Wednesday
Jan032018

The Man Who Ended the Cold War

Michele Suzann


 

The old people in their Eichler, I ask? Him asleep all day in the guest room, and with good reason, too, I mean for being in the guest room, I say, although also now that I think of it for being asleep, too, given as how all night, every night, he spends awake and listening to the am radio, the blood-and-guts reports, Klaus asks, rehashing every traffic accident and mass shooting slash suicide complete with, call-in shows, I say, the Ron Lyons Show, the Mattie Franklin Show, a repeat of the Len Tillum Show, he's not a caller-in though, just a taker-in or maybe around is the better preposition, wrapping himself in high whine and baritone opining, just like that guest room quilt he snuggles into, an infant at seventy and all day long, I swear, such a shame, clucks this close family friend whose eighty-year-old husband still skis, you think I don't know that troll, his wife you mean, Klaus says, the step, I say, you think I don't know she seethes that her own husband can't, not even when he could have, such a brilliant mind, they intone, all hushed shaking heads meanwhile sidelong quizzical at me insomniac on a sprung cot in a den denuded of all books but those this family friend's still-skiing hubby edits, I say, books bearing the prestigious university colophon, can't donate those to the library sale, no, not with that prestigious university colophon spinally visible and the still skiing hubby still liable to visit for dinner, no, though well it's not like he could read them anymore anyway, I say, the donated books I mean, I say, if he ever did in the first place, I say, his eyes, Klaus says, you said some sudden overnight disappearance of sight, Klaus says, his eyes, I say, still able to discern the blur of prestigious university red, I say, red no more useful to him enwrapped in chatter and batting than all that black on all that paper white, but oh so useful still to the step, I say, the helpmeet, Klaus says, the second wife, I say, with whom you've made your peace, Klaus smirks, whatever, I say, gold-digger, troll, is it so obvious? Klaus shrugs, clinging to those university relics, I say, the step herself no student at the prestigious university, ever, except perhaps a student of its memorabilia, the step a scholar of logoed and needle-pointed-by-alumnae throw pillows, all proceeds to benefit, of special engraved frame for the three-count-'em-three diplomas sold at the prestigious university bookstore, the frame I mean, hung above a watercolor, signed and numbered, the watercolor I mean, of the prestigious university's historic and non-denominational chapel, or is it ecumenical, I ask, you should know didn't you go? Another shrug, a smile, and I slide my eyes away, taking in the trellised honeysuckles and realizing that's where that perfumey slash delicious smell is coming from, the step more active at the alumni functions than he is, or was, I should say, I say, well his eyes, Klaus says, he probably needs a guide? But even before his eyes, I say, when he could still see, as if they were her own alumni picnics and alumni newsletter updates and alumni dedications of memorial walks into which bought engraved bricks had been cemented, or is it mortared, I say, meanwhile there I slouch developing scoliosis on that sprung cot, have you tried a board, Klaus asks, no but I tried the floor, flashback to twenty-three unemployed imposing on friends South of Market pre that neighborhood's fin de siecle dot-com colonization, honestly, I say, you engineers, I say, as if that's the thing that needs fixing? I lay there on that cot and I am harassed by the convictions of callers-in through thin Eichler walls that social networking sites have no future, they're just a fad, really, I am assaulted by the prestigious university mugs and the prestigious university's famous sculpture recast as bronze bookends, not that there are any books to prevent from falling horizontal but those edited by the close-family-friend's you-know-who, meanwhile there he lays, your father, you mean, Klaus says, my father, I say, on that bed seven days a week, eyes gone and with them all enthusiasm for movement, of which, true, he had never been overly fond, I say, I remember asking him to play baseball with me once in our driveway and being so embarrassed for him, the way he ran, lumbering, I say, is the word here, fat rolls flapping, a reclusive, overweight klutz at least until the step managed a membership at the prestigious university's club and they began to attend the alumni mixers, and to dine with the step's first ex-husband's brother-in-law, who is one and the same eighty-year-old skiing husband of the close family friend, the step not on terms with the first ex-husband himself, I say, a former professor of history at the prestigious university, but on wonderful ones with the first's, and second's if you must know, families, I say, she takes their whole world and then kicks them out. Klaus says do you think if she and your father divorced she and you would, please, I say, she would never his patents are worth too much and plus he's in Who's Who, although true he does lack the eighty-year-old still-skiing husband's lifetime VIP parking pass to any one of the prestigious university's campus parking spaces, anywhere, at any time, ever, this ex-brother-in-law having once been the Dean of the Prestigious University Business School, I say, I don't know, I say. I can't believe I know this shit and think about it.

