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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
Across the street from the Veblen Mall is a line of restaurants stretching off into shopping infinity in either direction. There are Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants, French restaurants, steak restaurants, fish restaurants, barbecue restaurants, cheap restaurants, middling restaurants, expensive restaurants, breakfast restaurants, lunch restaurants, dinner restaurants, hors d'oeuvres restaurants, entrée restaurants, dessert restaurants, pizza restaurants, burger restaurants, ice cream restaurants. tapas restaurants -- in short, every sort of restaurant you can imagine, except for one kind. Because the strip of restaurants across from the Veblen Mall, which stretches off into shopping infinity in either direction, consists entirely of franchises, you will not find a unique restaurant. The mathematics of this stretch into infinity comprises a series of endlessly repeating equations without variation. There are no surprises on the bills of sale of any of these establishments on the endless highway of the American continent, and that which can be ordered in one can be ordered in any one without the slightest possibility of deviation. Plus, there is the inevitable early-bird special for senior citizens. Of course, unique restaurants do still exist, but they are hidden away from the main thoroughfares, run by the few remaining believers in food for food's sake, boasting the last of the creative chefs with their tattered cordons bleus stashed in the knife drawer behind their sauce-stained secret recipe for their first roux.
It is at one of these endlessly replicated franchises -- themed in a faux-Mexican style, free refills on the soda, slivers of lime planted on the rim of every Corona -- that Braun Saxon is sitting nursing a tall cup of latte, a brunch menu on the table beside him, the chair across from him empty, awaiting the arrival of his estranged wife. It is eleven o'clock on Saturday morning. Braun can look out through the window and see the mall coming to life across the street.
Brett's telephone message to her husband was simple. She didn't want it to end like this and she wanted to talk. Whether this meant that she did not want it to end, or that she wanted it to end but some other way, Braun did not know. But he would find out soon enough, because Brett's SUV was now pulling into the parking lot.
Whether Braun himself wanted it to end, or wanted it to end but some other way, he did not know.
Such is the lot of the eternal Don Joses.
As Brett entered the restaurant, Braun was struck yet again by her internal glow, the ineffable attraction that originally drew him to her. She is still tanned from her Yucatan expedition, and she is wearing her full field attire of khaki jacket, khaki hat, khaki shirt, khaki pants, khaki hiking boots. Her honey-blond hair hangs loose over her shoulders. She stops at the table.
"Hello, Braun," she says simply.
He is looking up at her with a combination of loneliness, lust and loss. "Hi, Brett."
She sits down across from him. Her eyes glance around the restaurant. "The place isn't very crowded," she says.
"It's early yet. Saturday morning. They'll fill up later."
She nods. "You look tired," she says, tilting her head.
He shrugs. "The Cozy Cot Motel isn't exactly the Ritz."
"I would imagine it isn't." She looks as if she wishes to add another comment, but she catches herself and picks up her menu instead. "You recommend anything?" she asks.
"Huevos rancheros, I guess. For brunch and all."
"For brunch and all," she repeats. The words are not coming easily.
A waitress appears at their table, introduces herself as Jennifer, lays claim to being their server today, lists half a dozen specials that no one in their right mind would eat before noon, then asks them if they're ready to order. Braun and Brett both agree on the huevos rancheros. For brunch and all.
Jennifer disappears into kitchen.
"So," Brett begins.
"So." Braun takes a sip of his coffee.
"I'm leaving this afternoon," Brett says.
Braun nods. "How long will you be gone?"
"Two or three months. Until the rainy season begins."
"That's always the way, isn't it? Until the rainy season begins?"
"Don't archaeologists ever go to countries where there isn't a rainy season? Like Ethiopia? Or Finland?"
She narrows her eyes. "You are hardly in a position to denigrate my career," she says.
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to keep things … light."
"You should have thought about keeping things light before you starting raping high school girls."
"I do not rape high school girls."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know they'd lowered the statutory age in this state."
"She is eighteen, for God's sake."
"Oh, sorry again. My mistake. And there's such a difference between seventeen-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds. They're so much more worldly, so much more sophisticated. Don't you agree?"
