|Beezlepoint and Needleprat
-Is this Emily Rath?
-The daughter of Alexander Rath?
-My God. What's happened?
-Don't be upset, Ms. Rath. Your father's fine.
-What's happened to him? Where is he?
-I'm sorry. Nothing's wrong with your father, Ms. Rath. In a sense, that's the problem.
-My name is Cardew, Angela Cardew. I manage Stilton Downs Hospice here in Brewster. A short while ago your father drove into our parking lot, walked in, and requested to be admitted as a client. We don't say patient.
-He asked . . ?
-Mr. Rath insists he is dying and attempted to hand over both his insurance and American Express cards. He requested a room on the north side and what he called a ministering angel, preferably blond. Ms. Rath, I can assure you we don't have walk-in trade here. He suggested that you would sign any necessary forms. But I'm sure you understand, Ms. Rath, that a doctor
-Of course. My father, you see, you're perfectly right. I mean his health is fine. But he's been having these spells, whims really; sometimes it's his memory, just a little, you understand?
-This has happened before?
-No, no. Never. I'm completely flabbergasted. How is he? Where is he now?
-Your father is sitting just outside my office. He's well dressed and I must say he looks in the pink. He has, however, refused to leave. Would you care to talk to him?
-Yes, yes, of course.
-Thank you. Just a minute, then.
-Emily? I heard Ms. Cardew here tell you I'm well dressed. Her office is very nice but it's not soundproof. Incidentally, she's wearing a very becoming cream-colored sweater set, tasteful necklace, skirt about four inches below the knee. Is that correct, Ms. Cardew? Four inches? I only said that thing about a ministering angel because Ms. Cardew's given name is Angela. It says so on her desk. In brass.
-What are you doing, Daddy?
-Dying, sweetheart. Did you think it was a cry for attention? A lark?
-You're not dying.
-Oh, I'm sorry, sweetie, but we all are. I'd just like to move things along. Der Blitz vor dem Arzten. That's Seneca, but in German. Not yet a dead language, German, but certainly the language of death. Do you speak German, Ms. Cardew? Or Latin? Fulmen ante medici? Bit of a Stoic scoundrel, Seneca, bombastic but a fair philosopher, got mixed up in politics. Der Blitz.
-You're not making sense.
-It's a prayer, Emily. Maybe the most sensible one.
-Look, you can't stay there, Daddy.
-Pity. It's a lovely place. Grounds could be out of one of your mother's favorite novels; you know, the sort that wind up with everybody happy and rich on an English estate, plenty of pounds and treacle. Old trees above rolled lawns. They have green fields out here. He babbled of green fields.
-You want me to go home, don't you?
-I'll come and get you.
-No. It's all right. I know when I'm not wanted. Anyway, I've got my car. Henry Ford said history is more or less bunk. More or less. A reporter asked him why he didn't want the country to build its defenses when Trafalgar had kept Napoleon from invading England. And Ford said, I don't know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today. What could be more American? And yet it got him in a heap of trouble. There was a libel case. World War I was going on; you'd think a guy like Henry Ford could foresee the profits to made. Hell, you'd think he'd invent the tank. But no. He refused to pay the national guardsmen. Ended by suing this reporter named McCormick. This was in 1916, you understand. Verdun. The Somme. Ford won his case but the judge awarded himwhat was it?a nickel? No, it was six cents. Exactly six cents. That was a judge with a sense of humor. More or less.
-Please put Ms. Cardew back on, Daddy.
-You want to speak to Angela? I'm warning you, the woman absolutely refuses to minister to anybody.
