BRIGHTEN THE CORNER
a classic American road novel
by Richard Watson
267 pp. 58,275 words
Brighten the corner
where you are
Brighten the corner
where you are.
Someone far from harbour
You may lead across the bar.
Brighten the corner
Where you are.
--Chas. H. Gabriel (1913)
BRIGHTEN THE CORNER
With a bang
And a boom boom boom
Gerhard moved onto the street. Paying no heed to the traffic, he began his march. Looking straight ahead, he lifted his right heel and swung his foot forward as he raised his knee, doing the same with his left as his right came down. To fill the airbag, his elbows flapped up, then down, and up, and down. He pressed his lips into the mouthpiece of the trumpet and blasted away, fingering the keys with his right hand while the fingers of his left danced on the stops of the pennywhistle attached to the airbag. He pressed his chin down on the rubbrer bulb attached to a squaking horn. He paused just long enough to crash together the large cymbals between his knees, then marched straight on, the traffic streaming around him, drivers cheering and cursing from their cars. Pedestrians stood staring. Unaccompanied little children risked their lives running into the street to form in a line behind him, teen-agers and even adults, marching with their knees raised high, clapping in rhythm and whistling in tune over the traffice noise. And there he goes
With a bang
And a clang
And a boom boom boom
GERHARD'S ONE-MAN BAND!
Gerhard had not always been a one-man band. Once, he had been only a man. He had not been an unhappy man, not at all. He had been an ordinary man. But these were matters he had never especially noticed nor thought about. As he entered manhood, he had been too busy earning a degree at Iowa State Teachers' College. It took a great deal of extra-curricular time to learn to play all the instruments necessary for being a secondary school band teacher and director.
Gerhard had always loved band. While some parents despaired at their children's lack of interest, and had to force them to play an instrument, Gerhard's parents had stoically provided him with a trumpet, then a clarinet, a baritone, a flute, drums. Gerhard played them all in high school, then again in college, and every day, all day, into the night when he was a teacher, in music classes, as a tutor, in group and private lessons, in band practice, at concerts and in local dance bands, he played one or another or all of the instruments, to teach, to demonstrate, to perform, for edification, from duty, for pleasure.
Despite being overburdened, Gerhard found a wife, Miriam, at college. She trained to teach voice and chorus, and elementary music from primary through the twelth grde. They found jobs together in the same school, in a small town in northern Iowa. Gerhard and Miriam made music from morning to night, but they had no children. This saddened them, but they were very busy, and they had to do with so many children every day that they could not truly regret having none of their own. So they lived for nearly forty years content in that same small town. But one day Miriam died.
She did not just drop dead, it did not begin to be as easy as that. Miriam was first thought to have a large ovarian cyst. The growth turned out to be cancerous. The cancer had already spread. It was lethal and Miriam's days were numbered.
She said she would just keep on teaching, for school, after all, was her life. But the chemotherapy knocked her right off her feet, flat. She had not expected that. And her hair dropped out. She was bald. Imagine that. Gerhard had always particularly liked her long auburn hair. He cupped his large hand absently over her entire bald head, caressing it as he had once caressed her bare knee. She did not shrink away. She took his other hand and pressed it over her breasts. They had not known how much they loved each other. Now that they did know, it did not seem odd or even cruel that they were soon to be parted. For what could an established married couple approaching old age do with such knowledge, even in the best of circumstances? It would not have changed the rhythm of the passion that overcame them periodically. They had already been secure. Now all love might engender would be anxiety at the fear of loss. But there was none of that, because the day of loss was already known. It would be six months, or, in the actual case, eighteen months and sixteen days from the hour that the doctor sat them down and told them what he had found.
"But I thought . . ." Miriam said, starting up in her chair.
"But you said . . ." Gerhard remonstrated.
They calmed down at once. The doctor was quite firm. Yes, he had given them cause ot hope that it was benign.
"But unfortunately, and these things do happen, what we found is not uncommon. We'll do all we can."
At the funeral, the school chorus sang, as best they could through tears, "School days," (it was Miriam's choice). The school band played "Rock of Ages" in the cemetery. Gerhard spread pink roses on Miriam's coffin just before it was lowered into the grave. Then he went home to a strangely silent house. There was no band practice that day. Nor chorus, which Gerhard had added to his own schedule when Miriam could no longer teach. The principal had urged him to take the week off. Whatever for? Gerhard thought.
The next day the students were unnaturally attentive.
"Very good," Gerhard said at the end of every class and practice session.
Each group of students continued sitting there.
Gerhard paused, and then he said to each group in turn throughout the day, "Thank you for missing her. I miss her, too."
