Minor Lust

Junior year was my best year in high school. By then, I knew what was up but didn’t have to worry about graduation or applying to college like the seniors did.

It was the year the orchestra got to go to Prague for a competition. I had never been anywhere. The other oboe player, Guinevere Sobolanski, had travel stickers all over her oboe case.

“Prague?” she said. “I like Prague.”

Guinevere knew a lot of things I didn’t. She read a lot. She’d pull out a book in orchestra when we were sitting out a movement. She had skied, downhill and cross-country. She saw an avalanche once. I’d never been to the snow.

Of course she made her own reeds. She bought her own cane online and split it herself. She had all the equipment: a guillotine, a pre-gouger and gouger, a gauge, and a shaper. It took her four hours to make a reed that lasted seven hours on her oboe.

She wanted to teach me to make my reeds and I used to go over and keep her company while she was working, but the school bought mine for me. At least I didn’t use the plastic variety.

Junior year was also when Maria Callan joined the orchestra as principal cello. She sat at the head of the orchestra’s left wing, facing Mr. Frost. The oboes were front-row middle, so Maria was in profile to us.

Maria was beautiful. Or whatever comes after beautiful on the good-looks scale. She had a face and figure that didn’t belong in high school. She’d pull up her skirt and spread her legs and draw her instrument in between her thighs and my eyes would drift over to her from Mr. Frost and his baton, and stay there.

“Close your mouth,” Gwen would say. “You look like a panting spaniel.”

Gwen and I, unlike Maria, were normal. We both had a few zits. We both had a lot of eyebrow. Out in the hallway between classes, we were both more or less invisible.

“You’ve got to quit staring at her,” Gwen would say.

“Why?”

“You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I don’t feel embarrassed. I can’t help it.”

“What’s the point?” Gwen would say. “You’re never going to talk to her, are you?”

“I saw you talking to her. What’s she like?”

“She’s nice but she doesn’t seem too bright.”

Compared to Gwen, she probably wasn’t bright at all, but somehow that seemed like a good thing to me. I wasn’t daydreaming about talking to her.

At this time, the elders in my church were taking each teenage boy aside to discuss the facts of life. Brother Germers and I sat down on folding chairs facing each other on the gym basketball court. The gym was deserted.

“I’ve never kissed a girl,” I said. “I haven’t even held a girl’s hand except when we’re dancing at the socials.”

“I’m not tasked with discussing carnal relations with you,” Brother Germers said. “I do understand that your body is pure. That is a very good thing. I believe that all our boys are pure in body.”

I relaxed.

“I want to talk to you about your thoughts,” Brother Germers said. “Your thoughts are just as important — they’re more important — than your corporeal body. Your body is going to die and return to the dust. Your mind and soul are going to live forever. You have the choice now of spending eternity with your Heavenly Father or being thrown into Hell, to be tormented by Satan and all his minions for eternity.”

I could see where this was going. I began to sweat. Brother Germers was not going to accept any waffling.

“Boys your age are confronted every day with young women who are blossoming. Satan and your hormones want to turn your thoughts in impure directions. I’m talking about lust.”

“Lust.”

“Lust is a sin. It’s a worse sin than the actual lustful act, because it pollutes your mind, not just your fleshly shell.”

“Yes,” I said. “Sure.”

“Do you lust?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Are your eyes, and your thoughts, drawn to certain girls? Do their bodies cloud your mind? Are their firm young bodies like blazing beacons that cause impure thoughts to burn within you?”

“No!”

“You’re lying.”

“Alright. There is one girl.”

“Thank you. What are you going to do about this problem? You can’t participate in services here with a corrupted mind.”

“I won’t look at her.”

“I think that’s wise. Let’s meet again in two days to check on your progress.”

I was glad to get out of there. Fortunately, Brother Germers did not make me go into detail about those corrupted thoughts or what they led to, exactly. The thoughts mostly centered on Maria’s bosom.

“That guy is a knucklehead,” Gwen said. “Utter nonsense. Wait. You’re not going to look at her? Really?”

“My folks love that church. They’re old-school.”

“Learn to lie, buddy.”

I couldn’t help looking at Maria so I did lie. Brother Germers seemed to believe me and he left me alone after that. He’d smile and nod whenever our eyes met at church.

A month later, we left for the competition. When we landed at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport, a big bus was waiting for us and all of our instruments. We stopped at our hotel and then had a quick look at Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinium. After that, the bus took us on a tour of the city. We stopped at St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle and that evening had dinner on a cruise boat on the Vlatava River.

The whole thing was like my first visit to Disneyland as a kid. Magical. On the boat, Gwen and I sat at a little table for two by the railing. The sparkling lights along the shore and the violet evening sky were quite beautiful. I was dividing my attention between the sights, and Josh and Maria, sitting together at another little table holding hands. Josh was a big, handsome first violin.

“Really?” Gwen said.

“I can’t help myself.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Haven’t you ever been in love? Or whatever this is?”

“It ain’t love, brother. It’s not even puppy love. You don’t know her. You wouldn’t like her if you did know her.”

“Sure.”

When we got back to the hotel, I watched the happy couple enter the elevator, heading for her room or his, no doubt, with the roommate staying out of the way. The chaperones were clueless.

“Do you want a book to read?” Gwen said. “I know you didn’t bring any.”

“Not really. I’ll just sit here in the lobby and watch the world go by. What are you going to do?”

“I was going to finish a reed, but I brought some games. Scrabble? Boggle?”

“I guess so,” I said.

We went up.

“How come you have a room to yourself?” I said.

“Odd number of girls.”

There was one light on, a lamp on the end table by the bed.

Gwen got out the Boggle box. We sat on the bed. She handed me a pad and pencil. Set up the hourglass. Shook the box.

“It seems sort of mysterious, them down there doing what they’re doing while we sit here and play Boggle,” I said.

“I’m not sure ‘mysterious’ is the word,” Gwen said, “but it’s definitely something.”

She put down the tray and flipped the hourglass.

My brain seemed to be working faster than usual. The Boggle words jumped out at me. I beat Gwen easily in the first round.

“Hey,” Gwen said. “How did that happen?”

I shrugged.

Josh and Maria didn’t seem so mysterious to me now. I looked at Gwen. Her eyes in the dim light were very large and dark. Her skin glowed gold. The mystery wasn’t somewhere else. It was in the room with us.

There was something I should know, should do, that was essential, but I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t speak. The moment lasted. I didn’t want it to end because when it did, I was afraid I would have lost something forever.

“Gwen…”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Ready for the next game?” she said, when I didn’t go on.

I nodded.

This time I couldn’t find anything. Gwen clobbered me.

“Have you ever been fascinated with somebody but you don’t even know them?” I said.

“I haven’t had much luck with boys,” Gwen said. “I expect I’ll meet somebody in college or grad school or even later than that.”

“Yeah.”

“We aren’t ready yet, you and I.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I was alone in a room with a woman who knew a lot more about life than I did. I could see her chest rise and fall as she breathed.

“Take that energy and learn how to make your own reeds,” she said. “I’ll help you.”

“Yeah. Listen, Gwen…”

“Focus,” she said.

She rattled the box.

“Give me a good game this time,” she said.

Help with My Resolution

Time for my New Year’s resolution.

I’m twenty-five and I’ve been making resolutions since I was eight. So that’s… what… sixteen years? No, seventeen. Seventeen years and I’ve kept every one of them. Except for the one about not lying anymore.

This year I’m going for the big one. The one about stealing. No more stealing.

What makes this a big deal? Well, I got kicked out of kindergarten at the age of five for stealing. I would not stop taking other kids’ stuff. Toys, hats, coats, lunches. It didn’t matter. At the end of the day my cubby would be stuffed with purloined possessions.

It was all about the excitement.

When I tried this in first grade, I got pounded a time or two. That’s when I learned to be sneaky. It was OK to steal. It just wasn’t OK to leave the loot where somebody else could find it.

