FEEL GOOD! Wasn’t that the current mode for urban living? Sandy sat before her switchboard collaging magazine images and thinking about the dangers of neo-narcissism. She was, she knew, beginning to believe that exterior reality conformed to her own visions. She was also aware of a new, maniacal sense of her life’s destiny. Sandy distrusted, but could not control, these inclinations. Her collage, resting on the board, seemed terribly inadequate next to an ordinary ·plastic folder pocked with cigarette burns.
Through its transparent cover, she read down a familiar list of businesses: a call-girl ring, a doggie diner, an auction house, an information network, an international shipping firm, and eight other places. Each line contained a phone number and an assigned box number for messages. These lines of type made up the waking hours of Sandy’s shift.
She put the collage in a drawer, thinking cynically, Where are you random dialers? It’s three AM – time for “Wire Songs.”
A black hole lit. Sandy plugged, curious. She had never before heard a beep in the ringing sequence. A breathy male voice asked, “Are you alone? Can I come over?”
The breathiness reached rhythmic hyperventilation: “PLEASE LEAVE YOUR NAME AND NUMBER FOR me to make DI-RECT CONTACT … Bweep!”
The tone was bad, nosily reverberating through a bad speaker. Sandy replugged with her best imitation of the tap: IF YOU WISH to leave a message, SPEAK WHEN YOU hear the beep, you have THREE MINUTES TO complete this call … BWEEP!”
The tape ran over her words: “WE PHRASE MESSAGES TO REFLECT your most INTIMATE SENTIMENTS. But, if you prefer YOUR OWN WORDS AND DELIVERY, we provide equipment rental and UNLISTED DISTRIBUTION. BROCHURE AND CONFIDENTIAL consultation are available.” The odd syncopation made her cringe.
Sandy detached the cord completely. How loony she had been to answer. There was nothing as obnoxious as a random recording. She noted in her call log that machine-made solicitations added a beep to the ring. She also lit a cigarette, hoping the practice wasn’t a trend.
A red warning light took shape. She had forgotten about the new smoke alarm. With her keychain wire-cutter, she snipped the miniscule wires. Thanks to a matchbook electronics course, the operation was tidy.
Sandy wasn’t a habitual smoker. Tonight was a night of bad habits surfacing, like her past. Unwelcome, a reminder had slipped under the door of the loft. The print was small, except for the return address: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION. The message was sinister: DEPORATION. She had one week before the top deck of a cattle boat or a plush seat in a DC-10 with an officer padlocked at her side.
“Alexis Stanifraz,” her real name, stared at her from the card, unfamiliar. Who would know it? Her friends only knew a few aliases. Sandy lifted a glass of water and slid the card underneath it. Rings of moisture on the board sometimes caused shocks. She realized that her dad had betrayed her. But that was not the issue. It was a matter of choices. Marry an American in a week? Go further underground? Sandy’s mind blocked out the horror of deportation with an unprecedented result. She fell asleep at her board, sliding into a reoccurring dream.
She was a Cro-Magnon creature painting a mural on a cave wall. She used a porcupine quill brush and berry dyes. The brush was too thick to delineate gazelles. She loosened the gut, selecting one quill. Dipping repeatedly, she painted delicate legs and hooves. The scene took shape; a herd of gazelles were chased by a herd of buffalo, the buffalo were chased by a herd of hunters with flat spear points.
A yell! A rough group of Cro-Magnon hunters entered, sloughing a carcass on the packed dirt floor. One tore a limb, denuding the raw meat from the bone. It was a gazelle limb. Later, she knew the men would hollow the fine bone to make resonant flutes inhabited by the gazelle’s spirit. Horrified, she threw the ravaged carcass into a pot of boiling water. The men had no sense of decency, or of the purifying uses of fire. While they slept, she sealed up the cave. Outside, the plain was burnt, the sun barbaric. Spear high, she pursued the massive buffalo, her blood richly primal with the challenge, her heart haunted by the dead gazelle. Sex role envy? Avenging maternal instinct? Neither. Sandy’s parental halves warred in her psyche. The protector of the gazelle and the buffalo hunter were the same pagan God, the missing link of sexual androgyny.
Sandy woke with shame for such a hostile dream. She thought it reeked of patricide and she had always loved her father, a G.I. deserter with a talent for impersonation and fishery. No one in that Greek village knew he came from Slovak stock out of the Minnesota heartland. No one, that is, but Sandy’s mom, an Englishwoman who met her dad in the Athenian cafe where he first joked, “To hell with the war, I’ll fish the Aegean.”
Her mom thought it was a joke until their two-week honeymoon stretched two years past Sandy’s birth. Her ticket to the States turned out to be a Greek enthusiast infatuated with living mythology. She found solace with a minor shipping magnate.
