editing chapter 5.4
at last the chapter is finished in its first draft, and now i get to throw it all together and try to make it a few pages less than it is right now. i’m having so much fun.
Going home on the subway, Nathan sat in back of two men who were worriedly consulting their phones and talking in hushed tones.
“Just the one blip about 12 hours ago?” asked one, a black guy with a shaved head.
“And nothing since,” the other one responded, an old guy with white frizzy hair. He cracked a knuckle. “The grid lit up like Christmas, then went out altogether, and then right back to normal.”
They were both dressed in tan windbreakers and khaki pants with topsiders. The black guy checked another site. “Nope, not a solar storm. There’s a couple of sunspots but they’re quiet, and not pointing in our direction anyway. Plus the satellites are unaffected, and our phones still work. What about earthquakes?”
The old guy checked and shook his head. “The usual range of fours and fives around the Ring of Fire, twos in Iceland and the Mediterranean.” He checked something else. “Looks like the rest of the world isn’t directly affected. Probably those outages around the Great Lakes were just cascading effects.”
“I mean earthquakes here, in this time zone.”
“Oh, only a bunch of fracking-related twos and threes from Maine to Texas, nothing unusual.”
They kept shaking their heads in wonder and peering at each other’s phones. “Look at that signature. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Like a billion lightbulbs. They can’t find a source.” The old guy cracked another knuckle. “This guy here’s saying it was like the earth got a static electricity shock.”
The black guy sighed with exasperation. “What could it be? Cyberattack?”
They traded puzzled looks, then went back to their phones.
“Huh. We don’t have anything capable…?” the old guy asked.
“Not even close.”
“That’s what I thought. And them?”
The black guy snorted. “Not unless they’re space aliens. Everybody’s looking at this, it’d be obvious if it was planned.”
“But it’s not the sun.” The old guy bent his head to check as a new message dinged. “Fuck.”
“What?” The black guy kept his attention on his phone.
“I’m being reassigned.”
They looked at each other. “When?” asked the black guy.
“Effective the middle of the goddamned night, apparently.”
The black guy got a message. “Fuck. Me too.”
They dialed presets on their phones and got off at the next stop. Nathan watched them gesturing as the train pulled out of the station.
He was way late getting home, and arrived with his head full of dreams. He loved the kind of world where a guy like Kurt could make an insanely powerful nano computer at home, and just wear it on his wrist. Something you could never buy. something custom made, that nobody else in the world had.
It was so different from the world Nathan lived in, where everything came from Walmart and Ikea and Target, and before that from some factory in Asia where little kids were chained to their machines and beaten for lunch. Everything – cheaply made, easily broken, never as advertised. Nathan wanted to live in a world where things were custom made, and people did things differently, worked things out for themselves, made their own decisions. That’s why Dad was so hard to take, because he forced everybody to do everything his way. The stupid way.
Nathan was fascinated by Kurt’s prototype, and covered a sheet of paper with scribbled notes all the way home,. He was still pulling it out of his pocket and adding thoughts when he walked thru the front door into the living room.
Dad snatched it out of his hand. “What’s this bullshit, math?” He pointed to a sentence. “What’s this? Does this say quasiparticle? Hah hah.” He turned the page all around to examine the notes. “Infinite sheets of superconducting qubits? You must be kidding me. Orgone? Flux/charge transistor? Online electronics course?” He crumpled the paper and tossed it back. “Your handwriting really sucks, you know. It looks like you were running when you wrote this.”
“I’ll take a calligraphy class,” Nathan offered as he edged toward his room.
“Get me a beer. Smartass. Not pansy handwriting,” he explained. “Just legible. My writing’s not great, either,” he confessed as he popped the top. “I guess you must get it from me. Why don’t you print instead of trying to write, like I do? Then everybody could read it.”
“Like I want you reading my stuff,” Nathan mumbled from his room. He barely had his backpack off his shoulders when Dad came barging in. “I heard that.” He reached out and grabbed Nathan’s hair and yanked his head back. “If I want to know what you’re reading, you’re damn well going to show me.”
Nathan stood there wincing, his shoulders hunched to protect his neck, waiting for Dad to let go. Nathan was tall enough to look Dad in the eye. Dad smelled of beer, sour sweat, and orange hand cleaner.
