The best and the brightest?
Brianna hesitated and then knocked on the door beneath the name “Governor ‘Bud’ Wheeler.”
On the other side of the door, the voice of the people shouted, “Come in.”
Brianna opened the door and said, “I’m Brianna Smythe, and this is Joey.” Three grinning campaign posters wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting and Governor “Bud,” himself, greeted Brianna and Joey.
“Come in, come in,” the Governor said. A campaign smile and a handshake charged toward Brianna and Joey. Governor “Bud” pumped their arms, pounded their backs, and pleaded for their help.
Brianna wondered why the Governor wore blue jeans and cowboy boots with a blazer, a button-down Oxford shirt, and a rep tie. When Brianna turned to shut the door behind her and Joey, the Governor asked, “Where are the television cameras?”
“The only documentation I keep of these sessions are tape recordings,” replied Brianna.
“I’m not interested in that. All the action is on TV now, print is definitely passé — if I may use one of those highfalutin academic words. Let’s call the interview off.”
“Yes. My understanding is that this was supposed to be a television interview for CNN.” The Governor stressed the word “television.”
“Governor, I’m afraid what we have here is a failure to communicate.”
“Yes, I know. I do only television interviews.”
“We’re not here for an interview.”
“No. My understanding is that President Harlan arranged for you to give Joey the Big Picture about politics.”
“Let me check my schedule.” The Governor took a hand-sized electronic organizer out of one of the side pockets of his blazer. “Ever see one of these little gadgets? I use this baby all the time. Without it, I couldn’t keep my day straight.”
He punched a few buttons and said, “Hmm. The CNN interview is tomorrow afternoon. Today, I’m scheduled to see B. Smith.” The Governor mispronounced Smythe; none of Brianna’s ancestors were blacksmiths. “Who are you, then?”
Brianna thought, This is the best and the brightest?
“Yes, that’s me.” Brianna spelled her last name, and explained that the “y” in her name was pronounced as a long “i.”
“Now, I understand.”
The Governor punched another key on his pocket organizer. “Oh, yes. Bill Harlan asked me to give Mr. Joseph a lecture on the basic principles of political life.” Addressing Joey, the Governor said, “You must be Mr. Joseph.”
Joey’s eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped, but he did not say a word. Brianna said, “We call him Joey.”
“Good. All right, Joey,” the Governor said. He retreated three steps from his guests, drew himself up into a campaign pose, and began to address his standing audience of two. “We have won. Destiny, of course, was always on our side, and we could never have lost. But now even the doubters have been vanquished. No one doubts that we have won.”
Brianna had no idea what the Governor was talking about; he had lost the last election. Because of an invitation from President Harlan, the Governor was nominally teaching at the University School of Government, while in actuality, he was preparing his next assault upon the electorate.
Brianna interrupted the Governor, “Sir, excuse me. I should point out that Joey has no grasp of history.”
“Yes, yes, I should have known. All these young people have lost their roots, not like my generation. To be cut off from a tradition is to be directionless. Very sad, really. Joey, how old are you? Eighteen, nineteen?”
Joey looked at the Governor’s cowboy boots and answered, “No, sir. I’m twenty-one.”
“Then, you do not remember President Reagan and the Evil Empire.”
Brianna interrupted once again. “Joey means he is twenty-one months old, not twenty-one years.”
“You’re shitting me!” the voice of the people exclaimed.
“No, I’m in earnest.”
“My god, this is disgusting,” the Governor said. “When I am elected to the United States Senate, I’m going to put a stop to these experiments.” The Governor pointed an accusing finger at Brianna and said, “You scientists are destroying our genetic heritage. My god, at times I think the Nazis won the war. We are on the brink of moral depravity with crimes like this against nature.”
“Governor, Governor, please, please.” After several more entreaties, Brianna got Governor “Bud” to cease his harangue about the moral bankruptcy of scientists. She then explained, “Joey is a genetic accident, and we at the University are trying to help him.”
“Oh. Joey, I’m sorry; I misunderstood.” The look of empathy on the Governor’s face lasted for a fraction of a second. “Once I become Senator, I’ll pass a bill so that you and poor unfortunates like you will not be discriminated against. Maybe — provided funds are left in the Federal treasury — we can manage a small program for people genetically challenged like you. My entire political life has been dedicated to fiscal responsibility with compassion. You can quote me on that Ms. Smith, even if it is only in print.”