Emily's mother did love Victorian novels which is why she named her daughters Charlotte and Emily. Her husband, an undistinguished professor of history made less ambitious by the possession of private means, was content to indulge his adored wife. In fact, he approved of everything she did with the sole exception of dying at thirty-eight. The girls went to boarding school, then college. Charlotte, the smart one, continued on to graduate school, turned down a proposal of marriage, went for her Ph.D. in American history. Emily was glad to leave school. After a summer of irresolution she decided to train as a legal secretary. She quickly found a job, two years later married a client, the owner of three appliance stores, and quickly had a daughter of her own. Her husband objected that it was outlandish but she called her daughter Bettina anyway, also a literary name. Four years after that Emily's husband left her for a more easy-going woman he thought he liked better. Emily returned to work notwithstanding her divorce attorney's advice that her income would practically eliminate alimony. At this Emily smiled. Bettina developed a learning difficulty, nothing debilitating; she just mixed things up sometimes. She was laughed at in class one day when she was asked to read aloud and said mesquite instead of mosquito. It only happened with words, never numbers. Bettina was good at math, not a genius but a natural. As for Charlotte, she preferred teaching to mothering and research to teaching. Still unwed and determined to stay that way, she landed a job with prospects on the West Coast, so the task of watching over their retired father fell on Emily. She got on better with him than Charlotte anyway, perhaps because, unlike her sister, she was not determined to cover up his footsteps. He lived in the old house, a Victorian of course; she had a Cape close by but he visited almost every day, or she went to him. Emily enjoyed her job, where she was the pin in the pinwheel, and she loved her daughter and father. She did not in the least resent that these three relationships formed the troika that carried her across the level steppes of her life, the triangular corral of her days. She did not long for dates or dinner parties or in general the life of the paired-off. Her favorite painting was The Daughters of Edward Boit by John Singer Sargent. None of the four Boit girls had married. She was one up on them and felt lucky that a man had entered her life, helped produce Bettina, and then had the good grace to go away.
Emily's father was turning strange, though. Long speeches poured from him unseasonably, punctuated by random bits of erudition, like Seneca's prayer or Ford's libel suit. He was likely to say anything, even to Bettina, though he always made a kind of inappropriate sense. The world could be his class or his confessor. Bettina and he doted on each other. Emily was always moved when she watched them together. Her father perplexed and troubled Emily; every day he seemed more loving and more weary of life. The lightning before the doctors.
The two of them were in the little garden behind the house. Bettina had taken Alexander by the hand and was making him name all the plants. Emily, making dinner in the kitchen, watched them from the window over the sink. Her father was talking and she leaned into the window to hear better. To be fascinated, he had explained to her when she was little and couldn't sleep because of a horror movie, is feeling attraction and repulsion at the same time. Now he was telling Bettina about when he was young.
-When I was a youngster I looked up the definition of the word weed. My mother always complained about the weeds in her garden, you see. Do you know what a weed is exactly, my dear? Well, according to the dictionary a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it to. Wild roses could be weeds if what you want is, say, a hosta like this or a Siberian iris like that over there. A blood orchid could be a weed if what you had in mind is a begonia. I was shocked by the subjectivity, the downright relativism of the idea that the identity of an actual physical objectan almost unlimited class of them, in factdepended entirely on mutable personal opinion. Something could be a weed to one person and not to another, or even to the same person if his opinion changed after lunch. Weed, not-weed. A few inches and a caprice could make the difference. Well, dear, I was only six or seven but I felt the despair of radical relativism, the acidie of the true Hellenistic Skeptic. I thought, what if history 's just the rumors enough people happen to believe, or are convinced into believing? What if the past is water? No wonder we deny freedom to our ancestors when they're completely in our hands. The dead are robbed of every right, including that of defending themselves. Well, as you can imagine, I was despondent. It was as if in a moment the world had turned to vapor. Do you know what I did then? Well, I went back to the dictionary. You can't doubt the dictionary, can you? I looked up this. It's called veronica, also known as speedwell. I looked up toadflax. We had lots of toadflax and Mother hated it. Well, these definitions could not have been more precise or absolute. Now I had to ask myself what this meant. A general term like weed is useful but it's really shorthand for I don't like this here. Specific terms are different; it doesn't take a horticulturist to tell veronica from toadflax. So, is truth just a believed illusion or is it objective? Is there the possibility of history being reliable if you look hard enough and put your opinions aside? Yet if you do ignore your opinions what you get isn't history at all but a chronicle. You get this, this, this, not this because of that, if you see what I mean. Because of. That's the sound of a door opening on meaning but also the lack of meaning. That's a door that swings both in and out. So where was I? I haven't any desire to be the historian of my life. How can people write memoirs and not die of shame?
