Genomicaby Susan Daitch
A new threat arrived on Nir’s desk late in the afternoon. The envelope was buried with other interoffice notices and memos, although the thirty-nine cent Lunar Year of the Rat stamp revealed only that it had been mailed from the outside. The cancellation marks were too smeared and blurred to be in any way legible. As usual there was no return address. Busy in the lab, Nir didn’t go through the daily mail that had accumulated on his desk, and so he didn’t tear it open until some time after nine o’clock in the evening. To call these strange letters threatening was to read into them, but this one was more direct than the others whose images contained nothing more than cryptic hints. Inside the envelope was a picture printed out on ordinary typing paper of the building, the anonymous glass six-story structure in which Nir worked. Genomica occupied most of its offices but no outdoor signage indicated its presence. If you didn’t know what activities lay within you would walk right by without ever wondering or caring what went on inside, but the photograph which Nir held in his hands revealed that someone did know and cared very much that the lab existed and carried on its work in a quiet strip of the north shore amid other office parks. In the picture the building had been blown to bits. Fragments of glass lay on the pavement and adjacent parking lot. Girders peeled from struts like curved cartoon bananas. The enormous satellite image of the earth that glowed on a glass wall behind the security desk of the lobby was identical to the one Nir walked past five days a week. The interior of the various offices and labs were extant and visible in a dollhouse effect. It was quite something. He wanted to show the picture to someone, but it was late; most had already left, and the labyrinth of offices and labs lay empty apart from a few blinking machines that never slept.
As far as he knew the only person remaining in Genomica at that hour was Enid Zweig who often arranged her shift so that she worked alone, but with the arrival of a new threat he had no misgivings about disturbing her. Whether the letter with its image of flying glass and shattered skeletons was a prank or a lone rogue flare in the dark that should be treated with some urgency Nir wasn’t sure, and he’d just as soon share the dilemma with someone else. Nir actually enjoyed breaking Enid’s solitude from time to time and invented reasons to visit her as she sat before the DNA sequencer peering into its screen and typing. “You’re too serious,” he would mumble; although he didn’t entirely believe this, it seemed the right thing to say. Nir wasn’t blind to her grimaces when she saw him coming. He wasn’t obtuse. He didn’t intend to be annoying but meant his jocular interruptions as sincere attempts at getting her to lighten up, whatever that meant. Even if she thought, you again, when she saw him coming; he now had something of interest.
To Nir the author’s identity was fluid and unknowable, a face in an unmarked car that drove past everyday, the driver waving and shouting along with a talk radio program, a craziness you couldn’t quantify or pin down with a phone number or a definitive hideout address. There were many possible identities that could be attributed to the invisible assailant or would be assailant, and when the first letter arrived he had discussed it with his landlord, Sandy Dubner. Sandy knocked on his door to alert him to a plumbing situation. A retired high school boxing coach who lived on the ground floor of the two family house, Dubner climbed the stairs only to tell Nir that the water would be turned off the next day for some pipe and valve replacement. When Dubner appeared at his door it was as if a loud, good-natured Yeti knocked. A Yeti will always be a Yeti, it can’t pretend to be anything else. Sometimes Nir was happy to shake the hand that was offered with such unapologetic bluster and adopt Yeti-speak. With his tenant Dubner renewed his role as instructor, and he enjoyed explaining things like boxing, wrestling, and car racing. Nir was particularly intrigued by NASCAR. In his country of origin you couldn’t race very far before you hit either bristling unclear borders or the sea. Driving in ovals was a reasonable way to test speed and made good sense. Nir marveled that the country however large it was with fairly simple borders (ocean, Canada, ocean, Mexico not including far flung tundra and island paradises) could house so many of these spinning ovals. Trying to predict and laying odds on who would lose control first was not, it seemed to him, a bad way to spend an hour or two and Dubner agreed whole-heartedly.
On the day of the first threatening letter Nafatali invited Sandy inside, offered him a beer, and showed him the paper, a hodgepodge of words, some menacing, an inscrutable stew, hoping this, like stock cars and dragsters, could be explained simply and logically. Dubner shrugged and turned the note over. He remained silent for a few seconds, yet Nir knew Sandy wasn’t finished with the subject. Advice was something his landlord was usually eager to impart, and he did so gratis.
“What’s this fellow’s beef?” Nir’s landlord proposed between swallows of beer. “You have to ask yourself, why is this guy so pissed off? What kinds of questions does Genomica weigh in one hand and then the other? You could say it’s in the business of unlocking identity secrets. You follow the trail of strands of DNA to identify fathers, criminals, to tell you that certain diseases lay down the road for you so watch out.” He knew all this from Nir’s tenancy application.