“It’s my house, you’re my kid, it’s my money, my food, my car,” he said, shaking Nathan with every beat. “You don’t have nothing that don’t come from me. I’m in charge of what you can do, who you can talk to, what you read, and where you go. And I’ve started to think you’re doing something behind my back, without checking with me first. Is there something you’d like to confess before I beat it out of you?” He let go Nathan’s hair and whapped him on the back of the head, chuckling. “Haha just kidding,” he said playfully.
Nathan backed away, rubbing his head. “Well, I know I’ve been late getting home a lot,” he started, looking at his feet and shuffling awkwardly.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Dad said with satisfaction.
“It’s because,” he looked at Dad, “cuz I’ve gone out for sports.” He shrugged and folded his arms.
Dad bobbed with happiness. “That’s my boy.” He put his arm around Nathan and walked him back to the living room. “Wait. What coach in his right mind would have you?” He stopped and looked his son over. “You surely didn’t go out for football, did you? Or basketball?”
Nathan shook his head.
“Nah, they wouldn’t let you. Baseball?” he asked hopefully.
“No?” Nathan said. Dad would insist on showing up for games.
Dad would challenge him to a match and try to teach him something. Dad’s beer breath, his hairy arms, his bulging stomach, being pinned; it made him shudder. “Uh, soccer,” he said.
Dad frowned. “What? That’s almost funny. You’re so puny you have to play with the girls.”
“Your sister played when you were little. It’s for sissies. Nobody plays that game.”
“It’s more popular than…,” Nathan started to say football, but Mom cut him off.
“Actually, dear, some of the world’s most macho sex symbols are soccer players.”
Dad frowned and eyed Nathan suspiciously. “Go get your dinner. And get me a beer while you’re in there. Faggot,” he said to Nathan’s back..
“He’s such a bully,” Nathan complained as he reheated his pot pie. Mom had followed him into the kitchen and was loading the dishwasher. “We can’t just let him win all the time, Mom. Nothing’ll ever change if we don’t make him stop.” He poured himself a glass of milk. “He’s so mean, and he’s wrong, and you still let him have his way.”
“We just have to put up with it,” Mom said sympathetically. “He may be wrong, but he’s the head of the family, and he needs to do as he thinks best.”
“But he’s wrong,” he protested. “He treats you badly. We don’t have to put up with it. It’s not like it’s okay for him to be wrong. Aren’t we supposed to do what’s right no matter what?”
“Not if it goes against your father.”
“It’s not no matter what, then.” They looked at each other for a moment.
“No. You’re right. But we have to excuse his maybe slightly abusive actions, because he’s only trying to do what’s right for us.”
Nathan made a noise. “No, he’s suiting himself. He doesn’t care about us. We’re his servants.”
“Your father loves you, in his way. They call it crazy wisdom. You have to trust him.”
“Well, no I don’t, either. He’s abusive.”
“He knows best, you know.”
“Didn’t we agree that he doesn’t?”
She shrugged and patted his shoulder. “Let’s go sit down and let you eat.”
Dad was cruising thru the channels with his remote and passed a sports channel down in the foreign part of the cable spectrum. He watched long enough to get the jist of professional soccer, and after that called Nathan a mexican faggot. Nathan accepted this meekly because Dad hadn’t actually forbidden him to play, and that meant he could disguise his work as something Dad wasn’t the least bit interested in.
Dad left the TV on a news channel and went to the bathroom. Nathan sat and ate while Mom and Sis had a quick, fierce argument about the new speeding ticket Sis brought home. Nathan tried to ignore them, but heard Sis threaten Mom if Dad found out. Then Dad was back and they shut up.
The news graphic showed a satellite picture of the eastern US with the words “LIGHTS OUT” in big red letters splashed across the top. The anchor appeared, a chirpy young woman with pink hair, one corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smirk. “Our top story tonight. They’re calling it the Big Glitch.” She turned grim. “The lights flickered out over the entire eastern third of the country last night, in an incident experts are calling a transient electrical surge, possibly the result of a solar storm.” Then she did a sincere face. “At a press conference this morning, the president’s spokesman assured the country that everything was going to be okay.”