Bettina stood still and listened to all this calmly, let it wash over her, but looked serious, as if she understood. Maybe she does understand, thought Emily, just not the words.
Emily had the habit of rubbing her right index finger against fabrics like the edging of blankets, denim jeans, lace, upholstery. Depending on the surface, she used her nail, her cuticle, or the side of her digit. The rubbing was nearly unconscious. Something about the resistance, the smoothness and sound comforted her, lowered her blood pressure and slowed her breathing. She'd always believed this habit, which she did her best to hide, originated in her unremembered infancy when she must have done it to soothe herself. So Emily was surprised when her daughter began doing it too. Bettina, however, fixed the rubbing on a single object, a cosmetic bag she found in her mother's bureau. Emily would have liked to wean Bettina away from the bag, and she did make some half-hearted efforts to do so, but she felt hypocritical. After all, Bettina had watched her in moments of stress rubbing her slacks, the couch, her shirt collar. Could such a trait be inherited?
Bettina had her little sport bag under the covers. Emily knew it was there but pretended not to. Bettina's day had not gone smoothly. She had said scandals instead of sandals. There had been laughter but even she admitted it was funny to think of the Roman legions marching all over the Empire in their scandals. In fact, Bettina was becoming accustomed to this sort of contretemps; she no longer felt humiliated and took her mix-ups philosophically. It only happens sometimes, she had said pensively when telling her mother about it. She didn't cry at all, though Emily suspected that was only because she'd done so already.
Bettina's grandfather had his own way of encouraging her. He compiled a list of accomplished dyslexics and told alarming jokes, such as one about a boy who advised his girlfriend he'd pick her up somewhere between eight and seven. Alexander never mentioned Mrs. Malaprop but he did take to imitating her, not in mockery but solidarity. At dinner one night he said, Please pass the harassment instead of asparagus. At McDonald's he'd ordered fried Frenchies instead of French fries, which just broke Bettina up. The school did as well as it could. Bettina had all the accommodations the law prescribed and a sympathetic fourth-grade teacher.
Bedtime. Emily was about to resume her reading of The Wind in the Willows, more a favorite of hers than of Bettina's. Toad and his fads, stolid Badger, innocent Mole, dashing Rattythis green, watery world was exotic to Bettina but familiar to her mother, reared on Now We Are Six, Through the Looking Glass, and Water Babies. Emily drew her breath and made ready to wax pantheistic over the extravagant The Piper at the Gates of Dawn when Bettina stopped her.
-Do you know why I sometimes mix words up, Mommy? It's because of Mrs. Beezlepoint and Mr. Needleprat. They get cross with each other and then they make mistakes.
-Oh, and who are Mrs. Beezlepoint and Mr. Needleprat?
-The librarians in my brain, of course. We all have librarians up here.
Where has this come from, Emily wondered. Then she remembered that her father had taken Bettina into Boston for the day. They went to the Aquarium, looked into Faneuil Hall, ate pizza and ice cream in Quincy Market, stopped by a toy store. But what impressed the child most deeply was the Boston Public Library. Alexander had arranged for them to look over the special collections but what stuck with Bettina were the mechanics of the placethe request forms and retrievals, the banks of computers, the hush of hundreds of people. Librarians she now conceived as lordly creatures, supercilious angels. This romantic recollection, Emily guessed, gave birth to the touchy Mrs. Beezlepoint and the irritable Mr. Needleprat.
-Mostly they get along. When I have to think of something, they go and get the right words out of the stacks. It's when they're arguing that they pull out the wrong ones.
Emily thought of how, despite her precautions, Bettina would have overheard her and her ex-husband going at it. She had learned that her daughter liked to find out about the world by a sort of experimental mythologizing rather than by simply asking. Bettina was trying her hand at brain science.
-Mr. Needleprat wears suspenders and a vest and a bow tie and serious brown shoes. Mrs. Beezlepoint likes maroon and purple dresses. She never wears suits. They're both pretty old and have to wear glasses. They each have a little bedroom which is where they go when I go to sleep, but they're always on call in case I have like a dream, so they have to get up a lot at night. Like Grampa. It makes them cranky.
