© Arlene Goldbard 2004
Once upon a time, neither very long ago nor all that far away, there lived a woman called Dina Meyer. She made her home in the capital of a place slightly more imaginary than real, that large and various state known as California. Her employer was the sovereign of that land, its elected governor, and she toiled at his pleasure at one of the intricate and challenging tasks of turn-of-the-century public life. It was Dina’s job to navigate the mazes and tunnels through which information must pass to reach the citizenry in its intended form. Dina was a press secretary, though she hated to say so.
In fact, she had lately come to hate so many things she was called upon to say and do that she often found it tough to rouse herself from sleep to face them. It was in her nature to defeat difficulties through acts of will. Consequently, she addressed her reluctance to arise in the morning by forcing herself to awaken earlier than necessary, stationing a particularly loud and obnoxious alarm clock on a table some distance from her bed. Throughout the winter, this virtuously self-punishing strategy had a bracing if paradoxical effect: it pried Dina out of bed and into contact with the world outside; it also gave her one more thing (the alarm clock) and one more person (herself, for setting it) to hate.
But as the season changed, things began to look different. Rising early gave Dina time alone to enjoy the sights and scents of spring in the smoothness of first light, before the daily epidemic of urgencies and imperatives disfigured the world. Thus, by mid-April she had two fewer things to hate and many more in which to delight.
On this particular morning, Dina stepped out of the house into air that was cool and fragrant against her skin, like petals in the breeze. Tender green leaflets preened on their delicate branches, clamoring for attention. Peering down the street, Dina awarded herself yet another early-riser’s gold star: she was reliably first on her block to fetch the morning paper. A row of bright plastic bags dotted the chain of driveways, swimming-pool blue for the local paper, the Sacramento Bee, rain-slicker yellow for the San Francisco Chronicle. Dina read the New York Times online at work, figuring two daily papers was enough of a burden to put on the recycling system.
Alice the cat slithered along Dina’s right leg, depositing a clump of gray fur on the fleece of her slipper. Three doors down, a man in plaid pajama bottoms shuffled to the sidewalk, stooping to pick up the day’s news. Dina saluted her neighbor, silently bestowing the silver star. Smiling and waving his paper, he pressed one hand to the small of his back, coaxing his spine to face the day.
Once around the liquidambar tree and Alice sidled back to mark the left slipper. Most days, Dina darted out the front door for a surgical strike on the paper, snatching it up and returning to the house without stopping, swift as a Pony Express rider. Something slightly indecent about the way her mother had done her outside chores in a housecoat — setting the sprinklers, leaving the mail for the postman — usually kept Dina from lingering on the front walk of a morning. Not that she resembled Charlotte in this way: instead of pink nylon and graying lace, had Dina’s neighbor wished to stare, he would have a seen a woman no longer young but agile, dressed in an oversize T-shirt and well-worn leggings, one hand vainly attempting to impose order on a nest of dark tangled curls, the other hand rubbing her generous, mobile features awake. Yawning, Dina filled her lungs to the bursting point. Despite her childhood aversion, she felt torn between remaining outdoors to sip the delicious spring air and racing inside to get a head start on her always too-full day.
She decided to give herself five minutes with the paper. Perching on the top step, Dina opened her Chronicle to the “Datebook” section. It was her habit to start with the comics. She never allowed herself more than a glimpse at the headlines before she read “Doonsbury,” lest she be sidetracked into serious news. But a woman with her tidy habit of mind couldn’t go straight for the comics page either: she had to begin with page one of the section and thumb through the reviews and celebrity gossip and horoscopes along the way.
That’s where she saw the item that sent a surge of adrenalin to the roots of her hair.
Take C and See?
Leah Garchik Wednesday, April 4, 2001——————————————————————————————-
CURE FOR THE COMMON COLD? Rumor has it that under the influence of new designer drug Clarity, Warren Beatty and Michael Moore have teamed up to buy a weekly slot on the WB network to feature humor, short films and short documentaries that tell the True Stories that don’t get much network airtime in these days of Big Media. Tout Hollywood is buzzing about “C,” which you can’t buy for love nor money: you can only get it as a gift! Is that sweet or what? So what does Clarity do? Well, according to a press release TIC received this week from a group that goes by the moniker Vitamin See, this new substance enables the user to “see through false fronts and illusions” that “obscure reality,” “awakening us to what’s really going on.” Doesn’t sound like all that much fun to TIC. Without false fronts and illusions (and let’s not forget adultery and plastic surgery), yours truly would be out of a job. C’s not illegal yet, darlings, so if you want to try it, look out for geeks bearing gifts — they say Silicon Valley is all aglow.
