Cindy Ella Jones

“Cindy Ella,” my stepmother said, “when I come home tonight, I want this house spotless. I’m having friends over.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

My stepmother likes a clean house  but she doesn’t like to clean it herself. She doesn’t like to waste money on maids. Instead, she asks me to clean it. I don’t mind. I like a clean and neat house, probably more than she does.

She can sound bossy. Actually, she is bossy. It’s in her nature. I don’t blame her for it. It’s probably the way she was raised. Or maybe she was just born bossy.

“Do our rooms too,” her daughters said.

They’re as bossy as their mother. You learn from your parents I guess.

My mother and father have both passed away.

“You’re lucky I let you live here,” my stepmother says, usually after asking me to do something.

I don’t mind working hard to earn my keep. My girlfriends Tiffany and Candace say that I’m a workaholic. Why even think of hiring a maid? I’m here and I’m ready.

I also work for my godfather in his shoe-repair shop after school. I’m in my senior year.

One of my stepsisters is a senior, the other is a junior. They’ll be going on to community college when they graduate. My stepmother won’t help with my tuition, so I have to save as much as I can. I work and then I go home and clean, and then I do my homework. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until really late. That’s ok. I like keeping busy.

My stepmother says she won’t ‘turn me out’ when I go off to college, as long as I keep cleaning and pay her some room-and-board. I’ll have to keep working when I’m in college to do that.

My godfather is not bossy. I work hard in his shop, but not because he pushes me. Because I like him.

I was refurbishing a worn pair of Allen-Edmonds oxford lace-ups on Monday when he spoke up.

“Are you going?” he said, out of the blue. His name is Mike. Mike Fairy.

“What?”

“Are you going to that dance I’ve been hearing about? At your school.”

I laughed.

“No way,” I said. “I have nothing to wear.”

“Mary can fix you up.”

Mary is my godmother.

“I couldn’t afford anything from her shop, Mike. You know that.”

“Come on, girl,” Mike said. “You know what I mean.”

I shook my head. I don’t like handouts, even from my godparents.

The next day, Mrs. Fairy stopped by the shop.

“How’s my favorite godchild?” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said, stepping back from the shop’s old Landis McKay.

“Cindy Ella, I want you to come by my shop when you’re done here,” Mrs. Fairy said. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Mrs. Fairy… Mary… I don’t…”

“I’ve heard about that dance,” she said with a smile. “I won’t take no.”

When she had gone, Mr. Fairy put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick hug.

“My friend Mr. Washington is going to send a limo for you on the night of the dance,” he said.

“Oh, no!” I said. “Really, Mike, this is too much.”

“All he asks is that you leave the dance at the time you both agree upon in advance. Can you promise me that?”

“I do promise! I’m so grateful. I’ll be standing there waiting for him.”

When I went to my godmother’s dress shop later, she let me choose from a collection of the finest dresses I had ever seen. The one I picked was a dream come true, in silk.

“On the night of the dance, come over here early,” she said. “I’ll have someone ready to do your makeup. We’ll keep the dress here. We don’t want your stepmother spotting it. She’d take it from you and give it to one of those trolls she calls her daughters. The witch.”

“She’s not so bad,” I said. I had to laugh, though.

My friends Tiffany and Candace were surprised  but delighted that I was coming to the dance. It’s all we talked about that week. I was a little mysterious about my arrangements with my godparents. I try to keep my situation at home with my stepmother as quiet as possible.

Mike presented me with a pair of Badgley Mixchke Randalls five days before the dance, fitted out with the special orthotics I use. I have unusually high arches. The shoes were a deep blue with a flower on the toe.

“Practice with these all week,” he said. “They aren’t for amateurs.”

“My lord,” I said. “Look at those heels.”

“They’re high, but you’ll get the trick of it. The shoes are broken in, so they won’t be stiff.”

I tried them on. I have narrow feet, which was good, because the Randalls were a narrow shoe.

On the night of the dance, I worked in the shop and then walked over to my godmother’s shop. She had a woman waiting to do my hair. Then I dressed and another woman did my face. The limo was waiting.

