Monday, November 24, 2014
A cop-killer was at large in the mountains of north-eastern Pennsylvania. The killer lured a highway patrol car to a rest-stop on a deserted stretch of freeway east of Scranton and shot the officer in the face and throat. He, then, waited in ambush and killed another patrolman coming to the rescue of the first officer. A motorist who saw the second killing, identified the murderer’s pick-up truck. But that vehicle was found abandoned on a fire-road in the mountains a dozen miles away. The pick-up truck was registered to an ex-Marine said to be a loner and survivalist. The murderer’s motives were unknown.
Armies of police searched the densely wooded and rugged mountains, but they found no trace of the fugitive. Rumors of his whereabouts multiplied and many people claimed to have glimpsed the cop-killer. There was a report that he was holed-up in an industrial site in Scranton, or that he had gone to Harrisburg to launch a suicide attack on the nuclear plant at Three-Mile Island. A clerk at a convenience store sold a six-pack of beer and some Swisher Sweets to a haggard man dressed in a camouflage suit. A bird-watcher saw a shadowy figure with a long-gun lurking near a swamp in a State Forest. Hikers came across odd marks blazed on trees and heard voices echoing in rocky gorges inaccessible without ropes and crampons. Someone broke into several summer cabins at the end of a long and rutted dirt road and took cans of food and cases of ammunition. A girl driving back to college in New York City saw a lone hitchhiker holding a rifle on the edge of the road in the middle of the night.
Before the Rotary meeting in Diademata, a small Pennsylvania town about thirty miles from the Delaware Water Gap, people talked about the football season and hunting deer and the search for the fugitive cop-killer. The county sheriff was in attendance at the meeting, surrounded by fellow Rotarians asking him about the man-hunt. The county sheriff was a little man with a pock-marked complexion wearing dark-glasses. "Right now the search is focused in the south part of Wayne County, up by the reservoir," the sheriff said. "This guy is armed and very, very dangerous. And he’s a coward. He killed those two patrolman from ambush, never showed his face." Someone asked the sheriff if he thought that the search might shift a little south to the mountainous terrain of their county. "Of course," the sheriff said. "If they don’t catch him in the next week, teams will start combing the back-country around here."
Claude was the director of Human Resources at Legacy Quality Chicken, local poultry processing plant. The plant was located on the edge of town in a wooded canyon so beautiful that, from time to time, local legislators suggested acquiring the processing facility by eminent domain, bulldozing it, and establishing a state park on the site. But the chicken slaughtering plant was old and had a venerable history in the town and, although none of the local people worked there anymore, it was a major employer in the county. Claude wondered out loud if the search parties would hike up the valley beyond the plant to the ghost town of Determination. "Of course," the County Sheriff said. "If you were a fugitive and knew the area, wouldn’t you want to hide up there." Claude nodded his head and squinted across the table to his labor recruiter, Mr. Cortez. Mr. Cortez smiled inscrutably.
Legacy Quality Chicken employed immigrant workers, people bused in to Dalrymple from the outer boroughs of New York and the slums of New Jersey. The workers in the plant didn’t speak English and didn’t mingle with the local people. They were housed in military-style barracks in the valley next to the poultry plant behind high barb-wire fences. For many years, the immigrants had been Spanish-speaking laborers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, but the ethnic composition of the workers had shifted in the last several years to tall, skinny Sudanese, black as pitch, and little, heavily tattooed Asian workers, refugees from Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. The workers came and went and, except at the plant, no one kept track of them. The townspeople grumbled about the situation and cast aspersions on the workers, but none of the Rotarians wanted their children to be employed at Legacy Quality Chicken and, since the place was hidden in the hilly outskirts of town, far enough away that it couldn’t be smelled downtown, most of the time no one thought about it one way or the other.
The Rotary club members said the pledge of allegiance and bowed their heads in prayer. Someone led some songs and the men and women gathered in the banquet room of the Holiday Inn sang lustily. The noon program was a status report from the Superintendent of Schools. The speech was called "Challenges and Opportunities" and the Superintendent read his remarks from a half-dozen closely typed sheets.
One of the challenges, he told his fellow Rotarians, was educating the children of the immigrant workers, a task complicated by the outlandish languages that they spoke and their parents’ transient lives. The Superintendent said that students would be enrolled for several months and, then, suddenly would vanish from the school. "No one knows where they have gone or why," the Superintendent said. Mr. Cortez and Claude held their heads up defiantly during this part of the Superintendent’s speech, looking at him with fixed and disinterested expressions on their faces. It passed soon enough: the Superintendent talked about asbestos remediation in the old elementary school and the new football bleachers and the prospects for the High School’s teams in basketball and wrestling, the football season having now just concluded.
After the talk, an HVAC contractor at their table asked Claude about the workers at the poultry plant. "This time of year is hard for us," Claude said. "People tend to go back to their families for the Holiday Season. We can lose four or five workers a week." "How can you keep them here?" the HVAC contractor said. "I just don’t know," Claude replied. "It’s always a problem."
The Chief of Police for Diademata said that he expected search parties to muster in town next week. The HVAC contractor laughed and said: "Who knows what the search parties will find once they get back up in the woods and the hills?" A fat lawyer with a goatee said: "I bet you’re worried about your marijuana plantations up there." "It’s a known fact," the contractor said. "There’s a lot of dope grown up in those hills." The Chief of Police nodded with a serious expression on his face. The lawyer continued: "Well, in your case –" and he waved his plump hand at the HVAC contractor – "I bet it’s your moonshine operation, your still up there in the hollows." "My lips are sealed," the HVAC contractor said. The Chief of Police was resplendent in his uniform and his side-arm was neatly packed away in its black leather holster on his hip. "It’s true," the Police Chief said, "there’s a lot of moonshining up on those ridges." "And bears," someone else said. "I heard that the search parties for that cop-killer kept running into bears, bears in caves, hibernating and none too friendly." The Police Chief nodded: "It’s true. That’s a known fact."
Sam and Tom were brothers and they operated a janitorial service that employed surly veterans from the wars in the Middle East, misanthropes and cheerful retarded people. The janitorial service provided cleaning to the office suite at the poultry processing plant. Sam and Tom came out of the Rotary Club meeting, blinking in the bright sunlight in the Holiday Inn parking lot. Mr. Cortez and Claude stood close together, their heads almost touching, whispering. When Mr. Cortez saw Sam and Tom approaching, he shook his head to end his conversation with Claude and looked up at the two brothers. Then, Mr. Cortez turned his face back to Claude and he tapped him gently on the shoulder.
Claude started as if shocked by an electrical current. He turned away from Mr. Cortez and walked up to Sam and Tom, extending his hand to shake with them.
"Good to see you," Claude said.
"It’s nice to see you too," Sam replied and Tom nodded.
"I know you guys are great hunters," Claude said.
"We try. I don’t mind getting my deer, but, sometimes, it’s more fun to just walk around in the woods when you get to be our age," Tom said. "Sometimes, you kind of hope you won’t even see any deer."
"Have you got your deer this year?" Claude asked.
Both men said that they hadn’t had any luck.
"Okay," Claude said. He paused: "You know, up a little past Determination..."
The two men looked at him curiously.
"I’ve got a real nice deer-stand up there," Claude said. "If you want to use it this weekend, it’s yours."
Tom thanked him but said that he didn’t want to interfere with Claude’s hunting territory. Sam said: "We’ve got a place we favor and –"
Claude interrupted: "I hurt my back...in the plant. I ain’t going this year. And here’s the thing: there’s not one but two real nice bucks up in those hills. I saw them this Spring. Huge racks, twelve-point at least."
Sam asked: "What were you doing up there?"
Claude paused and looked at Mr. Cortez. Then he said: "Checking on the deer-stand. To see how it came through the winter. That’s when I saw the bucks. Two of them, just beautiful animals."
"And you don’t care if we hunt them from your deer-stand?" Tom asked.
"Not at all," Claude said. "I’m insisting. Are you going this weekend?"
"We were planning to," Sam said.
"Then, go on up there this Saturday and see if you can find them," Claude said. "I insist. Stop by the plant before you leave (I’m working) and I’ll draw you a map to the deer-stand."
Determination was a village located three or four miles up the gorge from Diademata. Fifty years earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the canyon where it narrowed upstream from the poultry processing plant. Once, there had been mines in the ridge above Determination but they had failed and the town was mostly abandoned. A couple years after it lost its post-office, the government bought the land on which the village was built, relocated the few people remaining there, and fenced off the valley preliminary to constructing the dam. The reservoir planned for the valley was the pet project of one of the State’s senators, but, when that congressman was indicted for bribery, funding for the dam was not forthcoming. The project was debated for a decade or so and, then, forgotten. Then, a landslide blocked the old gravel road leading to Determination. Since the government owned the land and had closed it for the reservoir that was never built, the rubble piled-up on the road was never removed. The government’s fencing around the ghost-town was porous, a dozen yards here and there where the land was level. But most of the valley was vertical with cliffs brooding over deep hollows that plunged down between the narrow, stony ridges and, even, where the fence was installed and set in concrete-filled postholes, it was not maintained and sportsmen had slashed holes in the wire so that they could hunt the wild country in the hills above Diademata.
The poultry processing plant stood on a terrace overlooking the river that skipped and darted downhill in whitewater rapids between black palisades. Big earthen berms had been built around the plant to protect it from flooding that occurred sometimes in the Spring or after heavy rains. The berms gave the chicken plant the appearance of a fortification, a decaying and moribund castle squatting behind grassy earthworks. The plant was very old and had a tall smokestack that wasn’t used any more, a big pillar of reddish brick rising above piles of more reddish brick, a heaped-up structure of indeterminate shape complicated, as it was, by new additions, a modern wing studded with excrescences of refrigeration equipment annexed to old windowless walls pierced with slide-like fire-escapes and writhing metal pipes.
Downhill from the poultry plant, also protected by grassy berms and high wire fences, two big dormitories sat side-by-side. Lights mounted on steel pillars surveyed the housing for the immigrant workers and the hillside lot where the white foremen and managers parked their SUVs and pick-up trucks. Across the river from the parking lot, a spring gushed silvery cascades of water down a cliff and the stone around the spring was all soft and feathery with ferns and deep green moss.
Sam and Tom met Claude in the parking lot on Saturday as the first light brightened the sky over the canyon. They had hauled their ATVs up to the plant on a flat-bed towed behind their pickup-truck. "Is it okay to park here," Sam and Tom asked. Claude was bright-eyed, holding a cup of coffee between his palms to warm his hands. "Of course," Claude said.
The air in the narrow valley smelled of rotting flesh and between the trees there were windrows of yellowing feathers. Trucks carrying poultry came up the road to unload at the plant and, sometimes, the feathers flew off those vehicles as if it were snowing in the deep and gloomy canyon. Claude handed Sam a hand-drawn map showing the location of his deer-stand.
"Will you check things out for me up there?" Claude said. "Give the place the eye and let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary?" "What would be out of the ordinary?" Tom asked. "Maybe, you’ll see the cop-killer," Claude said. "Or some sign of him."
"Maybe," Sam said.
"Anyway, if you see anything at all unusual, you’ll let me know, won’t you," Claude said.