Dina stood like a shot, emitting a squeal that lifted Alice’s fur into the arch of a Halloween cat. Catching herself, she scanned self-consciously for any sign that she’d disturbed the neighbors, but so far as she could tell, nobody stirred. That was good, because absolutely no one could know. But if somehow they could — if security weren’t the word of the day — who would possibly blame her for crowing? It was a little like getting one of those genius awards, at least as she’d always imagined it: seeing all your efforts pay off in the currency of a dream come true.
Trembling with excitement, Dina tore into the house and speed-dialed Gabe Pryor, her co-conspirator and the only real friend she had in the governor’s office, even though strictly speaking, she was his boss. She raced through the flat as she talked, lugging an armful of presentable clothes to the bathroom and turning on the hot-water tap.
“Where are you?” Gabe asked, rubbing his hand from the top of his forehead to the tip of his chin and back. “I’m not even out of bed yet and it sounds like you’re in a car wash. I could be way off-base here, but have you ever considered you might be taking this early-bird thing a little far?”
“‘Datebook’ section,” said Dina commandingly, “‘The In Crowd’ column.”
“My, we are speedy today, aren’t we? No time for verbs? What’s the big rush?” Gabe stumbled out of bed and made for the front door, where he hoped the paper hadn’t been “borrowed” by a passerby. On the way, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror: same old long nose, wide on the bottom like a T-square, same old shadows around the eyes, same old too-much eyebrows, same old afterthought of a chin, giving his coffee-colored face an innocence he couldn’t rightfully claim.
Dina forced herself to slow down. “Just get the paper, Gabe. I think you’ll enjoy reading ‘The In Crowd’ today.”
“Why does your voice sound so choked?” he asked. Dina was always going off about something. She e-mailed him ten times a day with one or another urgent matter, and her office was right down the hall from his.
“Because I’ve got the phone jammed between my neck and my shoulder and I’m trying to apply mascara one-handed while you waste my time with irrelevant questions.”
“Where’s the fire?”
“In the fucking ‘Datebook’ section,” Dina told him, enunciating every syllable. She could hear the rustle of newspapers in the background now.
“Holy shit!” said Gabe, there at last. “The eagle has landed! Will you look at this! The lead item! Whoo-o-o-o!”
“The lead item,” Dina repeated, dusting blusher on her cheekbones, shrugging her free shoulder philosophically when she hit the left cheek a little higher than the right.
Gabe whistled long and low. “And how long has it been? Mere weeks? I mean, I don’t know who’s keeping records on this stuff, and, you know, maybe nobody is, but this has to be the land-speed record for buzz.”
“Three months,” Dina told him, surveying her slightly lopsided lipstick. Good enough for the office. Anyway, it was usually gone by 11 o’clock: raccoon-rings around her brown eyes from forgetting not to rub them, lipstick dissolved by coffee except for a faint outline along the rim of her too-large mouth, nose shiny from the bump at its bridge to the very tip. “Three months and, um, I’d say five days, but that may not be precise.”
“I’m sure the mysterious Nick has all the stats,” he said. “What did your boyfriend say?”
“Nick’s not my boyfriend, and anyway, I called you first.” Dina felt oddly defensive about both things. “You’re the first name on my speed-dial.”
“Sounds like a country song,” said Gabe, feeling more than a little pleased, “not that I’m an expert in such things, but hey, listen to this: ‘First on my speed-dial and first in my heart…’”
“And first to break the big news.” Dina squealed again; she just couldn’t help it. She cadged a chorus from the Grateful Dead, slightly revised: “‘What a sho-o-ort, strange trip it’s been.’”
Indeed, it had been remarkably short. The idea had come to Dina in January, probably helped along by too many morose New Year’s conversations. Taking stock tended to depress her in those days. By the time of the year’s first press conference, she was already pretty low. Closing her eyes now, she could remember her way back into those sensations, the desolate feeling of leaning against the back wall of the institutional-blue briefing room, clutching a clipboard to her chest. That January day, spooning her body around the clipboard made her think of high school: young Dina hurrying down the hallway in a stiff new back-to-school outfit, shielding her sudden breasts with a binder to ward off the greedy eyes of boys who’d awakened that summer into long, hairy, urgent bodies.
Oh my God, she’d thought, stopping herself in mid-riff to gaze around the briefing room. How bad does reality have to be for me to prefer daydreaming about high school?
Dina hated high school, an all-day torture chamber designed to make her feel excess to requirements: too tall, too smart, too stupid to know when to shrink and act dumb. She daydreamed through most of those years, imagining the way life would be when she was finally grown-up and free: how she could choose the people around her — they would be artists and intellectuals, it would be something like Paris in the Twenties — how she could create her own moments, make her own choices.
An electronic rattle signaled the end of her daydreams and the start of that week’s press conference. Dina shook her head, inhaling the bouquet of stale coffee, trying to bring herself into sync with the present. Trying to want to be there. After all, she told herself, her girlish wishes had come remarkably close to true. As the director of this little media extravaganza, she’d created the mise en scène and scripted the main characters. Just one glitch: the resulting production made her want to run screaming from the room, never to look back.
