The Year God Forgot US – Published by North Star Press – September 2011

“The Year God Forgot Us” by Dennis Nau (North Star Press, $14.95): 

The narrator of this endearing, good-hearted novel owns a restaurant in North Dakota, where “the winter of ’36 almost killed us, it was so bad.” Besides struggling through the Great Depression, the town of Bernadotte was almost buried under snow, and it was so cold “almost eight hundred chickens froze to death …”

Nau catches exactly the feel of a small Midwestern town, with spot-on dialogue that makes readers feel like they’re sitting at a table with these folks. And then a traveling salesman comes to town, and eventually everyone is sucked into a huge con readers can see coming but the characters cannot. The smooth con man takes months to build the townspeople’s trust, carefully playing on their fears of the bad economy, Mormons, Catholics and just about anybody else.

Nau tells his involving story in just 144 pages, and he does it so well you wish he would have kept going, although the story ends just the way it should. There is no biographical information about the author in the book, but his blog indicates he has had short stories published, and his talent with short fiction shows in this sweet novel.

North Star books are available at bookstores, amazon.com and northstarpress.com.

St. Paul Pioneer Press – February 19, 2012

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The Year God Forgot Us –

The Year God Forgot Us

Synopsys

The Year That God Forgot Us is set in northwestern North Dakota in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression. Dust bowl conditions ravaged the Midwest. Crops withered; tempers flared.  Johnny Ogdahl owns a café in the town of Bernadotte, a largely Scandinavian and protestant German community, isolated and suspicious. He and his customers argue about the state of the world and who should be blamed.
Then Al shows up, passing through town.  He pours water into his gas tank, then some powder, shakes the car, and drives off. This happens again and again.  Al eventually befriends Johnny, and, before long pours his heart out as he drinks coffee in Johnny’s café.
Al works for the Mormons, who have discovered the secret formula to turn water into gasoline. This will allow them to take over the world. Al needs the job, though he hates the Mormons.

Bernadotte is a small town, so, of course, before long everybody knows all the details. Al has a plan. He knows Ezekiel, who came up with the formula. Ezekiel wants to sell that formula, and get out from under the thumb of the Mormons.  Investors are needed. Imagine that.  People compete to put money into this investment with the promise of unlimited wealth. Respectable people sell their souls. The Lutheran Pastor is one. The grocer another. The newspaper owner takes some ethical liberties because he has invested also. Johnny tries to invest. Bernie, the banker, steps to the front of the line of greed.
After all, you could see it, twice a week, water in the gas tank, a little powder, and Al was such a nice guy.  This would be a chance to save Western Civilization. You could protect the world from those Mormons, and get rich in the process. It would give you a good feeling at night when you went to sleep.  The Mormons bring in the big gun, Joshua, the epitome of evil, Darth Vader 40 years earlier. This only jacks up the resolve of the people of Bernadotte. The world will be in our debt, they surmise.  Johnny dreams of riches and better weather as he fries bacon and eggs. Hoboes roam the town.  There’s violence as they clash with the townspeople. National politics become particularly ugly. Everyone is looking for someone else to blame for their misery. The targets are many. The drama continues as Al drives through town again and again. There’s another World War on the horizon, but you have to take time for a little romance. Still, the moment is ripe. We got to act now, Al says, if we want to succeed. Johnny tries to invest in the formula but Bernie, the banker, blocks him. Greed. Betrayal. Nothing new. A shake of hands and Al is on his way to get this formula. He’s on his way with all the money. Of course, we all know what will happen, and we can all see the irony in the story.  It was really the year we forgot about God.

There was a scam in the Southwest in probably the late 40’s that involved changing water to gasoline. I changed the location and time frame in this novel. I kept, however, all the prejudices that were common in 1936, some still common today. While doing research on the year 1936 I found many similarities to the present. There was high unemployment, overheated political rhetoric, business failures, irresponsible financial institutions and home foreclosures. There were Ponzi schemes even back then.

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Doubt

 It nags, doubt does, follows you to work, grabs you by the neck at 2AM, or as you sit chatting in your bosses’ office, but we’re talking about lower-case doubt, as in, “He will give me that promotion, right? I’m the best person for that job. Everyone in the company knows that. He has to give me that promotion. I think.”

At least that’s what we’re told at our Doubter’s Anonymous meetings. They have coffee and snacks during the break, but hardly a soul eats. You never know exactly who made the sandwiches. Did that person wash his or her hands after using the restroom?

The instructor says we should confront our insecurities. Upper case doubt (DOUBT) is the topic of the seminar March 3rd at theCivicCenter. “Helpful Hints” will be the first topic covered. Put a compass in your car, so you can avoid those awkward moments, “I think I’m going North, but…” Buy post-it notes.

Good ideas, but I don’t think they will work.

The seminar coordinator will then explain the subconscious nature of doubt, how to confront this emotion, and face it down, so you can smile in the morning like you really mean it. My entire support group is going with me. The tickets start at $35 (Doubter’s Anonymous members in good standing get 10% off if they pre-register).

They’ll tell me at the seminar which legal drugs can help me control the upper rear quadrant of the temporal lobe of my brain, where doubt is harbored. These are legal, FDA approved drugs. Everyone knows those herbal remedies don’t work.

Finally, the evening will end with a performance by that inspirational group, Doubtless, direct fromCincinnati. The seven members of the group met during therapy sessions and decided that they had a message that had to be told by music. They’ve been doubt-free for almost six years now, an example to us all.

Their sax player was once on Saturday Night Live. I’m told the guitarist is better than Jimmy Hendrix. Yeah, sure.

I’ve been ravaged by doubt. You could ask my wife, if I still had one. I almost got married in ’85. Cindy was a sweet girl, probably still is, but you never know. I went to Carlson Jewelers, a block off of Vine at sixth. I picked out a very attractive ring. They said you should spend two months salary on an engagement ring. That’s the rule of thumb in the wedding ring business, but I thought maybe six weeks would be good enough. Still, that was almost three grand. I have to sleep on this decision, I told the nice young man at the counter. Well, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept awake thinking of one figure: $3000. I should have been thinking of Cindy’s figure in a semi-transparent nightgown.

