The Frequency of Souls
By Mary Kay Zuravleff
Picador Copyright © 1996 Mary Kay Zuravleff
All rights reserved.
Facts on File
Ever since he had built his first radio set from glass tubes and a spool of lead, George Mahoney remained convinced that the universe was soldered together with logic. That, in essence, was his philosophy, though there were corollaries, too: all supernatural phenomena, including what passed for miracles, were explicable; the dead were no longer among us; stars contained no truths for our future; and so on. This dogma had sustained him through such head trips as the Vietnam era, college during the early seventies, and sixteen years of marriage. Lately, however, in the slow afternoons when he was supposed to be advancing the cause of refrigerator design, George found himself watching his new office mate and reviewing his belief system.
Niagara Spense swiveled away from her computer and looked at George with an arched eyebrow that let him know he had been staring. For a number of reasons — her eyes, her size, her hearing aid — it was hard not to stare at the gangly girl scientist stationed at the next computer. Their assistant, Bev, had pointed out to George that Niagara sewed her own clothes, a dozen variations of a single prototype. Today she was wearing one in a gold paisley that was better suited to basement couches. George hadn't known women Niagara's age still sewed. It was a perfectly acceptable dress, maybe even one his wife, Judy, would wear. Short sleeves, no collar or buttons or belt. Each of the dresses had a tendency to slip off her left shoulder.
Before Niagara, George had only ever had one office mate, a bitter man with the personality of a snapping turtle. After forty winters on the project, the Veteran still said "icebox," and the one story he enjoyed telling, which George remembered like an earache, was how he had invented self-defrosting refrigerators to the surprise and betterment of the world. As the bells rang in 1992 and Coldpoint accounted for another slow year, the mean-spirited pioneer had been forced to resign amid talk of massive layoffs. Scarcely a week after the Veteran's retirement lunch, Niagara Spense was brought in to take his place.
This cloudy spring morning that was sure to end in scattered showers, Niagara extracted a filament of hair from the temple of her glasses, where broken strands often hung like fishing line, and returned George's stare with a personal question. "How did you come to be in Rockville, Maryland, designing refrigerators?"
George thought that if he told Niagara his story, she might be more chatty. Despite their sharing a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot windowless office, George knew little about her other than what he had gleaned from her personnel file. Even that was sparse. She was twenty-eight years old to his thirty-nine; her parents were concert pianists; while her Caltech transcript shone with A's, she had left without a doctorate. Shackelford, their boss, had interviewed her by phone. His notes consisted of "Smart kid" and "Nice voice," each underlined until the lead broke through the paper.
Still self-conscious in Niagara's presence, George fumbled with his clip-on tie, which was not nearly long enough for his six-foot-two-inch frame. George was bashful among homely women, perhaps because he had been a homely child who had come through adolescence transformed. He had grown into his once-bulging eyes, and as his body muscled up, his hair calmed down, settling into waves that drew compliments from his wife's friends. Through little effort on his part, he was tan and fit, and sometimes, when he saw a reflection of himself wrapped in his plush blue robe, pushing up his tortoiseshell glasses and leaning forward to shave the stubble at the square of his jaw, he could recognize himself as Magazine Man, a nickname his daughter had invented.
George had a theory that handsome people who start out unhandsome never quite get over those years spent avoiding eye contact. He raked a hand through the thickest part of his hair, watching all the while the muscle he made with this gesture.
How had he come to refrigerators? Any answer George gave would have to include Dino Park, off route I-75 outside Louisville. In George's life, Dino Park was like the wall in the laundry room where his children's heights were annually recorded, each gash a significant advance over the earlier marks.
"George," Niagara asked, "why engineering?"
George admired how Niagara reworded questions after he had let too much time pass. He hoped he would remember this trick the next time she didn't answer and he wasn't sure if her bulky hearing aid was turned on.
"It struck me that no one asks me that. I mean, people always ask Judy how she got into real estate." George thought it might be because she netted almost three times his salary selling houses.
Niagara said, "People ask me all the time, partly because of my parents."
"Physicists?" George tried to look as if he didn't know.
"Really?" George said, setting his head to nodding. Her parents had been mentioned in her file, which he hadn't actually pilfered but had certainly helped himself to, having discovered it mislaid in the conference room. Afterward, George had run a computer search through the Post's reviews. Her parents had twice filled every seat in the Kennedy Center, including the president's box; several concertos had been commissioned especially for Spense & Gignoux.
Niagara was holding on to the chain of her necklace. She closed her eyes and said, "Make a wish."
