Caught Looking

what’s the sexiest thing you ever saw in your life?

whoa! that’s a tough one. let’s see…. I guess… wow, what a question! nothing really jumps out at me. I don’t know. what’s the sexiest thing you every saw in your life?

you go first. I asked you first.

sure, but you already have an answer to the question, right?

she smiled a slow maybe-yes-maybe-no smile. it started bold and provocative, then melted into a shy friendly smile. she felt self-conscious and looked at the beer-wet napkin next to her glass. she tilted her head back slightly, lightly ran her fingers down her stretched neck; her second boyfriend had always said that drove him crazy. funny how these things stick with you. she looked back at him and considered his small frame, his boyish face. she wanted to reach across the table and touch his arm, but instead said:

maybe I do. but you have to answer my question first.

he tipped up his beer, drank. replaced it, looking past her down the empty twilit diner. she enjoyed putting him on the spot.

okay. I have an answer. the summer after my freshman year, I went to Amsterdam.

this should be good.

believe me, it wasn’t a wild trip. I was pretty straight-laced in those days. well, I still am, I guess. so no stories about women in the red light district or smoky hash bars or anything like that. I was in this big park called the Vondelpark one afternoon. I was there by myself, because the guy I was traveling with, this French guy named Henri, was getting on my nerves. he was constantly smoking these stinky Gaulois cigarettes and talking about Marlon Brando movies. he’d seen them all like 50 times. so I’m sitting there on one side of this little pond soaking up the afternoon sun, and this woman with short spiky blonde hair, very Euro, very Dutch, I guess, walks up to the other side of the pond, just across from me, right? and she puts down a blanket and sits down on it, and I’m thinking ‘you don’t suppose she’s going to take off her shirt?’ and sure enough she does. and she just sits there half-naked right there in front of me.

did you go talk to her?

right! I don’t even know if she spoke English. no, I didn’t go talk to her. it would’ve ruined it to talk to her. it was perfect just how it was. actually she wasn’t even that good-looking, in the magazine sense, I mean. she was sexy because she was just so matter-of-fact about it. she knew what she wanted to do, she didn’t care who saw, and that was that. one of the things that made it so great was the fact that I saw it coming just soon enough to have this moment of anticipation, of prediction, even. we never met eyes, but it was if there was some sort of connection there.

his eyes were shining now. he continued, nodding, I remember that very clearly… it was like an electric jolt went through me. I had never seen anything like it before. later on that same trip I went to places, Munich, Nice, where there were naked people just everywhere. you really only get that moment once, you know?

what happened, then?

that’s it — end of story. it’s not much of a story, after all. she just sat there enjoying the sun, and then, after maybe ten minutes the shade reached her, and she pulled on her shirt and left. okay, it’s your turn now. what’s your answer?

can you see my car from here?

what? he looked out at the old blue Mustang across the parking lot. yes… why?

stay here, she said, I’ll be back in a little bit. she stood up and walked out the door toward the car. disbelief mingled with the smell of the beer. he fiddled with the tip money, then squinted out the window again.

she strolled slowly to the car and took a long look around. his shadow shifted in the window where she had been sitting a minute ago. the late afternoon sun was in his eyes, but he could see her clearly enough, stepping into the front seat. she inhaled sharply and then pulled off her shirt, and after some small awkwardness removed her bra. the seat vinyl was still hot. she could feel his eyes on her, and she pictured his hand lying in his lap. he shifted his posture again.

she closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the cicadas. action at a distance. telepathic phone sex — hello, operator? give me Amsterdam, please. an excellent thing, the summer afternoon two-beer buzz. fun to imagine his throat dry, his heart pumping, his eyes straining. she tilted her head back and touched her neck lightly. her second boyfriend had been a rude son-of-a-bitch. she put her small bare feet up on the dashboard, well apart, and leaned back.

the grinding gravel of a walking car bent her quickly over the steering wheel. the car, black and predatory, was crawling across the lot into the spot next to hers. she hugged the steering wheel and started the engine even as she realized it was, in fact, a state trooper. she wheeled out of her spot, wondering what the trooper had seen, wondering if he would feel compelled to get back in his car and follow her. she was pulling past the front door of the diner gathering speed when her friend stumbled into the slanting sunlight looking dazed. she hit the brakes hard, reached across and threw open the passenger door. he looked at her, then at the approaching trooper, who was by now walking toward them. he looked at her again, his mouth beginning to form a wordless slow-motion question.

hop in, you big dummy! she called out. he hopped, and she accelerated, throwing gravel as she pulled onto the road. the trooper looked down the road and puzzled for a moment. his stomach growled longingly. he shook his head briefly and went inside, sat down and ordered a big slice of pecan pie and a cup of coffee. the seat he chose seemed unusually warm.