Maybe that nice young man wasn’t so nice after all. Maybe five weeks salary should be the rule of thumb. Four weeks would be better.

Cindy didn’t believe in doubt. She liked to dance, and she knew how to dance with flair, and she could figure out what type of dance it was. “Samuel,” she’d say, “This dance is not a polka. It’s a waltz. We dance like this.” If I followed her instructions, I danced without embarrassing myself.

What would be wrong with three weeks salary as the rule of thumb? That conniving young man at the counter could substitute cut glass for diamonds. By the time I found out, he’d probably be inJamaicasomewhere spending my three week’s salary. He couldn’t have nearly as good a time if it was only two weeks salary.

Cindy had eyes that could look through solid granite and hips, when they swung to and fro, make a person forget about weekly salaries altogether. To hell, you might say.

When I was growing up, my mother used to jokingly call me “Doubting Thomas.” I didn’t know what she was referring to until I took Bible Studies when I was eight years old. Those apostles, they’re so gullible, I thought.

Maybe one week’s worth of a person’s paycheck should be enough to buy a diamond ring. Carlson Jewelers didn’t sell any rings that cheap. I had to look elsewhere.

Cindy and I used to bowl on Thursday nights, go to movies on Saturdays. We went toJamaicafor three days, probably stayed at that same hotel that the clerk at Carlson Jewelers would have gone to if I had bought that ring.

When I gave Cindy the ring she kissed me before she looked at it. “This looks a lot like the ring that my parents gave my sister when she was confirmed.”

“It couldn’t be the same ring. Nobody would spend $79.99 on a ring for a confirmation.”

That was the last time I saw Cindy.

When I met Dale, a female Dale, as in Dale Evans, wife of Roy Rogers, I swore an oath to myself that I’d change. Dale could not dance well, so I had to teach her all those steps that I had learned from Cindy. “A step to the left, a step back, then a twirl; are you sure?” We were made for each other. Dale would look out the window each morning, to make sure that the sun was still rising in the east.

When I gave her the ring worth 13 weeks of my earnings, she looked up at me and said, “Thank you. Can you give me a week or two to think about it?”

Wedding preparations were painful. We couldn’t figure out the perfect date or the perfect color for the bridesmaids, or the type of flowers. Then, Dale turns up pregnant, and my mother says, you got two weeks, Sammy, get married. We did, at theChurchofPeople Who Sing Off-key.

Doubt is a horrible thing. Certainty is too. You watch these movie stars and politicians on television, giving their opinions on this or that, and they’re so certain they’re right. Then you have people like Dale and me. We don’t trust the earth to turn on its axis. It’s done so for a few billion years, but what guarantee do you have about tomorrow? None.

We named our baby girl Jane. That was Dale’s mother’s name. It was also the name of the woman who tamed Tarzan, a strong woman.

Jane had no doubts since the day she was born. She played us, like we were in a casino, sitting at the blackjack table, and she was the dealer, which is to say, we lost. Oh, we won a little, every once in a while, just enough to make us think that maybe we were real parents, but we weren’t. We would put Jane to bed, and she’d cry.

“Do you think it’s wise, Sam, to let her cry? It might hurt her self-esteem.”

“That’s true.”

Dale didn’t think we could make it on my salary and I took a part-time job at a convenience store, stocking shelves and mopping floors. Dale started to look at me with blood in her eyes. Why are you coming home at a quarter after ten? Well, I work till ten. I have to close up.

“You’re seeing another woman, that checkout girl with acne, the one who smokes outside the front door of the convenience store when she thinks no one is looking.”

“Sure. I get off at ten. I go over to her house. I get there at six minutes after ten. We get everything over by twelve minutes after ten. I take a shower and I’m home at a quarter past ten.”

“You’re fast when you want to be, Sammy. You got me in under two years, didn’t you?” That was that.

Jane didn’t understand, probably thought we were both fools, and she was right. Dale and I shared custody for a number of years, and Jane just progressed, doubt-free from kindergarten on.

“Really?” they would ask my ex-wife and me at school conferences. “She’s your kid?” Dale would blush. It was that blush that made me buy that expensive ring in the first place.

In Middle School Jane won every academic award that could possibly be won. I was there for all the school plays and debate championships and the playoff volleyball games. “She’s your kid?” people would ask, puzzled.

In High School Jane was Valedictorian, Prom Queen, State Softball Pitcher of the Year, and Debate Champion. “Really? She’s your daughter?”

At the graduation ceremony they announced that Jane was going to Yale via a full scholarship, I looked across the high school gym at Dale.  Maybe we could get back together? I doubt it, I thought. Breaking up is hard to do. Getting back together is even harder.

Well, of course, in her junior year at college, Jane met Tarzan, a microbiology major. His name was Jim, not Tarzan, and I don’t think he could properly kill a fly, not to mention those man-eating crocodiles that Tarzan could dispose of. After Tarzan saved the world, Jane was always waiting for him.

Jim came out for Thanksgiving, in Jane’s junior year, and Dale and I hosted a nice dinner, and we were civil to each other. The kid was a bit of a wimp, and both Dale and I figured he’d be a good fit for Jane, who was used to giving orders.

“Of course, he’ll leave her stranded, high and dry.” Dale said that. “She’ll ditch him,” I said. We both agreed on something, that no microbiology major could possibly make it with our daughter.

But we were approaching doubt from two different directions, which seemed a bit odd.

That’s when we realized we needed counseling, at least I did. They have departments devoted to doubt at Yale, and Jane got me into a program directed by one of the most respected doubt specialists in the country. He only lived two miles from my house, a Yale Alumnus, spoke three languages fluently, but English less so.

Still, I progressed. I tried to get Dale to come, but she didn’t think it would do her any good. I didn’t know then, but I know now, that she’s only at step one on the 11 step recovery process. She’s got no support group. I’d like to be her support group, like I was in ’89, when we conceived Jane, but Dale wouldn’t hear of it, doubted that anyone, from anywhere, could do her any good. It’s called self-denial. Oh, I didn’t believe it myself, at first, that this treatment program could possibly work. I’m beyond that stage now.

