Friday, December 09, 2011

Countdown to Mars story

Countdown to Mars
Doug Stone
November 11, 2011

Tahar al-Handani stood up and cursed the Big Father when the screen went black, then immediately asked forgiveness of the air, the walls, his own father, and everything else in the universe for his being so disobedient.
“Ah, son, it's okay with me. Don't apologize for Assad,” Ahmed said, fumbling around for the kerosene lantern they kept for power cuts like this one. “Persevere, as that computer is teaching you about the world beyond Syria. And I think you've finally made a friend on it, no? It's all you do all day.”
With that his father lit the lamp, and not one to waste a match, also managed to light a home rolled cigarette, winning the race with the flame between burly and fingertips. Tahar watched blue smoke rings drift upwards, up out of the sphere of yellow light. Embarrassed, he stayed in the shadows. He knew his stomach did flips when teased by the hooligans in the streets. He had cursed them in French and wished them dead in English, having picked up a bit of both in his online journalism classes. People were just easier to take at a distance. He wished the computer would come back up.
The crash of a shattered plate brought him back to reality, along with the stench of cardamon and cumin in stale bokharat sauce. In the dark he had backed into the dinner table. He picked up as best he could and tossed the remnants into the sink on top of the even older dirty lunch plates, the two bachelors being what they were. He wiped gobs of sauce from his faded green pants, a drop from his scalp beneath his black unruly hair – how did it get up there? - then washed his large soft hands by feel in the cool water.
Ahmed ignored all of this, busy with his smoke.
“Maybe this is Assad's way of telling us it's bedtime,” he said, looking at Tahar. “It's too late to start my press, and I'm low on tobacco anyway.” Ahmed had a tiny offset press for a secret leafletting campaign he thought was working.
“I'm with you, Dad.”
The older man flicked the smoldering butt into the trash, then rose and stretched. He picked up the lamp and cast the light before them on their way to the back bedroom.
Door-kicking flunkies, not even bothering to mask their faces, arrived uninvited.


Tahar woke at dawn in a puddle of oil and blood. His nose was swollen. Touching it, he felt a tender bump. He struggled to get free of the soaked blanket, and when he did so, he slowly stood up. Looking down in the morning light, he saw the oil was from the wrecked press, and the blood from his nose. The goons sent by Raïs, the Big Father, had been very effective.
The rooms had been tossed, objects trampled, and his father gone. Thinking back to last night, all he could remember was two thugs that had come up from behind his dad in the dark and handcuffed his hands behind his back. The broken nose was from the blow he took when he tried to intervene.
In the strong light now coming in the east window, he picked up the place as best he could. The big old glass screen he had plugged into the laptop was smashed. The computer had been kicked under the bed in the fray, a terribly lucky stroke as their attackers had lost sight of it. He placed it back on its small table, and pulled up the rickety chair. It booted up on battery power but showed no connectivity. He decided to continue cleaning and come back to it later. His thoughts stayed focused on the task at hand until much later he sat down with some crackers and date paste at the cracked table. Suddenly his feelings for his father overcame him, and he slumped, weeping, onto the hard wooden surface. Helplessness, wonder, questioning, anger, and denial all blended together. He remained there for quite some time, until he heard bustling traffic in the street outside, and the call for morning prayers drove him to his knees.
After prayers, Tahar went outside with a screwdriver and walked around to the power service box. There was nothing obviously wrong with the incoming wires, but when he opened it, the damage was immediately apparent. Again he was in luck as the goons appeared to have simply pulled out one hot wire. Grasping it by the insulation, and taking care not to ground himself, he replaced it back on the connector where it belonged and tightened the attachment screw. The small box next to it with internet connectivity was badly cracked, but little damage was done internally. He reconnected all its wires and hoped for the best.
Back inside, he sat down in front of the computer, and clicked the networking icon. “Connection Established” it said, and he smiled. Tightening his jaw, he went to work.
First he posted what had happened to his father. Then he networked with his friends to get their mood and see if any others had been arrested. In hours, his posts were picked up by Al-Jazira and he made a name for himself. Over the next few weeks he took up digitally where his father's leaflets had left off, but that came to a halt when he heard from Abul.
“We have someone here Assad's people just released. He knew your dad,” Abul typed.
“Yes, yes, what does he know?” Tahar typed back.
“It's bad news. He had seen your dad brought to the courtyard. He'd been beaten and given electric shocks. His body was covered in sores.”
“Will they release him, to recover?”
“No, it's too late for that. He's certain his was the body they moved out late at night past their cellblock. I'm sorry, Tahar.”
Tahar slammed the laptop closed, his tears washing over the plastic casing.