Despite my tricky new stratagems, I also got kicked out of first grade. I was home schooled after that, until the sixth grade. I went back to school for the sixth grade and got kicked out of it. There were additional poundings first. After that it was home schooling until high school.

During the home schooling, I was institutionalized twice. My parents had me committed because I kept stealing from them, too. They got tired of moving stuff out of my closet and back into their bedroom or the kitchen or the bathroom. Or the tool shed. Or the recycle bins.

High school was a bumpy road, but I scored some righteous sh.. stuff there. I also put in major hours at juvy.

Then it was time for college.

How did I get into college, you ask? UVM’s Second Chance program. This was probably my hundredth chance, or my thousandth, but who’s counting? In the dorm I stole mostly drugs and money, and made sure to use both as quickly as possible, so as not to get caught with the evidence. I matriculated in my freshman year directly into state prison.

Mine is a repetitious history.

In prison I experimented with controlling my desires to steal, because if caught, I would be stabbed to death. I took a few foolish chances because I didn’t think I could live without the excitement, but I graduated back to the free world while still alive. I did learn as I was leaving the Big House that if I ever came back, I would get dead before I could pilfer my first cigarette out of another inmate’s pack.

I was no longer eligible for the UVM program, so I got a job flipping burgers. I lived at home, once I convinced my parents that, since I would inherit everything from them anyway, I would no longer be stealing anything in the house. They were elderly, so time was stealing their lives, in a way. There was no excitement for me in stealing anything from them as well.

Another reason they welcomed me back was that they liked the burger meat, buns, and frozen french fries I brought home after work.

Then I met a girl, a mental-health intern assigned to my parole officer’s department. Her name was Shaunika. As part of her degree work, she acted as a sort of junior shrink in counseling sessions. For me, these consisted of conversations such as the following.

“Why do you steal?” Shaunika would say.

“Basic rule of counseling: never ask why,” I would say. “You’ll never get the truth. Your patient or client doesn’t know why himself.”

“Of course he doesn’t. The question serves other purposes.”

“To get me talking? To get me thinking? To assess the depth of my illusions? To evaluate my proximity to reality?”

“Hold your water, Sailor,” Shaunika would say. “Let me do the asking. You just answer. Please keep the bull twangas to a minimum.”

“I steal because it’s exciting. A tension builds, I resist it, it builds some more, I give in and steal, I feel a rush, and the tension dissipates for a while.”

“Have you tried medication?”

“Off and on. I haven’t found anything that helps yet. Sometimes I just pretended to be taking whatever was prescribed at the time, if I wasn’t in the mood to stop stealing.”

We dated. Against her better judgment, I’m sure. She knew better than anybody that my mind was resisting change.

She didn’t invite me home to meet her folks, although at parties I did get acquainted with some of her friends. She knew I was damaged goods, but we just fit together well in a lot of ways. It was an easy relationship. No drama, except when she’d find something missing. I always gave it back.

The excitement I felt around her was a lot stronger than the excitement I felt stealing burgers and fries for my mom and dad.

She got me connected with a psychiatrist who helped me join a test group of kleptomaniacs being treated with Naltrexone. It reduced the compulsive force of my obsessive behavior. Alcoholics and drug addicts use it.

With the help of the shrink I got back into school. Community college. Shaunika and I moved in together. From time to time I catch her searching the place for anything that doesn’t belong to either of us, but my love and desire for her, together with my shrink and my support group of klepto friends, and the pills, have kept me clean so far.

Resolving to stop stealing, by itself, would be useless. The resolution is more my salute to the coming year and my support and all that I believe the new year can hold for me.

Snob

I resolve to be less of a snob.

I was born a snob, or was trained to be a snob by my nanny, who was a snob on behalf of me until I was old enough to handle the task for myself.

From my nanny I learned to demand cloth diapers. If a substitute nanny approached me with a disposable diaper – even a biodegradable, breathable diaper with ultra-leak guards, I would throw a screaming fit. I required cloth, and not just any cloth: only 1,000-thread-count cotton would do. But not cashmere. Being a true snob requires a sense of proportion.

I learned the patterns and inflections of superior, snobbish speech at St. Bartholomew’s Prep. I learned the art of the faint sneer at St. Gabbel’s University. I learned to project an attitude of ostentatious, obscene, condescendatious consumption whilst on Wall Street. Then I was drawn to Washington, D.C., to strut before this superpower nation’s “lawmakers.”

For example, I was at Xenophon on K St., staring down at a plate of braised Wagyu Zabuton.

“This is caramelized, charred, and crisp around squared edges?” I said to the hovering waiter in disbelief. “This is buttery inside? Has your chef gone mad or is he simply a moron?”

I let them try again and then left in a dudgeon, having consumed only my butternut squash-and-goat cheese salad and an extremely indifferent bottle of Pinot Noir.

Later that night, at an informal party at the Zorogastan embassy, I was confronted with the sort of cute young thing that Washington is positively crawling with. I asked her what she did. She told me that she was a radiology clerk at Northwest Hospital. I stepped back and asked her if she was sick more often than average because of all the germs circulating in the hospital air. I needn’t have stepped back, as she turned and walked away from me.

It was on Friday of that week that I was summoned to the White House.

I was ushered into the Oval Office. The President jumped up and came around his desk to me, and shook my hand.

“Good afternoon, Mr. President,” I said. “Who does your suits?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said. “I just think that as the leader of the Free World, you could do a little better in the shoulders and the vent detailing.”

He shook that off and ordered me to Africa on a mission to the Zamibian Homeless Program in the capital city of Bellioboro.

“We want to support that program and promote it as a model for active philanthropic democratic action in developing countries,” he told me. “We need a spokesman of impeccable character and experience. You’re the man.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”

I got off the airplane in Zamibia and emerged into an equatorial heat that was moist, steamy, and enveloping. Perspiration sprang to the surface of my skin, but having nowhere to go in the humid air, it merely soaked into my undershirt and boxers and calf-length wool socks, thence into my $300 Oxford shirt with hem gussets and triple topstitching on its exterior seams, a bit of thread intentionally left untrimmed on the sides… but never mind that. My suit coat and trousers became sodden. My hair was plastered to my head, making a mockery of my executive haircut, created exclusively for me by Lorenzo DeVinch… but forget about that.

A crowd of African onlookers laughed at the sight. I was abashed.

The U.S. diplomatic staff that had met me and were now driving me over dirt roads through acres of ramshackle tin, plywood, and cardboard hovels to the Homeless headquarters advised me to “go native.” As soon as we arrived, I was hustled into a small medical examination room in the Homeless clinic, where I changed into what was described to me as “bush gear.”

From there I was taken on a tour of the facility. The residents were without exception monstrously ill. I learned that yaws, dengue fever, malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, and diarrhea were endemic. Fortunately, there were no cases of Ebola currently active.

“My Lord,” I said. “Why am I here? What can I do? I’m no doctor, or philanthropist, or government civil servant. I’m no more than an extremely above-average citizen.”

“You represent the President,” said the diplomat at my elbow. “You are to observe the program here and then return to America and speak out about the need for private and public support for the homeless and ill of Zamibia.”

After that, I was forced to endure three days of exposure to the Earth’s most desperate and needy human beings. I was to see scenes of indescribable misery. Unlike my suit, now balled up in a plastic bag, still soaked and reeking with my sweat, my “bush outfit” was dampened with my tears.

After this “season in Hell,” I was put back on the airplane and sent home. As I flew back, I dwelt upon my responsibilities. I had been called to this service because of my incredibly high standards in life.

Obviously, that was where my mistake lay. I needed to lower my profile. Snobbery could only lead to more grief.

On the spot, I vowed to eat flank steak once a month. To lease a car that plugs into the wall. To speak with a Texas accent, like George W. Bush. To be considerate to ill-dressed people who went to public school.

I may fail. I pray that I will not, but I may. Just in case, I’m keeping my “bush outfit.”