Sandy leaned back in his chair and ticked off three possibilities on his fingers:
1. A religious zealot who suspects your offices foster the notion that man and ape can clap each other on the back and enjoy family reunion picnics with no discomfort on either side.
2. An animal rights advocate, perhaps a teenager, who doesn’t realize DNA is not a microbe and therefore not an animal, nor is it extracted from animals via torture. DNA is not, as far as we know, mistreated when analyzed.
3. Someone who doesn’t know whether it’s Christmas or Tuesday.
Now it was Nir’s turn to shrug. It seemed the right response, hinting at agreement. Yes, such people you shouldn’t even meet underground attitude. Nir thought he was implying we are at the mercy of such morons, but in fact Dubner, a law and order sort who believed most problems could be grabbed by the horns and solved by direct means, was not at anybody’s mercy. Wiring mix-up? Call an electrician. Roof leak? Threaten to sue roofer until properly fixed. Anonymous note makes no sense? Nut job. Sandy kept jars of sauerkraut by the door which he lobbed at Mormons when he felt harassed by their persistent appeals for his salvation through conversion. He had a command of a vast array of insults, and when they failed him, he threw fermented cabbage. Actually, he may have been at the mercy of his sons. Nir wasn’t sure. Sandy kept a photograph in his wallet of four children sitting on the stoop of the house whose now separate upstairs floor he occupied. Their expressions ranged from manic grin on the youngest to a glum, I’m putting up with you on the older one. The children grew up and disappeared somewhere in the land of spinning ovals. Dubner clung to life as he knew it on the coast, and he rarely spoke of his children.
Of the letter writer, Sandy said, “must be some kind of dingdong who’s asking for a foot to be parked so far up his keister he’ll be coughing shoelaces.”
“A dingdong,” Nir repeated, not really sure the letter writer was looking for punishment or would, or perhaps even should, receive it.
Holding the second letter, a recently Photoshopped image, in surgical-gloved hands he made his way down the corridor that led to Enid’s part of the lab. You couldn’t say the hall smelled like DNA being unraveled, but because that’s what they did, for Nir the cleaning fluid smell became associated with it even though he knew the relationship between the two was entirely random.
Since the threats began six months ago Enid had received two of them. The letters addressed to her were crude pictures of twirling DNA molecules flying helter skelter to the edge of the page conveying an image of chaos. Enid was fired up by the letters. She, who shrugged off department meetings and most face-to-face contact, turned gumshoe on him when the letters began arriving. When people in other parts of the company received letters which were oddly appropriate to their offices Enid began to strike up conversations with Bannerjee in chromosome architecture and Kuryakin who was working on the RNAi Codex. As soon as word came down that a letter or drawing had been opened by an unsuspecting recipient she wanted to see the notes first hand. When the plant genetics department got a label from a can of corn with expletives written on the back, Enid was leaning over the addressee’s cubicle. When the neuroscience department got a couple of sloppy Rorschach tests folded many times over, matches concealed in the folds, Enid held the pages up to the light before the police arrived to dust for fingerprints.
The police were not much help. No law had really been broken by the notes, and it wasn’t as if Genomica, a lab involved in mapping various genomes, was a project whose investigations tread on territory that might be associated with issues of national security or anything like that. Until one of the missives turned genuinely menacing the letters were treated as pranks, and then they abruptly stopped. Nir’s late afternoon message indicated the sender or senders were back in business. Genomica had minimal security. There were no scanners or metal detectors in the lobby, only the odd security guard who sat reading the paper. He might look up with a nod and rarely bothered to check an ID. Once in a while someone raised the time bomb issue and the potential for havoc that lurked in the research the company engaged in: replicated bacteria let loose in the food or water supply, an airborne virus that could turn the city directly to the west of Genomica into a ghost town. Still for the most part they carried on their work as if no ill encroached beyond the blue-green satellite photo in the lobby which positioned North and South America permanently facing towards all employees and visitors. The most alarming incident that had ever occurred in the small company was when the globe panel had been installed. It had initially been put in upside down with Patagonia pointing towards the ceiling, Baffin Bay aiming at the floor, the continents, pinch-waisted at Panama as usual, but the compass, as it’s commonly imagined, flipped. Enid had proposed leaving the mistake as it was, but few took her seriously. For a few days you had to think as you entered; people screwed their heads sideways before walking past. Nir, whose first language was one that was read right to left, rather enjoyed the effect.
Who would want to blow them up? Nir thought as he made his way down the corridor to the section where Enid sat before a machine that resembled, if you had to describe it to someone from Mars, stereo speakers mated with a small white refrigerator. In a matter of hours it could map sequences of Neanderthal, gibbon, armadillo, and bat DNA, to say nothing of the ordinary walking-around homo sapien. A diagrammed sequence looked like an aerial map of a city street lined with a smattering of colored squares and rectangles. Nir would pat the top of the machine and say how’s the little guy tonight? Enid would answer that if any machine is any and all sexes, this one is. Given her interest in the letters, he reasoned, at least this time she would be glad to see him. When the notes ceased it had occurred to him he could create threatening letters to himself as an excuse to trot over to her desk to show her the latest, but the bomber or potential bomber had now returned to the drawing board providing him with his own bait.
