Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Devil

“The devil holds equal dominion over humanity until a date in the far-off future still unknown to us. You’re laughing? You don’t believe in the devil? Disbelief in the devil is a French idea. It is a flippant idea. Do you know who the devil is? Do you know what his name is? Not knowing even his name, you laugh at his exterior form, following the example of Voltaire, at his hoofs, his tail, and horns, which you have invented yourselves, for the evil spirit is a great and ruthless spirit, but he has not the hoofs and horns you have invented for him.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (Lebedev)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

A great play. Miller uses extensive stage directions when introducing many characters for the first time, using them to convey information about their individual histories and the times that they lived in. I suppose a lot of this information is lost when the play is performed, but it gives the reader a good deal to think about as he hears the characters speak on the stage of his imagination. It’s in one of those extended stage directions that Miller says this about the historical figures that populate his drama:

When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.

And Miller is right—this is a play about the balance between order and freedom, and specifically order’s ultimate triumph over its weaker counterbalance. The historical setting is, of course, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. The order is that of the theocratic state, its functionaries able to convict, jail and hang those they determine to be in league with the Devil. The freedom is that of John Proctor, his wife Elizabeth, and their fellow villagers, who are held hostage by the accusations of a group of vengeful teenage girls.

It may seem silly to our modern sensibilities, but these people very much believed in God and the Devil, and the way the two of them battled for people’s souls right here on earth. And Miller paints no one in his drama as a fool, just as people with clashing motivations interpreting the world as they understand it.

Proctor is eventually convicted and sentenced to hang, and the most compelling part of the play for me comes as he wrestles with the choice to confess to the crimes he has not committed. He has maintained his innocence and those of the other townspeople, but the situation has been manipulated against him, and the deputy governor is convinced he is a disciple of Satan. As long as he denies it, he is doomed. But if he confesses it, confesses to being a witch and publicly turns against Satan and back towards God, his life will be spared. And Deputy Governor Danforth very much wants him to do this, as he is one of the leaders of the community, and such an action by him will convince many others to make similar false confessions. And that will help restore order. As the dawn of his hanging day approaches, Proctor succumbs in anguish, ultimately deciding that his life is more valuable to him that his principles.

DANFORTH, with great relief and gratitude: Praise to God, man, praise to God; you shall be blessed in Heaven for this. Cheever has hurried to the bench with pen, ink, and paper. Proctor watches him. Now then, let us have it. Are you ready, Mr. Cheever?

PROCTOR, with a cold, cold horror at their efficiency: Why must it be written?

DANFORTH: Why, for the good instruction of the village, Mister; this we shall post upon the church door! To Parris, urgently: Where is the marshal?

PARRIS, runs to the door and calls down the corridor: Marshal! Hurry!

DANFORTH: Now, then, Mister, will you speak slowly, and directly to the point, for Mr. Cheever’s sake. He is on record now, and is really dictating to Cheever, who writes. Mr. Proctor, have you seen the Devil in your life? Proctor’s jaws lock. Come, man, there is light in the sky; the town waits at the scaffold; I would give out this news. Did you see the Devil?


PARRIS: Praise God!

And it is here that I realize that Proctor’s confession is not the false one he thought it would be. In this action of the deputy governor’s, extracting a false confession out of an innocent man under pain of death, and then using it to impose order over the freedoms of the other villagers, Proctor is seeing the Devil, and the rest of the scene, seen through this lens, is a fascinating study.

DANFORTH: And when he come to you, what were his demand? Proctor is silent. Danforth helps. Did he bid you to do his work upon the earth?

PROCTOR: He did.

Indeed he did. Danforth is the devil here, and he has bidden Proctor to do his work upon the earth.

DANFORTH: And you bound yourself to his service? Danforth turns, as Rebecca Nurse enters, with Herrick helping to support her. She is barely able to walk. Come in, come in, woman!

REBECCA, brightening as she sees Proctor: Ah, John! You are well, then, eh?

Proctor turns his face to the wall.

DANFORTH: Courage. Man, courage—let her witness your good example that she may come to God herself. Now hear it, Goody Nurse! Say on, Mr. Proctor. Did you bind yourself to the Devil’s service?

