breakers on his desk, I thought. I wondered what he would look like with his jaw broken and the rest of his head crushed.
“Fill me in on the plot,” I said.
“I wanted you to have an alibi, that’s all,’ he said, lacing his fingers.
“I don’t need an alibi because no one’s gonna know I was anywhere,” I said. “You think Hobbes is my real name? As far as you or anyone else is concerned I’m in Washington State right now and was never here.” Of course, I’ve never been to Washington State in my life but now was not the time to open up and share.
Fact is, the egghead was already starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t like the fact that we were in his office, number one. With all the hardware this place had how was I to know someone wasn’t listening in?
He slid a fat envelope toward me. I picked it up, smacked it against the palm of my other hand and then put it in my pocket.
“You don’t want to count it?” he said.
“You better hope you counted it,” I said.
“It’s what we agreed on,” he said, looking at the jar as if we were talking about goddamn jawbreakers.
“Okay, then,” he said, twiddling with the letter opener again. “Then…I’ve got a plane to catch for a conference in Oakland.”
“And I’ve got a conference to go to myself,” I said.
The silly old bastard actually let out a giggle. Some job this is going to be, I thought as I got up to leave.
“Thank you Mister Hobbes,” he said, turning to look at his screen again.
“Yeah it’s been a hoot,” I said as I went to the door.
Chris was on the bed rubbing some kind of white stone on her feet when I got back to the motel. She didn’t look up when I walked in. The woman lived for three things-her feet, her nails and her hair.
“How was it?” she said.
“A bunch of crap with computers,” I said, sitting down with my back to her on the other side of the bed. The air conditioner was on, sounding like a small plane warming up for takeoff. “The guy’s as nutty as a fruitcake. We gotta go up to Oakland to collect the rest.”
I opened the envelope, flipped through the bills and then pulled out the slip of paper that had the address of the conference and the hotel he’d be staying at.
“Make it quick and clean, Harry,” she said. “This place is making my skin dry.”
I took a long, hot shower, something I always do when I want to think. Newspaper headlines ran through my head. Wife of Prominent Doc Found Dead, a Victim of Apparent Home Invasion Robbery. Yeah, that was the idea, but there was another headline in my head somewhere. I just couldn’t make it out. The complimentary shampoo smelled like coconut. I washed my hair twice, trying to make out the words but they wouldn’t come. Something was wrong with this job, I felt it in my guts. What was that crack about an alibi supposed to mean? Why would he risk someone seeing me in his office?
“Did I ever tell you how much I hate New Jersey?” I said as I dried off.
Chris was using a stick to sandpaper her fingernails. She had the television on but wasn’t watching the screen. It looked like a children’s show about nature was on.
“I think you mentioned it once or twice,” she said.
“I want to go to Canada,” I said, trying to figure out how to turn on the hairdryer.
When I had finished drying my hair and getting dressed I checked my duffle bag to make sure I had everything I would need. This is not my usual job and I was not completely sure of myself; but as I sat and looked at my watch I thought that maybe it was time to expand my professional skills and look for more lucrative opportunities like this. One must diversify in order to survive, I had once heard on a radio talk show. One must also be flexible and willing to adapt, too. If that meant taking on risks, well then, so be it. Anything was better than the usual nine to five. I hadn’t done that in twenty years and I wasn’t about to go back now.
“I want to go and get something to eat,” Chris said. “You want me to wait till you get back or should I just bring you back something?”
“Bring me something back,” I said. “You know what I like. No fries, though. I don’t like them when they’re cold.”
“Okay. I’ll just go across the street to that Burger King. You know what I’ve been thinking about?”
“No,” I said.
“I could become a foot model.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I knew a girl once who did it. Worked for shoe catalogs, just took pictures of her feet. Someone told me once that I have perfect feet. So I could do that. Don’t you think?”
“It’s a way to make a living,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. That way I won’t have to dress up or wax my bikini area.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
I looked at the door and tried to conjure up that other newspaper headline but it refused to materialize. A long time ago I attended a few AA meetings. I never stopped drinking but I did stop getting drunk and I attribute that to getting in touch with a higher power. Maybe that’s what I was doing then, getting in touch with my higher power, waiting to see if it was trying to tell me something. Rational people, I think, shouldn’t be afraid of conversing with mysterious powers. Chris would never understand that and so I never said anything about that to her. I figured that one day I’d do what I usually do. Go to a K-Mart or Wall Mart, tell her to pick up some cosmetics while I looked at exercise equipment, and then get in my car and drive off. It’s good to get out of co-dependent relationships. That’s something else I got from an AA meeting.
At eight thirty I gave Chris a peck on the cheek. She told me to be careful and I said that I would. I got in the car, drove to a gas station that had a pay phone, and then made a phone call.
“Hi,” I said after the woman answered. “Is this Cynthia Jamison?”
“Wallace Feldman from Secure Home Advantage.”
“Hi. I was just calling to confirm your appointment. I should be there in about ten minutes.”
“Let’s see,” I said, trying to sound as if I were reading off an appointment book. “You’re at 22 Archer Way.”
“Third house on the left side of the street,” she said.
“That’s fine,” I said. “See you in a few minutes, then.”
I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. So far so good. I walked back to the car, got in, adjusted my tie and checked my hair, wondering if I looked like a man who worked for a home security business. Well, I thought, close enough. Evidently the good doctor had done a good enough job of convincing his wife that they needed a burglar alarm but, wouldn’t you know it, the man could only come to give them an estimate while he was out of town. Not bad. It could work.
As I drove I concentrated on two things: my driving (a ticket now would mess everything up for sure) and filling my mind with positive thoughts. I had once read a whole book devoted to the science of positive thinking. Egg heads like the doc probably smirk when people talk about positive thinking but I’m a big believer and so far it’s worked. You have to visualize what it is you’re trying to accomplish. This is what athletes, artists and business people do. So I thought about what I was going to do in as much detail as I could. And it worked. It greatly increased my sense of confidence.
I parked in front of the house, unzipped the duffle bag and then took out everything I’d need. A couple of weeks ago I went to a place called T-Shirt World. You’d think that would be a big store but it was only a tiny hole in the wall run by some left-over from the sixties, a balding guy who still braided what hair he had left into a pony tail. I bought a blue cap and a blue windbreaker jacket and had SHA in big gold letters stitched on them. I put them on and then took out the transparent clipboard I had bought at Sandy’s Stationary World. Boy, by the way people name their crappy little businesses you’d think they had egos the size of Jupiter. I put in a few sheets of graft paper on the clipboard, made sure that I had a few nerdy looking pens, calculator and company brochures in my breast pocket (there really is a company called Secure Home Advantage) and then put on a pair of glasses that had clear plastic lenses. It was brought to my attention once-I think by a guy I knew in prison-that women have more trust in a man who wears glasses. Last, I took out the flashlight that I taken apart the day before and filled with lead pipe wrapped in bubble wrap. Time to get this show on the road, I thought.
The porch light turned on as I walked up the front steps. Before I could press the doorbell with the edge of the clipboard a short woman with medium length black hair and a plain face appeared at the metal security door.
“Misses Jamison?” I said.
“Hello,” she said.
“Wallace Feldman from Secure Home Advantage. How are you?”
“I’m okay,” she said, not unlocking, I noticed, the security door.
“I just need to look around for a quick estimate,” I said briskly. “It should only take a few minutes of your time. The estimate is free, as I told your husband, and then the company sends you a quote by mail so you won’t feel pressured into buying anything you don’t want. Can I come in?”
She opened the door, which hadn’t been locked, and then stepped aside. Cynthia Jamison wore a gray sweatshirt with UCLA on it, white short pants that came down to her knees and house slippers with bunnies on them. I liked the slippers and wondered if Chris would want to wear a pair like that. They would make a great Christmas present, I thought.
“You went to UCLA?” I said.
She looked confused for a half second, as if she had forgotten what she had on. I looked around at shelves of leather-bound books, a curio cabinet filled with crystal, a sofa and love seat combo with dark mission style end tables.
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I did my undergraduate work there.”
“I ask because my daughter is there now, studying anthropology. She’s in her third year.”
“Well, I hope she likes it better than I did,” Cynthia Jamison said.
“She gets homesick,” I said. “But other than that she’s fine with it. Uh, let’s see now. You have the front door, and then two back doors, one of them sliding, right? And then there’s an attached garage?”
“That’s right,” she said, standing in the middle of the living room with her arms down at her sides. Her legs were short and stocky and I imagined a body under that sweat shirt that was beginning to look slightly egg shaped. There were red marks around her nose from glasses and it looked as if she were having to squint to keep me in focus. Dumpy, flat footed and nearsighted, she was not going to be a difficult target.
“What I need to do is start at the back of the house,” I said. “Then take a look at the garage, then come back here and we’re done.”
“This way,” she said, starting to pad across the bare wooden floor in her bunny slippers.
The master bedroom was enormous, with one of those king sized beds that you can make go up and down with a remote control. I see them advertised on television all the time. The walls were a soft, light pale green and covered with oil paintings of lakes, mountains and sail boats. I smelled flowers and thought about that girl in the lab who smelled like roses. There were open books and magazines on the bed. I looked at them and saw squiggly numbers and symbols I couldn’t recognize. The carpet was deep and soft, the kind that’s perfect if you don’t have pets.
“If you can open up the sliding glass door,” I said, holding up the flashlight that was beginning to make my arm ache. “So I can take a quick look at the areas around the door, then I can check out the garage.”
She turned around to look at me. Her face was expressionless but there was a tightening around the corners of her mouth, I noticed.
“What do you need to do that for?” she said.
I shrugged, hoping she didn’t know anything about burglar alarms.
“I just need to let the technicians know if there are any places that are not fully secure,” I said. “You can have all the fancy electronic equipment in the world but a latch that doesn’t work, a chipped area around a door, and.”
She didn’t wait for me to finish but turned around and began to unlatch the sliding glass door.
I threw the clipboard on the bed and then quickly stepped behind her, raising the flashlight over my head. She may have seen my reflection in the glass because she started to turn around. It had to be now. I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline and took a deep breath. The angle and amount of force had to be just right or I would only initially wound her and that was not my intent. I wanted her to feel as little as possible. Call me weak or sentimental, but I think that there is far too much suffering in the world and I’ve never had the perverse desire to see people suffer. A bam! and then LIGHTS OUT is what any true professional should strive for. My dad once told me that whatever you do you should try to be the best at it. Maybe my dad, at that instant, was my higher power.
He skipped town before I was in my teens; but who knows?
She went down on her knees. The shock of the blow twisted and rammed my shoulder and spine. I tasted blood in my mouth and guessed that I had bitten my tongue.
“Gug!” she said.
I stood there for a second, vibrating. My heart felt as if would explode. The room danced around me. I tried to breath through lips that felt too big, then knelt down for the final blow.
When it was over I dropped the flashlight and tried to refocus my eyes. There was a strange thudding in my ears as if a padded bell rang in my head. My hands shook so much that it took me what seemed an hour to take the latex gloves from my pocket and then put them on. So much sweat poured down my face that for a moment I was blind.
I felt around the base of her throat but could feel no pulse. For good measure I felt her wrist.
When I heaved myself to my feet I nearly blacked out. Christ, I thought. Maybe this really isn’t my line of work.
