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Friday, November 30, 2012

Diplomatic Relations

The truth about our marriage is not pretty. Hamilton took a lover after our second child was born. When I got my figure back, I initiated an affair with the Brazilian attaché and a year later dropped him for the second-chair violinist in our city symphony.  (He looked marvelous in tails and black tie.)
 And what quick strong fingers he had. They never tired.

Then Hamilton was transferred to Bogota and I dragged the children along behind him, but I resented every hour of our miserable three years there.

You might think the world of embassies and international relations is glamorous. Well, it’s not. It is a world of petty bickering, social climbing, secrets and second-rate wines poured from cut-glass decanters to make them sparkle like Grand Cru.
One is expected to make small talk, night after night, at dinner parties where one is seated next to flatulent perspiring foreigners who slide their hands below table to squeeze one’s thighs.
As if!

After Bogota, Ham was asked to take a small role in making friends with an Iranian business conglomerate, and so we were sent to Tehran. There, at least, one could eat well and shop with abandon. I spent many happy days in the rug bazaars in the company of an eager young translator with lovely muscled shoulders. Some afternoons, he would take me to drink tea in small cafes far from American eyes. We found a room – no more than four walls and a cot – and pleasured each other for hours under a slow-turning fan.

Then one morning, Hamilton called me to the breakfast room and asked for a divorce.
“Here? In Iran? Are you crazy?” I asked.
“You’ve been unfaithful,” was all he said.
“But I could be punished for adultery with stoning or imprisonment!” I said, panic rising.
“Then go back to America and we’ll get around to it later, in a year or two when my work is done here.”
“What about the children?” I asked.
“They will stay with me and continue here in school. I want them to learn Farsi and Arabic, It’s a changing world.”

I wasn’t ready to give up without a fight. “You’ve been unfaithful too, and I can name them all, your mistresses and whores!” I shouted.
“Not for YEARS! Not since my hiatus hernia operation,” he snarled. Hamilton snarled well, I’ll give him that. It was one of his successful negotiating tricks at world trade conferences. But I was having none of that.
“Please pour me a drink,” I said, adding quickly “but not the embassy wine.”

How, I wondered,  does one end a marriage? It’s not as if there are classes one can take to prepare for exigencies like these. 
Ham poured me a drink – Bombay gin and limes – and we sat civilly and listened to parrots chattering in the plum trees above our terrace. 
“The buggers will have eaten all the fruit before cook gets his lazy bum out there with a basket,” Ham murmured.

I picked up a basket then, smiled at him conspiratorially, and dashed out to the garden to rescue what plums were left. Each one, pinkish-purple and soft, felt like a testicle in my hands. When I had picked a bowlful I went back inside, hoping to flirt with Ham about the resemblance to his own testicles. Instead, I found him weeping in his wing chair by the window.
“We’ve bollixed everything up, haven’t we?” he said. “It’s a bridge too far.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I sensed that he was on the cusp of reconciliation. I mean, weeping with remorse is better than open-mouthed shouting, isn’t it?

I maneuvered myself onto his lap and fed him bites of plums and made fingertip circles at the edges of his hairline (something the violinist had taught me).
“Darling,” I reminded him, “there are worse things than marriage to a slightly unfaithful spouse.”
“Like what?”
“Like being stuck with a bore. Or a wife who corrects you in public.”
“True,” he said. “True. We could be the Marchioness and Duchess of Lichtenstein who have two teeth between them and those dreadful Pomeranians.”
I could have corrected him and said Pekingese, but why spoil the moment?
We had reached détente, which is a term used in the diplomatic corps to mean both sides are fucking exhausted and ready to agree to anything just to get out of the conference room and away from their opponent.

So, as I said, our marriage isn’t pretty, but we are staying together. I have my reasons, not the least of which is that a birdie told me Hamilton’s next posting will be in Manhattan at the United Nations. It will be spectacular all around with never, ever a dull moment.