Emily hesitated. Bettina didn't really need the difference between fantasy and reality pointed out to her.
-What do they fight over?
-All sorts of things. I don't always know. Sometimes it's politics or movies. Stuff like that. Mrs. Beezlepoint is in charge of all the words starting from A to M and Mr. Needleprat from N to Z. But sometimes, just to spite each other, they'llwhat's the word?
-Does it come before or after M?
-After, I think. Like an egg? Like, like pooch?
-Yes. They poach. Grampa told me that poaching's wrong but not as wrong as stealing, but I really couldnt see the difference and Grampa said it was a, a delicatessen distinction.
-Yes, dear. It is. Delicate.
-So if Mrs. Beezlepoint and Mr. Needleprat can patch things up, if they can cooperate, if they could just tell each other that they really, really like each other, and not poach or tease.
-And if they got more sleep?
- I get it, Mommy. Okay. Let's hear what stupid thing Toad's doing now.
Emily could see the finger moving faintly under the blanket, like a bird's heartbeat.
Charlotte had splendid news. She toned down her exuberance with Emily, relying on her little sister to provide the re-inflation. Charlotte wondered if by any chance their father might be there. This was disingenuous; it was Friday night just before dinnertime. She knew Alexander would be there. To him, she crowed, of course. She couldn't help it.
Charlotte's dissertation on Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain had been accepted by Oxford University Press. It meant at least a tenure review, perhaps celebrity. The press's reviewers had gushed. Alexander Rath had never published a book, only a few obscure essays which he was pleased to dismiss as his indefinite articles. As always, he was hurt by Charlotte's need to compete with him, at this odd buckling of a daughter's love, yet he was also pleased, proud and, to her, gracious. As they sat down to enjoy roast capon he explained to Bettina that her Aunt Charlotte was going to be the author of a book, a fat one, too. Bettina wanted to know if it would be in the library, the big one in the city.
-We'll get our very own copy, said Emily.
Bettina was disappointed.
-Then it won't be in the library?
-Of course it will. We can go visit it in the library after it gets published.
-It's going to be punished?
-No, sweetie, published. That means when it's printed and goes on sale and people can buy it.
It was two weeks later that Emily pulled off her great coup at work. Was she inspired by her sister's success or were the heavens aligned to favor les filles Rath?
The story was full of complication, not all of it legal, and Emily knew she would have to simplify it in order to tell the tale. She gave it a private title: How I May Have Saved A Semi-Innocent Man. The firm had been tied up for months with the case. The client was their biggest, a former CEO charged with what Emily, for the sake of clarity, decided to call embezzlement which sounded to Bettina like Beezlepoint.
Huge sums of company money had been diverted to an account on a Caribbean island, books cooked. The prosecutors immunized the former auditor and CFO who then damned the client in open court. The client was baffled. Sure, he'd cut some corners, who didn't, but nothing like this, nothing so unambiguously outside the law. They're lying, he insisted, bitter and bewildered. The prosecution was able to find out that there was indeed a Caribbean account in his name, though the tropical bankers drew the line at disclosing any details. Their business, after all, was secrecy. The client was convicted. Of course there had to be an appeal but on what grounds? Procedural? Substantive? There was nada, zilch. Emily had been in court three times. She listened less than she looked and what she scrutinized were the government's star witnesses. The librarians in her brain got busy and pulled out a hunch. She conducted a little social research, made a few calls. All this she did on her own, which was perhaps improper, but she uncovered a key fact: the auditor's first wife's sister was the CFO's first cousin. She convinced her desperate bosses to find a way to get more information out of the Caribbean. They did it the old fashioned way, with a bribe. There were two more accounts in the same bank, one in the name of the CFO, the other in the auditor's. With the aid of a confederate, they had arranged for the funds to be transferred into these accounts within weeks of the verdict. Being greedy, they were also impatient. The conviction made them overconfident. The devious plot all came out like meat expertly extracted from a lobster claw.
There was a celebratory party at Anthony's Pier Four thrown by the CEO who offered Emily her choice of his first-born or a Lexus and, after three Laphroaigs, suggested he would be willing to divorce his second wife and make her his third. Emily just smiled tightly. However, she did find it possible to accept a hefty bonus.