Only at the end of the last practice of the day, band practice, did he cry, standing on the podium with the baton held down at his side as the students filed out in silence, glancing soberly back at him. A few minutes later he heard them shouting and roughhousing outside the building.
Gerhard took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. He picked up music from the trombone section, put away the base drum, noticed dust motes drifting in shafts of sunlight from the high windows around the walls of the room in which they practiced. He straighted the chairs and music racks that had been pushed this way and that by the students as they got up to go. He stood in the empty room.
It had always looked like that at the end of the day.
At home, there were separate closets and dressers in the large master bedroom. There were two sinks in the bathroom. Gerhard did not move Miriam's things. Nothing of hers was in the way. He left the house just as it was when Miriam was alive.
Gerhard stood in the middle of his house and looked up.
"Why? he said. "Why Miriam?"
He knew there was no answer. Nobody knew why some people got cancer and others did not, the doctor said. Mirian's death was random. Meaningless.
Gerhard had never been one for small talk. "Big dumb Dutchman," people always said, "but a good band man." Now when people lowered their voices and spoke seriously to him of their commiseration in his loss, he found he had no talent either for expression of feeling. He lowered his head as they did theirs, he nodded and made a noise of thanks deep in his throat, but he had nothing to say. Nothing to share, even on earnest request, even with the preacher.
People understood. Gerhard had never had much to say, they said. It was his wife who did the talking and now she, poor soul, was dead. Oh, Gerhard was articulate enough teaching band. He could make himself heard and understood. And he could always banter with the high school kids. But not now. Not for a while. For now, he was nearly mute.
He should not be left alone, that was the general feeling of the town. Not that anyone imagined that he might do himself harm, no, Gerhard was not that kind of man. He would take his knocks, stand up to them, not complain. He may have been the band director, to be sure a somewhat suspect role in comparison with that of coach or even superintendent, but for it all, everyone agreed, Gerhard was a man. Actually, a very big man. So they invited him to suppor. On request, he played bridge. He also sat unseeing before television shows, and took home with him containers of leftovers. This attention lasted for nearly a month.
The days passed--Miriam had died in late February--classes were over, another high school graduation was over, and Gerhard had nothing to do but direct the summer band, which practiced only three times a week and played a concert Wenesday nights in the band shell in the town park.
Everything had gone so fast, and there had been so much to do, that Gerhard had not had proper time to think. But now he noticed that he was truly alone. For several evenings he sat in the living room, remembering to turn on the light only when it was time to go to bed. He lay on his back on his side of the bed, eyes open to the dark ceiling. There was no order to his thoughts, but they had a theme. He thought about Miriam, the empty side of the bed, and he awoke from frightening, half-awake dreams that Miriam had died, as she had.
What would become of his life? Its tight swaddling bad had been torn, rotted away in fact, and he felt quite distinctly unbound. What would gather him up and hold him together now that Miriam was gone?
Of course there was music. One evening Gerhard went to the attic full of old instrumets, looked at them all, and then sat back down on the bed with a flute. He tried a few notes. He was out of practice, and the flute looked pathetic in his huge hands. But after a while his breathing merged wiht the tones of the flute. He played for an hour, not real songs that he know, but only what he felt. The next evening he played for hours before going to bed. He thought of Miriam. He felt that she was there somewhere, if he could only reach her. He tried to reach her with music.
On succeeding nights, the hot summer air oppressive in the house, he was driven outdoors. He was sensitive to open windows and wanted not to bother people, so he went to the high school football field to play, and since it was on the edge of the small town, he wandered out into the countryside, walking, playing the flute, looking at the bright stars in the sky.
But he would forget, and play as he walked back into town. He would forget and stand absorbed playing in the middle of the street. There was no one in that dark town who had not heard Gerhard playing the flute in the quiet streets late at night.
"What in God's name are we going to do?" asked the mayor. "It absolutely gives me the creeps! I know the man is sad, but he's depressing the whole town."
It had to be stopped. But how?
Everybody knows everybody and everything in small towns, and sometiems there are explosive acts, but usually only after long periods of waiting.
The town waited.
Gerhard played the flute.
If they could only wait until school started in the fall, and Gerhard got back to teaching music and band, he would surely stop. And it might have worked out that way if Gerhard had not stood late one night in the street outside the bedroom window of the mayer himself, to play a sequence of prolonged notes of such sad clarity that the night itself seemed hushed in horror, when suddenly the mayer crashed out of bed and yelled out the window, "For God's sake, Gerhard, leave off! You're driving everybody in town insane."
And despite the heat of the summer night, the mayor slammed his bedroom window shut.