REBECCA, astonished: Why, John!

PROCTOR, through his teeth, his face turned from Rebecca: I did.

And he has—to Danforth’s service.

DANFORTH: Now, woman, you surely see it profit nothin’ to keep this conspiracy any further. Will you confess yourself with him?

REBECCA: Oh, John—God send his mercy on you!

DANFORTH: I say, will you confess yourself, Goody Nurse?

REBECCA: Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.

DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor. When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company? Proctor is silent. Come, man, take courage—did you ever see her with the Devil?

PROCTOR, almost inaudibly: No.

Of course he didn’t. She will not confess to crimes she did not commit and allow herself to be used by the power of the state. She, unlike Proctor, is not in league with that devil.

Danforth, now sensing trouble, glances at John and goes to the table, and picks up a sheet—the list of condemned.

DANFORTH: Did you ever see her sister, Mary Easty, with the Devil?

PROCTOR: No, I did not.

DANFORTH, his eyes narrow on Proctor: Did you ever see Martha Corey with the Devil?

PROCTOR: I did not.

DANFORTH, realizing, slowing putting the sheet down: Did you ever see anyone with the Devil?

PROCTOR: I did not.

No one is. Only Proctor. Because Proctor will help the state crush everyone’s freedom and impose order. All to save his own life. Proctor chooses order over freedom and keeps his life. The others choose freedom over order and they lose theirs. It’s a tight little package Miller has tied up for us, and although we’re no longer hanging witches, this same struggle between freedom and order is with us to this day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

I enjoyed many parts of this book, but it ultimately committed one of the worst sins and book can commit—it turned out not be the book I thought it was.

Let me explain.

This book has a ton of characters in it. The protagonist is obviously Charlie Croker—a wealthy Atlanta real-estate developer and former college football star, who has tried to work one sweetheart deal too many and is now in debt up to his eyeballs and about to lose everything he owns to the bank.

But who is Charlie’s antagonist? I was convinced that it was Conrad Hensley—a young man of humble means in Oakland, California, who is trying to support a wife and two children by working as an unknown cog in one of Croker’s far-flung business interests. Conrad loses this job when Charlie cavalierly decides to reduce the workforce at some of his corporations in order to raise money to pay his creditors, and Conrad’s life spirals out of control as a result. Through a set of unfortunate circumstances, he alienates his wife, has his car impounded, assaults a security guard at the impound lot, and finds himself serving time in the county jail, where he has to navigate his way past drug dealers, violent felons, and prison rapists. And in jail, through another odd circumstance, he discovers the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, and slowly begins to turn his life over to their teachings.

At this point, I’m hooked. I’m really enjoying the book. I don’t know how Conrad is going to get out of jail and find his way to Atlanta and over master Charlie Croker, the “man in full” who destroyed his life, but with several hundred pages to go, I’m sure it’s going to happen.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. Because Conrad isn’t really Charlie’s antagonist. What feel like a fairly minor character in the rest of the story is, a character named Roger “Too” White—a black lawyer attempting to make it in Atlanta’s affluent and white-dominated society, who’s a friend of the Mayor and who gets brought into a case defending a modern black college football star against rape allegations from the daughter of a white businessman and personal friend of Charlie Croker. Roger and the Mayor cook up a scheme to get Charlie—the very embodiment of Atlanta’s white business community—to speak out on behalf of the black football star, thereby defusing the ugly and very real possibility of a modern-day race riot.

Roger is Charlie’s antagonist, but it doesn’t make any sense that he is. The book would be far better if Charlie and Conrad have the climactic clash in its final pages.

