|Apr/May 2011 Fiction|
Photo by Leeca Desforges
She was working from home, with the Stephanie Miller show in the background, when the phone rang.
"May I speak to Lillian Kern?"
"Would this be the Lillian Kern who attended San Francisco State University between 1986 and 1989?"
Lillian hesitated. The smart person these days did not volunteer anything over the phone. One lapse could get you on infinite mailing lists, while precious bits of your identity went streaming into the hard drives of thieves. "And what is this in regard to?"
"We are trying to contact students who may have been involved in certain psychological testing around those years."
"I don't recall anything like that," she said, relieved that this would now go nowhere, but also mildly disappointed that it would hasten her return to work.
"The theme of this experiment was personal modesty. The idea was to measure emotional responses based on the way you were dressed."
She considered it a moment more, suddenly wary that she wasn't drawing the blank she expected. Holy shit. That? That stupid thing in the Connor Building where she had sat bare-chested, talking to some jerk in a lab coat and afterwards filling out questionnaires? Could someone want to know about that?
"It's possible. I may have."
"Mind if I ask a few questions?"
"How long will it take?"
"About twenty minutes."
She regarded the scant progress on her work board. Like most graphic artists, her work-from-home freedom was mitigated by deadline pressure, and her boss was not beyond impromptu check-ins.
"You know what? I'm actually at work now and—"
"No problem. I'll give you a number to call. Have a pen?"
"I do." It was a lie. A minor one because she was certain she could find one in seconds. Ah, there, her translucent roller ball, which unfortunately picked that moment to die. By the time she found a replacement the voice on the line had finished rattling off the number. Could you repeat that? It was all she had needed to say. But the part of her that was still leery made her hesitate a second too long.
So what? Back to work. Stephanie and her sidekicks—they were known as Mooks—were laughing heartily. The main Mook had just done a dead-on imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lillian hunched over the work board and returned to sketching a row of cabinets, which needed to look efficient, modern, and entirely asexual. The grain lines, just like the grain of the actual product, should not make you think "real hardwood"—suggesting expense—nor should they look entirely tacky. In her art student days at State this had not been her dream.
"So the call was about a psychology experiment?" asked Phil, her husband, sitting across the table at Italian Colors of Oakland.
"That's what they said. I never wrote down the number so I guess I'll never know."
This was not a casual dinner. It was their first attempted reconciliation evening since Phil had been caught cheating. The object of his affections—or "temporary lust" or "martini psychosis" depending upon the version—was one of the administrative assistants at Blaylock Suspension where, for the past ten years, Phil had conducted metallurgic research on their single product: torsion bars. There was a phallic irony in there somewhere—in better times the puns flowed—but at the moment none of it struck her as funny. The important thing was for the evening to go well, so at the first sign of lagging conversation Lillian flipped through her Rolodex of topics: cabinets... deadlines... Mooks...oh, that call....
"I haven't thought about that experiment for years. Basically, there were two groups, a naked group and a fully clothed control group. You had to write an essay which some experiment stooge would tear to shreds. The point was to see if there was a different sensitivity to criticism between the two groups."
"And you were in the naked group?"
Christ, was he getting turned on? Arguably this could be a good thing—ultimately you would hope to go there—but, considering the circumstances, it was not helping his case to exhibit fresh evidence of his hair-trigger sexual response. What kind of reaction time had he clocked upon first spotting the rack on that Blaylock whore? OK. Calm, calm, she commanded herself. But here was the thing: Phil came advertised as the kind of guy who never would do this. As a Sunday ad you would have to sketch him with that trim, depth-suggesting beard he used to sport back in the nineties, and a sheep dog's sincerity in his eyes. The sixteen-point caption would say: WORRY ABOUT CHEATING? NOT WITH PHIL. PHIL HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A VICTIM OF CHEATING. HE'S ON YOUR SIDE GALS. OH, AND ASK ABOUT THAT MENS' SUPPORT GROUP HE USED TO ATTEND.
Despite the setback—admittedly all in her head—the evening went pretty well. On the way home they even played a few rounds of spontaneous crossword, a mutually invented relic from their courtship.
Fruit, eleven letters, third letter M.
Pomegranate—Phil only needed two guesses.
They returned to their living room with Phil's arm around her waist and the air rife with the possibility of their first sex in months. So when the phone rang she knew better than to answer. Her resolve held well through the first two rings, but then she began to worry that Phil would be the one to pick up. He would undoubtedly be considering it—metallurgy seemed to entail more emergencies than your standard ambulance house—so she weighed which posed more risk to the mood: getting angry because Phil answered, or answering herself. With no awareness of making the decision, she picked up the phone.
It was Emma, as usual sounding slightly breathless. Next she would say, "Are you into anything?"—something she had started doing fifteen years ago after getting involved with some vaguely new-agey Berkeley Gestalt group. Lillian had hated hearing anything to do with that group. However, who but the hardest heart could begrudge whatever worked for Emma in that period after her first divorce?