I fell back on the bed and put my rubber hands to my face. That’s when I heard the footsteps behind me.
“Is she dead?”
I got up slowly and then turned around.
“Doc…” I said.
“Is she dead?”
“As a doornail,” I said.
He stood in the doorway wearing jeans and a white t-shirt that had the logo of a Las Vegas casino on it. Down at his side, in his right hand, there was a little snub nosed revolver. Of course. Why wouldn’t there be?
It was in the last moments of my life that I saw the headline I had tried so hard to picture.
Professor Kills Intruder
Wife Tragically Killed
And then came the other headline, the one that wouldn’t, of course, be published.
Doc Makes Himself Look Like a Hero and Saves $50,000 on His Hit-Man Fees.
It could work.
I thought, what the hell, and took a lunge for him, felt the top of my head come off, wondered what Chris had got me for dinner, heard a beep beep beep instead of KA-Pow, and
awakened to feel the metal clamps taken off my head.
Too much light. I had to keep my eyes closed.
“He’s out!” Someone screamed.
Hands, a hundred of them, easing me down then lifting me up. I couldn’t get enough air and my heart galloped like a crazed horse.
“Hobbes, you’re out.” Lawrence said.
I went down to the floor and then felt my back on the gurney. A blood pressure cuff squeezed my arm.
“Law…,” I gurgled.
“Don’t try to speak right now,” Doctor Parker said. A hand rubbed alcohol on my shoulder. A needle injected drowsy painkiller into my bloodstream.
I would later be told that I was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Wooorse nidemare,” I babbled just before passing out.
Part Two: A Job to Do
My debriefing lasted a very long time. When I was finally allowed to return to work I sat in front of my computer and slowly tapped out my report. I met with my team several times. Everyone seemed to be very enthusiastic about the results. Doctor Sherry Spiegel told the team that she had been a showgirl in Las Vegas; Doctor Greg Haas reported being an airplane pilot and Doctor Donald Webber said that he had been a reporter on the trail of Big Foot somewhere in the Oregon wilderness. I was the only one who had committed a crime.
My wife Sissy worried about me. She noticed right away that I had lost weight and was having trouble sleeping at night. I told her that I was fine, that the experiment had taken a lot out of me but that I was basically okay.
She didn’t believe me. Neither did I.
I thought about all the lives I could have made in my virtual world and then wondered why I had created the truly scummy, God-awful one I had. The other members of the team hadn’t cured cancer but at least they hadn’t turned into contract killers.
While earning my PhD in psychology I had undergone therapy and the worst revelation about violence that I had made to my counselor, a genial old Gestalt therapist named Burt, was that I had once brought a tomato to pre-school and had hit a boy named Vic in the seat of his pants with it.
Of course, I didn’t think that crime was not in my nature. You don’t study psychology and come away with a sunny picture of the human psyche. But I didn’t steal a watch or forge a check. No, my crime was the big one, and the worst part of it for me was that I had planned and committed it as if it were laundry.
I began getting out of bed at one or two in the morning, wandering the house, feeling the walls and wondering if they were real, if I was real. At odd times during the day I began to experience panic attacks that grew in intensity. In elevators I had trouble breathing, and when anyone walked up behind me I flinched and almost ran away. I could no longer sleep with Sissy and began spending nights on the couch.
Over and over I saw in my mind the back of Cynthia’s head and felt her skull give way from the blow of the flashlight. She was not a fictional character to me, some thing I had dreamt up, but a flesh and blood human being.
One night Sissy crept downstairs in her pajamas to sit next to me on the floor as I lay on the couch. I could tell by the thickness of her voice that she had been crying. This surprised me because my wife is not a woman who cries easily. One night she found our cat Buster on the street in front of our house after a car had killed him. In the morning she told me that she had buried him in the backyard. As I got up, wiping my face, she went downstairs to cook breakfast. On a fishing trip we went on in Florida she snagged her thumb on a hook and even then, as blood ran down her arm, she didn’t shed a single tear or even cry out. After graduating with a PhD in anthropology she spent three years in the jungle as a Peace Corps volunteer; and I always pictured her as a young woman wearing boots and smoking Camels, an intellectual toughened by growing up in Brooklyn in a family of Marines. Tougher than me, a whore who grabbed his PhD in psychology and headed straight into the waiting arms of The Company.
“I think you need help,” she said. “I don’t know everything that’s happening, but I know enough to be scared. Harry, let’s talk. If you can’t talk about what happened then we’ll talk about something else.”
“What do you want me to do,” I said, giggling as fluid filled up my eyes, as my voice cracked. “Make it quick and clean?”
She put her head down and was quiet. The room seemed to fill up with a silent, pulsating energy. I was downstairs, on the couch, my wife beside me. Right? I felt the sides of my head for clamps. No, no, no, I told myself. I know who I am and I know where I am. My heart began to race and I felt wet with perspiration even though the house was cold.
“If you stay here much longer,” I said, hearing my own voice as if it were coming from another part of the room. “Then I’ll have to leave.”
Two days later my wife of twelve years packed up and left to stay with a friend in Seattle. I immediately went to a liquor store, bought two bottles of Scotch and set to work drinking myself into a warm, comfortable coma every night.
One day while I was in the lab Lawrence showed up with two apes from security behind him. He had a weird, somber look on his face, like a funeral home director who has to deal with a hysterical family member.
I was looking at images of myself on a computer screen, drinking cold tomato juice with a twist of lemon and letting two extra-strength pain killers dissolve in my mouth as I fought off a headache that had fallen on my head like a safe. The cerebral transmitters-or clamps, as we called them- were on my head in the video and I looked like a man pleasantly asleep in a dentist’s chair. Then everything changed quickly. I opened my eyes and appeared to look blindly about me as I cried out. The clamps were quickly removed and then, for a moment, I disappeared from the camera’s eye as the team set me down on the gurney. I noticed the time stamp on the bottom of the screen. It read 13 minutes and 27 seconds. The test had been stopped not even half-way through.
“Harry,” Lawrence said, touching my arm as I starred at the screen. “We have to talk in my office. Now.”
“What’s with the goons?” I said. “I’m under arrest or something?”
“Please, don’t make this difficult.”
I shut down my computer and then followed him into his office. He waved me over to a black leather couch and then closed the door. We were completely alone, a rarity; but I felt the presence of the apes outside. They had guns, I knew, and were authorized to use deadly force. The project we were involved with was no joke.
“We have a situation,” he said.
“We found a spook. It’s Reynolds. For the past two years the mother…excuse my French. He downloaded a Trojan horse into his computer. For two years he was sending himself files in encoded e-mails. We have him in custody now but the damage has been done.”
“Reynolds?” I said. “The little bald-headed dweeb we always called Mister Peepers? Who the hell was he working for, Disney?”
“Don’t know yet but we do know the last person he contacted and made a hand off to.”
Lawrence took a deep breath and then rubbed his face. He looked as if he had been up all night. When he got up to walk around his desk he looked like a dazed elephant.
“Harry,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “There’s something I want you to do.”
“As a friend?” I said. “Or does this come with extra pay?”
He removed his hand from his pocket. Even before I could hear in my head the word for what he held every muscle in my body turned to cement. I was paralyzed from the neck down.
Lawrence reached down, opened my hand and then put the jawbreaker into my limp palm.
“The Mexicans have a fascinating expression for this sort of phenomenon. When you are awakening and can’t move they say that the devil is sitting on your chest.”
“The Dev…il,” I said.
“Harry, you’ve become something of a liability. You’re obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re drinking again, can’t work and your wife, Harry. Your wife. When I think about your wife and how much she loves you, Harry, it makes me glad that I’m divorced. Seriously, she loves you so much that she’s willing to take stolen information to a congressional aide in order to expose the project and save you. I don’t know where women like that get their ideas but there it is. This could really throw a monkey wrench into the whole operation and we’ve spent too many years and too much money to let that happen. You know what I mean, Harry. Christ, everyone knows that nuclear weapons have become outdated even if we don’t say that publicly. This weapon can never come to light. Not that it will, of course, but we don’t even want any scandals, any scent that will draw the attention of a reporter.
“Well, Harry, you still with me?”
“Yezz,” I said.
“That’s good because this is the worst part,” he said. “The part I’ll never be able to forgive myself for. Harry, I’m going to give you some instructions.”
“O…hay,” I said.
He turned his back to me.
“I want you to go home. You’ll leave a message on your answering machine. I want you to say, ‘this is Harry. You can leave a message if you want but I probably won’t call back.’ Then you’ll pack for a trip. You’re going to drive to the airport and then fly to Seattle. When you get there you’ll rent a car and then check into the Coast Gateway Hotel. After you check in you’ll get something to eat. When you get back there will be a gun under your pillow. So far so good?”
“Ye…p,” I said.
“You’re going to see your wife. There will be instructions for you about how to arrange that. Listen carefully to what I have to say next. Shoot her once in the head and once in the chest. Next, put the gun into your mouth, point up and then pull the trigger. We have cops working for us so the material temporarily in her possession will be safely retrieved. Everything will be wrapped up quite nicely. A crumbling marriage, alcoholism, murder, suicide. Happens to the best of us, Harry. For what it’s worth I’m goddamn sorry. If it’s any consolation you’ll know that your work-our work-will go on and so will our country.”
“O…day,” I said.
“Goodbye, Harry,” Lawrence said as he sat once more on his desk looking heavy and defeated. “You can move now. Don’t forget to say hi to Sissy.”
Like magic my legs and mouth worked. I stood up.
“I won’t,” I said.
The fact that I was going to shoot my wife and then myself didn’t concern me. A feeling had come over me that I was really at home, stretched out in bed or on the couch and that I was drifting off to sleep on a warm, lazy afternoon. Maybe this was just an interesting show on television. Everything was dreamlike, far away and unreal. I was going to murder my wife and then commit suicide but it didn’t matter. Curiosity was the only spark of emotion left inside of me.
I wanted to know how the show was going to end.
Six hours later I walked into the lobby of the Coast Gateway Hotel. A small, balding Hispanic man wearing a white suit and smiling pleasantly greeted me at the desk.
“Good evening,” he said.
I noticed that he wore a small American flag on his lapel, that his head looked slightly lopsided, and I wondered if he could have sustained fractures on one side of his face while growing up.
“I have a reservation,” I said, setting down my small suitcase. “The name is Hobbes.”
“We have you down for one night,” the man said. “Would you like to pay using the same card?”
“I would,” I said.
“Second floor okay, Mister Hobbes?”
“That would be fine.”
He handed me a receipt that a computer had printed out and a small envelope that contained my electronic key.
“Room number two-twelve,” he said.
The room was dark. I studied the switches next to the bathroom, selected one and then lit faux antique lamps on the two bed-side tables. For almost a minute I studied the large, neatly made bed in front of me as if I couldn’t remember what it was for. I set my nearly empty suitcase down and then walked to the sliding glass door on the other side of the room. It unlatched easily and opened quietly. I stepped onto the small balcony and looked down at the lights below. The air felt clean and cool and I decided to keep the door open.
An overhead fan whirred softly when I turned the light on in the bathroom. On the right side of the sink there were small, slender cakes of soap wrapped in paper and little bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A plastic sign on top of the toilet tank advised quests to please leave used towels in the bathtub. I washed my hands with one of the small, slender cakes of soap I unwrapped under a foamy stream of hot water. When I had dried my hands I walked back into the bedroom and then sat on the edge of the bed.
