For Esmé – with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger

JUST RECENTLY, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding that will take place in England on April 18th. It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to be able to get to, and when the invitation first arrived, I thought it might just be possible for me to make the trip abroad, by plane, expenses be hanged. However, I’ve since discussed the matter rather extensively with my wife, a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, and we’ve decided against it–for one thing, I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often, and she’s not getting any younger. She’s fifty-eight. (As she’d be the first to admit.)

 

All the same, though, wherever I happen to be I don’t think I’m the type that doesn’t even lift a finger to prevent a wedding from flatting. Accordingly, I’ve gone ahead and jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago. If my notes should cause the groom, whom I haven’t met, an uneasy moment or two, so much the better. Nobody’s aiming to please, here. More, really, to edify, to instruct.

 

In April of 1944, I was among some sixty American enlisted men who took a rather specialized pre-Invasion training course, directed by British Intelligence, in Devon, England. And as I look back, it seems to me that we were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn’t one good mixer in the bunch. We were all essentially letter-writing types, and when we spoke to each other out of the line of duty, it was usually to ask somebody if he had any ink he wasn’t using. When we weren’t writing letters or attending classes, each of us went pretty much his own way. Mine usually led me, on clear days, in scenic circles around the countryside. Rainy days, I generally sat in a dry place and read a book, often just an axe length away from a ping-pong table.

 

The training course lasted three weeks, ending on a Saturday, a very rainy one. At seven that last night, our whole group was scheduled to entrain for London, where, as rumor had it, we were to be assigned to infantry and airborne divisions mustered for the D Day landings. By three in the afternoon, I’d packed all my belongings into my barrack bag, including a canvas gas-mask container full of books I’d brought over from the Other Side. (The gas mask itself I’d slipped through a porthole of the Mauretania some weeks earlier, fully aware that if the enemy ever did use gas I’d never get the damn thing on in time.) I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset but for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all. I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper. Abruptly, with nothing special in mind, I came away from the window and put on my raincoat, cashmere muffler, galoshes, woollen gloves, and overseas cap (the last of which, I’m still told, I wore at an angle all my own–slightly down over both ears). Then, after synchronizing my wristwatch with the clock in the latrine, I walked down the long, wet cobblestone hill into town. I ignored the flashes of lightning all around me. They either had your number on them or they didn’t.

 

In the center of town, which was probably the wettest part of town, I stopped in front of a church to read the bulletin board, mostly because the featured numerals, white on black, had caught my attention but partly because, after three years in the Army, I’d become addicted to reading bulletin boards. At three-fifteen, the board stated, there would be children’s-choir practice. I looked at my wristwatch, then back at the board. A sheet of paper was tacked up, listing the names of the children expected to attend practice. I stood in the rain and read all the names, then entered the church.

 

A dozen or so adults were among the pews, several of them bearing pairs of small-size rubbers, soles up, in their laps. I passed along and sat down in the front row. On the rostrum, seated in three compact rows of auditorium chairs, were about twenty children, mostly girls, ranging in age from about seven to thirteen. At the moment, their choir coach, an enormous woman in tweeds, was advising them to open their mouths wider when they sang. Had anyone, she asked, ever heard of a little dickeybird that dared to sing his charming song without first opening his little beak wide, wide, wide? Apparently nobody ever had. She was given a steady, opaque look. She went on to say that she wanted all her children to absorb the meaning of the words they sang, not just mouth them, like silly-billy parrots. She then blew a note on her pitch-pipe, and the children, like so many underage weightlifters, raised their hymnbooks.

 

They sang without instrumental accompaniment–or, more accurately in their case, without any interference. Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation. A couple of the very youngest children dragged the tempo a trifle, but in a way that only the composer’s mother could have found fault with. I had never heard the hymn, but I kept hoping it was one with a dozen or more verses. Listening, I scanned all the children’s faces but watched one in particular, that of the child nearest me, on the end seat in the first row. She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blase eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house. Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way. The young lady, however, seemed slightly bored with her own singing ability, or perhaps just with the time and place; twice, between verses, I saw her yawn. It was a ladylike yawn, a closed-mouth yawn, but you couldn’t miss it; her nostril wings gave her away.

 

The instant the hymn ended, the choir coach began to give her lengthy opinion of people who can’t keep their feet still and their lips sealed tight during the minister’s sermon. I gathered that the singing part of the rehearsal was over, and before the coach’s dissonant speaking voice could entirely break the spell the children’s singing had cast, I got up and left the church.

 

It was raining even harder. I walked down the street and looked through the window of the Red Cross recreation room, but soldiers were standing two and three deep at the coffee counter, and, even through the glass, I could hear ping-pong balls bouncing in another room. I crossed the street and entered a civilian tearoom, which was empty except for a middle-aged waitress, who looked as if she would have preferred a customer with a dry raincoat. I used a coat tree as delicately as possible, and then sat down at a table and ordered tea and cinnamon toast. It was the first time all day that I’d spoken to anyone. I then looked through all my pockets, including my raincoat, and finally found a couple of stale letters to reread, one from my wife, telling me how the service at Schrafft’s Eighty-eighth Street had fallen off, and one from my mother-in-law, asking me to please send her some cashmere yarn first chance I got away from “camp.”

 

While I was still on my first cup of tea, the young lady I had been watching and listening to in the choir came into the tearoom. Her hair was soaking wet, and the rims of both ears were showing. She was with a very small boy, unmistakably her brother, whose cap she removed by lifting it off his head with two fingers, as if it were a laboratory specimen. Bringing up the rear was an efficient-looking woman in a limp felt hat–presumably their governess. The choir member, taking off her coat as she walked across the floor, made the table selection–a good one, from my point of view, as it was just eight or ten feet directly in front of me. She and the governess sat down. The small boy, who was about five, wasn’t ready to sit down yet. He slid out of and discarded his reefer; then, with the deadpan expression of a born heller, he methodically went about annoying his governess by pushing in and pulling out his chair several times, watching her face. The governess, keeping her voice down, gave him two or three orders to sit down and, in effect, stop the monkey business, but it was only when his sister spoke to him that he came around and applied the small of his back to his chair seat. He immediately picked up his napkin and put it on his head. His sister removed it, opened it, and spread it out on his lap.

 

About the time their tea was brought, the choir member caught me staring over at her party. She stared back at me, with those house-counting eyes of hers, then, abruptly, gave me a small, qualified smile. It was oddly radiant, as certain small, qualified smiles sometimes are. I smiled back, much less radiantly, keeping my upper lip down over a coal-black G.I. temporary filling showing between two of my front teeth. The next thing I knew, the young lady was standing, with enviable poise, beside my table. She was wearing a tartan dress–a Campbell tartan, I believe. It seemed to me to be a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day. “I thought Americans despised tea,” she said.

 

It wasn’t the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover. I replied that some of us never drank anything but tea. I asked her if she’d care to join me.

 

“Thank you,” she said. “Perhaps for just a fraction of a moment.”

 

I got up and drew a chair for her, the one opposite me, and she sat down on the forward quarter of it, keeping her spine easily and beautifully straight. I went back–almost hurried back–to my own chair, more than willing to hold up my end of a conversation. When I was seated, I couldn’t think of anything to say, though. I smiled again, still keeping my coal-black filling under concealment. I remarked that it was certainly a terrible day out.

 

“Yes; quite,” said my guest, in the clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester. She placed her fingers flat on the table edge, like someone at a seance, then, almost instantly, closed her hands–her nails were bitten down to the quick. She was wearing a wristwatch, a military-looking one that looked rather like a navigator’s chronograph. Its face was much too large for her slender wrist. “You were at choir practice,” she said matter-of-factly. “I saw you.”

 

I said I certainly had been, and that I had heard her voice singing separately from the others. I said I thought she had a very fine voice.

 

She nodded. “I know. I’m going to be a professional singer.”

 

“Really? Opera?”

 

“Heavens, no. I’m going to sing jazz on the radio and make heaps of money. Then, when I’m thirty, I shall retire and live on a ranch in Ohio.” She touched the top of her soaking-wet head with the flat of her hand. “Do you know Ohio?” she asked.

 

I said I’d been through it on the train a few times but that I didn’t really know it. I offered her a piece of cinnamon toast.

 

“No, thank you,” she said. “I eat like a bird, actually.”

 

I bit into a piece of toast myself, and commented that there’s some mighty rough country around Ohio. “I know. An American I met told me. You’re the eleventh American I’ve met.”

 

Her governess was now urgently signalling her to return to her own table–in effect, to stop bothering the man. My guest, however, calmly moved her chair an inch or two so that her back broke all possible further communication with the home table. “You go to that secret Intelligence school on the hill, don’t you?” she inquired coolly.

 

As security-minded as the next one, I replied that I was visiting Devonshire for my health.

 

“Really,” she said, “I wasn’t quite bom yesterday, you know.”

 

I said I’d bet she hadn’t been, at that. I drank my tea for a moment. I was getting a trifle posture-conscious and I sat up somewhat straighter in my seat.

 

“You seem quite intelligent for an American,” my guest mused.

 

I told her that was a pretty snobbish thing to say, if you thought about it at all, and that I hoped it was unworthy of her.

 

She blushed-automatically conferring on me the social poise I’d been missing. “Well. Most of the Americans I’ve seen act like animals. They’re forever punching one another about, and insulting everyone, and–You know what one of them did?”

 

I shook my haad.

 

“One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt’s window. Fortunately, the window was open. But does that sound very intelligent to you?”

 

It didn’t especially, but I didn’t say so. I said that many soldiers, all over the world, were a long way from home, and that few of them had had many real advantages in life. I said I’d thought that most people could figure that out for themselves.

 

“Possibly,” said my guest, without conviction. She raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims. “My hair is soaking wet,” she said. “I look a fright.” She looked over at me. “I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry.”

 

“I can see that, I can see you have.”

 

“Not actually curly, but quite wavy,” she said. “Are you married?”

 

I said I was.

 

She nodded. “Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?”

 

I said that when she was, I’d speak up.

 

She put her hands and wrists farther forward on the table, and I remember wanting to do something about that enormous-faced wristwatch she was wearing–perhaps suggest that she try wearing it around her waist.

 

“Usually, I’m not terribly gregarious,” she said, and looked over at me to see if I knew the meaning of the word. I didn’t give her a sign, though, one way or the other. “I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely. You have an extremely sensitive face.”

 

I said she was right, that I had been feeling lonely, and that I was very glad she’d come over.

 

“I’m training myself to be more compassionate. My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person,” she said and felt the top of her head again. “I live with my aunt. She’s an extremely kind person. Since the death of my mother, she’s done everything within her power to make Charles and me feel adjusted.”

 

“I’m glad.”

 

“Mother was an extremely intelligent person. Quite sensuous, in many ways.” She looked at me with a kind of fresh acuteness. “Do you find me terribly cold?”

 

I told her absolutely not–very much to the contrary, in fact. I told her my name and asked for hers. She hesitated. “My first name is Esme. I don’t think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know.”

 

I said I didn’t think I would be, but that it might be a good idea, at that, to hold on to the title for a while.

 

Just then, I felt someone’s warm breath on the back of my neck. I turned around and just missed brushing noses with Esme’s small brother. Ignoring me, he addressed his sister in a piercing treble: “Miss Megley said you must come and finish your tea!” His message delivered, he retired to the chair between his sister and me, on my right. I regarded him with high interest. He was looking very splendid in brown Shetland shorts, a navy-blue jersey, white shirt, and striped necktie. He gazed back at me with immense green eyes. “Why do people in films kiss sideways?” he demanded.

 

“Sideways?” I said. It was a problem that had baffled me in my childhood. I said I guessed it was because actors’ noses are too big for kissing anyone head on.

 

“His name is Charles,” Esme said. “He’s extremely brilliant for his age.”

 

“He certainly has green eyes. Haven’t you, Charles?” Charles gave me the fishy look my question deserved, then wriggled downward and forward in his chair till all of his body was under the table except his head, which he left, wrestler’s-bridge style, on the chair seat. “They’re orange,” he said in a strained voice, addressing the ceiling. He picked up a comer of the tablecloth and put it over his handsome, deadpan little face.

 

“Sometimes he’s brilliant and sometimes he’s not,” Esme said. “Charles, do sit up!”

 

Charles stayed right where he was. He seemed to be holding his breath.

 

“He misses our father very much. He was s-l-a-i-n in North Africa.”

 

I expressed regret to hear it.

 

Esme nodded. “Father adored him.” She bit reflectively at the cuticle of her thumb. “He looks very much like my mother–Charles, I mean. I look exactly like my father.” She went on biting at her cuticle. “My mother was quite a passionate woman. She was an extrovert. Father was an introvert. They were quite well mated, though, in a superficial way. To be quite candid, Father really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was. He was an extremely gifted genius.”

 

I waited, receptively, for further information, but none came. I looked down at Charles, who was now resting the side of his face on his chair seat. When he saw that I was looking at him, he closed his eyes, sleepily, angelically, then stuck out his tongue–an appendage of startling length–and gave out what in my country would have been a glorious tribute to a myopic baseball umpire. It fairly shook the tearoom.

 

“Stop that,” Esme said, clearly unshaken. “He saw an American do it in a fish-and-chips queue, and now he does it whenever he’s bored. Just stop it, now, or I shall send you directly to Miss Megley.”

 

Charles opened his enormous eyes, as sign that he’d heard his sister’s threat, but otherwise didn’t look especially alerted. He closed his eyes again, and continued to rest the side of his face on the chair seat.

 

I mentioned that maybe he ought to save it–meaning the Bronx cheer–till he started using his title regularly. That is, if he had a title, too.

 

Esme gave me a long, faintly clinical look. “You have a dry sense of humor, haven’t you?” she said–wistfully. “Father said I have no sense of humor at all. He said I was unequipped to meet life because I have no sense of humor.”

 

Watching her, I lit a cigarette and said I didn’t think a sense of humor was of any use in a real pinch.

 

“Father said it was.”

 

This was a statement of faith, not a contradiction, and I quickly switched horses. I nodded and said her father had probably taken the long view, while I was taking the short (whatever that meant).

 

“Charles misses him exceedingly,” Esme said, after a moment. “He was an exceedingly lovable man. He was extremely handsome, too. Not that one’s appearance matters greatly, but he was. He had terribly penetrating eyes, for a man who was intransically kind.”

 

I nodded. I said I imagined her father had had quite an extraordinary vocabulary.

 

“Oh, yes; quite,” said Esme. “He was an archivist–amateur, of course.”

 

At that point, I felt an importunate tap, almost a punch, on my upper arm, from Charles’ direction. I turned to him. He was sitting in a fairly normal position in his chair now, except that he had one knee tucked under him. “What did one wall say to the other wall?” he asked shrilly. “It’s a riddle!”

 

I rolled my eyes reflectively ceilingward and repeated the question aloud. Then I looked at Charles with a stumped expression and said I gave up.

 

“Meet you at the corner!” came the punch line, at top volume.

 

It went over biggest with Charles himself. It struck him as unbearably funny. In fact, Esme had to come around and pound him on the back, as if treating him for a coughing spell. “Now, stop that,” she said. She went back to her own seat. “He tells that same riddle to everyone he meets and has a fit every single time. Usually he drools when he laughs. Now, just stop, please.”

 

“It’s one of the best riddles I’ve heard, though,” I said, watching Charles, who was very gradually coming out of it. In response to this compliment, he sank considerably lower in his chair and again masked his face up to the eyes with a corner of the tablecloth. He then looked at me with his exposed eyes, which were full of slowly subsiding mirth and the pride of someone who knows a really good riddle or two.

 

“May I inquire how you were employed before entering the Army?” Esme asked me.

 

I said I hadn’t been employed at all, that I’d only been out of college a year but that I like to think of myself as a professional short-story writer.

 

She nodded politely. “Published?” she asked.

 

It was a familiar but always touchy question, and one that I didn’t answer just one, two, three. I started to explain how most editors in America were a bunch–

 

“My father wrote beautifully,” Esme interrupted. “I’m saving a number of his letters for posterity.”

 

I said that sounded like a very good idea. I happened to be looking at her enormous-faced, chronographic-looking wristwatch again. I asked if it had belonged to her father.

 

She looked down at her wrist solemnly. “Yes, it did,” she said. “He gave it to me just before Charles and I were evacuated.” Self-consciously, she took her hands off the table, saying, “Purely as a momento, of course.” She guided the conversation in a different direction. “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

 

I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

 

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

 

“About what?” I said, leaning forward. “Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

 

I was about to press her for more details, but I felt Charles pinching me, hard, on my arm. I turned to him, wincing slightly. He was standing right next to me. “What did one wall say to the other wall?” he asked, not unfamiliarly.

 

“You asked him that,” Esme said. “Now, stop it.”

 

Ignoring his sister, and stepping up on one of my feet, Charles repeated the key question. I noticed that his necktie knot wasn’t adjusted properly. I slid it up into place, then, looking him straight in the eye, suggested, “Meetcha at the corner?”

 

The instant I’d said it, I wished I hadn’t. Charles’ mouth fell open. I felt as if I’d struck it open. He stepped down off my foot and, with white-hot dignity, walked over to his own table, without looking back.

 

“He’s furious,” Esme said. “He has a violent temper. My mother had a propensity to spoil him. My father was the only one who didn’t spoil him.”

 

I kept looking over at Charles, who had sat down and started to drink his tea, using both hands on the cup. I hoped he’d turn around, but he didn’t.

 

Esme stood up. `Il faut que je parte aussi,” she said, with a sigh. “Do you know French?”

 

I got up from my own chair, with mixed feelings of regret and confusion. Esme and I shook hands; her hand, as I’d suspected, was a nervous hand, damp at the palm. I told her, in English, how very much I’d enjoyed her company.

 

She nodded. “I thought you might,” she said. “I’m quite communicative for my age.” She gave her hair another experimental touch. “I’m dreadfully sorry about my hair,” she said. “I’ve probably been hideous to look at.”

 

“Not at all! As a matter of fact, I think a lot of the wave is coming back already.”

 

She quickly touched her hair again. “Do you think you’ll be coming here again in the immediate future?” she asked. “We come here every Saturday, after choir practice.”

 

I answered that I’d like nothing better but that, unfortunately, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to make it again.

 

“In other words, you can’t discuss troop movements,” said Esme. She made no move to leave the vicinity of the table. In fact, she crossed one foot over the other and, looking down, aligned the toes of her shoes. It was a pretty little execution, for she was wearing white socks and her ankles and feet were lovely. She looked up at me abruptly. “Would you like me to write to you?” she asked, with a certain amount of color in her face. “I write extremely articulate letters for a person my–“

 

“I’d love it.” I took out pencil and paper and wrote down my name, rank, serial number, and A.P.O. number.

 

“I shall write to you first,” she said, accepting it, “so that you don’t feel compromised in any way.” She put the address into a pocket of her dress. “Goodbye,” she said, and walked back to her table.

 

I ordered another pot of tea and sat watching the two of them till they, and the harassed Miss Megley, got up to leave. Charles led the way out, limping tragically, like a man with one leg several, inches shorter than the other. He didn’t look over at me. Miss Megley went next, then Esme, who waved to me. I waved back, half getting up from my chair. It was a strangely emotional moment for me.

 

Less than a minute later, Esme came back into the tearoom, dragging Charles behind her by the sleeve of his reefer. “Charles would like to kiss you goodbye,” she said.

 

I immediately put down my cup, and said that was very nice, but was she sure?

 

“Yes,” she said, a trifle grimly. She let go Charles’ sleeve and gave him a rather vigorous push in my direction. He came forward, his face livid, and gave me a loud, wet smacker just below the right ear. Following this ordeal, he started to make a beeline for the door and a less sentimental way of life, but 1 caught the half belt at the back of his reefer, held on to it, and asked him, “What did one wall say to the other wall?”

 

His face lit up. “Meet you at the corner!” he shrieked, and raced out of the room, possibly in hysterics.

 

Esme was standing with crossed ankles again. “You’re quite sure you won’t forget to write that story for me?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be exclusively for me. It can–“

 

I said there was absolutely no chance that I’d forget. I told her that I’d never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it.

 

She nodded. “Make it extremely squalid and moving,” she suggested. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”

 

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I’d do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.

 

“Isn’t it a pity that we didn’t meet under less extenuating circumstances?”