In the end, I think the secret to a good marriage in the diplomatic corps all boils down to staying busy.
I’ve already arranged for season tickets at The Met, some quality spa time at Elizabeth Arden, and fittings at Prada. I am positively sure I won’t so much as LOOK at another man, I’ll be so fulfilled.
In fact, we are embarking on a whole new chapter. Those lovely Persian rugs from the bazaar will go down in the new apartment. I fully intend to show Hamilton the delights of soft Oriental carpeting and a delicious new position I learned not long ago.
It involves a silk scarf, a leather strap and some aromatic herbs.
I wish I could remember its name in Farsi. Roughly translated it means ' reaching your hoped-for destination.' 
Appropriate, wouldn't you say?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Day After Falling in Love

The day after falling in love,
I became unmoored from everything familiar.
This chair, that piece of curtain, all suddenly turned brilliant
And I floated off, as light as a photon.
You stayed behind to guard the perimeters of
our marriage, to summarize the situation when
onlookers stopped to gawk.
"Nothing to see here, folks. Move along," you said
in your crossing guard's voice, the one you used
whenever I was a day late or a dollar short of your estimates.
"It happens every few years. She's just that way," you said,
and the neighbors shuffled off, looking doubtful.
In my altered state, I had no need of food or a clean bathroom,
but I was beset with hiccups and filled with poetry.
Eventually, weeks later, I regained my corporeal form,
which was subject to the usual rules of gravity.
Thus I fell to earth like Icarus, aflame with passion
 and disappointment in my too-short flight.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Day a Naked Man Walked Into the First United Methodist

He didn't streak the congregation or call attention to himself in any lewd or scary way. He just slipped in the back of the chapel and took a seat  in the last pew, by the aisle.
At that moment, we all happened to have our heads bowed and (most of) our eyes closed in prayer for the healing of  Teeny's uncle Wade who'd fallen out of his bass boat within snacking range of a gator. As soon as we said 'Amen,'  Preacher Terrell told us all to stand up for the singing of Hymn 44, "He walked on the water."
Teeny leaned over and said, "Too bad uncle Wade didn't try that."
Her Momma cuffed her one and Teeny picked up her hymnal.
The church organ had just sounded the opening chord when a  whole bunch of screaming started at the back of the chapel.
"God have mercy!" hollered Louise Ann Fluker.
"Well, Amen!" we answered, thinking that the spirit had taken her.
Her sister, Mattie, was more specific.
"Help! They's a nekkid man in the church!"
Preacher Terrell nearly knocked over his lectern racing to the edge of the stage.
"He's a-right cheer," Mattie yelled blue murder. "I can see his PECKER!"
Oh, boy, me and Teeny wanted to scamper down the aisle something awful. We were both having our best church day ever. Someone had said the word 'pecker' in the First United Methodist!
The naked man stayed standing, unfazed by the two stout, large-hatted women hollering in his face. He looked calm, almost sweet, even.  And then, in the middle of all the brouhaha, he began singing the slow, gospel song.
"Walk on the water, walk on the water children.
Walk on the water, Jesus done walked on the water."
For about ten seconds, everyone shut up. The naked man went on singing. Meanwhile, four churchmen were hustling toward him, bent on rescuing the Fluker sisters from the trauma of naked buttocks and genitals.
The first man to get there removed his jacket and tied it around the naked man's waist by the sleeves, rendering him somewhat less naked.
The remaining three crowded into the pew and started ushering him towards the door. Preacher Terrell mostly just stood there, patting the air in a downward calming motion. The organist struck the opening notes of Hymn 44 again, but no one was in the mood to sing.
"Who was that?"
"What was he doing here?"
"Did you see him come in?"
"Let's send the children downstairs to the social hall in case he comes back."
Five minutes later, me and Teeny and the Cortez twins and Billy Lapham and three of the Davies girls were herded downstairs to the social hall where the after-service cakes and iced tea were laid out.
We divided up all the cakes equally among us, because kids are fair that way, and ate as fast as we could until we heard engines starting and tires crunching gravel out in the parking lot. The adults would be downstairs any minute.
 Billy Lapham left a note on the refreshments table saying "The naked man ate everything," and we ran for our lives.
(The naked man was not heard from again, although, as Teeny pointed out, "He could be amongst us now. Nobody ever gonna recall his face cuz that's the only part of him no one looked at." )