I starred at the wall and then looked at my watch every few minutes until it was 7:35. It was time to eat. I left the room, walked to the elevator, and then took it down to the restaurant. A young woman with spiky, yellow blonde hair took me to my table. The menu was two pages of what looked like French and American dishes. The waiter who came to my table made me think of a fat, disappointed bus driver. He had wavy black hair, one chin that was small and another that was as large as a bull frog’s, alert blue eyes, a small mouth formed in a perpetual frown and a low, pleasant voice. I told him that all I wanted was a bowel of clam chowder and a cup of coffee.
“Very good,” he said, taking the menu from me.
“Now that I think about it,” I said. “I was wondering if I could have something to go, too. Do you have sandwiches?”
“French dip, yes sir,” the kindly, disappointed bus driver turned waiter said.
“That would be fine,” I said.
“Very good,” he said again, and then waddled off.
When I got back to my room I set the large paper bag containing the sandwich on the table and then walked over to the bed. Nothing looked in the least disturbed. I peeled back the cover and then removed the pillow nearest to me. There was nothing there. I walked around to the other side of the bed and then looked under the other pillow.
Everything seemed to come to a stop when I saw what I had been looking for. It was a Glock 9MM pistol.
I ran my fingers over the barrel, trigger guard and handle and then picked the gun up. Standard issue, The Company’s weapon of choice. At this very moment, I thought, it is being reported as stolen. I set the weapon back down and then picked up the slip of paper that had been under it. For the next fifteen minutes I read and re-read the two single-spaced paragraphs of instructions and then performed the last set of instructions on the page, which was to rip it into small pieces and then flush it down the toilet.
The mattress was firm and I thought, as I opened my cell phone, that I would probably sleep well tonight. I pressed the send button and then scrolled down to Sissy’s new number. A woman I thought I recognized answered.
“It’s Harry,” I said. “Sissy there?”
“I’ll see if she wants to talk,” the woman answered warily, as if I were trying to sell her phony life insurance.
“It’s important,” I said.
I heard people talking in the background, and then my wife’s voice.
“Harry,” she said. She sounded small. I imagined looking down at her as if she were a mile below me.
“I need to see you,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. I’m at a hotel here. They want me to do something I don’t want to do. I need you. I haven’t been able to sleep since you left and I don’t feel all right.”
“Where are you?”
I told her.
“It’s near the airport,” she said. “I know where it is.”
“I want you to know everything,” I said.
“Wait for me in your room,” she said. “Don’t go outside or talk to anyone, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
As soon as I snapped the phone shut I picked the gun up and began removing bullets. I slid it under the bed. For the first time I felt as if I were back in my own body and I knew exactly what had to be done.
At 10:15 I heard a light series of taps. When I opened the door the knob felt cold, hard and real. Sissy stood looking up at me. She had on sunglasses and there was a yellow scarf around her hair. As soon as the door was closed she wrapped her arms around me.
“Everything is all right now,” I said. “Are you hungry? I got you something to eat.”
“It’s like it’s been some horrible nightmare. They turned against me, Sissy. They want you and me dead.”
“I know. I know about the experiment. Linda is downstairs. We have to go now.”
“Where?” I said. “They know you’re here. They probably listened to us on the phone. We’ll be followed.”
Sissy walked over to the sliding glass door, saying that the blinds should be closed. She must have seen my reflection in the glass because she quickly turned around.
I had taken the gun out from under the bed.
She didn’t flinch or turn away but looked steadily at me and the gun. I thought of the way she had looked at her own thumb when she had embedded a hook into it.
“Harry,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
“Listen to me,” I said. “Did you really think that they would let you destroy ten years of research? That The Company would let you ruin the most important scientific project in the history of this nation?”
“This is real, Harry,” she said, taking off her sunglasses.
“I know that.”
“No you don’t, Harry. You think that this is some kind of computer simulation.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “What we’re doing goes way beyond that.”
“They want you to think that this is some kind of illusion like the last experiment. Harry, for God’s sake, stop and think about it.”
“I have,” I said, pointing the gun at her head.
“If you kill me they’ll have won,” she said. Her voice sounded dry and gritty. She looked calm but I could tell that she was having trouble getting enough air.
“They’ll be able to control anyone. Don’t you see that? If they can manipulate a psychologist then what chance does anyone else have? Harry, listen, I’m your wife. We’ve been married for twelve years.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t know who you are. All I know is that my wife-my real wife-would never take classified information. She would never compromise the security of this nation.”
“What kind of nation is it that makes such sacrifices?” she said.
“It’s the kind of world we’re living in,” I said.
“What have they done to you, Harry?”
“I don’t have a choice now,” I said. “They don’t control me. I’m not a puppet but I don’t have a choice. Can’t you see that?”
“You once told me that people always have a choice. Machines don’t have a choice but human beings do. You’re not a goddamn machine, Harry. You’re my husband and I love you.”
The gun felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds. My arm began to shake. I had a choice. I didn’t have a choice. This was real. This wasn’t real. Something began to form slowly in my head. If I had my instructions and I was still waiting, then what was I waiting for? I glanced at the wall to my right, expecting it to turn transparent. Were they watching me at this very moment? Questions piled up in my mind, making me feel as if I were in a room filled with a maze of walls that were blinding and paralyzing me.
“You still have a choice,” Sissy said. “Harry, if they don’t control you then prove it. Come with me while there is still time.”
“The choice is,” I said. “You or me?”
“Harry,” she said, taking a step forward.
“That’s why I only left one bullet in the gun,” I said. “Because…because I… I have to think but, it’s so hard.”
“Just put it down,” Sissy said.
“No,” I said. “This has to end now. It’s too. It’s too horrible.”
She rushed at me, forming an O with her mouth as her eyes flew wide open in shock and disbelief. But this was it and there was no going back.
The barrel felt cold and had a faintly oily taste. I pulled the trigger, felt the top of my head come off, but instead of a Ka-Pow! I heard a beep beep beep instead.
I gasped like a drowning man. Hands held me down.
“Is it over?” I screamed.
“The thirty minutes is up,” Lawrence said from somewhere behind me. “The experiment is over, Harry.”
Part three: Life after retirement
That was fifteen years ago. Soon after turning myself into my own guinea pig I left The Company. My wife Shelia was very supportive of my decision, even though it meant a big drop in income. But then I stopped looking for work and for nearly a year stayed at home so that I could be closer to my pals Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker. My wife of 19 years finally decided that I had changed and not for the best. After she packed up her bags I sold the house and then moved into a crappy little apartment. After sobering up I got a job teaching at a junior college and was able to move into a larger crappy apartment.
For the next ten years I taught psychology 101 to a bunch of slack-jawed yokels barely out of high school. Then I retired. I tried to blot the experiment from my mind but every so once in a while, as I lie in bed at two in the morning, I wonder what The Company is doing with all that gadgetry I helped invent.
Are you sure you know who you are? Did that event on the evening news really happen?
For a few years I stayed at home, smoking cheap cigars, drinking black coffee all day and pouring over crossword puzzles; but that gets old pretty fast. So I started going out, hanging around bowling alleys and bars that would let me buy diet Coke.
Then I met Ed. Ed is a tall, thin man with receding, black dyed hair. He looks as if he could be made out of hard, razor sharp wire under that tough, wrinkled hide of his. One day Ed told me that he has a problem. His only daughter is married to a man who beats her up. No matter what Ed says to her, she insists on staying with the goon and getting punched and slapped when the beer isn’t cold enough or dinner is a minute late.
I told him that we could help each other out. He needs to protect his daughter and I’m looking for a new line of work.
And so today I’m getting ready to take a little drive to San Jose. All the tools I’ll need-duct tape, rope, box cutter- are in my duffle bag.
I think that I’m going to enjoy this job.
La Verne, California
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:47 PM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 21 September 2008 5:57 PM PDT
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
The Night Sky
I had eaten in a hurry and was walking away from Pete’s Pastrami Hut, wiping my face with a napkin, nearly deaf with all the traffic and road construction noise exploding in my ears on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I remember seeing the red neon beer sign on the other side of the street, the dark-haired teenage girl standing beneath it in her white and blue school uniform, the thin old man walking past her, his gloved hands clutching the handle of a shopping cart full of brown paper bags and cardboard boxes. On the sidewalk a can of Copenhagen rested on its side like a fat coin next to the wadded up remains of a Fifth Avenue candy bar. A tall man wearing a red cap jogged past me, smelling of aftershave, swearing under his breath and jingling change in the pockets of his white slacks. The light ahead turned green and a green and white checkered taxi cab made a fast left turn and then swerved into the right lane, carrying a poster of a Jim Carrey movie on its roof. A helicopter, loud as a jet, flew by, its sound directionless and its light body and blurred blades hidden from view by banks, billboards and trees. Two men wearing suits and identical ties swept by me, each one carrying a suit case and talking in English with a French accent. I smelled fried chicken from a corner café and an assortment of flowers in plastic pots on a wrought iron cart. A man wearing an uncomfortable looking hard hat and yellow vest broke cement with a jackhammer that he handled as if it were pounding him into the ground while other men in similar vest and hard hat brought traffic to a stop with signs so that a dusty yellow dump truck could back uneasily out into traffic. A clump of people stood outside an electronics store, watching the latest news.
The end wasn’t coming with a whimper, it seemed, but a bang, while all about me humanity went about its usual business.
My silver, sun-powered Citizens wristwatch told me that it was 12:33. As I walked on I saw gaunt, heavily dressed men squatting near the cool, dark entrance of an underground parking garage. It was just starting to get hot and I could feel the first trickle of perspiration down my back. I wore brown, soft-soled leather shoes, tan slacks, a white shirt that was not as crisp as it was that morning, a grey tie and a tan sport jacket. Two heavy Cross pens, one ink, the other lead, weighed down the inside of my breast pocket.
My name is Herbert Harvey, my friends in school called me Har Har but now I am 35 and running late for a meeting. I hoped that my bald spot was still covered over, that my five-O-clock shadow had not decided to come out early, and that I didn’t smell like pastrami and hot peppers.
The lobby of the Sanwa Bank Building was cool, dark green and quiet. My footsteps faintly echoed on the glossy, earth colored tiles and I suddenly felt small and heavy, like a chubby little boy or awkward, flightless bird. The elevator whooshed open, I stepped in and pressed the button for the third floor. Since I had the elevator all to myself I checked the zipper in my fly and smoothed my thin, neatly trimmed hair. Plenty of time, I told myself. Why am I always in a panic? The answer, of course, was obvious. For months everyone had been in a panic, or something close to it.
The doors whooshed open and a woman with frizzy hair the color of strawberries got in as I stepped out. It was now 12:43. I turned left, walked past the elevators, turned right and then turned right again at the security station. As I approached the glass doors of my office I saw Marian Kawakami supporting her chin on the palm of her hand, looking down with her usually sleepy eyes at an open magazine on her desk. I pulled the heavy right door open, heard nearly inaudible “smooth jazz” from tiny speakers perched on the wooden file cabinets, and asked Marian what was up.
“I’m reading a recipe for zucchini meatloaf,” she said without looking up.
“Really?” I said. “You like zucchini?”
“Not a whole lot,” she said. “But my mother-in-law does.”
