CENTER EFFING IS A TOWN BETWEEN THE OCEAN AND I-95, on the old and settled seaboard of New Hampshire. To the north is salt marsh. To the south is salt marsh, four square miles of state forest, and the town of Rye. It has a bit of money now, high tech and retirees, condos on the beaches and a new downtown. It was different twenty years ago when Vi Asplund was growing up. In those days, Center Effing was a town of lobstermen, dads commuting into Portsmouth, and, of course, the Air Force out of Pease.
The house where Vi grew up was your basic saltbox, New Hampshire's answer to the ranch. The house was on a quarter acre down Santasket Road, three bedrooms on the second floor, an attic and a basement and a small attached garage, with views of nothing special-on one side, Captain Cooper's house (saltbox, painted gray); on the other, Major Buckert's (saltbox, painted gray and briefly a bright orange just before the Buckerts filed for divorce). These men-Cooper, Buckert-were SAC pilots based at Pease, nine miles up the interstate. The bomber dads were gone six months of the year, deployed to forward-ready status in Thule, Greenland, and when they were away, their families always went a little crazy on the street. The older kids set fires, the younger kids went naked, the mothers took lovers (other bomber pilots, waiting to deploy). The lovers came and went in the hours before dawn and the Asplunds had a view of this as well, the craziness, the lovers, and the kids.
The front windows of the Asplunds' house overlooked a rather ordinary lawn, twin Rose of Sharon bushes and a boxwood hedge, and past Santasket Road to the wavy pampas of the intertidal marsh. Behind the house was a patio and yard, a swing set and a garden where Vi's mother, Evelyn, a sun-brown housewife, grew very tricky roses, obscure Chinese vines, and Dutch Blaster tulips, which were time-intensive and pest-prone but famous for the power of their blooms.
When Vi was six and her brother, Jens, was ten, Evelyn started forcing tulips in the den. The den was in the northwest corner of the house and sunny over the middle saddle of the day, which made it the perfect place to force a tulip bulb. She started in late winter, when the marsh was toast to the horizon, and the bomber wing was off to Greenland on a friendly weather mission, and Mrs. Buckert got up one night and started painting her house orange, and Mrs. Cooper was working on her French with the help of Major Wade, and the Coopers' oldest kid was picked up by the cops and sent to military school, and the other Cooper kids discovered streaking (which came late to New Hampshire), and the youngest Cooper girl ran away from home and got as far as Colonel Krutland's house around the bend.
Jimmy Carter was in power and Evelyn was in the Center Effing public library. She let Vi pick a book. No, two books. No, one book and a tape, and not that damn We Sing business either, Vi, gives your mom a splitting migraine. Vi picked her book and tape as Evelyn in snowboots looked up tulip horticulture in the card catalogs. They stopped at Monsey's Luncheonette on the rotary downtown, then at Aulette's Greenhouse down the road, where Evelyn bought three knee-high terra-cotta vases tapered to the top like antiaircraft shells, which Aulette recommended for the serious forcer. Tulip forcing, Vi later figured out, was a matter of taking the ugly, sometimes even hairy bulbs, which looked like giant bunions, something you might pay a guy to razor off your foot, and freezing them or chilling them to simulate the winter, then putting them in shells with dirt and other substances, covering the shells and leaving them in a sunny corner of the den. The bulbs, bamboozled by the dark and heat, would think that it was spring and crack into a shoot. The shells stayed in the den until the marshes came alive and Mrs. Buckert packed her kids into the station wagon and went back to Indiana, leaving her husband for not being there.
Vi's father, Walter Asplund, groused about the shells, the garden's sly invasion of the den. The den, he said, was his after-supper sanctum, the place he went to end his day with a glass of Pabst, a pipe of Borkum Riff, and a stack of old insurance journals. Walter Asplund was a claims adjuster for the Connecticut Casualty Corporation of Connecticut, which meant that he investigated losses under policies, measuring the damage, negotiating pay-outs according to a chart devised in Hartford, this much for a hand, this much for a toe, this much for one-quarter loss of vision in one eye. He was solid seacoast burgher, a complicated man, a cheapskate and a brooder and a reader of the sort of books most people only read in college (Mill, Locke, Thucydides, Moll Flanders), a man who laughed at jokes but rarely told them, who got his hair cut on the same day every month, who shoveled his own driveway, ironed his own shirts. He dabbled in town politics as a Lodge Republican, chaired the C.E. bloodmobile, and was elected chairman of the Rotary, an honor he declined on the grounds that the national Rotarians required every chair to swear an oath on the Christian scripture, which Vi's father, in good conscience, couldn't do. Walter Asplund believed in many things, the dignity of humankind, the Genius of Democracy, the sanctity of contract, The Origin of Species, the mission of the bloodmobile, the charts devised in Hartford, poplin suits in summertime, brown bread with baked beans, little oyster crackers (with chowder, not with oysters), baseball, tennis, The New Yorker, travel hats he purchased from the back of The New Yorker (which he sometimes wore to baseball games), the pleasures of night skiing with his children on the bunny hill in Rye. He believed, that is, in almost everything but God. He declined to serve the Rotary, and announced the reason why, and after that he was known in Center Effing as the Atheist and his kids were known in school as the Little Atheists.