"Okay," Tom and Sam told him. They hitched their rifles over their shoulders and drove up the valley, passing by the plant and continuing along the side of river that sang in its rocky channel. As they passed the plant, Mr. Cortez came out of a door on the side of the building and saluted them.
The river road bent uphill, not maintained, an obstacle course of deep craters and scattered heaps of rock-fall from overhanging cliffs. An orange barricade dead-ended the road a dozen yards from the landslide. The rubble collapsed onto the road was overgrown with scrub and small, desperate-looking trees rooted in the crevasses between boulders and slabs of stone. The pores in the towering heap of rocks caught the rainfall and snow and ice buried in the heart of the landslide remained sheltered there year round. Because of the hidden ice, the hillside exuded a chill like a refrigerator and a musty, wet fragrance. A narrow trail skirted the toe of the landslide, a stony ledge above the frothy river.
Sam and Tom drove their ATVs on the course of the old road up the gorge toward Determination. The road dipped into a couple of wash-outs and, then, dead-ended again at a high cyclone fence stretched across the canyon. The section of the fence crossing the old road was cut open and, in fact, the entire panel of wire, from post to post, could be pushed inward like a hinged gate. "No Trespassing" signs on the fence had been shot to pieces.
From the fence, it was two miles to Determination. Almost nothing was left of the townsite. A brick wall slumped into a cellar that had once been square but was now eroded into an eye-shaped ellipse. Some gravel driveways led to slabs of shattered concrete where old tar shingles were scattered in the weeds. The houses were all gone, but a couple of crumbling sheds and a woodpile remained. In the crest of the cliffs above the ghost-town, there were fans of gravel and chipped rock spreading out downhill from several dark indentations in the bluff. Some rusting cable and a few big timbers were embedded in the conical heaps of gravel.
Tom took out the map that Claude had drawn and, after parking the ATVs, followed a footpath to an old cast-iron bridge crossing the river. Sam pointed to the deer-stand, a clumsy-looking plywood platform suspended on a precarious-looking two-by-four frame. They climbed the tree supporting the platform using some lathe rungs nailed to the trunk’s bark. A couple of aluminum folding chairs lay on the platform. Sam and Tom opened them up and sat down. From their height, they surveyed the valley.
After an hour or so, Tom pointed to something bright hidden in trees across the river and a hundred yards upstream.
"Do you see that?"
Sam nodded: "I noticed it about ten minutes ago."
"I suppose we should check it out," Tom said.
"I suppose," Sam replied.
They climbed down from the stand and walked across the cast-iron bridge. A fine mist filled the air, almost drizzle but not quite. A wide rutted trail ran alongside the river to the trees where the object was hidden. It was invisible from the path because of small hillocks of gravel and fist-sized rocks, apparently cast up from some vertical shafts. The sides of the shafts had collapsed into funnels of slippery sand and small stones, heavy timbers like railroad ties tilted downward into the dark pits. There were two bonfire sites, circles of black char that had a sweet, foul odor and, then, a round, cistern-like hole into which someone had pushed loose rock, apparently using a machine like a bulldozer. The air smelled of rotting meat.
"Something died here," Tom said.
"I think it’s just a breeze blowing up from the poultry plant," Sam said. "On humid days, you can smell that place for miles."
"You’re probably right," Tom replied.
The stench made them dizzy. They found a small skid-loader, covered with underbrush and backed against a hillside made from spoil slumping from the mouth of a shaft cut into the cliff.
"That’s what we saw from the stand," Sam said.
"Looks like someone’s been mining here," Tom said.
They walked back toward the two burnt circles near the river. Tom kicked at something underfoot. "What is it?" Sam asked.
"It’s a kid’s backpack," Tom said. He stooped to inspect the backpack, a little fold of vinyl and black straps inset in the dirt. Among the weeds, Sam saw a couple of water bottles and a broken mirror from a woman’s compact. A child’s tennis shoe rested on a stone at the edge of the river.
The wind moved and blew the bad smell away for a moment. Tom and Sam looked at one another and shrugged.
They went back to the deer-stand and scrutinized the valley for another hour. The mist became drizzle and, then, it rained briefly. After the rain, it was windy.
"I have the feeling we’re being watched," Sam said.
"You know I’ve been thinking that too."
They pointed the muzzles of their rifles at the landscape around them.
"It’s probably that cop-killer," Sam said.
Tom replied: "That would be our luck."
The trees on the ridges made dramatic gestures in the wind and dark clouds scudded by. But except for the wind, nothing else moved in the valley.
"Had enough?" Tom asked.
"Enough," Sam said.
They hiked back to their ATVs and drove down the canyon toward the poultry plant. Just before, the landslide, they saw a large, powerfully muscled buck standing among the boulders. The animal had regal horns and turned its majestic head to inspect them. Sam and Tom stopped their ATVs, dismounted, and began to unsheathe their rifles. When they looked up again, the buck was gone.
"A beautiful animal," Sam said. Tom replied: "Almost a shame to shoot something like that."
A half-dozen anonymous figures were marching between buildings at the poultry plant. The workers wore hooded sweatshirts against the cold, wet air. The workers’ hands were brown but their faces and eyes were hidden in the shadows of their sweatshirts. Mr. Cortez was watching from a slit window in the office building. The florescent light behind him haloed his head.
Claude met them by their pickup truck as they were driving the ATVs onto the flatbed trailer.
"How’d it go?" he asked.
"Nothing," Tom and Sam said. "We caught of glimpse of that buck. But he got away."
"Did you see anything?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean did you see anything unusual up there?"
Tom said: "Like what? What do you mean?"
"Any sign of that cop-killer or bears in the caves or anything?"
"Nothing that we noticed," Sam said.
"It’s lonely up there," Tom said.
"Very lonely," Claude said.
They thanked Claude for the use of his deer-stand and drove back down to Diademata.
The cop-killer remained at large. A week later at Rotary, the Sheriff announced that the search would expand to Diademata and environs. "We will have fifty patrolman augmented by a hundred National Guardsmen who have voluntarily agreed to spend their weekend looking for the fugitive."
Claude was agitated. He seemed almost giddy.
"I’m sure he’s hiding up there," Claude said. "That killer’s in these hills. I just know it."
"If he’s up there," the Sheriff said solemnly, "we’ll find him. That’s a promise."
"Who knows what you’ll find," Claude said. "There are bears up in those old mines. Really big old bruins. You better be ready to deal with bears."
"Bears are not a problem," the Sheriff said.
That night, Claude put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He lived alone in the house where he had been raised. His mother had died a dozen years earlier. Claude had been a very neat housekeeper and, except for his corpse, his home was immaculate. The basement of the house was crammed with toilet paper, light bulbs, paper towels, and janitorial supplies that Claude had stolen from the poultry plant. The rumor was that he had embezzled a fortune from his employer and killed himself because detection of his crime was imminent. Legacy Quality Chickens had no comment.
As it happened, the search for the cop-killer was never expanded to Diademata. An informant told the police that the fugitive was hiding in a farmhouse west of Scranton. There was a brief gun battle and the cop-killer was shot to death.
A couple weeks later, Mr. Cortez resigned from his position as recruiter for the poultry plant. He returned to Mexico and people said that he had saved enough money to buy a ranch in the mountains near Cholula.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
A scientist at the Salk Institute discovered that the rare metal, iridium, when alloyed with certain alkalis was prophylactic against cancer. Gamma ray radiation emanating from telluric compounds of iridium prevented the development of tumors. At last, cancer had been cured. The efficacy of telluric iridium as a cancer preventative measure was close to 100 percent.
But there was a problem. Iridium is one of the most rare elements on earth: gold is forty times more prevalent. Most iridium is found in deposits left in the earth’s crust by ancient collisions with meteorites and asteroids.
In the asteroid belt, there is a irregularly shaped stone hurtling in orbit between Mars and Jupiter. That stone, the size of Lake Baikal and roughly shaped like that body of water, is almost entirely made of iridium. Spectroscopy demonstrated the composition of this asteroid to astrochemists employed by the Merck pharmaceutical company – this was part of a world-wide search for sources of iridium. The name of the asteroid was Tsiphone, a Greek word for one of the Erinys or Furies.
The astrochemist who discovered that Tsiphone was largely composed of iridium was subject to a confidentiality agreement protecting from disclosure discoveries that he made for his employer. But, notwithstanding that agreement, the chemist, who felt that he was under-compensated by Merck, defected to Pfizer and told his superiors in that firm about the large deposits of iridium on Tsiphone. Merck sued Pfizer for unfair competition, tortious interference, and trade secret misappropriation. The lawsuit proceeded under a seal of confidentiality in federal court in New York. But. an enterprising law clerk sold the court-sealed information about the iridium on Tsiphone to GlaxoSmithKline. That company launched a probe to Tsiphone, subsidized with money from the United Kingdom and Holland, the headquarters for an allied firm, Organon. The probe landed successfully on Tsiphone and confirmed that the spinning chunk of rock was almost entirely iridium and, therefore, valuable beyond all measure. A Russian probe had also been launched to Tsiphone and a dispute arose between that nation and the European Union as to what nation, or groups of nations, had sovereignity over the barren, sun-scorched boulder of iridium ore. Complicating the matter was a claim to ownership over the asteroid lodged in the Hague by Takeda, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant, in contractual alliance with Eli Lilly and Company of the United States. Chinese space researchers claimed that they had first discovered the presence of iridium on Tsiphone, pointing to an obscure article published in Nature, and that, therefore, their nation had a prior claim to the element that was to be mined on the planetoid. A dispute arose between Japan and China, relating primarily to some contested offshore islands, but, in that context of that controversy, a Chinese rocket dispatched to Tsiphone was shot down over the North Pole, apparently by rockets fired from a Japanese fighter plane. The Chinese retaliated by blasting several Japanese aircraft from the air, including, by accident, a passenger plane. At about that time, signals from the GlaxoSmithKline probe, that had landed on Tsiphone ceased transmission. Georgian separatists claimed that the Russians had destroyed the United Kingdom/Holland probe with a death-satellite launched in Siberia. The Russians punished the Georgians for this calumny by invading that country and burning its capitol city. This aggression induced an international crisis and a formal United Nations’ denunciation of Russia. Undeterred, the Russians aligned themselves with China and asserted that the asteroid was a province of their empire (and the Chinese sphere of hegemony) – remote, to be sure, but just as surely Russian as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Spurred on by pharmaceutical interests in the United States and Europe, crippling economic sanctions were imposed on the Russians, including an embargo. Off the coast of Murmansk, an American destroyer sunk a Russian vessel attempting to breach the trade embargo. The Russians responded by launching missile strikes on American vessels in the Mediterranean and Gulf of Oman. All nations had eschewed the use of nuclear weapons and so armaments of that kind were not deployed in the ensuing conflict. But the Chinese, Israelis, the United States, India, Pakistan, and Russian all had sizeable inventories of biological and chemical warheads. An initial exchange of missiles, triggered by a misunderstanding, led to further warfare. In the end, almost all of the earth’s population was killed by viral agents, including smallpox that bored holes in people’s flesh until their bones were exposed. No part of the earth was spared. The medical infrastructure collapsed. Babies died of measles. Mobs of lepers roamed the smashed cities of Europe. So many perished that no one could remember how to produce antibiotics. The survivors of the chemically and biologically induced plagues died of gas gangrene, tetanus, appendicitis, and other infections.
