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Heaven or Hell?

I’ll keep this short.

Most Americans believe in hell and heaven.

I don’t blame them because they are living it, just not in the afterlife, but right now. They aren’t alone, as evidenced by the billion people who live below the United Nations’ poverty level. Being hungry every FUCKING day is living in hell.

I would argue that being so afraid of the world that you reach out to anyone who promises redemption, even if through extreme ideologies, is the same as starving to death, one day at a time. The only difference between these two extremes is the physical pain suffered by those in a “physical” HELL.

The pain suffered by those in psychological HELL is no different, even if it doesn’t entail as much physical discomfort and even pain. They suffer, but they are in a position to share their pain with those less fortunate, creating the HELL we all share.

Let’s stop this BULLSHIT drivel about some kind of afterlife. We are all in HELL, from the day we were born until the day we die. Some think they are in HEAVEN because they are reaping the rewards of temporary success in HELL, at the expense of other conscious beings, but they will join us all in oblivion.

That is their choice of HELL.

HEAVEN is more difficult to comprehend, because the complex ideas of pleasure, joy, satisfaction, and even spiritualism cannot be defined. I suppose that the wealthy sometimes say to each other, that they are living a heavenly life. It makes sense. A few percent of the population is in HEAVEN while the vast majority is living in HELL.

This is it. Right here, right now. History tells us that life is what it is…there is no afterlife, a myth invented by the elites in past millennia…

My positive message is that life can be HEAVEN or HELL and it’s up to us to choose where to spend our time, which will seem like an eternity no matter which choice you make…

Funhouse

Clarisse Yankovic’s faded blue eyes scanned her surroundings without recognition, the house she had lived in for almost fifty years now an alien landscape. She had fallen in love with the brick-clad, French Revival home the first time she laid eyes on it and, with help from their families and a large mortgage, she and David had moved into their dream house immediately after getting married. That had been forty-seven years earlier. The three children who’d filled the stalwart edifice with life had moved out decades ago to raise their own families, only visiting on holidays, birthdays, and her and David’s wedding anniversary. The house had quietly been invaded by cleaning and maintenance crews supplied for a monthly fee by a property management company. They had lived as tenants in their own home for too many years, a situation tolerated because of its simplicity. All that had changed when David died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year. 

It had suddenly dawned on her that there was no longer any reason to remain in St. Louis, dealing with the cold winters and an army of professionals keeping the house in perfect working order; their home had become nothing more than a repository of fond memories, not to mention a money pit. Her dream home was a museum. And she was a mannikin, part of the display, brought to life for special occasions like Christmas–Sacajawea in Night at the Museum

Today was the day. She informed the house of her decision. “I’m moving to Florida or maybe Southern California and I’m afraid I won’t be able to take you with me.” She waved her arms expansively and continued, “I have plenty of memories stored in my diaries, countless photo albums, and in the cloud, so I don’t need daily reminders from every corner of your beautiful interior. I’m sorry but that’s how it has to be…”

She paused but the house didn’t respond.

“Very well then. Let’s spend our last few months together pleasantly. I’m going to start sorting out the physical memories while my children and several charitable organizations pick your bones clean. But don’t worry because a new family will soon move in and I’m trusting that you will shelter them and keep them safe, right?”

Still no response. 

Clarisse danced up the stairs as she continued, “We’re going to start in the attic. Get the worst part over first was always my motto. I know that’s your most personal area but don’t worry, I won’t violate your privacy. I’m just going to remove a lot of what you probably see as clutter but which, to me, represents memories stored away for many, many years.”

She reached the second-floor landing and used an extendible hook to pull down the attic door recessed in the ceiling, revealing a folding stair. The maintenance people had kept it in perfect condition over the years, so she confidently climbed the sturdy treads. Reaching the top, she flipped the light switch that had been expertly installed decades ago, bathing a space defined by steeply dipping rafters bathed in high-efficiency LED lighting. She spent several minutes identifying the contents that had been randomly stored over the decades. It was like a library where the books had been arranged using a classification scheme based on a dead language, something like the Dewey decimal system. With no one to argue with her, Clarisse made an executive decision. She turned off the light and carefully descended the steep attic stair, closed the ceiling door on its hydraulic pistons, and called the property management company to request a couple of able-bodied young men to move the attic’s contents to the ground floor. 

*      *      *

“Where do you want us to put everything, ma’am?”

A pair of strapping young men appeared at Clarisse’s door the next day, ready to haul heavy boxes and to whatever manual labor she asked. “Would you mind rearranging the furniture in the living room to make space for everything? I’m moving out and it doesn’t matter where it all goes as long as it can be removed by the people who are coming from Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity…”

The young Hispanic man glanced around, shrugged indifferently, and said, “No problem.”

Clarisse stayed out of the way while her house became a three-dimensional, full-size version of Tetra. She watched in amazement as the dining room became a storage facility, the chairs carefully stacked on the table’s unblemished surface, covered by bedding from her ample linen supply. The living room was emptied in a few minutes, before being filled with the contents of the attic, which included open cartons containing items piled haphazardly which it made no sense to have saved. None of it was intimidating when exposed to the sunlight streaming in the front windows. She thanked the two men after several hours of hard work and offered them a tip for their services.

“You two have worked so hard, catering to all my stupid whims…”

The older man waved his tattooed arm and said, “Just doing our job, ma’am. We’re glad you’re happy with our work.”

Clarisse wouldn’t be satisfied with just telling them they’d done a good job. She wanted to give them a tip. “As a token of my appreciation, I would like each of you to take one item you like from the house, but of course not my memorabilia.” Their confused expressions prompted her to elaborate. “Anything you can carry with you…” She glanced out the window at the moving van parked in her driveway and added, “Anything that will fit in your truck.” 

She waved her arms as an invitation.

“Anything?” the younger man asked.

She nodded.

“The big-screen TV?”

“It’s yours,” she replied nonchalantly.

The sixty-inch TV and sectional sofa disappeared into the truck with as much alacrity as the attic’s contents had been transported to the living room. Feeling that the house was glad to have its attic emptied, relieving it of supporting so many memories it couldn’t possibly comprehend, Clarisse was compelled to rush to the side of the van as it was about to leave. She pushed two crisp hundred-dollar bills into the tattooed hand and said, “Someday, you’ll be my age—what I mean is that you did a lot more than move some boxes out of the attic…”

The two young men responded in unison, “Yes, ma’am.” 

*      *      *

The first thing Clarisse found among the attic’s displaced contents was a sealed box labelled, “Clarisse’s Diaries.” It had a date, just like several other boxes closed as tightly. But there wasn’t enough space to move the cartons around, to find the first diary she’d ever written, a record she had forgotten about long ago. Unable to find space in the crowded ground floor of her dream house, she had to wait for the removers, the men who would take away all the furniture that made it impossible to expose her memories to the light of day. She was certain the stoic house was looking on, taking no more than a passing interest in her efforts. 

“I hope you’re having as much fun as me,” she proclaimed, waving a glass of wine poured from a bottle discovered amongst the attic’s treasures. 

There was no answer. 

The next day, the game of Tetra continued. The moving men, representing competing philanthropic enterprises, arrived within minutes of each other, creating a tense situation and forcing Clarisse to make decisions about which charitable organization got what. Not having given it a lot of thought beforehand, she used a simple rule: Habitat for Humanity got anything made of wood whereas the Salvation Army got everything else, including David’s clothes, which had been hanging in the closet for more than a year. Having a set of rules in place, the house watched silently as its contents were systematically removed, leaving only Clarisse and the minimum necessities: a single bed from a guest room; an armchair; a folding TV tray; a few pans that neither of the charitable organizations wanted; some random plates and bowls; and the contents of the attic.

Clarisse breathed a sigh of relief as the last team of mercenaries left, transporting the bulkiest evidence of her previous life to unknown places. She sat in the sole remaining chair and looked at the blank walls, no longer adorned with expensive decorations, and expressed her feelings about the day.

“Thank god that’s over with.” 

She was certain the house breathed a sigh of relief.

*      *      *

“I don’t understand, Thomas,” Clarisse began, gazing questioningly into the sharp blue eyes of her father’s younger brother, now ninety-three and still living in the same house he’d occupied for more than sixty years. 

“My diary repeatedly refers to you as not being welcome in our house. There are countless entries talking about how you forced your way in but papa was too polite to call the police. But that isn’t what I recall at all. You were always visiting—spending all day on Saturday—taking me to the park. You showed me how to throw a baseball for Christ’s sake!”

Thomas’ pearly teeth gleamed, matching the twinkle in his bright eyes, as he responded to her despondent query. “First off, your first diary entry is accurate. Ivan went nuts when I told him I was gay and it was on Christmas Eve, 1954, and he called me a lot of names. I seem to recall throwing some back at him as well before storming off, swearing to never set eyes on him again. But we cooled down. He got over the initial shock and so did I. He had trouble accepting that I was gay—I had to fit his idea of a proper, manly brother. But, like I said, Ivan and I got over our first reactions and patched things up. So, your memory is more reliable than the diary you wrote when you were a young girl, almost seventy years ago, probably because your memories haven’t been transformed into words.” He patted Charisse’s hand and added, “A lot gets lost in translation.”

Clarisse was glad to have Thomas verify her recollection of events so many years in the past, which only served to remind her of so many other ambiguous entries, recorded when she was older. They talked about her diary while sitting on his front porch, occasionally interrupted by neighbors passing by, and eventually concluded that neither of their memories of past events was perfect. They argued about several of her diary entries, recorded through the decades, and each came to recognize the frailty of what they had assumed was reality. Thomas wrapped up the long conversation, lubricated by coffee and tea, by standing up suddenly.

“I think we have established that the written word isn’t very reliable. I’m just glad that the camera was invented, giving us visual proof of events and more importantly, the existence of our ancestors and thus ourselves.”

Clarisse added, “Not to mention the internet and social platforms, where we can…” Her words trailed off as she recalled when she’d discontinued writing in her diary because of the easy access of a multimedia platform like Facebook to store her memories. No more need of a diary, photo albums, or scribbled notes in the margins of letters and newspaper clippings. It was all digital now. 

She found her voice and added, “Oh my, that’s another can of worms, Thomas. I think I may have propagated my myopic, self-centered view of reality into the digital age.”

He looked at her comfortable shoes and said, “Are you up for a short walk?”

She nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Let’s go for an early dinner or late lunch, what do you say? We can discuss how you’re going to reconcile your treasure trove of historical documents with your mind’s unique point of view.”

Clarisse stood up and, nodding emphatically, said, “That’s a great idea, Thomas. Talking to you is mentally challenging and I think I’ve burned at least a thousand calories already. I’m famished.”

Her arm naturally entwined with his as they stepped off the porch. Suddenly self-conscious she grasped his bony forearm and said, “What will your neighbors think, with you walking with…I guess I’m a younger woman?”

He patted her grasping hand and admitted, “I was so excited about your visit that I told the entire neighborhood about my niece coming to visit. I don’t know if they expected a young girl or not, but you will always be Jackie to me.”

Clarisse squeezed his arm and said, “You called me that until I quit playing softball after high school. It was your private way of telling me how much you loved me…” She stopped, unsure if she’d stepped over a forgotten line.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Thomas quickly kissed her forehead and said, “Damn right, Jackie, that’s exactly what I was doing.”

She felt like a child again, memories of throwing a baseball awakened, the feel of the glove on her right hand, Thomas laughing as she threw the ball past him, too fast for him to catch, him standing behind her showing her how to hold the bat, his excited cheering from the four-tier bleachers at the middle-school fields where she’d played. The memories were so overwhelming that Clarisse stopped, her eyes filled with tears, and stammered, “I remember everything now, Thomas. I’d forgotten how close we were until just now. Can you forgive me for abandoning you for so many years?”

He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his tweed blazer, dabbed the tears from her eyes, and said, “You didn’t abandon me, Jackie. We both had happy and fulfilling lives. Now we are back together, sharing old memories of younger days filled with promise. We both lived our dreams and now…here we are, given a rare opportunity to be reunited after such a long separation. My eyes are filled with tears of joy too.”

She loosened her grip on his arm. “I feel like a little girl right now, walking with you like this, Uncle Thomas…”

He stopped and, tossing his long arm around her shoulders, looked into her eyes. “And I feel like a young man, so let’s avoid mirrors for the rest of the day.”

They laughed together. 

*      *      *

Clarisse had considered putting her diaries in storage because she definitely wasn’t going to haul them around the country with her. She had mentally committed to leaving St. Louis for a warmer place, but she hadn’t yet decided where exactly she was going. She was going to travel light, taking whatever fit in a large suitcase. During their late lunch and the drinks that had followed, Thomas had convinced her that she should have a cleansing ceremony, with a bonfire as the central theme, and then and there burn her diaries. She had at first been mortified at the idea of tossing her precious memories into flames, but he had persuaded her by sharing his own experience with loss. When his lifelong companion had died ten years earlier, Thomas had followed Edward’s wishes and destroyed all evidence of his existence. As Thomas had explained it, they had shared a beautiful life in this world and there was no reason to expect more than that. His argument had been so eloquent and deeply emotional that Clarisse had acquiesced, with the condition that he would attend the ceremony. He’d accepted the responsibility but made a request that had sent her into a panic: She had to invite the entire family to attend as well, presenting it as a celebration of life and renewal, like a wake for the recently deceased. 

“Everyone?!”

He’d nodded confidently and answered, “RSVP of course. No one will attend except me, but you will have declared your freedom from the past, and your intention to live as you wish.”

She’d been convinced by his argument, and now found herself standing in front of the firepit in the backyard, its blackened stones reminding her of the decades of joy this place had given her. What had seemed like a good idea was starting to look like a desperate plea for attention. The diaries, which had been so overwhelming in a house filled with furniture, comprised a pathetic pile next to the firepit, whose flames they were supposed to feed. They wouldn’t last five minutes.

Her mental anguish was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Thomas, accompanied by a very old woman Clarisse didn’t recognize, who clung to his arm as if it were a life preserver in a stormy sea. 

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” the elderly matron began. 

Clarisse was at a loss for words.

Thomas filled the silence with an informative comment. “I reckon it’s been more than fifty years since your college graduation, Clarisse. As I recall, that was when you and Helen last met…” 

“Aunt Helen?”

The elderly woman suddenly became enervated. “Where is the drink you promised me, Thomas? I’m thirsty and I have a feeling this bonfire is going to look more like a book burning and I hate destroying literature. Don’t light the fire until I’ve had a couple of drinks.”

The young man Clarisse had hired to bartend this exclusive event appeared with a cocktail, which he offered to the centenarian woman. She sipped it and looked at Thomas before saying, “You always were a sly fox. You could have made a fortune on Wall Street. But you never were a greedy man.”

Clarisse was overcome with memories. Again. This was a woman who, like Thomas, had made a profound impression on her, telling her at her college graduation party to forget all that sports bullshit because she wasn’t that good, and focus on making money. Clarisse had followed the advice she’d been given that day by the wife of her mother’s brother, Aunt Helen. Memories flooded into her consciousness and she lunged toward the frail, elderly woman, her assault stopped by Thomas’ surprisingly strong arm. 

“Don’t get carried away, Clarisse.”

She felt foolish when she realized that Aunt Helen, who had inspired her to pursue a business career rather than sports, was physically frail because she was more than a hundred-years old. Clarisse accepted the glass of sparkling wine offered by the server in lieu of hugging her aunt. 