“She staying with you?”
“No, but we send each other recipes in our e-mails. Last week she sent me a recipe for peanut butter meat balls. It’s a kind of Thai dish. I don’t care much for Thai food, though. I don’t even like Japanese food. Maybe I should have been born Mexican or Italian. Now that I get a good look at this I don’t think I’d ever cook it. It just looks kind of yucky if you ask me.”
“I’m sure your mother-in-law would be thrilled,” I said, looking down at the picture on the glossy page of something that looked like a mushroom that had decided to crawl on all fours before being slaughtered. Yucky was the perfect word.
“Steve said he has his cell phone if you want to reach him and that he’ll be in at four. He had to go to the dentist.”
Steve Cunningham is my partner. Twelve years ago, when we were both barely out of college, we started this little business.
“I know.” I said. “That broken crown has been bothering him for weeks.”
“I don’t know what people do to their teeth,” she said, flipping the page. “I never had a cavity in my life.”
“Lucky girl,” I said with a mouth full of gold and silver fillings. It’s a wonder I make it past most metal detectors in airports.
“I’d be lucky if my husband wasn’t such a cheap prick. I want a gas range barbecue so now he’s looking on e-bay.”
“Count your blessings,” I said seriously.
“Yeah, that’s what people tell me,” she grumbled, now looking at winter coats.
As I walked to my office I said,” I thought you’d have the news on.”
“I’ve been watching the news for two months but now it makes me too nervous,” she said.
“My wife says the same thing,” I said. I couldn’t blame either of them. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen and it didn’t matter a hill of beans what people like me thought about it. We had enough food and water in our garage to get by for six weeks. It was what the government of California recommended, and for once we went along with what everyone else was doing.
Stanley Fishback and Larry Kramer didn’t show up until five minutes after one. I had only spoken to them over the phone so far. Neither one looked as I had expected. Stanley was thin and tall, a blond who had turned white and then almost entirely bald even though he was, I guessed, only a year or so older than me. Larry had the short and thick build we used to call a “fireplug” in high school. He had a square, heavy face, dark hair cut a militaristic millimeter above the scalp and a neatly trimmed mustache.
Their voices were a comic mismatch. Stanley’s tall and thin frame produced a deep, resonant baritone, while Larry the fireplug sounded like an adolescent boy.
We shook hands, talked briefly about the news and the unseasonably warm December weather. A year ago we might have chatted about Christmas. While almost everyone went ahead and bought trees and a few small, inexpensive presents, I had noticed a certain amount of reluctance in people to talk about the holidays. The holidays don’t go well with impending disaster, I suppose.
“We got pre-approved for the loan,” Stanley said. “IndyMac Bank, for up to five hundred thousand.”
“Excellent,” I said and then invited them to sit down.
“Well,” Larry said. “Together we have over a hundred and fifty thousand saved up for a down payment and we paid up all of our credit cards.”
“If you don’t own property cash will do,” I said. “Tired of the apartment?”
“It’s run by a bunch of Russian mafia drug dealers,” Stanley said with a surprisingly sunny expression on his face.
“We don’t know that,” Larry murmured.
“The hell we don’t!” Stanley shot back. “You should see these guys, a real bunch of thugs. In two years they took a perfectly good apartment and let it run to seed. We’ve had to go to court three times to get simple repairs made. A bunch of low-lifes moved in, too. And now they’re raising the rent. I never want another apartment as long as I live unless we go to Kansas or some such place.”
“Home ownership is still the surest way to accumulate real wealth,” I said, and then thought, as long as your home isn’t being blown to smithereens.
“Well,” Stanley said, as if reading my thoughts. “We think the worst isn’t going to happen and, anyway, might as well live for tomorrow. You have some houses to show us?”
“Do I!” I said, grabbing my car keys. “I think I have something you’ll love. Three bedrooms, what you want, a small backyard, very private, perfect for entertaining, at the end of a quiet cull de sac, new floors, two and half baths, in move-in condition and put on the market yesterday morning. Wanna see it?”
Three hours later I drove alone through slow traffic on my way home. I thought about how Stanley and Larry had walked hand in hand through the empty house, discussing where they would put this and that piece of furniture, how the light would look with new paint and new lamps, the kind of throw rugs they’d put in and how they would like to redo the window in the living room. I pictured them padding through the house in robe and slippers, sipping coffee and reading the morning paper. It was nice to be right for once in a long while. They loved the house and made an immediate offer.
Later, when I told Steve about it in the office, he said, “business is booming”, although with cotton in his mouth it sounded like, “misness is mooming.”
I flipped open my cell phone and called my wife. A pick up truck full of gardening equipment pulled in ahead of me. On its bumper sticker were the words, “With Jesus There is No Death.”
How will you know? I thought. How will any of us know?
“Hello?” Myra said.
She had a low voice for a woman. It always amused me when she talked about how people sometimes mistook her for a man on the phone.
“I’m driving and I’m talking on my cell phone,” I said.
“That’s a ticket. I don’t know why you don’t get a hands-free plug in. They’re only a couple of bucks for Pete’s sake.”
“I’m old fashioned and, anyway, the police got bigger fish to fry,” I said. “How are you?”
“The electricity went out this morning for ten minutes and it scared the crap out of me,” she said. “Other than that I’m fine.”
I heard a thin stream of water making an echo.
“Are you peeing?” I said just as a toilet flushed.
“Never mind,” I said. “It came back on?”
“The electricity,” I said, resisting the urge to shout.
“Ten minutes later. I think just our side of the street. Scared me. I ran into the bedroom and turned on the little crank radio we got but all they talked about was the missile. You know that little radio works pretty good. Where are you?”
“The freeway,” I said. “Robbie call?”
“This afternoon,” Myra said. “He’s excited. The last game ended in a draw, said he had a closed position with a bad bishop, so we talked about that for a while. He met a girl who came all the way from White Plains, New York.”
“Tell him to leave the girls alone,” I said.
“You can tell him yourself,” she said. “He said he’ll call later when you’re home.”
“That’s good,” I said sincerely. “Need anything before I get home?”
“No, I think we have everything we’ll need. Better hang up before a cop sees you.”
“Okay,” I said. “Bye.”
Without thinking I switched on the radio, thought better of it but left it on. I don’t believe in the supernatural but lately found myself praying whenever the news came on. It was a short, simple, to the point supplication: don’t let anything screw up The Mission.
A man was talking. It sounded as if he stood behind clattering machines and in front of light bulbs popping and fizzing. Small voices buzzed around him like bees. His voice was young, high pitched but not nervous, with a slight drawl that made me think of a thin, sharp-faced boy pitching knuckle balls on red dirt behind a wooden fence.
“So far,” he said, stopping, I imagined, to lean into one of the mikes. “The only hitch, if you want to call it that, has not in any way put the mission at risk. There was, as you know…yes, I’ll…a delay of only thirty seconds to initiate separation and launch…and…no, we didn’t lose contact, everything’s running smoothly, we’re very optimistic. We expect confirmation of impact at four Pacific Standard Time. Then I’ll…what’s that? I think I’ll hug my wife and go to bed. We’re all, I guess all of us running on adrenaline and gallons of caffeine but really, Doctor Harris and I have been amazed at how smoothly everything’s been running for the last six months. Just, uh, hang in there with us for a few more hours and then we’ll all be able to sleep…”
I switched the radio off while there was still good news and then found that I had been gripping the steering wheel hard enough to break it. A few more hours. A few more hours could feel like a lifetime. I thought about my wife at home and about my son Robbie playing chess in San Diego. It infuriated me that in a moment of weakness we had let him go but what did it matter? The kid lived for the stupid game and had begged us for weeks to let him attend the tournament. What in the hell did he see in it? Staring at wooden pieces on a board would drive me nuts. If the mission failed-and that seemed unlikely-we had months but I wished he were home waiting for me. I suddenly felt ashamed that I had stepped outside the house this morning. It seemed unreal that the world could just keep going on. The eternal optimism of human beings, I suppose.
Trying not to think about cigarettes, I fished in my pockets until I found my last stick of Juicy Fruit. The sun hovered just below rooftops on a cloudless sky as I pulled into our circular driveway. The silence of the car with the engine off gave me a feeling of sitting inside a pressurized compartment. I started to turn the radio off and then remembered that it was off. Strange how things like that happen. As I sat chewing gum I heard birds singing to each other, each one warbling variations of the same tune. Life goes on, I thought. The cycle of birth and death is insistent about the future. The thought came to me that life is probably the only process that creates time. Now the question was, did we have any time left?
I rolled out of my black Buick LeSabre feeling heavy and in need of a nap. There was a brief case in my hand I didn’t remember taking out of the car. Life not only goes on, I thought; it goes on automatically.
The house was cool and dark. For a few seconds I couldn’t see anything except the white throw rug near the door and spots of light in the middle of the stairs. Then the outline of the coffee table and Myra’s upright piano formed. I switched on a lamp, set my briefcase on the coffee table and then walked through swinging wooden doors and into the kitchen, listening to Myra softly padding down the stairs. Ah, beer! I popped open a can, sat down at the kitchen table and looked at a pile of junk mail that must have come that day.
“I was just on the phone with Spencer,” Myra said as she walked into the kitchen.
She had on sneakers, red slacks and a white sweat shirt. Her long brown hair spread loosely on her back. There was no makeup on her small, pale face, which made the freckles on her nose and under her eyes prominent enough to count.
Spencer was her brother, a bright but academically challenged construction worker who now lived in a trailer and did part time security work for a casino on an Indian reservation. Married three times and currently divorced, he spent most of his free time collecting conspiracy theories that had to do with international finance, Jews and The Book of Revelation. In person he was friendly, soft-spoken and self-deprecating. On the phone or on-line, however, he was weird, completely irrational and disturbing.
I took a long gulp of beer and then asked her what was up with Spencer.
“Just the usual He saw a video about the thirteen Satanic bloodlines, a secret group called the Illuminati and how we’re all being manipulated by Hollywood and NASA into panic so that the new world order, so on and so on. He’s sending e-mails to people and sooner or later I’m sure he’s going to get himself arrested or killed. He’s always been weird, eccentric, on the lunatic fringe but now he’s just plain nuts. I mean, he doesn’t even make sense.”
“I know,” I said, folding my hands around the near empty can of beer. “I get his e-mails. They always have links to sites that have to do with UFOs, CIA mind control experiments, Masonic symbols on government seals, oh, let’s see, what else? British monarchy and drug cartels. Yeah, I think that came from him.”
“Herb,” she said evenly. “He scares me.”
“Oh I don’t think he’d ever hurt you or any of us,” I said.
“No, he doesn’t scare me in that way. What I mean is, a lot of times schizophrenia runs in families. Spencer didn’t start to get really weird until after high school. I like it that Robbie is bright and intellectual, that he reads all the time and wants to go to college but a part of me is also... I don’t want to worry about it but it’s always in the back of my mind.”
“Spencer may not be, strictly speaking, schizophrenic,” I said, holding up the palm of my hand. “Sometimes, slowly, over time, people get weirder and weirder. There might not be anything wrong, organic, I mean, with Spencer’s brain.”
Myra took a deep breath, put her elbows on the table and then cradled her forehead in the palms of her hands. She looked like Robbie contemplating a move over a chess board. I finished my beer. Even warm, the last sip was divine.