Pinto


“Near the end of the last century, the art of marketing emerged from its crude mass-appeal beginnings to the highly networked point-market science we know today. The culmination of this historic trend was the appearance of the Personal Needs Technician (PNT), the so-called Pinto.”

— J. Ogilvy, Marketing in the 21st Century, Rand-Bismarck Publishing

Curiously, the promotion did not sit well. Which is not to say that Ellery Fox, database guru of the profitability department, did not deserve it. But he was deeply ambivalent about the extra money. Money means more freedom, more fun, right? But he knew that he quite honestly had money enough already — he had already left a much higher paying consulting job in New York to move west for the windsurfing. The religious guilt of his upbringing tugged at him fitfully. More money seemed to both confuse and thrill him.

More specifically he was annoyed the news was first delivered by his irritating former officemate Fleming. Stork-like and angular, Walter Fleming (affectionately known in the Profitability group as Phlegm) thought he was successfully concealing his envy, but he was in fact spilling it messily all over Fox’s carpet. “Pulled down the big promotion, eh? Well three cheers to you, big guy, heh-heh.” Here he made an abrupt and strangely aggressive toasting gesture, thrusting his stained coffee mug toward Fox. Fox managed a thin smile and watched the sloshing mug anxiously. Fleming continued, “I bet you get a Pinto for this.”

“Walter, you know that only the guys on the executive team get those. I don’t even want one. What the hell would I do with some glorified ad man chasing me around all day?”

Fleming raised an eyebrow and tipped his head toward Fox skeptically. Then came the maddening mechanical laugh: “Heh-heh. Yeah right, and I don’t want to be Bill Gates.” His head bent quickly and sipped from his agitated mug. “I bet you get one. Those guys can work wonders. Heh-heh.” And with that, Fleming poked his free hand into his pocket and ambled stiffly back into the hall.

“As a result of high-speed communications networks, point-of-sale identification infrastructure, and advanced neural prediction software, marketing experts had enough information to exactly predict the needs of their clientele. From this point, it was a simple jump to assign individual specialists, PNTs, to highly-compensated wage-earners. Freed from the horrendous expense of mass-targeted advertising, marketing money was channeled directly to Needs Technicians who expertly matched client income with corporate product.”

— J. Ogilvy, Marketing in the 21st Century

“I hope you don’t mind that I let myself in!” were the words that Peter Martinez, Personal Needs Technician, First Class, used to greet Ellery Fox on his arrival home that night. Fox, doubly stunned, was still standing in the doorway. Stunned once: this stranger, this bizarre marketing person whose arrival had been predicted by his co-worker, had broken into his house and re-arranged his living room. Stunned twice: the place looked great. All he could think to say to the affable man standing in the kitchen doorway was “Where did you find that Hokusai print?” This was in reference to a magnificent Japanese print tastefully framed and hanging over the mantel.

“Isn’t it great? I knew you wanted it. I’ve been doing my homework on you ever since I got the good news last month.”

“The good news?”

“Your promotion, silly! Human Resources automatically notifies the firm and gives us the necessary powers of attorney and so on. It’s all very pro forma.” He smiled brightly, brown eyes twinkling merrily and utterly without malice.

“You’ve known for a month…?” Fox’s voice trailed off in bafflement. He took in the scene: his computer was now atop the elegant maple desk he’d been considering buying for a year or more. The piles of magazines he’d been meaning to straighten up were neatly stacked. The floor was spotless. “Did you clean the place up too?”

“Oh, no no no. You see, I’m not a butler. I simply use your money to acquire the goods and services you’d get for yourself, in an ideal world. In this case, I arranged for a very pleasant young woman from the Philippines to clean the house Wednesdays.” He leaned forward and added significantly, “…that’s your soccer night.”

“I’d been planning to do that,” said Fox in a small wary voice.

“YES!” exclaimed Martinez, nodding vigorously, a fountain of good will, “of course you had! Don’t you see?”

