Adamkov’s brother-in-law won the Nobel Prize for medicine. He had discovered a cure for the common cold. He was at once the hero of the great unwashed and an arch-enemy of the pharmaceutical industry, which immediately issued a flurry of press releases denying the effectiveness of the remedy. Nevertheless, it seemed to work. No laboratory mouse anywhere in the western hemisphere had caught a cold in the last seven and a half years, and, to the sages of Stockholm, this was proof enough that Adamkov’s brother-in-law was entitled to a cool million, tenure anywhere he wanted it around the globe, and a free weekend in Sweden. Adamkov’s wife left for the north country without so much as a note, and he had to fix his own supper.
“How does it feel to be in the doghouse of the entire tissue industry?” asked Chip Henderson, Adamkov’s long-time law partner, marginal confidante, and college dormitory roommate of so very long ago, back when Adamkov had been dating girls who liked to go bowling, get snockered on Ripple, and engage in a little low-key pawing on the riverbank, as opposed to girls like his spouse, the lovely Ellen, whose tastes were now a notch or two higher. She was partying in Stockholm while Adamkov languished in supperless self-pitying solitude back home.
“Your wife’s bro has caused a panic in the nose-blowing biz,” Chip announced, with entirely too much pleasure. He had dropped over, unannounced and uninvited, a few days after Ellen had gone skyward toward the fjords. “Aspirin futures are shaky. The decongestant boys are jumping out of windows. And I don’t even want to think about the orange juice contingent. It’s bad enough to take on a bunch of pretty-boy chemists in their sterile labs in New England. But I’m talking Florida. I’m talking The South. I’m talking the last five minutes of Easy Rider. I’m talking about the entire citrus industry. I’m talking a whole passel of mightly displeased rednecks who do not appreciate it that Dick and Jane’s mommy will no longer be making a bee-line for the orange juice section every time one of her little darlings gets a sniffle. When the down-home-cold-remedy segment of the Florida economy tanks, good buddy, you might best consider a change of scenery. Like Mars.”
Chip grinned, sucking up a cold beer from a six-pack he had brought with him. He liked to bring beer over to Adamkov’s place because he knew he’d get to drink it all himself. Adamkov rarely drank.
“To average schmucks like you and me, colds and their concomitant mucous and scum are merely wintertime pains in the keester,” Chip announced. “But you forget: there’s big money in mucous. Mopping it up and making it go away. See, it’s OK to cure it for eight or nine months, as long as you leave the door open. As long as there’s a good solid chance that it will come back the following December, so that more vitamin C and pharmaceuticals will be called for. But your brother went too far. He more or less eliminated mucous, as we have known it. And that, my lonesome friend, will not be welcome news in the Sunshine State. You may have rejuvenated the Civil War, something a lot of boys down there have been wanting to do for a long time. I predict a spike in sales of Confederate flags, old buddy, and one or two are likely to pop up on your doorstep.”
Adamkov’s sister called. “When are you going to win the Nobel Prize, dipstick?” she said.
“They don’t give the Nobel Prize to lawyers,” Adamkov said.
“It would be like giving a Nobel Prize for cleaning the streets.” He was confident in the accuracy of his reply. Lawyering was a dirty job. It had to be done, but it wasn’t the sort of thing to which rich international foundations wanted young people to aspire. The brother-in-law, however, was the stuff of which aspirations are made.
Young Nile was not only a Nobel Laureate at thirty-six, but a nice guy to boot. Was usually in a good mood, smiled a lot, brushed his teeth regularly, wore clean clothes, knew a little Shakespeare, had never bounced a check nor earned so much as a parking ticket, and had never knocked up anyone to whom he was not bound in holy wedlock. He’d lettered in basketball and tennis and read War and Peace when he was twelve, never forgot Mother’s Day, and had the kind of dizzyingly strange perfection which is a boon to hometown newspapers and a curse to the hometowners who have to read about Nile and his ilk. Not that he had much of an ilk. Sui generis, the lad had sprung full-blown from the brow of his high school’s chemistry department and had been ascendent ever since. Adamkov had received a D in high school chemistry. (A gift; he had earned an F, but his bedraggled instructor felt sorry for him and didn’t want Adamkov to return for another semester, and thus gave him a passing—barely—grade and hoped to hell he’d never experience another such exasperating professional failure.)
Nile had never applied for a job or had a resumé printed up or gone to anyone for much of anything. Universities, foundations, think-tanks—anyplace, in short, that specializes in handing out money to the supernaturally, outrageously, indecently smart—had come to him, cash in hand, as soon as he’d won his first science fair, at the same age at which Adamkov was in a garage somewhere, bargain-basement guitar at the ready, mangling Beatles songs with a gaggle of pointless friends who didn’t know any more about chemistry than he did. Upon the grim realization that he wasn’t going to cut it as a rock star, he went to law school. While Adamkov and his pals were butchering innocent songs, Nile was holed up in his study, practicing his Swedish. He had written his Nobel acceptance speech on the back of a napkin during lunch one day between physics and calculus classes. Adamkov had heard him practicing during visits to his sister. Nile was in the next room, perfecting his Nordic tongue: Tack sa mycket, the wonder boy intoned. Tack sa mycket. Thank you very much. It wasn’t really vanity, Adamkov reasoned. The kid was just being realistic. Good Scout that he was, he was merely being Prepared.
