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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Paul Silverman

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There was something lunar about all these craters, and the emptiness of the industrial park. And when we finally swung around the sharp, triangular edge of the Darth Vader building it got even spacier. All lights were out, as Helga had said they would be, because she stayed later than anyone else, slaving over piles of paper that grew taller the more she hacked away at them. We found her way over to the other triangular side, near a loading dock, peering out at us through the ice-blue glow that frosted a square of window no bigger than her chunky face.

All through dinner that face was as frozen as the ice-blue window. No clues as to what was behind it. But my wife Lila unlocked the secret late in the evening, when I was out of the room. Helga's son was about to be arraigned on a manslaughter charge. He was in jail that very night and was staring at a terrifying sentence. The arraignment was imminent, just three days from now, two days after Helga's performance review at the biolab. My wife said what they planned was nothing like a performance review. More like the Spanish Inquisition.

"Don't say anything, Michael, not unless she brings it up. I know her. She's at the end of her rope. She could crack in a million pieces."

"Whatever you want," I answered. "She's your friend. But where's the husband?"

"He's where he always is. As far from her and the son as he can be. He's on a Russian freighter in Antartica, gathering data. He's always gathering data, or specimens. He's worse than she is. He lives in his head and never comes out. He boarded the freighter five months ago."

Now it was all becoming clearer. Why Lila's motherly bragging one day about our daughter Cammie, about her election to some Honor Society, had brought a stormcloud onto Helga's face. Why the towering tapeworm of a man, the husband who was even more ravenously cerebral than Helga, had hid so far behind her when his own son was bludgeoning another boy on the beach. Not just with his hands, mind you. With a block of driftwood.

On that day years ago the son was only ten, and he was saved by some combination of luck and his own child-sized muscles. The damage he inflicted was only pain and bruises. But as time went on, the muscles grew, grew the way Helga's and her husband's brains had grown; and the same passion they had for attacking theorems and molecules he had as well, except his was for attacking human beings. Something in the genetic stew had played this trick, given him this as his gift. His strength and insatiable appetite was in his physique, in his thick arms and sledgehammer fists, which he wanted to use relentlessly. He was a born gladiator. Not three years after the beach incident Helga's son went after the same boy and broke his collarbone. And when it healed he broke it again.

"After that Helga called and asked me this amazing question," Lila said. "She asked if I could spend a few afternoons with her teaching her how to be a mother. She wanted a thorough review of the subject, point by point. She acted like it was a course she had missed."

After dessert Lila asked me to drive Helga home. Halfway there I made a serious mistake. I wanted to break the silent tension; it was as thick as the sleet pounding the car. So I threw a question into the night. I asked Helga what a patent lawyer does; in particular, a patent lawyer at a biolab.

As expected, the answer could have filled a phone book. But it wasn't even an answer - not to the question I asked. It was a raving torrent of self-praise or self-defense, a filibuster of a footnote; she was rambling and sputtering about an achievement of hers, a legal feat she had performed just after she passed the bar. And this was years before she even worked at her present job.

There was this man, she said, who was a tinkerer, a blue collar man who had a shacky, run-down place in a small town in the western part of the state. A fermenter, that's what he was, the kind of squinty mole that sits in his personal gas in the dank of the cellar, brewing enzymes on his own, in his own home-made vials and vats - but he was one of those, those animal-men, no more willing to deodorize himself than a pig in a pen. He was a dump-browser whose front porch was a junkyard mountain of car and appliance flotsam blocking the door, the windows. There were vermin scraping in the walls and scampering on his rafters. Each day the town fire department would ride by this zoning abomination and aggravate the police about what was going on here, the access, the egress, the smell.

I tried to break in with a question. Impossible. Helga barreled ahead with her rant, shooting words at my head, spraying a faint mist of spittle on the juts of my ears.

Think of this town, she said, this New England town in the Twenty First Century, how it could ever wake up one day and roll back so much time and custom and law - four hundred years of it - how it yawned and ate breakfast and over the last sip of coffee turned medieval.

"They bulldozed his house. They did, they really did that. They thought he was growing two-headed rats. That was their reason. They saw him scuttle out to the dump and they came with their bulldozers. He had jars, test tubes, they thought it was all about two-headed rats. They didn't know what it was that he had. What he had found. Discovered. Nobody in the world had found what this man had found."