“Yes, sir,” Brianna said. Her hope that she could get Governor “Bud” on track was fading fast. “Perhaps, I should point out that when you explain the principles of political life to Joey, you may want to fill in some of the details. Joey is completely ignorant about history.”
“I see. He’s like the people that voted for me.”
“Yes, I guess so,” Brianna sighed.
“All right, Joey, let’s begin again. We have won! To understand the monumental significance of the victory that our generation has won for your generation and all succeeding generations, we must begin at the beginning. The twentieth century began in 1914 when the Kaiser and the Krauts tried to take over the world. They wanted us to march in lockstep to German tunes, to wear helmets with little spikes on top, and to eat German fried potatoes, sauerkraut, and heavy sausages. We refused, of course, and defeated the Huns on the battlefields of Europe and made the world safe for democracy.
“Joey, the first principle of political life is that democracy is good — and is destined to triumph. History is on our side, and the reason for this is simple, so crystal-clear that even a child like you can understand it. The people are good — all people — not just the American people, but the German people, the Japanese people, the Bulgarian people. People are good. But leaders can be bad. Leaders can trick the people, make them do bad things. That is why democracy is good. When the leaders of a nation come from the people — are of the people, like me — neither smarter than nor dumber than the people — neither better nor worse — then the people rule themselves, and their natural goodness will protect them.
“Joey, the twentieth century was a dark century. Good leaders with good people battled against good people with bad leaders. But, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are entering a new era. The last Evil Empire has collapsed. Only two Marxists are left, two intellectuals with tenure at NYU. And, by god, when I become Senator, I’m going to have their grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities terminated.
“Joey, when the Berlin Wall was torn down, Pepsi was there to celebrate the event. The free market now reigns from sea to shining sea.
“Joey, I have seen the future, and it is good. As the Governor of my great state, I had the privilege to travel abroad as a representative of the American people. Every place I went, I encountered America; even in the remotest areas of the world, native peoples have satellite downlinks and television.
“I visited the Mapuche people of the Andean highlands, and together we watched Dallas, and I saw how the Mapuche yearn to partake of the American dream.
“In Outer Mongolia, I drank fermented horse milk and watched MTV beamed from Hong Kong. My Mongolian friends asked me to teach them to boogie-on-down. Joey, the Mongolian people are backwards, but they are a good people, and they are rushing to catch up.
“Joey, I visited an Inuit family in Yellowknife, and they had on videotape every episode of ‘The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ Joey, it was wonderful to see such hope on the Inuit faces.
“Joey, we have won. America has gone global. We are civilization! We Americans are the vanguard, the spearhead of history, leading our fellow human beings to the land of milk and honey. In the future, I see a completely free marketplace, a global culture, and a happy humanity. Joey, when I look at the future, I am so happy that I could almost cry.”
“Now Joey, let me give you the really Big Picture. Let me explain the principles that govern all history. Originally, men and women were hunter-gathers. The first stage of civilization was agriculture, the second the industrial revolution, and we are at the beginning of the third wave of civilization, the information age. . . .”
Brianna tuned out. Governor Wheeler reminded her of her father and his cronies sitting around the kitchen table and proclaiming how to fix the problems of the country, but not seeing that the garbage had to be taken out.
Wilda Baker, the Town Clerk, watched the stranger dressed in a dark blue, chalk-striped suit walk by her opened office door for the third time that morning. Doug halted his pacing up and down the corridor and said to himself, This is ridiculous; the unpleasant episode with Granny is only a minor setback. What bothered him more than Granny shooting at him was the dream about Brianna as his dominatrix; he was both fascinated and repulsed by the vivid images of black spike high-heels and of a coiled up black whip that kept appearing in his imagination. To inspire confidence to his shaken ego, Doug told himself, Hell, I am ten times smarter than these rednecks; I have a Ph.D. in psychology.
