December 2010


The silence begun after that argument lasted far longer than either could have predicted–over thirty years passed before the sisters spoke again. If this seems an excessive amount of time, remember that both felt themselves deeply and unfairly wronged and that both maintained that a full and complete apology was necessary. As both were proud women, neither offered one; as both were nervous women, neither suggested one.

It took a chance encounter to bring the full weight of those lost years to bear on the sisters, a chance encounter with undertones both grim and laden with kismet. Under their maiden names, since both had been divorced–their personalities causing as much friction with spouses as with sisters–found themselves in the same hospital room due to simple alphabetics, both with the same complaints.

Though there was an initial shock, the wall that had build up over the years soon came tumbling down. The real hurdle, therefore, was not in resuming communication but in relating to one another to contents of those lost decades and the loves and sorrows held within each.

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“Think about it. If no one spoke English any more, the people of the far future…they’d have no basis for comparison. If they only had a few hundred fragmentary inscriptions to go by, they wouldn’t even know if each letter was a sound or a pictogram. Hell, it’s hard enough for most people to decipher Chinese, and we have living speakers to guide us!”

Robert chewed this over for a moment, still gazing intently at the pottery fragments. “But some of it must be obvious,” he said. “Like that spoon over there. The Linear A letters on the spoon have to mean ‘spoon,’ don’t they?”

“It could just as easily say ‘this spoon is property of Aeneas of Troy,’ or ‘this spoon manufactured by the Mycenae Spoonworks.'”

“Don’t we know anything?”

A sigh. “There are only a few words that we know the meaning of. ‘Ku-ro,’ for example, means ‘whole’ or ‘total.'”

Why would Dad have bothered to keep any of this crap? I knew he’d been a pack rat, but…man!

“It can’t be that bad,” said Meagan over the speakerphone.

“Can’t be that bad?” I said. “If you were here you wouldn’t be saying that.”

“Cut him some slack,” Meagan said. “Speak no ill of the dead, and really speak no ill of the dead father.”

I felt a little ashamed at that, but kvetching has always been a coping mechanism for me–clearing out Dad’s old desk was no different. It was either complain or sob incoherently, which wouldn’t have sat any better with Meagan.

And, in my defense, there was a lot of strange old crap in that desk. A pile of promotional notepads from businesses that no longer existed, for example. Everyone in town knew that Detmore’s Lumber Yard had gone under ten years ago–would sending a note on their stationary really have sent the right message, especially if you were writing a friend or business partner?

Then there were the matchbooks. Dad had only smoked one or two cigars a year, usually around Christmas, yet the drawers housed a bewildering array of old-style matchbooks from places as far away as Hong Kong or Danang. All had been roughly handled–it wasn’t a matchbook collection–and I was reminded of seeing a thousand matches lit at once in the science channel as I looked at them.

I knew from experience that, while Halie had no formal martial-arts training, she’d been able to perfect a dangerous number of combat moves in the crucible of John J. Crittenden Elementary School. She called it “Halie-Fu”–it was the 90’s, remember–and luckily for me she used it to defend me almost as often as she used it to subdue me.

The thing that distinguished Halie-Fu from more conventional martial arts was the fact that it used psychological attacks as much as physical ones. Halie could whip up moans and crocodile tears in a heartbeat, for example, that were so convincing that even opponents who had fallen for her tricks before would be fooled. The opponent would let their guard down, and then the physical aspect of Halie-Fu would make itself felt: swift, paralyzing blows to the stomach or legs to bring the offender into the mud, followed by expert pins that left the victim completely at Halie’s mercy.

When she busted out her Halie-Fu that day, it was a textbook example. She pushed Harry away from me; when he pushed back, she pretended to be violently thrown aside and out for the count. when Harry turned his doleful gaze back to me, she pounced. An Olympic-worthy sprint closed the distance; a kick to the back of the knee brought Harry to earth, and a quick flip-pin left him facedown, arm curled painfully behind him as Halie’s knees dug into his back.

Melodious music drifts over you as you approach the stairwell, carried by an impossibly rich and pure voice. The words aren’t important–are they ever?–but as you listen you can discern paeans to sunlight, beauty, and rain.

Part of you insists that you climb the stairs without delay, to uncover the source of the beautiful refrain. But another voice–a deeper, more primal part–suggests that you stay in place, rooted, and hear as much of the soaring music as you can. Clambering up the marble steps would add an unhealthy permissiveness to the music, and might startle the song into an early end or even provoke the singer into hurried flight.

The two viewpoints swirling within eventually come to a compromise, and you begin to easy your way up, taking great care that not a single shoe squeak interrupts the sonic glory from on high. It takes far longer to climb in such a manner than simply charging the steps, but it is worthwhile: by the time you reach the top, the song has neither stopped nor faltered. You are able to see the singer, leaning against a marble column and looking up into a skylight.

She isn’t at all what you expected.

She spoke of the Dunink places, parts of the world that had unusual resonance with what she called “the world unseen.” Dr. Bausch felt that these were delusions based on tortured and twisted reinterpretations of events in Milly’s life; for example, she had been troubled by a bully by that name in childhood, and her brother confirmed that, before his early death from cancer, Milly’s father had regaled his children with tales of strange and beautiful things beyond the ken of mankind.

John agreed with Bausch for the most part, but there were some places where things didn’t quite fit. The bully, for instance, had spelled his name “Dunninc” but Milly had become hysterical when John suggested that she use that spelling for her Dunink places.

“The words have power, and by breaking them you unleash it!”

Then there was the detailed list of Dunink places that Milly drew up. The Belcher ribbon islands in Hudson bay, Kerguelen in the south Indian Ocean, Severnaya Zemlya in the arctic…John needed to consult a good atlas to find any of them. It didn’t seem in keeping with Milly, who had no books and had reportedly been a mediocre student before her psychotic break, more concerned with gowns than geology. She had even identified one Dunink place not by name but by number, scratching out 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W longitude 48.8767°S latitude. It took a trip to the local library to determine what she meant by this: the coordinates were for Point Nemo, the furthest place from dry land in all Earth’s oceans.

Part of the yearly ritual at work revolved around finding ways to celebrate the holidays that didn’t run afoul of the almighty PC Brigade. In the distant past, remembered only by a select few, there’d been an office Christmas party. That met its end for obvious reasons, even though Carl Lowenstein had long participated in its planning, even good-naturedly supplying his wife’s latkes to the potluck.

Next was the Christmahanukwanzaakah party, which was functionally similar but replaced the Christmas decorations with a melange of colorful symbols both old and post-1966. After Abdus Rahman joined the company, all religious trappings were stripped from the event, allegedly because the PC Brigate couldn’t locate any reasonably-priced Bangladeshi religious symbols. Abdus was happy to go along with a party as long as there was food, but he did get a bit testy when he learned that the proposed decorations to convert Christmahanukwanzaakah to Ramachristmahanukwanzaakahdon were manufactured in Pakistan.

Narinder Singh was the next wrinkle. He participated in the rechristened Holiday Party with gusto, but it same to the attention of the PC Brigade that he wasn’t throwing a holiday of his own under the banner–no Sikh holiday fell within December for that matter. So having any sort of December celebration was therefore taboo. It got to the point that we had a diffuse Autumn Celebration, with volunteers bringing dishes to pass every other weekend from September 21 thru December 31.

And that was how the office wound up stinking of Jeehun Choi’s kimchi around Halloween.

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