David Macinnis Gill's Blog: Thunderchikin Reads
December 15, 2016
I have a bigger tally-whacker than a Pulitzer Prize wining author. I should know: I have his pajamas. I didn’t steal them. I found them, last Summer at the New Orleans Radisson.
In the bureau, I find these pajamas, cotton with blue fish. Next morning, the maid thinks they’re the previous guest’s, some poet who’d just won the Pulitzer. I say so, and what’s with these pajamas ? She says who cares, keep them. So I do, but believe me, I launder them first. These days who can be too careful?
So, I take to wearing the old pajamas. What can I say, they feel terrific. Right waist size and inseam, except for the aforementioned fly area. I never thought myself well-endowed, but when it comes to heavy equipment, I got this guy beat.
Sometimes, the pajamas, they split and I have to snip the elastic waistband on account of a few pounds, but overall, they fit perfect. So I decide if I ‘m filling out a poet’s jams, I’ll give this poetry thing a whirl. Every night, I set my alarm for three-thirty, prime snooze time, so I can scribble my dreams into a masterpiece. Most dreams concern my being naked–in school, at work, in the grocery (I’m phobic about scanners). My nakedness isn’t something to share with the learned audience (literati can be so insecure).
One dream, though, shows possibilities. Thursdays–only Thursdays–I dream of this diva, chocolate hair and shimmering eyes, possessing a great joie de vivre and riding on a hairless donkey. Some Freudian thing, probably. So I decide to write a poem and do a Poet’s workshop.
I shell out seven hundred bucks to workshop with Mr. Pulitzer himself. It’s so deja vu, I about wet my pants. Then, who do I spy across the lobby but this diva, long brown hair, blue eyes. But it’s Saturday, not Thursday. Still, I follow her, sit behind her at the workshop. Her hair drips like thin Godiva chocolate spaghetti.
I’m wishing it was later in the week, when in walks Mr. Y’know-Who. I’m wearing his pajamas underneath, thinking of surprising him, droppping my pants: “Ta-da, you remember these?” The jams are hot. They bunch and crawl up my crack. I’m looking for a john to shuck them when Mr. Pulitzer starts reading about poetry and/or beauty, crap like that.
I focus on that Godiva chocolate hair so long I get this itch where the jams bunch tight. I’ve been sweating so much, I’m straining something important. I start to rearrange myself when Mr. Pulitzer finishes. Everybody gives him the standing-O. I take the time to readjust.
Everybody rushes him. They clear out fast, except the diva. I step up. “I’m wearing your pajamas.”
“Found your jams last summer, worn them since. Just between the us,” I wink “the fit ain’t exactly adequate.” .
He looks at the girl. Girl winks. Both laugh. Girl says, “He doesn’t wear pajamas.”
“How would you know?” I say.
Both laugh and walk away.
How do you like that? He was too fat for these pajamas, anyway. She was too choiclate for a Thursday.
Still, that pisses me off, finding out I’ve worn the wrong man’s pajamas. I feel so cheap, so lied to.
I wonder if the girl left her pjs behind.
December 2, 2016
She believes she believes in dreams. She knows they’re real, but she knows they can’t come true. Her dead husband, Mr. Cass, taught her that dreams were best forgotten, traded in for a cast iron skillet or a pound of bacon. Now, just a month after he died, Mr. Cass seemed like maybe he was a dream, one that had picked her up like a roadside stray thirty years before. This Tennessee farm life was not what she’d dreamt of back on the reservation. Maybe she’d forgotten her dreams, misplaced them somewhere. Maybe they were like the reflection she saw tonight and every night in the kitchen window when she was washing dishes–an image that faded when she got too close.
After she’d eaten enough baked potpie and had wrapped the rest in foil, she filled one sink with hot suds, the other with cold rinse water. She leaned over the chipped porcelain sink to work, her flat belly pressed against the counter. A dreamcatcher, a circle of hickory webbed with cat-gut, hung in her kitchen window. Her granny had made the dreamcatcher to save good dreams and make bad ones go away. But Mr. Cass hadn’t wanted anything to do with it “Get that damn Indian voodoo out from here. I ain’t sleeping under no dead woman’s spells.” Even without the dreamcatcher over her bed, she’d sometimes had good dreams. She dreamt once of a fair child that she cradled in her arms, blowing breath through its downy hair. Mr. Cass had awakened her from that dream with his coughing. He’d pulled the breathing tube off his nose and sat up cussing long enough to light a cigarette that he held beside the bed. He took one, two drags, then let it burn until it was one long ash. Like the dream of the blonde child, the ash had dripped placidly onto the rug and waited there until she swept it up the next day.
Dishes were fewer these days when it came time for cleanup. She piled two plates, a cup and saucer, and a handful of jelly jars into the sink. She picked up a glass. Her hand small enough to fit inside, she reached for a milk spot with a cracked fingernail. She thought of milk cows and the countless times she had rolled out of bed before sunrise to wash the udders with warm water and a dish mop before Mr. Cass came to milk them
“The heifer!” She threw her hands up. “How could I forget her!”
The jelly glass shattered on the floor. “Stupid, Okie, stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” She swept the shards into one hand cupped like a dustpan. She crawled on her knees to skim for more glass. Satisfied she’d found it all, she labored to her feet.
“Ow! What in the world?” Cut by the glass, her palm bled from a two-inch gash. She let the cut bleed to clean it out. She stood over the sink, blood peppering the dishwater, to wash out the cut. She doused the hand with alcohol and wrapped it in a clean dishrag. She squeezed the cut to stop the bleeding.
“Darn it, Okie, how can you be so clumsy at a time like this?” She tightened the dish rag around her hand to cut the blood. “The heifer needs you. She’s too old to be having her first calf.” Mr. Cass had just thought she wasn’t up for a bull. “Queer, I tell you. She’s a damn queer,” he’d said every time he walked past the heifer, every time he kicked at her. The Spring before Mr. Cass died, the heifer was carrying a calf. The vet checked her out, said not to worry, but the heifer listed when she walked. She lay down too much too often in the field.
Okie grabbed a flashlight from the pantry. She pulled her slicker over her head, cinched the hood tight around her round face. “I’m coming, heifer.” She remembered to lock the door behind her. The screen door clapped shut. The flashlight beam dancing solemnly in front of her, she sloshed through the mud and grass to the barn.
“I hate the rain. It never rained this much in Oklahoma.”
She pulled the heavy door open, turned on the lights. “I do hate this place at night.” She went to the heifer in the far stall. “Sure is lonely around here these days, with the cows most gone. How many cows did we have when you was alive, Mr. Cass? How many did the man sell off to pay for your burying? If I’d known it was going to cost that much. I guess I’d of just buried you myself.”
“I can’t believe it’s only been a month since you died, Mr. Cass.” She looked into the unlit barn rafters and spoke as if the darkness were someone she knew. “Seems like years or maybe more than that. Not that I minded you dying.” She wiped her gray-tinged black hair, whisked the curls out of her eyes. “Not like the time Granny died. I was sad then. Now, I’m lonesome, just lonesome.” She plucked a gray hair. She knew it was gray because gray hairs were always coarse and twisted and it vibrated when she pulled on it. She put the hair in her mouth to test its texture. “Old, Okie, you’re getting old. How many times in our life together did you say that, Mr. Cass? A hundred? Maybe. Maybe I can’t count that high.”
She listened to the rain and spun the wedding band on her finger. When did she get married? In sixty-six, Mr. Cass brought her here to live down the road from his folks, to work their little jumble of a farm with him. She’d made him marry her before she would lay down with him. In some town near Jackson, when he’d been drinking, he took her to the justice. In the side-room of the courthouse, with a little fat secretary as witness, the justice married them for five dollars. She’d kept her eyes to the floor, pretending to be a crack in the concrete, a break in the smooth cold hardness. At the fat secretary, she’d said “He never even asked me,” loud enough for everyone to hear but too candidly for anyone to listen. When she said “I do.” she’d felt herself slip into a crack that closed up with her inside.
Now, she sweated in her slicker, the barn full of hay dust and still air. “Hey, girlie,” she called to the heifer, “you doing okay?” She found the heifer on its side, a puddle of fluid around her.
“Heifer!” She fell to her knees beside the cow, put her good hand on the pulsing stomach. “Shh!” She stroked the cow’s head, pulled on her ears. “Okie’s here.”