Alexander loved her story. Bettina loved her new dollhousea big, gingerbread Victorian like Grampa's but, as he observed, cheaper to heat.
After Bettina had been bathed and put to bed Alexander said he was ready to go home but stayed seated on the sofa. He patted the cushion and Emily sat down next to him, surprised when he put his arm around her.
-I suppose you know more or less how pleased I am with you, Emily, and not just over this clever business at work. But I wonder if you can imagine how proud your mother would be, how she'd just eat Bettina up, and how I feel knowing she can't. I used to think feelings weren't much good for anything. I expect you and your sister noticed this. I was stuck in the time before machines when people thought reason made us human; now it's our feelings. The truth is this isthmus we're on is where the baboon greets the PC. All the mammals are able to feel shame, fear, even sympathy and it's out of these feelings that we made ourselves so complicated, social, and sometimes moral, once in a while even noble. Nobility isn't happiness so much as a good way of not being happy. Nobility lies in not giving in to feelings but there's no nobility if they aren't there. I'm talking about the feelings those crooks didn't have. They're all right here, incidentally, in the prefrontal lobe. Right here.
Alexander pointed to his forehead exactly as Bettina had done telling about Beezlepoint and Needleprat.
-It's the last part of the brain to develop, except maybe for Bettina. People with damage in that region can be sociopaths. They don't connect the pain of punishment with the action that merited it, or the reward of pleasure with doing the decent thing. Rules are lost on them. They're not masters beyond good and evil but dangerous worms. They never feel the tickle of meaninglessness, have no suicidal tendencies. They ain't got no angst at all. If we hadn't evolved this lobe and its tangled Menschlichkeit, we'd have destroyed ourselves by now. One of Epicurus's arguments that the gods don't pay attention to our prayers is that we aren't all dead. Nietzsche said the thought of suicide got him through many a bad night. Reason on its own would have done us in, according to Rousseau. But Shaw put it best: after the age of three no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does. It wasn't their stealing that was so wicked, was it? It was the framing, right? Look, I know how it upsets you that Bettina makes these little mistakes with words, but I've never seen her make one with her feelings. Listen to me. I know more than I used to. I'm dying but my brain is in denial. When I go you'll have money. You can ask me for as much as you like, of course. I'd give it all to you now but I think of Lear. His big goof wasn't giving away the kingdom or even dividing it up but doing it before he diedand having two daughters deficient in the prefrontal lobe department.
-You think Charlotte and I?
-That came out badly. Don't get me wrong. You're a pair of Cordelias, and that exquisite gem of my old age. Heaven forbid.
-What I mean is men aren't all forked worms or inefficient trees and life isn't all duty either. What I mean is, don't you think it might be time to have a man in your lifeor, if you prefer, a woman?
-I don't know everything. Okay, I'll just look in on Bettina and then I'll go. Promise. Thanks for indulging me while I wallow.
-Do you have bad nights when you think about suicide?
-Shh. Careful not to wake her.
On Harry Hojny's first day in his new school he got into a fight or rather he was attacked. After lunch two boys cornered the new kid in an alcove. These two were not so much bullies as badly reared xenophobes and Harry had an accent. True, it was about as faint as the aroma of honeysuckle in August but there it was. They began by shoving him into the alcove, then came the name-calling shortly followed by fists. Harry put up a stout defense considering he was outnumbered, outweighed, and had his back against the wall. He caught one of the boys right on the nose. Enraged by the blood the boy butted Harry in the stomach but then, cunningly, pulled away and grabbed his friend. You're my witness, he hissed, spreading the blood all over his face. They headed for the principal's office.
All this Bettina observed from across the corridor, crouching behind the water fountain, too shocked to intervene. Neither Mrs. Beezlepoint nor Mr. Needleprat could retrieve a single word. The bell rang and Harry wiped his face and returned to class, Bettina following.
Half an hour later a messenger showed up in the classroom. Harry was summoned to the principal's office. Bettina begged her teacher to let her go too but the teacher said no, of course not. Harry glanced at her suspiciously.