At the podium the governor gushed charm at Barbara Hill, doyenne of the capital press corps, accessorized as always within an inch of her life. Barb reminded Dina of Mamie Eisenhower, but not many people could relate to that comparison any more. Barb had asked one of her famously direct questions: “How can you raise the salaries of prison guards and the budget for new prisons when a third of our classroom teachers got lay-off notices this week, and class size will climb back up to forty or more? Governor, in your last campaign you said education was going to be your number-one priority. What do you say to those pink-slipped teachers now?”
“I don’t know what to say, Barb.” The governor winked at a couple of amused reporters, stretching his hands toward the state and national flags that flanked the wooden podium. “I’m just so dazzled by that hat, I’m speechless.” The renowned Hal Crayton smile started its slow journey to fullness, first the right corner, then the left, and finally the ranks of square white teeth standing at attention in a landscape of tan, substantial flesh, pummeling the whole room with star quality.
The governor held up his hand. “But, seriously, Barb, tough times mean tough choices. We had to trim school expenditures to balance the budget. We had no choice about that, the voters of this great state have made that a mandate. But we fought the good fight and in the end, we cut education less than other programs. That’s the best anybody could hope to do under these circumstances. Education is still my first priority, just like I promised, and the voters know me as a man who keeps his promises.”
Barb Hill sat forward, one hand waving like an eager student, ready to repeat her point about prison guards. But if he knew anything, Crayton knew how to deflect tricky follow-ups — Dina had coached him hard enough to etch that lesson permanently into his memory bank. Adopting a searching air, he swiveled toward the opposite side of the room to call on a good old boy who reliably pitched him a softball.
A few more of these, and Dina felt her stomach begin to lurch in earnest. Probably that vending-machine lunch. With an upraised finger, she signaled to an aide standing in respectful silence three paces behind the governor: One more question. The aide signaled back with a thumb and forefinger: Got it, just one.
After work Dina drove straight home, heedless of the bare trees and the whistle of the January wind. She went directly to her workroom, stopping only to grab a carton of yogurt from the refrigerator. Spooning up sweet pink blandness, she peered at the computer screen. Alice occupied her accustomed perch behind the monitor, one gray, furry leg straight in the air as she enthusiastically licked her butt. Dina tried not to take it as a feline reproach, but she was neck-deep into self-reproof anyway, so there was no point resisting. My magnum opus, she thought, my unfinished symphony. My black hole.
Dina had begun the film in question a full seven years earlier, the same month she’d taken her job with the newly elected Governor Crayton. “To keep myself honest,” she’d said at the time. But she hadn’t really meant it, feeling complacently sure that nothing could tempt her to stray from the path of integrity. The real point of starting the film had been to inoculate herself against losing the creativity and independence she’d achieved as a filmmaker. She’d imagined it as a simple trade-off: the steady paycheck would buy her time, and she’d use it to make “If I Am For Myself Alone,” her exploration of the great questions of empathy in human events.
A wise teacher had once advised her to set the course for any project by committing its essence to paper in just a few sentences, consulting it frequently to make sure everything she did advanced her stated aims. The smudged and ragged scrap of paper had been taped to her computer forever. Its two sentences read this way:
How do we come to feel connection, the kind that leads to cooperation and altruism? And how do we come to feel its opposite, that other people are merely things blocking our path?
Dina’s approach to her film’s subject was to examine figures in history, both those who transcended their own origins and crude self-interest to become heroes of liberty, and those who turned their backs on the world’s suffering, devoted only to serving themselves. Dina believed in underlying truth. She was sure that by examining reality with an open mind and heart, one could discern the skeleton — the armature, the way things really worked, the machinery of cause and effect — beneath the thick skin of evasion, denial, rationalization.
But after seven years, all she had was a slew of sections that hadn’t yet cohered into a film — Moses giving up his royal privilege to smite the overseer oppressing the Hebrews, Che Guevara in the mountains of Bolivia, Eleanor Roosevelt’s embrace of the underdog… Examining any of these lives, she could draw lines from a certain influence in childhood to a particular adult choice, and it would all look perfectly logical. But it was usually easy to find someone else with a similar childhood who’d chosen the opposite path: a vicious bully sires two sons, one who follows in his footsteps and another who rescues abused children. With the security of hindsight, it was easy to cook up causalities, stirring a dollop of psychology into fragments of biography. But Dina’s old science teacher taught that to be valid, a theory couldn’t just serve as a plausible description of the way things have behaved in the past; it must predict how they will behave in future. The bippety-boppety-boo of psychological theory didn’t seem to possess much predictive power. In the end, what made people what they were, Dina just didn’t know.
Yeah, yeah. Alice’s indifferent licking seemed to say Dina’s stories weren’t likely to hang together anytime soon if all she did was give the film her leftover energy after another day of media spin and manipulation.
