As the three engineers queued up to board their return flight to San Francisco, Scilla was feigning interest in something fairly trite that Gwen was saying. Scilla did not want to sit next to Harry. She might have to tell her boss that she did not feel comfortable discussing religion with him. Or with anyone, for that matter. She thought it was pretty cruddy that the only person she knew who thought it was OK to engage her in a religious conversation was her boss.
Gwen did not want to sit next to him, either. Could it be he had “hit” on her, too, that is, not flirted but prosyletized?
“If you ladies are going to dawdle,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes, “would you mind if I went ahead? This carry-on is doing a number on my shoulder.”
In the cabin he took the window seat, not rudely, merely to keep the queue moving. The women then went through the No, after you… No, you first, please, routine with each other.
Neither of them wanted to sit next to him. Scilla thought the two women might have some Harry stories to share once they were alone. That was kind of energizing but it had to be pleasure deferred.
They all spoke of trivial matters till they were airborne and able to engage their personal devices. These absorbed their attention for the duration of the flight till, as they approached SFO, they were told by the captain to discontinue their use.
Scilla closed her eyes. She had won the seat lottery and was next to Gwen, not Harry. But it did not make her feel any better about the situation. Why her boss, of all people, to broach the private matter of her belief? Or the lack thereof?
And Harry was not just the person she reported to, as in a large corporation, someone who may be around a while or get transferred or fired or, even, at times, promoted to torment ever larger groups of people. Not just that guy, but the owner of the frickin’ firm!
Born-again Harry makes Dean and people like Flory look like sane, mature people. Scilla wondered if maybe she ought to consider looking for a job elsewhere. It was the first time she had tried on this thought since Harry brought her into Tound Engineering.
She looked forward to telling Dean about her night with Harry. As skeptics, they would both enjoy a rich, derisive hoot from her descriptions. But she did not want to tell Dean that she now asked herself if Tound might not be the best place for her to advance her career. She was also thinking of censoring from her report the talk on the way to La Jolla, when Harry proposed the notion of the employee-partner hybrid. It would just complicate matters.
Scilla enjoyed no power from holding secrets. In fact, it was an inconvenience. But she needed to hold this one, to avoid the greater discomfort of Dean looking at her with simplicity pouring from his eyes as he says, “Well, so what? The guy’s got a boner for religion. Some people do, OK? He can’t fire you for being an atheist. End of problem.”
Scilla had no rejoinder for this. It had become difficult for her to find effective arguments against Dean. Too often when they quarreled now, she muttered some weak defense of her position and then retreated into her place of quiet sadness where she nursed the hurt feelings of her demotion from the throne of top rationalist in their family. Now, because of that demotion, she could not flat out tell Dean that, with a boss who was now blatantly religious, she felt very unstable in her workplace.
So Scilla would have to keep that thought to herself. Now, like Dean, she, too, would have a secret from her spouse. And all the while she was convinced it would be good to tell him. It would be his reaction that would not be good.
That growing distance between the couple was something she felt but she did not understand. It was there, under everything else; it was widening, that she could see, and to tell him things that came from an intellectual position, like atheism and her new workplace discomfort, would not be possible because she could not defend her position were he to attack it. So Scilla chose secrecy.
Especially now, when they were more united than they had been for months. Having a mad-scientist son, a possible suspect in a terrorist investigation, who soon could be wanted by the FBI, had turned out to be an energy tonic for a struggling marriage. But please do not try this at home. There are other ways. Really, there are. Easier ones, too.
Whereas Scilla’s deceptions devolved from that one issue, Dean’s were multifaceted, layered, webby, intricate. And they bred new deceptions out of the circumstances they had created.
Reunited at last in their living room, Scilla with her chardonnay, he with his IPA, they aired out the highlights of the past few days: Harry-turned-believer and the thrashing that George Dixon gave Jules Hurley. Then Dean told Priscilla about his day with Harlan at the baseball game.
This was a fresh field for sowing more contorted truth. He did tell her they stayed in their seats while the groundskeepers worked on the field, told her they had a heart-to-heart talk, a father-son thing that got some subjects on the table for further discussion. When she asked if the explosion came up, Dean told her that Harlan acknowledged that it was an error.