Sandy had been a motherless, brash sixteen, rebellious enough to find him out. While shaving, in clear American, he sang “Sweet Georgia Brown.” After Sandy caught him with other tunes, her loud rock ‘n’ roll became more than the usual teenager’s taunt of hypocrisy. Fearful of exposure, her dad ranted against her and the country that produced such static, irretrievably linking both. Sandy exaggerated her alien half with short skirts, snapping fingers, and lipstick pre-smeared to infer usage.
But Sandy also had a secret, the pain of deep buckling cramps not unusual in adolescent girls. Her dad took her painful grimaces for arrogance, her speechlessness for censure. She took the ferry to Athens where a friend’s doctor gave her some tiny pink pills. They came on a round card designating the days of the month. Though her religious training declared Partum Novum contraceptives a sin, Sandy believed they would regulate her periods. Her dad discovered them during a fight. A slap, a slammed gate. He condemned her as a whore, never to come back. Sandy had been a virgin. She would be formed in exile. In Europe and Australia, Japan, and the United States; she was lonely, but it didn’t pertain. She adopted a maverick’s philosophy, a gritty, teenaged existentialism. “Object is Essence,” became her rallying cry. She misconstrued a French philosopher, dosed it with German nihilism, and passed across to post-‘Nam New York, where she found herself at home in exile.
She had, she thought in retrospect, no more ill feelings toward her dad. There was something wild and testy about his adventurous self-exile, the same stubborn spirit she saw in herself. The problem was not with him, but the institutions he had fled. Nostalgically, she remembered him pretending to be sullen at getting up so early–secretly happy as he pulled in the gleaming nets. So what if he had blown the whistle? Maybe he just wanted to see her. Maybe he was growing old alone.
A brightening red light interrupted her reflections. It was Mr. Dio’s client line. Sandy plugged immediately since he was her favorite.
“De Long Shipping.”
‘Hi, Mr. Dio. How’s your boardroom?”
“Good-looking, not bad, trading ups and downs, the deficit end of the cycle.”
“Same here. How’s the World Gazette, selling anything new?”
“We’re stocking Arizona dust.”
“A new Dust Bowl?”
“It’s not funny. Good consistency. They use it for missiles. Seems the cleaning apparatus needs practice.”
“I don’t think listening to my problems is in your job description.”
“So, I always do.”
“Sandy, absolution is a scarce commodity.”
“Dust is used to test the circuitry in missiles. If a microdot is present in any electrical component, it could misfire to the wrong continent. But, it could never happen.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’ve seen those designs in the drawing stages. Five by eights reduced and imprinted on film. The lines of the circuitry are transferred to plastic discs. The discs are scrutinized by lasers. The final product is inspected for dust particles by a negative ion light, and if defective, automatically discarded. So, it’ll never happen.”
“The problem is the cleaning apparatus and the apparatus used to inspect the cleaning apparatus are made up of the same sensitive circuitry. Now, if a particle makes the original apparatus defective, the rest of the process is ineffectual. It becomes a matter of form.”
“What bar are you at Mr. Dio?”
“I’m home, actually. My warehouse is filled with Arizona dust.”
Sandy lit another cigarette. “By whom, and for what?”
“We ship to all competitive global powers, depending on the guidelines set by multinationals for missile control. A Yugoslavian intermediary has ordered huge shipments of dust.”
“What are you doing with it?”
“My peace plan. I’ve built a huge sandbox. I’m sitting in the middle of it. They won’t proceed to assemble without my dust. Do you know it’s the best test quality available in the world?” He sneezed loudly. “I’m also allergic to it. Isn’t that ironic?”
“How much time do you have before they locate another source?”
“I have the monopoly. I can claim back orders for about a week if I keep dumping on private properties. Still, it’s only temporary since they’ll settle for an inferior grade once they realize I’m stalling. Dust as a weapon … maybe I’m overexcited … I know I’m stewed …”
“Drunk. Mr. Dio, take a room away from the dust.”
“A gesture, Sandy, an attempt at a noble gesture. I was always the kind who believed
“I know that.”
“I wanted to tell someone unconnected. If you can think of someway for the gesture to have relevance…”
“Mr.Dio, I have something in mind, I’ll need collaborators. Are you game?”
“Give me a budget estimate.”
“Soon.” She unplugged.
There seemed a mystical synchronicity between the dust build-up and her deportation. Her personal nihilism was easily elevated to a role larger than herself. The destruction of a city became the illumination of a nation. PHOENIX was her improvised code name for a mandala-shaped operation to be imposed on the city. Spokes, representing main arteries cut off by dump truck loads of dust, would radiate from her headquarters at “Ad-A-Line Answering Service.”