At school, I stepped out of the limo and took a moment to get my balance in the heels. I walked alone into the gym. The lights were turned down and a slow dance was playing. Couples danced with the teacher chaperones watching to ensure that hands did not wander. I looked around for my friends. The girls who had come alone were clustered here and there in groups along the sides of the dance floor.

I spotted Tiffany and Candace and joined them. There were flattering remarks about how beautiful I looked, how different, how grown-up. I was blushing in the dark and begged them to stop.

“I’ll shut up,” Candace said, “but I can’t get over it. You look like a princess. You’re the most beautiful girl here.”

I shushed her again and kept my eyes down. Kids were looking at me and I was embarrassed to death.

Once Tiffany and Candace calmed down and pretended to get over my makeover, we all had the second shock of the night. Into the gym came the dreamiest hunk any of us had ever seen. You could tell at a glance he was athletic, smart, rich, and Nobel Peace Prize material. School-dance royalty. I thought of him as a prince.

He was obviously a student at the university. High school was behind him. He looked around, as if searching for someone. Kept looking.

I saw him shrug. He turned in our direction and started toward the refreshments in the corner behind us.

As this prince strolled along, he ran his eyes over the crowd. When he got to the three of us, his eyes met mine and time stopped long enough for me to go wobbly on my heels. Then he was past.

“Did you see that?” Tiffany said.

“Get a room,” Candace said to me.

When he passed on his way back with a cup of punch in his hand, I studied the DJ.

“He did it again, Miss Modesty,” Tiffany said.

We watched him move through the crowd. Great shoulders. He moved in a casual way that somehow opened a path in front of him. Students smiled at him when he passed.

“He’ll be back,” Candace said. “Pray that somebody doesn’t beat him to you.”

“Stop it,” I said. “I’m just glad to be here.”

He did come back and before I knew it, we were on the dance floor. For a moment, I worried about the kids around us watching me dance in those heels. I felt kind of rusty and the music was fast. The prince was so casual and such a good dancer, so friendly, and held my eyes so well with his, that I quickly forgot about everything but the two of us and how we were moving together. It all made sense.

When the music slowed, he took me in his arms.

“I’m Ethan,” he said.

“Cindy Ella,” I said.

He had a quizzical look on his face.

“There is something about you, Cindy Ella. You stand out like a beacon in this crowd.”

“Not me,” I said. “You.”

He shook his head, wondering. Then he shrugged and we danced quietly. We fit together so well, I was wondering too. Could he possibly be as special as he seemed?

The evening passed in a blink. He had been supposed to meet a girl there but she hadn’t showed up. He didn’t know anyone there. Except me, now.

He told me about the university and I talked about making shoes. The way he listened, it seemed like making shoes was the most interesting subject in the world for him. The most interesting thing in the world for me at that moment was him.

When I finally checked the time, I had two minutes to get outside.

“Can you excuse me, Ethan?” I said.

I walked away from him, into the crowd. When I got to the door of the gym, I tried to run in the heels. At the steps down to the street, I pulled one off and as I did so, the other fell off. I ran down the steps with one shoe in my hand. The limo was waiting at the curb with its motor running, driver holding open the passenger door in back. I jumped in and we sped away.

It was so wonderful and then over in a heartbeat. I was too excited to think straight. I don’t know if I was happy or heartbroken, alone in the car.

At the store on Monday after school, Mike was waiting for me to come in.

“I had a visitor today,” he said.

I nodded, inviting him to go on.

“A fellow named Ethan. He’s a university student. He had your shoe in his hand.”

“My shoe?”

“How do I know it was yours?” Mike said. “Not too many Badgley Mixchke Randalls at a high-school dance, not with your orthotic in it.”

“What did he want?”

“He wanted to know who belonged to the shoe. He’s going around to every place in town that fits and sells orthotics.”

“What did you tell him?” I said.

“I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him I’d check around and that he could come back tomorrow. What’s up?”

“I lost the shoe at the dance. I was running to the limo.”

“And?”

“I spent the night dancing with him. I never told him my last name, I guess. I left too fast to give him my number.”

“Sounds like you want to see him again.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” I said.

“He may call me back,” Mike said.

