The lawns are green and damp and deep. The trees rise up dark-trunked from beds of pachysandra. Back behind their hanging leaves the houses sit in greeny dapple-light. In some yards plastic toy cars and scooters lie abandoned. The greenest lawns though, bear no trace of children. That is too much work. One lawn has a porcelain jockey and a faultless weave. In another, a man pushes a mower, bowed like a Volga boatman. In a water-sealed driveway next to a third, a man waxes a silver BMW. His jeans and v-neck are too tight. The gray hair on his head is gelled. The hair on his chest seems primped up on purpose. He thinks he is the focus of this scene. Let him have it for now.
The mower snaps a turn, at the edge of the asphalt road. A cardinal flits overhead, casual, part of the neighborhood. The other birds are thinking now of their packing, of their travel. See it in the hop of the robin, there – the nervousness of a week past labor day. A Cadillac swings into the driveway of the porcelain jockey. An old woman bustles out, and around to the trunk. She lifts bagss out. They are full of wide white capri pants and sleeveless blouses and enormous sunglasses. They are full of old woman Florida things. She has bought the tickets already. Walter has said he will pack later, later. They are not flying for two weeks. She has nothing else to do.
In the house of the mower a phone rings. It is the old warble of a landline that we will never forget. It is answered.
“Frank!” a woman calls from the front door of the house. “It’s Ashley.”
He cuts the throttle and trundles the green John Deere pusher to the drive. Bow-shouldered, he goes inside. He is background. He is part of the description.
Ashley is in a Lansing dorm room and breathless. There is laughing in the hall and the piney smell of new-sawed two-by fours. She’s still breathing in the grain of the loft her boyfriend helped her build. He hadn’t really known how to use a saber-saw. She had taught him, from watching her dad. Classes are going well, she tells him now, on the phone.
The world is opening up in front of her. She is the star of her own life. We will let her feel that, because it is all he ever wanted her to believe.
If you have not worked in the cubicle farm you have only seen these lights in hospitals. You have only seen this fluorescent flicker on the sick and dead. The fabric walls are some kind of blue or gray that does not matter. There are narrow warren-aisles between the cubes and a wide one beside them. They stretch away, their rims just less than eye height. Here are kennings for them: mushroom farm, prairie-dog city, rat-cage. Someone coughs, and in unconscious sympathy someone else does, or sneezes.
There are hard shoes in the wide aisle, moving fast. Hard shoes clicking mean the bosses. These are men who wear cologne to work. These are women who pull their hair back so hard it might be a facelift. These are men with dry-cleaned pants, with shin-creases like kicking blades, pressed by professionals. These are women who go all day in black heels, tack-hammering the floor. They wouldn’t know a tack-hammer if they saw it. The men either. They speak loudly without trying. They are people whose voices carry. They are their own drama. Don’t even try to let them know. They do not give a shit about you.
One of the men is silver-headed and swings a BMW key fob in his soft hand. He will be driving some of them to a steak lunch somewhere. He is trying to be, socially, the leader. The woman with razor eyes is not going. She says she will spend lunch in the Fitness Room. She will not give him an inch. She won yesterday and she will kick him when he is down.
In the wind of their passing a tacked-up paper ruffles. It reads:
A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?
Bowed shoulders lean over a keyboard and thick fingers type. Below the first knuckle they are downed with gray. His shirt is button-down, but of a fabric too thick to be dress. It is soft, and fuzzed on the seams from many washings. His pants are the black pants, not of power, somehow, but of gas station attendants long let go.
The leaves are changed now, and falling in the colorful pageant of their own death. They brighten to yellow and deepen to orange and umber, all together, each with its own shade, and fall, spinning and spinning down. The air will wake you up. The breeze will nip you when you are not looking. In the toy-yards the leaves are accumulating faster than they are raked up. In the jockey yard, a kid from down the street is being paid from Florida, and he is not doing a very good job. The BMW yard was raked at four in the morning by two Mexicans and a recovering alcoholic.
Frank rakes his own, in jeans too worn to wrinkle and a plaid flannel overshirt quilted inside with a nylon liner and down. His knuckles are big on the rake. The flesh of his fingers and the meat between thumb and forefinger shift a little with every pull. The bow in his shoulders is the roundness of muscle. The thickness of his arms moves with the quiver of draft-animal legs. His eyes are down on his raking.