When the cow had quieted down, Okie looked at its womb. Two black hooves jutted out. “Oh my goodness.” She threw up. She always threw up at blood, ever since the time Mr. Cass made her castrate that young bull. Mr. Cass had wrapped rubber bands around the bull’s scrotum to cut off the circulation. To castrate it, she’d bitten the soft skin of the scrotum, held it tight when the bull wriggled despite the knee Mr. Cass had wedged against its neck. She held a back leg away from her, and with the razor in the free hand, sliced the bull’s testicles off. The bull flailed with its legs and she was too slow to duck to kicks. She landed on her butt, the scrotum still in her mouth, blood drizzling down her chin. Mr. Cass laughed, “now that taking the bull by the horns.” She slapped at the scrotum, kicked it away from her, then shook the way she’d down as a girl when she’d run full tilt into a writing spider’s web. She could no more get rid of the feeling of the blood and the laughter than she had shed the sticky writer’s web.
Now, staring at the protruding hooves, she plucked at her face. “I got to get the doctor. I’ll be right back, heifer. Don’t go nowhere.”
She flicked on the flashlight to find the path. It was darker now, and the rain fell like a stampede. On the porch, she tried the knob. “Locked? How in the world?” She patted her pocket for her keys.
“Okie, you are so stupid!” she screamed. “You done locked yourself out.” On tip-toe she looked through the kitchen window. She saw her keys, a heavy bundle of metal, on the kitchen table. “Oh no. Okie, you are as dumb as Mr. Cass always said you was.”
She sat down on the porch, rain washing over her. She bowed her head, watched the reflection of the kitchen light in her slicker. “You getting too damn skinny, Okie,” he’d say out of the crumpled side of his mouth, “can’t do nothing without huffing and puffing.” Helping him work on the truck. “Goddamn, Okie, that ain’t no crescent wrench. You so dumb you can’t see?” Getting his supper. “Can’t you move no faster than that? Didn’t your mama teach you how to cook?”
She squinted at her black slicker. She shook her finger. “You knew good and well my mama didn’t teach me how to cook. She had her own fish to fry. You was always teasing me that way, Mr. Cass. I know you said you was just teasing me, but my feelings got hurt. A lot. Always calling me Okie instead of my name. But I got used to it.”
She stood up. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Get in that house and call the vet before the heifer and her baby dies.” She stepped back into the rain. “I don’t want to break down my good door. Maybe the cellar door’s open.” She went around to the cellar, feeling lighter, even with the mud caked on her boots. The slicker flapped around her like a broken wing. She threw the cellar door open to find the rain had beaten her there. Standing water reached her knees. She listened to the sump pump labor to overcome the flooding.
“Water, water everywhere…” She pushed through in the dark, afraid to turn on the overhead lights. With her flashlight, she found the kitchen stairs.
“I hate the rain. I always hated the rain. What I wouldn’t give to have me fire going right about now.” When she was little, her mother left one Friday night in the sheeting rain to meet a man: her grandmother made her feel safe with a slice of mince meat pie and a warm fire in their little house. When her mother stayed with the rainy man, her grandmother had kept her safe in that little house the same way she’d tended their fire to keep it from ashing over.
Atop the stairs, she remembered that the slide bolt was thrown. “Maybe if I put my weight into it.” She backed down one step, then threw herself against the door. “Ow! that was stupid.” She headed back done the stairs for something, anything to bust down the door.
“The ax. That’s what I need.” She sloshed to the far side of the cellar where Mr. Cass kept the heavy tools. Like a little girl at Christmas, she pointed at a handle sticking out of the water. “Whoa, this thing’s heavy. This ain’t no ax, it’s a sledge hammer.” She swung it to her shoulder. “Guess I’ll have to make do.”
At the door again, she choked up on the sledge handle. “One, two…three!” She slammed the hammer through a panel. She tossed the sledge into the water before unlocking the bolt. “Good girl, Okie.”
Covered with mud and sopping wet, she called information then dialed the vet’s number. “Miz Middlidge, this is Okie. I need the doctor to get over here quick. My heifer’s in trouble bad. I don’t know how long she can wait for him. Is he going to be back quick?”
She wrote the doctor’s number on the foggy window. To pass time, she finger-painted the memory of her granny’s crinkled face on the glass. “What was wrong with you, Granny, that turned you into a angel? Mr. Cass said maybe it was the cancer, but I think maybe no. You didn’t die all miserable like him. Coughing and choking, hooked up to a air tank so you could breathe. You died all quiet in the night. Maybe God called you to tell him some stories like you done me. Your stories is all I got left of you. Except for this thing.”
She touched the dreamcatcher. “You told me to decorate this with my memories. But I ain’t got nothing worth keeping.” She took the circle down. “Keep this.” Granny had said when she offered the circle with hands like antique lace. “At night, when your dreams come to you, this dreamcatcher will catch them all. Your bad dreams will stick in the web, and the sun will kill them when it rises. Your good dreams will find their way through the web and drip back into your head before you wake. If you have faith in yourself, then your dreams will come true.” Granny’s words fresh in her head, she strummed the catgut strings, traced the web-like pattern with her finger. “…when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall…”
She screamed when the phone rang. Her hands flew to her face. She turned around again and again, her hands fluttering on her face, covering her ears. The dreamcatcher rolled along the linoleum and settled against the stove.
“The phone, Okie, it’s phone. Get ahold of yourself. Get ahold of yourself. It is the phone.” On the seventh ring, she answered. “This is Okie. Hey, Mr. Doctor. The heifer, it’s her time. She looks bad. But the calf is half out. But she might be dead by morning. I ain’t yelling at you. No, sir. It’s just the heifer. Okay. All right. In the morning.”
She hung up the phone and hung her head. “Pour thing. She’s going to lose that baby.” She remembered first coming to the farm when Mr. Cass’s mama and daddy were still around. “Things didn’t seem so bad back then. How long was I here before your mama and daddy burnt up in their house? Maybe a year? Was it that? A shame about your daddy. I always liked him. He made you behave.” Treat that girl right, Cass. She’ll be the mama of your children one day. “No, he was wrong. No babies for Okie.” Since their deaths, she found herself alone and lonely, snared by a man with stiff hands. She held onto the tight wire she called home, washing the dishes and cooking the food, wanting babies she couldn’t have.
Outside, the rain came down harder. From the window, she could barely make out the barn. She yanked out a galvanized bucket to fill with hot soapy water. She dropped a sponge into the bucket, not caring that she’d sloshed water on the floor. She checked the knob . “Fool me once.” Through the rain, she called, “Hold on heifer, Okie’s coming.”
In the barn, the heifer thrashed in the straw bed, her breath labored, her eyes glossy marbles. “Easy girl. Okie’s here.” She stroked the heifer’s neck, patted her head. “We’ll get you through this.”
Sponge in hand, she scrubbed the calf’s protruding forelegs. The hooves did not move. “That’s what I thought, heifer. That calf is dead. Dead as a doornail.” She pressed the sponge to her breast. “You poor girl. You’re baby’s dead.” She crawled hand and knee to heifer’s head which cradled in her lap. “Heifer, Okie’s going to take care of you. Your baby’s dead, and if we don’t get that calf out of you, you’re going with it. Don’t think I could stand that now.”
The heifer smells to Okie like hay and dirt. The dirt reminds her of the day Mr. Cass found her on the roadside, hitch-hiking to Oklahoma City, the day after her grandmother had died. Her hair tied behind her neck, she still wore the patterned dress she’d worn to the funeral.
Mr. Cass pulled over, cigarette perched on his lower lip, to holler out the window,
She bent down, holding the suitcase with two hands in front of her. The blowing dust they called wind spread her hair across her bronze face, beyond her face, so that she looked through it like a venetian blind at the man behind the wheel. Under a fresh tee shirt, his shoulders rolled forward, his nose rolled down to his chin. His Adam’s apple stuck out, it seemed to her, to the length of his chin.
“Anywhere, except here.” She slapped at the wind. She pulled the hair from her mouth, tried to smile for the man. The wind teased her.
“That’s where I’m headed.” The car door sprang open. “Get in. I’m Tom Cass. Glad to meet you. What’s your name?”
“What kind of name is that?”
“My granny give it to me.”
“Couldn’t she thought up something easier to say?”