“Hold this, Thomas,” Helen said, passing her glass to the younger man without looking. “Give me a hug, Clarisse, I’m not as brittle as he thinks.” She opened her arms wide enough for Clarisse to fit between them.

They hugged but Clarisse made a point of not squeezing too hard, as much as she wanted to compress five decades of missing affection into a single moment. She was crying again, a fact noted by Helen as she retrieved her drink from Thomas. “I’d join you in a good cry if I could, Jackie—yes, Thomas told me about that, centuries ago, but you don’t recall any of that, you were too young—but the truth is I don’t have any tears left…”

Clarisse wiped her eyes, sipped from her glass of wine, and tried to sound understanding in her reply. “I guess you have cried a lot of tears, losing so much, people you loved, I’m sorry—”

Helen waved her hand dismissively as Thomas helped her into a chair that had been placed near the fire pit. “No, Jackie, I mean that I can’t cry anymore. I’m too old and I don’t have any extra moisture to waste on emotional displays, or at least that’s what the doctor told me. I’m all gummed up inside, nothing working like it’s supposed to. I’m surprised I can still think; in fact, my memory is as sharp as a tack…” Her mouth emitted a shallow, hoarse cackle that grated on Clarisse’s nerves, the residue of a hearty laugh that her body was no longer able to reproduce. 

The bartender appeared with fresh drinks for everyone.

Clarisse took a moment to examine Helen as she pulled a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from her jacket pocket and removed one with fingers as steady as a surgeon’s. Her hair was as white as snow and cut short, but she wasn’t balding. Faded blue eyes peered out of sockets no deeper than Clarisse’s, shadowed by white eyebrows without a wisp of eyelashes for adornment. The smooth face was broken by no more wrinkles than Clarisse confronted every morning in the mirror, moot evidence that reaching Helen’s age was the result of factors having nothing to do with personal habits. She proved that when a lighter appeared in Thomas’ hand to light her cigarette.

“Thank you, Thomas. Now, let’s burn these books and get on with the real fun!”

The bartender lighted the prepared fire and retreated discretely, leaving Clarisse to supervise the proceedings. She tore some pages out of the first diary she’d ever written and threw them into the small flame to applause from Thomas and Helen. Encouraged, she became more daring, tossing pages and even entire diaries into the flames, feeding the fire with wrinkled newspapers used as packing for some of the other contents of the attic. 

The three elderly people watched the funeral pyre, feeding its appetite for paper, while the bartender kept their interest fueled with alcohol. When the last of the diaries had been consumed in flames, Helen lit another cigarette and offered one to Clarisse. At first offended, then confused, she accepted it and followed Thomas’ advice to not inhale but just puff it enough to keep it burning, instructions enthusiastically supported by Helen. It was somehow relaxing to hold the burning cylinder, a weed wrapped in paper, a habit that hadn’t killed Helen after more than forty years. Clarisse laughed and choked at that thought, that Helen hadn’t started smoking until her husband had died of lung cancer, when she was sixty. 

“What’s wrong?” Helen asked.

Struggling to get a grip on something she couldn’t identify, much less control, Clarisse stammered, “I feel lost, as if the floor just dropped out from under me…nothing makes sense anymore—where are my children? I mean, for god’s sake, I invited them personally, on the phone, it’s not like this is the middle of the night…” She glanced at her watch before continuing, “It’s only seven o’clock. They only live a few minutes away and their children are old enough to be left home alone for days if not weeks…” She was sobbing by the end of her tirade and collapsed into the chair next to Helen.

A shriveled, dry hand covered hers and a hoarse voice, coming from just before the grave, said, “That’s how it goes, Jackie. Don’t fret about it or you’ll go crazy. Let’s go inside and take a peek at some of the old family photos you’ve been storing in the attic. I have a feeling we may have another book burning before too long.” Her lively eyes didn’t have to look far for support because her mouth was twisted into a grin that reminded Clarisse of the Crypt Keeper

Thomas and Clarisse helped Helen to her feet as she threw her cigarette butt into the dying embers filling the firepit, floating on the soft breeze, reminders of the fragility of memory. Clarisse recalled a painting she’d seen once in a museum. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali had made a deep impression on her even when she was only thirty years old, and now she was living that dream, or was it a nightmare? She accompanied the two people who seemed to be the only humans who cared about her and, holding tears of loss and pain deep inside her chest, made Thomas and Helen as comfortable as she could in the empty house she was occupying alone. 

Helen settled into the armchair, Thomas and Clarisse seated on folding chairs at her sides, and said, “I’m going to need another drink before I can deal with whatever your photo albums contain, Jackie…” 

Before she could finish her sentence, another whiskey sour appeared, delivered by the taciturn bartender, along with drinks for Clarisse and Thomas. Helen was in a good mood, so Clarisse wasted no time laying her oldest photo album on the TV tray, exposing images she only vaguely recognized to a centenarian mind as sharp as a scalpel.

*      *      *

“After what you’ve told me Clarisse, I would recommend Facebook Story instead of News Feed, and you aren’t a good candidate for platforms like Instagram or Snapchat because most of your contacts are on Facebook. They will eventually adapt to your new presence within the same platform whereas asking them to migrate their on-line presence—that’s highly unlikely.”

Jessica Holmes had been Clarisse’s internet consultant for almost twenty years. Intrigued by the unfamiliarity of the internet and the confidence exuded by a young black woman straight out of college, she’d become Clarisse’s first client. They had become good friends. Jessica had gone through Clarisse’s oldest photo albums (annotated with Thomas and Helen’s humorous comments scribbled on post-it notes) with her and digitized the images, including any comments as what she called metadata. It would all be stored in The Cloud for future retrieval, maybe by her children when they grew up a little more and weren’t so occupied with their own kids. Several boxes of memories were going to be reduced to a few gigabytes of data, according to Jessica, well below the storage capacity Google allowed at no cost. Clarisse would have been lost without her friend’s help, but she was confused.

“What’s wrong with just continuing with what I’m used to? It’s pretty straightforward, posting a photo or something and reading any comments, what’s wrong with that?”

Clarisse recognized the look on Jessica’s face, the same expression she used when she was about to explain something so obvious that anyone would know it, anyone familiar with the internet and social media. But she’d learned to listen to Jessica’s condescending lessons without getting defensive, so she bit her tongue as yet another example of warped perceptions, no more than the reflections from a funhouse mirror, was revealed.

“Of course, it works fine, but you want to get rid of false memories and inconsistent communications, especially to yourself, right?”

Clarisse nodded emphatically.

“I’ve analyzed your Facebook activity for the last ten years, Clarisse. That’s why I think you should switch to the Story paradigm.” Clarisse’s blank look prompted Jessica to continue, “A couple of people respond regularly to your posts, mostly with Likes rather than comments. A slightly larger group sees them but doesn’t react consistently. In fact—I don’t know how to say this, but you look at your own posts more than anyone else. They are a digital extension of your diaries and photo albums, a trip down memory lane and not much more. I’m not suggesting you disavow social media, only that you use it more effectively given your recent epiphany. And, by the way, I fully support your decision, in case I didn’t make that clear earlier…”

Clarisse was aghast. She swallowed hard and made up her mind. “So, this Story thingy is like gossip, I guess? I post a photo, maybe with an inappropriate comment, and it just disappears the next day? I don’t have to constantly check to see how it was received…one or two people might comment but then it goes away—could you show me how to do that?” 

*      *      *

Clarisse woke up in a strange place, sunrise’s first rays streaming through the thin curtains illuminating the austere room sequestering her from reality. This wasn’t her bedroom in the house she had emptied of her worldly possessions. She wasn’t lying in the bed she’d become accustomed to but instead in a soft, twin bed, a stiff pillow supporting her head. Recent memory sharpened and she recognized her surroundings. She was in Thomas’s guestroom. 

She had sold the house to a young couple with three children and two dogs. She was certain it would be happy with the new family. 

The week she’d spent with Thomas had been like a vacation, getting up late, having brunch instead of breakfast, going for walks in the park, window shopping, and of course visiting Aunt Helen. When Clarisse had pressed her elderly aunt about her health, Helen had sworn on an old, dusty bible she dragged out of a closet that she was in perfect health for someone her age. Her only medication was an occasional sedative to get a good night’s sleep and Tylenol for aches and pains. She had patted Clarisse’s arm and concluded her medical summary with, “I’ll probably just die in my sleep with no one the wiser. Of course, spending so much time with you and Thomas will probably add ten years to my life.”

Clarisse sat up, suddenly alert. Today was the day. Thomas and Helen were taking her to the train station, where she would board a local Amtrak train to meet up with the Southwest Chief in Kansas City. She would occupy a private suite for the scenic ride to Los Angeles. Her bag was packed. Her morning shower seemed to take forever, and getting dressed was far more complicated than she remembered it, but she finally made her appearance in the kitchen, where she and Thomas had coffee and discussed the day’s activities. It was dark. She looked at the clock and realized it was only 5:30 a.m., not even close to their usual time to get up. 

Feeling foolish, she went to the living room as quietly as she could, not wanting to wake up Thomas. Feeling her way in the semi-darkness to turn on a table lamp, she was startled when the room lit up, revealing Thomas sitting in his favorite chair, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Why don’t you join me, Jackie?”

“Whaaaa—” she began.

“I couldn’t sleep and I’ve found that when I have insomnia, it’s better to get up because otherwise my back hurts in the morning. It’s something about being asleep, is what my doctor tells me. I’m so excited about your adventure, it’s like I’m the one getting on that train and going to California…”

They finished a pot of coffee and walked to a diner for breakfast. At Thomas’s insistence, she had the Full Monty, a pile of pancakes topped with blueberries, surrounded by scrambled eggs and home fries, covered with a mix of gravy and syrup, with a plate of sausage and ham on the side, not to mention toast and homemade strawberry preserves. As she worked on the delicious pile of heart-stopping instant death, he explained that he ordered it about once a month, but he didn’t eat anything more substantial than fruit and salad for several days afterward. In other words, she might not like the food on the train. 

“I wish you were coming with me, Thomas. You could get a ticket because we would be sharing a suite. And you could come back anytime you wanted on a plane or the return trip of the Southwest Chief. Please join me?!”

“Eat your biscuits, Jackie, and don’t leave any of that gravy. Now, about your childish demands, I would love to accompany you, and I may visit you in a couple of months and ride the Southwest Chief, but this is your voyage of discovery and emancipation. You haven’t done anything this adventurous since you went to college…”

Clarisse cleaned up all of her plates with Thomas watching approvingly, while she contemplated his words. Sitting there with him, she realized he was right. It wasn’t that her husband, David, had been overbearing, only that they had done everything together. Every decision was a team effort. Cleaning out the attic was the first personal decision she’d made without his input. Thomas had recognized this because…because he was older and wiser than her, and he’d been through it all himself. This really was something she had to do alone.

“Can I get you to promise to come out for a visit after I get established, not necessarily in a house or whatever—I am going to get a two bedroom apartment, expecting a guest to appear at any moment.” Her gaze dipped as she added, “Please?”

Thomas examined her plate as if making sure a child had eaten their broccoli, before his hand gently lifted her chin, urging her gaze to meet his. 

“I already bought a ticket.”

Review of “Six Easy Pieces” by Richard P. Feynman

This old book (published in 1963) crossed my path so I read it. It contains six essays (actually lectures) from a class the author taught in 1961-1962 as an experiment in changing how physics is taught to undergraduates. Prefaces written in 1989 and 1994 describe it as a beautiful journey led by a great thinker (Feynman won a Nobel prize for his contributions to Quantum Electrodynamics, or QED). I think it’s more useful to read Feynman’s original preface, written in 1964. He thought the experiment was a failure as an alternative way of introducing undergraduates to the world of physics. Taking into account that this was written almost 60 years ago, I didn’t expect any brilliant insight into state-of-the-art problems.

I was curious because I was one of those introductory physics students he was supposedly teaching to in this lecture series, sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other students from every scientific and engineering discipline. Of course I suffered through this material 20 years later. It’s possible that some of the methods introduced in these lectures made their way into the University Physics courses I took because our professor used a lot of props to demonstrate different processes, very much like Feynman discusses and includes as figures. I can only imagine how it was taught before — probably like Calculus, another mind-numbing, abstract subject.

Feynman writes like a scientist, clear but a little wordy. Some of the examples he uses to introduce scientific topics are very simple but concrete, and he is clear about how far analogues can go. He uses them a lot and, from his comments in the preface, I assume he left it to the teaching assistants in the recitation classes (graduate students earning a little money to help undergrads with their homework), to actually teach the textbook material. I had a chemistry professor like that…

I guess the title is a reference to the easiest lectures in the course. This is certainly an eclectic choice for the book because a couple bordered on simpleminded (as opposed to simplified) whereas at the other extreme was a mind-numbing summary of the results (in 1961) from particle physics. I’m glad I didn’t take a pop quiz on the elementary particles from his “Basic Physics” lecture!

This material is dated and there is no sign of brilliant teaching anywhere to be found. Much better presentations have been created in the last 60 years, which is no surprise. This was an experiment, to try and interest first-year undergraduates in physics, and change what was (and still is) basically a weed-out course, into a recruitment drive. From the comments in the prefaces, it failed, but it probably influenced how physics was taught to me. If so, that was a significant accomplishment on its own.

I can’t recommend it, only because there are probably better summaries available now.

Review of “The Chaos Kind” by Barry Eisler

Another random read, this time a preposterous fictional story based (very loosely) on conspiracy theories surrounding Jeffrey Epstein’s death in jail. At least that’s my take. The grammar and punctuation are okay, but the writing style becomes very ponderous after the halfway point, a phenomenon I’ve mentioned before. I think the author was being sucked into a black hole (aka publisher’s deadline) and didn’t have time to clean it up. Not that it would have mattered.

There is no actual story. What tattered plot can be found is nothing more than transitions between a never-ending series of gun fights. If you like guns, you’ll like this book; just don’t get any ideas about reenacting the scenes. There aren’t even any chase scenes or detective work — we don’t need no stinking effort, just put that in background. There are a lot of characters but no real protagonists, just a bunch of government (sometimes ex-government) contractors (read mercenaries) who know each other and have some kind of Three-Musketeer camaraderie. The number of bad decisions by people with reputations to lose (not to mention their crime-fighting careers) cascades into the same black hole as the author’s attention.

Despite my negative opinion, I found many of the scenes exciting and turned the page as fast as anyone; however, I also found myself reading the action scenes quickly in anticipation of hopefully finding a plot after they were finished. Never found it. The author is good at short scenes that get the pulse going but they aren’t integrated into an interesting story. The characters may be based on real people but they are not much more than permutations on a single personality, probably not a surprise since they are all (or become in the story) murderers, also known as assassins and simple killers. Having a personal interest in killing doesn’t change it.

I just wish that Eisler hadn’t tried to make them all “good” guys and gals. Because they are not.

I can’t recommend this, unless you like reading about gun fights and what are the best weapons to use in a particular situation…

Review of “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

This book was translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. I mention the translators because this is not the book written by the author in Japanese, but a hybrid created by the translators with Murakami’s input. I want to be clear that I did not read the original novel and I have no way of knowing if it was written in the same style, if that is even possible. It’s been my limited experience with Spanish that a translator has to make a lot of judgement calls. Some phrases and ideas simply do not have equivalents in different languages.

This was originally published as three novels that comprise a series. This version included all three as Books One, Two and Three. This choice makes sense because the first two books are clearly not the end of the story, not by any stretch of imagination. Unfortunately, this means that the combined story was almost 1200 pages, longer than War and Peace.