He was back in ten minutes looking impassive and took his seat. Bettina managed to pass him a short note. I saw. Harry read it, crumpled it up, and didn't look at her. Bettina wrote a second, even briefer note. Detention? Harry gave the smallest nod that could be called a nod.
The moment school was over Bettina borrowed Marcia's cell phone and called her grandfather, who was to pick her up. Luckily, he hadn't left yet.
-I'll be late, Grampa. I have something I have to do at school. Tell Mommy.
-When should I come for you?
-Come at four o'clock.
-Are you okay, sweetheart?
-I'm fine. Just going to be a little late. Okay?
Alexander didn't ask further questions. He respected that level of impatience.
Bettina went to the library which served as the detention hall. When the teacher in charge objected that her name wasn't on the list Bettina said she wanted to use the library, grabbed a book and sat down next to Harry.
Harry's father arrived minutes later. Adam Hojny was a tall man. He wore jeans with suspenders and a flannel shirt. Bettina tried hard to read his face, to tell if he was angry or stressed or exasperated or what. Adam talked first to the teacher, then motioned for Harry to join him at the side of the room. Bettina strained to listen. Adam's accent was much heavier than his son's. He told Harry the principal had called him, that he'd had to leave work. How could he bloody a classmate's nose on his first day? Harry looked at the floor.
Bettina got up, went over to them, pulled Adam by the sleeve and told him what she had seen and that it wasn't Harry's fault at all.
Harry refused to look at her. He wasn't afraid of his father or grateful to her. He just looked disgusted.
In the car Bettina told her grandfather the whole story of Harry Hojny. He could hardly help being reminded of what Emily had done, this common sympathy with the innocent and the willingness to do something about it. Bettina said she liked Harry but he didn't like anybody. Well, he did talk to her a little during detention, after his father left, though he didn't say much.
-What did he say?
-That his mother's dead and that he hates our school.
-It isn't surprising, given his welcome. They just moved?
-What about his father?
-Did you like Mr. Hojny too?
-He was okay, I guess. I mean he didn't yell at Harry and he listened to me. Actually, he thanked me. Harry said his dad's a carpenter. Why are carpenters called carpenters when they don't work on carpets?
-You're right. It comes from an old word for wagon, actually. Carpenters used to make wagons.
-Little red wagons?
-No, big wooden ones.
-All words are stories, sweetie, and sometimes the stories are old. Hojny's a Polish name, I think. I wonder what it means?
-Harry said his father designs sets too. What's that?
-It means he makes the scenery for plays.
-Like on the stage?
-Then maybe Hojny means set designer in Polish. Anyway, Harry left Poland with his mother and father when he was six. His father got a job and then Harry's mother died and then his father got another job and they moved and now he has to go to a school where boys hit him and the principal puts him in retention for no reason at all. It's not fair.
-And yet he's already made one new friend.
-You know perfectly well. And it's detention, though retention makes much more sense. You have to wonder what a principal thinks of her school when she punishes you by keeping you there even longer.
Alexander dropped Bettina off and drove home. He called Information and got the listing for Hojny. There was only one and it was new. After dinner he phoned, explained who he was, welcomed Adam to town as grandly as if he were a selectman, and listened contentedly to some charmingly accented praise for his granddaughter.
-Where were you born, Adam?
-Krakow. I am now a citizen here. I do woodwork, cabinet-making, furniture, sometimes framing. And sets for theaters. That doesn't pay much but it is a work of love. Harry is also a work of love, you know. He is a good boy but he has lost his mother and now he has had to move and he is lonely.
-Adam, Adam. Were you named after the great Adam Mickiewicz?
-You know Mickiewicz, Mr. Rath?
-Of course. Born in Lithuania but Polish through and through. Pan Tadeusz, Crimean Sonnets, Conrad Wollenrod. I believe he's buried in your home town with the kings, so I figured.
-Wonderful you should know Mickiewicz.
-My granddaughter's named for Catherine Ludovica Magdalena Bettina Brentano von Arnim, a contemporary of your Mickiewicz, by the way. They could have met. Goethe might have had them both over to dinner at Weimar. Say, that gives me an idea, Adam. Would you and Harry come and have dinner with me?