"If you came here just to argue, I really don't want to go through it," Braun says. He can still remember Brett's pummeling him with the leg of lamb.
She sighs. "No, I didn't come here to argue. But I can't act as if what you did doesn't hurt. It's not her age, although I don't understand that either. But what really throws me off is, Why? Why did you do it?"
"I didn't do it to hurt you."
"I'm not saying you did. But that is one fairly predictable result."
"I'm sorry about that. It's just that I was … I don't know. Lonely."
"Well, you do travel around a lot. You leave for months at a time. It's hard to maintain a relationship all by myself."
"So now this is all my fault?"
"That's not what I'm saying."
"But you're saying that my not being around somehow forgives it."
"I'm not saying that either. I'm only trying to explain it, not rationalize it."
Jennifer, their server du jour, returns with their plates of eggs. She is a cheery break in the bleak weather between them, then she leaves them alone again, like the sunlight retreating behind the clouds.
"I'm going away again," Brett says, staring down at her plate, which is piled high with all manner of Mexican foods she has no intention of eating. She gingerly attempts to pull away a small bite of egg with her fork.
"I know that."
"We have to make a decision." She tastes the eggs. Not bad. "Do we try to get back together somehow, or do we just give up this marriage for lost?"
Braun keeps his eyes cast down as he butters a warm tortilla. "What do you think?" he asks.
"I don't know, Braun. So I'm going to ask you: What do you think?"
Of course, what Braun has really been thinking is that the marriage was finished the minute Brett discovered Cartier's notebook, so even the idea that the door might still be ajar comes as a surprise to him. He looks up into Brett's eyes. He can tell that she is being honest, that if he indicates a desire to continue the relationship, she will agree to it. There is no guarantee that they will succeed, but Brett is willing to give it the opportunity.
And what does Braun want? What does every man want, be he a Don Jose or a Don Juan?
"I think we should try," he says finally. He chooses his next words carefully. "Our marriage was good. I would hate to lose it just because I did something stupid." This is not exactly an outright apology, but it is abjectly apologetic, admitting as it does both guilt and culpability.
Brett reaches out her right hand, and he takes it in his. "Then we'll try," she says, smiling softly.
He returns the smile.
"We have a few hours before I have to leave," she says. "Would you like to come home?"
He nods. He knows that if he spoke, his voice would come out in a high-pitched Mickey-Mouse tone. There is no doubt in his mind what Brett is saying to him. He'll be going home, and doing all those homey things one does with one's wife, even if she is leaving tonight for some godforsaken archaeological expedition. He'll still get an hour or two of makin' whoopee.
Which, if anyone was wondering, answers the question Freud never had to ask, about Don Joses or Don Juans, namely, What do men want?
Are you kidding?
To say that it is not easy to struggle through life with a disability is to egregiously minimize the personal heroism of those who do. When every movement is a fight against nature, when pain is the daily commonplace, when dependence renders the most aggressive adults into helpless infants -- these are the battles that define courage, even if every battle is a lost cause. Whether a person is blind or deaf or paralyzed or in any other way limited in performing the actions most of us take for granted, they must still be defined first as a person, and only second or third as a person of blindness or deafness or paralysis. This is not a semantic bow to political correctness; it is a spiritual bow to reality. While there is nothing wrong with granting a person with a disability an extra measure of respect, one must first grant that person the basic respect given to any person. Build on that in whatever way you deem fit.
Which brings us to Mr. Lo Pat. Forty plus years in a wheelchair, with full use of only one side of the top of his body, although in full control of his mental if not his motor skills, does have its effect. All those daily last battles add up, and if perhaps this small Asian man is of an especially ripe choler, he has at least earned a right to that ill temper. The fact that he was of a similarly choleric temperament before his accident is now long forgotten. Few of the victims of his wrath ascribe his venom to his intrinsic personality, but accept it as part of the expression of his condition. Thus they justify what in a person without disabilities would be unjustifiable. Since they have been doing this for over four decades, the cycle is now virtually unbreakable. In other words, Mr. Lo Pat is one mean sumbitch, and he always gets away with it.