 

I said it was, I said it certainly was.

 

“Goodbye,” Esme said. “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”

 

I thanked her, and said a few other words, and then watched her leave the tearoom. She left it slowly, reflectively, testing the ends of her hair for dryness.

 

This is the squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes. The people change, too. I’m still around, but from here on in, for reasons I’m not at liberty to disclose, I’ve disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me.

 

It was about ten-thirty at night in Gaufurt, Bavaria, several weeks after V-E Day. Staff Sergeant X was in his room on the second floor of the civilian home in which he and nine other American soldiers had been quartered, even before the armistice. He was seated on a folding wooden chair at a small, messy-looking writing table, with a paperback overseas novel open before him, which he was having great trouble reading. The trouble lay with him, not the novel. Although the men who lived on the first floor usually had first grab at the books sent each month by Special Services, X usually seemed to be left with the book he might have selected himself. But he was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact, and for more than an hour he had been triple-reading paragraphs, and now he was doing it to the sentences. He suddenly closed the book, without marking his place. With his hand, he shielded his eyes for a moment against the harsh, watty glare from the naked bulb over the table.

 

He took a cigarette from a pack on the table and lit it with fingers that bumped gently and incessantly against one another. He sat back a trifle in his chair and smoked without any sense of taste. He had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue, and he seldom stopped experimenting; it was a little game he played, sometimes by the hour. He sat for a moment smoking and experimenting. Then, abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning, he thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack. He quickly did what he had been doing for weeks to set things right: he pressed his hands hard against his temples. He held on tight for a moment. His hair needed cutting, and it was dirty. He had washed it three or four times during his two weeks’ stay at the hospital in Frankfort on the Main, but it had got dirty again on the long, dusty jeep ride back to Gaufurt. Corporal Z, who had called for him at the hospital, still drove a jeep combat-style, with the windshield down on the hood, armistice or no armistice. There were thousands of new troops in Germany. By driving with his windshield down, combat-style, Corporal Z hoped to show that he was not one of them, that not by a long shot was he some new son of a bitch in the E.T.O.

 

When he let go of his head, X began to stare at the surface of the writing table, which was a catchall for at least two dozen unopened letters and at least five or six unopened packages, all addressed to him. He reached behind the debris and picked out a book that stood against the wall. It was a book by Goebbels, entitled “Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel.” It belonged to the thirty-eight-year-old, unmarried daughter of the family that, up to a few weeks earlier, had been living in the house. She had been a low official in the Nazi Party, but high enough, by Army Regulations standards, to fall into an automatic-arrest category. X himself had arrested her. Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman’s book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, life is hell.” Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder `What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” He started to write Dostoevski’s name under the inscription, but saw–with fright that ran through his whole body–that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book.

 

He quickly picked up something else from the table, a letter from his older brother in Albany. It had been on his table even before he had checked into the hospital. He opened the envelope, loosely resolved to read the letter straight through, but read only the top half of the first page. He stopped after the words “Now that the g.d. war is over and you probably have a lot of time over there, how about sending the kids a couple of bayonets or swastikas . . .” After he’d torn it up, he looked down at the pieces as they lay in the wastebasket. He saw that he had overlooked an enclosed snapshot. He could make out somebody’s feet standing on a lawn somewhere.

 

He put his arms on the table and rested his head on them. He ached from head to foot, all zones of pain seemingly interdependent. He was rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out if even one bulb is defective.

 

The door banged open, without having been rapped on. X raised his head, turned it, and saw Corporal Z standing in the door. Corporal Z had been X’s jeep partner and constant companion from D Day straight through five campaigns of the war. He lived on the first floor and he usually came up to see X when he had a few rumors or gripes to unload. He was a huge, photogenic young man of twenty-four. During the war, a national magazine had photographed him in Hurtgen Forest; he had posed, more than just obligingly, with a Thanksgiving turkey in each hand. “Ya writin’ letters?” he asked X. “It’s spooky in here, for Chrissake.” He preferred always to enter a room that had the overhead light on.

 

X turned around in his chair and asked him to come in, and to be careful not to step on the dog.

 

“The what?”

 

“Alvin. He’s right under your feet, Clay. How ’bout turning on the goddam light?”

 

Clay found the overhead-light switch, flicked it on, then stepped across the puny, servant’s-size room and sat down on the edge of the bed, facing his host. His brick-red hair, just combed, was dripping with the amount of water he required for satisfactory grooming. A comb with a fountain-pen clip protruded, familiarly, from the right-hand pocket of his olive-drab shirt. Over the left-hand pocket he was wearing the Combat Infantrymen’s Badge (which, technically, he wasn’t authorized to wear), the European Theatre ribbon, with five bronze battle stars in it (instead of a lone silver one, which was the equivalent of five bronze ones), and the pre-Pearl Harbor service ribbon. He sighed heavily and said, “Christ almighty.” It meant nothing; it was Army. He took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, tapped one out, then put away the pack and rebuttoned the pocket flap. Smoking, he looked vacuously around the room. His look finally settled on the radio. “Hey,” he said. “They got this terrific show comin’ on the radio in a coupla minutes. Bob Hope, and everybody.”

 

X, opening a fresh pack of cigarettes, said he had just turned the radio off.

 

Undarkened, Clay watched X trying to get a cigarette lit. “Jesus,” he said, with spectator’s enthusiasm, “you oughta see your goddam hands. Boy, have you got the shakes. Ya know that?”

 

X got his cigarette lit, nodded, and said Clay had a real eye for detail.

 

“No kidding, hey. I goddam near fainted when I saw you at the hospital. You looked like a goddam corpse. How much weight ya lose? How many pounds? Ya know?”

 

“I don’t know. How was your mail when I was gone? You heard from Loretta?”

 

Loretta was Clay’s girl. They intended to get married at their earliest convenience. She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations. All through the war, Clay had read all Loretta’s letters aloud to X, however intimate they were–in fact, the more intimate, the better. It was his custom, after each reading, to ask X to plot out or pad out the letter of reply, or to insert a few impressive words in French or German.

 

“Yeah, I had a letter from her yesterday. Down in my room. Show it to ya later,” Clay said, listlessly. He sat up straight on the edge of the bed, held his breath, and issued a long, resonant belch. Looking just semi-pleased with the achievement, he relaxed again. “Her goddam brother’s gettin’ outa the Navy on account of his hip,” he said. “He’s got this hip, the bastard.” He sat up again and tried for another belch, but with below-par results. A jot of alertness came into his face. “Hey. Before I forget. We gotta get up at five tomorrow and drive to Hamburg or someplace. Pick up Eisenhower jackets for the whole detachment.”

 

X, regarding him hostilely, stated that he didn’t want an Eisenhower jacket.

 

Clay looked surprised, almost a trifle hurt. “Oh, they’re good! They look good. How come?”

 

“No reason. Why do we have to get up at five? The war’s over, for God’s sake.”

 

“I don’t know–we gotta get back before lunch. They got some new forms in we gotta fill out before lunch…. I asked Bulling how come we couldn’t fill ’em out tonight–he’s got the goddam forms right on his desk. He don’t want to open the envelopes yet, the son of a bitch.”

 

The two sat quiet for a moment, hating Bulling. Clay suddenly looked at X with new-higher-interest than before. “Hey,” he said. “Did you know the goddam side of your face is jumping all over the place?”

 

X said he knew all about it, and covered his tic with his hand.

 

Clay stared at him for a moment, then said, rather vividly, as if he were the bearer of exceptionally good news, “I wrote Loretta you had a nervous breakdown.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah. She’s interested as hell in all that stuff. She’s majoring in psychology.” Clay stretched himself out on the bed, shoes included. “You know what she said? She says nobody gets a nervous breakdown just from the war and all. She says you probably were unstable like, your whole goddam life.”

 

X bridged his hands over his eyes–the light over the bed seemed to be blinding him–and said that Loretta’s insight into things was always a joy.

 

Clay glanced over at him. “Listen, ya bastard,” he said. “She knows a goddam sight more psychology than you do.”

 

“Do you think you can bring yourself to take your stinking feet off my bed?” X asked.

 

Clay left his feet where they were for a few don’t-tell-me-where-to-put-my-feet seconds, then swung them around to the floor and sat up. “I’m goin’ downstairs anyway. They got the radio on in Walker’s room.” He didn’t get up from the bed, though. “Hey. I was just tellin’ that new son of a bitch, Bernstein, downstairs. Remember that time I and you drove into Valognes, and we got shelled for about two goddam hours, and that goddam cat I shot that jumped up on the hood of the jeep when we were layin’ in that hole? Remember?”

 

“Yes–don’t start that business with that cat again, Clay, God damn it. I don’t want to hear about it.”

 

“No, all I mean is I wrote Loretta about it. She and the whole psychology class discussed it. In class and all. The goddam professor and everybody.”

 

“That’s fine. I don’t want to hear about it, Clay.”

 

“No, you know the reason I took a pot shot at it, Loretta says? She says I was temporarily insane. No kidding. From the shelling and all.”

 

X threaded his fingers, once, through his dirty hair, then shielded his eyes against the light again. “You weren’t insane. You were simply doing your duty. You killed that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could’ve under the circumstances.”

 

Clay looked at him suspiciously. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

 

“That cat was a spy. You had to take a pot shot at it. It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat. So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even–“

 

“God damn it!” Clay said, his lips thinned. “Can’t you ever be sincere?”

 

X suddenly felt sick, and he swung around in his chair and grabbed the wastebasket–just in time. When he had straightened up and turned toward his guest again, he found him standing, embarrassed, halfway between the bed and the door. X started to apologize, but changed his mind and reached for his cigarettes.

 

“C’mon down and listen to Hope on the radio, hey,” Clay said, keeping his distance but trying to be friendly over it. “It’ll do ya good. I mean it.”

 

“You go ahead, Clay. . . . I’ll look at my stamp collection.”

 

“Yeah? You got a stamp collection? I didn’t know you–“

 

“I’m only kidding.”

 

Clay took a couple of slow steps toward the door. “I may drive over to Ehstadt later,” he said. “They got a dance. It’ll probably last till around two. Wanna go?”

 

“No, thanks. . . . I may practice a few steps in the room.”

 

“O.K. G’night! Take it easy, now, for Chrissake.” The door slammed shut, then instantly opened again. “Hey. O.K. if I leave a letter to Loretta under your door? I got some German stuff in it. Willya fix it up for me?”

 

“Yes. Leave me alone now, God damn it.”

 

“Sure,” said Clay. “You know what my mother wrote me? She wrote me she’s glad you and I were together and all the whole war. In the same jeep and all. She says my letters are a helluva lot more intelligent since we been goin’ around together.”

 

X looked up and over at him, and said, with great effort, “Thanks. Tell her thanks for me.”

 

“I will. G’night!” The door slammed shut, this time for good.

 

X sat looking at the door for a long while, then turned his chair around toward the writing table and picked up his portable typewriter from the floor. He made space for it on the messy table surface, pushing aside the collapsed pile of unopened letters and packages. He thought if he wrote a letter to an old friend of his in New York there might be some quick, however slight, therapy in it for him. But he couldn’t insert his notepaper into the roller properly, his fingers were shaking so violently now. He put his hands down at his sides for a minute, then tried again, but finally crumpled the notepaper in his hand.

 

He was aware that he ought to get the wastebasket out of the room, but instead of doing anything about it, he put his arms on the typewriter and rested his head again, closing his eyes.

 

A few throbbing minutes later, when he opened his eyes, he found himself squinting at a small, unopened package wrapped in green paper. It had probably slipped off the pile when he had made space for the typewriter. He saw that it had been readdressed several times. He could make out, on just one side of the package, at least three of his old A.P.O. numbers.

 

He opened the package without any interest, without even looking at the return address. He opened it by burning the string with a lighted match. He was more interested in watching a string burn all the way down than in opening the package, but he opened it, finally.

 

Inside the box, a note, written in ink, lay on top of a small object wrapped in tissue paper. He picked out the note and read it.

 

17, —-ROAD,

 

—–DEVON

 

JUNE 7, 1944

 

DEAR SERGEANT X,

 

I hope you will forgive me for having taken 38 days to begin our correspondence but, I have been extremely busy as my aunt has undergone streptococcus of the throat and nearly perished and I have been justifiably saddled with one responsibility after another. However I have thought of you frequently and of the extremely pleasant afternoon we spent in each other’s company on April 30, 1944 between 3:45 and 4:15 P.M. in case it slipped your mind.

 

We are all tremendously excited and overawed about D Day and only hope that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least. Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first initial assault upon the Cotentin Peninsula. Were you? Please reply as speedily as possible. My warmest regards to your wife.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

ESMA

 

P.S. I am taking the liberty of enclosing my wristwatch which you may keep in your possession for the duration of the conflict. I did not observe whether you were wearing one during our brief association, but this one is extremely water-proof and shockproof as well as having many other virtues among which one can tell at what velocity one is walking if one wishes. I am quite certain that you will use it to greater advantage in these difficult days than I ever can and that you will accept it as a lucky talisman.

 

Charles, whom I am teaching to read and write and whom I am finding an extremely intelligent novice, wishes to add a few words. Please write as soon as you have the time and inclination.

 

HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHALES

 

It was a long time before X could set the note aside, let alone lift Esme’s father’s wristwatch out of the box. When he did finally lift it out, he saw that its crystal had been broken in transit. He wondered if the watch was otherwise undamaged, but he hadn’t the courage to wind it and find out. He just sat with it in his hand for another long period. Then, suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.

 

You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac-with all his f-a-c-u-1-t-i-e-s intact.

From Wikipedia:

Jerome David Salinger (pron.: /ˈsælɪndʒər/ SAL-in-jər; January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010) was an American writer. He last published an original work in 1965, and gave his last interview in 1980.

Raised in Manhattan, Salinger began writing short stories while in secondary school, and published several in Story magazine in the early 1940s before serving in World War II. In 1948 his critically acclaimed story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” appeared in The New Yorker magazine, which became home to much of his later work. In 1951 his novel The Catcher in the Rye was an immediate popular success. His depiction of adolescent alienation and loss of innocence in the protagonist Holden Caulfield was influential, especially among adolescent readers. The novel remains widely read and controversial, selling around 250,000 copies a year.

The success of The Catcher in the Rye led to public attention and scrutiny: Salinger became reclusive, publishing new work less frequently. He followed Catcher with a short story collection, Nine Stories (1953), a volume containing a novella and a short story, Franny and Zooey (1961), and a volume containing two novellas, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). His last published work, a novella entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924”, appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965.

 

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Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov

From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to them. Far ahead they could just see the windmills of the village of Mirousky, to the right stretched away to disappear behind the village a line of hills, and they knew that it was the bank of the river; meadows, green willows, farmhouses; and from one of the hills there could be seen a field as endless, telegraph-posts, and the train, looking from a distance like a crawling caterpillar, and in clear weather even the town. In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.

“Last time, when we stopped in Prokofyi’s shed,” said Bourkin, “you were going to tell me a story.”

“Yes. I wanted to tell you about my brother.”

Ivan Ivanich took a deep breath and lighted his pipe before beginning his story, but just then the rain began to fall. And in about five minutes it came pelting down and showed no signs of stopping. Ivan Ivanich stopped and hesitated; the dogs, wet through, stood with their tails between their legs and looked at them mournfully.

“We ought to take shelter,” said Bourkin. “Let us go to Aliokhin. It is close by.”

“Very well.”

They took a short cut over a stubble-field and then bore to the right, until they came to the road. Soon there appeared poplars, a garden, the red roofs of granaries; the river began to glimmer and they came to a wide road with a mill and a white bathing-shed. It was Sophino, where Aliokhin lived.

The mill was working, drowning the sound of the rain, and the dam shook. Round the carts stood wet horses, hanging their heads, and men were walking about with their heads covered with sacks. It was wet, muddy, and unpleasant, and the river looked cold and sullen. Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin felt wet and uncomfortable through and through; their feet were tired with walking in the mud, and they walked past the dam to the barn in silence as though they were angry with each other.

In one of the barns a winnowing-machine was working, sending out clouds of dust. On the threshold stood Aliokhin himself, a man of about forty, tall and stout, with long hair, more like a professor or a painter than a farmer. He was wearing a grimy white shirt and rope belt, and pants instead of trousers; and his boots were covered with mud and straw. His nose and eyes were black with dust. He recognised Ivan Ivanich and was apparently very pleased.

“Please, gentlemen,” he said, “go to the house. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

The house was large and two-storied. Aliokhin lived down-stairs in two vaulted rooms with little windows designed for the farm-hands; the farmhouse was plain, and the place smelled of rye bread and vodka, and leather. He rarely used the reception-rooms, only when guests arrived. Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were received by a chambermaid; such a pretty young woman that both of them stopped and exchanged glances.

“You cannot imagine how glad I am to see you, gentlemen,” said Aliokhin, coming after them into the hall. “I never expected you. Pelagueya,” he said to the maid, “give my friends a change of clothes. And I will change, too. But I must have a bath. I haven’t had one since the spring. Wouldn’t you like to come to the bathing-shed? And meanwhile our things will be got ready.”

Pretty Pelagueya, dainty and sweet, brought towels and soap, and Aliokhin led his guests to the bathing-shed.

“Yes,” he said, “it is a long time since I had a bath. My bathing-shed is all right, as you see. My father and I put it up, but somehow I have no time to bathe.”

He sat down on the step and lathered his long hair and neck, and the water round him became brown.

“Yes. I see,” said Ivan Ivanich heavily, looking at his head.

“It is a long time since I bathed,” said Aliokhin shyly, as he soaped himself again, and the water round him became dark blue, like ink.

Ivan Ivanich came out of the shed, plunged into the water with a splash, and swam about in the rain, flapping his arms, and sending waves back, and on the waves tossed white lilies; he swam out to the middle of the pool and dived, and in a minute came up again in another place and kept on swimming and diving, trying to reach the bottom. “Ah! how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious!” He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants, and came back, and in the middle of the pool he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face. Bourkin and Aliokin were already dressed and ready to go, but he kept on swimming and diving.

“Delicious,” he said. “Too delicious!’

“You’ve had enough,” shouted Bourkin.

They went to the house. And only when the lamp was lit in the large drawing-room up-stairs, and Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich, dressed in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, lounged in chairs, and Aliokhin himself, washed and brushed, in a new frock coat, paced up and down evidently delighting in the warmth and cleanliness and dry clothes and slippers, and pretty Pelagueya, noiselessly tripping over the carpet and smiling sweetly, brought in tea and jam on a tray, only then did Ivan Ivanich begin his story, and it was as though he was being listened to not only by Bourkin and Aliokhin, but also by the old and young ladies and the officer who looked down so staidly and tranquilly from the golden frames.

“We are two brothers,” he began, “I, Ivan Ivanich, and Nicholai Ivanich, two years younger. I went in for study and became a veterinary surgeon, while Nicholai was at the Exchequer Court when he was nineteen. Our father, Tchimsha-Himalaysky, was a cantonist, but he died with an officer’s rank and left us his title of nobility and a small estate. After his death the estate went to pay his debts. However, we spent our childhood there in the country. We were just like peasant’s children, spent days and nights in the fields and the woods, minded the horses, barked the lime-trees, fished, and so on. . . And you know once a man has fished, or watched the thrushes hovering in flocks over the village in the bright, cool, autumn days, he can never really be a townsman, and to the day of his death he will be drawn to the country. My brother pined away in the Exchequer. Years passed and he sat in the same place, wrote out the same documents, and thought of one thing, how to get back to the country. And little by little his distress became a definite disorder, a fixed idea — to buy a small farm somewhere by the bank of a river or a lake.

“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathised with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life — it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit.

“My brother Nicholai, sitting in his office, would dream of eating his own schi, with its savoury smell floating across the farmyard; and of eating out in the open air, and of sleeping in the sun, and of sitting for hours together on a seat by the gate and gazing at the fields and the forest. Books on agriculture and the hints in almanacs were his joy, his favourite spiritual food; and he liked reading newspapers, but only the advertisements of land to be sold, so many acres of arable and grass land, with a farmhouse, river, garden, mill, and mill-pond. And he would dream of garden-walls, flowers, fruits, nests, carp in the pond, don’t you know, and all the rest of it. These fantasies of his used to vary according to the advertisements he found, but somehow there was always a gooseberry-bush in every one. Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its gooseberry-bush.