Vainly transmitting signals back to their ruined planet, a half-dozen space probes clinging to the surface of Tsiphone sent hopeful messages as to the purity of the iridium that they had assayed. There was no one to receive the messages. The probes continued to signal for almost a hundred years before the power in their solar panel batteries failed.
The name iridium comes from the Greek word: Iris. The element’s name means: "Of rainbows."
Saturday, September 6, 2014
Something warm touched his ear. Eliot looked up. The blue overhead was unbroken by clouds. A nearby tree rustled in the faint, dry breeze. Moisture trickled from his ear down his cheek. Eliot looked down at the pavement of his driveway. The cement was unmarked and white in the sunlight. The houses nearby lifted their bare shingle roofs toward the sky; tin flashing glinted around stove and furnace vents. There were no birds close enough for him to see them.
Odd to have a drop of water fall from a completely blue and empty sky.
Eliot thought he felt the impact of another drop on his brow. He touched a spot above his glasses on his forehead and thought that he felt moisture, but he couldn’t be sure.
The weeds growing at the side of the alley were brown and withered. Although Eliot had been gone for most of the summer, he saw that the grass on the lawns did not need mowing. It had been very dry for the past month. Rain would be welcome. But there were no clouds in the sky.
For twenty years, Eliot had spent part of each summer in an African country. He was a veterinarian and had first gone to Africa to help the people with their animal husbandry practices. He traveled in a remote and mountainous land with a delegation of veterinarians from his state, meeting the local farmers and herdsmen, listening to their questions, and offering them assistance. At that time, the country was rural and the roads were very bad, but the people were gentle and welcoming. The mud villages reminded Eliot of pictures that he had seen in Sunday School when he was a little boy. After his third or fourth trip, Eliot presented a slide show to the Men’s Brotherhood at his church. Introducing his slides, Eliot said: "In the country, the villages are like places from the old Bible times." There were wells where women gathered to fill clay jugs and plastic jerry-cans with water. In the hills, shepherds watched over flocks. Bandits came down from the mountains to steal from the peasants. At night people gathered around bonfires to sing and dance and tell stories.
It amazed Eliot that simple things could make a great difference in the life of the people living on the great, dusty plain beneath the chocolate-colored cones of the volcanos. Nets that his church congregation purchased prevented malaria. Water purification tablets saved children who might have died from diarrhea. Penicillin prevented infection and DEET killed blackflies that spread river-blindness. Eliot brought refrigerated semen from his veterinary practice to improve the genetics in local cattle. He also carried several suitcases full of anti-parasite medications and antibiotics to treat illness in domestic animals. During the first decade, Eliot lost much of this medication to corrupt officials at the airport and, later, paid bribes to customs agents so that they would overlook the pharmaceuticals that he brought into the country. But, as he became better known to local authorities, Eliot found that a couple of bottles of good scotch whiskey offered as a gift was all that was required to import fifty or, even, a hundred pounds of veterinary medicine. Drugs that helped human beings were more problematic since they were in higher demand and, after several failed attempts at importing these medications, Eliot abandoned that effort and let the formal missionary organizations manage negotiations necessary to get antibiotics and similar drugs through customs.
Eliot was good friends with a number of the headmen in the villages to which he traveled. The people were happy to see him come, first with his wife, and, then, his two sons, and when he arrived in a town, there was usually a feast offered in his honor. Although the people were very skinny, Eliot was always amazed at how much they could eat at a banquet. When his boys were in High School, Eliot hosted foreign exchange students from the country where he was active each summer. This ended when one of the exchange students got drunk one night and crashed Eliot’s pick-up truck into a telephone pole. The African boy was killed and, although Eliot was not at fault, he paid reparations established by the elders in the village from which the exchange student had come. The reparations were in an amount less than five-thousand dollars and it grieved Eliot to think that the life of promising, young African boy was worth so little.
After fifteen years of slow, but incremental success with his African endeavors, Eliot sensed that a kind of apogee had been reached and that affairs in the small country were beginning to deteriorate. The roads were better and there were bridges crossing streams that Eliot had once had to churn through in his Landrover, but better transportation seemed to make the villagers more insular and suspicious. Many of the small villages were hollowed-out, most of the men working in the big pestilential cities on the scalding coastline and the women seemed forlorn and angry. Barricades of wrecked vehicles sometimes closed blacktop highways and travelers had to pay tolls to local chieftains. Guerillas with machine guns had replaced the bandits armed with knives and axes. Once, Eliot came to farm to which he had supplied good quality bull semen only to find that all of the fine, white cattle had been shot by local rebels. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes, although Eliot was an active man, who liked fixing things, and someone who didn’t have time for self-pity.
In the last two seasons, there was pestilence. The government authorities, unable to contain the contagion, claimed that the sickness was the result of CIA intervention and sinister experiments in the bush. The boss of one of the insurgent groups told villagers that the antibiotics and other drugs supplied by Eliot’s mission (and by the other NGO agencies) were vectors of infection. Eliot saw dying patients pulled from a hospital in one of the small cities where, previously, he had helped with veterinary services and, even, administered anti-diarrheal drugs to children. The sick people were set in the shade of a brick and tin Jehovah’s Witness church and Eliot saw armed men raping the nurses. An old friend saved his life by picking him up on his Vespa and driving the veterinarian to a small village several miles away. But there was fighting in the fields around the village and, at last, a government helicopter came to airlift Eliot and several other trapped air workers, mostly Germans and Norwegians, away from the combat. Some rich local landowners had bribed the authorities in the capitol to allow them to escape the fighting as well and those people, carrying heavy suitcases crowded into the helicopter. It seemed at first that the helicopter was too heavy to take-off but, at last, it lifted into the air, and, tilting on its rotor like an unsteady cable-car, the aircraft rose up over the savannah and the parched plain. Eliot had eaten something that was contaminated and he was sick and it was surprising to him how the helicopter jolted and lunged in the air – it was like riding in the back of an old pick-up truck rattling across a freshly furrowed field.
At the airport in the capitol, there was only one jetway and it was mounted on wheels and dragged by a man operating a front-end loader. Either the skid-loader was broken or the wheels of the jetway were flat or, perhaps, something else was wrong. But the jetway was not available when Eliot’s plane was ready for boarding and so the passengers, mostly worried-looking Europeans with a smattering of Americans, had to walk across the blistering tarmac to reach the the aircraft. As he hiked across the runway, Eliot felt two warm and heavy drops fall on him – one drop splashed his forearm; the other moistened his throat. He looked up into the clear and vast African sky but saw no clouds, no aircraft, only several big black fowl, possibly vultures, circling a half-mile away. Eliot thought that he was sweating and that the sickness, which made his joints ache, was the cause of the drops of liquid that had fallen on him. He mopped at his brow which was suspiciously warm and dry.
When Eliot felt the tepid, greasy drop of water on his ear and cheek, he wondered if he was getting sick again. Sometimes, a tropical illness might come and go, symptoms flaring and, then, diminishing unpredictably. He had been sick before after returning from Africa and, certainly, this last trip had been particularly difficult and taxing.
In his kitchen, Eliot encountered his wife. She was boiling something on the stove. A cheerful bouquet of steam rose over the pot that she was tending. "I’m too old to go to Africa," Eliot said. "It’s an awful place," she replied. "You know I never liked it there." Eliot and his wife had disagreed about his work in Africa for many years and there was no point in arguing about it with her. "I think I’m getting sick again," Eliot said. She shrugged. "I keep feeling big drops of rain falling on me, but when I look up in the sky, there’s no cloud, no rain at all." Eliot’s wife turned to face him. "You know," she said, "I thought I felt rain falling on me a couple of times when you were in Africa. But there were no clouds anywhere in sight. Once, I even thought I saw a rainbow, just the ghost of a rainbow and for just a moment." "That’s odd," Eliot said.
He went into the living room and slumped in his easy chair to watch the news. The plague in Africa was spreading and, in the Congo, sickness was blamed on witchcraft and several hundred suspected sorcerers were thought to have been stoned to death. An army of terrorists had captured a city somewhere near the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and the river that flowed through that town was clogged with corpses for a dozen miles. A plane full of tourists had been shot down over a war-zone in eastern Europe and another aircraft with almost 300 people aboard had simply vanished. Fires were burning out of control in northwestern Canada with the result that people in Chicago and, even, St. Louis experienced gorgeous, livid sunsets. There were so many wars and insurrections and massacres underway that it was impossible for the newscasters to list them all.
"I can’t tell you how old and worn-out I feel," Eliot said. His wife told him to shut off the television. "Why do you watch that crap?" she asked. "It just makes you feel lousy."
The next day Eliot was working. On his way home, he encountered a car accident. He had come from a dairy farm were several top-grade Holstein’s had fallen ill with mastitis. One of the animals had developed a bad staphylococcus infection. Eliot was concerned that bacterial infections seemed to be growing in virulence. He had read about infections that even the most powerful antibiotics were unable to control. At the farm, Eliot had said to the farmer: "I don’t think this is one of those super-bugs. I just hope that I’m dead and gone when those things start attacking."
Two cars had collided in an uncontrolled intersection about six blocks from Eliot’s house. Both vehicles must have been moving with significant speed when they crashed because there was extensive damage to both of them. An old black Cadillac, pitted with rust, sat with its right front wheel on top of the curb in one corner of the cross-roads. A woman sat in the passenger side of the Cadillac cradling her head in her hands. A young man stood next to the car bellowing across the intersection toward a small foreign-built pickup truck. Two Latino men sat in the pickup truck staring at the boy who was shouting at them. They had blood on their lips and chins and sat motionlessly, stoic and impassive. The pickup truck had been spun around violently and three of its four tires were off their rims. Glass was flung in wide arcs across the crossroads and there was a small white dog bleeding from its ear and muzzle lying in the center of the intersection. Eliot pulled up to the curb several car-lengths from the intersection. People stood on their porches or peered through their windows at the scene. In the distance, sirens sounded.
Eliot’s first impulse was to ignore the people and tend to the dog thrown like a rag-doll onto the pavement. But he restrained that impulse and hurried to side of the pickup truck. The men inside seemed dazed and both of them seemed to have broken noses, but Eliot didn’t detect any obvious injuries. The men nodded to him when he asked if they were all right. He wasn’t sure if they understood his words. One of them even attempted a haphazard smile. Eliot said that help was coming and he walked across the intersection, stepping over the dead dog, to the Cadillac. The young man leaning against the Cadillac was screaming obscenities and his face was bright purple.
"Are you okay?" Eliot asked. The man ignored him and shrieked at the Latinos in their wrecked pickup. He took a step forward, but something was wrong with his ankle and he fell forward. The Cadillac’s side windows were blown out and Eliot leaned into the car. The woman had grey hair and she rocked back and forth in the seat. The airbag had punched her in the face and Eliot could see that her jaw and forehead were bruised. "Help is on the way," Eliot said. "Calm my son down," the woman whispered. "He has a very bad temper."