North of here, under gray skies deer are browsing in tall corn and nibbling on the ears.
They are old women with steps a little springier than we might expect. Their wrinkled cheeks and fingers, here and there, are still pinked from the cold of the air outside. Even inside the activity room at Luna Pines Fitness Club, the air is not warm. The women are dressed in big t-shirts and stretchy yoga pants. There are many rhinestones glued to shirts and splashes of gold lamé and ropes of costume jewelry wrapped around potato-sack waists. They are going to do their Zumba dancing. Please do not laugh at them. They are all someone’s mother.
“That’s what my therapist says.”
“How about you Janice?”
“Oh, I don’t have a therapist.”
“I talk to Frank.”
“Your husband?” Some laugh. Some are incredulous.
He must be crazy – hunting on state land. They are drunken morons out here. They will shoot anything that moves. The rifle cracks come at intervals of five minutes or ten. There are not that many deer. They are shooting at sounds. They are hearing squirrels dash across dead, frost-crisped leaves. They are hearing the wind lick leafless saplings with tiny November snowflakes. They are hearing dead branches shift and fall. They are hearing the bone-creaking sheaves of cattail straw in the frozen bog.
Frank is a big blaze orange shape. He wears an orange fuzzy bomber hat, orange parka, orange pants and orange mittens with a separate trigger finger. His duck boots are camo, but they are covered in mud anyway. His rifle is walnut and blued steel. It smells minty with gun oil. Dipping it in a mirror could not make it more polished.
He moves deliberately and in silence. He must be seen before he is heard, else he might be shot. For him though, that is like saying he must keep his car on a highway bend, else he might crash. This is easy for him.
Behind him is a gut shot deer, kicking no more. Frank’s bullet in the brain was the mercy kill. Now he is tracking back along the blood. Where there is a little snow it is easy. Where there is not, there are only the holes poked in through soggy leaves by sharp-hooved feet. It could have gone for miles with the other bullet in its belly. This is how the arguments start, out here on state land. Two or three jackasses put hail-mary bullets in one animal, none of them kill shots, and they all want the rack.
But he can hear someone now, crashing around in the thorny skeleton of a wild raspberry patch. He will be drunk, likely, or exasperated with his luck, or even angry at the deer for being so goddamned tough.
Frank launches a “Yo!” The breath vapor is like cannon smoke from his mouth.
“Hey!” The answer doesn’t sound too drunk.
“Yeah.” There is embarrassment even in the shout.
Frank sees him now, slipping down the other bank of a creek a few hundred feet away. His jeans are stuffed into half-tied Army boots and tight on legs that are the meager stalks of the puffy orange flower of his parka. Out of flopping sleeves are frozen bony fingers gripping a rifle. His face is gaunt and stubbly with tired crater eyes. It is the old face that young men have when they have lived through too many country songs.
They meet at the top of the near bank of the stream.
“Hey man!” says the young man hoarsely. “I remember you. The orange guy.”
“Ted, was it?”
“Yeah. You were, you were. I’m so bad with names man. I’m sorry. But I remember you. I remember who you are. I took him along this time, man, like you said. I took Cody along. Hey Cody! Hey Cody, get over here.”
Frank remembers Teddy, drunk and shooting at cardinals in the trees last year, water-eyed and reeking of pot.
Cody is the son these old-looking young men always have – bone-skinny, slab faced, lightly freckled, slit eyed, tough lipped. He is shivering in a jeans and a Cincinnati Bengals windbreaker – striped orange at least, with a blaze stocking cap. He walks angry.
“We was having a pretty good time,” says Teddy. “But he gut shot this deer. I told him not even to try the shot from there, but, you know. ‘Course he knows better than his old man. ‘Course he pulls the trigger. So I kinda, you know. I told him that ain’t how you do it.”
Frank smiles and raises an orange gloved palm.
The kid comes up the stream bank and argument is in the air like the smell of powder after a whole lot of shooting.
“Found your buck,” Frank tells him, right at him, not at his father at all. They are having a conversation, the two of them.