Lots of traffic in the theatre district tonight. He went straight at the intersection, deciding not to chase the slant of B-way uptown, but to stay north and cut back west to his fare's destination.
“Where we going, Cabby?” asked his fare, a large man with a red face stuffed into his suit. This isn't Broadway.”
“We're just avoiding the traffic. It'll be quicker to head up and over,” Tahar said.
“Is this costing me more?” snapped Redface.
“The extra distance will be made up in savings in time,” he replied as his stomach did a nervous cringe.
The fare went back to his cell conversation. Cabby started thinking about the coming weekend. This was a busy Wednesday, enough to get him money to enjoy himself and not have to work either day. Wednesday, the day atonement for last weekend wore off, and hormones were starting to rise again. He turned west as promised, to the satisfied grunt of his fare.
A few blocks, and they arrived at the theatre. His fare tossed him what he owed and a little more. Good riddance he thought. The growl of his dispatcher came over the radio.
“Got a call from George Washington Port Authority. A fare wants you to pick her up and drive her to Hudson hotel, near Central Park. She'll tip well. Got it?”
“On my way. Will be a while in this traffic.”
It was quiet when he arrived at the small bus station near the GW bridge. A slim Asian woman was standing alone in front and he figured it was her. He pulled to the curb and she opened the door.
“This is the City cab company, right?” she asked.
“Yes it is. You're going to the Hudson,” he replied.
She ducked her head, tossed in a tiny overnight case, and slid her silk covered thighs along the cheap plastic seat. “Let's go.”
The cab pulled into the light traffic and took a quick right turn south towards the park. He glanced in the rear-view mirror while she was looking away. Her dress clung tightly to her trim body, revealing the shape of small tight breasts. And the way she moved her legs was fantastic. She turned and met his eyes in the mirror, and he quickly brought his eyes back to the road, feeling his stomach tighten.
Her cell chimed, and she answered it curtly in Mandarin. After speaking another few harsh words, she hung up, shutting the phone off and tossing it into her oversized purse. She sighed and looked up, catching him looking at her again.
“What's your name?” she asked, peering forward in the flickering light for his id.
“It doesn't matter. Just call me Cabby, ma'am.”
“Cabby it is. Ha ha.”
Silence while her jaw worked and he could see her lost in thought.
“How can you see to drive with those sunglasses? It's night time for goodness sake.”
“I'm okay. They cut the glare from the headlights.”
“They give you a jaunty air.”
“Thanks ma'am.”
He was never without his sunglasses. From the harsh light of the Middle East to the dark artificial canyons of New York, he wore them. Made life much more comfortable, a buffer against the world.
The skies that had wanted to rain all day began at dark with a cool mist. The tires now swished against the pavement, interrupted with regular clangs on the temporary steel plates street maintenance loved. In the rearview, Cabby could see sadness in her eyes when the streetlights washed across the cab from front to back. She slumped in the corner of the seat.
“Cabby? Do you know the Hudson?” she asked softly. “It's my refuge when I simply no longer can stand my life anymore.”
Oh dear, was this one going to over-share? But then she was so attractive. But no, no. No entanglements he swore.
“It's all the rage with the, how you say, 'up and comers',” he joked.
“Good. I've had enough of being dragged to trade shows.”
More quiet moments passed between them. Cars rushed by, wafts of steam rose up ahead carrying urban aromas through the car vents.
“ they're making the monthly fare quotas higher and the payouts lower? I have a family to support! Where did you hear this?” came from the radio. “Oh shit, quick, go to the private channel...”
