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Apr/May 2016 Fiction

Mazes (a Novella)

hy Jascha Kessler

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream


Aloft over Utah, Sam Carpenter had just downed his fourth dose of Johnnie Walker Red, the two extra samplers having been cribbed for him by the unsmiling Jewish grandmother with blued, feathery-cut and teased-lacquered hair and pearled false nails who sat small beside him in a lavender-sequined knitted dresscoat, smoking a smokeless porcelain cigarette mounted in a goldinlaid holder. When he'd slipped her the five dollars, she said, No, she never drank anything but seltzer... her stomach... but it was all right by her if he wanted more... in his profession he needed, she could understand, like one of her sons was also a teacher and also now she was a great-grandmother... three times if you please, thank God... with 13 grandchildren, too, and so far since the gallbladder no pain and only the one cataract...

Sam sipped his coffee now as content, as comforted as he might be after such inflight repast of prefabbed club-steak, blenderized gravysalts, sterilated, paperskinned baked potato, plastic green green-peas, blank lettuce and bloody-bright, thawed strawberry tart, gelid, and now coffee—thin, nitric, resynthesized, but hot—for his feet were chilled by the draft along the cabin floor. The screen had been drawn down up ahead, and now the pale and thin-textured forms of cowboys rode, fired, fell over its surface, talking now and then grimly close-up, if senselessly to him, as he wasn't plugged in.

The plane was full. He glanced around at the 150-odd passengers propped like crash-lab dummies in their seats, eyes fixed at the screen, heads wired for stereo by thin plastic stethoscopes feeding them from the terminals on their seats. Three stewardesses in blue uniforms moved awkwardly up and down the narrow aisle carrying Silex pots, servicing the bodies, removing littered trays from their laps.

When John Wayne's hammered face bloomed its paralytic grin at him, Carpenter turned to look from his port down at the desert far below. Under the wing, false rainbows slid with them, projected by the polarized glass and prettily tinting the snaggly burnt ranges of bare rocky hills that seemed, from 36,000 feet, not much larger than corrugations on a relief map in a child's geography. The plane droned, seeming hung, drifting westward over the Great Basin of Nevada, chasing the low-burning, winter afternoon sun.

He was thinking of the conference he headed to, by rapid images in his head foreseeing the opening addresses that would continue like engines idling right through the table-hoppings of the welcoming banquet, during which the necessary appointments and rearrangements for the milling and moiling three next days were made.

The picture of the expressions of provoked acquaintances stopping him to read his nametag to make sure the man behind the bushy blonde-gray whiskers was really their old Sam Carpenter and not some wandering Schweppesman, held him smiling to himself for a while. Reviewing the groups he was scheduled to join, Sam wondered if he should have tried to put in the time his principal paper—he had three, two short, one long—needed, were it to sound at least superficially literate, as Lowell used always to say, scoffing at him.

But Lowell, he'd protest, I don't need your stylistics to report my work. I can get accuracy and efficiency with my simple sense of jargon.

But Lowell would laugh, saying, Yes, that's what he meant, to which Sam always rejoined, blushing under his shirt for his lame excuse, that he didn't have that sort of time to waste. There was too much to be done. Which Lowell would cap every time by touching a significant index finger against his temple and murmuring, Do we ever...?

Once Sam half-flashed at him, Now what in hell does that mean!

Lowell's reply? Raised eyebrows.

Sam finally decided it didn't mean anything. In the long run there is no time, never was. And that's a fact. Should he phone Lowell? Sam felt he'd rather call Elizabetta, have her take him to the newest chef in Chinatown, drinks later and perhaps some fun, if she weren't away for the weekend skiing. Although he'd mailed her the conference program, dates underlined, a month ago.

Thinking of Elizabetta, hearing her throaty, quacking Hungarian accent, he smiled to himself again, glimpsing a bright blur in memory: her tacky taste in clothes, way over the line into tarty, feeling the drive of her energetic unhappiness, its urgency spilling over the edges of her busy life supervising testing for the schools of two counties—a good leap forward from hairdressing and manicuring in just five years, thanks to the right manicure at the right moment for the right man.

Even now, when he called, she'd say, And how are your rats doing, Sam? Alluding to '56 and the twolegged Hungarian variety that kept showing up at her apartment. Unlisted though she was, it appeared they could sniff their way through the maze of America. When they arrived at their goal, herself, who could tell these days whether they were white, brown, or black shirts inside? And they could bite.

Rats took Sam back ten years to Lowell's laughter, which he still heard, could always hear: a crazy connection somehow promptly evoked by thinking of Elizabetta's joke, an association that never failed to spring sharply at him, as though it could mean to be suggesting... something important. He had never figured it out.

Actually he'd never really tried. He had been describing the set-up in the student lab that nasty autumn of 1956 to a few faculty, as part of the Department's PR job on the college, trying to get those thickskulled humanists to grasp the significance of his kind of research in this age (and, incidentally persuade them to vote for psychology as a freshman option in the curriculum, equivalent to history and political science and ambiguous sociology).

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Lowell had pretended to be fascinated by his collection of Sprague-Dawley rats, a 30-generation strain of registered animals. Stopping by one empty box, the top of which Sam had opened by mistake—that is, absentmindedly—he had asked, Why?

Why what?

Why was it empty, when the other boxes in this tier each held their fat, white rats?

All over again, staring down at empty Nevada, Sam could hear himself saying, Oh, that one's odd, Lowell. Let me explain. How confidently he'd begun, already amused by the anecdote he was going to tell. We have this experiment rigged so that it's foolproof. Look here: in order for a rat to retrieve his pellet of food or get water from the hottle, he depresses this lever. If he tries to feed without leaning on the bar, the circuit's unbroken and he's shocked. Now, here's where the number of shocks is counted automatically. After, say, 40-80 hours, we make note of that frequency. After a series of such tests we draw a learning curve for him by connecting these points on the graph. Then for control we make our little variations in the set-up, we compare the curves the rats make, and so on. It's statistical: average curves have been established, and we have givens for, say, ages of rats, kinds of rats—that's elementary. Still we have the students check it out for themselves, and we get them to testing their own hypotheses against givens. That's what that class in the lab next door is doing. Each boy administering shock to his own animal, watching his learning behavior. These in here are part of the experiment I'm conducting.

Lowell interrupted him, But Sam, just in teaching kids your principles means they're all the time shocking a whole lot of innocent rats? Over and over?

Well, yes.

Using those poor creatures as demonstration things, victims for those kids to learn on?

Well, yes, Lowell, they're rats.

I see. And Lowell had looked ponderously away.

Sam also recalled the twitch of anger, of protest, against which he had had to clamp his jaws. What the devil was the point in trying to compare this simple, this rather primitive teaching-learning apparatus, which merely shocked rats bred for the purpose, and shocked them just enough at that to cause them to alter their behaviors, to Lowell's habitual "lectures" in military history, delivered with such feline bravura and relish, in order to shock—yes, shock!—young faculty wives as, after his third martini he began unstoppably, sadistically spinning those descriptions of modern battles, the kinds of weapons and the many kinds of wounds, that hit on Austerlitz or on Sehastopol, that livid version of Verdun and Mons, that grisly Stalingrad and Kasserine Pass, his neat Anzio, his Ardennes, that awful Yalu and that Pleiku! Endless. When—he always wanted to say to them—it was his, Sam Carpenter's, research that could help condition men away from such habits of action—yes, merely conditioned thoughts!—that were the real general causes of war.

That's all it is: sex, crime, killing. Reflexes, nonrational behaviors leading to needless suffering. But Lowell, he could hear it, he could afford to stand lecturing, coldblooded, elegant, to the colonels of the War College, so that the Pentagon rats might learn from him to enjoy thinking about the criminal casualties they inflicted, compulsively, more every year...

Sam had never disclosed his dammed-up rage at Lowell that hour. Which had been a mistake, for it could have averted what immediately followed. Still, silly as it all was, somehow it had also been part of his own growth. For it was Lowell who had blown up a scene right before his students and their colleagues. All about that empty box.

A week earlier it had contained an old male rat. Somehow, Sam had been trying to say, smiling, somehow that fellow had on three weekends running managed to empty both his pellet dispenser and his tube of water without once depressing the bar or getting himself shocked. The first time, Sam figured the counter was out of commission, so he placed the rat into a box he knew to be working. He well recalled checking that out, because he touched the grid to make certain, twice touched it and twice was jolted by the electricity that ran fiercely up his left arm, leaving him tingly and damp. But the rat, sealed in his box from Friday to Monday, had done it again. The tbird time, using yet another box Sam tested manually, less than happy about the two sharp shocks he'd taken again, but the result was just the same. So, he'd conceded, grinning weakly at Lowell's averted head—that is, he had been forced to conclude—that rat had taught himself a way of getting food and water without conforming to the test situation!

Which suggests, Lowell had blurted out for everyone around to hear, which suggests, does it not, Professor Carpenter, that your old ratty's a genius, right? He's beat the system. Invented a means of breaking through your electronic booby trap! Show me that sport. I wish to offer him my personal congratulations.

Come off it, Lowell, Sam had said.

Right now. I want to meet him. Where is he? Introduce me. Where are you keeping him, Carpenter? I think you must do something about him, report him, breed him, develope that power of ratiocination. Think of it, Carpenter, you're onto something. Breed him, breed!

Everyone was looking at them.

Sam stuttered, Lowell, you cut it out now.

Where is he, Carpenter? He was rooting in the empty, disconnected box.

He's not, Lowell. I destroyed him. What else?

You destroyed him?

Had him destroyed. What's the difference?

You're kidding me, aren't you?

No.

That mutant, that rat of rats, that superpsychologist? No. Oh, no, no. No!

What in god's name is the matter with you, Lowell?

That you could do a thing like that? My god, Carpenter!

