|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
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The Judas Glass
By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
I will never forget the sunset.
I was heading east, across the Bay Bridge, and my hands, the steering wheel, the cars all around me were touched with a platinum radiance.
No one was going forward. I had plenty of time to edge the car over to the far left lane and look back. No other driver appeared to notice anything unusual, everyone sitting behind steering wheels, eyes straight ahead. My view was blocked by a truck carrying a mountain of used tires.
"The water coming out of the tap was blue," I said into the car phone.
"We don't dispute that," said Stella. "There's no argument. Blue water came out of the faucet."
Traffic stuttered forward a little and I let my own car drift ahead. Before the mountain of tires could block my view again, I looked back once again.
I still couldn't see. When the traffic rolled ahead of me I stayed where I was until the mountain of tires honked. Then I accelerated briefly, and shot another look westward.
"Can you see that?" I breathed.
Something glorious had happened. A glowing scribble, a chalk flower in the sky.
"All I can see is the second floor of this parking lot," she said. Stella Cameron worked for huge clients. This time it was the water company. We tended to work like this, by telephone, never seeing each other.
"There's some kind of burst of light," I said. "Out beyond the Golden Gate."
"You're in love or something, right? It's not like you to sound like this."
I hated the way Stella guessed right so often. "It's really amazing!" I insisted.
"Maybe something blew up," she said. "I'll get the news on the radio."
I could turn on KGO myself, but the thought hadn't occurred to me. Stella was thinking of bodies strewn across the Pacific. She was thinking insurance, settlements. The East Bay Municipal Utility District was a lucrative client, but nothing compared with families of the bereaved.
"Imagine my clients," I said, trying to get back to the business at hand. "Hard-working people with four children. The husband's a carpenter, and the work is seasonal, at best. He raises zucchini and the wife bakes zucchini bread, sells it to the neighbors. The oldest son mows lawns. Likeable people, can't bring themselves to poison gophers. These people turn on the water to make orange juice one Monday morning, and the water that comes out is blue."
"At last I'm out of the parking lot." Her voice was crisper, the buzz of static gone. "Christ, I just about ran over the world's oldest man," she said. "How does someone like that manage to get himself dressed and walk around? I was twisting my head, trying to look for your catastrophe."
Traffic moved, stopped. I craned to look back again whenever it was safe. When cellular phones first came out, I hated guys who did this, talking while they changed lanes, checking out the view. We were all easing forward, and then we passed the cause of this delay, a sparkle of brake lights in the far left lane of the bridge, two cars, and a man and a woman looking bored and in control.
As a child I would not have understood their expressions, two adults indifferent to this drama — how can they be so calm? But now I understood how they felt — they knew what could have happened, how bad accidents can be.
We were off the bridge, picking up speed. "It's not only a matter of admitting liability," I said. The truck full of tires was beside me, all of us approaching the speed limit. The worn tires did not jiggle as the truck pounded over cracks in the freeway.
"It's just some funny-colored tap water, Richard. It's not such a big deal."
"It's a matter of fulfilling an implied covenant." The word was old-fashioned, but I saw things that way. Some things weren't supposed to happen. "Ordinary people should be sure their drinking water isn't going to make them sick —"
"Nobody knows why the water coming out of the taps was blue," said Stella. "Nobody will ever know."
I braked hard. A van full of what looked like test dummies was pulling out of the wasteland beside the freeway.
"The taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for a protracted legal battle," I said. I liked putting it that way, reminding her how the headline would look.
"There's a principle involved," said Stella. "Isn't that what you were just saying?"
The van was full of monks, Buddhists. I did not bother passing. It gave me time to look to my left, where the sun had set and the flower that hung in the sky had stopped expanding and had begun, subtly, to be erased. I thought: how high it must be. How cold it must be up there, the ice.
"When they raised the chlorine levels the water wasn't blue anymore," I said. I was winning my clients' case, but at the same time I was getting mad. Most of my clients were underprivileged in some way, single parents, elderly, the young, people just starting out. My cases were almost always against developers and utility companies, faceless organizations that hired gunslingers like Stella. I was good at what I did. I didn't make as much money as Stella Cameron, but if a retired couple woke to find the foundation of their new garage cracking down the middle, they called me.
"EBMUD is going to hate this," I said. Eb-mud. "They'll look negligent. They're responsible for the water toddlers are drinking, Stella. This isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened. The same blue water came out of kitchen faucets in Danville."
"I wish they hadn't settled that case. The company attorneys called me in on that, too. I had all these videotapes on the effects of solder on drinking water. You would have loved it."
