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Winter 2008-2009 Edition
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Author: Jon Wesick
Location: California

diamond icon Holding a Ph.D. in physics and having studied Buddhism for twenty years, Jon Wesick has enjoyed a front row seat at a collision of worldviews. His short stories and novelettes have appeared in Zahir, The American Drivel Review, The Aphelion Webzine, Lullaby Hearse, MiniMAG, SamizDADA, Tidepools, Words of Wisdom, and The Writers Post Journal. In addition, Jon has published over a hundred poems in small-press journals such as Pearl, Pudding, and Slipstream. His poem, “Bread and Circuses,” won second place in the African American Writers and Artists contest. Two of his poetry chapbooks have been honorable mentions in the San Diego Book Awards.

The Alchemist's Grandson Changes His Name

After graduation Herb Gordon drove his primer-gray AMC Gremlin west to the San Fernando Valley, where he’d landed a job with a small defense contractor. Each day at work Herb hunched over a computer terminal and modeled nuclear war scenarios. The monitor glowed with cool green numbers, enumerating the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction. Herb’s fingers played the keyboard like an organ. He composed subroutines that took the size and location of nuclear bursts and predicted the number of deaths from overpressure, burns, and radiation sickness. Once the calculations completed, Herb’s code spit out a glossy map with colorful contours showing the number of fatalities.

At first Herb felt uneasy about his job, but he repeated the mantra that gave him peace. “By informing the nation’s military leaders of nuclear war’s true human cost, my calculations make it less likely.” Soon the bombs and missiles seemed far away from Herb’s air-conditioned office. Surrounded by its pale green walls, Herb strove to produce the most accurate predictions he could.

One afternoon, Ron Martin, Herb’s supervisor, asked to see him. Ron dressed in a white shirt with red striped tie, the typical uniform of an engineer of the day.

“There’s a problem with your calculations, Herb,” said Ron. “The casualties are too high. The administration is asking Congress for a major increase in defense spending to pay for the Winnable Nuclear War Initiative. Your predictions give their critics ammunition. That could affect our funding.”

“But these are the best calculations we’ve done. I’ve added factors that you ignored in previous versions: radioactive contamination from ground bursts, disruption of fire and ambulance service, and so forth.”

“I know, I know, but we’ve got to get those numbers down. Go back and take a look at your assumptions. What if you changed the direction of the winds so they blow radioactivity away from cities? The time of day could be important. Say the workers had gone home for the night. Factoring in some shielding from hills and buildings could reduce the death from blast and burns. How long do you think it would take to make these modifications?”

Herb paused before answering, “I’m not sure. I’d have to look at the code.”

“OK, let me know by tomorrow afternoon.”

As Herb turned to leave, Ron added, “You know, Herb, I’ve been very impressed with the job you’ve done so far. There’ll be a nice bonus for you at the end of the year.”

The green cursor on Herb’s computer terminal blinked on and off, inviting him to use one of mankind’s most magnificent electronic brains, but all Herb could do was stare. After work he drove home to his empty one-bedroom apartment and searched the want ads in Physics Today. Nothing looked promising. Physics’ glory days were over. Only a select few graduates could hope for a university job. The academic community had greeted the results of Herb’s seven years in graduate school—seven years of living on coffee, nerves, and instant ramen—with a polite yawn. This had convinced Herb to search for work in industry, hence his move to L.A. Herb went to bed and thrashed with the covers until 3:00 a.m. When he finally slept, troubling dreams visited him. His sleeping mind rehashed black and white newsreel footage of Japanese doctors in gauze masks using chopsticks to place dressings on the burned, mottled skin of nuclear bomb victims.

Herb dragged himself to work and struggled through the morning. He went out to lunch and stopped at a pink-walled Mexican restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard. Herb placed his order and stood waiting while electric fans blew hot air in from outside. Occasionally a radio announcer would interrupt the salsa music that blared from the loudspeakers with a commercial in Spanish. When the woman behind the counter called Herb’s number, he exchanged his receipt for his fajitas on a red plastic tray. Herb sat at a Formica table. The white plastic knife he used to cut the burned flesh carved grooves in the Styrofoam plate. He lifted a forkful of meat to his mouth and chewed slowly. It tasted of ashes. His stomach rebelled. Herb pushed the plate away. There had to be some way out of his predicament. What would he do if he left his job? Nobody else would hire him. Eleven years in college studying physics had come to nothing.

He listened to the salsa music playing in the background. Herb pushed back his chair, stood, and began to move his hips to the Afro-Cuban rhythm blaring from the loudspeaker. The brown-skinned women, who sat at the other tables and wore identical white cotton dresses, stared at him, but Herb was beyond caring. He placed his feet to the staccato rhythm of the bass and began to sing along with the chorus in badly pronounced Spanish. Then the voice of the lead singer broke through, taking Herb’s spirit higher. Herb saw options and possibilities he’d never dreamed of.

Herb Gordon never returned to his job. To make sure his former employer never found him, he changed his name to something looser, more Latin. Now Akimbo Bustamante works on a roofing crew. Most people consider his career a failure. But at night when he dances, the whole world dances with him.

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First published in Tidepools.

ISSN 1941-0441

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