And I think there are clues sprinkled throughout that this clash is destined to happen. The whole titular theme of the novel seems to be driving in that direction. For the first half of the book, Charlie is clearly that “man in full,” his manhood realized in his aptitude and shrewdness in the world of business. Here he is comparing himself to his right-hand finance guy, a much younger man nicknamed “the Wiz”:

Oh, he understood the Wiz a lot better than the Wiz thought he did. The Wiz looked upon him as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of this corporation and that he, a Wharton MBA and financial genius, with “an excellence that cuts across disciplines,” to use a Wizism, should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of Fate, that would in the long run be corrected. He had youth on his side. In the meantime, his resentment rose and fell, and he took a sharp pleasure in rubbing in the old man’s ignorance with these little lectures. Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he didn’t: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn’t want, didn’t need, and never thought about before. The common word for this was salesmanship, a term the Wiz probably looked down his nose at. Yet the Wiz was in awe of something that was at the heart of salesmanship when the game got up into the hundreds of millions of dollars and it was time to make a decision and act, make your move, even though you could run the numbers all day and they added up only to imponderables and the decision tree was so full of branches, twigs, sapsuckers, and leaves, a mere Wiz couldn’t find the paradigm no matter how hard he looked…And that thing was manhood. It was as simple as that.

And here he is bemoaning the fecklessness of his own son, Wally:

What the hell had happened to all these sons of the rich in Wally’s generation, these well-brought-up boys who went off to the private schools? These damned schools were producing a new kind of scion of the elite: a boy utterly world-weary by the age of sixteen, cynical, phlegmatic, and apathetic around adults, although perfectly respectful and maddeningly polite, a boy inept at sports, averse to hunting and fishing and riding horses or handling animals in any way, a boy embarrassed by his advantages, desperate to hide them, eager to dress in backward baseball caps and homey pants and other ghetto rages, terrified of being envied, a boy facing the world without any visible signs of the joy of living and without…balls…

For Charlie, his identity as a man is inexplicably tied to his virility, and it is this identity that makes him feel invincible when operating in the world of business. The point is made abundantly clear during the scene in the very middle of the book when Croker takes his plantation guests into his breeding barn to witness the mating of two prize horses. Croker feels at one with the stallion, struggling against the beast’s strength and blind instinct to lead him in a controlled fashion towards the mare.

He had made it. He had brought the beast in without looking like an old fool. He felt as if somehow he shared in the stud’s power.

Croker is trying to impress a potential investor with the spectacle of his horses, to show the investor his own prowess and strength vicariously through that of the stallion, and read in that light, Wolfe makes an interesting point when describing the climactic scene itself.

The stallion was no longer the magnificent thoroughbred who just moments before had reared up on his hind legs, trumpeting as if he were the reigning king of all the animal kingdom. His forelegs, those visions of the graceful racing stride when he had won the Breeders’ Cup just a few years before, now hung awkwardly, ridiculously, uselessly, like a pair of vestigial appendages, down either side of the mare’s back. His great neck and head and, above all, his eyes, now looked like those of a demented creature as he tried, over and over, to bite the mare’s neck. His teeth sunk, instead, into the leather mantle that had been placed over her neck and withers for that very reason. Otherwise, in his uncontrollable sexual fury, he would have chewed her raw. All the while, his haunches, his thighs, his buttocks, the seat of the stupendous power that had propelled him, the great First Draw, this great poem in motion, this embodiment of power and coordination, to glorious victories on the track—this magnificent engine was reduced to a single jerky, spastic, convulsive, compulsive motion; rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut. His entire musculature, rippling beneath his hot black hide in the shaft of sunlight, indeed, his very hide itself, every ounce of his one ton, his three million dollars’ worth of horseflesh, was now a hopeless, helpless slave to that single synaptic impulse: rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut—while a sexual valet, and Australian elf, with his bare hands steered the rut-mad penis into a yawning vaginal canal, and an army of human beings, mere Lilliputians, pushed and shoved, and a little red-bearded conductor waved his arms about, and the lot of them, man and beast, careened twenty, thirty, forty feet across the barn’s dirt floor with thousands of pounds of rut-lust momentum.

It seems the sexual act unmans the “man in full.”

But Charlie is an aging man, and this virility is beginning to fade, and with it his own confidence in his ability to perform. Charlie divorces his wife and marries a much younger woman as a hedge against this decline, but her youth only paints a starker contrast for Charlie of his own diminishment.

But that was the thing… At fifty-five or fifty-six you still think you’re a young man. You still think your power and energy are boundless and eternal! You still think you’re going to live forever! And in fact, you’re attached to your youth only be a thread, not a cord, not a cable, and that thread can snap at any moment, and it will snap soon in any case. And then where are you?