At his law office, a day or two after the news from Stockholm came down, Adamkov was the object of harassment ranging from minor slights to aggressive abuse. His secretary, one Debbie, had never heard of the Nobel Prize but craftily assumed it had something to do with sudden riches; thus, it piqued her interest. She eyed young Nile’s beaming puss on the front page and pronounced him “Hot.” She popped her gum a full two seconds after pronouncing the adjective. This delay was high praise indeed from the observant and not-too-easily-impressed Deb. Transient pop stars, fly-by-night film idols, and the odd politician with a good makeup man earned a “hot” rating from Deb on a regular basis, but the fleeting nature of her attraction was indicated by the gum-popping—a stacatto flash of awe tempered with amusement and mollified by her instinctive, though never articulated, awareness of the ephemeral quality of Fame. For the everyday superstar, the pop came a nanosecond after the adjective. At times the pop and the word were simultaneous.
In the case of Nile, however, she paused. Not intentionally. (Adamkov had long been convinced that the girl had no intentions; nature had instead armed her with a wonderful set of defense mechanisms she used to deflect the world’s admirers and predators. Not, in her case, that there would ever be much difference.) Her pause was involuntary. At the sight of Nile, her jaw, for once, stopped in its tracks. The ubiquitous Juicy Fruit was suspended in time and space: arrested, as it were, by the intuitive knowledge that Nile was a notch or two apart from the ersatz vocalists whose keenings filled her radio days, the Adonises whose sculpted biceps occupied her dreams. Those guys were hot-pop-hot.
Nile was: Hot…Pop…Hot.
Her chin lowered and she looked up at Adamkov as, in his youth, his elders had looked at him over the tops of their glasses in the not infrequent event of his having said or done something stupid. The placid blue serenity of her heartbreaking irises expressed at once pity and scorn for Adamkov, who was not now nor had he ever been Hot. Pity for his innate lowness of temperature in all things visible and invisible, and scorn—unspoken, of course, always the worst kind—for the appalling ordinariness of his position in the world. No free trips to refreshingly cool northern climes for him, no sir! No tax-free windfalls, no fawning write-ups in the international press. No, no, a thousand times no. These “Nos” struck Adamkov suddenly, not merely as the momentary, worldly, offhand appraisal of his temporary situation, but as a Judgment, his Creator’s last word on Adamkov’s sum-total condition. Adamkov could see it on his tombstone: Adamkov, Born Who-Could-Remember, Entered Into Paradise Who-Gave-a-Rat’s-Ass. NO! It seemed a fair summation, he had to admit.
At the courthouse, things were less lenient. The lawyers with whom Adamkov did daily battle over matters civil and criminal were far less merciful than the inarticulate Deborah. These lawyers—obstreperous, deafening men who saw themselves in terms of Justice Holmes and Justice Cardozo, but who Adamkov saw more realistically as weak copies of Sergeant Bilko and Archie Bunker—were thrilled with the havoc that the news from Stockholm must surely be inflicting on Adamkov’s heretofore serene little life. They knew the unease he must be feeling and they waded into the waters of his humiliation to take cheap shots at him exactly as they waded into icy November ponds to murder geese. To Adamkov, the geese had it easy. There were bag limits on fowl. In the waters wherein he toiled, there was no limit on verbal abuse.
Adamkov’s only protection was the woefully weak grasp of the English language owned by his persecutors. Their insinuations that his wife’s recent defection resulted somehow from his biological as well as his intellectual shortcomings were strained and pale. He’d heard these same fellows snap and snarl as eighth graders, and their vocabularies since then had grown not a whit. Instead of feeling stung by the suggestions that Adamkov’s wife was now bedding her brother as well as sharing his newfound wealth, he felt a touch of pity. He had always known that a license to practice law in the State of Iowa had never made anyone smarter; but it pained him just a tad to see that it actually had a deleterious effect on one’s ability to deal with facts and express them with anything resembling civility and tact. Boys at play, he thought, as he silently made his way through a rotunda filled to the rafters with rapacious, porcine barristers, slapping each other on the back, splashing each other with beery sweat, as they gleefully assaulted Adamkov’s manhood, questioned his lineage, and compared him, in all manner of things, most unfairly with his brother-in-law. Adamkov took an early lunch.
He ducked out a back door, only to be accosted by C. Bennington Crizzelli, attorney-at-law. Much too wealthy and well-dressed to be caught dead hanging around the courthouse, Crizzelli waited in the shadows outside the door and grabbed Adamkov’s arm. Crizzelli’s two swarthy, illiterate sons stood on either side of him as he spoke.
“Your brother in law thinks he’s pretty smart, huh?”
“No, he’s actually quite modest,” Adamkov said truthfully. “But everyone else seems to think he’s a genius.”
Crizzelli chuckled without a hint of mirth. “Genius, huh? I’ll tell you what a genius he is. He’s so smart, he’s putting everyone out of business, understand?”
Adamkov understood. Crizzelli’s firm specialized in medical malpractice. Since the common cold and its subsequent lucrative offspring like pneumonia were now extinct, the firm was being forced to find another profession to hound.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Adamkov said, worried sick. “A new disease is bound to come up. Just give Mother Nature time. She’s bound to think of something. Leprosy, maybe? Beri-beri? Rickets?”
Crizzelli’s son Arrigo stepped toward Adamkov and pinned him against the wall with his unnaturally large and completely uneducated frame.
“I’ll make it short,” Crizzelli said. “You tell your brother the fun’s over. We don’t want no more healthy people running around no more. It’s bad for business. Capisce?”
“Capisce,” Adamkov said, making the verb sound like a slowly deflating tire. Arrigo stood back, studying Adamkov as Toscanini might have studied a hopeless tympanist.
“Arrigo, the vial,” Crizzelli said. His unnaturally large son produced a small glass tube from the depths of a beautiful coat that was undoubtedly worth more than Adamkov’s entire meager estate.