Oh, what the hell, Lowell? You listen to me and cut this clowning. If the subject performs according to his option, what good're all these boxes? What's the point of this wall of circuitry that took me four months to rig, or courses or students or labs, for that matter? The mental health people have invested $25,000 in this equipment for me, and you talk as though I should be breeding rats. That's not my job. I'm not responsible for them. I only buy them. And I pay a lot of dollars for a certified, invariant strain at that. They'd damn well better work the way we want them to, or...

But Lowell went on shouting to everybody like a nut. Do you, Sam Carpenter, have the inordinate presumption to call yourself a scientist? Why you're nothing but a goddamned Laputian! That's what you are, aren't you?

No, Lowell. Wrong. Also misinformed and misguided. I'm not quite that, whatever a Laputian may be. I'm just a research psychologist. Re... search.

With humor, dignity, he'd tried reasoning back, for it was his lab they stood in, on his grounds and not in the Faculty Club, where he was usually surrounded at the coffee urn by Lowell's sniggering camp followers from the English Department. He'd replied, I wouldn't say we knew enough about the basic problems in behaviors to call ourselves a science. Theoretically. Not quite yet. We could use a lot more data. And we're in the process of getting that fresh data. (A retort Sam exaggerated somewhat, a confession of humility for the benefit of his two assistants, one of whom had just received a Defense Fellowship for the next three years and whom he didn't want to be getting too flip before having finished up here with him.) But Lowell had taken it as his cue to rampage on, at only two in the afternoon, three good hours before martini-time.

He had stood there holding long damp fingers to his forehead. He had let out a silent Oh! and begun a theatrical pacing along the ranks of rat boxes, muttering in that Cambridge-inflected stage whisper so that even the students in the labs next door could overhear him, What are we going to do with the likes of him! What, what? And he gets the grants around this place. Lordy, lordy, look at all this! Where, sweet Jesus, is the justice? It is enough to make you ready to believe we've sunk utterly, given ourselves over unto Satan's dominion! And so forth and so on: a grand Lowell platform tantrum.

They'd been assistant professors then; now they were professors, loaded down with committees, conferences, and consultations, theses, mortgages, and children—up to their eyes in it. Still viable though, very much so.

Well, yes, Sam had said to himself at the time, and repeated it now: I did get the grants, and I get them now. We were just beginning, Lowell. And a fat good anybody's learned from your reciting history's multiple disasters. That's not teaching. Why? No one learns. Why? No one can! You may rant till you croak, Lowell, and people will still run in their vicious, mistaken, conditioned patterns. Anyway, what is it you preach? That's what he should have liked to have challenged him with then. I'll tell you, Lowell. Nothing but fakery called liberalism! Huh!

But he hadn't... because the bell had rung and the afternoon's seminar called Lowell off at a dogtrot to his own building.

Subtly the plane's angle of flight had been altered. It was on the downward slope of its continental trajectory, and the air was bumpy. Sam imagined he saw ahead the snowy Sierras of Western Nevada, near Tahoe, where he had first met the refugee Elizabetta playing blackjack at breakfast time with the remains of her divorce settlement. Long story. And now, when it's getting damned late, when the planet's coming unstuck and there may be no time left soon to rectify the future—by art or science—Lowell ought to have seen he should give up meditating and lecturing on the sociomilitary positions of 1914, let alone 1945!

Listen to me, Lowell, when I say science at least offers us hope. That's no sales pitch, Lowell, me bucko boyo.

He realized he was still talking to himself, having to talk to himself, if only because he hadn't seen Lowell in nearly five years. Who else was there for him to talk to, really? Maybe this weekend, after the conference, he'd visit with him in Berkeley, if he weren't bogged down in bed with Elizabetta, which in itself wouldn't be too bad, either. We'll see. Anyhow he knew he could put things better nowadays; he had the right to speak firmly now. He had hold of a new tool. He felt, in fact, he had a damn good position in the argument, if he could find out from him just what it was these days, should it come to arguing, which with Lowell it inevitably must.

He had, in fact, a terrific position: he could visualize the end of history. As Lowell talked of history anyhow. In a sense, history had already ended. Lowell may not have heard the news, but he was obsolescent. Oh, it was a dandy argument he felt he could develop now, and Sam sighed at the anticipation of it, different lights beginning to flicker at him from its as yet unseen and certainly varied aspects, even before he could guess what they were or where they might be coming from.

From the briefcase beneath his seat, Sam hrought out a yellow pad and began scrawling a list of notes introductory to his topic, after blocking in the title of his main paper as his reference point: THE EDUCATiON OF THE COMPUTER. He was pleased with the facility of his flow of thought.

—Some random observations if one permitted generalize on new pandora's box wch has been oped...

—Difficulties with society scientists have always come from hostile public, hostile because ignorant, and superstitious (mention many scientists also superstitious?).

—Public last 100 yrs learns to accept "hard sciences" wch are aristocratic and invisible... why? because they confuse it with technology, wch is hoth visible and democratic.

—Technology serves up sewage, cars, wrinkle-free shirts, mouthwash, cars, newspapers, ski-lifts, aspirins, water heaters, tv, freezers outboard motors electricity razorblades... gadgets mostly beneficial.

—But "soft sciences" like psychology? public suspicious and resentful. example: idea of examining the machine called the brain still seems to everybody—including scientists—a dangerous invasion of privacy! brain is last thing we think we possess, so this personal part is hidden behind strong taboo.

—And that attitude must he broken down by psychologist if he's to progress.

—But this sacred taboo, per se irrational, is part of strongest superstitious folk myth left along with religious faiths, viz., that human body is holy.

—An absurdity, anachronism! intolerable to scientist why absurd? assumes such a thing as mind exists: thus organ it lives in must not he profaned... BUNK!

Carpenter looked up from his pad. The plane banked, and he saw they were sweeping vast over the southern end of the Bay. The light that said FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT was on, the movie over, the girls checking each row of passengers to see if they'd responded to the small glowing command. As the plane slowed, circling in a wide are, stacked over the lower peninsula, waiting for the tower's order to come down, the whine of its turbines sank lower and fainter, and they seemed to be hovering.

He visualized the pilots locked in up front, going through their complex routines fast and accurate as machines as they prepared the jet for its descent along the incline of the radio beam: they were yanking handles, scanning needles and lights that evolved in pulsing patterns over the arrayed dials, reaching here and reaching there, overhead, in front of them, right and left and behind, just as they'd been conditioned in their training sessions in the flight simulators and research films. Soon we'd be landing and... must finish before they...

—NONSENSE! Because if human life holy why do we seek to destroy others in such great numbers in so many fantastic ways? why condone increasing devastation of life, not just human life but life around us? we'd seek to preserve life if we had some feeling for its sanctity, but we attack the body of life. concern is in regard to our own existence, somewhat for immediate family, decreasing by geometric rate until the little iota left is offered grudging to people unlike selves in religion, language, color... and we hate everyone over the horizon (this is a merest commonplace).

The stewardesses started to come down the aisle collecting earsets, their young hands tangled full of plastic wires and bags. With the lights in the cabin, the muzak had come on, too, suddenly jangling loud with its slack rhythms. Unsmiling, the girls were getting things out of the way, their movements angular, unyielding. Outside was thick fog, billowing by in gray, trampling, ghostly herds, like gigantic, ephemeral elephants. The distant fences of flashing landing lights vanished from view as the sunny afternoon became at once dark, dank, dismal: San Francisco.

But his thought continued radiant, pulsing through the confusion around him as the bulky contraption came to its final stop for the deplaning and people stood up, reaching for coats or stuck in place or stooping for parcels and bags tucked beneath the seats, presenting a picture of disorganization where there had been packaged bodies tied down for landing.

Sam was thinking that after all, changing brains was maybe even the smallest part of the operation.

—Having already multiplied its service abilities beyond present industrial markets, computer technology now in competition with itself, fermenting and budding like yeast, scanning the world for possible future areas of growth: insertion, adaptation, assimilation: reorganization, proliferation, and then expansion again. A natural process. Global process.

—And the future is... children. Altogether children! The two were created for each other! That is, children are created, but we make computers. What with software now coming along astonishingly week in week out, generation upon generations of software, smaller and speedier brains with everincreasing capacities for storage, brains that can handle and control billions upon billions of bits of data, handling, finding, retrieving, manipulating it all, linking up whatever and whoever you wanted with anything else at all wherever it was.

All those damn kids could have the world at fingertips. And they do! Transcendently clear, this argument: clusion inscapable! Besides, you get on the wagon yesterday or you're already and forever lost...

He'd seen enough of the computer boys to have grasped the fundamental: facts are nothing, no one can stand in the way of those sales managers. Engineers, mathematicians, deans, chancellors, trustees? When those outfits go to work, they can tear apart a university like toilet paper, which it is.

—But... when an investigator modifies our body it's unnatural, even if only a porcelain-capped tooth, transplanted kidney, plastic valve in heart, vaginal loop (circumcision? skip that one)...

—Now: what happens when we accept grafts and transplants... going on to engineer heredity? or more subtly when we begin modifying behavior so efficiently changes occurring over generations now arrive in months, weeks? I mean: changes we program human selves for, viz. changes made overnight such as will happen when the human being—the child—is associated, nay plugged to the computer! powers vast untapped undreamt of in your philosophy i.e., modification of machine called the brain ... not utopian! happening right now today.

—Gentlemen, prepare to accept this reality... in order to control (guide?) evolution... e.g., for far too long race has lived with vast majority of vague persons, subnormals, mobs, masses of neglected underprivileged undernourished hipeds... but with patterned programmed learning behavior powered by COMPUTER we begin to fashion new species homo sap. In fact with computer we alter mechanism of brain itself through integrated connection to nearly infinite potential of COMPUTER.