Along with her yogurt, Dina was chewing on the theory that the main obstacle to her own creativity might be the chaos in her immediate surroundings. Like the rest of her flat, the décor of her workroom was graduate-student bricks-and-boards meets IKEA: a rather nice computer desk next to a table made from an old door propped on sawhorses, half-dead flowers in a Mason jar, pens and pencils in a hi-tech wire mesh holder. While she tried to keep her more public rooms tidy, the workroom was almost impassable, years’ worth of film cans moldering in a corner, blocking access to shelves crammed with reference books, grant guidelines, file folders of notes and treatments and budgets.
Her footage had been transferred to digital video a few years back, and now most nights found Dina in a corner of this chaos, slouching at the keyboard, trying to make sense of it all. Her computer was surrounded by a veritable fairyland of LEDs, each one twinkling a slightly different time — blue numbers on the radio and telephone, red for the tape deck and VCR — but right now, all the colors said it was sometime after midnight. Sighing, letting the room go out of focus, Dina rubbed her forehead. No need to be terribly bright-eyed in the morning. She’d let herself have until 12:30 tonight. She brought up the file labeled “Gandhi” and let it unspool, a rough assemblage of old newsreel footage, Gandhi’s greatest hits.
The large brown bald head, the leathery ears, the skinny neck and shoulders no bigger than a ten year-old’s — Dina’s eyes filled with that sweet variety of tears evoked by baby pictures and canyon sunsets. She had read that Gandhi studied law in England, practiced it in South Africa. It was as if Dr. Martin Luther King had abandoned his title and business suits in favor of dusty overalls and a hoe — so unlikely and so humble and so incredibly shrewd.
“To a people famishing and idle,” the Gandhi on Dina’s computer screen said, “the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is work and promise of food as wages.”
Dina hit “pause.” The radio playing softly in the background came into her awareness. “At 9:15 GMT,” the plummy British voice said, “we have Angus Mitchell from Baghdad reporting on the situation of the Kurds today, followed by Joan Childers from Hong Kong, where a mysterious ailment thought to be flu is turning out to be a by-product of industrial pollution, and then to Sean McDonald in Hollywood, where the latest craze is designer water — no, not Perrier nor Evian, but bottled water individually tailored to the stars’ electrolytes by a computer program designed for that purpose.”
“To a people in a trance of consumerism and indifference,” Dina said, mimicking Gandhi’s inflection, “the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is as a new drug.” She rubbed the underside of Alice’s chin, caressing the cat’s tiny bones. “Just blow their minds and wake them up,” she told the purring kitty.
Dina glanced at the old photo of Nick propped behind the clock: the excellent bones, clear light eyes and straight-falling fair hair. Despite decades devoted to perfecting his bad habits — Nick must have been nearly forty when this picture was taken — he retained that English schoolboy look, a sensuous innocence that hooked Dina like a fish. She kept meaning to put the picture away. It had a sticky quality, drawing her eyes when all she’d wanted was to know the time, then entrapping her into a silent conversation with Nick’s fading image.
Lately, the main conversation topic was resentment. I wasted my youth on you, Dina told Nick’s black-and-white gaze, bitter bile rising in her throat. To be fair, she hadn’t exactly thrown away her life: she’d learned to be a filmmaker, made her way in the world, had fun, made a difference. But now she was a forty-six-fucking-year-old workaholic, no family, no man, no predictable future. All the time most people invested in getting those things, she’d squandered on a complicated trip around the block with Nick Emerson, puer aeternis — the eternal youth, as her friend Ronnie the shrink explained, a Jungian archetype for seductive, charismatic men who never grow up. Yet whenever one of Dina’s well-meaning friends persuaded her to have dinner with a cousin or colleague who would be “perfect for you, just perfect,” she defeated herself hoping for the instant ease, the mutual comprehension she’d felt with Nick at their best. Was the enduring bruise on her heart Nick’s fault, or Dina’s punishment for forgetting to duck? She stared into the unchanging eyes and felt that stab again, the soreness that wouldn’t heal.
For just a second, Nick’s photo seemed to glow in the dark, especially his Cheshire cat smile. Dina felt a rumble somewhere deep inside, nothing like pain. She made a point of ignoring it — a touch of indigestion, perhaps, but Alice, who missed nothing, stopped purring and said “O-w-w-w-l!” This was her cry to signal any change in the atmosphere. “Owl,” whispered Dina, stroking the cat’s soft fur. “Owl and owl again.”
Trapped in her seat at the governor’s conference table a couple of days later, Dina had a sensation that was all too familiar yet very difficult to describe without resorting to outlandish analogies. Her limbs felt strained and congested, like sausages cooked nearly to the bursting point. She’d choked down a quantity of frustration so enormous it had migrated from the realm of thought and speech into a crude bodily sensation, the muscular equivalent of having to vomit. She yearned to make a sound — a kvetch, a screech, a grunt — an utterance more basic than speech, more primitive than thought. She wanted so much to drop under the table and pound the floor with her arms and legs in time with her groans, it was taking one hundred percent of her will to restrain the impulse.
