Autumn 2011 had started out for Priscilla with subdued drama, especially when compared with the summer. That season had been fraught with upheaval: Harlan’s accident, Harry’s born-again confession, not to mention her suspicion that Dean had shown disrespect for her and the family by his gullibility in listening to the ideas of the word processor Flory Nornwasser. All of these troublesome incidents had calmed down by the time the family headed to Tahoe for the Labor Day Weekend.
Add to this that her work had lost all vibrancy since Harry’s religious interests had invaded the Tound Engineering environment. Scilla and Gwen had lunch, again way off the premises, in September. They ran down the same complaints, and the same stories. Neither of them had anything to add. The lunch had a tired, dull quality of repetition, but neither of them, it seemed, was willing to be the one to say, “You know, we’re just riding around the same old hobby horses. Why are we even here?”
They did not have a third lunch. They mostly worked on separate projects and had little interaction other than the small, cordial smiles of secret-keepers.
Toward the end of October, there were a few perturbations of movement in Scilla’s life. At Tound, news came down that their bid for some of the subcontract work on the French-African hydroelectric plant had been accepted. At first, everyone in the firm was elated, an elation that was soon diluted by the subsequent news that only half, slightly better than half, actually, of the work they had bid on would be awarded.
DPE, Scilla’s former company, would do the brunt of the work: the dam construction, the main power plant. Had DPE not won any of the work, it is doubtful that Tound would have gotten more than three to five weeks on the one tiny piece that required the expertise that was clearly theirs.
The French were already needing to cope with a vocal environmentalist reaction to the proposed project. The Geo-Amicus Consortium (you may know them simply as GAC) had galvanized the online community to send digital petitions protesting the planned development. The UN was being pressured to weigh in with an opinion.
As a result of this activist outrage, DPE was positioned best to win the bid. Part of DPE’s great track record doing civil engineering projects was their ability to anticipate, prepare for, and deflect resistance from the green obstructionists, as they called them.
Long before the petition drive began online, DPE had contracted with CosmoBeat.org, a nonprofit devoted to preserving the threatened folk traditions of world music. Part of DPE’s bid included sending a team of CosmoBeat.org’s ethnomusicologists to the soon-to-be-inundated African valley, to make field recordings of the best of the musicians keeping alive their cultures’ traditions, which dated back, in some cases, thousands of years. A book of photographs with a compilation CD would be published, and part of the profits would be donated to a fund to help these musicians find meaningful work in one of the cities on the coast.
The brunt of the protests focused on the 978 villages that would be depopulated when the dam was completed. DPE would plant articles in the press about the traditional musicians, editing out their homesick anger, pushing instead the good news of the soon-to-be-released picture book and CD. The French firm loved this part of the proposal.
Scilla understood that Tound owed what good fortune it had to DPE’s shrewd moves to keep one step ahead of what she and her cohorts at Tound and DPE called “the green propaganda machine.”
It was the kind of thing that made her proud of where she used to work, and the kind of thing she could never tell Dean. He would not get it. Even Scilla, with her tendency to blurt out things inappropriately, knew this kind of talk was off-limits at 667 Regan Street.
Then there was a strange interaction with Chloe Dunphy, also late in October.
Just after lunch one day, Scilla was heading to her work area with a cup of coffee when Chloe passed her in the hall. With delayed recognition, the woman who worked in supply, mother of the sweet kid Gina who always did such a good job with the Colfax’s seasonal deep-clean, turned and said to Scilla, “Hi, hey, how are ya?”
“Hi, Chloe. Say, I was wondering something. Do you think Gina wants to make another hundred bucks?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure.”
“Well, that’s great –”
“But she’s really busy with school. And she’s got a boyfriend. A couple of boyfriends. Playin’ the field. You know how it is when you’re young. More house-cleaning? When do you think you’ll need her?”
“Oh, maybe three weeks from now. Just before Thanksgiving. To get the house ready for the holidays. If she’s not too busy.”
“I’ll ask her. You know,” here Chloe went into a whisper, “she sent some friends an e-mail a couple of weeks ago and accidentally included me on the address list. I probably shouldn’t have opened it, but, oh, you know how it is, when your kids are doing things and you are dying to know what they’re up to?”
Scilla nodded, impatient now, eager to get back to work on all the things she had to do before she could leave for home with an easy mind.
“But here’s what Gina was writin’ about. There was this mention of some house she’d cleaned, where they had this weird specimen in a jar, a cross between E.T. and a pickled pig’s knuckle, she said. Now, she only cleaned two houses in the last several months — like I said, she’s so busy with school and this boy and that boy. You know how it is at that age. So, I was wondering, is that like something Harlan has?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t sound familiar. But I don’t go into his room much. Kids, you know? Maybe it was the other house she cleaned.”
“Couple of retired librarians? I don’t know.”
“Oh, you never can tell. I knew a strange librarian once. Maybe they’re collectors.”
“Yeah? Maybe, maybe. So, when were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. Saturday before Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah, OK, I’ll ask her. Thanks for thinking of my girl.”
But the high point and the low point of Scilla’s late October came in one single telephone call. It began as the congratulatory call from Scilla to Flo. Scilla, as relatively unconscious as she was about her interpersonal motivations, in this case would have readily admitted that the congratulations would work as her opening to get into another topic of communication.
How could Flo refuse to share with her sister the buoyancy she and Hank felt, with the news that the release document from the ovarian cancer patient, initialed in the right places, signed in the right places, had been allowed by the judge, its authenticity affirmed, no forgery or other tampering detected? Dr. Hank was mostly exonerated.
As predicted, the insurance carrier offered the widower a check, enough to pay his attorney and still retain a few thousand dollars to help assuage his grief. The criminal case was dropped. The Board of Medical Quality Assurance imposed a modest fine on Pitney Holistic for poor administrative practices and ordered Hank to take extra continuing education courses on improved record-keeping, after completion of which he could apply for reinstatement.
Flo and Hank were not only broke, they were in debt to their relatives, as well as to the bank for back-payments on the clinic’s lovely old mansion. But renewal was in sight. This was Scilla’s opportunity to offer congratulations to them.
But the ulterior motive that we are convinced she would have admitted to, was, in fact, so conscious a part of her functioning as she punched in the number, that, as the phone rang on the other end, she had to coach herself with a pep talk to keep to the plan: First, the congratulations, the prepared statement that she had rehearsed, the one about how nice to be done with that legal nightmare, and then to listen for as long as Flo needed, before she, Scilla, worked it around to agenda number two: You two are still planning to come here for Christmas, aren’t you?
What followed was the longest conversation she had ever had with Flo, certainly since they were adults, maybe in their entire lives.
Scilla would be rocked back on her heels by both the content and the tone of this conversation. And not just by the unexpected disclosures, but by this other, completely new thing: being included in the first telling of something from her sister Flo.
Before long, though, Scilla would ask herself: Why had Artis not been the one designated for this conversation?
As Flo’s revelations mounted, Scilla was immobilized. She almost wished that she could swap talents with Artis in some magical way and possess, just for the duration of that call, her youngest sister’s skill in speaking with people about difficult subjects. Scilla heard herself in this childish wish, castigated herself for its irrational nature, for the absurdity of wanting Artis to be an engineer earning a six-figure salary while Scilla, in this moment, would be able to fly with supreme mastery over the unexpected gnarliness.
She did not know why Artis had not been the one, as was the usual way, the one to get the hot information and, with her placid, caring nature, cool the heat off of it and pass it on, like a sweet mother who blows cool a hot cookie from the oven for her little one to sample.
Instead, Scilla was granted the opportunity to witness first-hand the caveat be careful what you wish for.
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