SLEEPERS — K.C. Frederick



The faculty meeting wasn’t any more boring than usual. The new dean seemed to be addressing another audience, as if she were already auditioning for a better job. Mike Pollard from History managed to drag out his short announcement like a man nursing his last cigarette before an impatient firing squad, Ed Rossiter persuaded us once more that his moral sensibilities were far finer than ours, and Sarah Chisolm reminded us-after all, it had only been two days since her last dire warning-that we’d better get in our syllabi for the next term. All in all, the usual. We’re a small school, so we’re up to our ears in community.

We actually got around to saying something about Plato and Shakespeare, part of the general freshman course that all faculty members here teach. It’s one of our traditions, and it brings together people from all departments. We assign veterans to shepherd the newcomers, to help them acclimate, and I’d been assigned to Jim Carlson from the physics department, who was kind of a freshman here himself.

“How about a beer?” I suggested to him when it was all over. I was in no hurry to get home. “Let me tell you, that wasn’t bad, as our meetings go.”

“A beer would be good,” he nodded. He was tall and lanky, about my age, in his fifties, but he’d come late to the academic world, so he was a little behind in his career trajectory. He had a long, vaguely Scandinavian face with watchful gray eyes.

It was crisp outside and the black trees could have been been sculpted out of ice. Gray clouds hurried across a purple sky, and the Schneider building’s gables jutted out steeply, like witches’ hats. I was thinking that winter would be here soon, that guest who overstays his welcome in these northern parts, when a clutch of chalk-faced zombies staggered into view, arms out, laughing. Before we got to the Collegetown bar we encountered vampires, mummies and superheroes, big-headed politicians. It was Halloween.

“Can’t take those spooks seriously,” I said when we were sitting before our beers. “Not after Mexico.”

Jim nodded. “The Day of the Dead, you mean?”

“Exactly. This kind of play-acting,” I gestured in the general direction of the streets, “is so…frivolous.”

“You work with what you’ve got, I suppose.” He was looking at his beer and seemed very Scandinavian once more. “You think they don’t feel a shiver of dread?”

“Maybe,” I shrugged.

“Can you imagine what would happen if this election goes the wrong way?” he went on, his voice even, unemotional.

I laughed. This guy was a real pessimist. “Yeah,” I said, “but it’s not going to. I mean, I’d sooner bet against having to meet my intro class tomorrow.”

“Still…” he said, and let the thought hang.

“Oh, yeah,” I admitted. “That would be scary.”

“There’s always a possibility, isn’t there?” he said. There was something in his eyes now that I hadn’t noticed before. It was as though he was consciously trying to avoid looking at something.

“Want to know what I find scary?” I said. “The idea that that meeting we just left would keep on going forever.” I took a healthy swallow of beer.

He laughed softly. “Hey, it wasn’t so bad.”

“I suppose,” I said. “Still, it’s like they say: the more inconsequential the situation, the fiercer the argument about it.” I shook my head. “That’s the academic world in a nutshell.”

The corner of his mouth twisted into a slightly amused smile, a Viking remembering a joke as he tries to keep his long boat from being swallowed up by tempestuous seas or torn to shreds by a wind that rakes his sleet-stiffened beard.

There was a burst of noise at the door. A vampire intoned, Lugosi-esque, “Listen to the children of the night” and with a swirl of his cape absconded into the chilly street.

“Ah, youth,” I said, irritated by something but unable to put my finger on it.

“Let them have their fun,” Jim said. “They’ll learn soon enough how tough the world can be.”

“You’re right,” I said, thinking maybe I was just pissed at growing older. And things hadn’t been going well between me and Jen either-I still couldn’t believe she’d actually moved out. No reason, though, to take it out on the kids. “It’ll be snowing here pretty soon,” I said, a propos of nothing.

He nodded. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen snow.” I knew he’d come to us from California. I knew as well he’d recently been divorced. He needed a major change, he’d said at his interview.

I waited for more but he seemed to have sunk into himself. I didn’t want to let him drift away completely, so I said, “Some of the stuff they dug up in Mexico would scare the pants off of those vampires. I mean, there’s nothing like the folk imagination to show you what nightmares lurk just below the surface of ordinary life. No suave vampires in tuxedoes there.” I was thinking of the Aztec serpent-goddess Coatlicue with her snaky head and fangs, her girdle of body parts, who’d bring a shiver to the debonair count from Transylvania.

Jim nodded, though what he was nodding at I had no idea, but it was as if someone had switched the music in the background and we were now listening to something that got his attention. “Hey,” he said, “I’ve got something in my office I keep as a reminder of my work. It’s pretty scary.” I listened, waiting for more. “My office is close by,” he went on. “And I have three quarters of a bottle of bourbon there. You curious?”