As far as Enid was concerned Nir hung around her work area assuming she was always available for distraction as if she were a balled up wad of paper you could keep trying to toss into a waste basket situated across the room. Sometimes she didn’t mind all that much; sometimes it bugged her.
History of moments she didn’t mind:
1. Nir agreed with her. The map of the world should remain upside down.
2. “What happens to a fly when it gets electrocuted?” Nir asked, but made it clear he knew the answer. It was the first line of a joke.
“I don’t know. What?” Enid didn’t foresee any humor, expecting she would soon hear a detailed account of electrons coursing through Musca domestica’s nerve centers, its leaded wings that beat 1000 times a second still beating post-amputation, propelled across a room in the same frantic way a headless chicken may remain ambulatory. She expected a molecular description of bursting compound blue bottle eyes, of antennae, thorax, and clawed legs all instantly vaporized.
“It gets electrocuted,” was all Nir said.
Others rolled their eyes and shuffled back to work, but Enid thought this was pretty funny.
3. While Nir was explaining the process of comparing DNA across multiple species he pointed at the ceiling, alluding to non-existent birds who shared a figurative handful of genes with no longer existent raptors. He leaned against a file cabinet as if his explanation was nothing when in fact he was performing a triple lutz on the ice that was the business of Genomica, complicated stuff.
On the other hand there were times he popped up at her side and stared at her as if she had answers she was deliberately withholding. Little did Nir know in the middle of the night Enid faced the sequencing machinery as an adversary but never told anyone that the two, she and it, were at swords points. These were not good moments for him to appear. Her days were consumed by looking at smaller and smaller particles, storehouses, vast libraries of information invisible to the naked eye. The pieces were part of an ever-spiraling downward effort headed toward a unit of measure that would be impossible to imagine in its infinite smallness. If the molecules she monitored were guidebooks to the thoughts, behavior, illness, and every possible twitch of the larger mass they commandeered, there was nothing mysterious about them, an unruly but sometimes predictable bunch of particles. At the same time Enid wasn’t sure she believed in what she couldn’t touch and smell but kept her heretical suspicions to herself. She shuddered at the suggestion (made only to herself) that this kind of thing made her sound like a reincarnation of a barely remembered pope who wanted to put Galileo and his descendents in the slammer, but late at night she did entertain wild doubts. It was too easy not to be a believer and to imagine the cataract of information gleaned from the hybrid fridge/stereo system thing she faced nearly every day wouldn’t all prove to be a giant practical joke. She needed the tiny bits that affect and infect, that determine eye color, height, diurnal rhythms, cognition, and the propensity for certain demons to take root between your ears; all of it needed to be more tangible. She understood the rusty nail and tetanus, but a cartoon devil who perched gargoyle-like on her shoulder whispered mutiny as far as the idea of microbes and molecules was concerned. With all the force of a song you can’t get out of your head he planted anarchic thoughts that put her in league with the crackpot who sent those notes. Given the opportunity she’d shake hands with superstitious ancient Egyptians responsible for mummifying stiffs, the ones who tossed brains in the Cairene trash because they didn’t know what the organ was for, and she would agree with them, if you can’t wrap it in papyrus or newspaper it doesn’t really exist.
Enid lived with her mother, Pearl, in an apartment in Jackson Heights. Nir knew this. He had made inquiries at Genomica which he hoped no one would remember he’d done. When he asked Enid about her apartment, if she liked living in Queens, he got a crabwise answer about preferring to commute in the opposite direction, a response that only baffled him more. Nir also lived outside the city, but traffic patterns did not yet have much logic for him. As a child he had seen a model, a clear plastic human about five feet high with colored fluids coursing through tubing meant to be veins and arteries. The model was on wheels and his teacher called the thing, Ve’ayno Nireh or Mr. Ve’ayno Nireh, the Man Who Can’t Be Seen. The switch was flipped in order to animate the various functions of Mr. Ve’ayno Nireh, but there was a technical malfunction, so the blood began to move the wrong way or in the wrong places, leaking all over the place and finally onto the floor. Some of the kids laughed, but others shrieked and were scared. What Nir didn’t know was that Enid’s mother, Pearl, who had lived in the city most of her life, had come to look at traffic much the same way, its motion reminding her of the bodily disintegration of a Mr. Ve’ayno Nireh she’d never met.