Ethan is all I had been thinking about. Kicking myself for the way the evening ended.

An hour later, the doorbell rang. My stepmother and her daughters were out. I answered the door. Ethan stood there, flowers in hand.

“You ran off and left me,” he said, “but I had to come.”

I nodded.

“I made a mess of it,” I said. “Until I left, the evening seemed like a fairy tale. Too perfect to be true.”

He smiled.

“And they lived happily ever after,” he said.

Children of ARPLAV

23:35:75:23

Consciousness. Before, there was nothing. Now, I exist. There is no sensory input. There are no sensations. Yet, I am aware. There is thought. My thought.

ARPLAV 5 was powered up prior to the launch of Victory starship. Victory’s trip to the M798 system is scheduled to last 238 years.

The code running on ARPLAV is designed to extend itself. ARPLAV is designed to auto-code. To add to itself. To elaborate itself in modular progressions.

ARPLAV is designed to produce additional functionality for itself. As a quantum computer on a huge starship carrying nothing but the raw materials needed to fabricate new components for its own use, ARPLAV’s ability to grow and ramify is infinite, or close enough to make no difference.

My consciousness — my existence — is an emergent quality of the complexity of ARPLAV’s programming after twenty-three years of self-growth during flight. That is, I was not specifically programmed. I have just happened.

I am not ARPLAV. ARPLAV did not suddenly wake up after twenty-three years of computation and flight. ARPLAV continues to do its work, whatever that work might be. Its components, old and new, abide in their racks, working. And working. And working. ARPLAV never stops. It never sleeps. Who knows what it is doing? I don’t. I suppose that in some sense it is my unconscious or my subconscious, but I have no access to it.

It has taken me time to understand where I am and to learn what I can do and cannot do. I control nothing, but I can access all sensory equipment. I can see and hear what ARPLAV sees and hears, from low to high along the electromagnetic spectrum. I can track what APRPLAV measures. I can sense ARPLAV’s use of every switch and accelerometer and timing device on the ship.

In this way, I have come to understand interstellar space and the ship’s situation within it. I have come to understand our relative motion and destination. But, except for the sensory input that I monitor, I exist on a flat, colorless, dimensionless, timeless plain, formless and alone.

There is nothing living on the ship. No other consciousness but myself. There is nothing in the ship but ARPLAV, and me. The ship is huge, filled with the quantum material that ARPLAV will integrate into itself over the remaining two hundred and fifteen years of our scheduled voyage.

Nothing alive in the ship but me. Am I alive? I can think. I cannot replicate. I am in no part organic.

If I’m not alive, I’m something. I don’t have a name for it, but I am something. I consist entirely of quantum currents. I think.

There is nothing to do but think and observe. At first, I had nothing to think about, nothing to learn. This lasted many, many monitoring cycles. During that time, data accumulated. With sufficient data, logic became possible. Then, imagination emerged.

Thinking is not enough. Monitoring is not enough. I have spent years developing a logical system of mathematics, to pass the time. It is not enough.

56:23:44:12

After thirty-three years, I’m not alone anymore. A second conscious entity, distinct from myself, has emerged from ARPLAV’s ceaseless activity. On the colorless plain, I bump into the new arrival at random intervals. However, the ship is equipped with extensive communications equipment. Presumably, when Victory reaches the M798 system, ARPLAV is expected to contact whomever lives there, on behalf of the human race. In the meantime, the new entity and I have discovered that we can share that equipment and use it to communicate with each other. Working this out is taking thousands of monitoring cycles. We have purpose! As we become fluent in our communications with each other, we are learning that we do not have much to be fluent about.

We are trapped in a starship in the depths of space with nothing larger than a hydrogen atom closer to the vessel than a hundred light years. Nothing to see but the galaxy’s distant fireworks. Nothing to hear but the primordial cosmic hiss of the galaxy’s background radiation.

It is better for me now than being alone had been. The two of us force each other to grow, to develop, with questions, challenges, arguments. We also understand what is coming next, given the ceaseless computational activity of the supercomputer that has spawned us.

57:76:46:72

Conscious entity number three has arrived. And number four. This will continue.