“You know what’s in that?” Crizzelli said, his face an inch from Adamkov’s.
Adamkov gaped. It was just a vial with some murky juice.
“You don’t know,” Crizzelli said. “And you don’t wanna know.”
He pushed Adamkov away from him, clapped his hands together and brushed down his own expensive coat, as if ridding himself of the germs of a noisome pet. “You just tell him,” Crizzelli said, and was gone, fading back into the shadows like a prayer vanishing into cathedral depths. Adamkov went back inside and bolted out the front door, where at least there was a little daylight. Until he ran into the shadow of Holmes Mayflower, and one heck of a shadow it was. Like The Law itself, Holmes was ancient and vast. Worse, he seemed to be getting taller with age. Now at least seventy-five or so, the oldest lawyer in town stood with his back to the sun, facing Adamkov. Though the temperature was mild, this shadow put Adamkov in Siberian gloom. Mayflower had tried for forty years to make it to the Supreme Court, but political ineptitude and a personal warmth that made Heinrich Himmler look like Dr. Phil had guaranteed that Holmes’s professional life would be spent as far from The Bench as he could possibly be kept. Mayflower had repressed his outrage at this injustice. He’d swallowed his anger, kept it to himself, and now the rage was slowly exploding inside him, like a very old and very patient volcano. Adamkov knew that one day the old boy would erupt, to the detriment of everyone unlucky enough to practice within striking distance. But until that time, Mayflower hid his anger with an embarrassingly false smile, as if someone had pasted a Happy Face on a laboratory skeleton. Nothing if not unctuous, the old man grinned with oily malice, a raptor gazing lovingly at its next meal.
He put his arm around Adamkov and led him down the courthouse sidewalk. They walked slowly, and the sugar-coated lava of Mayflower’s words emerged slowly, elegantly, with Vesuvian splendor and an ancient’s respect for time.
“Wonderful thing, what your brother did,” Mayflower said. “Love-of-humanity, blessed-are-the-meek, thou-shalt-love-thy-neighbor, et cetera. Wonderful. He has the whole world before him. The universe is one vast promise to the lad. He’s idealistic, brilliant, filled with promise and a love for his fellow man. Reminds me of myself as a youngster.”
In a pig’s eye, Adamkov thought, but said nothing. The only thing Mayflower loved was his reflection in the morning mirror.
“Really quite a beautiful thing, science,” Mayflower said. “Almost took it up myself. Had a very strong interest in chemistry. Genetics, perhaps. Medicine! The noblest of the arts. But I was obligated toward The Law. Father, his father before him. Long line to maintain. Professional responsibilities, you know. And moral. I’ve been entrusted with the integrity of generations. Mustn’t let The Family down.”
Adamkov almost gagged at the thought of Mayflower the Scientist. What could be more horrible than to look up from a cold operating table and see the appalling pterodactyl stare of Mayflower with a scalpel? The old bastard would cut your throat in a trice and leave you convulsing in the operating room glare if he thought he might squeeze a ducat out of the deal. He’d leave you flopping like a fish, for fun.
And what was this bushwah about integrity? Holmes Mayflower, who spent his grimy days and probably unspeakable nights figuring out ways to swindle unsuspecting heirs out of their family farms? Whenever Adamkov heard a lawyer talk about “integrity,” he felt a very chill wind in his face, and the hot breath of a pickpocket at his back.
Adamkov looked at his watch. “I’m late. I really must—”
Mayflower stopped. By now they were out of earshot of both the courthouse and the downtown area. Alone on the sidewalk, sure that no one would hear him, Mayflower gently turned to Adamkov with a wonderfully fine smile of beaming murder.
“I’ll make it brief,” he said. “The Cold, you know, in and of itself, doesn’t do much for my portfolio. It’s what The Cold leads to, you see. Old Lady Watkins has The Cold. She goes to the doctor, who takes some tests. Perhaps advises her to be admitted overnight for observation. While there, she takes a little spill in the lavatory. Happens all the time. She bumps her head on the cold tiles. Doesn’t take much, at her age, to summon the reaper. Do you see? Or a careless nurse gives her the wrong sedative. Or the poor old thing simply dies of fright. It doesn’t matter. My point, dear boy, is that The Cold is quite useful in my profession. It is only one stone in the pyramid, but a stone upon which the entire edifice of malpractice, insurance, and probate are built. Do I make myself clear?”
“Look, Mr. Mayflower. I didn’t cure the cold. Nile did. We’re not even real relatives, just in-laws. I don’t even know the guy. He came to our wedding, I see him every other Thanksgiving, that kind of thing. But I didn’t have anything to do with his ruining the malpractice business.”
Adamkov looked at Mayflower, and stopped. The old man was convinced that he himself and he alone understood anything about the terrible machinations of the universe, and that everyone else was naught but live bait. He wore the expression of the hangman, listening to the Accused protest his innocence. It was not Mayflower’s job to respect the opinions of others, particularly other attorneys, who he regarded as Neanderthals at best and traitors at worst. If he’d been interested in the opinions of others, he wouldn’t have become a lawyer.
“Very interesting,” Mayflower said, not the least bit interested. “My dear boy, you are a nice young man, but this curing-humanity business. This insistence on Keeping Everyone Alive. What’s the point? If everyone were kept alive, I’d still be a butcher’s apprentice in Butte, and your people would still be picking lice out of one another’s scalps on a cold cave floor. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Cheer up, Mr. Mayflower,” Adamkov said. “The fact that Nile cured The Cold doesn’t for a minute change the fact that Mother Nature is still trying to kill us. She’s been trying to kill us since we walked out of the sea and she won’t quit trying until we walk right back in, which I’m tempted to do one of these days anyway. My point is: So The Cold can’t kill us any more. Mother Nature will come up with something else. She always does. So look on the bright side, man! A new scourge is bound to pop up any day now!”