In military fashion, Doug executed an about-face and marched off to the Town Clerk’s office. He walked through the opened door and stopped in front of a chest-high counter. He said to the woman standing on the other side of the counter, “Good morning, I’m Doug Walker, a research psychologist from the University.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the woman said. “I’m Wilda Baker, the Town Clerk. May I help you?”
The two women seated at desks behind the Town Clerk looked up from their computer monitors. Doug smiled at them and thought how strangely out of place the antique pendulum clock ticking away on the wall was with the modern office equipment.
He guessed from the Town Clerk’s face that she was in her late thirties, although her frilly white blouse and solid black long-sleeved jacket suggested to him that she was twenty years older.
“I hope so,” Doug said. “I’m trying to locate a person.”
“Yes? Who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, he’ll be hard to find, then, won’t he?”
The two women snickered. Doug shot daggers from his eyes in their direction, and they looked back at their monitors. He said to the Town Clerk, “Wait a minute. I have confused you.”
She said, “No, I believe you have confused yourself.”
Doug was annoyed but tried not to express his anger. “Let me begin again. I’m looking for Joey Walsh’s father.”
“Why didn’t you say that before?”
Doug ignored the question. “Do you know his name?”
“Joey’s birth certificate lacks a father’s name.”
“Yes, I know that. But do you know the father’s name?”
“What about unofficially?”
“Yes. I not only know his name; I know him personally.”
“What’s his name, then?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“That’s not the way it is supposed to work. For a research psychologist, you don’t know much about people.”
Doug wondered why this woman was so difficult. “I don’t get it. What’s going on?”
“You want to find out who Joey’s father is, so what do you do? You go to Granny’s place. Boy, is that stupid.”
“How did you know I went to Granny’s yesterday?”
“Everyone knows that. This is a small town. This morning at breakfast my five-year-old son Jamie asked me, ‘Mommy, do you think Doug Walker will show up at your office today?’ and I said, ‘Does a bear do the big doo-doo in the woods?’“
The two women looked up from their monitors and grinned at Doug. He shot daggers back, but this time they had no effect.
“I don’t get it,” Doug said. “If everyone knows who I am and what I’m doing, why won’t you tell me who Joey’s father is?”
“We want you to do it right.”
“What do you mean?” Doug was genuinely confused.
“We want you to behave intelligently so that your stay in New Harmony will be a learning experience. What you should have done was drifted into town, found out where the locals hang out, befriended one of them, and then asked about Joey’s father. But no, you acted like a dope. However, the people of New Harmony want to give you a second chance. Don’t say there aren’t any second acts in American life.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Pathetic! Just start all over again, but this time do what I told you to do, and you’ll get the information you want.”
“All right,” Doug sighed, “even though I have no idea what is going on.”
“That’s the story of your life.”
“Never mind, I give up.” He could take only so many insults from this woman. “Where do the locals hang out?”
“The Silver Dollar Cafe — and change your clothes. Try to look like a stupid redneck!”
Doug went back to the Mountain View Motel and put on the Calvin Klein’s, Guess jeans, and Nike boots.
When he walked into the Silver Dollar Café, he was feeling lower than a skunk’s butt. He took a counter seat, five stools away from a geezer who reminded Doug of the prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The wooden walls and the low, tin ceiling, painted white years ago, made Doug feel that he had just stepped back of beyond.
A knock-out blonde in her mid-twenties dressed in a tight-fitting waitress uniform said, “Good morning. Coffee?”
“Yes, please,” Doug mumbled.
“It’s really good, today.”
“Yes, of course.”
When the waitress returned with the coffee and Danish, she asked Doug, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, but do you know me, too?”
“I’m sorry,” Doug said. “I thought everyone knew me here.”
“How could that be, honey, if you’re not from around here.”
“I don’t know. New Harmony confuses me. Anyway, I’m Doug Walker.”
“Please to meet you, Doug. My name is Brenda. What are you doing in New Harmony?”
“Just drifting through. This sure is a pretty little place, and I think I just may stay awhile,” Doug said, attempting to recall dialogue from an old Western movie buried in his psyche.
“Excuse me a moment. One of my orders is up.” She touched him on the arm before she left.