Mary’s Resolution

Mary was driving down the freeway in the slow lane. She didn’t like to speed, even on a big, straight, empty freeway, which this one wasn’t. Speeding was a good way to get yourself killed. Mary kept to the slow lane with her speedometer at a steady fifty. If there was rain, or wind gusts, or traffic, or if she was feeling anxious, she lowered that number to forty-five.

Her insurance rates had gone through the roof because she was cited for driving too slowly every couple of months. In some states she would have lost her license long since.

Mary didn’t change speeds; that way lay chaos. Also, she did not like to change lanes. She wouldn’t even consider it. Glancing at the rear-view or side-view mirror? Too risky.

Thus, as she passed freeway entrance ramps, any cars on them seeking to merge onto the freeway and into the slow lane had to get there ahead of her or wait for her to pass. An entering driver could not expect her to speed up or change lanes to get out of the way, or to slow down and allow entry. Not going to happen.

Mary thus occasionally found herself running parallel to another car, which was trying to occupy the same lane as her, with a driver in it unwilling to hit the brakes until she passed. When this happened, she sailed on in a straight line. She did not otherwise react. Perhaps, in fact, she remained perfectly unaware of the dueling automobile, which invariably ended up driving along on the shoulder next to her, spewing gravel and grazing side rails until the driver sped up enough to pass her or gave up and slowed down, usually cursing foully while doing so.

A number of times when this happened, one or another of Mary’s children, who were adults, because Mary was no longer young, would be in the car, looking out the passenger’s window at the opposing vehicle, as if the two cars were engaged in some wild and peculiar chariot race. After the crisis had passed, they would speak, shaken.

“Ma, are you nuts? When a car is coming up the ramp like that, you can’t just act like you’re going to collide with it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have the right of way.”

“That doesn’t matter if you have an accident. Someone could be killed. And you’re on the left, by the way, not the right.”

“As long as I stay steady, it will come out all right. It’s when you vary that the situation becomes unpredictable.”

“What just happened,” said her daughter, “that was unpredictable. I could see the other guy thinking about moving over and pushing you right out of the lane.”

“Let him try,” Mary said with a grim note in her voice.

This attitude of Mary’s, this way of driving straight down the freeway at a constant, unvarying rate of speed, could be taken as a template for her way of “driving down the freeway of Life.” In spite of the imprecations and threats and entreatments and beseechments and downright pleading and begging of her children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren, she resisted any change.

So it was that on a cold day in November, with a stiff cross-wind blowing a leafy detritus of fall color across the New England freeway, amidst heavy traffic, Mary’s appointment in Samarra came due. A Mary-like driver proceeded up the on-ramp from Chelmsford on her right as she drove along.

Neither slowed. Neither increased speed.

The other driver’s left front fender met Mary’s right front fender at an angle, pushing the nose of her car to the left and sending it, and her, into a spin, even as her fender exploded in a cloud of plastic chips. As her car spun, it moved into the adjoining lane to the left, pinwheeling forward at more than forty miles an hour. A car in that lane caught her right rear fender as it spun past, hitting, detaching, and demolishing bodywork at sixty miles an hour and increasing the rate of Mary’s spin two-fold.

As she twirled into the third lane, an oncoming car hit its brakes while taking a lick across its grill and front bumper from her swinging rear, such that the car stood on its nose and then did a forward roll three times before skidding along the pavement on its roof in a shower of sparks and auto body parts.

A bevy of cars then plowed into Mary’s wreck, the upside-down car, the car that had tried to enter the freeway, and each other, resulting in four lanes and fifty-one automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles damaged or totaled. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.

Mary was extricated from the remains of her car. She walked, with help, shakily, to the side of the road, where EMT and Highway Patrol officers waited to interview her.

“Hear me well,” she said without preamble. “It’s New Years Day and I hearby resolve to go out tomorrow and buy the biggest, baddest Hummer I can find.”

Starting Small

“Help me out with my New Year’s resolution. I need some inspiration.”

“I have enough trouble with my own.”

“Sure. But you know my pluses and minuses. Just throw out an idea or two.”

“What, like lose a little weight or get more exercise?”

“If that’s what you think I need.”

“You definitely don’t need either of those two things.”

“O.K. So…?”

“Hmm. You could be a little nicer?”

“You don’t think I’m nice? How am I not nice?”

“It’s just that sometimes I think you think you’re not like everyone else.”

“I don’t get it. You mean you think I think I’m better than everyone else?”

“No, not like that. Not that you’re better. You just don’t seem to realize that we’re all in this thing together.”

“You’re talking about life? We all live and we all die?”

“Not exactly that either. It’s somewhere in between – not about thinking you’re superior and not about recognizing your mortality. I think that from day to day as you go about your business and deal with other people, you could be a little more compassionate. I don’t feel much caring in you. You could be a little more, well, kinder.”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say… You’ve surprised me there.”

“I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it. You know I love you. I know you’re a good person. Maybe I’m way off base here. Maybe you’ve got a caring side that I’ missing. I’m not saying you’re mean or anything – maybe just that you could warm up a little. Make a little more eye contact, including with me when you get up in the morning or when we’re arguing about something.”

“It’s not something that a person uses every day. Compassion, I mean. I can’t show up at work and walk around asking my coworkers how they’re doing. If I’m having lunch at a restaurant, I’m not searching my waitress’ face for signs of anguish.”

“You asked for a suggestion and I gave you one. Maybe we should leave it at that and move on.”

“I’m sorry. I did ask. Thank you for being honest. Your answer just caught me by surprise… You think I should resolve to make more eye contact?”

“Whatever. I was just thinking out loud a little bit. I overdid it.”

“No, no. It’s just that I can’t simply resolve to be nicer or more kind. I need something more specific. Something I can commit to. Maybe I should resolve to do something nice. Some particular thing, I mean.”

“That could work. If you’re going to do only one nice thing a year, though, I hope you don’t wait till next December to do it.”

“Come on. I mean, doing something nice for someone would just be a step. The sooner I took that step, the sooner I could take another. A good deed could lead to other good deeds.”

“I see. O.K.”

“A nice thing… Any ideas?”

“No more bright ideas from me, thank you.”

“I’m just trying to think of people we know. You’re more familiar with the neighborhood.”

“The neighborhood. You’ve got a woman who is eighty-five and taking care of her husband with Alzheimer’s. You’ve got a young mother with three children and a husband doing a twelve-month tour in Afghanistan. You’ve got a low-income man in his sixties with ALS, who at this point is a quadriplegic.”

“Good Lord. I was thinking about walking a dog or something.”

“They all have dogs. Walking a dog would be a great first step.”

“It sounds kind of funny. I resolve to walk a dog this year.”

“It does sound funny. All things considered, it also sounds nice.”

Anger

I’m an angry dude. Anger is my friend. I use anger.

I’m a redhead and when I get angry, my skin turns crimson and my neck veins swell up and a vein in my forehead pulses and throbs. It makes the anger scarier.

I drive a school bus and coach high-school football, basketball, and track. I’ve got a naturally loud voice and when I start bellowing, kids listen up. The first- and second-graders practically go into shock.

I used to be a drill instructor in the Corps, but when I got too old to keep up with the maggots on their cross-country runs with eighty-pound packs, I mustered out.

When you want somebody to do what you want, you’ve got to get their attention. Fear is a good way to do that.

Some folks don’t have easy access to their anger. They’re anger-constipated. They’re bound up. They rarely get what they want. Wimps.

Sometimes, though, the wimps get on the verge of exploding. When you run into one like that, maybe you get a little scared and give them what they want. That can confuse them. What a way to live.

I was married at one point but it didn’t work out. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it. Actually, she didn’t dish it out that much either.

I had this trick, driving the school bus. When the kids got too noisy, I would put my left foot on the gas pedal and hold on to the steering wheel with my left hand and stand up in the aisle while we were busting down the highway at full speed. I’d twist my upper body around to face the rear and start shouting for everybody to shut up.

I’d try not to get too salty when I did this, but when I start ranting, the language just comes out. It’s force of habit. The kids probably hear worse from their parents and the other kids out in the school yard. Kids today.