Gerhard looked at his flute and then in the direction of the slammed windown. The neighbors saw his silent figure turn to walk like Frankenstein's monster down the middle of the street toward his home. That was the last many of the people of the town ever saw of Gerhard.
Not that Gerhard was in any way foolish about his retirement. He thought about it several days. Then he want to the bank to his safety deposit box and then to the mayor, who was also the town's only lawyer. Neither of them referred to the episode of a few nights before.
"I've decided to retire," Gerhard said. "I apologize for letting you know so late in the year."
The mayor understood. He was president of the school board, and they would not have much time to hire a replacement for Gerhard before the new school year started. Never mind that now.
"That's all right, Gerhard," the mayor said. "What can I do for you?"
"Sell the house, I think." Gerhard said, handing the mayor a small bundle of papers. "Or, if you can't, maybe rent it. Put the money in my bank account, I'll probably just keep it here where people know me."
The mayor was sorting trhough the papers professionally, spread out this sheet and that, said, "Sign there--and there."
Then they worked out what Gerhard's Iowa teacher's pension would be after thirty-eight years of teaching. They arranged to have his monthnly payments deposited automatically in his bank account. He was not yet sixty-five, so would have to wait for Social Security.
When they were through, Gerhard continued sitting there.
The mayor, business over, felt uneasy. He stood up. So did Gerhard. They shook hands and Gerhard took his leave. The mayor had not asked Gerhard where he was going or what he was going to do. He know perfectly well that Gerhard had no idea.
Gerhard walked home, backed his old Chevrolet out of the garage, and drove to the Chevrolet garage at the end of Main Street. It was owned by one of Gerhard's old students, played the clarinet, always splitting his reed, somehow, Gerhard was sure, on purpose. That was all behind them now. The young man was president of the local chamber of commerce--the mayor could have, in fact, done everything, but it was better to let a few of the younger businessmen in town do something. The young man had fond memories of high school and liked Gerhard.
"What can I do for you, Gerhard? he asked, rubbing his hands together without thought in a way that he had forgotten he started doing as a joking parody of a used car salesman. He already had a good idea because during the few minutes it took Gerhard to walk home for his car, everyone on Main Street heard that Gerhard had resigned as band teacher, was selling his house, and leaving town.
"That van Billy Young traded in a while back," Gerhard said. "I see you've still got it."
. . .
a dystopian novel in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis's IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE
and Phillip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
by Richard Watson
275 pp. 60,600 words
The central character is a young, crusading Executive Secretary of the Sierra Club, made Secretary of the Interior (as a political gambit) just in time to be elevated to the presidency of the United States of America when a bio-engineered flu accident reduces the North American population by nine-tenths. A maverick economist shows how America can be run efficiently with the survivors. Now all Americans are needed. All have a very high standard of living.
Prejudice remains against the Blacks, who are destroyed when they try to secede in the South. The head of the new Federal Police Force (combining the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Guard) decides to eliminate the remaining Mexican and Central American populations for good measure. Production booms. American commercial hegemony expands as Americans undertake a crusade to save the world from overpopulation.
Global warming disrupts agriculture and natural resources diminish. America cordons off the world's resource areas, particularly oil in the Middle East. World population continues to increase despite America's attempts to export population control. Threatened by the European Union, Russia destroys major German cities with nuclear bombs. This results in a continent-wide firestorm that throws so much debris into the atmosphere that the world shifts from global warming to nuclear winter. In the dark and cold, all crops fail and high technological civilization collapses. Centuries later, all human beings are Chinese.
REDUCTION, a dystopian novel
They have put me under unofficial house arrest, but they can't eliminate me. It's hard for an "accident" to happen to an ex-president who is George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, both Rosevelts, and Jack Kennedy rolled into one. Besides, I still have my spies and loyal followers, and best of all, bodyguards, whose creed is: My president, right or wrong. Never mind that I'm no longer in office. I remain their president.
"Write your memoirs," President Pfefferbolt told me. Just what I intended to do, and I have access to more of the records than he realizes.
I was ambitious and moved fast to high places, but never in the world would I have aspired to the presidency. It happened like this.
My great-great-great grandfather was Leland Stanford, who endowed Stanford University. (My name is Bill Stanford, by the way.) Naturally, I went to Stanford, and I got my Ph.D. there in Environmental Sciences. My dissertation, America's Balanced Future, was published as a book, and it was a runaway best seller. I had intended it to be, but must admit that I was stunned by its reception.
Don't ask me why it caught on. There had been hundreds of books demonstrating that growth of population, of production, of resource and energy use had to stop or America (and the world) would collapse. I mean, how many SUVs and throwaway products can the earth sustain? Maybe people liked the jazzy colored charts and diagrams. I have no idea. Maybe it was the craze for computer games, for I included a disk, a game people could play, to show how America could survive in balanced equilibrium. Status quo, no growth, no population increase, recycled resources, the whole schmeer.