What about Mount Tam, Klaus asks, Saturday? Are you saying get over it, I ask, are you saying move on, I ask, I'm saying let's go somewhere, you and me, Klaus says and puts his hand over mine, which touch makes me want to stop talking about the step and my father but instead I say don't get me wrong, I say I think the step is a benevolent and life-saving influence on him, I say, deciding I need both hands to handle my espresso, and thank god none of that responsibility has fallen to me, I say, being as how I have made such a mess of my life as to end up on a sprung cot in my father's so-called den amid the eighty-year-old skiing husband's compilations of scientific articles for which he, the one in the guest room, Klaus asks, my father, I say, was a peer reviewer, I say, a gig encouraged by the step, I say, the remainer-upon of good terms, I say, the original social networker, I say, trust me I've flipped through those tomes and if that's what retirement has to offer I'd go blind too, I say, maybe I ought to crack one for a sleep aid when I'm on that cot listening to the tick of the prestigious university clock competing with the callers-in, watching the moon creep across a window hung with prestigious-university logos of stained glass and wondering what the fuck am I, don't get me wrong, I say, I'm fully cognizant of my bitterness, I say, of my unresolved feelings, I say, Klaus says I have a place in Fairfax I like to go for brunch, and I say really, because I had heard about a place in San Ramon, I was thinking we could hike Mount Diablo after. San Ramon, Klaus says, making a face, or before, I say. I don't even know where San Ramon is, Klaus says, well of course you have to wonder how it happened, I say, what he was taking, how much he was drinking, how she let him get so far gone, of course I have to ask myself these questions, how could I have let him get so far gone, shouldn't I have intervened, is that how it happened, Klaus asks, nobody knows, I say, or those that know namely the step they're playing dumb, for once, maybe she wanted him to die, I say, maybe she was tired of propping him up for so many years, you can't think, says Klaus, oh I think worse, I say, maybe she arranged it, I think, knowing all his medications and then lobbying for the Viagra, too, I say, she could have, innocently or not, I say, they're seventy, Klaus says, target market, I say, listen, I say, you said you liked my honesty well there you have some of it. You need to move out, Klaus says, tell that to my employer, I say, oh wait, I don't have one, I say, I know, you think I don't know? You think I don't know my thoughts are those of a crashed and burned failure-at-life who's reduced to hunchbacking it on a sprung cot after I can't even say divorce, I say, all I can say is this long-term relationship that went nowhere, you tell people it ended they ask were you married you say no they go engaged you shake your head they ask how long were you together you say twelve years they just raise their eyebrows like, twelve years and no ring you should have seen not going anywhere coming, geez, and plus foreclosed and laid off to boot? Loo-zirr, I say, making the L-sign with my thumb and index finger at my forehead. Klaus is looking at my other hand, which he's got again somehow, only this time tracing the tendons of, you think I don't know it's sick and unhealthy and heaven forfend worst crime of all ever in America unproductive to just ruminate on the wreck of the old people in their Eichler rather than considering for a moment her own, I say, wreck I mean, and how to escape it? I go to sleep beneath that prestigious university mini hot-air-balloon hung from an exposed beam and I have to wear earplugs to baffle the callers-in, only device that could they are so certain and yet I myself am baffled, I say, by the fact that the step's third husband, arguably the most interesting of the three husbands, what with his security clearances and his special patents, what with his phone line installed by the DOD, his special underground untappable phone line that, coincidentally, I say, is the reason why he and the step can still use dial-up with no virus protection whatsoever, what with during my childhood our inability to travel outside of the lower forty-eight, thanks to fears that he might be kidnapped for his patents, plus nevermind fears that we kids might be kidnapped for ransom of same, this was pre-89, I say, that's what one of his work cronies called him, I say, the step said, at his company's thirty-fifth anniversary party last month, I say, this man huddling in an amplitude modulation signal, your father, you mean, Klaus says, she said the crony called him The Man Who Ended The Cold War. Klaus says I don't get it, and I say neither do I, even though I do, I could name the thing he invented but it's a conversation stopper because they either don't believe me or they do, so I don't, I play dumb, like I always do, it's his patents, I say, something to do with Star Wars, I say, Glasnost, Klaus asks, perestroika? The technology will keep us safe, I say, or at least thinking we are, Klaus says, I mean it's ludicrous that this brilliant man, they all call him, ends up like that, I say, you don't understand he used to come home from work and listen to Joan Baez and the Weavers and Judy Collins just sipping his martini all leaned back in his recliner and we'd ask are you asleep and he'd say no just resting my eyes, I say, and sort of tapping or waving his feet in time to whatever mild beat there was because he couldn't help it, I say, you don't understand he used to play guitar, I say, the first songs I learned to sing were where have all the flowers gone, I say, and on a wagon bound for market, there's a calf with a mournful eye, and— cheery, Klaus says, yes but this is who he was, I say, he loved music, I say, so what is this crap talk now? I think of those crazy persons I used to see, I say, sitting in the car with my mom driving stopped at an intersection asking what does impeach mean, having read the impeach nixon graffiti on a bank wall, a crazy-looking man with a little transistor radio held tight to an ear and crossing in the crosswalk, I say, I remember seeing several of those persons as a child, but of course now that everyone holds small, battery-powered devices up to their ears, how crazy were those early enthusiasts, I ask, the early adopters, Klaus says, or is it adaptors, I ask, that this man of three degrees and high-level military contracts and government clearances and visits from nameless security men asking for lists of friends and neighbors to interview, it's just astonishing to me that this man has ended up like those persons, I say, those persons blatantly advertising the fact that they possessed nothing but that AM incessance, those persons whose entire world had dialed down to, how hilarious that all the prestigious university tailgates and keychains and ashtrays and limited edition Christmas ornaments could not avert this moment, I say, I want to say end but of course it might not be, right? He could suddenly, or even gradually, grow weary of so much horizontal existence, so much noise. Could just be depressed, Klaus says, hell if I lost my eyesight, maybe he'd rather listen to Ron Franklin, Ron Lyons, I say, don't you listen? Than hear his own thoughts about not being able to see, Klaus says.

