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PART I: FLOOD
In a quiet house, in the protracted hours of early morning, nothing apparent to the eye moved–not even the man who sat in the kitchen, staring. A fresh, tall glass of icewater stood within reach, yet seemed remote on the plain of table stretched before him. He desired it, yet now that he had settled, he did not wish to move; he wished nothing to move. He felt terrible. Shadows of blinds in window frames, painted by the rising sun, did creep their way along the floor, though so imperceptibly that any ant, burdened by a crumb, might slip their confinement. The temperature in the room climbed by half-degrees. The man blinked and watched, though in his torpor refused to acknowledge, a microcosm of activity taking place before him: the temperature in the glass fell, then, in a swing like a pendulum-arc, syncing itself with its environment, rose. Droplets formed on the outer surface. An ice cube popped and tumbled. Solid to liquid to ether to energy. His dark eye and dormant brain knew little of the way of these things. He stretched out his hand lethargically, brought the sweaty glass to his lips, and abruptly drained it.
William Wyrd grimaced into the upraised well telescoping before him. The sensation of heat exchange in his throat and stomach visited him not unpainfully.
His morning thirst had prevented him from noticing, at first, the particular paper he chose to set his glass down upon. It stuck to the base. He had fished it irrelevantly from the shuffle for a coaster, and now the cup bled upon it and magnified a part of the writing. The brown, official-looking United States government envelope had lain, until now, for days on the white linen of the kitchen table, the bottom of a pile of mail stacked, then neglected, for last night’s party. He had just turned thirty-nine years old. His habit when hung over, as this morning, was to fumble through the collection and discard most of it unopened. Even the grandson of first-generation immigrants had learned not to fear the very appearance of authoritative missives–it probably disguised an application for a credit card. He gazed blearily down and withdrew a half-cupcake from his mouth, then tossed the stale bit of food on to the heap threatening to overflow the trash barrel. Postmarked Quantico, ten days ago.
Something shifted among the acids of his stomach. Tearing the damp envelope and scanning its contents, yawning as the microwave signaled his reheated coffee ready, Will’s immediate reaction–a cough–was followed by the white placard slipping from his fingers onto recently scrubbed, now sticky tiles. The inhaled air tasted bitter in his nasal cavity. He snatched a paper towel from the rack by the sink window and carefully parted two blades of the Venetian blind with his fingers. Still nearly dark out there, the vague florescent streetlights cast an indigo haze over the cars, the neat square lawns, the vertical driveways. The evening drone of beetles through the screen had ceased, hours before. All looked still, in order. Will’s face dropped to where the card had fallen between his slippered feet, over the small belly he had developed since a few birthdays ago. Things had blurred. He must be in worse shape than he thought.
Will groped about on the countertop among the punchbowl, tumblers, and saucers of the scattered service; he had wandered out of the bedroom again without putting his eyeglasses on. But instead of going for them, he leaned low against the counter, not wanting to dignify the placard by touching it again. He smiled grimly. No. They weren’t drafting anymore, hadn’t been since he was a kid; and he’d done his time in the Marines almost twenty years ago, during the Gulf War. A trickle of memories seeped into his mind. Running–crawling–through a series of ninety-degree South Carolina and Virginia days. Just a kid, fresh out of a new G.I. Bill enrollment, and fulfilling the first adult commitment of his life. Later, the desert. There, it was worse.
So who was mailing him this letter? A little birthday fun courtesy of one of his friends. Had to be. He’d look more carefully at it later and figure out which of them would put such a dumb joke into practice.
Will flipped the light-switch off in the too-bright kitchen, and the parlor lay shuttered and dim and the extra chairs and folding tables made a kind of unfamiliar jungle that took some stumbling through. He flopped down into the familiarity of his recliner, then stiffened at the creak it issued: Nexus was still asleep in the other room. Thankfully for her, she didn’t have to go to work until ten today–hadn’t been feeling well lately, and campaigned through last night’s celebration like a trooper–and he did not want to waken her until he was going out the door to his first, eight o’clock class at the university. The slightest sliver of dawn filtered through the large living room window, not so much morning as the end of a primeval night, and Will groaned. Who gave a party on Thursday night, anyway? And his mouth was still dry. He thought of the coffee, then forgot it again. He fumbled for his remote control and clicked on the television. Quickly, he punched the volume to a whisper and sought out the early news channels. Combing his hair back repeatedly with the fingers of his left hand, feeling the thin overnight grease, he grew slowly desperate to take a shower.
Nothing doing, much. Most of the channels continuously recycled the late night sports, in which the Indians had been brutalized again, and the weather, which hinted storms across the country, again. Spring threatened to outstay its welcome and encroach on summer. Will’s eyes sought back across the gloom to the kitchen floor. A little lightning, coming not from outside but from the kaleidoscopic picture tube in the darkened room, momentarily showed the ridiculous slip of paper where it had fallen. He sometimes still, after all these years, had nightmares about the service. Not the electric spasms of his father’s generation, but more mundane, anxious commonplaces. He had never made it out. Thinking of deserting, but what would happen to his family? Where could he go? He was forced to obey the orders of the mindless, faceless agents who held his papers. He gave no orders. No one was below him. But he wanted no underlings, no control–only to be left alone. The lightning intensified. Was this yet another of those dreams? Will forced himself to concentrate on the fuzzy images before him.
He blinked at the screen, which now framed phantoms of gray jet fighterplanes launching from the slow-swaying surface of an aircraft carrier. The parking deck was furious with activity–men in yellow and orange uniforms swarmed around the pilots stalking to their ships. They strode almost in slow motion, and Will wondered jadedly if it weren’t some broadcaster’s dramatic trick. Feeling a bit ill, he thumbed the volume slightly to add its effect to the tableau.
A disembodied but fully articulate voice, somehow familiar, explained to him that tensions in the region had flared again for the third time this decade. The names of the factions sounded alien, but the story was an old one: some fourth-raters continued to provoke some third-raters (he had at least heard of the disputed area–seemed to recall flying over it once in a C-130 transport plane). For ungodly reasons, this became the concern of the first-raters, who were sending pilots to enforce a no-fly sector, some kind of DMZ–a DeMilitarized Zone in the middle of the sky! Details aside, it had been going on in his father’s time, and his father’s time. But now it was lent the merest dignity: the scene on the carrier dissolved into a bright royal blue which lanced at Will’s eyes. He squinted and leaned; and feeling a lump in the pocket of his thick bathrobe, fished out his all-purpose, store-bought spectacles and propped them on his nose, recognizing immediately then the figure of the current American President. He much resembled the previous one: middle aged, perfectly groomed, dignified, and talking tough. A wedding ring flashed from his upraised palm, suggesting that Will absent-mindedly finger his own. The palm flourished for several minutes before it closed into a fist.
World leaders were in earnest about these troubles and our responsibility to the cause of global peace. Will blanched a bit at these familiar constructions, but then the phrase “heightened commitment” captured his attention fully. He sat up straight, because the president began making vows now, one of which was swift reprisal for American deaths.
Will’s mind raced back over the past few days. Today was Friday–had he heard anything about this before now? No. . .nothing. True, for a History professor he interested himself little in the news of the day. He had become, in ways, the academic that people who do not know any academics personally, imagine. Nexus tried to tease him once or twice that he lived in a world of his own, running back and forth between his castle and the ivory tower–a phrase he did his best to ignore, because it angered him in ways he could not name–so intent on his schedule that she sometimes felt as if he looked through her, to the future. This did not seem humorous when put into actual words, and he would resist and she would drop it.
The president’s speech concluded abruptly, and the scene again recombined itself: now a panorama of ugly men and dead men, the first lifting the others out of a helicopter on stretchers. Behind them stood only anonymous mortar and concrete, giving no hint of the location. Another disembodied voice spoke, yet named none. Four of them; the dead ones. They had not yet been covered fully, but seemed to be wrapped in the kind of poncho Will remembered wearing on rainy marches. The faces were filthy, upturned to a black sky. Burned? Yet another voice reported that they were casualties of the conflict which, until now, had been of no notice to Will.
And then the tableau vanished–blinked out with a suddenness that made Will start, as the loudly dressed weather girl appeared, mock frown contorting her lipstick as she lamented bad news for weekend travelers. The screen was a haze of bright greens and blues. Will cut the set off and rose, raking his hair straight back. He fidgeted blankly through the next half-hour, and somewhere in the midst of his routine of showering, dressing quietly, and kissing his sleeping wife goodbye, he slipped the notice from the State Department back into the envelope, and that into his briefcase. His clothes felt tight on him, and already damp from perspiration, but there was nothing for it. The dew slicked upward into mist on his windshield as the professor drove to work like an automaton, arriving precisely on time.
His eight o’clock class left him disappointed and irritable. Something about the helicopter scene he had witnessed–he cut himself off, wryly: witnessed via satellite–bugged him, and he had unconsciously mulled it over during the drive to the university, instead of mentally rehearsing the morning’s lecture as he usually did. As a result, he stood at the podium and had to shuffle with his notes, the students appeared more tired and bored than usual, and when he made an offhand, half-hearted remark about the current overseas conflicts undoubtedly bearing some relation to the current topic, the Mexican-American war, they rewarded him only with blank stares. Sorry he brought it up, he had almost said. His schoolhouse liberalism would bring no satisfaction today. He usually found a perverse enjoyment in rehearsing the old story of American imperialism, but the thought of the envelope near his podium, buried in his half-open briefcase, allowed no such distant irony. He dismissed the room ten minutes early.
Will, in mid-career and with tenure review safely behind him, relished projecting radical attitudes at his students–who, because of a few evasive rhetorical mannerisms of his, could not really know if the opinions were his own or merely reported. But he guarded his views with silence, or even affected conservatism, among his colleagues. Already in the periphery of a vision that had no fixed center, early retirement shone as the culmination of a placid teaching career, and declarations that might jeopardize the fulfillment of that goal somehow never got worded where they might offend. And he might even have secretly conceived, in the bowels of his reason, that he was above it all anyway, that any real commitment to a political position on any subject must necessarily signify moral naivete. In short, he had long ago accepted the truism that we are doomed to forget and so repeat the past; thus, any talk of progress is mere gamesmanship to enlightened individuals.
Still, he did not feel so sporting today. On the walk to his office, he probed the few Ph.D.s who lurked the halls before ten o’clock about the morning news report. But no one had heard anything, and greeted his casually worded questions with, what seemed to Will, echoes of his own (former, now fading) indifference.
Specters of evacuated bodies plagued him throughout the day, in classes, in a meeting, in his office hours. Even the letter he carried, the coincidental prank, lay confined to the steerage of his mind. But he could not so easily forget his past, more tangible than any paper. In the years since his discharge, he had willfully attempted to purge himself of the military mindset. He had discovered in himself a born pedagogue–a teacher, he corrected himself–and began by degrees to take his former experiences as a veteran philosophically. His enlistment at twenty-one years of age, for the sake of financial help to finish college, had been, if not a mistake, then a four-year false start which at least instilled in him self-discipline. Such traits were needed by all career people. He had been an infantry squad leader from his second year, promoted quickly to platoon sergeant. He made a good small-unit leader, or tried to, and the four dozen men under his charge in the Gulf, all but one, returned home with nothing worse than rashes and powder burns, despite the fact that they had gotten in several–encounters (he still, at the distance of many years, failed to find the right description. Battles would be exaggeration; but skirmishes was too light a word.) Short and inconclusive contacts, really, the stuff of day-to-day warfare. A century and a half ago, it had been picket-line chatter among the boys in blue and gray; in the 1990s it could be little more than shots in the dark or even blips on radar. He had some special-weapons training on his own, but it came to nothing when he had marines to put hands-on for him.
Only one real incident occurred in his time, for which he had been recommended for a citation; though lots of men were in those days. But, truthfully, the cost weighed, he didn’t want it; and the paperwork was slow in coming through after all, so his enlistment fulfilled, he resigned his plans for OCS and left the service virtually undecorated. He resumed his interrupted degree program, and went on to grad school.