PHOENIX. Five grand might cover the operation, including dust crew, electronics experts, decoys for police, and media insiders. As the sole broadcaster, she would read a non-propagandistic statement, frightening for its lack of political affiliation. As people panicked, the socioeconomic fabric would be shed. Afterwards, during the rebuilding, a new ethic would be forged for the run-down city.
Abruptly, she was halted in her grandiose madness. An image of the AG had unaccountably come to mind. Wearing a futuristic gardening suit, the AG stood in the middle of the dust debacle, waving a trowel. Sandy thought it would be just like her.
She remembered the first time they had shared a bottle. Tenderly, the AG had turned over Sandy’s right hand. Her voice was compassionate. “A Simian Cross. It’s found on both hands in ninety percent of all Mongoloids. On one hand of a normal person, it’s the sign of sinners and saints, psychopaths with no conscience, and the most dedicated of artists and priests. Those tortured by the pursuit of truth in good and evil.”
“What does that mean?”
“Thought and feeling are compressed in one straight line. Still, an attempt is being made to release the tension. See how on your left hand the line forms an end for a natural heart line? Your inner self is more evolved than your actions may show.”
Sandy recalled the fishing village that worshipped catastrophe as the just act of a violent God. Perhaps, now, she was trying to become that same God. The insight repulsed her. No, she would disappear and start again. There were other towns to get lost in.
A buzz begged to be answered. It was Sandy’s least favorite client. She plugged, turned up the tenser and said, “345-4621, can I help you?”
“Babykins,” said a congealed voice, “It’s Sid.”
“You want your messages, Mr. Erickson?”
“Don’t you want to hear about my week?”
“How was it?”
“The ponies been running good. Blue ribbons out front, daily doubles in the pocket. Sweepstakes tickets to Norway, the whole bonus bit. Honey, you ought to retire to something slow you can take lying down, like my stable. Yours is a high stress occupation. Only corporate execs and waitresses can claim …”
“I’ve seen the reports.”
“I’m a nice Joe. My girls get the best pastures, free health care /benefit package, and your private life is private! I’m a modern businessman, not a shrink.”
”Stop pitching, Sid,” Sandy said with instant regret, realizing a put-down would be encouraging.
“Tell me, are you blonde, brunette, redhead; weighing 105, 110, or 115? 5’1”, 3”, 5”, 9”?”
”Bald, 4’, 11”, and 200 lbs. ”
“Don’t give me that!”
“I have, as you know, three minutes per call, ten seconds left on this one. You want your messages or not?” Sandy reached into box 621 and pulled out a slip of pink paper.
“9:20, Alma called. She said no straphangers or strap-ons, especially Japanese. There’s an asterisk. She’s surcharging you for the sexual toys.”
“No kidding! College girls have high expectations.”
Sandy twisted the ear piece at an angle away from her ear.
“Sandy, don’t you want some Big-A action?”
“Is that like reaction? What you want? Naughtiness is boring.”
“You can’t treat me like this. I want a fair tumble. Noon when you’re off or I get you axed, are we communicating?”
“Promises,promises… Sid, you’re in the dark ages. I can charge you for sexual harassment.”
“I’ll tell your boss you propositioned me.”
Sandy disconnected. It paid to keep her responses consistent.
BUZZ-BUZZ-BEEP … B.UZZ-BUZZ-BEEP. Sandy plugged, though she knew it was the random recording. She was too edgy to let it ring.
“WE PHRASE MESSAGES TO REFLECT YOUR MOST INTIMATE SENTIMENTS.”
Sid came over the breathy voice.
“Now, what do you really want, but are too scared to say? Who do you want to say it to? I’ll give you a free message just to ease my curiosity.”
“Sid, was that you?”
“A subsidiary. I’m diversifying.”
“Is that service used by police and public figures?”
“Some of them have even subscribed.”
“I get a commission on ‘Ad-A-Line’ sales. I’ll swap my client list, all the shifts, for yours.”
“Only if you come with it.”
“Nope. A straight deal, no fringe.”
“That’s a hard way to bargain.”
“I’ll send you a confirmation.”
Sandy unplugged, glad to have Sid’s list. The names, addresses, and sexual proclivities would be useful to her decoy squad.
Excitedly, Sandy pulled out the drawer containing her collage. It looked good. She HAD succeeded in transforming abstract pictorial units into a new form. The same could be done 3-D, with the whole city! To hell with the AG. What did she know about the normal drives for wealth and power?
Struggling to run-down the AG, Sandy fixed on the glass of water on her switchboard. OBJECT IS ESSENCE, the existential phrase, came to mind. Though seeming passive, the AG embodied a force and completeness Sandy lacked. Like the inert glass, she thought, the AG had more reality than she. Sandy drank the water and pushed the drawer in, emphatically.
She turned down the tenser and set up a projector, in order to run the videotapes she shot so casually all over the city. She stopped at intervals; resting on key sites for the spokes of her mandala. These she marked with a red “X” for later