When I was a child, the others called me “Penny Pitterpatter.” You were supposed to like being teased. I didn’t. I was always squelching smart alecks and they didn’t like that. It wasn’t a happy time in my life. My classmates inspired no friendship in me and my parents, no affection. I didn’t even feel sentimental about our pets. Horatio’s adorable gaze hardly excused his droppings. Now that I can say whatever I please, I can tell you that I don’t like pets or people. Association with our fellow animals raises no enthusiasm in me, but the interaction of the elements does. I discovered happiness in my high school chemistry lab.
My mother meant well:
“What’s wrong with chemistry?”
“It smells bad.”
I shrugged. I rather liked the odors myself. Reece said they helped to identify chemicals.
“Why don’t you try cooking? I could teach you.”
“Because it smells good?”
She gave me a look.
Although I was thinking ‘cooking is a trap,’ I asked: “Do you need help?”
“No. I just thought you would enjoy it.”
She was wondering: ‘Why couldn’t I have had a nice girl?’
Cooking was something women did to please men. Chemistry was something I could do to get their respect.
A few years later, I began to realize that women were swine too. They were trying to get men’s privileges without sacrificing any of their own. Like bossing and seducing them at the same time. Yet the treachery of women didn’t reconcile me with men either. I soon learned how to use boys without compromising myself. From high
school to graduate school, I was the best student in every chemistry course I took. Since the best lovers were usually bad students, I could choose the one I wanted. All I had to do was help him with his chemistry and he gave me all the sex I needed. Religion? Morals? After yelling his pleasure, Dale sobbed his remorse. Pathetic! Although I goosed him from a C+ to a B-, I got no thanks. His grade mattered less to him than his reputation with the other boys. He didn’t want to be seen with the ugliest girl in school. I have the face of a country squire and my hair resembles the wigs they wore. Though never fat, I have always been big and robust. I’m as dainty as a cow.
The only man who ever courted me was a handsome Moroccan who didn’t need any help with his chemistry. Hamid was almost as good a student as I was. I felt sorry for him because he took me for his ideal of womanhood. He could have taken his pick of the pretty girls at ZTech and some of them even made overtures, which only disgusted him. Though slight, he was agile and graceful. More vertical than horizontal, his traits enhanced the sadness of his large brown eyes. He kept asking me for a date and, since his father, a Casablanca businessman, was giving him a generous allowance, his invitations would have tempted almost any girl he asked: restaurants, concerts... I kept declining, thanking him and once I even suggested another girl I thought would suit him better. This suggestion hurt his feelings so badly that I apologized and accepted his invitation to dine in a Moroccan restaurant in Mapleton. On condition nonetheless that we go in the middle of the day, since it would take him an hour to drive us there. I also insisted on going Dutch, which I had to explain, and I had to overcome strenuous objections. In his eyes, I saw how deeply I had shocked him. The chocolate of his Peugeot suited them perfectly, as I teased him. The skill and caution with which he drove distinguished him from the other student drivers at ZTech.
On the way to Mapleton, he explained Moroccan cuisine to me, which came in handy when I read the menu. He told me about “Casa”, about the confluence of French, Arab and Berber cultures. His father had sent him to an American engineering school because, in his opinion,
he had learned too much French culture:
“Tu es trop français, toi.”
Though tempted to laugh, I reassured him: “You seem Arab-American to me,” which he took as the compliment I intended. What a wonderful dinner! Whenever I feel discouraged, I go back to that restaurant and I go alone because company would seem unfaithful to Hamid. I eat meshui and drink the same Moroccan wine in remembrance of him. I had a few surprises Chez Omar, such as the attention Omar himself paid us. Another was the cost of expatriate Moroccan quality and authenticity. My share of the check would have wiped my slate clean for the month. Would have because Hamid had already paid it with his American Express card when he reserved our table over the phone. My outrage only made him and Omar smile. Omar reassured me:
“Il serait impensable au Maroc de laisser régler la note à une dame.”
“En Amérique aussi,” Hamid confirmed. Although promotion to dame inflated my ego, it also increased my embarrassment. Especially after the most dramatic surprise of that unforgettable day. I was sipping Benedictine and Hamid, Cognac, when he proposed. As on every subject requiring elegance and finesse, he resorted to French, which, I have been told, he spoke more correctly than most Frenchmen. Of all the young ladies he had met in Morocco, France and the United States, none compared with me. He admired my intelligence, my dignity and my charm. He couldn’t imagine greater happiness than sharing with me the rest of his life, the wealth and standing of his family and, above all, children who would resemble me.
“Voilà mon rêve!”