"They had to settle. They were at fault," I said.
"Jesus, Richard, you are so earnest." She said this as though earnest was a synonym for tedious. "Wait, they're talking about your explosion." She turned up the radio in her car. I couldn't make out words, although the general tenor of the voices was bright and reassuring.
"A missile, right? They had to blow it up on purpose," I said. "It was off course or something."
"One of those missiles from Vandenburg Air Force Base," she said. "Unspecified military payload. I still can't see it."
I had expected something like this. Nonetheless, I felt a little disappointed. I think I had been hoping for something natural, a meteor, a supernova.
"Wait a minute," Stella said. "I finally got to a break in the buildings." She looked for a few seconds, her electronically amplified breath in my ear. "That? That little smudge in the sky! I thought you said it was amazing."
I was glad to get off the phone. The traffic was going faster than the speed limit now, trucks and sports cars almost bumper to bumper, banging over the cracked lanes of Interstate 80. It was one of those moments drivers experience when they allow themselves to realize if someone sneezes we're all dead. It was hard driving for a few seconds, all of us going too fast, just a few heartbeats of the normal, slapdash brutality, getting from place to place.
I had told Connie I would be running late, unpacking things in the new office. "Running late" usually meant I'd be home by nine, nine-thirty. I had plenty of time. I waited until I took the Ashby offramp, and, when I was going slow enough to do it safely, I called Rebecca. I told her I was on my way.
"You said we would have to rethink things," Rebecca said. There was pleasure in her voice, and perhaps a little amusement.
"I was crazy."
"You said your wife was getting suspicious."
I wanted to tell her Connie didn't get suspicious, she just tortured until everyone confessed. Besides, she had drained our marriage of affection over the last year or two, coming home late herself with the telltale clues even a workaholic husband like myself could see, the impression of unfamiliar phone numbers on the kitchen memo pad, matchbooks from restaurants in the South Bay, places I had never visited. Once, fishing in her purse for parking meter change, I had come across a necktie. It wasn't one of mine, but an expensive silk with bright yellow flowers, already out of style.
In love. I used to associate the phrase with Valentines, and the kind of old songs my parents had liked. Love had been something nice, a social amenity, like good food, shelter with a fruit tree in the garden. You could live without it. I had intended to be loyal to Connie, even though our marriage was by now little more than a domestic arrangement. She was my wife. I took contracts seriously, including my marriage vows. And perhaps I had, in some part of myself, given up on passion, believing that romance and all that it implied was for someone else.
That was before I met Rebecca.
The sprinkler was on. Snails escaped the wet lawn, surging across the stepping-stones. I couldn't really see their progress, only their urgency, necks glistening. The burst of color in the sky was almost gone, and I hurried up the wet lawn, rushing up the front steps to open the front door without knocking.
She touched my lips with her fingers, her knowing hands, and then touched the buttons of my shirt. What an encumbrance clothes are! I felt the foolishness of clothing around Rebecca, partly because they could not matter to her. Nothing about my appearance could matter.
But as always she surprised me. "These are new."
My own vanity was, at that moment, an embarrassment. How could I explain my folly to this woman? I was wearing a three-button ventless cashmere jacket and gray twill trousers, both fresh from my tailor on Bush Street. I had new shoes I wasn't sure about, black Italian slip-ons. I looked good, but there were no mirrors in Rebecca's house.
Besides, with Rebecca I wanted only to escape my clothes, to escape everything about my life, and I let her unbutton and unsnap. I had always felt my own nakedness as a simple matter, what I was reduced to when I bathed or visited Dr. Opal.
"Are you sure?" she asked, and perhaps for once Rebecca was uncharacteristically coy.
Was I sure? My body knew. She could feel it, too. I almost told her what I really felt. The reason I had tried to stay away from her for a few days was because she was too important to me, an obsession.CHAPTER 2
It was better not to break this silence.
We were naked in the darkness. I treasured this escape from my ordinary life, lying beside her. In love — in her room, surrounded by it.
She said, "Did you go to any parties?"
It was one of Rebecca's myths about me — that I was always going to political cocktail parties. It was true that I dropped in on a few such gatherings, but although I liked conversation, my personality was a strange mix of extroversion and shyness, and I usually left such parties early.
"One really splendid one put on by Great Western Savings, on a yacht in San Diego Harbor, right next to the USS Abraham Lincoln. I stood looking up at this gigantic warship while people around me complained about capital gains tax."
"I wish I went to parties like that," she said. "It sounds so glamorous."