People said that atheism was a funny line of thinking for a moderate Republican insurance man. Walter said that people were confusing insurance with assurance when, in fact, the two were opposites. If you had assurance, you wouldn't need insurance, and if it was God's plan that your car should be rear-ended in the parking lot at Monsey's, who were you to defray His will through a no-fault auto policy? Did Sodom have homeowner's? Did Mary collect on the death of her son?
Small towns in New England will tolerate the crank, the village irritant, but Vi's father really pushed it. He wouldn't swear an oath or let his children pledge allegiance to the flag. He sat up in the den when his family was asleep, writing on his money, striking out the GOD from IN GOD WE TRUST, lest anybody think that by paying with the slogan he was buying into it, which got him kicked off the bloodmobile and defeated in a landslide for town meeting. People hated standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, opening their wallets and finding a stray five bearing Walter's personal graffiti, IN GOD3 WE TRUST. The scribble forced them to imagine the chain of small transactions which had put his money in their clothes: Walter pays Mrs. Souza, his kids' piano teacher, giving her the five; Mrs. Souza buys a quart of sherry at Townline Liquorama, paying with the five; someone else buys a case of 'Gansett and gets the bill as change, spending it on pens and gum at Rexall's; the girl at Rexall's gives the bill as change to someone buying God (or God3) knows what, anal cream or something, and this itchy person spends it on a coffee frappe at Monsey's or at the day-old-bread store on Route 32. Finding a little piece of Walter in one's wallet forced the town to see itself as a set of lives, or one collective chorus-life, consisting of piano teachers, sherry, pens and anal cream, rummy lobstermen drinking 'Gansett on bare mattresses with stains the shape of South America, stains with coastlines and dark interiors. It was bleak somehow, IN GOD3 WE TRUST, not a welcome vision at the supermarket. Vi knew that her father was never fully satisfied with his altered motto. He did not believe that we trust, or could trust, or should trust, in nothing. Some months after Walter started crossing out the GOD, Vi was at Aulette's with her mother. They were buying nitrates for the Rose of Sharon bushes and Aulette, making change at the register, gave Evelyn a bill which said, IN GOD WE TRUST.
Aulette said, "Your husband's got a new one, Mrs. A."
Evelyn, embarrassed, went out of there with dignity.
People grumbled Walter's name on every shopping trip, especially the bomber dads (who were good Americans and proud to pledge allegiance), and their children, being children, picked on Jens and Vi. Bullies taunted them at recess, spitting "Pledge a legience!" as the punches flew. Jens took his beatings as a salesman takes rejection, philosophically (removing his glasses, pronouncing himself ready to be hit). Vi, who didn't take a beating, never, anywhere, fought back like a girl, the dirtier the better, kicks and bites and scratches. She fought the bullies of all grades, her brother's and her own, and though she never won these fights, she always got her money's worth. She went for the balls and eyes and lied about it afterwards because, unlike her bookish father, Vi had no morality.
She loved her father simply and completely then. She watched him as astronomers watch stars. She saw him in the house across the marshes from the sea, slippered after dinner in the den, puffing Wild Cherry Borkum Riff, leafing through The Accident Reporter, Shop Safety Monthly, and the latest OSHA circular. He said the hour after supper was the best time in the world. He said the den was civilization.