“‘Country life has its advantages,’ he used to say. ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.’

“He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things were shown on it: (a) Farmhouse, (b) cottage, (c) vegetable garden, (d) gooseberry-bush. He used to live meagrely and never had enough to eat and drink, dressed God knows how, exactly like a beggar, and always saved and put his money into the bank. He was terribly stingy. It used to hurt me to see him, and I used to give him money to go away for a holiday, but he would put that away, too. Once a man gets a fixed idea, there’s nothing to be done.

“Years passed; he was transferred to another province. He completed his fortieth year and was still reading advertisements in the papers and saving up his money. Then I heard he was married. Still with the same idea of buying a farmhouse with a gooseberry-bush, he married an elderly, ugly widow, not out of any feeling for her, but because she had money. With her he still lived stingily, kept her half-starved, and put the money into the bank in his own name. She had been the wife of a postmaster and was used to good living, but with her second husband she did not even have enough black bread; she pined away in her new life, and in three years or so gave up her soul to God. And my brother never for a moment thought himself to blame for her death. Money, like vodka, can play queer tricks with a man. Once in our town a merchant lay dying. Before his death he asked for some honey, and he ate all his notes and scrip with the honey so that nobody should get it. Once I was examining a herd of cattle at a station and a horse-jobber fell under the engine, and his foot was cut off. We carried him into the waiting-room, with the blood pouring down — a terrible business — and all the while he kept asking anxiously for his foot; he had twenty-five roubles in his boot and did not want to lose them.”

“Keep to your story,” said Bourkin.

“After the death of his wife,” Ivan Ivanich continued, after a long pause, “my brother began to look out for an estate. Of course you may search for five years, and even then buy a pig in a poke. Through an agent my brother Nicholai raised a mortgage and bought three hundred acres with a farmhouse, a cottage, and a park, but there was no orchard, no gooseberry-bush, no duck-pond; there was a river but the water in it was coffee-coloured because the estate lay between a brick-yard and a gelatine factory. But my brother Nicholai was not worried about that; he ordered twenty gooseberry-bushes and settled down to a country life.

“Last year I paid him a visit. I thought I’d go and see how things were with him. In his letters my brother called his estate Tchimbarshov Corner, or Himalayskoe. I arrived at Himalayskoe in the afternoon. It was hot. There were ditches, fences, hedges, rows of young fir-trees, trees everywhere, and there was no telling how to cross the yard or where to put your horse. I went to the house and was met by a red-haired dog, as fat as a pig. He tried to bark but felt too lazy. Out of the kitchen came the cook, barefooted, and also as fat as a pig, and said that the master was having his afternoon rest. I went in to my brother and found him sitting on his bed with his knees covered with a blanket; he looked old, stout, flabby; his cheeks, nose, and lips were pendulous. I half expected him to grunt like a pig.

“We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think that we had once been young, but were now both going grey and nearing death. He dressed and took me to see his estate.

“‘Well? How are you getting on?’ I asked.

“‘All right, thank God. I am doing very well.’

“He was no longer the poor, tired official, but a real landowner and a person of consequence. He had got used to the place and liked it, ate a great deal, took Russian baths, was growing fat, had already gone to law with the parish and the two factories, and was much offended if the peasants did not call him ‘Your Lordship.’ And, like a good landowner, he looked after his soul and did good works pompously, never simply. What good works? He cured the peasants of all kinds of diseases with soda and castor-oil, and on his birthday he would have a thanksgiving service held in the middle of the village, and would treat the peasants to half a bucket of vodka, which he thought the right thing to do. Ah! These horrible buckets of vodka. One day a greasy landowner will drag the peasants before the Zembro Court for trespass, and the next, if it’s a holiday, he will give them a bucket of vodka, and they drink and shout Hooray! and lick his boots in their drunkenness. A change to good eating and idleness always fills a Russian with the most preposterous self-conceit. Nicholai Ivanich who, when he was in the Exchequer, was terrified to have an opinion of his own, now imagined that what he said was law. ‘Education is necessary for the masses, but they are not fit for it.’ ‘Corporal punishment is generally harmful, but in certain cases it is useful and indispensable.’

“‘I know the people and I know how to treat them,’ he would say. ‘The people love me. I have only to raise my finger and they will do as I wish.’

“And all this, mark you, was said with a kindly smile of wisdom. He was constantly saying: ‘We noblemen,’ or ‘I, as a nobleman.’ Apparently he had forgotten that our grandfather was a peasant and our father a common soldier. Even our family name, Tchimacha-Himalaysky, which is really an absurd one, seemed to him full-sounding, distinguished, and very pleasing.

“But my point does not concern him so much as myself. I want to tell you what a change took place in me in those few hours while I was in his house. In the evening, while we were having tea, the cook laid a plateful of gooseberries on the table. They had not been bought, but were his own gooseberries, plucked for the first time since the bushes were planted. Nicholai Ivanich laughed with joy and for a minute or two he looked in silence at the gooseberries with tears in his eyes. He could not speak for excitement, then put one into his mouth, glanced at me in triumph, like a child at last being given its favourite toy, and said:

“‘How good they are!’

“He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while:

“‘How good they are! Do try one!’

“It was hard and sour, but, as Poushkin said, the illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths. I saw a happy man, one whose dearest dream had come true, who had attained his goal in life, who had got what he wanted, and was pleased with his destiny and with himself. In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with something like despair. And at night it grew on me. A bed was made up for me in the room near my brother’s and I could hear him, unable to sleep, going again and again to the plate of gooseberries. I thought: ‘After all, what a lot of contented, happy people there must be! What an overwhelming power that means! I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . Meanwhile in all the houses, all the streets, there is peace; out of fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one to kick against it all. Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him — illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind — and everything is all right.’

“That night I was able to understand how I, too, had been content and happy,” Ivan Ivanich went on, getting up. “I, too, at meals or out hunting, used to lay down the law about living, and religion, and governing the masses. I, too, used to say that teaching is light, that education is necessary, but that for simple folk reading and writing is enough for the present. Freedom is a boon, I used to say, as essential as the air we breathe, but we must wait. Yes — I used to say so, but now I ask: ‘Why do we wait?'” Ivan Ivanich glanced angrily at Bourkin. “Why do we wait, I ask you? What considerations keep us fast? I am told that we cannot have everything at once, and that every idea is realised in time. But who says so? Where is the proof that it is so? You refer me to the natural order of things, to the law of cause and effect, but is there order or natural law in that I, a living, thinking creature, should stand by a ditch until it fills up, or is narrowed, when I could jump it or throw a bridge over it? Tell me, I say, why should we wait? Wait, when we have no strength to live, and yet must live and are full of the desire to live!

“I left my brother early the next morning, and from that time on I found it impossible to live in town. The peace and quiet of it oppress me. I dare not look in at the windows, for nothing is more dreadful to see than the sight of a happy family, sitting round a table, having tea. I am an old man now and am no good for the struggle. I commenced late. I can only grieve within my soul, and fret and sulk. At night my head buzzes with the rush of my thoughts and I cannot sleep. . . . Ah! If I were young!”

Ivan Ivanich walked excitedly up and down the room and repeated:

“If I were young.”

He suddenly walked up to Aliokhin and shook him first by one hand and then by the other.

“Pavel Koustantinich,” he said in a voice of entreaty, “don’t be satisfied, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!”

Ivan Ivanich said this with a piteous supplicating smile, as though he were asking a personal favour.

Then they all three sat in different corners of the drawing-room and were silent. Ivan Ivanich’s story had satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries. . . . Somehow they had a longing to hear and to speak of charming people, and of women. And the mere fact of sitting in the drawing-room where everything — the lamp with its coloured shade, the chairs, and the carpet under their feet — told how the very people who now looked down at them from their frames once walked, and sat and had tea there, and the fact that pretty Pelagueya was near — was much better than any story.

Aliokhin wanted very much to go to bed; he had to get up for his work very early, about two in the morning, and now his eyes were closing, but he was afraid of his guests saying something interesting without his hearing it, so he would not go. He did not trouble to think whether what Ivan Ivanich had been saying was clever or right; his guests were talking of neither groats, nor hay, nor tar, but of something which had no bearing on his life, and he liked it and wanted them to go on. . . .

“However, it’s time to go to bed,” said Bourkin, getting up. “I will wish you good night.”

Aliokhin said good night and went down-stairs, and left his guests. Each had a large room with an old wooden bed and carved ornaments; in the corner was an ivory crucifix; and their wide, cool beds, made by pretty Pelagueya, smelled sweetly of clean linen.

Ivan Ivanich undressed in silence and lay down.

“God forgive me, a wicked sinner,” he murmured, as he drew the clothes over his head.

A smell of burning tobacco came from his pipe which lay on the table, and Bourkin could not sleep for a long time and was worried because he could not make out where the unpleasant smell came from.

The rain beat against the windows all night long.


			

The Veldt by Ray Bradbury

“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, then.”
“I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to
look at it.”
“What would a psychologist want with a nursery?”
“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife paused in the middle of
the kitchen and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for
four.
“It’s just that the nursery is different now than it was.”
“All right, let’s have a look.”
They walked down the hall of their soundproofed Happylife Home, which
had cost them thirty thousand dollars installed, this house which clothed
and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them.
Their approach sensitized a switch somewhere and the nursery light flicked
on when they came within ten feet of it. Similarly, behind them, in the
halls, lights went on and off as they left them behind, with a soft
automaticity.
“Well,” said George Hadley.

They stood on the thatched floor of the nursery. It was forty feet
across by forty feet long and thirty feet high; it had cost half again as
much as the rest of the house. “But nothing’s too good for our children,”
George had said.
The nursery was silent. It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high
noon. The walls were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia
Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede
into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt
appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in color reproduced to the
final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling above them became a deep sky with
a hot yellow sun.
George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow.
“Let’s get out of this sun,” he said. “This is a little too real. But I
don’t see anything wrong.”
“Wait a moment, you’ll see,” said his wife.
Now the hidden odorophonics were beginning to blow a wind of odor at
the two people in the middle of the baked veldtland. The hot straw smell of
lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty
smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air. And
now the sounds: the thump of distant antelope feet on grassy sod, the papery
rustling of vultures. A shadow passed through the sky. The shadow flickered
on George Hadley’s upturned, sweating face.
“Filthy creatures,” he heard his wife say.
“The vultures.”
“You see, there are the lions, far over, that way. Now they’re on their
way to the water hole. They’ve just been eating,” said Lydia. “I don’t know
what.”
“Some animal.” George Hadley put his hand up to shield off the burning
light from his squinted eyes. “A zebra or a baby giraffe, maybe.”
“Are you sure?” His wife sounded peculiarly tense.
“No, it’s a little late to be sure,” be said, amused. “Nothing over
there I can see but cleaned bone, and the vultures dropping for what’s
left.”
“Did you bear that scream?” she asked.
‘No.”
“About a minute ago?”
“Sorry, no.”
The lions were coming. And again George Hadley was filled with
admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room. A miracle
of efficiency selling for an absurdly low price. Every home should have one.
Oh, occasionally they frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they
startled you, gave you a twinge, but most of the time what fun for everyone,
not only your own son and daughter, but for yourself when you felt like a
quick jaunt to a foreign land, a quick change of scenery. Well, here it was!
And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly
and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and
your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated
pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an
exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the
sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the
smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths.
The lions stood looking at George and Lydia Hadley with terrible
green-yellow eyes.
“Watch out!” screamed Lydia.
The lions came running at them.
Lydia bolted and ran. Instinctively, George sprang after her. Outside,
in the hall, with the door slammed he was laughing and she was crying, and
they both stood appalled at the other’s reaction.
“George!”
“Lydia! Oh, my dear poor sweet Lydia!”
“They almost got us!”
“Walls, Lydia, remember; crystal walls, that’s all they are. Oh, they
look real, I must admit – Africa in your parlor – but it’s all dimensional,
superreactionary, supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind
glass screens. It’s all odorophonics and sonics, Lydia. Here’s my
handkerchief.”

“I’m afraid.” She came to him and put her body against him and cried
steadily. “Did you see? Did you feel? It’s too real.”
“Now, Lydia…”
“You’ve got to tell Wendy and Peter not to read any more on Africa.”
“Of course – of course.” He patted her.
“Promise?”
“Sure.”
“And lock the nursery for a few days until I get my nerves settled.”
“You know how difficult Peter is about that. When I punished him a
month ago by locking the nursery for even a few hours – the tantrum be
threw! And Wendy too. They live for the nursery.”
“It’s got to be locked, that’s all there is to it.”
“All right.” Reluctantly he locked the huge door. “You’ve been working
too hard. You need a rest.”
“I don’t know – I don’t know,” she said, blowing her nose, sitting down
in a chair that immediately began to rock and comfort her. “Maybe I don’t
have enough to do. Maybe I have time to think too much. Why don’t we shut
the whole house off for a few days and take a vacation?”
“You mean you want to fry my eggs for me?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“And dam my socks?”
“Yes.” A frantic, watery-eyed nodding.
“And sweep the house?”
“Yes, yes – oh, yes!”
“But I thought that’s why we bought this house, so we wouldn’t have to
do anything?”
“That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and
mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a
bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub
bath can? I cannot. And it isn’t just me. It’s you. You’ve been awfully
nervous lately.”
“I suppose I have been smoking too much.”
“You look as if you didn’t know what to do with yourself in this house,
either. You smoke a little more every morning and drink a little more every
afternoon and need a little more sedative every night. You’re beginning to
feel unnecessary too.”
“Am I?” He paused and tried to feel into himself to see what was really
there.
“Oh, George!” She looked beyond him, at the nursery door. “Those lions
can’t get out of there, can they?”
He looked at the door and saw it tremble as if something had jumped
against it from the other side.
“Of course not,” he said.

At dinner they ate alone, for Wendy and Peter were at a special plastic
carnival across town and bad televised home to say they’d be late, to go
ahead eating. So George Hadley, bemused, sat watching the dining-room table
produce warm dishes of food from its mechanical interior.
“We forgot the ketchup,” he said.
“Sorry,” said a small voice within the table, and ketchup appeared.
As for the nursery, thought George Hadley, it won’t hurt for the
children to be locked out of it awhile. Too much of anything isn’t good for
anyone. And it was clearly indicated that the children had been spending a
little too much time on Africa. That sun. He could feel it on his neck,
still, like a hot paw. And the lions. And the smell of blood. Remarkable how
the nursery caught the telepathic emanations of the children’s minds and
created life to fill their every desire. The children thought lions, and
there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sun –
sun. Giraffes – giraffes. Death and death.
That last. He chewed tastelessly on the meat that the table bad cut for
him. Death thoughts. They were awfully young, Wendy and Peter, for death
thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really. Long before you knew
what death was you were wishing it on someone else. When you were two years
old you were shooting people with cap pistols.
But this – the long, hot African veldt-the awful death in the jaws of a
lion. And repeated again and again.
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer Lydia. Preoccupied, be let the lights glow softly on
ahead of him, extinguish behind him as he padded to the nursery door. He
listened against it. Far away, a lion roared.
He unlocked the door and opened it. Just before he stepped inside, he
heard a faraway scream. And then another roar from the lions, which subsided
quickly.
He stepped into Africa. How many times in the last year had he opened
this door and found Wonderland, Alice, the Mock Turtle, or Aladdin and his
Magical Lamp, or Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, or Dr. Doolittle, or the cow
jumping over a very real-appearing moon-all the delightful contraptions of a
make-believe world. How often had he seen Pegasus flying in the sky ceiling,
or seen fountains of red fireworks, or heard angel voices singing. But now,
is yellow hot Africa, this bake oven with murder in the heat. Perhaps Lydia
was right. Perhaps they needed a little vacation from the fantasy which was
growing a bit too real for ten-year-old children. It was all right to
exercise one’s mind with gymnastic fantasies, but when the lively child mind
settled on one pattern… ? It seemed that, at a distance, for the past
month, he had heard lions roaring, and smelled their strong odor seeping as
far away as his study door. But, being busy, he had paid it no attention.
George Hadley stood on the African grassland alone. The lions looked up
from their feeding, watching him. The only flaw to the illusion was the open
door through which he could see his wife, far down the dark hall, like a
framed picture, eating her dinner abstractedly.
“Go away,” he said to the lions.
They did not go.
He knew the principle of the room exactly. You sent out your thoughts.
Whatever you thought would appear. “Let’s have Aladdin and his lamp,” he
snapped. The veldtland remained; the lions remained.
“Come on, room! I demand Aladin!” he said.
Nothing happened. The lions mumbled in their baked pelts.
“Aladin!”
He went back to dinner. “The fool room’s out of order,” he said. “It
won’t respond.”
“Or–”
“Or what?”
“Or it can’t respond,” said Lydia, “because the children have thought
about Africa and lions and killing so many days that the room’s in a rut.”
“Could be.”
“Or Peter’s set it to remain that way.”
“Set it?”
“He may have got into the machinery and fixed something.”
“Peter doesn’t know machinery.”
“He’s a wise one for ten. That I.Q. of his -”
“Nevertheless -”
“Hello, Mom. Hello, Dad.”
The Hadleys turned. Wendy and Peter were coming in the front door,
cheeks like peppermint candy, eyes like bright blue agate marbles, a smell
of ozone on their jumpers from their trip in the helicopter.
“You’re just in time for supper,” said both parents.
“We’re full of strawberry ice cream and hot dogs,” said the children,
holding hands. “But we’ll sit and watch.”
“Yes, come tell us about the nursery,” said George Hadley.
The brother and sister blinked at him and then at each other.
“Nursery?”
“All about Africa and everything,” said the father with false
joviality.
“I don’t understand,” said Peter.
“Your mother and I were just traveling through Africa with rod and
reel; Tom Swift and his Electric Lion,” said George Hadley.
“There’s no Africa in the nursery,” said Peter simply.
“Oh, come now, Peter. We know better.”
“I don’t remember any Africa,” said Peter to Wendy. “Do you?”
“No.”
“Run see and come tell.”
She obeyed
“Wendy, come back here!” said George Hadley, but she was gone. The
house lights followed her like a flock of fireflies. Too late, he realized
he had forgotten to lock the nursery door after his last inspection.
“Wendy’ll look and come tell us,” said Peter.
“She doesn’t have to tell me. I’ve seen it.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken, Father.”
“I’m not, Peter. Come along now.”
But Wendy was back. “It’s not Africa,” she said breathlessly.
“We’ll see about this,” said George Hadley, and they all walked down
the hall together and opened the nursery door.
There was a green, lovely forest, a lovely river, a purple mountain,
high voices singing, and Rima, lovely and mysterious, lurking in the trees
with colorful flights of butterflies, like animated bouquets, lingering in
her long hair. The African veldtland was gone. The lions were gone. Only
Rima was here now, singing a song so beautiful that it brought tears to your
eyes.
George Hadley looked in at the changed scene. “Go to bed,” he said to
the children.
They opened their mouths.
“You heard me,” he said.
They went off to the air closet, where a wind sucked them like brown
leaves up the flue to their slumber rooms.
George Hadley walked through the singing glade and picked up something
that lay in the comer near where the lions had been. He walked slowly back
to his wife.
“What is that?” she asked.
“An old wallet of mine,” he said.
He showed it to her. The smell of hot grass was on it and the smell of
a lion. There were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were
blood smears on both sides.
He closed the nursery door and locked it, tight.