Doug’s spirits began to lift as he took delight in the wiggle of the taunt white curves that moved away from him. He quickly surveyed the cafe and concluded from the generic clothes and the bad haircuts that the twenty or so patrons were all locals. Two loud-talking men in their late forties or early fifties were seated in a booth to his left. They both wore plaid flannel shirts, blue jeans, and stained work boots.
“Did you hear what happened to Charlie Woods the other night?” one of the loud-talking men asked the other.
“It was Thursday night about ten o’clock. Remember how it rained cats and dogs?”
“I sure do. We sure needed the rain.”
“You can say that again. Anyway, Charlie was driving out Route 22. He was about five miles past Granny Walsh’s place when he sees this woman hitchhiking. He drives past her about a hundred feet and then slams on the brakes. He backs up his brand-new Dodge pickup, opens the door, and asks the woman if she wants a ride. She gets in the truck, and Charlie is amazed to see that the woman is a beautiful, young girl in her twenties. Charlie thinks to himself, boy, I finally got lucky. The girl is carrying a briefcase, and she politely asks Charlie if he would mind if she gets a towel out of the briefcase to dry her hair. Charlie says, sure, go ahead. The girl opens her briefcase and pulls out a revolver — a magnum 457, Charlie thinks, a real cannon. She tells Charlie to stop the truck and get out. Hell, Charlie has no choice — he is staring at this cannon. So, Charlie is left standing in the rain, watching this hippie girl drive his brand-new pickup away.”
Both men laughed at Charlie, and then the listener of the story said, “Breaks your heart.”
“The moral depravity of present-day youth.” Both men guffawed and slapped their thighs.
“But it sure served Charlie right, that horny old bastard.”
Doug liked the earthy directness of the two men, and he would have liked to have joined them. He concluded that in his future dealings with the citizens of New Harmony, he should be more straightforward.
Brenda returned to the counter. “More coffee?”
Somehow Brenda’s uniform had become even tighter. To Doug, the top of her uniform appeared that it was about to burst open.
“Honey, if you’re thinking of staying on in town awhile, you’ll need someone to show you around,” Brenda said and leaned over the counter toward Doug.
“I’m definitely staying awhile. Brenda, would you show a stranger the sights of New Harmony?”
“Sure, we’re real friendly folks around here.”
Doug thought that any minute now the buttons of Brenda’s uniform were going to become airborne.
“What about tonight?”
“Sure enough. How about seven, when I get off work.”
Brenda leaned farther forward to touch Doug’s shoulder, and when Doug caught a glimpse of what the buttons were holding in, he almost fainted.
“I’ll be here at seven. One other thing.”
“Sure, honey, what’s that?”
“I’m looking for Joey Walsh’s father.”
“Oh, you mean that scoundrel Benny Ray White.”
“Yeah. Do you know where he is?”
“No, but why not ask his sister Sally White. She lives at the Lone Tree Trailer Court.”
Before Doug could say thanks to Brenda or even congratulate himself for obtaining the information he wanted, the patrons of the Silver Dollar Cafe burst into applause.
The loudmouth who told the story about Charlie came up to a bewildered Dr. Walker to shake his hand. “Congratulations Doug. You’re a bit slow on the uptake, and I feared the situation was hopeless when you didn’t join us after the story about Charlie.”
The redneck to whom the loudmouth’s story was addressed chimed in, “But Brenda saved the day. When she returned wearing that pushup bra, Doug, I thought your eyes were going to pop out of your head. Man, did she lead you around, just like you were a pig with a ring in its nose.”
The old geezer at the end of the counter shouted in a raspy voice, “My gawd, he sure is smart for a Ph.D. psychologist.”
For the second time that morning, laughter filled the cafe. Four patrons seated at a table in a far corner of the cafe scribbled numbers on their paper napkins. They held up their scorecards. Doug received his marks — two eights, a seven, and a seven point five.
“Joey, I understand that you can imitate animals,” Professor Higgins said. “Do you know any bird songs?”
Joey did not know the name of a single bird, but the bird songs he whistled for the biologist would have humbled the best ornithologist in the world. If Professor Higgins had asked him, he would have given imitations of how the birds hopped and moved their heads.