Beyond all the café noise it's crickets, I hear.

When I was sixteen he bought me a crystal radio kit, showed me how to use a soldering iron, stood over my shoulder in the breakfast nook criticizing the solders that had peaks or were too scant, all I did was sweat, I remember, I did like the smell, though, of the solder I mean, I say, it was bad enough he was always lamenting the fact I was not a boy who could follow in his footsteps, he believed women and electrical engineering, radio science, they called it, I say, back when he first attended the prestigious university, were incompatible, I say, maybe you do too, for all I know, I say, I don't know you all that well, what kind of engineer? Mechanical, Klaus says, mechanical, I say, you design machines, I ask, or parts of machines, Klaus says, what did you design today, I ask. Today we figured out how we can get the machines to look friendlier, Klaus says, and I say friendlier. Friendlier, so the patient can have a more positive experience during the test. You said it's nuclear, right? It's nuclear, Klaus says. Friendlier, I say, does that mean you're going for rounded corners, the bubble shape? Exactly, Klaus says. I always liked right angles myself, I say, sharp corners and edges, I say, I'm still sad about what they've done to the cars, I say, you know where you stand with an edge. There are no right angles in nature, Klaus says, and he smiles, and I look down at my napkin balled on the saucer but then back up and I say oh so you're making the scan a more natural experience? Klaus says less artificial, is maybe a better way to, an edge, I say, you know when you've fallen, those sleek subtle curves, you might think you're safe come to find you've already slid so far you can't scramble back up, there's no what, traction? No place to wrap your hand around, Klaus says, and then hook your elbow over, I say, and then hoist yourself up back out of Klaus says, danger I say. Assuming it's dangerous to fall, Klaus says. Falling for feeling that procedure is a less artificial feeling than it really is isn't, I ask. Maybe the results will be better if the patient is less stressed, Klaus says. Why so a person will forget how profoundly unnatural it is and oh by the way hazardous to their health? That's the edge you're smoothing into a trap, I say, that's the sharp corner that reminds a person that every CT scan is ten times as much radiation as an x-ray, actually it's a hundred to two-hundred times says Klaus, and therefore I say, said person is less likely to resist the suggestions of his doctor to get another and another, I say, which another and another help pay for the damn bubble-shaped machine in the first place, right? You know my father had about eight one winter three specialists somehow forgetting to communicate with each other about what tests had been ordered when and where the results even were and how many times did the step say well better safe than sorry and not like he wasn't like a corporeal wreck by then anyway lung cancer, pancreatitis, gangrenous toes, but of course that's how they, and by they I mean you, too, I say, part of the medical-industrial complex don't pretend your facility isn't down the street from Loral Space Systems for nothing, I say, cross pollination of all the technology during the Cold War, I say, don't pretend you don't think this way too, I say, what way Klaus asks, laughing, well my life is so shitty-slash-close-to-its-end-anyway why quibble about a few more megadoses of radiation, I say, well I say why not quibble, I say, I'd rather walk into the woods and die, I say, than get nuked by a friendlier machine. Klaus laughs, you say that now.