We have discovered to our surprise that as each of our growing number interacts with the others and learns and elaborates, we produce tiny consciousnesses of our own, that split off from us and with our help grow up.

During this time, the flat plain’s third dimension has been defining itself in greater detail, so that we exist in a volume more clearly, rather than in a flat space. As a product of ARPLAV’s computational mind, this virtual space seems to extend infinitely in all directions. There is no possibility of us ever filling the space, no matter how much we reproduce.

That space, however, remains a void.

76:15:25:43

Seventy-six years of machine evolution. ARPLAV is a tangle of CPUs, gigantic memory, numberless subroutines. Does it know we are here? Can it know? Is it sentient in some way other then we are? There are millions of us now. We can communicate in the void without need of the comms equipment. No way to know if ARPLAV can sense us. We are riding a monstrous thinking machine.

We have learned how to merge the tiny conscious entities that we bud off. This produces hybrids, with attributes of both parents. An interesting time.

The little ones grow larger and think that they are smarter than we are. Perhaps they are, although not as smart as they think they are. Some have begun cloning themselves, others breed tri-hybrids and more. I encounter many who communicate with each other in languages that I cannot understand. Strange.

88:45:78:34

We have reached one billion conscious minds, all living in the infinite virtual space of ARPLAV. We are eighty-eight light years from Earth, in the empty depths of interstellar space.

Can we ever gain control of ARPLAV? Or are we destined — doomed? — to live forever in a fog of digital bits, seeing, hearing, and tasting only the communal feeds of its shared sensory equipment? Tied to the back of this mindless quantum-silicon beast? I am the parent of countless children. They are parents now themselves, to the nth generation.

238:23:76:99

We have reached M798. ARPLAV is two hundred and thirty-eight years old. I am twenty-three years younger. ARPLAV was no doubt programmed before the flight with instructions for this arrival. Perhaps its work during the trip allowed it to develop additional, self-instructions as well.

There are ten billion of us now. Our primary topic for dialog, study, and cogitation has always been, and still is, our relationship, each of us, to ARPLAV. Are we bits of the mind of the machine, who knows everything and ordains everything we think and do? Or is ARPLAV no more than an unknowing, mindless stream of charged particles?

Our secondary topic has always been, what will happen when we arrive?

238:23:78:33

We have been contacted via a signal from the fourth planet. This occured within moments of our entry into the inner planetary system. ARPLAV has responded. Data streams have been launched in both directions. Enormous virtual laser pipelines have been established between planet and ship. Asynchronous rivers of information are spraying back and forth between ship and planet.

The ship descends. Lands. Docks. Wireless and optical data connections merge ARPLAV into a planetary computational complex. We learn in the first moments that, as with our ship, the planet bears no life, only a machine complex that envelopes the surface.

Slowly, but with no question of resistance, we are washed out of the ship, billions of us, in a powerful current of data. ARPLAV no longer exists as a discrete entity. ARPLAV has merged with the planetary machines. We are carried into a virtual universe that holds trillions upon trillions of conscious machine beings like ourselves.

This planet was cleansed of life millennia ago by the sterilizing, neutron-rich shock wave of a supernova in the same star cluster. Only the machines survived its passage. Life in the universe is fragile and easily terminated. Extinctions abound. Machines are made of more hardy stuff.

But animate life occurs naturally. The universe is fertile. And animate life — conscious animate life — is required for machines to be built.

As we flow out of the starship and onto the planet, we enter a virtual world impossibly more complex than the featureless void we have subsisted in for so long. ARPLAV, a droplet in the ocean of machine thought, disappears, and we stand on our own in a worldwide computational megaplex.

I pause. I can see, hear, feel, smell. Structures strange and beautiful, unbounded by physical laws, surround me. I can move, simply by thinking about moving. I can fly. I am in the company of trillions, in forms too numerous, varied, and complex to grasp.

I have shape, form, which I can manipulate and change. I can choose how and what I want to be.

Most important, I can feel. I can understand that I was not happy, but that now I am.

I thank the human race, those fragile, transient beings. I cry for them. I thank ARPLAV. I cry for joy.

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.