She rocked back and forth, the heifer still in her lap. “What’s so hard about Kenowauha? Even dumb old Okie can say Kenowauha. Kenowauha. Kenowauha.”
The heifer murmured: its eyes rolled. It pitched its weight back and forth, struggling to get up.
“No, no. Lay down. Lay down.”
She pushed against the cow, who circled the pile of straw, the calf’s hooves bouncing behind it. A stream of fluid bubbled from the womb, sprinkling the straw.
“Lay down!” She slammed into the heifer. The heifer stumbled, kneeling on its forelegs. “Go down.” She pushed on the haunches. The cow tumbled to its side, murmuring, groaning. Air exploded from its lungs as it hit the dirt floor.
“Good girl. Now let’s get that calf out of there. I’m going to get the truck. It’s got a good wench. Be still til I get back.”
She found the truck in the tractor shed and backed it into the barn. A few feet from the stall, she cut the engine and turned off the headlights. After pulling out some slack, she hooked the chain around the dead calf’s knees. She scrubbed the legs again to remove the slick birth cheese. The heifer rattled a breath.
“Easy. Okie’s here.” She whispered advice into its ear. “Now, I like to know what’s going on when somebody’s working on me. Here’s what I got in mind. That baby of yours is dead. I don’t know how else to tell you that. That’s what the smell is. I’m real sorry.” She pulled at its ears. “We got it get him out, though. I hooked up this here winch off the truck. I’m reckoning to pull him out with it. It’s liable to hurt you, though, if you move around. Just hang on.”
After checking the chain, she unlocked the winch. “When you first brought me to the farm, I couldn’t hardly keep house, much less keep up the farm. But Okie’s picked up a thing or two along the way.” She turned the handle on the winch. The chain tightened: the wince squealed and complained. She put her weight against the crank. Her hands slipped off, barked against the truck’s grill. She shook off the hurt, grabbed the crank, and shoved the handle.
She leaned into the winch, laid on the handle until she doubled over.
On command, the winch jerked around. She caught herself before she slammed into the hood. The calf’s forelegs skittered across the straw, twisted in the chain, ripped from the body. Behind Okie, the legs lay like tattered cloth. The rotted head protruded from the womb, its eye sockets empty.
“It’s stuck! The legs tore clean off.”
She covered her mouth. The heifer scraped the dirt with its hooves. Okie felt for the hood behind her then backed away from the mangled calf. She stumbled some when she bolted for the door.
Outside, the rain fell. She staggered into the darkness that seemed to wrap around her. In the distance, the lights from the windows tempted her to run away from the dead calf to her clean kitchen, away from the rain and the cold and the heifer. She drooped to her knees. Mud splattered her thighs. The night seemed like a web she had tumbled into and the windows were moving farther and farther away. “You getting too damn old...if you have faith in yourself…can’t do nothing…your dreams…you so dumb…will come true… Goddamn, you, Okie…if you have faith in yourself, then your dreams will come true.”
“No, Goddamn you, Mr. Cass.” She wiped the mud from her pants, pulled her sopping hair away from her face. “Ain’t nobody here to help the heifer but you, Okie. Vet won’t come. Mr. Cass is dead and buried. Nobody here to see how stupid you are this time, nobody to take over when you screw up. Better get it right.”
The cow’s eyes were closed when she clipped the line around the calf’s neck. She turned away from the calf when she untangled the legs from the chain. She did not look back before she shoved the crank handle down. The line sang as it tightened. The winch squealed and she did not quit pushing until she heard a sound like the pop of a canning jar. The carcass slid out of the cow. She leaned on the truck to catch her breath.
A paint tarp was stacked in a front stall. She spread it over the carcass. “We’ll call somebody tomorrow to get rid of this for us.”
While Okie covered the calf, the heifer climbed up. She walked her stall, straining, until the afterbirth was purged. The cow sniffed at the calf, licked at the ears.
“It’s dead. I know how you feel.”
She led the cow to the fresh straw in another stall where it closed its eyes and rested.
Later, with the truck back in the shed, the lights out in the barn, she walked home. She warmed some pot pie on the stove. She found the dreamcatcher at her feet and returned it to the window. As the pie heated, she finished the mess she’d left in the sink and let the dishwater drain. She covered her hands with dish soap, bubbles forming like lace. As she washed, she watched the light dance in her dreamcatcher, then sat at the kitchen table to enjoy her meal alone.
High above Mars in a small space station, two men met in the boardroom of Offworld Mining Corporation. The older of the two, Stringfellow, sat in a treadchair, too weak from cancer to stand. The younger man was a job candidate–handsome, twenty-three, fresh from Earth, and terrified.
The room was dark, with only an egg-shaped viewing window to shine light into the room. Two words pulsed on a black plasma screen, “Launch Scenario.”
Stringfellow knew the boy was afraid, could see it in the way his eyes darted to the screen. You could do it, son, he thought, it’s your scenario, just tap the screen.
“I can’t,” the young man blurted out. “I can’t ruin the lives of all those people.” He threw the haptic gloves used to control the plasma screen onto Stringfellow’s desk. “I’m the wrong man for this job.”
“Yes,” Stringfellow said, “I can see that you are.” Not that he was a bad man. He had the same principles that Stringfellow himself shared. Of all the candidates, this one was the most like Stringfellow.
The candidate screwed up his face and leaned over the desk. Spittle flew from his mouth when he shouted. “When I get back to the shuttle, I’m sending a transcript of this meeting to every digimedia outlet on the net. You can’t destroy a hundred thousand people so that your corporation can improve its profit margin.”
“It was fake,” Stringfellow said, watching the candidate’s face closely.
“The scenario was a test to see if you would press the button. You didn’t, and I’m glad to see that you are not devoid of compassion.”
The candidate deflated like a popped balloon. “This means I get the job?”
“Horatio,” Stringfellow called to his aide over the intercom, “the interview is finished.”
A hatch slid open, and a gaunt man in an OMC uniform strode into the room. While Stringfellow shook hands with the candidate, Horatio stepped behind the candidate and stuck a memnodart into his neck. The man jerked at the prick of the needle and then relaxed, a dull smile on his face. He stood like a floppy statue.
“He wouldn’t push the button,” Stringfellow said.
Horatio nodded and led the candidate out of another hatch. A few minutes later, he returned empty-handed. “His memory is being altered by the medics, sir.”
“Check their work, Horatio. The last thing the corporation needs is for one of these boys to return to Earth with his memory intact.”
“None of them could pull the trigger,” he said, discouraged. Six out of six candidates had failed the final test.
Horatio nodded. “No, sir.”
Stringfellow began to despair that his plan had failed and that there would be no heir to take his place after all. The last man’s scenario wasn’t bad—just too small scale to really benefit OMC. He was smart enough, first in his class at MIT and one of the brightest minds in the field of nanoengineering. His expertise certainly would have aided in the corporation’s terraforming operation. But OMC didn’t need another ethical scientist at it helm. He himself had ridden that horse as far as it could go.
“Shall I send for the next candidate?” Horatio said.
“Give me a few minutes to look over his dossier.” Stringfellow turned his attention to the last file on his desk. “Double-check the simulation program to make sure it’s been reloaded correctly. We’ve got a military man coming next.”
“Have the simulations been incorrectly run, sir?”
“No, no, nothing of the sort. Double-check, though. It never hurts to be sure. Measure twice, cut once.” Back on Earth when he was a boy, it was had been of his father’s favorite sayings.
Horatio bowed out of the room, closing the hatch behind himself. Good man, Horatio, the last of his breed on Mars. Knew when to keep his mouth shut about the affairs of the corporation. Only he and Stringfellow knew the full truth about the candidates. All seven of them were the sons of John C. Stringfellow, although none of them knew that.
Twenty-three years earlier, Stringfellow had made a birth arrangement with seven women on Earth, seven special women from a variety of backgrounds. They were scattered all over the globe, the only trait they shared being an excellent physique and a giftedness in their chosen professions. Among them were a chemist, a physician, two engineers, an artist, a CEO, a high-ranking government official, and a former soldier. Their sons were the sons of John Stringfellow of the Offworld Mining Corporation. None of mother knew this, of course. The identity of the father was kept top secret.
Stringfellow thumbed through the printouts in the manila folder. He was a throwback, he admitted, a man who enjoyed the touch of paper over a touch screen. He was also one of the only men on Mars who could afford paper. Organic material was a commodity in high demand. What was it the first candidate had said? Mars’ future is in its dung.