That book stayed at the top of the best seller list for more than a year. Of course the government had just admitted that decommissioned nuclear power plants were too radioactive and too expensive to dismantle, so had to be accepted as radioactive waste dumps right where they sat. And some of them sat mighty close to Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Everybody knew that the radioactive waste stored next to them leaked. They hadn't realized, however, that the cost of clean water was going to rocket because of that. I pointed it out.
Twenty-nine years old, by God, and I was on my way.
I was no laboratory scrounge, far from it. Back when I was an undergraduate, Jan Simmons, a poet in the Stanford Writing Program, and I started living together, and we got married when we found out that Bill, Jr., was on the way. When Bill, Jr., died three days after his birth, we decided not to have any more children. Wasn't I the one who said the world's population was too large already?
I was proud of Jan. Mountain Visions was published even before she got her degree. You see, what my real life was, was mountains. I started climbing when I was twelve, and I met Jan when both of us were sixteen, climbing in the Needles, outside Bakersfield. Jan was a good climber, and she was always with me, but she didn't do the big climbs.
I tell you, it was a gas. Doyal Dobbins was ruling the roost, and I picked my way after him up the North American Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite and a dozen more faces, spending weeks in slings on vertical and overhanging faces, inching ever upward. When you pissed, it went 2,000 feet, straight down. But I wasn't satisfied with bolts and piton pounding. No, I went for the new skill of free climbing, no long ropes, just slings and hangers, the wall, and me. And I didn't want to go just up, I went straight up. By the time I was twenty-five, I was not just a great free climber, I was the greatest direct route climber who ever lived. I knew it, and so did everyone else. I still relish that annual banquet of the American Alpine Club, where they were showing a film of one of my climbs, and Doyal Dobbins introduced it by saying, how, many years before, he was climbing a face with this beginner spidering up after him.
"I could just as well have dropped a hammer on his head," he said, and he sat down.
So after the success of America's Balanced Future, my publisher put out a book I had written some years before that I could never find a publisher for. Straight to the Top remained on the best seller list even longer than America's Balanced Future, and it was read by people who didn't know zilch about climbing. What they saw was the realization of an American dream. People told me after I became president that they saw it all in those two books, a philosophy and a plan for changing the world. Pure spin. I didn't have a clue back then that I would ever be president.
I got a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and a position in the Stanford Biology Department and happily did environmental research for a dozen years until I was asked to be Executive Secretary of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club had once kicked out an Executive Secretary because he had become too militant. But that's what they wanted now, and I was their man.
I was in Washington, of course.
"You're the Sierra Club," the president's Chief of Staff said to me with open amusement the first time we met, at some Washington do.
"And you are, I believe, the ghost of Christmas past," I said.
"And I'll haunt you," Merton Klinger said, moving on to more important contacts.
I forgot about it, but three weeks later I got a call to go to Klinger's office in the White House.
"How are you, Bill?" he said.
"Fine," I said, and sat down.
"I liked that population policy you drafted for the Senator."
I tried to conceal my smile.
"I just offered a few bits of advice," I said.
Klinger looked at me without saying anything, and I shifted nervously in my chair.
"The president opposed it all the way," I said.
"But he didn't veto it, did he? Now we have tax breaks for one- and two-child families. Very nice."
I sat up straignt in my chair and commanded my body to be still.
Klinger clasped his hands around his forehead that way he had and peered out under them at me.
"Tomorrow," Klinger said, "the Secretary of Interior will resign. For reasons of health. The president will accept with regret, but with understanding, and he'll say that Interior is a department of increasing importance in a nation that is moving toward a balance between human needs and environmental protection. He'll take a week to decide on a replacement."
Klinger paused for some moments, but I sure wasn't going to say anything.
"A number of prominent and well-qualified candidates will be discussed," he went on, "and commentators will stress that America's greatest need is an Interior Department that can manage and conserve our natural resources in the most environmentally protective way. At the end of the week, the President will announce his choice. It'll be a name that had not been considered by any commentator."
Klinger stared at me and said, "William Lee Stanford."
I gave an involuntary start. Klinger's eyes locked on mine.
"There'll be momentary surprise, and then high praise for the choice. On second thoughts, conservationists will say you've sold out, and commentators will predict you won't last six weeks."
Klinger leaned back languidly in his chair. "Both will be wrong," he said.
"No!" It came out of me involuntarily. I was on my feet. "I will not beautify that man's landscape. You can find some other fool to paste on your billboard, it won't be me."