I don’t recall finding a single punctuation or grammatical error. Not one. The writing style is verbose and plodding. Some of the repetition can be explained by the original three-book structure, but it was tiresome in this version. Also, redundancy was comprehensive, extending from the sentence level to deep background material. The story wasn’t complex enough to justify so much repetition.

This book has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s masterpiece. It is a literary novel and it uses several points of view (POV) in presenting the story. Scenes are painfully described, to the extent that opening a door can take a paragraph. There is a lot of reflection mixed in, again unnecessarily redundant. However, the detail of simple actions is not blended with reflection and narration, instead presented in blocks, alternating rather than using action as prompts for introspection. I mention this because there is a lot of both exquisite detail and reflection within a scene, they just aren’t correlated very well. Just as with War and Peace, so much text is devoted to physical details that everything else is explained in huge blocks of either monologues or introspection. There are several very suspenseful scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat, but they always ended with a convenient escape or happy coincidence. In fact, it appeared as if the author went out of his way to avoid any unpleasantness happening to the central characters, no matter how risky their behavior.

Like War and Peace, this is a love story which is identified within the first hundred pages. I felt slightly cheated, however, that the central theme wasn’t developed more. It was alluded to frequently (and repetitively), but not explored as a plot element in its own right. Repeating something again and again isn’t the same thing as close examination. Another common theme between 1Q84 and War and Peace is the introduction of extraneous characters, who appear occasionally but have no impact, then fade into the darkness. They aren’t even red herrings, just meaningless people who gum up the story. This may have been intentional, an opportunity for social commentary or just poking fun at idiosyncratic social conventions. The inevitable conclusion is approached through the POVs of the main characters. Alternating POV scenes is a dynamic way to tell a story that keeps the reader interested, but the author pushed the method beyond reasonable limits; the first two books never varied from the alternation of Tengo and Aomame’s POVs, going so far as to add superfluous (and repetitive) descriptions and reflections. This isn’t a mathematical formula, however, so Murakami lost control several times and briefly let the narrator become omniscient, reading everyone’s mind. Book Three adds a third POV (and thread) but it doesn’t work, becoming even more confusing.

Unlike Tolstoy’s grand historical novel, this is a fantasy love story, not that different from Snow White. None of the rather fantastic occurrences are explained or even delved into deeply. The protagonists repeat their conjectures but don’t add to the explanation. I was left feeling cheated again, this time by not having the background adequately explained, even in fantasy terms. With so many long soliloquies on every topic under the sun, there could have been an explanation better than what the clueless protagonists conjectured.

Again, this may have been intentional. Maybe Murakami wanted to write a long, ponderous, ambiguous, love story with no plot but lots of social commentary because he felt like it. It was, after all, a bestseller in Japan.

I could go on but I’d like to make one point perfectly clear: This novel could have been called Aomame just as easily as 1Q84, although the latter title is catchier. None of the other characters contribute to the story meaningfully.

Despite my overall negative impression of these books (combined into one for the English translation), I was very interested and read far more each day than I would normally. I was caught up in the nitty-gritty representation of the mundane lives of the characters. I ignored the fantasy aspects of the story, and it didn’t hurt that I knew it would have a happy ending.

However, I can’t recommend it unless you want to delve into the lives and problems of the working people of Japan. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a lot was lost in translation…

Rearview Mirror

“It’s time for you to retire.” 

The CEO’s words were still ringing in Charlie’s ears as he waited for the traffic light to turn green. After almost forty years, his blunt and honest management style was suddenly a problem, making him an embarrassment, refuse to be tossed out with the trash, yet another victim of the politically correct world. The “Me Too” movement. His contributions to the company’s bottom line, boosted by the recent acquisition of strategically located transshipment facilities throughout the world, apparently meant nothing. Political correctness was more important than running an efficient operation, making sure that the goods and services demanded by Americans were delivered on time—even more than profits. Charlie Worth was not ready for retirement. At sixty-three, he was in his prime, a fact attested to by the rush of shipping customers wanting to sign contracts utilizing the warehouses that would soon be available. All because of his hard work.

Charlie’s reflection was interrupted by a brief toot emitted by the horn of the car behind him, prompting him to notice the green signal but, before entering the intersection, he stole a glance at the driver in his rearview mirror. A black woman’s impatient eyes urged him to get moving, so he pushed the throttle pedal and shot forward, barely missing a delivery van that had run the opposing red light.  

The black woman following Charlie didn’t pass, but instead followed so close that he was able to examine her facial features in detail. He recognized her as the branch head who’d filed a complaint against him for an innocuous comment made during a recent division meeting. After she had ranted about the lack of racial diversity in the company’s hiring practices for ten minutes, he’d asked her a straightforward question.

“What does racial or ethnic background have to do with hiring warehouse employees? We hire whoever is available in the area and then we train them. The location of the facility is determined by logistical constraints, not by what minority group lives within commuting distance. We can’t hire Hispanic workers if they don’t happen to live in central Kansas, but there are plenty of Americans looking for a job there.” He’d shrugged and added, “I wouldn’t want to live in Kansas but…we work with the people who are available. Frankly, I don’t see what your problem is, unless you’re one of those people who likes to make a tempest in a teacup. You know what? You remind me of that Marvel character, in those X-men movies: when Storm got excited, there could be a tornado, a snowstorm, whatever… Maybe she was your mentor? At any rate, you don’t have Halle Berry’s figure so you should present more facts and less speculation.” 

Charlie kept an eye on the rearview mirror as he joined the line of cars entering the expressway. The blue Toyota finally passed him, the driver studiously ignoring him. But he knew the driver.

He was welcomed home with as little enthusiasm as usual by his wife of almost forty years, dinner on the table along with a glass of Zinfandel. 

WHITE SPACE

The black woman who had followed Charlie the day before greeted him as cordially and coolly as ever, her countenance revealing not a trace of their vehicular encounter the previous afternoon. Despite his imminent retirement, or perhaps because of it, Charlie had no time for reflection, grabbing a quick lunch from the cafeteria, only to find one of his replacements inviting himself to share the table.

“Do you mind if I join you, Charlie?” the Pakistani man, whose name escaped Charlie at that moment, asked in his mild accent.

“Whatever.”

The nameless marketing manager sat down and unwrapped his plastic utensils as he said, “You are a very difficult man to replace, Charlie. As you know, it will require four people to fulfill your role within the company, and I don’t know if we can do it.” He paused to attack his spaghetti with his plastic fork and knife, probably expecting Charlie to say something. When no response was forthcoming, the uninvited lunch companion continued, “You are a legend whether you know it or not, but you are more than that, you are an inspiration to all of us, to work hard and apply our talents to their greatest effect. You are a great leader.”

This caught Charlie off guard, considering his early retirement. He and the unnamed associate ate in silence until Charlie finished his salad. “You’re a Moslem, aren’t you?”

A quick nod confirmed Charlie’s suspicion, so he continued, “I was recently informed, just before I was also told that I should retire, that I’m Islamophobic. I didn’t know there was such a word.”

His lunch companion put his plastic fork down and said, “These are crazy times we live in, Charlie. I have the greatest respect for you, as do the other employees who have filed complaints against you. You are not a bad man. You aren’t even racist or xenophobic, much less Islamophobic.”

Charlie nodded. “Thank you for recognizing that I never intended to hurt anyone. I’m not as stupid as my age suggests. Or my words!” He laughed aloud and was joined by his lunch companion.

Head down, he swallowed his pride and said, “I’m sorry about whatever I did to you, but at least you won’t have to deal with me anymore…”

His Pakistani lunch companion’s arms flew into the air as he struggled to swallow, pouring water into his mouth before stammering, “Your words didn’t hurt anyone but they did reveal the difficultly of working with people who are unlike ourselves, wouldn’t you agree?”

Charlie nodded warily and replied, “I suppose that I probably should have given more thought to my public pronouncements.”

His lunch companion’s head shook methodically, a pasta-laden fork hovering in front of his mouth as he said, “I respect you because you spoke what was in your heart, and it wasn’t hatred. I have experienced hate, even from Moslems, and you are not like that. You have always been an honest man, Charlie.”

Confused and embarrassed, Charlie was compelled to ask, “What is your name? I haven’t bothered memorizing my replacements’ names because I’ll be gone next week and I’ll never see you again…”

“Harib,” was the response, accompanied by an extended hand, which Charlie accepted as Harib added, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Worth. The pleasure is all mine.”

Charlie shook his head quickly, his thoughts jumbled after what he’d heard, and tried to smile at Harib. “I think it’s a shared experience…”

Charlie spent the afternoon with the people who would replace him. What he had expected to be a difficult and unproductive meeting proved fruitful and enjoyable, thanks to his lunch companion’s diplomacy. Charlie realized that if someone like Harib had been there to speak plainly and without rancor, he wouldn’t have been forced to retire at only sixty-three. Feeling good about his legacy, he left the building at his usual time and strolled to his parking space near the building entrance, indicated by a sign that stated his contribution to the company’s growth over the years in two words: “Logistics Manager.” He admired the sign a moment before stepping around his five-year-old Buick, chuckling to himself at the parking problem his retirement would create: They would need four reserved parking spaces near the door to replace his one. 

Traffic was light but that didn’t make the commute go away. Confronted by a red signal and going nowhere anytime soon, Charlie glanced in his rearview mirror to recognize Harib behind the wheel of the gray SUV behind him. He refrained from waving, or even holding his hand up in recognition, because he was suddenly uncertain about the identity of the driver, whose dark complexion and narrow face no longer appeared to be Harib’s. This epiphany startled Charlie, causing him to respond slowly when the light turned green. A long blast on the horn of the SUV was proof that this was not his lunch companion. 

“I can’t tell one dark-complexioned man from another,” Charlie complained to the rearview mirror. “I grew up with nothing but white people, and then all these dark people started arriving, but they weren’t Negroes with their black skin tone, living in the ghetto, but more like Mexicans or…”

Charlie glanced in the rearview mirror to see the same dark face, now clearly not that of Harib. He was prompted to scold himself, “Maybe you had trouble identifying details of facial features for Pakistanis, but that was no reason to make so many insensitive references to Moslem practices. Your comments were no different than telling a Baptist that Jesus was an itinerant boozer. I know you don’t buy any of this religious nonsense but why do you give those loser evangelicals a break but come down so hard on the equally delusional Moslems?”

He didn’t have an answer. 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie’s past improprieties haunted him that night, unwelcome memories keeping his mind in turmoil, leaving him tossing and turning in bed. The agony was finally interrupted by the first rays of sunlight peeking around the curtains. His bleary eyes greeted the new day hungrily, desperate to escape to the solitude of his office and the work that awaited. He dressed in a typical blue suit but went a little wild and donned a bright red tie his wife had gotten him for Christmas that had been relegated to the back of the drawer for more than ten years. He had never worn it because he’d read that red ties were power symbols, a visual message totally out of synch with his personality. After eating his usual breakfast of a banana and bowl of oatmeal, he brushed his teeth and said goodbye to his wife before going to the garage.

The rearview mirror was turned to face him when Charlie sat behind the wheel of his car, reminding him of his drive home the previous day, a trip filled with self-reflection and recrimination. But this was a new day. He adjusted the mirror and backed out of the driveway.

He hadn’t driven a mile when traffic came to a standstill, probably because some idiot had run the red light ahead, a notorious intersection where three streets crossed. There wasn’t a day that someone didn’t run the light on MLK Boulevard. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he recognized the driver of the red Ford behind him as a Hispanic woman who’d filed an HR complaint against him for an innocent remark that he’d made during a staff meeting. As he recalled, she was pregnant with her fourth child and he’d suggested that she was taking the pope too seriously, spending all her time pregnant. She should try focusing more on work.

He’d wanted to fire her but HR had told him that was out of the question.   

Traffic crept forward. Charlie’s lane was apparently blocked by an accident and traffic was merging to the right, directed by a police officer. Charlie signaled his intention to move into an opening when the car behind him lurched forward, barely missing his fender, cutting him off and slowing traffic down even more. He wished he was driving one of those big four-by-fours so he could force his way past her but, certain she was driving on luck, with Jesus at the wheel, he waited as she crept past. He glanced at her to discover that it wasn’t his coworker. Just someone the same age, her attention focused on the smartphone held up in front of the steering wheel.

When he got clear of the traffic jam, Charlie had time to reflect on his reaction to mistaking the woman for someone who’d been a continuous thorn in his side, not because she was a poor worker. She actually had performed very well during and after her pregnancies, even while raising what eventually became a full house of five children. That was why HR had nixed his idea to fire her. But why had he cared about how many children she had, much less insult her publicly, and even try to fire her? 

Charlie turned the mirror to see himself, examining his face carefully, peering into his own eyes for something abnormal, maybe evidence of a brain tumor that would eventually kill him. Pale blue orbs gazed back at him silently, giving no hint of what was going on behind them. 

“What is wrong with you!” he shouted.

He answered his own question. “You know the answer. You don’t think before you shoot off your mouth, Charlie Worth. That’s what wrong with you. And the first thing that crosses your mind is always based on bias and prejudice because you are a white guy who, even though you came from a similar socioeconomic base as people like Harib, it was always easier because you aren’t a minority, a person with a different skin tone. That’s what’s wrong with you.”

He readjusted the mirror for the remainder of the drive to his office, where he parked in his reserved space, soon to be replaced with four reserved spots. That brought a smile to his face. He was irreplaceable, at least not without hiring four people to do his job. 

It was Wednesday. With only two more days of coming to the office, Charlie felt there was something he’d overlooked, maybe an old acquaintance, or a misplaced key that would open an abandoned lock securing a repurposed room. He set to clearing the drawers and shelves in his corner office, quickly filling the trash can. On a lower shelf, buried beneath years-old technical manuals, he found a folder that awakened more of the memories he’d been struggling with recently. 

Charlie sat in his chair and perused the colorful brochures and fact sheets that had underpinned the company’s diversity training a few years previously. He was browsing them when a knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said.

His secretary entered and held the door open for a tall man, at least ten-years younger than Charlie, the head of human resources, David Bowman. The door closed behind the secretary as she left.

“I thought you might have forgotten our appointment,” David began. 

“I knew there was something I’d overlooked,” Charlie responded. “I was cleaning the office, searching for a reminder but you beat me to it. Do you remember this?” He held up the brochure for David to see.

His guest scoffed. “Believe it or not Charlie, that was a very successful program. HR complaints decreased in every division, even yours.”

“I can believe it because I had a recent conversation with one of my replacements, who expressed respect and understanding of my restraint in dealing with people of different backgrounds. However, I think the decrease in HR complaints from my division was related to my team’s recognition that my racist and misogynist remarks were semantical defenses of my own insecurity, rather than reflecting a fundamental bias against them.”

David scoffed and said, “If you’d acknowledged that a few months ago, you wouldn’t be retiring on Friday.”

Charlie scoffed. “I’m sixty-three. My job has expanded tremendously and now, four people will be responsible for different aspects of what I was doing alone. To be honest, it has become a burden. I could have continued for a few more years but it would have cost the company. The world is just too complex nowadays, but we didn’t have crystal balls back in the day. For all I know, I became an asshole because my attention was focused on my technical duties. I was too busy to think about people…”

David nodded. “I think that’s exactly what happened. The owner, the CEO and the Board agree, which is why I’m here today. I have the pleasure of informing you that you will receive more than a gold watch as your retirement bonus. Your severance package includes not only health insurance and a moderate monthly stipend, supplemented by your personal retirement plan, but a bonus, in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the company, of eight-hundred-seventy-four-thousand dollars. That is a cash bonus.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped. “That’s more than five years’ salary! Have they lost their minds? That wasn’t in my contract so what’s going on?”