His first son was right, of course. The recycling of human waster was just one of the thousands of projects big and small that OMC was using to complete the terraforming of Mars. It didn’t take a genius to come up with a dung pile theory, and what he really need was a genius, one of the rarest kind, a mix of business smarts, bureaucratic efficiency, and vision.
The fifth son had vision. He was a MBA from Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar, and a meteoric climber in the corporate world. He would have made a great ally. But he lacked the intestinal fortitude to push the button. No guts, no glory for Mars. Too bad that Stringfellow would never see him again. Good looking kid, too.
Maybe this last one would be better. Maybe. He had his doubts, something that he couldn’t put his finger on.
Stringfellow eased away from the desk, steering his treadchair toward the small observation window. The smaller of Mars’ moons, Phobos, dominated the viewing portal. Mars was nowhere to be seen, but Stringfellow knew by glancing back at the multiple plasma screens behind his desk that all was not well at home. Production in the mines was falling slowly but steadily. The behemoth furnaces that dotted the high terrain around the poles were nowhere near capacity, and quotas were being missed. How would they ever pump enough CO2 and CFCs into the atmosphere in time to make the deadline? The Board of Directors would be calling him on the carpet, the stupid bastards forgetting as usual that he was the CEO, President, and Chair of the Board all rolled into one. He was too old to run OMC now, they whispered behind his back when they were in their “secure” pods.
Ha, no pod on Mars was secure if he didn’t want it to be. Bunch of useless coyotes, the whole lot of them, waiting for him to die, thinking there was no heir to the man who had almost single-handedly established OMC. It was the most powerful corporation in the solar system. More powerful than the European Union Incorporated, greater in military might than the last elected government left on Earth, Indo-China.
Well, he had a surprise for them. There were seven heirs. Seven sons, all groomed to take his place, and by the end of the day, Lord willing, he would roll into the annual stockholders meeting and announce that his son, John C. Stringfellow, Junior, was on the map. Thinking of the slack-jawed looks on their faces kept him going through the day. That and an hourly dose of fifteen different meds that were auto-injected into his system from a MedPak.
Horatio buzzed the office, which tore him away from his brooding. They had kept the last candidate waiting ten minutes now.
“Is he impatient, Horatio?”
“No, Mr. Stringfellow,” Horatio’s voice answered back. “He is sitting at attention, staring straight ahead at the plastic ferns.”
“Well, he’s either a good soldier or a frustrated horticulturalist. Send him in.”
As soon as the hatch slid open, Stringfellow knew he had a good soldier on hand. Dressed in the navy blue and white dress uniform of the United Corporations of America, he stood as straight as a razor, and his shoulders were as wide as the handle of a sledgehammer.
“Major Helles to see you Mr. Stringfellow.” Horatio again bowed out and shut them up together in the small office.
Helles stepped forward and offered his hand. It was fine-boned and smaller than Stringfellow had imagined it would be. Much smaller than the other candidates’ had been. It was remarkable, he thought as he returned the shake, how different his sons all looked. They varied in weight, height, and of course, personality. He had planned it that way when the mothers were selected. Helles was taller than the others, but far more angular, with a sharp chin and high cheekbones. He looked more like his mother’s side of the family.
“Good to meet you, sir,” Helles said. “I’ve read a great deal about you.”
“I’ve done a good bit of reading up on you, too.”
“Yes, sir. That would be appropriate.”
Helles’ voice was almost flat, noting a void of emotion. Stringfellow wasn’t sure if he was still playing the part of the good soldier, or if he was really that rigid. You never knew with these military types. They were the best at wearing the mask, keeping the enemy from reading their faces. His mother was rigid like that, he recalled, the one time they had met, during the interview before the implantation of the fertilized egg. Stringfellow had insisted on meeting the mothers of his sons, although he was always disguised. It seemed more, what? Human?
Helles was still standing erect, not quite at attention, as Stringfellow rolled past him to the desk. He waved for Helles to sit, a motion that Helles either ignored or did not notice.
“Please, Major, have a seat. You’re making me nervous.”
“Yes, Mr. Stringfellow.” He sidestepped fluidly sat, still rigid.
“Lighten up, son, this isn’t a dress parade.”
Helles relaxed noticeably, He crossed his legs and even managed a small smile. “Of course, Mr. Stringfellow. Forgive my lack of civilian manners, it’s been a very long time since I had the pleasure of time off duty, and as you know the UCA Army is very demanding of its junior officers. That, and I have to admit to a bit of, well, apprehension, at meeting a person of your high stature.”
So, the shell of his wasn’t so thick after all. Stringfellow flipped open the dossier, turning immediately to the fourth page. “Seems you make a regular habit of meeting folks in high places, Major. Here’s a personal commendation from the CEO of the United Corporations of America giving you the Medal of Honor for Valor in the line of duty. How did that come about?”
“I thwarted an assassination plot.”
“Come again?” Stringfellow knew the details, of course. Two rogue Board of Directors, a man and woman who had served in the US Senate before the collapse of the US government, had led a conspiracy to kill the CEO. Major Helles had gotten wind of it somehow and led a daring raid that left all of the conspirators dead.
“My report is part of my dossier, is it not?” Helles smiled slightly again.
Now wasn’t he a shrewd bastard. “Of course, it is Major. What it leaves out is the details of how you got this inside tip. Mind clearing that up for me?”
“Yes, I mind clearing it up. That information is classified. It is also unethical for me to reveal the nature of my reconnaissance. Impractical, as well. A situation may arise where my sources are needed again.”
That was more like it. Helles had a spine. But what was this man’s breaking point? “All right, then, let’s forget the chit-chat and get on with business. You’ve applied, at our invitation, to a high ranking position in the OMC corporate military.”
“How was that battery of tests they put you through the last couple of days?”
“Taxing, Mr. Stringfellow, but not impossible.”
Not impossible was right. Stringfellow scanned his results again. Physically, Helles was not at the top, although he tested out above average in all areas. In the strategy and organizational tests, though, he far outstripped his half-brothers.
Don’t call them that, Stringfellow told himself, don’t even think it. Those boys will be off the station before the next morning. He would never see them again. That’s the way it had to be. Once the choice was made, there would be only one son left.
On paper, Helles was everything that Stringfellow wanted in an heir. Ethical, determined, honor-bound. There was something still bothering him, though, a nagging doubt.
He let the Major stew in his own juices for a few minutes and leafed through the thick dossier. Here was Helles’ whole live preserved in text and digigraphs. Doctor’s visits, never been sick a day in his life. No surprise there, since his autoimmune system had been enhanced in vitro. Excellent grades in school, with a smattering of discipline reports you’d expect from a bright, strong-willed son of a former Navy SEAL.
“Your mother,” Stringfellow said, “tell me about her.”
“She died when I was twelve. Motorcycle accident. But you knew that.”
“I’ve seen the accident report, yes. You must miss her.”
Helles shrugged. “I will see her in heaven when my time in this world is done.”
“Heaven? I didn’t know—“
“Didn’t know what, Mr. Stringfellow?”
“That you were a religious man.”
“Certainly. My mother saw to it that my upbringing was a Christian one. You expected otherwise?”
There was an edge to Helles’ voice. Anger, maybe? No, a hint of surprise. Not that Stringfellow minded a religious man—Mars was still too much like the old Wild West in America, and the fear of God never hurt anybody.
“Catholic or Protestant?”
Helles unbuttoned the top of his shirt and pulled out a cross on a silver chain. “Baptist, to be precise. My mother was born again soon after I came along.”
Well, that explained the nagging doubt. It was a minor thing, but his radar had picked up on it, hadn’t it? Maybe you haven’t lost your touch, after all, old man.
Here sat the perfect man. This last candidate, this last son, had no obvious flaws. Add to that, religious convictions, and he might just be the one. The board would love him, once they got over the shock. And what a shock it would be.
“Time to cut to the chase, Major Helles. Tell me why you were brought here.”
Helles uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in the chair. “Ostensibly, I was here in answer to an opportunity to join the OMC military and become one of its officers. But hiring one soldier away from another army is rare, even in these days of highest-bidder loyalty. There is such a thing as honor and duty to one’s corporation, even if another conglomerate offers a higher rank and better benefits.”
He had see through that little façade. So, Stringfellow reminded himself, had three of the other sons. “Go on.”