I turn on the water for my shower, and I don’t worry that it’s going to come out, probably at 125 degrees. I can get undressed now, and then turn on the shower, something I could never do before. I never had any confidence that the water would come out. Therapy is wonderful.

Dale flushes a toilet before she uses it, just to make sure it works.

Doubt is a terrible thing. You hear or read something and then you doubt what you heard or read. A few minutes later, you begin to doubt that you actually heard or read anything.

Take three deep breaths. That is what my doubt therapist says. Not two. Three. You take slow, deep breaths. In, out. In, out. Oxygen is a natural defensive mechanism against doubt.

I tried to tell Dale about the importance of oxygen but she just said, you’re full of shit, Sammy.

Or, did she say that?

We discuss self-denial at our Doubter’s Anonymous meetings. The meetings are held in the basement of a Lutheran church, though some of our members are not religious. Many don’t believe in the Blessed Trinity. “I don’t think they needed a third member. Two aren’t enough?” You hear comments like that.

Well, Jane calls and says I’ve dumped Tarzan, or what’s-his-name, Jim. I’m calling and leaving this on your answering machine, as a matter of record, or you’ll begin to wonder if you really heard what I really said.  I’m leaving the same message on mom’s machine, but I’m repeating it twice, or she won’t take Jim’s name off her Christmas card list.

Likely Jim really screwed up. There could be a lot of worse things than being attached to my daughter. Like being a microbiology major.

I was up to step six.

Jane started going out with an English major. The kid can recite poetry but can’t change a tire. Then again, Jane can change a tire.

The two came to dinner for Easter, at my place. I decided to skip all the insecurities about hosting a dinner and deciding which dishes to cook, and how long to cook them, and, when to buy the groceries, and did I want paper or plastic? I had the meal catered. They recommend doing these things at some of the therapy sessions.

Simply toss a coin, I was told. If it comes up heads, you take the first caterer in the yellow pages. Tails, you take the last.

Acme Catering did a nice job with the sliced ham, egg bake, and shrimp dish. Dale was impressed.

“You’ve changed, Sammy.”

“Next month, with any luck, I move up to step number seven.”

Well, this new Tarzan wasn’t Jim. He was James. We had a beer out back after the meal, James and I. Or is it James and me? He was an English major. I should have asked.

“She’s a strong woman, your daughter,” he said. “She’s helped me immensely. I have some problems making decisions. Jane doesn’t.” Oh, tell me something I don’t know, I thought.

“Jane doesn’t think I should go on to graduate school in the English Department. She thinks I should go toLawSchool. She says that I would get some respect as a lawyer, but if I get a doctorate’s degree in English I’ll just end up another pretty face at some third-rate university.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“You think I should go toGraduateSchooland stay in the field of English Literature?”

No, I thought. I just meant that I didn’t think you’d be another pretty face anywhere. Maybe Jane hadn’t gotten her new prescription contact lenses.

“No. I think you’d do well in whatever field you went into. But there’s money in law, and not much in the field of English Literature.”

I had to remember what I had said. I could use this talk at my next support meeting. Being assertive and thinking on your feet!

Jane and Tarzan number two got married and they now have Boy, and a dog, not a chimp. Dale thinks that I’m the new Roy Rogers, and she wants to get back together again, e-mails me twice a day, then calls to make sure I got the e-mails. I think I’ll make it to level eight by year’s end. Maybe I am the new Roy Rogers.

Still, it’s hard to say.

THE END

 

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American Lullaby – Short Story

AN AMERICAN LULLABY

 

“Yes,” she said. “Evil fortunes of neighbors give you top-of-earth feeling.”

Translation: “Look around, kid. You don’t have it so bad.” My mother is Chinese and met my father, a GI on leave toTaiwan, one rainy day in the fifties. A month later the marriage was arranged.

I was named after Albert Einstein, a man much emulated by my father who went to work for the National Atomic Energy Commission. My father was of Irish Catholic stock and we’d go to Mass Sundays promptly at nine. Mom would stay home and cook. The bacon and the jazzed-up Oriental omelets would be ready when we got home.

“I provide pepper, as should you be accustomed to.”

She’d say that to my father and then she would ever so slightly bow. Not too much, mind you. Enough to show respect, but not enough to show subservience.

My parents sent me to a Catholic elementary school. I got my ass handed to me there in fourth grade when I got into a fight with Johnny Burke during the afternoon recess.

“What is this, boys?” asked Sister Pauline.

He’s Japanese, says Johnny. The Japs killed my uncle.

“God teaches us to love all his children. Besides, he’s not Japanese. He’s half-Chinese. The Chinese fought on our side against the Japanese in the Second World War.”

Sister Pauline sat down on the pavement and started to cry.

“Please don’t cry, Sister,” I said. “Johnny didn’t mean anything.”

“I didn’t mean anything, Sister. Please don’t cry.”

Sister Pauline sobbed for another three minutes, probably not thinking how all of God’s children seemed to hate each other. She felt a fool because she hadn’t taught us history and geography better.

“Your eye black,” my mother said, when I came home from school. “You blood on your face.”

“I fell on the way home.”

“OK, then.”

“Your mother said you got into a fight,” said dad at the supper table.

I should mention that I have a twin brother, Frankie, named after Frank Sinatra, whose LP’s my mother listened to at her sewing machine in a sweatshop 12 kilometers southwest of Taipei.

I was always in Frankie’s rear-view mirror. He skipped fifth grade entirely and took an extra four credits a semester in college. Frankie was the scientist, with a major in chemistry and a minor in pre-med. I was the artist. Let me rephrase that. Frankie was the success. I was the failure.

“We have college-passing party for your brother,” mom said. All of my father’s brainy, atomic, friends at the party didn’t catch the real irony of our family. I was named after the scientist and Frankie was named after the artist, and we turned out vice-versa.

My college-passing party two years later was a more modest event, but the music was great. Janice played the piano; I played the violin. We were passionate about our music and about each other.

“Nice looking girl,” my father said.

“Evil witch girl,” my mother said.

My father smiled. He hadn’t worked in three months. Atomic energy was out of fashion.

“He shit luck, out of,” my mother said.