"Are you into anything?"
"Did they call you too?"
"State. Someone called about that study you and I were in. I barely remembered we did that. They must have asked a hundred questions. And it was weird—they didn't even seem interested in the psychological stuff. They wanted names. Who did I remember? What did they look like? Don't worry, I never mentioned you, but I bet they'll call if they haven't already. Shit, they even wanted to know if there was any printed material I still had. After twenty-three years? I mean what's up with that?
The next day, mostly out of curiosity, Lillian turned down the Stephanie Miller Show and dialed Directory Assistance, a service she knew most in her orbit would consider antique. She could see her daughter, Jenny, currently away at college, disparagingly rolling her eyes: "Ever hear of the Internet?"
"Please state the name you are calling. You can also say 'business' or 'category search.'" Oh, shit, when did they computerize this? Lillian kept pressing "0" until a live operator came on line, but even then it was not clear sailing: "I don't show a central number for San Francisco State, do you have a department?"
"Psychology," said Lillian. A second later the computer voice returned and recited the number. This led to a new touch tone maze, followed by a succession of transfers. No one she spoke with had the slightest idea what she was talking about but at some point she found herself talking to a Professor Friedman.
Lillian explained, trying not to sound like a crackpot.
"Did the person you spoke with say they were calling from the school?"
"That's what I assumed."
He issued a dubious hum. "Well, I can't speak for the entire university, but I think it's safe to say this didn't come from Psychology. It's just not the sort of thing we would ever do. Besides, the school wouldn't keep records on anything like that. 1987? That's even before my time."
"Do you have any idea where else the call might have come from?"
"Sorry. I wish I could be more helpful. Do you want me to switch you back to the operator?"
OK. Fuck this. Back to the cabinets. The issue now was the text: LABOR DAY MADNESS. The boss had already blue-penciled her first attempt—uppercase faux granite—as too serious. "Get playful, Lillian. Maybe go a little cartooney." For some reason, the words stuck in her mind in a sludgy alliterative loop: cabinets... cartooney. cabinets... cartooney. This just wasn't her dream.
"I wouldn't stress about it," said Phil as they drove to the Home Depot in heavy weekend traffic. "It's a bureaucracy. The head doesn't know what the tail is doing."
"But if it wasn't the psychology department, then who?"
"Who knows? Maybe someone from the experiment."
A memory came to her of sitting on a bench in a cold corridor waiting for the experiment to start. She would have been about Jenny's age, and the thought of Jenny doing the same thing now made her stomach clench. She remembered a fragment of the essay she had written: "Never before has the pendulum swung so sharply in this country, never have rights vanished so quickly." It was during the Reagan years and she had wanted to say something bitingly political; it was a way of rebelling against the boredom of the experiment, and besides, Emma would find it amusing.
"You would have liked my essay," she told Phil, as they returned to their driveway, new soaker hose coiled behind them. "I thought I was being quite radical. I probably came off like a Weather Underground wannabe."
"That's a hot image, especially if you wrote it in the buff."
She shot back a look of mock annoyance, or at least it started out that way. "Not when I wrote it. But, if it makes you happy, I was topless when that twerp from the experiment tore it apart."
That night Lillian and Phil made love for the second time since their reconciliation. She wanted to believe that it was because the wound was healing, not because he was relating to their discussions about the State experiment in some weird way. She knew how Emma would weigh in: "Whatever works." And, face it, a young woman, expounding her heady new ideas, bare tits to the wind, was going to be a steamy notion for a lot of guys. Nonetheless, it was almost reassuring when, just like old times, Phil fell asleep shortly after coming. She lay next to him, attempting fealty to the afterglow but, after a few minutes, there was no turning aside the new thoughts starting to patter: surely she and Emma were not the only former subjects who had been contacted. Perhaps, even at this hour, there were others, staring at their own ceilings, heads spinning with similar questions. And, if so, how would you know?
She padded downstairs and turned on the computer. The word GOOGLE floated in front of her in wavy capital letters that were indisputably effectively cartooney.
Go for broke: San Francisco State 1987 experiment topless.
Eighty pages of hits: topless bars, topless pics, topless singles. There were also items about the Bay Bridge, the San Francisco Giants, experimental dentures, the state of Montana. At one point she accidentally clicked a link and the screen filled with a huge breast. "Titty Kitty would like to meet thee." God, what if Phil walked in?
Okay, leave out topless and use quotes: "San Francisco State University" 1987 "psychology experiment."
Now there were only twenty pages: The San Francisco State Catalog, a 1987 Plymouth, the double-slit experiment, still some items about breasts...
After an hour of this she thought she found something. It looked like some kind of bulletin board, but there was only a single entry: "Yes. They called me too. They wanted to know about some test I was in." It would have meant nothing by itself, but it had come up with the search terms: "psychology experiment" 1987 "personal modesty." The signature was PH2121@CoreNet.com, in hyperlink, presumably an email address. Should she try to make contact? Phil, of course would throw a fit. "You don't know who this person is! And now you're giving them our email?"