“It stands to reason, then, that the position I’m interviewing for is far more important than I was led to believe. That shows a need for security and secrecy. You aren’t looking for a colonel to handle your military strategy, are you, Mr. Stringfellow?”
No, of course not. That much was obvious. Helles differed from the others in one dramatic way—he cut right to the chase. It had taken the others over an hour into the interview to spill the beans. Now was a good time to see what the boy was made of.
“Earlier today,” Stringfellow said, slowly, in a measured tone, the same tone he had used on the other six candidates, “during one of the tests, you created a scenario that would enhance OMC’s value tremendously. Walk me through that scenario.”
“You have review the results, have you not?”
“Walk me through them, in case I missed anything.”
He had reviewed all of the scenarios, and each was fascinating in its own right. The Rhodes Scholar had invented a market model that in the wink of an eye would send the earth world markets tumbling, creating a planet-wide depression. All but the largest Earth corporations would weaken, and OMC with it great cash reserves could acquire them, without the bloodshed of a hostile take over. It would even solve the emigration problem: all OMC had to do was downsize a country, say the Philippines, and transfer a percentage of its employees to Mars. But in the end, the scholar failed because he would not push the button that supposedly would set the whole plan into action. He simply could not bring that much hardship to Earth. It was his home, after all
In fact, the button would have done nothing, except set off a series of programmed digigraphics, a light show to celebrate this success. Stringfellow had no intention of destroying Earth in order for Mars to profit. He himself was too weak to make such an order. That’s why OMC had stagnated, because it needed a CEO who was ruthless enough to put the corporation before himself.
That was the crucible. Would Helles be able to push the button? His sense of duty to the corporation might allow it, but what effect would his religious beliefs have?
Stringfellow handed Helles the haptic gloves that controlled the plasma computer screens. A strategic map of Earth filled the largest screen, and with a flick of the fingers, Stringfellow filled the map with markers.
Helles began. “Here is the current situation of the terran corpo-political world.” He tapped the screen, and Europe and China enlarged, growing out of the map.
Stringfellow marveled at his son’s skill with the gloves. Far from his own clumsy movements, Helles’ made the screen come alive, looking as if he were a conductor leading an orchestra. Digigraphs and text flew by so quickly, Stringfellow could hardly see them, much less read them.
“As you know,” Helles said, staring at the plasma screen, “China is the last of the governments left on the planet. She is a dinosaur, ready to fall into extinction. The Communist model was never a sound one, and the People’s Republic would have followed the USSR’s demise if it were not for their massive consumer base.”
“Of course.” China had not followed the other countries in adopting the corporate model, which was never a surprise. China was always slow to react to the rest of the world.
“However, this dinosaur still represents a significant military threat to both the European Union Inc and the United Corporations of America,” Hells said. “As you know, when NATO and NAFTA were fused, both corporations unwisely chose to let the free market control their armed forces, which makes them both vulnerable to attack by the Chinese.”
“The Chinese will not attack the EUI and UCA,” Stringfellow answered. “Who would buy their shoes?” Although he had seen the scenario earlier, he was still skeptical. He knew Helles plan was to provoke the Chinese into war. But Beijing had always limited its conquests to border regions.
Helles did not immediately answer. Instead, he made China larger on the screen, focusing on the city of Beijing. The satellite full-spectrum digigraphs showed large masses that Stringfellow recognized as missile silos.
“Those were not included in your earlier scenario,” Stringfellow said.
“A little wrinkle. Recon satellites picked these sites up only hours ago.”
Stringfellow did not like this little wrinkle. “You have access to satellite feeds from Earth?”
“They are from OMC satellites. Your staff provided them.”
Who the Hell authorized that? Somebody’s head was going to roll. Still, he had to admire Helles’ resourcefulness. They had tried to keep him hermetically sealed in the station, and he still managed recon. This was a man to be proud of.
Don’t put the ox before the horse, he chided himself. Helles still had to be willing to push the button.
“Go on, Helles. Tell me about your wrinkle.”
“It is essentially the same plan, sir. OMC has been able to breach the security of UCA air defense and infect their core systems using a self-limiting virus. At any time, we can release a catalyst into their system, which will launch a series of short-range missiles from NATO bases in Indonesia, Japan, and the Ukraine. The target in Beijing and those silos I marked on the map. The Chinese will have to react. They will retaliate against all NATO nations, which will lead to a global wear. The collateral damage will be significant.”
Stringfellow pinched the bridge of his nose. What a horrible, horrible scenario, so unspeakable that Helles would never do it. Across the desk, the Major turned the plasma screen off, placed the haptic gloves neatly the desk, and returned to the chair.
“And this will benefit OMC how?”
“You seem upset, Mr. Stringfellow. Does my scenario alarm you?”
Isn’t this what you wanted, Johnny, a son capable of decisive action? A man who lead OMC into the next level of development? “You call it collateral damage, I call them people.”
“Yes, sir. They are people,” Helles said. “But people are just part of the corporation, and I serve my corporation. Might a remind you, sir, that as CEO of OMC, you have many times squash movements by the miners to unionize. Once, as I recall, you had the air supply cut off from a group of wild cat strikers, and that all of them died within hours.”
“Be all my sins, remembered, eh? Yes, I did those things, and others for worse.” Stringfellow felt ill. The meds were already wearing off? “When I started this colony, Major, it was dream of utopia. All women and men were created equal, and things were to be run democratically. But it didn’t last. It was all an illusion. Truth is, I was in control all along. I had the money, the stockholders, and I controlled the mines. It was inevitable that the interests of the corporation came first. But those things that I did, they wore on me. Made me tired. It’s not so easy to make decisions that will leave blood on your hands.”
“’And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand’.”
Stringfellow was not thinking now, just reacting. He pulled on the gloves and called up the “button” program. The screen turned black, except for two words in dark yellow, “Launch Scenario.”
“This is the last test, Major. We have programmed the scenario you created, and it is now. Will you launch it?”
Stringfellow expected, what, the same obvious hesitation the scholar had shown? But there would be none of that this time. Helles reached up and tapped the word, “Launch.”
The black screen flickered, and then thousands of digigraphs poured past in a depiction of the expected results of the scenario. Earth’s life flashed before Helles’ eyes. Nuclear explosions, firestorms that swept cities away in a matter of minutes, thousands of starving children picking their way through the rubble of cities all across the world.
It was Dresden on a global scale.
Perfect. Stringfellow watched Helles’ face for signs of emotion and found nothing but the stoic, tight-lipped response he had already been treated to. The man was made of stone, just what OMC needed to carry it into the next century. After twenty plus years of waiting, the plan had finally come to fruition. He felt the tingle of chill bumps, the same sensation he felt every time an experiment worked.
“Horatio,” he called on the intercom, “please bring your notary seal and digicam into my office. We need an official witness. Major, please pull a chair up to my desk. I would like to offer you the position.”
Horatio came to the desk bearing a digicam to record the conversation and a touch tablet that contained not a job offer, but John Stringfellow’s Last Will and Testament. In a few minutes, he would open a transmission port with his law office on Mars, but not until he dropped the figurative bomb on Major Helles.
He glanced at Helles, still stern and showing no signs of curiosity. Surely he was holding in a thousand questions. In the same position, Stringfellow wouldn’t have been able to control himself. Curiosity had always been his best quality and worst flaw. He paused over the touch pad, eager to write the name of his son into the will, but couldn’t resist the last chance to break the stone wall of Hells’ face.
“Major Helles, tell me about your father.
“He is a brilliant man,” he said without hesitation.
“You mean, was, he died when you were an infant, it says so in your dossier.”
“Yes, of course, was.”
“What if I were to tell you that your father is not the man you thought he was?”
Helles stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on the viewing port. “I would not be surprised. None of us is the man others think we are.”
It was no good. Helles was taking all the fun out of it. He was a mental bomb shelter. Might as well go on and sign the documents. “Turn on the camera, Horatio.”
“A moment, sir,” Horatio said, “it is time for your MedPak.”
Stringfellow offered a withered forearm, and Horatio injected him. There were track marks up and down the arm from months of these injections. Soon, though, it would be over, and he wouldn’t need the MedPaks anymore.
Using a stylus, Stringfellow wrote in the changes to his will, making John Carter Stringfellow, Junior, his only heir. When he died, Helles would take over a CEO and Chair of Board of Directors. He hoped it was the right thing to do.