Now he had it–that was it, his thoughts hitched like the snap of fingers. On the drive home, through sidewalked neighborhoods surrounding his own, the sun flashing mosaics through the overhanging trees, those holes in the past could still fill in, like fresh leaves. He had begun telling himself that he was like those old cops who won’t watch cop movies because, no matter how well-produced, nothing seemed verisimilar to the man who had “been there.” Everything outside his own direct experience tended to feel produced by the Chorus of Henry V, begging indulgence. But–damn–what the television showed did not look staged–there hadn’t been the least sign of rearrangement. Infantry. The men being lifted out of the helicopter were infantrymen, not pilots or crewmen. Will distinctly saw again the filthy, desert-camouflage utilities they wore, what the men in his old unit called “sand-jammies” when they exchanged them for the venerable Marine jungle-utes, before deployment to the Gulf. Hadn’t he also glimpsed a canteen secured to a charred H-harness, and even a kevlar helmet still strapped to one poor kid’s lolling head? A pilot’s jumpsuit and gear should look completely different. Once again, his memory, in the form of the nagging card he bore, its edge rigid and keen, scratched a tendon and for the first time drew blood. Will felt the fractional twinge of limbs loosening.
He never spoke of it that day to Nexus, who returned home from her job in too good a mood to spoil. Her boss had delivered on recent hints of a promotion for her. She correctly estimated its value: nothing glamorous, just a title with a better office, but it showed they appreciated her. She was a lawyer working for a mid-sized local law firm. Even these days, Nexus continued to take an occasional night-seminar at the University, working slowly and steadily toward the day when she would be eligible for junior partner. Did she understand they would never give it to her? Will wondered if some part of her did. . .and considered it still worthwhile to try. Circumstances might change, one never knew. . .
“Hey, that’s great,” Will smiled and hugged his wife, recomposing his faraway look behind her back.
He did admire her. Had, in fact, since that day in graduate school when a mutual friend had fixed them up. It was eight years ago. Will, though no misanthrope, had small gift for socializing and had always found himself watching the action from the corners of public gatherings. His hair had remained short from his service-days, and that he felt deepened his purposeful anonymity. He possessed a face that grows handsome only as one knows him better; consequently, almost no one thought him handsome. But he did have classmates, and therefore could hardly avoid study contacts. One of these, a dark-haired and happily garrulous girl oddly named Tyche, noticed how earnestly he studied and wondered aloud if he never had any fun. She had some single girlfriends. Privately, she must have considered it her sacred duty to pair them off. Her choice for the taciturn Will had short, auburn hair and shellacked study glasses which tended to mute her authentic blue eyes and intelligent smile. When Nexus first approached him (did he get that name right? Was this some fad, he was too embarrassed to ask,) in the library, she looked a bit uncomfortable in her teaching assistant’s suit which bespoke aspiring professionalism, so he was mildly shocked to see a slim, athletic body in bluejeans and T-shirt when they played golf, on their much-improved second date. The first had been, he tried to recall, a standard dinner-movie which was just pleasant enough to dispel the awkwardness of strangers, and ended in a hug–the kind he was still giving her, years later. The golf game had been nearly disastrous in a way, she outscoring him by ten strokes, but he had to admit it was fun, as Tyche would have wanted, and the match-maker later kidded him about his reported nervousness. Things went on, not unlike a well-hypothesized chemistry experiment, from there. A year later, they were married after graduation.
Tonight, on the latest of their standing Friday night dinner dates, she seemed as young as that girl he first came to love, even though he himself felt tired and worn. Her hair had lengthened beautifully; the study glasses she had long since replaced with more attractive ones, then dispensed with them entirely by laser eye surgery last year. Will considering it too, but, if he must be honest about it, the procedure could not have spooked him more if it were done with a steel scalpel. The doctor had explained the risks to Nexus in his presence, and she was game, as always. Inwardly, he shrank, but jokingly explained he’d relinquish to her the role of family guinea pig. His students might fail to recognize him if he abandoned his cultivated, professorial look: the cropped beard and glasses, even elbow-patch sportscoats, all an unthinking imitation of an amalgam he had in his mind of his own teachers; the vision had hardly anything to do with any actual individual he had known.
Her fine mood slowly caught him up. Will watched her eyes gleam like indigo running beneath a stream. She told him about the good day she’d had over cocktails at their favorite Mediterranean restaurant. Did her boss’s discovery of those eyes have anything to do with her promotion? As a woman without children, her career path had still been slightly less focused than his, up until recently; she had spent several years before college at odd jobs—something to do with her people back home–and was in reality slightly older than he. But now the possibility occurred to him that, his distant appraisal of her office’s politics notwithstanding, she could potentially pass him by.
Thoughts beneath him and beneath her, but they faced Will with something he could not fathom. Not any specific jealousy, really, but rather a mass by accumulation. Nexus lived the course of woman: paced, steady, and ultimately unswerving, in ways that men who bulled their way through life might envy. She had developed a plan for her future by the time they met and, had since modified it to include him. Of course, she would not openly acknowledge this. Will wasn’t sure about all its details, but it dwelt at the fringes of their lives: where they lived, how they chose furniture, who they made friends with. Sometimes circumstances or, worse, actions he took, interfered with the direction. She got irritable or injured. When he hurt her he felt terrible, knowing how little she deserved it. She had grown up under more difficult conditions than he, and if she let her present boss think he flattered her at all, what harm in that? Besides, it was all pure speculation anyway. His opinions about the man were based on nothing more than an introduction at an office Christmas party. Will put the tangle of thoughts aside, congratulating himself that none of it showed on his face. It never occurred to him that his wife might appreciate a show of possessiveness. He tried to lose himself in the warmth of her presence and in the half-truths he told about an unremarkable day.
Despite his resolve to sleep late, Will’s morning began early, after hours of restlessness. He managed to climb out of bed almost silently. Nexus stirred next to him, but she had gotten conditioned to their irregular schedules by now, and rolled over into deeper repose. Will was grateful that she hadn’t realized in her waking moment that he did not have to work today, for she might have pinned him to the mattress which had begun to feel like wood.
He wriggled on some old sweatpants and padded into the lightless kitchen, now cleaner than yesterday, but darker because of the hour. He poured a tall glass of orange juice, devoured a banana in two bites, and, finding his briefcase, trepidatiously retrieved the brown envelope. Not unlike yesterday, he then sat at the kitchen table, staring down like a blind man whose vision returns gradually. The gloom slowly receded, siphoning out of the east window, and as the long minutes passed the page seemed covered with dead insects, then contorted glyphs, ever reassembling themselves in his brain, but finally stable and readable as English. He was directed by the Secretary of Defense, under authority of the President of the United States, to report within fourteen days to any processing center (local address provided, no telephone number) for a physical examination prior to induction into military service. As he reread, he found the final, blocked line even more unexpected: he was again directed (military euphemism for an order) not to discuss the contents of the document with anyone.
For the hundredth time, the intellectual in him asserted that the thing was an item from some novelty-shop. The problem with the theory lay in that he could not for the life of him imagine who, among his acquaintances (all the faces from the party flitted before his tired mind,) would pull this sort of stunt. And it smelled real–the odor of bureaucracy exuded from it, filled the room. The impressed Presidential seal, perhaps, along with the actual names and stamped signatures of the President and the SecDef. All government documents have that feel—cheaply made, and expensively bought. Well, then, a mistake. A colossal blunder, and certainly not the first in military history. But such an odd one? Was anyone being drafted? Of course not. He berated himself for worrying and resolved then to straighten the matter out today.
He happened to know the local processing center. It had sprung up recently out of a renovated factory in the old manufacturing district, only a couple of miles from the Humanities building at the University in fact, which lay itself just outside the city limits. The monolithic structure funneled volunteers from a dozen recruitment stations from neighboring counties. The phone book had their number, undoubtedly. But he dismissed the notion of a phone call as a probable exercise in futility; he felt obligated and compelled to appear in person, this morning. He dug his sneakers out of the hall closet and quietly stole out of the house. With any luck, his wife would sleep in, and he’d be back before she knew it.
The sun had begun to rise low behind the trees. No clouds, none predicted—this from the late night news he had trolled. For some reason, the notion to park at his office and jog to the center had seized him, partly to kill time, in case they didn’t open until nine o’clock on Saturdays. But he was susceptible to shin splints, and knew it; he had not actually run a mile in over three years.
In the end, the run nearly solved all his problems for him. He was forced to slow, almost immediately, to just above a brisk walking pace, and winded terribly just the same. His lungs burned as he left the college’s green lawns and perennial flower beds and carefully placed trees behind, for the asphalt and taller buildings of the old town. He blamed the sting in his throat on pollution, but his abysmal physical condition had to connect to his own complacency. He hadn’t adequately tracked how soft he was getting. The Army would smile at the prospect of drafting him; the Marines would laugh openly. He hoped he’d get some regular guy to iron things out with–they could share the laugh together. By the time he descried the black hulk of the processing center, Will had a serious stitch in his side, and his head pounded, but he consoled himself that his legs felt alright.
He had to give up any pretense of a run and amble slowly forward, a safe distance away. The last of departing dawn clenched ruddy fingertips around the professor’s chest, and he bent forward toward the ground, gulping for breath in the artificial heat of his labors. A film of perspiration stuck between him and the cotton garments, despite the coolness of the morning. He looked the place over from the tops of his eyes: a squat brick structure, that stretched several hundred yards toward every dimension but up. Will forced himself upright, hands on hips, chest heaving, and halted. It appeared relatively busy for an early Saturday morning, he wondered, and glanced at the fogged dial of his wristwatch. Just past 8:30, yet the parking lot was three-quarters full and the occasional new arrival passed through the portal of glass doors, below the sign in plain block letters which are many young people’s first glimpse of military exactitude: ALL ENTRANTS SUBMIT TO SEARCH. Will rubbed his side and forced his breathing to slow. He walked a few stiff steps in a circle. A quailing sensation had wound itself around him, but no matter what happened inside, he wanted to appear calm and offhand. Just out for my constitutional, old man, thought I’d stop by and straighten out this infernal mess, what? . . .
Finally, after several minutes of concentration on steadying his erratic breathing, satisfied that he was probably okay and concluding to check his look in the nearest men’s room, Will made his way across the parking lot and up the three oversized, concrete steps. As he passed through the doors, he suppressed another cough from deep down in his lungs.
The lights beamed too brightly. They pained his eyeballs for a few moments. There were so many: the white dropped ceiling at perhaps fourteen feet high, and, above the room stretching back apparently the entire ground floor–walls had been replaced with columns and a labyrinth of six-foot partitions—hung suspended hundreds of florescent fixtures, but without the usual diffusion from plastiglass covers. To the left of the main doors, where he had expected a security station or at least a guard, Will instead passed a janitor mounted on a paint-spattered stepladder, tugging down the last of the covers. Will paused to look up into the ancient, grizzled face which smiled blankly back. Those black eyes told a tale of endless, repetitive toil; they knew no hurry.
“Changin’ out the bulbs today,” the man chanted, drawing a long, coolwhite rod from the box propped against the ladder. He spoke as if to himself, but loud enough for any to hear. He continued to grin, but spared Will no more regard than he might give the tube in his hand. He stretched his rheumatic limbs, unscrewing the still-functioning old bulb, which instantly went dark, from the fixture. He carried it carelessly down for another, wobbling the ladder to do so, the discarded in his left hand, the replacement in his right. He stared a moment, to reassure himself which was which. Will then noticed dozens of boxes leaning nearby, doubtless containing hundreds of tubes. All to be done, then?
Will nodded respectfully, but failed in his intention to return the workman’s smile, baffled instead by the observation that the job wasn’t being done at all efficiently. Surely the removal of the covers, stacked in piles against every wall, had necessitated countless relocations of the ladder by the same menial, who in turn had doomed himself to repeat the action in each case? Why not remove and replace covers and bulbs at once? Even more curious, none of the bulbs that Will could blinkingly discern, not one in a countless pattern which extended back into a florescent blankness impossibly deep, had actually burned out. None even stuttered. Will shrugged barely—“job security,” his father had called it–and cast about on his own business.