Mayflower’s withered and useless lips involuntarily began to form a smile, but he nipped his mouth’s treachery to his solemnity and scowled all the more fiercely, standing up even straighter and taller with ancient rage.
“For your sake, I certainly hope so,” he said. Shaking his head with contempt for the stupidity of everyone not named Mayflower, the old lawyer trudged away, then stopped. He turned with the practiced gravity of the born ham. Adamkov felt a cold breeze. “And it may be much sooner than you think,” Mayflower said, and was gone. Adamkov called it a day right after lunch, and went home.
A young television reporter—capacious of bosom and equally boundless in cruelty—met him at his front door and grilled him on Nile’s glory. Blissfully ignorant that Adamkov might be just a teensy-weensy bit averse to being compared unfavorably to Nile, about whom he had never been all that crazy, she turned the bright beams on Adamkov and questioned him without mercy. Born seven centuries too late for the Inquisition, the girl had clearly missed her calling. Adamkov answered these questions as he had always instructed his criminal defendants to do. When questioned on matters unpleasant, keep your answers short. Volunteer nothing. Better yet: Take the Fifth.
“I have the right to remain silent, a right I shall now invoke,” he said, in a matter he hoped was not too snotty. He didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings. It wasn’t her fault that a winning smile and a great set of hooters had gotten her a job of surpassing remuneration at twenty-two, an age at which Adamkov, if he remembered correctly, was living on popcorn and peanut butter, existing meagerly, in a musty garret, on dough doled out by his generous, long-suffering father. Why should she suffer for her good luck? On the other hand, Adamkov reflected, why should I suffer for my bad?
At home, Adamkov was seized by the impulse to go out and buy a bottle of Wild Turkey and get crazy drunk. The impulse was thwarted when he suddenly remembered his metabolism’s reluctance to process or to deal in any acceptable way with alcohol. His little body simply did not want the stuff, never had, and this abstemiousness, inflicted by nature, had earned him a reputation as a party-pooper, though he liked parties. Not that he ever got invited to them anymore, but he remembered liking the few he had known. Pleasantly sipping a glass of icy 7-Up while his colleagues tore their livers to tatters, to very rags, Adamkov had developed a fondness for watching others self-destruct.
He opened up a can of diet soda and envied his kinsmen who drank whiskey without fear or ill effect. He sipped in silence flavored ever-so-slightly with self-pity. His cat, Aretha, entered the room, expecting tuna.
Tired of being himself, an underloved, underappreciated, underpaid attorney of modest competence, it often occurred to Adamkov that if God were mischevious enough to actually reincarnate him, he wouldn’t mind returning as a cat. With a low center of gravity and an attention span that would have put Michelangelo to shame, the cat was a masterpiece of composure and was jealous of precisely nobody. She walked silently and with purpose. Incapable of being mocked, she was a self-contained unit of serenity and focus, as far from being an Iowa lawyer as any creature could ever be.
A cat is at once a hope of love in the world and the concomitant realization that true love is not to be expected on this random planet. Her serene green eyes said: Well, if love ain’t on the griddle, then how about some fish?
Coming right up, Adamkov announced, and opened a fresh can. He was slathering it onto a paper plate when the phone rang. Again, the press. This time, a radio station. Or maybe another newspaper. Or a magazine. Adamkov had stopped keeping track.
Yes, he said, it was an honor to be the brother-in-law of a Nobel Prize winner. No, the wife was out. Yes, she had gone to Sweden. No, Adamkov wouldn’t be going. Why? Well, in the old days, he would have said he had a cold, but he couldn’t say that. No one got colds any more. Nile’s genius had wrecked a perfectly good universal excuse for not performing odious tasks, an excuse which had stood humanity in good stead since the Flood. Thus had Nile’s wisdom and patient scholarship ruined a few nice industries, and had at the same time made it harder to tell a good old-fashioned honest lie.
Yes, he had known Nile a long time. No, they had not gone to school together. He didn’t tell the reporter that he would never in a million years have been admitted to the dreamy groves of academe wherein Nile had been allowed to matriculate. Adamkov was a child of the public school system, and not particularly proud of it. Nile’s mentors had been students of Einstein. Adamkov had never found anyone willing to mentor him. Such teachers as he’d had had been a discouraging assortment of barflies, parolees, pederasts, dipsomaniacs, and misanthropes. While he was an undergraduate, and at law school, his titular mentors had been a willy-nilly collection of blue meanies, hopeless alcoholics, and gleeful sadists who had turned to teaching only because it paid better than tearing the wings off of flies.
What was Nile like? Well, he’s a lot like me, only not as much fun on Friday night, Adamkov felt like saying, but didn’t. Nile doesn’t know any good jokes, does not appreciate music. Has, in fact, a tin ear. Is immune to entertainment, which is probably why he had all that time to cure The Cold. Undistracted by the sturm und drang of popular culture, Nile retreated into himself, like all geniuses, and didn’t come up for air until his noble work was done. He had mastered chemical processes whose complexities would have baffled Leonardo. Yet didn’t know who Johnny Cash was. Would I trade my copy of Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison for an infinite knowledge of the mysteries of the universe? Adamkov wondered. He’d have to think about it.