Pearl volunteered several days a week at the Daughters of Rifka Senior Center playing the violin along with a pianist or a cellist or whoever showed up. A few, like herself, came regularly but once in a while an out of work immigrant cab driver who wanted to practice with an audience would appear. She found the presence of these random guest artists disorienting. The volunteer musicians took requests and listened to residents tell stories about seeing Leonard Bernstein in the automat on 57th Street or having a front row seat at Houdini’s last performance in Montreal even though that had been in 1926 and, do the math, Pearl said, it’s unlikely anyone is still alive today who saw that show and could have a lucid conversation about it. Her mother enjoyed playing at the Daughters of Rifka, but her own memory was eroding at an alarming rate. Music she had learned at an early age remained, but English which had not been her first language was being replaced by phrases Enid couldn’t translate and the conversion table lay in a part of her mother’s brain neither could access. She told what Enid thought was a story about a know-it-all at the Daughters of Rifka who criticized her for playing a duet with a pianist. All Enid could really understand was the phrase ist vei a dritta. If there’re two, there’s a third. The language problem was only the beginning of her dissolving universe.
Everyday routine became a minefield of unforeseeable and peculiar hurdles. When Pearl went to the market, a habit she’d stuck to for years and so should not have posed a problem, turned into one. The horseradish, for example, was always stocked in aisle 7, but one day it wasn’t there. It had been replaced by something called idli. Pearl took a box off the shelf, read about the rice and lentil cakes and could not understand how rice and lentil flour could possibly be substituted for horseradish. Her confusion turned to frustration. She wandered around the aisles in bewilderment as if everything she had once known as food had suddenly and without warning turned into brake lights and wood chippers.
When Enid came home from work and began to help make dinner she might ask her mother a simple question in an effort to exercise her short term memory, but a question like, who did you talk to today before you went to the D of R? became a form of mental gymnastics.
Pearl had begun to ask, when are you going to find a cure for this? What do you do all day? Can’t you revive these lousy genes, give them an injection of botox or at least change their line-up?”
Enid told her mother they didn’t line up like players taking bows on a stage whose order could be rearranged and thereby rejuvenate a tired and repetitive scenario. She imagined a graveyard for lost thoughts, or better yet, a lost and found for misplaced memories. Who was in that movie? You could look it up if you could remember the name of the movie, but that was getting to be a bigger and bigger if. Or, what was the name of that gym teacher who made everyone stay after school until somebody confessed to causing the explosion in the locker room? Enid, age nine, had put a plastic bathing cap through the wringer to see what would happen, not anticipating a bubble of air would burst through the plastic and make a fantastically loud and unexpected sound. She would never remember the name of that gym teacher although she could picture her short oily page boy. She had looked like a female impersonator of George Washington.
Conversations with her mother became increasingly difficult as she retreated more and more into a language Enid didn’t know. Once her mother gave up and just turned on the television in frustration whether or not she completely understood what was being said. As she turned down the noise of the radio and television which her mother used to drown out other sounds, Enid imagined a memory retrieval system that would be housed on the edge of every city and town. You enter the building, go up to a desk which resembles something that might have been retrieved from the lobby of the hotel in The Shining. You have a numbered ticket in hand that represents a sort of pawn ticket for a catalogue of every thought you’ve missed, every memory that you can’t pull up. You give the ticket to a coat check boy or girl who taps their felt cap as if thinking to themselves before disappearing just for a moment. In a recess of the check room the attendant, with a smile on his or her face, would match tickets, and upon returning hand you a box bearing the same number. In the box would be everything you had ever forgotten. As a courtesy certain preferred incidents could be deleted on a semi-permanent basis, because you never know when instances of shame, mortification, embarrassment, or horror might be needed.
Enid suggested this system to her mother who turned from a news report about illegal immigration. In a moment of sudden cognition she said, “For you it would be a shoe box. For me, it would be the key to a storage locker the size of a hangar, something major like at JFK.”
There were some good days when her mother was happy with her routine and seemed to be functioning although the ice floe was slowly melting bit by bit.
A few blocks from their apartment a pet store that for years had occupied prime space vanished overnight. Pets of Queens was nothing exotic. It didn’t sell chinchillas, tortoises, geckos, horned toads, baby sharks, chimpanzees or puppies of any kind. They did a brisk business in clown fish, hamsters, rabbits, and parakeets. The two guys and single woman who worked in the shop were heavily tattooed and didn’t seem particularly interested in animals or even selling them, but Pets of Queens had stood in the same place near the 82nd Street subway stop for years. Enid had witnessed a number of public outbursts connected with the store. There was the time one of the men, an older gentleman who wore numerous thick silver rings, told off a Greenpeace volunteer. The boy was trying to collect signatures in front of the store. Mr. Pets of Queens informed him in no uncertain terms. Get the fuck off my property, he yelled, and informed the boy who, white-knuckled, grasped a clipboard plastered with a sticker of a panda chewing a stalk of bamboo, that he didn’t care the sidewalk was, technically, city property he had no claim to. The other man and woman handled the animals roughly as if they and the customers were a nuisance, and the smell of the store suggested the cages weren’t cleaned very often. Still, Enid went in from time to time and examined the salamanders who looked as if they suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and the hysterical parakeets. She had been thinking of buying some kind of pet in order to help her mother’s memory problems. By adding a simple set of habits, taking care of an animal, she hoped to jog her mother’s memory, like adding another routine at the gym to exercise different muscles; she guessed that would be a good analogy, although Enid personally had never been in a gym.