"What I really like to do is talk. Basically, I'm all mouth."
"Is that a tongue in your pocket, or are you glad to see me?"
I laughed. Rebecca was a brilliant mimic. Besides, there was something sultry about her that Mae West would have never equalled. Where most people would have displayed photos of family, favorite artworks, Rebecca had shelves of CD's and cassette tapes, with twin Bose speakers in the corners of the ceiling.
"I brought you something," I said at last. I made my way naked to my jacket, folded over a trunk in the corner. The present was not gift-wrapped. I had chosen it because it felt so luxurious, because I knew she would love its touch.
She sat up, holding it to her lips, the fabric cascading down her breasts. In this muted light the midnight blue cloth looked black. "It's perfect," she whispered.
"I'm glad you like it," I said, my words so full of feeling that my voice was husky.
"You like giving things, don't you?" she said.
I let myself lie down again beside her. I wanted to tell her that I wasn't really a very generous man, that most of my present goodness she brought out of me. "To you," I said.
"Didn't you ever want children?" asked Rebecca.
I understood the innocent logic behind her question. I felt touched too deeply by her curiosity, especially since I had just used a birth control device, a condom, something I never had to use with Connie.
"No, I never did. I couldn't see myself as a father, responsible for shaping a tender psyche. Anyway, we couldn't."
"I'm sorry," said Rebecca.
"Connie has — a fertility difficulty." For some reason I didn't want to expose Connie's medical history. "She doesn't like to talk about it. Maybe I don't, either."
"You don't have to, Richard."
"She had an infection years ago, and now her fallopian tubes — I picture them as two little creeks that just empty out in the middle of the desert. We even visited a man in L.A. once, someone Dr. Opal recommended. He sat us down and gave us the news that some things are not meant to be."
"You still love her," said Rebecca.
I had a vivid impression of Connie, hunting down Rolaids, calling Matilda at home, fretting. It was after nine by now. "I should hate Connie for the way she's treated our marriage. But I don't."
"When you talk about her you have affection in your voice."
"That's one of those things women say hoping to hear it denied."
"Do you know so very much about women?"
"I'd be a fool to say I did."
She laughed very quietly. "How did your lecture go?"
"It wasn't much of a lecture. More of a harangue."
"Did they like it?"
"They didn't tar and feather me." Actually, there had been applause, and it had been genuine. It was one of my talents. I give a good speech, even when the effort is wasted.
"You never told me what it was about."
Connie never asked how anything went, not a hearing, not a lecture, not even an interview that would show up in the paper the next day. "I didn't want to bore you."
"Tell me now."
"I'm not that cruel."
"I'm waiting very patiently."
"I talked to the California Association of Realtors about the responsibility of realtors in preventing overdevelopment. It's not so much that we'll lose rare species of wildflowers and butterflies if we subdivide every hill in the state. I like animals, but I think people are more important. You develop a community too fast and you have overcrowded schools. You don't have enough parks. You have a sort of null prosperity. Everything is new, but it isn't a community."
I waited for her to agree that this was too boring, but Rebecca touched my face with her hand. "I bet you changed some minds — woke them up to some new ideas."
I had to laugh. "They invite me to their conventions so they can tell themselves how progressive they are. They can't be such bad people — they sat and listened to Richard Stirling for an hour."
"I bet some of them left impressed." She felt for something in the dark, her silver bracelet.
I ran my hand along her side, her hip, her thigh. "I don't think it works — arguing with people. Even when you prove them wrong, with charts showing how they've failed, they see you as a form of live entertainment."
"'Ethical barbarians,'" she said.
When I didn't respond, she said, "I'm quoting you. I have your book on tape. That's what you said banks and developers amount to."
I was a little embarrassed that this lovely woman would waste her time listening to one of my fairy tales on how to make banks socially aware, how to encourage financial institutions to open more branches in the inner city, how to avoid excessive lawsuits by having contractors do the job right in the first place.
Our nakedness seemed vulnerable at that moment. The quilt over us was not a magnificent antique meant to last forever, the collection of one-sided records in the hall was not a storehouse of music that would survive for generations. It was all so easy to love, and easy to lose. I took her in my arms, and experienced the most pleasurable combination of protectiveness and lust.
Connie would have said, "Again? Already?" And laughed, not sure she wanted to continue, already having collected herself back into her normal state of mind. Rebecca did not know that this was unusual for me. To her I was a sexual creature, easily aroused, not a distracted man with a mind riddled with while-you-were-out memos.
Excerpted from The Judas Glass by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 1996 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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