“As our ability to gather accurate information on a wide scale becomes more and more powerful, we expect to make sweeping gains in efficiency, enabling us to employ PNTs with households of lower and lower combined salaries. It is not an overstatement to say that we are on the cusp of an unprecedented rise in human fulfillment.”

— J. Ogilvy, Marketing in the 21st Century

As life became better and better for Ellery Fox, he became more and more miserable. There was no better illustration that his life was without meaning than the fact that his every desire could be pinpointed by the PNT firm within minutes of its coalescing in his brainstem. What depressed him even more was the fact that Martinez was always a step ahead of him, even when Fox was in a funk. Just when he would decide he needed a vacation to some remote island, Martinez would drop off tickets for a well-researched trip to the Galapagos. But then of course, he HAD always wanted to go to the Galapagos, and Martinez cheerfully reminded him there would be a partial eclipse of the sun while he was there. “Go ahead, you deserve it!” was the Pinto catch-phrase, and it echoed endlessly in Fox’s head.

So off he’d go to the Galapagos or the Upper Cascades or Katmandu, and somehow the more it was everything he’d hoped it would be, the more it depressed him. He had bleak visions of planning a suicide only to have Martinez appear at the last minute and offer the neatest, best-researched, and most tasteful exit strategy (“Go ahead, you deserve it!”). It was like being beaten to death by Martha Stewart.

One morning he found tickets to a New York Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s 9th in his desk drawer at the exact instant that he had begun to hum it, and something snapped. He knew that if he rid himself of all his money, there would no longer be any economic logic to having a Pinto. Sell the house, move to the country, …

The phone rang; it was Martinez. “Great news!”

Fox cried “No, no more great news, Peter! You listen to me for once—”

Martinez continued without pausing, “I got a terrific price for your house, and I was able to cancel on the Beethoven concert. I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

“Indeed, the day is not far off when we may expect to see one-to-one or greater ratios of PNTs to the non-PNT population: Mankind in the service of marketing, and marketing in the service of mankind.”

— J. Ogilvy, Marketing in the 21st Century

From inside the scrubbed whitewashed walls of the old monastery, Ellery Fox contemplated with satisfaction the realities of his life of simple poverty. No more money, no more anxiety, only thin gruel in the morning and the daily rituals of devotion. Now he spent most of his time preparing for his mission work and chanting hymns in the name of infinite compassion. His physical and mental health would have been at a peak had it not been for a chance encounter in the temple courtyard. For there, walking serenely in the orange robes of a priest, was Peter Martinez.

“Peter,” Fox called out with a smile, “you’ve given it up, too, all that rat-race nonsense? Good for you!”

Martinez turned slowly and surveyed him with beatific calm. “What do you mean?” A quaking began in Fox’s knees and moved quickly into his thumping chest. “No no no, Ellery Fox! I still perform my mission work in the name of infinite compassion.”

“But… you never…” rasped Fox.

Martinez shined his smiling face on Fox. “Ellery, listen: Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. But he got it wrong.” His brown eyes glimmered with saintly benevolence; his white teeth gleamed. Fox was suddenly aware of a warm sense of bliss spreading across his chest. Martinez continued, “If you want to save the world, you need to use the right tools. Your mission time will come soon…” Martinez kept such good care of his teeth! “We’ve just gotten word that Fleming has received his promotion.”

Mr. Saturday

Ransom shook his head and replied:

I’ll tell you how it was that I came west. It was nothing like that. I left the very next morning after old Mr. Saturday came to visit. Mama Haynes always said: “Send dreams not mischief, Mr. Saturday.” Now I know what she meant. I can see Mama Haynes now, chuckling. “Everybody sees him once at least,” she would say.

I was in the study with Enrico rebuilding (for the fifth time) the sprocket wheel guide on the orbital track mount. We had been working obsessively on the orrery for over two months neglecting hygiene, nutrition, friendship and sleep — our house was a foul-smelling unhealthy place and we were by this time arguing bitterly over every gear and pulley.

tophat.gif

Responding at last to loud knocking I opened the front door, and he walked in smiling, all white teeth and white eyes, not saying a word. I had never seen Mr. Saturday before, but there was no mistaking him, a thin dark man wearing a shabby top hat, bowtie, and an old soot-smeared black suit. He glided straight past an open-mouthed Enrico to the kitchen and sat down at the breakfast table. The table was still littered with dishes, crumbs, and the Sunday paper. He sat right down, with his thin hands folded in his lap; with his bloodless car-accident smile and his wrinkle-creased suit. I can tell you it sent a chill right through us. We followed him into the kitchen and stood in front of his chair.