“That was outstanding, truly outstanding.” Professor Higgins did not know what an amazing performance Joey had given. Nominally, Higgins was a botanist, although he had not grown a plant in years. His specialty was photosynthesis. Joey was receiving his first formal lesson in biology in Higgins’ basement laboratory, which was filled with spectrometers, computers, and other instruments developed by physicists and chemists.
“Joey, can you imitate any larger animals?” Professor Higgins asked.
The man-child got up from the small table that he and his mentors were seated at and bounded around the lab the way Kojo had taught him. To add authenticity to his performance, Joey threw in a few phrases of Chimpanzee-Gesprach. He returned to the table, cocked his head sideways the way Kojo did, scrutinized Professor Higgins’ face, and then with his performance over, sat back down.
“My god, that’s truly amazing,” Professor Higgins said. He turned to Brianna and asked, “Where did he learn that?”
“In Roger Peters’ lab. Do you want Joey to translate what he said in ape talk?”
“Indeed, I do.” He asked Joey, “Would you do that for me?”
“Me eat me eat me banana you banana me you give you me banana me banana you banana me me me eat.”
Professor Higgins burst out laughing. He said to Brianna, “I always thought those experiments of Roger’s were a crock. He told me at lunch last week that he hoped someday to read Kojo’s diary. What a loony.”
Brianna felt the biologist’s eyes stare ever so briefly at her breasts. She wished she hadn’t worn a tight cashmere sweater, and she pulled her wool blazer closed, as best she could.
Professor Higgins directed his attention once again to Joey. “President Harlan asked me to tutor you in the principles of biology. So, let’s begin. All organic nature results from three grand principles. The first principle of nature is scarcity. Nature is niggardly; the seeming abundance of nature is deceiving. Nature never provides enough food, territory, or” — the biologist glanced at Brianna and completed the Darwinian triad — “sexual partners.” Then he looked back at the man-child and asked, “Joey, do you understand?”
Joey answered, “Nature is like Walmart.”
Higgins smiled. “Yes, I never quite thought of it that way.”
He asked Brianna, “How did he learn about Walmart?”
“Several weeks ago, Professor Fraser tutored him in economics.”
Professor Higgins asked Joey, “Did Professor Fraser tell you what happens in the economy when there are too many people and too few goods?”
“They compete for the goods,” Joey answered. “And that’s the story of, that’s the glory of capitalism. Out of economic competition in the global marketplace, the American worker has emerged victorious. That is why there are so many happy faces at Walmart.”
“Wow, Joey, you sure learned your lesson well.” Professor Higgins smiled at Brianna, and she said, “Joey is turning out to be quite the student.” She told Professor Higgins that Joey was really a young child and that he trusted adults and absorbed what they told him with little questioning, since he had not yet developed powers of discernment.
Professor Higgins continued with the biology lesson. “In a real sense, nature is like Walmart. Because animals reproduce without limit — that’s the second principle — they must struggle for existence. The fittest survive, and the maladapted perish — that’s our third principle. There you have it in a nutshell. Have you got it?”
“I don’t think so,” Joey said. “I’ve seen animals help one another.”
Professor Higgins relished debating anti-Darwinians in public, especially Christian fundamentalists, and he knew he had an answer for every seeming case of cooperation among animals. “Joey, you’re a child, and your powers of observation are not fully developed and obviously not scientifically trained. Describe to me what you think you saw, and I will explain it to you.”
Joey looked at Brianna for approval. When she nodded for him to go ahead, he said, “Behind my grandma’s cabin, there are these big birds that live in the treetops. Whenever a hawk flies overhead, they whistle like this.” Joey gave a long whistle that started on a high note and dropped continuously in pitch. “When the little birds hear that whistle, they stop singing and hide in the trees so the hawk cannot see them.”
If Professor Higgins were in a public debate with an adult, he would have heaped scorn upon such anecdotal evidence. But since Joey was an innocent, the Professor said, “All those so-called acts of altruism in nature result either from accident or from self-interest. Joey, the big birds are probably trying to save the little birds for themselves.”
“Those big birds never eat the little birds,” Joey said.
“Heh!” Professor Higgins shouted, as he threw his arms up in the air. “I just got a great idea. Joey, why don’t you, Brianna, and I go on a weekend camping trip together to the Singing Pines Wilderness, and you can show us those big birds.”