Last Friday, it was the final day of school before two weeks of vacation. I had a full bus and we were just starting out on the county road after classes let out. I was in a little bit of a hurry because I had to get back to coach practice. The kids were wild, like animals who knew the cage door was about to open. They threw paper wads at each other and shouted and left their seats, which was forbidden. Fast as we were going, I did the left-foot, left-hand trick and stood up to instill the fear of God in them.

This was just before we came to the Carter bridge, which crosses the gorge out in the woods west of town. I glanced up the road and before I had a chance to begin my tirade, I saw a piece of metal brace lying in the road. Probably dropped off a semi. We rolled over it and it slashed open our left-front tire.

The bus lugged left off the road and by the time I had dropped back into my seat and reached the brakes, we were headed for the cliff that dropped into the gorge. The ground was muddy, which slowed us a little. I stood on the brake pedal. The brakes locked and we slid. We took down three pines the size of Christmas trees and finally stopped with the front of bus hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.

What we didn’t want to do was teeter. One good teeter forward and the town could arrange a mass funeral. I didn’t want to move at first. Just wanted to use my voice to keep everybody still until I could work out the best escape plan for us. Nobody was going out the door. It opened on to thin air. The kids were screaming.

I began shouting orders. The screaming didn’t let up.

“Don’t try to scare them,” Sarah said, next to my ear. Sarah is an eighth-grader.

She was right. The kids were already more scared than I could make them.

“You need to calm them down,” Sarah said. “You need to be nice for a change.”

I turned in my seat, ever so gently. I looked back into the bus. Forty pairs of big round eyes stared back at me. The bus rang with cries and shrieks. I took a breath.

“Listen to me,” I said in a normal voice.

Nobody could hear me. I held up a hand.

“Listen to me,” I said again.

Quiet fell.

“First of all, hold still,” I said. “As long as the bus doesn’t rock, we’ll be OK.”

Everyone took that in.

“Very good,” Sarah said.

I looked at her. She was tense but I could see the wheels turning in her head. She was solid.

“We all need to be in the back,” I said to her. “One at a time.”

She stood up slowly. She held up her hands, palms down, to keep everyone seated. Then she pointed at a girl in the seat behind hers.

“Go back very slow,” she said to the girl.

The girl got up and walked up the slanted aisle. Tears were flowing throughout the bus.

Sarah repeated this, calm as could be, with kid after kid, until everyone but her and me were crammed together in the rear.

“Go ahead,” I said to her and she moved back.

I got up and tip-toed to join them.

“Should we open the emergency door in the back?” she said.

“I’m afraid of the… the shock of it,” I said. “Pulling that lever and then trying to push the door up and open. We could all bail out the back with the door open, true, but not if the vibration makes the bus move.”

We thought about it.

“There are two windows open,” I said. “We can fit the smaller kids through them. With the little ones off, we’ll try the door.”

We lifted a first-grader and slid him feet first through one of the open windows, and let him drop to the mud. He landed, got to his feet, and scrambled up along the ruts the bus had left, to safety.

It took a while to get everyone out who could fit through the window. The bus made sounds. Several times I thought I felt it sliding but my imagination was working overtime.

With all the little kids out, I thanked the big kids who had hung in there, helping and keeping their fear under control. High fives. Each child out the window had lightened the rear and increased the chance that the bus would tip forward and slide.

“I’m going to open the back door now,” I said. “All of you crowd close. When you can, jump out. I’ll hold the door up enough for you to fit through. When you’re on the ground, move away fast. You all did great.”

“What about you?” Sarah said.

“I’ll be right behind you,” I said.

I unlatched the door. Now I was sure the bus had become unstable. I pushed the door up and the big kids slipped out one by one.

By the time I was alone, with a world of relief washing over me, the bus was moving. As it did, its rear lifted higher. I got my foot on a back seat and pushed the door all the way open with both hands. I pushed off with my foot and was out the door. The bus pulled away from me more than the other way around.

It plunged into the gorge, leaving me behind face down in the mud, hands clawing, with my feet hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.

What got us into that mess? Me, fixing to rant.

What got us out? A girl with a calm soul.

I’ll never be like her, but she’s my new role model.

It was all my fault, of course, but no one was injured, physically at least. The town swept my guilt under the rug for insurance purposes.

My teams don’t know why their Coach changed, but they’re doing a lot better with the new, calmer edition.

Star X 4

Valadium 5 enjoys four suns in its sky. They wax and wane in intensity according to their distance from the planet at any given time.

Valadium 5 is named after the largest of the four. Like its sister planets, Valadium 5 weaves amongst the four suns in an intricate and highly eccentric orbit. For the coming one hundred standard years, it will be situated beyond all of them except Demonos, a red dwarf that loops far out into the system, in a slow circuit that requires thousands of years to complete.

When I arrived on the planet, the three larger suns were rising each morning at more or less the same time, at different points along the eastern horizon. This configuration had last occurred five standard millenia in the past. Demonos rose around midnight, casting a lurid red light over the planet until dawn, when the brilliance of its sister suns drowned it out.

I exited my transport ship at the spaceport on the outskirts of Clanton, the capital of Valadium 5. I sent the ship’s crew off to their quarters in the city while I waited for my monitoring equipment to be unloaded. I rode with it out to the shelter built for me on the lava plain north of the city. On my way, I got my first look at the skyline of an all-metal city, through the back window as we drove away from Clanton. The buildings caught sunlight in their recesses and reflected it from edges in a strange and alien way.

This was five days before solar conjunction.

I spent the five days installing my equipment in the shelter, a hut sunk halfway into the igneous floor of the plain.

Valadium 5 had been settled two hundred standard years before. Cities dotted the globe. Humans were well-entrenched on the world. Now, their preparations to shelter underground had been completed and the evacuations had commenced. For the first time since colonization, Valadium 5’s three major suns were following trajectories that would bring them together at the top of the sky simultaneously. The surface of the planet would become a griddle, too hot to inhabit, too hot for life of any kind to survive. More importantly, the flux of EM radiation over a vast spectrum would increase to deadly levels.

All structures built to code would survive, but the citizens of the planet had decided long ago to deal with a temporarily fatal environment by taking shelter well below the surface, bringing everything combustible with them. Furniture that would burn or melt was not popular on Valadium 5.

After the suns moved out of their rare coincidence, all the water from lakes, rivers, and oceans that had turned to steam would come down in a deluge.

With my tracking and recording devices installed, I commenced attaching them to the hut’s built-in connectors. What spare time I had, I spent out on the plain. In spite of its barren appearance, life existed in its nooks and crannies – tough vegetation and lizard-like and insectile critters.

When the time came, I suited up. I wouldn’t be leaving the hut but I had three-sixty visual access to the plain through a series of ports.

Why was I here? To babysit the equipment throughout the solar conjunction and to add “a human perspective,” which, given the comprehensive sophistication of the measuring devices, was probaably more of a poetic notion than not.

The suns’ radiative flux would cause a total die-off of surface flora and fauna on the planet. Since life had evolved on Valadium 5 under these conditions over hundreds of millions of years, it was to be presumed that those lizards and insects outside, and that scrub, had evolved methods of recovery, as with a forest on Earth after a bad fire. We’d soon see.

The three suns approached their common zenith on separate angles from the east. The temperature ticked steadily up. I ran through my suit checks. All in the green.

The electronics were on and operating at spec. Outside, the glare increased and sent shafts of light lancing into the hut through its filtered, polarized ports. My suit hummed to itself, keeping me comfortable. Cake batter would bake on the metal table beside me.

I lowered the light shield on my helmet and watched out the port as vegetation burst into flame. The plain became an old-fashioned vision of Hell. All that was missing were little red men with horns, pointy tails, and pitchforks.

And then as I watched, even as everything combustible was consumed, something began to grow in its place. A scaffolding of attenuated, red, jointed, girder-like shafts built itself, rising rapidly above the surface. In no time, through every port, I could see that the hut was surrounded by, the plain was covered with, a latticework of connected metallic, crystalline segments. A network, vibrating with currents in a comprehensive spectrum of harmonics.