Times were tough in 1983. I got odd jobs here and there. Janice and I were living together by that time. My brother in Philadelphia picked up money like it fell from the clouds. My dad had a heart attack, fell off a chair, and was declared DOA two days before Christmas, 1985.

He was a piece of work, my old man, unafraid of anything except my mother. He would scoff at the Russians and the Red Chinese. Damn idiots. Their missiles will go up in the air and come right back down on themselves.

My dad had a metric ton of life insurance.

“I will buy new, big, house. Live with me, Albert. You must have wife.”

What-do-you-say, Janice? Mom thinks you should marry me. How could a girl resist?

We were married in a Catholic Church towards the end of July, when the temperature was 98 degrees, the sky was overcast and there was not a hint of wind. I knew what my dad would have said. Son, this is why wind power and solar power won’t work. We need atomic power.

Janice and I moved into the 5,000 square foot new rambler two weeks later. Both women were obsessed with one thing, and it wasn’t me. It was the game of Cribbage. They would play cards till three in the morning.

My mother decided that Frankie, Janice, and I should go visitTaipeiwith her in September.

Frankie was to come home for Mother’s Day. “He will stay here.” “Of course, Mom,” I said. “We can put him up for a few days.”

“Not a few days, many days. Frankie got in argument with dumb-ass supervisor.” On Mother’s Day I told my mother that Janice was pregnant and that we couldn’t go with her toTaiwan. That was only the second time I saw my mother cry. The first time was at the cemetery after my dad’s funeral.

Frankie gave me a blank stare that said, I’m the more advanced brother; I should have a child first. If you’re a twin, you know what the other one is thinking. Frankie, you need a woman to have a baby. You’ve studied science.

I didn’t speak, but Frankie knew what I was thinking.

“Baby needs garment for baptism. We will go toMinneapolisdowntown Friday. Your baby will have a proper garment. Janice will have rest at home, watch stupid American television, as befits woman awaiting baby.”

Janice agreed, anxious to watch stupid American television and eat stupid American popcorn.

Our car quit moving at 7th and Hennepin, the busiest intersection inMinnesota. It was my mother’s car, a new, high-amount-of-life-insurance, Saab. I was driving. Mom got out and started kicking the tires. A cop on the corner looked on.

“Cheap, American car,” she shouted, then cursed in Chinese. The amused cop got a tow-truck. The car was hauled away to a reputable dealer, and we stood for a few minutes in the center ofMinneapolis.

“Your Saab, Mom, is made by a Swedish company.” She cursed in Chinese once again. Then we were off shopping. We went to a store where they sold Chinese specialties. My mother talked with a woman in English and in Mandarin for 20 minutes. I caught bits and pieces. Good, yes, and you. Oh, your husband, I’m sorry to hear. We do use a very good seamstress…” There was a phone call and everything was arranged.

The car wouldn’t be ready until 11 next morning. We got hotel rooms.

“It’s onlyeight o’clock. We will go out. We are in city.”

Frankie and I looked at each other. What could possibly be more exciting than hitting all of the local hotspots with our own mother?  Since we’re twins, we didn’t have to say a word.

We started at Murphy’s Pub, had a drink and talked. My mother and Frankie would fly toTaipei, viaTokyo. The thought of a visit home turned my mother’s face to the color of a petal of a rose. “We are children of the Sweet Potato,” she said. “My land, it is the shape of sweet potato. I was happy there until the war. The Japanese took my father into their army, and there he died. My mother died too.

My older brother cared for me mostly, and then the factories came. Factories everywhere. But there was work. I could sew shirts for American men. Sew, sew, sew, then eat at noodle shop, then sew, sew, sew. At noodle shop one day your father walks in, all polished up in American Army uniform. He sits next to me and makes little talk. I know some English. He kiss my hand when he leaves. Your father come again and again. I was lucky girl.”

“Mom, he was lucky too,” I said, always quicker at saying things that would ingratiate me with my mother than Frankie was, even though he is the smarter twin.  She hugged me.

“Yes, he was. I never met man so smart and dumb at same time. He couldn’t tie shoes. He works at atomic energy bowlshit.”

“Mom, it’s bullshit, not bowlshit.”

“What you know, Frankie, can’t even find wife? We go to next bar.”

We took the town by storm, or by drizzle anyway. There was some place on 10th Street where we stayed for an hour.

“You boys have much talent. Do not end up like your father. He had much talent, too. He ate too much fatty food. My fault, I think. I cook fatty food. You should know, Albert, and you should know, Frankie, that I miss your father oh so much. He treated me like woman of high estate, not like seamstress, when we met second time. Your father could have got daughter of owner of noodle shop. You kids would have a lot of money if he got her.”

“So? We wouldn’t have you then.”

“You boys talk shit, you know.”

My old man, if I remember correctly, did too, and my mother would say, if I remember correctly, you must have $37 dollars for this bill by Friday, or there will be penalty and my old man would say, of course I will have $37 dear, don’t I always take care of you?

“Yes, good care.”

“Don’t write out checks till Thursday.” Ours was some household. We used to have Catholic Irish Chinese American ceremonies, but I guess that is what this country is all about, or supposed to be.

We went to another bar on 2nd Street. We had a drink and one large man made some loud, very obscene comment. My mother was up in a flash and over to his table.

“Who you think you are?” she said. “You speak like man with garbage in his mouth.”

Oh, my God, I’m going to have to defend her, I thought. The man stood up. I hadn’t fought anyone since Johnny Burke. Mom stood firm, looked up into his eyes.

“I’m sorry. Please accept my apology.”

That’s mom. She slammed down another drink. “Frankie,” she said, “why you cannot find wife? You smart boy.”

“Well, I don’t know, mom. I just don’t get anywhere with women.”

“You should not talk chemistry bowlshit on first date, Frankie. Don’t take no Einstein to know that.

 Boys, I not go back toTaipei. Home is here. Past is past. Would bring me tears to go back, see how country has changed. Albert, you and your sweet wife will have baby.

Frankie, you get married, have baby too. It’s theory of relatives.”

“The theory of relativity?” Frankie asked.

“No. Theory of relatives. You live for your family. Only dead people inTaipei, not so sweet a potato any more. I should be grandmother, look at future, not past. I’m drunk.”