A squad car stopped about a half-block from the intersection and a policeman loped down the sidewalk to the crash scene. The young man had crawled a few feet into the road and was howling with rage. The cop was very young and he looked frightened. He stopped a half-dozen feet from the young man. The young man groped in the roadway and picked up a rock. He flung the rock toward the pick-up truck but his aim was poor and the stone almost struck the police-man. Eliot felt a drop of water splash on the top of his head. At the same time, several other big, heavy and warm drops hit his wrist and the knuckles of his right hand. The cop cried out with alarm and hesitantly lifted his revolver. More drops fell dotting the pavement and Eliot heard the rain rustling in the leaves of the trees arched over the crossroads.
The sky was an incomparable blue, brilliant like nothing on earth. The warm rain moistened everything. Eliot felt his face running with it and the grass and shrubbery shimmered with the droplets that caught the sunlight. All around him, the world seemed to blur. A luminous mist made it impossible to Eliot to focus his eyes. The young man on the ground had stopped screaming and the police officer’s revolver was back in its holster. The cop knelt to help the injured boy. An ambulance veered into the intersection, slick and greasy with the water materializing in the air. At the end of the leafy street, where the country began with fields of amber-colored corn, a rainbow arched upward.
Eliot had the presence of mind of reach into his breast-pocket and remove a specimen vial. He unscrewed the vial’s cap and held it up to catch the fat, glistening droplets of water oozing out of the sky. As the strange rain ended, butterflies emerged from the hedges, fluttering through the bright air. The air smelled like the sea, a faint fishy odor mingled with salt. The butterflies were feasting on the nectar that had materialized on the leaves and flowers and the pebbles in the street. They covered the dead dog with shimmering iridescence.
An EMT squatted near the injured boy. It looked as if the boy had been injected with morphine – a vacant smile spread across his face. The cop’s shoulders were wet. "It’s raining out of a clear sky," he said. The EMT glanced away from the injured kid: "It’s been doing that. Must be something related to global warming." The windshield wipers on the ambulance were still flopping back and forth, but the rain had stopped and the glass was dry and the motion of the wipers served only to disarrange the butterflies sipping at the droplets on the chrome edges of the windows.
The next day, Eliot called a friend who worked in the veterinary medicine laboratories at the university. He told him that he had a peculiar fluid bottled in specimen jar and that he wondered if the lab could analyze the substance. Eliot’s friend was accommodating and told him to send the sample with the other specimens, mostly blood and semen, that the diagnostic lab’s courier collected each day.
Results weren’t reported to Eliot for several days. During that time, rain fell from clear skies several times and Eliot went outside to bathe in the droplets emerging from the air. He felt a curious sense of peace and well-being, as if there were something calming in moisture that brightened the earth.
After a week, a technician called Eliot at this clinic. "We have the results on the droplets you sent us," the technician said.
"What is it?" Eliot asked.
"Tell me first that you’re not joking with us. You know, the resources of this lab are valuable and –"
"Why would I be joking?"
The technician said: "Okay, it’s a saline solution but with complex proteins."
"What are the proteins?" Eliot asked.
"They’re all exocrine proteins," the technician said.
"Yep," the technician said. "That’s why we’re puzzled. You’ve got prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, leucine enkephalin."
"I don’t know those substances."
"Natural painkillers, stuff secreted by the parasympathetic system."
"So what is it?
The technician paused: "Tears, human tears."
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
The neighborhood around the campus is questionable and said to be unsafe after dark. Secretaries and research assistants working after eight pm are given vouchers so that they don’t have to ride the elevated train and can go home by taxi. And, normally, after sunset, Geoffrey did not venture beyond the ivy-clad walls of the university and the security check-point with its drowsy African-American guard at its gate.
But, on this night, long after midnight, Geoffrey, disheveled and wild-eyed, nodded to the sentinel half-asleep at his post and, then, strode beyond the fortified campus and down the street toward the taverns with the beer signs in their windows and the after-hours joints and the convenience stores with their grated fronts, the check-cashing places and the pharmacies where young men were gathered at the street corner who growled and cursed at him. Soon, it would be dawn – in this time of year our nights are short – and Geoffrey could buy breakfast from a taco truck and, then, make his way home on the El crowded with worried-looking people hurrying to work.
The boulevard softened a little and Geoffrey saw small trees with sparse green leaves growing in the ruins of a burned-out building. In a corner of the sky, there was a pale streak, perhaps a harbinger of dawn and the street was empty, a desert for as far as Geoffrey could see, traffic semaphores ceaselessly signaling red, and yellow, and green to one another and the empty crossroads. The skyscrapers a half dozen miles to the north were lit haphazardly from within, cleaning crews probably still at work there, and the wind came off the lake and stole down the quiet avenues and freshened Geoffrey’s face, cooling the moist places under his eyes.
Dogs hidden from view barked in chorus. Geoffrey saw an animal trotting down the center of the empty boulevard. At first, he thought it was large cat, but the creature’s legs were long, stilt-like, and, as the animal passed, Geoffrey saw that it was panting slightly like a dog, a pennant of red tongue showing through its half-open jaw. The animal was the color of dry foliage and August underbrush. For a moment, Geoffrey thought that the beast was looking at him and he saw its eyes glitter briefly, catching something like starlight from the sky and transmitting that beam to him. The dogs concealed in the darkness howled in an ecstatic frenzy. The revelation passed. Geoffrey looked up and down the long, still street but the animal was gone. He walked another half-block to a bench marking a bus stop and sat down.
He was one of the leading computer scientists in the world and had spent the night processing data on the quantum computer that he managed. The quantum computer was like a mighty telescope or a particle accelerator: forty men and women worked on it around the clock in its underground vault so that the instrument could be used to peer into the heart of things. The machine was swathed in tubing that fed reservoirs of liquid helium cooling the matrices of superconductors. Sometimes, the liquid helium sublimed into the air and the technicians found themselves speaking to one another in high-pitched comical chipmunk voices. Conventional computers with high-resolution monitors radiated from the quantum device. The digital computers were installed in insulated cubicles installed on terraces above the helium vats and the SQUID devices in their vaults. SQUID means Superconductor Quantum Interference Device and these were plates of lead-niobium alloy separated by membranes one electron wide, sensors that captured the data output from the computer in the center of the array. The Quantum computer transmitted data in quantum waves measurable by magnetometers sensitive to one-billionth of a Tesla. Inside the so-called "black box" – it was actually a grey monolith englobed by mini-particle-accelerators– Schroedinger’s cat was both alive and dead, performing a trillion calculations per second. The "black box" processed qubits of information, the quantum equivalent of computer bits. These qubits were sub-atomic systems, impossible to imagine except through mathematical equations – theoretical probability circuits that were both 1 and 0 simultaneously, but, also, superposed so that all numbers in between those values could also be deployed in algorithms that only the machine could understand. The Quantum Computer was the most powerful calculating device in the world – indeed, in all possible worlds. Swathed in helium a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, the machine manipulated super-dense information arrays of quantum-entangled cubits. Although the concept was hard to grasp, the instrument performed computations in multiple universes simultaneously. No one knew how many universes the device accessed – the number of dimensions in which data arrays were processed was thought to be a very high number, although, probably, not infinite.
As with the great optical and radio telescopes, computing time on the most powerful data processing instrument in the world was valuable. Most of the machine’s brain-power was devoted to military applications, of course, with a fraction of its computing capacity utilized to run programs relating to the economy. (Geoffrey wasn’t prepared to talk about the covert use of the device to prognosticate sports events and support wagering in Fantasy Football leagues.) Like any oracle, the machine was only as good as the questions posed to it.
For several nights, the University’s Quantum Computer had been calculating the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe, or, indeed, in the multi-verse. A single-cell protozoa arises as the result of a billion billion outcomes, each generated, one might imagine, by the roll of a thousand-faceted dice. To produce a one-celled life form, matter has to be organized according to certain principles and this organization must proceed in accord with certain numerical sequences. Geoffrey called each outcome in this probability function a "decision" or a "decision-point," a term that he realized as unduly anthropomorphic since it assumed that someone or something was "deciding" rolls of the dice with a strategic purpose in mind. Nonetheless, Geoffrey adopted that phrase, as did his team, and they recognized that, in theory, each decision point could be calculated in terms of statistical probability. The most powerful computer in the universe could be programmed to take a "quantum walk" through these probability functions, exploring all possible outcomes, rummaging among them for those favorable to the predicted outcome, and, then, calculating the likelihood that a "decision" conducive to the evolution of life might occur. Further, in another dimension, the machine could calculate the probability that such a "decision point" would happen in the exact sequence necessary to lead to the next roll of the dice required to engender a living organism. No conventional computer could manage the data arrays necessary to attempt this calculation. But, it seemed to Geoffrey, that this was the best and highest use, perhaps, to which the quantum computer could be put and, so, for several years, he had devised algorithms to program the most powerful instrument in all worlds of worlds to envision a one-celled life-form, an amoeba, for instance, as a mathematical system and, then, reverse engineer that system through every possible permutation necessary for the creation of that system, each permutation conceived as a series of either-or equations that solved cumulatively resulted in the equation matrix representing that amoeba.
This was the work that had occupied Geoffrey, along with missile trajectories and pestilence dispersion studies and future treasury bond interest rates (as well as football and hockey prognostication), for the past 48 months. An hour before the machine had solved the equations and Geoffrey knew the answer to the probability of life evolving both on our planet and anywhere else in the multiverse.
Geoffrey put his head in his hands. He looked down at the gutter in front of the bus stop. The gutter was dry, but water from storms had run there recently, and some leaves and shredded paper were stuck together against the curb. The earth wobbled on its axis and neutrinos flooded through the planet’s molten core and, overhead, a few stars visible despite the orange-yellow glow rising over the city, trembled briefly as if quivering in the fluid of human tears. And, on cue, a drunk appeared, crossing the street on the diagonal, looking neither right nor left, but heading straight for the bench where Geoffrey sat.
Geoffrey didn’t move and continued to count and measure the fragments of leaves and paper in the gutter. The drunk stood facing him, a few yards away, and Geoffrey smelled the man’s sour stink and felt him wobbling in his own spine – the man was unsteady on his feet and this made Geoffrey feel slightly dizzy.
"That’s an unlucky bench," the drunk said.
Geoffrey looked at him. The man’s age was indeterminate. He was wearing a white tee-shirt that was torn over his left shoulder. Some stains on the tee-shirt showed charcoal-colored in the darkness, although who knows what there actual color was – maybe, there was no true color; it was just a matter of the light transfusing the scene. Geoffrey couldn’t see the man’s hair – he was wearing a baseball cap tight over his scalp. The drunk’s feet were bare in his ripped tennis shoes and Geoffrey could smell the faint reek of his dirty heel and toes through the other odors.
"That’s an unlucky bench, chief,’ the drunk said again. But he stumbled forward and sat down beside Geoffrey.
Geoffrey glanced at him sideways. The drunk had a noble, ruined profile. He seemed a mixture of all races and colors. His eyes glittered faintly like the eyes of the animal that Geoffrey had seen trotting down the street.
"Why’s it unlucky?"
"Funeral home, man," the drunk said. "It’s an ad for a mortuary."
"Oh," Geoffrey said.
The drunk fumbled in his pocket and a found a claw-shaped shard of broken glass. He set the glass piece on his knee.
