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"The Possible World"
from Stop that Girl

     It was strangely quiet outside, but maybe I had closed all the windows.  This was the most well built house I had ever lived in.  The walls were creamy plaster, like those in an adobe mission.  They were held together by strong, oak beams which were exposed like whale ribs across the living room ceiling.  Even the windows were made of a thicker, more interesting glass than normal windows.  Tiny bubbles riddled the glass if you looked closely enough.  I liked to walk around this house and examine its craftsmanship.  Someone who appreciated a well built house built this one.
     I'm only a renter.  I could dream of owning this house, but it would probably cost something like $575,000.  Though well built, it's small.  And my husband, who is a software engineer over in San Jose, is afraid of owning big, cumbersome things.  In them he sees nothing but trouble.
     Anyway, it was suddenly quiet, and though I could see the trees whipping around in the wind, I couldn't hear a single groan or rustle.  It was soothing but rather apocalyptic feeling.  I had the feeling I would not be staying in this house for long.
     Yesterday Paul, who is my landlady's boyfriend, called me at exactly this time.  It was 9:30 a.m. and I was in the kitchen watching a movie.  He said, "I need some help on the Brocco-rabi project.  As you know I broke my leg daredevil skiing and I need someone to drive me to Fresno to inspect the site of our first Brocco-rabi demonstration.  Can you drive me?  A hundred dollars?"
     This isn't exactly what he said verbatim, but all of this was there.  And even though it was an abrupt request, I was pleased.  I didn't have anything to do yesterday except pick up my son after school.  A drive to Fresno sounded out of the ordinary. 
     "Okay," I replied.  "If I can find a way for Will to be picked up after school, I'll do it."
     "Yeah, I've got that all figured out already," Paul said.  "Virginia will be done with her meetings by then.  She can pick him up."
     Virginia is my landlady.  I am aware of how much she likes my son.  On Easter she dropped by a basket with Godiva eggs in it.  Plus an expensive plush stuffed rabbit.  It was almost embarrassing.  Will couldn't care less about the price tag but it made me a little uncomfortable.  Then on Halloween she made up a grab bag of candy and toys, very extravagant.  Twice she'd asked me to bring him over and they'd baked cookies together. 
     Yesterday it was windy like today.  I was to pick Paul up asap, whatever that meant.  I decided to take my time with my cup of coffee and my movie, seeing as he'd given me such short notice.  But even so I could tell I was hurrying a little.  This movie seemed like a strange choice for the morning.  I could better imagine seeing this one on TV in the afternoon or evening, after the day had left its scratchy imprint on a person.  A respectable businessman takes his daughter and son way into the outback of Australia, lights the car on fire and shoots himself in the head, leaving them to find their way on their own.  Wandering in the desolate expanse they meet an aboriginal boy who shows them how to eat grubs and swim naked in a pool.  How can anything be the same again?  
     Before Paul called, while watching the movie, I had made my daily list of things to do and among them were: go to library, go to bank, sort through Will's clothes and give away too-small things to Goodwill.  Nothing that couldn't wait.
     Sometimes you need to read between the lines of a list like that.  I shouldn't short change my plan for yesterday.  Lots of other significant things could've happened.  I might've heard something on the radio that would send me off an a really interesting mental tangent.  Every time I'd hear a traffic report about an accident on Highway 17 I would wonder whether it was my husband or some other acquaintance, or I might receive a phone call that would get me going--from a friend with good news, say. 
     Two weeks ago, my sister, who calls me quite often, arranged for the largest radio station in her area to call and interview me.  She loves to think of me back in the swing of things, and my involvement with Brocco-rabi was no exception.  She called the radio station to see if they were interested, and they were.  Can you believe it?  I have tried to succeed in many different ways, and when I don't care, not invested at all, I'm in demand.  Anyway, she told them I was the person to talk to when it came to Brocco-rabi.  The radio station contacted me, and Bingo, the next day I was scheduled to go on the air.  It's a 50,000 watt radio station.  It can be heard from Maine to South Carolina.
