One hundred years ago today, Henry Ford’s factory started up its first moving assembly line. The factory assembled human beings to drive the burgeoning population of automobiles in the mushrooming suburbs of American cities. Ford’s line could assemble a complete adult in ninety-three minutes, where the pre-industrial process had taken nearly twenty years to achieve the same result.
ANNOUNCER. Malt-O-Cod, the only malt food drink flavored with real cod-liver oil, presents…
(Music: “Night Ride” by Sibelius.)
The Adventures of Solo Rider and his faithful Indian sidekick, Dharmavarapu! Galloping on his fiery white horse at the speed of sound, Solo Rider opposes wickedness wherever it threatens the innocent!
(Music: In full, then fade.)
(Sound: Shattering glass.)
DHARMAVARAPU. I say, old bean, it looks like a spot of bother over at that saloon.
SOLO RIDER. You mean the Lazy I down yonder?
DHARMAVARAPU. Well, that’s a jolly good first guess, but I meant this one over here, where the sheriff’s deputy just flew through the window.
SOLO RIDER. Oh.
DHARMAVARAPU. What do you say we act like good decent citizens and all that sort of rot and see if there’s anything we can do?
SOLO RIDER. Yes. Yes, for I am the Solo Rider, and I have sworn a solemn oath to right wrongs wherever wrongs are…um…wrong.
DHARMAVARAPU. Of course you have, old chap. My point exactly. Hitch your horse here—I’ll just tie up Bartholomew like this, and we’ll go inside.
(Sound: Swinging doors; ragtime piano.)
SOLO RIDER. Which one of you is the lawbreaker oppressing the innocent citizens of this bedraggled Western village?
DHARMAVARAPU. My money’s on the largish fellow with the black hat and the big revolver.
LAWBREAKER. Wall, I reckon yer Injun pal’s got it right, stranger. Waldo Lawbreaker’s the name, and I came here to get some good oppressin’ done afore the Christmas shoppin’ season.
SOLO RIDER. Desist at once, for I am the Solo Rider, and this is my faithful Indian companion Dharmavarapu, who never leaves my side, and we have sworn to oppose lawbreakers whenever they oppress the innocent!
LAWBEAKER. So how can you be a Solo Rider if’n you always go around with a faithful Injun companion?
SOLO RIDER. Beg pardon…?
LAWBREAKER. I mean, there’s two of you all the time, right? So you ain’t never ridin’ solo, right?
SOLO RIDER. I don’t get you.
DHARMAVARAPU. Please don’t puzzle him with numbers, there’s a good fellow. It interferes with his digestion, and then I’m the one who has to deal with the consequences.
LAWBREAKER. Wall, what’s he doin’ here with that dang fool mask on, anyway? What’s it made of? Construction paper?
SOLO RIDER. My regular mask is in the laundry. Now desist from your depredations, oppressor, or prepare to suffer the consequences.
LAWBREAKER. Mighty fancy gun you got there, stranger. But I got one fancier.
SOLO RIDER. Then you leave me no choice.
LAWBREAKER. Well, you done asked for it.
(Sound: Gunfire, automatic weapons, cannons, rockets, taxi horns, etc. Piano stops.)
SOLO RIDER. Your barrage was ineffectual, Lawbreaker. You missed me.
LAWBREAKER. You didn’t do no better, ya crazy masked coot. You couldn’t hit the side of a barn with that thing. Look at all the junk you shot up.
SOLO RIDER. Mere collateral damage in the fight against injustice.
LAWBREAKER. Wall, I ain’t payin’ fer that throw pillow. Say, is that a silver bullet?
SOLO RIDER. Yes, a silver bullet, the signature of Solo Rider wherever lawbreakers oppress the innocent.
DHARMAVARAPU. It’s really just chrome-plated. —(To Solo Rider.) Well, honestly, old top, one can’t just lie to the fellow.
MRS. LAWBREAKER (entering). Waldo! Waldo, is that you playin’ with guns again?
LAWBREAKER. Well, gee, maw, I…
MRS. LAWBREAKER. I cain’t leave you alone fer three minutes while I buy me a new bonnet fer Cyber Monday. Look how you shot up this saloon. Didn’t I tell you not to be so careless?
LAWBREAKER. Aw, maw, it wasn’t just me that…
MRS. LAWBREAKER. I don’t want none o’ your lip. You’re comin’ back to Buchanan Station with me right this instant.
LAWBREAKER (receding). Ow! Maw, that hurts my ear!
DHARMAVARAPU. Well, there’s not much more for us to do here, is there? Leave a dime on the bar for the throw pillow, and we’ll get going.
(Sound: Swinging doors.)
SOLO RIDER. And so injustice and oppression are defeated once again.
DHARMAVARAPU. Yes, of course. Good show, old chap, but I think you’re supposed to get on the horse the other way.
SOLO RIDER. Oh.
(Sound: Galloping hooves approaching.)
DHARMAVARAPU. I say, old bean, it looks like a posse headed this way.