He had already given this dream the thorough analysis that our professors complimented him on. He even had a solution for all of the problems he could foresee. I would enjoy financial independence and the freedom to travel, to the US, for instance, to visit my family and introduce our children to them. Our marriage would have to take place before our graduation, because his parents would expect him to
return to Casa then, accept a position in his father’s firm and marry the daughter of another wealthy, prominent couple. Yet he had no doubt that he could persuade them to accept me as his bride. Not only did they love and trust him, but they also disliked the outmoded traditions that plagued family life in Morocco.
“Je n’ai jamais aimé personne comme je t’aime,” he confided in me with his big brown eyes, “et je n’aimerai jamais aucune autre femme. Je te demande en mariage... Quelle que soit ta réponse, je la respecterai... Voila!”
As you can see, I haven’t forgotten a word and least of all the mysterious second-person singular, which I understood for the first time.
I was glad it didn’t exist in current English. I looked him in the eye:
“Hamid: I am grateful for your proposal. You are the only friend I have ever had and will probably ever have, but I don’t want to get married. Marriage, childbirth, a husband and children would distract me from a career in chemistry. And that’s my dream.”
Besides, I told him, I wasn’t the woman he took me for. Love, marriage and family meant nothing to me. I didn’t even like people. I didn’t want to move to another country, speak another language, adopt another culture and live a different life. Although I sympathized with his wish to choose his own wife, I recommended a Moroccan girl. A couple who have the same background have a plenty of trouble living together without cross-cultural conflicts. Though profoundly disappointed, Hamid took my refusal like a gentleman, which proves that some still existed. Unfortunately, he found no better alternative than a marriage arranged by his parents. Every time I heard from him, his wife had given birth to another child. Yet he seems to have been happy and successful in managing the family business. His proposal and my response not only determined his future, but also mine. Although my decision came as no surprise, it has puzzled me ever since. I had never given the rest of my life much thought.
Yet I hardly regretted that decision. I graduated first in my class and received two dozen job offers. To everyone’s surprise and the disappointment of some, I declined the most lucrative one which came from Dupont. Instead, I accepted one from Burkus and Screed, a small but reputable maker of specialized chemical products. Customers addressed this company when none of the products on the market suited their needs. They were often seeking, for instance, to reduce or eliminate pollution, toxicity or explosive volatility. I was particularly interested in the latter. The business required a substantial investment in research and development, hence laboratories with the latest equipment, skillful and experienced scientists, and a policy of constant innovation. I discovered, developed and patented three new products myself during my six years at B&S. One was an explosive that would not detonate from the compression of direct impact, but rather a violent twisting force. At the coupling between two railroad cars, a shaped charge would break it if one of them rocked off of the tracks. The device would limit derailment to the car or cars that rocked. B&S promoted me once and would have promoted me again if I hadn’t decided to do a PhD at ZTech.
In three years, I defended a dissertation entitled The Densification of Volatile Compounds, which I published a year later. Though tempted by an offer from B&S, I accepted an appointment as associate professor at ZTech. The initial appointment to a tenured rank and the opportunity to set my own research agenda appealed to me even more than a higher salary offered by my former employer. During my entire thirty-year career, I lived for chemistry, giving no more time to teaching and paying no more attention to students and colleagues than necessary to satisfy the chairman and the dean. I never bothered to attend a faculty meeting, serve on a committee, go to parties, participate in commencement, watch a football or basketball game. Promoted to full professor after three years and research professor after three more, I followed a schedule of teaching a graduate course for two semesters and taking a sabbatical during the third. The few doctoral candidates whose dissertations I agreed to direct received offers from the most prestigious chemistry depart-
ments and the most successful companies in the US. Although I joined none of the professional organizations in my field, all of them invited me to speak at meetings and colloquiums. The organizers reserved the biggest room available for my paper or lecture and yet latecomers had to stand on the sides and in back to hear me. When I sent an article to a journal, the editor usually accepted it without submitting it to a referee and sometimes even before he read it himself. I have never had to revise a manuscript for publication. Even now that I have retired, citation of my thirty-six articles and seventeen books ranks among the highest in the profession. My twenty-seven patents demonstrate that my research results in practical applications as well as academic prestige.
They also earn significant income which, together with my salary, honorariums and royalties, made a multimillionaire of me even before I retired. I live alone, lead no social life, spend little on entertainment and nothing on vanity. I have never even contributed to any charity, so I have been wondering whom or what I should leave my wealth to when I die. Not my family with whom I have had no contact in thirty years and for whom I have no sentimental inclination. Not ZTech which, like other universities, squanders funds on academic politicians and trendy expansions. Not any ONG because they waste money on fund-raising agents and fawn on oppressors. Leave my wealth to one of these foundations that meddle in everything from foreign relations to fetuses? No thank you! When I was a little girl, I hated doll babies, but a firecracker detonated by my father on a Fourth of July aroused an enthusiasm in me that has never abated. The flash and the sound of an explosion thrill me in a way impossible to explain. The only sensation that resembles the excitement coursing through my body is that of an orgasm, which, in my case, has never equaled that of a good bang. In fact, the older I get, the less sex thrills me and the more explosions do. After “Pop’s pop” on the lawn, the only Christmas presents for which I felt grateful were firecrackers for New Years Eve. My appetite grew from multiple pops to colorful bursts in the sky, which demonstrated my precocious skill in pyrotechnics.