His ears popped. Sam glanced out to see the flaps extruding from the wing, the screw gear revolving in the opened trailing edge. They were sailing over those discolored waters at the bottom of the Bay, fenced, patched in square fields of coppery-green, ochre, sapphire sulfate blue, evaporating pans, chemical pools of some sort. The water over towards Alameda County on his right was gray, coldlooking, chopped. Then there was the long bridge drawn over that deep, with cars and trucks speeding in slow motion at about 55 mph., the plane dropping steady through the calm air, windlessly calm compared with the snowy gusts that had buffeted them taking off four hours ago from O'Hare.

Now the flaps were full out and down, the engines screamed out, the white markings at the shore's edge flew past, the whole thing settled with a whoop, and wham! committed to this attempt, it touched careening hard as the brakes were set and the turbines cut out, paused then reversed thrust with a throaty roar, and the world shuddered to a decelerated pace, resolving oddly into the normal focus of a believable 45 m.p.h. as they rolled taxiing to the parking area, grumbling, creaking, the suddenly heavy engine pods bouncing, swaying like bombs below the thin wings, making them flap up and down like sheets of tin, birdy-wings.

—Region by region they went at it, state by state, countries, continents. What do you think the chips are worth in that game? Nothing. No one. People were available as data from birth, even before birth and certainly after death, and parts of people, too: eyes, ears, kidneys, hearts, liver and lights, bits and pieces, sperm and egg, chromosome and genes and all.

—So any and every institution, university to prison to hospital and down to high school and junior high, no matter what it was, it was all of simple the matrix already prepared for programs to come. All of it data, ready for processing as stored, needing but to be tabbed. Naturally. No, no, they weren't futzing around for peanuts, mere millions. Those boys were plotting billions, billions of billions there for the taking, more with every five-year growth period; it just wasn't quite hooked up. And they'd take them too, regardless.

So, how foolish of Lowell to have spouted about "human values," about "the mind." As though there was any such thing as Mind. Nothing there but a spook, a tie, a phohia: reflexes at best! Examine a concept of mind and you'll get no more than a pretentious assumption hiding a maladjustment to the environment the organism's born into and trained by. Pathetic. Education's merely indoctrination, regimentation, all of it anywhere. Sam thought of calling Lowell from the airport and suggesting they have it out for once and for good during the computerization conference, where he could show him what things were going to be like. Why not?

He looked up then from his pad, puzzled. His pen had been running over and over some letters until the doodle had pressed through the next few sheets of the pad: CLUSION INSCAPABLE. What was that? And for some reason the forward and aft doors hadn't been unsealed yet, the cabin stuffed with stale air and heated by mute, bored impatience. Ideas had been sweeping together in his head with such a whirl that his skull felt filled with an angry elation like stuffed sinuses.

He blinked, trying to feel what that harsh sensation was, the bitterness flowing through his cheekbones and leaving a taste of steel in his throat. He blew his nose. The pressure was painful, his eyes watering. In his seat he sat waiting as passengers sighed about him, rustling their coats and bags, changing them from arm to tired arm.

Sam would tell Lowell that humanists like him ought to be getting in on it, now. They ought to be planning programs for growing brains right, they ought to be writing out the computer programs for... humanization! Not leaving it to haphazard old financiers and fanatic politicians. How could he be made to see, and see it now, that these machines would be creating the conditions for real new learning? That their simple and logical information patterns conveyed utterly new values? Like it or not, they were creating them, so you could imagine what's involved, since this conference alone, merely a showcase tax writeoff, must be costing them 25 million!

He decided he would call Lowell now, despite Lowell's threat ten years ago, ten long years, an age ago: I draw the line here, Sam, no matter where you think you may be going. I'm an intellectual Luddite, Sam. I'd like to pull the plug. It's got to have power, so that means it can he emasculated at the source. Just pull its goddam plug!

A draft of air, cool, damp, fresh air just in time. Sam had been feeling suffocated, as though the oxygen in the plane were depleted, though no one else seemed to notice. The file began moving toward the exits. As he put his pad into his case, straightened his tie and stood, he felt a bubble of laughter in his stomach, and hard words seethed up, bursting with forensic rage—all those scattered insights and foresights he'd felt waiting in him had arranged themselves in a convincing order, and he'd recognized them only now.

It seemed for the last many months he'd been standing in some featureless place as his best students were flung off in various directions on various immature social-political spasms, upsetting his schedules. Now he felt renewed, exhilarated, even terrific. He was going to come on as hellishly strong as never before with that Lowell. For all those like him... well, screw them! Now he knew what to say to them: You just try it, Mr. Lowell. Pull the plug?

Soon, in fact, right now, not even old Luddite Lowell would even know where in hell to locate his goddamn plug! And besides, not even he really meant it: wasn't he the one who was putting his English provincial voting lists into the machine to sort, correlate? Sam had heard that gossip from one of the IBM salesmen passing through. Pretty soon Lowell would he enlightening his retrograde colleagues with his slides of patterned, real facts, altering history from the bottom. Graphs of behaviors was all the historian can really study, patterns ticked off by frequency and intensity of response: farmhands, millhands, factory hands, navvies, Cockney girls and Yorkshire girls, and Molly Malone sniffing their way through the maze of life.

Oh, yes, soon enough Lowell would sign anything they handed him if he could just get his itching fingers on that computer line. Lowell was no fool. He'd see right away where the grants would he coming from. The sociologists had leeched into it for decades. But then, historians have long been accustomed to working on the dead, who don't return survey questionnaires.

Raincoat over his right arm, attaché case weighing down his left, Sam was stepping along the featureless corridor from the plane's port and had turned toward the steps descending to the baggage claims area. There had been a bank of pbones at the head, but as he was three steps down, following the pull of his case, he decided to go all the way for his suitcase.

That chill wave of fog tumbling in from the sea with thick raindrops glistening in it and sifting down on the treeless hills to the west delighted him. It was going to be a great week in San Francisco, just great now that he had glimpsed into the matter through the lens of his main presentation and traced out the line of his logic to where it vanished in the blurred perspective of futures. CLUSION SCAPABLE.

He smiled at it. Yawned twice coming down the stairs and tried to relieve the pressure in his sinuses, so obstinately clogged all of a sudden. Didn't feel like a cold, though. What was it? The thighs of Elizabetta crossed themselves in his thought with a rasp of polished nylon, and he shivered. By heaven, why not get himself a Hungarian massage tonight! His right hand was groping in his pocket for change, brushing crinkly halls and swelling dong.

No, he would pick up his bag first. He didn't like the picture of his bag—Mark Cross, pigskin, bright yellow—sitting forlorn and tempting some pro. He'd splurged on it when the IBM check came through last week, $1,000 for a three-page piece for their house magazine, a little thing tapped out between grad student advising in a free half hour and handed over to his secretary to do up into prose and punctuate for him. What counts at this stage is the name below the title, the name plus position in italics, nothing else. There would he many little $500 consultations in the year ahead, and even those half days were but mere fringes of the thing. Still, it was his first Mark Cross valise, and Sam had no time to lose losing it.

Having decided that, even against the pulsing remembered reek of Elizabetta's upper thighs, he walked on briskly. The place was crowded as it turned out, hundreds of people milling, blocking the automated lines as luggage jounced into view. A few arriving planes had disgorged them at once, and new arrivals were being announced as well. But then his flight's number flashed on the wall, and Sam saw he'd been correct to come on, for his suitcase was there now, riding grandly down the rubber conveyor, aiming at his reach just where he stood.

Luck was with him all right today. He grinned, feeling the valise's grip cunningly take his palm as though made for it alone. He heaved it up, pirouetting as he did, and sensed two odd things at once—or at least two—and as he puzzled, he heard, or thought he heard, his voice crying out in a loud silence, Aha, no you don't, although whether the words were in his head or in his throat he couldn't tell.

The first sensation was a volley of stabs in his chest, stabs ballooning into a gush of spilled fire. The second was a certain bright anticipation, a sort of wild intuition there was about to be an earthquake right beneath him, and he realized that was what he saw reflected in the snarling face and defensive gesture made by the big man in the white Stetson as Sam's briefcase and raincoat flew up somehow with his left arm and caught him square on that pink, closeshaven, cleft chin.

The man's liquor-glazed eyes flashed a weak blue at him, and almost at once his gangling arms swept up and came down to slam Sam's collarbones, ham-hands hard as sledgehammers.

Wbut the hail mister caint yew slow daown a bit just yet!

Sam's arms jerked sideways, and the knuckles of his right hand slashed against something like a rock nestled in the man's armpit, and he realized a gun was slung in there. He wanted to excuse himself, but the pain in his chest had spread, flooding hot yet cold, and he seemed to be given a glimpse inside, seeing there a form for a caisson into which turgid concrete was being poured, inexorably filling it.

The cowboy's face was drifting to the ceiling, or else he was himself sinking. He heard the clatter of his case with its loose books, papers, and pads falling to the floor, and the thump of his valise, which tripped him up on one side, and only then did he apprehend himself as falling upon it, falling with a heavy fall, tbrown off balance he thought by that damned bolo-tied, striped-suited, custom-made rancher-wrangler or whoever, some TV extra or rodeo bronco buster.

Yet he was falling, still falling, falling impossihly. A long, slow fall, longer because it wasn't really happening, until it happened with a jarring bang! In that instant of thud he recalled it as the same shock as the time when he'd turned in rage from Elizabetta, quarreling over a piece of jade, a ring she'd wanted to buy in Chinatown off Grant Street somewhere, and smashed into a telephone pole that hadn't been there before—he knew it hadn't!—and gone reeling back, thinking the pole had reached out and bashed him, flinging off his sunglasses, loosening a couple of molars...

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

The pain in his chest, the winded breathlessness from being kicked by the floor, left him rigid, prone yet pondering clearly as in another time and space, where the mind is fast as light and matter has blurred to a jell. And this thinking was also a seeing clear: a few inches from him lay a blob of smudged, pink-flattened, and poisonously sweetsmelling bubblegum, a half-smoked shredded cork-tipped cigarette stained by lipstick, a bit of newsprint with the phrases of two columns legible aslant ... Bombed Again Today Despite Stiff Resistance From Enem... and ... Claring Son Spoke To Him Through Medium, Saying He Was Sorr... and also a minuscule red ant carrying a bit of infinitesimal white crumb or crystal perhaps in its mandibles, scurrying up a crack between two squares of the dull, black vinyl tiles unevenly laid over the concrete, busily running amid those cyclopean shoes thundering down all around in the distance.