Then she had better idea. She keyed PH2121@CoreNet.com into Google and hit enter: Twenty-one pages. The first link was another bulletin board, but now with a column of entries:
—They called me in March.
—So you took the test, too?
—Hey, I just found this site. Is it about that experiment?
—I don't know if it's the same. I took off my blouse and bra and this guy comes in and starts to lambaste me.
—I got lucky, I was in the control group.
—Yes, they called me, too. They mostly seemed interested in who I remembered from the experiment.
Other threads were on different topics entirely:
—Are Michelins worth the extra money?
—Big screens are power hogs.
The remaining links were more of the same. No one really seemed to know very much. The respondents appeared in an early stage of discovering each other and were piecing together their common denominator. Despite the evident care to protect anonymity, there were occasional hints of location: Jane in Colorado, Bob in New York, Kansas Carrie. In all, she noted six other states. If a date was mentioned it was almost always 1987, with a few outliers in 1988.
She remembered the way the experimenter had ripped into her essay. "I notice here you say 'never has the pendulum swung so sharply.' By 'never' do you mean to imply an acquaintance with the whole of American history?"
"No, of course not."
"So you don't know what you're talking about?" At some point she realized that Test Guy was delivering his barbs staring directly into her nipples. It was as if he had come from a planet where eye-to-nipple contact was the established norm. The unbridled rudeness of it so shocked her that she initially questioned what she was seeing. Or maybe it was something about her: were her nipples blinking, had they sprouted thorns? And then she realized: oh, this was the experiment. From that point forward, it seemed no big deal. But now, at three in the morning, still trying to process her surfing, with the cool office air grazing her skin, and her thin nightgown offering scant protection, it was palpably giving her the creeps.
For two weeks there were few developments. At work, cabinets had given way to canned hams and those gave way to camper shells.
When the phone rang, she thought it was Emma, who had been doing some of her own Googling, but instead it was a thin male voice which sounded vaguely familiar. "Is this Lillian Kern?"
"Are you the Lillian Kern who attended S.F. State between 1986 and 1989?"
She paused a moment. "I am."
"The reason I'm calling is because we are trying to contact students who may have been involved with certain psychological testing around those years."
His tone was that of a bored bureaucrat—she pictured a scrawny college student with messy hair and cryptic tee-shirt—simply going through the motions. By now she was certain that this was the same voice she had spoken with before, but if there was any awareness of prior contact on the caller's part, it was entirely absent in his deadpan.
"Are you with the University?"
"Well, not directly. We're contracted with a research group that has an interest in the 1987 study. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?"
"What's the name of your organization?"
"Carter Correlated and Integrated Analysis. It's a New Jersey Company. "
"Do you have a phone number?"
He recited a number without hesitation and this time she wrote it down. Then, perhaps interpreting her questions as reluctance, he offered, "If this isn't the best time you can call back at that number."
By now Phil would be screaming: Just hang up. You don't know who he is. Don't give him anything! She had some sympathy for this viewpoint. But, first and foremost, she wanted to hear the questions.
"No, go ahead."
"Do you recall the name of any persons associated with the experiment? This can include the person who tested you, assistants, or the person who directed the project, if that was known to you."
"I don't. It was really a long time ago."
"Could you describe the physical characteristics of any persons associated with the experiment? This can include race, gender, build, hair color, facial characteristics."
She was already starting to grow uneasy. Wasn't this exactly the pattern reported by Emma and those semi-anonymous first names from Colorado, New Jersey, Kansas?
"Are all of these questions going to be about identifying people?"
"I beg your pardon." He did not seem annoyed, just momentarily thrown off track. "Well, to be honest, we do have a few more along those lines."
"You know what? I need to know a little more about who's conducting this."
"Carter Correlated and Integrated Analysis."
"I know, but who is Carter blah blah Analysis? Why are they asking about this experiment from over twenty years ago?"
"Sorry, I'm only supposed to read the questions."
She hated it when Phil's cautions—or even her projection of those cautions—proved correct, but now there was no getting around it: this kid was giving her nothing, only a fool would keep feeding him freebies. On the other hand, if she bailed out now, she would end up knowing little more than before.
Then the voice on the line offered something unexpected.
"But my boss can probably answer a lot of that."
"Yes, you can call the number I just gave you."
"You didn't get an address?" asked Phil, drumming his fingers on the back of the wine list at Italian Colors. She was no longer thinking of this as reconciliation, just a Friday evening out in the new normal.
"I got the name of the company, the state, and a phone number, isn't that pretty specific?"
"What if the number's bogus? Put Carter, Analysis, New Jersey into Google and you'll get a million hits."
His rebuke hurt her a little. She had wanted this discussion to be more in the mode of Nick and Nora Charles, working in concert, closing in on glitzy thieves. But now he had made her defensive.