“What was that?” asked Elly.
“Nothing. Just fleet gossip. We'll be there soon,” he replied.
Elly leaned forward, nearly touching the plexiglass barrier. Cabby pushed the slide fully open. Her face now filled the gap, and she began looking around at the ornaments on his dashboard, at his clothes, at his world.
“Tell me more about yourself,” she said, sinking back into the cheap bench seat.
Cabby told her about leaving his patch of urban Damascus landscape, his schooling, his online presence, his hopes and his loss. She listened closely, making supportive sounds at the right times. Then things shifted over to her, how she was born in Shanghai, her father was a trade delegate at the consulate in New York, how she came with him and her mother as a toddler and went through school all the way to a bachelor's at Columbia.
“But what's wrong? I could see you snapped your phone off,” Cabby asked.
“Things are a little too structured right now,” she replied, then laughed to lighten things up. “My boyfriend is great and all, but he expects me to do his bidding. He thinks he's a big shot, has a string of dry-cleaners throughout the city already at the age of 30.” A box truck roaring by distracted both of them for the moment. “I say fuck him. He's not the boss of me. It's so cliché to say this, but I need some space for awhile. I told him we were on break. Hence this trip into the city.”
Cabby felt his stomach muscles relax. He played with the radio, letting the last statement linger, listening for anything more from her. He could see her now calm face in the mirror, watched her tongue wet her lips, saw her poke at her hair when she didn't think he was looking.
“We're here, Miss,” he said as he smoothly pulled into the narrow drive. The cab dove under the Hudson lobby beneath street level and banked right, landing in a parking spot. Clutching her essentials bag in the dark back seat, she sat still, and caught his eye in the mirror.
“Do you want to help me with my bag?”
“Don't they have bell staff for that, Miss?”
“Call me Elly, silly. And maybe they do, but you can still help me. Don't make me have to ask you up for coffee like everyone else does.”
“Never mind.”
So they both exited the cab, she heading towards the lobby steps and he following along behind holding the case like a football.
In the stairway she kissed him, and stole his sunglasses. He laughed and tried to grab them back but she reached the lobby and he had to give up for the time being. Express check-in for a regular customer went quickly, just a signature in exchange for a key, and they were done and heading for the room. Brass elevator doors closed on their frisky frottage, and she pulled away, giggling. At the room, the card key actually worked first swipe. Inside she dropped it on the floor along with her clothes.
Cabby hung back against the closed door, watching.
“What's wrong? Haven't you had a girl play with you before?” she said twisting her handsome neck around to see him. “Come and get your glasses.”
“Oh my. Oh my. Allah be praised.”
Elly giggled. “Don't tell me this is your first time.”
“No, no. Well, the first time not paying for it,” he murmured.
She slid up to him, grabbed his shirt and pulled it off. Quickly he was naked with her on the bed, in spite of her insistence on disrobing him with her tongue in his mouth the whole time. His hand swept down to her chest.
“Ouch, no, those aren't stress balls! Gentle there.”
He quickly let go of her breast, then more softly brushed his fingertips across the thick Asian nipple.
“Okay, let's see what you can do with this.” With that she latched her hand onto his shaft while twisting her compact rear towards him.
And suddenly he was behind her, in her, thrusting, watching her dark Asian hair sweep across her back, with the ends perfectly aligned. And when they were done, they rolled and laughed and cried and hugged, until he thought nothing could be better than this, his new crush.


