excerpts from stories in
stable strategies and others

Stable Strategies for Middle Management
Coming to Terms
Lichen and Rock
Fellow Americans

from Stable Strategies for Middle Management

I dragged myself out of bed, wondering how I was going to drink my coffee through a stiletto. Was I now expected to kill my breakfast, and dispense with coffee entirely? I hoped I was not evolving into a creature whose survival depended on early-morning alertness. My circadian rhythms would no doubt keep pace with any physical changes, but my unevolved soul was repulsed at the thought of my waking cheerfully at dawn, ravenous for some wriggly little creature that had arisen even earlier.

I looked down at Greg, still asleep, the edge of our red and white quilt pulled up under his chin. His mouth had changed during the night too, and seemed to contain some sort of a long probe. Were we growing apart?

I reached down with my unchanged hand and touched his hair. It was still shiny brown, soft and thick, luxurious. But along his cheek, under his beard, I could feel patches of sclerotin, as the flexible chitin in his skin was slowly hardening to an impermeable armor.

He opened his eyes, staring blearily forward without moving his head. I could see him move his mouth cautiously, examining its internal changes. He turned his head and looked up at me, rubbing his hair slightly into my hand.

“Time to get up?” he asked. I nodded. “Oh God,” he said. He said this every morning. It was like a prayer.

“I'll make coffee,” I said. “Do you want some?”

He shook his head slowly. “Just a glass of apricot nectar,” he said. He unrolled his long, rough tongue and looked at it, slightly cross-eyed. “This is real interesting, but it wasn't in the catalog. I'll be sipping lunch from flowers pretty soon. That ought to draw a second glance at Duke's.”

“I thought account execs were expected to sip their lunches,” I said.

“Not from the flower arrangements....” he said, still exploring the odd shape of his mouth. Then he looked up at me and reached up from under the covers. “Come here.” He smelled terribly attractive. Perhaps he was developing aphrodisiac scent glands. I climbed back under the covers and stretched my body against his. “How am I supposed to kiss you with a stiletto in my mouth?”

“There are other things to do. New equipment presents new possibilities.” He pushed the covers back and ran his unchanged hands down my body from shoulder to thigh. “Let me know if my tongue is too rough.” It was not.

from “Coming to Terms”

She looked around the cramped two-room apartment. There were slippery piles of manuscripts and writing supplies. Heaps of clothes, towels, dirty dishes. A scattering of loose CDs across the top of his desk. Stacks of books, books, books.

She had never been there before. Her father had moved, not long before his death, to this last remote way-station in a lifetime of wandering. Too new to the old man to be called his home, the small flat was clearly in disarray. Some belongings were in cardboard boxes, still unpacked from his last move or the one before that.

She had a fleeting thought that perhaps someone had broken in, to rifle her father's few belongings, and had put them in the boxes to take them away. At his previous place, a kid with a knife had come in and demanded forty bucks from his wallet. It made her angry, the idea of somebody coming in and rooting through her father's stuff, while he lay dying in the hospital. But then, she thought, it doesn't matter. He took no money with him, and he surely didn't leave much behind. What he had had of value was his mind and his persistence and his writing skills, and those, actually, he had taken with him.

The cleanup seemed daunting, too much for her to deal with all at once. Maybe she'd make herself a cup of tea first. If there was tea.

In the kitchen, scraps of paper were taped on surfaces, stuck into openings, poked into canisters. A torn piece of lined yellow paper, taped to the front of the refrigerator, read “This big refrigerator! What for? I'm an old man, I don't cook.”

You didn't cook when you were younger, either, thought the daughter. A hotdog when she came for lunch, Chinese if she stayed for dinner. When she was a teenager, trying to create a normal life for this wayward parent, she had tried cooking meals for him when she came to visit, but he wasn't patient with her mistakes.

On the stove, a piece of paper was stuck on the front of the clock, obscuring the face: “Ignore this clock. The clocks on stoves are always wrong.”

Squares of paper were taped all over the stove:

“Mornings, I make myself a pot of coffee, if my stomach permits.” “A deep fat fryer! What are they trying to do, kill me?”

“The oven needs cleaning. My mother used to get down on her hands and knees and clean the oven every week. She baked her own bread, and put a hot meal on the table every night. She made us oatmeal in the mornings, none of this toasted-twinkies instant-breakfast stuff. She sewed all her own clothes, and my sister's as well. She's been dead thirty-five years, and I miss her still.”

The young woman sighed. In thirty-five years, would she miss her father? Maybe you miss people more as you get older -- but she'd come to terms with his absence many years before.

When he had moved across the country, in search of a job or a woman, she had completely lost the sense of being his child, of being under his protection. She didn't miss him yet: it didn't seem that he was gone, just that he'd moved on.

She filled a small saucepan with water and put it on to boil, then opened the door of the cabinet next to the stove: a tin of baking powder, a package of cardboard salt-and-pepper shakers, vinegar, spices....

She moved an herb-jar, and a piece of yellow paper wafted down. “The odor of wild thyme, Pliny tells us, drives away snakes. Dionysius of Syracuse, on the other hand, thinks it an aphrodisiac. The Egyptians, I am told, used the herb for embalming, so I may yet require the whole of this rather large packet.”

She reached behind the herbs and grabbed a box of tea bags, a supermarket house brand. Better than nothing. Written on the box: “My mother drank Red Rose tea all her days, and I used to wonder how she could abide it when the world was full of aromatic teas with compelling names: Lapsang Souchong, Gunpowder, Russian Caravan. I keep this box for guests with unadventurous palates. There is good tea in the canister marked 'Baking Powder.' Don't ask why.”