Soon, I was taking my first course in chemistry at Hadrian Exxis High School. I came to lab one afternoon with some small, metal utensils in my book bag that my mother had used to cook for herself before she married my father: an electric kettle, a teapot and a pan. As usual, I finished the experiment Mr. Reece had assigned us before the others, so he came over and checked my results:
That amounted to an A. B only got a nod, while C or worse brought criticism all the more humiliating with others listening because it implied neither regret nor reproach. Though ugly and aloof like me, Reece was a dedicated and effective teacher. Imagine a meager old man with haggard gray eyes darting everywhere including my back corner of the lab. In contrast with his ashen complexion, pink colored his hollow cheeks, apparently a symptom of fever. I often wondered whether an unannounced substitute would replace him one day or, worse, he would collapse and die in front of us. How could those long bony fingers do such delicate work with his hands shaking so hard? His lips pressed together in a thin white line, parting only to tell or ask in precise and concise language devoid of emotion. His voice resembled the crumpling of paper. The other twenty-eight in our class were afraid of him; I admired him.
When he left the lab to get something that afternoon, I tied one end of a string to the rack over my bench and the other to the bottom of the teapot handle so that the spout dangled beneath it. Although my neighbors seldom paid any attention to me, they were beginning to notice that I was up to something. I put the pan under the spout and the kettle on a stand beside it. Inserted one end of a tube in the spout of the kettle and sealed it with tape. Stuck the other end through the top of the teapot and into the hole to the spout at the bottom. Shut the lid, in which I had cut an opening for the tube, and sealed it with tape. Poured some water into the kettle and a small amount of sulphuric acid, which I had saved from the previous experiment, into the pan. Adjusted the balance of the teapot so that the mouth of the
spout hung slightly higher than the hole at the other end. Plugged the kettle into an outlet and turned the heat up to high. A crowd had gathered around me and I saw Reece watching me. The kettle began to boil, and steam, to cloud the tube, so I shooed the crowd away. As the steam condensed in the spout, the weight of the water began to tilt the mouth downwards. After a few tense seconds, a drop of oxidizer fell and hissed upon contact with the reactant. As the teapot continued to tilt, more hissing drops fell at an increasing rate until a thin stream flowed into the pan. As soon as it splashed down, the solution exploded, giving me my thrill. Everybody jumped and exclaimed. Reece was coming. The teapot was swinging back and forth, while a stench pleased me and disgusted everyone around me. Respectfully, they let Reece through and he inspected my apparatus. Ready for reprimand and retribution, I turned the kettle off. Would he expel me, suspend me for two or three weeks? I could detect nothing of the kind in his face:
“Explain what you have done.”
As I explained, he and the others were listening, but differently. To my astonishment and theirs, he didn’t even disapprove of my experiment, but only suggested how I could improve it. He also advised me to consult him before I did any more extracurricular experimentation. As for the others, he warned them against trying to imitate me.
Ever since my childhood, I have celebrated New Years Eve and the Fourth of July and by firework displays. They are the only annual occasions on which I have friendly relations with other people. I accepted or even sought help by fellow students during my high school and college years, fellow scientists at B&S, and, ever since, students and colleagues at ZTech. The University has adopted the biannual Sky Festival as an official event. For the last twenty-five years, students from the Art School at Zenia University have been creating cartoons for me to reproduce in the sky. The faculty reward their best students by offering them this opportunity. My ability to reproduce their compositions by pyrotechnics has been improving ever since I initiated this collaboration. I reproduce the colors by
varying the composition of the explosives and the propellants, the design by shaping the charges. Instead of flying straight up in the air, my rockets, which leave a luminescent exhaust trail, often swerve, spiral or even trace figures. On one Fourth of July, I grew spring flowers in the sky: crocuses, daffodils, tulips, irises, lilies and finally a meadow of wildflowers. On one New Years Eve, I decorated the night with enormous snow and ice crystals, thus exploiting the infinite variety of the color white. I brought that display to an end by fluttering cottony snow down on the crowd.