“Its a dandy. Haven’t got one like that myself in ten years probably.”
“Come on. I’ll show you where it is.” There is nothing in the big orange man that suggests that anything else could possibly happen. Argue with a dump truck.
The three of them are walking.
“Try to aim a little better next time. A shot like that, you gotta use all the tricks. Ted, did you tell him how to breathe?”
Now there are three of them in conversation. Frank owns a bubble, and lets people in and out.
“So you line it up, loose, like,” says the meth-diminished former Marine Scout Sniper. “Not tight. Relaxed. So you can hold it all day. And you take a breath. Not a big one. Just a breath. And you don’t hold it but you don’t take another one. And your heart does the thump-thump and you can hear it in your ears, kinda flat. So between double-beats you got the long beat. And that’s when you squeeze. You don’t pull. You squeeze smooth and hard with your finger and your thumb – with your whole body. And it goes when you’re holding everything tight, tight enough that the kick don’t move anything off line until the bullet is long gone. After that, the gun can do whatever it likes. But you don’t blink. You move with it, but your eyes don’t, and you can see the air ripple and you can see the slug hit.”
This is the place you know exists somewhere but only there and have never seen. The walls are white but the drop ceiling is nicotine yellow and the Doctor in the lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses has another cigarette in his mouth. The General is chomping on a pipe. He is standing. His olive drab coat is the same olive drab as the paint on the chair in which the Doctor sits. It is 1985, but these are old men. These are sixties men. The bristles below the General’s hat are gray. The doctor’s black Brilled hair has swooping chrome along the sides, like a car he used to drive. On the formica table in front of the Doctor there is a notepad and a big black microphone. He chomps on his words as he speaks:“He’s got the strongest duty-sense we’ve ever measured.”
Strapped to a table in another room Frank sleeps. The room is also white and the table also olive drab, but all is as clean as the evaporation of isopropyl alcohol.
“His indicators in every test are to take action only to fix things and maintain the status quo. His innate extro-empathy is strong but keyed entirely on the approval of his superiors. He believes in God, who he envisions as a purveyor of moral code, and approval-seeking of that entity is the only reason he wouldn’t murder a child if we told him to. There is no way he will go rogue.”
He is dreaming under the anesthesia. Many faces have been staring at him and speaking to him. The dream becomes more real. It seems very real now. The skips in time stop happening. The sudden changes of place cease. He is back on the operating table but still the voices continue. The Doctor’s electrically distorted voice stops speaking about him and now speaks to him:“Morning Frank.”
So this is it. This is his life now. They could not tell him what it would be like, but this must be it. He can hear them all.
“Can you feel it?”
“We will keep you here for a while. Outside would kill you now. And this is a weapon we have given you. Like a tank or a helicopter stapled in your brain. And like any weapon that we give any soldier in the United States Army, you will use it only under orders. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Of course he does. This is what he was born to understand.
Prairie dog city is nervous today, under its fluorescent lights. The engineers who are working on something boring anyway take every opportunity to pop up and look around. Those working on things that are not working out too well scamper back and forth between their desks and the coffee maker. A few still have their heads down and iPhone earbuds in, typing code or drawing intricate schematics that someday will puzzle archeologists with the unintentional religiousity of their lines and symbols. These ones, still working, are the ones the middle-managers will feel sorry for, when it is time for them to go. They are the only ones who have not heard the rumors yet.
Amanda Harbing has been on another trip to India and it is going down. The engineers have vulgar names for her, focusing on her aggression and frigidity. The old hands from GSI before the buyout remember when she was an engineer herself. She really hadn’t been very good at it, and they hadn’t helped at all. So she went into management of course, and had been much better at that. And whether she had been to India out of concern for the bottom line or out of ambition, they were all sure she had gone for vengeance too.
There are traitors among them, who jumped ship early and joined the sourcing team. They will be training the dark-eyed kids who are meant to replace everybody else. There is hate in the rabbit warren – deep deep hate.