Friday, April 13, 2012

Grand Theft Auto

She was widowed, though not recently, has grown children (one of each) and granddaughters (but no grandson, yet). She has pollen allergies; her son bought his home in Conyers, Georgia, (three bedrooms two baths, a small dining room but a nice kitchen) for only $35,000  -- or was it $38,000?
All this and more she tells me in a stream of pleasant Southern drawl and Marlboro Light smoke outside the Madison Car Wash. She is hoping her daughter will produce a boy, but soon, "because she's 30 and it wouldn't do to wait much longer -- birth defects, you know."
I sit like a stone with ears. The woman seems determined to tell me -- an imperfect stranger -- every detail of her life, from medical history to the color of her sofa cushions. She proceeds to explain that she is having her car washed because she is going to Georgia to visit her children for a nice long stay.
How foolish can one grown-up be, I wonder. I could be anybody. I could be a burglar. With no effort at all, were I so inclined, I could ask her address and she'd tell me.
The Car Wash is short of help and our cars are taking twice as long as normal. Just as I start to  tune her out, she brings me back to full attention.
"...and my husband bought a Buick Grand National."
"Ah ..did you say Grand National?"
"Yes. After he passed, my son took it over."
"So, your son, who lives in Conyers, has a.." I'm squeaking pitifully, "a Buick Grand National?"
"Oh yes, it's his baby. He let it get stolen from an AT&T parking lot, though."
I am about to say 'what a moron to park a BGN without putting The Club on the steering wheel and Lo-Jac on the car' when she continues.
"They found it," she says, "and it was in the process of being stripped, but the robbers hadn't gotten to the engine yet. My son has restored it piece by piece until he got it perfect."
I forgive her, after that. I forgive this foolish overtalker of a woman for boring me witless because, for a shining moment, I am one degree of separation from the last truly great limited edition American muscle car. It was manufactured in 1982 and then 1984 to mid-1987 in small numbers. General Motors stopped production but not before every car reviewer in 50 states ran out of adjectives. One writer called it "a brick shithouse made from Waterford crystal."
Back in 1986, a brash and speed-addled writer named P.J. O'Rourke test drove the BGN for an article in the April issue of AUTOMOBILE magazine. He took the car out into the middle of Nowhere, Mexico, and drove it at top speed, off-road for a day and a night. I am talking badlands, y'all. I am talking strut-breaking, axle-wrecking, wheel-bending, paint-peeling conditions and balls-to-the-wall, testosterone-drunk driving.
The Buick Grand National never flinched. It took the punishment and said, 'Thanks, Boss.' Back in the garage, the mechanics could find no damage to the test car, although a number of armadillos were heat-seared to its exhaust pipes.
And so, as I watched my new friend tip the car wash guys and slide into her everyday Honda, I rushed to her window and said, "Please tell your son you met a lady at the car wash who respects him for fixing up his BGN."
She chirped, "Oh, would you like to meet him? I can give you his number!"
For a split second, I almost said yes. But then, realizing all too well what the penalty is for grand theft auto, I just said, "I better not."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tom Cruise's Bunker