Brianna said to herself, Yeah, and what do you plan to show me? Forget it, you big jerk. She had not met Higgins until today, but she knew of him because he had been the center of a recent scandal. Three weeks before, his wife threw a fiftieth birthday party for him at the Faculty Club. His wife made an unusual toast. She read off a long list of women’s names that the guests recognized as faculty, faculty wives, secretaries, and students. Then, Mrs. Higgins publicly thanked the women for sleeping with her husband and said that any woman who wanted her husband was free to take him, since tomorrow she was filing for a divorce. She downed her glass of champagne in one gulp and stormed out of the Faculty Club.
Rumor had it that Professor Higgins, then, stood up, thanked his well-wishers, and explained that his wife did not understand the biology of love. Natural selection ordained that men and women follow different strategies to maximize the number of their genes in future populations. The male of the human species follows the strategy of copulating with as many mates as possible, in layman’s language, “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” Thus, every male Homo sapiens has inherited an infidelity gene. The female of the human species bears children and of biological necessity invests much time and energy in offspring. Consequently, every woman desires a monogamous relationship with a man of high status, who can supply food and physical security for her children. Through natural selection, women have a fidelity gene. The opposition of the male infidelity gene to the female fidelity gene gives rise to the universal battle of the sexes.
When Brianna recalled the rumor, she thought, Darwin be damned! Higgins is just a horny bastard.
Brianna said, “Joey and I aren’t campers.”
“Oh. Maybe we can do something else. Why don’t the three of us go out to dinner tonight?”
“We already have plans.”
“Maybe some other time.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Brianna’s intonation turned a weak positive into an absolute negative.
Higgins returned to the man-child’s biology lesson. “Joey, maybe what you saw was reciprocal altruism, one of the grand principles of evolution. Every organism is motivated by self-interest alone and will help another organism only if it gets something of equal or greater value in return. That principle of evolutionary biology applies to humans as well, although we often hide it from ourselves. Let me give an example you can understand.”
Professor Higgins considered himself in the presence of a child and a fellow scientist, so he could say things that he normally would not say in public. “Joey, both Dr. Smythe and I like you a great deal, but nevertheless neither one of us can refrain from acting out of self-interest. That is simply biology; neither one of us has control over that. I am here helping you because if I do, President Harlan will contribute University funds to my research project. Dr. Smythe is here because she wants tenure and hopes to become a University Fellow.”
A mocking smile appeared on Professor Higgins’ face. “You’re here, Joey, because you want us to give you knowledge so that you can make money and become a happy Walmart shopper. Everyone pursues his or her own self-interest — and we all end up happy. Joey, does that make sense to you?”
Brianna thought Higgins was an absolute dope to put Joey’s biology lesson on such a personal level. “Professor Higgins I really must object to what you said about . . .”
Professor Higgins cut her off. “Yes, I probably was out of bounds. Why don’t we drop the topic and move on?” He stood up abruptly and walked to the back of the lab, where a slide projector was temporarily set up on a stack of books that rested on an old shipping crate.
Professor Higgins snapped off the lights and slipped an ancient Kodachrome slide into the projector. An image of a house finch (Carpódacus mexicánus) appeared on the wall, and Joey whistled a brief bird call.
“Joey, that’s a flawless imitation.” Higgins was faking it; he hadn’t the foggiest notion what the song of the house finch sounds like.
“Joey, this bird came from an egg like this.” The image of a blue egg appeared on the screen. “Now, watch closely; inside the egg is this single cell from which the bird develops.”
Joey looked at an image that was unrecognizable to him.
“Joey, you are made of cells like this, and inside each cell are chromosomes.” Higgins put a new slide into the projector. “These chromosomes are made up of genes. These genes, Joey, determined your hair color, your IQ, and even if you will be unfaithful if you marry. Joey, all of nature is nothing but these genes struggling to survive. These genes invented you and me, they control us, we are their survival machines. We are nothing but lumbering robots in service of our masters — the tiny genes hidden inside of us.”
Professor Higgins paused for Joey to say something. In the darkened lab neither he nor Brianna could see the worried look on Joey’s face.