SOLO RIDER. Where? I see no kitty cat.
DHARMAVARAPU. No, posse, from the infinitive of possum, meaning…
(Sound: Hooves come to a stop.)
SHERIFF. Say, have you fellows seen a big fellow, goes by the name of Waldo, travels with a lady he says is his mother? He’s wanted for throwing deputies through windows in five states and half a territory.
DHARMAVARAPU. Certainly, my good man. I believe you’ll find the lad and his aged companion meandering along the highway in the direction of Buchanan Station.
SHERIFF. Sorry, stranger, I don’t speak Apache.
DHARMAVARAPU. Oh, blimey. Um, “Ugh, him go thataway”?
SHERIFF. Oh! Thankee, pardner. Much obliged. Say, for an Injun, you’re mighty white. Come on, boys! Head him off at the pass! If we can find a pass.
(Sound: Galloping hooves.)
DHARMAVARAPU. And now, old bean, what would you say to a well-deserved rest in Carson City?
SOLO RIDER. You mean the place with the malt shop? I want a triple chocolate malted with quadruple whipped cream. Hi-ho, Chromeplate! Away! …I said hi-ho. Hi-ho? Come on! Stupid horse.
DHARMAVARAPU. Not like that, old sport. You have to give him a little poke like this.
(Sound: Whinny, galloping hooves receding.)
SOLO RIDER (receding into distance). Jeez Louise! Slow down, Chromeplate! Chromeplate! For the love of Mike, slow down! I’ll give you an apple!
DHARMAVARAPU. And for this I went to Cambridge. Well, come along, Bartholomew, my lad. Let’s trot. We’ll catch up with him in Carson City.
(Music: “Night Ride,” in and under for…)
ANNOUNCER. When you’ve been riding the dusty trail all day, nothing perks you up like the rich, satisfying flavor of Malt-O-Cod, the only malt food drink flavored with real cod-liver oil. Kids, don’t let imitators fool you. You can buy cheaper drinks made from the livers of cheaper fish, but only Malt-O-Cod is made from real barley malt and the very cream of the North Atlantic cod fisheries. Tell your parents you’ll throw a tantrum unless they bring you genuine Malt-O-Cod, the malt food drink that’s brain food.
(Music: In full, then out.)
The American holiday we call Thanksgiving has equivalents all around the world, reflecting the natural human desire to express gratitude to a higher power by means of selfish overindulgence.
In Merry England, the ancient Saxons used to celebrate Thanksgiving every year by sacrificing an investment banker to Thor.
In Quebec, Thanksgiving is known as “Le Jour de l’Action de grâce,” in keeping with the provincial government’s policy of assuring the dominance of the French language through sheer multiplication of words.
The Kirk of Scotland long ago banned all expressions of thanksgiving for earthly goods, on the grounds that God intends us to be miserable.
In antipodean South Africa, the Thanksgiving turkey is served upside-down, with the stuffing on the outside.
In North Korea, every day is Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and Arbor Day and Easter and your birthday.
In China, on the People’s Day of Gratitude, the citizens come together and think of something nice to give the General Secretary. Usually it’s a necktie.
In five scenes, Giuditta tells the story of the doomed love affair between Octavio, a captain in some army or other, and Giuditta, a beautiful woman with the brains of a gerbil.
Scene 1. We meet Giuditta’s husband, but don’t get too attached to him because you’ll never see him again after this scene. We also meet an irrelevant couple, Pierrino and Anita, who keep popping up to sing lighthearted love songs for no good reason. Octavio comes marching by, looks up, and sees Giuditta standing on a balcony. He says, “What a beautiful girl! I’m leaving for Africa in an hour. Come with me.” She says “Sure, why not?”
Scene 2. In this scene, Pierrino and Anita ring the doorbell at Octavio and Giuditta’s house in North Africa, but Octavio and Giuditta don’t answer. This process takes quite a while. Finally Giuditta does answer the door, and the plot comes to a standstill while she deals with the irrelevant financial problems of Pierrino and Anita. Meanwhile, Antonio (a comrade from Octavio’s regiment) tells Ottavio that marching orders are expected.
Scene 3. Even though he’ll be back in a few weeks, Octavio can’t get up the nerve to tell Giuditta that he has to leave. He tells his friend Antonio that he’s afraid she’ll be unfaithful. Antonio says, “Come on, Octavio! Snap out of it!” (That’s a direct quote.) So finally Octavio does tell her. As you might expect, she gets hysterical, especially since he somehow manages to leave out what one would have thought was the vital information that he’ll be back in a few weeks. Her little gerbil brain concludes that, since he’s not willing to desert the army for her, he doesn’t love her, so she’ll go off and dance.
Scene 4. Giuditta has become a very popular dancer in a very popular dive in some big North African city. Oh, and Pierrino and Anita get back together, as if you cared about that. You probably hadn’t even noticed they were apart. Anyway, Giuditta is carousing with lords and dukes, and doesn’t even notice when Octavio, having deserted his regiment for her after all, comes back and stands around looking shocked.