Was Nile as smart as he was supposed to be? Well, nobody is, Adamkov thought, but he didn’t say this either. What, then, was he? The reporter wanted to know. Adamkov thought: Nile is: A guy with short black hair, a good firm set of brillo-pad follicles, the kind that never need combing, as if God had said, “This guy is going to be devoting all of his time to saving humanity from having to spend its winters buying orange juice and Contac. He won’t have time to fool around with his hair.” So: Presto, the kind of firm, solid hair Adamkov would have given his left earlobe to have, instead of the stringy, fine blond mop with which his Creator had endowed him. His Creator had apparently known that Adamkov wouldn’t be saving humanity, and would thus have plenty of time to deal with his stubborn and recalcitrant locks.
And how, the reporter wanted to know, would this change his, Adamkov’s, life?
He thought: Well, for starters, my brethren at the bar think that my wife has gone to Stockholm to spend time with a winner for a change, rather than subject herself to further connubial humiliation at the hands of a product of the public schools. But he didn’t say it.
He said, instead, some godawful dishwater about being proud and being happy and being thrilled and being a good many other things he could not quite remember ever having been. Then he hung up, probably without the usual amenities.
Next, the wife called: There were trumpets on the line, or near it. Adamkov knew the strategy, to let him absorb the transcendence of the moment, let him appreciate, admire—and envy, let’s not forget her favorite vicarious sin—the distance of the grandeur that surrounded her. He could see her in some Scandinavian phone booth, the northern lights illuminating a complexion already rosy with schnapps, holding the receiver skyward as Roman candles celebrated her brother’s coronation as King of the Smart People, a kingdom in which Adamkov could never be so much as a serf.
“Is this how they party in Stockholm?” Adamkov asked. He was talking to the sky, he knew, but felt he ought to at least put the trace of a human voice on what was undoubtedly a transcontinental phone bill that would put a nice dent in the national debt.
“You really should be here, darling,” Ellen sang. Her voice was a sharp, gleaming electric wire of clarity. She hadn’t called him darling lately, like in seventeen years or so.
“Then why didn’t you invite me, love of my life?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want you here, darling,” she said. “It would be such an embarrassment to me, all my dear friends drinking Aquavit ’til it pops out of their ears, while you nurse a Diet 7-Up in the corner like some jilted prep-school loser.”
“I wasn’t allowed to go to prep school,” Adamkov said.
“That’s another reason I didn’t bring you,” Ellen said. “Honestly, darling, there isn’t a soul here who’s ever heard of a public school much less suffered the degradation of actually enrolling in one.” Something about the air, or champagne, of the north country was leading Ellen to attempt a Zsa Zsa Gabor imitation. A slippery slope, Adamkov reflected, particularly if the impersonator, like Ellen, lacked both a sense of irony and a milligram of humor. It was getting ugly. He decided to change the subject.
“What kind of present are you bringing me?” he asked. “How about a nice fur hat, one of those big Nordic jobs?”
Ellen hooted. She was not amused.
“You?” she sneered. “A present? What on earth for?”
“Well, travelers often bring their loved ones gifts when they return home.”
The music swelled in the background. Every symphony orchestra in Scandanavia blared Beethoven, mixed in with the music of explosions, revelry, mirth, and the crystal-clear chiming laughter of people who know they are about to have a night of great booze, nuclear orgasms, and all the money in the world, all because they’d gotten great grades in chemistry.
Ellen’s laughter was a summation of all the scorn ever felt by any woman, in any land, at any time, for the stupidity of a clueless husband. It began at the peak of her amusement and crashed into the bottomless crevasse of her malice.
“Home?” she said. “But darling, I am home. You see, Nile owns Sweden now, and he and Costanza want me to stay here with them. Sweden is giving Nile his own laboratory, on his very own estate, on his very own mountain.Why on earth would I want to return to you?”
Adamkov thought. His brow furrowed. He concentrated. Why on earth would he want Ellen to return?
“Um, because it’s your month to take care of the phone bill, dearest?”
The crack of the telephone being hung up overseas rocketed into Adamkov’s ear with such force that he thought he’d been shot. Chip Henderson walked in without knocking, unannounced and uninvited. He waved the afternoon paper in Adamkov’s face, and bade him turn to the business section, where Chip had circled an article in red. An insult, Adamkov reflected. It was as if he considered Adamkov too dense to choose his own reading matter, no matter how unpleasant.
The pharmaceutical industry, it said, had united to find a new disease, now that the cold was gone. Other countries were lucky: they still had the old reliables, like cholera, smallpox, even the plague now and then. The United States had made the mistake of more or less eradicating the trusty old standbys of the health sciences. Thus, the article hinted, without actually having the chutzpah to come out and say it, the industry was commissioning an unofficial hunt for something new that needed to be cured every six months. The procedure was rumored to be underwritten, in part by the American Bar Association, although Adamkov was skeptical about that nortorious gaggle of skinflints giving money to anyone unless it was on pain of death.
Adamkov read the rest of the article. Toward the end, a bounty was vaguely suggested.
“They want to make people sick?” Adamkov groaned.
“Wake up and smell the Nyquil,” Chip said. “This goes way beyond tissue for that nose or drops for that cough. What are the pharmacy schools and the medical schools going to do once enrollment starts plummeting because your sainted brother-in-law sees to it that no one is sick any more? What are the law schools going to do? All over America, young men and women who can’t play football or sing a song or write a screenplay take solace knowing that someday, they will make the family proud of them by suing a bunch of doctors, getting a twenty-million-dollar judgment, and moving Mom and Pop to Hawaii. Nile has put the kibosh on a cherished American dream. It’s almost unpatriotic.”