That was probably a good thing, because it left her no energy to say what she thought, which was that the entire senior staff and cabinet of Governor Hal Crayton’s administration was so debased, so deluded, so detached from what it meant to be human and from the responsibilities that entailed — so clueless they might as well lie down and die.
Encased in self-imposed silence, Dina simmered inside her sausage skin, watching the simulacra do their thing: smiling and nodding around the long polished wood table, their mouths moving against a backdrop of velvet curtains, formal portraits. Every so often, one of them would point or wave in her direction, then continue yapping without even waiting to see if she had acknowledged the gesture. Gabe sneaked glances at her, sidewise and anxious, as if he was waiting for her to go off like a stick of dynamite. She had absolutely no idea what they were all talking about now.
The morning’s featured dumb show had focused on commercialization of public education. Dina had been quietly advising a coalition of parents’ and educators’ groups that had been working to prohibit commercial messages from being broadcast in classrooms. Constituent work wasn’t part of her job description, but occasionally — more than occasionally, if truth be told — some friend of a bleeding-heart friend would get to her and more often than not, she found herself swept away with the injustice of it all and scheduling a meeting.
This particular campaign was dropped on her desk by Ronnie, whose therapy practice was mostly with children. If successful, it would do away with Channel One and with “VNRs” — video news releases, pre-packaged “news stories” or “documentaries” underwritten by advertisers. The parents had shown her one on students’ back problems sponsored by a backpack manufacturer and another on the African American “Juneteenth” holiday sponsored by a meat company whose products featured prominently in footage of celebratory barbecues. If they succeeded in ridding the classroom of commercial messages, they’d move on to other corporate exploitation of children, like school districts turning their cafeterias over to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut.
You had to admire the corporations’ talent for enterprise: Channel One and the fast-food outlets had a real feel for commercial synergy. Students got to see the McDonald’s logo and food in the underwriting credits during second or third period, for instance, then, when the lunch bell rang, they could run to the cafeteria to satisfy the high-fat, high-sugar cravings thus created. The schools got money, the corporations made money, and as no one cared all that much about the collateral damage, everyone who really mattered was happy.
These practices had been so widely accepted, they’d become normalized. Dina hadn’t really gotten the magnitude of the problem until one mother of a “tweener” (that was the corporations’ target demographic, nine-to-fourteen–year-olds whose consumer habits were just being formed) came to her office, outraged almost beyond words. Like most of Ronnie’s referrals, the woman bore the signs of having done serious time in the counterculture: wavy graying hair that showed no evidence of having been gelled and teased or otherwise tortured; natural fibers, clear blue eyes set in a net of sun-etched lines.
“I don’t know how to make you people understand,” the woman had said.
“You people” had stung, Dina had to admit that. “How about let’s try,” she asked, “before giving up?”
The woman looked briefly startled, then launched into her tale. “My son Adam is nine,” she told Dina, “and one of the kindest, most trusting people you could ever meet. He’s smart too, and remembers just about everything he learns. He doesn’t watch much television, and we’re very careful about the few things we allow him to watch.” She waited for Dina’s nod of acknowledgement. “He loves school, at least most of it. It’s important to me that he feel safe in that environment, that his trust is justified. Do you get that?” She’d looked at Dina as if she were a big dog who might not have the brain-power to understand the command “Stay!”
Dina choked back her resentment and nodded again.
“One day, I asked Adam what he had learned in school and when he answered me it was like The Exorcist or something. He recited all this ad copy verbatim, feeling very proud of himself. ‘Did you know, Mommy, that scooters are safer than skateboards? They provide the most transportation value for the dollar. Did you know that everybody needs to drink three glasses of milk each day? Did you know that if you want to have healthy feet they need a 75,000-mile check-up from a podiatrist?’ Only Adam said ‘potriadist.’ Then he asked me if he could get McDonald’s for lunch the next day.”
The mother ran her hands through her hair, sighing. “I asked him if it was okay to believe everything he saw on TV, and that was obviously a brand-new question. I went to see his teacher. She sat there, bold as brass, telling me that with so many things competing for priority, there wasn’t any time to talk about these claims.” The woman’s voice began to rise. “She actually tried to calm me down by assuring me that she held a pop quiz every so often to find out if the students retained what they’d learned from Channel One!”
Dina winced. This was so crazy. Didn’t people realize what they were doing by selling their kids to corporate America? Suddenly, incongruously, she saw herself sitting cross-legged, draped in white homespun, pronouncing her wacky version of Gandhi’s wisdom: To a people in a trance of consumerism and indifference, the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is as a new drug.
“Ms. Meyer, are you listening to me?” Clearly annoyed, the woman stared at Dina.