Or at least that is how I would remember it. Klinger's tape shows that I just stammered, said nothing coherent at all.
I sat back down. Klinger continued to stare at me, and I stuttered to a stop. I had been working hard to resist the intensity of that bastard's personal force. I knew that intrinsically Klinger was not a stronger man than me. He was older and more experienced, to be sure. I willed myself not to let him intimidate me. But what this man Klinger had that I did not was power, raw naked power, like an immense glacier that slowly grinds down mountains. This was the President's closest advisor. And he was looking at me quizzically, amused. Seeing how I would take it.
I'll tell you how. A chill rose along my spine, as it had once on a mountain face when I looked up to see ten tons of blue cornice ice peel from the summit's edge three houndred feet above, to move and grow with infinite slowness as it dropped toward me to pass behind my back with a cold whisper and a sigh. Ages later, the roar of its fall on the rocks thousands of feet below came up on the racketing wind, fading in and out like a distant station on a short wave radio. By then, I had already started climbing again for that shining new break above, because now it surely was the safest approach to the top.
Klinger held out his hands to me beseechingly. God, what a ham.
"Bill Stanford is no man's lackey or fool," he said. "Nor is he a wild-eyed visionary. With hard, practical work, he's put America on the right track for solving the population problem. He'll not refuse this opportunity to solve the resource problem as well."
"The President has read those two books," he went on.
And there finally I relaxed. What bullshit. The president didn't read the funnies. Klinger read those books, or skimmed them
"And the President knows you're right," Klinger went on without a pause. "It's not always easy, however, for the President to move directly, nor, to be realistic, is it easy for him to override his gut feelings when his brains" (that would be Klinger) "tell him his guts are wrong. On occasion he'll oppose you with all the power at his command. Nevertheless, he's putting this prize in your hands to give you the opportunity to make of it what you can. I daresay that it is more than you'd ever hoped."
Boy, you could say that again.
"Here's what you and the President know," Klinger went on in a relaxed tone."And you know it better than anybody. The whales are extinct, and thousands of other species are following. The caribou had it because pipelines cut off their migration routes. Oil spills have changed the entire ecology of the oceans. As far as that goes, global warming has changed the ecology of the entire earth, and we're just beginning to suffer seriously from rising sea levels. And now that all the oil from the Arctic and continental shelf fields is fast diminishing, the forces in favor of a hydroelectric dam to flood half of Alaska cannot be opposed even by the President, let alone by the Secretary of the Interior. Yes, it'll have an effect on the environment of the whole Northern Hemisphere."
Why is he telling me this stuff? I thought. I wrote it.
"Lead, copper, zinc, rare metals, you name it," he droned on, and I could tell he knew he was driving me up the wall, "iron and aluminum, even coal, some say, if you can believe them, could run out. You'll direct the destruction of a big chunk of the Rocky Mountains to get the oil out of the Green River shale."
I bridled, but he raised his voice and didn't let me butt in.
"And if you don't, someone else will."
He glared at me, and then grinned. "Actually," he said, "there's no need for me to continue this, is there?"
He waited me out, and finally I sighed and said, "So?"
"So this will be one of the most popular appointments the president has ever made. It's consistent with his continual genuis for combining the politically expedient with the precisely appropriate action for the mutual benefit of the nation and himself."
Klinger could talk like that for hours. It comes from having been a college professor.
"The only surprising thing about these presidential moves," he went on, "his touted erratic behavior, is that they surprise anyone. Obviously it's time to put a real conservationist into Interior. We've raped the earth now. Someone has to sew her back up and see if we can't get some more use out of her. That's you.
Klinger suddenly leaned over the desk and said earnestly, with incredible sincerity, "What do you say, Bill? I'd think you'd jump at the chance."
He didn't fool me for a second. Never mind. That block of ice had fallen past, and I had been listening to the distant murmur of its impact. I was already climbing toward a higher, shining place.
Now from Klinger's records, here's what happened a year and a half later. It took just one day--a Wednesday--twenty-four hours, roughly from one midnight to the next midnight, and came to be known simply as "The Flu." It got underway in the dead of night, so it wasn't until morning that the pieces began to be put together and people began to understand what was going on.
At eight A.M. the President's red phone rang.
He did not answer.
After some 30 seconds, Mertin Klinger picked up the duplicate phone in the next room. This was where Klinger generally spent the night. He was getting some work done before the president woke up. Both of them had been to an important reception the night before and had not gone to bed until three A.M.
"Yes," Klinger said, and then, "OK, hang on a minute."