The left corner of his crooked disapproving mouth twitched twice. There was a wheezing rumbling sound like a distant avalanche which we realized came from his stomach. He looked directly at me. Mama Haynes had told me many times that Mr. Saturday has a big appetite, so I offered him the remains of the congealed macaroni and cheese. He gobbled it down with such alarming speed that I feared for my fingers. We opened the refrigerator and gave him more. He ate greedily, appearing to get hungrier, to accelerate, as we fed him: Enrico’s old lasagne, the last of the Cap’n Crunch, some moldy orange-flavor beef from Szechuan Garden. We kept the food coming, and the detritus clung to him. Crumbs from stale cranberry muffins stuck to his white-whiskered chin stubble. Viscous globules of Thousand Island salad dressing dropped onto his stained jacket. Bacon grease glistened on his thin fast-moving fingers.

Toward the end, we began to realize that he would swallow anything: a box of peppermint teabags, the entire spice rack from the ground Jamaican ginger to the Hungarian paprika along with the salt and pepper shakers. I began to worry about what we were going to do when we ran out of everything remotely edible.

It was Enrico who hit on the idea of feeding him books after we saw him gobble up the Sunday paper. Presently we were bringing everything off the bookshelves: textbooks, fieldguides, religious tracts, all 17 of O’Brian’s sea novels. They all went down at a quickening pace, though he slowed down briefly as he chewed through the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and Luck’s Arcana Mundi. Once the shelves in the apartment were empty of books, we pulled the maps and posters off the walls. I fed him mom’s old ukelele and both of my concertinas. He devoured my small collection of CDs in one abrupt jaw-popping thrust. With each slobbering mouthful he seemed to grow larger and more threatening, until in heartbreaking desperation we began to feed him our precious machine. First the blueprints, then the spare brass gearworks, and at last the entire nearly-complete orrery. Finally I brought him the old broken-glass charm that Mama Haynes gave me before she died.

At this, he paused and appeared to think for a bit. Then he leaned back suddenly in the squeaking chair, his hands rubbing his bulging belly. A long wet gurgling belch bubbled out of his food-smeared lips, filling the room with a sickening odor of fish heads, WD-40, and bleach. He cleared his throat, preparing to speak.

His dry clotted voice rattled: “Tell me what he sees. Like it or not. No time to lose. Tell me what he sees.”

There was a long pause before he continued “A big bear wearing a bright red cap balances on a sagging blue ball. A small maiden in sequins dances on the back of a galloping horse. A toothless leopard old before her time paces in a filthy circus cage. Crack goes the ringmaster’s whip: the bear waddles to the left. Crack goes the ringmaster’s whip and the bear waddles to the right. Crack! goes the whip; now the bear steps off the ball and rushes past the ringmaster into the crowd. The bear rips at the canvas walls of the circus tent, pulls down the poles. The tent falls into itself and is crushed from sight. The bear, alone, looks up at the sky. Tell me this: what does he see?”

Now his eyes were glowing match heads stubbed into dark sockets. “No time to lose. Like it or not. TELL ME WHAT HE SEES.”

three-of-swords.gif

We had no answer, but he leaned back, apparently satisfied for the time being. He plucked an ivory toothpick from his waistcoat and picked at his shiny teeth so violently that one of them popped from the back of his mouth and rattled across the floor, stopping next to my foot. Undistracted, outstretched palm toward me, he considered his thick yellow corrugated fingernails, pursing his lips. Then his eyes sparked and he flashed a carnivorous smile. He stood to leave, thumping his hat onto his head. On his way out the door, he put a bony forefinger to the brim of the hat and said: “See you later.”

Where he had been sitting there was a dogeared playing card face down. On the back, the words “No Time To Lose” straddled a sideways figure eight. I turned the card over: three of spades. Three of smiles. Three of teeth. Mama Haynes used to say: “Everything Mr. Saturday says, he says verbatim.” How true.

At the Sign of the Scarf and Bolt

Beryl Haise carefully extracted the last Marlboro from the cardboard pack and placed it on the table in front of her. Gently, she moved it to the middle of the place setting where the afternoon sunlight would best illuminate it. She stared at it fixedly. Xavier Cugat’s “Mambo No. 5” played on the jukebox.