There is more snow in the woods today. Orange Frank is moving big and silent between the tree trunks and around the naked bramble-stalks, breathing steam and cradling his rifle like a pet. He can see a buck head-down and rooting for something in the snow. It is not over two hundred feet away. The rifle sleeps in Frank’s arms and he will not wake it. The racked head of the deer rises up and looks at him. There are points among points. This old buck is wearing a forest for a hat. They look at each other. “Yes,” they tell each other, you can be a tough son of a bitch without being a predator. But it is their secret. No one else will believe.
They hear something.
“Yo!” calls Frank. The buck vanishes.
“Hey!” says a gravelly voice.
The newcomer is farther away than the buck was. He waves.
His orange camo Gore-tex is somehow a little shiny. It must be new this year, not yet even washed once. The two men close their distance.
“Hello Ray,” says Frank.
“Hello,” says Ray. “I’m sorry, I can’t quite recall your name. I remember you though, man.”
“Frank.” says Frank.
“Yeah. Oh yeah, Frank! I remembered though, I remember talking to you last year. And the year before last, I think.”
They shake mittened hands. It is a strange gesture out here where there is no business. But it puts Ray at ease. It is familiar to him. He smells of cologne even in his hunting gear. Frank will not tell him either of two things: they are neighbors and they work in the same building. They spend most of their lives within a hundred yards of each other.
“Got a minute?” asks Ray.
“So I talked to you about my wife before, Amanda.”
“It helped. Things were better for a while. But it’s gone again. I never meant to get into something like this. I never would have married a co-worker on purpose. I’m not stupid. But that was back before the buyout. I told you last time, right? She was with GSI before we bought them out. We had a lot in common, similar jobs for different companies. There was kind of a rivalry, working for competitors, but we only joked about it.”
Frank remembers the old days, but does not say. He remembers Amanda when she was an engineer and sat a few cubes away from him. He remembers how everyone resented her. He didn’t like her particularly, but never laughed at the jokes the others made. There was a frantic edge on her. There was caged dog in her. And he did nothing, because it was work. If he opened up at work, it would overwhelm him. He had to shut it down in there, the sense that was inside of him. There were so many voices crying out. They all had pain and most of them were ashamed of it. All of them had food and homes and cars and doctors. They had nothing to complain about, really. But the strange thing about pain is that it is relative. The worst you have is the worst you have ever had, until you have more. So there are many of them screaming in silence. He must squelch it. He is not proud of it, but it is true.
“We won, back in ninety nine, when we got the Lockheed contract and GSI didn’t. And we bought them out. I was on the buyout team. It was a great deal for us. It was the best thing for the stockholders. That was who we had to answer to, who I had to answer to. Not Amanda or myself, or any of the poor bastards at GSI who were going to get canned. I ended up a couple ranks above her when the deal went through. I promised I would never do anything to hold her back or keep her down. We said we’d leave work at work and home at home. And she worked her way up. She’s a cannon. But, like I told you before, sometimes it seemed like she was doing things just to prove something to me. And I was mad about it, like we talked about before. You helped so much, man, when we talked before. Or it felt like that. ‘Cause now I’m not so sure.”
He pauses and swallows. Frank has to loosen his gaze before Ray can say anything more. It worries him, sometimes, that he will hold someone too tightly, especially a guy like Ray, whose soul is sharp and hard and cratered and pointy and brittle like an asteroid.
“Did you read about it in the paper? About the move we’re making? She’s making? Sending the work to India?” He still does not know that he walks by Frank’s cubicle almost every day and ruffles the owl poem.
“It makes money-sense, of course. And when she went for the Sourcing Director position, I mean, it was a smart move. Everyone knew it was going to be a tough job for sleeping at night, but a great career move. I respected her for it. Eat or be eaten. That’s what it comes down to in this business.”
Somewhere out there is the old buck. He is out there, but yes, he is hiding.
“But now, I swear there’s more to it than just value for the shareholders. The development programs she lined up to send over there, most of them are getting run from my Directorate. And yeah, there were logistical reasons for that, and yeah, if I so much as mentioned it, I’d be the one that looked petty. But between you and me and the trees, man, it really seems like she’s got it in for me and the Electronic Hardware Design Directorate. It was her old department in the GSI days. And those crusty old bastard engineers – she used to come home crying about the things they used to say behind her back but still in earshot.