At the early Sky Festivals, the louder the noise, the more I liked it. Several years later, however, it was boring me, so I varied the level, the length and frequency of the repetitions as well as the pitch and the tone. With the collaboration of students from the ZU School of Broadcasting, I introduced crescendos and decrescendos; hisses and rumbles; whistles, shrieks and roars. These audio innovations pleased the crowd almost as much as the visual spectacle, but this success incited the envy of the ZTech Band. I got overtures from the director, administrators and alumni hinting that the band would enhance Sky Festivals. Let these strutters, honkers and pounders distract the crowd by their half-time antics? I was horrified. The predicament troubled me all the more because ZTech and the ZTech Foundation were funding most of my budget. I appealed to the ZU Music School with a proposal to participate in Sky Festivals in the same way as the Art School and the School of Broadcasting. At our next Fourth of July, a student orchestra played The 1812 Overture, while my pyrotechnics provided the booms of the canon and the flashes of the explosions designed by the art students. The applause of a crowd twice the capacity of the stadium confirmed my greatest success so far. Since success always incites envy, however, some members of the band, administrators and alumni were grumbling over collaboration with archrival ZU and flattery of the Soviet Union. Shouldn’t we be playing and illustrating The Star-Spangled Banner? If they had known of my contempt for that ridiculous anthem! The discontent incited flag-pin patriots to raise Cain, which I ignored until football redistracted them.
I knew the rabble would find another excuse after New Years, but people who expected more than rivalry with the other state university were applauding my collaboration with ZU. The coordination of so many contributors would have distracted me from preparation of the pyrotechnics for Sky Festivals, if I hadn’t been able to enlist the director of the ZU Opera. He took charge of Sky Festivals during Christmas and summer vacations when he had no operas to stage. On that New Years Eve, a student orchestra played and a student choir sang the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, which I illustrated by a sequence of abstract forms in brilliant colors created by the art students. From then on, complaints by the advocates of the ZTech band diminished. The following Sky Festivals featured the Anvil Chorus in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie, Stravinski’s Rites of Spring and other vigorous music. After a few years of such scores, the director persuaded me that more subtle music would harmonize better with the art students’ work: Mozart, Debussy, Menotti, etc.
Students, faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, townspeople and others unassociated with ZTech, including some who came from afar, were attending Sky Festivals in ever increasing numbers. Students were cutting their Christmas vacation short and interrupting their summer vacation to attend, an assiduity unknown on other campuses. The publicity attracted high-school applicants for entrance and encouraged the governor and the legislature to support the University. Mountain Ridge motels, restaurants and stores, which depended on out-of-town customers, welcomed the Festivals at New Years and the Fourth when no athletic, cultural or intellectual activities were taking place. No wonder they contributed to our budget along with the City! The Festivals even tended to excuse my alleged arrogance, but I couldn’t have cared less.
At sixty-five, I was in good health and stronger than most men. Although I could have earned my salary until eighty, I had been looking forward to retirement because it would allow me to satisfy
an ambition for which I had been yearning. I sold my house in Mountain Ridge and bought another one in Blakely County, fifteen miles up the slope of the ridge for which the town was named. To the delight of a recluse’s heirs, I bought Echo Lodge, his small, well-built and well-equipped house surrounded by a few hundred acres of woods next to a nature preserve. He had neglected the dirt entrance road to discourage them and anyone else who might have disturbed him. The bumps and the holes, the slants and the steeps jolted, lurched and pitched the secondhand Ford pickup I had bought for this adventure. How I loved that drive! Solar panels on the roof of the house and a wind turbine on a nearby tower generated abundant power. Two dish antennae provided access to satellite communications. Hard but good drinking water came from an uphill pump, while sewage went to a downhill septic tank. The nearest other structure was a shelter a few miles away used by hunters in season and poachers, often the same locals, the rest of the year. The nearest residents lived a mile or two down the county road from my turnoff. They made a living from two gas pumps out front and a store in the front of their ramshackle house. I never stopped there.
Once I had moved in and settled down, I designed a chemistry laboratory on my computer and requested bids on each phase of the construction from small local firms. I hired none of them for more than one phase and never began with the next phase until the last one was complete. One dug the foundation, another poured the concrete for the foundation, another erected the steel framework, another poured the concrete for the walls, another covered the roof and so forth. I surprised them by the detail and rigor of the contracts I imposed on them. A few balked until they saw that I would resort to a competitor. Although I warned them about the road, one tried to charge me more for the cost of transporting materials over it. Despite a tantrum to intimidate me, I refused to pay him a dollar more than the sum in the contract. An almost tearful plea by another one to exceed the deadline in the contract met with the same contempt. I caught three of them cutting corners, such as the plumber who was
installing pipes too small in diameter. When I told him he had to replace them, his eyes bulged as if they would pop. How many times did I have to remind them of the standards that a chemistry laboratory had to meet? Excellent ventilation, reliable climate control, precise refrigeration, thorough protection from fire or explosions, safe storage of corrosive and volatile substances, pure water, dependable power and communications, security. Especially security! I didn’t want any break-ins, vandalism or snooping. I satisfied their curiosity by describing my project as a consulting firm in chemical engineering.