And there’s this telling passage, where decline in business success is actually tied in Charlie’s mind to growing old and feeble.

But of course; she was young. Life was still a long, adventuresome climb up a hill. She had no clear idea what she would see at the top, let alone of the grim slide that awaited on the other side. Foreclosure, default, repossession, bankruptcy, phantom gains—all of it extending down into the gloom of a crevice, which was old age.

Charlie is falling apart at work. He is no longer the master of every situation and the stress begins to wear on him.

It wasn’t just the insomnia. Every day in this office—events propelled him in this direction and then whiplashed him back in that direction. One minute he’s in a sweat lying to creditors, double-talking creditors, hiding from creditors, and yes, even he, Cap’m Charlie Croker, beseeching creditors, beseeching like a drowning dog—and the very next he’s got to shift gears, recircuit his whole central nervous system, put on a whole new face, become a big, happy, hearty personification of confidence, omnipotence, charm, and trust, and talk people into leasing millions of dollars’ worth of space in a tower that had no business standing up forty stories high out in Cherokee County in the first place.

And his adversaries, the bankers who want to repossess his properties, they’re still “men in full”—men in the prime of their lives, full of vigor and vitality. One, in fact, decides that the situation with Croker is his long overdue opportunity to take some risks and run with the big dogs.

He, Peepgass, had gone to the Harvard Business School, whereas Croker couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on a bet. But Croker had something that Monsieur Raymond Peepgass did not possess—or, rather, something he had never been willing to let off the leash… A certain red dog… That was the way he suddenly thought of it; as a red dog you had to be willing to let off the leash… He could see that wild red dog… It had a chain around its neck, but the chain was broken… It was a red bull terrier with its forehead in a dreadful frown and its lower incisors bared and thrust forward… Every man had that red dog inside him, but only real men dared let him loose—

And eventually Croker is a impassive lump, lying in bed after knee replacement survery, feeling sorry for himself, incapable of making a decision.

And while all this is going on, Conrad’s world is being destroyed and he is building a new philosophical foundation for himself in the tradition of the ancient Stoics. He gets hooked in his prison cell, when he discovers Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who had been sold as a slave by his parents and started his life stripped of everything—his family, his possessions, his freedom.

Now Conrad couldn’t read fast enough. He leafed through the pages to find this man Epictetus’ own words… Book I, Chapter I: “On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power” …and he came upon this passage: “To ye prisoners”—prisoners—“on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, what says Zeus? Zeus says, ‘If it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions (those trifles that you prize) free and untrammeled. But as things are—never forget this—this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. I gave you a portion of our divinity, a spark from our own fire, the power to act and not to act, the will to get and the will to avoid. If you pay heed to this, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none.’”

And then Epictetus said: “We must die. But must we die groaning? We must be imprisoned”—we must be imprisoned! he said!—“but must we whine as well? What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that. You say, ‘I will imprison you.’ I say, ‘My bit of body, you mean.’ You say, ‘I will behead you.’ I say, ‘When did I ever tell you I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?’ It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that Zeus, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. ‘For what purpose?’ you may say. ‘Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat—”

This is a philosophy diametrically opposed to Croker’s mastery of others through the vigor and vitality of manliness. The concept of being imprisoned is foreign to Croker. In his world, he has always been the jailer, not the jailed. Indeed, here’s how he reacts to the struggle of the nonconformist when it is described at the opening of an art exhibition he attends:

“How fitting it is”—

Charlie looked about to see if everybody else heard what he was hearing. But even Billy’s and Doris’s heads were turned in a polite blankness toward the podium.

—“that Lapeth chose the prison as the subject matter of the art treasures we see around us tonight. As Michael Foucault has demonstrated so conclusively in our own time—the prison—the actual carcerel, in his terminology—the actual center of confinement and torture—is but the end point”—

Who? thought Charlie. Michelle Fookoe? He looked at Serena, who was turned about in her chair drinking in every word as if it were ambrosia.