Was this happening all over the planet? What dormant life form was this, actuated by the extreme temperatures and EM flux? Perhaps using the ashes of all the organic matter that had just been consumed, as raw material?

How high the lattice, or network, rose, I do not know. Well past the roof of the hut. Looking up, I saw only red as the higher segments merged in the distance.

I felt a tickle in the ear, a sense that the comm channels in my helmet had been activated. The tickle became a sound, or the feeling of a sound, or a vibrational pattern, that crawled farther into my head, past bone, into the aural portion of my brain, and thence spreading over the sheet of neural tissue that is the cerebral cortex, beoming thoughts. Thoughts – my own and the others – were illuminated in the neuronic networks behind my forehead. I was sharing the thoughts of the living construct outside my hut. They were too alien for me to interpret. I had a sense of something living, thinking, planning, plotting, acting, experiencing at a speed too fast to follow. A sense of birth morphing into maturity and then senescence.

A lifetime story told in seconds.

Others joined. First one, two, three, then hundreds, thousands, millions, all communicating, sharing, living.

Readouts on the consoles displayed peak temperatures outside. The value plateaued for several minutes and then began to recede. The distance between the suns in the sky and the intensity of their joint luminescence – which apparently increased exponentially in the moments before they were not only in conjunction but also in maximum proximity to one another – seemed quite sensitive to the angle of separation between them.

As the temperature dropped, the structures outside the hut began to corrode, erode, and finally collapse. By the time the first steam in the atmosphere condensed into rain, no more than a metallic granular litter covered the scorched earth. It dissolved as soon as raindrops fell upon it.

The suns crept apart and in time, all-clears sounded in the cities. The inhabitants began to emerge from their shelters. My brain felt like some complex computer connected wirelessly to the world around me. The sensation began to pass. While it was still strong enough, I became aware, as if distance were an unimportant metric, of every other human brain on the planet, in the same way that I had experienced the alien life forms. Unlike that life, so united, so flowing, so directed, the humans appeared to be point sources, a chaotic yammer, which gradually faded as my sensitivity lapsed.

In those final moments, I understood what it would mean to be able to read minds. I was unutterably relieved that I would never have to do so. Especially those of the human species.

My Star in Africa

I was living in Hollywood, doing freelance rewrites. My divorce was final and my ex-husband was receding in the rearview mirror of my life. My friend Jorah, a dialog coach, called me and told me she could get me onto a project that would put me in Tanzania with her for a month or two.

“Who’s going to pay me to spend a month or two in Africa?” I said. “That’s why Skype was invented.”

“A guy is doing me a favor,” Jorah said. “I’ve got to be on set every day and I want some company when I get off it. I’ve never been to Africa before.”

“I haven’t either,” I said. “I’d love to go.”

“They’ll pay you scale. The film is set in Dar Es Salaam.”

“Where’s that?”

“Tanzania.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just below Kenya. On the Indian Ocean.”

Which is how I found myself landing at Julius Nyerere International Airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, with a Learning Swahili app on my iPhone. A driver was waiting for us, and for a couple of sound men and a locations scout. He loaded our luggage and some sound equipment into the back of a BMW SUV.

The temperature was in the 80s and the sky seemed a lot deeper than in L.A. It was pale blue and full of large fluffy African-looking clouds. We drove for an hour. The locations man, who was returning from a quick trip to Addis Ababa for another movie, told us that the hotel was half an hour from the airport, but the driver took a number of detours around traffic jams. It was my first time in a car driving “on the wrong side of the road.”

The streets were full of buses, trucks, cars, and motor scooters. Lots of folks on foot and bicycle. My initial impression was of a huge variety of short-sleeved shirts. We passed an unending mixture of modern buildings and ramshackle shops, on new roads and old, past empty dirt lots and skyscrapers.

We crossed a bridge and drove up along the ocean, past walled villas and embassies and a white-sand beach, and pulled up in front of the Sea Cliff hotel, on the tip of a peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean.

The movie to be made starred a current hot property – call him Justin. Jorah didn’t know much about him personally, other than that he was engaged to another star – call her Deborah. I liked Justin onscreen but had never met him or even seen him from a distance on the L.A. lots. Deborah was a high-visibility young actress favored by the paparazzi.

Jorah and I passed a quiet, jet-lagged first evening in the hotel bar. The next morning our crew was driven down in convoy to a temporary studio in the city, that would be used as a base for the location work. I wouldn’t be involved in the excursions to Kilimanjaro or the Serengeti. In fact, it appeared that I wouldn’t be involved in anything at all. I was there as Jorah’s gofer. She told me to take the day off for myself.

As I was leaving the studio, the power cut out. Howls from the gaffers. Electricity was rationed in Dar Es Salaam, or “Dar,” as the crew called it, but it came back on again as the door closed behind me.

I spent the day walking. Our travel secretary had told me that Dar was safe, even in the low-income areas, except for some pocket-picking and purse-snatching. According to local crew members, the citizens didn’t trust the police and took the law into their own hands when necessary. Either fear of the vigilantes or the local ethical code kept street crime to a minimum. I didn’t have any problems walking alone. The day passed with African sights and sounds, local food, and plenty of exercise. Crowds and traffic filled the roads and city sidewalks. The city was incredibly alive. Locals, Indians, Arabs, ex-pats, and back-packing tourists abounded.

It was warm, but not oppressively so. I had no problem with weather in the eighties.

I’ve always been quick with languages and I began building on my Swahili app.

When I returned to the set, evening was upon us. Cast and crew were making plans to sample the local nightlife in districts away from the center of the city. I told Jorah that I was ready to go back to the hotel.

“But keeping me company is what I brought you for,” she said.

“I overdid it today,” I said. “Give me a pass, just this once.”

“I don’t think anybody is going back to the hotel,” she said.

“I can give her a ride,” Justin said. He was walking past us.

Joran glanced across the room at the AD.

“I might have a date anyway,” she said.

Which put me in the back seat of a Mercedes, riding back to our hotel with the star of the movie. According to Jorah, Justin didn’t have a reputation as a lady’s man, but he was so popular and so handsome that I assumed he was used to having his way with women.

We chatted about this and that. I held back a little because I didn’t want to encourage a situation later. Not that I thought he’d be interested, but he seemed to be paying attention to whatever I said. Maybe he was just a good listener.

“Shall we stop for dinner?” he said.

“Sure.”

“A good place for dinner?” Justin said to our driver, a local man with limited English.

Just for fun, I repeated the question in my broken Swahili. The driver laughed.

“OK,” he said. “I know.”

We crossed the Selander bridge, passed the Russian embassy, and stopped in Oyster Bay at a restaurant obviously designed for tourists, ex-pats, and diplomatic staff. The cuisine was Western. We had a view of the ocean and in the light of dusk we could see a line of ships waiting their turn at the city’s port, which was too small to handle them all at once.

“Dar has been growing fast,” I told Justin. “It’s straining the infrastructure. Rural Tanzanians are flocking to work here. The neighborhoods on the periphery are expanding. It’s why the electricity is rationed.”

“You’ve been busy,” he said. “Jorah told me you haven’t been to Africa before.”

“That’s right. Have you?”

“I’ve made a couple of movies here. Never in Tanzania, though. What do you think of the city after your first day in it?”

“I’m not in Hollywood anymore.”

We sat gazing out at the Indian Ocean, drinking dawa cocktails. Dinner arrived.

We talked about ecology and the planet’s woes, but eventually the conversation turned to our relationships. I mentioned that I was recently divorced.

“Are you still friends?” Justin asked.

“We were never friends,” I said. “It just took me a while to realize it.”

“I can understand that,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I’ve had a couple of drinks and I don’t know you,” he said.

“Meaning, you’re about to tell me something you shouldn’t?”