Across the table, her friend Fisher Pinckney exhaled a thin stream of blue smoke and said “You know, Beryl, one of these days computers are going to get more complicated than women. Geeks like me will have to get a girl for relief.”

Disregarding this, Beryl said, “I can’t believe that bitch made fun of my accent. What does that have to do with the food?” She turned the cigarette so its long axis went left to right, perpendicular to the silverware. She shook her head slightly and rotated the cigarette back to its original position. It was a battered specimen of its race.

Fisher said, “Don’t worry about that woman. She’s bitter. She’s got nothing better to do with her time.” She continued to stare unhappily at the cigarette. He said, “How long are you going to keep torturing that poor old cigarette? Didn’t you quit in September?”

“I love this cigarette,” Beryl replied languidly. “I love it more than my TV, more than my little Toyota. More than at least three of the last four guys I’ve dated.” She paused briefly. “Actually, more than all of them if I don’t hear from Don before Thursday.”

“Does it count as a cigarette break if you just sit here and touch it for five minutes?”

From the other end of the bar, Cooper the bartender called out quietly “Pascal’s here. He doesn’t look happy.”

Beryl stood up quickly and brushed the wrinkles out of her apron. She put the cigarette back into its crumpled box, thence into the apron pocket. Pascal Faisani walked past, his face dark and self-absorbed, without acknowledging them. The jukebox band sang happily: “Ay-ay-ay Mambo, Ay-ay-ay!”. Pascal closed the door to his office with a thump.

Cooper gave a small grin and walked over to them: “It must be that review. He’s pissed. Now I’ll be mixing him martinis all afternoon.” Fisher Pinckney chuckled. His beer was almost empty, but he tipped the Corona bottle up one last time to avoid looking at Beryl.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh right. Like I was supposed to know she was a restaurant critic.”

“Wasn’t she talking into one of those little tape recorders?” asked Fisher.

“I wish I hadn’t told you that, Fisher. Anyway, it’s an old trick to intimidate the wait staff. And it doesn’t work with me.”

“Evidently not.”

Pascal’s voice sounded from his office: “Cooper! I need a martini, and I need it now.”

As Beryl left with martini in hand, Fisher said, “Well, it’s their loss. I love the new modern primitive menu.” He examined the big colorful chalkboard menu on the wall. “I mean, look at this: Pierced Duck a L’Orange. Scarified Game Hen. Here’s my favorite: Chicken Breast Tattooed with Squid Ink. Very high concept. A menu like this makes a statement. What was the one she really went off on?”

Cooper squinted as he consulted the rumpled newsprint on the counter top. “The Free Range Baloney Sandwich. Here’s a good quote: ‘The new menu at the Scarf and Bolt exercises all possible meanings of the word tasteless,’ close quote.” He looked up from the paper and added, with gravity, “The Free Range Baloney IS an acquired taste. I only wish she’d had the Corsetted Loin of Pork instead.”

“Pig-in-a-Corset? I like that too,” said Fisher. He hesitated. “Beryl didn’t really say anything rude to that woman, did she?”

“Naah, I don’t think so. But she’s not telling us everything. I think they knew each other. Anyway, it’s just a dumb throw-away rag. Hell, it might even improve business. After a couple martinis, Pascal will be back in high spirits again.”

They both looked up expectantly when they heard Pascal’s office door opening. Beryl walked back slowly, looking shaken. She gave no indication of what she had learned until she sat down next to them.

“She’s dead,” said Beryl finally, still amazed by the news.

“Good lord!” cried Cooper “Was it our food? What happened?”

“No, apparently it was heart failure. That review was the last thing she ever wrote. They found her in her kitchen face down in a plate of Vienna sausages.”

They all stopped and considered the significance of this new development. Fisher gave a low can-you-believe-it whistle and said, sotto voce, “Now THAT’s tacky.”

Moving quickly, Beryl reached into her apron pocket for a lighter and her cherished cigarette. She lit up and took in a long sweet hot pungent drag. The loving white smoke curled through her lungs, warmed her throat. And by god, it satisfied as so few things do. It did just what she asked; it provided just what she needed. It loved and accepted her. It bore her no malice for the long, long wait. How kind and forgiving the first cigarette! The other cigarettes she would come to hate soon enough. But she knew all along she was right to love this one.

Fisher asked, “How long this time?”