Welcome to the Bahamas.
The whirring sound of Mr. Lo Pat's arrival is well-known in high school forensics circles. It has been heard at local tournaments, regional tournaments, district and national tournaments, since the creation of the battery-powered wheelchair. One hears the whirr, one turns, and there is the gristled visage of Mr. Lo Pat. If you are a student, he is presumably gathering his forces to yell at you. If you are an adult, he is presumably polishing his barbs of condescension. In either case, the likely result of hearing the whirr will not be pleasant to you, while you will never know how Mr. Lo Pat felt about it, although joyfully wicked is a fairly decent guess on your part.
Of course, some people have never heard the whirr before. Everybody has to start on the forensics circuit somewhere, and everybody has to learn the ins and outs, the whys and the wherefores. No one is born understanding the art of spreading, or able to act eleven parts in nine minutes, or dancing the Extemp two-step. Similarly, no one is born knowing that a soft approaching whirr means the vehicular arrival of Manhattan Lodestone's Mr. Lo Pat.
In this case, no one includes Melvish, the Quilty novice.
The scene, as it unfolds on the second floor of Algren-on-the-Beach High School, has a certain Greek drama inevitability about it, lacking only the masked chorus to explain to us the thoughts of the main players.
Mr. Lo Pat seeks the elevator. Since it brought him to the second floor, it will no doubt be able to bring him back to the first.
But where is it?
Stairs here. Stairs there. Stairs everywhere. But no elevator. Confound it!
As he whirrs along the corridor, Tom Abelard and Bob Cratch walk past him aiming in the other direction, apparently heading to their second round of this Saturday morning. He scowls at them. Quilty, he thinks to himself. Here without any adult supervision. Nothing good can come of that. Nothing good!
The main stairway of Algren High is ten feet across, wide enough to accommodate the busiest moments of school traffic. It is located in the exact center of the building. Mr. Lo Pat is heading toward it from the East.
Melvish, the novice Quilty debater, has just finished his fifth round in the JV division. His opponent was good, almost too good. On the one hand, this means that his opponent was probably doing well, which means that Melvish was probably also doing well, which would explain why the two of them were hitting each other in the same bracket in the fifth round. On the other hand, his opponent was so much better that he that Melvish feels as if he has been hit over the head with a cast iron skillet and left to fry in the desert sun like an unwanted Gila monster (we hasten to point out that this is exactly how Melvish describes his own feelings, and not a metaphor over which authorial control has been completely lost). After leaving the scene of battle, Melvish's opponent has disappeared into the girls' room, leaving him to stare bleakly at his flow and wondering what happened. He begins walking slowly down the corridor, his mind lost in his flow pad.
Melvish is heading toward the main stairway from the West.
Maybe it's not like Greek drama. Maybe instead it's the Sunday School version of God watching two trains on the same track, heading for each other at top speed, each unaware of the other's existence. Omniscience does not translate into action for the Almighty.
Omniscience does not translate into prevention for forensicians.
The whirr comes from the East. Mr. Lo Pat's thoughts are red and his teeth are white.
The novice comes from the West. Melvish's nose in his flow pad.
The main stairway is there, always there, old man stairway, it just keeps rollin' along.
Whirrrrrrr. Red thoughts. Black thoughts.
Flow. Dropped tacit consent. Damn it.
Screech! THWAPPPP! Kloppetta kloppetta kloppetta kloppetta.
Translation -- the sliding sound of Mr. Lo Pat braking, the round fleshy sound of the wheelchair ramming into Melvish the Novice, the rolling sound of Melvish's body tumbling down the stairs.
In forensics, no one can hear you scream.
Will Braun and Brett reconciliate?
Will Melvish and Mr. Lo Pat reconciliate?
Will England and the IRA reconciliate?
Will John Rocker reconciliate?
Will Donald trump?
Find out the name of the Reform Candidate in our next episode: "Waterloo, or, what other kind of loo is there?"
Go to the next episode due Feb 23, 2000.