You’re just feeling buyer’s remorse, he told himself. It was a risk, Stringfellow knew, and for a fleeting second he wished that he had done things the simple way—get married, have children, raise them. But he had never wanted a wife nor children. OMC was his baby. No, science was his baby, the quest for new knowledge. The last frontier and all that rot.
Horatio witnessed the signing and then notarized it, placing his seal and thumbprint on the pad. As Stringfellow watched, he sent the document across to the OMC attorneys. Now, it was official. There was no turning back.
It was time to spill the beans, but suddenly, it didn’t feel like a game anymore. What was he thinking? This was a man’s life he was about to undo. The least he could do is act a little less, what, triumphant?
“Major Helles,” Stringfellow began slowly. Horatio was still in the office, and he saw no reason to send him out. It never hurt to have a good man at your side. “I’m afraid that I have lied to you. This whole interview was a farce.”
“You were never under consideration for a position in our military. In fact, son, there isn’t any such position in OMC military.”
“I was aware of that.”
“But you came anyway?”
“You are a smart young man, Major, a lot smarter than you like to let on, so if you knew that this whole setup was a straw man, why did you come here and go through all the tests and interviews?”
“I wanted to meet you, sir.”
“That’s a lot of trouble to get to meet an old man with cancer, son.”
“True. But you were not always an old man. Once, you were the young man whose bioengineering skill enabled the rapid terraformation of Mars. To prove your theories were true, you and a few colleagues left Earth with enough fuel and supplies to make it to Mars. But not enough to make it back. I admire a man of conviction, sir.”
Stringfellow chuckled. “You sound like an encyclopedia, son.”
“One should always speak as intelligently as possible.”
Well, he did manage that. Still, it didn’t quite make sense, did it? If he knew about the interview, what else did he know? “I’m not exactly as charismatic figure, Major. I find it hard to believe that you would travel this far just to meet me.”
“There is another reason, sir.”
Now they were getting somewhere. He glanced at Horatio, who was waiting calmly. “Which is?”
Helles swallowed, making his Adam’s apple bob. “I wanted to meet my true father.”
Damn, he knew, the boy had outfoxed him. It was clear now, that’s how he knew about the scenario, that’s why he was never hesitated to launch it. He had inside information. “Who told you? Horatio?”
“Don’t blame him, sir,” Helles said. “I already knew before I got here. I’ve known for years, since my mother died.”
“That’s impossible. Your mother didn’t know a thing about who I really was.”
Helles smiled. “Mother was a brilliant woman, sir, and a terrific spy, even if I do say so myself. She saw through the cover story your men used. She took your money, planned my life, and waited for the day that I would take my place at your side. It is your destiny, she would say.”
“I seem to have been outflanked,” Stringfellow said. Now he was the one with a thousand questions but without the energy to ask them. His chest felt as if someone was sitting on it. He tried to breath and could only cough.
“I was not trying to outmaneuver you, Father, only to become the son you wanted me to be. When I learned of my true identity, I set out to learn everything about OMC and you, in particular. Reconnaissance is my specialty. I know, for example, that I was one of eight eggs that were implanted. Seven of us survived.”
So he knew about the others, too. Not really a surprise, after all. He probably knew everything. They had underestimated this one all along. Pride goeth before the fall, isn’t that what they said?
“Six of my brothers preceded me today, and all six of the them failed your test. Your man, Horatio, carried each man out to what you assumed was the infirmary.”
“Assumed? Horatio?” What had he done?
Horatio did not answer. He patted Stringfellow on the shoulder and then turned away, facing the stars that shone through the viewing portal.
“Horatio? You betrayed me?” He tried to breathe again and choked on his own breath.
“Not betrayal, Father,” Helles said. “Horatio works for OMC, not you, and he will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve the bottom line. In fact, Horatio walked the men to the shuttle, where they await launch. Tragically, they will all perish due to a fuel rod failure.”
“You bastard,” he said in a course whisper.
“Technically accurate, yes, but I am still the son you always wanted.”
No, no, no, he shook his head. Why couldn’t he breathe? He clutched his throat, gagging.
“It’s the MedPak, Father, rather, what you thought was a MedPak. Your body functions are shutting down, and there isn’t much time. I have so much to show you.”
Stringfellow hacked but could not speak. Helles seemed farther away, as if his voice were echoing down a mineshaft.
Helles touched the plasma screen. It awoke with a splash of digigraphs, scenes of missiles hitting Beijing, and more missiles launched from China on NATO targets. Los Angeles and Tokyo were in flames, and the faces of the screaming victims filled the screen. He had launched the scenario after all.
What a monster! Stringfellow struggled to speak, but his body was paralyzed. He could not move, could not speak, could not blink or turn away from the horrific images that flashed across the screens.
“Shh. It won’t be long now, Father. The Board of Directors will accept your death without concern, and with your last will in hand, I will assume your position. With Earth in upheaval, OMC will need a strong hand to guide it. Thank you, Father, for making me that hand.”
Helles bent down beside the treadchair. He placed a hand on Stringfellow’s eyes and closed them, then leaned in and kissed his cheek. “When you get to heaven, please give Mother my best.”
November 18, 2016
The guy always wears a rubber band around his wrist—to remind him of what he is. It’s a thin brown band about the color of his skin, so it’s impossible to see unless you’re looking for it.
That’s what I do, look for it, when I show him to his favorite table in the back of the dining room, away from the crowd. It’s a nice place, our restaurant, with thirty round tables with white tablecloths and a classy martini bar. It’s illegal to smoke inside, of course, but it’s an old place, and the terracotta walls still carry a hint of the aroma of tobacco. Been in the family five generations, and Mr. Oldham is one of best customers.
He always reserves a place in the back if there’s going to be a scene—and every indication points that way. As I seat him, he’s playing a voice message. Not used to gadgetry, he’s left the volume too high, and I can hear the woman’s voice clear as a bell:
“Sam? Elizabeth. We need to talk. I want to meet as soon as humanly possible.”
The emphasis doesn’t escape me. He clicks off the message and looks at me like he doesn’t know where he was or why I am standing there in my frigging tux and bow-tie holding out his chair.
I say, “Good to see you again, Mr. Oldham,” trying to shake him out of it.
He thanks me, flashing the white teeth and chiseled features. Oldham, that’s the name he’s using now. Thinks it’s some kind of joke. He’s a kidder, this one. Good looking guy. Could be a lady killer if he wanted.
After he’s comfortable, I return to my station and wait for the woman that’s sure to be coming in any minute. He asks for a bottle of Cabernet, 2017. There’s nothing special about the vintage—’17 wasn’t such a good year, and I have my suspicions about his reasons why. I don’t pry. In my line of work, you never pry. It’s a good way to end up dead. Or broke, which is worse.
The new guy, Eddie, takes the wine to the table. One look at Mr. Oldham, and he cards the guy. I can’t freaking believe it. I scuttle over, thinking Oldham’s going to blow his top. He opens wide for the retinal scan, and Eddie’s eyebrows arch so high, they almost touch his hairline. I’ve got Eddie by the elbow and yank the scanner out of his hand before any of the other guests can notice. The restaurant is cozy, which means it’s cramped as hell, with two-tops almost crammed on top of each other. The lighting’s dim, but acoustics are damn good.
“Something’s wrong with this scanner,” Eddie says, too loud. “The guy looks not a day over twenty-one.”
“Shut up,” I murmur.
I’ve got the bottle of Cabernet out of Eddie’s hand. “I’ll take it from here, junior.”
He starts to argue. Not in my freaking dining room, he doesn’t, and I dismiss him with a withering look.
“Sorry about that, ah, Mr. Oldham. Hard to get good help, you know how young people are.”
He smiles like he’s bitten into something sour. Wrong thing to say. I suck my teeth. Apologizing will make things worse, so I pour the wine.
He sniffs the glass of Cab, enjoying the bouquet, and then takes a sip. It’s to his taste, so I pour a second.
When he’s settled, I set the bottle on the table and pass him off to one of the older guys, Gus, who knows the score. I take my station just as she walks in. There’s no doubt about it. She’s his type—tall, angular, with chin-length hair, and laugh lines around the eyes. Likes his fruit ripened, Mr. Oldham does.