Exploring the property before I decided to buy it, I discovered a small, abandoned quarry that made my mind up. Even the pool of stagnant water might be useful. The road ended there, so I assumed that it had been dozed to access the quarry. I bought a shotgun and, visiting the rangers in charge of the preserve, I told them that I would be doing some target practice and maybe even shooting some squirrels. I would take all necessary precautions. Though surprised that a woman who might have been their mother would go in for hunting, they saw no harm in it. I hung a rusty washtub from a tree leaning over the rock face of the quarry, started it swinging, went behind the pool and aimed at it. At first, the weight of the shotgun slowed my attempts to follow it, but I liked the kick and the bark. I kept shooting behind the target or in front of it. Four times, I had to go back and start it swinging again before I could hit it. I enjoyed the “clang” from the impact of the shot. How many rounds did I waste before I could clang it three times out of four? After a few hours of practice, however, I was ready to hunt squirrels. I took a shortcut back to the house, an overgrown path I hadn’t explored yet. While pushing brush away, I saw a snake a few inches from my feet. After an initial flush of fear, I felt strangely curious. It wasn’t coiled, but rather lying in a sinuous position as if waiting to see whether I threatened it. Should I step over it or back up and, if I backed up, shoot it or scare it away? If I backed up, however, the brush would move back over the path and hide it. So I took a giant step forward, turned and aimed my shotgun at it. Yet it was still waiting in the same position as if daring
me to shoot. That strangely human defiance made me think and I thought that our spontaneous hatred of snakes comes from the simplification of our anatomy that we see in them. We find them sinister because they have no limbs as we do and slither across the ground, and because their face and especially their eyes are an ugly and cruel caricature of ours. I lowered my shotgun and the snake wiggled away. How easy it would have been to kill it! I had no regret, but I lingered over my perplexity. I only had to pull a trigger, push a button, pull or push a lever, turn a dial or step on a peddle to unleash a force many times more powerful than my muscles. I loved that power and all the more because I loved no fellow human being and believed in no superhuman or divine being.
Another day, I turned uphill instead of down and drove to Blakely, the county seat. Stopping at a garage I had noticed, I found a tall, gaunt local in coveralls who had a military haircut. He stood with his arms dangling at his sides and staring as if he wasn’t sure he had understood. Errol. I asked him to change the oil in my pickup although I usually did that myself. To my satisfaction, he recognized me as “the lady who hunts squirrels.” Working under my pickup, he recommended a field across the boundary between my property and the preserve as a good place to hunt quail. Evidently to find out if I minded him hunting them on both sides, as he had probably been doing all along. I disappointed him by merely thanking him and saying that I would take advantage of his recommendation. Rolling out and blinking in the sunlight, he wondered if I minded living by myself in such an isolated place. I laughed.
“I guess you don’t mind,” he observed shyly.
“When I go hunting, I’m careful not to shoot anybody. When I work in my lab, the stink doesn’t nauseate anybody. If I get lonely, I can come and get my oil changed.”
Errol’s wrinkles hesitated between gravity and levity.
I paid him, got in my pickup and left without another word.
Hunting a few hours every day, I shot a squirrel, a rabbit or a quail. Since I had to skin or pluck them, I learned that even the bodies of small animals are tough. Yet they provided me with a succulent
alternative to supermarket meat. Every day, before I went hunting, I took a firecracker to the quarry and connected it to a timer set to detonate it around a half hour later. That gave me enough time to reach one of three places on the boundary of my property: one a hundred yards from my nearest neighbors, another at the same distance from the rangers’ station and the third on a bluff overlooking the landscape all the way to Mountain Ridge. From there, I could see the Chemistry Building at ZTech. Measuring the intensity of the sound, I recorded it along with the place, the time, the date, the charge and the atmospheric conditions. Four or five days later, I substituted my shotgun for the firecracker, aiming it at the rock face, fastening it to a log, tying the trigger to a solenoid and setting the timer. Then I continued my experimentation, recording the same kind of data at the same listening posts. No one had called to complain about the noise, so I drove to Errol’s and asked him to fill my tank. Grinning:
“How many quail did you get?”
“Enough for a good supper every time. But plucking them is a messy job.”
He made a face and complained that “the Missus” made him pluck the ones he shot.
He was looking forward to deer season, so I bought a rifle, did some target practice and tested the sound by the same method. It made a crack instead of a bark and, instead of jerking upwards, kicked back against my shoulder. On the excuse of asking about deer season, I visited the rangers, who had recognized the sound of my rifle. They encouraged me to hunt deer on the preserve as well as my property. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell them that I would be experimenting with some dynamite in the quarry.
“As long as it’s in the quarry!” said one grinning.
I detonated one, two and three sticks to measure the sound and still no complaints over the telephone. Stopping at Errol’s as if to pay him a visit, I learned that a joke was circulating in Blakely: “the echo at Echo Lodge.”