In the middle of the night he was still awake and he knew his wife was
awake. “Do you think Wendy changed it?” she said at last, in the dark room.
“Of course.”
“Made it from a veldt into a forest and put Rima there instead of
lions?”
“Yes.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know. But it’s staying locked until I find out.”
“How did your wallet get there?”
“I don’t know anything,” he said, “except that I’m beginning to be
sorry we bought that room for the children. If children are neurotic at all,
a room like that -”
“It’s supposed to help them work off their neuroses in a healthful
way.”
“I’m starting to wonder.” He stared at the ceiling.
“We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted. Is this our
reward-secrecy, disobedience?”
“Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on
occasionally’? We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re insufferable – let’s admit
it. They come and go when they like; they treat us as if we were offspring.
They’re spoiled and we’re spoiled.”
“They’ve been acting funny ever since you forbade them to take the
rocket to New York a few months ago.”
“They’re not old enough to do that alone, I explained.”
“Nevertheless, I’ve noticed they’ve been decidedly cool toward us
since.”
“I think I’ll have David McClean come tomorrow morning to have a look
at Africa.”
“But it’s not Africa now, it’s Green Mansions country and Rima.”
“I have a feeling it’ll be Africa again before then.”
A moment later they heard the screams.
Two screams. Two people screaming from downstairs. And then a roar of
lions.
“Wendy and Peter aren’t in their rooms,” said his wife.
He lay in his bed with his beating heart. “No,” he said. “They’ve
broken into the nursery.”
“Those screams – they sound familiar.”
“Do they?”
“Yes, awfully.”
And although their beds tried very bard, the two adults couldn’t be
rocked to sleep for another hour. A smell of cats was in the night air.

“Father?” said Peter.
“Yes.”
Peter looked at his shoes. He never looked at his father any more, nor
at his mother. “You aren’t going to lock up the nursery for good, are you?”
“That all depends.”
“On what?” snapped Peter.
“On you and your sister. If you intersperse this Africa with a little
variety – oh, Sweden perhaps, or Denmark or China -”
“I thought we were free to play as we wished.”
“You are, within reasonable bounds.”
“What’s wrong with Africa, Father?”
“Oh, so now you admit you have been conjuring up Africa, do you?”
“I wouldn’t want the nursery locked up,” said Peter coldly. “Ever.”
“Matter of fact, we’re thinking of turning the whole house off for
about a month. Live sort of a carefree one-for-all existence.”
“That sounds dreadful! Would I have to tie my own shoes instead of
letting the shoe tier do it? And brush my own teeth and comb my hair and
give myself a bath?”
“It would be fun for a change, don’t you think?”
“No, it would be horrid. I didn’t like it when you took out the picture
painter last month.”
“That’s because I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son.”
“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell; what else
is there to do?”
“All right, go play in Africa.”
“Will you shut off the house sometime soon?”
“We’re considering it.”
“I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.”
“I won’t have any threats from my son!”
“Very well.” And Peter strolled off to the nursery.

“Am I on time?” said David McClean.
“Breakfast?” asked George Hadley.
“Thanks, had some. What’s the trouble?”
“David, you’re a psychologist.”
“I should hope so.”
“Well, then, have a look at our nursery. You saw it a year ago when you
dropped by; did you notice anything peculiar about it then?”
“Can’t say I did; the usual violences, a tendency toward a slight
paranoia here or there, usual in children because they feel persecuted by
parents constantly, but, oh, really nothing.”
They walked down the ball. “I locked the nursery up,” explained the
father, “and the children broke back into it during the night. I let them
stay so they could form the patterns for you to see.”
There was a terrible screaming from the nursery.
“There it is,” said George Hadley. “See what you make of it.”
They walked in on the children without rapping.
The screams had faded. The lions were feeding.
“Run outside a moment, children,” said George Hadley. “No, don’t change
the mental combination. Leave the walls as they are. Get!”
With the children gone, the two men stood studying the lions clustered
at a distance, eating with great relish whatever it was they had caught.
“I wish I knew what it was,” said George Hadley. “Sometimes I can
almost see. Do you think if I brought high-powered binoculars here and -”
David McClean laughed dryly. “Hardly.” He turned to study all four
walls. “How long has this been going on?”
“A little over a month.”
“It certainly doesn’t feel good.”
“I want facts, not feelings.”
“My dear George, a psychologist never saw a fact in his life. He only
hears about feelings; vague things. This doesn’t feel good, I tell you.
Trust my hunches and my instincts. I have a nose for something bad. This is
very bad. My advice to you is to have the whole damn room torn down and your
children brought to me every day during the next year for treatment.”
“Is it that bad?”
“I’m afraid so. One of the original uses of these nurseries was so that
we could study the patterns left on the walls by the child’s mind, study at
our leisure, and help the child. In this case, however, the room has become
a channel toward-destructive thoughts, instead of a release away from them.”
“Didn’t you sense this before?”
“I sensed only that you bad spoiled your children more than most. And
now you’re letting them down in some way. What way?”
“I wouldn’t let them go to New York.”
“What else?”
“I’ve taken a few machines from the house and threatened them, a month
ago, with closing up the nursery unless they did their homework. I did close
it for a few days to show I meant business.”
“Ah, ha!”
“Does that mean anything?”
“Everything. Where before they had a Santa Claus now they have a
Scrooge. Children prefer Santas. You’ve let this room and this house replace
you and your wife in your children’s affections. This room is their mother
and father, far more important in their lives than their real parents. And
now you come along and want to shut it off. No wonder there’s hatred here.
You can feel it coming out of the sky. Feel that sun. George, you’ll have to
change your life. Like too many others, you’ve built it around creature
comforts. Why, you’d starve tomorrow if something went wrong in your
kitchen. You wouldn’t know bow to tap an egg. Nevertheless, turn everything
off. Start new. It’ll take time. But we’ll make good children out of bad in
a year, wait and see.”
“But won’t the shock be too much for the children, shutting the room up
abruptly, for good?”
“I don’t want them going any deeper into this, that’s all.”
The lions were finished with their red feast.
The lions were standing on the edge of the clearing watching the two
men.
“Now I’m feeling persecuted,” said McClean. “Let’s get out of here. I
never have cared for these damned rooms. Make me nervous.”
“The lions look real, don’t they?” said George Hadley. I don’t suppose
there’s any way -”
“What?”
“- that they could become real?”
“Not that I know.”
“Some flaw in the machinery, a tampering or something?”
“No.”
They went to the door.
“I don’t imagine the room will like being turned off,” said the father.
“Nothing ever likes to die – even a room.”
“I wonder if it hates me for wanting to switch it off?”
“Paranoia is thick around here today,” said David McClean. “You can
follow it like a spoor. Hello.” He bent and picked up a bloody scarf. “This
yours?”
“No.” George Hadley’s face was rigid. “It belongs to Lydia.”
They went to the fuse box together and threw the switch that killed the
nursery.

The two children were in hysterics. They screamed and pranced and threw
things. They yelled and sobbed and swore and jumped at the furniture.
“You can’t do that to the nursery, you can’t!”
“Now, children.”
The children flung themselves onto a couch, weeping.
“George,” said Lydia Hadley, “turn on the nursery, just for a few
moments. You can’t be so abrupt.”
“No.”
“You can’t be so cruel…”
“Lydia, it’s off, and it stays off. And the whole damn house dies as of
here and now. The more I see of the mess we’ve put ourselves in, the more it
sickens me. We’ve been contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for
too long. My God, how we need a breath of honest air!”
And he marched about the house turning off the voice clocks, the
stoves, the heaters, the shoe shiners, the shoe lacers, the body scrubbers
and swabbers and massagers, and every other machine be could put his hand
to.
The house was full of dead bodies, it seemed. It felt like a mechanical
cemetery. So silent. None of the humming hidden energy of machines waiting
to function at the tap of a button.
“Don’t let them do it!” wailed Peter at the ceiling, as if he was
talking to the house, the nursery. “Don’t let Father kill everything.” He
turned to his father. “Oh, I hate you!”
“Insults won’t get you anywhere.”
“I wish you were dead!”
“We were, for a long while. Now we’re going to really start living.
Instead of being handled and massaged, we’re going to live.”
Wendy was still crying and Peter joined her again. “Just a moment, just
one moment, just another moment of nursery,” they wailed.
“Oh, George,” said the wife, “it can’t hurt.”
“All right – all right, if they’ll just shut up. One minute, mind you,
and then off forever.”
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” sang the children, smiling with wet faces.
“And then we’re going on a vacation. David McClean is coming back in
half an hour to help us move out and get to the airport. I’m going to dress.
You turn the nursery on for a minute, Lydia, just a minute, mind you.”
And the three of them went babbling off while he let himself be
vacuumed upstairs through the air flue and set about dressing himself. A
minute later Lydia appeared.
“I’ll be glad when we get away,” she sighed.
“Did you leave them in the nursery?”
“I wanted to dress too. Oh, that horrid Africa. What can they see in
it?”
“Well, in five minutes we’ll be on our way to Iowa. Lord, how did we
ever get in this house? What prompted us to buy a nightmare?”
“Pride, money, foolishness.”
“I think we’d better get downstairs before those kids get engrossed
with those damned beasts again.”
Just then they heard the children calling, “Daddy, Mommy, come quick –
quick!”
They went downstairs in the air flue and ran down the hall. The
children were nowhere in sight. “Wendy? Peter!”
They ran into the nursery. The veldtland was empty save for the lions
waiting, looking at them. “Peter, Wendy?”
The door slammed.
“Wendy, Peter!”
George Hadley and his wife whirled and ran back to the door.
“Open the door!” cried George Hadley, trying the knob. “Why, they’ve
locked it from the outside! Peter!” He beat at the door. “Open up!”
He heard Peter’s voice outside, against the door.
“Don’t let them switch off the nursery and the house,” he was saying.
Mr. and Mrs. George Hadley beat at the door. “Now, don’t be ridiculous,
children. It’s time to go. Mr. McClean’ll be here in a minute and…”
And then they heard the sounds.
The lions on three sides of them, in the yellow veldt grass, padding
through the dry straw, rumbling and roaring in their throats.
The lions.
Mr. Hadley looked at his wife and they turned and looked back at the
beasts edging slowly forward crouching, tails stiff.
Mr. and Mrs. Hadley screamed.
And suddenly they realized why those other screams bad sounded
familiar.

“Well, here I am,” said David McClean in the nursery doorway, “Oh,
hello.” He stared at the two children seated in the center of the open glade
eating a little picnic lunch. Beyond them was the water hole and the yellow
veldtland; above was the hot sun. He began to perspire. “Where are your
father and mother?”
The children looked up and smiled. “Oh, they’ll be here directly.”
“Good, we must get going.” At a distance Mr. McClean saw the lions
fighting and clawing and then quieting down to feed in silence under the
shady trees.
He squinted at the lions with his hand tip to his eyes.
Now the lions were done feeding. They moved to the water hole to drink.
A shadow flickered over Mr. McClean’s hot face. Many shadows flickered.
The vultures were dropping down the blazing sky.
“A cup of tea?” asked Wendy in the silence.

The School by David Barthelme

David Barthelme

David Barthelme

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that … that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems … and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. But I think that the snakes – well, the reason that the snakes kicked off was that … you remember, the boiler was shut off for four days because of the strike, and that was explicable. It was something you could explain to the kids because of the strike. I mean, none of their parents would let them cross the picket line and they knew there was a strike going on and what it meant. So when things got started up again and we found the snakes they weren’t too disturbed.

With the herb gardens it was probably a case of overwatering, and at least now they know not to overwater. The children were very conscientious with the herb gardens and some of them probably … you know, slipped them a little extra water when we weren’t looking. Or maybe … well, I don’t like to think about sabotage, although it did occur to us. I mean, it was something that crossed our minds. We were thinking that way probably because before that the gerbils had died, and the white mice had died, and the salamander … well, now they know not to carry them around in plastic bags.

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have one, it was just a puppy the Murdoch girl found under a Gristede’s truck one day and she was afraid the truck would run over it when the driver had finished making his delivery, so she stuck it in her knapsack and brought it to the school with her. So we had this puppy. As soon as I saw the puppy I thought, Oh Christ, I bet it will live for about two weeks and then… And that’s what it did. It wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom at all, there’s some kind of regulation about it, but you can’t tell them they can’t have a puppy when the puppy is already there, right in front of them, running around on the floor and yap yap yapping. They named it Edgar – that is, they named it after me. They had a lot of fun running after it and yelling, “Here, Edgar! Nice Edgar!” Then they’d laugh like hell. They enjoyed the ambiguity. I enjoyed it myself. I don’t mind being kidded. They made a little house for it in the supply closet and all that. I don’t know what it died of. Distemper, I guess. It probably hadn’t had any shots. I got it out of there before the kids got to school. I checked the supply closet each morning, routinely, because I knew what was going to happen. I gave it to the custodian.

And then there was this Korean orphan that the class adopted through the Help the Children program, all the kids brought in a quarter a month, that was the idea. It was an unfortunate thing, the kid’s name was Kim and maybe we adopted him too late or something. The cause of death was not stated in the letter we got, they suggested we adopt another child instead and sent us some interesting case histories, but we didn’t have the heart. The class took it pretty hard, they began (I think, nobody ever said anything to me directly) to feel that maybe there was something wrong with the school. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the school, particularly, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. It was just a run of bad luck. We had an extraordinary number of parents passing away, for instance. There were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and four killed together in a car accident. One stroke. And we had the usual heavy mortality rate among the grandparents, or maybe it was heavier this year, it seemed so. And finally the tragedy.

The tragedy occurred when Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo were playing over where they’re excavating for the new federal office building. There were all these big wooden beams stacked, you know, at the edge of the excavation. There’s a court case coming out of that, the parents are claiming that the beams were poorly stacked. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s been a strange year.

I forgot to mention Billy Brandt’s father who was knifed fatally when he grappled with a masked intruder in his home.

One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don’t like it.
I said, that’s sound.
They said, it’s a bloody shame!
I said, it is.
They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant) so that we can see how it is done? We know you like Helen.
I do like Helen but I said that I would not.
We’ve heard so much about it, they said, but we’ve never seen it.
I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done as a demonstration. Helen looked out the window.
They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.

I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened) and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. The children were excited. Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.

 

From Wikipedia:

Donald Barthelme (April 7, 1931 – July 23, 1989) was an American author known for his playful, postmodernist style of short fiction. Barthelme also worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post, was managing editor of Location magazine, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (1961–1962), co-founder of Fiction (with Mark Mirsky and the assistance of Max and Marianne Frisch), and a professor at various universities. He also was one of the original founders of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.

 

The Flame by Adam Drake

They sat in the near darkness, staring at the last candle burning. The diminishing flame was fighting the rising tide of melted wax.

Silence held the only perfect words for what they had, but he could not stand the weight of it any longer.

“Happy Valentine’s Day babe.”

“This will be our last won’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Where did it go wrong?”

“I’m not sure. What happened to all the stuff that made us fall in love in the first place? It’s only been two years…”

She thought about the beginning often, especially on this day.

“I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be with you.”

His eyes widened in surprise.

“You do?”

“Oh yes. It was three years ago today.”

Memories rushed the front of his mind. It had been an amazing year. His roommate Mike had found “the perfect girl”. And she had a roommate. Within a month both of them had girlfriends in the same convenient location.

“Wait. Three years ago I was with Jenny and you were with Mike?”

“I remember walking into the living room and seeing the roses that you had bought for her. They were beautiful and…”

“You broke up with Mike the day after Valentines Day because I bought her roses?”

“No. It was the card.”

“The card? The Valentine card?”

“Yes. When I read that card I knew right then that I wanted to be with someone like you. The way you loved and cared for a girl. The way you took in every detail of her and appreciated it. All I ever wanted was someone to love me like that.”

“And when Jenny broke up with me there you were to step right in…”

“I have been waiting for a card like that. I have been waiting to be loved like that, but it never came. Is it me? Am I not worthy of that part of you?”

“I didn’t write that card. Mike did. I saw the way he looked at you and asked him to help me write something for Jenny. I just wrote his words and signed my name.”

A single tear crawled down her cheek as the flame died leaving only a trail of smoke and the smell soot.

Am I Free to Go? by Kathryn Cramer

*Pulled from Tor.com*
~ This is a little longer than what I normally post, but I assure you that it is a good read.
~Meyer Lane

The line between utopia and dystopia…is, often, who you are. Or who your neighbors think you are.

Read “Am I Free to Go?”, a new original short story by Kathryn Cramer, the editor or co-editor of over two dozen science fiction and fantasy anthologies.

I.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people. People I don’t need to think about. Drug dealers, career criminals, gang members, embezzlers, guys who don’t pay their child support. People getting what they deserve. But here I am. Again.

You want me to talk about utopia. Utopia here in the mountains. Utopia by the lake. Our utopia.

How I hacked the bio-monitoring system. How I took it over. The password to the artificial intelligence in the water treatment plant. Security holes. Intelligent agents. My keystroke loggers in the county equipment. My fascination with high-tech botany. All that. I’ll tell you, but it will take a while. But I guess we’ve got all night. It seems that I’m not going anywhere.

Who knew that the cops are all chipped like dogs? It’s a beautiful thing.

I know how this story begins. Here’s the sequence:

  • I was hauled out of bed by cops in the middle of the night.
  • I escaped out the side door with my kids.
  • We hid in the woods for hours.
  • We came back to the house eventually.
  • We hid in the basement.

Maybe I should be saying this with PowerPoint, projecting it all on the wall. Helvetica Bold.

  • I got arrested.
  • I spent the night in jail.

Understand that this story sits on the surface of my skin, lives on the backs of my arms, and some days, there are no words. It’s a jail-based utopia we live in.

The story starts in my bed. 11:30 p.m. A flashlight shining in my face. Police. What do the police want? Why are they in my bedroom?

Think fast. Don’t even consider using the W word — as in “do you have a warrant?” Respect authority if you want to come out of this alive.

I was asleep. This had never happened to me before. I handled it a lot better the next time.

Above the bed hangs a wedding kimono I bought in Tokyo, white with wide red borders embroidered with golden peacocks and red cherry blossoms. Henry’s got more shoes in the closet than I own, and there’s this whole suitcase of neckties . . .

OK. I get lost, following details down holes. I think you call it “avoidance.”

A friend of mine who is also a psychotherapist told me, “You need to stop thinking of this place as utopia. It’s not utopia. It’s a police state. The state troopers train here and they get to practice on us. Once they are competent to do their jobs, they get sent elsewhere.”

I’ll try again.

3:00 a.m. The police come in holding floodlights. The kids and I are back from our escape and are hiding in the basement, in my office, sleeping on gym mats and some of my quilts. The sheriff’s deputy—whose name I have repressed; let’s call him Officer Friendly—stands on the cement steps in my office diagonally across the room. Next to him is a plainclothes cop filming the scene with a great big video camera.

Somewhere there exists a videotape of my arrest.

Officer Friendly said, “Come over here so you don’t traumatize your children.”

I didn’t move. I stared him down, saying, “That horse is already out of the barn.”

We had been hiding in the woods for hours, and they were hunting us with cars and floodlights, and, I later found out, police dogs. When it seemed like this would go on all night, I let us back into the house, entering through my office using the key I’d left outside . . .

I didn’t leave my kids. Not except in handcuffs. I knew when they found us that there was nothing more I could do.

Officer Friendly hauled me to my feet, telling me I was under arrest, and handcuffed me.

He never read me my rights. He wasn’t big on cop formalities.

That night, as the cops were hauling me barefoot out my front door in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms and handcuffs, without my purse, I said to them, “Please don’t let out the cat.”

(The cops who raid my house have this habit of leaving the front door standing wide open.)

A short cop on my porch said, “You really screwed up,” as I was being stuffed in the squad car.

Officer Friendly charged me with resisting arrest for flinching when he grabbed me so hard that he left fingerprint-shaped bruises on my arms.

His paperwork would later say that this scene took place in Ticonderoga. He was not good with facts. Facts do not play a big role in his world.

Details.

I hate that man.

II.

Here are some hard-won facts from time sheets it took me a long time to get. On August 16, Officer Friendly punched in at 11 a.m. He didn’t punch out again until 6 a.m. on August 17; he billed it as twenty hours, though it was actually a nineteen-hour shift. The day before that, he’d worked noon until midnight. And the day before that, his timesheet shows he worked a seventeen-hour shift.

His partner’s timesheet shows she worked eighteen and a half hours covering the night of my arrest, and that she worked thirty hours in the two days previous. I have the documentation. I can prove it.

What else is on the videotape? Dishes in the sink? Henry’s piles of science fiction novels? The cat box? Or maybe they have videos of the inside of my neighbor Frank’s house, which they searched three times in the middle of the night without a warrant.

Afterward, Frank bought himself this great T-shirt to commemorate that night; in all capital letters, it says “INNOCENT BYSTANDER.”

The DA dropped all three charges. The downside of the DA dropping all charges against me is that my morbid curiosity as to what data they collected will never be satisfied. Or hasn’t been yet, anyway.