I heard that Tom Cruise built a $10 million underground bunker by his Telluride home. His intent was to protect his family when the Dark Galactic Overlord Xenu comes down to Earth. I have no clue whether this is true (the bunker, not Xenu). But let's just say for a moment that Mr. Cruise spent six months of Alabama's education budget on a bunker because the Church of Scientology told him that an enemy is going to attack our planet. I think he got ripped off. I know a dozen ol’ boys who could have have fixed him up with a state-of-the-art, below-ground bunker, including cable TV, for a couple grand. We who live in tornado alley know our shelters. Now, in my own world view, the possibility of a galactic invasion seems pretty low; the probability factor is less than the IQ of your average member of our Legislature before his morning coffee. Also, I tend to think that astronauts, the Hubble Telescope and unmanned space probes would have informed us by now if Xenu had so much as a canoe headed this way. So it puzzles me that John Travolta, Kirstie Ally and Cruise -- who appear fairly smart -- would think otherwise. On the other hand, what if the writings of L.Ron. Hubbard and the new director of The Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, have the right idea, but they got the details wrong. The end times may well be at hand due to the fact that Pakistan and North Korea have nukes. Oh, and Iran. I have also heard a rumor that the South is where the Final Armageddon will start because we (meaning Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina) have banished prayer from our schools when we knew better. Allegedly, prayer banishment was to be expected in the North but not in the deep South. I can't afford a bunker like Tom and Katie's rumored hideout, with its high-tech air purifying system. So I guess I'll go out with the rest of the regular folks --unless Xenu or Kim Jong Il or whoever spares me because I have this secret code message that I bought from the back of a Betty and Veronica comic book in the 1950s, along with a Super Valu-Pak from the Garcelon Stamp Company. What? You think it won't work against Xenu? Who are you to say what will or won't protect me when the Dark Galactic Overlord lowers his landing wheels?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Things Unsaid

"Hannah, honey, hand me my lap robe would you, and roll me out to the veranda?"
My name is not Hannah, and there is no veranda where Mrs. Jackson lives, now. But I oblige her with a bath towel across her knees and turn her wheelchair to face out her second story window. While her back is turned to the room, I make her bed, tidy her belongings and disinfect the surfaces she touched overnight after episodes of incontinence.
"The lilacs must be blooming, Hannah. I can smell them!" she exclaims. I do not tell her it's the floral-scented Lysol spray or that lilacs don't grow in the deep South.
"What shall we do this morning, Hannah?" she asks me brightly. I can see that her mind is wandering over myriad possibilities, over whole continents where she used to go, for real.
"Whatever you like, Mrs. Jackson," I say. "Would you like to visit the neighbors?"
"Yes, I would, and especially that nice Mr. Evellyn."
I do not say that there is no Mr. Evellyn -- which she pronounces EEv-Lin -- on her floor or anywhere else in this facility.
There is more I do not say, more everyday: that a son who never comes has died. That a friend who used to call has died, as well.
Finally all the many things I cannot say fill up my throat, and I feel I might choke on Mrs. Jackson's absent life.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Just Pinky

He must have had a real name, but the kids just called him Pinky. His nervous, red-rimmed eyes regarded the world through thick-lensed glasses, and his hair and skin were so pale that Teeny bet me a quarter that Pinky couldn’t bleed.
One day, the school nurse came to our class to explain "albinism" and how there was no “melanin” anywhere in his body. I could tell that the nasty boys weren’t listening because they didn’t want to let science get in the way of having a bona fide freak to pick on.

Teeny and me, though, we were fascinated when the nurse projected slides on a screen showing albinos from different races and countries. After school we made sock puppets from Teeny's father’s athletic socks and dressed them up like bleached Zulu warriors and Aztec gods.

It turned out that white hair and colorless eyes were the least of Pinky’s problems, because Principal “Halitosis” DeLosis came into our class one day and announced that Pinky had died from kidney failure.

My Mom made me go to the funeral (she said it was a “good learning experience”) and so did Teeny’s Mom, and the worst part wasn't those hypocrite bully boys looking all sad in their Sunday clothes. It was that the preacher never once called him by his real name, just called him Pinky.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Goldsmith's Anniversary

He dismissed giving her a Cartier watch or South Seas pearls.
Likewise, he rejected furs or wines with old souls.
She was too precious and rare for the nonsense that any man
could give to any woman on any day.

He searched for something deserving of the word “bestowed,” something so rare as to horrify the clerics of ordinariness.