“But they’re my guys now. And when they go, what do I have? There’s not another company in town the size of us now that Steelcase is almost dead. Nowhere that I’d have the kind of position that I have now. I haven’t told her, but I’ve been talking to people at Rockwell Collins. But what am I going to do? Ask her to move to Cedar Rapids Iowa, right when she just had the biggest win of her career? And she knows what she’s doing to me. There’s no way she could not know.”
Frank has been fully aware of the politics at work for months now and has been worrying about Ashley’s tuition. The hollowness of his power lets worry echo inside of him. Only he knows its limits. All he ever does is calm people down. That is all that most of them need in this world. Ninety-nine point nine percent of their problems can be solved by calmness and kindness. For a decade now, Frank had not taken a shot at a healthy deer. He has only made mercy-kills like the one for Cody last week. Men stalked these woods long ago who were big and silent like Frank, and wise like Frank but dressed in buckskin and armed with bows and flint hatchets, and were deadly deadly deadly. These men could have looked that buck in the eyes just as gravely, and then killed it. Because then, these woods were not somewhere to let off some steam on a long Thanksgiving weekend. Then, they were the real world.
He grabs Ray with his eyes and says the things he always says: doors open as other doors close, one thing comes as another goes, a real man keeps on keeping on. He can make people believe these things without even trying, now. He is very good at it. He can go home and drink the hot chocolate Janice has made for him, and watch the eleven o clock news with her, and smile bemusedly about the latest scandalmongering out of Washington, and lie next to her as she falls asleep first, as she always does. But he cannot sleep himself.
At his desk, staring not at the computer monitor but beside it, he cannot think about his work. His mind spins like a tire in slush, over and over in the same garbage. He is worrying about life. He is thinking useless thoughts. He opens the hearing part of his mind just a crack and he can hear them, all of them, worrying and worrying and worrying. Pain speaks: mental, mental, then physical. Someone has bitten a nail too deep. But there are other things out there. There are feelings that are hiding on purpose. There is vengeance that anticipates satisfaction. There is hope playing tug of war with fear. Some of them have ideas of their own. He will have to find them and talk to them. He is not a mind reader. He cannot hear ideas, only feelings. If he was an X-man, he would not be one of the regulars. He would not have to get up and go to the coffee machine and chat. He would not have to let some of his work slide.
It is summer in 1986 in Roosevelt, Michigan. It is nighttime. The air in the little diner is flavored with coffee and tobacco but its texture is the same as the air outdoors, which is strange here. It is a place of seasons, where most often air is toasted or refrigerated before we breathe it.
Frank sits in a back corner booth across a greasy table from a young man he has never seen before tonight. The guy is an orderly or a technician or an agent, or maybe just an unlucky buck private. He has no idea who Frank is, only that the operation involves releasing something very strange into the public world. Frank has shut his mind here, but needs none of his powers to detect the nervousness. White fingers moonwalk on the table, then dart up to adjust a tie, twisting the shirt collar to reveal gray wetness on its inside band.
Once, it was thought that men like Frank would be needed to calm the Russian and Chinese rural populations after nuke strikes on the urban centers. But now the projections are for total annihilation. So funding has been cut, and once the nervous kid has handed him his discharge and collected the forms that Frank is signing, he will simply be released into the mayfly-tangled midwest night.
Frank is not nervous, himself. He overheard the Doctor some days ago:
“…You asserted so in your original report. He was selected for his static tendencies. He won’t really use what you’ve given him to change anything. He is not like you and I. We are innovators. We are destabilizers. He is a stabilizer. That is what made him the perfect subject. He’ll only use his power to help him conform to the wishes of anyone he sees as a superior. He’ll find a job in no time. He’ll have an easier time talking to women than either of us could even dream of. He’ll be fine.”
And though many did not, Frank has always trusted the Doctor. It is his nature.
Don Fecht and Harley Vandekamp give Frank a rather odd look as he remains near the coffee machine. They are software engineers and their minds are tuned to recognize patterns and mechanisms and create algorithms. Frank has vectored to an interrupt or something. He is not following his program’s main loop. Normally he goes directly back to his desk with a steaming mug, and gets to work. He is not one of the usual gossips. All three of them stare at the bubbling pot and the faded brown drip patterns that stripe it. They shift their creased dress shoes on the coffee-spattered gray carpet.