She smiled a crooked smile and leaned back against the bar. “Six weeks, three days.”

The Mapmaker’s Art

by Ortelius
There were no clouds in the night sky, but no stars either. Arthur stood on the penthouse balcony, his thoughts slow but vast. Below him, cars crawled in intricate traceries, and buildings glittered, bright and hard. He wondered if the stars, like gods whose worshippers had turned toward brighter idols, would one day simply vanish into myth.

In the apartment behind him, Janet slept. He closed his eyes and saw her, bronze skin warm against the black silk sheets, breathing slowly. He remembered the faint apricot smell of her breath. He looked up again; he missed the stars. Then, chilled by the autumn wind, he stepped back inside, back into the mapmaker’s cathedral. A few steps down the hallway, past the bedroom and he emerged into the great rotunda. Here the walls leapt up, smooth and white, cut at regular intervals by arched windows twice his height. The dome above was pierced by an intricate stained glass band of Arabic design. Mounted on the walls in ornate frames were Janet’s unsold works.

Janet made maps. Maps that fused the fanciful sea serpents and dragons of medieval cartography with the accuracy of the Swiss Landeskarte. Maps that were as much art as science, and maps that were, it seemed, very much in demand. She was a master of color and line, her creations transcending the earthly materials that made them; like a sudden vivid memory, they commanded attention.

Six maps shone from the walls, lit by museum quality spotlights dimmed for the evening, but never extinguished. The west African town of Ife, at the height of its pre-European glory, the northwest quadrant of modern day Samarkand, the high white peaks of the Tien Shan, eastern slopes pinked with dawn, the ancient Near and Middle east, covered by Alexander’s sprawling empire, a detailed topography of Mt. Katadhin and an unnamed group of islands in a wide dark sea. Sketches for her latest work, the northeast coast of Sumatra and the Malacca Strait, covered the drafting table set up near one of the windows.

The package lay open on the marble-topped island in the kitchen. As Arthur brushed by it in the dark, its dry smell stopped him. He looked down at it. Indistinct in the half darkness, the scroll was an enigma. It had arrived Friday afternoon, accompanied by a note that Janet said was from her uncle, but that she wouldn’t let him read. They’d unrolled the scroll partway. Arthur recognized the script as ancient Greek, but couldn’t read it. He’d grown tremendously excited, and had as much as begged Janet to let him bring the scroll in to work on Monday. Somewhat to his surprise, she’d refused, saying only that her uncle had given her the scroll for safekeeping, and that she didn’t want it leaving the apartment.

As he picked up the scroll to examine it again, he noticed one of the handles was loose. He flicked on the light over the island, and looked more closely. He twisted the handle to tighten it back up again and heard the faint rustle of paper. Curious, he twisted the handle the other way. A few turns and it was free of the wooden spindle. Stuck on the end of the spindle with a bit of red wax was a folded piece of paper, or as Arthur realized when he plucked it free, more accurately, papyrus.

Unfolded, it looked for all the world like a business card. About the size of his palm, it had a black border, and several lines of text of various sizes. The script was the same as that on the scroll.

Arthur looked at the clock over the stove. 2:54am. Too late to wake her, he thought. He tucked the odd little card into the pocket of his robe, making a mental note to show it to Janet in the morning. Suddenly tired, his drink of water forgotten, he headed back to the bedroom.

When Arthur awoke, he was alone in the bed. A note on the refrigerator told him Janet had “Gone out for supplies. Back by three. Love you.” He never could understand why she didn’t just have the pigments and papers delivered; she certainly could afford to tip the delivery boy. He’d asked her once, but hadn’t really gotten a straight answer. She’d tossed him some glib remark along the lines of “the only way to make sure a thing is done right is to do it yourself,” but that didn’t really sound like her.

With the prospect of a Sunday mostly to himself, Arthur wandered towards a window thinking how to spend the day. He thrust his hands into his robe, and discovered the bit of papyrus again. Drawing it into the light, a thought struck him, and he rushed to dress.

* * *

Arthur burst into the rotunda. Janet was bent over her worktable, the scroll unrolled on the floor beside her.

“Did you see this, Janet?”, Arthur laughed, shaking the small slip of papyrus at her. “Your uncle apparently had an account at the Library of Alexandria.” Janet’s eye’s widened, but she made no reply. “I had a couple of friends of mine in the Archaeology dept. look at it -”

“I wish you’d told me you’d found that.” Janet’s voice was hard, and very quiet.