David was grinning as he responded, “This isn’t a Christmas present, Charlie. If there was a contest within the company for the most valuable employee, you would have won the prize a dozen times during your tenure. The company is in an excellent position because of your prescience and this is a token of the owners’ appreciation.” He held up a facsimile check and passed it to Charlie’s quivering fingers. 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie looked in the rearview mirror. The black face he saw was strangely familiar, another of his employees following him. After so many mistaken identities, it was comforting to know for certain that he was being followed by—the name escaped Charlie, but he recognized the face. He had reluctantly hired this man, who hadn’t been his first choice, under pressure from HR, which meant that top management was serious about minority hiring after the diversity training that had been imposed on every division. Their first conversation presented itself as Charlie gazed at the black face in the review mirror. 

“There are better-qualified applicants than you, but apparently the company has a quota system, and you’re the lottery winner. I’m certain that you are highly motivated and will do a mediocre job, not because you are a member of a minority that has certainly been subjected to systemic racism all your life, an obstacle you have obviously overcome, but because you are not the person I would have hired. And to be clear, I am well aware of the advantages I had, despite coming from a disadvantaged, poor-white background not that different from yours, because I am light skinned. When I look at you, I don’t see a black man. I see someone who is not my first choice. You should thank Jesus, which I think is the preferred deity of African-Americans, that you will get this job. But you have to meet my performance standards to keep it. Do you get my drift?”

The man’s dark complexion partially obscured his expression, which Charlie interpreted as neither contriteness nor rancor as he replied in a professional tone, “I am confident that I will prove myself to be the best person for the position. Your resistance to my being hired over your objections is perfectly understandable—I would have felt the same way—but you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll make a pledge to you, just between us, that if you find my job performance unacceptable after six months, I will voluntarily leave the company and seek employment elsewhere.”

That had been ten years ago. 

Charlie pulled into his reserved parking space and was immediately met by Nathan Adams (the name had suddenly come to him), who had followed him all the way to work as if in a convoy. Nathan would be taking over part of Charlie’s duties, having proven himself a capable manager just as he’d promised.

“You know Nathan, I was just thinking about when we first met, after recognizing you in my rearview mirror, do you remember that?”

Nathan scoffed. “I sure do. And I especially recall that you didn’t call my bluff about quitting on your say-so but gave me a chance to prove myself. Oh yes, I certainly remember, but you know I actually was intimidated by your attitude, and my wife almost took my head off when I told her about my challenge. You proved to be a tough but fair boss, and I learned a lot from you.” He paused a moment, contemplating, before adding, “But you have to admit that you wouldn’t have hired me if not for the intervention of HR, right?”

Charlie stopped at the front door, turned to Nathan, and replied, “That’s why I love working here. Teamwork. We get the job done together.”

Nathan opened the door and said, “After you, Sir.”

Charlie’s second-to-last day at work was filled by short meetings with the people who would take over his responsibilities, all of whom conveyed their anxiety at assuming their new duties. He still had full access to the computer system but refrained from correcting minor errors committed by his replacements. He emailed his comments, but sometimes they needed a face-to-face discussion to fully comprehend his admittedly brief and acerbic comments. These meetings ended amicably. Then he had an impromptu meeting with the Jewish man who would take responsibility for calculating the financial costs of the current expansion of warehouses, using proprietary software created under Charlie’s critical supervision. 

“This software is antiquated, it’s so old my grandmother would be comfortable using it, I mean what the hell have you done?!”

Charlie scoffed and, feeling calm in the knowledge that he would probably never see Jerry Bessemer again, said, “What did you expect? This is a trucking company, not a software development firm. The antiquatedprogram you are referring to was written before the cloud or servers or even mainframes existed. It ran on desktop computers, Intel 386 chips for Christ’s sake. I kept this kaleidoscopic software running as the internet evolved, from dial-up connections, broadband, all the way to 5G, whatever the hell that is, so now it’s your turn to keep it working. For starters, I would suggest that you demand an in-house software expert.”

Jerry retorted, “I can’t fix this mess. I can’t even contract it out for a reasonable cost. Nothing within the budget…” He paused, his expression suspicious, before adding, “You knew this! You left me with a Gordian knot to untie, didn’t you!”

Charlie scoffed and said, “You people are so paranoid, and I don’t blame you, but you are simply inheriting the mess I created, just as I had to deal with what my predecessor had done…I don’t think any thought went into the logistical nightmare I had to deal with forty years ago. Do you get my point?”

“We people? What does that mean?”

“It’s too late to file an HR complaint, Jerry. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Jews are great problem solvers…”

Jerry retorted, “You can’t leave me with the mess you made, your only defense being a racial insult—”

Charlie interrupted, “Actually, that is exactly what I’m doing, but your being Jewish is a strength because your people are like mine, the Irish, in accepting a challenge and facing it. The only difference between our ancestors is that yours travelled the world, picking up knowledge along the way, whereas the Irish just sat there and stewed on nothing. I envy you Jerry because your people have had a wild ride and, despite some serious setbacks, the Jewish race is far ahead of the Irish…or anyone else to be honest.”

Jerry rolled his eyes and between pursed lips said, “So, you really trust me to carry the baton, to fix the mess you created as you tried to keep up with the evolving digital world?”

“Naturally. Remember when I hired you?”

Jerry nodded.

“I spoke about your unique ethnic background, which I thought made you especially qualified for your position. I was thinking of this day, Jerry.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” 

Charlie shook his head slowly before saying, “Jews aren’t the only people who can plan for the unforeseeable, otherwise you’d be running the world rather than just dominating the scientific and entertainment sectors.”

Jerry’s head was slowly nodding as he said, “I guess you have confidence in me?”

Charlie scoffed yet again and said, “It’s my job to know the people I work with. You will make me look like a fool, a possibility you have already alluded to, but you will also solve the problem of connecting our truck drivers—this is where the software meets the real world—using this 5G technology.”

Jerry abruptly stood and extended his hand. “You are a coarse man, Charlie. You would have made a good Jew.” 

WHITE SPACE

Charlie felt pretty good about his last commute to the office. It had been a rewarding week, getting his replacements up to speed on current and planned facilities projects. He’d also learned that he wasn’t reviled by his coworkers, as he might have assumed from top management’s comments, but was instead perceived as plain spoken, a trait that rankled people and motivated them to complain but not to openly hate him. He was okay with that. The truth was that it was time for him to move out of the office he’d occupied for forty years. He’d never wanted to be a manager. What he loved was solving puzzles—jigsaw puzzles, anagrams, crossword puzzles, sudoku, and of course logistical problems involving thousands of people moving commodities between hundreds of cities in trucks and on railways. Not that he would be spending his time solving the New York Times crossword. He’d already been contacted by several consulting firms and even offered a position teaching part-time at a business school. Charlie Worth wasn’t being put out to pasture, not for several more years.

The morning commute went smoothly. He laughed at himself for seeing so many ghosts of Christmas past in his rearview mirror, glad to see what could have been a stressful week ending on a high note. There was an informal send-off in the lunch room just before quitting time that included alcohol and a visit from the CEO, who spoke humorously of expecting to have to pay Charlie an outrageous consultant fee to get his unfiltered opinion in the future. Charlie didn’t mind people poking fun at his coarse personality (to use Jerry’s term) now that he was leaving. Retirement was a good time to clear the air and make a fresh start. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Charlie was tied up in traffic on his way home and, waiting impatiently to find a way forward, he glanced in the rearview mirror. The Mercedes behind him was at a politically correct distance (the thought made Charlie laugh aloud)—neither jammed against his bumper nor hanging back so far you could park a Greyhound bus between them. What got his attention was the driver of the black sports sedan. 

He was looking at himself in the rearview mirror.

Adjusting the rectangular mirror didn’t change the view, so Charlie laughed aloud again and said to himself, “Here we go again! Another mistaken identity in the mirror. I can’t goddamn believe it!”

Charlie responded to his own uncertainty sarcastically. “What did you expect? It isn’t that you’re hallucinating—the brain can play tricks on us at times, like all week. That driver is just an old guy like you, maybe it’s his last day at work too?”

“Yeh, that’s probably what it is, but I’ve never had so many similar experiences—”

Charlie’s alter-ego cut him off. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to adjust your behavior, after so many people speaking honestly about their perceptions of you over a period spanning decades.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Charlie retorted.

The other Charlie scoffed and replied, “The worst thing in life is to be perceived as someone you aren’t. Do you get my drift?”

Charlie nodded.

“So, you have a lot of issues, Charlie, starting with thinking of yourself as some kind of self-made man but nevertheless feeling inadequate, not quite up to speed, not qualified to use the executive washroom. Am I right?”

Charlie nodded again.

“I think you got the message from your co-workers: You are a pain in the ass but not quite an asshole, so let’s move on. We are way past—”

A horn blared, breaking Charlie’s train of thought, urging him to move forward a few feet.

“This week was a lot of fun, don’t you think?”

Charlie nodded again.

“Let’s keep it up as best we can. I know what you’re thinking, that this retirement experience was like attending Easter service and rededicating your life to Christ, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Just try and remember that you will always have to answer to—”

The goddamn horn blared again, interrupting Charlie’s thought. He wanted to flip-off the driver behind him but had to concentrate on creeping ahead, negotiating the intersection, avoiding blocking it when traffic came to another standstill. 

Charlie instinctively looked at the rearview mirror and, when it showed an elderly man with gray hair, he adjusted it and gazed into his own eyes. He finished his alter-ego’s statement. “I will always have to answer to myself. Like right now. I like the way it feels to retire with nobody wishing I was dead. That’s a nice feeling. I have to find a way to maintain this agreeable sensation of co-existence when I move into my next career. I get it.”

Traffic cleared and Charlie accelerated to a breathtaking speed of 30 mph. 

Looking at himself in the mirror, Charlie said, “Can I change who I am? After twenty years of HR being on my back because of my unedited comments, I think the answer is ‘No,’ so let’s cut out all that turning over a new leaf crap. At any rate, I won’t have to deal with employees anymore—”

The other Charlie interjected, “You’re right about that. It could be a lot worse. For example, if you take the teaching job, you’ll be dealing with college students, young people with sensitivities you can’t even imagine. You wouldn’t last two weeks in an academic environment.”

Charlie thought about that as traffic moved along in fits and starts. He glanced in the mirror at a face he barely recognized, puffy cheeks starting to collapse towards his jaw, eyes buried in slumping and swollen sockets, thoughtful wrinkles now permanently written into his brow and emanating from the corners of his mouth. His facial examination was interrupted by a blast from the horn of the car behind. The rearview mirror wasn’t positioned to verify his suspicion that the same person was still following him, expressing frustration with their slow progress through the medium of high-decibel outbursts. Without thinking, Charlie’s right fist flew up with the middle finger extended. He retracted it immediately.

“Great job, asshole,” his alter-ego said in the mirror.

Charlie responded by shooting across the intersection as the light turned red, his car partly blocking the crosswalk. Before he could formulate a response, his head was slammed into the headrest, accompanied by the muted sound of plastic crumpling. Dazed but uninjured, Charlie opened his door and climbed out of his car, annoyed to see traffic moving along now. He walked uncertainly towards the vehicle that had rear-ended him, contemplating his own contribution to the accident. His indecent gesture may have been the catalyst for this driver’s frustration reaching the boiling point. Charlie wondered, as he approached the vehicle, if this was a reminder from the universe that he should be less impulsive in the real world. The unremitting flow of cloistered work, which had defined his career, punctuated by a series of social blunders, had left Charlie uncomfortable dealing with people, preferring the company of spread sheets and the data they contained. He scoffed and knocked on the driver’s window, not knowing what to expect.

The window lowered, to reveal a white guy about Charlie’s age, wearing a blue, pin-striped suit. The airbag hadn’t deployed. 

“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.

The bald head nodded and thin lips, still trembling from the experience, said, “I thought traffic was moving and I could make the light…”Remembering his conversation with himself in the mirror, Charlie smiled amicably and replied, “We all make mistakes. That’s why we have insurance.”

Review of “The Changeling” by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

I’m going to follow the advice of the author, as conveyed through the protagonist who is himself a novelist and literary critic, and review the novel I read rather than second-guess the author. Thus, I will not comment on the well-known tendency of Ōe to disguise memoirs about his own life as novels, including the tragic death of a director-friend with an uncanny resemblance to the antagonist in this novel. Instead, I will focus on the novel as translated into English from Japanese.

The prose is overly wordy, to the point of being difficult to read at times. Punctuation and grammatical errors are exceedingly rare, however, so I was able to slog through it to the end. It starts with the antagonist’s death and his reaching out to Kogito (the protagonist) through a series of tape recordings. This was very cleverly done and promised to be a very interesting discussion of aging and death. (Both Kogito and his lifelong friend, Goro, were approaching 65.)

But then the entire thread was dropped like a hot potato, and the story shifted to random musings about an event in the past, when Kogito and Goro were teenagers, an event that had already been briefly described and so was no longer a source of anticipation for the reader. Nevertheless, this event was repeated in painful detail as flashbacks while Kogito was reflecting on his life without the benefit of Goro speaking to him from beyond the grave. I really missed Goro.

The event (referred to as THAT by the characters) was nothing more than the kind of misunderstanding that occurs between young men looking for excitement and having a brush with criminal types. Yet, the author got hung up on it and wouldn’t let it go. There was also a drawn-out description of a previous futile and pathetic display of violence by Kogito’s father, again with no dramatic consequences. Just plain boring.

Then Kogito and Goro are both dropped from the story with no closure of any of their reflections or even personal relationship, leaving far more issues unresolved than were examined (much less addressed). The third-person perspective shifts to Chikashi, Kogito’s wife and Goro’s sister (although the author seems to be confused about whether she is younger or older than her brother). This last chapter, which is called the epilogue (I guess because of the shift in POV), reads as if each section was written without reviewing previous sections, after several weeks had passed. I had the distinct impression that the author just wanted to finish the book at all costs. (Maybe he had a book contract deadline.)

For example, in his haste to address (but not resolve) all of the issues that were brought up in the story, Ōe has Chikashi make a list of how points in her life compared to the main character in a children’s story (Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak). He even switches to first-person narration by Chikashi, interwoven with flashbacks of undisclosed chronological age or duration. It was a bit confusing. The entire book ends with her reflecting on this list, which I suppose allows a third-person (i.e. not Kogito or Goro) to throw in their two-cents worth. However, her discussion didn’t contribute to the discourse on death and growing old, suicide, friendship, and many other cans of worms that were opened but left lying about. It just repeated the same fragmentary data points.

The literary theory attributed to Sendak, tossed into the mix in the epilogue, only confused matters more since it was presented by a non-literary person (by Chikashi’s own admission) and was fragmentary and allusive at best. I looked “Reiterative Divergence” up, along with the other literary references used in the book, including many to the author’s own works (attributed to Kogito). I liked that technique and I’ve done it myself.

Viewed from the perspective of a work of fiction, I cannot recommend this book. It’s just too long, repetitive, lacking a plot (required for a novel) or character development, and incomplete.

