Nick Aubrey stood atop a drywall partition, his head nearly touching a long fluorescent lamp on the stamped-tin ceiling. With his left hand he steadied himself against a sprinkler pipe; with his right he held a two-pound hammer. He was tired, it was late, yet there was no question of his knocking off: other volunteers would be here tomorrow to continue the transformation he had started, and Nick wasn’t going to allow their schedule to slip because he had wimped out. It was grueling, sure, but for a worthy cause—within a few weeks this architecturally charming but long-vacant old building in the blighted downtown of Newcastle, Massachusetts would be home to the Magic Box, a community-run children’s museum cum book and toy store.
Strewn about the floor before him were piles of new lumber, some sawhorses, a table saw, a bucket of nails, one sledge and three claw hammers, a pry-bar, heaps of splintered wood and smashed Sheetrock, a paint-splattered floodlamp, an electric saw sitting atop a tangle of bright orange extension cords, and a few cartons—early shipments from orders placed at the Toy Fair a month ago. Until tonight, the bare concrete floor had been covered with depressing blue-grey industrial carpet—cheap to start with, and never cleaned in thirty years of use. Nick had spent the last six hours ripping it up with his bare hands and cutting it into sections with construction-grade razor blades. Strips of the carpet stuck out of two brown plastic garbage cans amid the rubble, making them look like matching muppets with spiky blue-grey industrial hair, Jim Henson doing a variation on a theme by Samuel Beckett. Nick Aubrey, demolition man. Nick Aubrey, toyseller. Sometimes this volunteer work beat the hell out of his day job.
He was in full reverie—imagining a life without the Software Architecture Review Committee demanding the impossible, without prima donna programmers to placate— when Bartlett walked in, startling him out of his wits. It was two in the morning.
She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that was covered with thick wet snow. In her left hand was a large cloth drawstring bag; in her right was a large paper coffee cup. On her back there was a small knapsack. She crossed the room, climbed two rungs up a stepladder and placed the coffee at Nick’s feet, then stepped down and walked back to the center of the room.
She put her bag and knapsack on the floor, then threw back the hood of her sweatshirt, revealing black hair pulled into an unruly bun. Some snow fell off the hood onto the floor. Outside, a Newcastle Public Works truck passed, periodically casting yellow light though the translucent sign paper on the windows. Chains clinked loudly and the snowplow rumbled. Bartlett sat cross-legged on the cold floor and withdrew a frosted glass bottle from the knapsack.
“Now tell me what you are doing up there,” she said.
“You will remark this ugly wall.” Nick touched a partition that ran behind him, towards the rear of the empty store. “I am going to destroy it.”
“Do you mind if I watch?”
“I thought with this storm you would be spending the night in Cambridge.”
“And miss this cozy scene? The crackling fire, the kettle on the boil? Seems like with you at the Mill all the time and me in my lab we don’t hardly have time anymore to take care of everything that needs taking care of.”
The woman could say the most provocative things.
“That may change,” Nick said.
“Digital MicroSystems has just announced a collaborative research effort with MIT. They’ve endowed a couple of professorships and given, I don’t know, fifty million dollars or so to set up this whole new program. I even had a hint you would be tapped for a lead research position.”
“So. Another coupling of industry and academe. I can almost hear the porno music.”
“It’s big news. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it at MIT.”
“The Media Lab selling out to yet another corporate sponsor? That’s hardly big news.”
“I’m not talking about the Media Lab. I’m talking about physical chemistry, molecular biology.”
Bartlett seemed interested in this information but somehow bothered by it.
“Why’s a computer company funding a biology department at MIT?” she asked.
“It’s not a biology department. It’s a new department unto itself: Molecular Computation.”
“Nanomachines, biological computers, self-modifying software that evolves without human intervention. . .”
“Mixing computer science with life science at the molecular level.”
“Their goal is to have a programmable machine to read and write DNA within a decade.”
Bartlett drew in her breath, as if someone had just given her bad news about a close relative.
“I don’t even want to think about that now.”
“Don’t think about it, then.”
“But I have to think about it. How are you involved?”
“I got an E-mail from the man himself, Montaigne Meekman. He wants to meet with me and talk about having me be the liaison between the Mill and MIT.”
“I got a mail message today from Monty Meekman about the molecular computation lab.”
“Monty Meekman, the monomaniacal billionaire, is personally recruiting you?”
“You’ll be even more shocked to hear that he mentioned your work.”
“How would Monty Meekman know anything about me?”
“Your work is famous in some circles.”
“It’s got nothing to do with molecular computation. You don’t know anything about molecular computation either, do you?”
“Three thousand people work at the Mill. Why does he want you?”
“I’m a good manager.”
“There are lots of good managers at Digital MicroSystems.”
“I know software. Some people think I’m pretty brilliant.”
“Sure, Nick, you know software. But the Mill is full of software geniuses. Why you?”
“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. Maybe he wants me because I’m the genius who knows how to manage the other geniuses. Why not me?”
