Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
"So, dudes, you're like, debaters, huh?"
Had Fleece nods. He is with the other boys from the Toulouse-Lautrec team.
"Cool, dude. Really cool."
Had nods again. The man talking to him is about ten years older than Had's father. They are sitting at the kitchen table of the man's house, eating pizzas, while the man watches.
"My old lady and I don't eat pizza, dude," the man explains. "We're like vegans."
"No cheese?" Had says, grabbing another slice. The pizza is still very hot, and the melting cheese and the oozing oils bring more than a little comfort as they traverse Had's debate-strained throat.
"No dairy at all, dude. Dairy is rape."
Had nods and chews.
The man would probably appear to be relatively bald if he didn't have his remaining thick gray hair tied into an unkempt ponytail. He is bony and lean, wearing a black Vanilla Fudge Hangin' On Tour tee shirt, and a pair of jeans that Had imagines are the same pair the man played in the mud in at Woodstock lo these many years ago. The original Woodstock. There is a cigarette tucked behind the man's right ear, which Had presumes allows for the checks and balances of veganism and mortality. The man is also drinking from a can of Zema malt liquor, which carries connotations that simply defy Had's cultural interpretation skills.
"Hey, babe," the man says as a woman walks into the room. She is roughly the same age as the man, as round as the man is lean, wearing a tie-dyed muumuu and sandals, with the same thick gray ponytail, but none of the impending baldness. She is wearing a string chain around the top of her head, from which a large purple crystal is hanging plumb in the middle of her forehead.
"Hey, babe," the woman responds. The man moves back in his seat, and the woman sits on his lap. She takes a sip of his malt liquor, then looks at Had, whose eyes are wide as he continues eating his pizza. "So, dudes," the woman says, "you're like, debaters, huh?"
Had Fleece nods.
"Cool, dude. Really cool."
Had nods again.
It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
"We're right on the beach here," the woman driving says. "You'll have a great view of the ocean in the morning."
Kalima, whose morning view is the Verrazano Narrows through barely opened eyelids over a deep cup of coffee, is duly impressed. "Algren looks like a nice town," she says politely, although she has actually seen none of Algren. The high school is directly next to the highway, and the drive now has been in the dark.
"That's nice of you to say," the woman responds. She is absolutely perfect, from her trim blonde hair to her short string of pearls to her neat gray business suit to her perfectly matched gray pumps. She would make an absolutely perfect-looking debater, Kalima thinks. From some Midwest school, more than likely. Or on a television soap opera.
The car stops in front of the house, an enormous stone Tudor that looms over them like the setting in a Masterpiece Theatre episode. They collect their things and follow the woman inside.
The interior of the house matches the exterior. The entryway is vast, with a wide staircase winding up to the second floor. Hallways lead left and right toward other cavernous spaces.
"I've asked them to prepare you a light meal," the woman says. "They'll send it up to your rooms. I hope that's all right with you."
"Splendid," Maria Trapp responds.
Kalima does not believe she has ever heard the word splendid uttered in real life before, but she feels that if it had been she who had responded, she would have said the exact same thing.
The clicking of shoes on the polished hardwood floors announces the arrival of a tall, thin middle-aged woman, in black from shawl to stockings. Her face expresses no emotion.
"Ah, Mrs. Heep," their hostess greets her.
"Evening, ma'am." She pronounces it mum, as if their hostess is the queen of England. Given their surroundings, maybe she is.
"Would you take our guests upstairs please?"
"Very good, ma'am."
"Goodnight, children. Sleep well."
"Goodnight," the girls say in near unison.
Their hostess walks off, leaving them in the charge of the woman in black.
"Follow me, then," the woman says.
She leads them toward the stairs. They follow, with their burdens of bags and backpacks and sleeping bags, like characters in some Victorian novel where the children are all orphans and the adults are all either their soon-to-be-revealed parents or obstacles between them and their soon-to-be-revealed parents. Except that this is a fairy tale with no ogres. Mrs. Heep leads them to a pair of side-by-side bedrooms with a connecting bathroom. Each room has a large canopied bed, oriental rugs, oversized bureaus, overstuffed reading chairs, and wide windows that will presumably, in the morning, provide that great view of the ocean they have been promised.
"Cook is sending up a nice supper," Mrs. Heep says, turning on lights as she walks from one room to the next. She pulls back chairs from a small table in the room that Maria has claimed. "She had a nice ham in the oven, with scalloped potatoes, some nice fresh beets, and salad. Comfort food."
"Comfort food," Kalima repeats. Where she comes from, comfort food is a bag of chips that you don't have to share.
"There's buttons on the side tables next to the bed. Just ring if you need anything. Goodnight, then."