"Okay, so you can't Google it. There's other ways of getting information. What's the big deal?"
Phil shrugged. It was his I-was-just-being-reasonable shrug—technically a gesture of concession, but it always made her feel like a bitch.
The following Monday, on his way to work, Phil made a surprising offer.
"You know what? It would be 10:00 A.M. in New Jersey right now. If you want, I could try calling that number."
She knew this could be taken as condescension—silly Lillian could never make the call—but after twenty years you learned a few patterns, which led her to see it as a touching, if not slightly top-heavy attempt to smooth over that Friday rough spot. Did I offend you? What if I defrag your laptop? Naturally, there was a pragmatic benefit to this interpretation: this thing was getting annoying, personal and more than a little weird. It was a relief to let someone else step in.
"Fine. Go for it."
She sat with her knees bunched up on the chair, and watched him punch in the numbers, already less certain this was a good idea. It reminded her of the time she was twelve and had signed up for a record club—FIVE GREAT HITS FOR A DOLLAR—not realizing that she had obligated herself to two years of full-price purchases. In that case it had been her mother who went to bat on the phone, threatening hellfire and lawyers. Now, she listened to Phil, both pleased and annoyed by his succession of pushy, logical questions: Who am I speaking with?..Is that a mailing address?...What is your objective?...How long has this been going on?
When he hung up he gave her a long blank look, a little like a general in a horror movie who had just been told: "Cleveland is lost."
"He's with a law firm. Said his name was Sam Sword. Apparently this is all about some kind of class action suit. The reason they contacted you was to determine if you might be a sympathetic candidate for their suit."
"Because some guy stared at my boobs over twenty years ago?"
"Sensibilities change about some things. According to this Sword guy, this wasn't some low budget, grad student thing. The same tests were being conducted on campuses all over the country, and the schools never checked out their true purpose, or if they did they never revealed it to the subjects being asked to expose themselves, which is why there might be some liability."
"So, what was their 'true purpose'?"
"Ah, there's the catch—" now Phil switched to another voice, a mockery of a late night infomercial announcer. "To find out more, come to one of our friendly informational seminars. There's one coming to your area in two weeks, in convenient, nearby Orinda."
"Maybe I should go."
"Oh, right. Let's get involved in some bizarre legal action we don't know anything about."
"Look, this thing is weirding me out. I'd just be gathering information."
Phil rocked on his heels and repeated his previous shrug. "Your choice."
Of course it was her choice. And if he had said otherwise she had a mouthful. Now that she didn't have to say it, the words simply churned inside of her.
Two weeks later, with rain slicking the streets, Lillian and Emma were driving to Orinda in Emma's three year old Mini Cooper. It had been Emma's first new car, a bit of a stretch on a teacher's income, purchased in a spirit of celebrating her long-awaited tenure in the Berkeley school system, where she taught fourth grade.
"I'm still not sure we should be doing this," Lillian groused, squinting through the side window, where fat drops turned the freeway lights into mini-moons.
"Don't you want to finally know what's been going on? It was your breasts that got eye-fucked. I was in the control group." It wasn't the first time Emma had reminded her of this, always with a joking air, but also an edgy undercurrent, seemingly related to a mutual understanding that, through most of their relationship, Emma had been the more lovelorn.
They left the freeway and after a few maneuvers on surface streets the Hyatt loomed ahead of them like a glowing fortress of light. The meeting was in a rectangular partitioned room which, despite its ad hoc appearance, had an actual name: The Caldecott Room. The crowd of about fifty had a suburban look and was two-thirds female. The women were mostly in loose tops and slacks, with occasional displays of chunky jewelry. A number of the men were in sport coats over golf shirts and chinos, although there was also a nerdier contingent: one in a bowling jersey, one in a Roswell sweater, one apparently affecting a lawyerly look but failing miserably, his brief case too scuffed, his suit too bunched at the collar and shoulders. It brought back that sick to her stomach feeling of long-ago singles nights where she could not wait to leave the moment she walked in.
"I'll bet half of them voted for McCain," Emma whispered.
A podium sat at the head of the room, facing the rows of folding chairs.
The crowd filled out the chairs and, at some point, a stout, full-jawed man with a helmet of swirling gray hair walked behind the podium and began tapping the microphone with his fingers, producing a series of popping sounds. Lillian knew instinctively: this was the man Phil had spoken with on the phone. Once it was clear that the mike was live, he called for attention by clanking a glass with a spoon.
"Thank you for coming out in the rain. I'm Sam Sword." Most of the crowd fell quiet, but there was also some muffled laughter with no discernable cause—could they simply be laughing at his name?