Arthur stopped. “Hey, I thought you’d be pleased. Another piece of the puzzle. I even -”

“My uncle’s message was meant for me, Arthur. Not you, or your curious friends.”

“I am sorry. I didn’t think you’d be upset.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t hiding this silly thing from you if that’s what you think. You were asleep when I found it, and gone by the time I woke up this morning. And look, here it is, unharmed by its trip through the city.” He held the card out to her, and after a moment, her eyes softened, and she took it.

“I’m not really mad.” she said. “I knew something was missing from the package, and now I know what it was.” She held her arms open. “Apology accepted.”

Monday dawned grey and cold, the smell of coming winter in the air. After a quiet breakfast, during which the two of them exchaged perhaps two sentences, Arthur left for work. As the elevator doors closed, he caught a last glimpse of Janet mixing paints in front of a window, surest of getting the color she wanted in the natural light.

The morning went by quickly, a flash of lecture and meetings. When he stepped back into the office after lunch, the red light on his phone was lit. The second message was from Janet.

“Arthur,” her voice was slow and soft, “Arthur, I have to go. I don’t know when I’ll be back, or even if I’ll ever see you again. You can’t ask me why, and I can’t tell you.” She paused, and Arthur heard only the background hiss of electronics. “Stay in the apartment if you wish; it’s yours now. I wish I could give you more than that…I loved you, Arthur. Goodbye.”

Arthur surprised several colleagues as he bolted out of his office, down the hall and across campus.

The elevator doors opened into soft light and silence. The rotunda was empty, and the scroll was gone. One of the great windows was half open; the air was cold. “Janet?” Arthur called. “Janet, where are you?” Looking around, he noticed that the map of Sumatra no longer lay on Janet’s work table. He ran to see what was there in its place.

There was sand on the drafting table, a fine coat rippled like a sea of marching dunes. And in the center of this sea, another map, its edges blurred. He looked at the map; it gleamed like a clockwork jewel. Precise lines of ink built minature cities, and delicate shades of rose and tan explained the desert’s rise and fall. The Nile shone silver bright. Evening light touched the tops of the dunes and filled the tiny city streets with gold. He bent closer, and dizzingly, the desert rushed up to meet him.

For an instant he was suspended over an oasis; he smelled the dry desert wind, the smoke of cooking fires and heard the cries and bells of camels tethered to the palms. To the north, the whitewashed mud and brick of a city blossomed brilliantly beneath the violet sky. He drew a breath and the spell broke. A gust of wind blew the sand from the table and spilled it, a dry freshet, into copper whorls on the black stone floor.

Broadcast

Welcome to the Star Chamber, a place where much is arbitrary except for the fact that new, tasty content will appear on this page every Monday morning.

Newness is common enough on the web; scarcely a day goes by without hearing of yet another web-based company based on some good idea you had last month. This realization leads us to speculate that you can actually spawn a web company merely by thinking of a good idea for one. In other words, if you suddenly sit up and think “Aha! Web-based video cat-sitting!” some poor grad student in Cupertino will have to start talking to venture capitalists about it. The responsibility this brings is terrifying, particularly when you consider that one day your name will bubble up to the top of the list just as some bozo in Seattle eats a bad curry and dreams up web-based fortune cookies. Next thing you know you’ll be cold-calling Chinese restaurants with laptop in hand.

Our aim here at the Star Chamber is to bring you good old-fashioned, hand-crafted content, not fancy protocols or new products. This week we present a graphical meditation about the Star Chamber and a very short story that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Broadcasting.
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Spinning

Ransom looked nervously at the coil of rope next to his backpack. His left eye twitched as though to say: get on with it, they’ll be here any second. Daniel and Yvonne would be pulling their beat up Volvo into the driveway, ready to head out to Yosemite, and he was still debating what to pack. Ten minutes later, at precisely 5:40 AM, they had indeed pulled into the driveway, and ten minutes after that Ransom was on highway 24 headed east out of Berkeley, crammed into the back of the old Volvo with three backpacks and enough food for four days. And no rope.

Since he was an infant, Ransom’s mother had been consumed with the fear that her son would float into the sky and disappear. An early visit to an expensive medical specialist brought the news that although Ransom was no floater, he was a spinner. Ransom’s mother took this happily enough, because spinning was not fraught with the life-threatening dangers of floating. Spinning meant nothing more than discomfort and social stigma, whereas a true floater could never be sure of his next footfall.