He mused, wondering how the ant would solve his problem when he reached the end of the winding maze in the floor, and waving that pecan-shaped little head, climbed out on the plain among those feetsteps dropping like mountains. But as he watched, the ant scuttled to the end of the crack and disappeared into a tiny hole in the concrete, gone, saved. Imagine that.

How long a pair of seconds Sam lay there stunned, marveling at that tiny ant's escape... and then the world flipped into its own position in time, and he felt he knew where he was and what had happened to him. He'd tripped, yes, fallen flat on his face. That's all it was. Yet he hurt all over, even worse than the fall warranted. In his chest it was that he hurt, deep inside himself. It wasn't only that his breath had been slammed out of him. It hurt him now even to draw it.

But why? he said to himself in his own voice. The answer bounced echoing back into that voice belonging to that announcer, hollow, logical, who boomed out spot ads of auto-supply sales, transmission specials, tire specials, brake, radiator, accessory specials every ten minutes. It was that very voice he heard whanging in his head when he had made a wrong, yes, stupid prediction of experimental results, or it had the gall to be advising him how to set up the next experiment. Oh, he knew that blarer, and it alone spoke now inside, saying, You know why, Sam? It's your heart, my fran, so why don't you right now just run down and ask your neighborhood friendly druggist for some...

Switch him off, Sam, his true voice counseled, but his own true was the voice of the hoy who'd lied to himself about why Daisy called off going with him to the senior prom: because his breath was beeeee ooooooo...

No, it's your heart my fran. Your franly heart, so hurryhurryhurrrreeee downdown...

Only then did he lay still, trying to think about this thing here, now, as his own private event, something he couldn't have explained even if he'd had the wind, which he did not, since someone knelt on his back between his shoulders and prevented him from drawing in that one gut-deep healing sigh he so much needed.

Yet no one was there. He turned his eyes, straining, slanting up to the right. Attached to the shoes that stood side by side a few feet off there were legs—a gang, was it?—of compassionate enemies. The big, brown, shiny high-heeled boots spread wide there belonged to that damned cowboy. He's the one who'd knocked him over, and he's the one Sam would sue the shit out of! Because he couldn't very well drag that pistol out of its holster in public, now could he? And the tops of those curlicue filigreed boots held tucked in them pin-striped green trouser legs that towered out of sight up beyond the knees.

Also, dumped next to each other were two Enna Jettick shoes, black, swollen, tight-laced, with thick-tiered old-lady ankles and calves swathed in rubberized beige stockings, and beside them a shopping bag bulged, torn, that read KLEIN'S ON THE SQUARE.

And then beside them a pair of calloused feet, bare, grimy, horny feet, feet twiddling their toes and joined to two fine-curved, fine-honed with street-mucked ankles and the shins of a girl of, say, 16, and his eyes struggled up those filly-legs till they came to a lavender hemline that just covered from view the girlish crotch swelling behind blue polka-dotted panties, and there they stopped, as though hope itself could ever penetrate the tenderly concealed secrets inside that microskirt.

And there were other shoes around him. A sort of muffling mingled with the low roar of airport traffic by the wall of bodies those legs there were attached to. But no hand descended, no voice spoke to him.

In the nail-chewed hand of the nymph, propped against her flexing thighmuscles, was a black and silver phone rattling tinnily and giving her leg its heat, a wailing, hanging rock that added its chatter to the medley of muzak and floorshaking vibrations of jets taking off and landing out there, blasting their engines in that far other world—but all transmitted yanging into his left ear lying hard against the floor that had struck him such a blow on its swift way up to meet him long long ago on his way down...

Still no one had moved, no one spoke out to cry alarm or comfort. No one in fact was doing anything, unless it was to stare down at him lying there. Was he deafened, paralyzed? How odd that in all this while they stood frozen in a ring around him.

Finally—but finally!—the Enna Jetticks turned aside and let into that circle a pair of scuffed, navy blue suede flamenco boots. Attached to them were ankles inside dingy white, cuffless duck trousers. The shoes flexed, let down a knee. He heard a voice, male, unpitched, lisping, What happened here, folks?

Wall, he jist keeled raht ovuh at me, came the voice of the cattleman. Ah thot he was goin ta take a poke at me for naow good reason, jedgin ha his look, so ah said Watch it, stranger! and he jist keeled ovuh and went on daown like a hogtied heffah?

What's the matter with you? the voice said close to his right cheek. Sam forced out, his tongue slurring in the pool of saliva in his mouth that was draining on the floor, Who are you?

I'm Airport First Aid, sir.

Need wheelchair... get me wheelchair.

I didn't bring one, sir, I'm sorry. I just now got the call from the desk over there and came as fast as I could. But they didn't tell me you were still down, sir. What's wrong with you anyway?

His whisper fading as he said the grim words, Sam answered, Get... me... wheelchair. My heart, I think? Help. Fast. Need. Please. Murmurs of sympathy overhead, voices he couldn't see.

And cowboy's rumble, Hart? Hart? Gee, ahm raht sorry for him in that case, mam. Thot he was gone plumb loco, kinda fit, mebbe? Shore looked to me like a fit or somethin.

Other voices shshshshing.

Near Sam's ear again, the First Aid, pleading, But I can't, sir. We don't have one. I mean we did or maybe we should, but I haven't seen any wheelchairs around, so I can't very well... the voice fading shrill into helplessness.

Sam then taken under his arms, lifted, hauled to his legs, which wobbled, remotely alive, tingling, but there. One arm laid over the medic's shoulder. For the first time he glimpsed the face, sharpnosed, mottle-skinned and acned, slatey small eyes bulging like marbles, expressionless—a boy of thirty. The other arm yanked up hard and wrapped over the six-foot-high neck of the bull-backed cowboy.

Medic takes attaché, Texas lout, his whiskey breath wafting close, hefts easily the beautiful, pigskin Mark Cross case.

Where we going? I can't walk. Mustn't. Having heart attack. Get me wheelchair. Oh, please wheelchair! Sam is muttering weakly. Feels sorry hearing the sound of his own voice like that, but it's drowned out, his shame, under the microphoned boom of that announcer who comes on inside his skull, saying, It can be expensive fran, so don't let them take you to the wrong shop. Uh, no, you just do the right thing for yourself today and come on down now to the man. You can trust your franly...

Listen, he says, you've got to put me in a wheelchair. I refuse to take another step, you'll kill me...

Soothingly the cowboy lassoes at him, We'll get you there and lay you daown, mister, now doan you worry none. Jist you move yore laigs faster, caint you, yore awful heavy?

Sam swallows the whimper of despair bubbling in his throat. The voice in his head sounds also like that pitchman for Slavik's Used Cars: IF YOU HAVE TO MAKE A CHOICE MAKE THE A-1 CHOICE OF YOUR LIFE: YOU CANT AFFORD NOT TO!

Shut, shut shut up! Sam yells back silently as he's slogged along. Then he thinks downward, finds he can move those legs a little bit, so he puts weight on them alternately, shuffling spastic as the medic and cowboy haul his arms relentlessly faster than he can go, saying as they tug, Look out there, feller! and, Watch it, please, sick man here! To him they speak not.

In his agony his throat gags on a gob of iron-flavored gall, and they press forward with him hanging between them, on and on as though uphill. Sam tries drawing careful breaths now, saving his strength, and yet he begins to feel sweat pouring inside his clothes, heavy sweat. Panic, is it? Maybe. Or else, the climax preparing itself.

How far do we have to go, my god?

Oh, it's down there.

Where? Where?

Mister, I'm sorry for you, but you would have to go and plotz at the other end of the world. So what do you want from me!

Why don't they put it in the middle so it can serve both ends, dammit! Why don't they think of sick people, victims, sufferers?

Don't ask me. Save your breath, you'll need it. You're heavy enough as it is.

Well, why don't they!

You do whut he tells you how to do, the cowboy orders him, maternally, jist try to shut up and live, cain't you.

Swifter yet they lug him as they tire. Desk after desk, airline after airline, so many airlines the three of them pass, going along this interminable terminal. Easily half a mile. The sweat is running down his back. Then straight ahead, between MEN and WOMEN, he sees the open portal of his station, marked by the big blue cross over it. Inside the fluorescent medical light glows, contrasting with the yellows of the airport.

They run him desperately there the few last yards, and heaving half lift, half throw him off their shoulders onto his back on the cot, which Sam hopes, though so briefly as he is laid out flat, will be his first aid station but not, God willing, his last one.

As he is twisted in air, he sees acutely the cot is covered with a musty sheet, stained with multicolored greasy stains, spotted with cigarette burns. It is barely a room, actually only a broom closet painted white once. Sink and all, painted white. On the opened door is stenciled in chrome glitter-paint: FIRST AID.

Wahl ah'll he goin' naow. Yew tek keer, hear naow! Jocular, he shouted down, winking at him as though they'd been on a spree together and he'd brought Sam back in good fellowship to some ratty hotel room. He'd dropped the massive valise at the door. Now he patted him familiarly on the thigh, and cracking those thick knuckles absentmindedly, loomed out and lurched off on those boots into nowhere again.

Now that the oaf was gone, Sam felt sad, helpless. He was looking up at the lip-biting ferret face of Mr. First Aid. He saw the crumpled intern's jacket hanging sizes too large on his skinny frame, watched him light a Marlboro with trembling hands. Right through his ache, his sweat, the deflation and taut fire in his chest, Sam felt rage at this predicament, a rage rising in him that might overwhelm him eventually.

What are you doing?

I'll just grab a teentsy smoke, mister.

Listen you, I may be dying. Get it? Where's your first aid?