The video showed an official standing at a podium answering inaudible questions with prepared talking points. “There was never any danger of radiation…No, at this time, the event is not thought to be the result of a terrorist attack…Most devices successfully reactivated or rebooted or restarted after the event…It only lasted a fraction of a second…The electrical supply was interrupted to hundreds of millions of electronic systems in the most populated and interconnected part of the country…I’m afraid it will take weeks to comprehend the extent of the damages…Undoubtedly. Billions, yes. And possibly months to recover.”
The anchor was back on, reading from her pages. “Among the related local stories we’re tracking, the power is still out in Midtown after a substation exploded. There have been numerous reports of crashed computer systems, lost or canceled financial transactions, traffic accidents due to non-working signals, and hospitals having to manually restart vital life support systems when their backup generators failed. There was a frightening near miss at JFK airport after radar tracking equipment malfunctioned, and over Atlanta, the crew of a cargo flight experienced a frantic few seconds as they restarted their engines in midair. We’ll be covering these stories and more at eleven.” She looked at the camera and smiled brightly. “Next up, will naughty children ever learn? Stay tuned.”
They cut to an ad (insert ad here) and Dad made Nathan get him a beer. He dawdled, putting things into the dishwasher while Dad yelled at him to hurry back for what promised to be a teaching moment.
The news graphic showed a ten-year old boy in handcuffs and an execution hood, with the words BAD BOY in big red letters splashed over the top. The anchor looked harsh but loving. “Today, the president signed into law a controversial new bill confirming parents’ absolute right of authority over their children. The ‘Papa Bear’ law provides the death penalty for rebellious children, and is modeled on Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Critics decry it as neolithic and morally backward, but supporters hail it as a powerful incentive to respect authority.”
Dad leaned over and slapped Nathan’s leg. “Well,” he said triumphantly, “there it is, in black and white. Disobey and die.” He drained his beer. “I’ve been trying to get it thru your heads. It’s serious. The foundation of civilization is obedience and discipline at home.” He drew himself up. “Because, dammit, I not only have the right, but the duty to teach you to respect your betters, and if you disobey me I will not hesitate to make an example out of you. In fact, you can be the first. You can stand as a lesson to all children about the importance of family discipline.”
Sis looked superior, an angelic but pompous sneer on her face. Nathan felt like saluting his father, but didn’t dare. He got him another beer without being asked, and slipped away to the kitchen, where Mom was organizing the bills.
“Mom, if you need it, you can have the rest of my paycheck.”
“No, sweetie, you’re doing enough already.”
Sis swaggered into the kitchen for a coke, leaving her dishes on the coffee table as usual. They started in on each other in low voices, Mom disapproving of something Sis wanted to do, and Sis being darkly threatening without actually referring to anything specific. But whatever she was holding over Mom’s head seemed to be working. Because Mom let her get away with standing over her and telling her what she thought was stupid, and the things she felt made her sick. Even sat there and mildly ignored her as Sis told her she was just someone who made dinner and dragged Dad down.
“You need to pay my fine,” Sis insisted. “It’s your fault, I wouldn’t haven’t gotten stopped if the car wasn’t ugly and beat up because you got rearended that time.”
Mom didn’t look up. “It says you were speeding. 80 in a 45 mile zone.”
“I wasn’t speeding,” she said vehemently. She wasn’t going faster than everyone else, only because the road was crowded. Instead, she was gunning it right up to the back of people’s bumpers, and then lurching out around them when there was an inch to spare, viciously swerving to teach the other driver a lesson.
“Well, we can’t pay it.”
“Well, I can’t pay it either. And you’re responsible for me, so you have to do it. So there.”
Mom put the bills down and looked at her. “Honey, this is serious. If you can’t stop speeding, you’re going to lose your license, and we really can’t afford the fines you’re bringing home. You’re going to have to get a job after school or something if you want to keep getting speeding tickets.”
“I promise. You’ll pay my fine, right?”
“I think you should have to go to court and stand in front of the judge yourself.”
“Don’t be cruel. Why do you want me to suffer? You can pay them online.”
Mom hesitated. Guilt alternated with anger. It stopped her every time. She was obsessively worried about Sis even tho her behavior was outrageous, because soon she would be trying the same thing on people who wouldn’t tolerate it and there would be hell to pay. Her daughter had such potential. She was so smart, uniquely intelligent, vivacious. But all she wanted to do with her abilities was to skate by on any and all effort. It was as if she deliberately ruined everything she was given.