Cabby drove slowly back to the garage at the end of his shift. The car bounced on worn shocks as it burrowed down underground in the near dark, then leveled out at the entrance to the service garage level. He got out under the glare of unshielded vapor lights, another good reason to never be without his now smudged shades, clutching his id and fare log. Across the lot he could see his boss on the radio. When he reached the dispatcher's window he dropped off the log as his boss nodded, using his neck folds to click off his headset.
“Handani! Good to see you,” Bossman said, picking up and flipping through the log.
“Good evening to you, sir,” Tahar replied.
“Lucrative evening for us both. Plenty of fares here. Looks like you will be doing ever better for us, better soon.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You don't say much, do you?”
“No, sir. Is there something you need from me?”
“I like you, son. In spite of you pulling over five times a day to pray, or refusing to pick up JFK passengers with their duty-free liquor. You keep making money for us with long shifts and I'll keep giving you cabs.”
“Thank you sir,” Tahar replied. How was he to reconcile Bossman's bright future with higher quotas and less money to keep like he had heard? he thought. Let him sit behind his glass until his fat chokes him one day. No, no, can't think like that. Bossman had to make money too. He dropped his gaze, turned and walked away as the dispatcher got another radio call.
The garage was a short walk from his small room in the Village. The neighborhood was not great but not terrible either, although it was not wise to linger at this hour. Cabby dropped his id and stripped off his shirt on the way to the tiny kitchen. He spread some hummus on a few crackers, opened a bottle of cool seltzer water, and sat down on his couch. Cablevision had a talk show with Charlie Sheen. Amazing to get a high grade celeb on the show this late, if you could call him high grade. Charlie was telling the host, “I don't pay the girls to do it with me. I pay them to leave after.” Everyone laughed. Cabby knew there was a grain of truth in that. He sure felt relief when they left. But maybe life was about to change for him. The food and carbon dioxide gurgled in his stomach.
He woke up to the ring of his cell, still on the couch. Unknown number calling at seven thirteen am, local to New York.
“Hello. Is this Tahar Handani?”
“I work for Al-Jazira at our office in New York near the U.N. My name is Ghandar. We have an interesting opportunity for you. It took us quite some effort to find you after you left Syria. Seems you made quite a name for yourself with your postings on Assad's prisons over there.”
“Thanks for the flattery but what is the purpose of your call?”
“I appreciate your concern with our contacting you, but please hear me out. NASA has begun publicity work for their Mars launch in the coming years. They have an international crew starting training, and want to embed some journalists to showcase the mission. When asked, we thought you would be someone with few entanglements who has shown the ability to resonate with the Muslim community and hopefully has assimilated into the global culture.
“It's a team of five or so journalists that will live closely with the mission members, eating their food, doing some of the same preparation, and reporting on the difficult decisions that must be made when leaving Earth for several years. Who knows, one of you may even be asked to go along to report on the mission if proven worthy.”
“I'll think about it.”
“Right, we understand you wouldn't want to make a hasty decision. Our center is in Houston, here's the address, and here's my phone number. Please keep this in confidence and we'd appreciate your thoughtful response soon. You can ask for more information or you can show up for a tour and orientation at any time, Mr. Handani.”
“I see. Thank you and good bye.”
Cabby took this new information and pondered it in his heart.
The day passed quickly and soon it was time for his shift. Cabby strolled quickly through the neighborhood, noting the much brighter day and the long shadows from the afternoon sun. He logged in, got his fare pad and the keys to the cab, and headed out.
A scruffy looking dude in a Army surplus style coat waved him down near Trinity church, The Memorial at Ground Zero rising across the way.
“Cloisters,” he said.
“Really? Let me put that into my GPS. I have to turn around and head north. Looks like the West Side Highway once we get out of the financial district.” Cabby questioned this guy's need to see the Cloisters museum, near the northern tip of Manhattan. But a fare was a fare.
Facing at a long ride in traffic, he called Elly on his headset. A few rings and she answered.
“Guess what?”
“What,” she replied.
“They asked me about joining some sort of Mars journalism experience in Houston. Confidential, at least until they announce the final team.”
“Really? That's wonderful! You can finally get some recognition.”
“I don't know. It will be challenging. And being cooped up with all those folks for all that time in training...” his voice trailed off.
“No, no, go on. I think it's great.”
Scruffy dude was getting restless, he could see in his rearview. But Elly's voice pulled him back to the matter at hand.
“Okay, I'll give it more thought. Hate to leave all this, ha ha,” he said.
Scruffy now was pretty nervous. He was wiggling around and pumping his leg.
“Let's talk more about it. Gotta go, room service is here.”
“Pampering ourselves are we, on our big adventure?” he teased.
“Yeah, only the best. See you.”
The cab was now passing near Morningside Heights. Streetlights were coming on.
“I've changed my mind, turn off here,” said Scruffy.
“Okay, whatever you say.”
The cab turned off the Henry Hudson parkway and onto a deserted side street. You could just make out Columbia University several blocks away.
“This is a stick up. Give me all your money,” the fare cried, brandishing a decrepit pistol through the slider in the plexiglass panel.
Thinking the pistol exploding more likely than being shot, Cabby stopped the car and pulled out what little he had.
“You're my first fare. I have a little change. I can't get into the fare box anyway.”
“Pass it through the slider.”
Cabby awkwardly handed him the money. Scruffy roughly snatched it away, and cut Cabby's hand against the plexiglass in the process.
“Ow, what was that for?”
But the robber didn't hear as he had opened the rear door and ran off.
Cabby wiped the blood from the side of his hand. Thinking of his activism days in Syria, he remembered that one of the group's web pages had posted Franklin's “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In his attempts to shut out the world, the world kept barging in on him and he deserved it.
So it made sense to take this leap to Houston or maybe even to Mars. The next day he spoke with Elly, stopped at his apartment to pick up some clothes and some money, and parked the cab at the Metro Park train station in New Jersey after driving her to her house to pick up her things. Let Bossman find the cab eventually, he thought.
And so it came to pass with the two of them holding hands on the train platform, Tahar looking down the track through his lovingly smudged sunglasses to see the headlight of the Amtrak train.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