Evelyn was in the kitchen, feeding slop to dogs. They always had a pack of dogs, never any cats. They had a dog named Dingo, a string of dogs named Dingo, and when a Dingo died, Vi and Evelyn took the station wagon to the pound behind the dump, picked out another mutt, and named him Dingo too. Jens, the budding scientist, was balled up on the couch, wiping smudges from his glasses, smudging smudges, giving up and going back to whatever he was reading, pop astronomy, titles from the Mathemagic series, a battered Best of Asimov overdue from the grown-up library, or the monthly magazine Ham Radio Today, to which Jens sent penciled letters correcting the errata of prior writers.
The phone would ring, the dogs would bark. Evelyn would answer at the kitchen sink. Walter was already moving, reaching past Jens for the extension in the den. It was duty on the phone. It was Ligourie the lawyer, Boyle the mortician, the Portsmouth fire marshal, the state police dispatcher, or the morgue. Disasters were average when Vi was growing up. Her father shaved for them. She watched him shave upstairs in the master bath, the care he took about the neck, chin pointing, kissy-lipped. He tied his tie and went out to the car and was usually home again for breakfast the next day.
JENS GOT ALL THE BRAINS IN THE FAMILY; this was understood and not especially disputed. He was locally considered something of a wonder, a math and physics prodigy. He was often in the Doings section of the Effing Reveille under headlines like Boy Wins Science Prize and Jr. Engineers Visit Troubled Seabrook N-Plant. He loved his radio, a ham-bands-only Hallicrafter with a slide-rule dial. He camped out in the basement, tapping Morse, jotting Morse, the walls covered with his globe-girdling collection of QSLs, postcards hammers sent to hammers verifying contact, Greetings from JH1VRQ-Tokyo, Cheers from 8P6EU-Barbados. When other boys were asking Santa for dirt bikes and toy rifles, Jens was asking Walter for a new beat-frequency mixer and a half-dipole antenna.
Vi was seven when they got the powerful antenna. Jens and Walter tried to find a place to rig it. Jens said the roof wasn't high enough and they looked around the yard for an even higher place, baffled by the problem until Major Wade wandered through the trellis from the Coopers' pool. Major Wade was another bomber pilot, Captain Cooper's friend. When Cooper was in Thule, Major Wade's Camaro was often in the Coopers' driveway. Major Wade and Carol Cooper went swimming in the Coopers' pool, did the frug on the lawn, and were always wearing terry cloth.
Major Wade inspected the antenna and the roof. Carol Cooper came over too, carrying a clinking pitcher.
She said to Vi, "Ever taste a whiskey sour, dear?" and dipped a finger in. She wore a zebra swimsuit. Her breasts were true bazooms.
"No," said Vi.
"No thank you," Walter prompted.
Vi drew it out, "No thank you, Mrs. Cooper."
Carol Cooper said, "I wish my goddamn kids were that polite."
Major Wade, having a pilot's mind, saw the answer right away. He started digging through the trunk of his Camaro. He came back with a bow and a quiver full of arrows.
"Keeps me lean," he said, slapping his gut. "Little hobby I picked up in Guam."
"Jesus we're hungover," Carol Cooper said.
The bow had many knobs. Major Wade adjusted them as Walter got a fishing rod. Wade tied the line to an arrow and Walter stood back with the rod. Wade bit his lip, aiming at the highest limb of a tall copper beech in the corner of the Asplunds' yard. Everyone was watching him, Carol Cooper holding Vi by the shoulders, Jens ten feet away, clustered faces on the driveway looking up. The major drew the bow. The fishing line snapped several times and several arrows arched into the woods. Several others landed in the Coopers' yard, in the Coopers' bushes, in the Coopers' pool. The middle Cooper daughter came out and asked what was going on.
Carol Cooper said, "We're shooting at a tree. Go back inside and watch cartoons before you get an arrow in the head."
Major Wade drew the bow and let the arrow fly. It cleared the limb, the reel in Walter's hand was singing, the fishing line went taut, and the arrow fell. They cut the line at the rod, tied it to a rope, tied the rope to a steel cable, and hoisted the antenna to the tree.
Jens discovered weather through his new antenna. He monitored CONELRAD, the government's storm-warning band, created in the '50s to spread the word of mushroom clouds. Weather was the ghost of war, Jens said, the marching fronts, the blue high-pressure domes, or maybe it was war's original. A hurricane in Bangladesh killed half a million people, four Hiroshimas. Jens said that a hurricane was like all the nukes going off at once in terms of energy set free and he hoped to see one in the sky above the yard. When Vi was eight, Jens and Walter built a weather-watching shed, a chicken coop on stilts between the garden and the doghouse. Inside the shed was a barometer, a two-foot thermometer, and a double-bulbed device which measured dew point and humidity and was strangely named a psychrometer. On top of the shed was a mast and spinning cups. Vi could see the cups from the window where she slept. When the wind was strong, bowling down the marshes from the Gulf of Maine, the cups would spin into a halo blur.