I was anxious to allay curiosity about my intentions. When I spoke of my experimentation, I emphasized the disagreeable and even the dangerous aspects of it, such as the odors, the noise, the toxic gases and the shock waves. Although I couldn’t keep workmen from familiarizing themselves with the premises during the construction of my laboratory, I advertised the precautions I was taking against visitors and trespassers. I was telling them how much I enjoyed the road, on which they were lavishing their sarcasm and obscenity. It sprang the suspension of a car, broke the axel of a pickup, rolled a van into a hollow. Once the building was finished, I took steps to limit the need for traffic on the road and workmen entering my property. A small crane beside the freight entrance to my laboratory enabled me to load or unload supplies and equipment on pallets. I could lift and push them in or out of the building on a fork truck. During my career at ZTech, I had already learned how to install, maintain and repair equipment so I wouldn’t have to wait for technicians to come and do the job. I insisted on the most advanced equipment available for the kind of research I would do despite the cost. I had to order some of it from as far away as Germany and Japan. How much did this laboratory cost me? A few million, which I deducted from my income taxes.
Advice from Errol and the rangers as well as books and articles from the ZTech and the Mountain Ridge libraries enabled me to shoot my first deer. Tracks in the mud around the pool in the quarry confirmed their opinion that deer would be watering there. I moved the video camera from the entrance to my property to a place fifty yards from the quarry where I had been target-practicing with my rifle. Connected by a transmitter to a receiver in my lab, it focused on the rock face so I could see when deer came to water. Although I could only see the antlers, heads and necks of the adults, that was enough to determine when I could expect them. Twice, I lay in wait for them with my rifle: in vain. The third time, however, a head with an impressive antler led others across in front of the rock face. As the does dropped their heads to drink, the buck searched the area for danger. I took my time to steady the crosshairs on his forehead and squeeze, squeeze... kick and bang! The antlers fell out of sight while
the other heads ran away. My whole body was throbbing with exuberance. But then I had to do the most disgusting and exhausting job I had ever faced. The hide and the flesh deflected my knife, twisted the handle of my hatchet and clogged the teeth of my saw raising blisters on my hands. Chilled by a wind, gore covered my arms from my fingertips to my elbows. Despite my tolerance of odors, I felt nauseous from the stink of the corpse. Three times, I was tempted to wash my arms in the pool, get in my pickup and drive home, leaving the corpse to predators. Yet pride drove me on until I had cut the edible parts of the animal loose, packed them in bins and loaded them on the back of my pickup. I was washing my chapped hands and arms in the pool when I noticed the eyes of the buck apparently focused on me. He seemed to be saying:
‘Well, how about me?’
I dried my hands and arms, picked the trophy up by the antlers and loaded it on the pickup.
I had noticed a taxidermist’s sign across the road from Errol’s garage. It displayed a triumphant stag with a supernatural antler. The shop was a farmhouse in need of paint and repair. The sagging porch across the front creaked loudly as I crossed it. Lit only by a desk lamp, the interior reeked of glue and leather. The only attention I got from the skinny, deeply wrinkled taxidermist was an irritated glance over dusty glasses perched on the tip of his long, bony nose.
No sooner had I mentioned my trophy than he curled his lips and slighted it in a snarling voice, while continuing to sew two pieces of hide together. Once he understood that I wanted to give it to him, however, he gave me a suspicious look, whipped his glasses off and trotted stiffly to the door, where he inspected the trophy in the back of my pickup.
“Over there!” He pointed at a corner of the room, sat down and went right back to work.
As soon as I put it there, I left and he neither raised his head nor said goodbye. A few days later, both the rangers and Errol congratulated me on my buck. I asked Errol how the man could make any money snarling at customers.
Grinning: “Elijah makes a little more preaching on Sunday. Some folks think the Lord speaks like that.”
The rangers reassured me that the people of Blakely County didn’t mind my gunshots and explosions because they had heard about my contribution to the Sky Festivals. Errol hinted that I had disappointed them because I hadn’t treated them to any fireworks. I was a celebrity, a woman who lived all by herself, hunted deer and set explosions off. At a supermarket in Blakely, I was in the checkout line behind a black mother and child. The little girl’s hair was tied in bunches with pink and blue ribbons. Turning around, she recognized me, smiled and said:
“You’ze Ma Boom! aintch?”
“Adelaide!” scolded her Mom embarrassed. “Mind yo own bizness!”
I took it as a compliment. Errol confirmed that everybody was calling me that. Even Elijah referred to “Ma Boom!” in one of his sermons. In what context? I knew better than to ask. I didn’t want to jeopardize the reputation for misanthropy that I had cultivated so carefully. The new nickname confirmed my impression that the population of Blakeley County had accepted me. They knew me well enough to distinguish between me and any terrorist described in broadcasts, newspapers and web news. Between a scientist dedicated to research on explosives and a criminal bent on using them to kill and destroy. To convince my fellow professionals, I was devoting part of every day to research and development contracted by companies, institutions and other scientists in need of my expertise. My former colleagues at B&S were making more offers than I could accept. My consultancy was supporting the illusion that it was my only occupation. The income I was earning from it covered my living expenses.