     The thing is, I'm not really the person to talk to about Brocco-rabi.  But my sister was so excited that she'd put together this interview that I went along with it.
     The host of this show was a man named Newt Barnaby.  About five minutes before 2:00, an assistant called.  "Ready for Newt?" she asked.  I said I was.  I had practiced speaking with more authority the night before.  I thought I should sound like the world's expert on Brocco-rabi.
     Suddenly I could hear the actual radio show coming through the phone--a commercial for a car wash.  I sighed.  Ultimately, nothing was resting on this.  No one except my sister would hear it.  If Virginia and Paul found out, they'd probably be irritated.  Here I was, posing as the official spokesperson for Brocco-rabi.  Just then the voice of Newt Barnaby began to talk over the end of the carwash ad.  My throat tightened up.
     "And now we've got a very interesting feature for you today.  Out in Salinas, California, a brand new vegetable is on the loose, and we've got Ann Ransom to tell us about it!"
     "Hi Newt," I said jauntily.
     "Ann!  How's it going out in Salinas?"
     "Actually, I'm not in Salinas.  I live in Aptos."  Why did I need to throw that in?  Who cared?  I concentrated harder.
        "Where's Aptos?"
     "Near Watsonville.  This is a vast agricultural area, Newt.  The Pajaro and Salinas valleys are among the richest growing areas on earth."
     "Lucky you!  We easterners know the good veggies always seem to come from California.  So, tell us--what exactly is Brocco-rabi?"
     I was doing better now.  My voice was coming on strong and clear. 
     "Well, Newt, Brocco-rabi was genetically engineered.  As you can probably guess, it's half broccoli and half kohlrabi.  It's a hearty grower and has five times the vitamins of both combined.  It's quite large and kind of looks like a big green cow udder."
     "Yeow!  The Frankenstein of vegetables!"  Newt Barnaby emitted a resounding, fully committed laugh.  And I smiled.  I was staring out the thick, bubbly window into my backyard.  From the inside of my house, the outside had never looked more interesting.
     "Yes, and it's the first new vegetable to be created since 1937, when scientists masterminded the Brussels Sprout."
     "Really!  Ann, this is absolutely fascinating."
     Did he really think so?  I was afraid I had my dates wrong, and surely some know-it-all would call the station to correct me.  Better get back on firm ground.
     "Furthermore,  we're about to introduce Chucky Brocco-rabi, a larger than life super hero.  He wears a cape and a little bikini like most of the other superheroes do--"
     "Ho ho.  Tell us, does Brocco-rabi taste good?"
     "Sure.  Everybody loves it."
     "Where can I find Brocco-rabi?  Can I drive over to Price Chopper and buy some right now?"
     "I certainly hope so.  We believe it's now in every state, and it's catching on in Europe too."
     "What's the bottom line on Brocco-rabi, Ann.  Why should America open its heart to a new vegetable?"
     "Newt, what with the government's five-a-day plan, we need all the options we can get at the lunch and dinner table.  Kids are really going to love Brocco-rabi too.  The weirdness of it."
     "Weird!  Weird!  I love it!  Thanks, Ann Ransom from Aptos, California!"
     Newt disappeared and all the sound collapsed into a vacuum in the phone.  I thought my eardrum was going to get sucked into it too.  That was it?  No goodbyes?  I was suddenly alone again in my kitchen, looking at the soaking skillet from the wild rice dish I'd prepared the night before.  I slowly hung up the phone.  Then, a minute later, my sister called.  She said I sounded like a natural.  She said she was sure brocco-rabi sales would skyrocket.
     Later, I thought it was kind of foolish for me to have gotten so worked up about this radio interview, broadcast over states where nobody I knew would be listening. 
     Anyway, yesterday I vacuumed the car before I drove to pick up Paul.  I sprayed some room freshener around and packed up a tin of cookies.  Then I went and filled the tank with gas and squeegeed the windows.  For some reason I wanted to do a really good job of driving Paul to Fresno.  I admit I was disproportionately excited about this trip.