Frank opens his mind just a crack.
“So,” he says, “The 797 Flight Controller.”
“Didn’t you hear?” sneers Fecht. “They’re sending the work to India.”
“All I heard,” says Frank evenly, “Is that they are going to try. They try lots of things. Sometimes they fail.”
The prints are big in the snow. They might be melted out a little because the sun is shining bright through the naked maple branches above. But probably they were made by really big hooves. He finds a rooted out patch in the snow. Dirt and leaves and dead branches are torn out from under the frost and mixed as if by a tilling machine gone mad. He finds a place where his quarry has taken flight from something, perhaps him. The four-in-a-row post-holes in the whiteness become bounding pairs, with little snowballs sprayed about. He comes to a downed tree, with eight inches of drift atop it, untouched, and on the other side, an unbelievable yawning white distance, is the cottony frozen splash of the landing site.
Frank wades through the snow, laboring. The sun sinks, pink behind the trees. The big buck is out there, and it knows that Frank means business today. Real business is not a friendly thing.
“Lenny’s” is no sort of name for a Mexican restaurant, the wood panel walls speak more of Irishmen playing darts than caballeros swirling petticoated senoritas, and the waitress is a little blonde Hummel figurine of a Dutch girl, but the burritos are ridiculously good. Outside, it is well past one o’clock in the afternoon on an early December Thursday, but inside, the large group is not getting up to head back to work. Only Frank has even checked his watch. They have pushed a few tables together because their group is very large. The conversation, very focused on technical and financial details at about half past twelve, has now become general and a little obscene.
Ray Harbing gets up suddenly, leaving a fifty on his cheese-strung plate and not asking for a bill. Frank can feel the conflict spraying out of him. He follows, and catches him just outside the door, where both are bitten by the chilly wind and stunned by the brilliance of midday sun on snow.
“Hold on,” says Frank, in a way that cannot be ignored.
“I can’t be part of this,” snarls Ray. “You heard them in there. It’s not just business. It’s personal enmity. None of you old GSI guys ever liked her or respected her at all. And my guys, they’ve come to hate her. You’re trying to destroy her just because she’s different.”
“I’m sorry, Ray. Real business is always personal.”
“I’m going back and telling the legal team. This is in violation of so many NDA’s and no-compete clauses its not even funny.”
Frank can’t think of anything he can logically say against that. He wants to give up and give in. He wants to let go and let the machine work all around him, as it always has. But the machine is about to be shut down. He doesn’t even use words now. He only projects into Ray’s brittle mind, and smooths things down. He lets him go, but takes the fight out of him and leaves him a non-combatant.
That night, in his bed with Janice sleeping beside him, he can feel the pain from a hundered feet away, through a headboard and a wall and a fence and another wall, and another headboard. This is not easy stuff.
There is no reason to be gut-shot nervous like this. There is no rational reason. He opens the door of his car and breathes. He gets out and stands up. He opens his head to the world. It is taking him over, and he knows he must let it. There was never any reason for him to be as he was. There are many reasons for him to be who he can be.
Walking across the parking lot he takes off his coat and drops it in the slush. He is wearing an orange flannel hunting shirt with leather elbow patches. He is wearing orange pants. He has spray-painted his shoes orange. He looks ridiculous. He stuffs down the desire to blend in and keeps walking toward the employee entrance at his place of work.
Closer now he can hear them in there, brightening with coffee and feeling all the worries of morning. He can pick out the Boeing executives scheduled to visit that day, by their aggression and their smugness.
The plan is this: They have on their side all the guys who know what they are doing. They have guys from engineering and finance and sales. They even have one junior executive. They have a guy whose wife works for News Seven. And they have the Blaze Orange Man to convince everyone. Yesterday they incorporated their own company without telling anyone. Right there in the lobby they are going to present a proposal to the Boeing execs that undercuts the one that Boeing has come to accept for the flight management computer system of the new jet. Many of them worked on the original, the one that Amanda Harbing was going to run in India, so Ray was right: what they are doing is not strictly legal.
Can he say it will work? No. This is not play-hunting in the woods. He can be sure of nothing. But they must try. This is real life.