From the point of view of admittedly privileged white male technocrats such as Randy Waterhouse and his ancestors, the Palouse was like one big live-in laboratory for nonlinear aerodynamics and chaos theory. Not much was alive there, and so ones observations were not forever being clouded by trees, flowers, fauna, and the ploddingly linear and rational endeavors of humans. The Cascades blocked any of those warm, moist, refreshing Pacific breezes, harvesting their moisture to carpet ski areas for dewy-skinned Seattleites, and diverting what remained north to Vancouver or south to Portland. Consequently the Palouse had to get its air shipped down in bulk from the Yukon and British Columbia. It flowed across the blasted volcanic scab land of central Washington in (Randy supposed) a more or less continuous laminar sheet that, when it hit the rolling Palouse country, ramified into a vast system of floods, rivers and rivulets diverging around the bald swelling hills and recombining in the sere declivities. But it never recombined exactly the way it was before. The hills had thrown entropy into the system. Like a handful of nickels in a batch of bread dough this could be kneaded from place to place but never removed. The entropy manifested itself as swirls and violent gusts and ephemeral vortices. All of these things were clearly visible, because all summer the air was full of dust or smoke, and all winter it was full of windblown snow.
Whitman had dust devils (snow devils in the winter) in the way that medieval Guangzhou presumably had rats. Randy followed dust devils to school when he was a kid. Some were small enough that you could almost cup them in your hand, and some were like small tornadoes, fifty or a hundred feet high, that would appear on hilltops or atop shopping malls like biblical prophecies as filtered through the low-budget SFX technology and painfully literal-minded eye of a fifties epic film director. They at least scared the bejesus out of newcomers. When Randy got bored in school, he would look at the window and watch these things chase each other around the empty playground. Sometimes a roughly car-sized dust devil would glide across the four-square courts and between the swingsets and score a direct hit on the jungle gym, which was an old-fashioned, unpadded, child-paralyzing unit hammered together by some kind of Dark Ages ironmonger and planted in solid concrete, a real school-of-hard-knocks, survival-of-the-fittest one. The dust devil would seem to pause as it enveloped the jungle gym. It would completely lose its form and become a puff of dust that would begin to settle back down to the ground as all heavier-than-air things really ought to. But then suddenly the dust devil would reappear on the other side of the jungle gym and keep going. Or perhaps two dust devils would spin off in opposite directions.
Randy spent plenty of time chasing and carrying out impromptu experiments on dust devils while walking to and from school, to the point of getting bounced off the grille of a shrieking Buick once when he chased a roughly shopping-cart-sized one into the street in an attempt to climb into the center of it. He knew that they were both fragile and tenacious. You could stomp down on one of them and sometimes it would just dodge your foot, or swirl around it, and keep going. Other times, like if you tried to catch one in your hands, it would vanishbut then youd look up and see another one just like it twenty feet away, running away from you. The whole concept of matter spontaneously organizing itself into grotesquely improbable and yet indisputably self perpetuating and fairly robust systems sort of gave Randy the willies later on, when he began to learn about physics.
There was no room for dust devils in the laws of physics, as least in the rigid form in which they were usually taught. There is a kind of unspoken collusion going on in mainstream science education: you get your competent but bored, insecure and hence stodgy teacher talking to an audience divided between engineering students, who are going to be responsible for making bridges that wont fall down or airplanes that wont suddenly plunge vertically into the ground at six hundred miles an hour, and who by definition get sweaty palms and vindictive attitudes when their teacher suddenly veers off track and begins raving about wild and completely nonintuitive phenomena; and physics students, who derive much of their self-esteem from knowing that they are smarter and morally purer than the engineering students, and who by definition dont want to hear about anything that makes no fucking sense. This collusion results in the professor saying: (something along the lines of) dust is heavier than air, therefore it falls until it hits the ground. Thats all there is to know about dust. The engineers love it because they like their issues dead and crucified like butterflies under glass. The physicists love it because they want to think they understand everything. No one asks difficult questions. And outside the windows, the dust devils continue to gambol across the campus.