I wasn’t, not really, I wanted to go home, or rather I wanted to go back to the home I had in the summer before the trouble with Jen began, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of seeing what this Norseman considered scary, so I said, “Sure thing.”

His office was close by, as he’d said-nothing’s far away in our town, and a quick look around didn’t reveal anything particularly scary. Maybe it was in a drawer with the bourbon. He brought out the bottle and poured big drinks into two coffee cups. We each had a swallow and I asked, “OK, where’s this scary thing?”

“You’re looking at it,” he said. I ran my eyes over the desk, which was relatively uncluttered. There were books, a few nondescript reproductions on the wall, a photo of an elderly couple, presumably the parents. That was about it. It wasn’t a big office. “There,” he indicated, “against the wall.” I looked again. On the floor was something, some kind of generally rectangular shape, slightly curved, gray, looking smoother than stone. “Go over and pick it up,” he suggested.

I went to the wall and lifted the object, brought it back to the chair beside the desk. It was lighter than I expected it to be, it seemed to be made of some kind of plastic. I estimated it to be a foot and a half long, maybe ten inches wide and a couple of inches deep. I turned it around in my hands. “I give up,” I said. I honestly had no idea of what you could do with this thing. It was well-made, though. “Some kind of avant garde sculpture?” I ventured.

Jim shook his head. “After I got my degree I spent some time doing defense work,” he said. “Spent a few years at it, made a fair amount of money. Finally I had to get out, though. In a way, it cost me my marriage. It took a while, but it took its toll.”

I now knew much more about my colleague than I had an hour ago. I nodded as I listened and absently moved the smooth shape in my hands, feeling its light weight. “And this thing is a souvenir of your work?” I guessed.

He nodded. “Did you ever see a film of a missile launch from a silo? As the thing comes up out of the hole there are what look like shiny flakes falling away from it. The missile is actually blown out of the silo by steam power, the first stage of the rocket engine doesn’t go until it’s above ground. Well, what you’re holding in your hand is one of those flakes, actually bumper pads that keep the sides of the missile from scraping against the silo wall, a way of lubricating the missile.”

As he spoke I ran my hand across the surface of the object I held. It was an elegant shape, sleek and hard, made of some sort of plastic, curved to align with the shape of the missile it protected, and now it seemed to resemble a kind of futuristic tombstone.

“I went out to visit some of those silos,” Jim said. “Out there on the plains of North Dakota where the wind is always blowing and you can’t keep the sand out of your eyes. The thing was called the MX while I worked on it. When it became operational they named it the Peacekeeper. It was over seventy feet long with multiple warheads that looked like dunce-caps, which is what we used to call them. Because they were using silos that were originally designed for the Minuteman, the fit was tight and they needed to line the missile with these little blocks so it wouldn’t hit the sides on its way out–God forbid you scuffed the thing during the launch.” He smiled to himself. “What you’re holding is about a quarter of one of those blocks.”

In spite of his reference to me, I didn’t get the impression he was actually talking to anyone, he seemed to be thinking out loud. “You work on this stuff in the lab, it’s one thing. When you see the end result, it can be….” He drifted off. “And it wasn’t only one silo, of course. There were so many, and each of the missiles had multiple warheads, any one of which could wipe out an enrire city.”

“Good thing the Cold War is over,” I said, hoping to change the subject.

He laughed quietly to himself, shook his head. “As long as those things are there in the ground there’s a chance that someone, a madman, a desperate man, could start something. We like to think we’re past all that but we aren’t, not until the last of them is rooted out.”

I nodded, waiting for more but he didn’t go on, he just looked into his cup as the silence grew heavier. I was in the office but I might have been on the plains in the upper midwest, the wind whispering around me as I stood beside a silo. Would there be a shriek of sirens before ignition? Would the ground beneath my feet begin to shudder? What kind of sound would accompany the steam-driven lurch of the long cylinder as the smooth lubricating blocks like the one I held in my hand were flung into the air like confetti? Would the thunder of the rocket’s engine rob me of my hearing, would the dragon’s tongue of flame sear my skin? What would it feel like knowing that all over the northern plains there were other lethal cylinders being jerked out of their holes, their multiple warheads catching the light as the earth trembled from the force of these fiery thrusts? I carefully laid the object on the desk and took another drink of bourbon, welcoming its warmth, I studied the pictures on the wall to assure myself we were still here amid the familiar confines of the campus. I tried not to look at the thing on the desk.

“After a while,” Jim said, “I had to do something else.”

I nodded as though he were actually talking to me. I wanted to finish my drink as soon as I could and call Jen.


***


K. C. Frederick grew up in Detroit and lives near Boston. One of his 6 novels won the L.L. Winship/PEN/New England Fiction Award and a number of his stories have been anthologized or recognized in the annual collections of the year’s best short fiction. His stories have recently appeared in Ninth Letter and The Missouri Review and he has fiction forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online.