However, if I do what Ōe himself opposes through Kogito and treat this, not as what is purported to be, a novel, but instead as a memoir written during an emotionally difficult time (the possible suicide of his good friend), then I can compare it to The Obscene Bird of the Night, by José Donoso. This exercise makes it readable although it still falls far short of Donoso’s nightmarish tale of poverty, schizophrenia, and depression in Chile. Reading the author’s mind in this scenario (like Goro’s multiple versions of THAT) it still comes up short because the pain and loss felt by Kogito and Chikashi, not to mention the mental anguish suffered by Goro, is never presented fully; how can it be when the story jumps around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

The Changeling wasn’t sold as a memoir, a genre I generally don’t read because they aren’t FICTION. Authors and publishers shouldn’t get away with false advertising any more than doctors or lawyers.

Review of “Capital and Ideology” by Thomas Piketty.

I am not qualified to review this book but that has never stopped me before. I am not summarizing what the author and dozens, if not hundreds, of historical economists and historians have spent decades studying. This book is more than a thousand pages, which says a lot about the research and intellectual investment of the author and god-knows how many others in their endeavor. I don’t even feel competent to summarize this tome, so I’m going to focus on how the author communicated his message to me personally, just as if this were a piece of fiction, which it is to some extent.

This book was translated from French to English by a professional, even though the author is fluent in both languages. A wise choice because the English translation is very readable. Even the most pedantic segments (there were a lot) were comprehensible, and the figure captions recapitulated the text. This was a professionally written (in the old-school meaning) summary of mind-numbing bureaucratic and polling data being turned into actionable statistical data.

The message interpreted from these data wasn’t as convincing as the author wanted me to believe.

Piketty admits the uncertainty of his data constantly, so I’m not saying that there was any misrepresentation, only what he says himself many times in this iconic book: there are insufficient data to make any definitive recommendations, but we should nevertheless start a serious, multinational dialogue if we are to avoid the fate of…

This is where Piketty’s argument hits a snag. He doesn’t give any examples, not even from antiquity (like complex socioeconomic analyses of ancient societies from about 1100 BCE, a time not unlike our own), to support his conjecture, a term he doesn’t deny outright. He has no evidence of what anyone with the common sense of…

No one has any common sense about these issues, a point admitted by Piketty. He advises economic historians and political scientists to work together to address the issues alluded to above, but fails to demonstrate any understanding of the impact of his claim. Perhaps the author should have spent more time talking to political scientists and economists before unilaterally sharing his historical viewpoint, weighted heavily in favor of his agenda.

To be clear, I agree with the conclusions presented in this book. It’s worth the risk of the incremental changes he proposes to shift the trajectory of global civilization.

I’ve become pretty good at finding punctuation and grammatical errors, despite my lack of formal education, but I was impressed by the translator’s work. I didn’t keep count, but the error rate was a lot better than mine. I read the footnotes, where the error rate went up, but not to the point of even being annoying. This was a very well written and translated book.

I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who thought I was going to summarize the author’s work. However, I do recommend this book based on Piketty’s own suggestion: skip the evidentiary chapters and read his summary if you aren’t willing to read a lot of pedantic European economic history.

The conclusion of the book is made clear throughout: The global socioeconomic system needs a better model than capitalism.

I recommend this book for serious readers. For the rest of you, pick up whatever you can from the internet because Thomas Piketty is not a recluse.

Meanwhile, if a cliff-notes version appears…

Immigrants

Inyo looked into a dark sky illuminated by the same stars he’d grown up with and asked himself why he’d volunteered for this futile endeavor, traveling to a world known only through uncorrelated images and brief videos collected by autonomous vehicles. Despite the identical night sky and—according to the data returned by the unmanned probes—expected similarity in the physical environment and its human inhabitants, this was not Earth. 

The Explorer program had been explained to him only minutes before his trip across quantum space to this world. He’d been conscripted into the project at the moment of conception along with thousands of other zygotes, unknown to the parents of these potential quantum travelers. His zygote had been quantum entangled with another zygote, randomly chosen in a blind selection process, known only to the computer algorithm making the decision. The unfortunate machine had been destroyed immediately in an effort to keep the quantum coherent zygotes entangled with a universe identified by random probes sent in previous years. The only record of events was the identity of the mothers. Inyo and the other unknowing participants had been tracked, given whatever resources were required to fulfill their potential, and contacted when enough data had been collected to justify the risk of decoherence. He would meet his traveling companion upon arrival at his destination. The middle-aged man who’d briefed him hadn’t known the name, age, ethnicity, gender, or even dress of this person; but Inyo had been told that he would recognize them immediately.

He turned to the young woman standing next to him, dressed in form-fitting jeans and a black, leather jacket. Her backpack was the twin of his, delivered prepacked with an assurance that it contained everything he needed. The very attractive blonde woman looked at him curiously, as if unsure how to treat him, before breaking the awkward silence. “I’m Nadera-Ten. You must be my assistant.”

Inyo met her steady gaze. “I don’t think so, Nadera. My name is Inyo…”

The corners of her mouth turned up ever so little in a half-smile Inyo had seen too often during his life. “Inyo what?”

He couldn’t believe that bullshit had followed him to another universe. Better to deal with it up front rather than let her think she was his superior. He was so tired of Tens assuming they were smarter than everyone else.

“One. Do you have a problem with that?” he asked a little too strongly.

She shrugged, her smile now condescending. “No, do you?” He was dismissed just like that, as she added, “We should get out of this open space, find lodgings, and familiarize ourselves with the local environment.”

Inyo’s eyes swept the heavens again, avoiding eye contact. “What do you suggest, Nadera-Ten?” He emphasized the numeric appendix to her name, expressing his disdain for an educational system that assigned an intellectual potential to preschool children and permanently displayed it as a sign of their inadequacy. She had the highest potential whereas his designation—his full name was Inyo-One—didn’t bode well for their future cooperation. 

“We are in an open stadium used for athletic events. There will be portals, probably secured at this time of night, but I foresee no problem exiting. Let’s go.” She started towards the nearest end of the huge amphitheater, unhindered by the heavy backpack.

Inyo picked his up and struggled to get his right arm through the heavy pack’s strap, noting ironically that she would probably be Nadera-Ten if her appellation was an index of physical strength. He hurried to catch up and matched her purposeful stride step for step, wondering why she was in a hurry. This was an excellent opportunity to get used to this new world, let their minds and bodies adapt to the unfamiliarity of being disentangled from their universe, the real Earth. Maybe that thought hadn’t occurred to her yet? That was the problem with A-type personalities like Nadera and most Tens; they were overconfident, which was probably why a lowly One had been assigned as her companion, someone to remind her that this wasn’t a simulation or video game.

They entered a tunnel dimly lit by incandescent bulbs, separated into enclosures by waist-high, steel fences that converged on a series of openings blocked by turnstiles. They could have easily surmounted the barricade but instead tried several of the barriers before Inyo found one that rotated outward, an exit. He got through before Nadera could cut him off, feeling childish at his sense of accomplishment. The next barricade wasn’t as easy to elude.

“Open it,” Nadera said, her body language saying that Inyo should figure out a way to pick or break the padlock securing the gate, hanging from a hasp on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling steel bars. 

Her arrogance infuriated him. What was he, her servant? They were equals, and he had no more experience with mechanical devices than she; in fact, he was a psychologist and computer scientist whereas she was at least an engineer and physicist…she should open the damn gate, not him.

“Go ahead,” he replied, struggling to replicate her authoritarian tone.

Her full lips turned into a thoughtful frown. Finally, she smiled, pointed at his backpack and said, “I believe the cutting device is in your bag,” smiling triumphantly.

Not wanting to admit defeat or struggle with the heavy pack while she watched victoriously, he turned away and quipped, “Left side, upper pocket. Be a dear, would you?” He threw that in, knowing she wouldn’t get the sexual jibe he’d learned about in a historical psychology class in college.

The frown returned as she reluctantly removed the short, cylindrical laser cutting tool, presenting it with a satisfied smile. “Here you go.”

There was no escaping her victory without being childish, so he took it from her a little too quickly, causing her lips to curve up smugly, and cut the lock’s shackle. He kicked the gate open a little too hard, causing it to slam against the fence with a loud bang. Her eyes opened in mock surprise, her mouth forming a perfect ellipse, her words mocking.

“Oh my, Inyo-One, I didn’t know you were so excited about the mission, what with your constant whining and complaining about this and that…”

Inyo replaced the cutting tool in his backpack without looking, to make the point that he’d outwitted her, and said, “Ladies first.” She wouldn’t understand the sexist slight, being the unlearned barbarian that she was.

As Nadera strode past him, he couldn’t avoid one last dig, one she would certainly notice. He placed his hand in the small of her back…and gently pushed her. She spun as if on ball bearings, her clenched fist inches from his nose. “If you ever touch me again, I’ll break something that won’t heal.” She wasn’t smiling.

Inyo refrained from expressing his satisfaction at having bested a Ten, especially one as perfect as Nadera, and said, “Sorry, I’ve been studying the remote data and focusing on blending. I guess I should have informed you of the customs we might expect here, but there wasn’t time…”

Doubt flickered, warping her lovely features for a microsecond, before she responded. “You will need to brief me on any trivial social behaviors we may encounter, as soon as we have established a base camp.” She turned to lead Inyo into the unknown, but her advance was interrupted.

“What’re you guys doing here?” The brunette had appeared out of the darkness. Several other young men and women materialized from the shapeless shadows, dressed in tight clothing reminiscent of a previous fashion trend on Earth. 

A guy with raven hair and an ashen face emerged, dressed in black and wearing a matching fedora, a large mechanical cutting tool in his hand. He held it out and said with some disappointment, “I guess you guys got here first. I really wanted to cut that fucking lock with this big-ass bolt cutter…” 

Inyo ducked and picked up the pieces of the lock, displaying them for the newcomers. “Sorry, dude, but we gotta study now, burn the midnight oil, all that bullshit.” He tossed the broken device on the concrete and with a flourish of his hand towards the open gate, added, “It’s all yours. The night is young…”

Fists were held up expectantly, so Inyo held his up and learned a local custom not reported by the probes—fist bumping. As the guy with the bolt cutter headed through the gate, Inyo took a chance on interrogative dialogue. “I know this sounds stupid and all, but we…” he began and put his arm around Nadera’s waist, resistance tightening her lower back muscles. “We’re a little stoned, going to study together in a private room, we both have roommates and, well, we didn’t think to make a reservation…Jesus, we’re so stupid—”

Nadera giggled and interjected, “We’re lost, uh, can you direct us to the nearest motel?”

The young man scoffed and replied, “The Sonesta is about ten-minutes up Nicholson.” He pointed over his shoulder and, grinning, added, “Whatever you guys sampled, I hope ours is as good.” With that he turned and hurried to rejoin his companions.

Nadera wasn’t acting so confident as she matched Inyo’s pace, brushing against him as he slowed to a stroll, heading toward distant bright lights. “How did you know what to do? Those people are from an alien world, but you communicated with them as if you’d lived here all your life.”

Inyo relished the moment, certain that she would get her footing and confidence too soon. His response was subdued. “We’re a team, Nadera. I was told that we’ve been entangled since conception, and from what I’ve heard about this mission, probably will be for the rest of our lives, so we have complementary knowledge—no one can know everything—and skills. By the way, you’re a fast learner, the way you backed me up…and didn’t freak out when the social situation called for physical contact. I think we’ll make a good team.”

She stopped and her gentle touch on Inyo’s arm arrested his footsteps. He turned and met her uncertain gaze as she said, “I have to remember that. We are a team. But we don’t know anything about each other, which I assume is intentional, some kind of failsafe because, having been entangled from conception we are theoretically in a quantum coherent state, which is only theory, so we don’t want to perturb our initial quantum state any more than is necessary to complete our mission.”

“What are you saying?”

She sighed, her expression generating an ambience that was rapidly becoming familiar to Inyo, brushed a stray hair out of her eyes, took his hand, and continued their slow pace. “Tell me about yourself. I can’t wait to hear your story.” 

She wasn’t in a hurry anymore.  

*

“Do you mind if I use the bath first?” 

Inyo looked up from his mobile comset. Nadera was half undressed, her shirt and pants tossed haphazardly on the queen-sized bed, blue eyes expecting confirmation.

“Sure, I’m connecting to the local wireless network system identified by the probes. I should have communications up by the time you finish. Take your time.”

She retreated to the bathroom, leaving an unfamiliar scent in the small room they had rented using some of the cash they’d brought with them: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private” was written on the stiff bills. Cash had been eliminated on Earth before he was born. His first act after they were linked would be to create a financial account because they would run out of legal tender pretty fast. The internet wasn’t that different from the Gateway used back on Earth. Although primitive and slow, it would suffice, at least until they got a prototype Quantum Entanglement Device operating. He wasn’t going to worry about that because the technical side of their mission was Nadera’s responsibility. She would earn her Ten status if she pulled that off. 

Nadera appeared from the bathroom, short blonde hair wet from the shower, wearing a loose-fitting, black undershirt displaying a big “10” in pink. Baggy pink gym shorts peaked from underneath. Surprised, Inyo grinned, imagining what her bed clothes were concealing. A shower seemed to have washed the last of her arrogance away, after their friendly chat on the walk to the motel. 

She faced the mirror and laughed. “I am proud of my IQ rating, but I never expected anyone else to see me in my bed clothes. I didn’t pack my bag, it was ready to go. I’m sorry if it offends you…” 

Just like that, she’d turned the tables on him, but she hadn’t really because he loved it. He just didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. They were a team, not a couple of teenagers on an overnight date. “Not at all. After our conversation, I think your choice of sleepwear is perfect. I usually dress the same but with a different color combination—red over gray. We’ll see if my wardrobe was chosen as thoughtfully.” He smiled warmly and was relieved when she responded in kind.

“I can’t wait to see. So, what’s our status?”

Inyo explained the situation to an attentive but fragrantly distracting Nadera. He’d already created a bank account but, not having had an opportunity to plan ahead, he’d used different surnames for them; she was Nadera Petrov and he was Inyo Semenov. This gave them the option of traveling as friends, collaborators, or a couple. He’d selected Russian because they were both fluent in what was a dying language on Earth, another fluke in a cascade of coincidences. Apparently, it was still spoken by Russians in this universe.

“What year is it?”

“Two-thousand-twenty-two, and I know how strange that must seem to you because—what’s curious is that I don’t feel like a stranger here.” He hurried to add, “I know that quantum entanglement isn’t responsible for my sense of familiarity, it’s probably nothing more than the classes I took in college, those old novels, all kinds of—”

She shook her head, a thoughtful frown warping her well-proportioned mouth, as she interjected, “Quantum Gravity and the Revised Standard Model don’t make predictions about the behavior of macroscopic systems like our bodies and minds, when entangled with other worlds. Your affinity with this world is perfectly reasonable and not a delusion. In fact, I feel the same way, and I never took those college classes or read any of the books you did. I’m certain this is real, an emergent phenomenon we should document. Finally, I have something to do, after all the work you’ve done getting us out of the stadium, to the motel, connected…” 

She smiled at Inyo and added, “Thanks,” before giving him a quick peck on the cheek. 

All he could think of was, “Are you hungry?”

After examining the menus available from several restaurants that would deliver to the motel, they settled on a “hot pot,” a mix of rice, meat, and vegetables. While they waited for the meal, paid for using a short-term loan secured by their fictitious economic lives, the anticipation of facing their mission prompted Nadera to share her own dissatisfaction with their fate.

“I wanted to be a research physicist before I started preschool. I worked so hard to be the smartest person in my classes, knowing I was going to win a Nobel Prize one day. I dreamt of standing on a stage and giving an acceptance speech when I was five years old. I was in all the advanced science classes and on track to…” Her voice faded, her eyes downcast, lips frowning hopelessly.