“By the way,” Mom wondered. “Where are those jeans you begged me to get you? I haven’t seen them on you in a while.”
“I lost them,” Sis said casually. “They were stolen.” Actually, they got burned up in a bonfire after somebody puked on them. And she didn’t give a fuck because cool girls wouldn’t be caught dead in A&F. “I really need you to take me out and get me another pair, now,” she said. “They were my best pants, I urgently need another pair.” She looked anxious.
Mom paid over a hundred dollars in cash for prebeatup scrap denim. And had to deal with a mall, loud music and sullen teeneaged cashiers. “I’m sorry they’re gone, sweetie, why don’t I look for a pair at the thrift store?” Tho she wasn’t sure they’d sell jeans with that many holes in them.
Sis looked at Mom as if she’d just crawled out from under a rock. “What a toadlike thing to do,” she said angrily. “You can’t get me used clothes. Gross.”
“It’s just that if you want me to pay your fine, we have to find the money someplace, and right now we don’t have a spare penny.”
“We could have meatless dinners once in a while,” Nathan suggested. “We could stop buying soft drinks and junk food.” He was getting enthusiastic, picking thru the bills. “We could stop getting cable. Wow, that’s a hundred dollars a month.
“No we can’t, everything’s on cable now,” Sis protested. “There’s no such thing as regular TV anymore.”
“We could stop talking on the phone so much and having to pay fifty cents a minute.”
Sis stuck out her tongue. “No, idiot, we could get unlimited minutes.”
“We could always do the dishes by hand and save lots of water,” Nathan said. Sis eyed him disdainfully. “We could take fewer showers, and not flush the toilet as often.”
“Eeww,” Sis shrieked. The sound brought Dad into the kitchen to get another beer. She turned to him in despair, telling him that Nathan hated her and Mom treated her like a servant, complaining that was being punished over a pair of jeans, begging him to rescue her and make everything better.
He put his arms around her and glared at them over her head. “Don’t get depressed, sweetie,” he soothed. “I’m sure Mom just doesn’t understand how much those pants mean to you.”
“They want me to live like a serf,” she wailed. “We can’t take showers, everything’s got to be washed by hand, we can’t eat meat, and we can only wear rags. We can’t even have a TV. I can’t live like this.” She started to sob. “They want to stop buying beer and cokes.”
Dad was alarmed. He noticed the bills spread out on the table. “Have you spent too much again this month?” he accused.
“It’s not that, dear,” Mom said mildly. “We’ve been discussing ways of saving money by cutting back.”
“Why would we cut back if we weren’t in trouble?”
“To live within our means?”
“Why should we do that when we can put it on a credit card?” Sis demanded scornfully.
“Because it’s better for the earth.” Nathan said.
“Well, hell, boy – get me a beer since you’re by the fridge. Since you’re so environmental and all, you can be responsible for doing all the dishes by hand, every night. From now on, since the washer’s already loaded.” He checked with Sis, who nodded enthusiastically.
Dad winked at her and gave her his car keys so she could go over to a friend’s house and cram for a test. “We’ll get you another pair of pants, don’t worry,” he burped, downing the beer.
Nathan escaped to his room. He’d hoped to have enough time alone with Mom to talk about his work and discuss their costume plans for Dragoncon. Even giving Mom half of his pay every week, he’d already saved up enough money for his ticket, and now he was saving to get Mom one so they could go together next Labor Day. But tonight was a bad time, obviously.
Getting a fresh beer, Dad sat down at the kitchen table next to Mom. It was their monthly ritual. Mom wrote out all the bills, and he signed all the checks. He did enough recordkeeping and number crunching at work, and it gave him a big pain in the ass, so it was Mom’s job. And he had to treat her like an employee because tho Mom was smart enough, for a girl, she didn’t understand finance, and constantly went over budget. She had a woman’s brain and couldn’t help spending money. So he watched her, looking for wrongness to correct, anxiously waiting for her to fuck up and, realizing her incompetence, look to him to fix it. “What’s the bad news this month,” he asked with choleric humor.
“The credit card is maxed out.”
He shrugged. “Get an extension.”
“I called,” she sighed. “They said no.”