“Well,” she said, sitting up and then rubbing her hands. “You know how mothers are. We worry about everything. What’s the old saying? Whatever can go wrong will.”
“There’s always a lot to worry about,” I said. ” If anything happens we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now he’s just a bright, good kid, never gave us much trouble. So…you know, smells good in here, like baking.”
“Cupcakes,” Myra said. “School’s having a bake sale the day after Robbie gets home. He asked me if I could make cupcakes.”
“What kind?” I said hopefully.
“Vanilla. He wanted me to make vanilla so I did.”
“Damn that kid,” I said. “Plays chess and doesn’t like chocolate. What’s with that?”
“Your brother the big shot college professor taught him how to play chess and as far as chocolate goes, he never liked it, even as a small boy, try as I might.”
“He was always an independent little cuss,” I grumbled, rubbing my head, messing up my hair, probably exposing my bald spot. “I guess genes win out, not mine though. I think he got all yours and my brother’s. You two didn’t have a thing going on did you?”
Myra snorted and for a second, as she covered her nose, her face turned bright pink.
“You remember what he gave Robbie for his second birthday?” she sputtered.
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I do,” I said, grinning.
“A glow in the dark skeleton!’ Myra nearly screamed, slapping the table. “We had to take it out of the room because he couldn’t sleep with it on his dresser.”
Myra laughed so hard that tears ran down her face.
“He teaches anatomy,” I said, wiping my own eyes.
When Myra could breathe normally again she said, ”I love Phil but he’s the biggest nerd on the planet.”
“Well we just have weird brothers,” I said.
“I made chocolate cupcakes for you,” she said. “I figured after all that work I might as well enjoy a few myself.”
“God bless you, woman,” I said solemnly.
After a light diner of salad and chicken from a foil package, we lay in bed with the television off, eating cupcakes on little paper napkins. I stared at the blank screen, wondering if Myra would be upset if I asked her to watch the news with me. Normally that’s what we did but for the last couple of weeks the news made her anxious and depressed. Hell, I suppose it made everyone anxious and depressed.
“Well, by four o’clock we’ll know,” I said, chewing on the last of my cupcake.
Myra sat up, crossed her legs and then looked down at her lap. With her feet bare, she looked as if she were in a yoga position.
“You think it’ll work?” she said.
“I do,” I said with a little more confidence than I actually had. “I mean, look. It’s just a big rock in space, coming toward us. All the missile has to do is nudge it, just nudge it so that it goes off course. And if it misses there are back up missiles. People have thought of everything.”
“You know who I’ve been thinking about lately?” she said.
“Marie,” she said. “Almost everyday I think about her. I keep picturing this little old woman wandering the streets two weeks after my uncle died, seeing a sign for fine art lessons, memorizing the number, going home to give the school a call and then, the next day, sitting there with crayons in her hands, hunched over a pad of drawing paper. A year later art galleries are buying her work.”
Myra’s aunt, Marie Kovasky, at age sixty-seven, became our one famous relative. She swore like a sailor, smoked little black cigars, told dirty jokes she had either collected in her head or made up, and painted astonishing scenes of wild flowers. Everyone loved her to pieces. With her big square glasses, pinched cheeks, piles of red hair, a hunched back and a gnarled wooden cane, she looked like an ancient gnome out for a wild time on the town. A year after her death we still grieved.
“She was quite a woman,” I said truthfully. “I never met anyone like her.”
“I keep thinking that that’s how I want to grow old, just taking something up and finally finding my vision. Now, who knows? Maybe I won’t get the chance. Maybe none of us will.”
“It’s too soon to say that,” I said.
“You say they thought of everything, but when I hear that you know what goes through my head? The space shuttle that blew up. They didn’t think of everything then. Why should we think they thought of everything now?”
“We’ll know soon enough,” I said. It sounded weak. I suddenly felt weak all over.
She got out of bed, quickly stripped off her clothes and then got back into bed naked. I slowly undressed and then put on pajamas, going to bed, I supposed, the way my grandparents had.
I turned off the light, then lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling. Neither of us said a word for what felt like a long time. Thinking that Myra had fallen asleep, I was about to turn over when she said my name.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said.
“About what will happen if the meteor comes our way,” she said.
I sat up. Sleep seemed a long way off. The LED lights on our home entertainment system glowed green in front of me like emeralds small or far away. I could feel cold air flowing across the room from the open window in the bathroom. My ears felt as if they were filled with vibrating specks of silence.
“There’s no reason…” I said.
“If it comes to us,” Myra said, cutting me off. “I don’t want to get on a bus with a bunch of strangers. I want to stay here.”
Something cold and heavy settled into my chest. On my nightstand was the envelope the government had sent us containing instructions of where we were to go in the “unlikely” event of an emergency evacuation. No private cars would be allowed to clog up the streets and highways. We were to walk to the “redeployment center” with just the clothes on our back and one small carry-on. I remember the day it came and how terrified reading the instructions had made me. Jesus Christ, I had thought. So this is it.
“If that’s how you feel,” I said, knowing that I was about to pass a possible death sentence on myself. “Then we’ll stay.”
I felt the bed shake as she silently sobbed. All I could think to do was rub her back and neck.
“I’ve been so afraid,” she managed to say. “That you’d leave…”
I rolled over to her and then held her in my arms. So this, I thought, is what we’ll do for love. It seemed an insignificant price to pay.
“I could never leave you,” I said. “No matter what.”
“Then if it happens,” she whispered. Her heart beat against me. “I won’t be afraid.”
We stayed like that, drifting toward the dark shore of sleep, when the phone rang. I answered right away, knowing who it was.
“Hi kiddo,” I said into the slim cordless unit. “What’s up?”
“Everyone’s in my room,” he said. “Eating chips and watching the news. Man, we clobbered them today! First place, can you believe it? A guy even interviewed us for Chess Life and took our picture. I think you’re talking to the next world champ.”
“I hope I’m talking to the next doctor in our family,” I said. “But I’m mighty proud of you son. Sounds like you’re having a great time.”
“I’m all pumped up,” he said. “We’re going to stay up till four to see what happens, then we’re going across the street to an IHOP that’s open all night, then catch a few hours sleep before we have to get on the van. This has been the greatest day ever.”
“Pug there with you?” I said.
“Yeah he’s here,” Robbie said.
“Pug” was my son’s best friend. I don’t know why anyone would want to call him Pug but as far back as I could remember that’s what everyone called him. Made him sound like a little snarling, obnoxious dog but he was actually a very sweet kid with big blue eyes and a little owlish face.
“Well say hi to Pug and don’t eat too much junk food,” I said.
“Okie dokey,” he said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“Bye Dad. Love you.”
I switched the phone off, trying to think of the last time he had said that he loved me. Was he worried? If so, it wasn’t in his voice.
“We raised a chess genius,” I said. “Now I can sleep at night.”
“It’s taught him how to concentrate,” Myra said. Her back was turned to me and her voice came from under the blanket. “What’d you do in high school?”
“Drank beer and got out of math,” I said.
It seems strange to have a son who is so much smarter than me. Robbie skipped grades and went to high school two years younger than most kids. It hadn’t always been easy for him. I had always known by the tortured, lonely look on his face that he had sometimes been teased and bullied; but I didn’t ask him about it and he had never complained. One smart and tough kid that son of mine.
“Count your blessings,” Myra mumbled.
I chuckled under my breath. Yes indeedy, count your blessings. You have a wife, a son, a business, and somewhere far, far away a rock headed to earth might put an end to it all. It all seemed more than unfair; it seemed utterly unreal. I scooted under the blanket and hugged myself. When we die, I wondered, will we all die like this, alone? And when the world is cooked or frozen what then? Will the universe roll on like some vast, mindless machine? Suddenly it wasn’t death that was so terrifying but the awful magnitude of existence itself. Stars blowing up, gasses coalescing and igniting into suns, planets forming, life forms emerging and then dying off…good God, what’s the point of it all? Robbie had once told me that there are more possible games of chess than there are atoms. My mind filled up with images of chess pieces forming game after game after game on boards that circled the galaxies.
Brain abuzz with useless thoughts and terrifying images, I wriggled out of the blanket and lay gasping for air, staring up at the dark ceiling. Myra asked me if I couldn’t sleep and then, before I knew what was happening, she was on top of me, her hand in the fly of my pajamas.
This isn’t going to work, I thought. But it did.
When it was over we lay next to each other under the blanket, holding hands, until I heard her softly snoring. I got up, put on my robe and slippers, and then crept downstairs.
It was two in the morning. I sat in one of our hard chairs and wondered why we had such uncomfortable furniture. Two in the morning is the worst time for me to be awake. When I was younger I invented a name for the place my mind always went to at times like two in the morning; I called it the House of Pain. You probably know a place just like it. In one room is the place where I spilled a whole bowl of steaming baked beans on the lap of my favorite aunt during a Thanksgiving Day dinner. Oh, and here’s where I flunked my driver’s test. Twice. But over the years the house had not been big enough, and so turned into a neighborhood, a town and then a city.
In the thrash cluttered basement of one building I told my family that I was not cut out to be a third generation doctor and that I was going into business instead. On the walls hang pictures of their shocked and disbelieving faces. And then there’s the alley where I got drunk for two days after flunking the realtor’s exam for the second time. I’m not destined to pass any exam the first time, I suppose.
I can’t tell you what the monument in the center of the city looks like; all I can say is what it feels like. Made of stone, smooth and round, it is inscribed with delicate letters and is surrounded by flowers.
Three years after Robbie was born Myra gave birth to Cecily. She lived for two days. Myra insisted on a funeral, complete with casket and church service. I remember staring down at the tiny wooden box, holding Myra’s hand, wondering what people must feel as they make such things. Poor kid. Such a long way to come only to stay for two days. Myra and I embraced as the coffin was lowered into the ground. When I felt her body shake I felt the full force of my own grief wash over me. For nine months I had watched her in my mind’s eye, crawling all over the house, toddling in her little shoes, going off to school, doing homework with Robbie, practicing twirling a baton in the backyard, leaving home to attend college, getting married, having children of her own.
The cool screen of the television was a dark mirror of the living room. I rubbed my face, looked at it but felt no inclination to let it spill into fuzzy bright life. I found it hard not to think of the CNN special report I had watched six months ago, a cheery little documentary about what would happen if the meteor exploded over a large city. Everyone would be vaporized. The explosion would dwarf the biggest nuclear bomb we could ever build. And then it would get worse, much worse, as wild fires would erupt, engulfing one city after another. I watched for what seemed hours, hardly moving, until something seemed to crack in my head. I got up off the couch, feeling as if my brain had rotated in my skull. My face felt numb. At first I thought that I had suffered a stroke and was panicked at the thought of being in the house alone. I staggered into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, then buried my face in a towel. For ten or fifteen minutes I wept so hard it felt as if I were cracking every bone in my body.
I looked at the television now and thought that Myra was right. No sense trying to flee. The evacuation centers were a ploy to control panic. If the missile and the backup missiles failed and the rock hit we would just have to take it.
The house felt stuffy. I walked outside, stood by the car, and then looked up at the night sky, for once not caring if the neighbors saw me padding around in my pajamas, robe and slippers.
Somewhere there was a rock; and coming toward it, a missile. I saw a few stars and felt at peace in the cold air. The three of us would be together for Christmas, and for now that seemed enough.