We had to hold my mother up as we took her back to the hotel. She was singing “Ol’ Man River,” exactly like Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1947, well, exactly like Frank Sinatra would have recorded it in 1947 if he was off-key, drunk, a woman and Chinese, and had two sons holding him up by the arms, and if he couldn’t remember the words. My mother vomited twice by the side of the street. We made it to the hotel, led her up to her room, undressed her, tucked her in bed. She was crying, murmuring something about my father.

We picked up the cheap-ass Swedish Saab the next morning atquarter to noon, with its cheap-ass fuel pump replaced. The warranty took care of everything. We headed back home to the suburbs. Mom was uncharacteristically quiet during the drive, spoke but once from the back seat. A hangover is a hangover, whatever your ethnic background. “Would not be improper for new wife to play Cribbage, Frankie.” she said gently.

 

THE END

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Surfer Girl – Short Story

 SURFER GIRL

By

Dennis Nau

 The people were all wrong, the people at our wedding. I know they were taking bets at the back end of the bar. Some said our marriage would last three weeks, some a year. It’s been six years since we got married. They all lost. Still, losing is relative. Winning is too.

At the time of our wedding, I held the chair in Theoretical Physics at The University of San Diego, and I know something about relativity. I got my doctorate’s degree from Harvard. I’ve done consulting with NASA. I’ve had dinner with Stephen Hawking, twice. Women were not generally attracted to me in spite of my academic honors. So I posted myself on the internet with one of those search engines that pops up in an irritating manner on your screen late at night. Find your true soulmate now! They asked about my background and I typed it in. My doctoral thesis was on the science of wave theory. My book, “Astrophysical Wave Theory for the 20th Century and Beyond,” garnered all sorts of awards. I was on the cover of American Scientific in 1997. I’d been published 36 times.

I met Susan through this internet company and it cost me $1800. That was a bargain. Professor Anderson, my good friend, found his wife on the internet but it cost him almost five grand. Mix-ups do occur, and I should have learned from Professor Anderson. He had several patents in the field of medical imaging. He was responsible for designing some of the first transducers in the field of Positron Emission Tomography. Well, he mentioned that on his compatibility chart, about his work with PET Scan machines, and he was inundated with e-mails from women who loved pets. Professor Anderson married one with 26 cats. Oh, we weave a tangled web, whether or not we mean to deceive.

My first meeting with Susan was at Raphael’s, a small Italian joint on the coast, and I was nervous. How could we be matched? Was this Susan a professor of physics atSouthern Cal? Would we discuss black holes? Maybe we could talk about antimatter. I spent some time combing my hair to make myself look as intelligent as I possibly could. The dating service said, on their website, that first impressions were very important.

I sat at a table alone, a half-hour early, and I watched as the restaurant filled. Then this woman walked in, gorgeous, and I thought, no, it couldn’t be her. Physicists are not supposed to look that good.

But she was my date.

I kissed Susan’s hand before she sat down and she blushed. Physicists are not supposed to blush.

“I’m Herbert.”

“I’m Susan.”

We made microscopic talk about the weather, baseball, and traffic. You can always make small talk about traffic. She was beautiful and I fell under her trance and I didn’t much care at the end of our conversation that she knew nothing about physics. She worked in a convenience store and had only one interest in life. She liked to surf.

“If you catch a wave, a good wave, shortly after dawn on a day when the weather is perfect, you can ride that wave for maybe a quarter mile. You glide past these houses on the beach and you feel that you are on top of the world. You shiver a little, but it’s worth it. Know what I mean?”

Of course I didn’t.

“And Herbert, what do you do?”

Well, well, let me see. I investigate the fundamental principals of the universe. I talk in terms that are incomprehensible, except to other physicists. How did the universe form? What keeps it together? What is the relationship between energy and matter? Those sorts of questions.

“So, you can’t advise my next door neighbor if she should leave her husband?”

Not really. We physicists deal in the most important questions of existence, the questions of why and how, if and when. We measure time in nanoseconds; distance in light-years. We have our bases covered on both ends, the long and the short.

So, how many physicists does it take to change a light bulb?

Oh, I first heard that joke 20 years ago. Every physicist has heard that joke.

I deal in truth and I deal in irony. All of these earth-shaking, universe-rattling events that I study mean nothing. Tell me that the earth will start to wobble on its axis and the wobble will increase over the next 10,000 years and some time after that a new Ice Age will start, and this will not cause me to alter my dining habits. I’ve always gone out to eat at Raphael’s.

Susan followed the Grateful Dead for a number of years, she said. That didn’t discourage me. I’m tired, Herbert—can I call you Herb— of all those idiots that followed that band and followed me. That’s why I went on the Internet. Well, Susan—can I call you Susan—it seems to me that you may have made the best choice possible for your $1800.

“$1800? I only paid $450.” I guess it helps to be blond and beautiful.

We were married two months later, right around the time of all that massive sunspot activity. The best viewing areas were in theFijiIslands. We honeymooned inAlaska.

We caught salmon up there, lots of it, and shipped it back. We had a big party, invited all our friends and colleagues, ordered kilogram upon kilogram of beer and liquor, and damn near everyone we invited came, which often happens when you have free food and liquor. There were conversations about the sand and the surf and solar flare activity.

“No, approximately 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light.”

“Wow, that’s fast, man.”

That first year of our marriage was wonderful, what with the surfing finals inHawaii, and the theoretical physicist’s convention inParis. The next year was even better. My consulting team and I were awarded a 3.2 million dollar grant to develop a plan to detect the existence of quarks, a theorized fundamental component of the universe. It involved qualifying a bona-fide quark detector, and examining sites surrounded by heavy metal locations buried at least a mile underground that were easily accessible. It was quite a grant, and my staff and I had another party.

Although I had no appreciation for surfing, the pseudo-science of the sport amused me. I designed a surfboard for Susan made out of foamed titanium, covered with an aluminum skin. That skin was coated with a hard-coated aluminum oxide finish, infused with Teflon. She glided through the sea, Susan, and took second place in the ‘98 World Women’s Surfing Competition.

I think her prize was $3,000. I spent $22,000 making that surfboard, but I didn’t care. She was my surfer girl.