I have lost a lot of sleep trying to think about this. In the middle of the night—Was it last night? How long have I been here?—I got out of bed to look at my photos from about one month after the first home invasion.

And there they were: Henry’s photos of my bruises. He took them a couple of days after, but for some reason I didn’t upload them to my account until a month later. I’d thought I’d lost them.

There are four, two of each arm with and without flash. Henry took them at the instructions of my lawyer after my first appearance in court. I am wearing a sleeveless white shirt with pink cherry blossoms.

Below my arm is a construction of Tinkertoys; in the background, a brass sculpture that resembles Jonathan Livingston Seagull that my son bought at a yard sale.

There is something about the way I am holding my arms—more like a martial arts posture than a victim displaying an injury.

There is nothing in these photos that expresses how Henry feels. They’re purely instrumental, depicting bruises to be shown in court as part of my criminal defense.

One is the photo I copied for the quilt I never made, entitled “Officer Friendly Leaves a Bad Impression on Mother.” I bought pink fabric for my skin and blue and purple fabric for my bruises . . .

How odd that I wanted to make all this about me.

The way here was gradual. The environmentalism behind the creation of this place was simultaneous with the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws. The white rural poor have been disenfranchised to make way for a protected wilderness where there are no jobs. And so the State built prisons in the woods and shipped in the black urban poor in order to create jobs.

Then the money ran out and in came the tax rebellions, and the tax caps. The county built the Public Safety Building with the idea of renting out cells to the state and to the Feds and to Immigration Services, but the market collapsed.

And so they all had to get a lot more flexible about how all those empty cells were filled. They began taking prisoners from other states; prisoners from other countries; corporate prisoners; corporate prisoners from other countries: men, women, and children from nowhere, incarcerated for no reason.

So here we sit, you and I.

My fantasy was that I would exhibit the quilt at the county fair a dozen yards from where Officer Friendly would be at the sheriff’s department booth, fingerprinting little children—to prepare them for later life. I wanted to take a picture.

Did you know that the State now keeps a database of the kids’ biometrics? The equipment package that cops use at fairs is billed on the manufacturer’s website as “an important new tool in combatting juvenile delinquency.” The kids come away from the booth with a helium balloon, a couple of sheriff’s department temporary tattoos, a spiffy looking ID card, and a chipped dog tag.

The other day I found my photos of the escape route. I don’t remember taking them, but they exist. A day after the home invasion, I apparently walked the escape route with my camera.

I was arrested about three a.m. on the seventeenth. The long, leisurely process of getting me into a jail cell lasted most of the rest of the night. No one was in a hurry to allow me to get some sleep. So I spent most of the day of seventeenth sleeping off my misadventure.

They had me shower before my mug shot. But it confused them when I asked to comb my hair. Having me wash my hair before the photo was a deliberate tactic to make me look ridiculous. My wet hair was sticking out every which way; in the photo I probably look quite insane. I smiled for the mug shot.

I never did find out what they do about brushes and combs in that jail.

About 5:30 a.m., my captors gave me a bed. It may have been later, since Officer Friendly’s time sheet records him as punching out at six. It was cold in my cell, maybe sixty degrees, maybe colder, and the blanket they gave me was thin.

August 17 was the hottest day of the year! I looked it up.

The previous summer, without Henry’s permission, I brought home a friendly cat named Bro from the animal shelter. He’d lived in the shelter for a year and a half; he was a kitten who’d never been adopted because of his runny nose. I wasn’t looking for a cat, but he charmed his way out of the cage. He’s a teddy bear of a cat with minky black fur.

The first night Henry and Bro spent under the same roof, Bro got up on our bed and went to sleep between my legs with one large paw stretched up my bare thigh.

In the morning, Henry insisted I find the overfamiliar cat another place to live.

I got a friend to take him, but the cat’s sneezing was disgusting, and her husband didn’t like him either, so eventually the cat, now renamed “Darth,” was once again ours. By crying a lot and locking myself in the bathroom, I persuaded Henry to let me keep the cat, who we then renamed “Ambrose.”

Our kids were still in the school in Westchester County, so we spent time in Westchester, even though I hated it there. We had new neighbors who’d bought an enormous house up the block. They built themselves an executive hen house. Raising chickens in our suburb is prohibited by the zoning. The wife, I’m told, trapped and rehomed the neighborhood cats because she wanted to have free-range chickens.

Brosie disappeared. I was heartbroken. Never name a cat after Ambrose Bierce!

In mid-August, I got a cell phone call from a nervous man who wouldn’t identify himself. He had taken the cat to the vet. The vet had discovered that the cat was chipped and that the cat was mine. On August 14, we drove down to Westchester to retrieve the hot cat from our screened porch where the man had dumped him.

I don’t know why that guy believed he could remain anonymous. I took his phone number from caller ID and ran it by my databases, and had his home address, income bracket, mother’s maiden name, SAT scores, and how the traffic flowed on his commute.

When I told the cops not to let the cat out, I was afraid that if they did I’d never see Brosie again!

I remember the small rectangle, my cell window. The walls were thick, and so it was set deeply into the wall. As I settled down to go to sleep, the sky was pink, tinged with fuchsia, and strands of barbed wire were silhouetted against the sky. I could see in my mind’s eye the sunrise unfolding at home.

I imagined the water still as glass, still enough that even Camel’s Hump could be seen in reflection; a dark blue sky, intensely pink clouds, a few yellow spots; the sky growing pinker with a fierce yellow stripe along the horizon, and the pinkness fading until the sun rose over the horizon, making a wide stripe of orange across the lake to our shore. I imagined the buttery yellow light that would have enveloped us in our hiding place had we stayed hidden and not returned to the house. At dawn, the heron would be feeding in the brook, and shorebirds would be flying low, in formation, over still water.

As I huddled under the blanket and tried to get some sleep, I considered whether to get a divorce. Henry couldn’t reach me on the telephone and so had called the cops and had given them permission to go into the house to see if I was home. That is what had set this all in motion: Henry’s phone call.

I decided that—other than the fact that the cops had just come barging into my house in the middle of the night and hauled me out of bed, yelled at me and refused to leave, hunted me through the woods, roughed me up and arrested me, driven me around in the hot dark of the squad car to God-knows-where for what seemed like hours, and thrown me in jail with the intention of having complete strangers carry off our kids—my life was actually going well. In some respects I was finally getting what I wanted: I was making my escape from Westchester County, from the prison of living in someone else’s utopia.

Just before we left Westchester for the summer, Benjamin got stuffed in a locker at school and locked inside; the school’s vice principal, presumably with an eye toward avoiding a lawsuit, had tried to explain to me how the incident might be about three-quarters Ben’s fault.

That same week I intercepted our neighbor, the daughter of a notoriously bad-tempered opera diva, chasing my son across our front lawn screaming and trying to ram him with a baby carriage—with her baby daughter in it. Benjamin had gone to her porch two doors down and had asked to play with her son. She didn’t want them to play together.

I told her to get off my lawn and never come back. I threw a few more words at it than that.

Henry talked me out of calling the police. Who knew what wild counteraccusations she might make? I had the phone in my hand. But he had a point. If she was crazy enough to do what she had already done, facts were obsolete. She acted like laws do not apply. Most of the local cops were Italian, and her mama was a famous opera star. Who would they believe? Put the phone down, Margaret.

Suburbia red in tooth and claw.

Considering where we’d come from, my home invasion and abduction didn’t seem so bad. I decided that I should not let a bunch of SWAT-team wannabes take my new life away from me.

A half hour later, I was awakened by an announcement on the PA system that I needed to make my bed and prepare for cell inspection.

After the inspection (to make sure I hadn’t acquired any weapons in the half hour since I’d been shown to my cell) I opted out of breakfast and went back to sleep.

The Department of Corrections website says that the prisoners raise their own lettuce there: it’s a pilot project that the DOC compares to “the massive greenhouse that’s a favorite family attraction at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center.” I’m sorry I didn’t get to see that before my release. Maybe next time I go to jail, I’ll bring my family.

III.

But anyway, the photos.

So on the morning of the eighteenth, I was up at quarter after seven photographing the sunrise. It was a hazy, sticky day. The sun had already risen but was just breaking through heavy clouds. The dominant colors in the photo are a brownish gray and a pale apricot.

A little while later I was drinking coffee with a former prison guard. We sat in the morning sunshine on his porch that overlooks the lake. I had come to talk, to try to understand what had happened to me. I showed him the bruises. He told me, “It’s like Russia over there at the sheriff’s department. They have their own rules . . . Back when I worked as a correction officer, after I’d worked a double shift, late in my shift, I was like, well . . .” He made a face and didn’t finish that sentence. Working as a prison guard changes you.

A couple of guys who get arrested every once in a while told me how lucky I was to have been arrested after the Public Safety Building was built, because the old county jail was “a hellhole.”

Before I lived here, I didn’t used to have friends who worked as prison guards, nor indeed friends who got arrested.

Prison guards are different than one would expect. There is a type. They tend to have a certain emotional openness, expressiveness. One day when I was at the animal shelter, a man walked in accompanied by his son. He wore full black body armor, like RoboCop, with the name of the prison printed on the front. He and his son were carrying a big dog cage, and inside was a litter of kittens. He’d rescued them from a snowdrift where the hungry kitties were eating birdseed.

These guys sometimes say things like “If you’re arrested you’re guilty. As a former correction officer, I know that anyone arrested is guilty. That’s just how I think.”

In the late afternoon, I took pictures of the roses I’d planted, pink roses, red roses. Then the fragrant white rugosas closer to the steps.

Next come the photos of the stone steps. The camera angles are odd. When I looked at these photos the other day, it was at first hard to understand what I’d had in mind. I thought one of the kids had gotten hold of my camera. When I looked at them in sequence I realized I was looking at the escape route; how three barefoot people escaped from a house full of cops. It was safety.

Descending the steps, the viewer is looking down. There is a large, flat granite boulder flecked with garnet. Greenery runs down the left side; lower, the leaves on the trees are upside down. The next step is half-covered with hypnum moss, as are subsequent steps. The moss I had mail ordered from a company in Pennsylvania; it came in irregular sheets peeled off rocks, packed in tissue paper. I had planted it the previous season, using it carefully on the steps to give the illusion that the stones had been there for ages.

When we had the yard landscaped, after the backhoes were done, I built the yard ecology from the bottom up. Ecologies are complex things. All the parts work together to make the whole.

I sprinkled genetically engineered fungi I’d ordered from a start-up in Oregon that replaced the soil fungi the backhoe had scraped off, thereby making for healthier soil, and also created a powerful wi-fi zone that covers my whole yard, taking advantage of the networked properties of fungal mats, using nearby trees as antennae. It is more than a fungal wi-fi network, really. It’s also a data storage medium, cloud computing but without fickle corporations—anarchist street tech used for circumventing Internet shutdowns by oppressive governments. It makes my high-end computer hardware run a lot faster, though it’s got an interesting trickle of traffic through my fiber-optic connection.

After the high-tech fungi, I sprinkled on the really expensive designer grass seed: It’s a special dwarf grass I almost never have to mow because it just doesn’t grow very high. Also part of the mix are tiny nitrogen-fixing clovers, and these little flowers that look like chamomile and are supposed to give a sort of mellow feeling if you walk barefoot on the grass. There was this night when the grass first came up when I walked out into the yard after a rain, and the baby lawn was intensely alive, making a sound just beyond the range of human hearing.

All this stuff washes down to the lake in runoff. I wonder what I’ve contributed to the local ecosystem.

Next picture: farther down the steps. These boulders still show the scratches from the backhoe. Yes, I absolutely did tell Officer Friendly that if he didn’t have a warrant, then he and his merry band needed to get the fuck out of my dining room. That is what I was pondering at this point in our descent, that maybe things might have gone better if I hadn’t told them to get the fuck out of my house. There is a little bit of my mail-order moss, but less than on the steps in the previous photo. In preindustrial times, pillows and mattresses were sometimes stuffed with hypnum moss; its Greek name means that it induces sleep.

Next picture: the last third of the stone steps. The bottom one has lots of mail-order moss. Then we are on open ground.

I should say that I don’t think the cops had any idea that there was a set of stone steps there; and that they had not noticed the spiral staircase in my house; that they thought the apartment had only one entrance and exit. So all eight of them blocked my front door.

When they began to talk about waiting for someone to come and take away the kids, we escaped out the side door. Apparently, they didn’t notice we were gone for quite a long time. Officer Friendly was outside my house badmouthing me to my neighbors, claiming I was upstairs passed out an hour and a half after our escape.

After construction of the wall was complete, I had bombed the whole hillside with wildflower seeds I bought from an organization in Vermont. The next photo shows purple clover, a yellow black-eyed susan, and an orange blanket flower at the base of our stone wall. A few weeks earlier, there would have been bright red poppies, splattered like blood all over the wall. But by August, they were done.

The next photo shows the view from the woods where we were hiding. It is taken from the shadows. There are small trees on the right hand side, bushes on the left side toward the lake; in the foreground is the fence line of the water treatment plant, and behind the fence are cement wastewater storage tanks that contain the reed beds that cleanse the water.

The water treatment plant hums, even in winter. And in August, the night is full of the songs of crickets and frogs and American toads, which are especially partial to the reed beds, and the soft sounds of water lapping on the shore. You would think that on a hot August night, it would have been buggy down by the lake, but that night the shoreline was impossibly hospitable. The ground was soft, the air was warm, and the emerald night was singing.

I should never have told anyone in case I ever need a place to hide again.

IV.

The next photo is a not very interesting shot of the ground, except that I now understand that this is the spot where we hid, sleeping in a pile like gorillas.

When I was in the second grade, the Seattle police department had a PR campaign in the schools sponsored by Sears Roebuck: “Officer Friendly” would come to your school and all the kids would get Polaroids taken sitting on his cool motorcycle. My childhood Officer Friendly was a muscular Aryan type, about five foot eight, with a big-toothed smile and a gun. My parents still have my snapshot in a box somewhere. Later, when we were on car trips and saw a cop giving out a speeding ticket, my father would say, “Looks like Officer Friendly just made a new friend.” I do that, too.

At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle when Ben was small, Henry looked at the gorillas sleeping in the enclosure and remarked that that was my ideal arrangement of the family bed. Ever since, it has been a joke between us.

Our local Officer Friendly is much taller, a skinhead with an elaborately tattooed left arm that he hides behind his back when getting his picture taken for the paper for rescuing dogs or saving babies. The tattoos are detailed in a way that vibrates with significance—a bulging eye that looks terrified, and a mouth that is trying to open but is glued shut—suggesting that they are the consequence of more than a drunken evening in the tattoo parlor. After he’d broken my silence while booking me, I asked him about his tattoos. He was really pleased that I’d noticed them, but changed the subject.

The final photo makes me sad; it shows the lawn along the north side of the water treatment plant fence, the route by which we returned to the house. My admission of defeat.

Immediately thereafter (and from the same time sequence) there is a photo of me sitting in my office wearing a tie-dyed tank top and the opal necklace that I bought in Brisbane. It shows the bruises on both my arms. I gather from the caption that my daughter took the picture. This means she also went on the walk with me, revisiting our escape.

After that, and from the same day, there are a couple of photos of double rainbows, dark pink roses after the rain, and a downed tree in the rainy dark, and someone in a uniform who resembles Officer Friendly’s partner, shining her flashlight into a silver metallic car that has a fallen sumac tree on it.

She is the one who actually signed two out of the three charges against me. Officer Friendly was incredibly rude to her while I was in custody. He blamed her for all his mistakes.

He mangled the facts so badly that, even though I was trying to remain silent, I interjected a correction, explaining that what he had just said was impossible. He said, “Shut up. This doesn’t pertain to you.” I wondered if he could define “pertain.” He was drafting criminal charges against me. To who else could they possibly pertain? I remember feeling sorry for her for having to work with such a sadistic moron.

I have no recollection of taking these photos, yet they exist.

Prison gangs clean the area around the water treatment plant each spring. I can watch them from my living room window. I try to find out when they are coming, so I can pick through the debris that washed in with the spring thaw before they cart it off. I find the most interesting objects to use in my garden: pieces of blue-and-white pottery, pieces of rusty metal in interesting shapes, croquet balls run over by lawn mowers. If I don’t get there first, all the good stuff is gone. The prisoners leave the shoreline clean.

I spent two summers pulling glass out of the hillside after we built our big stone wall. For decades, glass bottles had been thrown down the hill. At times, it seemed that the whole hillside was made of glass, brown and blue, and green, and white. I kept picking it up until the job was done.

Then, when I really needed it, when I needed to flee barefoot with my children in the middle of the night, my efforts were repaid. The grass was soft and safe. I had healed the hillside and the favor was returned.

I had to sit handcuffed in the lobby of the jail intake area. The stools you sit on have no backs and are small, even for me. It was after five in the morning and I felt exhausted. I was reminded, while sitting there, of what we were told in Psych 101 about how to sleep deprive a rat: You put the rat on a flowerpot large enough for it to stand on but too small for it to sleep on. You have this flowerpot in a bowl of water. If the rat falls asleep, it falls in the water and wakes up. The stools in the jail waiting room were like that.

I think I spent about three hours in handcuffs, for no particular reason except that I was being put in my place. Officer Friendly handcuffed me when he arrested me, and I don’t think the cuffs were taken off again until they made me shower right before the mug shot. It is possible that they were briefly taken off for my fingerprinting, but I don’t think they were.

My captors were complaining about how tired they were, bragging about how far beyond a double shift they were, claiming to have worked eighteen, nineteen hours. Officer Friendly claimed to have been awake for twenty-four hours.

I felt so sorry for him. I apologized for my role in his sleep deprivation. No one answered and there was a long silence as though they hadn’t realized that I could hear.

I had another wave of these generous feelings about twelve hours later, seven hours after Henry bailed me out, when—during the late afternoon—I suppressed the urge to send the sheriff’s department flowers.

Even now, the mental image of the flowers I intended to send them has a supersaturated, hyperreal quality: a dozen moist long-stem deep red roses in a container wrapped in red foil, with a wide red velvet bow.

In the 1980s, it used to annoy me that my grandmother would take pictures of her hybrid tea roses and mail them to me. Now I take pictures of my roses and post them on the Internet. What kind of ancestral nonsense made me think of sending roses? I cannot reconstruct why I felt at that moment that they deserved to be sent roses, except that the stripes on my prison uniform were the same color red.

V.

Sometime during that day, the lady from Child Protective Services interviewed me. I said some things I shouldn’t have, but in retrospect, I was surprisingly lucid in my dealings with her, under the circumstances. She shook her head at the drama of the previous night and the way the deputies had terrified me. She said, “I hate it when they do that.”

A year later, when I was having lunch in a restaurant, I overheard two CPS workers gossiping about who was getting promoted and why. The subject came around to my CPS lady, the one I’d met with: They agreed that she was too compassionate, put too much time in to getting clients to tell her what they needed. The woman immediately behind me said, “Who cares what they think they need? If they knew what they needed we wouldn’t be visiting in the first place.”

Did you know that jail is mostly empty? The county claims they are making money with this new privatization deal, but I saw only one other inmate the whole time I was there, and only from a distance: A tall blonde over six feet with shoulder-length hair, doing laundry. Her skin had a translucence suggesting she hadn’t been exposed to daylight in a while. She was wearing the same kind of red-and-white striped uniform I was, except it looked much better on her. I saw her only for a moment. There was no one else.

That jail is brand new. The walls are bright white, and there is a broad band of grape color about eight feet up, I guess to make the jail look more cheerful or maybe because the cell blocks are color coded. Or maybe it’s purple because it’s the women’s section. Each jail cell has a stainless steel sink/toilet combo thing and a bed. Just after they put me in my cell, I lay across my bed with my head toward the door and my legs up the wall in a yoga pose. That’s when I was looking at the pink sky through the barbed wire, relaxing into my predicament, letting the pink noise of the sky talk to the tension in my hamstrings.

A while back, when the county officials were saying they needed to privatize more facilities in order to build office space for themselves, I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from suggesting that they rent office space in the Public Safety Building (i.e., the jail) so each of the county officials could have his own sink and toilet in the same finish you see in Westchester kitchens on ten-thousand-dollar Sub-zero refrigerators.