And where did Helga fit into all of this? I asked her if she had litigated the case.

"No no, not that," she said. "My firm wouldn't allow that. I was too new. I was just a grunt in the backroom. My job was to make the litigators look good."

"So you were a researcher?"

"That's what I would have been normally, digging all alone in the catacombs and sending up reports. But the man himself, the client, met me and talked to me and suggested I be an expert witness. And that's what I was, I came out of the shadows and testified. I stood before the judge and testified for days."

The way Helga said testified was the way a soprano would say aria. She told me of the sleepless nights, straight weeks of them, swallowing the vast body of knowledge whole, every text ever written that pertained to the man's experiments and enzyme discoveries, the priceless concoctions the aldermen had plowed into the ground.

And when the gavel came down it was a slam-dunk victory, a huge award. And the victim, the fermenter himself - whom Helga described, in a manic aside, as literally fermenting, refusing to shave or bathe for the entire length of the trial - was so overcome by the amount he wanted to hand her half his share on the spot. Which she refused, of course. What mattered to her was one thing, what the judge himself had said to her on that last day, the way he had come forward and praised her as the best expert witness he had ever seen.

I reached Helga's poorly-lit street, a rubbly road in the woodsy part of town, left her off and watched her negotiate the glazed walkway and steps up to her house; she hadn't turned on a single light - if there were lights - to make the climb easier.

When I got home Lila was so alarmed about Helga she dropped a dish. I remember her saying to me, "she's all alone every night. I hope she can keep it together."

The executive review committee met and crushed Helga. They rolled over her as inexorably as bulldozers. They used words like misfit and disconnect and malfeasance, only mentioning the son as an aside, a footnote. She wasn't given two weeks, not even two hours. A security person took her passcard and escorted her out of the impenetrably black building. She was harried in disgrace from the parking lot, and a guard in a booth took down her license number. He starred it and tacked it on his bulletin board.

Next came the arraignment, which went so horribly it stole pain, took the torture out of what the executive review committee had done to her, the hateful things they had said straight to her face, the insult and ridicule filling the dossier they threw at her on her way out.

"About the job," Lila reported, "she's just numb about that. It's the least of her worries."

She lived on the blade of a carving knife for seven months - that was the deeper, sharper torture - obsessing on the words "beyond a reasonable doubt." Lila spoke of Helga finding crumbs of hope when she visualized it in lawyers' mathematics. "Beyond reasonable" seemed to be about two-thirds/one-third. So sixty/forty was all it would take to unlock the cage and send the son home.

But the men and women of the jury had their answer in seven minutes, or maybe seven seconds, it seemed that fast. They filed back in and swore there could not even be a doubt, reasonable or otherwise, as to whether the defendant was cognizant of what carving knives do when plunged into the human rib cage. The one bitter grain of consolation came from the judge himself, after passing the maximum manslaughter sentence. He told Helga that a flip of the coin by the D.A. and it would have, should have, been second degree murder.

Helga had trusted the entire defense to a nationally known criminal lawyer and author, the number one recommendation of the partners at her former firm. As the officers led the manacled son away she vowed from now on to trust no one, however eminent.

She was crunching now, the human supercomputer. She crunched law books on criminal defense the way you or I crunch Saltines. It being Helga, the diet was good for her complexion. Her block of a chin glowed like a berry baked in the sun. But Helga never saw the sun; only the sallow prison light-tubes or the bulbs of the law library stacks. Lila said she stopped sleeping normal person's hours. All it took was three or so hours and she'd crunch like new again. She would have lived at the prison, moved right in, if they'd let her. The husband left her, or else never came back from wherever it was he was he had gone. She hardly noticed, didn't waste a second on whether he was still in Antartica or right around the corner. Helga crunched the books and fed the angles to the new eminent attorney - the way a director feeds angles to an actor. Nine months after sentencing the son was moved to a prison with dorms instead of cell tiers.

Lila tried to be a good friend, checking on Helga at home, but Helga wasn't in or wasn't interested. Wasn't interested in what Lila had to say about things, mothering or otherwise. She had no further questions at all about mothering. She was either on her way to the prison or the stacks. One night I overheard Lila on the phone, asking Helga to dinner. Helga said she had four hundred pages to do by morning, and hung up.

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