book info

Book list

J. J. Rowlands, Cache Lake Country. Story about timber cruiser in northern Maine from the 1940s. Wonderful, sensitive description of land and inhabitants.
Octavia Butler, Fledgling. Intense fantasy story about vampires. Last book from a great sci fi and fantasy author who received a McArthur genius grant and Hugo and Nebula prizes. Anything by her is great.
Lee Denning, Monkey Trap. Member of my writing group who's great at plotting genre novels.
A.D. Bloom, Bring me the Head of the Buddha. Another writing group member who writes some wacky sci fi. 99¢ e-book from Amazon.
Susie Bright, Big Sex Little Death. Memoir of growing up in a liberal family, how she became a writer and activist for feminism's gentler, sexy side. Was instrumental in founding On Our Backs, a newsletter for women, which was very influential, much like Our Bodies Ourselves was.
S. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. One of several books regarding language, communication, and thought.
McWhorter, The Power of Babel. Easy to read book about linguistics, including the basics of language theory and hints at an original language.
K. D. Harrison, Last Speakers. All about collecting vanishing languages, with learning linguistics sprinkled in along the way. Gets a bit preachy and liberal after awhile, but covers lots of ground doing it.
P. Connors, Fire Season. An iconoclast who leaves his journalism job in NY for odd jobs in New Mexico, the main one being a fire watcher, and channels many famous literary voices who came before him, including Abbey and Leopold.
A. Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Forest service official and nature writer who wrote about Sand county Wisconsin in his retirement, which became the archetype of the nature genre.
E. Abbey. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Beautiful nature writing spanning several books by a union organizer, communist, and practitioner of civil disobedience.
R.Pike, Tall Trees, Tough Men. Story of logging in Maine.
Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Story of a women's book club who secretly read classic novels, including the banned books by Nabakov, in oppressive Iran.
V. Nabakov, Lolita. Story of an older man seducing a teenager, and all that says about society and the human condition.
J. McPhee, Coming into the Country. Superb non-fiction writer for the NYT. Any of his books is a work of art. This one is about visiting Alaska.
A. Powell, The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird. A buddy of mine writing about conservationists working in Hawaii to save the last members of a species, and all that says about humans and their environment.
M. Pollan, The Omnivore;s Dilemma. A great writer about food and some other domestic topics, who is leading the movement to improve our nation's food supply and consumption. Any of his books are wonderful, as are his interviews. Also try A Place of My Own about building a writing cabin for himself.
C. Moore, Fluke. Long series of fantasy books including Practical Demon Keeping, mostly set in California. Completely wacky and absorbing.
B. Stoker, Dracula. The original vampire story as we know it.
C. Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. A classmate of mine who wrote a somewhat literary vampire story. Very nicely done, including the title.
T. Cotter, The Cobra in the Barn. Series of books about finding hidden treasures of the automobile sort in people's barns, and fixing them up.
B. Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. A story of a greenhorn walking the Appalachian Trail. Absolutely engaging and hilarious. Any of his books are recommended.
K. S. Robinson, Red Mars. First of a trilogy of going to Mars, and colonizing it.
D. Roam, The Back of the Napkin. Discussion of types of working drawings and how to use them. Includes the next generation of flow charts, diagrams, graphs and lists. Invaluable for communicating complex ideas for anyone.
M. Headlay, The Year of Yes. Short book about a woman in NYC who decides to never turn down a request to date.
T. Vanderbilt, Traffic. Full of factoids about dealing with the flow of cars from the beginning to today.
Great for anyone who drives.
J. Kaufman, Literacy and Longing in L.A. Funny genre book that uses literary references inside the story. Can you spot them all?
P. Leeson, The Invisible Hook. About the economics of pirates. One of many books today, like Freakonomics, that applies econ theory to society. The subject matter of this one is great.
K. Douglas, Cowboy in my Pocket. A parody of a Western Romance genre story.
Kankwamba and Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Co-author sets the scene in Africa with considerable interesting backstory of how a family tries to survive, and how a boy cobbles together a small windmill to power lights and cell phones. He eventually is invited to speak at an international TED conference to help spread the word.
K. Silverstein, The Radioactive Boy Scout. Explorer scout who manages to gather together enough smoke detectors and free samples to start a small atomic pile!
A. Spiegelman, Maus. Series of graphic novels covering the holocaust. Intense and touching, it took drawing comics to a new level. His website and interviews are amazing. The best speaker I have ever heard.
S. Foote, various. Authoritative writer about the War Between the States from a Southern perspective. Served as the basis for Ken Burns Civil War series.
M. Shaara, Killer Angels. Best of a series of historical novels about the Civil War, this one set at Gettysburg.
His characterizations of real figures is amazing.
W. Cronin, Changes in the Land. I believe this is out of print, but you should still be able to find it. About the colonists and Native Americans, and what occurred during the settlement of early North America. Ground-breaking in its day.
R. Cohen, Sweet and Low. True story about the family who invented Sweet and Low. I compared the situation to the Crouse family and suggested it to Anita, who may still have the book.
L. R. King. The Bee-Keeper's Apprentice. A series of books about a very young woman who marries Sherlock Holmes and the adventures they have. Very well done. The book about the trip to the Middle East in the early 20th century is extremely interesting. King also has other series, the best one about a lesbian detective in San Francisco, which is very good.
C. Ryan, Sex at Dawn. A ground-breaking book, at the level of Kinsey, for information about how humans became the way we are regarding sex. Explains so much, I couldn't stop reading.
J. Evanovitch, One to Get Ready. Her main wacky crime series about a woman PI who lives in Trenton and tries to solve mysteries. Wonderful description of NJ and its denizens. The current best seller is the 17th.
G. MaGuire, Wicked. Wonderful extrapolation of the Wizard of Oz to a magic land with lots of backstory, from the point of view of the Wicked Witch. Translated to Broadway very well. His other Oz and fantasy books are not nearly as good.
H. Ellison, Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions. Edited by Harlan Ellison, one of the best Sci fi writers ever. These are stories that had topics that made them unpublishable years ago and so had to be collected and bravely published by a small press. Now a bit tame, but still good.