Joey asked, “Did I do a bad thing the other day, when I kicked Auntie Bri’s car?”
Professor Higgins said, “I don’t know. Why did you kick it?”
“I was mad at it.”
Brianna was puzzled by Joey’s behavior and asked him, “But why?”
“Auntie Bri, I got mad at your car, when you were angry about how much the new brakes cost.”
“Do you often feel the same way I do?” Brianna asked.
“Yes, all the time,” Joey said. He then asked, “Did I hurt the Volvo’s feelings?”
Both Brianna and Professor Higgins laughed. Higgins said, “No, Joey. Humans and cars are different kinds of machines. Cars do not have feelings, nor do they grow or reproduce. Joey, you are a natural machine, not an artificial machine.”
“I guess that is good.” Joey wondered about all the scientific equipment that he knew surrounded him in the darkened room. “What about all the machinery around me? Does any of it have feelings?”
“No, of course not,” Professor Higgins said. “All the instruments in my lab are controlled by computers that have memories and logic circuits, but as of yet, no computer has emotions, pleasant or otherwise. Machines, for now, do not experience fear, nor do they grow old and die the way human beings do. If you kick a computer, it suffers no pain.”
To conclude the biology lesson, Professor Higgins showed a dozen slides to illustrate cell division and DNA replication.
On the way out of the building, Joey stuffed two sticks of chewing gum in his mouth.
“Where’d you get the gum?” Brianna asked.
Brianna and Joey walked in silence for a while.
“Is Grandma Martinez using me that same way that you and Professor Higgins are?”
Brianna did not know what to answer. Her heart wanted to say no, and her head yes, or was it the other way around?
“I don’t know, Joey. I’m confused, too.”
Brianna moved her arm toward Joey, but she could not force herself to grasp him by the hand.
“Mary . . . such a beautiful place. This sure is a long way from Espanola.”
“Yes, I know, mom,” Mary Martinez said. “This is the only plush building on campus.”
Mary and her mother were seated at a table for two in a corner of the Faculty Club dining room. Mary thought, Academics cannot even imitate correctly. The Faculty Club supposedly was patterned after Oxford or Cambridge, but change the blue motif to burgundy red, add a player piano, and presto — the Faculty Club would be indistinguishable from any nineteenth-century San Francisco bordello.
“Mary, what is good here?” Mrs. Martinez asked.
“Mom, the lamb chops are really very good. Don’t order any Mexican food, though; it’s terrible.”
After the maître d’ had seated Mrs. Martinez and Mary, he had given each of them a menu, a fat, bulky affair, the size of a Rand McNally Road Atlas; thick fake leather covered two sheets of imitation faded parchment that bore undecipherable Gothic lettering. Mrs. Martinez could not place the menu on the table without knocking over her water glass nor could she rest it comfortably on her lap. She closed the menu and handed it to the waiter, when he asked for her “selection.” She ordered medium rare lamb chops, a small Caesar salad, and a glass of the house cabernet sauvignon. Mary fared no better with the menu and simply duplicated her mom’s order.
“Mom, I really missed your cooking. You must teach me how to make carne adovada.”
When Mrs. Martinez came to the University to take care of Joey, she brought along her own dried chili peppers, pinto beans, posole, and masa for making corn tortillas. Mary remembered her mother getting up at five o’clock in the morning to make tortillas for the family. God, they were poor, but she loved her childhood. Her grandfather’s mustache tickled her whenever he nuzzled her neck, which was frequent, since she was his favorite grandchild. He told her stories about clever animals, wild gypsies, and great saints. Her father worked as a woodcutter and general all-around handyman, doing any construction job that came his way. They were old-fashioned Spanish-Americans. They did not own a television, drove dilapidated pickup trucks, and in the summertime moved the ancient washing machine outdoors to make more room in the kitchen. Mary loved her childhood house, although she knew that her best friend Brianna would think that it was a dump and feel sorry for Mary that she was raised in such a house. Mary remembered that every Easter her mom bought her a new dress and a new pair of shiny black shoes from TG&Y, the local dime store. Mary, as a little girl, was dressed in the cheapest possible clothes, but she was so proud and so happy to be who she was.