Ransom’s great uncle Jay had floated out of his own backyard hammock one summer afternoon in 1934 while his horrified family watched from inside the house. By the time they got outside, he was nearly out of sight, though they could see him struggling vainly against the wind as he ascended. Since there was reason to believe that floating was hereditary, Ransom’s mother fretted over each of her children just in case.

Spinning was a more mundane affliction by far; more common and less dangerous. The tingling along the scalp and blurring vision gave enough warning to most victims to prevent accidents. Ransom was unusual in that most people don’t discover that they are spinners until adulthood. His first episode occurred during a stressful midterms week in graduate school. It was almost a relief when it finally happened, because Ransom had spent his entire life agonizing over the diagnosis he had received as a child. While walking back to his dorm room after a wretched fluid dynamics exam, he was overcome by a disconnected dizziness and a profound spastic twitching in his neck. He made it back to his room just in time to see the world lurch and spin steadily around, clockwise in his case, for twenty minutes straight. The first episode didn’t last long, but being the first it was by far the most miserable he ever experienced.

After several years, it was just another fact of life, sometimes even a good excuse to miss a boring party. The attacks occurred infrequently, maybe once or twice a year, and they never lasted more than a half hour. Furthermore, many of his closest friends were also spinners, most of them clockwise, that he had met at the Rotational Disorders Clinic in Menlo Park. Ransom discovered that spinners shared many common traits, being clever and creative as a rule, though plagued by a strong sense of dislocation. Spinning gave them a bond and a closeness that, paradoxically, tended to lessen the severity of the condition.

In fact, all would have been well with Ransom if not for the fact that yesterday morning he had started awake from a dream about Yosemite valley and dropped with a thump approximately eighteen inches onto his bed. He was unaware of anyone in the world who suffered from both spinning and floating, but he was terrified enough to rush out and buy some rope and several books on floating. Floating was extremely rare, though well-documented, and it had the reputation as an artists’ affliction, an almost romantic way to fall off the world. Generally the attacks came while the victim slept, though in some extreme cases heavy weights were worn literally around the clock.

Anxiety kept Ransom up the night before his camping trip. The anxiety made him light-headed, which only served to make him more anxious still. He debated calling his mother. He debated cancelling the trip. But in the end he kept his mouth shut, stayed up all night reading and then buckled himself into the back seat of a crowded Volvo. Without his rope. Perhaps it had just been a bad dream, he reasoned, and besides, how could he possibly explain the rope to his friend Daniel?

Predictably, he was stumbling and exhausted by the time they set up camp that night. Being low on sleep and extraordinarily anxious, he was concerned he might touch off a spinning episode on top of everything else. Daniel, in a misguided attempt to soothe, tried to talk Ransom into sleeping under the stars, but Ransom insisted on sleeping in the tent, the tent that was staked securely to the ground, and weighted down with his entire backpack and a half dozen good-sized rocks.

So it was that he awoke from a disturbing dream of drifting past Nevada Falls and found his whole world distorted and misshapen. The tent was wobbling wildly, and he heard through his grogginess Daniel’s voice yelling: “Yvonne, where are you? Run up the hill! Ransom, don’t move!” An instant later, he heard the sound of shredding nylon just as he realized a black bear was pulling his tent apart. Several things occurred to him at more or less the same time: he was terribly terribly frightened, he had left all his food in the heavy backpack, and Daniel was trying to yell something very important from far away. “Ransom, play dead! RANSOM, listen to me! I’m trying to scare him away, but for now, stay still!” The bear ripped into the backpack, flinging food across the ruined tent floor. This is how Ransom came to find himself under the large paw of an American Black Bear. His heart rate skyrocketed, something shifted quickly inside his body, and suddenly he knew he was losing his grip on the earth.

“Ransom! Play dead!” shouted Daniel, hurling rocks toward the bear. The bear snuffled around Ransom, then looked him in the face with a queer and knowing look. At that moment a rock struck the bear squarely on the side of the head and he lurched, removing his paw from Ransom’s chest. The next twenty seconds were a sheer panic of vertigo and disorientation. To his great surprise, this panic was replaced by total calmness. End over end over end; Ransom was amazed how much the twinkling fires in the valley looked like the burning stars in the sky.