"I know this is old hat for some of you but, for the benefit of the first timers, I'd like to go over some basics. Here's what we know so far. Between 1987 and 1988, a series of experiments took place, mostly on college campuses. Their alleged purpose was to examine personal modesty in combination with other kinds of social discomfort. With some variation, the methodology was pretty much the same. The subjects wrote a short essay which was then criticized by an experimenter. Subjects in the experimental group were either fully or partially undressed, while those in the control group dressed normally. The intent and I have to stress purported intent was to compare the emotional impact of the criticism between the two groups. Now, so far, this is no big deal. Studies take place on college campuses all the time. It's usually something students are doing for credit, or maybe a faculty member is using for research. But once Al Gore invented the internet, a funny thing happened. The subjects of this particular experiment began to discover that others, in entirely different parts of the country, were involved in the same enterprise. These weren't the usual homespun projects everyone thought. We now know of 50 schools where this occurred in 20 states—all in the same timeframe. To this day, no one knows who was conducting these experiments."
"So who would you sue?" It was a male voice near the back, the guy in the bowling jersey.
Sam squinted back as if looking through powerful lights. "When you say 'sue' keep in mind that this is not only about money. Most of our plaintiffs just want to know what was going on. The suit would give us power of subpoena. Not a single school will admit to knowledge of these experiments. Yet large numbers of young men and women were being asked to disrobe on their campuses, so we think they bear some responsibility.
Some information packets were passed out and then Sam declared a break.
Lillian went to a portable table laden with cheeses and at one point bumped into a thin young man with cropped hair, a day's facial growth, and glasses with nickel sized lenses. He acknowledged her with a nod and asked, "Is this your first time at one of these?"
"It is. You too?"
"I've been to five."
"I'm tracking this for a blog I write for. I'm Paul, by the way."
Emma wandered up to join the conversation. Lillian had the uncomfortable thought that there was a check-out-the-guy element to her approach, even though he appeared ten years her junior.
"Some of these people have been here since my first meeting," Paul continued. "It's gotten a little cult-like. One thing I'll tell you—don't trust everything you hear."
"Why not?" asked Emma. Her tone was succinct, not flirtatious at all, which left Lillian feeling guilty for her initial misgivings.
"For one thing, Sword's been doing this for three years, but somehow the suit never materializes. What he really seems to be after is collecting as much information as possible about the people who conducted the original experiments."
"Isn't that one of the objectives of the suit?" asked Lillian.
He clucked his tongue in a way that suggested misunderstanding. "You know what? I've been talking out of school. Anyway here's my card."
Lillian accepted the card. There were no fancy graphics, simply the name Paul Harvey followed by a telephone number.
"Not the famous Paul Harvey," he added with a smile.
Sam clanked the glass again and the meeting resumed. Before long, a hand shot into the air with a question and Lillian realized it was Paul.
"Is it true that, contrary to what most people here believe, the original experiment was not about psychology?" His tone was accusatory and slightly pressurized, causing the room to fall quiet with tension. The leader was being put on the spot.
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"The fact that women are not equally shy about their breasts and, say, their elbows comes from evolution. And evolution is about probabilities. Those experimenters in the eighties were onto something. But it wasn't about modesty. It was about probabilistic laws."
The eyes in the room went back to Sam, but Lillian kept looking at Paul. He was sounding a little tweaked. What had she missed in their chat by the cheeses?
Sam maintained an even keel. "I think I've been making the point that we don't know what those people in the eighties were up to."
"Then how do you explain the way they were funded?
"You know what? I think I want to give others a chance to ask questions."
"By lottery winnings. Does that suggest they knew something about the laws of probability? I think the people here should know."
Lillian and Emma exchanged glances. He was tweaked alright. What had they both missed? These days you liked to think your early radar was trustworthy, especially when it came to men.
Eventually order was restored and Sam went on to other questions. Lillian actually felt some admiration for the way he crafted the transition and also the sensitivity he displayed for those in the room with concerns. One woman was upset to think that photos could have been taken during her naked moments. "Now, with the Internet, who else might have access to that? Neighbors? Co-workers? My kids?" Sam assured her that there was no evidence of that. Her anxiety was not assuaged but, far from brushing her off, Sam stayed with her, even pursuing her misgivings with follow up questions of his own. But, wait a minute, weren't some of those questions exactly what Paul had predicted? "I don't have access to your questionnaire, but did you happen to remember the names of anyone connected with the original experiment? What about physical characteristics? By the way, that goes for anyone here. If there is anything you've remembered since we originally talked to you —especially if it concerns our friends from the eighties — we definitely want to know about it. You can call me twenty-four seven."
"Well, that was weird," said Lillian, breaking a short silence as they drove back toward Oakland on Twenty-Four. Lillian was now at the wheel of the Mini Cooper, after Emma declared she was too tired to drive. For a moment she thought Emma had fallen asleep, but eventually she raised her head and asked, "So who is Paul Harvey?"
"The nut job we just met?"
"No, the other one. He said there was a famous Paul Harvey."
"I don't know. The name sounds familiar."