“Sorry,” said Dina, shaking her head. “What you’re telling me is shocking. Please, go on.”
“So I took it to the PTA,” the outraged mother continued. “Everybody was with me. How could they mess with kids’ minds and bodies this way? And all these teachers’ groups are against it. And everybody tells me the governor is the one who can change it. So how can we get to him, Ms. Meyer? Because these people are messing with my son, and I’m not going to just sit here and take that!”
At home that night, Dina couldn’t get this conversation out of her mind. It wasn’t as if this was the biggest issue in the world, but in a way, that made it worse. As far as she could see, most of those who should have been responsible for protecting children’s welfare (not to mention the well-being of adults, animals, trees and rivers) were asleep on the job. It was as if someone really had put them into a trance, like hypnotic subjects in a stage act. If only there really could be a drug that would make people see through the trance, she’d gladly add it to the water supply. She tossed and turned all night, awakened a dozen times by the same thoughts.
The next day, for the first Cabinet and senior-staff meeting of the new year, Dina brought the issue to the table, certain it deserved a fair hearing — and hoping that a few days off for the holidays might have cleared some of the cobwebs from her colleagues’ vision. But neither facts nor arguments had outweighed simple dollars and cents.
This was explained to Dina at a pace and in a tone that suggested she was an imbecile to not understand it for herself. Didn’t she realize that Channel One was a free service, replacing costly curriculum? Turning the cafeteria over to Pizza Hut slashed the budget for food and food-service personnel. This was public-private cooperation, a fine thing for everyone, especially the taxpayer. Alan Bridge, the balding, avuncular head of Food and Agriculture, sealed the deal by chiming in that McDonald’s had promised to use in-state suppliers of meat and produce.
“And besides,” he said, rubbing his ample stomach, “who doesn’t like to have a Big Mac and fries now and then?”
Gandhi rose slowly into Dina’s field of vision. She quickly shook him to the back of her mind.
“Oh,” said Kathy Nakano, head of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, looking uncharacteristically dreamy. “Wouldn’t you miss Salisbury steak, whatever that was? With carrot sticks and Jell-o, in those trays with compartments.” She fingered the bow on her white blouse.
“Yeah,” said Alan, caught up in the fun, “what would you rather have, a Big Mac or Sloppy Joes? We got them once a week. I had a friend who said they looked like pre-eaten hamburgers.”
“E-e-e-w!” groaned Marian Jason, the governor’s executive assistant. “Thanks for the imagery.”
Everyone chuckled and nodded like bobble-head dolls while Dina, who’d just read the reviews of the newly published Fast Food Nation, bit her tongue from repeating her friend Nancy’s line on the subject: “You’ve got to read it. There’s shit in the meat!”
“Look,” said Dina, “it’s really very simple. If you would just open your eyes, I’m sure you would see it for yourselves. Shouldn’t school balance all the TV commercials kids are getting at home, instead of reinforcing them? Don’t we have a higher educational purpose than selling Big Macs?”
“What?” said Bob Bornstein, the head of the Technology, Trade & Commerce Agency. He usually looked like an insurance agent, colorless and dull. But when he was irked, his complexion took on the color of rare beef, and then Dina thought he looked menacing. “Fomenting class warfare? Why is it you always object if anyone but the taxpayer foots the bill? Where could we get the money to feed these students if McDonald’s pulled out? By raising taxes?”
Dina had been typecast, of that there was no doubt. She felt like an idiot for even imagining that what she had to say would be considered on its merits. Gabe was at the meeting just to report on one issue. He was keeping his head down, seemingly intent on something fascinating in a file folder, but Dina guessed he was paying attention, because he was using all of his body language to telegraph the message she should let it go. But Dina couldn’t seem to help herself. She opened her mouth to try again.
“Okay,” said the governor preemptively, raising his hand to signal a timeout. “Enough. I agree with my principled friend Dina. I’d like to be able to run the schools the old-fashioned way. But it’s impossible. We can’t afford it, and I’m not going to dump this problem on my successor either.”
“But,” Dina started, “what about the millions for prison….”
“Now you sound like Barb Hill,” Crayton said, lips bending into a tight little smile. There was laughter all around. He shifted his gaze up one side of the big conference table and down the other, making the briefest eye contact with each person. Silence descended.
Throughout the rest of the meeting, Dina doodled on her notepad, trying to cool herself down. But every time her breathing returned to normal, she remembered what she would have to say to the outraged mother and her friends: Sorry, folks, the great state of California is going to continue selling your kids to the highest bidder, just as long as it pays. But don’t worry, we’re building more prisons to hold the results. She found herself sketching a figure that resembled Gandhi in the film clip, large, round head atop bird bones, wrapped in a white sheet.
The only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is as a new drug.