“It’s really very simple,” Mrs. Martinez said, and she explained how to preserve pork in a marinade of crushed red chili peppers, water, and salt, a process used in Northern New Mexico for hundreds of years. She instructed Mary to buy the best Chimayo chili and cautioned her to cook the carne adovada over low heat in a heavy skillet or in a slow oven.
Mary nodded knowingly when she heard the admonition, “do not burn the chili.” She had not been away from Espanola that long and had not forgotten that the greatest sin in New Mexican cooking is to burn the chili.
The brief cooking lesson over, Mary brought up the subject that she and her mother were talking about on their way to the Faculty Club. “Mom, you have to take the money. I want to give it to you, and besides, I make more than enough money at the University.”
Mrs. Martinez put her hand over her daughter’s hand and said, “Mary, honey, your father and I really do not need any money. You keep what you have earned. I am just happy to see that you are happy.”
“No, Mary. If you want, buy something nice for your father at Christmas.”
“I’ll tell you what, mom. After lunch, we’ll go shopping for some clothes. Okay?”
“Yes, let’s do that. I would like very much to go shopping once again with my little girl. Let’s splurge and buy some really nice clothes.”
Mary was still shocked to see that her mother was getting old. Before this visit, Mary had seen the streaks of gray hair and the sagging skin, but like a child, she felt that her mother would always be there and always in the same way. She had never pictured her mother as other than truly beautiful. Mary remembered how on her mother’s birthday, her father would sing his wife a mañanitas, accompanying himself on an old accordion he learned to play in grade school. He would go into her bedroom while she was still in bed and sing how he wished he were a ray of sunshine so he could come into her room and sing songs from heaven.
After a second cup of after-dinner coffee, Mary brought up a subject that she had been wrestling with for the past six months. “Mom, I know how much my success has meant to you and dad — how proud the two of you are that your daughter is a college professor — but would the two of you be terribly disappointed if I moved back to Espanola?”
Education was the principal way out of poverty in the Espanola Valley. All the young women Mary grew up with went to a university, the local community college, or a vo-tech school. Mary knew that many of her Hispanic friends left Espanola, some moving as far away as California to work for McDonald-Douglas or some other aerospace firm, but most returned after a few years.
“Mary, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, mom. Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of life.”
“What kind of life?”
“I had high expectations from the University. I thought education made people better, but instead, all I see are these enormous egos, contesting with each other. Mom, I’ve outwitted everyone in the Psychology Department, and I know I could stay on here forever, if I want to, but I am not sure that I want to.”
“Mary, just do what will make you happy.”
“Mom, I only wish I knew what that is. Don’t be surprised if I move back home. I’ve been thinking of . . .” Suddenly, Mary stopped talking, and then she whispered, “Mom, glance over to your right. That man walking toward us is my boss, the Chairman of the Psychology Department.”
Mrs. Martinez took one look at Professor Lewis and saw that his eyes were glazed over. Under her breath, she said, “Un borracho.”
Chairman Lewis had developed a love affair with Bombay Sapphire Gin martinis after he was introduced to them by President Harlan. As part of his courtship ritual, Lewis’s lunch now consisted of three martinis and an order of shrimp toast. Without gin-inspired boldness, the Chairman never would have approached Mary and the frumpy woman sitting with her.
The Chairman’s feet stopped at their table, while his upper torso wished to continue to the next table. Once his teetering body came to a halt, the Chairman said, “Mary, I want you to pass on a message to Brianna. You do still see her?”
“Tell her that I have a man in the field.”
Mary had no idea what Lewis was talking about. “Will she understand what you mean?”
“Tell Brianna that my very best operative is in New Harmony, doing brilliant work and that it’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
Professor Lewis turned to Mrs. Martinez and said, “Excuse me, ma’am. No offense intended,” and then lurched toward the dining room exit.
Mrs. Martinez blushed, not that she was fat, but she was on the heavy side.
Mary was furious. “That sonofabitch! I’m going to go after him and make him apologize to you.”
“Mary, honey, let it go. All drunks are fools.” Mrs. Martinez thought of the bums who sat on the curbs in the Furr’s Supermarket parking lot in Espanola, drinking whiskey out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. She never took notice of them, either.