-Yes. Let's say Saturday, if it's convenient. No need to dress up. Nothing fancy. I'll make a roast. Very easy.
-Well, if you like. Yes. It would be an honor, Mr. Rath.
-Excellent. Six o'clock, then?
Alexander was feeling expansive and devilish. It was exhilarating to be a host again. Bettina had persuaded Harry to explore the upstairs with its oddities and heirlooms, including an ancient wind-up phonograph which played a wondrous, unintelligible disk called Cohn on the Telephone. Emily was looking very nice indeed and, despite being told it was unnecessary, Adam had dressed up. Toward Emily he was courtly without being stiff. Emily would make her father pay, no doubt, but later, not tonight. Meanwhile, she made conversation; after all, she and Adam had much to talk about: the school, their children, the detention story, the best bakery in town, the best shoe store, the theater, Krakow. If all this should prove insufficient, if there should be a hiatus, there was the food and whatever screed or lore might come out of Alexander's mouth. Her father's speeches made Emily apprehensive less for their recondite content than their timing. There was that weird business with the hospice, too. Her father had become unpredictable and she worried about dementia, depression, about his picking his granddaughter up at school.
Bettina was crazy about the idea but Emily hadn't wanted to do this dinner. Nevertheless, before she knew it, she was enjoying herself. Adam knew a lot about the theater, which interested her; he had acted in his youth and even confessed to writing a couple of wretched plays. He summarized the plot of one, a comedy in which a Pole is mistaken for a Russian and vice versa.
Meanwhile, Harry took to Alexander who seemed to know just how to talk to him. The boy loosened up. Over the roast beef and potatoes Alexander asked him what he was most interested in.
Harry answered at once. Science.
-Harry likes astronomy, paleontology, and physics. Harry is a very serious boy, much more serious than his father. He will be an engineer, I think.
-And he has a good uppercut, evidently. Do you know what the Industrial Revolution is, Harry?
-Yes. The application of science to the means of production. Science gave us the Enlightenment which was, on the whole, a good thing.
-It gave us democracy, said Adam. It displaced the Church, even, now, in Poland.
-It's no less true to say that democracy gave us science.
-How do you mean, Mr. Rath?
-Harry, you want to be an scientist, an engineer perhaps? I'm going to tell you why the Industrial Revolution began in England. It's an instructive story, one with a moral. Know what a moral is?
-The boring bit at the end of a story.
-This is a clever boy, Bettina. You should always sit beside him.
-Are you clover, Harry?
-I want to be. Why'd you say clover?
-Sometimes Bettina mixes up her words, Harry, said Emily, looking pained, but Bettina was unembarrassed and eager to explain.
-I have these two librarians, Harry, and
-Tell Harry about it later, dear. Grampa wants to talk.
-Mrs. Beezlepoint goofed, Bettina whispered.
-Very well, then. England and the Industrial Revolution. Up to the sixteenth century the English economy ran on wood, like everybody else's. By the end of that century, though, they had pretty much used up all their forests. They'd hit what economists call a wall. In the past, societies that used up the forests declined. For example, Mesopotamia fell victim to this deforestation and the same thing happened to Venice, which cut all its wood to make ships. So, running out of forests, in the early sixteen hundreds the English passed a law forbidding the burning of wood. The economy now had to run on coal, which England had plenty of. But there was a problem. Coal had to be mined and the mines flooded and needed pumping out. In those days this was done by horse power. The horses would be hitched to a wheel and the wheel to ropes that would pull up buckets. The problem was that, as the mines went deeper and deeper, more and more horses had to be added to pull more water and these horses needed more and more oats. Before long the horses were eating so many oats that they exceeded the value of the coal. You can see the problem. Now what saved England, and made her the first industrial society, was the accidental democratization of science. In those days scientists were novelties. The universities turned out quite a lot of them but only a lucky few were hired to ornament the estates of the aristocracy. They would do after-dinner tricks for the guests. You know the sort of thingbooms and flashes. The point is that the supply of scientists in England exceeded the demand of the gentry. What were these hungry surplus scientists to do? Well, what they did was offer lectures to the paying public. Now, what happened next is rather interesting, Harry, one of those little accidents on which empires turn. An ironmonger in Western England bought a ticket to one such lecture where a scientist did a few tricks with vacuums. The ironmonger, who hadn't been to college like the scientist, had a brainstorm. He visualized how a vacuum could be used to operate a piston and how this piston could be made into an efficient pump. The vacuum pump uses physical principles to push water up and has a huge mechanical advantage over anything horses can accomplish. So, the Industrial Revolution started in England because a smart ironmonger heard an unemployed scientist.