Scene 5. It’s four years later. Octavio has become a cheap piano player in a fashionable restaurant. He complains that he still loves Giuditta, that he wants her back more than anything in the world. Just then, Giuditta of all people comes in and says, “I still love you. Take me back.” Octavio says, “No thanks.” So Giuditta is miserable and goes home heartbroken with her duke. Octavio goes back to complaining brokenheartedly about how he still loves Giuditta and wants her back more than anything in the world. The end.
The recipe for “Cockamamie Soup” on the front page of yesterday’s Food section should have been headed “Cock-a-Leekie Soup.” Our food editor was working with audio transcripts from a telephone conversation.
The borough of Vandergrift is in the Kiskiminetas Valley, not “halfway to the moon for all I know,” as an op-ed contributor mistakenly wrote yesterday.
Governor Tom Corbett was not arrested for peddling crack cocaine to kindergartners in a suburban Harrisburg Waldorf school, as the Dispatch incorrectly reported on page A-1 yesterday. The Dispatch cheerfully makes this correction here on page D-23 in six-point type, and trusts that the matter is now forgotten. In addition, it is not true that the Governor’s full name is “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” and the Dispatch was very naughty to refer to him as “Mr. Cadet” throughout the article.
There never was any such place as “Akron.”
The rumor that the borough of Dormont has been rounding up Episcopalians and sending them to concentration camps in Baldwin Township is apparently unfounded.
A Tale of the Far Future.
Did I ever tell you about the time Wright almost got us killed? No, not that time, the other time. No, not that time either. All right, so there were a lot of times, but I don’t think I’ve told you about this one. This one was the Speaking Sticks job. Let me start at the beginning.
I was surprised that Wright even bothered with this business of the Speaking Sticks. To me it sounded like a job for a shaman or a priest or something. T. A. Wright is a genius, as he shamelessly reminds all his clients, but I didn’t think even he could fix a broken religion. When the message from the Pevunghians came in, I wasn’t even sure I should give it to him. If we hadn’t both been bored out of our minds, I probably would have sent it back with the standard rejection.
“Why do you want to mess with this stuff?” I demanded when he announced that we were off to Pevunghia in the morning. “When people’s myths don’t live up to their expectations, I think that’s a problem for a psychologist, not a Mister Fix-It like you.”
“Did you see the pictures they sent?” Wright asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“Marvelously detailed, weren’t they?”
“Well, no, I wouldn’t have said so. In fact, I thought they were sort of plain as religious artifacts go. A bit of carving on the ends, but no—”
“I meant the pictures,” Wright interrupted. “I thought the pictures were marvelously detailed.”
For what it was worth, I had to agree with that. The Pevunghians had meticulously documented their Speaking Sticks in three dimensions. It was true that we couldn’t see the part of the sticks that faced the wall where they were kept (on ornamental brackets that, as far as I was concerned, were worth far more as art than the Sticks themselves): apparently the Pevunghians had been reluctant to remove the things from their display. But that could hardly make much of a difference. As far as I could see, the stick parts—the long rods that seemed to be the main body of the Sticks—were the same all the way around, and the ornamental carvings on the ends were, as far as I could tell, entirely symmetrical.
“So did you see something in those pictures that I missed?” I asked. “A hidden switch, maybe, or something marked ‘Press here to hear the Sticks’ greatest hits’?”
“Don’t be silly,” Wright replied. But you’ll notice that he didn’t answer the question. One of the infuriating things about Wright—and believe me, I could fill a book with the infuriating things about Wright—is the way he almost always avoids giving a direct answer to a direct question.
“Well, if you want my opinion, this is exactly the sort of job we should be avoiding. I keep telling you to make your ads more specific.” Wright’s little advertisements, placed only in what he calls “upscale” markets, simply gave his name, his picture, and the slogan “Problems Solved.”
“When have you ever had an opinion that I wanted?” Wright asked in a pleasant tone, as if he had no intention at all of insulting me—which was probably true. Oh, yes, that’s on the infuriating-things list.
So that was it: the matter was settled. We were off to Pevunghia on the first liner the next morning—off to make fools of ourselves, I was sure, but then it wouldn’t be the first time.
Now, I don’t like to complain, but I do sometimes wish Wright would spring for first-class tickets. I suppose a more charitable observer would find something inspiring in the spectacle of mobs of hopeful refugees returning to their homes to begin life anew and all that stuff. What I personally observed was that refugees smell awful, and their children scream a lot.
Wright was oblivious to the whole stinky and inspiring spectacle. He sat almost immobile, drawing plans for some mechanical toy with his finger (he had long ago lost the stylus that went with his sketch pad, and he was too cheap to buy another). A small Pevunghian girl stared at him with big black eyes for almost half the trip, until Wright made one of those horrible faces he sometimes makes when he’s concentrating, and the little girl skittered off to hide behind her mother.
When we finally did reach the port, Wright and I were, as usual, absolutely the last to get off, in spite of my repeated efforts to hurry him up. I was sure the delegation we were supposed to meet would have given up and gone home, but they were still there—waiting outside the first-class exit, of course. We came up on them from behind and scared the daylights out of them.