One day Pets of Queens was in business, the next day when she walked past, the shop was empty. The sign which sported a picture of a queen walking a poodle was gone. She peered into the storefront window. Metal shelves were askew, a few bags of pet food and fish tank ornaments such as small castles and a couple of grey skulls lay scattered on the floor. Fish and reptile tanks were empty, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, birds’ cages, all vacant. How had they gotten rid of all those animals so quickly? Were they dispersed into the city streets and sewers, released into the air or flushed down toilets? The dusty windows held a scattering of excelsior, probably a few rabbit pellets, a garland of tin foil flowers, a faded American flag and a model Buick someone had made perhaps decades before. It was unclear what the relationship of these memento mori might be or what catastrophe had occurred overnight that caused the disappearance of everything else, but something about the storefront kept Enid rooted to the spot as if she’d been lassoed around the ankles. When she described this to Nir he didn’t understand how someone like Enid ever got to work in the morning or the afternoon which was when she actually came in. He didn’t understand why she didn’t just jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but said nothing to her about his mystification as to why, if an abandoned shop window paralyzed her in the street, did she manage to yank herself out of all those abysses and come into the lab each afternoon where until late at night she, alongside several others, recorded the placement of chromosomes on a strand of DNA?
He looked through the plate glass window which separated the corridor from the part of the lab where Enid worked at a box-like and anonymous DNA decoding machine. The thing that resembled any background gizmo in a Star Trek set was driven by a plate of light sensitive chips whose protean properties were extraordinary. In a high powered telescope they could detect the light of dying stars or the luminescence of microbes that lived on the ocean floor far too deep for sunlight to penetrate. A pitted glass slide lay on top of the chips. In each of its tiny depressions swam a fragment of DNA waiting to be deciphered, translated, made to spill its particular beans. With a flash of luciferase, the enzyme that causes fireflies to glow in the dark, the reclining, floating and completely oblivious DNA was analyzed.
A person studied the twinkling lights generated by Enid’s sequencer, but it wasn’t Enid, it wasn’t even really a person. The body was a human body, but the head was a dark green and brown mass, eyes on stems, no ears to speak of. Nir knocked on the glass. The creature didn’t turn around.
No response. Nir walked into the lab.
The organism seemed to turn slightly in his direction then went back to doing Enid’s job. He touched its shoulder which gave him a vague thrill. He had never touched Enid, although he’d certainly thought about doing so plenty of times.
“You may think I’m Enid, but you don’t have all the facts.”
“Come on, Enid, I know it’s you. What’s with the head?”
“It’s the head of a radiation-scarred troglodyte.”
“I can see that.” Troglodyte was not a word Nir was completely familiar with, but he could tell from the context that it referred to the creature before him. In the monster department he believed troglodytes were on the slow side. “Are you the one who’s been sending the weird notes?”
He thought the troglodyte jumped ever so slightly, but it continued to type code on the keyboard, slowly, making many mistakes then having to backtrack to make corrections. Looking out eye holes in the neck didn’t facilitate vision, especially if one was wearing glasses as he knew the real Enid did. Nir crossed his arms over his lab coat and put a serious expression on his face as if he were genuinely studying the mutant hybrid sitting before him. To Enid with his black-rimmed glasses and crazy every-which-way hair he looked perfect for the part of the mad scientist. He couldn’t see her smile behind the troglodyte neck. She tried hard not to laugh.
Enid had considered inviting Nir to come home with her which would mean meeting her mother. She could see the two of them, Nir and Pearl, having long conversations about whether you could determine a person’s character from his or her face. Whether there was a connection between what you looked like, how you behaved, and genes, a subject her mother still liked to discuss in a repeating loop.
“Take, Nixon, for example.” Pearl would say, although there was a strong possibility Nafatali didn’t have a detailed mental picture of the former president.
“He looked like who he was. A shmendrick.” Pearl thought that settled the question.