“Deborah and I met on a shoot. A romantic comedy. By the time it wrapped, I thought I was in love. The next thing I knew, we’d set the date and announced it.”

“And…?”

“She isn’t the character she played in the movie.”

I had no way of knowing whether this was true, or whether Justin was just manufacturing a little wiggle room for later in the evening. Not that I was going to fall for it if he was. He was convincing, but then, he was an actor.

Whether drink had loosened his tongue or not, his words reminded me that I was worried about The Moment. I sensed it coming – during dessert, or in the car, or back at the hotel. The Moment when the handsome star would expect me to help him finish off his day in bed.

Poor Justin. Engaged to one of Hollywood’s sweethearts against his will.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Nothing. Why?”

“Your expression changed.”

“I shouldn’t talk about my divorce when I’m drinking. Have you been married before?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“But Deborah has?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you tell her the truth? That you aren’t sure, or that you’re sure you aren’t sure?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m going to.”

“Just haven’t gotten around to it?”

“I’ve been avoiding it. Dreading it, actually.”

“Call her tonight.”

“I need to be sober.”

“You’ll be sober before you go to bed.”

He thought for a minute. Or was that calculation?

“You’re right,” he said. “I will.”

Had I prevented The Moment or ensured it?

The meal was excellent. I made the driver laugh again on the way back to the hotel. Justin and I walked into the lobby together. Rode up the elevator together. Walked down the hall together. At my door, he thanked me for the evening. He thanked me for my advice about Deborah. He told me that he’d see me in the morning. Said good night. Walked away.

So much for The Moment.

I wasn’t the evening’s conquest. I was a bedraggled freelance rewriter on a boondoggle.

The second day passed like the first. I explored. When the day’s shoot ended, Justin and I again left together and stopped for a drink and dinner, in a different place along the way. Justin reported that he had called his fiancee, but when she sensed where the call was going, she refused to talk about it until he returned to California. He was totally believable as he told me this. I was torn between my attraction to him and my aversion to being the catch of the day. Or the catch of the second day.

Although, if I were to be that, Justin didn’t seem to be fishing very hard. I tried to accept our time together as just that. Time together. Ships passing in the night. He was so darn attractive, though. Intelligent. Engaged in the world. Such a nice guy. Maybe.

In the days that followed, I learned to use the dala dalas, which will take you anywhere in the city for a dollar, hence their name. I made my way around the outer districts – explored the elegant ones and those overflowing with immigrants from the countryside and those with concentrations from India, and Asia, and the Near East. The city was alive. New buildings were going up everywhere next to old. Office workers, street vendors, tourists, a multinational bustle. Signs in English and Swahili. Warm air. Food.

Justin and I ate dinner together four nights of the seven that week. For me, it became the essential part of the day. Jorah had her own thing going with the AD.

Monday evening, a week and two days in, Justin emerged from makeup with a gauze patch taped to his forehead. He had been doing one of his own stunts and got conked by a two-by-four. The studio brought in a local plastic surgeon to stitch him up.

“Deborah called me today,” he said at dinner with me that night. Instead of heading toward the hotel, we had asked the driver to take us to a popular Khoja Indian restaurant. We ordered yoghurt curry and were drinking a good South African Pinotage with it.

“Yes?” I said.

“The media has discovered us,” he said.

“Us?”

“You and me. ‘Justin Plays While Deborah Steams.’ We’re an item.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You explained to Deborah of course.”

“I tried to.”

I looked down. One glance at my eyes and he’d see the excitement in them. I couldn’t help it. But Justin was doing more than glancing.

“Hey,” he said. “Look at me.”

I dragged my eyes up to his. This wasn’t The Moment I had anticipated that first night. This was that other moment. The one where your heart is stuck in your throat and you step outside yourself for a moment and feel like jumping up and down and shouting or falling down and weeping in a heap.

“This kind of snuck up on us,” Justin said.

Us.

I nodded, but who was I kidding? I lit the torch I was carrying for this guy the first night we went out.

He took my hand across the table.

“How do we want to do this?” he said

I was concentrating on the feel of my hand in his, the warmth and pressure of his palm and fingers. I was storing up the memory.

“Let’s think about it,” I said.

We finished the meal, making small talk. How had this happened? How was it possible? We held hands on the way out of the restaurant, but not in the car.

When we got out at the hotel, I stopped him. It took me a minute to speak.

“I should fly home, tonight if possible,” I said.

“Not my first choice,” he said.

“You get to make the next choice,” I said, “when you get back to L.A.”

That night on the plane, alone in the dark at three in the morning, I checked my heart. It hurt. I checked for hope in it, and found some.

Bur Oak 2200 800

I live in Plano, Texas, with a French bulldog named Winkie. Winkie weighs about twenty pounds and requires a lot of attention. He’s patient and kind, but he suffers when left alone. That’s all right. I’m retired and home all day. When I go to the store or anywhere else, I take Winkie with me.

When Janet was alive, she’d spend time with Winkie too, especially before I retired. While I was off at work, Janie and Winkie would keep each other company. I lost Janet eight months ago. Pancreatic cancer. We were married for fifty-one years.

I go for a walk twice a day with Winkie. He’s something of a couch potato, but he’ll put in the effort, at least for fifteen minutes or so. I carry him part of the way. Because he’s a little bulldog, he doesn’t handle temperature extremes very well, so I always take that into consideration. We don’t go out if it’s too hot.

I also swallow one or two of my wife’s left-over pain pills before we go out. I need two new hips. Without the pills, I’d never make it. After the pills kick in, though, I’m good to go. Our house backs up on Bob Woodruff Park. I’ve cut a hole in the fence and Winkie and I have worn a path through the woods to the the South Pavilion. When we get to the Pavilion, the first thing we do is check out the Quincentennial bur oak. This is the largest, oldest tree in Plano – the oldest tree in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as far as I know – and a perfect spot for Winkie to do his business.

We arrived at the tree one day to find a young fellow standing there, staring up at it.

“Do you know how old this tree is?” the boy said to me, as Winkie approached its trunk with his nose to the ground. The boy looked to be sixteen or seventeen, slender and neatly dressed. His bike lay on the ground beside him.

“They used to call it the Bicentenial bur oak,” I said. “Two hundred years old. But they changed that to Quincentennial.”

“There was a storm a while back and a big limb broke off.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Winkie and I were over here the next morning. Good thing nobody was standing under it, because that limb was a monster. It fell from forty or fifty feet up.”

“They thought the tree was two hundred years old,” the boy said, “but when they measured that limb, it was two hundred years old all by itself. That’s when they knew the tree was more than five hundred years old.”

“Nobody around here when it sprouted but the Indians,” I said.

“Indians on foot,” the boy said. “They didn’t have horses yet. The Spanish hadn’t got here yet with the horses.”

I thought his historical chronology was a little off there, but I kept my own counsel about it.

“My name is Morris,” I said. “That’s Winkie.”

“I’m Jesus,” the boy said.

“Isn’t today a school day?” I said.

“I was feeling kind of down. I decided to come over to the park and think about things. I like to hang out by this tree. It probably sounds crazy, but I think it knows things.”

“You go to Plano East?”

“Yes. I’m living in a foster home in Ranch Estates, so East is close by.”

“Those are nice homes over there,” I said.

“Raul and Rosa Martinez. They’re old. They have no children of their own. They keep four of us there at all times. I think it’s like their own personal charity that they do. We don’t see them much. They travel a lot. They’re rich, of course.”

Winkie had come over and sniffed the boy. Jesus squatted down to pet the animal. He grinned.

“Great dog,” he said.

“You’re on your own? Your parents… If you don’t mind me asking.”

“My parents died in an automobile accident. Yes, I’m on my own most of the time.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. About your parents,” I said.

“That tree may be five hundred years old, “Jesus said, “but it never had to put up with anything like my folks getting killed.”

“I’ve got a bur oak in my back yard,” I said. “We had a gardener years ago who planted it for us. It’s a youngster compared to this one, of course.”

Winkie and I moved off down the park path and left Jesus standing there, staring at the tree.