Once we had all recovered enough of our dignity to carry on, the Pevunghians introduced themselves. There were three of them: a short old man, a tall old woman, and an absolutely stunning young woman with flashing black eyes, a torrent of glossy black hair, and the most beautiful smile I had ever seen in my life.
“Welcome to Pevunghia, Mr. Wright,” said the tall old woman. Then she stared at me as though I required some sort of explanation. I knew Wright would never pick up that cue if she stared for an hour, so I took the matter into my own hands.
“I’m Mr. Wright’s assistant, John Pulaski,” I explained. Her stare relaxed into a formal smile, so I must have satisfied her.
The short old man picked up the conversation from there. “Allow me to introduce the Countess of the Northern Marches,” he said, indicating the tall old woman. “And this,” turning to the stunning beauty, “is our Ad Hoc Minister for Ancient Monuments, Miss Miniu Rolinamuritagu. She has been supervising our cultural-restoration project, so naturally you will be working closely with her.”
I could think of no more delightful news from my point of view. Wright, as far as I can tell, is impervious to female beauty, but I most certainly am not.
Meanwhile the Countess was saying something. I snapped out of my reverie in time to hear her introduce the short old man:
“—is our First Minister, Mr. Torim.”
Wright just stared blankly, so I could see it was once again up to me to carry on the conversation. “We are deeply honored,” I said, hoping that would be what a First Minister would expect to hear.
He said something about being deeply honored himself to meet the famous Thomas Aquinas Wright, but Wright wasn’t paying any attention to him. Wright wasn’t paying any attention to anything anymore: he was bored, and he had retreated into the inner recesses of his own mind. I had to do all the talking all the way down to the surface. Not that I objected. It gave me a chance to get to know Miss Miniu better. By the time we landed, she was calling me Johnpulaski (which she could never manage to separate into two names), and I was trying without much success to call her Rolinamuritagu. Apparently the idea of nicknames has never occurred to the Pevunghians; it’s either the whole name or “hey you.”
We accomplished nothing on our first afternoon and evening there. The hospitable Pevunghians took us through their historical museum, then to the war memorial (which is very moving if you’re the sort who’s moved by a fifty-meter column with a light on top), and finally to a banquet featuring the best of their native cuisine. I think the food was quite palatable, but I don’t really remember. All I remember is that I was seated next to Rolinamuritagu, who I had decided was the love of my life. She kept flashing that smile at me, and I was in heaven.
“I’ve changed my mind about coming here,” I told Wright once we were back in the pleasantly appointed suite the Pevunghians had provided for us. “I think it was a splendid idea. The city is delightful, the people are civilized, and I’ve got a date for tomorrow night.”
“A what?” Wright asked, looking up from his sketch pad for the first time.
“A date. D-A-T-E. It’s where a man and a woman find something amusing to do together as an excuse for getting better acquainted. You should try it some time. You’d be surprised how much fun women can be once you get to know them.”
“Oh,” Wright replied, entirely ignoring my sarcasm and making me feel ashamed of myself.
“Anyway,” I continued, “Rolinamuritagu is a very interesting young woman, with a cheerful disposition, an inquiring mind, and a surprisingly broad knowledge of local history.”
“Great legs, too,” Wright added, which just goes to show that you can never guess what the man is thinking.
It occurred to me as I was drifting off to sleep that we were still going to have to deal with the Speaking Sticks in the morning—a detail I had more or less forgotten while I enjoyed the company of Rolinamuritagu. But it was a minor detail. Wright would think of something—he always does. Except, of course, when he doesn’t. Anyway, I had far more pleasant things to think about, and I drifted off into dreams of those flashing black eyes, that lovely warm smile, and—as long as Wright had brought up the subject—those absolutely perfect legs.
The next morning we had a splendid breakfast, which seems to be the meal into which Pevunghians put the most effort. I was able to enjoy the food because Rolinamuritagu wasn’t with us; she apparently had some other ancient-monuments thing to do that day, and she would be off doing it until late in the afternoon. She left a message for both of us entrusting us to the care of her assistant, and a personal message for me promising to be on time for our appointment. Her image in the message flashed that beautiful smile at me, and I was more than ever convinced that coming to Pevunghia had been a good idea.
What with one thing and another, no one seemed to be ready to show us the Speaking Sticks until it was already past noon local time. I could tell that Wright was getting impatient. I guessed that he already had a theory or two about how the Sticks worked, and nothing annoys Wright more than having a theory and not being able to test it.
But at last the time came. A minor official from the Ministry of Culture—a nervous little man who smiled with obvious effort whenever Wright spoke to him—led us into the museum and showed us the room where the Speaking Sticks were kept.