There’s dark matter in the universe. We physicists all know it. We can’t prove it, but we know it. 

I had to attend a weekend meeting with NASA in ’99. I took Susan along. Somehow, stepping out of that cab, she tripped, and snapped a bone in her ankle.

“Really, Herb, it’s nothing.”

“You’re limping, Susan.”

“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

She limped entirely too long. By the time Susan finally agreed to go to the doctor, the ankle had become infected. The doctors managed to save her foot, but there’s a price to pay for being stubborn. Her price was surfing. She’ll limp forever, and never ride a wave again.

Susan became a Christian, shortly after that. She couldn’t surf, so she turned to God.

I’m a physicist. I don’t know God.

This led to some awkward dinner conversations about the meaning of life.

“Well, evolution teaches us…”

“I don’t give a damn about evolution, Herb. Everyone believes in evolution. I want to know why.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why? Why is there creation at all?”

“Well, that’s not an easy question to answer.”

I had to leave, in the middle of that conversation, to go to observe the convergence of two of the moons of Jupiter. This was more than idle curiosity. We physicists knew what their orbit was, but we didn’t know the speed of their rotation, versus their distance from Jupiter. An exact time of their convergence could clear up these matters.

“So how important is this?” Suzy asked me before I left.

“Well, extremely important.”

“How will it affect life on earth?”

“Not at all.”

“How could it be important, then?”

I went to the observatory that night, and Jupiter’s moons converged just slightly before we predicted they would converge, so we re-calculated our figures and patted ourselves on the back, and, as I traveled home, I felt like one of those burned out booster rockets that were used on the Apollo missions. They flared for a few minutes and then they landed in the ocean.

Nobody gave a damn about them. Towards the end, nobody much gave a damn about their payloads, either.

All of this led me to reconsider my life. I studied the most fundamental tenets of existence, like the Big Bang, when all of the matter in the universe was gathered in a sphere the size of a basketball (well, some of my colleagues claim the size of a baseball, but lets not split hairs). Suppose some new calculations prove that it was actually the size of a marble. Perhaps 40 people in the world would find this interesting. Nobody else could suppress a yawn. Did all of the fundamentals of existence mean nothing? It occurred to me that there was this strange, inverse relationship. The more important things were in my profession, the less important they were to virtually every person on earth.

This revelation caused me some minor psychological trauma.

The discussions that Susan and I had at dinner became less frequent, with the evening prayer services that Susan started attending. Still, I hugged her at the end of our conversations and she hugged back. Then, one night, as I hugged her, a thought hit me. Could Susan be seeing another man she met at her prayer meetings, another Christian man, one who shared her beliefs in the Holy Trinity, one who knew how to pray? Certain things naturally attract, such as oxygen and hydrogen.

No. It wasn’t possible. Christians, I thought, are supposed to believe in faith, hope, and love—love, eternal, death-do-us-part, love.

My mother knew how to pray. She prayed that I would get into an Ivy League School.

“Really?” said Susan. “I wish your mother was still alive. I’d like to talk to her about prayer. She prayed for you to succeed and her prayers were answered. It’s all part of the space-time continuum.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were at the right space, at the right time.”

“Where?”

“At Raphael’s. But I was at the right space at the right time too, Herb.”

That’s not legitimate science, just irresponsible speculation I said, but I do know when to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, like just before I have a stroke.

*****

She patted my head. “Just a minor thing, Herb. You were a bright light in existence, traveling that 299,792.458 kilometers per second. Of all the vast places in the universe that you could have traveled to, you ran into a brick wall, right here, on earth. What would be the odds?” A nurse’s aid looked on.

The stroke was bad. Susan held my hand in intensive care, after the stents were put in by very competent professionals. I could smell antiseptics and her perfume. I started wondering about dark matter and light matter, blue and gray matter, and what, if anything, actually mattered.  Was Susan like the force of gravity, the glue that holds everything together? Perhaps that force is love, I surmised, but I couldn’t say anything, all of these tubes going into and coming out of my body, not to mention the oxygen mask.

I wanted to thank Susan, but I couldn’t, not for another four weeks. I needed therapy to get me to the point where I could speak again. I was transferred to an assisted living center where they could wheel me out into the afternoon sun. Susan showed up every one of those afternoons. God, she was gorgeous, even though she wore no makeup. I’d get speech therapy three days a week.

So, we had the big bang. Everything got hurled for millions and trillions of miles. Sub-atomic particles started coalescing into atoms and molecules, and eventually they coalesced into love. Is that possible? It must be, because love exists, although we can’t weigh it, measure it, or determine its wavelength. This was not a topic covered in any of my college courses. I had to do a lot of soul-searching, but what else are you going to do in bed? Well, if you’re going to do soul-searching, you have to admit that you have a soul.

You admit these things, you’re on the edge, if you’re a world-class physicist. Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe. Strobosky, whom we all revere, denigrated the notion of a deity until the day he died, when he said, on his deathbed, “May God have mercy on my soul.”

Susan never looked as lovely as she did outside the assisted living center, bending down to kiss me on the cheek, the sun behind her. Why would she take the trouble? She’d be better off if I died. I knew that. She must have known that, also.

“Your angle of reflection is bad, with these thoughts, Herb. You can’t do much worse now than 90 degrees, can you?”

“What do you know about angles of reflection,” I asked. I had to ask it three times, because I slurred my speech.

“It would have been much easier if you had directed your life toward a gas with a higher specific gravity, a liquid, or even some fairly clear visco-elastic material, like clear silicone caulk. We would be talking about angles of refraction, not of reflection, and a much different refractive index. You might have come out of that incident with just some small cuts and bruises, or only a very minor stroke.”

“When did you learn about wave theory, Susan?”

“When I was nine years old, on my first surfboard.”

I progressed to the point where I could hobble around and Susan took me home and my monosyllabic responses were replaced with responses that had more syllables and I no longer grunted when I needed to go to the bathroom. I simply went to the bathroom. Still, Susan stayed with me, and I thought, there’s nothing in it for her.

I don’t know anything about love, I realized. I know nothing about beauty. I have some inkling about truth, but likely that knowledge is limited to esoteric subjects of no use to anyone.