After some searching in what he imagined were obvious places, the professor turned a far partitioned corner and happened upon a desk marked INFORMATION with a small placard. A gangly, young Navy petty officer was seated there, smiling the same vacancy Will had encountered upon first entering. He decided, on the spot, that the best approach at this point would be to present his letter and ask for the Commanding Officer, rather than attempt to explain himself at every level in the chain of command. He half-remembered, half-intuited how well that might work. Suddenly he realized he had forgotten the letter in his car. He inwardly groaned. An ache in his right knee that he had not noticed before began to insist on his attention.
“Excuse me,” he began, comporting himself with as friendly and polite a manner as possible. “I received a, notice, to report here–for an induction physical.” Will wrought a smile which he hoped communicated both irony and invoked sympathy. He had not known whether to emphasize the word “induction” or “physical” more, since they were both clearly ridiculous coming from him. He looked his age, and knew it.
“May I see it?” the young man answered pleasantly, showing white teeth, betraying no hint of grasping the problem. He stuck out a long, thin hand at the end of a bony arm enclosed in a blue serge sleeve. Will blinked.
“Well, I forgot to bring it with me,” he managed, seeing that this passage was not going to go smoothly. Damn that stupid idea to jog! He made a gesture as if reaching for pocket change in his sweats, to show he carried nothing. “But it was an error. They don’t mean me,” he added, pointing up at his own face with a gesture that just had to say it all.
“Your name?” came the reply, evoking a defeated sigh from Will. His other knee gave signs of aching now, but he stated his name articulately, and spelled the last. The young NCO picked up a pen and began writing it at the bottom of a list which appeared disturbingly long. Will glanced about, and noticed several rows of chairs along the wall, many occupied by boys in various states of dress. Most were half his own age. They had nothing to occupy their attention, and with no seeming interest in one another, some stared into that nothingness, while others cradled their heads with elbows on knees, trying to sleep.
“Look,” Will blurted out, seizing his last hope to take charge of the situation. “I’m forty years old and I teach at the University. It’s important that I see the CO as soon as possible. They’re not even inducting people anyway, right?” He crossed his arms on his chest and puffed it up a bit, to counteract this weak ending. The youth looked slightly puzzled and bored, as much as to say “The C-O?” He said nothing, however, and seconds ticked by slowly. Will fought the urge to explain the acronym aloud, judging that condescension would fail in the desired rhetorical effect. Somewhere in the background a fly buzzed through space. A standoff.
Will tried another tack. He asked the petty officer if he could input his name into the computer on the desk, to at least show if he belonged there or not. If not, that would give him the leverage to see someone with authority.
“This station cannot access that information,” droned the clerk, in what was clearly a well-worn phrase. Perceiving the annoyance which was now clearly beginning to show on Will’s face, he smiled again and crossed his fingers together on the desk. He glanced beyond Will. A civilian youth had formed up in line behind Will, his shaggy head bent toward the polished floor between his dirty tennis shoes. In one hand he held an envelope exactly like the one Will had received.
“Your name is now on the list,” the petty officer’s voice intoned over Will’s shoulder. He had followed his interviewer’s gaze and had turned to stare wistfully down at the youth’s envelope. “Have a seat and you may address any questions to your examiner.” When he turned back he was ignored, an object merely in the way of new business.
Will drifted helplessly away, toward the block of seats. His brain, flushed by earlier physical strain, began to lapse into a dull fatigue. Then he spotted something by a restroom door in the wall beyond, and impulsively moved toward it, glancing back furtively. The youth was prolonging the act of handing the petty officer his envelope, both their attentions absorbed by that important object. Instead of entering the lavatory, Will glided past it and stole inconspicuously down a detached hall beyond, the slightest bit darker as it turned a corner which contained no fluorescents. Will heard approaching footsteps, but, with nowhere else to go, stepped forward into the corner, pretending to spot an important posting on a small bulletin board there, and miming his silent satisfaction at the discovery. The walker, a petite woman dressed in serge Army slacks and top, and carrying an enormous paper stack, passed him by. She apparently hardly noticed him. He turned up the new corridor into the comfort of obscurity.
He began to check name plaques. Many of the doors were unmarked. He tried the handles of a few, but all were locked. The few that bore names did have abbreviated ranks preceding them, but none was higher than a staff NCO–no officers, and no light or sounds to indicate any were inhabited anyway. Will turned another two corners and faced branching corridors. He continued wandering, noticing now that the place seemed completely deserted back here. Well, Saturday. But all those cars, he thought.
The corridors quickly threatened endlessness, and Will searched openly now for any sign of life, disoriented, with no pretense of belonging. He hoped someone, anyone, would just come by so he could ask for the CO. Maybe he would be taken as someone off-duty. His hair was short enough, a style he had never really abandoned since his discharge. But then he remembered his beard, groping at it reflexively. He must look more like a civilian than anyone in the place. Fine, then.
He halted at an unmarked door with light gleaming under it, hesitated, knocked, and waited. Nothing stirred. A minute later he tried another, and down the next corridor, another. Silence. He began wandering again. Which way back?
Finally, up ahead, he discerned the sterile, colorless glow of fluorescents emanating from around a corner. His shins now bothered him noticeably, but just the same he sprang into a slow jog, thinking he had discovered something that would help him get his bearings. He meant to pause and peer cautiously around the corner, but at the last moment he recognized a puddle of soapy water on the floor and a yellow, plastic mop bucket just out of view until it was too late, and he skidded right across the turn and into a door. It gave, and he nearly fell, but caught himself by grasping the stainless steel handle. He was arrested on the darkened threshold, and a moment later a blinding light shone full in his face and he was yanked inside, nearly off his feet, and proceeded to be bodily dragged by the collar into a stairwell and down a set of concrete stairs. This excruciated the thousand little sorenesses already beginning to rack his body, but he was able to turn his head enough to see, through the white spots in his vision, his attacker. Will resisted the urge to call out to him, but managed to clamp an ineffectual hand on an iron wrist. Clad in shiny boots, perfectly pressed jungle fatigues, and sporting a thick blue band around his arm, the gigantic soldier did not look back. The hand that didn’t have Will by the collar brandished a heavy, impossibly long black flashlight, still illuminated, and its beam lanced wildly upon the walls. The stairs ended, mercifully. Will was hauled down the polished floor of a corridor and hoisted to his feet before a door at the end. This one looked special: it framed a full-length, frosted glass window. He was suddenly turned loose, and spun painfully to face the MP, who without a word had disappeared around another corner.
Strange light penetrated the glass. For the first time it was not the harsh blue of the ubiquitous tubes, but a warm amber, though still bright. A name hung, silhouetted on the door: COLONEL MINGO. Will paused to catch his breath, but a high voice within called out “Come in!” before he could knock.
As he entered, the source of illumination became immediately apparent. The four corners of the mammoth office housed abnormally tall, shaded lamps, strangely out of place in a building so void of ornament. No fixtures beamed overhead–in fact, the ceiling was solid and consisted of large polished sheets of aluminum or some other metal, mirrorlike in its property of reflecting the lamplight twofold. The effect was disorientating. As he gazed up, Will may have seen colors: red, green, blue. Like the TV, he thought irrelevantly. He tried to focus his gaze and moved forward to the room’s occupant. The distance from the door was prodigious. Foregrounding a grand, garrison-sized American flag which covered the entire back wall, like a coach on the sidelines of a football field, a green coated Marine sat scribbling on a paper-strewn, modern glass desk.
He looked up. The colorless eyes stared incongruously from a visage clean of lines, if not exactly young-looking, dominated by a smile of indefinite intentions. Face and head were impeccably clean-shaven. From where he stood across the room, unable to detect even eyebrows, the man seemed to Will a kind of prototype human being: well-proportioned but unfinished, with few distinguishing features. Even his uniform was bare of ribbons and accouterments, save for two tiny, silver birds-of-prey on his shoulder epaulets. He must be well into his fifties, but could not be called aged or even mature. A notion somehow wriggled through Will’s head: here sat that mischievous and anonymous boy who scrawls obscenities in lavatory stalls, even ones in churches and college libraries and other places one would think impervious to such defilement. You never caught that boy, that adolescent, that man, in the act; couldn’t describe him if asked. But he always made himself a presence, in a manner exactly congruent with the odor associated with lavatory stalls. Then Will felt suddenly as if he did recognize him, but could not name him, a strong but nonspecific memory.
“I’m gratified you came, on your own,” Mingo–presumably this was he–began, his tenor voice without gruffness of any kind. The voice ill-accorded with the circumference of his sturdy chest. Not musical exactly, but it also hid a subdued lisp which certainly seemed ill-fitting a career soldier: “Not everyone is as accommodating as you are, Professor.” He had a way, Will noticed immediately, of saying one thing while intoning another. The word “accommodating,” in crossing the space of the room between them, reached Will’s ears as vaguely insulting. “Professor” made him feel mocked, as when young boys are addressed as “Master.”
The surprised visitor stepped deliberately forward. The floor lay covered in a pale-hued, non-institutional carpet that tended to diffuse the open space even more; the walls seemed far less solid than even the partitions outside. The whole office was so disjunctive with the rest of the building, in fact, that one could not help knowing that Mingo possessed power to dwell as he pleased. Will would have been grateful to be asked to take a seat, for his legs definitely throbbed with the promise of hours to come, and the air in the room hung warm and stale-tasting. But there were no seats; none in the room at all, except that occupied by its master. His visitor stood with his hands clasped lightly behind him, in the small of his back, feeling droplets of perspiration form under his shirt.
Mingo had shocked the newcomer by this familiar reception. Not knowing how to begin, and now feeling certain uneasiness because he was expected, Will stammered something about the notice he had received–and then forgotten to bring. The Colonel cut him off.
“Yes, it’s been retrieved. We don’t leave those kinds of souvenirs lying around.”
Will raised both eyebrows. The Colonel grinned wider at the other’s baffled expression. He reclined back, compressing the spring of his chair, and left aside his forms. “You may as well know, now, there’s been an FBI agent watching you for two weeks. A lot of veterans have temporary babysitters these days. We’re inviting experienced men, like yourself, Professor, who suit our specific needs.”
Will ignored, for the moment, the reference to himself. So it was true. His curiosity had the better of him, though, and he steeled himself for serious business in a way that his life had not required of him, not for a very long time. This Colonel had an air that gave even the absurd reality. “What are your needs, exactly? This is for the Mideast? That attack?”
In answer, Mingo sighed. His smile then melted; he leaned forward; he now conveyed the attitude of one used to asking the questions. Will noticed that his desk was nearly bare of plaques, bric-a-brac, or personal items of any kind. He might have been Disinformation personified. The one exception was a tiny, framed photograph of the Colonel himself, in the same uniform he wore today, among a few family members: wife, presumably, and children. They didn’t really look like him, or anyone for that matter; or maybe he didn’t look like them. Papers and files stood stacked and covering the desk, with a single stainless steel pen so abnormally long that it looked as if it would take eternity to run dry of ink. Military efficiency in that, mused Will.
Mingo spoke. “This is not the time for a briefing on whys, only on who. That is, You, and some others. I will only say that we have grown tired of the waste which accompanies our occasional commitment to that part of the world. For fifty years, America has needed a strong, permanent presence there. And we finally have a reason—a Commander-in-Chief, who will give us that.”
Will considered, and gauged it past time for bluntness. He wasn’t interested in foreign policy; the domestic, the personal, hell, the private were his only concerns these days. “Okay, Colonel, let’s stipulate that you and the President are right about that. What does that have to do with me? I did my time years ago.”
A pause of an instant, and Mingo’s smile returned and toothened into that grin, and the redness draining from his face must have been a trick of the light. Will’s eyes had not quite made the adjustment. “Aren’t you a citizen, with duties to perform as well as benefits to receive? You saw the boys upstairs, and you saw the news yesterday.” He relaxed then, slowing his speech, with what appeared a discernible effort. “Let’s just say we need. . .we prefer, experienced men. It’s that simple.”
Will nearly laughed, but it came out as a strangled cough. He glanced around, making sure they really were alone, no gorilla-like MPs ready to eject him or summarily punish insolence. He rejected the simplicity of the claim—he was no fool. But one thing had, all at once, become deadly uncomplicated– they were serious about drafting him. Unreal. Yet the growing pain in his legs assured him it was true.