One night while she dreamed, he skinned her fingertips so lightly and slowly that it took till dawn to remove only a single layer of skin no thicker than an eyelash.

For their anniversary, he gave her back her fingerprints, cast in gold.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Orson (in 16 six-sentence bites)

Orson shelved the textbook for his Physics 204 course, thinking for the hundredth time that the book was inadequate, and then checked his watch.
His least-favorite student was 15 minutes late for an appointment, after which Orson would have to speed-walk across campus – two-tenths of a mile – for the Provost’s annual speech.
The student had requested the meeting, and Orson made a mental wager with himself that the wretched boy was going to knock off a grandparent and plead he needed to go to a funeral in a distant state on Friday, thereby missing the deadline for his research paper.
If so, it would make the fourth dead relative his students had presented to him this term, each tragically coinciding with a term paper or exam date.
He ran his fingers through thinning sandy hair, scribbled a hasty note, which he taped to his office door, and left with a satisfied “fuck you” on the tip of his tongue. Striding towards the stairs, Orson saw the wretched boy slouching down the hall, headphones on and head bobbing, but kept going because, as everyone knows, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.
Provost Allwyn Steppenheim was the master of the buzzword. He had never met a catch phrase he didn't like, and his annual address contained the entire collection of every phrase he'd accumulated over the previous year.
Orson entered the auditorium and searched the backs of a hundred heads until he found the one belonging to Sheila Searcy, an English Lit professor who kept him sane through meetings of this type. The year before, Sheila had written down the best of the Provost's catch phrases and made a poem by rearranging them, which she emailed to Orson with the subject line, Burn after reading!
It went: Each and every policy and procedure
Reaches for greatness as we promote initiatives, gaining relational excellence.
Underutilized, facilitated and transformational though we be, we strive ever onward to pursue our dreams outside the box.

Orson was scanning an abstract in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Physics (Subthreshold characteristics of ballistic electron emission spectra) when his phone rang.
This was jarring since it was first-cup-of-coffee time on a Sunday morning (too early for telemarketers), and anyway, Orson’s phone never rang.
He penciled a hash mark by the sentence he was reading (where the sub-threshold behavior is discernible above the signal noise) and was reaching for the receiver when it stopped.
The telephone’s dull brrrr was replaced by a bright DING! from the coffee maker, signaling that the drip was completed, and Orson's own electrons softly realigned.
He rose, padded to his kitchenette, fixed a large mug of black brew, and pondered the inside of his pantry whence a bag of Pecan Sandies beckoned.
Back in his chair, he resumed the journal article, enjoying the rough texture of the cookies with hot bitter coffee and the intermittent percussion of his icemaker.

Midmorning, Orson switched to reading poetry – Songs of Mirabai – by a 16th century Rajistani princess.
It was his belief that poets and artists served as their nations’ social critics, and it sometimes shamed him that physicists were among the last to speak out, to rage against the machine, as it were.
Then he castigated himself for using the phrase “as it were,” which sounded fusty and academic.

The princess Mirabai had written,
I am crazy with pain, and no one understands it.
Only the wounded knows the pain of the wounded...

Orson was embarrassed by this direct, unvarnished language that exposed Mirabai's core, and he rather wished that she – or her translator -- had been a bit more circumspect about revealing such bare emotions.

There is a tender moment at the beginning of every semester when a teacher faces a classroom of new students and each has high hopes for the other -- and this occurs before the students cheat on exams or plagiarize or make up lavish excuses for poor work or the professor turns out to be boring or jaded or incompetent.
It was Orson’s experience as a professor of physics that his hopes and those of the students were – and always would be – at odds.
Whereas he wished for curious minds and intense enthusiasm, the heads turned toward him in expectant attention wanted an easy grader and someone (please God) without a foreign accent.
Sometimes, just to fuck with them, he’d open the first class session with a thick Nigerian accent, like that of his departmental chairman, and while doing so, warn about the dismal pass/fail rate for his class.
But then, he’d take pity and, speaking in a friendly mid-American dialect, toss around a little poetry by Tupac Shakur and illustrate modern physics in terms of the energy waves that make cell phones work.
As his students filed out of the first-day lecture hall, he would pretend to himself that a boy or a girl was that rarest of creatures, a budding and brilliant physicist who one day would rise to glory and mention his name in thanks from a stage in Sweden.