He lay down the phone and went into the President's bedroom. He saw the body on the bed, the bedding torn off, the agonized rictus on the dead man's face. It was obvious, but he felt for a pulse. There was none. He went back into his study-bedroom, picked up the phone and said, "What is it?"
Klinger listened for several minutes, and then said, "Don't do anything until I call you back."
He pressed the automatic dial for the Vice President, listened to the man's hysterical wife for a moment, and then said, "Call a doctor, Emmy Lou," and hung up.
Klinger called to find that the Speaker of the House, also, was dead.
He worked his way rapidly down through the line of succession until he reached the button that automatically dialed my number.
"Bill!" he said, with an enthusiasm that might make you think he thought what had happened was wonderful. "How good it is to hear your voice."
"And yours, Merton," I said.
I gestured madly at the two other people still alive in the outer office. They were queasy about moving the bodies. I held my hand over the phone and yelled, "Drag them out into the hall, damnit!"
It is still hard to focus on what happened. I was always in my office by 6 AM, which means most of the other people in Interior were too. A lot of them had the sniffles, and about 7 A.M. many of them started gasping for breath, and now, at 8 A.M., most of them were dead.
But my attention was suddenly rivited on the phone. Klinger's voice rang out like a bell.
"William Lee Stanford, it is my agonized pleasure to inform you that you are now the President of the United States of America. I offer you my congratulations and my services and advise you that there is a matter of utmost urgency to be considered."
- - - - -
The Russians had long warned the rest of Europe about the old German menace, but no one took them seriously. Recently during the famine, hard-line leaders had taken over in Russia, and the warnings about Germany had become shrill. Now the Russians wanted the old Eastern European Empire back.
- - - - -
The missiles hit Prague, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Koln, Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Hannover, Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin in that order. About a minute lapsed between each blast before the next. The bombs were relatively clean, and everything went as planned at first.
- - - - -
As the bombs plodded down in a circle around Germany, hot air blasted into the upper atmosphere and was caught by jet-stream winds to be tossed around the circle, from Prague to Essen to Hamburg and back to Prague again. The intensity of the hot winds racing around the upper circle squealed with firction against the heavier lower air and then slowly, relentlessly, began to engage the atmosphere closer to the earth in the motion of the immense revolving vertical shaft. The pressure of the winds bore down until the grinding, solid column of air dug like a diamond drill into the ground. The firestorm now covered most of Germany, and the heat became so intense that everything was burned, cities, vegetation, people, and the very soil and waters right down to solid bedrock. Everything flashed into flame and spiraled up into the air on the escalators of the cyclone's core.
Along the ground all over Europe, vast winds rushed to fill the vacuum in Germany. Faster and faster the winds blew, flattening the forests, piling the waters of the North Sea over northern Europe, blasting the snow from the roof of the Alps, sweeping everything before it. The sky was full of dust and dark debris. The farther in Europe one was from Germany, and the deeper one could get underground, the safer one was. Everything in a great circle that took in Rome, Barcelona, Manchester, and Copenhagen was devastated, but the firestorm remained within the iron curtains of the original column. As the internal revolution of the firestorm slowed, the cyclone began to move slowly from Germany to the northeast. It diminished rapidly in intensity, and burned out just before it reached the Russian border.
- - - - -
We survivors in America are perfectly comfortable. The big breeder reactors are purring right along, generating surpluses of electric power, so everyone is warm. Food is scarce, but adequate. As for Europe and the rest of the world, well, they will have to solve their own problems.
But spring did not come this year. The skies remain dark, not enough to obscure daylight, but no open sunlight gets through. It's going to take years for the dust to settle. And there is the further problem that the Arabs took the opportunity to wipe out the enclaves around the Middle Eastern oil fields, and have set the wells on fire again. So far as I can discern, order has collapsed everywhere in the world but here, in America. Here, we have thrown everything into manufacturing synthetic food. The rest of the production system has been largely abandoned.
I know what has happened, but President Pfefferbolt doesn't want to hear it. Global warming is no longer a problem. The nuclear winter has begun. It will last a century, or ten thousand years. I don't know which.
"Tomorrow will be better," President Pfefferbolt said over National Television. "Dig in, hold on, and wait it out. We shall overcome."
A thousand years later, all human beings are Chinese.
DESCARTES'S DREAM: I AM ME
a philosophical novel
by Richard Watson
172 pp. 39,300 words
DESCARTES'S DREAM: I AM ME is the journal of a man undergoing a Pyrrhonian sceptical crisis, which can be terrifying, as it was for David Hume, but not for Descartes. This, however, is a comedy, not a tragedy. The man begins by writing about his I-Am-Me experience. This is the realization a few children have between the ages of three and seven that they are individual persons, distinct from all other people. Most of us do not remember this, if we had such an experience at all.