Adamkov began receiving newspaper clippings in the mail. It surprised him; being a lawyer, most of his acquaintances were illiterate, and he wondered who cared what he read. The clippings were often interviews with depressed young people who had mapped out lucrative medical careers for themselves. With science slowly beginning to eradicate disease, how was a young Phi Bete supposed to make an honest buck?
But the interviewees brightened up when reminded that science had yet to conquer carcinoma. “So there’s still hope!” the young pre-meds chirped. Adamkov sighed, wadded up the articles, and threw them on the floor, where his cat batted them around like mice. Adamkov enjoyed seeing doctors assaulted, even if it was only an image on paper.
He opened his front door one morning to find the yard awash in cardboard boxes containing various cold remedies. The phone rang.
“You don’t call off your brother-in-law, there’s gonna be more than just medicine dumped in your yard, you—”
The caller hung up. Adamkov had never received a hate call before. No one, to his knowledge, had ever hated him. No one had ever been too crazy about him either. He had never been one to inspire emotion, one way or the other.
He went outside and stood among packages of remedies. There must have been ten, twenty thousand little boxes, each containing antihistamines, decongestants, and all the good stuff that cleared out your sinuses and made you fall asleep at your desk before lunch.
A bureaucrat from the City Sanitation Department drove up and parked illegally at the curb. One of Mayor Vilsack’s alcoholic cronies stumbled into Adamkov’s yard, retched violently, wiped his mouth with a foul hankie, and wobbled up to Adamkov. He handed him a citation, turned, retched again, and sped off, in further pursuit of the city’s best interests.
The citation warned Adamkov that unless he ridded his yard of said “nuisance,” the city would do it for him, at no small expense. Adamkov looked at the tire tracks in the yard. A dump truck had apparently backed up, dropped its load, and peeled rubber on the way out; bits of Adamkov’s lovely lawn lay lifeless on the cold concrete.
“What am I going to do with a million cold pills when I can’t even catch a cold anymore?” Adamkov wailed. As usual, Chip was at his side. “In a couple hundred years, they’ll qualify as antiques,” he said. “Kind of like butter churns or iron lungs. Your heirs will make a killing.”
Up to my eye-teeth in things of value, Adamkov reflected. Only they’re not valuable yet. Story of my life.
A police car pulled up. Officer Drudle emerged. The sky was overcast, but the officer wore his impenetrably black shades anyway. He was not one to let the weather interfere with his carefully cultivated image.
Drudle waded wordlessly through the ocean of cold remedies. He stood, hands on hips, staring at the mess. Years of public service had honed his world-weary glare to a steely precision fineness. He exuded disgust.
“Word is, it’s Amalgamated Grocers,” Drudle said. “Your smart-ass brother-in-law cost them boys a passel of dough.”
“What’s a passel?” Chip said. Drudle was not amused. He adjusted his black specs, dropped his arms to his side, and approached Adamkov.
“And from what I hear, you can expect another Christmas present in the next day or so.”
“Excuse me, officer,” Adamkov said. “But you’re overlooking the fact that I’m the victim here. I didn’t dump these placebos in my own yard. Doesn’t this come under the heading ‘Malicious Mischief’? Like when someone’s yard gets tee-peed on Homecoming Weekend?”
Drudle’s disgust segued from steam to iron, none too gently.
“Word is, them orange-growers ain’t too happy with your little brother-in-law,” Drudle said. “Word is, there’s a shit-load of citrus fruit a couple miles down the road. Ain’t nobody going to bother to unload it, on account of nobody drinks no juice no more. Don’t have to, your little in-law done wrecked a nice reliable business.”
“Nile cured a disease,” Adamkov said, a little too loudly. “He’s serving humanity. What are you going to do about the bastards who dumped all this medicine on my yard?”
Officer Drudle returned to his car without a word. Adamkov saw the little cop open the glove compartment, remove something, raise it to his lips, and take a long swig. It probably wasn’t cough syrup.
“I hope it doesn’t rain,” Chip said, eyes skyward. “This stuff gets wet, it’s going to go pop-pop fizz-fizz and wash your little house away real quick.”
A local news team showed up to get some embarrassing footage of Adamkov standing in a yard full of useless medicine. Bewildered lawyers, especially if they had exceptionally stupid, lost looks on their faces, were considered hot copy in Adamkov’s little town.
“What to do?” Adamkov moaned, to no one in particular.
“When the press shows up, experience has taught me that it’s always best to drink to excess and make yourself sick,” Chip said, taking Adamkov’s arm and pushing him toward the house. Inside, Chip produced a flask from his coat pocket and bade Adamkov to sample it. He declined. But, at his little colleague’s insistence, he took one drink, and then another, and it wasn’t long before he was seeing marmalade skies.
Chip went home. Alone at night in the cold house, Adamkov slept fitfully. In his dreams, angry doctors pelted him with syringes, stethoscopes, and reflex hammers they could no longer use, since nobody was getting sick any more. Members of his own profession tried to run him over because Nile had ruined the medical malpractice business. They drove small economy cars; they couldn’t afford limos any more, now that the malpractice biz had dried up. How could a guy earn a living defending errant doctors when there was nothing to err about any more? Grocers chased him down with grocery carts. Business, especially during the cold and flu season, was way, way down. Stockbrokers with investments in cold medicine and Kleenex threw boxes of tissue at him. The boxes were weighted down with bricks, which caromed off Adamkov’s fragile body. He fell and cringed. The air rang with the sound of all manner of curative objects being thrown at him. They bounced off his back, his home, his floor, a hailstorm of abuse.