There were more of them than I had expected—seventy-three all told, according to our guide. They all looked alike to me, except that each one bore a slightly different combination of pictographs—numbers, we were told, in the ancient Pevunghian hieratic script. Few people could read them, the little man said, since all the priests had been rounded up and executed by the wicked Levelers during the late unpleasantness. But Miss Miniu had made a special study and could read them as well as the old priests, he said. No, he could not read them himself, he answered with obvious shock when I asked him. It was not permitted for a man of his class. The old Pevunghian caste system was obviously back in force, and he at least had to pretend to like it.
The Sticks were displayed on brackets attached to one long wall of the gallery. Wright asked if he might take one down to examine it closely. I thought the little man might have a stroke.
“That isn’t normally done,” he wheezed out, quivering all over.
“I don’t think any of what I’m going to do is normally done,” Wright replied, with an unnecessarily sarcastic emphasis on the words “normally done.” “What’s normally done hasn’t been making your Speaking Sticks speak. If you intend to limit me to what’s normally done, just let me know, and I’ll pack my bags and leave.”
Wright always gives some variation of this speech when he isn’t getting his way. The refrain is always the same: I know what I’m doing, and obviously you’re incompetent, or you wouldn’t have hired me. It usually produces the desired effect. In the present instance, it sent the minor official scurrying off in search of a major official, and the major official scurrying off in search of someone further up the hierarchy. When she arrived, the three of them pulled Wright into a corner and conferred with him in hushed, respectful tones. At the end of this conference, they agreed on something, and Wright came back to me to announce the result:
“We can go on with our work.”
So that was that. Wright immediately picked up one of the Sticks and began to examine it. I watched the minor official, the major official, and the super-major official as they watched Wright. Their faces registered mixed awe and apprehension, as if they were watching some famous acrobat perform some exceptionally dangerous feat. Imagine their consternation, then, when Wright handed the Stick to me.
“I need measurements,” he said. “Very exact measurements. No, don’t touch that part.” (I had reached out to grab the Stick by the middle.) “Only by the ends. And use your tape for the measurements, not that contraption. I need total length, length excluding the end pieces, diameter of the central section, and distance between the centers of these two holes and their diameters.”
I glanced at the three official observers. It looked as though their eyes might pop out of their sockets and roll around on the floor. I tried to handle the Stick as delicately as I could to avoid alarming them any more, but I did have to handle it. Wright trusts no one but me to do his measuring for him, and he has an irrational aversion to “that contraption,” as he calls it, which would almost certainly give him more accurate measurements than I could get with the tape.
There’s no need to bore you with the details of all the measurements I took. Wright chose five of the Sticks at random to look at; once I had determined that their basic measurements weere all identical to within very close tolerances, Wright declared himself satisfied that all the Sticks were the same. Then he retreated to our suite with my measurements and his sketch pad, telling me I could take the rest of the day off. I spent it napping. I wanted to be fresh for my evening with Rolinamuritagu, and Pevunghian days are somewhat longer than ours.
Rolinamuritagu was precisely on time for our date. In fact, she seemed to be just as eager as I was. Sit-down restaurants do not exist in any numbers anywhere in the city, so instead we had a private dinner at her luxurious apartments overlooking the harbor. Oh, if I could stop time, I’d live in that evening forever! The early part of it, anyway.
It was only after we had spent some very pleasant hours together that I made a simply appalling discovery—and then only accidentally, and only because the evening had gone so well that Rolinamuritagu was telling me how much she liked me.
“One seldom meets a man with any real dash these days,” she was saying. “At least that’s true on this world. I think the war just knocked all the daring out of us. But you—you had the confidence of a real hero. I liked you from the start, Johnpulaski, but when I heard how cool you were at the museum today, I knew you were an extraordinary man.”
“One does one’s best,” I answered with a slight smile, having no idea what she was talking about.
“Yes, but to handle the Speaking Sticks so coolly, knowing that it might mean death—”
“Death?” The conversation had suddenly taken a very alarming turn.
“Oh, of course I know that your master Mr. Wright is thoroughly competent, and I’m sure you have complete trust in him. Still, the law is very clear about it—‘Who touches the Stick, and the Stick speaks not, shall die.’ I understand Mr. Wright had a hard time negotiating three days’ grace with the head of religious affairs. I’ve complete trust in him, of course. Still, the idea that I might be dead in three days would have shaken me up a bit. I heard you were cool as a——”
I didn’t really hear the rest of what she said. You might have supposed that I would say something. Actually, I didn’t. I was too proud to admit that my courage had been ignorance, especially since I had made such a favorable impression on her. Besides, the only thing that popped into my head to say was something unrepeatable directed at the absent Wright, not at Rolinamuritagu.
The next morning I stormed into Wright’s bedroom and started babbling at him before he even noticed I was there. In fact, I think he was still asleep.
“You selfish, arrogant, thoughtless lunatic,” I said. Well, actually, I shouted it. I’d been choosing my words carefully all the way from Rolinamuritagu’s place, but I promptly forgot everything I had rehearsed and simply sputtered. “I mean—who do you think you are? I mean, what makes you think— I mean, what were you—”
Wright was awake now. “You’re back,” he announced.