“Love is like a wave,” Susan told me. “You have high points and low points. But it carries you along. It carries you forward, Herb. It carries you towards your ultimate goal.”

“Which is?”

“Well, heaven, of coarse, but if you’re on a surfboard it carries you towards the shore, which is your safe haven, and it makes a great deal of difference if you’re good at riding the surf or if you’re not. It’s not easy to ride a wave, but it’s like life, Herb.”

“Why do you stay with me, Susan?”

“You’re just a rough sea right now, Herb. And I love you.”

The waves aroundLaguna Beachare perfect for surfers, which is probably why the coast is littered with them. Now, you take theCaribbean. That is really a study in wave theory.

“Yes,” says Susan. “Around the Keys there are shallows and deep spots. You’re in high waves. A quarter mile away the waves increase in frequency, but their amplitude decreases. Then, of course, you get the undulatory reflection coming from shore. That tends to rock the surfboard from side-to-side. Still, I prefer Pacific waves. Well, I used to prefer Pacific waves.”

I was a little more than a rough sea. I was a chain around her neck. I still am. I had mostly been a 1099 employee, a well-paid one, to be sure, but one who knew what the average life expectancy was, one who heeded the health warnings about tobacco, trans-fats, and UV rays on the beach, and I thought I would live forever, and I didn’t put away money for the rainy day that I figured would never arrive.

“Oh,” says Susan, “God’s used to dealing with people like you. He deals with them every day.”

No.

“Yes. Astrophysicists are a dime a dozen.”

They can’t be.

“Just kidding, Herb. People who think they will live forever are a dime a dozen.”

We sold our house and bought a smaller, cheaper, one. The money was starting to run out. My professional associates quit visiting or sending their regards. I let my subscription to Astrophysics Monthly lapse. After my second stroke we sold our house again and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. We needed the money for a good-quality wheelchair. The strokes had affected mainly my right frontal cortex, the area mostly responsible for logical thought. A lot of the blood that should have been going there ended up toward the rear of my temporal lobe, the area responsible for creative activity, and I suddenly could sing on key, something I had never been able to do before, something I never really even cared to do before my strokes.

“They’re sound waves, Herb. God created them so we could hear danger and our babies crying, and listen to Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. God’s partial to the letter ‘B.’”

“That’s nonsense,” I tried to mutter, but the left side of my mouth didn’t work properly. “God didn’t create sound waves so husbands could insult their wives,” Susan said. She bent over and kissed me.

“Why do you suppose,” Susan asked, “that you can sing well even though you can hardly talk?”

She didn’t wait for an answer.

“I’ll tell you why. God likes beauty. He doesn’t much care for smart-asses. You’re not a smart-ass anymore, Herb. You’re a string on God’s violin. You’re still a little flat, though, when you sing.”

Susan would wheel me out every once in a while to the picnic tables outside the convenience store where she worked. They had regulars, people who came in every day for coffee or gas or simply to make small talk with the help, people who I wouldn’t have associated with had I never suffered a stroke. They’d pat me on the back, comment on the weather; ask me how I was doing.

Susan, I would think to myself, your love for me was not included in the theory of evolution that I studied, since I cannot now help you with having brilliant offspring, like a son or a daughter who might one day discover that long coveted “Unified Theory.” We used to talk about that inGradSchool, like it was the Holy Grail, although none of us much believed in the Holy Grail.

Middle-aged maybe, but she still had that gorgeous blond wavy hair and those bright eyes and that smile that seemed genuine, Susan did. The odd part about it was that her smile was genuine.

Then, one night, a light flickered. I could still use my right hand, and since I couldn’t really talk very coherently, I would type out messages to Susan on the PC.

“No, no, you don’t understand, Herb. Life has nothing to do with the right-hand or left-hand rotation of photons. That would be like saying it has something to do with the way you put the socks on your left foot or right foot. That has nothing to do with the path that you have to walk in life. The path you have to walk curves in and out, goes up and down, like a wave in two dimensions. God is the person who dropped the rock into the fountain, and created the wave.”

The speech therapy sessions were helping. The first thing I clearly learned to say was “No.” I really wanted to learn to say, “Like shit, you goddam idiot, how do you think I’m doing.” That would have been a response to all the people who visited the convenience store and patted me on the head. They don’t teach speech therapists how to help a person say something like that.

My speech got better. My walking improved. I could go down to the convenience store with a cane and say, “Good, and you?”

Bobby came into the store every day. I could tell by the tone of his voice whether it was a good day or bad day for him. He didn’t shave in the morning on the bad days. I charted out his good days and his bad days. There were three bad days to one good day, a wave bisected two thirds of the way up. Well, our standards were too high. If we lowered them a little it would be a classical wave, textbook. I could predict when he would be in top form. They didn’t teach me that in grad school.

And I could predict when he’d be in bottom form. When he committed suicide on the last day of May, I took out my chart. Sure enough, the time of death was at the exact bottom of the curve, when I extrapolated. All of existence obeyed the principles of wave theory, it seemed to me.

“Of course it does, Herb. I’m surprised you didn’t realize that long ago. It has been evident for decades now, since Einstein’s famous news conference, and after de Broglie presented his hypothesis. God does not play dice with the universe,” Susan said, “He cracks a whip. Well, it’s a gentle whip, but it ripples like a wave does. Have you ever seen a person crack a long rawhide whip, Herb.”

“No.”

“It’s a sight to see. I worked on a ranch for six months. Did I ever tell you that?”

“No.”

“Cattle have patterns. They wake. They sleep. They pass gas. They eat. It’s all very rhythmic, a wave with a once-a-day cycle, well, 150 times a day cycle with the passing gas. Cattle breed. That’s a completely different cycle. When these cycles merge, you had better stand clear. It’s like the gentle waves that hit the southernCaliforniacoasts in early June from the south. Surfers love them. Occasionally, a storm in the Pacific will cause waves to come from due west. There are choppy seas, but when one of those waves from the west is in sync with one of the waves from the south, you could be up in a surfboard surveying all of creation, but fearing for your life. I know. I’ve ridden one of those waves.”

“I didn’t know you worked at a ranch.”