Remember the hearings on privatization and the creation of the Prison Enterprise Zone in which civil liberties were suspended to make this a more commercially viable environment for prison privatization? Remember that noisy guy who said, “You like living in your tree-hugging environmentalist utopia, but this doesn’t come for free. Someone’s got to pay for all these trees. There’s no more free lunch. Someone’s got to pay!”

I know just the office he deserves. A room with a view. That guy chose “What is your father’s middle name?” as his password security question. He is named after his dad.

I used to know what T-shirt and what pajama bottoms I wore that night. The T-shirt had words printed on it, a phrase mildly though not extremely ironic. I can’t remember anymore. The pajama bottoms were, I think, pale blue flannel. I think I was wearing the ones with garden gnomes, not the ones with snowflakes.

It bothers me that I can’t remember what I was wearing. I know I used to know.

When Ben had a two-hour school delay because of snow, I drove him to school, but the roads were really bad. Once you get off the state highways over there, instead of sanding and salting the roads, they use mine tailings. I barely made it up the big hill. After dropping him off, I decided I wasn’t driving back down that hill, so I went the long way, past that other prison. It was snowing hard and in the switchbacks I was driving down the middle of the road in low gear so as to keep as far as possible away from the guardrails.

I noticed there was a white car behind me, and eventually I realized the car behind me was a sheriff’s deputy. The whole way, I was trying to read his plate number in the rearview mirror. When the roads flattened out and he finally passed me, I saw that the plate number ended in a three and not a seven, so it wasn’t Officer Friendly.

Whoever was behind the wheel was trying to do me a favor. The road conditions were horrendous and getting worse, and there’s no cell phone reception in that area.

Please, God, don’t let me hit a guardrail. The scene that keeps playing in my mind was this: I fishtail and take out three guardrail posts and spin backward across the middle of the road and bounce—and my car is bleeding transmission fluid into the snowbank and black plastic pieces of my car are all over the road. I look down over the steep embankment where I almost went. And Officer Friendly gets out of the squad car, striding heroically in my direction, a helpful smile on his face. Which fades to a frown. He says to me, “Aren’t you the woman who filed the Freedom of Information request to find out how much overtime I work?”

Or maybe he would just pretend he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. Maybe we difficult middle-aged women from suburbia all look alike and he wouldn’t remember me at all.

I didn’t used to be like this.

My purse was in the front hall. In a wicker chair at the top of the stairs. They could have offered me the opportunity to take my purse along to jail, in which case, I could have gotten out my Amex gold card and paid my own bail, and somehow someone would have had to drive me home.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t part of the plan. It would have underlined the complete superfluousness of arresting me if Officer Friendly had had to turn around and drive me home at four a.m.

I don’t remember if the bail hearing was before or after Officer Friendly had his little chat with me about my right to remain silent. He has unorthodox ideas about Miranda rights, if you can call them ideas; Miranda rights don’t apply if a cop is up past his bedtime.

I attempted to invoke my right to remain silent by remaining silent.

Officer Friendly told me I had the right to remain silent, but if I remained silent, he said, he would find more things to charge me with and I would be very very very sorry.

I was scared.

I began to talk.

VI.

About three weeks after the home invasion, someone at his desk at work in the sheriff’s department began sending me harassing messages over the Internet, calling me a “drunken slut” and threatening to “expose” me. By their own account, Officer Friendly’s team had spent three hours “repeatedly searching” my house. They had complete access to its contents including medical records, financial records, computers . . . I took the threat seriously.

The problem with me is that I can find more trouble to get into in my own dining room . . .

I had to marvel at his misfortune. If you were going to harass someone from your computer in a government office in this county, I was about the last person you would want to pick on. It’s that relentlessness, that grinding obsessiveness, for which I get paid.

What kind of an . . . well, never mind. I’ve already met them. I know what kind.

At the gala last summer up at the golf course, the woman behind me talking loudly had been seeing a man she met on the Internet who, as it happens, was a freelance computer tech who did work for the county. (Stories that begin “I met him on the Internet” almost never end well.) He persuaded her to let him charge nonrefundable plane tickets for a romantic getaway on her credit card. And then he said he couldn’t go and she was stuck footing the bill. She said, “You know how he got me to trust him? You know how? He told me his password. He said, ‘My password is syzygy28. If I can trust you with that, you can trust me with anything.’” I wrote syzygy28 on a cocktail napkin and tucked it down the front of my evening gown.

When I got home I sat down at my keyboard the way a pianist sits down at a concert piano. The window was open, and I could hear the toads in the reed beds singing in four-part polyphony.

Syzygy28 wasn’t his password on the county admin account; it was the password to his main personal account. He had sixteen user IDs on ten dating sites; what dating sites do if you don’t visit every day is repeatedly email you your user ID and password. So I had a wide selection of passwords to try on the county system. His county password was cassan0va666, using a zero for the O. He has a whole network of accounts with all kinds of interesting stuff in them, enough that I can pour boiling oil on his parade for years and years.

I set up mail forwarding in all his accounts to dummy accounts so as to make it difficult for him to lock me out if he figured out he’d been hacked.

But that was unnecessary; he never did figure it out. I was tempted to warn off the women he was defrauding, but I know from experience that such women do not welcome helpful advice.

I need to tell you the story of the shower again, because I didn’t tell it right the first time. I tried hard to make that experience about me, but there is a way in which it is not about me at all, in fact quite the opposite. The shower during booking is a process engineered to remove identity. It is when they take your clothes and your jewelry. The opal necklace: It’s a rough-cut Queensland opal. When I was in Brisbane, I went opal shopping. The Queensland opals have this amazing spatial quality, like you could go inside and go for a long walk. They are almost more like places than gemstones. The ones that seemed to contain whole worlds, I couldn’t afford. The one I bought is like the door of a cave leading to magical blue and green; a portal to a hiding place that’s just up the path.

When instructed, I took off the necklace and handed it to the prison guard who was a blond kid barely out of high school. She was wearing rubber gloves.

She instructed me where I was to soap myself and how I was to wash my hair and never took her eyes off me.

The shower process is engineered as a psychological transition intended to create docility. A lot of the rest of the experience I describe involves a personal interaction between me and someone else or someone being capricious, but other than the possibly malicious timing, the shower was exactly what it is supposed to be. The extent to which I try to make the shower about messing up my mug shot, I am avoiding the impersonal nature of the system behind the shower procedure. The mug shot is not a school picture.

The most beautiful thing about the way the computer tech had set up the county system was it allowed for remote installation of software on all county equipment so that he could do his job without having to walk into the office. Installation could be done globally. On what drives would you like to install these keystroke loggers? Select ALL. We were in. My invasion had begun.

What I had achieved was invisible admin access to the county system and access to the State systems that had information about who held the leases on the privatized prisons and copies of the contracts. That was what I needed.

Even better, the system also talked to all the county cell phones for all county agencies. Not only did I give them all keystroke loggers, but I turned on GPS position logging. The phone directory identifies the phones being tracked, last name first. I color coded them by department, and set up an RSS feed to a KML; the KML tracks in real time every county employee’s cell phone on a map. With a slider bar, I can walk the map backward and forward in time.

I trained the network of intelligent agents to receive, process, and archive in the fungal cloud in the yard the incoming data from the keystroke loggers, which was already being displayed on one of my monitors in beautiful green spikes like blades of grass.

I also gave it an audio track hooked up to my speakers, keyed to the phones coded as belonging to the sheriff’s department, so I would be able to hear the approach of deputies and in particular I would be able to hear any sudden convergence of deputies in the area of my house.

Vernichtungswille: the desire to annihilate.

I connected all that to my machine’s security, such that if they kicked in my door—presuming I’d remembered to lock it—and came to take my machine, all trace of this operation would have fled into the yard before they were halfway up the stairs.

I wish I’d thought to track the state troopers, too

When I emerged from my trance, there was a devil mask in cut paper glued to the dishwasher. In the hallway, blue-and-green snowflakes decorated the walls. On closer inspection, they were cut from the phone bill that had come in the previous day’s mail. Luckily, the glue that the kids had used to attach them to the walls was rubber cement, so they peeled off easily.

A pizza had been acquired from next door and had been eaten, apparently some hours earlier. My purse was open and all the cash in my wallet had been removed and replaced with candy wrappers.

The kids were each at their own computers. My daughter was watching a DVD of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and was laughing as Harpo climbed into the lemonade. Benjamin was playing a computer game involving monkeys and was happy because he had just leveled up.

I checked the voicemail. Henry had left seven messages. Apparently, the kids had not felt it necessary to answer the phone.

The initial ecstasy when you come to own a computer system is followed by a hideous dropping away of the veil once you realize that no matter how radioactive the data, if you flash it around and can’t provide a legal provenance, then you are going to jail. Federal prison. This stuff now comes under the antiterrorism laws because these are government computers. And the trial would be secret, if there were a trial at all.

So you’re patient; you file Freedom of Information Act requests that the opposition may not feel they need to respond to. And you think that maybe they know what you’ve done and are just waiting and hoping that you have issues with impulse control.

VII.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people, people I don’t need to think much about. People getting what they deserve.

How do people come to deserve things? What do I deserve? What do you deserve? I deserve an ice cream. You deserve a spanking. She had it coming to her. And he deserves to disappear into a jail cell for a very long time.

If you’re arrested, you’re guilty.

Your moment of decision is at three a.m. when they open your bedroom door. Can you keep your cool?

What is most interesting about the prison privatization project is that it is failing. This world has no shortage of venues where you can suspend someone from the ceiling and beat the bottoms of their feet with a rubber hose and hook up a car battery . . . Despite our civil liberties being suspended here in the enterprise zone, our utopia is just not globally competitive in the atrocities market.

There are a few contracts. The purple block of the Public Safety Building is leased to a 501(c)(3) that promotes “Nordic rejuvenation”—sounds like Swedish massage . . . I’ve read the business plan.

So I’m in the New York State system, and I start seeing references to something called the bio-monitoring system. It’s being deployed for checking whether people have hunting licenses and it works twenty miles from the nearest road. The idea works like this: If you fire a gun, the system uses some kind of Internet to check whether there is a hunting license in proximity and tries to match the gun to a license. So if you fire the gun and lack a proper license, the Department of Environmental Conservation cops arrive, perhaps by helicopter, and you get a very expensive ticket plus their bill for transportation.

And prisoners are chipped: the chip is injected between the shoulder blades. If they escape, they can be tracked even if they hide in the forest. Ironically, the denser the forest, the better the bio-monitoring system works because of the density of the fungal mats in the ground, and because there are so many trees to act as antennas.

My water treatment plant is part of the bio-monitoring system. It’s an AI that functions as a major hub. My mail-order fungi had long since added themselves to its network when the flood waters briefly overflowed into the tanks. That’s where the unexplained traffic through my Internet connection was coming from. The network password is syzygy29.

Same consultant. Same security holes!

Our Cassan0va doesn’t know me, but he and I have had quite the relationship. Almost a partnership. One system administrator and his bad habits can take me a very long way. Further, I guess, than I really wanted to go. I got carried away.

Let’s be sensible. Let’s get back in touch with reality. Lock your doors at night. Wash the dishes before you go to bed. Consider your bedroom: How would you look to a cop, sprawled on the bed like that? Consider it from their point of view.

It’s not that I didn’t try other solutions. I talked to my elected representatives. I wrote letters. I filed complaints. I filed Freedom of Information requests. But at a certain point, you lose faith in reality as you knew it, sliding sideways to a place where police come into your bedroom with a gun in the middle of the night if they find a door to your house unlocked. They define an open door as a door it is possible to enter without kicking it down.

Be sensible. Think about it. Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The fundamental difference between police and criminals is that the police have rules they must abide by. If there are criminals in your bedroom you can report them to the police.

Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The answer to this riddle is that the cops are supposed to haul the robbers out of bed and leave me out of it.

Hacking the government, any government, just isn’t a very good idea. Just because I can enter a computer system doesn’t mean I should. Surely, there is another solution, something I could have done differently.

If the police come into your house in the middle of the night, you can report them. Don’t argue when they are in your house. Ask for an explanation of what is happening, but in a quiet, calm tone of voice. Phrase it, “I would like to understand what you are doing in my house.” Not, “What the hell are you are doing in my bedroom in the middle of the night?”

In the morning, drive over to the police station and speak to the sergeant. The cop will call you after a few days and explain himself. If you are calm and patient and understanding, he might even apologize, might even admit that he made a mistake, that they came into your house in the middle of the night with their guns drawn, but when they saw your beautiful little daughter asleep in her bed, they realized their error and put their guns away. Which is why they weren’t pointing guns at you when they woke you up.

You may have some legal rights, but you need to understand that when the cops are in your bedroom at three a.m., this isn’t the right time to articulate the fundamental principles of human rights. You may think you should be recording this surreal conversation, but don’t go for the mp3 recorder even if it is right there on your desk, because at three a.m. the police may think it’s a gun.

It’s probably a good thing that you don’t have a gun. If you have a gun in your nightstand in case of intruders, it might get you killed. Stop and think. Think of it from the cop’s point of view. The cops have come into your house expecting you will be angry, that you may freak out. They are just doing a job. Their job is to protect themselves while on the job. That’s why they had their guns drawn in the first place.

That’s all water under the bridge now. Once I was in, I couldn’t just walk away. I had to do something.

I don’t even own a gun. I have a gun phobia. I am not advocating violent revolution, though I understand that may be the consequence of what I have done. This is not a call to arms.

I did not abduct children and make them fight a war. I did not buy them from the revolutionary forces as so much military surplus. I did not import them to the US on the pretext of rehabilitating them. I did not hide them in a jail in the Adirondacks. I merely set them free. What would you do in my place?

Understand that these are children that I have liberated. The oldest of them is fifteen and they’ve been through some very bad stuff. They were bought as a batch by a private military contractor. The prison contract with the State of New York is in the name of a pharmaceutical company, and there is a budget line from somewhere else that appears to be military.

I couldn’t just leave them inside.

There are no little boys in your barn. The boys are all still inside. The child soldiers hiding in your barn are all girls, very damaged little girls.

I knew you’d want to help. I knew you’d want to help me.

I have been inexact if I’ve called this a police state. It’s not a state at all. The state, disempowered and defunded, has withered away. Withered and wilted, it has dropped its petals all over like blood on the ground. The police remain, but really, there is no longer any state. Only power that has a logic of its own and the apparatus of a state that is reanimated by power.

We can win this thing. We can win.

Are you detaining me? Or am I free to go?

“Am I Free to Go?” copyright © 2012 Kathryn Cramer

From Wikipedia:

Kathryn Elizabeth Cramer (April 16, 1962) is an American science fiction writer, editor, and literary critic.

 

When We Were Heroes by Daniel Abraham

George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards multi-author shared-world universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. Now, in addition to overseeing the ongoing publication of new Wild Cards books (like 2011’s Fort Freak), Martin is also commissioning and editing new Wild Cards stories for publication on Tor.com!

Daniel Abraham’s “When We Were Heroes” is an affecting examination of celebrity, privacy, and the different ways people deal with notoriety and fame—problems not made easier when what you’re famous for are superpowers that even you don’t fully understand.

 

Manhattan smells like rain. The last drops fall from the sky or else the rooftops, drifting down through the high air. With every step, her dress shoes throw out splashes from the thin, oily puddles. It’s ruining the leather, and she doesn’t care. Her fingers, wrapped around her smartphone, ache, and she wants to throw it, to feel the power flow through her arm, down out along the flat, fast trajectory, and then detonate like a hand grenade. She could do it. It’s her wild card power. She’s not in the outfit she uses at the exhibitions and fund-raisers. She doesn’t look like a hero now. She doesn’t feel like one.

The brownstone huddles between two larger buildings, and she stops, checking the address. The east side, north of Gramercy Park, but walking distance. She always forgets that he comes from money.

The steps leading to the vestibule are worn with time and dark green with the slime of decomposed leaves. An advertisement for a new season of American Hero covers the side of a bus with the soft-core come-ons of half a dozen young men and women. Sex sells. She walks up the steps and finds the apartment number.

Jonathan Tipton-Clarke, handwritten in fading green ink. When he’s being an ace, he calls himself Jonathan Hive. No one else does. Everyone calls him Bugsy. She stabs in the code on the intercom’s worn steel keypad.

For a moment, she thinks he’ll pretend he’s not there, and she wonders how far she’ll go. Rage and betrayal and embarrassment flow through her. Breaking down his door would be illegal. It would only make things worse.

But still . . .

“Hey, Kate,” Bugsy says from the intercom.

“Are you looking at me right now?”

“Yeah. I’ve got one on the wall. Just to your left.”

A tiny, acid-green wasp stares at her. Its black eyes are empty as a camera. Its wings shift, catching the morning light. Jonathan Hive, who can turn his body into a swarm of wasps. Jonathan Hive, who was there when they stopped the genocide in Egypt. Who fought the Radical in Paris and then again during the final battle in the Congo. Kate lifts her brows at the wasp, and Bugsy’s sigh comes from the intercom. The buzzer sounds resigned, the bolt clicks open. She pulls the door open, pauses, and flicks a tiny wad of pocket lint from between her fingers. It speeds to the wall and detonates like a firecracker. She can’t tell whether the wasp escaped.

His apartment is on the fourth floor and she takes the stairs three at a time. When she gets there, she’s not even winded. He’s waiting for her, the apartment door standing open. Hair wild from the pillow. Lichenous stubble. Bloodshot eyes. His bathrobe was white, is grey. Wasps shift under his skin they way they do when he’s nervous.

“Come on in. I’ll make you some coffee.”

She holds out her phone, and he takes it. The web browser is at the mobile site for Aces! magazine. In the image, she is standing on the street by a small park, kissing a man. His face is hard to make out. Hers is unmistakable. The headline is DANGEROUS CURVES.

Underneath it, the byline is his name. And then the first few lines of text:

There’s nothing more American than baseball, explosions, and first date hookups. Well lock up your sons, New York. Everyone’s sweetheart is on the town, and she’s looking for some man action!

“What the hell is this?” she asks.

“The end of a good night?” he says, and hands it back.

 

Twelve hours earlier, she’d stepped out of an off-off-Broadway theater onto the Sixth Avenue sidewalk. Traffic was stopped on Spring Street, and backed up for more than a block, the air filled with braying horns and the stink of exhaust. Clouds hung over the city so low, it seemed like someone on the Chrysler building could reach out a hand and scratch them. Above her, the marquee read Marat/Sade, black letters on glowing white, then underneath it, NYC’s Only All-Joker Cast! She paused on the sidewalk, her hands in the pockets of her jeans, cleared her throat. Outrage and disbelief warred in her mind, until she shook her head and started laughing.

“It’s always kind of a confrontational play,” a man’s voice said. She’d been aware of someone coming out to the street behind her, but hadn’t particularly taken notice of him. Middle twenties. Dark hair that looked good unruly. Friendly smile.

“Confrontational,” she said, laughing around the word.

“Not always that confrontational. This production was a little . . . yeah.”

Curveball pointed at the theater.

“Did I miss something,” she said, “or were they actually throwing shit at us?”

The man looked pained and amused at the same time.

“Cow pats. I think that technically makes it manure,” he said. “It’s always rough when you’re trying to out-Brecht Brecht.”

Tomorrow was her exhibition show, the last one on this leg of the tour. She’d been planning to go out with Ana as her local guide, but her friend had been called out of town on business at the last minute and wouldn’t be back until morning. Kate had decided to make it an adventure. Grab a cheap ticket from the same-day kiosk on Water Street, take herself out to dinner someplace, spend an evening on the town. She had enough money to splurge a little, and she wasn’t in Manhattan often enough anymore for it to seem normal. The title Marat/Sade had seemed interesting, probably because of the slash. She hadn’t known anything about it, going in. Then the lights had gone up, and things got weird fast. For instance, the Sade half was actually the Marquis de Sade.

And it was a musical.

“Was there a point to that?” Kate asked, leaning against the streetlamp.

“The cow pats in particular?”

Any of it?”

“Sure, if you look at the script,” he said. “Marat’s heading up the Terror after the French Revolution. De Sade’s . . . well, de Sade. They’re kind of the worst of political life and the worst of private life put together for comparison. I actually wrote a paper on Peter Weiss back in college.”

“And the shit flinging?”

“The deeper structural message can be lost, yes,” he said with a grin.