Now that Randys back in Whitman for the first time in several years, watching (because its winter) ice devils zigzagging across the Christmas-empty streets, he is inclined to take a longer view of the matter, which goes a little something like this: these devils, these vortices, are a consequence of hills and valleys that are probably miles and miles upwind. Basically, Randy, who has blown in from out of town, is in a mobile frame of mind, and is seeing things from the winds frame of referencenot the stationary frame of reference of the little boy who rarely left town. From the winds frame of reference, it (the wind) is stationary and the hills and valleys are moving things that crumple the horizon and then rush towards it and then interfere with it and go away, leaving the wind to sort out consequences later on down the line. And some of the consequences are dust or ice devils. If there was more stuff in the way, like expansive cities filled with buildings, or forests filled with leaves and branches, then that would be the end of the story; the wind would become completely deranged and cease to exist as a unitary thing, and all of the aerodynamic action would be at the incomprehensible scale of micro-vortices around pine needles and car antennas.
A case in point would be the parking lot of Waterhouse House, which is normally filled with cars and therefore a complete wind-killer. You arent going to see dust devils at the downwind edge of a full parking lot, just a generalized seepage of dead and decayed wind. But it is Christmas break and there are all of three cars parked in this space, which doubles as football-overflow and hence is about the size of an artillery practice range. The asphalt is dead-monitor-screen grey. A volatile gas of ice swirls across it as freely as a sheen of fuel on warm water, except where it strikes the icy sarcophagi of these three abandoned vehicles, which have evidently been sitting in this otherwise empty lot for a couple of weeks now, since all of the other cars went away on Christmas break. Each car has become the first cause of a system of wakes and standing vortices that extends downstream for hundreds of yards. The wind here is a glinting abrasive thing, a perpetual, face-shredding, eyeball-poking tendency in the fabric of spacetime, inhabited by vast platinum-blond arcs of fire that are centered on the low winter sun. Crystalline water is suspended in it all the time, is why: shards of ice that are smaller than snowflakesprobably just individual legs of snowflakes that have been sheared off and borne into the air as the wind snapped and rattled over the crests of Canadian snow-dunes. Once airborne, they stay airborne unless they find themselves ducted into some pocket of dead air: the eye of a vortex or the still boundary layer of a dead cars parking-lot wake. And so over the weeks the vortices and standing waves have become visible, like three-dimensional virtual-reality renderings of themselves.
Waterhouse House rises above this tableau, a high-rise dorm that no person prominent enough to have a dorm named after him would want to have named after him. Out of its climatically inappropriate acreage of picture window shines the same embarrassing, greenish light radiated by algae-scummed domestic aquaria. Janitors are going through it with machines the size of hot dog carts, wrangling these mile-long coils of thumb-thick orange power cable, steaming beer vomit and artificial popcorn-butter lipids up out of the thin grey mats that, when Randy was there, seemed not so much like carpet as references to carpeting or carpet signifiers. When Randy now pulls into the main vehicle entrance, past the big tombstone that says waterhouse house, he cannot but look straight out the windshield and through the dorms front windows and straight at a large portrait of his grandfather, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouseone of a dozen or so figures, mostly departed now, who compete for the essentially bogus title of "inventor of the digital computer." The portrait is securely bolted to the cinderblock wall of the lobby and imprisoned under a half-inch-thick slab of Plexiglas that must be replaced every couple of years, as it fogs from repeated scrubbings and petty vandalizations. Seen through this milky cataract, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is grimly resplendent in full doctoral robes. He has one foot up on something, his elbow planted on the elevated knee, and has tucked his robes back behind the other arm and planted his fist on his hip. It is meant to be a sort of dynamic posture, but to Randy, who at the age of five was present for its unveiling, it has a kind of incredulous what-the-hell-are-those-little-people-doing-down-there vibe about it.
Other than the three dead cars in their shells of hardened, dust-infused ice, there is nothing in the parking lot save about two dozen items of antique furniture and a few other treasures such as a complete sterling silver tea service and a dark, time-wracked trunk. As Randy pulls in with his Uncle Red and his Aunt Nina, he notes that the Shaftoe boys have discharged the responsibilities for which they will be drawing minimum wage plus twenty-five percent all day long: namely they have moved all of these items from where Uncle Geoff and Auntie Anne placed them back to the Origin.