“Yes, I’m back. Not that it matters to you, since you clearly don’t care whether I live or die. What were you thinking of?”
“Did you have a good time last night?” Wright asked with infuriating irrelevance. (Another one for the list.)
“What difference does it make? If those sticks don’t talk, they’ll kill us both in three days!”
“No one is going to die,” Wright said quite calmly. “We’ve worked on a deadline before.”
“Yes, but the ‘dead’ part was a little more metaphorical.”
“Now, when have I ever let you down?”
I could think of so many answers to that question that I was temporarily struck dumb.
“Anyway,” he continued, “while you were dallying with your latest conquest, I was finishing my sketches. Have a look.”
He handed me his sketch pad. On the first screen I recognized the mechanical toy he had been sketching on the smelly, refugee-ridden liner that brought us to Pevunghia.
“This should do it,” he announced with just a hint of pride.
“It looks like a sewing machine,” I told him.
“Nevertheless, it will make the Speaking Sticks speak.”
“You think they’ll talk to a sewing machine? Wonderful. Three-thousand-year-old technology to the rescue. Oh, I just can’t wait to be drawn and quartered or boiled in oil or whatever it is they do to blasphemers around here. I’ll bet it’s something really unpleasant.”
“Well, first they cut out your—”
“I don’t want to hear it!” And I stuck my fingers in my ears.
Then I remembered something else he’d said. “And she is not my ‘latest conquest’! I’m in love with her!”
“Now get to work!” I snarled. “Your miserable life depends on it, and I frankly don’t care about that right now, but my life depends on it, too, and I care about that quite a bit.”
He yawned broadly. “First things first. We have plenty of time for breakfast, and I want some more of those little square cakes with the berries in them.”
All that day, I worked with a team of Pevunghian mechanics in the gallery to make some sense of Wright’s sketchy drawings. We had abysmal facilities. The only laser they had broke down before noon, and we had to do almost all the work with hand tools. We had to deal with Wright’s quirky choices of materials, too. He had drawn a pedal-operated wheel connected to a rubber belt, but the Pevunghians had never heard of rubber. Wright finally had to replace the belt with a system of wooden gears, which would have been easy to cut (as I pointed out) if we’d had a laser, but would take hours with hand saws and files. “Hard work is good for you,” he said cheerfully. But I didn’t notice him doing any.
At any rate, by the end of the day we were less than half done, but Wright pronounced himself satisfied. We’d finish the main body of the contraption the next day, and then do the gear-and-pedal assembly the day after, and easily meet our deadline, considering that the Pevunghian day was a bit longer than ours. I did not like that word “deadline” in this context, and I told him so. He shrugged. His shrugs are going on the list, too.
I spent the evening with Rolinamuritagu again. She asked me how the project was going; I told her I didn’t want to talk about it.
“Oh, but my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” she responded with no attempt to suppress her excitement. “All my years of labor to preserve and revive the ancient ways—and now, at last, I shall hear the words of the ancients themselves in the voices from the Speaking Sticks!”
“We’ll make the deadline,” I said, and that word had crept out of my mouth before I even knew what I was saying. That was precisely why I didn’t want to talk about it. “But I’d still rather not talk about work.”
“You are wise,” she agreed. “Tonight we talk about love.”
“Yes, love—my love for you, Johnpulaski, my dashing hero of the Restoration.”
Well, that was a subject I could get into. We talked about how much I adored her, and how much she adored me, and how we would make a life together on Pevunghia. I had definitely had enough of Wright, and I assured her I wouldn’t miss him at all. I could hardly wait to see the look on his face when I handed in my resignation and informed him that I would not be leaving Pevunghia. Perhaps I was being a bit hasty, but I’ve fallen in love enough times to recognize the real thing when I see it.
The next morning we got to work bright and early again—or at least all of us but Wright, who lingered shamelessly over breakfast and ate piles of those little berry cakes.
We were right on schedule. We were putting the finishing touches on the main part of Wright’s sewing machine, or whatever it was, just as the sun was setting. It was the oddest-looking contraption I’d ever built for Wright, and that was saying something. It looked a bit like a lathe of some sort, but all sorts of appendages hung out in all directions. The strangest of them was a long tube that led into an absolutely empty wooden box. In spite of all the hours I’d spent putting it together, I had absolutely no idea what the thing was supposed to do.
So we were just about to knock off for the day, with the relatively easy task of making the pedal assembly in the morning, when there was a bustle and commotion and a bunch of people poured in the door. Rolinamuritagu was among them, along with the Countess and Mr. Torim, and what looked like a bunch of dignitaries, and a number of people in some sort of military uniform, and a really big man with a really big ceremonial sword or saber or machete or something. I didn’t like the look of him at all.
“Is this the machine that will make the Sticks speak, Mr. Wright?” the Countess asked, looking it over curiously.
“Yes,” Wright answered. “We’ll have it finished tomorrow.”
A dead hush fell over the whole assembly. Everyone looked absolutely stricken.