"Why?" George asked.
"That's what you do when the clasp touches the pendant. Don't you know a single thing?" Niagara fed the chain through the golden drop she always wore, until the fastener was under her hair. Then she lifted the neckline of her dress back onto her shoulder.
No amount of nervousness on George's part could compare with the fits and starts that possessed Niagara. Rather than be distracted, George was lulled by her quiet percussiveness, the tapping and flapping of her flyswatter hands accompanied by the jingling of her earrings.
In fact, one of the only places Niagara showed any variety in her wardrobe was in her choice of earrings. Mostly, they were large and pendulous, a noticeable violation of dress code. Nearly all of them jangled or clacked when she moved, which George thought would drive a person with a hearing aid nuts.
"What's it going to take?" Niagara asked. "Dripping water? Electrical shocks?"
"My story's not that interesting," he said. "What brought you to it?"
"Forget it," Niagara said. "I tell all, and then you say you don't remember. You're up."
George wished he could forget. He still dreamed about the long drive to Pershing Academy in the silent, spacious Impala. His mother's eyes baggy and sad as her ironing pile; his father coughing, trying to keep down his rage. Succumbing to Carol Greyson had required George to molt his suspicion, and free of that carapace, he had slithered and chirped, a young man animated by possibilities until exiled to military school.
But last week, when this nocturnal scene again unfolded, the picture he had carried in the hip pocket of his dreams was not of his high-school girlfriend. It was a portrait of Niagara Spense draped in black velvet, wearing nothing but the golden drop encircling her neck and that shoe-polish eyeliner he so adored. George might at least have conjured up the club's tennis pro, a redhead who had told Judy that underwear slowed down her serve. Niagara Spense had straight, cloth-brown hair, already bleached with gray. Her thick, wire-rimmed glasses magnified her eyes, and she was as broad-shouldered as George. With his night vision, George was able to keep Niagara at a softening, flattering distance, just as directors shoot aging movie stars through out-of-focus lenses.
Stirring awake from the most recent screening of his recurring dream, George had tunneled under the covers toward Judy. A slight camphor odor from the foot cream she used lent an Arabian flavor to the stale air beneath the sheets; palm trees and oases were also present in the coconut-oil dressing she rubbed on the ends of her black hair, which was as slick as if it were laminated. George could see past Judy's knees to her muscled calves. Her silk slip of a nightgown flowed over her long thighs, and as she lay on her side, her stomach and smallish breasts (if he reached out, each would barely fill a cupped hand) sagged slightly toward the bed. George marveled at her unadorned clavicles, the bones nearly as visible as those on a skeleton.
He had licked the hollow above and between those clavicles hundreds of times. Judy's ability to keep herself, as well as their home, trim and focused had always elicited in George the release that precedes desire; now, her lack of voluptuousness diminished his appetite. Their lives seemed scrawny, lean to an unadmirable degree, and Niagara lingered in George's thoughts as a meaty veal flank for his subconscious to gnaw on.
Niagara began to shuffle through papers at her desk, from feathery scraps to computer-drawn schematics, slick as vellum. "If it's that traumatic, you don't have to tell me," she mumbled. "I was just curious."
George was embarrassed not to have answered yet. Dancing in his peripheral vision, Niagara was a blur of movement outside the rim of his corrected eyesight. She seemed bent on disorder as her flailing scattered papers of disparate sizes. The breezes she created carried the musky candle smell of a basement or it could have been her waxy lipstick, which she applied thickly, George imagined, to overcompensate for the thinness of her lips.
"Traumatic?" he said. "More like banal." Maybe when he and Niagara had worked side by side for fourteen years, George could explain how soldering a transistor into place had required the same concentration and nimble-fingered agility he had shown unhooking Carol's bra beneath her shirt and sweater. For now, he chose to focus on a time before Carol.
George removed his glasses before embarking on his tale. He had found that by clouding his vision and keeping his chair an office length from Niagara, he could simulate the effect of his dreams. Ten feet away and fuzzy, Niagara was more striking than odd, and with her desk lamp behind her, a blurry halo rose round her head.
In a low, lullaby voice more suited for Sheridan's bedtime story, George began. "Nearly every Saturday morning, my mother would scream at me for one thing or another, and my father would take me out on maneuvers." His intentions of telling a simple story had led him out on a personal limb, and he wasn't sure if it could hold his weight until he was finished.
"It wasn't what she said so much as the volume. That she could yell so loud at me hurt my feelings." Squinting, he could see Niagara was looking back and forth as if for an exit. Where was he going with this? All he had needed to say was that one good physics teacher had been his inspiration.