She pulled down the baking powder tin. There was a tiny yellow note stuck to the inside of the lid. In miniature script, it said, “The famous green tea of Uji, where there is a temple to Inari, attended by mossy stone foxes wearing red bibs.” Her father had spent several years in Japan studying Zen. The experience had not made him, in her opinion, calmer, more accepting, more in tune with the universe, or any of those other things she thought Eastern religions were supposed to do.

A teaball? She opened the drawer below the counter. There were no notes in it, but there was a bamboo tea strainer among the knives and spatulas. She picked it up. Written on the handle, in spidery black ink, were the words “Leaks like a sieve.”

from “Lichen and Rock”

Once, some time ago, but not so far back that there is no one who remembers, there was a girl named in her language for a kind of lichen that clings to rocks near the shore. Now in our time, it would be considered odd to name your child after lichen, and perhaps it was so then. But her parents never offered her an explanation, and it's much too late for one now.

Lichen lived with her mother and father and brothers at the edge of the woods on the shore of a large, quiet arm of the ocean. The woods sheltered them, the water fed them, and small electronic devices told them stories. They lived as comfortably as anybody could.

In the summer, they ate fresh fruit and vat-grown mussels, and camped on the beach. In the winter, they ate freeze-dried potatoes and synthetic fish, and the children played near their father's house in the rain and mist.

When she tired of boys' games, Lichen played by herself on a large rock shaped like a whale. It was a wonderful rock, for a rock -- all grey and knobby, its surface patched orange and green with lichen. A large crack ran diagonally up one side, making it easy to climb. On top was a thick layer of mossy dirt, and a small fir tree grew on the whale's head. Lichen would lie on the moss and watch music on a tiny television.

A very long time before, when the world was young and whales swam in the ocean, the rock had been a real whale. But because it had splashed the Changer, it had been turned into a rock, good only for children to play on. This is why you should be careful when you are swimming and not splash other people.

But we were not talking about swimming -- we were talking about the child Lichen. One day, when she was playing with her brothers outdoors, strange creatures with large, gelatinous eyes like carp came and talked to her parents. These were not the carp-eyed people you sometimes see now, who are merely retooled humans. These were different, and I don't know where they came from, but they're gone now, thank goodness. Anyway, her parents listened to the carp-eyed creatures, who said that Lichen should be sent to school....

from “Fellow Americans”

“...And now, the man you loved to hate, the man you loved too late, the man everyone loves to second-guess, America's own Tricky Dick!” Applause, and the strains of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” A tanned, well-groomed man in a blue blazer and grey slacks walks between the curtains.

He raises his hands above his head in the familiar double V-for-Victory salute to acknowledge the applause, then gestures for quiet.

“Thanks for the hand, folks.” His voice is deep, quiet, and sincere. “You know, I needed that applause today.” A catch in his throat. “Right before the show, I was on my way down here to the studio...” He shakes his head slightly, as if contemplating the role that Chance plays in Life. “An elderly lady came up to me, and she introduced herself, and then she said, 'Oh, Dick, I'm so pleased to meet you, you know you were my all-time favorite presidential candidate...” He lets the compliment hang there a second, as if savoring it. “...after Jack Kennedy, of course.” The audience laughs, appreciating the host who can tell a joke at his own expense. When the laughter has diminished, but before it stops completely, he continues.

“Speaking of politics, why is everybody picking on Dan Quayle these days?” He looks from face to face in the audience, as if for an answer. “He hasn't done anything.” An artful pause. “And, as I know from my own turn at the job, he probably won't get to do anything in the future, either.” More laughter, stronger. He holds up a hand to stop them. “Seriously, folks, just the other day I was sharing a story with Dan -- a story about two brothers.” His voice is soft, as if confessing a family secret. “One ran away to sea and the other grew up to be elected vice-president....” He hunches his shoulders and looks down at the floor, shaking his head pensively. “Neither one of them was ever heard from again,” he adds lugubriously. The audience howls with laughter and applauds enthusiastically.

“Who are our guests today, Ed?” Tricky Dick asks as two young ladies in skimpy nurse outfits lead him to the dais between the two panels of contestants.

“Well, Dick, our guests today on the Republican side are... Zsa Zsa Gabor... and Arnold C. Hammurabi of Seattle, Washington.... And, on the Democratic side, Dick Van Dyke... and Ms. Suzanne Ackerly of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, back for her fifth week. Arnold, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?”

As Arnold talks, the nurses strap the lie detector to Tricky Dick. Dick gives a brief, funny, and patently false weather report, allowing the participants to test their handsets. On the dais in front of each contestant, a colored panel shows how the contestant rates Tricky Dick's truthfulness. The panel changes through the spectrum from true blue for truth to choleric red for outright lies. Home viewers can see an additional panel that shows how the lie-detector rates Tricky Dick's truthfulness. It doesn't think much of the weather report, that much is clear.

Members of the audience raise their hands to ask questions, chosen beforehand for their originality, sincerity, and capability of being answered with a lie.

The first few are too easy. “Do you agree with Andrew Jackson that there are no necessary evils in government?” “Do you think the US should trust the Russians?” With questions that cut and dried, everybody can pretty much agree when Tricky Dick is lying and when he is telling the truth.

The best kind of questions for the show, all the regular watchers agree, are questions that result in an emotional reaction of some kind as well as a factual answer, or questions that bring forth an elaborate anecdote. This is where Tricky Dick is an artist with fact and fiction, heartfelt appeal and outright lie.

A young man in the audience, hair a little long but neatly combed, raises his hand: “Sir, can you tell us, did you ever take LSD in the Sixties? If so, what was it like for you?”

The familiar hollow vowels: “I'm glad you asked me that question.” Running a hand over the top of his head. “As a matter of fact, the truth is,” -- Tricky Dick's voice becomes dramatically husky-- “yes, I have taken LSD.” A subdued murmur of anticipation from the audience: what a great question!