—“the unmistakable terminus—of a process that presses in upon us all. The torture begins soon after the moment of birth, but we choose to call it ‘education,’ ‘religion,’ ‘government,’ ‘custom,’ ‘convention,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘Western civilization.’ The result is”—

Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing or am I crazy? thought Charlie. Why wasn’t somebody at one of these many tables hissing?—or something—

—“a relentless confinement within ‘the norm,’ ‘the standard,’ a process so”—

Oh, how he twisted those words norm and standard! Such passionate contempt!

—“so gradual that it requires a genius on the order of a Foucault—or a Lapeth—to awaken us”—

Fookoe again.

—“from the torpor of our long imprisionment. Lapeth chose to join the outlaws—those who want out—those who refuse to be confined by convention—in prison. Even within prison walls, of course, our society does not relent. Even incarceration, as Foucault has pointed out, is called ‘correction’ in our enlightened time. The outlaws are supposedly ‘corrected’—bent back toward the norm—when, in fact, in so many cases it is they who are in a better position to correct us in the ways of independence and”—

Charlie looked about again. This table, the next table, the table next to that—people with absolutely untroubled countenances, as if the man were making the usual, entirely appropriate remarks that one makes on an important civic occasion.

—“and fulfillment.”

It is incomprehensible to Croker. But not to Conrad. Conrad learns to see the reality that surrounds from this new perspective—from the perspective of the jailed—and he realizes how constructed the jailer’s reality is—constructed largely by the Charlie Crokers of the world, who have the power to shape the world through the meat and muscle of their fellow men, but who ultimately have no power over their minds—what Conrad comes to see as the divine spark of Zeus that resides within each person. Indeed, that illusion of control is permanently shattered for Conrad after the earthquake destroys the jail and allows him to escape.

He glanced off to the side. Camp Parks appeared to be dancing in a madhouse of light beams and shadows. All in shock, the whole lot of them! The earth had risen up and shown them how helpless they actually were. Life was anchored by—nothing at all!

So now I’m ready—ready for the confrontation of Conrad and Croker, the confrontation of philosophies, anxious to see which Wolfe will decide to let win. But now the story begins to drag. This 700+ page book is 200+ pages too long, but Wolfe evidently needs them to get Conrad plausibly from the status of an escaped prisoner in California to a home health aide with a fake identity in Atlanta. And, as I said before, he needs them to tear Croker down from his perch above all other men and make him a helpless invalid, hiding from the world and unwilling to make any more decision. These are the circumstances that bring them together, Croker requiring home health services to help him recover from his surgery.

But Conrad doesn’t destroy Croker—he rescues him! He passes on Zeus’ revelation to Croker and, in so doing, gives Croker the stoicism necessary to accept the forces aligned against him as ultimately incapable of harming who he is inside. And that impels Croker to action—finally agreeing to the press conference arranged by Roger “Too” White (remember him? he’s the antagonist) and the Mayor to rescue the reputation of the college football star and prevent a race riot. Croker does it, but he does it on his own terms, telling the truth about the football star (he’s an arrogant unlikeable prick who’s been coddled all his life and thinks the world owes him) and losing everything he owns (the deal for Croker would have erased all his debt and allowed him to keep his mansions and office buildings). But that’s all okay, because he is still, and maybe more so, a man in full. As Conrad explains by example:

“I’m glad,” said Conrad. “remember Agrippinus, the Stoic who refused to act in Nero’s play?”


“I don’t think I ever mentioned what happened to him. Several friends came by his house and they told him, ‘Your trial’s going on right now in the Senate.’ Agrippinus says, ‘Oh? That’s their business. It’s time for me to take my exercise.’ Then he singles out one of his friends and says, ‘Come on, let’s go exercise and then take a cold bath.’ So that’s what he does. When he gets back to the house, more people are there, and they’re saying, ‘They’ve reached a verdict!’ And Agrippinus says, ‘Which is?’ ‘Guilty.’ Agrippinus says, ‘What’s the sentence, death or exile?’ They answer, ‘Exile.’ Agrippinus says, ‘My property—confiscated or not?’ They answer, ‘Confiscated.’ ‘Thank you,’ says Agrippinus. Then he turns to his friend. ‘It’s time for dinner. Let’s go dine at Acicia.’ Which they did.