This is it. You're in it.

I mean, Sam hoarsened, his throat drying with a new alarm. After all, this was the middle of the day in San Francisco International Airport for chrissake. This couldn't be. I mean oxygen, digitalis... a shot, something... medicine?

Oh, well, listen to him. Isn't he such an excitable one! the medic cooed, waving his cigarette at the wall. Baffled, Sam let his jaw gape. The medic put his hand on his, a wet, cold hand, and said in a tone of assumed patience, The fact is, mister, I don't see any oxygen tank here. Do you? And I certainly don't know what's wrong with you. So let me drag at my cancer thing in peace, huh? After all, I've schlepped you all the way down here, haven't I? So let's be a good boy, shall we?

It's my heart. Hurts right here. I'm dying. Take my pulse, at least. Cover me. I might go into shock. Do something!

Where, Mister? Where?

That confused him. The medic's eyes shifted toward the door as his boneless fingers groped at Sam's wrist. Sam shook them off. The medic turned away then saying, Anyway, since you insist, I'll give you a blanket. And yanked a heavy, olive-green, sour smelling Army surplus wool down from the shelf and tossed it over Sam's thighs, still folded in four.

Open it up, I'm sweating, Sam hissed at him. Do I have to tell you everything! Shock, I might be in shock.

Oh, sure, now it's shock. I'll just bet. Suit yourself, is what I say. He opened it, spread it, tucking assiduously with light pressing of the hands up and down Sam's hips, chattering to himself, Isn't he a big one though, isn't he just a gorgeous big one?

Silence.

Sam lay incredulous, breathing slow, trying to collect his thoughts against the oily odor of that blanket. Deeply the medic sighed, lit another cigarette, and said, Look, mister, don't knock it.

What!

I mean, get off my back, why don't you. I'm only on this stupid old gig for the first time, so how should I know what's here even or what I can and can't do? No one tells you anything anymore, you know.

Aren't you the medic? Don't they have a test or something for hiring you? Anything might happen. This is a public place, isn't it? This is San Francisco.

You must he putting me on. Admit it, you're putting me on, aren't you?

It's not the Congo!

How would I know that, you crazy thing? I ask you.

Lives are at stake here. You better believe it. Lives! My life...

As I just got through telling you if you weren't so upset you wouldn't listen, this is my first day, and I don't know where anything is at, and besides, all they have in here's aspirin and sal ammoniac and Band-Aid and a spray for cuts and things and wouldn't you know, Vaseline? I'm sure I can't imagine what that's for, can you? Anyway if you must know, I didn't have to take any exam whatsoever. I'm a male nurse, thank you. And I've had three entire years of experience. Actually though, I worked at the funny farm. Started as kitchen orderly and made my way up to holding them down in the ice tub and electrotherapy. That's shock treatment for your information. It's more fun than you might think. Though it's ghastly, too. I was actually looking forward to this bit, watching the so-called normals, if you know what I mean. Until you had to wander down the path. I couldn't stand the sight of blood again today. I'm glad you're not bleeding to death. Aren't you? Thank heavens for small mercies!

Sam waited. Whispered, If you can't do anything for me, at least get me a doctor?

He drawled back, And just where would I get a doctor, if you please? Besides, I go off duty in 15 minutes. You can't imagine what sort of day it's been! I never dreamed! First a little girl goes positively hysterical because she's lost her mama, and I had to schlep the sticky little thing through the whole darn terminal looking for her, and do you think the mama bitch even thanks me? And then a Mexican peasant spills her bag of waters and has to he carried wailing and moaning to a taxi, and here all along I thought those primitives just squatted and dropped the thing on their own hands sort of, and you bite the cord? Just shows how wrong you can be. Which reminds me, they must have left that stretcher somewhere outside PSA. Sure, I bet that's where it is. And then that nasty old cop sits here after throwing my friend out who was only keeping me company out of purest generosity of heart for a few puffs, my first day on the job after all, when he could've taken care of his own business, that little hustler. And now you go and make me carry you all the way from the other end with your old heart attack, for goodness sake! You don't look that sick. Not to me. Believe me, I know a thing or two. Give us that wrist of yours now, all right?

I only want... a doc... tor...

If you'd just lie still and stop squirming like a nasty brat who's wet his little pants, I could take your pulse... so how about it? Firmly the medic grabbed under the blanket and ran his fingers along Sam's arm professionally, tapping his flamenco-booted foot impatiently, the cigarette hanging wet in his thin lips, marbled eyes staring up at the failing light fixture fluttering at one tube-end.

Just a teentsy fast. You'll be okay. My father, may he rest in peace, used to faint once in a while, too, poor man. Especially when he got back home from one of his so-called business trips. You bet. you just know what he was up to. No wonder mother went slowly, stark raving...

I don't live here, Sam broke in on that reverie. I've just arrived, I need help, I need it now.

You don't live here? So then what's the matter with you anyway?

I told you, and I told you. Jesus, it's my heart, heart, heart! Call a doctor! There must he some doctor on call. His number must be on file here.

Well, if there is, I sure wouldn't be the one to know it, would I? Look at it this way, I said you'll be okay, and you will. Just rest a while and stop fidgeting. Shall I tell you something, just between we two? You don't look that bad to me. I've seen them a hell of a lot worse. You should watch them come out of electroshock. You'd see something then, let me tell you. They can't even remember where they are. They've forgotten everything!

You're not talking sense. Be logical! Logical. Suppose I died. Just suppose.

Goodness! Don't even mention such a thing! You thought. At least not all over me... I hope?

How would you know?

Now listen, mister, you don't have to get fresh. I have my rights, too. Petulant, he turned away.

Sam heard himself murmuring an apology, I'm sorry, sorry.

All right, it doesn't matter anyway. Happens to me all the time, you know.

Sam was saying to himself that this couldn't go on, he had to make up his mind. Where's the phone?

The booth's just outside. You go ahead and get up. You can die for all I'd try to stop you, you know.

I know, I know.

Well, put it this way: if I were you, I wouldn't.

I have to call someone. I can't lie here with you like this waiting to die, can I?

Easing, Sam let himself sit up, dropping his legs off the cot. He felt and saw himself as a huge empty jar, networks of shivery hairlines running through the porcelain. He must be careful not to jolt this frail vessel, careful careful, lest it, he, his life, crack in smithereens, useless puzzle pieces. As his legs straightened, he could almost hear inside himself the creaking tinkle of tiny shards.

If you won't phone for me, he said, I'll just have to call 911 myself.

Phone, phone. Your funeral's all I say. Just don't turn around and blame me later. And he batted his void, slatey eyes, exhaling a stream of acrid smoke from that slack mouth as Sam slid gingerly by him and he leaned aside smirking, though not really out of the way; it was in fact as though he forced him to brush against him. Which Sam did, rounding the threshold.

Tch tch tch! the fellow clucked.

A dozen lengthening paces past the WOMEN's, Sam let himself down in the booth, and as he did, he saw that sonofabitch step from the FIRST AID, light another Marlboro with a flounce of the wrist, and settle graciously against the wall, leaning one hand on his hip, crossing his legs languidly, seducing the world at large. It was as though nothing had happened, if you judged by that vacant, cruising gaze through the smoke.

What to do now, how much time had he, should he call Elizabetta? She'd know the right doctor. But did he wish to call her like this... that is... dying. What if he was, really, and it were to happen in San Francisco, and supposing there was the whole thing of getting the body home for cremation and all, and then Beth finds out there was an Elizabetta, a consigner of corpses? Well, what difference would that make to him, for god's sake, 185 pounds of embalmed cadaver, COD in an aluminum crate?

He dialed information. But, as each breath he took seemed to rotate a ring of needles rasping deeper and raying out from his pump, it was obvious this wasn't the time to be calling Elizabetta to get her to act for him. It was too late, and anyway something he should do for himself. He hung up, fumbling in the return slot for the quarter, and then slouched, staring at the sign blurred on the booth's wall, trying to take it in: MERCY 24 HOURS MERCY. That much he made out. Wiping his eyes, he found himself patiently scanning the ad, as if each word he parsed gained him that much more time to breathe in... Ambulance Service—Radio Dispatched—No Distance Too Great All Ambulances OXYGEN & RESUSCITATION EQUIPPED Finest Trained Attendants (Members of Teamsters Local 278) Northern California Ambulance Association (Ambassu of America) Special Rates Quoted on Long Distance Trips: Arrangements for: All Airplane and Train Trips Available Call us Now! MERCY 24 HOURS MERCY 24 HOURS MERCY...

Out West, Sam was reminded bitterly, mortuaries ran ambulances often as not, and that was why he was spelling out the fine print. Well, he'd call for MERCY 24 HOURS MERCY, and tell them to lug him to the best hospital for dying, and offer them the bonus contract of packing him up later for the flight home. So he dialed MERCY, got the hard-voiced female dispatcher asking him to hold the line puleesuh... returning after what seemed minutes, saying, Thank you for holding and how can we help you puleesuh?

Sam gave her his location, his condition, urged her to hurry.

We can only do our best, thank you, puleesuh, she said, and hung up on him.

The medic never budged out of the way when Sam shuffled back into the First Aid closet to lay himself out tenderly. Then he waited, forbidding himself to glance at his watch, forbidding himself to look at the scrawny back of the vacant medic, forbidding himself to think, trying to maintain a careful, shallow-mouthed respiration as he suffered under the noxious blanket, sweating cold beads from every part of his body. He gazed instead at the struggling, bluish light of the flickering fluorescent. He dozed.

Wail of siren far off. From far it came, wandering, winding to him through the gorged desert acres of parking, growing loud and louder, dying away nearby. Two starched, clean-shirted, brisk attendants were filling the little room now. One took his wrist harshly. Thumbed up his eyelid.

I'm...

Don't talk. We'll get you out of here like fast, man, don't rap it up with us, the other said, with what sounded the first note of compassion he'd heard today, or was it condescension? Contempt? Sam didn't like it. He saw them wink to one another. They would let him collapse. They would just turn around and drive him straight down into the undertaker's garage, not even troubling with the hospital.