"Dangerous neighborhood, you know," the drunk said.
"I didn’t notice," Geoffrey said. "I came from the university, the campus."
"You shouldn’t be out and about this late. Not in this part of town," the drunk told him.
"Is that true?" Geoffrey asked.
"Just my opinion which don’t amount to shit," the drunk said.
"No, no," Geoffrey said. "It’s worth knowing. I suppose I ought to..."
Geoffrey started to stand up. The drunk picked up the shard of glass carefully and inspected it.
"Not without an escort," the drunk said. "I could walk back with you. You done rambled a far piece from your campus. I could guard you. But, you know, it’s valuable services...and..."
"I suppose I have to pay."
Geoffrey sat down. He looked up the avenue. He looked down the avenue. Perhaps, a bus would come along or a police car. But the street was empty and silent.
The drunk looked relieved. He set the glass back down on the bench between them. He said: "What brings you out into this part of the ‘hood’?"
"I was walking and thinking. Sometimes, I don’t pay much attention to my whereabouts," Geoffrey said.
"That’s a peril," the drunk said. "You gotta know where you be."
"You’re right," Geoffrey replied. "But I was, you know, lost in thought."
"Thinking about what?"
"We did a study, with the big computer at the U," Geoffrey said. "We used decision-tree analysis to calculate the probability of life evolving out of inanimate matter."
"We wanted to know whether there is a probability of life like us in other parts of the universe."
"Why did you want to know that?"
"Just to know. I guess we had government funding."
"Someone should boot some of that funding my way," the drunk said. "But what did you find out?"
"The probability that life could evolve from hydrogen, hydrogen atoms — "
"Why hydrogen?" the drunk asked.
"Because everything was originally made from hydrogen. That’s the stuff from which everything else emerges."
The drunk nodded.
"The probability is one chance out of 10 to the 80th power," Geoffrey said.
"What’s that mean, boss?"
"It’s a fraction, a one sitting on top of a ten with 80 zeros."
"So what’s that mean?"
"It’s exceedingly unlikely that life could evolve from hydrogen atoms," Geoffrey told the drunk. He paused. "To give you an idea of the magnitude of ten to the 80th power, the number correlates – it’s odd but at least on orders of magnitude – it correlates to the number of hydrogen atoms in the universe. It’s a coincidence, I suppose, but that number’s supposed to be between 4 times 10 to the 79th power and ten to the 81st. So imagine this, you look at every hydrogen atom in the whole universe, you look at every atom in every star and super-nova and galaxy of stars, you look and you look and you look and, finally, you find one of them, just one, and that’s life, that’s an amoeba wriggling in a drop of water."
"So you proved that we’re alive, that we exist," the drunk said.
"But there’s no one else," Geoffrey said. "There can’t be. One time in 10 to the 80th, an amoeba evolves from hydrogen plasma. But for this to happen twice, the number is 10 to the 91st power. That’s a hundred more universes than ours and still you only have two amoeba."
"So it can’t happen," the drunk said.
"Well, it did happen, of course, but it can’t happen again," Geoffrey said.
"All you done, my brother, is prove the existence of God," the drunk told him.
"You proved that we can’t be here, that we can’t be living here in this world, without that God done it."
"I don’t know about that," Geoffrey said.
"Brother, it’s as plain as the nose on your face."
"What I’ve shown, in fact, is that there’s no one else out there, no other life in all the universe, nothing but particles colliding with one another. This is what’s true. The most powerful computer in the world tells me this."
The drunk tapped his forehead. "This here is the most powerful computer in the world," he said. "You got nothing but hardware, nuts and bolts, back there at your university."
"I don’t know," Geoffrey replied.
"What’s the most powerful computer in the world tell you? I mean that computer you’re toting around in your skull?"
"It seems that there ought to be life out there somewhere. That’s how it seems."
"Your machine don’t tell you it ain’t there."
"It can’t prove a negative," Geoffrey said. "It just shows that the possibility of there being someone else out there is a vanishingly small, an infinitesimally small number."
"Well, we’re here, aren’t we?"
"Anyway how do you know that something’s alive?" the drunk asked.
"We had criteria. A mathematical model," Geoffrey said.
"You can tell it’s alive ‘cause it moves," the drunk said. "It moves on its own."
"So a cloud’s alive. By that criterion, the moon’s alive when it crosses the sky. The snow’s alive when it falls out of the sky," Geoffrey replied.
"Well, who says them things ain’t alive," the drunk said.
To the east, where the streets dead-ended at the vast, cold lake, a fissure of greyish light opened beneath the orange glare cast upward by the furnaces of the steel mills.
"I gots to be going," the drunk told Geoffrey. "Do you think you could help me with some cash, a couple bucks, so I could get me a sandwich?"
Geoffrey took out his wallet and handed the drunk a twenty dollar bill.
"God bless you, boss," the drunk said. "God bless you."
He stood up a little unsteadily. "You can keep that there dagger," the drunk said. "For your personal protection."
The drunk limped down the sidewalk, moaning a little as he walked.
Geoffrey was afraid to touch the shard of broken glass. It’s razor edges were unpredictable and its geometry uncertain and he thought it might slash him. He nudged the claw-shaped piece of glass off the bench onto the sidewalk below. But, then, Geoffrey felt ashamed of himself. A child might see the glass while waiting for the bus and would be intrigued by its sharp edges and shiny surfaces. Someone might step on the glass and be cut. Geoffrey leaned over and, gingerly, picked up the scimitar of broken bottle. He wrapped it in his handkerchief and carefully slid the shard into his breast-pocket.
Suddenly, all the dogs on the block began to bay. Geoffrey looked up and saw the coyote prancing along the center of the boulevard. The animal was trotting back toward the lake, moving in a direction opposite to its previous path. As it passed, the coyote turned and grinned at him and Geoffrey saw its long red and eloquent tongue displayed between its jaws.
Friday, August 22, 2014
IN THE DISTANCE, I SAW a figure emerge from pockmark in the hillside. It was warm and heat shimmer blurred the tiny figure that appeared on the slope just below an outcropping of pinkish rock. The tiny, indistinct figure took a few wobbly steps away from the bluish shadow that marked the cave-opening. The slope was yellow with sun-bleached grass and veined with gullies lined with loose gravel and it took the apparition a long time to reach the base of the hill and the prairie.
Later, I saw this person struggling through ravines shaded by ancient trees and, then, passing through a village beneath the steeple of a church and several steel grain bins tall as towers and enclosed in metal rigging. The figure walked along the edge of a lake and, then, followed a stream past the ruins of an old mill where water rolled in warm, bright sheets over the lip of a concrete dam.
Moving more swiftly now, the figure entered a city, not by marching along the highway past the glass skyscrapers operated by software firms, but, instead, following the old route, along the disused shipping canal, walking the towpath and passing the cast-iron bridges and, at last, entering the sector of abandoned warehouses with collapsed tin roofs and brick walls undercut by saplings growing in the deserted places. The figure was remote and moved with haphazard gait, clambering over piles of debris and, at last, entering downtown through narrow, moist, and foul-smelling alleys.
Then, I saw the figure on the windy plateau between the two metropolises, a wasteland where pyramids of tires were burning and bullet-trains commuting between the city-centers shrieked past. The figure was like an ant crawling on a sidewalk where someone has broken a beer bottle or a pocket mirror.
I lost sight of the figure, briefly, when it entered the park and hiked the boardwalks along the grey sedge and the marshlands. But the figure, still impossibly remote, merely a speck to my eyes, emerged from the woods, came past the ruined fountain and the terraces where the basketball courts used to be, and descending the hill, by the rut made by the toboggan-run, crossed the bridges on the meander, walked through the shopping mall (perhaps to take advantage of the air conditioning or the food court), and, after, using the toilet at a McDonald’s first, and, then, a few miles later, the rest-room in the public library, entered the suburbs and approached the cul-de-sac where I live. I squinted my eyes to see if I could identify the approaching figure, a man or a woman (impossible to tell at this distance) who limped up the hill toward my garden and, then, came through the sweet corn and my ruby-red tomatoes growing on their vines, closer and closer, until I could see that it was you, it couldn’t be anyone but you. So you stood at my threshold and I said: "I have always known you would come to me."
(After Frank O’Hara)
GUILLAME, whose name is pronounced with a hard Anglo-Saxon "g", was one of those persons who are forever booking trips to remote places and, then, not going on those pre-planned journeys. Guillame had not gone to Argentina and Buenos Aires with a side trip to Iguaszu Falls. He had not gone to Paris despite reservations at a fine downtown hotel on Rue Haussmann. He had not gone to see the Great Wall of China, notwithstanding a non-refundable ticket to Beijing and had not gone to Rome at the height of the tourist season. Although he had paid to take a bus tour with senior citizens to Branson, Missouri, and another trip by bus to Vermont during the height of the autumn colors displayed by deciduous trees there, in fact, he didn’t take either trip and forfeited his deposit. Guillame arranged for a packet tour to Sumatra and Bali, but didn’t go and, although he reserved a spot on a river cruise through the Baltic countries events conspired to prevent him from traveling. He didn’t tour the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and saw neither the Kremlin nor waxy Lenin in his mausoleum. The planned excursion to Cancun fell through as did the all-inclusive stays at Cozumel and, later, at a resort in the Dominican Republic. He prepaid for a professional seminar on the Big Island of Oahu but didn’t attend. On the fishing trip north of Kenora, his friends were sorry that he couldn’t come, although the sporting expedition had been in the works for many months and Guillame had paid his share of expenses in advance.
There are certain restaurants in our city that are very exclusive and highly rated. If you wish to dine at those establishments, reservations are required six to eight weeks in advance. Guillame was always making reservations for exquisite dinners that he never ate.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Before I came to Austin, Minnesota, I had never attended a movie screened for me alone. Even obscure foreign films that I saw at the University always had other viewers, at least twenty or more people in the audience. One year, I saw ten silent films from the German expressionist period. Those pictures were shown in the basement of the Lutheran Student Center on campus and there were always at least a dozen disciples gathered to watch the dim 16 mm prints clawed through the old projector. But, in Austin, it’s different: the Cineplex is located at the end of a mall that has failed and empty storefronts stretch into the distance lining the arcade littered with advertising and commercial parapheranalia dragged out of the abandoned shops and, at the remote end of the shopping center, beyond the wrecked food court, there is a Younkers, an outlet of an Iowa department store favored by middle-aged school-teachers and elderly women, the only other business surviving in the place. Most of the parking lot is ruinous, but lanes have been preserved against the general fissure and fracture of the old asphalt between the Cineplex end of the mall and the Younkers at its antipodes. Some parking spaces not too badly potholed survive at the exterior door to Younkers and there are twenty or so spaces, white lines badly abraded occupying a hollow place in the shattered prairie of the lot adjacent to the movie theater. Those twenty parking spaces are almost always vacant. You can enter the mall through a Shopko sutured to the structure and patrons of the theater generally walk through that business to shoplift candy and cans of pop to smuggle into the theater and so must of the theater’s customers park their cars in front of that store.