“Charlie—there was a man.”

Yes, I suppose. But there is also an unsatisfying ending.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Devil

“The devil has the wildest perspectives for God, and that is why he keeps so far away from him—the devil being the oldest friend of knowledge.”
Friedrich Nietsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Masks (1990)

Mainstream Fiction
2,854 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

“Hey, Big Guy,” Chris said. “How do you make a woman have an orgasm?”

I looked up from the pizza I was making. I said I didn’t know.

Chris shrugged his shoulders. “Who cares?”

I chuckled. Typical. The joke was typical Chris Foster. I heard Julie scoff from inside the till. I was sure the joke hadn’t gone over as big with her.

“You guys are pigs,” she called out.

I finished throwing sausage on the pizza and put it in the oven. The place was officially closed; we were making this one for us. Against regulations, sure, but kind of a reward for not losing our minds after another night at Shakey’s Pizza and Buffet.

“Hey, Julie,” Chris called out, giving me an elbow in the ribs. “You going to go out with me or what?”

Julie was counting quarters. I could hear them drop into the drawer by fours. She was the assistant manager and responsible for the money in the till. “How long?” she said.

Chris gave me a quizzical look. “What do you mean? Just for one night.”

Julie moved to the dimes. “No. I mean, how long are you? How much are you packing?”

I laughed. She’d called us pigs.

Chris wasn’t laughing. “I don’t know. Why?”

Julie’s voice was dead serious. “Seven inches. I never go out with a guy unless he had at least seven inches.”

Chris was looking at me. He looked a little worried.

Come on, Chris. She’s yanking you. Can’t you see that? She loves putting people in their place. That joke of yours got to her so now she’s getting to you. Hitting you where you live. Hitting you below the belt, as it were.

“Are you serious?” Chris called out.

Nickels make a different sound from dimes. She’s counting at the same time she’s talking to you, Chris. Five ten fifteen twenty. How serious can she be?

“Of course,” Julie said. “How long are you?”

Chris was biting his upper lip. “I don’t know.”

That’ll do it, Chris. Chicks dig it when you take control of a situation. Isn’t that what you always told me?

Pennies. “Well,” Julie said, “tell you what. You go home tonight and see how you measure up. If you’ve got seven inches under your belt, you’ve got yourself a date. But don’t you lie to me. If you don’t live up to your word, there’s no telling what I may do to it. I will be very upset.”

Chris wiped his brow and gave me the thumbs up. “I got it covered this time, Big Guy. Nooo problem.”

I looked at Chris sideways. Yeah, right. You call me Big Guy not because I’m so big but because you’re so small. And it was true. Chris Foster, who considered himself the resident stud of the entire kitchen crew, was in actuality a tiny person. I didn’t believe he had ever been diagnosed with medical dwarfism, but he was short and slight in every visible respect. I didn’t see how this one was going to be any different. He looked like a wing-clipped pixie.

I gave him some business. I told him, gee whiz, seven was probably a lot more than he thought.

He laughed. “Oh yeah? How would you know?”

I bounced my eyebrows up and down.

Julie came out of the till carrying the cash drawer. She was a big-chested dream of twenty-three and seemed miles away from the cap and gown I had worn a month ago at my high school graduation. I found myself wondering if she was really being serious with Chris and whether or not I would meet her qualifications. I thought I would.

“I have off tomorrow night,” she said to Chris. “But I see by the schedule that we work together again on Sunday. Think you can wait till then?”

“The question is,” Chris said, “can you wait till then, babe?” He made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and shot Julie a wink.

I laughed again. You’re such a stud, Chris. A real beefy bo-hunk. It’s a wonder she doesn’t throw you down and do you right here on the prep table. Hell, I know how to lock up.

Julie kept walking. “Just remember. Seven inches. And no lying.”

“No problem,” Chris said.

I checked to see how the pizza was coming.

+ + + + + + + + +

The night that Julie had off I had off, too, and I had a date with Patty. She was another girl who worked at Shakey’s. She was sixteen and went to a different high school from the one I had gone to. We had gone out a couple of times already. I liked her. She was kind of funny in her way, but it wasn’t like we were serious or anything.