     Remember, it was windy yesterday.  But I like weather.  It's one of the few things that can make everything seem different when you're in exactly the same place.

     My husband thinks Paul is something of a blowhard but he likes him.  One day, shortly after we moved into this house, it was a beautiful day and my husband had the day off.  He planned on doing a little lawn mowing, making himself a martini, then lying out on a chaise in the freshly threshed grass.  He doesn't get to enjoy our yard often, and wasn't even aware until that day that I had planted an extensive summer garden that had provided us with most of our salad materials recently.  At any rate, he had only just turned off the roaring two horse power engine on the mower when Paul showed up with a box of wires and switches.  "Hey buddy," he said to my husband, "I need to put lights down in the crawl space and even though I'm an aeronautical engineer I know a hell of a lot about electronics and you can come down there and shoot the shit with me."
     This wasn't exactly what he said but if you read between the lines it was clear this was his meaning.  And even though my husband never does anything he doesn't want to do, he put aside his martini and chaise lounge and disappeared into the basement crawl space with Paul for the rest of the afternoon.  Then that night he was amazed at himself. 
     "Why did I spend my afternoon off crawling on my belly in the dirt?" he asked me. 
     "I was wondering.  What did you talk about all that time?"
     "He insisted on installing five different switches and bulb outlets.  Two would have been more than enough.  That Paul is pretty proud of himself.  Was some kind of boy genius.  Did some engineering contracts for the military and spent a year in a tunnel under Japan.  Said they had golf courses down there."
     "Golf courses?  How deep were the tunnels?"
     "He did mention.  I think he said two miles."
     "Two miles deep.  Amazing!  Golf courses!"
     "I don't know.  Maybe I wasn't listening."
     "Not listening?  It really sounds much more interesting than I expected."
     In fact, as the afternoon wore on, I had crawled over to the heavy, scrolled wrought iron heater vent and pressed my ear to it.  I stayed there for a long time trying to hear the sound of their voices.  The smell of moist soil came up through the vent in gentle waves.  It made my mouth water.  Sometimes I heard a roar like the ocean and for awhile I heard scratching like a squirrel making a nest.  But that's it.  I guess it's such a well built house, sound doesn't travel.  I determined I wasn't missing much.
     "Well, maybe he feels at home down there," I said, wondering why I wanted to prolong this discussion.
     "Who?"
     "Paul."
     "Where?"
     "Under the house.  Maybe it reminds him of Japan."
     "Oh right.  Let's hope he doesn't decide to put a golf course down there," my husband joked. 
     It pleased me to see my husband interacting with someone, that's what it was.  He had few friends and worked 45 miles from our house.  Only once had I come to his office, and that was to bring him his briefcase which he had forgotten.  When I found him there he seemed glad to see me and the briefcase, but asked me to talk quietly, and I remember how we ended up speaking in whispers.  I had already decided my husband didn't like the sound of the voice.  He had been raised an only child by old, quiet parents, and couldn't help it, but this was the truth about him.  Say I started speaking in the yard to a neighbor over the fence.  My husband would come out on the porch and stare.  If I were on the phone laughing, he would walk into the room with a funny look on his face.  That's the way he was.  To talk to someone all afternoon in the moist soil under the house meant my husband liked them.  I wanted him to like someone.   

     So yesterday Paul descended from Virginia's other house in his full leg cast.  I leapt from my car and offered to help him in.  "I've got it, Ann," he said.  "Thanks."  Like an excellent chauffeur I opened the passenger door for him.  "So thanks for hopping to on such short notice," he said.  "You're a trooper, and besides, I know you didn't have anything else to do today."