"Is that possible?" Niagara asked. "Sound would hurt your fillings?"
He was growing accustomed to Niagara mishearing him. "Feelings," enunciated George, the last person in the world who would be expected to make that pronouncement.
"One Saturday, my dad took me to Dino Park." Usually it didn't matter where they went; the relief he felt in his father's company was enough of a treat for him. "Two years earlier, the attraction had been featured in the Weekly Reader, and our fourth-grade class made a pilgrimage there. That trip had required permission slips to ride the bus, parental volunteers, a buddy chain — one safety measure after another."
"Poor George," Niagara said, "so ready to be devoured."
George shrugged. "Why such precautions unless there was remarkable danger? It was as if we might break apart and be scattered to the four winds, spin off the earth. When Dad and I drove there, it only took a few minutes. We rolled the windows of the Impala down to the nub, and blasts of chives and honeysuckle were blowing in our faces. I was just enjoying the prospect of a long ride and we were there."
George didn't describe the park to Niagara; he thought the name said it all. He told her about how he and his father strolled from one wild-eyed, fanged monster to another.
"I don't get it," Niagara said. "Why were there monsters?"
"They looked like monsters to me," he confessed.
Then Niagara yelled, "Dinosaurs!" and George jumped. "I'm an idiot," she said. "Dino Park had dinosaurs, right?"
"Yes." George wondered if the words he thought he was speaking were different from what was actually spilling from his mouth.
"Dy-no Park," Niagara said, stretching out the syllables. "I thought Dyno was short for dynamos. I ask you why engineering drew you in, and you start telling me about some city park that, for all I know, featured generators through the ages."
In a huckster voice, George said, "See the turbines that powered Noah's ark. Marvel at transformers cast in iron by ancient Chinese scholars."
They laughed easily over the misunderstanding, chuckling as if they had a long history together. George was comfortable resorting to silliness, one of his chief parenting skills. When Niagara bared her wide teeth, she automatically reached up to cover her mouth. She wore no rings, though she had an oversized watch bound to her wrist with a strap the thickness of a belt.
"Welcome to Dyno Park," Niagara said, "where dynamos rule the earth."
While they were still amused, their boss marched in unannounced. The only black manager at Coldpoint, Shackelford had competed against the Veteran to get the position, and he rarely stopped by design after that. In fact, Niagara had reported to George that she had seen him only twice.
"Everything all right in here?" Shackelford said.
George wondered if his boss had ever heard laughter from the design office.
Niagara said, "George is telling me why he became an engineer."
"He won't be one for long if he doesn't get to work."
Niagara had decorated her corner with several cacti and a bushy plant whose long tendrils tumbled down the back of her desk. Shackelford pinched a waxy green leaf, surprising himself when he plucked it off. "This is real," he announced.
"Spider ivy," Niagara said. "It's good in offices because it actually absorbs toxins and reinvigorates the air with oxygen."
Shackelford scowled. "The Veteran never had plants."
George remembered how pitiful it had been watching the Veteran pack his single box of personal effects. Four decades in the same cinder-block building, and all they amounted to were a few posters of fighter planes, textbooks on refrigerator repair, a photograph of his wife and son that was taken around the time of the moon landing, and enough office supplies to open his own firm. That day, George had promised himself he would ask Judy for decorating advice, a vow he remembered whenever Niagara brought in another ornament. She had old tin toys and new plastic windups, including a refrigerator that waddled along on pink buniony feet. A dozen or more nineteenth-century photographs, each in an unusual frame, were hung on the wall. In a show of solid geometry, Niagara had pieced the odd frames together to form a circle. Comparing the two sides of their cubicle, George noticed that it looked as if Niagara had occupied her cozy corner for years and he were the newcomer.
Shackelford turned over an eggplant-shaped pitcher to look at the underside. "Is this a toy?" he growled.
"It's a pitcher," Niagara said.
"Looks like an eggplant," the boss remarked. Then he left without another word.
"Do we need to worry about that?" Niagara asked.
"God, no," George said with more confidence than he felt. He wondered why Shackelford had stepped in.
"OK, pal," Niagara finally said, "where were we?"
"Visiting the exclusive Dinah Shore Preserve," George bravely teased.
"The provocative Diane Sawyer Sanctuary," Niagara returned, further evidence that she could easily match wits with him. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Frequency of Souls by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Copyright © 1996 Mary Kay Zuravleff. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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