I think I should take time out here to talk about events in my life and how my thinking was operating so you can better understand the things you will read about. I was a month past high school graduation and had already been accepted to a state university almost a hundred miles away. I was looking forward to going away to school. I really didn’t have too many ties in my hometown. I have never had a great surplus of friends. In those days I had two. Some people, especially in high school, will go through the yearbooks and for every face they can connect a name to, they will put that person on their list of friends. The word ‘friend’ always meant a little more to me, I guess. I knew a lot of people, but I really had only two friends. One was going to another college upstate and the other was joining the Air Force, so there was really no one left in my hometown for me to miss. Well, my parents, I suppose, but you only admit that kind of thing at Christmas time.

The point is, the people I worked with a Shakey’s, Patty included, were just people I worked with. I liked most of them, but it wasn’t like I ever really got to know them. Everybody had their guard up at work, I think because it was such a public place.

So, Patty and I went out that night to a movie and then to Rocky Rococo’s afterward. It was a fairly typical evening with Patty. She always acted like she was above ordinary things like cleaning the grout in the ladies room, wearing the blue ‘Shakey’s’ visor, or ever getting excited about anything. Like I said, she was sixteen and just a sophomore, and she had different things on her mind from what I did. Pom-Pom practice, cheating on geometry tests (her teacher hated her), and trying to look cool in front of her crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coming down on her for it, but it seemed like I had left those things far behind me. They weren’t bad things to have at the top of your Most Important Things list. Sometimes I wish I still had some of them at the top of mine.

So I was taking her home (she lived way out in the boonies) and as usual I parked the car in a secluded little spot in the part of her neighborhood that was still under construction. House skeletons lined a couple of newly-paved roads and there were no streetlights set up yet. All the times we had gone out, we had gone there to make out a little before I took her home. We never did anything real serious. She was still a virgin, and either wanted to keep her virginity a little longer or didn’t want to give it to me. Either way, it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t going to push her into anything she wasn’t ready for.

But that night we didn’t make out much at all.

“What are you going to study at college?” Patty asked me as I shut the engine off. I turned the key past the lock position to keep the radio on.

I told her astronomy. I thought that I had told her that several times already.

The moon sat low in the sky above an abandoned dumptruck. She pointed at it. “Really? Okay, what’s that?”

She was being cute. It was one of the things she thought she did really well. I told her it was Venus.

She smiled. “You’ll do fine. Where are you going to live?”

I told her I had applied for the dorms but I hadn’t got any information back yet.

“Do you think you’ll like it?”

I told her I hoped to. I was counting craters on the moon.

“What are you going to do when you graduate?”

I looked at her. Since when was she so interested in me? I thought it was my job to listen to her. Wasn’t her life more important than mine? I asked her what was going on.

“What do you mean?”

I asked her what was with all the questions.

She folded her hands in her lap. She was wearing a red skirt. Skirts were currently in. For a second it reminded me of Chris’ red Triumph and it seemed to me that a girl like Patty belonged in that kind of car. Going to the malt shop with the top down and getting a single vanilla cone when she really wanted fourteen banana splits. I had trouble seeing her in my car with a guy like me. I drove a beige AMC Concord.

“Well, it’s just that you’ll be going away and all, and who knows when you’ll be coming back?”

I told her Christmas.

“Home,” she said. “You’ll be coming home. But when will you be coming back to Shakey’s?”

I told her I was hoping to go a little farther than that with my degree.

She slapped me on the thigh. “You know what I mean.”

Yes, I guess I did. I looked at the moon. I didn’t want to look at her. She was making me nervous. The moon wasn’t quite full. No, if it was up this late, it must be past full. That would make it a waning gibbous. I said I didn’t know when I would be coming back. I asked her why it mattered.

I was still looking at the moon. Her voice was small and sounded like it was coming out of the ashtray in her armrest.

“Because I’ll miss you.”

I looked back at her and for half a second I didn’t recognize her at all. She not only looked different from how she’d looked earlier that evening, she looked different in a way that I had never seen her look before. She hadn’t changed her hairstyle or switched her lipstick or something superficial like that. The changes went deeper than that. Her posture was somehow different and she seemed to hold herself in a different way. It took me a while to figure out she had taken her mask off.