From down the block, a young black man in a sand-colored shirt waved.

“Tyler!”

The dark-haired man turned and held up a finger in a just-a-minute gesture. Tyler. His smile was all apology.

“I’ve got to go,” he said, and Curveball lifted a hand, half permission, half farewell. Tyler paused. She felt a moment’s tightness and the giddiness faded. She knew what came next. I’m a big fan. Can I get a picture with you? She’d say yes, because she always did because it was polite.

“Some of us are heading over to Myko’s for drinks and cheap souvlaki,” Tyler said. “If you want to come hang out, you’d be welcome.”

“Um.”

“They don’t throw manure. That I’ve noticed.”

Do you know who I am?slid to the back of her tongue and stopped there. He didn’t. Tyler’s friend called for him again.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

 

Bugsy’s apartment smells stale. She wants to make the scent into old laundry or unwashed dishes, but it isn’t that. It’s air that has been still for too long. The kitchen is in the uncomfortable place between dirty and clean. A radio in a back room is tuned to NPR. In the main room, there are piles of books on the coffee table. Murder mysteries, crossword puzzles. The DVD of a ten-year-old romantic comedy perches on the armrest of the couch, neither box nor sleeve in sight. He starts a coffee grinder, and the high whining of hard beans being ripped apart makes speech impossible for a few seconds. The silence rushes in.

“You’re working for Aces!,” she says, even though they both already know it.

“I am. Reporting to the public at large which of their heroes are going commando to the Emmys. Keeping the world safe for amateur celebrity gynecologists.”

“Does the Committee know?”

The coffee machine burbles and steams. Bugsy grins.

“You mean the Great and Glorious Committee to Save Everyone and Fix Everything? I kind of stepped back from that.”

There is a pause. Just like you did hangs in the air like an accusation, but he doesn’t push it.

“What happened?”

She means What happened to you? but he seems to take it as What happened to your job? Maybe they’re the same question. He pours coffee into a black mug with the gold-embossed logo of a bank on the side and hands it to her. She takes it by reflex.

“Well, there was this thing. It was about six months after we took out the Radical,” he says. “Lohengrin called me and a few other guys in for this sensitive Committee operation at this little pit outside Assab.”

“I don’t know where Assab is,” she says. The coffee warms her hands.

“So you get the general idea,” he says, leaning against the counter. His fingernails are dirty. She’s known him for years, but she can’t remember if it’s normal for him. “Idea was to get some kind of industrial base going. Fight poverty by getting someone a job. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of push back on that, but there was. So essentially what you’ve got is this textile plant out in the middle of the desert with maybe two hundred guys working there, and five aces set up to do security until the locals can figure out what a police force would look like. I was half of the surveillance team.”

“Was this the fire?” she asks.

He smiles, happy that she’s heard of it.

“It made the news a couple of times, yeah. No one much noticed. It happened the same week Senator Lorring got caught sending pictures of his dick to that guy in Idaho, so there were more important things going on.”

“I saw it,” she says. “Someone died.”

“Bunch of folks died, but most of them were African, so who gives a shit, right? The only reason we got a headline at all was Charlie. An ace goes down, that’s news. Nats kill him, even better.”

Her phone vibrates. She looks at it with a sense of dread, but the call is from Ana’s number. Relieved, she lets it drop to voice mail.

“They had us in this crappy little compound,” Bugsy says. “Seriously, this apartment? Way bigger. The place was all cinder blocks and avocado green carpet. Ass ugly, but we were only there for a couple months. Charlie was a nice kid. Post-colonial studies major from Berkeley, so thank God he was an ace or he’d never have gotten a job, right? Mostly, he hung around playing Xbox. He was all about hearing. Seriously, that guy could hear a wasp fart from a mile away.”

“Wasps fart?” she says, smiling despite herself. He always does this, hiding behind comedy and vulgarity. Usually, it works.

“If I drink too much beer. Or soda, really. Anything carbonated. Anyway, Charlie was my backup. My shift, I’d send out wasps, keep an eye on things. His, he’d sit outside with this straw cowboy hat down over his eyes and he’d listen. Anything interesting happened, and we’d send out the goon squad to take care of it. We had Snowblind and a couple of new guys. Stone Rockford and Bone Dancer.”

“Stone Rockford?”

“Yeah, well. Be gentle with the new kids, right? All the cool names are taken. Anyway, first three days, there were five attacks. Usually, they’d aim for right around shift change when there were a lot of guys going in or coming out. Then two and a half weeks of nothing. Just East African weather, energy from a generator, and a crappy Internet connection. We figured we had it made. Bad guys had been driven back by the aces, they’d just stay low and act casual until the police force was online and hope they were a softer target.

“I was the senior guy. Been there since the Committee got started. Since before. Charlie gave me a lot of shit about that. How I was all hooked in at the United Nations. Big mover and shaker. And, you know, I think I kind of believed it, right? I mean it’s not just anyone can go into Lohengrin’s office and steal his pens. I was out there making the world a better place. Doing something. Saving people. Boo-yah, and God bless.

“You know what they sent us to eat? Sausages and popcorn. We had like fifty cans of those little sausages that look like someone made fake baby fingers out of Silly Putty and about a case of microwave popcorn. I mean seriously, how are you going to strike a blow for freedom and right when you’re fueling up on popcorn and processed chicken lips, right?”

She drinks the coffee, surprised by how bad it is. Bright and bitter. She expects him to distract her from the picture of her kiss with the tragedy in Africa, so it surprises her when he’s the one to go back to it. Maybe he’s trying to distract her from what happened in Africa. Maybe he’s distracting himself.

“It’s not actionable,” he says, nodding to her phone. “You can ask any lawyer anywhere. You were in public. There’s no legal expectation of privacy.”

“Do you think that’s the point?”

He looks away, shrugs. “I’m just saying it was legal.”

She leans against the wall, unfinished red brick scratching her shoulder. She thinks of the cinder block in the compound and the exposed ductwork at Myko’s, the thick, muddy coffee she drank the night before and the one in her hand now.

“Were you following me?” she asks.

“You think? Of course I was following you.”

“Why?”

He almost laughs at her. It’s like she’s asking where the sun will rise tomorrow, if he’s breathing, whether summer is colder than winter. Anything self-evident.

“Because you’re in town. I mean the whole point is to get stories about aces. We’re public figures. Most weeks, I have to find something to say about the people who are in the city. There’s only so many issues in a row that the readers are going to care about whether Peregrine’s hit menopause. Someone new comes in, I’d be stupid not to check up, see if anything’s interesting. I was thinking I’d just write up the exhibition thing this afternoon. The fund-raiser. But this is way better.”

When the anger comes back, she notices it has died down a little. She tries not to think what Tyler will say about the article. How he’ll react. The fear and embarrassment throw gasoline on the fire.

“When I’m at work,” she says, forming each word separately, “you can come to work. This is my private life, and you stay out of it.”

“Wrong, friend. That’s not how it is,” Bugsy says. The sureness in his voice surprises her. “Everyone knows who we are. They look up to us or they hate us or whatever. You’re not doing these exhibition things because people just love seeing stuff blow up. They can blow stuff up without you any day of the week. They come to see you. They pay to see you. You don’t get to tell them they care about you one minute and not the next. It’s their pick whether they pay any attention to you at all, and you make your money asking them to. So don’t tell me that here’s your personal you and here’s your public you and that you get to make those rules. You don’t get to tell people what they think. You don’t even get to tell people whether they admire you.”

With every sentence, his finger jabs the air. The buzz in his voice sounds like a swarm. Tiny green bullets buzz around them both, curving though the air. His chin juts, inviting violence. She can see how it would happen: the toss of the mug, his body scattering into thousands of insects, the detonation. Her own anger reaches toward it, wants it. The only thing that holds her back is how badly he wants it too. He’s trying to change the subject.

She laughs. “Hey, Bugsy. You know what the sadist said to the masochist?” He blinks. His mouth twitches. He doesn’t rise to the bait, so she acts as if he had. She leans forward. “No,” she says.

“I don’t get it.”

“We’re aces, so everybody knows us. We don’t get to pick how they feel. We’re still talking about Charlie, aren’t we?”

 

Myko’s was a small place with a dozen tables smashed into enough space for half that number. Posters of Aegean-blue seas hung from the walls by scotch-taped corners. The walls were white up to the six-and-a-half-foot mark where the drop ceiling had been ripped out, exposed ductwork and wires above it. Crisp-skinned chicken and hot oregano thickened the air and made the wind picking up outside look pleasantly cool.

“I don’t know why the hell I let you talk me into these things,” Tyler’s friend said. She hadn’t asked his name, and hadn’t offered hers. The other two at the table were a Lebanese-looking woman named Salome and a joker guy in a tracksuit that they all called Boss. He wasn’t really that bad looking, for a joker. All the flesh was gone from one of his arms, and his skin was a labyrinthine knotwork of scars. He could almost have been just someone who’d survived a really horrific burn.

“Did I talk you into something?” Tyler said.

“You did say it was a cool play,” Boss said.

“It is a cool play,” Tyler said. “It’s just a lousy production.”

Everyone at the table except her and Tyler laughed, and his glance thanked her for her tacit support.

“You are the only person I know who’d make that distinction,” Salome said. “When you say ‘this is a cool play,’ I think you mean, ‘it would be cool to go to this play.’ What was that whole whipping him with her hair thing about?”

“They took that from the movie,” Tyler said.

“There’s a movie?” Tyler’s nameless friend said, his eyes going wide.

“Look, I understand that it’s kind of an assault on the senses,” Tyler said. “That’s part of the point. Weiss wanted to break through the usual barrier between the audience and the actors. Not just break the fourth wall, but burn it down and piss on the ashes.”

That sounds like the play I just watched,” Boss said.

The waiter swooped in on her left, piling the ruins of their dinner on one arm and unloading demitasses of dangerous-looking coffee and plain, bread-colored cookies from the other. His hip pressed against her shoulder in a way that would have been intimate in any other setting and didn’t mean anything here.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I can understand the idea of trying shake up people’s expectations, but then I sort of feel like you have to do something with them. Sure, the actors did stuff actors don’t usually do.”

“I think one of them went through my purse,” Salome said.

“But,” Kate went on, holding up her finger, “wait a minute. Then what? Is it just breaking barriers for the fun of breaking them? That seems dumb. If someone sneaks into my house, it breaks a bunch of usual barriers too. It’s what you do after that matters. If you keep on assaulting people after that, it’s almost normal.”

“At least it’s not unexpected,” the nameless friend said, nodding.

Boss laughed. “Now you get the actors to come home with me and paint my bathroom, then you’ll defy expectation.”

She sipped the coffee. It was thick as mud and honey-sweet. Something buzzed next to her ear. She waved her hand absently and it went away.

“I can see Carol’s point,” Tyler said, “but that gets back to the production choices.”

“Who’s Carol?” Tyler’s friend asked.

Tyler’s brow wrinkled and he nodded toward Kate. “Carol. You know. Siri’s roommate from Red House.”

The quiet that fell over the table was unmistakable.

“I don’t know anyone named Siri,” she said, smiling to pull the punch. “My name’s Kate.”

Tyler’s mouth went slack and a blush started crawling up his neck. Salome’s giggle sounded a little cruel.

“Well,” Tyler said. “That’s . . . um . . . Yeah.”

“I thought you were playing it awfully smooth,” Tyler’s friend said, and then to her, “My boy here isn’t a world renowned pick-up artist. I wondered what gave him the nerve to break the ice with you.”

“I’m sure Carol will be very flattered,” Kate said. “And for what it’s worth, I thought it was pretty smooth.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said, blushing. “I hadn’t actually meant it as a pick-up thing.”

“Or you would have cocked it up,” his friend said.

“Isn’t Carol the one with the big teeth?” Salome said. “She doesn’t look anything like her.”

“Carol’s teeth aren’t that big,” Boss said. “You just didn’t take to her.”

“Regardless,” Tyler said, turning to her, “Kate. I’m really glad you came with us, even if it was only to see me make a jackass out of myself in front of my friends.”

She waved the comment away. A gust of wind blew the door open a few inches, the smell of rain cutting through the air. Salome and Boss exchanged a glance she couldn’t parse. Dread bloomed in her belly.

“It’s just you looked really familiar,” he said, “and I thought—”

“I get that a lot,” she said, a little too quickly. The moment started to fishtail.

“I guess . . . I mean, I guess maybe we ran into each other around the city somewhere. Do you ever hang out at McLeod and Lange? Or—”

Boss’s laughter buzz-sawed. The joker shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Tyler. Of course she looks familiar. You’re hitting on Curveball.”

In the press and noise of the restaurant, the pause wasn’t silent or still, but it felt that way. She saw him see her, recognize her. Know. His face paled, and she lifted a hand, waving at him as if from a distance. The regret in her throat was like dropping something precious and watching it fall.

 

“Oh please,” he says. “I’m talking about anyone. Charlie. You. Me. Hell, I’m talking about Golden Boy. He’s been around so long, he’s lapped himself. He was saving America from evil, then he was a useless sonofabitch who ratted out his friends, then he was nobody, and now he’s so retro-cool he’s putting out an album of pop music covers. You think he had control over any of that? It just happens. It just . . .”

He shakes his head, but she isn’t convinced. She’s known him too long.

“You know all of us,” she says. “Michael. Ana. Wally. Not Drummer Boy and Earth Witch and Rustbelt. You know us.”

“Yeah, that’s part of why Aces! hired me on. You know, apart from the—” He makes a buzzing sound and shakes one of his hands, a fast vibration like an insect’s wing. “I know where all the bodies are buried. Or a lot of them, anyway. I know the stories.”

“You know the people.”

“For all the good it does,” he says, shrugging. “Lohengrin was pretty pissed off when I handed in my two weeks. Not that it was really two weeks. Two weeks at the UN is barely enough time to get a cup of coffee. Bureaucracy at its finest. Say what you will about the failings of tabloid journalism, it’s got a great response time.”

From the street, a siren wails and then a chorus of car horns rises. She has the visceral memory of being nine years old and listening to a flock of low-flying geese heading south for the winter. It’s a small memory she hasn’t told anyone about. It’s a thing of no particular significance. He drinks from his coffee cup. A bright green wasp crawls out of his skin, and then back in.

“Bugsy . . .” she says, and then, “Jonathan.”

He sits on his couch, pushing the books on the coffee table away with the heel of his foot.

“The glory days are gone anyway. The whole thing where a bunch of us see something wrong and we go fix it? Stop the genocide, save the world, like that? It’s over. Everything goes through channels now. Everyone answers to somebody. The Committee? Yeah, it’s a freaking committee. No joke. They don’t need me. People come in and out all the time. Join up for a mission or three, make some contacts, and go work for some multinational corporation’s internal security division for eight times the money. I’m not doing this whole thing for Aces! for the cash. I could get a hell of a lot more.”

“Labor of love?” she says. The sarcasm drips.

“Why not?” he says. “There are worse things to love. Your boy, for instance, seems nice. I mean in that clean-cut upwardly mobile nat-working-for-the-Man kind of way. The bazooka line was great, by the way. I thought that was really a good one.”

He’s goading her again, pushing her back toward her anger, and it works a little. She wonders for a moment how much the little green wasps have seen and heard. The sense of invasion is deep. Powerful. She’s embarrassed and insulted, and she imagines Tyler feeling the same way. If it were only her Bugsy’d held up for public judgment, it wouldn’t have been so bad. She wonders if Bugsy knows that.

He is soothing her and pricking at her, pushing her away and asking her in. He’s asking for help, she thinks. His bloodshot eyes meet hers and then turn away. He wants to tell her, and he doesn’t. He wants to have a fight so he can get out of a conflict. She’s not going to let him.

“That isn’t what happened to Charlie,” she says. “He didn’t get the job with a big corporation and get out.”

“No,” he says with a sigh. “That isn’t what happened.”

Watching his face change is fascinating. The smirk fades, the joking and the fear. The bad hair and the terrible stubble lose their clownish aspect. When he’s calm, he could almost be handsome. Despair looks good on him. Worse, it looks authentic.

“You were the senior guy,” she says, prompting him.

“I was the senior guy.” The words are slower. “I liked it. It wasn’t like having some kid in the crowd come up and ask for an autograph. This was Charlie. He was someone I knew. Someone I hung out with. I’d tell stories about the old days, and he’d actually listen. And he was a funny kid. He pulled his card when he was twelve. Got a fever and bled from the ears. His sister took him to the emergency room because their mom was working and they couldn’t get through to her. He thought he was going crazy. He was hearing people’s voices from half a mile away. He was hearing the blood in the nurse’s veins. By the time they figured out it was the wild card, there wasn’t anything for the doctors to do but shrug and move on. He was still walking around with these sound-killing earphones until he was seventeen. The way he talked about it, it seemed funny, but that stuff’s never funny at the time. Anyway, he went to college. Started getting seriously into the African experience, to the degree that you can do that from California. Dropped out of college, signed up to work for the Committee.”

She sips her coffee. She expects it to be cold, but it’s still warm enough. A man’s voice raised in complaint comes from down the hall, and she wonders whether they closed the apartment door. By reflex, she wants to go check, but she holds herself back. There’s something fragile in the moment that she doesn’t want to lose.

“Charlie just signed up?” she says, and Bugsy shrugs.

“He’s an ace, right? That’s what we’re looking for. The extraordinarily enabled set to achieve tasks that might otherwise be impossible. I got that from a press release. You like it?”

“Was your thing his first time out?” she asks, not letting him deflect her.

“No. He’d done something with tracking illegal water networks in Brazil. Listening for buried pipes. He talked about it some. The supervisor on that one was a nat, though. This was the first time he’d had other aces to work with. Those first few days when we were stopping the attacks? They were amazing. I mean, it was scary because there were guys with machine guns driving around in jeeps trying to kill the people we were there to protect, and if we screwed it up, bad things were going to happen. But we were winning. The textile plant kept running. The folks working there didn’t get killed. We were big damn heroes, and it was great.”

“Even with the lousy food.”

“Hell yes,” Busgy says. “Even with the lousy food. Even with the shitty Internet connection. We had three games on the Xbox, and a crappy little thirteen-inch screen to play them on. The beds were like the mats they give you at the airport when your flight’s cancelled and you’re going to be on the floor all night, and we were all so jazzed and happy, we didn’t even bitch about it. It was great. We were happy just to be there. And then it was quiet for a while.

“At first, we were still tense. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, right? And then after a couple weeks, we were all thinking that this was it. It was over. It was another month before the local police were going to take over, and we were all figuring that we were looking at another four weeks of sitting around doing nothing much. But I got sick. Not sick sick. Just stay-home-from-school stuff. Sore throat. Fever. Felt like I needed a nap every third minute. It sucked, but it wasn’t a big deal, and Charlie was up for covering me. Except he needed to sleep too sometimes. So I set up this plan. Sheer elegance in its simplicity. Charlie’d work his shift like usual. I’d do a half shift because I could stand that much, and then in the middle of the night when there wasn’t anything going on anyway, the other three—the goon squad, we called them—could head out to the plant and just keep an eye on things while I got a little extra shut-eye. A couple days of that, I’d get my feet back under me, and we’d go back to the usual thing. It wasn’t like there was anything happening anyhow.”

His gaze is fixed on nothing now, looking past her, though her. A wasp flies through the air, lands on the wall beside them, and folds tiny, iridescent wings. Its stinger curls in toward its own belly.

“No one pushed back,” he says. “We were all best buds by then. If Charlie’d been sick, we’d have covered for him. Or if one of the goon squad guys had come down with something, I’d have gone out in his place. I’m not bad in a fight, most of the time. It was just an obvious thing. Someone feels under the weather, you take on a little more. Something you do for your friends.”

“Sure,” she says.

“Sure.”

He swallows. There are no tears in his eyes, but she expects them so powerfully that for a moment she sees them anyway. He shakes his head.

“It was a textile plant,” he says. “They were making cheap T-shirts to sell in Europe. It gave a couple hundred African guys some folding money that they could spend in town. It put a little extra juice in the local economy. It’s not like we were going in there and burning down the churches or something. And the guys on the jeeps? The ones who didn’t like it? They didn’t even talk to us. All their preaching and outreach was in the city. We were just a part of the plant to them. There’s the building, and the guys that worked there, and the cloth going in and the shirts coming out, and then the aces that kept you from breaking all the rest of it. If they could have busted up the machines, they’d have done it and been just as happy. They didn’t even hate us. They hated something that we represented, and I don’t even have the framework to understand what it is.”