He snatched up the check register and looked at the calculations. “It’s short. Again.” He put it down and looked at her, waiting for an explanation, his fingers squeezing the sides of his beer can.
“Well, there were some purchases I guess you forgot to write down.”
He took a drink and brought the can down hard on the table. “They show up on the statement, don’t they?” he said dismissively.
She grimaced. “Yes, dear, a month later. By that time we’ve sent out the regular bills and they’ve hit the bank when there’s no money in it.”
“That’s your fault.” He sat back and drained his beer.
She paused. “But it’s because the card got used without anyone recording it in the checkbook, so it seemed like there was money there when there really wasn’t.”
He reared back. “Are you accusing me?” he asked in a raised tone.
“No, dear,” she said quickly. “I’m just saying…”
“I don’t want to hear this,” he said, staring at his beer.
“It might be Sis. Some of these merchants are…”
Dad crushed the can and threw it into the corner. “You know, it’s hilariously funny that you overdraw our bank account with impulse buys and bad accounting, and then have the nerve to blame me for it.”
There followed a restrained discussion of the relative merits of maintaining the current standard of living as opposed to the idea of curtailing consumption and unnecessary expenditures. Nathan couldn’t help but hear it from his room. Voices were raised, the table was thumped numerous times, things were slung around the room, and someone got slapped.
Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on the way to the bathroom. Nathan was reading up on circuit diagrams. “What’s this? Is this that demonic writing shit? What’s it called, sigils. I saw it on some show. You a satanist, boy?”
“No, Dad, it’s electronics,” he explained.
“You planning on being an electrician, Nuthin? Or maybe a cable guy, huh? I’m not sure I want you growing up to be a cable guy. I think maybe you need to come and work for me.”
“Dad, I’m kind of tired, okay?” Nathan said, closing his laptop and yawning.
“Huh. Whatever, I gotta pee anyway. Here’s a bedtime story for you, okay?” Dad said. “Once upon a time, there was a good kid, and a bad kid. We’ll call them Goofus and Gander. Is that right?” he called out to his wife in the kitchen.
“Yes dear, it was Gander,” she called back.
“Gandalf?” he wondered. “No, it was Gander. Gambler. Something. Anyway, the good kid did what he was told. He showed respect for adults and knew his place, and he didn’t go around asking for things. He just worked hard and looked forward to his reward in heaven. Now, the bad kid, he thought for himself, and did what he wanted, and didn’t pay attention to what anybody told him. Anyway, shit happened, and the bad kid ended up really really scared and then died in agony because he was too smart to follow orders. The end.”
“Wow, Dad, that’s quite a story.”
“Think about it, why don’t you.” He continued down the hall, unzipping as he walked.
Nathan snuck into the kitchen. “Mom, are you okay?”
She looked up from the checkbook. “I’m fine, son.”
“I heard him hitting something.” He looked anxiously at her. “Did he hit you?”
She chuckled bitterly. “No, he punched the wall.”
“Did he break it this time?”
“He might have hurt his hand, I don’t know. Hurry back to bed now,” she said, as Dad flushed the toilet and came back for round two, in which Mom soothed the savage beast.
She had better things to do, but tried to think of it as quality time with her husband, time out from her busy day in order to pay a lot of attention to him and let him make all the decisions, because it made him feel better, even tho she risked getting pushed around at times. She let him decide which bills to pay and which ones to put on the long finger. She trotted out all the frugal purchases she’d made, and complemented him on his good taste, wisdom and beneficence. She did it to salve his poor ego, which suffered so much at work. It was good for him to be the head of the family, to feel like he had some control over his pathetic life of servitude.
Mom didn’t suffer from the insecurity that ate at him, and considered it part of her role to placate him, dance around and manipulate him, and keep him from working himself up and getting out of control. It wore her out, tho. At this point in their marriage she couldn’t say she felt much affection for him. It was rather like dealing with a surly older dog that liked to pee in the house. She walked around on eggshells, waiting for something to set him off and explaining every little move so he didn’t get the wrong idea.
Dad got set off a lot now that there was an ominous silence from corporate. He jumped thru all the hoops, got his reports in on time, and made a show of cost cutting and efficiency improvements, proud of his idea of saving wages by making his crew work thru lunch.
But where was his raise, where was that attaboy, where was the notice for his innovations? His boss wasn’t returning his calls.