Listen, Sam said, as they half rolled, half dropped him to their wheeled stretcher.

No, man, no. You shush it up, the other said, tapping Sam on his shin.

My bags, Sam said, rolling his eyes to one corner, my notes, my clothes... two bags full... one for...

I said cool it, man, you're working too hard.

Behind him Sam heard now the voice of that simpering, jeering medic, incredible: I've got your old things, mister, did you think I'd steal them? Oh, say, imagine the nerve of it! Sheer ingratitude, and I thought you were a real man there. Oh, say, he thinks I'd try something like that on him, oh, now listen, lis...

In the ambulance, Sam put his hand up to stop the cone as it descended and whispered to the attendant kneeling beside him, It's my heart, you know. I'm a professor of psychology. Where are you taking me?

Well, man... He hesitated, so that Sam felt he didn't want to inform him.

Go on, tell me. I've had one hell of a hassle trying to get you here before I went under...

Being as we're up from San Jose, I suppose the groovy thing's tooling you down the Freeway. Little farther than up to SanFran medschool, but traffic's going in, so what with this and that you're about as well off heading to Palo Alto. Right, Bill?

Saves him his bread, too, on this bus because we're up from San Jose anyway, dig? You might have told him that, George.

Well I did, man, I did. But I don't dig him freaking out in complications, if he's going to...

Sam breathed miserably loudly, not to them, though, Oh, god, okay okay...

Well, I rapped him that already, Bill, so let's drag. Turn her on, man!

Bitchin, man, bitchin!

Mister Professor, here's your bottled snorter, and away we go! As the mask came down on his face and the ambulance lurched off, siren rippling, hooting outside, flashing crimson into the fogged-in confusion of the lots, Sam dropped his eyelids and went off into himself, relaxed to be taking in the sparkling gas, finally.

In his forehead Elizabetta bloomed, smiling, big-toothed, chain-smoking, holding her cigarette Slavic-style between thumb and index finger, saying, Vell Sam, I'm vaiting, so vere are you coming this time, vere are you lost, Sam, vere?

Into an elevator, he thought, loaded and unloaded, yes... and softly spoken words. Hands, soft yet brisk female hands, undressing him. Prick in the inside of his forearm, needle slid up under the skin, bulge of the fluid injected steadily, distant. Nothing more. Then the racketing radio announcer's voice, coming from a face that could only have worn a thin mustache below a sharp nose and bald head, that voice faded as though the dial were turned down by degrees, slowly squeezing that nutty bastard's nonsense out of him.

Friend, neighbor, you there! Need help, help, help?

And Sam let himself sink relieved into that quiet. Ahove his head, as he settled, a splash of pity, ripples of farewell from faraway Beth, oh so far far, reading her newspaper, drinking coffee by a window slanted with gray-white winter sunlight reflected from sparse snow in the blackened dead garden... and she dimming...

In the shadow of the surface, the members of the mobbed conference proceeding now sans Sam Carpenter, sans Carpenter's speech, sans Carpenter's papers, sans postulations scintillant with implications entailing projects for the biennials to come, procedurals all packed in Mark Cross pigskin, unheard now and forever discontributed as he bumped on the floor of that tidal pool, scraping against barnacled boulders, scratching along openvulvaed mussels and mouth-fringed Hungarian anemones and tasseled urchins tucked in cliffs gargling that sweet-sour brine... bones broken open sans kudos, let alone whatevers...

Because it was stupid, stupid, he knew it for dream. Must be.

The chesty Texan was facing him at arms' length, goggling down at him from his height and blocking him from the sun with his 300-pound rodeo hulk, steer-hulk, wrassle-hulk, making him shiver in that aura of whiskey. And his face burned red, pinkred on the glazed, wind-razored, polished, lotioned wattles. He looked mighty angry, bursting with Marlhoro Country toughness in that striped white-and-red cowboy getup. He commanded through tight lips, Yew gonna draw out on me stranger! Yew are jist agonna draw yore weapon out on me when ah count tharee! Yew raidee? Won... atew... and uh...

But I! But I! Sam was holding out empty palms protestfully with a squeaky voice. Why was it so tinny up front in his head as though there were a tiny speaker transistored in there? He meant he wasn't ready, that's all, not that he was squealing skeered. Hadn't practiced. Didn't know if his gun was clean or even loaded or what was with it. Hadn't expected to, besides. Wasn't all of 39 yet. Let's see, well, or if he was for instance still young, still too inexperienced to do like this or do like that. Anyhow sure he was 39, and what about that? That didn't mean May was December by a longshot, because even if it was, he had some legitimate future husiness here, future-oriented was what it was, and much faster than any old IBM and worth a pile of silver dollars up to the 55th floor at least, precision dough all of it, and machining parts for the people of America today, tomorrow the World, and Reno, shortening their downtime by processing them out to testinglabs for computation installation online retrieval and or debugging billions of bits, all they had in data storage, here and there, up and right up, and he had the patents—haha!—and the psychological, duly notorious, that is notarized, that is not arose is uh rose...

Nevertheless Tex bent his knees and flexed hands, held up and away behind his barrel body loose, ready to draw out on him, saying, Thass whut uh lack bout yew, stranger, yew know exactly whut yore doing don't yew, stranger, yew think yew are so damn fatass smart don't yew? Well, if yew think yore gonna to beat it round me, stranger, not this time. Yew wont yewd hetter draw, hey!

And the ham-sausage fingers flexing, and Sam wondered where in hell his gun was anyway, and meanwhile Tex pulled that Gene Autry custom-tailored coat open with slow significant convulsive trembling, and Sam saw two enormous Colt .45s hanging over the bulbous pectorals from pink brassiere straps—haha!

Sam stepped back two steps, three steps, laughing like a hyena, coyote laughing, jeering, pointing, saying, Well, wait till I tell Elizabetta what I saw on you, cowboy! You, you, you act bully, but you're just some rodeo drifter, boy! And so saying, cunningly twitches his hands out for those black guns, big heavy guns, hoping to scoop them first, swoop him and sweep him and beat him with his own draw.

Uh... one, uh... two, and uh... three!

Lie still a few moments more, please. No, no, no, don't touch them.

A woman talking low beside his ear, her hands on his wrists, grappling gently.

Dimly he understood he'd been meaning to remove somethings prickling his chest. Wires? A tingling series of electrical sparkling buzzing like hot dots on his heart. Bone, sternum he meant, on his aching ribs.

What's happening to me?

Just a small routine. EKG. Doctor wants another reading right away. His eyes pulled open, Sam saw an impressive, nurse-capped face above him, Chinese-faced but freckled, mulatto, hair red, hennaed like Elizabetta's though duller, curlier. Calmly he breathed, How long have I been out?

Ohhh, she answered noncommital, not too...

Sam watched. For an instant he had thought it was she, boldly-tinted copper beneath the white cap, bangs like hers, pair of Spanish spit curls on her cheeks over the ears, bulged brown eyes, though these eyes were off-color, flecked with jade in the pupils and giving the glaucous effect of Elizabetta's contact lenses. Also the black freckles under heavy powder, the voice deep and odd—rhythmed, not Southern, not Hungarian, though same general effect: gullah wullah or bahamese? And the hands he felt working on him, their dry coldness: so many things as he had come to, thinking of her and those charmingly odd and sharp-pointed breasts, tipped out blackish with massive, pornographic nipples, black-haired.

Secretly snapshot once, nuzzled, too, by the Assistant Minister for Machine Tools, a Major in the Secret Police, a CIA fink, and lately some professor of psychology, and... and Nurse, crispy in nylon, solid white against upper arm as she ripped away and replaced those electrodes. Part of a dream of nonsensesenses. Binary breasts, though dreams don't make sense. Picture puzzle of sedation. Quietly he said again, How long have I been out, Nurse?

Shshshshshsh.

I said, How long have I...?

I heard what you said, Mr. Carpenter. I heard. I'm just now busy with this machine, you see. Can't talk to you and read those dials, can I? And you know, dials come first. Save your breath, Mr. Carpenter.

For what?

Don't start that kind of talk in here. It's bad enough as it is. I mean...

Oh? Sam said. Oh? Sbut his eyes then.

I'm sorry, sir. Don't you go and take on like that! What I meant is you're at the Stanford Hospital Medical Center Intensive Care Wing of the Heart Center Wing. Doctor D.D. Cohen is on your case. That's all I can say for your information. And I'm Brown. Your nurse.

Aslant on her dress he made out a green-lettered plastic strip: BETTY BROWN. Her breasts weighed on his upper arm again as she flipped knobs around on the unit standing beside his head. He heard the crackling currents, discerned the flickers of the gauge, needles flipping right and left, the pens scribbling against the paper strip moving through, unwinding out the other side of the machine like a stockmarket tape.

Softly Sam asked, Who's he?

Doctor Cohen? Top man. Doctor D.D. Cohen? One of the best. Young, and already Associate Professor of Cardiology. He was just about to leave for Washington when they brought you in, but you're getting his attention. Professional courtesy to the University of Wisconsin. He was pre-med there. Knows your name. Nurse seemed to press against him, friendly, reassuring. It was good to feel her breasts.

Oh, Sam paused. Miss Brown?

Yes?

What do you see?

Oh, you have a way with you, don't you, Mr, Carpenter! I think I've said too much already. Abruptly she turned to tear the strips of paper from the machine as a short man walked into the room. Stocky he was, built like a bear, with thick, black locks, slabbed chipmunk cheeks, little black eyes and a dark mat of beard visible below his shaved cheeks. With a perfunctory glance in his direction, he whipped the papers from Nurse Brown's hand, scanned them, shoulder turned aside to block Sam's view.

But spoke, still looking away, Good morning, Professor Carpenter. How are we feeling today? I'm Cohen, Cardiology. Took you on when they wheeled you in. What happened? Those boys on the meat wagon weren't too clear about it.