     Of course, he really said something else, but I knew what he was thinking.  Paul and Virginia ran a small ad firm.  After we moved into their house and they found out that I had done some publicity work before, they offered me jobs from time to time.  I never asked for them and I often wondered how they knew I was willing to do these jobs.  I guess because I lived in Virginia's house I imagined they could see me rattling around inside it.  So I spent one week coming up with names for a new organic shampoo that would be sold pyramid style, by couples working their own neighborhoods like hungry coyotes.  Then a couple months ago Paul and Virginia wangled the Brocco-rabi account, a fairly sizeable one I gathered, and I started taking on assignments regularly.  There were press releases and so forth.  And then this grand opening for Chucky came up.  I'd been on the phone to all kinds of official people in Fresno for the past month.  The actual event was now only a few weeks away.  And yet even though I'd tagged along with Paul and Virginia on meetings with N & B, and attended all the planning for the commercial that would be made during the event with the video people, I couldn't help worrying that this might not be the best way to market brocco-rabi.  Get the kids excited by brocco-rabi and they'll bug their mothers into buying it, that was the cornerstone of their strategy.  They had created 3-D cartoon activity books all about Chucky with glasses to boot.  They planned on bringing Chucky himself into the schools.  But I already knew there was nothing loveable about Chucky Brocco-rabi.  He wasn't funny.  He had no personality.  He couldn't even talk, that was the bottom line.  A costume designer was preparing about a dozen of the mute green getups at this very moment.  Paul and Virginia were spending a lot of N & B's money on this.  Paul and Virginia had their own ad agency, but they didn't have any kids.  How could they know?  
    As the two of us drove along the two-lane highway to Fresno, I thought of the movie I'd been watching that morning.  Would one of us self-immolate on this trip?  The hills were golden and so was the sky, filled as it was with crop dustings and smog and embers from a fire put out near Paso Robles only the day before.  The wind had whipped that fire then moved up here.  It was whipping my car.  "I hope Virginia doesn't wimp out on me," Paul said.  "I mean, she's the most intelligent woman I know and yet she's utterly insecure.  I need to help her get over it.  Same problem destroyed my first marriage.  I was off overseas all the time on high security missions and so finally to make her feel competent I bought her a store."
     "A store?" I said, surprised.  "That was nice of you."
     "Yeah, well, it didn't work.  After awhile she didn't think she could handle it."
     "What kind of store was it?"
     "Needlecraft, stuff like that.  She was an expert at needlecraft."
     "Just because she was a needlecraft expert doesn't mean she could run a needlecraft store,"  I offered.
     "She lost her confidence.  Tried to kill herself with knitting needles."
     "Is that a joke?"  I asked.
     "If you think that's a joke you've got a strange sense of humor," Paul said.
     There was something about Paul that bothered me, I decided.
     "It's a tragedy when someone underestimates their talents.  By the way, are you aware of how smart your son is?"
     "Of course I am," I said.  Will was smart, no doubt about it.  He started reading when he was three, almost like spontaneous combustion.  Pow!  Suddenly he knew how.  It definitely amazed me, and not only that, he could identify all the states by shape when he was only two.  He had memorized them all on his own.  I had been incredulous and grateful.
     "I just hope you realize how smart he is.  It would be terrible if you didn't."  This irritated me for some reason so I didn't reply.  I didn't need to.  After all, I was driving and had to be vigilant because cars kept passing us.  Not that I was going the bare speed limit; however, I found passing to be too fleeting a form of triumph to be useful to me.  So I just kept on guard against other passers.  Paul kept blabbing about the uncertain future of Will's intellect while I guarded our lives.  The two and a half hours passed after awhile. 
     The supermarket we had chosen for this event was on the outskirts of town, in a new suburban area full of cul-de-sacs and shopping centers that had only been in existence for fifteen to twenty years.  The suburb still touched on original almond orchards, full of flowers in the springtime, as grey as ghosts by Thanksgiving. 