“You were asked to participate in an exploration program you had been chosen for before you were born, unknown to you or your parents. An enterprise so farseeing that it connected embryos in different parts of the world to another world in an entirely different universe. You couldn’t say no, could you?”

Blonde hair quivered as her head shook ever so slightly.

Inyo breathed deeply and began, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, despite drifting into social and computer sciences. I never dreamed of receiving any prizes. I didn’t try to be the best at anything, not even—I wasn’t even a good Inyo-One. I was on a dead-end track. What I mean is that I was going to have a mundane job, maybe in the healthcare industry, but then something happened when I was in high school. I don’t know if it was me or…well, you know, them, or something else.” He shrugged, Nadera’s attentive eyes watching him approvingly as he continued, “It all clicked. I hadn’t been taking college classes in middle school like you, but I jumped ahead, caught up with my more-advanced peers, and got my Ph.D. when I graduated high school.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

Nadera’s eyes opened in surprise. “Me too. What’s your birthday?” 

“June twenty-first and since you asked, I can tell you my birth time as well. I was born at 7:09 a.m. on a Tuesday. You?”

She jumped up, her hands clasping her face in surprise. “Oh my god, Inyo! That is exactly when I was born. This is completely beyond coincidence or Quantum Entanglement theory. It worked! We have been in a coherent state since we were single-celled zygotes, locked together despite being separated by thousands of miles. Whatever unique combination of subatomic particles comprises our individual persons, they are dancing together, have been all our lives—”

She suddenly became silent.

“What’s wrong, Nadera?”

She faced him, no longer excited, and continued, “We aren’t in control of our lives. I didn’t get my dream job as a research physicist. I was sent to a special college by—like you said, by them. I was turned loose in a physics lab, like a kid in a candy store; all the real physicists treated me as a new grad student, explaining whatever they were doing at any moment I entered their lab. I learned so much.” She scoffed regretfully. 

“I’ve been observing physics while others practiced it while teaching me how to construct a Quantum Entanglement Device. Perhaps that’s all my life was ever meant to be, Plan B, a contingency in case others—”

Seeing the tears waiting to erupt from her eyes, Inyo interrupted, “I don’t think so. You and who-knows how many others became experts, capable of recreating the greatest invention of all time, a way to travel to other worlds. No, Nadera…you aren’t a backup plan, but instead the first string; we aren’t the only team, however.”

“What do you mean?”

Inyo paused a moment to collect his thoughts before replying, “Our mission wasn’t deterministic but instead opportunistic. They had to guess that we—all of their unknowing conscripts— would agree to participate in what was at best a desperate gamble, if our zygotes were even viable. A plan like that, so many degrees of freedom, doesn’t have a backup; there is no Plan B.”

“How can you be so sure?” The tears had dried from Nadera’s eyes, emboldening Inyo.

He scoffed and pointed his spread fingers at his chest. “I am disposable. Sure, I have critical skills for survival on an alien, earthlike world, but I’m not going to get us and whatever data we collect home. You are not…” Inyo swallowed his pride and continued, “You were right, back in the stadium. I am your assistant, even if my skills are indispensable for the moment, to establish our presence here and collect data, because nothing we learn from this world will be shared with Earth unless you accomplish our task—you are the surgeon and I am the surgical assiastant.” He was certain that such a condescending monologue would restore Nadera’s confidence. 

Her response wasn’t exactly what he’d expected.

“Nice speech, Inyo, but I’m not buying it. Like you said, we’re a team. I apologize for my self-indulgent and egoistic passive-aggressive behavior. Thank you for bringing me back to reality.”

Her response was encouraging and her eyes were no longer clouded with tears; she was focused on the problem, regaining her confidence. Wanting to downplay the emergent comparison between their roles in the mission, he shared his story. “My post-graduate experience was a lot like yours. I bounced from one internship to another until I was contacted by them. But they had a name or at least an acronym, UEA, the Universal Exploration Agency.” He paused and looked at Nadera.

Her head was nodding as she continued his story. “I could have said no and fulfilled my childhood dream. They weren’t going to punish me for not cooperating, but I felt that I couldn’t let them down after so many years planning, taking a chance on me, my mother, my family, investing in me for decades. I let my dream go. Now here I am.” 

Before she could sink into a deeper pit of despair, Inyo stood up and held his arms wide, inviting her to physically share their common experience. She accepted his invitation and they held each other close for several minutes, finally separating. Inyo held her cool hands and said, “I’m here because, despite my intellectual late-blooming, I’d never had a dream like you. I figured, ‘What the hell?’ and said yes.”

Nadera scoffed. “The first chance I get in this strangely familiar world, I’m going to get you a red undershirt with ‘Ten’ emblazoned in pink, a reminder that you are just as capable as me.”

Inyo pulled his eyes away from the bright numeral emblazoned across her athletic breasts and stammered, “Why pink?”

“That’s my favorite color.” She jumped up and twirled, lifting her sleeping shirt to reveal her gym shorts. 

Inyo glimpsed abdominal muscles standing out in sharp relief during the exhibition and decided that he would accept Nadera’s color choice and learn to live with it. Nevertheless, he couldn’t comprehend, much less grasp, what was going through her mind—a brilliant physicist acting like a teenager at a sleepover with her girlfriends. 

Without thinking, he blurted, “You are definitely a ten!”

The shirt fell back into place, covering flesh and shorts alike, generating a wave of regret in Inyo’s stomach that expanded into a tsunami by the time it reached his chest, overwhelming his senses, shattering his cognition when it broke on the shoals of his prefrontal cortex. “I’m…I didn’t mean—” he began, stammering like a school boy.

“I know. I’ve tried all my life to be the best I could. I’ll never have a perfect body because that isn’t what was encoded in my DNA, but I’m satisfied. I hope you aren’t disappointed?” 

She’d done it again, instantly turning an uncomfortable social situation into a win for her ego and sense of empowerment. The painful part was that she was correct. Inyo tried to match her confidence with his response.

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Nadera, but you are…well, you are beautiful to a heterosexual male like me, and now and then I’ll probably slip up despite my best efforts, and make a stupid comment like that—”

“Thank you, Inyo. It is a compliment to have someone—an attractive young man like yourself, my age no less—acknowledge the result of my lifelong effort. Since we are quantum entangled with each other and this world, it’s important that we integrate our experiences to the fullest extent possible.” She stood up and indicated that he should do the same. 

Nadera’s hands massaged his abdomen uncomfortably, his buttocks, her slim fingers probing, pressing against his pectoral muscles, painfully squeezing his latissimus dorsi muscles. She finally released him and said, “I am a certified physical therapist and dietician, as well as several other—”

“Why am I not surprised?” 

She scoffed and replied, “We’ll get you in shape in no time. You won’t be twenty-six forever…”

Before he could respond, a rap came from the door.

Nadera rushed to the door, spoke a moment, and returned with a large, brown paper bag held up like a trophy of war. “I’m starving, Inyo, so let’s eat!” 

*

Inyo’s eyes opened in confusion, his mind grasping for a reference point and finding nothing but darkness, rays of light slanting through the unfamiliar space. A few desperate breaths later, he turned to his right to see a familiar form lying next to him; Nadera’s steady, slow breathing quieted his heart’s palpitations, a sense of intimacy granting his mind the freedom to recall his surroundings. He was in a motel in Baton Rouge, a city he had passed through on a road trip with a girlfriend during a forgotten summer years before, crossing the Mississippi River to explore the undiscovered western lands. Awakened by the memory, he examined his current traveling companion resting in peaceful repose. Nadera was a quiet sleeper; not a whimper, snore, gasp, sudden movement, or flailing limb had disturbed his rest. 

He gazed at her profile centered on a perfectly upturned nose and full lips. He imagined neurons firing within that sculpted cranium, electrical pulses broadcast through the jumble of brain cells comprising the entity called Nadera-Ten. What was she dreaming? He would give anything for the answer to that question. One thing was certain, however; she was critical to their mission and he would do whatever the situation demanded to keep her focused, sharp as a scalpel, because they weren’t going home unless she could create a new scientific field in this world. His thoughts were interrupted when her feathery eyelashes fluttered, portending her return to wakefulness.

Nadera’s eyelids opened, flickered briefly, before her blue eyes focused on Inyo. A relieved smile crept over her face before she said, “Thank god, Inyo. I thought it was all a dream. Thank you for being the first thing I saw when I woke up.” She didn’t seem upset or confused, so he spoke from his heart.

“You are the girl from my dreams.”

She sat up, turned to face him in a crossed-legged Yoga pose, before saying, “I know you aren’t in love with me so please explain your unorthodox greeting.” She was smiling, which he took as encouragement to be forthcoming. 

Inyo retrieved his mobile device from the nightstand, opened the photo app and searched through archived images, finally finding an eclectic collection that he’d never shown to anyone before. He found his favorite photo and held it for Nadera to view. 

Her eyes opened wide, hands reaching for her own mobile device. An image was thrust in front of Inyo’s retinas, a young girl with long, blonde hair wearing a flowered dress with the exact same pattern as the girl in his sketch. The Christmas tree, wrapping paper littering the carpet, presents held up by family members, were present in both versions of the scene. 

“When did you sketch this?”  

Inyo breathed deeply and told the story of his best friend and later dream lover, the girl who was his first memory, at maybe four-years-old. He’d spent every Christmas with her family since he was eight, exchanging gifts, eating with them, playing in the snow. But he couldn’t remember her name. The dreams had been more concrete to him than reality, contributing to his indifference to school or even life, until he’d decided that she existed somewhere and he would find her, but not by sitting on his ass. He had to work hard to succeed at this task because this girl wouldn’t be waiting for him. He would have to search for her. His story finished on an upbeat note.

“For the first time in my life, I didn’t spend the night with my dream lover last night. I don’t really recall my new dreams but I think they were nothing more than random admixtures of real memories, emotions, stuff like that…”

Her hand covered her mouth in surprise. “Every night?”

He nodded. 

“I can’t imagine… I really can’t wrap my head around that, for more than twenty years. Every night?”

“Until last night. Don’t misunderstand, but I guess I found the girl of my dreams. I worked hard and…well, it paid off because here we are. That sounded wrong. Let me explain—”

She held her hand out and interjected, “Do you have more pictures?”

He handed his mobile device to her and she studied his photos for several minutes, her face expressing the gamut of emotions from thoughtful to joyful, her self-consciousness fading as she flipped through Inyo’s gallery. She finally handed the device back and shared her feelings. “I’m overwhelmed. Considering the intimacy reflected in your memories, you’ve been a perfect gentleman since we met. As far as I can remember, every one of your sketches portrays a real event, even the very familiar scenes although those were with other guys…”

Inyo cleared his suddenly dry throat, his words coming out in a coarse rasp. “My dreams must have been a side-effect of being quantum entangled with you my entire life. I simply recorded the experience. It was as real as my waking hours, if you can imagine that…”

“I can now,” she responded flatly.

Inyo scoffed to break the awkwardness of the situation and said, “I feel better, knowing I wasn’t losing my mind. It was just a side effect of a scientific experiment. It would have been nice if I’d known before, but that wasn’t possible because of the risk of decoherence which by the way, I think has occurred. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“That is the most-probable explanation for why you didn’t dream about me last night.” She met his steady gaze, smiled uncertainly, and added, “We have a lot of work to do, collecting data and constructing a QE device in a world that only recently discovered gravity waves.” 

Inyo wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. “I can delete all those images now. I sketched them to stay sane but, now that I know what was really happening, I don’t need them. I really don’t. And not because I’ve found the girl of my dream, although I guess I have—you know what I mean. It is kind of cool, to actually meet you in the flesh, to be doing something important with you.” He scoffed and tossed out, “It’s like, well, I made something of my life because of the mission—”

Her finger touched his lips as she finished his sentence. “It almost ruined your life, your dreams haunted by a phantom, driven to near-madness, but you were strong and persevered. I don’t think I would have become a Ten if I’d had to bear your burden as an infant. At any rate, you will always be Inyo-Ten to me.” She jumped out of the bed and stood in front of the bathroom as she added, “If you want to use the toilet, I suggest you do it before I take my shower. Today I start to earn my paycheck.” 

Inyo couldn’t help asking, as he slipped past her, “Since I’ve already seen you in the shower, I don’t know why there’s such a need for privacy… My drawings were anatomically accurate, weren’t they?”

She was grinning as she pushed him through the door. “You’re going to have to rely on your memories on that question. Oh and, by the way, please don’t delete your sketches. I may want to look at them again because your gallery of quantum dreams is far more complete than my memories or my photo album. And besides, your artistic talent allowed you to record very important data, unforeseen by theory and probably—” 

Inyo turned and, with his hand on the door handle, quipped, “We haven’t verified my data yet…”

She yanked the door out of what he’d thought was a tight grip and pulled it closed, her silent retort a haughty smile glimpsed through the narrowing aperture.

*

Peeling, off-white paint failed to cover decades-old water stains adorning the walls of Professor Susan Amarion’s office in Nicholson Hall. Foot-high stacks of research papers, copied months earlier and forgotten by a mind that only thought about the future, contributed to the illusion of southern decay. Curly, shoulder-length brown hair framed a plain face mounted on an oversized jaw and centered on a broad, flat nose. Inyo swallowed a grin, certain that the false image created by Dr. Amarion was unintentional, the inevitable result of a fierce intellect trapped in a decaying society, her physique the inevitable result of the disjunction between mind and body. His intuition was confirmed by the narrowed hazel eyes through which she observed the Russian scientists who’d suddenly appeared in her world, centered as it was on ground-breaking research into gravity waves. 

Nadera’s plan was to pose as Russian immigrants, prove their intellectual worth, and collaborate with a respected researcher in this world. If all went well, they would begin work on a Quantum Entanglement Device within a year. Inyo had studied the early twentieth century. The Great War hadn’t been the result of rational thinking, cost-benefit analysis, or even common sense. From what he’d seen so far, this earth was a lot more like the Earth that had exploded in war than the one he’d left behind. This was Nadera’s show, however, so he nodded supportively as she introduced herself as Nadera Petrov and he as Inyo Semenov. They had recently earned their doctorates in Russia and granted O-1 visas because of their contributions in physics and computer science. Nadera did a good job presenting their case, but Professor Amarion wasn’t buying.

She’d been typing on her computer keyboard while Nadera described her and Inyo’s research and now faced them with the result of her search. “I can’t find anything published by you and Inyo, not even in Russian. I know there’s a lot published by Russia’s active research community and I get limited editions of English translations, but you don’t show up. Why is that?”

Nadera didn’t have an answer but Inyo did, having planned for this contingency. “Nadera was never one to hold her tongue. Search for her name in political news from Russia. She has made the man who rules from the Kremlin unhappy, so she—and me by association—has been blacklisted from publishing. Our doctoral research has even been purged from the records by the not-so-democratic Russian state.

Professor Amarion typed some more and then skimmed several of the news reports Inyo had planted on international web pages that covered politics inside Russia. Nadera’s picture was prominently displayed with his face discreetly present in the background.

Nadera looked at Inyo with open admiration and then supplemented the fantasy he’d created. She stood up and approached a white, writing board attached to an otherwise empty wall in the office. It was covered with scribbling which she skimmed before picking up an eraser pad and turning to Professor Amarion. “Do you mind if I solve this for you? Proving the Yang-Mills Existence hypothesis is no more a part of your research than it was mine, but I was fascinated by the mathematical purity of the solution, which was buried by Vladimir Putin along with my thesis.”