If only that were possible…
The photo of Nick popped onto the screen of Dina’s memory-bank. She pushed it away, but it popped right up again. He might have treated her badly, but this wasn’t personal. It was much bigger than that, and Nick was unquestionably the go-to guy. Dina couldn’t live with herself if she let a bruised heart stand in the way of what might be possible after all. Where had she put his number?
Nick was up at first light, bustling around the house, moving to the soundtrack of his own self-disparagement. People always talked about an “inner dialogue,” but for Nick, it was a monologue. There didn’t seem to be room for two voices in his head.
Right, man, it said, whatever bullshit she told you about needing your “expertise” for a new idea, it’s just a cover story. Yeah, she’s madly in love with you, ready to rush back to you, she’s just been postponing it for seven years ’cause she was a little busy.
Bend over, the voice said, because she’s going to kick your ass. But be sure to get the place real neat first, ’cause that’s so important, making a good impression while you get creamed.
Nick sighed, checking his face in the mirror. Seven years. He knew he looked okay. He had one of those faces that were supposed to age well. Good bone structure, his barber always said. More lines, more gray, but he was in decent shape. He could still set his sights on a woman in a bar and nine times out of ten, she’d let him join her at her table while she sipped the drink he’d bought, giggling at his jokes.
Yeah, said the voice. That’s where you met all those Mother Teresas and Nobel Prize-winners, huh?
Nick spooned tea into a hinged mesh ball and plopped it into the blue teapot. For seven years, he’d evaded thoughts of Dina. They’d lurked at the edge of his awareness like the phantom pain amputees suffered in the legs they’d lost. When he felt a twinge, he pushed it to the back of his mind. But the second he’d heard Dina’s voice on the phone, his old pain had blossomed into flesh. Now she was coming here on some errand he hadn’t quite understood — reminding him of that Berryman poem his father always used to quote: “His mission was real, but obscure.” She probably thought of him as “good old Nick.” She probably felt enough time had passed, that they could meet like old pals and part again as easily.
Each thought tightened the knot in Nick’s stomach. He put his hands over the knot and sat on the couch to wait.
Nick didn’t put too much stock in people. In principle, he couldn’t buy this idea of soul mates, the notion that you were meant to be teamed up with someone else for life. It seemed weak and dangerous — yoked at the hip, like his parents, hobbling along, forgetting why. But when he looked back on everything, he had to admit it, the one good thing he’d done, the one thing that was wildly, totally worth doing — like grabbing a life preserver — was hook up with Dina, his heart’s desire.
Get ready for her to be old and tired, the voice said,
like some burnt-out schoolteacher. Or married. Or both.
Sighing, Nick opened his laptop, preparing to check his e-mail while he waited. He wished he didn’t feel he was waiting for some test results or the return of a jury.
Driving at tortoise speed up the rocky curving track, Dina remembered. Seven years was a long time. She felt nervous, like a girl on a first date. But that was absurd. Even if this visit hadn’t been strictly business, it was ridiculous to think in romantic terms about Nick Emerson, a man she’d known since college. The man she’d lived with until she decided to take the Sacramento job and he’d asked how she planned to explain to the folks doing the security check that her boyfriend was a drug dealer. The man she now regaled with her resentment almost every night — in absentia.
They hadn’t exactly broken up, more faded away. At first the change in their arrangement had been an appearances-only thing: they’d live apart, but still see each other. Then it was convenience. Nick bought the land to build this place, and commuting from Sonoma County to Sacramento was out of the question for Dina. After a year or so, their visits had become so few and far between, the relationship just petered out.
They hadn’t talked at all for years — not since a highly unpleasant phone call at the start of Crayton’s second campaign. Dina thought “media whore” was an inapt and extreme characterization of her job, and Nick hadn’t much liked it when she’d accused him of hiding in an ivory armchair like his father, finding fault with the Lilliputians who made up the human race. And now she had come to ask for his help. Was she nuts?
Dina stopped the car and peered at her face in the rear view mirror. The things about it that made her self-conscious — wild hair, too much mouth, eyes like Dondi — those had been what Nick professed to love. She moistened a finger and ran it under her eyes, wiping away the smeared mascara. She decided not to refresh her lipstick. That would look eager, and that was the last thing she wanted.
“I would have left a trail of breadcrumbs,” Dina said brightly, “but I thought the squirrels would get them.”
Nick leaned against the door jamb, head to one side, looking her over. The clothes were a little aging-preppy, not like the old days. But she was still Dina, that energy crackling off her tangled hair, the liquid brown eyes taking it all in. Not burnt-out, he told the voice. He glanced at her left hand. And not married. “It’s almost impossible to get lost on the way out,” he said to Dina. “You just keep going down.”
“I thought I might get to come in first.” Nick having moved an inch or so to the side, Dina slid through the doorway, not quite touching him, but smelling him, yes, that familiar, elusive running-water scent that said Nick.