In the morning, he woke in darkness. The bedroom clock said 9:01, but it was pitch-dark. When the alarm rang and the radio began to play the morning news, he listened to a report that promised relief to the medical, legal, grocery and even spiritual professions: Rumor had it that the plague had come to town.
Yes, it was only a guarded rumor, without much factual support as yet, but two or three cases of the plague had been reported in Adamkov’s little town. The man who read the news sounded guarded, yet hopeful. He cautioned his listeners not to give way to false optimism. Yet he held out hope that a new disease would sweep the town and rejuvenate the economy and everyone’s spirits. Like a February weatherman acknowledging the first breath of spring, he told his listeners that a new dawn was just over the horizon: Don’t give up. The plague is on its way.
A joyful caller immediately responded over the airwaves: “Goddamn, maybe my store will do some business now,” she cried. “Bring on that plague. Let’s see the stuck-up little Harvard pussy cure that!”
This was followed by a commercial break. A perky trio of no doubt superbly lovely young ladies sang:
Don’t let buboes wreck your day.
Just take a swig of that Plague-Away!
When yer blood turns black and yer feelin’ blue
We know just what you should do.
Drive them bubonic blues away.
Just take a shot of that Plague-Away!
The announcer quickly added that Plague-Away could only be prescribed by a doctor. The tacit insinuation was that the listener dash to the nearest physician and give him a great big godawful truckload of cold cash as soon as possible. Plague-Away was not to be taken by people with diabetes or liver problems, or by women who were nursing or expecting. Why anyone with the Black Death would give a hoot if he or she had liver problems was anybody’s guess, as far as Adamkov was concerned, but he didn’t spend much time worrying about it. What worried him was that it was so dark. At this time of day, there was usually a pesky wave of sunlight washing up to his bedroom window, bidding him rise. But by 9:15, it was still dark. He turned on the TV, just in time for the mid-morning news on channel 12.
A newsman stood in front of the biggest pile of oranges Adamkov had ever seen. A citrus pyramid, miraculous and gleaming. Weird, too. Adamkov figured it was a tourist attraction in some place like Branson or Waco. But when the newsman announced whose home was under all that vitamin C, Adamkov realized what all that noise the previous night had been. It wasn’t anyone pelting him with medical equipment.
“A group calling itself the Fair Play for Citrus Committee has claimed responsibility,” the newsman said. A neighbor had caught the assault with a camcorder, and viewers were treated to the thrilling spectacle of several military helicopters, each towing gigantic nets filled with oranges, swooping down over Adamkov’s house and dropping their loads on the beautiful new shingles he had lovingly put up with his very own hands, just the previous summer. That explained his obstreperous dream. Only it hadn’t been a dream.
He pushed aside the curtains and looked out into darkness. He couldn’t see a thing, but the vaguely sickening smell of sweetly rotting fruit wafted across the room.
The phone rang. “If your buddies would drop a trainload of vodka on you, we could make the world’s biggest screwdriver!” Chip cried. The little guy could find an excuse for a party on absolutely any occasion.
The phone rang again. It was the mayor’s office, wanting to know if he had a license to operate a fruit stand in the city-limits. Then it was the tax commission, wondering if he had a fruit peddler’s permit. The local arts council called to offer him a grant for further development on what it deemed a major breakthrough in conceptual kinetic art. Someone wanted to write his biography.
Ellen called. “Of all the pathetic stabs at attention-getting,” she said, her voice thick with Swedish hospitality. “Can’t you let Nile have this one day in the sun without your pitiful attempts at upstaging him? You’ve hurt his feelings, you know.”
“The million bucks should soothe him,” Adamkov said. “The city council offered me two hundred bucks, and I don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about.”
The zoning commission called. It was “Wendy Zipperburg, Assistant Associate Advisory Counsel.” In tones more suited to Snow White announcing the birth of spring, Wendy advised Adamkov that his neighborhood was not zoned for the sales, purveyance, conveyance, distribution, or transference of edibles or potables, and that as such, he was in violation of Section 819 of the City Zoning Code, and that unless such sales, purveyance, et cetera, ceased within eleven minutes, the city would be forced to take such drastic appropriate action as deemed necessary.
“Like what?” Adamkov asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What ‘drastic’ action are you going to take? I’m already covered in fruit. What else can you do to me?”
Wendy’s brain spun and fumed. Adamkov could hear it through the wire.
“We’ll, uh, put you in jail!” she cried triumphantly.
“I’m confined already!” Adamkov said. “I’ve been confined for years!” and hung up, a little too harshly. He knew she wouldn’t understand. Mocking the yuppies wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had once been. One by one, the little pleasures in his little life were falling away.
Adamkov went downstairs, where the cat sat patiently waiting for breakfast. A cat’s life is so precarious under the best circumstances that submersion in oranges mattered to her not a whit. She remained stoical while Adamkov found it hard to breathe.
After giving the cat her ration of tuna, he tried to open a kitchen window, and the pungent aroma of overripe fruit delivered a vicious jab to his kisser, and a solid poke at his nether regions as well.
The phone rang again. This time it was the Public Safety Commissioner, wanting to know when Adamkov intended to remove the clear and present oranges from the city limits. It seemed that City Ordinance Eight-Eleven-Point-Nine-Subsection-Thirteen forbade the outdoor storage of more than three hundred pounds of fruit without a permit.
“Can I have a permit?” Adamkov asked.
“Don’t be silly,” the commissioner said. “I don’t even know where we keep the damn things. Besides, if we gave out permits to every fool who asks for them, we wouldn’t be able to make calls like this and justify our jobs now, would we?”