Every January, the university president hosted a tea at his gracious home for newly-hired faculty members, and all professors were expected to attend (in semi-formal attire) to welcome them.
Orson spent probably more time than necessary selecting the right tie and socks for the occasion, and in the end he chose the same blue-gray tie and charcoal gray socks as he always wore when required to put on his one and only suit.
He enjoyed the inevitability of these social occasions because they anchored him, and he suspected that, without the regularity of the university calendar, he would get lost under the hummocked research papers and journals on his desk and become compost.
At the party, Orson found a wall to lean against and, while he enjoyed two fingers of the president’s Scotch (neat), he watched the convivial swirl of colleagues – some of them in saris, dashikis and turbans – being civilized toward each other.
In his mind’s eye, however, he saw each person carrying a knife with which to stab the others in the back – some sheathed or hidden, some visible and glinting. ‘Never go unarmed into the halls of academe,’ whispered the conspiratorial voice of his inner warrior, ‘and don’t forget it.

Orson is halfway through a lecture about the physics of weather, reviewing the way that an object’s mass (a thunderhead, for example) ties force and acceleration together.
A student asks how much a cloud weighs, and Orson explains that mass is not the same as weight, and he gives the equation.
He moves on to open a discussion about lightning and how a magnetic field has lines that reach out beyond the rainclouds so that lightning can actually strike a city far from the original storm.
“As a matter of fact, a thunderstorm raging in Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said, projecting a map on the front wall, “struck in Madagascar, under clear skies, one sixth of the way around the world!”
A forest of arms go up in the air, and Orson feels a slight pulse of hope beating in his neck as he points to a student waving her hand.
“Sir,” she says, “Will the stuff you tell us, like, out loud, be on the exam or is it just, like, gonna be the stuff in the textbook?

As a Southerner, Orson knows full well the dangerous waters of a conversation about religion with anyone but immediate family.
But as a scientist down to his marrow, he wants to lobotomize the ‘Young Earth Creationists’ because, as he tells his friend and colleague Sheila Searcy over lunch, “they won’t miss brains that they’re not using.”
He then relates a recent experience he had while explaining chaos vs. order to a class.
“This one girl says she doesn’t believe in the Big Bang Theory, and I ask ‘why not?’ She says, ‘If you set off a bomb in a junkyard, BANG, the result wouldn’t be a smooth running, perfectly formed car, so why do you think the universe got started that way?’ I considered explaining that the universe is still junk that's evolving and changing, billions of years after, but the look on her face said GENESIS ONE, and scaling that wall just seemed too exhausting.”

When Orson and his sister were school children, they had puzzled their teachers with white flashes of brilliance and what then was termed 'antisocial behavior.'
Had they been born 30 years later, they might have been diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, based on a shared lack of interest in popularity, their photographic memories and emotionless faces.
And even though they displayed no affection for each other, Orson and Alana were attuned as if a wire connected their minds, sending signals along a frequency only Luna moths could hear.
As young adults, they went their separate ways to quality universities where they made one friend apiece, joined music societies and graduated magna cum lauda without once writing letters to each other or calling on birthdays.
Orson considers all this, now, in middle age, and sends Alana an email that reads, “Meet me at the old place near the ugly thing next Sunday at 1 p.m. for lunch.”
He knows she’ll be there.