In a gesture of companionship and/or uncle-esque bonhomie, Uncle Red, much to the evident resentment of Aunt Nina, has claimed the Acuras passenger seat, leaving Aunt Nina marooned in the back where she evidently feels much more psychically isolated than the situation would seem to warrant. She makes lateral sliding motions trying to center the eyes of first Randy, then Uncle Red, in the rearview minor. Randy has taken to relying solely on the outside rearview mirrors during the ten-minute drive over from the hotel, because when he glances at the inside one he keeps seeing Aunt Ninas dilated pupils aimed down his throat like twin shotgun barrels. The blast of the heater/defroster forms a pocket of auditory isolation back there which on top of her already prominent feelings of near-animal rage and stress have left her volatile and obviously dangerous.
Randy heads straight for the Origin, as in the intersection of the X and Y axes, which is marked by a light pole with its very own multiton system of wind-deposited wakes and vortices.
"Look," says Uncle Red, "all we want to accomplish here is to make sure that your mothers legacy, if that is the correct term for the possessions of one who is not actually dead but merely moved into a long-term care facility, is equally divided among her five offspring. Am I right?"
This is not addressed to Randy, but he nods anyway, trying to show a united front. He has been grinding his teeth for two days straight; the places where his jaw-muscles anchor to his skull have become the foci of tremendous radiating systems of surging and pulsing pain.
"I think youd agree that an equal division is all we want," Uncle Red continues. "Correct?"
After a worrisomely long pause, Aunt Nina nods. Randy manages to glimpse her face in the rearview as she makes another dramatic lateral move, and sees there a look of almost nauseous trepidation, as if this equal-division concept might be some Jesuitical snare.
"Now, heres the interesting part," says Uncle Red, who is the chairman of the mathematics department at Okaley College in Macomb, Illinois. "How do we define equal? This is what your brothers, and brothers-in-law, and Randy and I were debating so late into the night last night. If we were dividing up a stack of currency, it would be easy, because currency has a monetary value that is printed right on its face, and the bills are interchangeableno one gets emotionally attached to a particular dollar bill."
"This is why we should have an objective appraiser"
"But everyones going to disagree with what the appraiser says, Nina, love," says Uncle Red. "Furthermore, the appraiser will totally miss out on the emotional dimension, which evidently looms very large here, or so it would seem, based on the, uh, lets say melodramatic character of the, uh, discussion, if discussion isnt too dignified a term for what some might perceive as more of a, well, catfight, that you and your sisters were conducting all day yesterday."
Randy nods almost imperceptibly. He pulls up and parks next to the furniture that is again clustered around the Origin. At the edge of the parking lot, near where the Y axis (here denoting perceived emotional value) meets a retaining wall, the Shaftoes hot rod sits, all steamed up on the inside.
"The question reduces," Uncle Red says, "to a mathematical one: how do you divide up an inhomogeneous set of n objects among m people (or couples actually); i.e., how do you partition the set into m subsets (S1,S2, . . . ,Sm) such that the value of each subset is as close as possible to being equal?"
"It doesnt seem that hard," Aunt Nina begins weakly. She is a professor of Qwghlmian linguistics.
"It is actually shockingly difficult," Randy says. "It is closely akin to the Knapsack Problem, which is so difficult to solve that it has been used as the basis for cryptographic systems."
"And thats not even taking into account that each of the couples would appraise the value of each of the n objects differently!" Uncle Red shouts. By this point, Randy has shut off the car, and the windows have begun to steam up. Uncle Red pulls off a mitten and begins to draw figures in the fog on the windshield, using it like a blackboard. "For each of the m people (or couples) there exists an n-element value vector, V, where V1 is the value that that particular couple would place on item number 1 (according to some arbitrary numeration system) and V2 is the value they would place on item number 2 and so on all the way up to item number n. These m vectors, taken together, form a value matrix. Now, we can impose the condition that each vector must total up to the same amount; i.e., we can just arbitrarily specify some notional value for the entire collection of furniture and other goods and impose the condition that
[missing image from page 625]
where [tau] is a constant."