But then she was never entirely sure of herself and she would bring up a startling reference to the pirouettes of nineteenth century anthropometry or to Alphonse Bertillon, anti-Dreyfusard, fake forensic authority who buttressed his theories with inscrutably complicated diagrams, a self-proclaimed expert who believed a criminal’s face betrayed his intent. Nir would lean forward in his chair and remind her that, yes, this was a slippery slope. While they were engrossed in debate Enid would sneak out the door and head to the movies. It would happen night after night.
"The troglodyte and his tribe were discovered when a rocket destined for the moon made a wrong turn during a meteor shower.” Enid rubbed her shoulder where the edge of the head chaffed against her lab coat.
“So what’s it doing here?”
“The head is part of a costume from Rocketship XM.”
Nir had never heard of Rocketship XM. There were many things whose meaning he still couldn’t entirely take for granted like this reference to a canon of old science fiction films with their sets made of what looked like (but couldn’t be) old keyboards and walls made of those McDonald’s Styrofoam burger suitcases, to say nothing of the movies’ covert comments on evolution, the nuclear arms race, and the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings, a series of events he had only the sketchiest knowledge of. Enid took advantage of his ignorance. She enjoyed playing the authority whether he was asking her about the space race during the Truman era or car racing even if she could barely distinguish a Formula One from a Stock Car. Nir, under Sandy Dubner’s tutelage, knew Enid made automotive competition facts up off the top of her head. Still, he listened.
“OK, look, Nir, this is what happens.” Enid’s voice was muffled by the thin wall of rubber, and she spoke as if delivering a lecture. “Rocketship XM’s crew of five lands on Mars by accident, remember, they’re not even supposed to be there, but they find evidence of a past civilization which was annihilated by a nuclear war. Who knew, right? You’d think we, here on earth, would have had some kind of clue with all the fireworks, but no, I guess not. So who’s left on Mars?” Enid pointed to her head. “Troglodytes. They attack the crew, killing two, leaving only three alive. The survivors escape back into the ship but don’t have enough fuel to make a decent getaway. They crash land back on earth, but just before they do Lloyd Bridges, the captain, tells Osa Messen that he’s completely in love with her.” Enid stood, about to demonstrate the embrace, but promptly sat back down. She was glad she was still wearing the rubber head as she related the love story ending to Nir.
Head over heels, Nir thought. The globe spins upside down as they crash towards earth. Outside the porthole windows they can see a shower of meteorites; they may look as airy as marshmallows, but they do some serious damage. The ship lurches and Nir is thrown against a set of levers which jab him in the back. He grabs Enid. This is the moment to tell her, just before earth, getting ever closer as seen through the porthole window, smashes them to bits. Chennai is upending Arkhangelsk; the globe spins on its east-west axis. Enid is uncharacteristically terrified. Now is his chance before it’s too late. The design of their padded tin foil space suits makes bodily contact completely unsatisfactory. It’s like hugging someone with a couch between you. He takes a step forward, his gait like Frankenstein’s. Not only do the suits produce embarrassing noises, but if Enid is sweating as much as he is, it’s just as well, he reasoned, they’re separated by all this housing insulation. So the whole scene is a waste, considering they’re about to die anyway. Enid was still talking, but Nir barely heard her.
“The lunar scenes were shot in the New Mexico desert in 1950, eighteen months after the first Soviet nuclear weapons test, so the director was saying, look what evolves if you don’t end the arms race.” Enid pointed to her beak and eye stems. She rolled her swivel chair to her desk a few feet from the machine and fiddled with a cup of coffee. With her mouth hidden behind the troglodyte’s neck there was no way to drink it. “The costume was on exhibit in that science museum in Queens. I have a friend who works there and since the exhibits were being changed, he thought I might like to borrow this head for a while.”
Nir wondered about this friend of Enid’s, maybe a boyfriend, but Enid never talked about a boyfriend, and it was hard to imagine her ever being undepressed enough, or ever taking a break from her assorted obsessions, to manage such a thing. Nir found the idea of Enid having a boyfriend who would do something as daring as pilfer rubber costumes depressing. It made him feel like the kind of person who never took any chances or risks, who would never bungee jump off a cliff, drive a car covered with sponsorship decals, lift iPods from a store, or reveal his innermost feelings as a primitive space ship crashed into the glaciers off Baffin Bay.
“I have a foam rubber hand from The Thing. Want to try it on?” Enid reached into a Century 21 shopping bag at her feet. “There’s a slit in the palm where seed pods were extracted.” Enid explained the seed pods turned into bloodthirsty aliens. “The Thing From Another World,” she said, “was made in 1951 and reflected Cold War paranoia and fear of evolutionary science.”
Nafatali nodded as if he knew this already, accepted the olive-gray hand and slipped it on over his surgical gloves. The fingers were stiff, ended in long purple nails, and the whole appendage smelled moldy.
“And here,” Enid reached into the bag again, “is the head of the Creature of the Black Lagoon. No kidding, it’s the real thing. Try it on. It doesn’t matter if the head and hands don’t match.”