Orson is sitting upright in his restaurant chair as if a drill sergeant has commanded him to attention, and he is eating his meat in the British fashion, with fork tines turned down.
Alana, in a bouclé shawl and small neat tam, talks without animation about her job and new apartment. The food before them is riotously spicy, but neither reaches for water or wine.
It is as if their mouths, cooled for so long by unemotional speech, are immune to heat.
This Hungarian restaurant was a social station of the cross for their parents, long ago, where they ate and drank and talked party politics with friends and neighbors, arguing and laughing with a zest incomprehensible to their children.
Next door squatted a hideous Eastern Orthodox Church with bricks like rotten teeth and a painful life-sized crucifix (complete with scarlet wounds) that had given Alana nightmares when she was eight.
Meanwhile, Orson says, “You’re looking healthy, Alana,” knowing she’ll remember to respond, “Cuz I never drink from the Orson wells.”

It is a black and white photograph on shiny paper, taken with a Kodak Brownie camera in 1956.
It is the sole artifact Orson has kept from childhood, not sentimentally but anthropologically, as one might keep a pottery shard that shows the culture of a long-gone tribe.
Four people are grouped together – parents behind and small children in front – and the faces of the mother and father proclaim that blue skies are just around the corner.
The father’s hair rises like a cresting wave above a suntanned face, and his left hand holds a filterless cigarette.
The mother’s skirt is levitating with the help of crinolines, and her dark penciled eyebrows are such a period piece by themselves that Orson laughs.
The boy and girl are present yet absent, more like mannequins of children than living children.
They gaze into the camera like they’ve been told, but while the entire photograph is sharp, their eyes alone look out of focus.

12.A first cousin to Alana and Orson sends them feel-good emails telling them to live, love, laugh and "dance like no one's looking."
Orson just deletes everything the cousin sends, but Alana reads them and puzzles over the alien words and sentiments, trying to find some link between the greeting card emotions and her own.
It is as if they use two distinct languages and need a third to translate them, a Rosetta stone or maybe an oracle.
She knows that she is missing a vital ingredient or organ that others have -- and so is Orson -- and that the missing part keeps her from "feeling what normal people feel," as the doctors have explained.
It's not as if she was raised among inhospitable rocks: her parents were happy, warm, loving people.

Alana rolls her chair back from the computer, taps her feet three times, rolls forward, taps the space bar twice, then shuts it down. She walks along a pre-arranged path from her desk to the kitchen, taps three times and shuts the light at precisely 9:09 p.m.

Orson hums a long-ago song (The very thought of you, and I forget to do, the very ordinary things that everyone ought to do) but he doesn't believe the lyrics; love has never made him forget what ought to be done.
Long ago and far away a girl gave her heart to him, but all too soon she left, saying, "Your love for me has to be more than room temperature," which Orson thought was overdramatic.
He hums while he runs the sweeper over the neutral (unassuming) Berber carpeting (being careful not to use the brush, which pulls at the fibers) and happily anticipates the arrival of the postman with his weekly physics journals.
The apartment is spare and clean-looking, as if a poor grad student lived there, not a highly paid full professor.
It has a lovely view, but even lovelier is the sole occupant of the master bedroom: a red camping tent that contains the perfectly Orson-sized sleeping bag and a nest of pillows on which he has been sleeping since he was a boy.
No one else has ever slept in this private inner sanctum ( not even room-temp girl), although Orson keeps a regulation Queen bed with pretty sheets in another room for when attractive women want to take him for a test drive.

Orson awoke from a bright, chaotic dream into a hardcore January day. He tried to grasp the dream’s receding smoke strands -- kites? a village square?-- but they eluded him.
He lay against his pillow nest inside a red, nylon camping tent, shucking off sleep in layers until he felt the blunt nudge of reality.
Sleepiness was to Orson what chocolate was to his sister Alana: a pure experience of pleasure dimmed only slightly at its edges by guilt.
He felt languid, solitary and catlike in his sleep cave whereas outside were only sharp-edged things and biting wind.
It had been a long time – maybe years – since Orson had called in sick and cancelled class, and even as he thought the words 'accrued leave,' one of his arms snaked out of the sleeping bag and plucked up his Blackberry.