"But we might all have different opinions as to what the total value is, as well!" says Aunt Nina, gamely.
"That has no impact mathematically," Randy whispers.
"It is just an arbitrary scaling factor!" Uncle Red says witheringly. "This is why I ended up agreeing with your brother Tom, though I didnt at first, that we should take a cue from the way he and the other relativistic physicists do it, and just arbitrarily set [tau] = 1. Which forces us to deal with fractional values, which I thought some of the ladies, present company excluded of course, might find confusing, but at least it emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the scaling factor and helps to eliminate that source of confusion." Uncle Tom tracks asteroids in Pasadena for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"Theres the Gomer Bolstrood console," Aunt Nina exclaims, rubbing a hole in the fog on her window, and then continuing to orbitally rub away with the sleeve of her coat as if she is going to abrade an escape route through the safety glass. "Just sitting out in the snow!"
"Its not actually precipitating," Uncle Red says, "this is just blowing snow. It is absolutely bone dry, and if you go out and look at the console or whatever you call it, you will find that the snow is not melting on it at all, because it has been sitting out in the U-Stor-It ever since your mother moved to the managed care facility and it has equilibrated to the ambient temperature which I think we can all testify is well below zero Celsius."
Randy crosses his arms over his abdomen, leans his head back, and closes his eyes. The tendons in his neck are as stiff as subzero Silly Putty and resist painfully.
"That console was in my bedroom from the time I was born until I left for college," Aunt Nina says. "By any decent standard of justice, that console is mine."
"Well, that brings me to the breakthrough that Randy and Tom and Geoff and I finally came up with at about two A.M., namely that the perceived economic value of each item, as complicated as that is in and of itself, viz the Knapsack Problem, is only one dimension of the issues that have got us all on such a jagged emotional edge. The other dimensionand here I really do mean dimension in a Euclidean geometry senseis the emotional value of each item. That is, in theory we could come up with a division of the set of all pieces of furniture that would give you, Nina, an equal share. But such a division might leave you, love, just deeply, deeply unsatisfied because you didnt get that console, which, though its obviously not as valuable as say the grand piano, has much greater emotional value to you."
"I dont think its out of the question that I would commit physical violence in order to defend my rightful ownership of that console," Aunt Nina says, suddenly reverting to a kind of dead-voiced frigid calm.
"But thats not necessary, Nina, because we have created this whole setup here just so that you can give your feelings the full expression they deserve!"
"Okay. What do I do?" Aunt Nina says, bolting from the car. Randy and Uncle Red hastily gather up their gloves and mittens and hats and follow her out. She is now hovering over the console, watching the dust of ice swirl across the dark but limpid, virtually glowing surface of the console in the turbulent wake of her body, forming little Mandelbrotian epi-epi-epi-vortices.
"As Geoff and Anne did before us, and the others will do afterwards, we are going to move each of these items to a specific position, as in (x, y) coordinates, in the parking lots. The x axis runs this way," Uncle Red says, facing the Waterhouse House and holding his arms out in a cruciform attitude, "and the y axis this way." He toddles around ninety degrees so that one of his hands is now pointing at the Shaftoes Impala. "Perceived financial value is measured by x. The farther in that direction it is, the more valuable you think it is. You might even assign something a negative x value if you think it has negative valuee.g., that overstuffed chair over therewhich might cost more to re-upholster than it is actually worth. Likewise, the y axis measures perceived emotional value. Now, we have established that the console has extreme emotional value to you and so I think that we can just go right ahead and move it down the line over to where the Impala is located."
"Can something have negative emotional value?" Aunt Nina says, sourly and probably rhetorically.
"If you hate it so much that just owning it would cancel out the emotional benefits of having something like the console, then yes," Uncle Red says.