Although I continued to enjoy pyrotechnics, I had been feeling the need for something more exciting for many years. News of terrorist attacks had always fascinated me, but, during my last years at ZTech, the urge to detonate some bombs of my own was an increasing
temptation. So what if I were called a “terrorist”? This word, which I read and heard all too often, struck me as a cowardly insult. It too often implied the self-righteous condemnation of an enemy who had no warplanes to drop his bombs. He had to conceal them in places where they would kill or injure people and destroy or damage property. Innocent people? Yes, when they were unopposed to the cause defended by the bomber. No, when they supported a government hostile to that cause. The cause was the clandestine bomber’s motive or excuse. The earlier terrorists claimed that they were trying to free the poor and the slaves of the rich and powerful. The rejection of their violence by a majority of the very class they pretended to support never deterred them. Then the excuse shifted from socialism to religion. The later terrorists pretended to precipitate the destruction of Christian civilization, which they accused of aggression against Islamic civilization. Although a majority of their fellow believers agreed with this accusation, they refused to support them. Yet rejection of these clandestine bombers’ methods didn’t discourage them either. Why in both cases? Because ideology motivated both the earlier and the later clandestine bombers less than the will to power and the joy of wielding it. Although I love power as much as they do, I believe that, if you don’t earn the right to exercise it, you deserve the hatred of your victims. I meant to earn it by attacking examples of the most flagrant abuses from which our society suffered.
Now you know what I was up to in my secluded residence, but don’t expect a manual for making, placing and detonating clandestine bombs. I have always despised the vanity of recruiting disciples as well as subservience to a mentor. I was going to embark on a career, not of trying to right wrongs, but rather one of illustrating abuses by attacking flagrant examples. Once I had familiarized myself with my new laboratory, I began to consider the possibilities of an initial target. What national frivolity wasted youth, wealth, attention and time? Sports, of course, and especially the most violent one, football. It was the worst of several cancers feeding on the flesh of the nation. Greed had perverted recreation into entertainment, and games into
spectacles produced and exploited by an industry. Publicity glorified the star players and the teams that won the most games. It attracted spectators and seduced young men, who dedicated themselves to a career from which only a small minority would eventually earn a living. Persistent training, body-building and even drug taking developed giants unfit for any other life. And professional careers lasted an average of only six years. Exaltation over beating other teams passed for competitive enthusiasm among millions of people, distracting them from economic and cultural opportunities. It symptomized national decadence. The more I studied football, the deeper my conviction. I watched games on television, read articles and books, explored the subject online and took notes. I even attended my first and last ZTech game. Although football bored me, I could not only follow the game, but also understand the decisions of the coaches. Instead of pitting one team against another, college football pits one coach against another by means of their slave gangs. I might have felt sorry for the slaves, if it weren’t for the salaries of the professional sport to which they aspired. Pro football pays extraordinary salaries for extraordinary skills and brutality. Both the skills and the violence incite the fascination of spectators willing to pay extravagant sums for tickets and the greed of television networks, for the exclusive coverage of games. This Goliath needed a David.
While watching pro games on television, I was impressed by how high the players could kick the ball. I found kickoffs more spectacular than punts because the ball was spinning end over end high in the air; the offensive team, running downfield under it and the defensive team, blocking them to open a path for the runback. The spectacle always brought the crowd to their feet. What if the ball exploded at the height of its trajectory? I divided my research between two projects: choosing two pro teams likely to be undefeated when they were scheduled to play each other and inventing a bomb small enough to fit inside a football and equipped with an altimeter set to detonate it at a certain height. That August, I listed the teams for which journalists
were predicting the best performance in the coming season. Among them were the Mammoth Megas and the Las Vegas Dragons, both of which won their first four games. They were scheduled to play each other in Las Vegas on Monday Night Football. I had made a prototype bomb, consisting of an altimeter, a battery, a blasting cap and an explosive gelatin containing green and yellow coloring agents. The Megas wore green jerseys and the Dragons, yellow ones.
I tested the bomb without the coloring agents by suspending it from a balloon filled with hydrogen, which exploded high in the air over the quarry. I encountered several problems installing the bomb in a football: opening, closing and sealing the airtight bladder; attaching the bomb to the underside of the fake lacing and protecting the altimeter from the sudden increase in air pressure from the compression of the bladder caused by the kick. Would the kick in fact push far enough into the bladder to hit the bomb? Fortunately for me, football manufacturers had paid engineers to investigate the impact of kicks on footballs and the strength of the material necessary to withstand such blows. These engineers bragged of their findings in publications which I had no trouble finding and reading. They even told me how fast, high and far the best pro kickers kicked the ball. Their findings allowed the manufacturers to improve their product, raise their price and supplement their profit from sales to pro teams by selling official pro footballs to amateurs. I concluded that no kick would hit my bomb. The information also enabled me to devise a paper seal that would not only protect the diaphragm of the altimeter from the sudden increase in pressure, but also tear away so that the instrument could safely begin to function. To test it, I made a kicking machine that consisted of a horizontal wooden lever with a heavy stone attached to a long end and a boot, to a short end. I propped the long end up at the top of its travel with a piece of wood. When I pulled the prop away, the stone fell so that the toe of the boot kicked a football up in the air.