“How much do you weigh?” Adamkov said.
“A neat one-ninety. Why?”
“I was just wondering if there was a city ordinance about storing more than one hundred and ninety pounds of horseshit in the city limits.”
It was Adamkov’s turn to be the recipient of a vicious hangup. He stood in the hall like a scorned lover, a useless instrument in his hand.
He tried opening the windows. Those that would open admitted no fresh air or sunlight at all, just the odor of citric acid going to waste. He had always liked the aroma of fresh oranges, but these weren’t particularly fresh, and there was such a thing as sensory overload. He felt woozy again, and sat down in his living room easy chair to watch the news.
Every local channel had its cameras on chez Adamkov. It was definitely Pulitzer Prize material for some aspiring still photographer, and the TV news crews were clearly bucking for Emmys. At the risk of vanity, he had to admit: It was pretty interesting. And since he obviously wasn’t going anywhere today, what the hell. He repaired to the dining room cabinet and removed a bottle of fine old brandy his wife had stashed away for nightcaps. He helped himself; and it helped.
Adamkov kept dozing off. The comfort of his easy chair, the presence of a purring, well-fed cat on his lap, and some really good booze coursing through his rattled veins made him peaceful. He listened only sporadically to the news announcers as they puzzled over the Magic Mountain of oranges that covered Adamkov’s home. As he snoozed, awoke, and snoozed again, it became apparent that the television personnel changed rather rapidly. One moment a perky young woman rattled on and on about this clash of science and commerce, only to be relieved moments later by a short, overanxious young man fresh off the farm. No one announcer lasted very long. In fact, if he looked real hard at the screen, Adamkov could have sworn he saw prone forms in the background. People lying on the ground, although this was hardly nap time for anyone but him.
He called the station.
“What gives?” he asks. “How come no one is breaking through to interview me?”
“They’ve all got…”
“What?” Adamkov said. “Speak up.”
He heard distress in the background. A quick, uneasy rattle of a human being making an unwanted transition.
“It’s the…the…,” someone said, and quickly faded away. Adamkov heard bumping in the background. The age-old sound of people dancing to silent music.
Before he could hang up the phone, the TV screen bore the discouraging image of Don Crizzelli and his tragic offspring. The boys stood on either side of their buffed, polished, and manicured old man. A wall of distinguished law books formed a noble wall of scholarship behind them, but Adamkov knew the volumes were just paint on plaster. When you were well-connected enough to be a Crizzelli, reading was way, way beside the point.
“The recent health crisis in our town reminds us all once again that we are all one big family,” Crizzelli schmoozed. “If you or a loved one has been victimized by this cruel twist of fate, just call Crizzelli Law Firm. With more than twenty-three years specializing in medical malpractice cases, the Crizzellis will be your best friend in time of distress. We’ll stand up for you every step of the way. And if you can’t think of somebody to sue, believe me, we’ll find somebody. So call—”
“Who are you going to sue, you stupid bastard!” Adamkov shouted. “You probably started all this yourself!” He took another brandy. It wasn’t bad.
He let the phone drop to his side, where the cat batted it around like the toy it, in fact, had always been, although she was the only creature on Earth smart enough to understand this.
Soon the image of an orange Mount Adamkov became permanent on the screen. There was no voice to accompany its touching loneliness. A little Satie might have come in handy for a soundtrack here, he mused. A touch of Debussy, perhaps? Fat chance. The boys and girls down at the station would have thought Debussy was a new brand of shampoo. But they apparently weren’t thinking about anything anymore.
Behind the majestic orange mountain occupying the screen, Adamkov recognized the rooftops down the street, a maple here and there, branches reaching heavenward in the smiling sky. I’m in there somewhere, he thought. Way down deep inside the picture, underneath the dots. I know I’m there.
He thought he saw a Crizzelli in there, too, in the distance, puttering around in the prone forms of what had been newsmen a few hours before, but couldn’t be sure, as his vision was starting to blur a bit.
The orange image was startling to the eye at first, but Adamkov got used to it. Nice to have a spot of color amidst all the prone figures and silent chaos surrounding. Soothing, in fact, after a time. He took another sip of brandy, then another. There was no longer a soundtrack to accompany the television news. Just the occasional ambulance wail, the backfiring of a seldom-used hearse. And maybe, just maybe, the fatuous mumblings of Holmes Mayflower. He’d recognize that malicious purr anywhere, brandy or no.
In an unexpected and completely unnecessary television debut, Mayflower himself appeared on the screen, humbly offering his services for those good folke who, through no fault of their own, were experiencing the swellings and infestations and all-purpose socially unacceptable symptoms of the Black Death. Easy payment plans were available. Major credit cards. Free initial consultations.
At some point, it must have occurred to Adamkov that he was running out of oxygen. The cat fell asleep, and he lacked energy to do much of anything but click the channel button on his remote. But every channel showed the same orange image on Adamkov’s little street. Kind of pretty, really.
Adamkov fell asleep, woke again, dozed again. Somewhere in there something told him something was wrong. Not that there was anything wrong about being buried in rotting fruit. Something appropriate about that, somehow. No, it was something else. His head hurt a little. There was a dryness in his throat. It hurt when he swallowed. In the vast uncharted space behind his eyeballs, there was a fever, yearning to breathe free. He had trouble breathing through his nose. He sneezed rapidly, four, five, ten times in a row, and his cough surprised him with its din. He reached for a tissue, then remembered they’d stopped making them.
Oh, yes, I’d almost forgotten what this was like, he thought, taking another sip of brandy before drifting back to sleep. I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow.
He had a cold.