Randy hoists the console onto his shoulder and begins to walk in a positive y direction. The Shaftoe boys are available to hump furniture at a moments notice, but Randy needs to mark a bit of territory here, just to indicate that he is not without some masculine attributes himself and so he ends up carrying more furniture than he probably needs to. Back at the Origin, he can hear Red and Nina going at it. "I have a problem with this," Nina says. "Whats to prevent her from just putting every thing down at the extreme y axisclaiming that everything is terribly emotionally important to her?" Her in this case can only mean Aunt Rachel, the wife of Tom. Rachel is a multiethnic East Coast urbanite who is not blessed or afflicted with the obligatory Waterhousian diffidence and so has always been regarded as a sort of living incarnation of rapacity, a sucking maw of need. The worst-case scenario here is that Rachel somehow goes home with everythingthe grand piano, the silver, the china, the Gomer Bolstrood dining room set. Hence the need for elaborate rules and rituals, and a booty division system that is mathematically provable as fair.
"Thats where [tau sub e] and [tau sub $] enter into it," Uncle Red says soothingly.
[missing image page 628]
"All of our choices will be mathematically scaled so that they add up to the same total values on both the emotional and financial scales. So if someone clumped everything together in the extreme corner, then, after scaling, itd be as if they never expressed any preferences at all."
Randy nears the steamed-up Impala. One of the doors makes a crackling noise as superannuated weatherstripping peels away from steel. Robin Shaftoe emerges, breathes into his cupped hands, and takes a parade-rest position, signifying that he is available to discharge any responsibilities out here on the Cartesian coordinate plane. Randy looks up over the Impala and the retaining wall and the ice-clogged xeriscape above that and into the lobby of Waterhouse House, where Amy Shaftoe has her feet up on a coffee table and is looking through some of the extremely sad Cayuse-related literature that Randy bought for Avi. She looks down and smiles at him and just barely, he thinks, restrains the impulse to reach up and twirl one finger around her ear.
"Thats good, Randy!" shouts Uncle Red from the Origin, "now we need to give it some x!" Meaning that the console is not devoid of economic value either. Randy does a right-face and begins to walk into the (+x, +y) quadrant, counting the yellow lines. "Give it about four parking spaces! Thats good!" Randy plonks the console down, then pulls a pad of graph paper out of his coat, whips back the first sheet, which contains the (x,y) scatterplot of Uncle Geoff and Auntie Anne, and notes down the coordinates of the console. Sound carries in the Palouse, and from the Origin he can hear Aunt Nina saying to Uncle Red, "How much of our [tau sub e] have we just spent on that console?"
"If we leave everything else down here at y equals zero, a hundred percent after scaling," Uncle Red says. "Otherwise it depends on how we distribute these things in the y dimension." Which is of course the correct answer, albeit totally useless.
If these days in Whitman dont make Amy flee from Randy in terror, nothing will, and so hes glad in a sick way that she is seeing this. The subject of his family has not really come up until now. Randy is not given to talking about his family because he feels there is nothing to report: small town, good education, shame and self-esteem doled out in roughly equal quantities and usually where warranted. Nothing spectacular along the lines of grotesque psychopathologies, sexual abuse, massive, shocking trauma, or Satanic rallies in the backyard. So normally when people are talking about their families, Randy just shuts up and listens, feeling that he has nothing to say. His familial anecdotes are so tame, so pedestrian, that it would be presumptuous even to relate them, especially after someone else has just divulged something really shocking or horrific.
But standing there and looking at these vortices he starts to wonder. Some peoples insistence that "Today I: smoke/am overweight/have a shitty attitude/am depressed because: my mom died of cancer/my uncle put his thumb up my butt/my dad hit me with a razor strop" seems kind of overly deterministic to Randy; it seems to reflect a kind of lazy or half-witted surrender to bald teleology. Basically, if everyone has a vested interest in believing that they understand everything, or even that people are capable in principle of understanding it (either because believing this dampens their insecurities about the unpredictable world, or makes them feel more intelligent than others, or both) then you have an environment in which dopey, reductionist, simple-minded, pat, glib thinking can circulate, like wheelbarrows filled with inflated currency in the marketplaces of Jakarta.