“You want me, ” he half sang, half chanted the words he had repeated to himself since yesterday, aloud, finally: the simple phrase had gone acidic and begun to decompose in the underbelly of his consciousness, and he struggled with its meaning. The arguments that had arrayed themselves so impressively before the citadel in his night-imagination now fled the field, at the sight of the single corpse. “Colonel, that’s crazy. Look at me. I’m a wreck,” he trailed off, ashamed of the words and wishing to annihilate them from the air between himself and this man. Whatever he was now, he too had been a Marine once. He spotted several dark brown, thick folders on the desk, which he recognized as old-style SRBs: Service Record Books. Mingo rested his slender hand on one, but made no sign of disturbing it.
“Oh, you’re fine,” the Colonel waved the objection away with his other hand, like so much vapor. “In fact, you’ve already passed your physical. And you’ve certainly shown initiative and courage. I was just about to send for you upstairs.” He made the gesture of a long look at Will’s standing body. “We’ll get you back into shape quickly enough.” He opened and then produced from the folder a series of black-and-white photographs in 8×10-inch form, and shuffled them toward his visitor, standing and leaning to do so. With nimble fingers, he spread them out like big playing cards on the forward edge of the desk, in the kind of hand you know you should fold, but for some reason play anyway. The photos confronted Will with images of himself, this very morning, jogging down the streets between the university and here. Will picked them up, aghast, and they shone glossy in the wavering light. He groaned that he had been thus unwittingly observed, stung that his actions and qualities were being thus interpreted. Mingo had settled back against the leather of his office chair, reached into his desk, and produced a thick cigar, which he lit. Will made to speak, but nearly gagged at the exhaled smoke cloud in the unventilated air, and was again cut off by the high voice. “Oh, don’t worry: you’re not going back to Parris Island. There’s good news. I see in your other files that you have some college,” (Will inwardly snorted at the understated “some.” It was ten years, all told,) “so we’re going to commission you–start you out as a First Lieutenant. Not second. And where you’re going, you should advance quickly.” He smirked, evidently expecting that this would be taken as a compliment.
Will ‘s pain had reached a higher level, and at this last reference his patience broke. The past opened up like a crypt.
“Colonel Mingo,” he blurted, “do your files tell you that I was busted down? I’m sure you see there that I barely made an honorable discharge.” He drew in a long breath. These were things he rarely acknowledged anymore, even to himself. His own wife barely knew about them, part of a life he had left behind. The definition of History he gave his own students rose up before him in mockery: the branch of human knowledge we can best prove, but should least believe. “Not that I was a bad kid,” he surprised himself by saying, “I did my duty, but I had an independent streak in those days.” Then he inwardly cursed himself: why apologize?
Mingo shrugged. “A blip on the radar. Your profile does identify a ‘personality defect,’ but. . . it isn’t being held against you. The file also records that you were recommended for a decoration for outstanding small unit command under fire.” The Colonel made a show of casually flipping pages, but his voice betrayed familiarity with the material. Will’s stomach continued to knot–so much more to the story than those pages could possibly tell, and yet the last place on Earth he wanted to delve, was there. “I infer that it was denied for bureaucratic reasons only,” the Colonel continued, slapping the cover closed on the file jacket. “It was because of that, your documented prowess in precisely this type of environment, that we have chosen to reactivate you.” He concluded, a bit ominously, stubbing out his cigar in a full ashtray, “Your personal political views do not concern us. This conflict is bigger than you or me.” Then he made a grand gesture to the color-draped wall behind him, delivering his verdict. “You should be honored by your selection, son. Not many men get to serve their country in combat.” Mingo pronounced the phrase serve your country the way another man would embrace a lover–the only sign of genuine emotion he had betrayed. It formed only a preamble, and his guest sensed the cue to withdraw. Yet, because the man strangely fascinated him and because he had information, the professor continued to stand and silently listen. The vacuum prompted Mingo to go on talking, as if he had been alone too long in this stifling room, with no one to share his ruminations. He discoursed on the subject of patriotism, love of country, trust, fidelity, obedience. Will heard eerie echoes of his own, younger self. He had never been so articulate, but Mingo here gave voice to many things which, beyond the college money, had actually driven him originally into the service.
Finally, Mingo finished, having risen again to his feet to do so. He must have eventually intuited, or known from his files, or from his listener’s face, that he was not meeting with full agreement, or may have actually run dry of verbiage. He straightened and pulled down the edges of his dress green coat. “Now,” he said, “Uncle Sam is not heartless. For those who have professional careers and families, we make provisions. Family is very important to us, obviously” he said, and with the back of one meaty hand, he slid his desk photo an inch toward Will in evidence, while producing another cigar between index finger and thumb. “If you desire, an indefinite leave of absence from your teaching job can be arranged for you. And you don’t report for duty until just after Independence Day, which gives you three months to put your personal affairs in order.” Will’s face sought the floor before him. A pain crept up his right side as he listened, like another stitch from his run, that had arrived off-target and an hour late. “As for your wife,” and at the mention of Nexus, Will, whose eyes had been glazing over, snapped his head to stare hard at Mingo, whose tone and gaze had both shifted toward the ceiling, “we understand you may wish to explain fully the, ah–necessity–driving your decision. I’d advise against it, personally. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, you were invited on merit and are volunteering to serve your country. You were not inducted.” Here he concluded by summoning and reassuming the broad smile he was never long without. “We’ll have further contact soon.”
Will hesitated. The tone signaled dismissal: the interview, brief after all, was ended. Mingo had reseated himself and begun ticking some kind of checklist, ignoring him. The professor took a half step toward the door, and then turned back. He felt ill, and his reason had failed him. But he had a last tactic to try.
“Colonel,” he called, affecting a firmness belied by every nerve in his body, “Surely you don’t expect this kind of thing to remain a secret? If even a handful of men are drafted, the public. . .”
“It’s not a secret, son.” Mingo did not bother to look up, intent upon the flat plane of his desk surface. “You’ll see that by the end of the day. But you’ve had some intelligence training, so I’m sure you understand that any dissentive talk won’t do anyone any good. You don’t want that kind of trouble. As for the acquisition, er, reactivation of certain former assets,” Mingo again smiled his smile, the one that came out when he imparted some bit of his wit or wisdom, “You’ll find the vast majority will support us. That’s what makes democracy so noble and worth defending. The public know their own best interests are served by following their leaders, so they freely choose to do so.” The cigar had been replaced by the pen in his left hand. “Good day, Lieutenant.”
Will meekly accepted the finality which accompanied Mingo’s statement—he had defeated his guest by strength of pure conviction—so turned, and walked out. He closed the office door behind him in silence, and found a part of the corridor brightly lit up, directing his egress. He trudged up a flight of stairs and emerged somewhere among a dozen identical office doors at the back of the large hive of the processing room. Again the bright illumination stabbed at his eyes, probably the last part of his body not already aching. Business had gotten brisk. The workers, in their various uniforms, now moved actively and barely an empty seat remained among the enlistees. Another long day of routine lay writ on their faces, but for Will, a veil unfolded itself between him and the world.
He wound his way mechanically to the glass doors in front, passing again the ancient figure of the janitor on his stepladder. Now the man had a four foot box of florescent tubes propped on end between his feet, slowly but inevitably replacing the ones in the fixtures, one at a time. “See you Monday,” he muttered, to no one in particular. He bent to grope for a new tube and now Will noticed his eyesballs had a lacerated, short-circuited look. He passed on, outside. The air had grown much cooler, with the wind picking up in unnatural strength. In the distance, some trees were bodily stripped of their small, new leaves. The sweat under his clothes chilled the man, during his long walk back.
Wait until Nexus hears, he thought, but this long course wearied him and he veered away from it before he could fix his resolve. Something happened, during his return to his car, to further derail him: trying unsuccessfully to shake the kinks out of his legs and back, he thought he glimpsed a man following him. He couldn’t be sure, but Mingo’s claim about the FBI, originally so absurd-sounding, nested in his brain like a scorpion in the cool of night. So he darted unexpectedly into a coffee shop on the edge of the city, seated himself, and kept vigil through the large plate glass window. There were several passers-by, and he spied a man–fortyish, in khakis and a polo shirt–halt momentarily for no apparent reason, and then move on up the block. Hardly the trademark dark sunglasses and suit federal agents had once favored, before the age of global terrorism had come to the United States, Will smiled grimly. The petty victory gave him small satisfaction: you’re made, pal.
The longing to rush home and to confide in his wife, to have her sympathy and her strength to lean on, returned. In spite of that, he sat motionless at the counter, ordered coffee. Stirred, and stared into it. Refill. Then lunch. More coffee. He had truly become anxious. It had nothing to do with visions of being shipped overseas and shot full of holes, or having chemical agents eat his flesh away, or capture and torture. Those were a younger man’s fears. Something else, something worse, scratched and probed, dug, and threatened to sting.
The clock’s hands began to weigh it down. Afternoon now. He ignored the waitress’ stares, and then her shift changed. Wanting the time to figure it all out was part of it. Right and wrong: how much would such distinctions ultimately enter in? Less than legality, probably. But he knew Nexus: born smart and born passionate. That made her dangerous just now. She would want to protect him and attack this problem as a legal expert would. Wasn’t it unconstitutional–or something–to draft a thirty-nine year-old veteran for military service? But then again, he well knew, it would not be the first time in history that such a thing had been done. And the induction process had never been strictly random; in fact, high selectivity defined it, practically if not officially. Well, nothing in the Constitution about that; it would take research. He kept meandering over such equations, but the bottom line kept underscoring itself: he wanted time to decide for himself what to do. . .before his woman geared up to save him.
Perhaps he didn’t need saving. Maybe he did have a duty. Not under the law, no, but—if he really could help, did he have the moral right to leave his work for others?
In a way the FBI, or simply the specter of the FBI, made this posture of delay easier. Will could not believe they had gone as far as to bug the house; weren’t they merely collecting updated data on him? Mingo had not revealed enough. Yet he at least confirmed Will’s sense lately that, yes, something lurked in his periphery. But he doubted that a federal agency with their kind of caseload would commit much in the way of resources to him. He must have seemed to them, at worst, a potential crank who might editorialize to the University public or try to get on 20/20 with the story. Or start a court suit with his lawyer wife. There were little half-events in his personal history that suggested he might go so far, but if the analysts were doing their jobs they’d recognize his disobedience had always been civil, private, and quiet. And if he were right about their perception of him, then he knew silence was the key to selling it. Loud arguments with his wife would worry them. If things looked calm on the surface, they might just give him room to breathe.
That night, when the couple normally settled down after dinner by watching a TV sitcom or two, Will remarked that he wanted to see how the weather was shaping up, and switched over to the News. The sky had proceeded to darken all day, since he had returned from his meeting with the Colonel. When he had reappeared in his sweatsuit at 3 p.m., Nexus was stirring about the kitchen, putting away some lunch supplies. She must have risen from her customary weekend nap a few minutes earlier. Her eyes looked like she hadn’t slept in a week: but freshly showered now. She had done her light hair down in a way that always made him want to creep behind her and smell it, pinned partially back by one of the many ornamental barrettes collected in the town’s antique shops. His own appearance was somewhat remarkable: by now, the perspiration had dried his hair back in a dark tangle and also into his sweats, he hobbled a bit on cooled muscles, and he smelled. Glancing up, twice, from the low cupboard as he closed the kitchen door, she wrinkled her mouth in semi-amusement, and offered an anachronistic “Good morning,” in the tone which, in their married idiom, translated into a question: “I missed you today. Where have you been?” It had been a few semesters since he gave up Saturday courses. Grabbing a clean glass from the dish rack, he volunteered the explanation. “I thought I’d go for a jog,” he dropped the notion casually, patting a hand on her shoulder as he passed her to the refrigerator. “Then lunch at the diner.” He was relying on the fact that she knew, or should have known from her retired father, what that meant: ran into at least one of his golf buddies, possibly more, and how those bull sessions had a way of getting strung out into two hours. Of course, his list of friends was not extensive. The juice container stood in front, but he craved something less acidic, opting instead to draw some cold water from the filtrator.