Emma went to work on her Blackberry, and promptly read back a page that came up in Google. "'Paul Harvey 1918—2009. A mainstay on ABC radio from the nineteen-forties until just prior to his death. Primarily known for news. Over the span of his career his most distinguishing feature became his unique delivery style, characterized by long pauses, and unusual emphasis. He also famously cultivated the nuance of reading the page numbers exactly as they appeared on the script. His deep voice, barking, "Page two. Page three," punctuated almost every broadcast.'"
"He sounds as crazy as the guy at the meeting."
"Well, tonight's Paul did say one thing that made sense."
"Oh, right." It came out more dismissive than she had intended. Emma's open-to-all unguardedness was a major part of what Lillian loved, but it had a down side, especially when she found something interesting about the flakiest person in the room.
"No, seriously, that thing about breasts and elbows. That has to be something humans evolved, right?"
"I think it's socialized."
"Do you know that for sure?"
Lillian conceded she did not.
The moment Lillian entered the house she knew something was out of whack. If Phil was up at all at this hour he would be in the living room watching the news, a mug of herbal tea in easy reach; either that or he would be in the kitchen. Now both living room and kitchen were dark. The door to the office was slightly ajar and a purplish band of light spilled onto the carpet.
Lillian entered the office and found Phil at the computer. "So how was your meeting?" he asked, turning as she snapped on the light. Quickly, she scanned the monitor: was it porn? A suspicious email? Actually it looked like a boring spreadsheet.
"Fine. Well, actually, weird. Our friend, Mr. Sword, got into a heated exchange with one of the participants."
Phil nodded at the monitor. "I've also been focused on Sammy. It's not easy. Apparently, in the eighties there was a punk rock group whose lead singer had the same name. So when you Google Sam Sword a million things come up."
"What's the group?"
"That's sweet." An ironic smile acknowledged her quip, which inspired her to drop a hand on his shoulder. From another sector of her thoughts she recalled the titter of laughter when Sam first stated his name—perhaps this namesake explained it.
"But I did determine one thing. Our current Sam Sword is not a lawyer.
"I thought he was Google proof."
"The Bar Association's site isn't Google proof. You can find anyone licensed to practice in any state. No Sam Sword has passed the bar. Ever."
There was a trace of accusation in his tone, a subdued I-told-you-so, linked to his initial resistance to Lillian's going to the meeting in the first place. It was enough to make her withdraw her hand and, a little to her surprise, Phil looked hurt, but dammit, so was she—that smile he had flashed could have been a Nick and Nora Charles moment, and the sight of him pounding away at the computer, in pursuit of the true Sam Sword, had her soaring with a new sense of camaraderie. Now all she wanted was to go to bed.
Under the covers, it became clear that sleep was not going to come easily. She was mad at Phil, mad at Sam Sword, even semi-mad at Emma, though, to be honest, what was wrong with keeping an open mind on this issue about breasts and elbows? Maybe certain kinds of modesty were evolved. Wasn't that one of those debates where scientists kept changing their minds? Then a new thought entered her head. It probably meant nothing—had to mean nothing—but once it was there she knew it would not go away. If you could not Google someone named Sam Sword, wouldn't the same apply to Paul Harvey?
The next morning she awakened with fresh resolve. She called her boss and said she was taking a sick day. Then she called the number on Sam Sword's handout and told him that she indeed had new information and needed to see to him immediately. It was a bit of a lie, but she wanted to maximize the chance that he would see her. Her plan was to lay it out: this was affecting her domestic life, violating her privacy, making her fearful and he needed to start telling the truth.
The address he gave her was in Walnut Creek, a small two-storey building sandwiched between a gym and a Radio Shack. Nothing about the building suggested it was office space as there were no markings either inside or out. The doors lining the corridors bore only numbers, and some not even that. Lillian knocked on 205. The door opened with a squeak and Sam Sword stared back at her. He was wearing a blazer over a green sweater, his hair blow-dried into an orderly cloud-like swirl. He flashed a benign smile and gestured her to step inside. The interior was not plush, but also not bare minimum. Light blue carpeting ran wall to wall. A large mahogany desk sat at one end, topped by a retro-style pen holder, brassy postal scale and lamp with a stained glass shade. Behind it was a painting of dark-skinned men holding spears. On the adjacent wall a bookcase was filled with law books.
"My firm hastily rented this space once it was clear I would be coming out here," he said by way of explanation. It struck Lillian as odd that generic office space would come equipped with law books—a point too minor to challenge, but it reinforced her feeling that he was not to be trusted even on trivial statements.
"I have to be honest. The reason I'm here is because I'm uncomfortable with the effect this thing is having on me and my family. I really don't know what is going on."
"I had hoped we explained that last night."
"Look, my husband and I have done some research. We know that you are not actually a lawyer."
He weighed this calmly, his gaze fixed nowhere in particular. "I never claimed to be. I said I was with a law firm."
"Like an employee?"
"Employer. I'm the one who hires the lawyers."
"That still seems misleading."
"I didn't intend it to be."
There did not seem to be anywhere to take this and Lillian decided to change the subject. "Is Paul Harvey a regular feature of your meetings?"