But things like the ability of some students dead car to spawn repeating patterns of thimble-sized vortices a hundred yards downwind would seem to argue in favor of a more cautious view of the world, an openness to the full and true weirdness of the Universe, an admission of our limited human faculties. And if youve gotten to this point, then you can argue that growing up in a family devoid of gigantic and obvious primal psychological forces, and living a life touched by many subtle and even forgotten influences rather than one or two biggies (e.g., active participation in the Church of Satan) can lead, far downwind, to consequences that are not entirely devoid of interest. Randy hopes, but very much doubts, that America Shaftoe, sitting up there in the algae-colored light reading about the inadvertent extermination of the Cayuse, sees it this way.
Randy rejoins his aunt at the Origin. Uncle Red has been explaining to her, somewhat condescendingly, that they must pay careful attention to the distribution of items on the economic scale, and for his troubles he has been sent on a long, lonely walk down the +x axis carrying the complete silver tea service. "Why couldnt we just have stayed inside and worked this all out on paper?" Aunt Nina asks.
"It was felt that there was value in physically moving this stuff around, giving people a direct physical analog of the value-assertions that they were making," Randy says. "Also that it would be useful to appraise this stuff literally in the cold light of day." As opposed to ten or twelve emotionally fraught people clambering around a packed-to-the-ceiling U-Stor-It locker with flashlights, sniping at each other from behind the armoires.
"Once weve all made our choices, then what? You sit down and figure it out on a spreadsheet, or something?"
"It is much too computationally intensive to be solved that way. Probably a genetic algorithm is called forcertainly there wont be a mathematically exact solution. My father knows a researcher in Geneva who has done work on problems isomorphic to this one, and sent him e-mail last night. With any luck we will be able to ftp some suitable software and get it running on the Tera."
"Tera. As in Teraflops."
"That does me no good at all. When you say as in you are supposed to give me something more familiar to relate it to."
"It is one of the ten fastest computers on the planet. Do you see that red brick building just to the right of the end of the -y axis," Randy says, pointing down the hill, "just behind the new gym?"
"The one with all the antennas?"
"Yes. The Tera machine is in there. It was made by a company in Seattle."
"It must have been very expensive."
"My dad talked them out of it."
"Yes!" says Uncle Red cheerfully, returning from high-x-value territory. "The man is a legendary donation-raiser."
"He must have a persuasive side to him that I have not been perceptive enough to notice yet," Aunt Nina says, wandering curiously towards some large cardboard boxes.
"No," Randy says, "its more like he just goes in and flops around on the conference table until they become so embarrassed for his sake that they agree to sign the check."
"Youve seen him do this?" Aunt Nina says skeptically, sizing up a box labeled constituents of upstairs linen closet.
"Heard about it. High-tech is a small town," Randy says.
"Hes been able to make great capital of his fathers work," Uncle Red says. "If my father had patented even one of his computer inventions, Palouse College would be bigger than Harvard, and so on."
Aunt Nina has got the box open now. It is almost completely filled by a single Qwghlmian blanket, in a dark greyish-brown on dark brownish-grey plaid. The blanket in question is about an inch thick, and, during wintertime family reunions, was infamous as a booby prize of sorts among the Waterhouse grandchildren. The smell of mothballs, mildew, and heavily oiled wool causes Aunt Ninas nose to wrinkle, as it did Aunt Annies before her. Randy remembers bedding down beneath this blanket once at the age of about nine, and waking up at two in the morning with bronchial spasms, hyperthermia, and vague memories of a nightmare about being buried alive. Aunt Nina slams the box flaps shut, turns around, and looks in the direction of the Impala. Robin Shaftoe is already running towards them. Being not bad at math himself, he was quick to pick up on this whole concept, and knows from experience that the blanket box will have to be trundled deep out into (-x,-y) territory.
"I guess Im just worried," Aunt Nina says, "about having my preferences mediated by this supercomputer. I have tried to make it clear what I want. But will the computer understand that?" She has paused by the ceramics box in a way that is tantalizing Randy, who badly wants to have a look inside, but doesnt want to arouse suspicions. Hes the referee and is sworn to objectivity. "Forget the china," she says, "too old-ladyish."