“You know less than you think, Herb.”

That was apparent. Susan took me toSan Diegofor the bypass operation. We drove by one of those huge photo-voltaic farms with the solar collectors on the roofs, row after row, where they turn light waves into electrical waves, and these electrical waves would make their way to motors everywhere, where they were turned into electro-magnetic waves, which would power a motor, which might pump water into a fountain. There’d be a splash, and ripples. More waves. Or they might power an air compressor hooked to pneumatic portions of a printing press, which would pound out an engrossing novel, and millions of people would read that novel. Their brain waves would flicker. More and more waves.

They gave me anesthesia at the hospital in the pre-op room. Susan kneeled down and kissed me. I looked into her beautiful blue eyes; blue, as in the most astounding wavelength of light that God ever created—only if there is a God, mind you. She kissed me, right before the needle went into my arm. “I’ll pray for you, Herb.”

Somehow, I felt better because she said that. Susan has some sort of power. It emanates from her, not as powerful as magnetism, maybe, but a lot more powerful than gravity. She’s the Rock of Gibraltar. Those loose molecules of that delicate perfume that float around her body are only window-dressing.

I survived the operation, as you probably surmised. They put in a couple more stents while they were at it. I had my new theory sewn up by the time I came out of intensive care. It accounted for all of that troublesome “dark matter” and “dark energy” that we physicists like to talk about at cocktail parties. I nearly died on that operating table. I felt myself rise out of my body, and I stared down at the surgeons that were performing the surgery. The heart monitoring machine started making noise, noise with a frequency meant to cause you to take notice, and everyone in the operating room scrambled. Those sound waves hurt their ears. Good engineering! A surgeon cursed.

I was riding a different wave, with a wavelength that seemed half the distance of the diameter of the universe. I was on a surfboard, coated with something other than Teflon-infused anondized aluminum, and I was heading towards the sun, a friendly sun. Oh, I know what Susan was talking about, I thought. I surfed around Venus and a Beach Boys song was playing in the background. Well, it wasn’t a Beach Boys song; it was a Beach Boys ring tone on a cell phone. “Turn that damn thing off,” a male voice said.

“I’m sorry, Doctor.”

Maybe dark matter isn’t dark. Maybe we just call it that because the eyes of physicists cannot detect certain spectrums. Perhaps dark matter is a pleasant flesh color, with blond hair, and it smiles at me, right out of intensive care. It rubs my forehead gently. The human soul, I calculated, is like a photon, has mass but no weight. The energy emitted from the soul is on a frequency identical to dark energy, but 180 degrees out of phase. That cancels dark energy, at least in our solar system.

The universe is expanding at accelerated rates elsewhere, because there are no women with good souls in outer space. The Hubble Telescope has confirmed this. Good and evil in the human soul correspond to the high-point and low-point of a wave.

Cosmology is a strange science. You only have questions and more questions and billion dollar particle accelerator experiments. Nothing can be proven, only surmised.

It would answer a lot of questions, my theory, explain why the universe hasn’t flown apart. Schoenberg thought we should have whispered into nothingness 300 million years ago, without the dark matter. Abramson says, no, last January. This energy of the soul is keeping us all in existence. Why?

“Well, honey, you want to see your grandchild grow up now, don’t you?”

“Susan,” I said, “We don’t have any kids. Without kids, it’s hard to have grandkids.”

“I’m eight months pregnant, Herb.” She patted her belly.

“How could I not have noticed?”

“You’ve been somewhat self-absorbed, Herb. I can forgive you. There are health issues, after all.”

“My God, I’m going to be a father. I can hardly believe it. How is our baby doing?”

Well the ultrasound test (at approximately 325 kHz) looked very good. I was somewhat concerned because some medical journals had suggested that the more optimum wavelength for an ultrasound would suggest a 350-375 kHz, but the kid was over eight months along, for heaven’s sake, looked perfect.

I worked at my new theory. K-Theta (pi times the speed of light) = E (as in Einstein’s E) times the Cosmological Constant divided by the molecular weight of gold (196.97). Gold is a damn heavy molecule. K would be the flesh-colored matter of the universe, with blond hair, or red or brown or black. It would contain the energy emitted by the collected souls who had inhabited, were inhabiting, and would inhabit, the universe. It’s easy to see by this theory that a woman kissing her child has more power than almost 26 million stars, as regards energy, that is.

“Herb, you’re overstating things. Be more careful with your decimal points.”

She was right. It should have been 260,000 stars. People with gray hair or white hair or no hair would count as well. If you substituted the molecular weight of Palladium for that of gold, it would shrink to 259,000 stars. Big deal.

There are three types of neutrinos. They might all want to kill me but they could not, if my wife’s love wanted to keep me alive. Neutrinos have traditionally been designated by the n=1/w(2) equation. That means that Susan’s love wins out all of the time. Neutrinos are wimpy. It’s a classic wave formation. L=MC3. I took a deep breath and I could smell a Nobel Prize, but then again, that stroke might have damaged my olfactory nerves.

Still, Susan, I asked, what’s God got to do with all of this?

“You know about all of these waves, Herb. They pulse through the universe, like electricity through a copper wire. Someone’s at the switch.”

Then a quark hit me, right between the eyes. Well, it hit the proton in an atom in my frontal cortex. This atom was part of a very important cell in the brain that causes a person to straighten up and fly right. It didn’t hurt, just caused me to lighten up.

I’m sorry. I still slur my words. It caused enlightenment. 

Susan went into labor at the cashier’s station, in the convenience store. I could drive by then. I picked her up. Customers were cheering for her, waving, giving a thumbs-up sign.

Susan got into the car. She threw them a kiss.

THE END

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Published Short Stories

“Doubt”                     Oeuvre Magazine
“When Hope Returns”      Oeuvre Magazine
“An American Lullaby”        Paper Darts
“Love in a Minor Key”   Heartlands
“Scoring Position”     Aetheon: The Journal of Sports Literature
“Dropkick”                    Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet
“The Man With the Broken Face”    Arable
                                                                  Big Muddy
“Surfer Girl”                           The Melancholy Dane
“Just So”                                  Westview
“For a Limited Time Only”     Trustmuse

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