“Sure, let’s see your approach.”

Their host watched in awe as Nadera swiftly and implacably reproduced the proof that had won a Nobel prize for its creator, making macroscopic Quantum Entanglement possible, leading inexorably to Inyo and Nadera presence in this office, trying to get home, back to Earth. The black felt pen wrote “Q.E.D.” and Nadera retook her seat. 

Inyo could see that Professor Amarion hadn’t followed Nadera’s clear and concise summary of the well-known proof, but she wasn’t going to admit it. She was struggling with her desire to defend her domain, including her intellectual and authoritarian kingdom; and mentoring this prodigy who’d appeared without formal notice didn’t fit into the plan. Inyo recognized the moment when the decision was made, the eyes slitting further, the heavy jaw closing, yellow teeth hidden behind thin lips. 

“Interesting approach but there are a few problems—”

Nadera revealed that she would have been a Russian dissident if she actually was from Russia in this world, when she stood up and curtly said, “I thank you for your time, Professor Amarion. Inyo and I have better things to do than teach undergraduate mathematics to closed-minded authoritarian educators, so we’ll be leaving now.” She nodded towards Inyo, who leapt to his feet. She picked up the eraser, waved it threateningly over the whiteboard, and continued, “Just to show that there are no hard feelings, I’ll leave this for you to study. I won’t complain if you figure it out and collect the million-dollar prize. Remember that when we meet again.” 

She marched out the door. Inyo thanked their host and rushed to catch up with a young woman who was no longer a figment of his imagination. 

*

“It’s so much better to be living with you in the real world—even if it isn’t Earth—than dreaming about you every goddamn night…even if we are sleeping together but not having sex, because at least you aren’t a dream anymore.” Inyo ended his tirade and waited for Nadera’s response.

After their stillborn collaboration with Professor Amarion, Nadera and Inyo had implemented Plan B, and thus they had applied for, and gotten, positions at the University of Chicago; Inyo was a research assistant in the Department of Computer Science whereas Nadera had won a prestigious assistant professor position in the Physics Department. She had kissed him on the lips upon learning of her new position.

Nadera stopped applying her makeup and turned to Inyo. “I’ve never heard you use that word before. Are you nervous about your presentation at the social sciences colloquium this evening?”

Inyo looked at her in disbelief, unable to comprehend how the woman who had shared his dreams, accepted their mission without a second thought, followed him to Chicago, and was now carefully applying lip gloss to accompany him to a social function of no personal interest to her, could be oblivious of their personal relationship. He was infatuated with Nadera (probably head-over-hills in love with her to use a literary phrase), and to discover that she had no interest in him was baffling. They had been sleeping in the same bed for months. He knew she wasn’t a virgin and was in fact very accomplished in foreplay and sexual activities of every kind, a supposition she had neither confirmed nor denied when confronted with the evidence supplied by his sketches. To make matters worse, she hadn’t shown the slightest discomfort in her bed clothes, even granting him glimpses of her nude form appearing from the bath to retrieve a forgotten item of clothing. The pressure had become so intense that he’d resorted to masturbating in the shower. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep up the pretense.

“No,” he responded curtly, standing in front of the mirror redoing his narrow, herringbone tie for the third time. It was impossible to concentrate with her getting dressed in front of him. He hadn’t complained because watching her unintentional performances was mildly erotic. 

Seeing his frustration but either not knowing or admitting its source, she stepped in front of him and pushed his hands aside. “I’ve never seen you so nervous, Inyo,” she began as her deft fingers wove his tie into a perfect half-Windsor knot. She stepped back and smiled with satisfaction, giving Inyo a full view of her unclothed torso, a bralette struggling to contain her breasts. 

He tore his eyes away and addressed her comment with a story he’d used so many times he had committed it to memory. “Everything we do in Chicago is critical to getting the resources needed to construct a Quantum Entanglement Device, even something as mundane as a faculty colloquium and happy hour—everything.”

“Humph,” she snorted and turned back to cover herself with a flowered, long-sleeved blouse. “Unless one of your faculty members has a Swiss bank account filled with hidden research dollars, this looks like just another social event organized by the Political Sciences Department.”

Inyo didn’t understand Nadera’s ambivalence since the move to Chicago. It was as if she’d lost interest in their objective, to collect data for future missions and, if possible, make contact with someone who could form a bridge between their worlds, someone willing to become entangled with Earth. Her purpose in being on this alternate world. This was probably her response to the shock of decohering from both this place and him; instead of dreaming of him or this reality for years, she was becoming drawn into it like a star into a black hole. No problem. She wasn’t becoming obstructionist, only disinterested, following his guidance without complaint. So far, so good, but he would keep his fingers crossed. 

The ten-minute walk from their one-bedroom apartment to Harper Hall passed too quickly under a cloudless, late-summer sky lit by a setting sun the same shade of red as on Earth. Nadera talked confidently about her plan to introduce decades of research as radically new theories that would garner funding for their mission. Encouraged by her renewed commitment to the mission but disappointed that she didn’t feel the same about their personal relationship, he stopped in front of the ivy-covered brick facade of Harper Hall. Her warm hand slipping into his wasn’t as big a surprise as her comment.

“Here we are, Inyo, entering the halls of academia.” She turned a proud look toward him and continued, “I know I’ve been distant and ambivalent, which I think was a delayed response to…you know what I mean, but I’m with you now, ready to do my part for our mission.” Her suddenly upbeat tone confused him, uncertainty morphing into suspicion when she added, “I’m going to keep an open mind and be more like you from now on.”

That worried him but it was too late to inquire about the meaning of her ominous words because several other couples arrived, forming a group jostled Inyo and Nadera through the heavy wooden doors. He was quickly recognized as the evening’s speaker by a member of the impromptu group, and Nadera’s hand was torn from his by societal pressure. A glance revealed her confident smile. She had been recognized as the newest member of the university’s faculty, another celebrity. 

Inyo took his place behind the podium, nervously searching the dozen or so faces before him for Nadera’s. She was talking animatedly to an older man sitting, her hands uncharacteristically waving as if she were treading water, patting his arm excitedly. Her antics were encouraged by her audience of one, his aging brown eyes oblivious of Inyo preparing to summarize an economic model he’d studied on Earth that scaled individual human behavior to national and global scales. Inyo hid his revulsion at Nadera’s private performance of an enthralled and enthusiastic economics follower—she was playing this guy, doing her part; this old man must have said or done something to make her so attentive. She had been oblivious of Inyo’s amorous innuendo for months. Avoiding eye contact, he finished his presentation in twenty minutes. The few questions suggested that it was well received, until the old guy Nadera was clinging to stood up and asked a question he’d been spoon-fed by the stone-faced physicist from Earth. 

“How do you expect to collect the microeconomic data required by your model? This sounds like a proposal for another government program to interfere with our economic freedom. Where does it end?”

Inyo would have to thank Nadera later for whatever she’d done to motivate this antiquarian. For the moment, he answered the question honestly while the girl of his dreams watched expectantly. “The data already exist but are unavailable because of logistical issues. For example, there aren’t enough computers to process the purchase data and for another, why do you assume the federal government would spearhead such an effort? The data reside in the hands of financial institutions. The anonymized records from private corporations could be shared between themselves and possibly private-government entities like the FNMA or FHLMC, colloquially known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Congressional oversight could assure transparency.”

The colloquium morphed into happy hour, with imported beer and inexpensive white wine supplied by the Department of Economics. Nadera ignored Inyo and remained at the side of the old guy, both of them talking animatedly, despite having nothing in common because they were from different worlds, but they just kept talking, distracting Inyo from the conversations flowing around him. Finally overcome by concern for Nadera’s safety, aware of how vulnerable she was in this violent world, he cut short a discussion about Daniel Kahneman’s latest book, and joined her.

“Well, Nadera, perhaps you can introduce me to your friend?”

Before she could respond, the interloper extended his hand with a warm smile. “I’m Brian Chamberlain. I’m so glad to make your acquaintance. I’m sorry if I was distracted during your presentation but Nadera was explaining your thesis while you spoke.” He looked at her appreciatively and added, “I should have guessed that you two were together, the way she spoke as if coached…” His words trailed off but his thought was interruped by Nadera.

Without the slightest sign of discomfort, she said, “I’m going to spend the night with Brian, Inyo, so don’t expect me back until tomorrow. We have a lot to talk about.” She smiled at the old guy and added, “Isn’t that right?”

His eyes shot open as he struggled to close his gaping jaw. “Aww…well I…what…?” He turned to Inyo in desperation, his voice pleading as he continued, “I thought you two were…together? What’s going on?”

Inyo couldn’t find a response, but the girl of his dreams shattered his illusion of solidarity with well-chosen words. “Inyo Semenov and I met in graduate school and, being of similar dispositions and sharing a dream, came to America to cast our lot along with everyone else, in a land that wasn’t corrupted by latent Communism or nascent Hypercaptialism. We live together but our relationship is purely platonic, born of a common interest in living in a free country, so we compromised. I love him like a brother.”

Inyo’s pulse pounded on his skull from the inside, despite his heart being frozen in his chest, as he stammered, “Of course. Nadera and I have been together so long…uh, been through so much…she is closer to me than my real sister, who lives in Moscow. I hope that one day she can join us here in Chicago.” Those few words had exhausted his vocabulary and he was speechless when Brian responded.

“That explains why she watches you so closely, Inyo. I thought you were together, as a couple like…” He paused, glanced at Nadera and then focused his attention on Inyo before adding, “She may have gotten carried away there. I mean I haven’t invited her to my home—”

Inyo interrupted, “She’s like that.” His attention was focused on Nadera as he added, “When something gets into her head, she pursues it, which is why she’s such a phenomenal physicist.”

He faced Brian Chamberlain, the man who had become his nemesis, and finished with, “Don’t worry about taking advantage of my dear sister Nadera. It is you who should be concerned because I think she is going to open your eyes to a reality you’ve never imagined.”

“What?” escaped from Brian’s mouth before Nadera finished Inyo’s thought.

“You want to be the first man to speak to aliens. Right?” 

He nodded dumbly and she continued, “Inyo and I can make that a reality, but you have to be willing to go down the rabbit hole. Are you up for that?” 

*

“Where have you been?”

It had been more than a week since Nadera had gone home with Brian Chamberlain to spend the night. Inyo had seen her around campus a couple of times, but their paths hadn’t crossed and he’d respected her desire to be left alone. Seeing her, dressed in designer clothes and attending to her academic business, had reassured him of her wellbeing. Her reappearance at their apartment, dressed in the same clothes she’d worn to the colloquium, elicited a sigh of relief from Inyo, until she stumbled past him without responding to his question. 

Eyes staring blankly, she disrobed, littering the floor with clothing purchased at Target, before crawling between the sheets, naked. Without looking at Inyo, she said between clinched teeth suddenly chattering, “I’m so…cold, I don’t know what’s happening, what happened…help me…”

Shocked into action, Inyo slipped between the sheets and pressed against Nadera. She was shivering uncontrollably, arms flailing, legs jerked by muscle spasms, eyes rolling wildly as her head snapped back and forth. This wasn’t a response to the mild fall temperature, so he desperately wrapped his arms around her, trapping her gesticulating arms, pinning her writhing legs, his mind groping for something, anything that would restore the connection they’d shared before arriving in this strange world. Her skin felt unnaturally cold to the touch, as if she’d been immersed in ice water, so he rubbed her vigorously. The intensity of her paroxysms decreased as twilight settled over Chicago and her eyes opened to the intermittent light of a full moon peeking between scattered clouds.

“What happened?”

Inyo released his hold and rolled onto his back, pushing the blanket aside to expose his sweat-soaked clothes to the coolness of their apartment. He was bone tired and it was all he could do to roll out of the bed. She was looking at him expectantly as he stumbled to the table and fell back into a chair. 

“I was hoping you would tell me. You arrived this morning without your key—I had to let you in—then you stripped naked and got in bed before being overcome with muscle spasms so violent I thought you would injure yourself.” He glanced at the digital alarm clock and added, “I just spent eight hours wrestling a tiger…”

Her eyes opened wide as the blanket was pushed down to reveal her unclothed body and the damp sheet where Inyo had been lying. “I was delirious?”

He nodded confidently. “Absolutely out of your mind. How do you feel now? Can you remember what happened, what you and Brian Chamberlain did for the last week? Anything at all?”

“Who?” She sat up and swung her legs out of the bed to face Inyo, unconcerned by her lack of clothing. “A week? I was gone for a week and you didn’t do anything about it?”

Inyo scoffed. “I saw you around the campus and you didn’t look like you’d been brainwashed or mistreated. In fact, you were wearing designer labels and acting…well, normal. You smiled at me a couple of times so I assumed you were enjoying—freedom I guess, with Brian, and maybe working an angle to support the mission. I got the impression he was more than a curious neighbor with a penchant for macroeconomics, especially after seeing your new wardrobe.”

She looked at the clothing strewn across the floor and then at her naked body, confusion and disbelief fighting for control of her features. She stood up uncertainly, not trying to cover herself, and staggered towards the bathroom as she said, “I can’t think right now. I’m going to take a bath. Can you order something to eat?”

She didn’t bother closing the bathroom door, so Inyo didn’t see any reason to express his concern about the possibility of her drowning in the bathtub. He used the primitive mobile communication device he’d acquired in Chicago to order a hamburger with onion rings for himself, and Kung Pao Chicken with spring rolls for Nadera, her request conveyed from the bathtub. Fragments of the past week were shared with Inyo from the bathroom. She and Brian had fallen in love, knowing it was only for a few days, a week at most; they’d spent the time well, each day being a gift from god. She couldn’t remember the details but one fact was clear in her mind: She had told Brian Chamberlain, a wealthy inhabitant of this earth, everything about her and Inyo’s mission, including the need to find a contact in this universe willing to risk quantum entanglement with their Earth. Her final words were delivered directly as she appeared in the bathroom door, wearing only a smile.

“Are you angry with me? Something felt right with Brian, about his being our contact in this world, but I’m not certain because…I don’t actually remember anything…just guesses…”

Inyo answered her question before getting to what was really on his mind. “Of course not. How could I be upset? You had expressed your support for our mission just before meeting Brian Chamberlain and, being the brilliant scientist that you are, you recognized an opportunity when it presented itself and acted. I’m sure that your missing week has sown seeds that will produce a partial solution to our problem—I’m putting my money on your new friend and…and lover becoming a critical component of our mission.”

Rather than getting dressed, Nadera went to the mirror and turned around, examining herself carefully with Inyo trying not to watch. “Do you think I’ve gained weight?” she asked, facing him unabashedly before turning away to display her derriere, looking over her shoulder expectantly.

Inyo leapt to his feet in frustration. “What’s going on, Nadera? Are you making a point, that you can get any man you want, like this Brian Chamberlain? But I’m…I don’t know what I am to you. Why are you behaving this way?”

Rather than apologizing, she approached uncomfortably close and gently placed her hands on the back of Inyo’s neck, a beguiling smile transforming her visage as she began her explanation. “Quantum entanglement is only possible by integrating the equations. It can only be accomplished using the summation of the quantum states of the particles comprising a person or object, so the theory expressed in our technology makes no predictions about details. The theory could no more predict your dreams about me than it could foresee my response to suddenly being decohered from you…”

“What are you saying?” Inyo’s arms slipped around her waist.