He writes about his childhood, his college years as a gymnast, his marriage, his divorce, his body building, and at passionate length of his experiences as a fifth-grade teacher in a public school. The situations are both serious and often highly amusing. All of his reminiscences about his teaching bear on the sceptical problems that give rise to his crisis.
This crisis peaks when he meets again his high school girl friend, now a rich widow, who wants him to marry her and move from New Jersey, where they were born and grew up, to Florida, where she lives in a high-rise penthouse overlooking the ocean. He says no.
Instead, at age sixty-five he retires from teaching and moves back to the house in the small town where he grew up. His down-to-earth wife had divorced him because he had annoyed her for years with his compulsive insistence that she be his soul mate. Now he realizes that so far as he can tell from any of his thoughts and experiences, he is the only conscious being in the universe.
He slowly drags himself out of the black hole of his depression and accepts the solitary self that emerged from nothingness in his I-am-me experience so many years ago.
"As a child, I lay in bed listening to the radio under the covers late at night. Sometimes I would pick up dance music on the foreign station. You could tell from the crackling static and fading sound that it was coming from very far away. It was a lonely sound. I lay there and imagined there was nothing in the world but that music and me."
# # # # #
I am, I exist, that is certain.
But how often?
Just when I think . . .
I am a real thing and really exist.
But what thing?
A thing that thinks . . .
I see light. I hear noise. I feel heat . . .
But, it will be said . . . I am dreaming.
Meditations on First Philosophy, 1641
First few, and selected pages from manuscript
DESCARTES'S DREAM: I AM ME
One day when I was three or four, an amazing thought came to me. I suddenly knew who I was. I was me. I had been anonymously digging sand on the beach, and now suddenly, here I was, me. I dropped my bucket and shovel and ran to where my parents were lying on a blanket.
"Mommy!" I cried, patting her excitedly. "Daddy!"
They tried to avoid my sandy hands, but I was shrieking with laughter, and I said, "Me!" most proudly, and "Mommy, Daddy, me," and "Me, Me, Me" over and over again.
My parents began laughing themselves, and hugged me. But I am sure they did not understand what had happened. I had long identified them as Mommy and Daddy, and they had heard me say "Me want. . . " a thousand times, so how could they have known that I had only just realized that this me was me? And that they were not me. They were Mommy and Daddy. Nobody was me but me!
# # # # #
One day I made a little joke about the I-Am-Me experience in a Social Studies class on current events. We were discussing the pros and cons of abortion, a dicey enough subject I admit for eleven-year-olds, not that they don't have the intelligence to handle it. Most of them have minds like little steel traps.
"What makes us human?" I asked.
There was a babble of talk about two-legged animals and great apes. I was strong on evolution.
"But what is special about us?" I asked
"We talk a lot," a bright boy said.
After the laughter had died down, I said, "You're on the right track."
He thought a moment and said, "We're people."
"What are people?" I said.
"People are. . . persons," he said.
"And a person is . . .?" I said.
"Somebody who knows their name," another student blurted out.
"Someone who knows himself," another boy shouted.
They had gone this direction because only the week before I had talked about the I-Am-Me experience.
Then I made my little joke.
"But if you have to be self-conscious to be a human being, then you could abort children who don't yet know themselves."
There was some nervous laughter, but in general the class was thoughtful about this, which I always took to be a good sign. Until, in this instance, the next day when the Principal called me into his office to tell me that several children had gone home terrified and told their parents that I wanted to kill them.
"No more sick jokes,OK?" he said.
Predictably, the children who had been frightened came to class the next day as though nothing had happened. I took the wise course I had learned years ago whenever I botched something, which is to say nothing at all, no apologies, no explanations. In particular, it is a cruel mistake to apologize to a child when perhaps one's major error had been to single that child out for spotlight attention in the first place.
Over the years, I had often wondered about these children's self-consciousness. Certainly they all knew themselves, and this came out most obviously when they were self-conscious in the sense of being embarrassed. Then they would squirm, blush, and--the worst--sometimes even pee their pants, that ultimate recognition in horror of oneself totally aware and completely out of control.
The first time this happened to me, which is an odd way of putting it, isn't it?
The first time a girl peed her pants in my class (and boys have done it too), I had asked her what the capitol of New Jersey was. She stood beside her desk to recite, a requirement I imposed the first semester I taught, but never thereafter. She ducked her head and said nearly inaudibly that she didn't know.
"What?" I said. "You live in New Jersey, and don't know the name of the capitol?"
She peed her pants.
Some of the students giggled.
She covered her face with her hands.