Sources for new books.

NYTimes Review of Books. The best source I can find for new books and good reviews. Some online versions, like on my Kindle via an open source program like Calibre, are free.
Calibre, an open source manipulator of online reading sources. There are others, but I like this one. It serves as a library for your device, much like iTunes does. You can download books and save them on your device, you can delete them, archive them, etc. Uses a lot of processing power, so be patient or get a quad-core pc to handle the multi-tasking it does! Solves the problem of filling up your device especially if yours does not have an SD card or other removable storage. Automates connections to open source books and news feeds, most of which are free, much like iTunes manages podcasts, so you don't have to struggle with the browser “save target” commands.

Project Gutenberg. One of several online archives of public domain books. This is where I got Dracula, for free via Calibre. Several universities have archives now too. Calibre has a basic list of them.

Podcasts: interesting and usually free, many of them have shows that review books. On Point with Tom Ashbrook has an author almost every day, and he has a book show occasionally. Fresh Aire also has authors every day. Faith Middleton in New Haven has a daily show, with book reviews every month or so. Easiest to use via iTunes but there are other ways to download them.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Countdown to Mars story

He loved to hide in plain sight; security by ignorance, a faceless persona, an avatar; in the crowds at Grand Central, watching everyone going elsewhere, while he sipped coffee. Or in bars, chatting up dates, wanting shallow and finding it, as always. Or online, sometimes as Joe, or Igor, or Mohamed, or Saul. Ready to talk, but not about that.

And then they went and picked him.

Cabby exited the station at 45th, blinking in the sun that slammed down between the urban towers, and hustled north along Broadway, looking, scanning, absorbing. He preferred to walk as much as he could, to soak up whatever city he's in, which is why he left the subway rather than transfer underground to chase the slant of B-way uptown.

He passed a noodle shop, far from Chinatown but catching the trade near Times square. Through the window he saw four bespectacled Asians peering down through the steam obscuring their bowls. There were some white faces and some black; and someone who caught his eye and quickly looked away.

A bum sat back against a storefront, his tattered box full of change and small bills. DISABLED it's labeled in Sharpie. Below it, clumsily crossed out, Cabby can still make out FREE TIBET. Even his box is a castoff. In goes a subway card with his last ride; a curt nod is his reply.

He's reminded of his own country, where the junta had jailed and tortured many souls, reducing them to begging like this guy. His dad would have been one of them if picked up early. When they finally did come for him, his short-lived underground paper had a following, so his torture ended in death, relatives be damned.