Sam briefly described it: feeling perfect, had stopped for luggage, was due now at International Computer Conference in San Francisco... Cohen interrupted him, remarking, Yes, I meant to pass that up for Washington, take the cash and let the credit go and so forth, but now here we are, aren't we, Carpenter?

Well, I tripped and... or was it a coronary?

Hey there, Carpenter! Let's not practice without a license. You tell me what seems to have happened, and I diagnose the patient. Alright?

Sam went into it, while the cardiologist nodded, saying only at pauses in the story, Ahum... and, Ahum.

How long was I under? Sam ventured.

Ohhh, not long. Ahum. Two days, let's say.

So this is Day Three? I hoped, I mean... his voice trailed off, seeming to be breathing to itself in a deep, black cave, a sort of hollow, remote cavern into which Sam peered mentally and saw nothing, nothing at all: a void, dark, blank.

Okay, Sam went on. I understand. Tell me I'm as good as...

Not that, no.

What is it, then? Why did you just say you...?

I was just going to observe I'd expected to see a marked improvement in your EKG. That's all.

Tell her to take it again.

Oh, please. Miss Brown knows her machine. This is it, I guess.

Nurse Brown grinned a full smile at the doctor. Her left hand was stripping electrodes again from his chest, and then swiftly she powdered Sam, deftly rubbing the talc in, buttoned his pajama, and rolled the sheet back up to his chin. But remained beside him, her arm familiarly resting against his shoulder, her fingers almost unconsciously kneading his aching neck, soothing him where the sedative's after-effect lingered.

The room was bright with sunlight tilted up through the slats of the blind. Flowers vivid on the table at the window. California sun, golden, full of moist, cool air from the gray Pacific. Doctor Cohen dressed in a dark blue, fine-striped expensive suit, his shirt blue with a white collar and thick, black raw-silk tie. Golden coins for cufflinks half protruding from his sleeves as he folded his arms over his massive chest that rose and fell with his calm respiration. Sam waited for him to go on.

What do you think, Professor Carpenter? Coronary?

Ahum.

How bad? I mean, is it a coronary?

I believe I ought to tell you what you want to know. So I will. Agreed? I had you put under for two days, hoping to get you back today. All right? I've had you cardiographed at regular intervals for 60 hours. All right? A full registration. But your EKGs vary. They're either positive or rather... ambiguous. I had hoped to clear this up today, the... ambiguity, at least. So, what do you think?

Sam regarded the flowers in the vase. Watched a drooped poppy detach one petal, watched the red petal fall. Sighed and spoke as he had never supposed he could speak. You mean, I'm dying.

Frankly? Yes. You've got all the indicatives. Symptoms. More than I need. Two hours ago the tape was ambiguous. This one's positive. So... Sam saw the nurse grinning, shyly, away from him. But he saw her. What the hell was so satisfying about the electronic jiggles that foretold a man's death?

You're sure, Sam said. You're positive?

Now look, Carpenter, I've seen thousands like this, just thousands. I know what I see. Sorry. I think you should be in a position to take care of yourself, call home, for instance, if you want to... I mean, you're married, aren't you? I mean, for you to call, yourself? While you have time. I didn't commit you, you know, so I think you should be the one to handle this, uh, situation by yourself. Right?

You're kidding. Doctor Cohen, you're kidding me.

Wish I was. I don't kid hearts.

I don't understand.

Yes, you do. You're a dying man, Carpenter. Sure I'd like to get you through. At least today. Of course I want to make damned sure what I interpret as ambiguous cardiograms aren't ambiguous, at least for the record. It's, ahum, problematical. Follow me? For the record? Look Carpenter, we've got a project going, uh, cardiac file. You should appreciate this one. I mean, we're building a computer index up here, and it's vital that we get a thorough profile every time, uh, right through the whole case. You can, uh, appreciate the principle, right?

Sam pondered Cohen's face. The black eyes, pinched in their pleats of skin, never looked at him but at the floor, or his hands, or around his suffering chest, never at his eyes though.

Oh, Sam said. I see what you mean.

Good. Public Health's renewed the 15 million dollar grant swung to start this project here, and we're just getting our working sample entered from old cards after three years. It's been a long pull. We're working out some fascinating stats. You'd be interested in them, I think. You understand the, uh, methodology, don't you? Of course, it's your kind of thing. I want to link this center up on a worldwide scale, say, start with Northern Hemisphere, and then we'll have data to burn.

Sam wasn't feeling as bad as he thought he should somehow. Nevertheless there was a scary tremor in his stomach, a tremble of nausea. He wondered, a little wildly, what getting through this tbird day was going to be like, this one but maybe not the next, ever... leave behind a finished set of data for processing tomorrow into Cohen's index...

Nurse Brown's face seemed impervious to his intense yet unexpressed thought as she went out and returned with some folded-up contraption. Her eyes, though, her eyes were glowing at him, saying something he couldn't read. Rather, he might have, were he not where he was, and what he was: a dying case. She began unlocking the chrome tubes, snapping them into position. It made up into a sort of ladder, three steep steps. She set it down in the middle of the room and stood aside to look at him. Doctor Cohen was studying a phenomenon above Sam's head, something there, yet not on the wall nor related to him. He seemed in fact unfocused, though his voice rolled out firmly enough.

Carpenter. these are our 39 steps. You're going to sit yourself up. You're going to get out of bed. You're going to walk these 39 steps for me.

What!

Take three steps up. And step down. Up. Down. Thirteen times. Three times thirteen. Equals 39, understand?

And then? Sam asked.

We'll take another EKG. Immediately. To confirm my diagnosis.

Of moribundancy?

Of moribundancy. All right. Let's get moving.

Sam obeyed. Sitting up, swinging legs off, easing out. The floor was warm with sunlight to his feet, discreetly checker-boarded with pink and red vinyl. For a dizzy moment he thought he stood on roses. Sam approached the 39 steps. Lifted one leg, then the other. Began his climb. At the top, he hesitated, looking down on Doctor Cohen now. The cardiologist was facing away, glancing at his gold wristwatch exposed on one folded forearm. Sam felt awful all over: his heart was pounding again, and he realized he hadn't even felt it beating for nearly three days now. And he was pouring with perspiration, spine and groin forming channels for it to run down his legs.

He looked the other way, toward Nurse Brown. She, too, was not watching him. She had bent away and was adjusting the top of her gauzy white stocking, her large brown hands tucked up, fiddling under the hem of her skirt. For a long moment, Sam stood there on the tbird step, surveying from his peak the scene in the room. It was as though both Doctor and Nurse had forgotten him as he ascended, as though he'd left them far below, far away, and they'd turned to their ordinary concerns once more.

Still he waited, seeming to feel himself grow, expand, in some odd way diffusing through the room, the parts of his body at that height separating from each other freely and drifting from their accustomed moorings in space and time.

Come down! said Doctor Cohen peremptorily, bringing him back.

Sam stepped down.

Up again, please! His little eyes were gazing out the window into the sunlight, squinting nearly shut as his voice boomed out, commanding. Again Sam climbed. He felt even worse than before: shaking, rattling inside himself, the blood in some way draining from him, the metallic husks of his organs clattering against each other. Discreetly, Nurse Brown was rolling up her other stocking, but Sam mounting the tbird step saw down over her shoulder, and looking hard, saw the meat, rich, brown, smooth-freckled, yes, there too, freckled between her panties and the stocking's ribbed top, saw the large pink fingers netted with fine lines in the joints deftly snapping the garter clasp, as deftly as they tacked electrodes to his ribs.

Sam felt himself sway, yawing wide.

Come down! Cohen ordered impersonally again, as to a circus dog in training. Reaching the floor at last, Sam heard his command, Again, please! and heard that metallic note of medical irritation, heard it all too clearly. That did it for him. He turned from the rickety thing and stumbled back to his bed. He'd fallen on it and covered himself, shivering desperately, before they realized he'd abandoned the climb.

What do you think you're doing, Carpenter! You've only gone up three times! The voice was angered, though still the Doctor hadn't turned his eyes the few degrees in his direction it required to make contact.

Sam knew right then that if he tried it once more he was lost, and that's why he'd stopped his climbing. Overwhelmed by that certitude, he'd quit, just quit. No more for him if it meant no more for him.

Doctor Cohen, he said through clicking teeth, let me ask you one question.

Ahum.

One simple question?

Ahum.

Now tell me, bonestly, if you were in my condition, would you climb those 39 steps?

Cohen was silent.

Sam pressed him, jaw clamping on the words, Well, would you?

Carpenter!

Would you?

Frankly? I would not.

Sam squalled the words out: Then neither will I! Goddamn it to hell, neither will I! Not for you, not for anything.

Don't blame you, Cohen replied surprisingly softly, shrugging. I suppose I don't. Putting bitter satisfaction into his expression, Sam doddered his head at them. There was no more to do, except to lie here now, wait for it to happen.

He watched Cohen thinking, or seeming to. The cardiologist had taken a slim, gold cigarette case from his breast pocket and was holding it open on one palm, stroking a cigarette ever so lightly with the tip of his stubby, hairy-knuckled middle finger, and staring out the window.

Three men stalked into the room, and Betty Brown stood to attention beside him. Evidently important men, from their refined tweeds and twills and ties and haircuts and tans. Cohen ran over their names swiftly, introducing them to Sam, and told him to try to relax a bit. All he got in the confusion of listening was the information that these were all cardiac colleagues of Cohen's, researchers here, a team. They gathered around Cohen by at the window, murmuring. Sam made out hits of their talk: drugs, intravenous salts, fluid balance, respirator, backup procedures for asymmetrie something, potassium shock, infarction and defibrillator, where was it right now anyway...?

He closed his eyes and shut them out. Betty Brown had remained near him, her cool hand on his, her thumb, he could feel, pressed subtly on his wrist. She was nicely disguising her anxiety as loving kindness and prophylaxis. What was the use?