"Goodnight," the girls say in near unison again.
The woman leaves them alone.
"I have died and gone to heaven," Maria says.
"Maybe they'll adopt us," Kalima says. "I'm an orphan. I'm available."
"I'm not an orphan, but I'll be happy to become one if that's what it takes."
"What do you think these people do for a living? What do you think the husband looks like?"
"Pierce Brosnan. I'll bet you anything he looks like Pierce Brosnan, and he probably doesn't work at all. He just clips coupons."
"What does that mean?" Kalima asks.
"Clipping coupons? I don't know. I've just heard that's what rich people do when they have so much money they don't have to work."
"That's what I want to do when I get out of college," Kalima says. "I want to clip freakin' coupons."
There is a knock on the door. Maria opens it, and a young woman in a maid's uniform enters, carry a tray with food.
"Dinner, Miss," the maid says with a thick Irish accent.
Definitely characters in some Victorian novel where the children are all orphans and the adults are all either their soon-to-be-revealed parents or obstacles between them and their soon-to-be-revealed parents. Maybe they'll find Colin some time tonight when they hear him crying. Or at least they can throw a copy of Dr. Johnson out the window on the way back to the school tomorrow.
Whether I shall be the hero of my tale…
Thirty, to be exact.
"This is ridiculous," her mother, Cedilla Hard Hyphen, says as she unloads her fourth carload at the back door. "There's still more back at the school."
"Dad just went off to pick them up," Tilde says.
"He won't be able to get them all. I'll go back. That should do it."
She gets back into the car and heads back toward the high school.
Tilde leads the latest batch of kids into the house. Her living room is now wall-to-wall people, backpacks and sleeping bags.
"Place looks like a Red Cross station during a hurricane," Chesney Nutmilk says.
Disney Davidson looks at his cards. "Tilde's outdone herself this year."
"Are the girls housed with the boys?" Gloria Fudless asks.
"Boys will go down to the family room," Tilde explains. "When it's time to go to sleep, that is."
"Is there more room down there than there is up here?" Binko asks, trumping Gloria's heart lead.
"About the same," Tilde says. "Anybody hungry?"
There is a low roar of concurrence.
"How about I order some pizzas?"
"Let's see. Thirty people, multiplied by two slices each--"
"I can eat three."
"I just want one."
"Exactly," Tilde says. "The math will work out. Sixty slices, divided by eight, rounded up -- eight pies."
"No cheese on one," somebody says. "I'm a vegan."
"A pizza without cheese is like a fish with one eye."
"A woman on a bicycle?"
"I'm a vegan. I don't eat dairy."
"Is the pizza kosher?"
"You're kosher?" Tilde asks. "At debate tournaments?"
Tilde is still doing the math. "One vegan, two cheese, three sausage, three with the works."
"What's the works?"
"Why do they call that the works?"
"I have no idea."
Tilde's father, Umlaut von Emdash, leads yet another group into the room.
"Your mother has the last batch," he announces with the hint of a German accent. He looks bleakly around the room. "There isn't going to be enough hot water to shower all these people. I'm sure we didn't have this many last year."
"They'll take turns," Tilde says. "Can we order some pizzas, Dad?" She grabs her fathers arm and leads him toward the kitchen as the latest group melds in with the others.
"It's 'A Night at the Opera' in there," Umlaut says. "All we need is Margaret Dumont."
"And Aunt Minnie."
"At least it's only once a year."
They hear the sound of a car pulling up, Tilde's mother with the last batch.
"You're sure there aren't any more?"
"That's the lot of them," Tilde says.
Her father sighs. "Thank God you're graduating this year. So how many pizzas should we order?"
"Eight? Why don't we just buy the whole pizzeria?"
"We will next year. I'm sure I'll come back to judge. And we will house again. It's no big deal."
Thirty-one kids and two adults in your basic two-bathroom raised ranch?
No big deal at all.
The EconoHovel in Algren is an example of the latter.
Lisa Torte is the only passenger on the school bus as the driver makes his way through the narrow winding streets, doing his best to follow her directions as she gives them.
"It says turn right at the next light," she says. "Or maybe it was the last light."
"We can just turn right here and hope for the best," the driver suggests.
"Let's stick to the directions until we're completely lost," Lisa says. "At the moment, we're only marginally displaced."
As the Veil bus makes its complex way to the motel, so too do the other buses, vans and, occasionally, automobiles. When her bus finally turns into the EconoHovel parking lot, Lisa sees that Seth B. Obomash's car is already here, parked along the row of similar plain doors that mark this warehouse for sleeping.