Bartlett answered the question by changing the subject.
“If you wind up working for Meekman you’ll spend all your time in California. And California will eat your soul.”
This was not the response he had expected from her. Nick knew that like many people in Massachusetts, Bartlett had been upset when Digital Data, a Massachusetts institution, had been acquired by Stanford MicroSystems. Their union created Digital MicroSystems, the second largest computer company in the world, with home offices in California’s Silicon Valley. Still, Nick was surprised by the vehemence of her reaction to the mention of Monty Meekman, the man said to have engineered the hostile takeover.
“I thought you would be amused by the idea of you and I working together,” Nick said.
“Amused, no. Astonished, yes. Why is Meekman hunting you?”
“It’s not that astonishing. We do work at the same company.”
“Wrong. You work there. He plays there.”
Nick switched his stance, transferring the bump hammer to the left hand and holding the sprinkler pipe with his right. It occurred to him that this was a rather odd place, time, and posture for this conversation. He should get back to work on the wall, or he should climb down and ravish this beautiful and inscrutable scientist. What he shouldn’t do was to keep standing there talking about politics or philosophy or whatever the hell it was that they were talking about.
“That man gives me the creeps,” Bartlett added. “Meekman coming to the Mill is like Dracula coming to your castle. I don’t like the idea of you working with him.”
“What, have you met the man?”
There was an odd hesitancy in Bartlett’s answer, Nick thought.
“I know what I’ve read about him,” she said. “That he’s brilliant. That he owns thirty percent of Digital MicroSystems, which makes him one of the richest people on the planet. I also know that very few people are willing to talk about him for the record. What exactly does he do at Dijjy-Mike, besides engineer hostile takeovers?”
“Whatever he wants. I don’t think he has an official title. He just has a few projects that he personally manages, which always turn out to be revolutionary and enormously profitable. Working on one of his projects is the best thing that can happen to your career.”
“So why is nobody willing to talk about it? I’ve read profiles of him, and they all say the same thing: he’s a genius, he’s impossibly wealthy, he hand-picks teams of computer scientists that create revolutionary technology, and nobody who’s worked for him is willing to talk about it.”
“Maybe they respect his desire for privacy.”
“Come on, Nick.”
“I guess he likes to cultivate an air of mystery.”
“People are afraid of him. I don’t want you working for him.”
“Todd works for him. Todd’s not afraid of him.”
“Maybe he should be.”
Nick’s legs were starting to cramp from staying too long in one position.
“Think about it,” Bartlett said. “Now that the human genome project is up and running, the structure and function of a new gene gets published to the Internet just about every other day. That in itself is enough to scare me. On top of that, along comes one of the richest and most powerful men on earth, accountable to nobody, who, with a measly fifty-million dollars—about one week’s pay, for him— buys the scientific might of MIT, not to mention a great cover story.”
“Like you said, nothing new in a prestigious university whoring for a multinational.”
“Yes, but there is something new in the human genome project, and there is something new in programmable machines that can read and write DNA. Not even God has such a machine. He still uses restriction enzymes.”
“Monty’s just keeping up with the Joneses. He is not going to be outdone by Microsoft, and Bill Gates just donated fifty million dollars to endow a nanotechnology program at the University of Washington.”
“I rest my case.”
Nick looked down at Bartlett. She was not exactly glaring at him, but she was regarding him warily, which was a new and unpleasant experience for him. In the years since he had met Bartlett he had come to know her as his true love and soul mate, yet there were parts of her psyche that he did not know how to reconcile. For all her scientific sophistication, she had an almost Popish belief that some questions were best left unanswered.
“Maybe this isn’t the time to talk about it,” he said. “Let’s drop it.”
“Good idea,” she said, and some of the concern seemed to lift from her face. “I’m going to try to steer my mind in the direction it was going before I walked in here.”
Nick began to pound at the reluctant wall, each blow of the hammer reverberating like a firecracker off the bare walls and concrete floor. Despite the coolness of the room he was soon perspiring, and when he stopped to catch his breath his damp clothes turned cold against his skin.
“While you rest,” he heard her saying, “why don’t I tell what I was going to tell you when I first walked in here tonight.”
Nick’s ears were ringing, but her voice sounded as he imagined an angel’s would sound to a soul in purgatory.
“I was wondering,” she began again, hesitating as she fiddled with the wire on the champagne bottle. “Do you think that if I get this champagne agitated enough, I can make it pop? Do you think I can do that, Nick?”
A trick question?
“I suppose so,” he answered, tentatively. It seemed, to his relief, that her foul mood was gone.
She removed the wire and stared at him. “I’ll bet I can make it pop without even touching the cork,” she said.
Their eyes met for a long time as she sat nearly motionless, slowly caressing, shaking, licking the bottle, rubbing it between her legs, across her breasts, her face perfectly blank, betraying no emotion at all.
“And when it pops, Nick,” she said, “I bet it will just spew all over everything.”
He went back to his task of dismantling the ugly wall. The champagne went off, eventually, and she took a long first drink from the foaming bottle.