"You can go to the . . ." I said haltingly.
But she had turned and run to the door, leaving it open as she went out.
I rushed after her, but she had already fled down the hall and out the front door. She would get home all right.
When I got back in front of the class, a boy jumped up and said, "The capitol of New Jersey is Trenton," and all the students laughed.
"That will do, " I said. "Sit down."
At lunch, the third grade teacher, who had been there forever, tapped me on the chest with her pack of Pall Malls. Teachers were forbidden to smoke on school premises, but she was always taking out her cigarettes and pretending to remember just at the last moment that she was not allowed to smoke. She then looked over apologetically at the principal, hoping he would finally have a stroke.
"Next time," she said to me in her gravelly voice, "next time just say 'OK, kids, time for recess!' and shoo them out. The little dear will be forgotten in the rush, and can go home to change her pants."
# # # # #
My students read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. They were big on telekinesis and telepathy.
"OK," I'd say, "let's all concentrate and see if we can make this book rise off the desk without touching it."
It wasn't a joke to them. Some of them truly thought it possible.
"Well," I said, "that didn't work." Let's see if we can levitate me."
I sat cross-legged on my desk.
"Everybody concentrate," I said.
I tried, too. But I never rose up off the desk.
"You know, " I would say. "I can move a material object easily with my thoughts."
By now they were sceptical.
"Watch!" I said.
Slowly I raised my outstretched arm.
They all hooted, but I shushed them and said, "Think about it. How do you do what you decide to do? How does your mind move your arm?
Then I'd say, "I can levitate, too, if I really want to."
"Come on," they said.
I crouched down and jumped up in the air.
# # # # #
The Counselor had a telescope with a special lens through which we could look at the sun.
"OK," the Counselor said, "the sun is 92,956,000 miles away and light travels at 186,000 miles a second, so how long do you think it takes light to get to the earth from the sun?"
"Eight minutes, 19.763436 seconds," a boy said almost instantly.
"I hate those calculators," the Counselor said. "They should be outlawed."
"OK," he went on, "so when we look at the sun, what do we see?"
The students looked puzzled.
"The sun?" one of them said.
"That's a start." the Counselor said. "Which sun?"
"All right," he said. "How about: When do we see the sun?"
"Now?" a girl said.
"No! Damnit," the Counselor said.
"We see an image of the sun," I said. "It takes eight minutes for the light to reach our eyes from the sun, so the image we see is not of the sun as it is now, but as it was eight minutes ago. See?"
"No," the girl said. "I don't understand."
I beamed at her. I tried to teach them to speak up when they didn't understand, but it wasn't easy.
The Councelor looked at me in exasperation.
"Do you remember," I said to the group, "that time we were on a day hike and heard blasting in the distance?"
"Yes," one of them said. "We could see the puffs, and then a little later heard the sound."
"Like thunder and lightning," another said. "You can figure out how far away the lightening is by counting until you hear the thunder."
"Because it takes time for the sound to travel through the air," the girl went on slowly. "And it takes time for the light to travel from the sun, so you don't see the image when it starts out, but only when it gets here."
I hugged her. Another reason to retire. Teachers aren't supposed to hug students anymore.
"Wow!" a quiet boy I wouldn't have expected it from said. "That means if the sun blew up four minutes ago, we wouldn't be blasted for four more minutes."
Him I didn't hug. I just looked at him and said, "Ri-ght . . ."
"Wow!" he said again.
# # # # #
When I wake up in the morning and open my eyes, it's a virtual reality show for me alone. No one else has his visual field filled with the things I see. Things seem to be "out there"? That's just a trick of binocular vision that can be simulated on a flat screen.
I also have a tactile field, an auditory field, fields for odor and taste that click on when I wake up. There is considerable variety in these fields, but they are strictly limited. I can see only so many different colors, hear only so many different sounds. I control many of them, but I don't control the background. Where does it come from? It has to come from somewhere.
It comes from me . . .
# # # # #
I have peopled my world with the familiar faces of old friends. Moving back home was my way of lighting a match in the darkness.
My room has a sun porch and is on the second floor at the back. The house is on the edge of town and I look out into the woods. It's going to be a hot summer, so I've moved my bed onto the sun porch as I always used to do. As I sit here, the wind has come up and the sky has darkened dramatically. There is lightning--a pause--then thunder. Soon I will have to get up to close the windows so the rain does not wet the bed.
As a child, I lay in bed listening to the radio under the covers late at night. Sometimes I would pick up dance music on the foreign station. You could tell from the crackling static and fading sound that it was coming from very far away. It was a lonely sound. I lay there and imagined there was nothing in the world but that music and me.