He conveniently avoided telling her that what their son actually did was share with Dean his speculation as to why the rocket exploded. The paraffin Harlan had dripped over the opening of the little cylinder made too tight a seal. He had thought the burning fuse would melt enough of the seal to allow the exhaust from the burning powder to escape, as it had before. But he had not taken into account the time it took for the powder to ignite. In the delay before the spark from the fuse ignited the fuel, the cool San Francisco afternoon had resealed the paraffin, allowing the growing exhaust no outlet. Then the explosion.
Harlan wanted his dad to know that he was working on trying to figure out his error. The pressure should have popped off the wax before the cylinder exploded, but it did not. That was the part that he was studying in the post-mortem of the experiment.
This was Harlan’s idea of taking responsibility for his mistake.
Dean could say none of this to Priscilla. She would be furious at both of them. It was too much a page from her own playbook, from the section called “Owning One’s Errors.” Or not.
He also left out of the account his few (oh, so few!) indulgences of idolatrous envy of his son, as well as his pride in his son’s cleverness.
But the most important of all the exclusions was the father and son’s discussion of Blake. Unlike with Candice (and now Candice with him as well), Dean no longer had a good read on Harlan’s lie-face, or on his truth-face, either. He used to, but the boy had grown up quickly. He was too self-possessed, too much in command, for Dean to determine when he was getting the real thing from his son.
Yet Dean felt he could probably trust what Harlan had said, that Blake had not made mention of any object he had planned to leave for Harlan. Probably. That is, if that was the kid’s truth face. Now, if Blake turns up out of the blue, and he could, Dean just goes to Gene Cassidy’s place and fetches the little bag. If nothing happens to Gene, that is, or Gene’s home. Or to the little deerskin bag.
Sometimes Dean was so weary with the concealment and deception that he thought it would be best to get the bag from Gene and just give it to Harlan with no explanation. Just toss it to him while he sprawled on the floor watching a Giants game. Here. Something for you.
But Dean knew that was never going to happen.
Harlan and Ward sat side by side in the storeroom of the museum, ostensibly working at their internship assignment. The straight-backed chairs, dull black, gave them both backaches. They ignored the discomfort. This was not only a boring means to escape grounding. It was also a great moment in the course of the FOSOA’s early history.
Ward swept his hand across the screen as if he were brushing dust from it. He was, though, getting to the picture they needed to look at. Harlan coveted Ward’s iPad but he subdued these thoughts. To covet Ward’s anything was way uncool. They were buds, homies, bffl to some, maybe a gay couple to others who did not really know them: totally uncool to envy someone like that.
Ward showed the screen to Harlan. He had located the still they were looking for, the one from the show they had presented at the science fair, the one that might have been of the fetal specimen in the cloudy syrup in the jar on the table in front of them. Harlan’s eyes moved studiously over the picture.
“I don’t know. It’s too hard to tell. It’s a poor photograph.”
“A snapshot, taken with a cheap camera.”
Harlan unzipped his pack. He looked one way and the other and slipped into it the jar from the table. He zipped the pack shut. Then he looked at Ward.
“The FOSOA needs to ‘borrow’ this.”
“And the FOSOA does know that if we are caught ‘borrowing’ this, the master of our indentured servitude will likely report us to our parents, and to the school, and maybe the police?”
“We are outlaw scientists. We do what we must to overcome superstition and ignorance. It is our duty.”
With that, it being the end of their workday, they left the storeroom. They tossed some comic remarks to Geordie at the cash register, who had to mind the shop into the evening.
Tinkle-tinkle-thud-tinkle, Black Bart’s ancient door bid them good evening. They turned left on Ludd Alley and rolled toward 16th Street, as the cold wind of summer blew white tendrils of fog into the late-afternoon blue skies above the Mission. The chill kicked up, stretched from its afternoon nap, and spread its icy fingers over San Francisco.
© All content copyright 2011 Serial Jones. All rights reserved.