Once I had a football bomb ready, I looked for a way to smuggle it into the game between the Megas and the Dragons. On the Web, I found a laid-off sportscaster who was doing odd jobs while search-
ing for an opening in his field. What can’t you find on the Web? I suspected that an addiction to gambling had cost him his job and landed him in debt. He still had his press pass, which allowed him free entry to Desert Dome and even to the locker rooms, etc. Calling from a payphone, I identified myself as Anna Carolis and offered him ten thousand to substitute my football for one of those ordered for the game between the Megas and the Dragons. Pleasantly surprised:
“You got to be kidding!”
“Do I get a down payment?”
“Five before and five afterwards.”
“What’s wrong with your football?”
“You will find out soon enough.”
“OK! Send me five and the football.”
I sent them by FedEx in the same box from a false address in Mammoth.
I watched the game on television from my room in a Mammoth Hotel. The Dome was packed with enthusiastic fans, most of them dressed in yellow, but also a surprising number in green. When the yellow team kicked off to the green for the first half and the ball reached its zenith, nothing happened. I began to worry: would my ball be squandered on a punt? used for a kickoff after a score? That would be disappointing. Finally, the second half began with the greens kicking off to the yellows. Breathless, I watched the ball soar over the colliding giants on the field below. Just as it began to fall, it disap- peared in a cloud of green and yellow. A split second later: “Pow!” All over the yellow end of the field, the greens and yellows were standing around and staring upwards. The whole stadium was on its feet staring too. Everywhere I looked, everywhere the camera focused, I saw upturned faces. They might have been believers witnessing a miracle. The sportscasters were shouting their astonishment. I thought of the millions of televiewers. What a spectacle! After a heated ten-minute discussion between the officials, the coaches, the
team captains, the team owners and police officials, the clock was turned back to zero and the teams lined up for another kickoff. I must have been the only spectator who didn’t hold my breath as the spare football soared over the colliding greens and yellows. Once it had reached its zenith, it fell into the arms of a receiver, who knelt in the end zone. From then on, both teams gained little on runs or fumbled, threw incompletes or interceptions, made few first downs and punted the ball back and forth. Centers centered ahead of the count, quarterbacks and kickers got rid of the ball, receivers dropped passes. Fans began to leave by the third quarter and, at the end of the game, the Dome was half empty. Neither team had scored in the second half, so the Dragons won by the half-time score of 21-20. If the Megas hadn’t tried to score two points instead of one after their third touchdown, there would have been at least one overtime. But how many fans would have stayed to watch? Both teams blundered their way through the rest of the season, losing often by lopsided scores and winning rarely by a few points. Attendance dwindled from week to week. The owners were whining and groaning over the millions they were losing.
The next morning, I sent the other five to my agent. Videos of the kickoff, the explosion and the reaction of the players and the fans reappeared frequently on television for a whole week. Comments, speculation and controversy kept the press busy. Was the bomber a football hater, a publicity hound, a crackpot or lunatic, a disgruntled fan or player? For instance, a player dropped from one of the two teams or a member of one beaten by them? A nearby resident who resented the noise and the congestion? A taxpayer who resented the funds squandered on the Dome? Guesses were running wild. Neither the video tapes nor the testimony of over a hundred thousand witnesses yielded much evidence of who or why. The thirty-seven policemen who searched “ground zero” after the game found only tiny fragments of the football and pieces of the hardware I had concealed inside of it. No wonder after forty-six two hundred and fifty to three hundred pound Megas and Dragons had trampled “ground zero” during the whole second half. After two weeks of analysis and evaluation, the investigation listed the components of the bomb,
except for the paper seal which had armed it. The explosion had probably destroyed the paper. They wondered at the miniaturization of the device, the work of an unusually resourceful bomb maker. Where would he strike next?
The police questioned everyone known to have had access to the game balls. None of them admitted the slightest notion of how the football bomb could have been substituted for them. A few years later, Pro-Football Illustrated reported that a sportscaster who had lost his job used his press pass to enter the Dome in the afternoon before the game. He went to the room where the game balls were kept, found it unlocked and unoccupied, entered and found the carton in which they had been shipped open but still packed. It took him less than a minute to substitute my football for one of the others, which he put in his empty camera bag, and left without being seen. The magazine omitted the source of the report, so I concluded that my agent had earned a bonus.