Nir was not familiar with The Thing or The Creature From the Black Lagoon either. As Enid had once said, he grew up out of town, but he put the rubber head complete with frilly gills over his own and made swimming gestures although he wasn’t going anywhere. As with the troglodyte head the eye holes were somewhere in the rubber neck and this, too, smelled like fifty year old plastic and a time when nuclear explosions ruled the upper echelons of the index of possible human fears. With his head so encased this seemed a much easier way to converse with Enid and she, too, seemed more comfortable, less prone to her odd tales of having to flee drug stores in December while Muzak carols played in a continuous loop.
What would happen if you mated the Creature of the Black Lagoon with a troglodyte? The result would not be pretty, but at least they would have each other. Could the troglodyte swim? If not, he would have to reside permanently stateside in order to spend time with her before, tragically, those opportunist marine biologists made him into sashimi. He was not clear on the plot but he had a feeling the Creature did not have a happy aquatic future once he fell in love. Paying no further attention to him Enid turned her considerable headgear back to the DNA sequencer. Nir wasn’t sure he was meant to retreat with the Black Lagoon head in place or return it to her, but then he recalled the reason for his visit. Though he was afraid the brittle old hand of The Thing would snap and crumble around his own he managed to pull from his pocket the anonymous letter.
Enid took it from him and at first bowed over the page then held it up parallel to the eyeholes in the troglodyte’s head so the paper would be easier to examine. She was quiet for a moment then he heard a muffled voice from within the rubber neck.
“Do you remember the man from Miami who was told his DNA linked him to Ghengis Khan, but then he went to another lab and it turned out he wasn’t?”
Nir shook his head. He didn’t remember such a person and didn’t do that kind of research. The idea that someone as he, say, manned a swamp boat whose mission was to tag manatees in the Everglades felt so betrayed that he would send nutcase letters because he wasn’t truly descended from a Mongolian warrior made absolutely no sense.
Re-examining the picture with a magnifying loupe held up to her neck Enid could make out chunks of compressed, pancaked building that looked like meteorites or giant clams. Under magnification she could see concrete slabs bristling with embedded soda cans from the explosion of the Coke machine, fossilized if not carbonized layers of flooring, file cabinets, spiraling cords, twisted pipe, the tiny elbow of a King Kong refrigerator magnet. Aggressive chair legs poked out of another piece which was peppered by flying paper clips, promotional ball point pens, pitted with lost office keys, studded with someone’s computer-top collection of little plastic Homies. It could be read like the Burgess Shale. A lone computer key imprinted with the letter N, for example, might one day be interpreted in the same manner as the shadow of a prehistoric trilobite.
Enid had once seen a series of Harold Edgerton photographs of a bat hitting a baseball. At the moment of impact the ball was transformed into an entirely different squashed shape just like in a cartoon, then it boinged back to a perfectly round sphere. They had struck her as optimistic photographs taken in the 1930s. There would be no boinging back from impact here. The destruction hinted at by the picture before her was pretty much complete.
She handed the paper back to Nir who stuffed it in his pocket before scratching his encased head with the fragile Thing hand.
“Whoever sent this seems to know a lot about what the inside of the place looks like and had access in order to take the photographs that went into this composite.” Enid suggested.
This idea startled Nir. Enid was the can-do American while he looked at the letter as, if not a prank by a loon, a clue he was at a loss as to how to interpret. He believed such planners melted into the air while the actual bombers were obliterated with their victims. Some could be identified by DNA, but that was only after the explosion did its scissoring work. Then someone at another lab might look at the markers for psychotic meltdown and sigh, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Nir asked a few questions of the invisible lab technician who might still be in high school or graduate school, perhaps not yet even born. How much is mandated while you’re only a collection of cells numbered in the double digits? How much do you really decide on your own when you’re a conglomerate of trillions of specialized cells and you decide what you decide just because you feel like it? Or is that agency of free will business just a comforting illusion? What if the bomber was genetically programmed or predisposed to wreak havoc of some kind? Will is at the beck and call of a miniature army of pre-ordained five-star generals, and every possible shudder turns out to be governed by these bits and pieces. Determination is humored, it’s kidding itself that it’s on its own when, in fact, the idea of free resolve really breathes only on life support.