Her brow wrinkled, but she did not miss a beat from her task of slicing cucumber on the counter. She was already thinking about supper. “You’re kidding. With your bad knees?”
“It’s just shin splints,” he shrugged. He himself had believed so for years. He sat and drank as a matter of stage business, because the earlier glass of orange juice, combined with the banana, the burger from the diner, and the many cups of coffee, was burning his stomach, and he hated just standing there explaining himself. He had FBI listeners in the back of his mind, but really he needed to make the jog seem less incredible. “I was thinking of trying it out again, to lose weight.” He hoped this would satisfy her. She was always asking him to eat more fruit and vegetables, and had hinted at walks and exercise, though she was too kind to explicitly notice the twenty or thirty pounds he had put on since their wedding day.
She looked skeptical, setting her own place at the counter with a small salad. They rarely ate the same things, or at the same time. “How far did you go?”
“Hmm. Too far, really.” Her tomato looked good to him now. He reached out for it and she mock-slapped his hand. “I’ll have to take it easy for a day or two,” he added.
Nexus let the matter go with a wry “Just be careful,” and modified the snack-making to suit him. She did offer, minutes later, catching a good whiff of him and after suggesting a shower, an additional remark: “So the guys must have made pretty good fun of you, running man.” He returned her look blankly, knowing it, but not registering.
“At the diner?” she prodded.
“Oh, yeah. I’ll have a hard time living it down.”
Okay. She had been a married woman long enough to know that little privacies are all part of the tapestry, that most mysteries unravel in time.
So when Will changed to, and sat through, the entire news program that evening, he hoped she’d write it off as a mood he was in. TV had always been a compromise for the two, and she disliked the news because she had to deal with much of it, tangentially, in research at work. Fortunately, she had gotten behind in her magazine subscriptions, and had several in her lap, paging through them leisurely. Saturday was her night to relax. He gazed at her sidelong, and a sensation of self-pity crept though him as she smiled innocently at some photos. She didn’t notice he had the national news channel on, with its deeply professional and charismatic anchorman, such a contrast to the local newsguy, but hardly the efficient way to get local weather.
The lead story was what he hoped for, coverage of the Middle-eastern conflict. A second look at the same footage of the four American bodies confirmed Will’s earlier impressions. Definitely infantrymen–whether Army or Marines, he still couldn’t tell. Then, new visions flashed onscreen, of massive Sea-Stallion helicopters offloading troops near the ocean shore, and the anchorman pointed out that the conditions of this conflict ruled out any intensive bombing strategy. Instead, some ground troops were being introduced today–a “peacekeeping force.” The areas of unrest were so densely populated with civilians that this was the only viable short-term strategy, Will surmised. His attention was arrested by a single, passing sentence: The president had already activated several stateside reserve units and members of his staff were calling for consultation with elder “advisors” from the Gulf War. No mention was made of the permanent commitment to the region Mingo had credited the president with. The matter was, so far, being handled as a local operation with no grander political implications: possibly the U.S. Aircraft had been shot down by rebel elements. Further investigation was required. The report lasted four minutes and finished. They followed it up with canned editorial material on the president’s foreign policy, which until now had been much more economically than militarily oriented. Filler. For Will, the news was over.
“Huh,” he grunted, too loudly. Had he meant to do that? Nexus sat scanning pages for unique gardening ideas.
“What’s that?” she said, absorbed.
“These four kids got killed near the Gulf. Looks like they’re starting up again over there.”
She raised her eyes to the TV. By now, clips from the president’s speech of the morning replayed themselves. “Where you were stationed? I saw that in the paper. I wish those people would learn to get along.” She returned her attention to the multicolored layouts before her.
This lack of interest surprised him, offended him, even as he realized that, a few days earlier, he would not have even bothered, himself, to turn the channel and learn this much. He told himself not to start, to just not talk. “Four American kids died today. When I was there, we’d go weeks without any real casualties. I have a bad feeling. . . Ground troops,” he trailed off.
Nexus put her magazine down. The repeated reference to his own experience caught her attention. “I’m sorry,” she said, observing his hand clenching. She made a slight move to take it, but somehow didn’t. “All I meant was it’s a shame our boys have to get hurt to keep those people from killing one another.” She paused, perhaps wondering that such a topic should drop out of the blue sky, into their routine. “I don’t see why people have to go to war over their religious differences. It never solves anything.”
“It’s not just that,” he said, shaking his head. No ignorance had, until now, appalled him less than his own. “I don’t know. When I was there, all they could say was we were fighting for oil. I’m an American. I teach history, for crying out loud. But it’s American history. I was just so glad to get away, I guess I’ve always been–too busy– to find out what I was there for in the first place.”
His wife watched him, as if he might go on. Will paused, then shrugged. He shifted, put his feet up, aimed the remote control and changed the channel. She stared. Not knowing what further to say, she said nothing and returned to her reading.
That night, in bed, some thing lay between them, even in sleep. A misunderstanding, perhaps, or even a void, an absence. Will, in fact, had been thinking of reaching out to touch her too. But today they seemed like strangers. What hurt him most was that the shrug had been his, not hers. They were dreaming already, both the same as it happened, that dream in which one desperately wanders, seeking something in the house but forgetting just what it is, and not finding it.
The next day, Easter, Will woke thinking of his father. He and Nexus had no children of their own; that meant no egg hunting, no rabbits. Normally, Will visited the old man’s grave on Memorial Day in early summer and Veteran’s day in November, but he still wanted to talk, and he had only one coherent thought during the night. He felt no one living would understand. So he brushed off Nexus’s offer to accompany him, murmuring that it was an ugly day, he’d be back in an hour, and made the short drive to the vet’s cemetery on the other side of their little township. It slept, deserted this early, but he preferred the stillness, the silence, and his suffering.
He would not allow himself to think much about what he was doing, and so when he arrived and left his car parked down by the open iron gate and climbed the long, grassy, hill to where his father lay inconspicuously buried among scores of others with identical stones, he discovered he had forgotten to bring anything. He had meant to stop for flowers, something. The low headstone stood flanked by the two tiny American flags he had stuck deep into the earth last Fall, casualties of the ravages of winter. The cheap dye had run into the ground. A strong breeze rippled them, and he wondered how they stood it. It made so depressing a sight now that he plucked them out, stuffing them inside his windbreaker, and the plot showed that much more lonely.
His father had been involved in Vietnam when Will was a toddler. He spent two years, doing. . .what? Will did not really know. It was during the very early ’60s, before Lyndon Johnson incorporated the whole enterprise. The official word was that Kennedy had sent in several hundred military “advisors” to assess the threat from the Communists; combat in those days was more limited, mostly espionage, prosecuted by black operators. Some CIA, some paramilitary, and others. To the Vietnamese, it was a minor ebb in the thousand-year tideflow of war. His father was mixed up in all that somehow. He had managed to survive his time in-country, returned, and resumed his life. Two rows of ribbons and sergeant’s stripes adorned his dress uniform, with a rumor of a presidential letter of commendation inside the pocket, all of which disappeared into the dust of his bedroom closet. He went out to some meetings at the American Legion post, and seemed to be well-respected and liked around town. Certain people–other vets, people who knew the war from inside–were even a bit deferential when they met him. The local firechief addressed him, not by name, but by his former rank until the day he died. As for the war, it went on for many years, but Will could not remember much mention of it, or events connected directly to it, from his childhood. The adults in his life had been shielding his young sensibilities.
His father might easily have gone into business or politics, but he had little formal education and less interest in public matters. His first and only foray into public service, as a shop steward, ended abortively. A welder by trade, he labored in the nearby General Motors plant for a dozen years, becoming an inspector with a future before him. But combining circumstances–a very poor year for the company, and major union grievances over insurances–ended that: the plant closed up with a lot of others, the jobs went south, or out to Canada and Mexico. The community was devastated and Will, Sr. took it harder than most. They might have moved away, but somehow did not. He got what work he could for a few years. And one day he sat dead in the morning, in his shirtsleeves on the porch, of heart failure. It was the worst winter in years then, snowing every day in November. The ground was so hard that, in January when the old man died, they had to put his body in storage until it thawed. The church service proceeded around an empty coffin, and when they did actually bury his father’s remains, he and his mother made the trip a second time, out of decency she said, but no minister came, and nothing was said; just unfinished business put to rest.
That afternoon, the boy Will had gone off into the woods without telling anyone. He carried a paper grocery bag under his arm. He leaned his gaunt body against a tree, swaying in the cold Spring, wrapped in a barn coat that the old man had worn to deflect welding slag, and steadily drank down the bottled beer that had ice clogging the necks before he could swallow half a dozen. He found some trash in a burned-out truck near him. Among the refuse lay an old dartboard, the kind hung in taverns. Will propped the target against another tree, nearby. Every time he downed a beer, he tossed and smashed the bottle, from a distance, against it. As the hours passed and the day grew colder and he felt more and more sober, he drank faster and his throws grew harder and more accurate. The crash of exploding glass made him grit his teeth and laugh, and each time he heard it he felt a little piece of his pain break off. Later, he woke up and found himself in the same spot; darkness had fallen and his fingers and toes and face were frighteningly numb. The stars only knew how close he had come. He peeled himself up, trudged home and threw himself into bed, hoping he would never wake up. His mother had been anxious for him, but let his disappearance wordlessly go.
Will’s mother managed, through extraordinary effort beyond the meager insurance benefit, to scrounge the final fifteen months of mortgage payments together, and paid off a dilapidated house which they could not sell, in the middle of a region with hardly so much as a hardware store for needed supplies.
Twenty-five years ago now. A couple of nebulous years in high school. The college that admitted him on grants represented one of the only relatively stable institutions of the district, saving the few little towns around it from utter ruin, and then Will had escaped into the service and sent home most of the money, little as it was, and his mother had survived into old age. Her son returned to live close to her and resume his education, and by loaning himself through graduate school and, in turn, becoming an academic, was able to insulate himself against the general economic conditions and earn a decent living. He had fixed up his mother’s house on weekends, followed by one for himself, immediately after his wedding.
Wind flattened the green grass. Clouds glowered. The son stood over his father’s grave, and wondered what the old man would think of him now. Would he approve of his returning to this place, of his career, of his marriage? And what would he say about this new situation, the latest mess Junior had gotten himself into? He had been, before the plant closed, a bear of a man who knew how to hug and how to deliver a whipping, sometimes within minutes of each other, and he had plenty of occasions to do so. Clearly, the boy knew where to find trouble. But he had also brought real hope to the father’s life. Will remembered the time, when he was ten, that his father had brought home a deer rifle and taught him how to shoot at a local range. It was a hunter’s weapon, no .22 caliber toy, but the real thing. He wanted his son to respect and learn the proper use of firearms. It hurt the boy’s shoulder terribly to fire it, and left an ugly black and blue bruise the next day, but Will would never have mentioned it. He made several good shots early and never failed to hit the target somewhere, and his father had patted him on the back at just the point when tears might have started to leak from his eyes, and said they’d done a good morning’s work, it was time to go home.
Maybe it was the promise of better things that he represented to his father that brought Will to the grave comparatively often. He knew many people who could have barely found their parents’ burial sites. Why then did he feel that he had let his father down, that disappointment could be his only judgement if he were still alive? It was irrational, the son knew: he could never live up to his father’s legacy as a military man, one that had a semi-mythical, unverifiable, and therefore unimpeachable air about it, but otherwise Will had “made good,” as the world called it. He had married a fine woman of modest but respectable background, gotten a good education which led to one of the best careers available in that area. No children, though, but. . . in ways, he still felt like a kid himself, wandering out here because he didn’t know the right thing to do. He had rarely agreed with his father, but at least there had always been a defined position there.
He blindly read the inscription on the headstone. Not much there, but the rank and letters U. S. ARMY declared in no uncertain terms how he would be remembered by others. He summoned an image of his father’s face before him now, a little stern, hair immaculate, always clean-shaven, a man of brooding intentions and actions. It both attracted and frightened Will, staring back at him. He wished that the apparition might beckon him toward it, and speak. And that he might understand what it had to say.