Jens spent a year waiting for a hurricane. He checked the shed twice a day. He took his readings to the basement, where he puttered with a soldering iron, or stood in the front yard, cradling Evelyn's transistor radio, which he had rewired to pick up the static claps of thunderheads offshore. Vi remembered the summer when he rewired all their radios for practice, Evelyn's bedside AM-FM with the well-worn snoozebar, Walter's old stereophonic monster in the den, the sleek Toshiba at the kitchen sink.
The coup was uncovered in the afternoon. Evelyn was scheduled to lead a walking tour of the see-touch-smell exhibit at the Fort Odiorne Nature Center. She was in the garden, pouring bonemeal on the roses. She looked up and saw the clouds stacking on the harbor. She wondered if the tour might be rain-delayed. She wondered how to dress and whether an umbrella might be called for. She tried the Toshiba, hoping for the weather, and it buzzed-there were no thunderstorms broadcasting at the time. She played the dial and it buzzed. She tried the stereo in the den, the clock radio upstairs. She summoned Walter from the ladder-he was cleaning gutters-and they tried the cars, the station wagon, then Walter's red company LeBaron, hearing the same buzz.
Vi followed them around, getting scared. Why would all the radios fail together? Jens said that in a thermonuclear exchange, the Russians would knock out the Top 40 first. Vi wondered if the Russians had finally attacked-it would have been just like them to destroy the world during school vacation. As her father trolled the dial, sitting in the front seat of his car, Vi imagined cities disappearing. Portsmouth's gone, Nashua is gone-
Walter reassured her. "If the Russians bombed us, Vi, we'd definitely know."
She thought he meant that they would get a call from Ligourie the lawyer or Boyle the mortician. Portsmouth's been irradiated, Walt. Better hustle up there and start adjusting.
Carol Cooper was standing on her diving board in short shorts and a big straw hat, vacuuming her pool.
"See?" said Walter. "Everything is fine."
VI WAS NINE WHEN HER FATHER finally let her go on his adjusting trips. They got up in darkness, preparing for the trips. Vi was in the kitchen, packing sandwiches with Evelyn, luncheon loaf and mayo, an apple for each bag. Walter was upstairs, ironing a crease into his pants. Jens was in his room, hunting for a missing sneaker, half asleep. Walter found him in the closet, curled up among the shoes, and led him like a blind man down the stairs. Vi watched her brother fake his way through breakfast, a fork clutched in his lap, one eye slowly closing, the other eye a slit, his black hair sticking up, a head of exclamation points, his face sleep-dopey and unpunctuated. Evelyn told Jens to eat something. Jens went through the motions, lifting a glass of juice to his nose, biting his waffle, but not chewing. The waffle bite would still be in his mouth as they backed down the driveway, following the inland shore of the heart-shaped marsh, a curve of misty streetlights to I-95. Fifty miles later, heading to Berlin as the sun was coming up, Vi would hear Jens chewing waffle in the front seat and know that he was finally awake.
They went everywhere one summer. They covered the whole state, stopping off in county seats and depot towns. Vi at nine saw things she didn't understand-a farmhand with one foot, a school without a roof, a golf pro dead from lightning, still grasping the flag.
They saw a paper train derailed outside Berlin. It was timber country up there on the border with Quebec. Berlin was a pulping town, her father said. The wood came in as trees or logs and left as paper by the ton, rolling south along a spur to the Gorham switches. The system went in two directions after that, east along a stony river into Maine or through the mountain notches to St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
It was hot that day. Jens sat in the front seat of Walter's car, counting seven jackknifed flatcars with his finger, until he couldn't see past them to the rest. Vi leaned out the window. She saw giant reams of paper unrolled to where they stopped, paper in the gully, on the dirt road, in the woods.
Walter stood on the embankment with the men and mangled train. The men wore suits and ties, or sheriff's uniforms, or dressed like they worked on the trains. They smoked and spat and pushed their hats back. One of them looked up the tracks and said it was a doozie.
The others said, "Uh-huh," and "That's a fact."