At the mention of Paul Harvey, Sam rolled his eyes. "Oh, he's been to a few. He's never made the commotion he did last night though. I'm sure it was deliberate. He wanted to make people as uncomfortable as possible so they wouldn't come back. There's a reason he'd want to sabotage our efforts —I can tell you this now—we think Mr. Harvey might be one of the people involved with the original experiments. He thinks we believe this business about writing for a blog. I presume he told you that. We're happy to have smoked him out. He has a condo right here in Walnut Creek."
"Wouldn't the guy have been about twelve during the time period in question?"
Sam smiled and slowly shook his head as if he considered the joke to be on himself. "You know what? You have me on that. There's an explanation, and you'll have to trust that I can't give it to you right now."
Trust? A major gap in his story like that? Was he simply toying with her? OK, focus, focus. She did not have to be Perry Mason trying to crack a lying witness. It would not help to get stuck on this point. What did she really need to know?
"What exactly were those experiments trying to accomplish?"
Sam seemed to approve of this question; his eyebrows lifted receptively, and a new congeniality shone in his eyes. "I'll start with the one thing Mr. Harvey said last night that was true. There was a mathematical component. The fact that personal modesty could evolve by natural selection, essentially random trial and error, has bearing on a much larger debate. You could call what Mr. Harvey and his friends discovered a breakthrough. I grant them that."
"What larger debate?"
Sam pulled a sheet of paper out of his desk and began writing. When he flipped it around for Lillian's inspection it looked like gobbledygook: two lines of numbers, letters, and cryptic symbols connected by an equal sign. "You don't have to understand this. Just so you know, what they proved was that the equal sign is correct. And that is a fact that has enormous consequences."
"Well, you probably don't want to hear the esoteric physics, but last night Mr. Harvey provided you with an example of one of the by-products. What he said about funding those eighties studies with lottery winnings was true."
"Are you telling me it's possible to predict lottery numbers?'
"Predict is the wrong word. If I tell you yesterday's winning number, did I predict it? The key is how the information is transmitted."
How much science did you have to know to understand when a line was being crossed? A possibility she had never considered now fell upon her like a shadow: he could be just as crazy as Paul Harvey. And here she was alone in a room with him. Her mind got busy on a new calculation: her position, his position, the door.
"We never had a problem with what those experimenters discovered," Sam continued. "The problem was that the experiments were, for lack of a better word, illegal."
"How could they be illegal?" Good, she sounded calm. Even rational.
"Let's just say the group pulling the strings was outside the United States."
"So." Know where the purse is. Know where the car keys are.
"Look, you, Lillian Kern, are free to conduct any study you please in the United States. But could you do the same thing in, say, Uganda? When it comes to interfering with other sovereign entities there tend to be laws."
"So you're law enforcement?"
"You might say that." The claim had the odd effect of making her feel safer, even if it was false.
"Well, what? FBI? CIA?"
"The only thing we share with those organizations is that we are also known by an acronym. But I don't think it's one that would be known to you."
Your search—EOTBWBD—did not match any documents.
• Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
• Try different Key words.
• Try more general key words.
Phil looked in over her shoulder. "Maybe you should forget Google and just approach it as an acronym."
Lillian was dubious, but Phil had already gone to work, arranging the letters vertically on a scrap of paper.
There was an aura of playfulness about it, like a new twist on spontaneous crossword.
"E could be exposure," offered Lillian, after a moment of drawing a blank.
"And B could be breasts," added Phil. "You knew I'd be the one to come up with that, didn't you?"
She did. But she had also been thinking that maybe it was not such a bad development if all this had anything to do with recharging their erotic batteries. Then she looked back at the page and her heart started to race. It snapped together without effort, like an epiphany from her crossword days, and she heard herself say it out loud: "Exposure of the breasts while being demeaned."
At some point you make a decision: something is not productive; it is a drain on your psyche and a waste of better-spent time. For the next two days, Lillian was determined to avoid any thoughts of Sam Sword or anything related to the experiment. Better to focus on work where camper shells had given way to school supplies—peppy school supplies—ball points with arms and legs, notebooks with smiling faces. She was just in the process of swirling her wrist—it was a practice swirl—getting the feel for how she would approach the spine of a spiral binder, when something on the radio caught her attention. One of the Mooks was doing an impression. She had missed the first part of it, but at the very end there was something about the way he snapped off the words: "Good Day."
Stephanie Miller: "My dad used to listen to his show and he always had exactly the same signoff."
The Mook repeated: "I'm Paul Harvey—" long pause "—Good day."
An ad came on and afterwards they were onto another topic entirely. For a moment Lillian felt she had to catch her breath, as if she had just charged up a flight of stairs. Was this a coincidence? Had they been reacting to something in the news? Had something happened involving the real Paul Harvey? And wasn't he already dead?