Something triggered the rain. A critical mass reached by a last half-ounce upon hundreds of tons of accumulated vapor, perhaps, or an electrical misfire in a random collision of charged molecules, or a shifting of air density by the insect launched from a blade of grass at Will’s feet–what tips such a balance? The clouds, pregnant too long, now delivered giant drops, fast and hard and wailing. Darkness came hard after. But Will stood unflinching, head slumped down as the earth covering his father began pooling up into a little, grassy pond, mocking him with its opacity. He knelt on his haunches and touched the cool, white stone and irrelevantly brushed off some mud spattered there. The engraved letters which named his father had filled with water, and the drops on his glasses made it impossible now for the child to read them. Finally, he turned away, and marched slowly down the hill, never feeling so much like an orphan.
In their years together, Nexus had never really slept through Will’s morning escapes. Today, her eyelids parted the least bit as her husband slipped from their bed, a hint of gray gleaming out, but no other sign betrayed her state of rising consciousness. He had again failed to pull the maneuver completely off. Her responses ranged from being touched by his kind, if awkward, attempts at stealth, not wishing to disturb her, to genuine bemusement that he should believe her that dead to the world. Her lips moved around a light exhalation.
She resisted allowing herself back to full awareness today, lingering in the half-dreamworld where one has control over everything except the gate of awakening. It must inevitably open. And then, light, dazzlement, and—like one about to emerge from a cave into the open air, but turning back at the last instant—she was about her house, and there was the party mess to clean up. She groaned. Exhausted, she had left the chaos to deal with in the morning, knowing she would regret it. Will’s movements this morning through the rooms had telegraphed more than the usual pre-commute shuffle; might he be out there doing some of the chores? How sweet! And yet, she rose and discovered he had not disturbed a single vessel. Well. It was, after all, a party for him. Was it fair that he should have to clean up after his own party?
She had just time to dump the dozens of bits of uneaten food and skim the top layer of dishes, loading them into the dishwasher and punching the button. The machine hummed to life and the rush of hot water pounded an air bubble, shaking the plumbing in the walls. A bleary look around—was there anything worthy to call breakfast? Who could believe that a dozen people could leave such wreckage? Not a bit of crockery, plate, or silverware left clean. She remembered: they had dined as if it were their last night on Earth. Back to the bedroom. Oh, damn, the soap! Another trip to rummage under the kitchen sink, and the unpleasant odor of bleach bellowed out at her. Something leaking? She’d leave him a note. Hurriedly, detergent was poured into the washer, steam rolling out, the door slammed shut for the second time. It was not in Nexus’ nature to run late, and she had fallen behind already. She dressed and flew out the door to her office. The rest would have to wait for later.
Fair to say that, between orchestrating and executing the secret plans for the party over the last several days—preparing and hiding the food over at her Dad’s house, arranging some entertainment, and intercepting replies from two guests who failed to understand quite what “surprise” means—and the demands at the office, Nexus felt as if she were flailing in a whirlwind, and half a night’s sleep did little to relieve her sense of unreality. The notion had been, as Will was a notorious spoil-sport, not to wait until he turned forty and allow him to preempt any special celebration she might plan. She would hold the big party this year, and—she felt sure–he would enjoy it in spite of himself. Hosting it on Thursday night, the actual night of his birthday, meant a logistical nightmare, but also aided the well-meant subterfuge. Who holds a party on Thursday? She had no conception that he had, in fact, suspected; but he never let on.
Nexus arrived at her place of business with the general stream of lawyers through the main doors of the firm’s offices—for her, late. She disliked this, not only because among the crowd of these men she knew few on friendly terms, having done their professional bidding without the least social connection, but because she privately thought of herself as one of the most vital people in the concern, by virtue of her position. Her new, official job title read “Head of Research,” though in truth she had always made, an occasional day- or week-intern aside, the whole of the department. Many people counted on her, whether they acknowledged it or not. The first internal calls and e-mails to her desk began to trickle in around 8:30, and she prided herself on never failing to pick up the phone. Her presence before 9 am made, in fact, no formal requirement of her job; however, she had spent two years arriving over an hour early, and the legal personnel, and more pertinently, their assistants, had gotten used to the habit and come to rely upon it. She adjusted her tortoise-shell hairclip in a moment alone, having briskly turned a corner ahead of the crush, hoping her appearance no reflection of her mood. A digital clock blared red—8:57 AM–down from the wall.
New duties had been lately thrust upon her beside all this, and—uuh!–now this latest nonsense about moving her office. Ascending the two dark stairwells above ground level—preferable to a crowded elevator, especially at this hour—had never endeared her modest workspace to her, exactly. But now that an era might be ending, she felt nostalgic, and the benefits of the old arrangement outweighed the prospects of the new. She arrived and jabbed her key in her door, and upon opening it immediately discovered that her three filing cabinets, in which she kept the references and forms which she used daily and needed close to hand, had already been removed by the workmen, following her yesterday’s early departure on last-minute party errands. She murmured something that came out “Sugar,” and then tried to hang her coat on thin air, dropping it. Other things were gone —the comfortable sitting chair ostensibly for visitors, seldom used except by her, to recline and elevate her stockinged feet, when she needed a few minutes from out behind her desk or in the stacks downstairs. During those brief respites, with the door barred, she could close her eyes and regather her strength. In place of the missing items, she found something that, when she marked it, nearly made her scream: a thick manila envelope, corded and marked INTER-OFFICE. It lay on her lamp table (the one personal luxury she afforded herself—the pretty shaded lamp that normally occupied it had already disappeared,) the latest in a series of stupid nuisances that stood between her and the useful work she was able to do less and less of lately; she suppressed a violent impulse to throw it out the—well—into the nearest shredder. She stopped; she shook her head. Wake up!
Here raveled an odd moment: a crux, or fray. Many people, contrary to the popular myth, do not uniformly perceive Time as a linear series of events, or Experience as a catalog of sensory impulses. Often, something akin to a wave of accumulated intimations, visceral emotions, and intuitions, form the organizing principle of such consciousnesses. Past and future share a refracted face, beckoning nether and forth. Both the dead and the unborn make claim; and can compel as much as the living Now. Until later that day, Nexus had never had an office window.
Her new office featured an impressive one. It opened large and sunny over the streets below, the panorama of the surrounding blocks not unpleasant from five stories up. Another might have envied such a space. By the end of that day she found herself its new inmate, closeted between the glass and her larger and more elegant desk. The room had been tasteful paneled, though painfully clashing with the institutional file cabinets she had used for so long, and organized just as she preferred. She would have no choice but get rid of them, transferring their contents into the shiny polished oak ones that stood next to them. Oak veneer, as it turned out. And not as deep. On the far wall before her hung a mammoth, abstract print. The colors blurred and swaled together. What in the world was it? It reminded her of a large cannon exploding at both ends. No time to ponder today, except to note that she did not like it. Had she the authority to remove it?—have to check on that. Something soothing to replace it. A little fish, perhaps: a live one. Even better, would a modest tank with green and willowing ferns be something the decorator would allow? Some harmless fellow creature, to confer and commiserate with.
The window, opening large behind the desk, made eyestrain necessary to see the computer screen in the morning, unless the shades were drawn tightly shut. And though it certainly promised a nice change to be able to let a little fresh air in, as for the rest, well, it was simply more than she needed. More remote, for starters. Everything had receded farther away: both outside the room and inside it. She would need to plan her excursions to the library stacks much more efficiently. Her good chair did not look right where the men had left it, next to the door. She tried moving it into several spots, to no avail. The whole amalgamation between the old and the new threatened failure.
Sitting, catching her breath, she had a vague memory of years ago. When she had interviewed for the job, she had worn a suit bought off the rack, last minute. It looked fabulous in the store, but the skirt hadn’t after all fit exactly right in the hips, nor the jacket in the bust, which made her more than normally nervous. She kept pulling down at the hem beneath the table. And when they offered her the position, she decided to upgrade her wardrobe, and ended by throwing the whole outfit away. No amount of alterations could save it for her. She spared one more look around the new space, booting up her battered computer while she did so. But she had not the time, today, between transporting her own machine up in the elevator in a utility cart, setting it up—she would count on no one else to do this, correctly and expeditiously—and dealing with the contents of the manila envelope over the course of the day, to attend to, as ladies of a bygone era might have phrased it, the details of her closet.
In a week she would not be able to tell exactly, or even nearly, what besides the computer move consumed the hours of that first day. The Head of Research disposed, with characteristic rapidity, of the business in many of the so-called priority files. The odor of other people’s inconvenience clung to them—items they could not trouble themselves over—details, details. Missing details were her specialty, what they paid her for. To recover the lost. And yet, even for her, things sometimes could run together.
Four o’clock brought something else she was unused to—the milling and chatter of the occupants of nearby offices back toward the outside, scattering for the weekend. Her old office lay out of the way of such bustle and traffic. She had not even thought yet of departing herself, though office protocol did allow it on Fridays. The envelope had gone, her work on it completed, with the office runner a few minutes earlier. She tugged the shade and hoisted the heavy sash several inches, until it was arrested by its stop. Air! Now she found herself staring out past the streaky surface of the window, observing the people in suits and pullover sweaters dispersing across the concrete to their shiny cars and cabs, half-a-hundred feet below. She felt too spent to move just yet, might have slept right there. She smiled wistfully at a thought that floated by. What do goldfish dream of—to be outside their bowls, or merely in bigger bowls, and bigger? She chuckled at that.
Nexus felt barely capable, and not at all desirous, of dining out, but Will seemed not merely to expect but to revere the excursion, a tradition they could not break. Tonight, of course, nothing would do but to celebrate, officially, her move up the ladder. To her husband, these ventures in general represented the reward for a hard week’s work. And of course, it would allow further avoidance of the remaining kitchen mess, as well as preparation of a new meal. She tried a shower, and that helped a little. And so, as she slipped new undergarments on, and then one of her good dresses fresh from dry-cleaning, one more appropriate for evening than her business frock, so too she donned the smile that he loved so dearly to bask in.
The restaurant, a favorite of Will’s, was nothing particularly fancy, a solid, family-style place that would not accept reservations, and the wait loud and long and nearly intolerable to her. But when they finally sat, they got a good table with a window and not too distant from the lighted fireplace, exactly where she would have wanted. The stars could even be felt, glimmering outside, above it all. Will looked handsome in the wavering, low light. She slumped imperceptibly, nearly too fatigued to prompt, though he chatted uncharacteristically for him, a bit high and edgy. No, nothing special at school today; he’d rather hear about her big day. Nevertheless, he went on talking. She accepted it gratefully. She allowed him to order them both a drink, and it warmed her going down. Even freshly scrubbed and made up, she thought, if she looked anything like she felt, she must cut a haggard figure. Perhaps the least bit older about the eyes. In a strange way, Nexus longed to hear him say so—show a little concern—but he was a dear and held her hand across the table and even touched her foot intentionally with his, once or twice. If he ever noticed that his sweet girl was getting on in years, he never would have mentioned it. He told her she looked lovely, and she wished she could feel happy and take a compliment in the simple way it was intended. Then she sipped some more wine and his voice lost its sometimes dissonant quality and the whole evening precipitated the velvety coolness that her sheets and pillows would wrap around her in an hour. On another night, she could not have wanted more.
All day long, as Will came and went, Nexus remained indoors, and the mist from revels of two successive nights grudgingly evaporated from both the house and her mind. She cleaned. There could never be enough of that. In between times, she fielded several telephone calls from other women, thanking her for inviting them and offering to reciprocate at indeterminate times, which she indeterminately accepted. Summer would bring its share of social obligations. This telephone ritual she was long accustomed to, and performed almost without thought. The details of the decorations and the food and preparations were duly complimented and modestly disavowed in their turn. If an odd feature of these discourses remained that the subject of the celebration, her husband, rarely ever came up, no one seemed to mind.