I walked back into the house, sat down, waited, and at four o’clock turned on the television.
La Verne, California
Posted by james-hazard
at 7:48 PM PDT
Updated: Monday, 21 July 2008 6:30 PM PDT
Wednesday, 21 May 2008
New York, 1918
When the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage to New York. its fatally ripped hull settled into the collective depths of Western consciousness as the prelude of 20th century disasters. The Great War, which came only a few years later, had to be re-named World War 1 by historians, for it was soon followed by a murderous calamity of even greater proportions. In between these onslaughts, which spanned the first crude aerial bombs to the world-destroying capacity of hydrogen weapons, nature herself seemed to rise up against us in the form of a bug-more precisely, influenza, a strain of subtype H1N1.
The Spanish flu, as it came to be known, lasted from March 1918 to June 1920. No continent on earth was spared. It is estimated that between 20 to 100 million people perished worldwide.
In a comfortable, upper-middle class apartment on Riverside Drive in Brooklyn, New York, silent and somber family members gather round six year old Sally Blaine, who lies in bed shivering, her usually pale face bright with fever. There is nothing anyone can do but cool the little girl’s forehead with a wet cloth and pray that what had killed her mother just a few weeks earlier will not kill her. All around them the flu swirls like a storm of infection. It is not unusual for people to die within hours of contracting the disease. Death is often horrible, as the body hemorrhages and the lungs fill with fluid, effectively causing the victim to drown. The women look down at the thin frame of the girl and wonder to no one but themselves how long she has to live. New York City alone has lost over 30,000 people. They have not died of the war but by a contagion brought back by the soldiers who had fought it.
Because doctors are in such short supply, students of the Buffalo Medical School are told to report to hospitals for duty. Acting Health Commissioner Franklin Gram later remarked, “It was no uncommon matter to find persons who had waited two or three days after having repeatedly… summoned physicians … dying because every physician was worked beyond human endurance.”
The storm abates and then gradually dies out. Today scientists wonder when the next pandemic will strike. Global warming and jet travel make viruses even easier to flourish and spread than in 1918.
Little Sally, born the year the Titanic set sail, survives. In a story about a disease that is full of ironies, one of them is that children had a greater chance of survival than did adults with comparatively stronger immune systems. She grew up, married Robert Beck in 1938, and in 1948 gave birth to a daughter whom she named Brenda.
The baby was born pre-maturely but was given the kind of medical care not available to her grandmother. She was placed in an incubator, where the rich supply of oxygen kept her alive but destroyed her eyesight. For the last several years she has been, on and off again, my student. She is bright, gregarious, lives independently, has attended college, has many friends and a full life.
So now we come full circle. An unsinkable ship sinks; a war to end all wars only sets the stage for an even bigger war; people drown in New York of a disease and a little girl is blinded by too much oxygen. Life does go on but, I have to admit, in ways I couldn’t invent in a million years.
Posted by james-hazard
at 9:40 PM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 22 May 2008 12:01 PM PDT
Sunday, 11 May 2008
December 21, 2012
Marsha and Scott drive to the mountains to wait
for whatever will happen when the clock strikes
midnight on December 20, 2012. She asks if
they should take extra food and water “just
in case” but he only shrugsand says, “Why?”
They are not there because they think the world is coming to an end. If that’s what they thought they would have told the kids to join them but they are educated, level-headed, middle-aged folks who think about the end of the world in a rather abstract way, as most people do; and yet the news, scientific forecasts and the most recent economic slowdown has left them vulnerable to mild bouts of depression and irritability amidst what feels like a nation-wide background of low-level but constant anxiety. After all, who’s to say the world won’t come to an end? With all the nuclear weapons, global warming, meteors in space and volcanic eruptions of cataclysmic proportions just waiting to happen, who’s to say? Maybe, in some mysterious way modern science has yet to discover, the great calendar making Mayans were on to something.
A friend of hers, Helen Townsend, just came back from China. “You should see all the new buildings they’re putting up there,” she said two days after she returned. “They work like beavers and they’re so cheerful. My God, what a race! And they eat everything, I mean anything that flies or walks on four or eight legs.”
Marsha thinks about this on the drive up the mountains, the drive that, years ago, used to make her car-sick. What has made us so gloomy, she wonders. Is it that we are just coming to the end of what my parents called the American Century? Maybe we’ve just run out of gas, literally as well as figuratively. All great powers come to an end. Maybe things have just run their course. Having pride in being able to do something useful seemed to be a thing of the past, for instance. Did anyone care anymore about their work? She had to call the cable company three times before she could finally talk to someone about their remotes. And then it was to a man who talked with such a heavy accent that what he said hardly sounded as if it were in English. Parents of her students used sub-standard English, vulgar words and expressions in front of their own children when they came to see her. After twenty-five years of teaching she was still astonished that children in her classroom said things she hadn’t permitted herself to say until after growing up and living on her own.
They climbed out of their gas efficient Honda Hybrid and began lugging paper bags and a big blue suitcase into the cabin. Inside the air, as it always did, smelled of cedar wood, lemon-scented wax, moth balls, old lavender soap and ashes left in the fireplace. Scott turned the electricity on by snapping switches in the fuse box while Marsha opened windows and loaded the little refrigerator with plastic containers of frozen blue ice. With light and fresh air, the cabin seemed to expand, glow and come to life.
It was hard to believe that they had been away for nine months. She sometimes wondered if the cabin missed them when they weren’t around. Good memories and not so good memories had seeped into the floors, cabinets, lamps and cases filled with worn paper-back books over the years. In their third year of marriage they had come to the cabin after Scott had been diagnosed with cancer. He wanted to talk calmly about plans they had to make but she only became increasingly hysterical. The cancer did not spread. In one operation it was removed. Their lives went on. And yet, years later, there were times when the thought of losing him so soon into their marriage brought back the old stress and she could feel her lips and the tips of her fingers turn cold and numb with terror and despair.
She looked out the window at the cabin next door and thought about the couple who used the hot tub naked every night. Then came the skinny, long-haired people-four, five or six of them-who smoked weed and played loud rock music till four in the morning. It became a bed and breakfast place after that for a while. Now it was empty and looked relaxed, like a dog that has nothing to do but slumber in the sun all day long.
After they unpacked they took a walk to the stream, walked as far as they could along its banks of mud, rocks and boulders, then turned in the other direction and walked into town. People in short sleeve shirts ate ice cream, sauntered into galleries filled with glass and wood sculpture, bought over-priced clothing and bags of home-made candies. The kite shop was new. So was the shop that sold Hummel ceramics.
Marsha and Scott waited for a table at the Mountain Dove, drank domestic beer and ate hamburgers made with freshly ground beef, chopped onions and cheddar cheese. The French fries were thick and still hot from the fryer. This was the restaurant they always ate at first.
“I can’t believe how warm it is,” Marsha said. “Like summer.”
“It’s supposed to cool down,” Scott said, looking to his right at the people on the wooden sidewalk. “It’ll be cold tonight.”
“We’ll have to have a fire,” she said.
She looked at the people, too, and couldn’t detect worry on a single face. So far there hadn’t been reports of hysteria or mass suicide. Several groups awaited the end in various places but so far none of them were on the news as dangerous or out of control. A few two thousand and twelve movies had been made but because they were horror films no one took them too seriously. There were, however, a lot of doomsday books on the market and the internet was filled with dire warnings about the twenty-first of December.
Suddenly the people on the sidewalk stopped and looked up. A few screamed. The sun was turning red. The wind knocked their table over. Windows exploded, cars careened out of control…
Oh knock it off, she told herself. She had the same apocalyptic imagination as her mother, who read the Bible every morning before breakfast and often talked about the end of days, usually during the evening news.
Marsha went to church every Sunday until she was 22 but she had lost most of her convictions by the time she was 17. After that the sermons were embarrassing and to be endured for the sake of her family. She knew that if she had told her mother that she no longer took the idea of a personal deity seriously her mother would have fallen down dead of a stroke. But there had been a time when the ideas of damnation and salvation were not ideas but palpable realities, burdens as real as the whole world crashing and rushing into consciousness. She had prayed, then, with an intensity that had left her weak and light-headed. Whenever she thought about it now she could only shake her head and wonder what it was that had so gripped her imagination.
They walked hand-in-hand through the town, toward their cabin, stopping only once to pick up a few supplies and a few more groceries at Smarty’s Liquor Mart. The beer and hamburgers left them feeling pleasantly full and sleepy. In the cabin she made up their bed and he stacked wood on top of balled up newspaper in the fireplace.
She took off her shoes, put on soft slippers and padded into the living room. Scott sat on the sofa, reading the financial section of the Los Angeles Times. She thought that one day his whole brain would turn into a black and white column of numbers. Finance was his work but lately it seemed to have become his entire life as well. Three computer monitors in the office at home ran 24 hours a day, displaying information about markets in such places as New York, Tokyo and London. It was not unusual for him to spend 3 or 4 hours a day on his cell phone talking to nervous investors. They were making money but not as much as they used to. No one was.
“You want me to make some coffee?” she said as she sat down on the thickly padded orange chair in front of him.
“That,” he said, softly rustling the Times. She looked at an advertisement, displayed on the back of the paper, for a new luxury condominium complex in Orange County with units starting at a half-million. Good God! She thought. Who has that kind of money these days?
“Would be nice.”
He had agreed not to bring the laptop but here he was reading the damn newspaper. Would it be too much to expect, she thought as she gazed at pictures of two-story homes, swimming pools and a golf course, to get away from work for just one day!
She wondered what would happen if she just sat there and did nothing. Would he notice? Would he eventually float down to earth and ask about the coffee?
He kept on reading, oblivious to her. During the week, after she had finished correcting papers, he stalked into the office, rarely taking time out of his busy schedule to watch television with her. When he finally came into the bedroom it was to sleep. She had never thought of herself as a woman with a strong sexual nature; but after their third date she was, to her own dismay, almost panting with desire. Contrary to what she had been told to expect, on their first night together she had reached an orgasm so intense it had nearly caused her to black out. Now, when they were both awake in bed, their intimacy took the form of a kiss and a chat about what was on their list of things to get done. She didn’t miss the sex. Giving birth to two kids and then raising them had taken the energy out of that; but she did worry that maybe he missed it. There were two young blondes in his office that, when she was a girl, were called bombshells. He never stayed late but who was to say what when on during lunch hour? The fear came to her most acutely when she caught sight of herself in the mirror, at her flabby cheeks, crow’s feet and mop of shaggy gray hair. Just yesterday she had graduated from high school. Now she asked the reflection staring back at her, “who is that old woman?’
She heaved herself to her feet, intending to pad into the kitchen and pour water into Mister Coffee but something stopped her. Maybe it was the sound of the paper gently rustling or the advertisement of half million condos but whatever it was, it brought her blood to a simmer. They had been on the road for an hour and 15 minutes and he was going to sit there and bury himself in the Times.
“Well,” she heard herself say. “I guess I’ll go and set my hair on fire.”
“Um,” came the distant reply.
She intended to pad into the kitchen but suddenly felt herself lunging for the paper instead. To her astonishment the paper flew across the room. She saw his exposed eyes bug out and his face turn pink.
Even as she yelled at him she couldn’t believe that she was yelling at him.