Cabby sifts through early memories of his dad, caressing them like elephants do the long bones of their comrades at their secret burial grounds. He thinks of dinners together in their snug kitchen as the sizzling pans threw strong spices into the air; splashing in the lake in the summer; bellowing along with folk songs on the radio.

Next block has upscale clothing stores, Restoration Hardware, classy booksellers, the ubiquitous StarBux. He peered down side streets that turn onto shopping avenues containing gleaming, polished doors to appointment-only haberdashers. Doors opened gladly for his country's despots and their entourages, the oily pitchmen owners falling all over themselves hawking their latest collections.

Elly. He thinks of her often. More today, as they're due to meet. She didn't tell him her Mandarin name, as her Americanized name has stuck, even within her family, she said when she met him at a trade event he was covering. He didn't share his real name either because his short one has stuck too, a useful label for a citizen of the world. Both of their assumed names being more interesting than the usual Bob, George, Rita or Mary so many internationals took on. Something they had in common.


Two small diamond studs set in gold went into her earlobes. The natural double folds of her Asian eyelids reflect in the dressing mirror while she checked her makeup. Her tight red and gold silk dress slid over her head and hugged her toned figure. Just a classy camisole between her perky breasts and the silk; no underwear.

Done dressing, Elly closed the door to the walk-in closet full of perfectly tailored and pressed outfits ready for any occasion. One of the Stepford wife perks available to the fiance of a dry-cleaner. As a Chinese national fully comfortable in America, she was a much sought-after daughter of a high-ranking member of the consulate. Her father had been located in New York and sometimes Washington for years doing trade negotiations, his big win being garnering Most Favored Nation status for the regime. Her mother and then El do their duty as the perfect Mandarin representatives. Both are slim, alluring, flirty with the Americans and others who came to New York on business.

Elly was born in Shanghai to her mother, a child bride, while her father was on assignment there as the city began to grow. When El was four, his next posting was New York, where he fell in love with the stimulating environment, the large multi-national community, and an attractive secretary from the consulate, and had enough clout to remain here for as long as he wanted. El had been sent to NYU to learn communications and marketing to allow her to do summer internships with the trade councils and the U.N. She was introduced to her dry-cleaner upon graduation a couple of years ago.

She grabbed a stylish jacket on her way out of the door, something to cover her sleek dress and to hide it from her mother's eyes. An oversized Coach purse with some makeup and a change of clothes completed her ensemble, and she walked the short two blocks to the commuter station behind large dark glasses, head held high, long black hair shining in the sunlight.

Even after coming of age, her small circle of friends had to balance allure with tasteful composure for their families' sake. She had been allowed to attend NYU as it was so close and she could continue to assist at the consulate. Many of her friends had to attend small, rural colleges that had parietal rules and dorm monitors, boys strictly forbidden. For her, NYU senior year had been a time of freedom, of getting on the pill, on meeting lots of international students, on having and sharing secrets. Before then she had to commute from home, her arrivals and departures monitored. She had managed to wangle that one year away (a whole ten miles across the river, hah!) saying how she had to work with her advisor very closely.

And that was when she had met Mr. Ping, esquire, Man of the World, thank-you very much, an associate of her advisor, and a specialist in emigration and residency law. He was the one who had filed for her permanent residency without her family's knowledge, in exchange for long talks over wine and her virginity.

So now she stood on the train platform, on a big city tryst, with a college degree, some experience in relations both international and intimate, and the world in front of her. If she could figure out how to untangle herself from her fiance.


The lobby was empty save for the desk attendant at the far end. The tasteful looped soundtrack was between selections. The two entered from opposite ends of the high ceilinged, brass and glass room, he from the street, she from the polished elevator bank. They spotted each other immediately.

“Cabby!” she called.

“Elly. It’s been too long,” he replied.

They started to shake hands, then locked in a warm embrace.

“Join me over here in the bar,” El said, heading across the room while steering Cabby with her arm into the alcove. “It’s intimate, and we can talk.”

Settled into two wing backs, with drinks delivered by an obsequious waiter, the two caught up.

“Why are you in the city?” he asked.

“I came in for overnight adventure which my mom thinks is for a seminar and some shopping. Your text to hook up was a godsend. Life is dull beyond belief in Jersey. Are you here for an interview? Who is it this time?”

“Nobody. This time I’m the interviewee. Elly, they want me for the launch.”