She said, “Would you like to hear what I have been thinking about?”
He was breathing hard and covered with plaster dust. He was thirsty, too, but his coffee had fallen atop the growing pile of debris, and he knew better than to ask her for a sip of champagne.
“Yes, I would love to hear what you were thinking about,” he said.
A mouthful of champagne dribbled off her chin onto her sweatshirt, but she made no motion to wipe it dry.
“When I was fifteen I used to like to watch a lifeguard at the pool. The other guards had been there for a couple of years—college kids, I guess— I never paid any attention to them. But in the middle of one summer a new guy came. He was twenty-five years old, and he looked, to me, like a god. And do you know, Nick, when I was fifteen my breasts were already large. I used to swim over to the side of the pool and look up at him, this new god, and as I did I pressed my breasts up against the side of the pool. I was fifteen, I had large breasts, and he was twenty-five, very muscular, and he was high above me as you are above me now. Do you get the picture?”
“Oh, man,” he said.
She stood and released her hair from its bun; it was black and reached the middle of her back, cascading around the hood. She took her sweatshirt off, then her bra, and threw them on the table saw. Then she removed her boots and dungarees, and stood naked, save her woolen socks, in the frigid air. Even from this distance he could see the goose bumps all over her skin, but she appeared oblivious to the cold. And still no hint of a smile. Oh, my God in heaven, Nick thought.
“Observe,” she said. “I am going to place this sleeping bag where it can be watched by people who like to watch.”
She bent to pick up the sack that contained her sleeping bag, then stood erect and unfurled it and placed it back on the floor. Her breasts were large, he noted, perfectly so. For that matter, everything about her form was perfect—legs, arms, shoulders, tummy: everything. Absolutely perfect. He observed the line of her neck to her shoulders, then regarded her face. Her dark eyes were bright on either side of the nose that he always told her was too tiny for her face, but inexplicably perfect. The shape of her cheekbones hinted Cherokee blood, just as their coloring clearly showed Welsh. When she spoke a dimple appeared in her right cheek, and he glimpsed a gleaming hint of overbite of her top teeth and the nearly imperceptible squiggle in the alignment of her bottom teeth. He felt his entire body flush, and thought he might faint.
“Are you cold, Nick?” she asked, almost as if she had felt the heat pass through him.
“That depends what you mean.”
“I’ll tell you what I mean. If you were a California boy your ass would be an ice cube by now. And if you were a California boy you wouldn’t be here in the first place. People from the land of I-me-mine don’t relate to your idealism. A community store, of all things. Now there’s an oxymoron only a Puritan could love.”
“So I’m a Puritan?”
“You do not desire to eat of the tree.”
“What does that make you?”
“We’re not talking about me. There’s a reason you live here Nick, among the ghosts of an old Massachusetts mill town in the lee of the cold Atlantic. You would be a fish out of water in sunny California, where there are no ghosts because there is no past, only the glorious present and brighter future. You’re an anachronism, Nick. That’s why you belong here where nothing changes, where money and sex are still private matters.”
“I need a razor blade, Nicholas.”
“There are some on the table saw.”
She took a step towards it, then gracefully removed her socks, bending each exquisite leg in turn behind her, balancing on the other, like Katrina Witt holding her skate to her derriere. She left the socks on the saw in exchange. She was now completely naked in the forty-degree room.
“It’s a blizzard tonight,” she said. “The police have asked that nobody drive unless they must. They want to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles. And yet—” she drew a single-sided blade from the oblong box “—as I came here tonight in all this snow, at one-thirty in the morning, I saw people walking down the street. I saw a man and a woman, arm in arm. And I saw two boys. Now it is two-thirty in the morning. Do you suppose that there are people still about? Do you suppose they’re curious about what goes on inside this Magic Box?”
She had walked to the window, and now poised the blade about to cut the paper, a spot about the height of her eyes. She cut. Six inches down. Eight inches across.
“‘Coming Soon,’ the sign says. What’s coming soon? People want to know.”
Six inches up, and eight back: a rectangular hole five feet four inches off the sidewalk level. She tossed the blade to the floor without looking to see where it might land.
“What kind of toys do they got in there anyway?” she said.
“I’m starting to get a little curious myself.”
She deftly unzipped the sleeping bag and crawled in, shivering as the cold fabric hit her skin.
“OK,” she said. “What do you call that thing in your hand?”
“It’s a hammer. A bump hammer.”
“Perfect. I want you to take that tool of yours, Nicholas, that bump hammer, and I want you to pound. I want to watch your muscular body above me. I want dust to fly, I want the air thick with your smell. I want you to pound and pound and pound. I want an explosion, and I want it right now. Look into my eyes. Nick, you are my lifeguard. I love you.”
Finally, a smile. A small smile, but he would take it.
“But remember,” she said. “You don’t work for Montaigne Meekman.”
The smile was gone. Her eyes were fixed on his.
“From this moment on, you work for me.”
©1999-2010 John Sundman.