     We entered the store and inspected the produce department to make sure it was suitable as a backdrop for both the commercial and the event itself.  And it was.  It was actually an extraordinary produce section.  Vegetables of every color and shape, fresh and waxy, filled enormous rough hewn bins which were spotlighted from above.  Automatic sprayers jetted over never-dehydrating greens in tiers along the mirrored walls.  Paul and I nodded at each other with approval.  A quick talk with the Produce Manager assured us of his cooperation on the day of the event.  "He's going to be a phenomenon," Paul bragged to the Produce Manager, showing him a blueprint of Chucky.  "As big as the California Raisins, as big as Joe Camel.  We've got a million dollar budget just to play with.  So if you display our product prominently, we can do all kinds of great things for you." 
     I started to feel sucked in.  Paul's droning voice began to compel me to think I was on an important mission.  I could tell I was beaming as the Produce Manager listened and was impressed.  At last, completely satisfied, we took off for destination two, the suburban Junior High.
     "Good work," Paul said. 
     "Thanks.  You too," I added.
     At the Junior High we met with the leader of the Drill Team.  Two hundred girls were quickly promised to be at our disposal for the event.  We would have them do a few routines, substituting Chucky's name for the name of their Junior High.  This drill team was the top placing team in the state.  We would make a generous contribution to their travel budget.  Paul and the Drill Team Leader fawned over each other as they closed the mutually beneficial deal.  Then, as the Drill Team Leader went on a little long about the special routines her special core squad could do, and the baton twirling that could add to Chucky's luster, I could see the gulf of Paul's insincerity widening.  I could tell he didn't like her.  For some reason, this was something of a relief, after having to hear about how great Virginia was all morning.
     We finished off in Fresno by visiting the Chamber of Commerce.  There we picked up more endorsements for Chucky and the event.  Promises of publicity and even the possibility of a cameo by the Mayor.  Too much.  The truth is, I love being included on other people's missions.  This trip was lightening my spirits.  As we walked out to my car we gave each other "five".  Paul was bubbling. 
     "I'll actually spend a few dollars on you to thank you," Paul nearly said.  "Let's go over to the restaurant at the Hilton.  Okay?"
     "Great," I said.  I looked at my watch.  All that accomplished, and it was still only 3:00.
     "Virginia's probably got Will by now," Paul mused.
     "True," I said.
     "That's nice.  For Virginia.  She really wants kids."
     I parked in the garage under the Fresno Hilton.  I helped Paul get out of the car and he limped beside me into the lobby.  The restaurant was closed between lunch and dinner so we sat in the bar.  Paul ordered an Irish Coffee, which sounded exactly right to me, so I ordered one too.
     "This is good," I said, when it came.
     "Want anything off the bar menu?"
     "Umm, well, crab cakes sound good."
     "Virginia will be incredibly psyched about all of this," Paul said.  "It's all working out.  Now all I need to do is contact that Reporter from the Bee and then the radio station.  You want to take care of that?"
     "Sure," I said.
     "And then I'll show Virginia the results and she'll think I did all the work, and she won't resent having to support me," seemed to be what he was thinking.  "Miss, can we have a kettle of clam chowder, and an order of crab cakes?"
     "You know," I said, "I think this is going to be a lot of fun.  I think a lot of people are going to come.  That was a great idea you had, about raffling the roller blades."
     Paul nodded in complete agreement.  "The main thing to remember, though, is that the commercial is the most important aspect of the event.  So as long as the video people get all the shots they need, it doesn't matter if things don't go perfectly smooth.  Doesn't that take a load off your mind?"
     "You mean, since I'm the coordinator?"
        "Right.  Can I ask you a question, Ann?"
     "Okay."
     "Do you think Virginia is attractive?"
        I had thought he was going to ask me if I was a happy, fulfilled person--something that would put me on the spot but make me feel like I had an interesting secret.  "Sure," I said sullenly.
     "I mean, is she what another woman would call a beautiful woman?"
     "Yes, I guess so," I said.  I pictured Virginia.  She was short and round and had hair like Liza Minelli's.  I suppose you can say anyone is beautiful really.
     "Do you mind if I tell her you said that?"
     "But it's not as if I said, "Virginia's beautiful" out of the blue."
     "But you think so."