“For an opinion from the international community? Al-Jezera or something?”

“No. To go.”

Surprise flickered across her face.

“That’s a big step. Why you? To represent a friendly foreign face to the U.S?” she asked.

“Most likely. I really don’t know.”

“Will the media play this up and use your real name? Or will they call you Cabby to make you more ‘palatable’ to Peoria?”

“I don’t know that either, and probably never will. I don’t plan to go.”

“Oh no, this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.

“The risk is too high.”

“The risk of a crash? That's pretty small. Of getting the ultimate cabin fever? After all those space station missions, they know how to handle that stuff now – get you in shape, keep you active, in touch. I’ll be your most active Tweeter.”

“The risk of assassination.”

“What, you think you're fuckin' Trotsky or something? The long arm of Stalin never far?” she wise-cracked, then turned serious. “Tell me more about your Dad.”

Cabby squirmed, and took a long drink. The cold hurt his stomach, as the different liquids fought it out, like his emotions did in his head.

“He was a warm, caring man, with large rough hands worn from doing whatever had to be done. Digging in the earth, inking his little press, loading his old truck. He filled my entire childhood, not knowing my Mom, who died in childbirth with me. We were a small family, but it allowed him to include me in everything, only occasionally having to have my aunt care for me if he got very busy. And as I grew up, we had our small differences, but he remained important to me even as a shy teenager, when most kids would disappear all day to play soccer or throw stones at the patrols.”

“So what happened?”

“He had applied for a job at the big resort hotel outside of town, but it wasn't his turn or perhaps his bribe was too small. Anyway, he was tossed out of the office. Always someone who felt the sting of injustice, he started his tiny press, printing leaflets. The object was to slowly grow a base of people also injured by the regime, having them find others face-to-face and ply them with the broadsides. That way there would be no public gathering easily crushed. They wouldn't act until there were hordes of followers. But it backfired when someone spoke his name.

“They came at night, of course. I was just falling asleep. He was smoking in the front room, the blue rings slowly rising in the hot air. The door stove in, and two large men grabbed him with a shout. I was all man at nineteen, so I leaped to his aid in my pajamas, but one goon simply knocked me to the floor. That's how I got this,” he said in a whisper, running his finger over the bump on the top of his nose. “Took weeks to heal, but nothing compared to beatings and electric shocks. I never saw him again.”

“What a contrast to my life,” El replied. She slid her chair closer, the proper ninety degree conversational angle now turning more acute. Her leg brushed his lightly, her head tilted toward his, her pupils dilated. “I've had everything either prescribed, or proscribed, by my family.”

“Not so different. Both of us are controlled by a regime. It's simply that mine would prefer me dead, and yours brain-dead. If your eyes weren't up to standards, they would have made you have surgical folds done. They would have bound your feet if they could, I'm sure.”

The waiter came by, refreshed their glasses, and departed.

“What do you want, El?” he asked.

“No, what do you want, Cabby? It's time to come out of the shadows. You can talk about that, that which happened to your father and possibly might to yourself. See, you're doing it now with me.

“When I met you, you were covering our delegation's Spring trade announcement. The international equivalent of doing dumb-ass weather and birthdays on local TV.”

“It's a living. And it keeps my hand in journalism, and my limbs safely attached. A low profile that doesn't upset anyone.”

“You can do better,” says El.

Emboldened by the alcohol and the attention, his desire for her and the mission goes up. He fights it back down.

“Imagine what you could do as the spokesman for your country during the entire training and flight,” she reminds him.

He's a bit dazed now, the nearby warmth and soft skin belonging to someone he can respect, someone who's smart and sharp and has a purpose.

“I don't need a man to take care of me, like my stupid fiance, I need a teammate, someone I care about and who cares for me. And I think you do too, babe.”

That does it.

They leaned back in their chairs. Glasses nearly empty, both watched each other suck on the leftover ice. The waiter appeared, El scrawled her name and room number on the slip, and they left the bar.

The elevator doors closed on their frisky frottage, and she pulled away, giggling. At the room, the card key actually worked first swipe. Inside she dropped it on the floor along with her clothes.

And suddenly he was behind her, in her, thrusting, watching her dark hair sweep across her back, with the ends, cut by some talented queer who must have been thinking of him, perfectly aligned. And when they were done, they rolled and laughed and cried and hugged, until he thought nothing could be better than this, except to go to Mars, if just for her.