She even had a drop-in guest or two in the late morning, ladies who had waited a decently sufficient thirty-six hours to retrieve their valued casserole dishes and other paraphernalia. It made a good excuse for visitation. But fewer came than one might have expected, in the wake of such a bash. It had been a very long time, since childhood really, that Nexus had a true friend—someone she could grapple to her heart. Sometimes she felt so alone with her thoughts. They rambled round her brain in an effort to become words, often ending deep in her stomach, like shards knocked from the base of an iceberg. When one had a good career, a home, love, the prospect of a family, what was there left to want? And yet, something abode. It orbited out there, beyond the plane of the elliptic, a shadow-body so insubstantial at times that its elusiveness frustrated her, at others it hove so close it threatened to collide with her. . .
One woman arrived and, somehow, stayed awhile. This remarkable personage was from Nexus’ office. She claimed readiness to jump up at Will’s return, but Nexus needed the break, and somehow the cup of coffee turned into two, and then an impromptu lunch. She was known as Mrs. DeFraine—Madeline, now. She was a lawyer with whom Nexus consulted once in a while, maybe the closest thing she had at the office to a mentor or friend. However, the younger attorney did not entirely trust her. She enjoyed gossiping a little too much, and had a habit of raising a diamond-ringed finger to her lips when one stood in the other’s office on an errand. She might close the door discreetly to share what she had heard, or to ask. None of it was malicious, of course, and Nexus did like the brusque woman—except for that one part of herself that did not. She seemed never as loud as when she harbored a secret. Nexus had been mostly brought up by a laconic father, because her mother had problems and the children were not allowed to add to them. Her father’s code of conduct did not include muckraking about other people behind their backs—he insisted it damaged the speaker more than anyone else.
“There’s something big in the works up there, I guarantee it,” Mrs. DeFraine–Madeline–was saying, helping herself to some marmalade. It did not look convincingly homemade to her–though the label on the jar represented that it was–and only this very mistrust could have made her comfortable eating it. “I haven’t seen the old fossil around so much in the twelve years I’ve been there. And the other one—ooh,” she shook her head. “He gives me the creeps. I don’t even like to say his name,” and she raised her palm a bit when she saw her companion about to utter it.
“I’ve never formally met, uhh, him. Either of them, actually,” her hostess replied, neutrally. “I was interviewed by Adder.”
“Oh, but I think they’ve finally noticed you. At least that one has.” This was meant as a provocative statement, and so Madeline let the air hang dead a bit while she chewed her roll, lipsticked mouth irreproachably closed. It tasted delicious, and before she ate the last bite she had already swiveled an eye to the basket, choosing the next one.
Her companion proved not a very good player. Instead of begging for the answer to the obvious question, she merely raised an eyebrow in the slightest gesture of interrogation, but otherwise waited patiently for an enlargement. Madeline, after downing half a glass of water, had to supply her own enthusiasm.
“Well, I think I heard him ask his ‘girl’ about you. You know the one I mean. Although, he’s had so many over the years, I can hardly keep track myself. They start to all look the same.”
“Margie?” Nexus wondered aloud. It was indeed a huge firm, lawyers like herself and Madeline forming less than half the personnel, but she tried to keep track of those she dealt with from time to time. She even knew the names of the two interns in the mailroom. She need not ask why Madeline referred to Margie as a girl. Young, attractive—not too unlike Nexus herself, ten, or perhaps fifteen, years earlier. She herself hadn’t lost any of her natural beauty, yet, but she could no longer keep up with the Margies of the world, as-yet possessed of the first exuberance of youth.
“Yes, that’s her. I think she’s still in college part-time, if you can believe it. Anyway, remember a few weeks ago, you and I had to carry those boxes up because the janitor was off sleeping somewhere?”
Nexus giggled. Her companion’s remark was typical of her, just short of mean-spirited, but comical in its lilt and irony, sometimes intended, others not.
“I think Harry was on what some people call his lunch hour. But go ahead.”
“I’m sure. I lingered for a minute after you did because I heard his voice behind me. To tell you the truth, it froze me solid. I fussed around with the boxes and I never turned around, but–it was him alright. I could have sworn I heard him say your name to her, but I didn’t catch what she said back.”
Nexus chuckled again, this time more softly. “My name? He wouldn’t even know it.”
“No dear, I mean your first name. Do you imagine I could make a mistake like that? It’s so unusual, and pretty,” she added.
“Hunh,” was all Nexus could find to say. It didn’t seem likely. Only rarely, it seemed, did anyone utter the name that had been so carefully chosen, years before.
They sat for a few moments in silence. Each took some sips from her tea. This time, Madeline had determined to let her hostess speak first.
“Well, I’m nobody there. I’ve been on fact-checking so long, I don’t know why they didn’t just move me right into the library.”
Madeline smiled. “Maybe you’re destined for bigger things.” And then she did not balk from adding, “Or maybe somebody destines you for them.”
They both gave a mock shudder, and shared what was, in retrospect, to be their final laugh together.
Talk drifted by degrees to marriage, and Madeline eased off and spoke less of herself. Her own coupling had become a matter of convenience years ago, and she had made peace with the fact. Her friend was younger and had not outgrown her hopes. And as part of that curious process of aging, although her own path was set, Madeline could still encourage hopes in another with a fair degree of genuineness.
For her part, Nexus did not mean to reveal much, but as the talk dribbled and then flowed from her, she found it felt better. She remained close on a few points—she really had no idea if Mrs. Defraine would not spread everything she heard. Chances were she would. But the younger woman nourished the vague scheme that, if she did not give up anything too interesting, her guest would keep her secrets, if for no other reason that they made for unremunerative storytelling.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t married so young. It seemed almost too late, at the time. Most of the girls where I grew up had been paired off, aeons before. But, now. . .I wonder if I was really ready,” Nexus heard herself speculating.
“Do you feel any more ready, now? I mean, if you were still single.”
Nexus screwed her mouth up and thought. “Hmm. . .I see what you mean. The thing was, my mother couldn’t wait, had been pestering me for years. It was one of the only days I’ve ever seen her happy in my life. My Dad, he kept pretty quiet about the whole thing. But once we got engaged it was almost as if a, well, a tide had picked me up and carried me along and I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to. You know what I mean?”
Madeline shrugged. She knew.
“Then we had our careers, the house, the stuff to fill the house. . .dusting the stuff that fills the house. . .” She put a hand in her hair and combed it and released a long breath, a laugh with no humor. She stared before her, out the window, through the trees and into a future that looked more and more certain every day.
“What about children?” Madeline was saying, never concerned with the delicacy of such questions, as she poured herself some hot water from the silver pot and replaced it on its squat tripod. It gleamed, brilliantly polished and just about the only thing Nexus had from her grandmother, dead for many years. At the query—which reached her ears as more of a riddle– she seemed to wake from a daydream, and sat silent for many seconds as Madeline’s tea brewed and the steam subtly undulated, scented with the leaves in her cup.
It was her turn to shrug. “Oh, we always meant to. It was one thing and another. Now we never talk about it.” Another pause. “Do you ever get the feeling with Miles, that, well, you don’t know him very well? Like he’s either too good for you or not good enough for you, but you look right at him and you have no idea which?”
Madeline stirred a smirk into her tea, along with two prodigious spoonfuls of sugar. “No, dear, I know exactly which it is.”
Talk ran clearer and faster in the shallows. She kept thinking her husband would walk in the back door, interrupt. Somehow, off her guard, she gave up a precious nugget: Nexus was not her given name. Not for the first time had Madeline remarked its unusualness, and that everything she had related about her mother seemed, well, usual. No, she never liked the name her parents gave her. Too formal-sounding, too. . .hmm, what could you say? It just didn’t fit her, as she saw herself, as what she wanted and meant to be. There was no freedom in it, no departure from tradition. Practically a boy’s name, anyway—or at least a matriarch’s, a sterile aunt’s. She suspected it had originated with her father, not her mother—either way, it would not do. And so, with the willful sureness of the young, it simply changed. Every new acquaintance received “Nexus,” she signed her school papers as such, and her Dad always used some endearment anyway. So nothing changed with him, and her mother by that time had begun to drop any and all conventional behavior, so her token resistance was short-lived. Though the replacement still attached itself to her father’s surname, she felt better after that. Her mother even indulged her wish at intervals, when not in the presence of the man of the house. And she married years later, so then even her father’s name was gone, or rather, written over. How had she chosen Nexus, so long ago, still a child really? A fact lost in the erosion of memory. And she never would tell Madeline the original name she had borne.
Two decades later, when she first heard mention of a man named William, groping daily in the argumentative convolutions of his dissertation, it seemed not unnatural that she should stumble across—by accident, on purpose–such a serious person in the public library. Her own work often took her there, not necessarily because of depth of the collections, but it lay out of the university way, and thus quiet. A standard introduction by a friend wouldn’t do. And she made it a point never to accept the invitations and flirtations from men who approached her; once was enough to learn that lesson. She sought friendship with a nice young man who wouldn’t have gone out of his way for a pretty girl just because she was pretty, but was minding his business. That being the case, his motives would not glare immediately suspect (she was learning about the finer points of motive in one of her pre-law courses).
He cut such a focused figure, surrounded at a large table with stacks of books and notes, so deeply intent in one volume that his nose nearly grazed the pages as he turned them. She might have stood there a quarter-hour and he would not have noticed her. He was leaner then, not skinny, his face clean-shaven and hair combed, wearing a blue sweater that barely hinted at taut muscles beneath. He must be about her age, she thought. She had gotten a late start at college, leaving the farm and going to work for several years after high school. She was very bright, and her grades had not been the best for exactly that reason. Neither had she found, among the home economics and mathematics and English courses, anything that called clearly out to her. Meanwhile, both her parents worked long days and the farm never seemed to make enough money to keep it in repair, so the only daughter labored a regular job and brought home a regular paycheck. Her Dad would not take money directly from her hands, but her mother was more practical about it. Their arrangement became an open secret. Eventually, she wanted someone of her own, with whom she could be more open. She loved her father dearly, but his conservatism reigned, to the point that a relationship with him became as ritualistic as tribute.
Nor did she find much to admire in the young blades—Dad’s cautionary term–at college, most of them younger than her by several years. When one would speak to her, she could look into his eyes and transport herself back to a time when she might take a job babysitting him.
Will appeared unlike them. She studied his profile while scanning bindings in a nearby stack, and imagined what his background and future might be. The codices around him looked like history texts: ancient civilizations, mainly? He occasionally jotted a note down on a pad beside him. Perhaps he would be a cultural anthropologist, on a fellowship to Great Britain. He might speak to her of the windy cliffs at Dover, and how the Romans landed there, and the bass of his voice would allude to the fact, without boasting openly of it the way other boys would, that, had he been there, things would have gone differently. Her mind drifted off into other fantasies, none of which included farming in any capacity. But she was not a girl to indulge herself in this way overmuch, and before long she forced herself to approach him, before he could fail to live up to her silly expectations, no matter who he might be. Word only had it that he was quiet and possessed gravity. He wore no ring, but, after all, he might be attached anyway.
He answered by announcing himself, with neither pretense nor modesty, a student. She had asked, lamely, if he worked there—he must, he had half the stacks piled in front of him. His voice issued low but distinctly non-British, with still a promising quality. As he realized she really had addressed him with a purpose, he half-stood in deference. That clumsy gesture, a detail so seldom seen but nevertheless half-reminding her of something, proved the best introduction he might have given. He added a half-smile, as if to supply what his first action lacked, in apology, and sat, returning to his book. It took another thirty seconds before he acknowledged that the stranger had settled into a seat at the table, intermixing her own cargo of stuff among his volumes.
“You look like you could use a break,” she said, not exactly smiling at him. Mocking, perhaps—yet still concern for his well-being. The sclera of his eyes had, plainly, branched into red rivulets.
In his thirty-odd years, Will had already lived a life belied by his neat appearance. She would later discover that, beneath his shirtfront, stretched a genuine six-inch scar across his chest, inflicted ten years earlier. It had not been the kind of young man’s existence that encompassed many women. Nexus could not have known, and it would be more years before he would admit to her, that nothing like this approach of hers had ever happened to him before. He was mildly good-looking, by her appraisal, and she assumed he must be approached as often as she, or nearly so. Still, whatever the case might have been, and though it had been a long time since he had been a boy, from the best dictates of his reason, he figured the books would still be there when he returned.