     Who wanted to argue over something like that?  "Yeah, sure, whatever."
     Paul smiled at me.  It was the first time I could remember him attempting to look pleasant for my benefit.  Foolishly, I had looked forward to some new company today in the form of Paul.  But try as I might, I didn't have a sense of us connecting. 
     The crab cakes came and at least they were good.  Paul dipped into his clam kettle.  "Chow down," he said.
     "Yeah," I said.
     "Did you know Virginia wanted to write a postcard to Letterman about Will?" Paul slurped.  "Get him on the show."
     "What?"
     "That state thing.  The way he bites Fig Newtons into the shapes of states?  That's incredible."
     I laughed.  "He did that for you guys?"
     "Virginia was in shock.  I tell you, she's a little bit in love with your son.  Who wouldn't be, he's a great kid.  But the truth is, we've actually talked about taking care of him if anything ever happened to you and your husband.  I mean, we'd go the whole way.  We'd adopt him."
     I looked at Paul quizzically.  "You mean, if both of us died?"
     "We're not going to adopt him if you're still alive, obviously."
     "You mean you imagined us being dead?"
     "All I'm saying is that we would like to volunteer to be the ones who would take care of Will if anything ever happened.  That's all."
     I slumped in my seat.  What was bothering me?  Then I had it.  Never before had anyone discussed the possibility of my own death with me.  It felt intimate and indifferent at the same time.  As if the wind had stripped me of my clothes but not stopped to look.  A real insult. 
     "Let me see.  You and Virginia were sitting around one day, maybe talking about how nice it would be to have children, and then one of you said something like, 'That Will boy over at our rental is pretty nice,' and then the other one said, 'Maybe our tenants will die suddenly and we can have him?'"
     "Of course not," Paul said.  "Virginia and I put a lot of thought into this."
     "And anyway, even if we did die, what makes you think we'd want you two?  We have family and friends!"
     "Forget I said anything."               
     "No, no, I'm glad you told me," I said.  "Because, you know, the idea makes my blood curdle."
     "Oh come on," Paul said.  "You're over-reacting!"
     "Yes.  It makes me feel really sick, like the crab cakes are trying to crawl out of my stomach."
     "You're funny," Paul said, smiling the way he did at the Drill Team leader.  "Virginia and I really appreciate that in your work."
     I excused myself.  I was in a huff.  I wanted my husband to go pick up Will at Virginia's house right away.  But at the office they told me he was already gone.  When I called home, my husband answered and was really worked up.  "What happened?" he shouted.  "The school called me at work.  At work!  No one ever came to pick up Will.  He was just sitting there in the school office a couple of hours!"
     "Virginia didn't come get him?  She forgot about him?"
     "If I had been out of the office today, what would have happened?  It took me an hour and a half to get there because of traffic, which I always avoid by leaving later."
     I said, "You know what?  It's just as well he wasn't there, and I'm not going to be working for Paul and Virginia anymore!" 
     "Why on earth would it be just as well?"
     "I'm not going to be working for Paul and Virginia anymore," I said again.  "Don't you want to hear why?"
     "Someone better explain something," my husband really said.  "How would you like to be left at school?  My mother never did that to me."
     As we headed back to Aptos, the wind wrestled the car and the passers passed and the sun was going down right before our squinting eyes.  Sometimes the road vanished into a dwarfed sunburst on the windshield, and Paul gasped and dug into the floor with his bad leg.  I hoped his hair would turn white.  For some reason, this driving was the easiest thing I'd done in a long time.  Far be it for me to judge, but it was really starting to seem like you couldn't do anything with some people.  Take, for example, people who thought you could sell a stenchful green vegetable by dressing it in a costume, and people who made love to their wives with their shoes on.  I was surrounded by unthinking types.  Last night I crawled out of bed as my husband slept, stretched out flat on the living room floor and closed my eyes.  I imagined travelling to another place where I started over with nothing.  I don't know why that scenario appealed to me so much, but it was the only thing I could think of that carried me through the night.


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