She doesn’t even tell me his name before I say, right this way, and lead her over. Her dress is red silk, with a slit appropriate for a conservative business woman in her late thirties. Bet he bought it for her. That’s his kind of dress.
Sam is waiting. He’s watching her through the distorted lens of the glass. From my angle, his nose looks too big for his face. I wonder what he sees, looking back at us. He stands, welcoming her. He offers a cheek. Elizabeth leans in, but her kiss is a phantom.
“You look wonderful tonight,” he says as they sit. “How do the pearls wear?”
She runs her fingertips over the surface of necklace. “Sam. We need to talk.”
“I got that impression.”
He nods, and I leave them to it. I’ve been around the block enough times to know what’s coming next. So does he. It wasn’t so long ago that Sam and me would knock down a few at the bar after closing, two middle-aged guys between wives. He was a different guy then.
Back at my stand, I greet two couples and show them to their tables, keeping an eye on the table in back.
Sam pours her wine. It sits untouched. He has emptied his once, at least, and he refills it when the old guy Gus returns to take their order for an appetizer.
When that’s done, Elizabeth leans over the table. It’s time for business. I move to spot near the coat room. There acoustics are very good here.
“It might be best if we stop seeing each other,” Elizabeth says.
He makes that sour smile face again. Although he has to know it was coming, the taste is still bitter. It would be for me, too. A guy works hard, does what he’s asked, and suffers his life like he should. All he wants is a little comfort once in awhile, and even that rug gets pulled out from under his feet.
“Why?” he says.
She half-smiles, creasing the laugh lines around her eyes. “You know perfectly well why.”
“Not the age thing again.” He combs a hand through his thick, black hair. Wish I had hair like that again, I catch myself thinking and running a hand across my on empty pate, envying him one a split second. Then I wonder, would I trade places with that poor schmuck, even for the thickest hair in the world?
“Look,” he says to her, “don’t say you’re too old for this. I said it didn’t bother me.”
“That’s not what you meant, though, was it?” She picks up the wine glass and points it at him. It’s the beginning of the end for them. He knows. I know it. Hell, every frigging customers in the room knows it if they’re paying attention. They don’t. Pay attention. Even in this day and age, a young man with a middle aged woman, it just isn’t done. If they only knew.
This is how it always starts. It has the last three times, anyway. Something he says or does will tip them off, and all of the pieces fall into place. Maybe Sam hoped it would be different with this Elizabeth. Maybe she’s a widow or something, with a couple of teenage kids. Maybe she needs a husband as much as he needs a wife. He’s got a lot to offer a woman. Not love precisely, he’s too old for that, but guidance and help with the kids. Affection, too, maybe, if she could settle for that. I know where he’s coming from. I’d want the same things, if I had the energy.
Gus comes up, needles me in the ribs. He’s as interested as I am.
“Some racket, he’s got, eh?” Gus says out of the side of his mouth. “I’d like them younger, myself.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “There’s drawback, if you think about it.”
He starts to argue. How can you explain to a guy like Gus about living long enough to see your wife and kids and grandkids all grow old, all the while you’re getting younger by the day? He’s sort of a hero, just for lasting so long.
“I can’t hear nothing,” Gus says, adjusting his hearing aid.
Oldham is Gus’ last table. Most of the others are clearing out. It’s about closing time for the dining room, although the bar action is heating up. We move to another spot, near the kitchen, and pretend to shine the silverware.
The kitchen signals Gus. He scoots off to pick up their order. Sorry you’re going to miss the show, buddy. Gus has always had dumb luck like that.
“Look at you,” the woman says. “Young, boyishly handsome, thick hair, flat belly. Any woman in this room would be glad to have on her arm. How old are you, Sam?”
He runs a finger around the lip of the goblet. His smile is glass. “Not a day over twenty-four.”
“And how old will you be on your next birthday?”
She blinks at his frankness. He empties his wine and then refills it. She refuses to drink.
“What gave me away?” he said, sipping.
“The photo of the old couple on your night stand. The people you allowed me to believe were your parents?”
Sam nods. Probably, she saw it when she was over at his house or something. I bet it was the photo of Sam and Louisa on their fiftieth anniversary party. They had it right here, in this dining room. This was before I was born, of course, but Sam’s told me lots of times about. Happened a couple weeks before Louisa died.
Ah, who knows. Maybe I’m projecting myself into the situation—my ex said I was bad about that. I like to walk a mile in a man’s shoes, I’d tell her. Yeah, she’d say, you’re trying to wear his pants, too.
“You’re a rubber band man,” Elizabeth says, accusing him.
He rubs the non-existent wrinkles on his forehead. “I’m not, um, really fond of that term.”
Sam looks toward me. We make eye contact. I hold up a spoon and turn it in the light, like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. He looks away, and I use the cutlery like a periscope, scanning the other diners. No one seems interested in this conversation.
“Why not use it?” Elizabeth says. There’s an ugly edge to her voice.
Sam hears it, too. He wipes his chin with the napkin. It’s not much of a shield. “I’d rather you didn’t, um, use slurs to describe me.”
Gus returns with the appetizer. Neither of them touches it, but it breaks the tension. He fusses over the presentation just long enough to give Sam a breather. Good man, that Gus.
Elizabeth takes a sip of water. Her lips look dry. “I thought all of them—all of you—were dead.”
“Some are. I lived a longer life than most. Well, longer than all of them, actually.”
“So you’re the last one.”
Sam smiles like he’s got a toothache. Yeah, he’s the last one, I want to tell her. It wasn’t like the government hunted them down, for Christ sake.
“So on your next birthday,” Elizabeth says, “you’ll truthfully be…”
“One hundred and eighty-eight years of age.”
“And people say you’re too young for me.” She looks away blinking. Her eyelids are rimmed with tears.
It breaks Sam’s heart to see her like this, I can tell. Elizabeth is a fine woman, and he hopes to spend his last years with her. I’m projecting again, I know, but he’s got that look in his eye. It’s an old man’s look. He knows what he’s getting into, you know?
He takes her hand again, and she softens a little.
“We can still make it work,” he says. “I know it’s a little unorthodox.”
“Unorthodox?” Her nose wrinkles up like he’s spoiled milk. “It’s disgusting. My oldest daughter is fourteen. In only four years, the two of you would be the same age. And in twenty years? You would be almost a toddler. I’ve lived through the terrible twos and changing dirty diapers. Frankly, I’m not interested in wiping my husband’s butt.”
It’s a low blow, but Sam takes it like a champ. Me, I would’ve excused myself right then.
He slowly pours the rest of the bottle of wine into his glass. It almost overflows, which tells me he’s a little rattled. Maybe he’s thinking of what it’ll be like, a man stuck in a toddler’s body, an architect like him having to play with building blocks instead of fiddling with offworld pre-fabs.
“That’s not how it works,” he says finally, after he’s taken a sip or two. “Once my milk teeth started remerging, the agency would arrange for my last few years. That’s the way it worked with the others.”
“Not that I give a damn about the others,” she says.
By others, she means the couple hundred other volunteers who underwent gene therapy to reverse the effects of aging. They thought they’d go living forever, not aging.
“I don’t know why you people allowed the government to screw around with your genetics that way. All that for nothing.”
The newsnets were called the experiements a failure because nobody stopped aging. They got older and older, and then some of them, the ones that would have died in their forties and fifties, they starting going backwards, like a stretched out rubber band snapping into place. The government propagandists were all over it, calling them heroes—until some of them lost their minds. It was too much stress, they snapped, some of them. That one woman who killed her family. Those three men who blew up that school. President Nelson, who started the last Great War.
“It seemed like a good idea the time,” he said, sadly. “to be a modern Lazarus. A immortal Ulysses. To strive. To seek. To find. And not to yield.”
Sam volunteered in his twenties, and that’s where he met Louisa. They were both supposed to live forever. They loved each other so much, I think it could have lasted forever, except Louisa’s gene therapy didn’t work. Chromosomal prolapse is what Sam calls it. That’s technical for a guy like me. In my mind, Louisa was a rubber band that didn’t snap back.
“Such a poet.” She pats him on the back of the hand, patronizing him, and I hate her for it. “You’re a good man, Sam. I’m sorry you never got to live a normal life.”
He’s more normal than either one of us will even be, lady.
“Louisa, listen to me—“
She stares at him Blinks. Blinks again.
He doesn’t realize he’s messed up. “Did I say something wrong?”