She tried Google but ran into the predictable problem. She then tried the Chronicle web site but no success there either. She also remained vigilant through every remaining minute of the Stephanie Miller show, but Steph and Mooks had moved on.
That night, Lillian and Phil set up vigil in front of the television, prepared to monitor the nine-, ten- and eleven o'clock iterations of local news. The nine o'clock contained little beyond the usual bleedings but, halfway through the ten o'clock, Lillian tensed when she heard the teaser: "Walnut Creek Police are scratching their heads, find out why when we return." Two more segments passed before they picked up the thread. It began with an exterior shot of what looked like a condo complex. On one wall, half way up, there was a large circular hole, about the size of a Smart Car. The interior of the apartment was plainly visible through the hole. The camera cut to a pair of witnesses: a man with bushy black hair, wearing Bermuda shorts and an overweight woman in sunglasses with a cat in the crook of her arm. The woman spoke.
"In the middle of the night there was a loud sound. It wasn't an explosion or anything—it sounded more like a lot of harps, all kind of out of tune."
"There were brilliant lights outside," the man added. "They were like spotlights, mostly above us, but there was so much glare it was impossible to see."
The shot cut to a policeman. "Nobody knows where the resident is. We're assuming he's missing. Normally we wouldn't be releasing his identity, except some news reports have already put it out there because of his name."
The face of the news anchor filled the screen. He added, "The name has been released as Paul Harvey. He is no relation to the late broadcaster, formerly with ABC. Anyone with information about Mr. Harvey is asked to call the Walnut Creek Police."
The next night Phil and Lillian sat on their couch staring back at officer McCurdy, looking sharp and imposing in his dress blues. Never had she thought of herself as a what-will-the-neighbors-think kind of urbanite. But now, with the top of the black and white visible through their bungalow window, she had to admit it was on her mind, along with a hope that judgments might be mitigated, or even entirely sidetracked, by doors marked Walnut Creek rather than Oakland.
McCurdy was a roundish, bowling pin shaped kind of guy. He looked about fifty with hard black eyes, smooth skin and a compact jaw that revealed the beginnings of jowls. Lillian wondered how it worked in the culture of cops, was your status diminished, say in comparison to Oakland cops, by service spent in low-crime suburbs? Or did everyone understand that these were the most plum jobs?
"Have you contacted anyone about this?" asked McCurdy.
"I tried to call Sam Sword but got a disconnect. He's the one I mentioned on the phone."
McCurdy scribbled into a small red notebook.
"And what was the reason for your association with Mr. Sword?"
Was there any way to answer this without getting into the finer points of her corporal exposure? No, there wasn't, so she dived right in. McCurdy was entirely professional, occasionally taking a note, occasionally bobbing his head. There was no hint of suppressed mirth, the kind that could translate into hacking guffaws when repeated in some precinct coffee room. She also kept tabs on Phil. She knew the right details would get him hot and she admonished herself: don't use this for that.
"And is there anything else you recall about Mr. Sword or Mr. Harvey, no matter how trivial?"
Good. The nudity phase was over. (Was Sam Sword right? Was it only because of that equation he showed her that she cared?) And actually there was something she recalled about Sword and Harvey, something she even regarded with a bit of pride, as she alone had made the connection. And the fact that she had something to contribute made her feel slightly less ridiculous for calling the police in the first place.
"Well, I'm not sure if means anything, but, yes..."
"It struck me as oddly coincidental that both of them happened to have the same names as celebrities."
For the first time McCurdy cracked a smile. "You know what? It's not that unusual. Con artists do it all the time. Makes them harder to track, even for us—" He pointed to his badge, "—despite all the sophisticated things we do with computers."
"So how common is it?" asked Phil, who had mostly been listening in silence.
"Put it this way—last month I arrested Gary Sinese."
After school supplies it was patio chairs, then car accessories, laptops, fishing tackle, pork n' beans....
It took a couple of weeks to realize that, as with other life incidents, this one had reached an endpoint and was beginning to recede. There were no new tidbits of information, or breathy speculations, or visits to the blogosphere which was undoubtedly still out there roiling. She did make one more call to the Walnut Creek Police who told her that there was still no suspect, or trace of the former resident, or explanation for that hole in the wall which had not left a speck of debris.
A month later, Lillian sat in her office, checking email, when a new entry in her inbox triggered a hitch in her breath. The sender was Sam Sword. The subject line was EOTBWBD.
There is no need to worry about Paul. He is awaiting trial, to put it in familiar terms. His defense will be that the value of his discoveries far outweighs his transgressions and, who knows, it just might fly. Future lives will be saved, and if you knew how many, you would think me inhuman for arresting him.
All of this digresses from my central message, namely, that I am truly sorry for the stress and discomfort these events have caused you. I hope this might provide some compensation.
His signature was followed by a date and a string of numbers, the latter having no meaning to Lillian whatsoever.
But Phil knew immediately.
"It's a lottery number," he said, dropping his hand on her shoulder. He had been doing that a great deal more lately.