On many occasions, I have come to the movie, bought my ticket, and, then, sat alone in the theater to watch the film. The first time this happened, I felt privileged, as if I were a rich man attending a private screening in my mansion. But, later, the experience seemed depressing to me, melancholy and lonely. The individual theaters in the Cineplex are relatively new, but the ceilings leak and there is a pervasive odor of mildew and dank, decomposing butter, remnants of popcorn caught, I suppose, in the carpet or under the seats. A fat woman, the manager of the place, sits in her humid office under posters of horror movies, her door open into the empty lobby of the Cineplex where a morose girl plays the triple role of cashier, ticket-taker, and concession attendant. Sometimes, the girl selling tickets and popcorn shouts to the fat woman who calls back to her. Movie posters under glass line the lobby and, in the rest room, one of the urinals is always webbed with tape to prevent it from being used. The drinking fountain doesn’t flow so much as it spits gobs of water upward and the theaters are porous to the sounds from the adjacent screening rooms – in the middle of a love scene, you can hear colossal explosions occurring in the theater next-door. There is a never a line of people waiting to buy tickets. The only time that there is any delay in acquiring a ticket and entering the theater is when a local group home has brought its residents out for a matinee; in that case, a half-dozen or so wheelchairs with people slumped in them, silent with heads lolling onto their shoulders, wait to wheeled into the show.
One night in 1999, I went to the theater alone to see Eyes Wide Shut. I was drinking heavily in those days and so my pockets tinkled with little airplane bottles of whiskey and vodka. It was November and the weather was unsettled: earlier in the day, it had been warm and bright, but a cold front was advancing across the plains and the icy fog lingered in intersections, dull rays of sleet falling sometimes. The sleet was mixed with rain and sodden snowflakes and, although it didn’t seem capable of surviving on the roadways, the grass in the medians was dusted white and some of the rooftops seemed pale with an accumulation of ice. I noticed that the ragged lane leading from the fast food places on the boulevard to the twenty space hollow in the mall lot was slippery and my windshield wipers batted snowflakes away as they plunged onto the glass in front of me. It can be dangerous to park your car in the hollow when rain is predicted. The area flash floods and I have seen vehicles parked there literally floating in an ephemeral and filthy lagoon of water formed after a thunderstorm. But this night, the sleet didn’t seem sufficiently intense to warrant any concern and so I zigzagged around the potholes and put my car under an old, corroded lamp that had once provided light to this part of the lot but which was now lifeless and dark. When I exited my car, I hear strange sounds far away on the horizon, perhaps, a tremor of thunder, and trucks on the freeway a mile away made booming sounds as they bounced over defects in the concrete.
To my surprise, twenty or so people, mostly couples with small children were loitering around the entrance to the Cineplex. Toddlers were crying and I could smell a dirty diaper. The adults looked indignant and were conferring with one another. The fat woman was standing at the edge of the lobby. As I bought my ticket to the Kubrick film, I heard her telling an angry mother that the projection print for Toy Story 2 had, indeed, arrived in timely fashion, but the film was damaged and could be not be shown. A placard mounted on a stainless steel stanchion stood a half-dozen feet in front of the cashier’s station: a hand-lettered sign read: Toy Story 2 will not be shown tonight because of technical problems. Your patience is appreciated.
I bought a soft-drink for an outrageous price. I needed ice and soda to mix with my booze. The theater where Eyes Wide Shut was going to be shown was at the end of the carpeted corridor leading among the screening rooms. The farther down that hallway that I walked the darker it seemed and the stronger the odor of mildew and rotting butter. Something was wrong with the ventilation system and the air smelled untreated and swampy, like the exhalation from a marsh. As I expected, the theater was completely empty. The first seat that I selected in the exact center of the screening room was broken and sagged in an uncomfortable manner under me. I picked a seat nearby and it also seemed to be damaged so I went to the end of the row and sat in that place. The Coming Attractions were projected very dimly and the images seemed to be shown through a veil. The poor picture quality was, perhaps, related to the fact that the dim amber house-lights were still lit, probably to aid late-comers in locating their seats, but, of course, there were no late-comers – I was completely alone in the theater. The auditorium lights faded away and the red "EXIT" signs over doors that I presumed to be locked or otherwise inaccessible flared into brightness like cigarettes being lit in the dark and, then, the movie began.
Eyes Wide Shut is long and I don’t remember much about it. In the middle of the movie, the whiskey and vodka affected my concentration and, perhaps, I dozed or, at least, became indifferent to what was happening around me. I fumbled for one of the tiny vodka bottles and dropped it on the floor. It rolled forward on the sloping floor toward the screen and the sound that the glass made on the concrete was surprisingly loud and distinct. I stood up from my chair and went forward, following the sound of the rolling bottle and, then, groped among the seats and soggy spilled popcorn until I fished the bottle out from the crack where it had come to rest. I turned to go back to my seat and, then, saw that I was not alone in the theater. Apparently, when I had been inattentive, some people had arrived and taken seats in a place a half-dozen rows behind me. I was surprised, even a little alarmed. I thought that I had been completely alone in the theater and, certainly, had not noticed their entrance into the screening room and it seemed odd to me that they had come into the show when it half over.
As I made my way back to my seat, concealing the vodka bottle in my fist, I looked at the newcomers. At first, I couldn’t see them at all. The images on the screen were nocturnal and so there was insufficient light reflected back into the auditorium to illuminate them. The new arrivals seemed to be a family – I saw four shadows hunched in the darkness, their heads at various heights: two parents and two smaller children. I wondered why they had come to this movie. Eyes Wide Shut is not exactly a family picture and I supposed that they were baffled and appalled at what they saw.
Something happened on the screen to release a glimmer of white light and, in that flash, I saw the family clearly enough. A man, who looked like a farmer was seated at the end of aisle, glaring at the screen with a fixed, indignant stare. A woman with slumped shoulders and her eyes averted from the movie sat beside him. She was gripping the back of the empty seat in front of her as if she were riding on a roller coaster at an amusement park. Two small children leaned forward to watch the movie: their eyes were wide open and unblinking. The light reflected back onto the family was white and gave them a waxy, marble pallor. The man’s eyes and those of the two children seemed to be looking without seeing; there was something unfocused and dull about their gaze. The woman was shivering as if with cold and I could see her shoulders twitching slightly. They must have just come in from the cold outside because I inhaled a wet, icy chill from their plain clothing.
Of course, it was the wrong movie for this family to be watching and I felt that I should, perhaps, remonstrate with them or make an explanation or apology at least. No, no, you don’t want to see this movie...you won’t understand it and the images will only puzzle and anger you and there will nudity and sex scenes for which you will have to stammer explanations to your offspring and the whole thing will simply be a bad experience, an unfortunate attempt at a family outing that has gone terribly wrong. I sat down with these thoughts in my mind and poured the vodka from the bottle into my mostly empty cup of soda pop and melting ice and, although I strained my ears to hear, not a sound came from that family seated behind me, not a whisper or, even, a breath. They were completely still and their silence was so dramatic and formidable that it frightened me – how could they be sitting so completely motionless, like pale, white statues in the darkness? I didn’t try to glance over my shoulder at them, but, as the action in the film became increasingly erotic and explicit, I was worried for their sake and embarrassed also and I blamed the ticket-taker or the fat manager for accepting their money and letting them in to see this movie which was, after all, manifestly inappropriate for family viewing. At last, I shifted in my seat, and, as an orgy was underway on screen, turned my head to glance back at them. To my relief, the family was gone. They had slipped out of the theater just as silently as they had entered. The seats behind me were all vacant and dark.
The next day, I saw a headline in the local newspaper that read: FAMILY OF FOUR KILLED IN TRAGIC ACCIDENT. The story explained that a husband and wife with their two children had left their farm in the country to travel into town to see a movie. Neighbors said that the children were excited about seeing Buzz Lightyear and Woody in Toy Story 2. The country road was slick with fresh-fallen sleet and the man lost control of his pickup truck on the ice. The pickup left the road and toppled into a drainage ditch in full spate and brimming with icy water. The truck was upside down in the mud and water and the family drowned in the ditch.
I’m interested in films and Stanley Kubrick’s last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, is a movie that I would like to see again sober. But I’m afraid to watch the movie. Every time I’ve rented the DVD, I am unable to summon the courage to put the film in the machine. I guess that I’ll have to resign myself to never seeing that movie again.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Of course, I have always wanted to become better acquainted with the gentle woodland creatures that inhabit the leafy places in our city. Noble oaks and elms grace my own backyard and the trees provide generous shade, a dense green canopy that conceals the sky. The ladders of tree trunks ascent upward into interlaced foliage where squirrels live and birds that cackle and shriek, invisible life concealed in the cloud of leaves and branches. The squirrels in particular have always fascinated me. I see them hopping around like rabbits on the lawn and, then, rocketing upward, climbing the tree trunk, scampering up the bark until they are hidden by foliage, and, then, discernible only by chattering sounds above and the rustle and crackle of displaced branches and twigs. Where do they go? What do they do in their green mansions above?
Once, I acquired at a garage sale a pair of binoculars. I sat on my back porch spying on the squirrels as they pursued one another over the grass and up the trees, moving with the uncanny vertical speed of a centipede or spider. I aimed the lenses at the places overhead where the canopy of leaves and branches were shuddering. But who could say whether that motion was caused by an animal diving from branch to branch or, merely, an aberration of the breeze. My neighbor said that he had studied squirrels – "they are," he told me, " an arboreal mammal, the monkeys of the temperate zone." I thought the phrase "arboreal mammal" was a pretty one and checked-out a book from the public library about squirrels, their biology and behavior. I read about fifteen pages of the book, but it was quite technical: there are many different species of squirrels with different Latin names and they have various, overlapping ranges and some of the words in the book were unfamiliar to me. The text was rather dryly written, inexpressive and scientific and so I set the book aside, read in it no more, and, I recall, ultimately paid a fine of four or six dollars to the library for returning the volume late. And I quickly found that I didn’t have the patience to be a naturalist – the squirrels seemed to do the same pointless things over and over again and I didn’t understand any of it. I thought that it would be rather wonderful to have a kind and helpful friend explain to me squirrel lore and I even imagined an avuncular, faintly professorial voice guiding me to knowledge on this subject, but, of course, I didn’t have the time, or, in all candor, the actual interest to pursue these studies even to the extent of reading slim book about the little beasts. There are so many things that we wish that we knew but that we aren’t willing to take the time to learn.
I think most people agree that our climate is warming and the flora and fauna subtly changing around us. This fact leads me to conclude that even if I learned about local species of birds and mammal, probably, this knowledge would be outdated in a decade or so. It seems beyond doubt that new kinds of creatures, hitherto unknown in these parts, are encountered now, more or less, every week. Near the county dump, people claim to have glimpsed a cougar stalking the thickets and I have seen fat, somnolent spiders with red bristly hair perching on brick walls, tarantulas, it seems, or some similar species. Tropical-looking centipedes scurry through decomposing leaf-litter – I am told that they are remarkable in that their many black eyes are also sexual organs. In the summer darkness, fist-sized beetles churn through the air and moths as big as bats flutter around the streetlights, haloing them with powder cast from their huge wings. Termites undermine houses and gawky ants covered in a kind of red velvet and with long stilt-like legs have colonized my side-yard. When the lawnmower rips through their mound that is like a tumor in the grass, the insects are flung about in stinging clouds and, recently, it seems to me that the utility poles have become shrouded in some kind of entangling vine – kudzu, I am told. A week ago, a clerk in Walmart found a rattlesnake coiled among the household furnishings for sale in the store. We don’t ordinarily encounter rattlesnakes in this climate. And, once, when I was walking my small white dog, I saw a huge winged shadow glide across the ground ahead of me. But when I looked skyward, nothing was there. Our cold climate is becoming warm and I suppose I may live to see monkeys dangling from our trees. Perhaps, another kind of arboreal mammal will displace the squirrels and occupy their habitat.