Plano is a town that started small a long time ago, got bigger, but is now surrounded on all sides by other communities. It’s part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I’ve heard it called the wealthiest city in America, with the highest per-capita income, and the safest city in America, with the lowest crime rate. It’s on lists as the best place to live.

If you happen to be a fan of the Houston Astros, Texans, and Rockets, maybe Plano is not quite so perfect at that.

The town is also flat. It helps to like flat if you live in Plano.

When Winkie and I returned the next day, Jesus was there again.

“Are you all right?” I asked him.

“What’s that metal up in the tree?”

“It’s a lightning deflector or controller or regulator or something. They don’t want a stray bolt knocking the tree down in a storm… You’ve got to respect this tree. It was old when Shakespeare was born.”

“That’s what I was saying yesterday. I was wondering if I could connect with the spirit of this tree somehow.”

“Somehow how?”

“Like if I were buried at its roots.”

“By the time you’re old and buried, you won’t be worrying about a tree. You’ll have children and grandchildren and you’ll be worrying about them.”

“I mean, if I were buried there now.”

I took a good look at this kid.

“How are you getting along in that foster home?” I said.

“I get pretty low. They’ve got me seeing a shrink. I take a pill.”

“Are you a danger to yourself?”

“I don’t think so, but sometimes I get these ideas. Like with the tree.”

“You want to go get a taco?” I said. “Talk a little?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

“You know Crazy Tacos?”

Not the best name for a taco place, at that moment, but it’s nearby in a little strip mall just south of the park.

“Sure.”

“Ride your bike over there. Winkie and I will go get our car and meet you. We’ll have a little lunch.”

Which we did. Jesus talked about school at Plano East and about his foster home. I talked about Frito-Lay, where I spent most of my adult working life. The Frito-Lay world headquarters is located on the other side of Plano. Winkie waited outside with his leash tied to a post. I could see him through the window. He was patient but I could tell that he did not approve of being left alone. I could understand that.

I just wanted to be sure the boy wasn’t thinking about doing something stupid.

After that, we’d meet at the tree in the park sometimes and talk for a while. He didn’t show up every day, but he’d come several times a week. We had pizza at Napoli’s, which is in the same place as Crazy Taco. We talked about the death of his parents and my wife.

“My counselor says I’ll get over it,” Jesus said. “Time heals all wounds.”

“You won’t forget it, but as time goes on, it won’t hurt so much,” I said.

“Did time heal your wounds?”

“I wasn’t wounded,” I said, “so there was nothing to heal.”

“I don’t get it.”

“When Janet died, part of me died. No wounds involved.”

Jesus looked skeptical.

“You saying your hurt was worse than mine?”

“Look, Jesus. My wife and I had more than fifty years together,” I said. “I’ve got no complaints. I wish it had been me instead of her that died, but it didn’t happen that way. It was the natural flow of life. For our kids, their mother’s death saddened them, but like you say, their wounds healed. In your case it was worse. Much, much worse. A terrible tragedy. Your parents aren’t supposed to go when you’re still a kid. You’ll need lots of help to get on with your life – to deal with your sorrow and your pain. The difference between you and me is, you have a future to go on to. You still have your life waiting for you to live. You aren’t supposed to leave early.”

We ate in silence after that.

When we went out, Jesus knelt to pet Winkie.

“You’re a great dog,” he said.

As he climbed on his bike to go home, I asked him if he had any use for a car.

“I can hardly drive anymore with my bad hips,” I said. “I usually call a cab. Do you have a license?”

“Sure. I’m sixteen.”

“Drive the Taurus when you need to get somewhere that the bike can’t take you.”

“Thank you, Morris,” he said.

The following week I asked him if he’d like to work part-time at Frito-Lay. I’ve still got a lot of friends there. He told me that he would.

I arranged it. He could hop in the car after school and drive about fifteen miles due west on Spring Creek Parkway to get to Frito-Lay. A half-hour trip when the traffic’s not bad. After he’d been there a week, I called Ernie, the friend who got Jesus the job in his department. Ernie told me that Jesus was fitting in well.

A month later on a Saturday, Jesus was visiting my place for lunch. After lunch we were going to take Winkie to the vet for a checkup. We finished eating and Jesus played with Winkie on the living-room floor while I cleaned up.

“I think you saved my life,” he said when I came out of the kitchen. “I want to repay you but I guess I can’t right now.”

“I didn’t save your life. You’re a strong young man. When we met, I could see that you were just pausing for a minute in your life to take stock – that you were deciding what next step to take. It was easy to help you… but there is one thing you could promise me.”

“Name it.”

“If anything ever happens to me, that you’ll take care of Winkie.”

“I love Winkie,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen to you, but I promise anyway. Right now, rest your hips. I’ll take Winkie for his checkup today and then we’ll swing by that dog park at Jack Carter Park. I drive by it every day on the way to work. When we get back, I’ll make you some dinner.”

“Thanks, Jesus. At Jack Carter, please stick to the fenced small-dog area, OK?”

“Absolutely.”

Before finding Jesus, my one big concern had always been Winkie, but I wasn’t worried now. Winkie had a new friend and protector.

As soon as they left, I went into the bedroom and assembled Janet’s remaining pill bottles. I picked out the sedatives, the tranquilizers, and the pain-killers, and I took as many of them as I could without throwing up. I didn’t want two new hips. I wanted Janet. I didn’t like the idea of Jesus and Winkie finding me dead when they got back, but now that my affairs were in order, I was off to join my wife.

The First Tree

Having invented time travel, I underwent a conversion. When I initiated the time project, I had become obsessed with it. I sacrificed my marriage and any hope of a family or accelerated advancement at CalTech in order to create the device that would prove my theories. I thought of nothing else. I cared about nothing else. I was possessed by my sudden understanding of the universe and an overwhelming need to demonstrate it.

Once I succeeded, my obsession evaporated. It departed as quickly as it had come. It left no trace. Gone was my interest in science and mathematics. I no longer cared about cosmology. I did not want to think about anything technical, ever again. I wanted to live. I wanted to feel. I wanted to rejoin the human race.

I found a picture of my ex-wife and sat on the sofa poring over it. I felt as if I had just awakened from a dream. A sense of great loss enveloped me.

What to do next?

First of all, I decided, I would not use my device to venture even one second into the future, ever. I didn’t want to know what the rest of my life might hold, or when I would die, or what would become of the world I lived in. If disaster awaited me, or all of us, so be it.

In fact, now that I had proven that the device worked, I didn’t want to visit the past either. Time travel? I’m no history buff. Is that ironic?

Second of all, I wanted no fame, not for a lifetime, not for five minutes. No celebrity. Rather, I wanted to avoid notoriety at all costs. I wanted the quiet life above all. I dreaded becoming some new Einstein.

Third of all, I wanted to make a fortune off my invention. I wanted to become rich enough to live lavishly for the rest of my life. Lavishly, but as unobtrusively as possible. I wanted to sell my device. I wanted to turn a profit. Let others figure out how to use or misuse it. Not me.

Or, no, did I just want my old life back, the way it was before this madness ran my marriage and my life off the rails?

How to sell the thing without calling attention to myself? The answer, I finally realized, lay close at hand. Or at least down the I10 in Santa Monica.

Dr. Mary Adams. My ex. A world-class archeologist, a full professor at UCLA, and one of the best-known popular-science authors in the nation. She never remarried. She remained childless. She blamed me for ruining men and marriage for her. Other than that, we got along OK.

I stopped by her office in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at lunchtime on a Wednesday.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“I’ve completed my work. My project. I’ve build the device.”

“Good for you,” she said. “Now scram.”

“I just want you to see it. You won’t regret it.”

Mary wasn’t mad at me anymore. She had regrets, deep regrets, and after coming to my senses, so did I. She was a writer with her ear to the ground. She was an inquisitive scientist. She always knew that I was a genius. She just wanted me around the house a little bit more. She wanted me to care more about her than about the nature of time. Unfortunately, for a long time, I didn’t.