Lisa jumps out of the bus at the office door and goes through the procedure of checking in at the registration desk. An Indian woman makes the impression of Lisa's credit card and hands her the two keys for herself and the driver, while Lisa wonders as usual if there is a motel left in the country that is not run by the Indians. Why have emigrants from the subcontinent taken it unto themselves to become America's bed renters? She thinks that it must have something to do with the monsoons, although how, she cannot imagine.
She cannot imagine much, these days. Her mind is not working as it used to.
Within five minutes she is safely ensconced in her room, and the television is on to provide its mindless companionship. She doesn't even look to see what is on; she is only interested in hearing the sound of voices to provide the make-believe sense that she is not alone.
She plops down on the bed without taking her coat off, and stares at the ceiling as the voices drone on. She is certain that she is going crazy. The ceiling is made up of acoustic tiles dotted with unevenly placed little holes, and as her eyes lose their focus, the holes take various shapes of human and animal faces, and she thinks some of them may be talking to her. One of them -- one of the human ones -- looks exactly like Invoice O'Connor.
There is a knock on the door. Lisa sits up, startled.
"Yes?" she calls out.
"Lisa? It's me. Seth."
Seth? Now what?
She gets up and unlocks the door, pulling it open wide after double-checking through the peephole that it was indeed Seth B. Obomash. He is standing outside her door with a pizza box and a brown paper bag that most probably contains a six-pack of either beer or soda. Knowing Seth, beer is the better bet.
"Hungry?" he asks her, cocking an eyebrow.
"It's late at night," she tells him.
He walks past her into her room. "It's not all that late." He puts the pizza on the small table in her room, and extracts the six-pack from the bag. Beer. She was right.
"I'm really not hungry," she says. She remains by the open door.
He peels a can from the six-pack and snaps it open. He holds it out to her. "It's early," he says. "No point in being alone if we're both here. We are both with the same team, after all."
"Marginally, we're from the same time." She narrows her eyes. "Why are you here?" she asks.
"Because I've gotten the distinct impression that you hate my guts. That you think I'm destroying everything you labored so hard to build at Veil. That you think I'm turning your Policy empire into an LD wasteland."
He is standing right in front of her now. "I'm learning to adjust," he says. He tries to put the beer in her hand. "Take this," he says.
She takes the beer.
"And let's close the door. No point in sharing our pizza with the entire motel." He reaches over her head and grabs the end of the door. She pulls away as he closes it, then walks back to the six-pack and pulls off another can for himself.
Only one thought is now passing through Lisa's mind: What is wrong with this picture?
"You and I should come to terms," Seth says, turning to face her and taking a large swig from his beer can. "You're not going away, and I'm not going away, so we've both got to deal with each other."
His voice is soft, conciliatory. What is wrong with this picture?
"I admit that I'm an old Policy dog," he says, "but I have nothing against LD. And I know that you're trying to maintain the Policy team at Veil."
He lays the can down on the table, and takes a step closer to her. What is wrong with this picture?
"And I don't hate your guts, Lisa," he says. "Far from it."
He reaches out and takes her left hand; she is still holding the beer can in the other hand. What is wrong with this picture?
He starts to pull her closer to him, and the look in his eyes is as obvious as a moose in the underwear drawer.
That's what is wrong with this picture!
She pulls back. "Get out of here," she says, gritting her teeth. "Now!"
He stops. "I was just trying to be friendly, to mend our bridges."
"I'll mend my own damned bridges," she yells, pushing past him and opening the door. "Get out. Now. Before I start screaming."
He takes her at her word, and walks through the door. "I didn't mean anything," he says. "I only--"
She slams the door in his face.
There is silence, except for the companionable voices from the television. Lisa Torte is visibly shaking, doing her best to get a hold of herself.
There is a soft knock on the door. "Lisa?"
It's Seth again.
"Lisa. Open up, please."
"I left my pizza," he says.
She looks over at the table, where the pizza and beer are waiting for their private party. She begins to laugh uncontrollably, but the laughter quickly changes to tears.
Seth B. Obomash continues knocking on the door, asking for his pizza, the TV voices keep on providing mindless visceral company, and Lisa Torte falls on the bed and wishes she were anyone but Lisa Torte.
Is it too late for the Beatles reunion?
What would Charles have made of the line, "The cows and chickens are going to the Dickens"?
Are there any diacriticals left for the Hyphen-Emdashes?
Has Lisa Torte hit rock bottom, or is Seth B. Obomash just a stop on the way?
What? Nostrum wasn't nominated for an Oscar yet again? Impossible!
Put your ear to the rail to hear the arrival of our next episode: "Jorg Haider, the Early Years, or, The Attack of the Vienna Sausage."
Go to the next episode due Feb 16, 2000.