A man in a white suit said, "What do you think, Walter?" This man was the superintendent of the line. He had flown up from the Maine Central yard in Portland in a bubble helicopter-Vi was totally impressed-yet even this man waited on her father. Walter Asplund had adjusted most of the noteworthy damage around here going back twenty years and was known to be a reasonable man. He didn't say too much, but when he spoke he spoke for The Connecticut.
The super said, "What are we looking at, you think?"
Walter was looking at the paper in the woods. He said, "You got the fees and spoilage, the rolling stock-"
"Total write-off," someone said.
"Mm-hm," the others said.
"Two men hurt," the super said. "One fatally. Don't forget."
Walter saw it all. He would not be rushed, he would not forget. He sidestepped down the bank, laid his suit coat on the front seat of the car.
"You kids okay?"
Vi said, "We're okay."
Jens said, "What happened, Dad?"
Walter stood by the door, unbuttoning his shirt cuffs with a dainty plucking motion. "Not too hot in there?"
Vi said, "We're okay."
He rolled his sleeves up, took his time. The men were watching him.
He said, "Let me know if you get too hot. Dogs die in overheated cars, you know."
The trunk was loaded with the tools of his profession: a bulky camera with a flash, a hundred feet of tape, a wheel on a stick that also measured distance, an adding machine with a roll of paper, spare rolls of paper, a manual typewriter, a bag of flares and stakes, ledger paper, carbon paper, many pads of legal forms, a reel-to-reel recorder, coiled rope, a notary stamp, and a wide flat book, maroon leather, embossed in gold THE CONNECTICUT. Inside the book were blank checks the color of the ocean on a map. The book in the trunk was power. A check from the book was called a settlement. This was what adjusters did, settle or not settle or settle partially, after taking pictures and measuring distances and interviewing witnesses in county seats and depot towns, at train wrecks in the north. Vi felt the bounce as he shut the trunk.
Coming back from Walter's trips, they always stopped at the Boyles' house. Phil Boyle was a man about her father's age, a prosperous mortician-politician, a pillar in his parish and a power in the town. The Boyles lived above their mortuary, a mansard rampart fortress on the shady, stonewalled corner of Main and Derry Turnpike. In the summer, Walter and Phil Boyle would sit out back at the picnic table, drinking coffee in their shirtsleeves. They would talk about the things they had in common, family, taxes, politics. Boyle the mortician was her father's closest friend, but he always frightened Vi. His hair was black, his suits were black, his winter hats were Homburgs, black, and his hands were long and liver-spotted gray. He always smelled like flowers and he took his coffee black, stirring for no reason Vi could see, the memory of milk, and even the insects were afraid of him. He had served a term for the machine in the state legislature, the lower house, and even in high hatching season, with the salt pond through the pines, Vi never saw him swat at even one blackfly. She believed that he was death itself, living in her town. She stayed by her father on their visits, protecting him from Boyle's undertow.
Jens stayed in the car, reading Mathemagic, or he ventured out and stood on the edge of the long driveway, watching Boyle's sons play H-O-R-S-E against the three-hearse garage. Boyle had four sons, scrappy, loud, athletic boys, groomed and destined to be preppy undertakers. The Boyle boys played H-O-R-S-E and many variations, S-M-E-G-M-A, M-U-C-U-S, S-P-U-T-U-M-being sons of a mortician, they had an interest in effluvia and knew all the latest gross-out words. Jens, standing on the grass, watched the active Boyle boys. Jens looked like a Martian, like an aphid, like another life form altogether.
Peta Boyle was the mortician's daughter, a year ahead of Vi in school. Peta's full name was Petulia Marguerite, but if you called her anything but Pet (her family nickname) or Peta (as in, pet a pet), she was apt to call you something nasty back. Vi and Peta ran through sprinklers or played hide-and-seek.
The oak tree by the table was their counting place. Vi would shut her eyes and kiss the bark as Peta hid. Vi counted, One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, nonsense numbers used by children not to measure time, but to pass it. It took a second to say one-thousand, roughly equal to a Mississippi. Peta in her yellow dress slipped between the trees. She was never any good at hiding. Vi knew even as she counted (six one-thousand, seven-) that Peta would hide behind the metal garden shed. Vi finds her without trying, and now Peta's kissing bark, one one-thousand, two one-thousand. Peta searches down the yard, but Vi's already gone and now Peta's crying in the doorway of the shed. Boyle's boys are fighting, who's a S-M-E-G and who's a S-M-E-G-M. Jens hikes, slope-shouldered, up the drive, as the fathers talk about their common things, business, children, politics, undertaking, underwriting.