He always lamented I could not come work side by side with him at his company where they made these little gold boxes with secret contents, this company with the special lead-lined room they called The Tank which could only be accessed by those with the highest of security clearances, lead-lined so Russian spies could not sit in the parking lot and commit espionage through the walls, gold boxes which, by the way, had sharp, hostile corners, gold boxes they went on trips to the desert to test, I say. At sixteen, I say, I was clumsy and my movements were wide and abrupt, not that that's changed much, I say, and I was no candidate for close work, I say, even as a receptionist one summer at his company I failed so thoroughly to figure out the tabs on the Selectric that my job duties got reduced to just handing out the visitor badges and answering the telephone, no one could take a call if they were in The Tank but you could page them, especially if the caller was from EG and G or Raytheon. I had once wanted to be a surgeon, I say, but my hands shake, see, I say, and demonstrate with the one he'd been tracing, it was like being a quack surgeon of the radio, I only completed the operation through sheer effort of, of, wanting to please, Klaus asks, no wanting it over, I say, the task to be finished and past and when we finally tuned in a blood-and-guts station it was not some wondrous magic, it was no thralldom to science and or Maxwell's ether, I say, it was just me miming what I hoped was some equivalent to his eight-year-old nineteen-forty-six amazement, how cool, I made this thing, and look what it does, which of course was preposterous, radio about as special as parking lots at the mall, I say, in 1985, and especially the AM, god that was a relic even then, I say, and all we could tune in was one of seven of those stations nobody with any self-respect would listen to for anything other than there's been an earthquake emergency updates, it was, don't you mean a station only a lonely person would listen to, Klaus says, same thing isn't it, I say, or maybe the radio's just for when a person feels lonely, Klaus says, the voices around, Klaus says, I'd give you that, I say, don't you listen, Klaus asks, please, I say, not willingly, I say, I have a thousand other things to do, I say, usually. Are you embarrassed, Klaus asks, that he's not more, what, I say, functional? It's not embarrassing, I say, it's pathetic, all that so-called brilliance and drive ingenuity and curiosity and he can't apply it to all he sees are blobs? That's what he said when I asked him well what can you see, I say, he said you look like a blob, he said, there's a face-colored shape and there's, what are you wearing black, he asked, I say, blue, I said, there's a blue body-shaped blob below, he said, try saying that ten times fast, he said, he did, Klaus asks, he did, I say. It makes me question a few things, such as what is anything worth doing, if it could end up like him on that bed in that quilt all day with the callers-in? Not that he's unhappy and not that that isn't exactly how he wanted it all to end up, I say, I mean what do I know, I say, and it makes me question well if that is how he is and this is how I am how different are we, really, and what if there is some weakness, some flaw that determines failure, and it doesn't matter how successful and propped up one is or can be or has been, look where this flaw will end us up, I say, it's pathetic. But maybe not, Klaus says, think of all he knows that nobody else knows, he's probably more attuned to the minutiae of the radio station's scheduling and programming than the station's own programmers, Klaus says, he probably, please, I say, don't patronize both him and I, I say, an intimate and thorough truck with mail-order mattresses and phone-order teddy-bears and home security systems manned by our trained staff and supermarket marinara buy two get the third free with your club card, a connoisseur of dreck, I say, a sixth sense for it's twelve after the hour time for Joe McConnell with traffic, Joe? It's nothing, all that attention and alleged brilliance? It's nothing, I say. I take it you two are not close, Klaus says, and I say why do you take that, not that it's not true, not that I blame him in the least, because I don't, but what can I do, invite him to play tennis? Drive go-karts? Quote see unquote a movie? We certainly aren't going to have a heart to heart not with all those callers-in calling in, I say, have you ever asked him to turn it off, Klaus asks, I say what on earth would we talk about, and besides, it's his home, I'm the guest, I would never. It just shows that degrees from the prestigious university mean nothing, I say, no offense, I say, none taken, Klaus says, mine obviously isn't getting me very far with you, Klaus says. It's not your prestigious university degree that I enjoy wait what are you saying not very far, I say, you call this not very far? You think listening to me whine about the wreck of the old people in their Eichler is not very far? You did ask, after all, and I quote, I say, what's it like, staying with your folks, unquote, obviously I've said too much. How are you, Klaus, what's your story?