The place was gorgeous, she had to hand him that. The house seemed to have grown in situ like a mushroom, rather than deriving from the usual business of plans and timbers, hammers and saws and nails. There were very few square corners or straight angles, just polished wood curving with the grain, making her want to reach out and stroke the walls. Across the room, a vast picture window opened onto an extraordinary prospect, the sun coming up over hills covered in the improbably green grass of a northern California winter. Oaks dotted the hillsides, chamise and manzanita clung to the ground: the prickly native plants of her native state, surviving more on the memory of water than its actuality.
“Tea on the porch?” Nick asked, hands in his pockets. He wanted to lay his fingers close to Dina’s scalp and tug softly, see if that still made her purr.
Dina felt pleased to accept a steaming cup, pleased that Nick had gone to the trouble of setting out the pot and cups and the little plate of cut-up fruit in anticipation of her arrival — and she was quick to push that pleasure to the back of her awareness. “You’re probably wondering why I called you,” said Dina, sipping her tea, still unsure how to go about explaining, but certain she had come on an errand, not a quest.
“I guess I thought you got a yearning to sit in an ivory armchair,” Nick replied, wearing that lopsided grin, patting his lap, impersonating ease.
Dina felt her cheeks go red. “Or just needed a break from media whoring?”
Both of them felt the old buzz, the familiar pleasure of sparring together, and both suppressed it before the feeling could take root. The sun crowned over the far hills, slicing the air with a powerful beam. Dina and Nick shielded their eyes, like a team of scouts gazing toward a distant shore, the fair one appearing composed, the other dark and rattled, unmistakably rattled.
Dina took a deep breath, plunging ahead, getting down to business. “Have you got a VCR?”
She showed him the Gandhi footage and shared her insight about God appearing as a new drug. At first Nick thought it was a joke, but Dina persevered.
“The world is going to hell in a handbasket, Nick.”
That crooked smile still made him look debonair, like a man in an old snapshot, sporting the fedora and cigarette of another age. “Nice hand-basket,” he said, narrowing his blue eyes to slits, pretending to admire the handicraft that had produced this imaginary merchandise. “I could unload a couple gross of those.”
Resisting the bait, Dina continued. “Things are pretty fucked up, wouldn’t you agree?” She rubbed her eyes and waited.
“Well, yes. I believe I may have made that point sometime in 1978.” And again in ’79, ’80, ’81….
“Yes, well, things were fucked up in ’78, but wouldn’t you agree that they’ve reached a point that lends new meaning to ‘fucked up’?” Dina waited for Nick’s nod, and eventually it came. “It seems like everyone is in some kind of trance.” She could see him getting that smug smirk on his face, that I-told-you-so expression, but she tried not to let it throw her. “Nick,” she said, all seriousness now, brown eyes huge, lips set, “it doesn’t matter who said it first. It doesn’t matter who was right. This is beyond that.”
“Did you quit your job?” he asked. “Or is this one of those I-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us kind of things? Getting all worked up while you work the system?” He’d forgotten about this part, the way self-righteousness leaked into their exchanges, their famous point-counterpoints. In retrospect, it didn’t seem like all that much fun.
What’s the matter, baby? asked Nick’s inner voice. Feeling disappointed that she’s not throwing herself at you?
“You could put it that way,” Dina said, stifling her dismay. Were they going to revert instantly to some old pissing match? “Or you could say that I have tried to work within the system, so my desire to take another road at this point is grounded in sad experience. Or maybe if I just said I spent an entire morning listening to the cream of our public service convince themselves that broadcasting commercials into classrooms and turning cafeterias over to McDonald’s was a win-win proposition, and I’m fresh out of patience.” She sat quietly, waiting for him to speak.
Nick put down his tea, finally ready to listen. So what if Dina didn’t come to throw herself at him? This could be interesting. He gestured for her to continue.
“Politics is lost, because it’s all about money and lies,” said Dina, feeling her face grow warm. “Sometimes I wonder if politics is even going to matter anymore compared to the multinationals.” Dina could hear the hysteria creeping into her voice, but desperate to convince Nick, she ignored it and pushed on. “People’s lives are just numbers now in this big globalization game, the whole world is their plaything. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’ve been assimilated by the shopping culture: life is what you want to buy, identity is what you own, kids’ whole frame of reference is manufactured somewhere in Hollywood.
“I sit in front of my computer all day, so maybe that is narrowing my vision. But I keep thinking the only thing that can help us now is something that wakes people up deep, down inside, in the place where our ability to understand the world is formed. Like in a computer: we don’t need a bunch of fancy new software bells and whistles. We need to repair our operating system.”
Nick nodded. This fire was one of the things he’d always loved about Dina, how she cared so passionately about the world, how she actually thought about how to fix it. “Go on,” he said.
“So that’s it, what I said.” She shrugged, her mouth curving into a half-smile. “We need a new drug, and I want to know if it can be done. Naturally, I thought I’d come to the source.”