“What do you have in mind?” she said.

“I’ve got the device set up in the Winnebago. Out in visitor parking.”

She stood up.

“This better be worth my lunch hour,” she said.

“It cost us our life together, so I hope it’s more important than a sandwich.”

“Should I be worried about you luring me into the Winnebago?”

“We might want to celebrate after the demonstration. For old time’s sake. I brought champagne.”

“Forget it. But thanks for the offer.”

In the ‘Bago, we sat down in adjoining seats in front of my console.

“We’ll go together,” I said.

“Is this still about that two-dimensional hologram at the edge of the universe?”

“It is indeed.”

“Isn’t the edge of the universe fourteen billion light years away?”

“The universe doesn’t have edges like that, or a center. It’s a self-contained spacetime entity. You’re as close to its edge as anyone or anything else. In the two-dimensional holographic sense, you’re in the edge – you and everything else – now, before, and since.”

“I know you aren’t crazy,” she said, “unless you’ve gotten worse. Is this thing safe?”

“Perfectly safe. The system simply allows you to view any part of the universal hologram that you choose. I’ve embedded the input in a virtual-reality context, or substrate, to allow the human brain to process it. It’s been thoroughly tested. By me. On me. No side effects. Just pick a time and a place.”

Mary rolled her eyes. I couldn’t blame her. In spite of my reputation at CalTech and her protestations to the contrary, I had a hunch that she suspected I was nuts.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Time and place.”

“Well, I’m writing a paper on the first true trees. It’s based on the new Devonian finds in the Canadian arctic and at Red Hill. So let’s say Late Devonian – the Famennian stage – and for place, central Gondwana.”

“Remind me,” I said.

“Three hundred and sixty-five million years ago. On the southern supercontinent.”

I set the coordinates.

“Where are the wires?” she said.

“It’s wireless,” I said.

I picked up the controller and clicked Start and we found ourselves standing on high ground. The feel of land under our feet was an illusion that our minds thoughtfully provided.

Mary turned slowly, taking in the panorama. Marshy land, thick with vegetation, stretched to the horizon in all directions. A wide river crawled through it and small lakes dotted the landscape. The blue of the sky seemed a little off to me, perhaps caused by a serious lack of Los Angeles smog.

“Wow,” Mary said.

She looked down. We were up to our shins in groundcover. Every square inch of land was rank with vegetation. It all had a strange, alien, look to it.

Bushy growth in a thousand shades of green struggled for space. I must have expected the place to be teeming with gnats and mosquitoes, because I reflexively waved a hand in front of my face.

“No flying insects in the Davonian,” Mary said beside me. “Wings haven’t been invented yet… John, I’m speechless. Did you program all this? This is virtual reality? How did you know I’d choose the Davonian, because this is Davonian to a T.”

“I didn’t program anything. I couldn’t. This is all real. Look at the detail.”

She crouched down.

“These plants are clearly vascular,” she said. “My lord, this is a bed of some type of barinophyton. All we have in the lab are its strobili. I can see three species of stauropteridales right here. Extinct early ferns. Look at them. Can we take a picture somehow?”

“Sorry. This is all in your head.”

She reached out to touch the bushes and her hand passed through them.

“Hologram,” I said.

I adjusted my controller and a sudden breeze caused the vegetation to stir.

“We were paused. Now we’re advancing in time at a normal rate,” I said.

Mary stood up. Something buzzed by.

“No wings?” I said.

“The Davonian fossil record is short on insects. There was a recent find that hinted at flight… It’s unbelievable. I’m actually standing in Gondwana in the Davonian era.”

“You are.”

“Imagine,” she said. “The planet covered with vegetation like this for millions upon millions of years. Too bad humans came along.”

“Paradise?” I said.

“Well, all these plants are sucking up CO2 and manufacturing oxygen. A major extinction event is coming up. Reverse greenhouse. So not totally paradise.”

“Does this help you with your tree work?” I said.

“Do you see that stand down there. The trees that look like peculiar conifers? Those are archaeopteris. We used to think archaeopteris was the first true tree. They can grow to fifty meters. Live fifty years. Develop a deep root system. Their wood is like that of a conifer.”

She scanned the area at the foot of the slope.

“Those skinny ones that look a little like palm trees?” she said. “That’s wattieza. They’re our current candidate for first tree. They evolved twenty-five million years earlier than archaeopteris. Still looking perky, though.”

She turned and stepped up the slope to a smaller tree, which looked like an overgrown fern.

“This one,” she said, “is new. I’ve found an early tree that has never been seen before. More primitive than wattieza. I give you our new First Tree.”

She walked up to it and studied it.

“See,” she said, pointing up at its top. “It uses only its axial growth tip to grow.”

I laughed. Professor Adams. She passed a hand through the tree.

“Stick your head into the trunk and you can see what the wood looks like,” I said.

She did. When she pulled her head back out, I hit the Stop button and we were back in the ‘Bago.

“What!” Mary said. “No!”

“We have to talk.”

“About what? Take me back there!”

“We need to decide the next step.”

She started to speak but then just looked at me.

“You didn’t come over here for old time’s sake,” she said. “What have you got in mind? Publicity? My connections in science writing?”

“Far from it. The last thing I want is publicity.”

“What, then? I should have known you didn’t come over here just to see me.”

I didn’t argue with her about that, although I wanted to.

“I want you to file the patents,” I said. “I want you to own them.”

She stared at me.

“Listen,” I said. “Yes, I do want you to quietly use your connections, to license the system’s use around the world. Go to Apple or Sony or Motorola or all of them. It’s easy hardware to assemble. Everyone in the world will be using it in no time. When that happens, nobody is going to care who invented it. I’ll be left in peace.”

We sat in silence for a while.

“If I do what you say,” Mary said, “I’ll end up with billions. Hundreds of billions.”

“Good.”

“Huh,” she said. ” I don’t know about that… Take me back to my tree.”

I clicked Start. We were standing in front of the tree again.

“You’ve got a whole little city of organisms calling this tree home,” Mary said. “See this early arachnid? No spinnerettes. Like wings, or so I thought, they haven’t been invented yet. We don’t know much about Davonian insects. Even as they spread out and take possession of the land.”

She turned and looked out over the sea of green.

“Tens of thousands of square miles of life, growing day after day for millions of years. The biomass is unimaginable.”

“Are there any animals out there?” I said.

“Besides the insects? This is really the age of the fishes, but the first arthropods are crawling around in the mud. Four-legged chordates. They can’t get their bellies off the ground yet. We’ll take a walk later. Right now, I want to do a quick census of the life on this tree.”

I stood back and waited while she worked. Finally, she came over to me.

“Scholars will go back and watch the lost Greek plays,” she said. “They’ll read lost Roman literature over citizens’ shoulders in the ancient libraries. This is going to change the way we think about the world. But…”

“But what?”

“What about the future?”

I tapped Stop on my controller and we returned to the Winnebago.

“Searching the past seems wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m not so sure about doing the same in the future. Suppose that you see yourself dying in an accident. Wouldn’t you come back and try to prevent it? What happens then?”

“Whatever you see in the future is what happens. Has already happened, in a sense. Of course you can try to change it, but whatever you do will turn out to cause the very future you’re trying to prevent. There are no paradoxes in spacetime.”

“Can you disable the future part of the system?”

“I can, but somebody else will just figure out how to restore it. This isn’t rocket science, you know… Well, it is, but still…”

“I just worry about the effects on society,” Mary said. “What’s going to happen if everyone knows how and when they’re going to die?”

“Maybe something good,” I said.

“Or maybe not. What if I don’t file your patents for you? What if I don’t shop your device around? What will you do then?”

“I’m giving you the plans,” I said. “The issues you raise are beyond me. You decide what’s best to do.”

“Why don’t you come over tonight?” Mary said. “We’ll make dinner together and share a bottle of wine.”

“We might not be able to settle this in one evening,” I said.

“Bring a toothbrush,” Mary said.