“Do we have to come all the way here so that you can stick your nose in that fucking paper!”
As was his custom when angry, he didn’t say anything at first. He looked down, smoothed the wrinkles on his slacks and then said, rather mildly, “Well, there’s no need for bad language.”
She looked down at him with her mouth hanging open. She flapped her arms against her sides. She sputtered. She walked to the sliding glass door, opened it, stepped outside, closed it, took a deep breath, felt alone.
In all their years together she had never once raised her voice to him. Just because, she thought, he was reading a paper? My goodness, what a baby! And yet she couldn’t help the feelings of sorrow, bitterness and anger that swept through her. Tears trickled down her face. It was cold. She wanted to be cold. In a few days winter break would be over and she would be back in the classroom. She felt as if she had been teaching for a thousand years and the thought of going back to it all added a fresh layer of misery to her grief. She wanted him to come out. She wanted him to stay in. The world is about to come to an end, she thought, and here I am wailing about a newspaper. But she was tired, in a panic about her age, and the thought of love turning to ashes just like everything else was unbearable.
It was dark when she went back in. She found Scott in the kitchen making coffee, looking sheepish and clumsy. She padded to the refrigerator, opened it, took out a pint of half and half. Her ears felt full of wax and she realized that she had been shivering.
“You look cold,” he said.
“I’m going to start the fire,” he said.
He laid blankets in front of the fire place once the logs started burning, took off his shoes and then lay down. She lay down next to him.
“I’m still full from lunch,” he said, putting an arm under his head. “Maybe later on we can just heat up some chicken soup.”
“That sounds good,” she said.
She turned on her side, put her head on his chest, stroked his arm. The heat from the fire felt good.
“I’m sorry I threw the paper,” she said softly.
“You should have beaten me over the head with it,” he said.
“In a few hours it will be the twenty-first of December,” she said.
“I know it’s mostly crap,” she said. “But, Christ, the world is a mess.”
“When hasn’t it been?”
“Not like it is now,” she said. “Everywhere people are starving. Companies are closing down, there’s no work, houses are in foreclosure, the dollar isn’t worth anything, we’re all in debt up to our ears, the government keeps rattling its saber, getting ready for the next war and the war after that. I look at my students and wonder what kind of a world they’re getting into. Where’s it all going to end?”
“I know what you mean,” Scott said, breathing heavily. “The market is unpredictable, you might as well flip a coin. Problem is, we’re not manufacturing anymore, that whole sector has gone south. We can’t compete with the Chinese, we don’t even want to be able to compete with the Chinese. Wages are down, the cost of everything keeps going up, it seems like everyone’s just trying to keep their head above water so consumer confidence isn’t good to say the least. I don’t know where it’s going to end. I suppose it’ll get worse before it gets better, if it ever gets better.”
She saw ruined Mayan temples in her head, saw empty, decaying skyscrapers and the broken windows of abandoned homes.
“You know you’re under stress when you go on vacation to get away from work and take work with you anyway,” she murmured.
“I always hoped that life would get simpler the older I got,” Scott said. “For a long time the business seemed to run by itself, like we were all on automatic and didn’t have to think too much about what we were doing. Now I’m not certain about anything. Maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we had all grown too complacent.”
“I never used to worry about getting older,” Marsha said, tugging at one of her ears. “Now I get up in the middle of the night, think about death and it terrifies me.”
He turned to look at her. After a minute of silence he spoke slowly with his eyes closed.
“I never thought of death either until I got cancer. Then it weighed on my mind constantly. I worried about what would happen to you and what it would do to the kids. It left me feeling horribly empty inside. I never felt that way before and it scared me. I kept telling myself that I’d be okay but there was a part of me that wasn’t so sure. One day, it was weird, I’d been at the hospital that day, I was driving back home and I looked at the road and the other cars and just kind of fell into a kind of trance, it was very peaceful. The strangest thought came to me. I’m pretty sure it came from a documentary I had watched a few days before on the History channel about the plague. Whatever it was, I began to think about death in a very concrete way, you know, like people who have died and I thought about all the people, all the thousands and millions of people who have died and I thought, ‘but here I am.’ I don’t know how to explain it but the feeling came over me that we die but in some way no one can put in words we’re still here, we’ll always be here.”
“I didn’t know you had become so philosophical,” she said.
“Me either,” he laughed.
They stayed up until the fire was almost out. When it was midnight they crawled into bed. She dreamt about her children when they were small and awoke refreshed, with only a mild ache in her lower back, to the sound of birds outside and Scott shaving in the bathroom.
On Christmas Eve morning they packed up the car and drove home. It was another unseasonably bright and warm day. Scott drove while she made a list of what they had to do at the last minute to get ready for tomorrow, Tuesday, Christmas Day. One child would come and, as usual, one child would not. Two gifts hidden in the garage had to be wrapped. Phone calls to Mom and to a favorite uncle had to be made. A bird in the freezer, a box of stuffing, wild rice, yams and fresh asparagus patiently waited for her to return and attend to them.
She looked out the window, at the ground that seemed to spin away from them. Her outburst had left her shaken. Something of how she felt or could feel had been revealed too openly and she was afraid of what she might have set in motion. The thought of teaching for another ten or twenty years, of standing in front of bored faces full of vacant eyes, made her feel as if her life had come to a complete stop. A couple of months ago she watched a smiling woman on CNN who had just been named Teacher of the Year and all she could think about was how much she wanted to see her drop from a ten story building with her clothes on fire. She would stay married to Scott. The crisis had passed. Their lives would go on. Sometimes, on a weekend at the cabin or on a visit to her sister in Oklahoma, they would be happy. Maybe, she thought, the most you can hope for is that life won’t be too terrible and that you can go on without having to think about what might have been. Maybe we only think we’re afraid of the end of the world.
Three days before her marriage her mother had actually said something profound to her, something weirdly out of character. Marsha had long ago thought of her mother as sweet and practical but essentially simple-minded-a bible thumper who waited for Jesus the way other people wait for a package in the mail. But one afternoon, after hours of trudging through stores, bridal shops and the bakery, her mother sat at the kitchen table filling little baskets with Jordan almonds and talked about her own marriage. She said the usual things-how nervous she had been on her wedding day, how they couldn’t afford a honey moon and how fine her father looked that day in his suit with his head so full of black, wavy hair. And then she stopped, looked up and said, “Marriage makes a union, Marsha. It brings two people closer together than they can ever be. It also makes people lonely. I don’t know why but it does that, too.”
That stayed with her for years; but it wasn’t till now that she finally understood what she had really been saving in the back of her mind. Nothing can exist without its opposite. Light makes dark, noise makes silence, war makes peace, being together makes for being alone. Civilizations with all their order create the chaos that will consume them. And so the world will end and be reborn, for death has its opposite, too.
Scott put his hand on her leg. She picked it up, put it to her lips and held it there.
Posted by james-hazard
at 9:50 PM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 14 May 2008 1:55 PM PDT
Tuesday, 8 April 2008
When I was 10 years old my twin brother Joey started getting dizzy spells. He’d be fine one minute and then the next totter in a slow semi-circle like a pirate trying to dance with a peg-leg. Once, as we were coming downstairs, he fell and rolled the rest of the way down, hitting the floor so hard it made him black out. An ambulance came screaming to the house but no one could find anything wrong with him in the emergency room except a few bumps and bruises.
Mom took him to our family doctor, a man who liked to be called Doc, wore cowboy hats and big silver belt buckles under his sport jacket. Doc gave him pills and ear drops but the kid tottered, wobbled and buckled even more. Pretty soon he had trouble using his hands and started dropping pencils, spoons and glasses as if his hands were soapy. Mom and Dad took him to a bigger hospital, and then to an even bigger hospital in another city. Joey was X-rayed so many times it’s a wonder he didn’t glow in the dark like that skull we brought back from the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. But finally a bunch of white coats with long initials after their name told Mom and Dad that my brother had a tumor and, even worse, that it was in a part of his brain that made it inoperable.
They brought him home in a big chrome plated wheelchair that made him look like a midget or, I thought at the time, a broken ventriloquist’s dummy that had been locked in a trunk a few years too many. Mom put on her brave smile, carried him upstairs and then laid him on the new bed that had rails, one of those nice additions to the bedroom that will remind you at all hours of the day that you’re now living with a cripple, and a dying one at that.
Every night after supper Dad sat beside him on a hard wooden chair, holding a newspaper that he never got around to reading. He talked a lot about stuff that didn’t make any sense, played his Marine Band harmonica, dutifully massaged his son’s legs and feet and brought him water with a straw to sip. Every hour on the hour Mom crept up when she wasn’t on the phone to see her baby, her poor little darling boo-boo. They never bothered to say a word to me, of course. Joey was getting weaker by the day and as far as they were concerned I didn’t exist.
I began to act as if I didn’t exist. For weeks at a time I stopped talking to my brother. I wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror, could hardly stand to touch myself and for hours at a time I lay perfectly still to see how long I could close my eyes and not breathe. I hated him the way I hate anything lame, useless and disgusting; and yet the thought of Joey dead in a casket, rotting under ground, filled me with the kind of blind animal terror I hadn’t felt since the day a crazy man came to the door and told me that television leads to eternal damnation and Hell.
So I got up close to him when no one was around to make sure he was still breathing and had a pulse. If he had never been born, I thought, maybe things would have been different. Mom and Dad loved him but not me and that was the way it had always been. I had never complained. It’s weird, though, when something that is absent turns into something that is almost tangible and omnipresent. Something was wrong with Joey but something, I now knew, had always been wrong with me; but I was just old enough to know that things were the way they were for reasons I had no control over; and so I watched and waited, wanting Joey to go on existing no matter how frail, weak and defenseless he became.
It came to me one night that if he died they would mourn and remember year after year until they were old enough to turn into dust. If I died, though, it would be as if I had never been born.
One day Mom got a phone call at one in the morning. A medical big-wig was on the other end, telling her about an experimental surgical procedure that could possibly save her boy. Could they fly to Boston in two days?
Mom wept so hard that she sounded as if she were laughing with the hiccups. Dad ran downstairs to call the airlines from the phone in the kitchen. No one but Joey got any sleep that night. In the morning the house was full of people. They sounded like frantic magpies. Aunt Josie helped Mom pack. Mildred from next door came over with food. A big pasty-faced nurse with arms like a steel worker came to help Mom and to be with Joey on the flight. Dad’s brother, Uncle Frank, came over to watch the house and feed our little wiener dog Hap. Harvey Harrison, a little man with nervous eyes and hands the size of a raccoon’s, came over from the other end of the street to say that he would be glad to drive everyone to and from the airport.
I stayed with Joey, listening to all the commotion but not saying a word to him or to anyone. The day seemed to drag on forever, like some horribly long, boring movie that tells you how it ends in the first minute. Joey goes to the hospital, dies on the operating table. Poor puppy! What else was there to expect? And so the more I heard them upstairs and downstairs, the more I heard Joey breathe and wheeze and gurgle, the angrier I got. The goddamn kid would come home in a box and then what would become of me? That was the only thing that I cared two cents about.