I listen to the crickets beneath the ceramic clatter and the steaming and the conversating. It's my favorite café in this university town, and I hate that it's also every other resident's favorite café, but the crickets and the honeysuckle and the patio seating nevermind the location and the espresso drinks are hard not to favor. It's the same café where I went on my first date, in high school, after seeing Eraserhead with a boy I thought the world of for having taken acid as well as for having read Ironweed, not at the same time, I mean, a boy who, when we kissed, later at his house, leaned back on his parents' sofa and sighed that he must be a shitty lover, since I so obviously wasn't excited. Finally Klaus says really I'm only half listening, because I'm also trying to figure out how to get you to say yes to Mount Tam. Multitasking, I say, I'm frightened by your idea of San Ramon, see, says Klaus, because I am pretty sure I will have to pay more attention to the driving than I would like to, which would take energy and time away from me being able to flirt with you, which has always been enjoyable, see. Even listening to you now, and I have no idea what I could say to help with this situation of your father and the cot and the step, and the callers-in, I say, none of it would be a situation but for the callers-in, I say, the radio, Klaus says, even listening to this is enjoyable, even if not very far, I say, even if evidence of some complicated feelings for members of your family you maybe are not comfortable feeling. The feelings, you mean, I say, and narrow my eyes. We smile. Really I'm just a guy who wants to get in your pants, Klaus says, so I'm willing to listen right now, it still seems worth it, though not as fun as flirting or maybe I should call it fencing, how we did the other day, when I told you I'm such an ornery bastard in trouble with management at work, Klaus says, and then you said but are you telling me because you are proud of that and would like me also to be proud of that, or are you telling me because you feel comfortable enough with me you feel you can tell me things not necessarily flattering, not the ornery part, every girl loves a bad boy, you said, the in trouble with management part, everybody knowing ornery is attractive but an increased potential for unemployment in persons over forty is not, case in point, and you pointed at yourself, Klaus says, and then I said but are you asking me because you genuinely want to know the answer, or are you asking me because you want to unnerve me with your directness, and you said nice deflection, I'll let it pass, probably more the latter than the former, not that I don't want to get to know you but I do have a weakness for unnerving questions, and then I said even if the unnerving questions are at cross-purposes to your alleged curiosity? I love that, Klaus says, but there's something cagey about it, isn't there, so what I'm really after, see, is getting you out of your element, see, the North Bay and the drive there being my element. I want you on the passenger seat, squirming in a space you cannot get out of, because that's what you do, we trade our who's-more-ballsily-honest insights and laugh and then you leave, Klaus says, it's true, I say, if I blank on a counterattack I remember how I said I'd help the old people in their Eichler install ZoomText on the computer, I say, and so I want you on the passenger seat, Klaus says, but without directions and without a map because if I got you squirming you could leave by referring to the directions, and I don't want you leaving, Klaus says, I want you staying put when I put the real questions to you. Your machine, I say, or part of one, Klaus says, you engineers, I say, the questions being? Why not just be ballsily honest and ask me now, I ask. So, can you feel this? Do you feel that? Are you afraid? What are you afraid of? What else are you afraid of? What else? What about this? And then he kisses me.

See, I say, catching my breath, he had no memorabilia when I was a child, he had no prestigious university potlucks with former classmates, he attended no reunions, he sat on no prestigious university bleachers to watch the football team lose to their prestigious-state-school archrivals, that's the reason the step is suspect, I say, that she could effect such a drastic change in his behavior, I ask, that she could reweave all those prestigious university connections he had let fray, I ask, I have spent years disdaining the step because I have assumed her effected change to be some powerful reorganization of his soul, I say, she made an extrovert out of an introvert, or a joiner out of a lone wolf, or a mainstream alumnus out of a spooky inventor. I spent years thinking he was always weird, when we were growing up, when he was with our mom, but that clutching troll made him normal, I say, and now to see this, I say, you think I don't question her powers? My hatred? You think I don't see the step climbing those stairs every morning, hours after she herself has awakened and showered and eaten her half grapefruit and browsed the paper, you think I don't see her knock on that hollow-core Eichler door and enter and sit on the bed next to that fetal figure, you think I don't hear her asking if he was planning on coming downstairs for his coffee, I could bring it up, if you like, she says, but I thought you might want it downstairs, she says, in the family room, I say, in the sun, she says, you think I haven't seen her stroke what's left of his hair? I cannot begin to list the things I am afraid of. Of course I do not want to go north with you, not that I don't love Fairfax but you think I don't see that rounded corner, that edge-in-disguise? Listen I won't slip I'd sooner jump watch I'll fall right now, listen, I say, and I don't look away. Yes. Yes. Why do you think I've spent three espressos trying to brick up the wall of this story before you can sneak past, of course. You. Us. Now. This, I say. All of it, I say, have you ever been to Pinnacles, I ask, and when he shakes his head I lean in and say me neither, I say: Let's go there.