Still, whispering, Sam said to her, Brown, I like you. Her voice smiled back, almost emharrassed.

That's nice, isn't it?

Sam opened his eyes. A pair of nurses were wheeling a machine into the room. Closed them again. Implements, bottles rattling in trays. Another cart wheeled in, yet another. At least he was in a lot of hands beside God's, though if that were good or bad, he couldn't begin thinking through. In fact as the question surfaced, it dragged with it a replication of the events days ago, when he'd stood at the Baggage Claim: had he not now been lying on his back, surely he would have fallen terribly to earth again, struck down. It was as if a blast of scorched electric air had been let loose against him, striking him full in the chest, pressing him quivering with the shock of it right back down against the mattress and forcing a quavering moan from his throat.

The people in the room wheeled about: in the midst of his pain Sam could see their eyes distended, blank with fright. Nurse Betty Brown had given his hand one convulsive shake and dropped it as though a current jangled into her from him, skipping away from the bed and coming to a stop two yards off. The pressure still increased slowly. Sam, clearly conscious as he had never in his life been conscious before, saw them all, even as his body shrank, flattened out, squashed beneath the weight of the thing assaulting him. They were painted statues, frozen in peculiar attitudes by the lines of force of his agony.

And Sam saw them, he saw around them, it seemed to him in his crystalline pain.

At long last, after a hissing curve of time, he drew breath again, slowly drew down air into his deflated lungs, and the whistle of it sounded eerie in his head. Despite it all, his mind, his vision, even his thoughts were quiet and clear: he felt that, and felt it strange.

Doctor Cohen, he cried, Am I dying? Am I?

With that, Cohen came back to life, detached himself from the others at the window, bounding like a bear to him and grabbing his wrist.

Carpenter, you're having a massive heart attack. There's nothing I can do about it now. Nothing.

Am I, am I?

Yes. Undoubtedly.

And they? What about them, my god! Sam flung out his left arm, his hand trembling accusingly. The doctors and nurses, all cardiac specialists, five, six and more people, more crowding into the room and freezing into clumps of fear-leaning away, retreating from his hand, lining the wall, blocking the light at the window, all shaking their heads, denying him.

No one can help you now, Carpenter.

Look at me, please, Sam implored, someone, anyone, look at me! Tell me the truth. A wordless jumble of sounds chorused from the medical people, confused syllables, senseless.

Help me, Sam wailed, help me now, my god, my god! Wildly intoning those phrases, he heard that himself as from a vast distance from himself, yet from his own head and mind. And thought, even as he heard, that no one would, no one could. He saw them, absurd effigies, as though he was menacing them by the incredible pain of his own sudden death. They were in the presence itself. And they couldn't hear it.

Writhing in a slow effort to fight off the convulsion he felt squeezing him tightly, tight yet leisured in its gradual intensification, Sam now experienced one last clear thought, which was a bright shaft of contempt for them all. An illumined contempt that spread in his mind like a dawning light and filled him with laughter.

Oh, you, you... I...

He couldn't express it. He could only fill that sound with his supreme scorn. Abruptly, it was over. The vise of that great clamp withdrew, letting him drop back. He felt himself fall, whirling out of control, tumbling, skewed into the darkness of himself in the bed.

 

Twenty-four hours later, off the plane after a stormy descent into O'Hare, and $75 for the reluctant cabbie who mushed him back through a blizzard that was thickening the streets by inches as they drove, Carpenter lay prone once again. This time it was in his own doctor's office. His shirt, flung from him, draped twisted over his attaché case, which in his hurry he'd carried into this room.

Once again, EKG tapes were plastered to his chest, the wires trailing out into the familiar little Picker Portable machine whose current buzzed and crackled in that too-familiar way, a line of red dots sizzling now here, now there, as the knobs were rotated this way and that.

It must have been some hours afterward that he had awakened from that climax of terror and laughter to find Betty Brown dozing in the chair across the room, her head drooping and then yanked up unconsciously and like a puppet's dropping again. The sun slanted in its low winter angle into the Pacific out there, throwing beams up against the ceiling now. He had called her, she had called Cohen, and Cohen had arrived in less than a minute from elsewhere in that wing, carrying a loosely folded accordion of papers in one hand, a ream of printout. Otherwise he looked as impeccably unperturbed as he had before the crisis at noon, as if all his work concerned visiting the IBM in its roaring dust-free air-conditioned chamber and glancing at printouts some programmer held up hieratically and passed before his eyes for confirmation.

Briefly Sam had sat up and declared that Cohen simply didn't know what he was talking about, that he had had enough of this sheer confusion and incompetence, and that he wanted to be discharged so he could fly back to Chicago there and then.

All right, Cohen had said blandly. I wouldn't, frankly, were I in your condition. I don't think you'll step down alive from that plane.

That's United's worry.

Right, United's. And yours.

I'm not worried, Sam had retorted, slipping angrily off the high bed and heading to the closet for his clothes. You're not me, Cohen, and that's all there is to this statistic, me. I won't be any the worse off than I am now if they pull the plug out on me where my wife can cry over the body, will I? After all, she doesn't even know I'm dying, and if I don't tell her, she has nothing to be concerned about. The less I say to any of you the better. Anyway, I'm not out of the woods yet.

You most certainly are not, Carpenter! With that, Cohen had walked out of the room, flapping his papers against his thigh. And that had been that.

The machine was switched off finally, and Krumpli tore out the tapes with their haggard rippled graphics, stretching them out to study, at the same time half-turning from Sam's curious eyes. By now that maneuver was too familiar to him. It was the moment of, Sam thought, well, call it truth. On his back then, he waited, patiently regarding the little traveler's clock on the shelf, hearing its faint ticking.

Krumpli liked to wind clocks, he said, because a clock had a mainspring you could count on, at least until it broke. Central European humor. Krumpli was also Hungarian, which made two Sam knew intimately, in a way. Two were quite enough for him. Sam waited.

So, you are convinced after all this that has occurred to you it was not a coronary, mild or otherwise, ha, Carpenter?

Would you not make conversation, Doctor, please? I've had enough medical chitchat this week. Just read off what the machine tells you. Leave the rest to me and to...

And to...?

Never mind.

God, I suppose, is the word? Good old God. And you, a psychologist? National reputation, yet. Tch tch.

I wasn't thinking of God. Hell no.

So what were you?

You'd be surprised. I was thinking about a cowboy.

Krumpli looked back at him over his shoulder. Shook his bearded face, pursing fat lips under shaggy gray hairs. Carpenter, I can tell you had one hell of a scare. Yes, scare.

Not really. You should have seen those doctors! Cardiologists!

I can see why. This record here is not good. It says to me you should have stayed in your bed in the hospital in Palo Alto. I don't know why they ever let you go, Sam. In fact it says here you should he already kaput! If not there, then here. If not then, then now!

Krumpli, don't yell at me.

Sam, let me tell you something, all right? What I think is what. You can tell Beth, or the cowboy. If you want, tell God even.

Okay, I've had it. Right?

Go home, Sam, go home—no, don't interrupt! I'll drive you. When we get there I'll come in, and we'll have one good drink, double scotch. You have soda? Sure. You and me, Sam. Then, you will go to bed. Right away. In one week...

Krumpli, you bastard Krumpli.

... in one week you'll he here or back with your rats and your mazes in your laboratory or your IBM codes or whatever you're playing with now, I don't care.

How do you know?

Krumpli laughed. How do I know? he asks. I would make jokes with a heart case? I would dance the czardas on his grave? I know. I know. Because... yours is the 13th coronary I have treated this week!

So?

So they are recovering quite satisfactorily, thank you. Just like yours, coronaries. Rest is all. Good rest.

You are kidding, Krumpli. Coronaries like mine?

No, Sam, I tell you what it is. Thirteen hearts attacked? All the same symptomatology? Falling down, sweating, constricted respiration, spasms, et cetera. Coronary, yes? But... the other 12 cases were coeds, between 18 and twenty-one. Does that make sense to you? Not to me. No. Not in Madison, not in nowhere. How old are you?

Thirty-nine. Why do you ask? What's the connection?

You.

Krumpli!

These dying girls, these broken hearts? They are your students, no?

You're still kidding me! Sam had sat up after the doctor removed the EKG tabs, and was buttoning his shirt.

Not? So then, you must tell me.

I don't have any undergrad coeds.

Twelve nice, healthy girls. Sweet, young, strong girls. Sorority sisters. VeIl, Sam?

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Oho! Sam got it now. Krumpli, he said, I gave a little talk a few weeks ago: WOMAN: THE COMPUTER AND HER FUTURE.

Some talk that must have been, Sam. Yoi, yoi! Istenem! Sam remembered it now. Not the talk. The candlelight ceremony after white wine with dinner, four bottles of sauterne with the filetted sole. Pro forma he had spoken a little to the inductees about linear programming for factories, libraries, schools... and dating games. And of course, he had kissed them all, pro forma, each one in turn, or they had kissed him. Their custom, they said, at Alpha Chi Omega. Their little custom, they said.

As he folded the tapes, Krumpli went on, A catching talk, Sam Carpenter, catching. In one week, 12 juvenile coronaries. I can tell you frankly we were scared here. It turned out to be an exotic virus, of course, very. Pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart. Brand new all the way up here in Madison. I have given it a new name, since you are its 13th victim. Love Fever. Good, ha?

The doctor put the tapes into a dossier and turned to a tray of implements.

Love Fever! You think you're dying. I never hope to suffer like that again as long as I live.

Oh, it can kill, I believe. But we'll fight it, we'll lick it. Here is one million units of penicillin, just to clean it off. So. Pull down your pants now, ha?

At last, at last, and yielding with relief, Sam Carpenter dropped his trousers, his shorts, and bent over the examining table. He was safe. It was no heart attack. Only a love fever. Once around was enough for one lifetime. He was safe for the time being. For the time being, safe.

 

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