VI TRAVELED WITH HER FATHER IN THE SUMMER and when school was out. She remembered paper trains and tractor-trailers overturned, but of all the things she saw, the fires in the houses made the permanent impression. It was always a slum bungalow by the harbor in the town. Lobstermen lived back there. Coming up the street in her father's car, Vi saw the wooden parlor traps stacked in the backyards for the winter, the trap-towers bigger than the houses.
It was always Christmas, always cold, and the fires always started in the plug behind the tree. What the fire didn't total, the firefighters did, with their boots and pikes and high-pressure hoses. Vi and her father usually arrived after the fire marshals had declared the fire out. By then, the water-slurry-foam, dripping from the eaves and the bare trees in the street, had frozen into huge smooth cookie-batter oozes, rounded, sparkling, fanciful, a wonderland in what was once the family room. They toured the ground floor with a flashlight and a magic guide named Mullen from the county arson squad. Not that this was arson or suspicious-origin. Mullen pointed to the dangling remains of the wall outlet, noting the char-path to the stairs, black and straight, like a road. Fires are intelligent. They process information. Where is air? Where is fuel? They burn and decide. They act and choose a path.
Mullen had a scratchy cough and offered them Sucrets. He took one for himself and said the kids' rooms were closest to the landing on the stairs, one of them's at Shriners, the other one's okay. Mullen said the tree, the creche, all the window candles, and a motorized reindeer on the lawn were pulling power through extensions from the plug behind the tree, that one there-see it, Walt? Clearly fiddled with, goddamn do-it-yourselfers. Note the tool marks on the wall, wires probably heated. The drapes were made of rayon and the tree was dry.
"Poof," said Mullen quietly.
Walter asked for light. Mullen put the beam on the tool marks. Walter took a picture with a flash.
This was Christmas, growing up-a restless week away from school, the whole town snowbound, the beaches battered, empty.
Walter in the den wore his cardigan. He hunted through the dial for a single station not playing Perry Como Christmas hits.
Evelyn was in the kitchen, slow-basting a pork loin. She said, "Oh for Pete's sake, Walt, get off your high horse. Let's have a carol, just this once. It's Christmas and the melodies are pretty."
Vi stood on a chair at the kitchen table, pushing cookie cutters into dough, first circles and then stars. Jens was on the shoveled driveway, trying to enlist one of the Dingos in a game of fetch. Jens threw a tennis ball. Dingo watched it bounce away. Jens chased the ball and threw again. Dingo loved this game.
Evelyn sang along with Perry Como. Hark! The herald angels sing glory to the newborn king...
Her voice was light and high and surprisingly pretty. She said, "It brings me back to dear old Braintree. Push a little harder, Vi."
Vi's mother was a Randle from Braintree, Massachusetts, and Dear Old Braintree was a phrase she used to indicate a world, Boston's lost South Shore of 1951. Every family had a maid, dinner was at six, potatoes were ubiquitous and mashed. Every mother wore a fur and every father took the Boston-Maine, which they never called the B&M, sounded smelly somehow, and Vi's Grampa Randle manned the fearless masthead of the town newspaper, battling corruption and cupidity not just in Braintree but in Hingham too.
Walter said, "It's a song about singing about nonsense. Why would it bring you anywhere?"
Evelyn was talking to her daughter now. "We used to sing those songs, Vi. I remember standing on the green with my Walker cousins. I remember Dolly Davis at the dancing school. I remember going shopping with my mother at Filene's. Their Santa was an Irish drunk, poor wretch, probably had a shameful secret on his conscience. Mother took me on the train and did it snow. They had to send a special train to get us, Vi. Us, of course, being every Tom, Dick, and Harry stranded on the platform at South Station, but secretly I thought the train had come for me. We filed on, Mother and I, with boxes for my brothers and a special box for me. Didn't know what was in it. Suspected tap shoes. Dreaded that. The train they sent was wonderful, great curved plates in front, like an ocean liner's prow, and this other thing, a huge caged fan, bigger than our car, like an ocean liner's screw. What was this special train? A ship on land with its propeller on the front, and we blew through the snow, and Father picked us up, and I remember how warm it was, the kitchen."
Vi said, "What was in the box?"
"A muffler," said Evelyn. "The kind you wear around your neck."