“Western imperialism,” she says.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I’ve got the whole damn thing wrong. For all I know, the guys in those jeeps were all born in Detroit. We were out there trying to do something good. They were trying to do something else. It was all about international trade and local autonomy and religion and nationalism. None of it was about what kind of people we were. Probably if we’d invited the bastards in, they’d have had a blast playing our video games, right? Sat around eating our nasty little sausages and shooting zombies.”

“But that’s not what happened.”

“No,” he says, and hunches forward. He sighs. “No, it isn’t. There was this one night, Charlie took his shift, put in his earplugs—he had these amazing industrial foam things that let him sleep—and hit the bunk. I spread out from just before sundown to almost midnight, then gathered back up, sucked down some Nyquil, and called it a night. The others headed out to the plant. Just like we planned.”

He lapses into silence, his eyes flickering back and forth like he’s reading letters in the empty air. She has known him for years. She’s wanted to like him more than she has. He doesn’t make it easy. She glances at her phone. The browser is up. DANGEROUS CURVES. She wonders whether feeling betrayed by him means that she does think of him as a friend. Or did, anyway.

“What happened?” she asks, annoyed with herself for the gentleness in her voice.

“It all went to hell.”

 

“Oh. My. God,” Salome said, laughter bubbling up with the words. “You really are, aren’t you? You’re Curveball?”

“I am,” she said.

Boss smiled at her, rolling his eyes like the two of them were in on a joke. He’d known it was her all along. It was these other rubes who hadn’t seen it. Tyler stared at the salt shaker and wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Did you really date Drummer Boy?” Salome asked, leaning her elbows against the table. There was a hunger in her expression that hadn’t been there earlier, like she was seeing Kate for the first time that evening.

“Not exactly.”

“What’s he like?” Salome asked.

Kate smiled the way she did at public events, the way she did when someone asked for an autograph or a picture.

“He’s just like he seems,” she said. It was the same answer she always gave, one of the stock phrases she always kept at the ready. Salome laughed, just they way people usually did.

All the conversation shifted to her, the play forgotten, the meal forgotten. What was she in New York for? She was doing an exhibition show tomorrow at the park in support of a fund that was building schools in developing nations. Did she get to New York often? A couple times a year, sometimes more. It depended on the situation. The questions were familiar territory. The diplomacies and evasions and jokes that she’d used at a hundred photo ops.

Boss kept needling Tyler for not having recognized her, and Tyler grew quieter and more distant. In the end, he was the one who called for the check, totaled up what everyone owed, and said his goodnights. The others seemed perfectly willing to let him go. He nodded to her when he stood, but didn’t keep eye contact. When he walked out the door, a cool draught of air slipped in past him, smelling of rain.

“Well, you know, when I pulled my wild card—” Boss said, one scarred and misshapen finger tracing the air.

“Actually,” Kate said, “could you just . . . I mean. Excuse me.”

The sidewalk was shoulder-to-shoulder full. A wide curve of cloud looped between the skyscrapers, the lights of the windows turning misty as it passed. She caught a glimpse of Tyler’s dark hair, stopped at the corner, heading north. She hopped down to the gutter and scooted along, the taxis whizzing by her, inches away. When she called his name, he turned. Chagrin paled his face.

“Hey,” she said. “I just wanted to say thanks. For letting me tag along.”

The light changed, and the press of bodies surged around them. He glanced at the white symbol of a man walking, then back to her. Someone bumped against his back.

“Always pleased to have a few more at the ritual humiliation,” he said. There was no bitterness in his humor and only a little sorrow. “It was really great to meet you. And coming along with us was something I’m sure my immediate circle of friends will be bringing up for the rest of my natural life in order to tease me. But it was really cool of you.”

“Yeah,” Kate said. Behind him, the signal changed to a series of red numbers, counting slowly down. The pedestrian traffic thinned for a moment. A truck lumbered around the corner. She pulled back her hair, anxious and embarrassed to be anxious.

The red numbers crept toward zero.

“Do you want to go get a drink?” she said, rushing the words a little. “Or something?”

“You don’t have to do that,” Tyler said. “I mean, thank you, that’s really cool, but I’ll be just fine. I’m just going to head home and bury my head under a pillow for a couple days and resume my normal life as if I hadn’t made an idiot of myself. You don’t need to try and . . . You just don’t need to.”

“Oh. Okay, then. All right,” she said, nodding. She felt like someone had punched her sternum. And then, “But do you want to go get a drink or something?”

His smile was pretty, gentle and amused and melancholy. He had the kind of smile men got after the world bruised them a few times. The light changed, the flow of traffic shifted, pushing her a half step closer to him.

“I’m not that guy,” he said. “You hang out with aces and rock stars and politicians. I hang out with Boss and Salome. I’m nobody, you know? I’m just this nat guy trying to make rent in Brooklyn Heights and commuting into the city. You’re Curveball.”

“Kate, actually,” she said. “My name’s Kate. And I’m not whatever you think I am just because I’m an ace.”

An older black man with grey temples looked over at her, eyebrows raised, but he didn’t pause or try to ask for an autograph.

“But—” Tyler began.

“I’m Kate. My father’s Barney. My mother’s Elizabeth. I read Heinlein when I was a kid and stayed up late so I could watch Twin Peaks even though it gave me nightmares and I didn’t understand half of it. And I’m wandering around New York by myself because all my friends were busy, and I met this guy I kind of like, only I think he may be blowing me off,” she said, watching his eyebrows hoist themselves toward his hairline. “Drawing an ace isn’t that impressive. It’s just something that happens to people.”

“I just—”

“I don’t do anything that anybody else couldn’t do,” she said, and then a beat later, “I mean, if you gave them a bazooka.”

He laughed, and the sound untied something in her throat. He shook his head just as a wide, fat drop of rain patted onto the cement at their feet.

“Well, when you put it like that,” he said.

“What do you do? Your day job.”

He raised his hands in something like surrender.

“I work at a tech start-up that’s using social media to address inefficiencies in medical laboratory tests,” he said. “Honest to God.”

“Really?” she said. The light changed again. An insect buzzed past her ear. A police siren rose up somewhere not too far away. “I would have guessed something about theater.”

“I was a theater major when I was in college, but it didn’t end well.”

“No?”

“No,” he said, ruefully. “I got in a fight with my advisor. A real fight. He hit me.”

“Sounds serious,” she said, smiling. “What were you fighting about?”

“Tennessee Williams. We had different interpretations of The Glass Menagerie.”

“Is that the ‘always relied on the kindness of strangers’ one?”

“No, that’s A Streetcar Named Desire,” he said, and the rain began like someone turning on a faucet. Hard, wide drops falling through the air. Thunder muttered, even though she hadn’t seen any lightning. Tyler grinned. “Why don’t we go someplace dry. I’ll tell you the whole story.”

 

“We didn’t hear them coming,” Bugsy says. “I was sick and drugged. Charlie was asleep. It was the middle of the night, and we were complacent. Who in their right minds attacks a compound of aces, right? We’re the guys who can shoot laser beams out of our fingers or lift tanks or whatever. If you come at us, it’s with a bomb or something. Something fast. You don’t get a bunch of kids on bicycles with bottles of gasoline. C’mon. Fucking gasoline?”

He looks up at her, a goofy smile stretching his lips, false as a mask. A wasp crawls out of his tangle of hair and buzzes away. He shakes his head, looks down. She can tell that he wants her to say something, to divert the words spilling out of his mouth before the pebbles turn into a landslide, but it’s too late. He fidgets with the puzzle book on the coffee table. When he speaks again, the reluctance in his voice hurts to hear.

“You figure it all out later, right? I mean, we’ve got the tracks, and it was all little mountain bike snake trails. And the plastic jugs. They were like milk jugs. They poured it all around the outside of the building. And you know what’s weird? I can absolutely see them doing it. I mean, I can see them leaning their bikes against the wall. I can hear the gas making that glurp-glurp sound it does when you’re pouring everything out of one of them. I can smell it. I can smell the fumes coming off it even before they light the damn stuff. I was asleep. I didn’t see any of it, but I remember it just like I was there.

“First real thing I knew, Charlie was shaking me awake. He was wearing a Joker Plague t-shirt. How’s that for insult to injury? He was shaking me awake and telling me there was a fire and we had to get out, and Drummer Boy was on his chest looking like some kind of rock-and-roll god. It took me a little while to figure out what he was talking about, and then we were running around the compound—and it was like ten steps any direction, the place was that small. Everything outside was burning. It was like they’d dropped us in hell while we were sleeping. We closed the windows, and I tried to use the cell phone. I got through to the goon squad even, but the fire was so loud we almost couldn’t hear each other. Charlie was dancing around like a kid who needs to pee. I told them what was going on, but they were six miles away. They came as fast as they could.”

He rubs his fingers together, the roughness of his fingerprints sounding like the hiss of a book’s pages turning. A wasp appears in his fingers, conjured from his flesh. He looks at it like Hamlet staring at Yorick’s skull.

“They’re small,” he says, holding the insect out to her. Exhibit A. “When I bug out, really all the way out, I’ve got all this surface area. Can’t thermoregulate for shit. Get cold fast. Or I cook off. Seriously, too much heat, and I’m like popcorn.”

“You took off,” she says. “You left him.”

“I stayed as long as I could,” he says. “I couldn’t get him out. I couldn’t lift him. The fire was baking the place, and I had to go. I knew I had to go, but I couldn’t just leave him.”

“Except you did.”

“Except I did. Went out through the vent over the oven. Lost six percent of my body mass to bugs dying in the fire, and I just got out and flew straight up until I hit cold air. They were gone by then. The guys on the bikes? They were gone. I saw the goon squad’s jeeps booking it for the compound. I thought maybe they’d make it in time. Maybe they’d get him out.”

Busgy sighs.

“He didn’t burn,” he says. “The fire ate up all the oxygen, and he asphyxiated. They found him curled up on that nasty-ass little couch like he was asleep. He had a cover over him. He was in the middle of a fire, and he went and got a blanket? Why would you do that? What’s that even about?”

He takes a huge breath, lets it flow out from between his teeth.

“The attack was a diversion,” she says.

“You think? They had a second team ready. Torched the factory. Burned it to the foundations. Shot about a dozen maintenance guys. Huge embarrassment for the United Nations. Maybe half a billion in hard capital and trade agreements. Lohengrin had to give me a letter of formal reprimand. You could see it killed him to do it, but the secretary-general needed to blame someone, and they picked me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“It’s all right. I had it coming.”

He stands. The floor creaks as he walks across it to the window. The insects in the room are silent, then one buzzes for a moment, like someone in the next room clearing their throat. The siren is gone. The car horns mutter at the low, constant mutter of the city.

“You know how many kids are living on the street in New York?” Bugsy asks. “Want to guess? Sixteen thousand. Just in New York City, center of the civilized world. And I can’t fix that. You know the climate’s changing, right? The Arctic’s melting, and it turns out there’s this freaking plume of methane coming up out of all the melting permafrost. I can’t fix it. There are a bunch of parents out there who aren’t getting their kids immunized because they’d rather watch little Timmy die of polio than do a little basic research. Can’t fix them. Most of Africa is hosed beyond belief, but what’re you gonna do, right?”

“We have to try.”

“Do we? I mean do we have to? You remember American Hero? That first season? Bunch of young aces trying to out macho one another. King Cobalt, dead. Simoon, dead a couple of times. Gardener, dead. Hardhat. We were trying to make the world better, and it killed us. You were one of the first ones to bail on the Committee, you know? And I think you were right.”

“I just needed some time off,” she says.

“Yeah, well,” he says. “Don’t go back.”

She doesn’t know how to reply. The anger is gone, and there’s a sense of shame. And sorrow. Maybe he means there to be, but it doesn’t matter. He walks back across the room, disappears into his bedroom, and reemerges with a tablet computer in his hand. On the screen, a dozen thumbnail photographs glow. They are all of her and Tyler. In one, they are going into the little neon-lit bar. In another, they’re coming out of it, huddling together under the cheap black umbrella they bought from a street vendor. His arm is around her shoulders. One of them is Tyler hailing a taxi. One is the kiss. She takes the tablet from him. She’s still angry, but without the headlines, without the joke about her ace nickname and the gossip column banter, it’s kind of a pretty picture. A man and a woman, kissing. If it were something private, it could be beautiful.

“I want to care about something that doesn’t matter,” Bugsy says. “I want to tell the word about which movie star got drunk with which ace. I want to debate whether American Hero should have another season and laugh about who had a wardrobe malfunction when they were meeting the president. I want to care about things I don’t care about.”

“Like me?” she asks, handing back the tablet.

He takes it. Looks at the pictures.

“Yeah, like you. Your love life, anyway,” he says, gently. He raises the tablet. He lifts his arms out, fingers reaching for the walls. He looks like a mocking image of Christ, crucified on the air.

“I’m done saving the world. I tried. It didn’t work. Now I want to live a small, petty life doing things I’m good at where if it goes south, no one dies.”

She crosses her arms. She isn’t sure whether the thickness in her throat is contempt or grief.

“No one’s going to stop you,” she says.

“It was nice, watching you. I mean not in a stalkery creepy number-one-fan kind of way. Just you and your boy out together. It was nice. It was . . .”

“It was?”

“It’s what’s supposed to balance out the shit, right? I don’t mean to get all ooey-gooey, but it’s the beginning of love. Or it could be, if you don’t screw it up. That’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to make all the sacrifices worthwhile. Make the world worth living in.”

He chuckles, and there’s amusement in the sound, but also disappointment. Bugsy had wanted something from her—forgiveness, maybe, or courage—and she doesn’t have it to give. He considers the tablet and taps at the picture.

“It probably doesn’t matter to you,” he says, “but I had them run the one where you can’t see his face.”

The worst of the storm passed while they were in the bar, but there was still enough rain to justify standing close to each other under the umbrella. Kate felt warm and a little freer than usual, but not tipsy. Tyler’s cheeks looked redder than when they’d started. Behind them, a small park sat, not even a half block deep, with skyscrapers on all sides, rising up into the clouds. The rain that still fell was cold, but soft. Across the street, the hotel rose up like a wonder of the world, the golden light from the lobby spilling out onto the wet, black street. Taxis whizzed by, throwing off spray. Men and women hurried by in black raincoats. Kate looked at the little green niche and thought how incredibly improbable it was to have a small bit of grass and ivy in all this concrete and asphalt.

When she turned, Tyler was looking at her. He had the look in his eyes—regret and hope and the small, unmistakable glimmer of a masculine animal. It was the end of the night. Neither of them wanted it to be, but the evening had a shape, and this was where that curve met the earth.

“I know you told me not to,” he said, “but really, thank you for not letting me go back to the apartment with my tail between my legs.”

“It wasn’t charity,” she said, laughing. “I had a good time. I don’t actually meet new people very much.”

“I’d never really considered the problem, but I can see how it would be difficult separating the Kate from the Curveball. I guess that’s why some aces have secret identities. Just so they can go get some groceries or hang out at the bar.”

“That’s part of it,” she said, pushing her hair back from her face. “Or to have room to be who they are. Not spend their whole lives filling the roles that people expect of them.”

“That’s not just aces, though. That’s the whole world.”

They were talking without saying anything, each syllable another tacit, doomed wish that the moment not end. Another taxi sped by, the black sludge spattering against the curb. A squirrel loped across the grass and took up a perch on the back of a green metal park bench. Everything smelled of fresh rain and car exhaust.

“So I should probably go,” he said. “I’m supposed to go into the office tomorrow, and they like me to show up on time.”

“Yeah,” she said. “And I’ve got the exhibition show. Be better if I went in rested.”

“Yeah.”

The rain tapped the sidewalk by their feet.

“It was really great meeting you, Kate. I’m glad I totally didn’t recognize you.”

“I’m glad you totally didn’t recognize me too,” she said.

“Do you want to keep the umbrella?”

“I’m just going across the street.”

“Right. Right.”

He squared his shoulders, steeled himself.

“If you’re going to be in town for a while,” he said, “I’d . . . Boy this is harder than it should be. I’d like to do this again.”

“You’re asking me out,” she said.

“I am. On a date. Because that’s just the kind of mad, reckless, carefree guy I am.”

“I’d love to,” she said.

“Oh, thank God,” he said. “I feel much better now.”

The squirrel jumped away into the darkness. They didn’t speak. They didn’t move.

“If this were a normal evening,” he said, “out with a normal girl, this would be the time that I kissed her.”

“It would,” she said.

He lowered the umbrella. His lips were warmer than she’d expected.

She walks over to the window, looking out at the city. Dread and embarrassment tap against her ribs like wasps against a windowpane, but not rage. The rage is gone. Manhattan is damp and shining as a river stone. The city is a symbol of the greatest powers of the world and of its darkness. The aces were born here, and the jokers. Shakespeare in the Park, and the terrible production of Marat/Sade. It is the city at the heart of the American century, and the target of all the tribes and nations that resent it. And what is it, really, but a few million private lives rubbing shoulders? For a second, the view through the glass shifts like an optical illusion, great unified city becoming a massive chaos of individuals and then flipping back as fast as a vase becoming faces.

She opens the window. A cool breeze stirs the air.

“We’re done, Bugsy,” she says. “This doesn’t happen again.”

“Of course it does,” he says. “You’re a public figure. You’re an ace. If it isn’t me, then—”

“It’s never you. And you never do it to him.”

“Tyler, you mean?”

“Tyler, I mean.”

He runs his hands through his hair. The cool air drives the free wasps back into him. She didn’t realize until now how much larger they make him. As they crawl back under his skin, he literally gets larger, but also seems to shrink.

“It was all legal. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says petulantly. She doesn’t answer. He nods. “All right, but the boss won’t like it. If it’s not okay with you, pretty soon it won’t be okay with anyone, and then I’m out of a job.”

“You’ll find a way,” she says.

“Always do.”

Her phone buzzes again. Ana’s number. She ignores it. On her way past the couch, she puts her hand on his shoulder.

“Get some rest,” she says.

“Will. Don’t fuck it up, okay?”

In the street, she turns north, walking in the shadow of the buildings. A block down, a coffee shop presses out, white plastic tables and chairs impinging on the sidewalk. The closest they have to real brewed coffee is called a double americano, so she gets that. Her shoes are still wet from last night and this morning. She looks at the two messages from Ana, her friend. She wants to call back, but when she does, she’ll have to tell the story of what happened, and she still doesn’t know the end.

A taxi carries her back to the hotel. The exhibition is in five hours. She needs to be in prep in three. The hotel waits for her. The world does. She crosses four lanes of Manhattan traffic to get back to the little park. In the light, it looks smaller than it did at night. She sits on the green bench and takes out her phone, starts writing a text message, then deletes it and actually calls. He answers on the second ring.

“Hey,” Tyler says.

“Hey.”

“Did you know we’re on the Aces! website?”

She leans forward. She’s less than ten feet from where they kissed. She’s on a different world.

“Yeah, I just got finished kicking the reporter’s ass,” she says.

“I’m just glad he didn’t write it as a review,” he says. “It’s a little disconcerting to see my private life in the news.”

“It’s probably not the last time it’ll happen,” she says. If it’s too hard, I understand waits at the back of her throat, but the words won’t come out.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, Tyler groans. She’s faced armies. She’s had people with guns trying to kill her. This little sound from a distant throat scares her.

“Well,” he says, “this is going to take a little getting used to.”

“We’re still on, though?”

She’s afraid he’ll say no. She’s more afraid he’ll say Are you kidding? This is great. Across the street, the hotel staff is telling a beggar to move on. She can see into the lobby, where a television is tuned to a news channel, footage of fire and running bodies. She closes her eyes.

“I am if you are,” he says. “And . . . you are, right?”

“Like the world depends on it,” she says.

From Wikipedia:

Daniel James Abraham (born November 1969) is a prolific American science fiction / fantasy author who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. His collaboration with Ty Franck under the name James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, is nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.His novelette Flat Diane was nominated for the Nebula Award. His novelette The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award.

Abraham is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop 1998, and sometimes collaborates with George R. R. Martin, another New Mexico resident.