-That's fascinating, Adam declared.
-I think I get it, said Harry uncertainly.
-Can we please be excused, asked Bettina impatiently.
-Let's go into the living room, Emily suggested diplomatically.
July the Fourth. Independence requires collective celebration. Henry James said the two loveliest English words are summer afternoon. On the lawn, Bettina is teaching Harry to play croquet. In the kitchen Adam is showing Emily how to make pirogi. Why not celebrate also the independence Mickiewicz and Chopin dreamed of, both dying romantically in exile?
Alexander Rath sits in the shade of his wide porch watching the children in the sun, listening to the noises from the kitchen. He is feeling particularly well. His bones, nerves, and alimentary canal are not a bit cross with him today. At noon Charlotte phoned, only nine o'clock for her. His elder daughter had sounded like somebody else, someone simpler and happier. She spoke in an unfamiliar, bubbly soprano rather than her customary grave alto.
-I'm getting married! I know, I know. It's awfully sudden but we're sure so why wait? He's a microbiologist. He was born in Taiwan and grew up in Oakland. Mark's his American name. In Chinese he's Hsi-Wei. No, Hsi. He's just brilliant and beautiful and sweet and he has the good taste to love my book and, of course, we'll always love each other exactly the way we do now. We both want Bettina to have a cousin and we both want a house, everything normal and clean and boring, only it isn't boring at all. Now listen. You're going to come out here for the wedding. No arguments, Dad. Just get used to the idea. It's next month so Bettina won't miss even one day of school.
Alexander thinks. Another edition of Mrs. Beezlepoint and Mr. Needleprat, with the spats and snits yet to come, or, Heaven forbid, worse. It's discreet to cut the camera when happiness is the ending, when we know the family will survive, when life has gotten its way. Genes from all over. Rather splendid to have a Chinese son-in-lawmaybe also a Pole. Who knows? Toss all the DNA into the majestic Melting Pot.
He muses on the brain. The brain is the glory and scourge of the planet: it makes us independent of nature and so responsible for it. There's no responsibility without freedom. Freedom is the unreckonable variation of possibility. Trillions of cells and synapses and worlds within worlds linking and zapping and secreting. Bettina's confusions are endearing but the fact is we are all confused; all our paths are strewn with banana peels.
-No, no! Not under the shed! cries Bettina. Harry is ruthless with his mallet but wants her approval.
-Did I do it right?
Agreeable badinage wafts from the kitchen.
-Dumpling is a funny word.
-So's pirogi. Is one called a piroga or a pirog?
-A pirogue is a boat in Louisiana. Men from Texas like to be called Tex, but the ones from Louisiana dislike it if you call them Louise.
-You're beginning to sound like my father.
That young secretary in the English department. We nicknamed her Easeful Death because we were all half in love with her. She married and moved on. A wise woman.
It's a hard thing to live longer than your father. It feels wrong. What would one say to him?
This is her house; it's her. Big and Victorian like those complicated books with the dénouements she so enjoyed, the sudden millions from Australia, the misplaced children miraculously found, the lovers all tidily coupled. Will they sell the place? Of course they will, why not?
Alexander recollects the light verse he'd written so unexpectedly the previous night with his old Pelikan, his link to tradition. Wherever had the impulse come from? Some spontaneous overflow of emotion? Despair that longs to comfort itself in gnomic rhymes? What was it about, or any poem, but still being alive? Even if he could somehow emend the thing, it wasn't worthy to kiss the toenails of a Crimean sonnet.
Alexander strides into the kitchen, all smiles, kisses Emily on the cheek, grins at Adam, touches his shoulder, then makes his way upstairs. If he had a gun he could do it now.