She sighed and pulled closer. “Our becoming entangled at conception destined us to be together. It can’t be undone, at least not without causing permanent and probably fatal injury to both of us. I’ve been working on a differential solution to the equations—I think that was last week—and I’m hopeful, but that’s not my point.” She pulled back and interjected, “You smell. Take a shower and then I’ll explain.”

Nadera helped him undress and stood outside the shower as the sweaty residue was washed down the drain, leaving Inyo feeling like a new man.

“Like I was saying, your individual response to becoming entangled with me was expressed when you were asleep. Your prefrontal cortex wasn’t paying attention and blocking discordant memories, which didn’t go away. They were real.” She grinned and interjected, “By the way, your memories are totally accurate. I was self-conscious about it until today, which brings me back to my point—”

Inyo placed an index finger to her mouth and said, “Our dinner should arrive any minute, so let’s get dressed or at least cover ourselves.”

She laughed and slipped into her shorts, just as a rap came at the door, leaving Inyo in the bathroom feeling naked and defenseless. She threw on her nightshirt and answered the door, returning with a plastic bag.

“My dinner has arrived but I’ll wait for yours before we eat. I want to savor our first meal together.”

“What does that mean?” Inyo complained while donning his t-shirt.

Instead of answering, Nadera wrapped her arms around his waist, inviting him to do the same, and kissed him passionately. Inyo’s knees buckled under the force of her assault. She finally allowed him to breathe, before answering, “We are like the two poles of a battery. You are a quantum anode. A positive charge—for lack of a proper vocabulary—has been accumulating in the quantum space associated with your existence since we were first entangled, at conception. That’s why you shared my life, unknown to either of us. This is some weird science Inyo, so I’m speculating, but hear me out.”

He guided her to the small table and sat down because he was feeling very tired. “I love hearing you talk,” he said, feeling no shame at such an admission.

Her hand grasped his as she continued, “I am your paired quantum cathode, the receiver of whatever unimagined forces are at play, but I stored this…charge…unaware of its existence. But then it was released when we became decohered, when I subconsciously became aware of this excess of quantum energy—I don’t have a better name for it. This pent-up energy was released without warning, throwing me into a tailspin.”

“Is that why you had a blackout?”

She nodded but quickly responded, “But we’re in equilibrium now, I think. I don’t know if it was being with Brian—I don’t remember if we had sex or not—or something beyond the scope of Quantum Entanglement Theory, but I have the same memories as you.”

A knock at the door interrupted her explanation. She heated her meal while Inyo accepted his from the delivery person. Nadera was grinning from ear to ear as they sat down at the small table. Inyo risked taking a hungry bite from his double cheeseburger as she continued her story between nibbles of her chicken and noodles.

“I know what you’re thinking, Inyo. The answer is, yes! I remember you as my childhood friend, the boy who came to my house for holidays. I have even more memories than your sketches. You have always been in my life. You are the only man I’ve ever made love to… God! I love you so much I can’t find words to describe my feelings. That’s why I blacked out last week. Conflicting realities were juxtaposed when I went home with Brian Chamberlain, fully intending to do whatever it took to either find a point of contact or secure funding for our mission. I didn’t want to be with him, not at the quantum level, so I…”

Inyo swallowed a mouthful of cheeseburger and said, “Are you saying that my sketches of my dream—my dream girlfriend and lover—these are now your memories? Doesn’t that seem like you’ve been robbed of your real life? I mean, Jesus, that’s a terrifying idea—”

Nadera’s head was shaking vehemently as she said, “You don’t understand, Inyo. First, I don’t know why I remember life without you, but it is definitely nothing more than a distant fantasy, not even real memories. Don’t ask me to explain it. The bottom line is that I am the girl of your dreams and you are now the boy of my dreams. I have loved you all of my life. Get used to it.”

It wasn’t that easy for Inyo. “Why don’t I feel the same?”

Nadera laughed and choked on a piece of chicken, before regaining her poise and saying, “Are you kidding? You’ve been expressing your recognition of our quantum relationship from the day we met. You don’t have to make any adjustments because you’ve been living in this reality from our conception. I’m very proud and definitely excited—not to mention overjoyed and madly in love with you—to finally share this reality with you, but I hope I didn’t have sex with Brian Chamberlain. That would be like cheating on you.” 

*

Inyo was skeptical of Nadera’s acceptance of her new reality, unable to shake the feeling that he’d somehow stolen her life despite her wholehearted commitment. The reason for his distress finally occurred to him during lunch on campus one cool autumn day the week after her return. He wasn’t sure how to bring it up without sounding ungrateful or, worse yet, egotistical and self-centered, and the last thing he wanted was to hurt her any more than he already had. He cleared his throat to get her attention.

“What is it, Inyo? You’ve never done that in the years we’ve been together. This must be important.” Her warm, inviting smile gave him second thoughts. She was right. His memories of their shared life were filled with ideas and concerns blurted without preamble.

He smiled sheepishly and began, “I accept that there has been some kind of cosmic, quantum shift that brought our realities into alignment. In fact, what used to be dreams I recalled vividly have become memories that I accept as tokens of past events supported by the photos in my gallery of our life. But I remember that those images were once sketches drawn by me…now they’re real, why do I remember the other reality, the one in which you were only the girl in my dreams? I want to commit to our shared reality but I’m lost…”

The concern that had crept over Nadera’s features evaporated as she reached across the table and took Inyo’s hand. “My previous reality is fading fast, nothing more than a few dreams now, like your previous dreams of a life with me. You just admitted that the same thing is happening to you. The reason is the same as for me, not that I know what it is, but I’d speculate that the Explorer program was premature and based on an incomplete theory of Quantum Entanglement. Because the way in which decoherence occurred for us—being suddenly thrust together in another universe—the neural networks comprising our brains retained physical evidence of other realities, struggling to remain in the timeline or maybe the worldline we were thrown into, this world. If I had to guess, I’d say that neither one of us will recall anything except the past in which we fell in love as children and, unknown to us, had been quantum entangled from conception. It was our destiny to be together and in this place.”

“But don’t you feel that you’ve lost something?” Inyo muttered, unable to shake the sense of being a charlatan, a fake person who had never been alive, not even born, just popped into existence.

Nadera’s head wagged mischievously. “You and I were simply unexpected partial observers of quantum processes that occur continuously: new worlds and realities created every time a decision is made, an electron moves along a neuron, a butterfly flaps its wings. Nature is correcting this glitch and soon we will be perfectly equilibrated with the new world we inhabit. Trust me, sweetheart.”

He had to add, “Are you sure you like it in this reality, being in love with me…?”

Her answer was to get up, step around the table and sit in his lap with everyone watching them, before kissing him passionately for a long time, her arms wrapped around his neck. She released him and stood up, her expression beaming. “I’m pretty certain there is no reality in which I could be happier than I am right here, right now, feeling the way I do about you, even with your self-doubt and second-guessing nature. I love that about you, Inyo.”

Before he could respond, a familiar voice interrupted. “A little voice told me to tread lightly and—oh boy am I glad I listened to it.”

Brian Chamberlain stood there with a wide grin on his ruggedly handsome face. “May I join you?”

Inyo nodded dumbly. 

Nadera’s eyes were deflected downward as she meekly replied, “Please do, Brian. This is as good a time as any to talk about what happened…”

Brian set his tray down and Inyo suddenly felt hungry. He would focus on his sandwich while the drama played out. Something told him that this was a good omen, even if it made Nadera a little more than uncomfortable. There was nothing wrong with Brian’s appetite because he immediately set about preparing his chef salad, apparently enjoying himself immensely as Nadera glanced around and poked at her Caesar salad.

She cleared her throat, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Inyo, acknowledged by a self-conscious smile, and said, “Well, Brian…I don’t know how to begin—”

A cherry tomato impaled on his fork hovered before his mouth as he interjected, “Let me help if I may. The week we spent together was the most enlightening time of my life and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it with me. Thank you so very much!”

That didn’t appear to be what she wanted to hear. “That’s what I wanted to speak to you about. You see, well…I don’t remember anything except that I definitely told you about Inyo and me, where we came from and why we’re here…I think. Did I?”

Brian made her wait while he swallowed a mouthful of salad. His head was nodding emphatically when he finally answered, “Absolutely, and you convinced me of the truth of your wild story. That’s why were together so long. I was skeptical at first, but you more than proved yourself.” He was grinning and Inyo was sure that he was teasing Nadera, taking advantage of her missing memory. Their time together must have been interesting.

She finally looked Brian in the eyes, self-doubt and guilt written all over her face. Her voice was hard as steel when she asked, “Did we have sex?”

Inyo worked to conceal a grin at Brian’s response, straight out of a Marx Brothers film. He imagined a cigar replacing the fork as the older man’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell my dear, especially with the young lady in question’s paramour sitting at the table.”

A desperate sigh escaped Nadera’s pursed lips.

Brian relented and filled his mouth with salad, making her wait again, before amending his comment. “You threw yourself at me arduously, in an obvious attempt to use your considerable sensuality as a tool to gain access to my fortune and even my person, even going so far as presenting yourself in the nude, pretending to be intoxicated and susceptible to my wanton desires. I would have succumbed to your advances except that there was something about you and Inyo that alerted my Spidey-Sense.” He tossed a glance at Inyo and quipped, “You get it, don’t you?”

Inyo smiled and nodded but didn’t say a word, his mouth full.

Brian faced Nadera and continued, “I don’t honestly know what happened to you, but your behavior changed over the course of the week. You insisted on sleeping in my bed the first night and…well that was difficult, but I resisted your advances. In the morning you were a different person, apologizing for your action, then behaving as if we were collaborators. That’s when you told me about you and Inyo coming from another quantum world. You explained that you were suffering from quantum decoherence and I shouldn’t believe anything you said because reality was changing with every second. You were very convincing…but it got better.”

“I went to work. Inyo saw me on campus. He said that I was aloof.” She glared at Inyo and added, “He didn’t interrupt because he had what he called proof of life.”

Brian laughed aloud before responding. “You proved a lot more than that to me. Using some equipment borrowed from your lab on campus, you constructed a communications device that was quantum entangled with your universe—specifically, with an automated system constructed as part of your Explorer program. This was verified by several physicists who happen to be friends of mine, pragmatic scientists who understand the need for discretion in matters of such importance.”

“Is that all?” Nadera was visibly relieved at Brian’s story of her missing week.

Brian finished his salad, wiped his mouth with a napkin, finished his bottle of water, and said, “Of course not, Nadera. Seeing that your condition was deteriorating and certain that the only person who could possibly save you was Inyo, I sent you home in a limousine. I guess you made it. I’ve been busy since then…” He was beaming, obviously keeping the best for last.

Nadera ventured to ask, “So, will you help us? I could understand any concerns you might have about some kind of invasion…this is a very serious question that must be examined. Maybe you know some political leaders?”

Brian laughed out loud and Inyo joined him, to Nadera’s dismay.

“What’s so funny about that? Inyo and I don’t have any specific objective per se, just that we should attempt to establish some kind of…I don’t know, maybe diplomatic relations.”

Brian threw Inyo a knowing glance and said, “It is your world that should be concerned. Making contact with a violent place like this Earth is a major risk, a world that shoots first and asks questions later. The week we spent together was…it was like a Jew hearing that they had just missed the last train out of Budapest in 1944 with the Red Army closing in. I cried at hearing about your world, an Earth that can only be imagined in science fiction in this universe. We missed the last train and we are doomed. You wanted to broadcast your arrival from the rooftops, not a very good idea considering the geopolitical situation here. Thank god that, before you could take precipitous action, your cognitive state deteriorated and…”

Inyo had finished his sandwich and chips and now shared his opinion about recent events. “I assume that the communication device Nadera constructed is in a safe place?”

Brian answered in a lowered voice. “I’ll be a lot happier when you guys take responsibility for it. I don’t trust anyone here, if you know what I mean?”

Nadera interjected, “Did I at least make a record of my work?”

Brian’s head nodded emphatically. “You insisted on a complete record, so that’s what we have, pretty much a continuous video of the entire week, stored on secure servers. Also, a lot of written notes, including photos of white boards. You were possessed and we struggled to keep up, but I don’t think we missed anything.”

Inyo added, “You’re right to be cautious Brian. Nadera and I didn’t come here to establish diplomatic relations, only to make contact. We’ve done that, thanks to your perspicuity. Let’s keep it low key. You have the final word Brian, in how we proceed, keeping in mind that contact between our worlds will be voluntary and completely egalitarian. Despite your understandable  response to discovering the existence of a sister world, nothing is as it seems

Brian laughed again. “The best advice I can give you two young idealists is to disappear and forget you ever met me because, trust me, your world doesn’t want anything to do with mine.”

Nadera finally smiled. “It works both ways, Brian. If we are able to establish a quantum bridge, someone from this world will have to be the first ambassador to Earth.”

“I’m all in.”

Review of “Constance” by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Another random ebook review, but this time I have good news (sort of). I enjoyed this story, especially because I didn’t like the central character but nevertheless sympathized with their situation. It was easy to turn the pages. I even read extra every day to finish it. There was no stalling, dreading the day’s reading chore, not with this story. There’s a reason for that, which is why I refer to “sort of” good news.

The story uses every standard technique I’ve ever seen to keep the reader interested. The protagonist has no choice but to do what they do, no matter how stupid the act is. The narrator even comments on the character’s wishing she had another choice repeatedly. One bad choice after another is a classic technique, all the while the protagonists is learning something that will save them in the end. There were so many potential antagonists that I thought I was reading an Agatha Christie novel. All of it plausible in terms of the story line, which ends with the big reveal of the true bad guy, who explains the entire complex scheme before…

I loved it.

The central character is believable most of the time although I questioned her attitude towards one of the people who’d actually helped her. But it was plausible because she was presented as emotional, stubborn, and not a little irrational (a musician). The author made the protagonist come alive through her interest in “golden oldies,” rock stars from the 70s to the 2000s. I enjoyed looking up some of these groups and listening to the songs referred to in the book. It was a multimedia experience!

The author had to work hard to get all this to happen, so the story twists and turns with one improbable escape after another. Can’t be helped (I shrug helplessly) to get all these adrenaline-pumping scenes in an average-length novel. Corners were cut. The basic premise is weak, but then there are only so many ideas; for example, the science part of this speculative science fiction story has been discussed frequently, as in the 2000 movie The Sixth Day, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger no less. Despite the popularity of the concept, “Constance” is a well-done treatment of the subject from a very personal perspective.

On a technical note, I was impressed with the author’s writing style…until I wasn’t. First my usual observation: grammatical errors increased after a little more than halfway through (better than most), but within 15 pages of the end, incomplete sentences reared up, thoughts that diverged significantly from actions, inconsistencies in the background and with action only a few pages previous. I figured it all out because these weren’t plot issues; but as I’ve said before, when I have to reread several pages back to figure out what I missed…well, I don’t like doing that.

Now I get to the “sort of” designation. Simple stories like “Old Yeller” tend to be well written because they are, well, simple. Fred Gipson probably wrote that heartwarming and heartbreaking story in an afternoon. Fitzsimmons has written a very complex story that addresses scientific and social issues that are already creating dissent throughout society, and it isn’t even 2038 yet. Still, a few more weeks could have gotten this novel another star from me.

I gave it three stars, which is actually a good rating from someone like me (I don’t care what anyone else thinks) and, besides, if I give four or five stars to a formulaic novel with a predictable ending, what do I do when I read something truly great? This isn’t creative writing class, so 10% of the books I read don’t get an “A.” No curve here, no matter what the critics say.

I recommend this book for a fun reading adventure that will also make you spend a few minutes wondering what it means to be human.