My backyard is fenced and, yesterday, when I put out my little dog, Snowball, I heard her yipping and howling. My wife was alarmed. Several smaller dogs, one of them a beagle puppy, have vanished from our neighborhood and so my wife was concerned that the mysterious dog-napper was molesting Snowball. "Why is she crying out like that?" my wife said. I was sitting on the back-porch with a drink, reading a magazine. "I suppose she is chasing a squirrel," I said. "If she ever catches a squirrel," my wife said, "the squirrel will probably injure Snowball." "She’s braver than she is wise," I said. I stood up and called for the dog, an exercise in futility since Snowball is not well-trained and doesn’t come when she is summoned. To my surprise, the dog trotted across the lawn with a satisfied mien, wagging her tail and grinning. There was something nasty entangled in Snowball’s teeth, perhaps, the carcass of a half-decayed bird or mouse. But she dropped the morsel, whatever it was, before she hopped up the steps to the backporch. "You stay by me," I said to Snowball. The little dog seemed to nod her head.
That night there was a bat in our house. Perhaps, it had erred in its nocturnal flight and, somehow, entered the home when I held the dog open for Snowball to come inside. The bat was large and distraught. It flew in disorderly loops through the living room, evading my attempts to knock it out of the air with a rolled-up magazine. Then, the creature vanished and, although I systematically searched every room in the house and, even, opened the doors to the closets, I couldn’t find the bat. My wife was frantic and said that unless I killed or captured the beast she would spend the night at a motel. She locked herself in the bathroom while I patrolled the house. After awhile, I shouted to her: "I’ve got it." Then, I went outside to pretend that I was disposing of the animal in the humid night. "Are you sure?" she asked me. "Yes," I lied. After we went to bed, I seemed to hear the squirrels darting about on the shingles of my house above the attic. Several thumps sounded in the ceiling. I turned on the air-conditioner so that I would not have to hear those noises.
Sometime after two in the morning, I got up to go to the toilet and found the bat in the bathtub, a greasy shadow like a huge leaf or a burnt mutilated hand. I picked up a magazine and stabbed at the bat, pinning it to the porcelain. The creature writhed and its wings twitched in a spasm and, then, it vomited blood and died. I scooped up the dead animal with a wad of paper towel. It was surprisingly warm to the touch – I could feel the bat’s body-heat through the clumped-up paper and I thought that it was unlucky to kill an animal like that and, also, perhaps, a bad omen. My wife was querulous: "What were you doing?" I said that I had killed a bat in the bathtub and, then, thrown it outside in the lilac bushes. "Another bat?" she cried. "And in the bathroom. Oh my God."
The next morning, my wife sat sullenly at her coffee. "We have to contact an exterminator," she said. "Two bats in one night...we must have a colony of them in our attic." "I don’t think so," I replied. "Well, you’ll have to go up there and look," she said.
It was stifling in the attic and the racks of old clothes that my wife stored there exuded a sort of feral heat, like a big, neglected animal panting in the darkness. Dust covered the boxes of children’s toys and abandoned books. The light bulb overhead radiated more heat down onto me and I was covered with sweat. Something thumped on the shingles overhead and I thought it sounded as if ripe fruit were falling from a tree. "What can that be?" I thought. But, in any event, it was outside the house and not within our walls.
Mid-afternoon, I let out Snowball. My wife said: "You go and stand with her when she does her business. I don’t want anyone snatching our dog." I opened the door and Snowball darted out into the fenced backyard. I followed her. It was warm and humid and the grass seemed slick as if with dew. Snowball trotted into the middle of the backyard, beneath the canopy of leaves, and, then, turned to cast an inquiring look at me. The dog grimaced and put her nose into a sort of globular wreath of tangled vine and dead leaves. "What is that?" I said to the dog.
I walked up to the heap of leaves lying on the grass. The leaves were long-dead, greyish and withered, and the pile of fallen foliage looked like a decomposing wreath. The dog rooted around at the edges of tangle of dead leaves and twigs and vine. With my toe, I tapped at the thing. It had a sort of structure, as if the individual withered leaves had been woven together somehow, and a kind of gummy, pasty substance made the twigs adhere together. Many of the leaves seemed to have been corroded to skeletons, brown veins like filigree radiating from a central vegetal spine.
"It’s some kind of nest," I thought to myself.
Undoubtedly, the nest had been generally globular where it had been built high overhead in the trees. But the thing had fallen from that height and lost its shape on impact with the glass and so, now, at my feet, the nest seemed to be a compact flattened mass of concentric rings made from packed twig and leaf. I could see among the leaves and wicker of twigs some fragments of a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper, part of a styrofoam cup, and a little shredded plastic from a grocery bag. A brownish bone with some blackened tissue scabbed on it was entangled in the leaves – it looked like a pelvis or scapular bone. The dog whined and mewled, dipping her white furry head into the heap of fallen leaves. Something glinted: it looked like the lense of an eyeglass. I prodded at the nest, then, recoiled. Eyeless and battered, the head of a beagle puppy lolled there in the debris.
I looked up to the canopy of leaves from which the nest had fallen. The green was dense, impenetrable, and something was stirring there but I couldn’t see what it was.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
When she deigned to attend neighborhood events, Dodie, Mr. G–‘s wife, was always ten to fifteen minutes late. We understood this slight delay as a tariff that we paid to procure her presence which, after all, was thought to honor us. Mr. G– was an important man, famous in the theater, and, no doubt, his wife’s time was more valuable than ours.
Accordingly, on that memorable morning, we lounged around the parking lot, leaning against the warm metal of our vehicles waiting, but pretending not to wait. From the Beachside Community Art Center’s tiny parking lot, cordoned off against the tourists, we could gaze through the trees to the harbor where sailboats with white sails changed position without seeming to move. Although no one acknowledged the fact, we were waiting for Mrs. G. The day was bright and sea breezes flattered the blossoms on the flowering shrubs, turning them this way and that as if for our delighted inspection. Someone remarked that they had seen Dodie a day or two before at the local pharmacy and that, when asked, Mrs. G– had expressed interest in the aquarelle class and, even, promised to attend the morning’s session, an exercise in plein air painting scheduled for knoll overlooking the sea a couple miles distant. We knew that she had paid tuition to attend the class, although this fact, in itself, meant nothing. Dodie, who first name was actually Margaret (no one knew why she was nicknamed "Dodie") supported the arts by paying for programs in which she did not intend to participate. She was, in fact, a documentary film maker of some note and several of her shorter pictures, on ennobling and socially significant subjects, had been premiered in the hall of the Beachside Community Arts Center where we tarried.
Sabbath, our instructor, was wearing a floppy straw hat. She had long red hair that fell in a torrent over her shoulders and her skin was very pale. She sniffed a little and her nostrils that always appeared reddish – she suffered from allergies – twitched and, then, with a languid air, Sabbath said: "We had better get to the beach." We roused ourselves and walked toward our cars. "If it gets too late," Sabbath said, "the tourists will descend on the seashore and we will have them tramping through our landscapes." There was no sign of Dodie.
We drove in a procession across the Cape to the Atlantic coast. Traffic was heavy on the State Highway angling north to Provincetown and the caravan of vehicles had to spurt across the busy thoroughfare one at a time. At Beachside township, the Cape is only two-and-a-half miles wide and the road to the sea wandered among small densely wooded hills, wiggling between fresh-water ponds and stony slopes covered with pitch pine. We passed the gravel driveway that led uphill to Mr. G–‘s compound, a big house sheathed in glass cantilevered over a salt marsh and a smaller guest cottage, traditionally clad in grey, weathered shingles that had once been a shanty on the edge of a cranberry bog. The tube for the local newspaper mounted at the end of Mr. G–‘s driveway was empty.
"I don’t know why people make such a fuss about Dodie G—," my wife said, casting a sidelong glance at the driveway as we passed it.
"G–‘s our community trophy," I said. "Our claim to fame. And haven’t you made a fuss about them yourself?"
"No, I’ve just been welcoming, hospitable," my wife replied.
Mr. G– and his wife had moved to Beachside five or six years earlier. It was understood that they maintained a place in Tribeca where they spent the months from October through April. Dodie was at least fifteen years younger than Mr. G–, although this was not apparent when you saw them together, at least not apparent from a distance. And, it was from a distance, typically that we observed them. Sometimes, one encountered Mr. G– with his wife and New York friends at the best local restaurants. If you nodded in his direction, he looked baffled at first, but, then, produced his famous smile and, even, might beckon you to his table. Once, I stood behind him at a package store and watched him buy expensive wines and some top-shelf gin. On a couple of occasions, we saw him at summer-stock shows at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater – his presence seemed to intimidate the actors and they bobbled their lines. Dodie attended events at the Community Arts Center and, when she was on the Cape, sat through meetings of the Zoning Commission. When her short documentaries were premiered in town at the old Meeting House that was the Arts Center, Mr. G– was present and wonderfully avuncular and it seemed to me that he pretended to know most of his neighbors which some of us thought showed a certain graciousness, although, perhaps, the famous man was merely being condescending.
Although he was now quite old, Mr. G– was still very handsome and charismatic. He walked with a cane, but was upright with a stately bearing. He had made his reputation directing theater works off-Broadway and was thought to be prodigiously talented, although the exact nature of his gifts was obscure to me. A dozen years earlier, Mr. G– had created a sensation with two adaptations of Shakespeare plays, Cymbeline, if I recall correctly, and The Winter’s Tale. Mr. G– staged Cymbeline as a controversy among polar scientists on the glaciers of an Antarctic research station. A Winter’s Tale was set at two rock-and-roll festivals twenty years apart, perhaps, Woodstock and, then, the second Woodstock show, a generation later. Tickets were impossible to procure for those plays and I didn’t attend – although, I made no special effort, of course, because I didn’t know Mr. G– personally in those days.
After moving to Beachside, Mr. G– authorized a Serbian director to film one of his workshops, an exercise involving late plays by Beckett. The movie won some prizes at International Film Festivals. I saw it and was not only bored but baffled. You should know that I am not exactly a philistine when it comes to theater. The year that I retired from my law practice, I played the part of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Community Theater and everyone complimented me both on my singing voice and the accuracy of my performance – I was said to impersonate very effectively Leonard Nimoy in the Broadway revival of that show. The same year I played Oscar in The Odd Couple and was universally admired, at least as far as I’ve been told. Of course, Mr. G–‘s brand of play – he calls them "theater works" – is not exactly my cup of tea. In my view, theater should be entertaining, even, a bit relaxing for the audience and there’s enough hard work in daily existence so that it has always seemed superfluous to me to ask playgoers to labor to decipher a show presented to them – and Mr. G–‘s work was always hailed as "difficult", "challenging", and "thought-provoking," none of these attributes exactly praiseworthy in themselves as far as I am concerned.