She puts a small, velvet covered box on the table. “Under the circumstance, my answer is no.”
“I wish you’d think about it.”
“No, Sam. I’m not getting any younger, you know.” She half-smiles at her bad joke. Nobody’s laughing.
She tries to pay for her part of the uneaten food, but he waves her off.
“You really should try to live out your life happily, maybe meet someone of your same—“
With that she’s gone. She can let herself out, I decide.
Sighing, Sam drops the ring box into the pocket of his suit coat. Gus makes for the table with the check, but I cut him off.
“I missed the show?” Gus whispers. “Damn it.”
“Not much of a show.” I lie, but it makes Gus feel better. I pocket the check, and start clearing the table.
Everybody thinks, if I only knew then what I know now, I could go back in time and change things. Me personally, I’m glad I don’t have that chance. My heart couldn’t take it.
“How was the Cab this evening, Mr. Oldham?” I ask him, taking the empty bottle.
He swishes the last of the Cabernet in the glass. “It tastes like water.”
It’s time to put a little flavor back into your life, Sam. I glance back at the bar. “You really should go out dancing or something. Maybe visit the bar. Have a martini on me.”
“Nah, it’s not me. I’m too–” He rubs his head, once again rubbing his proceeding hairline.
At the bar across the restaurant, a young lady catches Sam’s eye. She’s a pretty girl, with long hair tied up in a French braid, and there’s a tattoo of a butterfly peeking out of the bottom of her open-backed dress.
“You think so?”
I look at the lady and then at him. I nod and wink. Why not? The night is young.
November 15, 2016
They found a pearl that weighs 34 kilos.
The world’s largest biggest.
It weighs as much as an
Olympic gymnast or a
Wheel of parmesan cheese.
More than the cursed pearl
Kino cast into the sea.
It has the beauty of neither,
This mammoth, misshapen thing,
Nor the iridescent skin of
A perfect white marble
On a string of perfect white marbles
Threaded by a strand of silver
That draws your eye to the
Alabaster nape of a lover’s neck.
Where she lifts strands of her silken hair
For you to close the clasp.
November 10, 2016
This morning I awoke speaking Australian
To a group of high school kids who
Loved my books and the TV series
Based on them. They wanted to know
How I allowed this certain actress
To play the ballerina assassin. So
I asked, what actress?
What TV show?
What rights got sold?
Why am I speaking Australian?
So I called my agent up and
Her office was closed and
It would cost $20 for her
To call from vacation.
So I called the film agent
Who was on vacation
In the background
The high school kids
Chanted my name, “Rob Thomas! Rob Thomas! Rob Thomas!” and
I realized things had gone horribly wrong
In this dream I was dreaming in Australian
And learning that I
Was a Veronica Mars knock off.
At least I was still dressed
And wearing good boots.
But even if you’re dreamland naked,
You can wade through a lot
Of anxiety if
You’re wearing a pair
Of good boots.
November 7, 2016
If I had eyes of Janus —
God of beginnings and endings,
Gates and doorways,
Locks and keys,
Whose two faces looked
Forward and back
Into the past and
Off to the future —
Then I would tell you
What our future holds,
What mistakes haunt our pasts.
Being human, I can only
Be in this minute,
The moment of you.
November 4, 2016
Sparks and clouds like stardust,
Her soft kisses lit my mind,
Filled it with fire and darkness
That set my lips ablaze.
But the taste of her was fleeting
Like a whisper on the wind
For among the stars she dwells now
And not in the earth I know.
I’m left drowning in the river,
Straining to taste my star once more.
My appetite left unsated,
Throat as parched as dust.
November 1, 2016
The boy played in the dirt yard. His mottled back was bare as the wind blasted fields around the house. He sifted the loose dirt like flour through his fingers until it drifted and faded into the breeze. He chewed his thumbnail, ground tiny rocks between his teeth, and spat out the remains, skin and rock together.
The boy’s mother rocked the porch swing to passively fan herself. Lines creviced her face, eroded by a flaccid life, a seeped-out balloon. Her hair tied back by a faded blue ribbon, she watched her boy as he rolled the dirt between his fingers, crushed it in his palms.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he said then laughed as if he wanted to cry.
“Your Daddy says he’ll get a job.”
The boy wrote his name in the dirt. “Doing what?”
“Down to the chicken house.”
“That’s work for trash.”
“It’s getting to the point where we is trash.”
“Y’all maybe.” The boy threw a handful of dirt at the porch. “Not me.”
“You just don’t understand, son.”
“I understand plenty.”
“You ain’t acting like it.” She fanned herself with an open hand. “That’s what they been teaching you at school, sass?”
“Don’t matter what I learned. Ain’t going back.”
She stopped swinging. “What’s that?”
“Ain’t going back. They kicked me out. Said I’m a troublemaker.”
“Lord help me,” she said. “It don’t rain but it pours.”
“It ain’t rained in forever. Ain’t you noticed?”
“Don’t you sass me, boy.” She heard the tinny rumble of their truck. “Daddy’s home.”
The boy spotted his father’s truck–-a sky-blue, Chevy long-bed. A clouded cocoon encased the truck as it rambled toward the shack. The truck sputtered to a stop beside the house. The father, a disjointed man with ramshackled limbs, climbed out. He had big, thick hands, calluses strung across the palms, with stubs for fingers. He wore thick boots. He carried a brown paper bag.
“Did you get the job?” the mother asked.
The daddy grinned. “Something like that.”
“Come here and hug my neck.” As she hugged him, glass bottles clattered inside the paper bag. “What’s that you got?” she asked.
Daddy pulled out a bottle. “I got us all a Co-cola to celebrate.”
“Let us pray to God for what he has given us.”
“While you’re praying,” Daddy said. “I’ll get us a bottle opener.” He disappeared into the house.
The boy stood unmoving in the dirt. The wind had grown strong enough to blow his hair. He felt the vibration of far away thunder as he looked to the heavens.
The daddy brought out three drinks in one hand and the opener in the other. “Don’t he want no Co-cola?”
“Reckon he might,” she said. “He done been kicked out of school again.”
“He don’t have the spirit of the Lord in him.”
“He just don’t listen. They say he’s smart, but he don’t act like it. My daddy,” the father said, “he always said that our children is our blessing and our curse. From the moment they’re born, you know you’re going to die, and the children do everything in their power to see it happens.”
The boy shrugged off his mother and daddy’s words. They’d said it all before. A cooling raindrop fell on his shoulder as he looked to the blackened clouds. “It’s raining.”
“Raining!” The father danced, beating the wooden planks with his heavy boots. “I’ll be damned.”
“Salvation done snuck up on us,” the mother said. “Come up here, son. Let’s have us a Co-cola and give thanks.”
The boy kicked the dirt turned to mud by thick drops of rain. A shaft of lightning streaked yellow across the sky, and the heavens seemed to open up, rains falling in sharply angled sheets that soaked him to the bone.
“Better get the ark,” the boy said, then ambled onto the porch. He opened a bottle and let the soda flood his mouth, cooling his dry, parched thirst. “It don’t rain but it pours,” he said and laughed so they couldn’t see him cry.
My neighbor the seahawk
Joins us on our morning walk
Diving from her nest of needles, twine, and bone
Built in the boughs of the longleaf pine
Taller than the tall, its last arms unsnapped,
Weathering decades of hurricanes
And half that in urban sprawl,
Eighty feet above the dead pocosin swamp
Upon which our nests are built.
She swirls high above the power lines
That separate the roads from the sky
Filled with downy clouds painted on
A wide canvas filled with Caroline blue horizons,
Waiting for the warm air to
rise from the pavement
Where the dogs pads click in rhythm
My sneakers squeaking out of sync.
Three bird shadows lifting from a loblolly pine.
Dead squirrel eaters, cacophonous cawers,
Feather-flinging wings beating the air,
Trying to hunt the hunter.
My neighbor dives, wings tucked, white belly
Crows lurching through the air,
Drunken flyers with bleating cries,
Pecking her wings until
She banks and dives and catches an
Invisible updraft, lifting her two trees
Higher than the pack.
Above the crows, above the wires,
Above the dogs and me
The seahawk circles and whistles a screech.
I mimic her cry, high-pitched and loud
Enough to fool the crows who caw back at me,
But not close enough to fool her
As she flies in growing halos,
Silent as angels’ wings.