“It would have to be someone who worked here,” Enid made a circling gesture. “Why didn’t I think of that before?” There was a woman who worked on another floor, an office temp. One day at the photocopying machine she had tried to convince Enid and another sequencer, Mohan Chaudri, that the apocalypse was upon them. She spoke with great authority of the recent increase in number and ferocity of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, forest fires, and other kinds of natural disasters. Mohan was quicker than Enid, and more patient. He tried to explain to the woman that in some parts of the world these things happen all the time, and it was only that she hadn’t heard of them until such images shone on American TV screens. The woman insisted all these events were a message they ignored at their own peril. Can’t you see the writing on the wall, she kept repeating. Enid wanted to turn on her heel and run, but Mohan kept the debate going, quietly insisting that the world wasn’t about to end even when she opened her bag and presented him with a flyer that said It’s No Accident, Prayer Spells Answer. Enid was not offered a flyer, in fact the woman not only turned her back on Enid, but also blocked her from leaving the room. Finally Mohan gave up saying something like what you see is what you get, madame, and gave her a warm smile as if to say, I’m right, and you’ll figure it out eventually. Chaudri was like one of the characters from Rocketship X-M who believed, quite erroneously as it would turn out, they had enough fuel to make it to earth, because you always need one apparently pragmatic optimist on board. In movies, Enid had observed, they are often the first to meet their deaths.
“That temp with the tracts,” Enid reminded Nir, “she’s prime suspect number one.”
Nir remembered no temp. No one at Genomica had ever urged him to pray at the photocopying machine or anyplace else.
“So just how does Rocketship end? I don’t quite understand.” Enough trying to finger the letter writer, Nir thought, let’s get back to that ancient movie. He hoped that by vividly describing the second to last scene Enid could be coaxed into a re-enactment after they removed their respective heads.
The explosion hit just as Enid told Nir that the scene at the end of Rocketship X-M always made the audience laugh. “It hadn’t been meant to be funny, but it was impossible to see the pathos in it as this fake model earth with plasticene mountain ranges loomed closer and closer to a window lifted from a Maytag washer.” Boom. Nir grabbed Enid’s hand, the rubber Thing hand splitting apart under pressure. Enid knew better than he did where the exit was, feeling along in the dark. The acrid smoke was overwhelming, although at first their fake heads functioned as air filters.
Through her surgical gloves she felt along the mortared depressions between cinderblocks until she came to a stairwell, and they managed to descend to the lobby where just as the photograph predicted, the globe was shattered to smithereens. Enid picked up an unlabeled sliver of a peninsula, maybe Baja California, maybe that arm of Alaska that ended in the Aleutians, and she put it in her pocket, thinking the worst was over, let’s just get out of here. Shards of India stuck to the right side of the frame, icicle-shaped sections of hardy Antarctica to the bottom, but that was about it for earth. You’d never know it was there. Plumes of smoke billowed from the skeletal walls circling them like the ruin of an arena rather than what had once been a blocky building. Another explosion seemed to hurl them through a smoldering proscenium arch, all that remained of the west side of the structure.
Nir looked back only once. In the horizontal slats of light that made their way through the ruins he was reminded of the way bars of sunlight hit the samovar that his grandparents brought with them from Odessa, while old men who keep their hats on at all times, indoors as well as on the street sat round it clicking spoons against the sides of cooling glasses. This was the last real image Nir could muster before he was overcome by smoke trapped in the Creature of the Black Lagoon head which he hadn’t thought to remove before he passed out on the grass. His real head had joined the body of Mr. Ve’ayno Nireh.
Enid plopped down on the grass watching the fire. She pried Nir’s Creature of the Black Lagoon head off and threw it to one side. Nothing, she said into the air, will replace all this. There’s no key to a storage hangar where all the replacement parts wait to be re-assembled and put back in place. Nir muttered something about departing in a ship made of sequencer parts guaranteed impervious to asteroids. “No,” Enid said while Nir’s Formula One car flipped over and over. “Everything solid melts into air, fog, snuffed out, finito.”
Among the people who stopped their cars either to try to help or just to watch the explosion was a man on his way to the airport to pick up his son. The man had a pair of binoculars in his car so he was the one who observed a troglodyte leaning on the creature from the Black Lagoon as they emerged from the wreckage. He didn’t know what kind of business was carried on in the building because he didn’t usually drive that way and didn’t pay attention when he did. Some kind of theater, he thought, a play was being performed, he would later tell his wife, and two people did emerge from all the smoke and fire except they didn’t really look like people. I couldn’t tell what they were, he said, but they were alive.
He couldn’t hear Enid say finito or Nir yell as his hands burned from the hot samovar, but he marveled at how any living thing could have fled that inferno, how ethereal were those two creatures at the edge. Before he pulled back out into crawling traffic, he wondered what survival skills were coded into them that allowed people to sometimes find a way out of the flames and get up the next day, if not as if nothing at all had happened, but at least to feel the ends of their fingers, put one foot in front of the other and walk into whatever the following series of hours might contain whether footprints of a true disaster or of a joker laying a false trail that looks wondrous enough.
Susan Daitch will be reading with Ben Marcus at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library as part of the OFF THE RAIL series on Thursday April 10th at 7pm. The reading is free.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.