Friday, September 11, 2009

The Optical Engineer

His first wife was a flight attendant, and he likes to be awakened in the middle of the night, as she once did, to a woman straddling him, pumping like a piston and squeezing like a milking machine. The typical male achieves erection four to six times throughout the night, during REM sleep, at intervals of approximately ninety minutes. More often than not I just let him pass out, work for an hour or so, and then check to see if he’s ready. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize he’s fallen asleep. He thinks he’s been making love to me the whole time. Since he drinks, it works out better this way.

So I’m not too upset when he pulls back from my advances. “I’m so sorry. I completely forgot I have work to do. There’s a meeting tomorrow. It won’t take long.” He reaches one hand past me, to the bed table, lays his fingers on a ball point pen and an old envelope, pulls the envelope apart by its seams, flattens it onto a clipboard.

He scribbles the pen around to get it going, then scrawls out a string of numbers and letters. Mostly it’s like little F subscript parenthesis one end parenthesis, little F subscript parenthesis two end parenthesis, long strings like that. There are a few Xs and Ns in there, as well, I think, and some other abuses of the alphabet.

When he’s locked up half the envelope in these inky chains, he swears. “I better do this right.”

He gets out of bed, goes to his desk, finds a fresh leaf of printer paper, and starts copying his equations. They flow without effort, the way I write when I’m deep inside a story, and he writes them with a kind of calculating love, scientific attachment. His work is huge, bigger than us.

“What happens if you make a mistake?” I ask, hanging over the back of his chair, laughing.

His pen never stops plotting its course. “Then a ten million dollar mirror turns back into sand.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009


It was, and was not, her leg.

The weight of it came and went, along with the pain, dull, prickly, sharp, an antique cactus of pain, pinning her to the rubble. She could not move her leg from the pain, but, with concentration, she could move the pain from her leg.

She would lose it, the leg. Already, she began to let it go.

The pain was not the worst part. The darkness, the strange particulate air, imbued with suffocating dust like cotton candy spun from topsoil, that might be the worst. And the creaking, the eerie, haunted-house squeal of uncertain girders wailing through the night, that might be the worst too. Or maybe the damp, creeping cold into the parts that could still move, but not very far. But then the leg would start screaming, rising up like an infidel from the desert. And she would breathe through the dirt-thick air, and push the pain back.

Far, far away, she heard other sounds, yelling and drilling, sounds her brain recognized as hopeful, rescue sounds. This was America after all, and they would reach her sooner or later and bring her back to the light. She couldn’t see the mountain that had stolen her lower limb from her, clamped down on her knee like a junkyard dog with a squirrel in its jaw. The squirrel would die, but first it would go into shock and feel nothing. Just as she could scarcely feel now. She would go up, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. And she’d leave the punctuated pain, and the broken piece of meat, down here. Goodbye, leg, she thought. We had a good run.