Orson and his sister Alana had enjoyed a running joke, one time, about Hawaiians hoarding all the vowels and the Serbs hoarding all the consonants. He'd make up names of Yugoslavian war criminals, like Brdyzstan Krmudgnlik, and she would reply with the names of their Polynesian mistresses, like Aloanauiala Holaoli, though how the two lovers happened to be in the same country was never stated.
But then Orson fell into physics and went away to graduate school, and the romantic fate of the Serbo-Pacific lovers was never settled.
He had spent many years studying the behavior of neutrinos (Alana said these were small fur-bearing animals) and just as many years reading all about genetics and the occurrence of Asperger's Syndrome in non-twin siblings.
But the inability to change is hardly ever due to information deficit, and no amount of books or scholarly journals could help Orson overcome his complete indifference to all human emotions save that of ironic humor.
It was as if love were a vowel belonging only to some people who hoarded it away, and he was a man caught in wintry Serbia, destined to forever mete out his feelings through consonant-clenched teeth.

16. JFK once said, “We aim to go to the moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard: fuck easy.” Okay, so he didn’t say the last two words in public, in front of his archbishop and the microphones and LIFE Magazine, but you know he said it privately to those bright and gleaming boys, those astronauts, all of them brimming with that miracle endorphin that wells up when you are included in the joke in the innermost circle.
Orson studied old photographs of their faces, seeing only farmers’ sons and scions of Princeton economics profs – nobody remarkable at all except that they were plucked out of the teeming postwar masses and set atop the shoulders of physicists like himself.
Why were there no photos of Kennedy with the brilliant scientists who designed the rockets’ systems so that ships could break free of almighty gravity, or those who measured the planetary currents and slipstreams with bloodied, bitten fingernails so that the astronauts would splash down just so, and not in godforsaken Mozambique?

Fuck-easy was sitting strapped into the capsule and fuck-easy was taking orders from Houston, and fuck-easy was riding in a champagne tickertape parade when it was over. Meanwhile, fuck-hard wiped their glasses and gathered up their instruments and toasted each other with warm Tang in paper cups.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Heavy Lifting

In 2312, when the biodome over central Mars was finished and sealed, they sent for everyone incarcerated in Parchman, San Quentin, Leavenworth and the supermax daddy of them all, Attica.
Putting us to work here, in the Haliburton Martian mines, saved Americans a bazillion taxpayer dollars a year. No one minded that 200 death row prisoners were let out of their cells and put on rocket ships. It was explained to the public that inmates would die out here much faster than on Earth.
The gravity on Mars is something fierce, man. It ups our body weights by 182 percent. No way can our hearts cope with such density for more than a few years. Each step you take on Mars is slow and leaden, as if your leg was dragging a whole other person. I’m young, man, but I can’t even walk a block. Meanwhile, the guards trip around in antigravity suits, light as orioles.
Down inside the titanium mines, Haliburton had to install anti-gravity machines or we’d never get any work done. Titanium is the new miracle mineral, strong as steel when forged but lighter than aluminum.
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the Next Big Thing, brought to you by the murderers and grand theft auto committers and rapists and eye gougers and welfare cheaters of America.
Above ground, we’re just your average army of foot-dragging, bent-over, weighed-down losers.
But below ground? Baby, we’re the cheapest, non-union dead men walking in the universe!

Friday, January 6, 2012


What surprises her most about marriage is how much she likes the coziness, something that had been absent from her single life.
Had you asked her in her twenties if she craved coziness, she would have said, “irrelevant,” and moved on to the next guy in the next bar, the one who looked like danger on a stick.
This, though -- this nudge and tuck of togetherness in the bed, this yearning to lean in towards each other when talking, this folding freshly laundered sheets together so that the corners fit -- is more than the sum of small actions.

She feels stirrings of memory from a time when the world felt safe, when father and mother were in the house and she snuggled deep into her small bed while snow fell outside. That right there – that feeling of complete protection – can it ever be fully recovered?

Mornings, when the sun slopes through their east-facing window, she runs grateful words through her mind-mill, shedding husks, seeking the one that means “surprised happiness.”