They heard Jens out back shouting, "You stupid goddamn dog."
Walter suffered Perry Como in the den. He said, "The melodies are pretty, but the words-they ruin it for me."
Evelyn said, "Don't listen to the words."
There was silence for a time as Walter tried. He called around the corner, "How the hell do you do that?"
They ate the loin for supper, bowing their heads as Walter read a short reflection by Mr. H. G. Wells. Later they opened gifts, which Walter said was their way of honoring the dignity of humankind.
"Whoop-de-doo," said Evelyn, raising her wineglass in a sarcastic toast.
Vi knew the truth-it was Jesus getting born. She had heard this from Peta Boyle, who wore a kilt to school.
Walter said that Jesus was a cherished symbol of the dignity of humankind.
Peta said that Jesus was the biggest baby ever.
THE DAY THEY SAW THE PAPER TRAIN DERAILED OUTSIDE BERLIN was the last insurance trip Jens ever went on. He was thirteen that year, the age when children splinter off and abandon the old loves. Jens abandoned his old loves together in a week, ham radio and hurricanes, playing ball with dogs, riding to disasters with his sister and his dad. His new love was a beaker storage closet in the science lab at Center Effing High where the teachers kept a slow acoustic modem which connected Jens to a Hexatron 1000 timeshare mainframe donated to the high school by a company in town. The rig was obsolete even then, but Jens was changed forever. He ran models of the Big Bang (which was, he told Vi, like a train wreck in the sky, vast and long ago, zillions of times bigger than all hurricanes combined). He played Zorc and Space War down the phone lines with his friends and came across a book on how to program in Beginning Glyph, which was, he said, a computer language, like logic or like math, except it's language, it's you telling the computer what to do. He spent a summer getting paler in the beaker storage closet. He came out in September with his masterpiece, a program he called JENSISNUMBER1.exe, which caused a distant printer to spit out the sentence JENS IS NUMBER 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!
He went on to bigger things from there. He learned COBOL, FORTRAN, C, the upper dialects of Glyph. He built his own computer from a kit, sold his Hallicrafter and his weather instruments to buy a faster modem, and would probably have taken his computer to the prom if he had even noticed that the high school had a prom. He went to high school two years early. At seventeen, he went to Dartmouth, Walter's alma mater, Walter's father's before that, the official college of male Asplunds in New Hampshire. Jens went to Dartmouth dreaming of inventions, of writing software that would change the world. Someday they would speak of the giants of computer science, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs, and Jens Asplund, father of the Jensatronic hyper-object language. Vi, who knew nothing about software except you couldn't wear it, was glad enough to move her stuff to Jens' empty bedroom, which was bigger and closer to the john.
When her brother went away, Vi was into other, less momentous things, basketball and soccer, tan lines at the town beach, and a lifeguard in the tower who was sixteen and too gorgeous to approach. That was the last year Vi went on insurance trips with Walter.
A cool October night, a town near Lebanon, New Hampshire, a small cement plant by the railroad tracks. Eight employees sat on vinyl chairs waiting to be interviewed by Walter and a man from the Byrnes Detective Agency in Boston. Whispers in the office. Money's missing, two grand and change. The employees readjust the blinds, smoke and push their butts into stand-up ashtrays. The town is the cement plant, the cement plant is the town, and these people have lived here all their lives, but by the close of business one of them will be exposed as an embezzler and his life in town will end. Vi watched her father find a plug for his tape recorder.
She remembered driving home that night. They saw the outline of the mountains and the stars. Her father kept it right at fifty-five.
He said, "From time to time, those cement plants explode. Especially the older ones. It's due to inadequate ventilation. There was a horrible accident in Nashua once. Six men killed, a slew injured-first million-dollar loss I ever handled for the firm. Horrible. They thought some men were buried in the rubble. They listened to the ground with stethoscopes and tubes. They asked for total silence on the scene. Your mother was expecting, two weeks overdue. I called her from a pay phone and she said, 'Come home. I feel a little woozy, Walt.' That wooziness was you, Vi, saying you were on the way, but I couldn't leave the accident. Stethoscopes and tubes-they listened through the night. They asked us to give blood. We lined up in total silence."
He looked worn out, driving home from Lebanon. Vi remembered thinking, he is old.
"Small office frauds are the worst," he said. "The pettiness, the fear, the cheap dishonesty. Doesn't make you hopeful for the species, no. Give me an explosion any day."
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Costello
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