That night, when we were finally alone, I said, “You’re going to fly to Boston tomorrow. That’ll be fun. I bet they put you up front, bring you pillows and a blanket and maybe you’ll see the captain. When you land they’ll put you in an ambulance that will take you to the hospital. I bet they let Mom and Dad get in with you. When you get to the hospital you’ll probably have a room all to yourself and the nurses will make you wear a gown and then they’ll stick things in your arm.
“The surgeon will come in to check up on you, say hi and tell you that everything will be fine. Then a nurse will come in to shave your head. They have to do that because it’s brain surgery, you know. I saw them do it once in a movie. Your head will be all pink and smooth just like when you were a baby.
“In the morning they’ll wheel you into the operating room. You’ll see a big bright light and people will be all around you with trays full of instruments. A nurse will tie you down so you can’t move. Everyone will have gloves and masks on. It’ll be cold in there but they’ll put a blanket on your legs and chest.
“When they operate on someone’s brain they can’t put him to sleep. It’s kind of like going to the dentist. You have to be awake. The first thing you’ll hear is a whining sound from a saw. Someone will rub alcohol on your head. I guess they’ll use a knife to cut through the skin first, and then they’ll use the saw to cut off the top of your skull.”
When I saw him tremble and heard him moan my heart rose.
“You won’t feel any pain,” I said. “The brain doesn’t feel anything, even when they pull it out and put it on a metal tray. That’s what they got to do. To get to the part they got to cut out they have to slide the whole thing out, like when Mom pulls a whole ham that’s covered with gelatin out of the can.
“Then comes the tricky part, because if they cut something they shouldn’t you won’t be able to hear, or move or even think again. You might sit in a corner the rest of your life, peeing on the floor and sucking your thumb. Or you might be able to think but not move or hear or feel anything.”
That was all I had time to say. Mom came into the room, took off her robe and got into bed with Joey. After sniffling and whimpering he fell asleep in her arms while she stroked his head and sang under her breath. A thin trickle of moonlight spilled onto the floor, and then there was deepening darkness, twitching pale skin under blue sheets, and silence except for the sound of Dad and Uncle Frank downstairs shuffling cards.
After the surgery Joey came back with his head wrapped in bandages. He used a wheelchair for a little while and then began to walk again, first with a walker and then by himself. When he talked about me, Mom and Dad looked amused, puzzled, and then worried.
“Sweetie,” Mom said. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. Before we had you Mommy lost a baby, remember? I told you that a long time ago. Maybe you were too young to understand. Do you understand now?”
They had to hire a shrink, some guy with a pink face and no hair who held little Joey’s hand and explained what a delusion is, what a hallucination is and how they are caused by a little pressure on the brain by a tumor.
And so I went into the dark. Joey grew up, married, had kids of his own and, I suppose, has almost completely forgotten about me. But I can’t help the feeling that pretty soon I’ll be coming back.
And won’t Joey be surprised.
Posted by james-hazard
at 8:22 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 8 April 2008 8:27 PM PDT
Monday, 25 February 2008
Bush under Arrest!
I am trembling with so much excitement that I can barely keep my fingers from dancing off the keyboard; but I want to be among the first bloggers to announce with undisguised glee that President George W. Bush has been arrested. Arrested! Led off to jail in handcuffs! It seems like a dream come true; but those of you who, like me, tuned into last night’s To Catch a Predator, know that this time I’m not the victim of yet another insane delusion. It was all captured on live television! I am not only among the first to write about this historic event, I will be the first to offer on the internet the transcript of what took place.
Chris Hansen: Over a month ago members of Perverted Justice began tracking an unusual exchange of messages in a so-called Washington insider chat room between YoungTimmyIntern and a mysterious visitor known only as BiggerThanMyDad. The messages were unsavory and unsettling; but what was even more shocking was the true identity of BiggerThanMyDad. As we wait for him to arrive, we want to give you a glimpse into a truly dark and frightening mind. Sensitive viewers are warned that this is graphic material and may not be suitable for minors.
YoungTimmyIntern: Do you think you could bring the Constitution?
BiggerThanMyDad: Oh yeah…
Young: I mean the real thing.
Bigger: I got a key, I can get it, the real thing and, that, the other thing the bill of bill of
Bigger: thats it, the bill of rites thing I can bring that two
Bigger: to, yeah
Young: got my dad’s zippo
Bigger: Oh man, yeah, like thats cool, uh? I can bring over a hole can of liter fluid
Young: whole you mean?
Bigger: and then we can get into that eran thing
Bigger: yeah, iran, rite, you like war movies?
Young: what kind?
Bigger: anything with john wayne. Green Berets. Bitchin movie
Young: yeah…tell me about Iran
Bigger: well put you know like a bunch of fony stories in the times just some crap you know to throw everone off
Bigger: you get my drift?
Young: yeah, you’ll have to come over when my parents won’t be here, so you bring the Constitution and all that stuff, okay?
Bigger: oh yeah, yeah…
[Cut away to the front door as a knock is heard. A short, chubby woman, making herself sound like a young Congressional intern, calls out, “I have to change my shirt. Come on in.” The door slowly opens. President Bush, looking slowly around, cautiously steps in. He has a bundle of papers in one hand and a can of lighter fluid in the other.]
[Enter Chris Hansen]
Hansen: Mr. President, can I ask you what you’re doing with the Constitution?
Bush: Consti, Consti, wha, who…
Hansen: And the lighter fluid?
Bush: That’s uh, I was going to smoke. I mean not me. Timmy he, he said he wanted to smoke and uh, we’d discuss the Constitution, you see, it’s just a piece of paper and so we were going to, uh, have a, have a talk about the folks who, the evil doers!
[Bush, in a sudden panic at the appearance of television cameras, bolts out the door. Screams are heard outside. “Cheney, save me! Executive privilege. I’m the Commander and Chief!“]
Ah, now wasn’t that a lot better than the Oscars?
Posted by james-hazard
at 8:27 PM PST
Updated: Tuesday, 17 June 2008 7:29 PM PDT
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
Erectile dysfunction. ED for short. You might remember a time when ED was just Ed, that creepy old guy with long hair who lived in his parent’s basement. You remember. He used to paint those pictures that were so weird they hurt your eyes just to look at them.
“What is that supposed to be!” you’d want to scream. “Send it to hell where it belongs you crazy bastard!”
No ED then. If you were a boy you’d get a boner by looking at a good looking fence; and if you were a girl at some point in the mystery of development you actually looked forward to sex, imagining that one day you’d meet a sensitive guy who would listen to you.
The problem with being 15 is that it doesn’t last very long. And anyway, what did you do with all that sexual vitality, that superb reaction time, that glorious muscle mass, that thick wavy hair, that clear 20/20 vision and that perfect pitch hearing?
“Dude, Spider Man could kick Superman’s ass.”
“Dude, no way.”
“Way, dude. He’d like put kryptonite in that web stuff and spray it on him.”
“No, dude. Superman would like burn it up with his heat ray vision…”
And of course you probably sat next to someone a lot smarter than you or anyone else in school.
“When I grow up I’m going to start my own computer business.”
“I’m going to call it Microsoft.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you call it!”
Then what? You spend the next 40 years at a boring, dead-end job, hating yourself for being such a jerk because you’ve always been told that smart people don’t work, they get losers like you to work for them.
In bed, watching television past your bedtime, eating chocolate covered
goop, fried pork rinds, smoking or whatever else will stop your clock before it reaches midnight, thinking about those ED commercials.
“I didn’t know that getting my crotch crushed in a motorcycle accident could lead to my ED!”
One thought leads to another. You’ve worked 40 years but what do you have to show for it? And in all those years you’ve voted for political parties that have left you and your community in the dust. Congested freeways instead of mass rapid transit; a global military empire instead of universal health insurance and decent schools; mega rich oil conglomerates and high gas prices instead of cleaner, renewable energy; an endless war on terror instead of a war on poverty, hunger and disease…
Does it matter what the average person really wants anymore?
But there’s the pill for erectile dysfunction. You can have sex, or something like it, again!
Why don’t we turn back the clock and go back to 1970 again? When boys had boners 24/7 without drugs, when tough girls kissed hard and said what was on their mind. We could build an economy that works for us instead of the other way around. We could save the planet. We could even reinvent ourselves.
After all, it’s an American tradition.
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:10 PM PST
Updated: Tuesday, 17 June 2008 7:31 PM PDT
Wednesday, 30 January 2008
I don't want to alarm everyone but a ten thousand pound spy satellite is hurtling toward earth and is expected to enter the atmosphere in late February or early March. The good news is that it may hit North America. Others may be concerned about this but I intend to take advantage of the situation. My plan is to drive my car into position by listening to the radio while using binoculars (which may prove dangerous but I’m willing to take the risk) so that parts of the falling satellite will destroy my car. The military will then have to pay me for a new one. If I’m successful, within the next few months I’ll be behind the wheel of one of those new, clean buring and gas effcient hybrids. Of course, I will have to take my case to the highest court of the land, Judge Judy.
It could go something like this.
Judge Judy: "If I understand your written statements correctly Mr. ... Hastart?"
Me: "Hazard, your honor."
JJ: "What kind of a name is that?"
Me: "It’s my name!"
JJ: "Whatever. Just tell the court what happened."
Me: "On the night in question…"
JJ: (Banging her gavel and scowling) "And no legal mumbo jumbo either, I’ll thank you."
Me: "Right, your honor. I was driving along, minding my own business, when suddenly I saw what looked like a fireball in the sky. I jumped out of my car just in time to avoid certain death. My car was left in smoldering ruins."
JJ: "According to eye-witness accounts you were standing in front of a 7-11, drinking a slurpee and telling people that your car was about to be hit by a spy satellite."
Me: "That’s how they remember it. Actually, I may have been drinking a Coke."
JJ: "General Gene Renuart,, you are someone who, like me, has made something of himself, unlike Mr. Hamard here. However much I may despise the working poor and the lower middle class we do sometimes have to respect their rights so that we don’t get in trouble. This man’s 1999 Saturn was destroyed by your satellite. What are you prepared to do about it?"
General: "Your honor, we have reason to believe that it was not our satellite that destroyed Mr. Haymarket’s car. We have evidence to indicate that it was actually the flaming, falling debris of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign that caused the wreckage."
Me: "Oh you have got to be kidding! Your honor…"
General: "A campaign button was found melted onto the roof of the car."
Me: "That could have been from John Edwards!"
JJ: "Mr. Heaver, I’ve heard just about enough from you. As to you, General, give me a break."
General: "While admitting no responsibility, your honor, the military is prepared to make a generous donation to Mr, Helda-a 1990 Honda Civic that only has 90,000 miles on it and a very clean interior."
Me: "It’s Hazard, you dimwit, and there’s no way I’m driving a beat up Honda Civic."
JJ: "No one said you have to drive it, Mr. Howzer. What you do with it is up to you."
Me: "Your honor, the military sucks 700 billion dollars out of our economy each year. Half the discretionary spending goes to maintaining our military-industrial empire, a system that makes it possible for rich people like you to own almost everything. I mean, the richest one percent own over a trillion dollars more than the bottom 90 percent. They can do better than a measly Honda Civic."
JJ: "Mr. Hertzer, you are out of order! This court exists to placate poor, uneducated trailer trash and not listen to political speeches. Take the car and get out of my courtroom.
Maybe I should rethink my plan.
Posted by james-hazard
at 7:39 PM PST
Updated: Tuesday, 17 June 2008 7:33 PM PDT
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