At last the Countess spoke again. “My dear Mr. Wright, there is no ‘tomorrow.’ You had three days.”
‘Well, of course,” Wright said, “and it’s been just a little more than two days and a quarter.”
“The day before yesterday, yesterday, and today,” the Countess said rather severely. “Three days.”
“What imbecilic nonsense,” Wright replied, showing his delightful social manner. “A day is a complete revolution of the planet. We started counting late in the afternoon the day before yesterday, so—”
“The day before yesterday, yesterday, and today,” the Countess repeated.
Well, Wright thought that was the most idiotic thing he had ever heard, and he told her so. It was clear that this argument could go nowhere. Wright knew that of course three days meant three revolutions of the planet, whereas the Pevunghians knew that of course you count the first and last of the series, and a day ends at sunset, and no one could possibly be such a fool as to think otherwise. Meanwhile, the very big man was trying out different grips on his machete. I looked over at Rolinamuritagu, and she shrugged just exactly the way Wright always does.
“Well, I very much regret this,” the Countess said at last, “but the law is very clear. We made more of an exception than perhaps we had a right to make for you, but we can do no more. If you will be so good, guards.”
Suddenly I felt my wrists grasped by guards with powerful muscles. I’m absolutely positive that the man with the big machete was smirking.
“Oh, all right,” Wright huffed. “Have it your way. I’ll make the Sticks speak now.”
There was silence again; then the Countess nodded, and my wrists were free.
“You realize this will be very clumsy,” Wright continued, grabbing a dowel from the pile of miscellaneous wood we’d accumulated, “and it will not be at all as accurate as it would have been if I’d finished the job right. I hope you’re happy.” He split one end of the dowel very neatly with a chisel, and quickly screwed a knob into the other end. Then he pushed the split end of the dowel over the carved end of one of the Speaking Sticks, drilling a fastener through the dowel to hold it in place, and at last he set the Stick down in his machine, which very neatly supported it by both ends.
That was when everyone started shouting at once.
I simply had no idea what was going on. The Countess and Mr. Torim were both babbling in Pevunghian. Wright doesn’t speak a word of Pevunghian, but that didn’t stop him from arguing with them. The guards seemed to be bellowing orders at him, or at each other—I couldn’t tell which—and Wright was bellowing at them.
“They’re afraid the machine will damage the Speaking Sticks,” Rolinamuritagu’s voice explained in my ear. Somehow she had made her way through the fray to my side.
Well, I could see why they were afraid. The way Wright had set the Stick in the machine, there was a sort of pin that was in direct contact with the Stick, and the whole point of the machine seemed to be to make the Stick turn against the pin. When I looked at it, I wasn’t sure whether I trusted the machine myself.
Now the Pevunghians themselves were taking sides, some of them arguing for Wright and some of them against. I assume that was what was going on; it was all in Pevunghian, and much too fast for me to follow. I was afraid for a while that Wright might be singlehandedly responsible for reviving the Pevunghian civil war. In the middle of it all was Wright himself, still sputtering, but increasingly irrelevant to the discussion as more and more Pevunghians took up both sides of the question.
Just before they came to blows, Wright managed to make himself heard over the din.
“Are you people all morons?”
Well, that didn’t go over very well. The riot doubled in volume, and Wright seemed momentarily to have lost some of his support. Rolinamuritagu was about to enter the fray again, but I stopped her.
“Don’t go back in there,” I said. “You might get hurt. No need to worry about Mr. Wright. He’ll get his way somehow. It’s what he’s best at.”
She nodded, then stood aside with me to watch the oddly impressive spectacle of Wright getting his own way in spite of long odds. The various dignitaries involved had huddled into a buzzing conclave around him. From the center came an occasional explosion of Wright’s voice, usually followed by exasperated muttering from the officials. Rolinamuritagu pointed out that First Minister Torim himself had been sucked into the maelstrom; he was shaking his head at Wright, apparently refusing some demand about which Wright was absolutely adamant.
At last there was a flinging up of hands all around among the officials, which I took as a sign that Wright had once again got his way. I was correct: the officials began to spread out in a circle around the machine, and Wright came back and announced that the demonstration would proceed.
“Turn that clockwise,” he told me, pointing to the improvised crank he had attached to one end of the Speaking Stick.
“How fast?” I asked.
“I don’t know. About twice a second to start with.”
So I took hold of the knob and started to turn.
The instant result was an irritating scratchy hiss that emanated from the empty box at the end of the tube. It filled the otherwise silent chamber. For what seemed like an eternity there was no other sound. It must have been at least five seconds: enough for my whirling brain to conclude that the demonstration had failed, and that I was headed again for that particularly gruesome death whose details I had refused to listen to.
Then all at once a tinny and wavering but unmistakably clear voice rang out over the hiss. It was a man’s voice, speaking an archaic form of Pevunghian.
I kept turning the crank, and the voice spoke—at a higher pitch if I turned faster, lower if I slowed down. I was almost as amazed as the Pevunghians.