He took the break.
The golf game would have been hard to forget, their first official date. It had been prearranged for a week later. From his conservative demeanor, she had expected an invitation to dinner or a movie, so her preemptive and unorthodox suggestion came as a welcome surprise to him. She proposed it in response to an answer to her get-to-know-you questions: an activity he usually enjoyed solo. And the spring weather had broken. They met at the municipal course. Very modest as the grounds appeared before they had been put into summer shape, she could never picture her father at such a place. She spotted Will as she pulled in, hauling his weathered bag from the trunk of his car. She rolled down her own window, feathering the clutch and coaxing her temperamental little foreign sedan into a slot, next to his Pontiac.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be in a library or something?” she called. She smiled and reappraised his figure, at his age more rugged than slim, from behind her dark sunglasses. He half-raised his gloved right hand, in a humorous salute.
Nexus had never played the game. She had consumed a bit on television, though, in preparation, and Will had the sense and the respect to withhold all but the most basic advice. It was Tuesday morning and the course sprawled fairly empty, except for a few indulgent retirees. They took pull-carts and walked, enjoying the fresh air and the moist earth under their sneakers. If she—or he–had any anxieties about her first-timer’s ability, they soon vanished. He was strong and not awkward, just unpolished enough to rank as a middling amateur. She, in turn, was strong—no need to drive from the ladies’ tee, as she expounded during the morning about growing up on a farm—and just graceful enough to sign her card as a promising beginner. She would recall the talk, mostly, and the strolling about in the sunshine amid the imaginatively contrived landscaping, and the total absence of the smell of manure. He got her jokes, and that made her happy. She didn’t remember keeping score, nor did she remember him remembering.
She collapsed into slumber that afternoon, following Mrs. DeFraine’s departure, in much the same state of exhaustion as on the previous night, but she was restless and her sleep broken and fitful. It was half-past one o’clock in the afternoon. Since when did her husband take off for the day without calling? The TV left on, even at low volume, contributed a disruptive effect. She kept thinking she heard the screen door. Dread settled on her like an incubus.
Dread–of what? The promotion? Him? Where is he now? Not at school, grading, like he’ll tell me. He’s not. With that girl from the awards dinner last year who called him “Will”? Short hair, glasses, and obviously impressed by him. Just a kid though. Student? Or teacher? He introduced her but he couldn’t even remember her name, for a second. He’s so forgetful sometimes. Maybe he forgot to take his pill again. When was the last time I filled that prescription? Oh no, he’s been off that for awhile, the doctor said he doesn’t need it. He probably does. That was a bad doctor, we need a new one. Those girls though, they can latch on and weave their magic. He’s a little dumb that way. Men are all dumb that way. His work is worse than mine. But not her, there could be another one. . . .No, no way. He’s not like that. Is it me? What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like this? What’s wrong with me? He’s just off lately. I need to talk to someone about this, I’m going crazy. Who?
* * *
When the ancient men went off hunting or whaling or to war, what happened to the women? Just wait, and wait? Have affairs with the lesser men who remained, the too-old, the too-young, the too-cowardly, the lame and broken, the unprincipled, . . each other? Cook, sew, cry, worry, raise fatherless children. . .
* * *
When Will departed alone on his sojourn to the graveyard, braving the forbidding day, a holiday at that, Nexus could no longer ignore the faint patter on the roof of her credulity. Waking sensations had not nearly the disturbing power of sleeping fears, yet one could not ignore the obvious. After a moment’s consideration, she had offered to accompany him because, she felt, in the hallow of the place, she might channel a spill of his mood and mind. But he had refused her. He had delved deep into his own counsel.
Could he really be hiding something that mattered? The usual things occurred to her, but none of them rang true. He never showed much interest in other women, or anyone for that matter. His natural introversion only broke around her. She knew he loved her, and the thousand little ways a man will show it still had a warm, blood-pulse to them–no hint of pinhole leaks, as if in the hydraulic or pneumatic, that she had seen with other couples. The pair of them had money enough, and their careers were both satisfying, if demanding. Will was in good health as far as either of them knew. Yet, an unknown presence had infiltrated their home, a cold current close to the floor and around the ankles that hadn’t been before, just unexpected enough to raise the hair. And not just yesterday, and today.
She knew him well enough to know what his reaction would be if she released her torrent of questions. He would retreat further and further into silence. In the past, when this had happened, she had discovered simply giving him some time the best solution: he would eventually seek her out, to vent, complain, or even express his fears. It was much against her nature, but the best course would be to wait, and remain vigilant.
But now, having ruminated so far, it would be impossible for a wife not to notice the drove of little alterations to come in her husband’s behavior. Nothing alarming about any of them, really, but assembled, a slight distortion rippled the image of the man she had known. For one, in the ensuing week, he would take the mail in every day. As he had always arrived home from work an hour before she, he had frequently forgotten and either she would retrieve it herself later, or it would remain in the box until the next, or even the third, day. Now she invariably found the recptacle empty as she pulled her car into the driveway, the envelopes in a neat stack on the kitchen table. Not opened, though—his vigilance did not extend to paying the bills. Also, the change in his attitude toward his physical fitness was impossible to overlook. What she had twisted her mouth at as a short-lived lark, soon became regular, and then routine. The days were still mostly cold, especially in early morning, when he would rise before her for calisthenics in the back yard, or a jog, or both. The laundry piles mounted up with more rapidity because of this, filled with sweatpants and t-shirts and wet socks. She remarked on this, and, without a word, he immediately took on some of the laundering duties. Strange. And one day, when she rolled over onto a bicep harder than she was used to, she noted the change for the better, though she could not completely welcome it.
She also sensed winds shifting south at the office, as Mrs. DeFraine had intimated, and on this holiday morning she found leisure to sit and take her bearings. For one, it seemed so foreign in her office manager to favor her in any way. He, not unlike many others among the crew down there, had treated her with as much interest as one would the library furniture. Between this subtly altered perception of her work environment and that of her home, she could not help but wonder if the difference actually lay within her. Had she grown oversensitive, or paranoid—were her hormones out of balance? If she questioned people—Will, or anyone else—about the differences, she seemed to meet with good-natured denial every time. Her intuition must be misfiring. Was she getting old?
The building occupied by the firm housed an entire floor devoted to a research library that held not only law books, but much general reference material. The two senior partners differed in their opinions as to how much of the allocated budget should be spent on electronic storage and database subscription, and how much on bound–expensive–codex books. So far, the old gentleman had prevailed, and only three or four functioning computer terminals blinked in the far corners of the library. A large card-catalogue, entombing references in endless rows of wooden drawers, dominated the center. Nexus had long since become adept at employing it for searches and cross-references. Her primary duty at the firm involved double and triple-checking facts in contracts and briefs. Almost every other lawyer’s work had passed through her hands at one time or another, and she distinguished the careful ones from the careless, in columns, as scrupulously as on any other list in her brain. It had been through the negligence of one of the latter, in fact, that she had earned the approbation of the office manager several weeks ago. She hated to raise it, but she had noted a vagary in technical details of some importance–a matter purely of law, and thus interpretation–in a brief she had been given. Her task was simply to verify certain factual claims. Nevertheless, the flaw could potentially have cost the firm dearly, and so she brought the matter to the manager’s attention, with an attitude so apologetic she might almost have made the blunder herself. At first, he sniffed as she explained the situation, scanning the indicated page as carelessly if it were the lunch menu of the restaurant in which he dined regularly. Then he paused, and drew the document closer to his hatchet-like face. Finally, he indicated with a nod she should stand fast, and buzzed his intercom to direct his secretary in summoning the drafting attorney. Nexus would have beat a quick exit at that point, but she was forced to witness first-hand a demand for explanation from the lawyer, a young Yale commodity whose razor-sharp suit wilted considerably in the span of ten minutes, during a caustic dressing-down. Mr. Adder thrust the papers into his hands and summarily dismissed him, with a charge to “fix it.” The one up-side was that, although she stood quietly in a shadowy corner observing, her name was never mentioned. She would not wish Yale to have remarked her presence.
Her old, 3rd-floor office, dismal and cell-like as others might deem it (it had once housed nothing but boxes, containing countless reams of typewriter paper,) but due to the nature of her occupation, held the very convenient location adjacent to a little-used stairwell directly communicating with the law library, which consumed nearly the entire mezzanine and 2nd floor, overlooking the building’s lobby. She could thus, when confronted with a matter the networked computer could not readily or responsibly solve, exit her sanctum, to materialize down in the reference stacks in a matter of fifteen seconds from working at her desk. This she often did, and so avoided entirely the officially mandated procedure of putting paper requests to check out materials through the library intern. And as she was the person in the firm who relied most heavily on the book collection, indeed spent the bulk of her time among it and knew it most intimately, she had gained ex officio status as librarian, though no such position existed on the rolls. People who hadn’t even command of her name often solicited her help in locating material, when they made infrequent personal trips to use the special reference computers, or to examine materials that could not be waited for.
On a day shortly following the incident, the Wednesday of the party week, Mr. Adder dispatched his secretary to her with an invitation to visit him—immediately. The woman arrived a bit disoriented, thinking the third floor devoted entirely to meeting rooms, large and small. The lawyer-librarian left her tasks, and rode the elevator down two flights with her, to attend the manager in his ground-floor suite. He waited for her impatiently outside the double door, and, in the presence of his secretary, curtly informed Ms. Wyrd that she was being given a “try-out” in legal briefs, and that she would be relocated, that very day, to an office on the fifth floor. She stood, too stunned to protest. Some workmen would shortly arrive with dollies to retrieve her desk, file cabinets, and what little other furniture she had.
By close-of-business, she had indeed received a binder containing some briefs, but they were relatively straightforward ones. She nevertheless pored over them, attempting to banish any distracting thoughts. Still, her regular research work would continue to stream in during the ensuing weeks, and now she would be considerably inconvenienced at having to descend to the second floor, via the busy elevator, a half-dozen times daily, to do what she used to do at will via one flight of fire-stairs, and in seconds. More than once after that day, she would sneak, via the echoing stairwell, to three, to see what had become of her old office, which she sorely missed. Vacant, she ruefully remarked for a time. Eventually, a new shirt-sleeved inmate would reside there, a youngster whom she failed to recognize in the least and whose presence there may have had more to do with punitive, or at least neophyte, status, than any need he had for library access. She strode past him, staring out of the partly-shut door, to the elevator.
She made a point of all this, both what she already knew and what could only be predicted, to Will when she arrived home that same evening, but he merely raised an eyebrow–said it sounded like a promotion to him—showed they trusted her. She retorted ironically, that it was the kind of promotion that carried more work and responsibility, but no more money. Her office would be bigger and more nicely appointed, she had to admit that, and had a window that actually opened into fresh air when cranked, if not a view more pleasant than the parking lot. But that was better than nothing, she supposed.
Had she been dull enough to imagine that her move and her new responsibilities were solely the doing of the office manager, she would not have deserved what was in store for her. In fact, Adder, too, calculated the true importance of that particular document to the elder of the senior partners, whom he promptly sought out. Not so much by commission, as by omission, did he gather credit unto himself for the catch that his junior had made. However, Thomas Wright, esq., had personally shown himself a master of delegation, several years ago, by appointing the born bureaucrat Adder to the position he now occupied, one that put his particular skill-set to the best use. Wright also knew his underling’s limitations. Someone else’s hand and eye at work here, not difficult for the old man to surmise. He need employ no subterfuge or cross-examination—a matter of minutes, and some light-pressure but specific questioning, proved sufficient for the manager to give up the identity of his source. Ah, yes, the young woman working his collection of dusty books—he had observed her, distantly, handling them with the utmost care. And that was how the name of Nexus Wyrd first came to the pointed attention of the senior partners—for whatever information old gentleman came into possession of, his diligent colleague made sure to find out. A scant few dozen hours later, she found herself toiling on the floor directly below their personal suite of rooms, in the company of the junior partners, ensconced within the confines of her new office.