In recent years, Mr. G–‘s great work, his magnum opus, was something called "Yggdrasil." A group of neighbors made the trek down to New York to see the show and the women communicated with Dodie, told her of our pilgrimage, and were rewarded by being invited to Mr. G–‘s loft in Tribeca. (Although my wife, and others had dropped hints about visiting Mr. G–‘s place on the Cape, none of us were ever invited to his house.) "Yggdrasil" took place on an abandoned pier and involved groups of naked, or semi-naked actors and actresses ranting at one another at intervals on the long dark wharf. The audience sat on a small dais that was towed at a snail’s pace the length of the pier by an electrically powered tractor, something that looked to me like a small fork-lift. I recall the wharf was dark and cold and the sea beat against its outermost edge with a fierce incessant rhythm and the actresses’ nipples looked erect with the chill and black and the toilet situation was simply deplorable. My wife wept and proclaimed the show the greatest thing that she had ever seen, but I didn’t have a clue as to what it was about and thought the whole thing insufferably pretentious and tedious. My opinion was distinctly minority: the thing won every award that a show could win in New York and, I understand, was performed in similarly dark and cavernous and cold piers in London and Hamburg and Hong Kong.
"I wonder when he will invite us to his house for dinner," my wife said. "I mean we’ve gone out of way to support his recent theatrical work. And her documentaries too."
"Never is when," I said.
A half-mile farther down the lane, we came to six parking spots, parallel to the road, allotted to members of the Beachside Community. One space was already filled – an old widow who lived on the bay side of the Cape known to be a birding enthusiast has placed her car there. No doubt she was somewhere in the salt-marsh thickets spying on egrets or piping plovers. Next to the old Coast Guard station, repurposed as a youth Hostel, the National Seacoast maintained a small parking lot servicing the trail head to the overlook above. There were eight vehicles in the caravan and several of us had to occupy the National Seacoast lot.
We hiked across the road to the trail that zigzagged up the steep hill to the overlook. On a rocky knoll in the green shade of some jack-pine gnarled by the winds from the ocean, we stopped and unpacked our water-color kits. I set my easel facing down hill, propped against a glacial boulder encrusted with bluish lichen. Sabbath announced the assignment and said that she would go from easel to easel making suggestions and corrections. My wife shrugged and walked beyond the jack-pine grove into the brighter light of the upper hillside, sixty yards higher, where the rosa rugosa flowered and perfumed the breeze. The ground under my foot was rust-brown and soft with fallen pine needles and the wind from the ocean was cold and scented with salt and seaweed and strong enough to blow away, at least for the time being, the black flies and the tiger-striped mosquitos. From my vantage, I could look down over the six parallel parking spaces allotted to townsfolk, beyond the National Seacoast parking lot, and to the line of pale gold dunes backing a strip of beach where the surf thundered. On Halloween, a dozen years before, the sea had ruptured the dune-ramparts and driven inland, smashing across the Cape and blasting backward the waters of the little stream that ran below the knoll through a densely woven tapestry of small, vine-entangled bushes. The piston of ocean crashing inland deposited many tons of sand, creating a desolate tongue of beach at right angles to the shore and cut-off from the sea itself, a long broad gouge running inland a quarter of a mile. It was my thought to paint the contrast between the sun-struck yellow sand marking the rift in the Cape and the foreground of crooked jack-pine trunks and green foliage.
We worked in silence for a half-hour. I wasn’t satisfied with the results, removed the paper from my easel and started again. Sabbath stood by my side and uttered some halfhearted encouragement. I understood that she thought my efforts pretty much hopeless. I began with dark colors making a grid on the paper where the bars and columns of the jack-pine trunks, twisted like corkscrews by the prevailing winds opposed my view. The mark of the Halloween calamity glowed in the distance, a white scar on the land, and, farther away, I saw someone jogging on the beach, a dog loping along behind the lone runner.
A couple of tourists dragging some small children entered the grove of jack-pine, looked embarrassed, and, then, slunk away. I mixed yellow and brown paint together to depict the tongue of sand below. It was very silent for a time. The waves on the ocean ceased their thunder and began an insinuating, drowsy whispering. The sun caused the pines to ooze creosote and the grove was fragrant.
Someone was standing beside me. "Not bad," a voice croaked.
A young man had materialized at my side. He was squat with huge, flamboyant mutton-chop sideburns.
"I do my best," I said to the young man.
"It’s not bad," he repeated.
The young man was sweating heavily. It was as if he had just completed a hike of many miles. He seemed to eye the water that I was using with my brush to color the painting with scarcely concealed thirst. The young had some kind of holster around his hips, but I couldn’t see what the leather pouch contained – perhaps, it was a water bottle or a knife or a cell-phone. I noticed that the young man’s tee-shirt said Yog Sothoth. I wondered if those words were Hebrew.
"Say I wanted to ask you something," the young man said.
"What is that?"
He had a faintly foreign accent, but one that I couldn’t place.
"Does the famous theater director, Mr. G–, live around here?"
"Yes, he does," I told the young man.
"Could you tell me how to reach his house?"
"Well, let me say this – and I don’t mean to be insulting – we’re all neighbors here and, when you live out in the country, you have to take care of one another. You have to help each other out. And so, I don’t feel...what would you say?...comfortable about giving out his address."
The young man blinked at me rapidly and seemed to chew his lip.
"This isn’t the country," the young man said. "This is a suburb with ten million dollar houses occupying every part of the beach."
"We like our privacy here," I replied. "Be that as it may, we like our privacy."
"Well, Mr. G– invited me to his house," the young man said. "He gave me his address, but I can’t find it. My map is no good and my phone has lost its charge."
"How do you know him?"
The young man showed his teeth. "I auditioned for one of his shows. Maybe, you’ve heard of it."
"Which show was that?" I dabbed a little at my picture.
"Yggdrasil – that was the name," he said.
"Really, I saw that show. Did you get the part? I might have seen you, in Manhattan, a couple years ago."
"I didn’t get the part," the young man said.
"Oh I’m sorry."
"I’m not," the young man said. "I didn’t get the part because it required that I prance around naked and I don’t think Mr. G– thought that I looked good enough to be nude in his show. He had me take off my pants."
"You don’t say," I replied.
"And he said he’d consider me for a role, but no one called, no one got in touch with me."
"That’s too bad," I said.
"No, it worked out for the best," the young man said. "I don’t think theater should exploit people like that. I don’t think I should have been required to show my cock to get an acting job. What do you think?"
"I guess I agree. But –"
The young man interrupted me: "But...(here he used Mr. G–‘s first name)... was really kind, really wonderful. Just a wonderful man. He invited me to his place, you know, in Tribeca. His loft. I had dinner with him and his wife, what’s her name? you know – Margaret. And they both invited me to stop by and see them if I were ever on the Cape."
"Is that right?"
"So I wonder if you could give me some advice about how to reach his house?"
"Well, I’d really like to," I said. "But we’re neighbors and I can’t just give his address to any stranger."
"I’m not a stranger, I’m a friend, a good friend," the young man said.
"Well what’s your business?" I asked.
"I want to review with him my audition, you know, go over my lines again. Maybe, there’ll be another production of Yggdrasil, you know in Rio or Murmanks, at some harbor, I guess – it’s kind of a franchise. I can go on a diet and if I have to show my...my package...I’ll do that too. He told me to stop by. And, you know, the weird thing is that I disapprove of nudity in the theater. I really disapprove – it’s just a gimmick, an ugly gimmick."
"I agree with you," I said. "I’ve been in lots of theater myself and I don’t think there’s any legitimate basis for nudity in a show – not unless it’s tastefully done and required, absolutely, required by the subject matter."
"You and I think alike," the young man said. "What shows were you in?"
"Musical comedy, comedy," I said.
"Comedy is good," the young man said. He added: "There’s already too much horror and tragedy in the world."
"Right you are," I said.
"So how do I find Mr. G–?"
"Well, again – and I don’t mean to be an asshole – I’ve got to respect his privacy and I can’t just give you Mr. G–‘s address?"
"Who asked you for his address? I have his address," the young man told me. "I just can’t locate find the place."
I was relieved: "Well, why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?"
"You didn’t ask."
"I guess I didn’t," I said. "Well, let me test you, then: tell me his address."
The young man stated a number and a street. I didn’t know the house-number but the street that he identified, the lane that we had just traveled to reach this overlook, was correct.
"That’s right," I said.
The young man nodded and showed me his teeth again.
"Go back down this road right here, right below us," I said, pointing through the undergrowth to the parking lot at the trailhead. "Go inland about one-half mile and you’ll see a driveway on your right. It’s after the green house with the observatory. It’s a gravel driveway and there’s a tube there for the newspaper, a yellow receptacle. You can’t see the place from the asphalt road. It’s down the gravel driveway about two-hundred yards."
"I hope he’s home," the young man said.
"Who knows?" I replied.
I dabbed at my painting some more, traced some outlines in fine black lines, and heard bird song above me, hidden in the pine needles that made a canopy over my watercolor kit and my easel. The young man had vanished.
A half-hour later, Sabbath said that the class was concluded and that it was time for lunch. The day had become warm and the black flies were emerging from the swamps and so we were happy to pack up our kits and leave the trail.
In the car, I told my wife about the young man.
"My goodness," she said. "you didn’t give him G–‘s address did you?"
"No," I said. "He already knew the address."
"I hope you didn’t encourage him to go there," my wife said.
"Why not?" I replied. "The kid said that he was a good friend. I mean he knew the name of G–‘s wife. He said that he’d met Margaret."
My wife winced: "Margaret?" she said. "Since when does anyone ever call Dodie "Margaret"?"
"You know, I didn’t think of it that way," I said.
"He’s some kind of nut who looked them up on Wikipedia or something," my wife said.
"But he has the address. He knew the address. The address wouldn’t be on Wikipedia. He just didn’t know how to get there. And so that’s what I told him," I said.
"Now, we’ll never be invited to their hone, never!" my wife said. "You betrayed a confidence. We have to look out for our neighbors."
"They’re not really our neighbors," I said. "Just stuck-up summer people who think they’re better than the rest of us."
"Nonsense," my wife said. "We’ll never be invited for dinner to their home. That’s for sure."
The conversation was unpleasant.
"He had G–‘s address," I repeated to my wife.
"So what?" she said.
We drove home in silence. At the house, my wife went into our bedroom and sat on the pillows with her laptop on the comforter in front of her.
"Here," she said. She called me to her side.
"Here is Mr. G–‘s address, right here on the internet," she said. "It’s easy to find and completely public."
"What is this?" I asked.
"It’s a credit check site, a place you go to check on someone’s credit to see if you should make a loan to them," she said.
"Mr. G– is listed on that site?"
"Everyone is," she replied. "You and me, all our friends, Dodie, everyone. That’s where the kid got the address."
"He seemed harmless enough to me," I told her.
"Let’s hope so," my wife responded.
The warmth and fresh air had made me tired. I took a nap. When I arose, it was approaching supper time and I found that we had no liquor in the house. I heard the sirens wailing as I drove to the package store. There were many sirens and they screamed down the road that led to Mr. G–‘s house.