I kept mine on.

She dropped her eyes. She seemed to stare at her shoes for a long time. They were red to match her skirt and they rubbed against the backs of her heels when she walked. She had two small patches of raw skin there.

“Take me home,” she said.

I started the engine, dropped the transmission into drive, and pulled away from the curb.

+ + + + + + + + +

“Hey, Big Guy. I want to ask you something.”

Chris sat with his feet up on the desk in the back office. Julie was already working. They had talked but I didn’t know what had been said. We had ten minutes before we had to punch in.

What did you tell Julie, Chris? Seven and two more to grow on? Probably not. Probably something like you couldn’t do the measurement because you need someone else to hold the end of the tape measure. I told him to go ahead.

“Well, I asked Patty about it and she said you two were just friends. She said there was nothing going on between you.”

I told him that was correct.

“Yeah, well, you guys have been going out, so I would feel better if I asked you if you had any objections.”

I asked him objections about what.

“About me taking her out.”

What? Chris, you’re not the kind of guy to ask before taking. At least that’s what you’ve always told me. What’s going on? I asked him what had happened with Julie.

“No go, Big Guy.”

I gave him some business. I said something about him not being able to rise to the occasion.

Chris shook his head. “Big Guy. Even if she were serious about that seven inches garbage, do you really think I’d tell her I had them just to go to bed with her?”

I told him that’s exactly what I thought he would do.

He stood up and put his visor on. “Well, that shows how little you know about me. Now, how about me taking Patty out? You sure it doesn’t bother you?”

I told him I was sure.

“Great. I owe you one, Big Guy.”

He left the office. I looked up at the office calendar. Mr. Shakey was on it in his white cook’s outfit and his handlebar mustache. He held a steaming pizza in his hands and over his head, in a cartoon talking balloon, was written, “Now dat’s a pizza!” The calendar dutifully told me the month was June.

+ + + + + + + + +

When I got out of work late that night the moon was hanging just on the horizon, slightly less full than it had been the night before. As I walked to my car I started to think about the ancient astronomers who considered the earth to be at the center of the solar system. Modern astronomers (who know better) call this a geocentric view of the universe. Ptolemy was the first guy to come up with the idea, and he said that the other planets went around the earth, in order outward: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Ptolemy also said that everything inside the orbit of the moon was composed of the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water; and was subject to change. It was the realm of us mortals and it was imperfect. Outside the moon was the ether, a perfect region where everything was changeless. The realm of the gods, as it were.

The problem was, of course, that everything out there wasn’t changeless. The seasons change the stars you see at night and the planets move in relation to the stars. The moon goes through its phases and the sun rises at a different time every day. But this guy Ptolemy was no fool. He saw all these things as cycles where, yes, they were changing, but they always changed the same way and they always went back to what they were before.

So everything in the heavens was a constant or a predictable pattern. The Ptolemites began to get used to the idea and they must have figured that that’s the way the gods wanted it. They’d get a little sleepy and not pay as much attention to the sky and—BANG! A dim star would flare up and be a bright star for a week, or maybe Jupiter would turn around and start heading in the other direction.

The point is that the Ptolemites had a hairy cat fit when these things happened. They only really paid attention to the world around them when something came along and erased their formulas from the blackboard.

And when I look back on it now, this is how I see all the people that I said weren’t really my friends, the people I said I just knew. They were there. They were in my life. I got used to them being there and I tended to ignore them until they did something I didn’t expect them to do, like Patty telling me she was going to miss me or Chris acting somewhat like a gentleman in considering any feelings I might have had for Patty. I don’t think I ever really noticed them before they did these things. I knew I would be going away soon, and that I would never really return for any length of time, and I guess I just didn’t think about what it would be like to get to know them. There wasn’t much point in my mind. I couldn’t pack them up in a trunk and take them out to school with me. I guess I never took off the mask because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of putting it back on again.

And do you know what? Now, when I look up at the night sky, I wonder what Ptolemy would have done if he had looked up one night and the stars were no longer there.

+ + + THE END + + +