Everyone was silent for the next ten minutes while the pin moved from one end of the Stick to the other, and the voice spoke the words of the ancient priests, whatever they were—the dialect was too archaic for me to make much out of it. I kept turning and turning, ignoring the increasing pain in my arm. Rolinamuritagu stood transfixed, her eyes brimming with tears.
When the pin reached the other end of the Stick, the voice stopped, and Wright signaled me to stop turning. My arm was ready to fall out of its socket.
There was a pregnant moment of silence, and then a tumultuous outbreak of cheering after the Pevunghian manner, with much stamping of feet and a lot of that sort of yodeling thing they do. Rolinamuritagu embraced me, and First Minister Torim embraced Wright.
When the cheering subsided, the Countess was finally able to ask the question that I’m sure was on everyone’s mind.
“How did you do it? What is this marvelous machine of yours that frees the Speaking Sticks from their prison of silence?”
Wright smiled. He was in his element now: the problem had been solved, and all he had to do was collect the accolades. And the fee, of course.
“It’s a phonograph,” he explained. “A primitive one, but adequate. It would have been better with the pedal assembly. Your Speaking Sticks are phonograph cylinders, as I surmised even before I saw your pictures of them.”
Here I was tempted to interrupt, but one of the clot of buzzing dignitaries asked the same question that was on the tip of my tongue:
“You mean you knew how the Speaking Sticks worked without seeing them?”
“Well, as I said, I surmised. To store audio information in a form that will be accessible even centuries later is a difficult problem. As it happens, the most primitive technology is often the most durable. When I saw your admirably detailed pictures, I was able to make out the grooved surface, and my theory was confirmed. After that, it was merely a matter of constructing a suitable…”
And so on. Now that the conversation had turned to Wright’s favorite subject—his own genius—he was quite animated. The same subject always bores me beyond measure, but I noticed that Rolinamuritagu was listening with rapt attention. Heavens, she was beautiful! And that gorgeous creature was mine!
I was paying more attention to her than to what was going on around me, so it took me by surprise when one of the dignitaries took me by the arm and started pulling me toward the front of the room. I was stationed next to Wright. I looked out into the crowd to see Rolinamuritagu beaming that glorious smile at me, so I knew something good was happening.
First Minister Torim addressed the assembly. “My dear fellow citizens of our beloved commonwealth,” he began. He went on at length to relate the history of the Speaking Sticks and their importance in the history of culture, and so on and so on, while I stood there with a frozen smile wondering whether he would ever get to the point. After a more or less complete course in Pevunghian history, he finally made it to the moment when Wright’s machine had made the Speaking Sticks speak again.
“What reward,” he asked rhetorically, “could adequately recompense the genius who, at one stroke, has given us our best hope of reviving the lost glories of Pevunghian culture?” Well, his fee and perhaps a small gratuity is usually enough for Wright, I thought to myself. “No mere material consideration” (the First Minister continued) “can be equal to the benefit conferred on us,” blah blah blah—the man had a politician’s gift for multiplying words beyond measure. “Therefore,” he concluded, finally coming to the point, “it is my great pleasure and honor to announce the elevation of Mr. T. A. Wright and his assistant John Pulaski to senatorial rank, with all the honors and privileges that rank entails, effective immediately upon the conclusion of this announcement.”
Well, that was a pleasant enough surprise, I thought. Especially if I was going to be living among the Pevunghians, it couldn’t hurt to be ranked in the upper strata of society. I looked over to where I had left Rolinamuritagu, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.
I finally found her after the little ceremony. She was in the hall outside the gallery, crying her eyes out.
“What’s wrong, love?” I asked, putting my hand on her shoulder.
“No!” She jerked away. “I’m not—I can’t be—your love, Senator.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a commoner!” she sobbed, and she dissolved in tears again.
“All my life—all my life—I’ve worked to bring back the old ways, the law and the customs we trampled on. Do you think I could just selfishly throw that away now? Just because I love you?”
Well, there was more to our conversation than that, but it didn’t go anywhere. Senators marry senators, not commoners: that’s the Pevunghian way.
“You knew,” I fumed as I stomped back into our chambers, where Wright was packing up his few possessions.
“How do you like being a senator?” he asked with no trace of irony in his voice.
“I knew it! You’re responsible for this!”
“Yes, I insisted on that point in my negotiations. If we succeed, I told them, then you must elevate my assistant to senatorial rank as well as me. I was brilliant.”
“You selfish old…selfish person!” I shouted, nearly using some bad language before I brought my temper under control. “You knew I was planning to leave you, so you scuttled my one chance at happiness!”
“Did I?” Wright asked in the infuriatingly pleasant voice he uses when he pretends not to know what I’m talking about. It’s on the list.
“Well, don’t think it’s going to do you any good. I’m still leaving you. I’ll find some other crank to work for, because I can never forgive you for this as long as I live.”
I turned to stomp out of the room dramatically.
“There is,” Wright said just a little louder, “a certain annual income associated with the rank.”
“How much?” I asked.
He told me.
So it turns out I’ve forgiven him after all.
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