Uncle Red wanders over and disappears behind one of the dead cars, presumably to take a leak. Aunt Nina says, "How about you, Randy? As the eldest son of the eldest son, you must have some feelings about this."
"No doubt when my parents time comes, they will pass on some of Grandma and Grandpas legacy to me," Randy says.
"Oh, very circumspect. Well done," Aunt Nina says. "But as the only grandchild who has any memories of your grandfather at all, there must be something here that you might like to have."
"Therell probably be some odds and ends that nobody wants," Randy says. Then like an almost perfect moronlike an organism genetically engineered to be a total, stupid idiotRandy glances directly at the Trunk. Then he tries to hide it, which only makes it more conspicuous. He guesses that his mostly beardless face must be an open book, and wishes he had never shaved. A bullet of ice strikes him in the right cornea with a nearly audible splot. The ballistic impact blinds him and the thermal shock gives him an ice-cream headache. When he recovers enough to see again, Aunt Nina is walking around the trunk, kind of spiraling in towards it in a rapidly decaying orbit. "Hmm. Whats in here?" She grips the handle at one end and finds she can barely get it off the ground.
"Old Japanese code books. Bundles of ETC cards."
"Yes, maam!" says Marcus Aurelius Shaftoe, returning from the double-negative quadrant.
"What is the angle exactly in between the +x and +y axes?" Aunt Nina asks. "I would ask the referee, here, but Im beginning to have doubts about his objectivity."
M.A. glances at Randy and decides he had best interpret this last comment as good-natured familial horsing-around. "Would you like that in radians or degrees, maam?"
"Neither. Just demonstrate it for me. Take this great big trunk on that strong back of yours and just split the middle between +x and +y axes and keep walking until I say when."
"Yes, maam. M.A. hefts the trunk and starts walking, frequently looking back and forth to verify that hes exactly in the middle. Robin stands off at a safe distance watching with interest.
Uncle Red, returning from his piss-break, watches this in horror. "Nina! Love! Thats not worth the cost of shipping it home! What on earth are you doing?"
"Making sure I get what I want," Nina says.
Randy gets a small part of what he wants two hours later, when his own mother breaks the seal on the ceramics box to verify that the china is in good condition. At the time, Randy and his father are standing next to the Trunk. It is rather late in his parents value-plotting work and so pieces of fine furniture are now widely scattered across the parking lot, looking like the aftermath of one of those tornadoes that miraculously sets things down intact after whirling them through the skies for ten miles. Randy is trying to find a way to talk up the emotional value of this trunk without violating his oath of objectivity. The chances of anyone other than Nina ending up with this trunk are actually quite miserable, since she (to Reds horror) left almost everything clumped around the Origin except for it and the coveted Console. But if Dad would at least move the thing off dead centerwhich no one except Nina has donethen, if the Tera awards it to him tomorrow morning, Randy can plausibly argue that its something other than a computer error. But Dad is taking most of his cues from Mom and is having none of it.
Mom has bitten her gloves off and is parting layer after layer of crumpled newsprint with magenta hands. "Oh, the gravy boat!" she exclaims, and hoists up something that is more of a heavy cruiser than a boat. Randy agrees with Aunt Nina that the design is old-ladyish in the extreme, but thats kind of tautological since he has only seen it in the house of his grandmother, who has been an old lady for as long as he has known her. Randy walks towards his mother with his hands in his pockets, still trying to play it cool for some reason. This obsession with secrecy may have gone a bit far. He has seen this gravy boat maybe twenty times in his life, always at family reunions, and seeing it now roils up a whole silt-cloud of long-settled emotions. He reaches out, and Mom remits it to his mittened hands. He pretends to admire it from the side, and then flips it over to read the words glazed on the bottom. royal albertlavender rose.
For a moment he is sweating under a vertical sun, swaying to keep his balance on a rocking boat, smelling the neoprene of hoses and flippers. Then hes back in the Palouse. He begins thinking about how to sabotage the computer program to ensure that Aunt Nina gets what she wants, so that shell give him what is rightfully his.