Maps in a mirror, p.51

Maps in a Mirror, page 51

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Suddenly the boy’s fist shot out and slammed into the glove compartment door, which popped open with a crash. Siggy was startled, afraid. The boy showed no sign of pain, though it seemed he had hit hard enough to break a finger.

  “Hey, careful,” Siggy said.

  “You want me to be careful? You tell me to be careful, asshole?” The boy grabbed the steering wheel, jerked on it. The taxi swung into another lane; a car behind them squealed on its brakes and honked.

  “Are you crazy? Do you want to get us killed? Get mad, wreck the car, but don’t kill us!” Siggy was screaming in anger, and the boy sat there, trembling, his eyes not quite focused. Then the car that had honked at them pulled up beside them on the right. The driver was yelling something with his window down. His face looked ugly with anger. The boy held up his middle finger. The man made the same gesture back again.

  And suddenly the boy rolled down the window. “Hey, don’t get us in trouble,” Siggy said. The boy ignored him. He yelled a string of obscenities out the window. Siggy sped up, trying to pull away from the other car. The driver of the other car kept pace with him, yelled back his own curses.

  And then the boy pulled a revolver out of his pocket, a big, mean-looking black pistol, and aimed it out the window at the driver of the other car. The man suddenly looked terrified. Siggy slammed on the brakes, but so did the other driver, and they stayed nearly parallel.

  “Don’t!” Siggy screamed, and he sped up, leaving the other car in the distance. The boy pulled the gun back into the car and laid it on his lap, the cock still back, his finger still on the trigger.

  “It isn’t loaded, right?” Siggy asked. “It was just a joke, right? Would you take your finger off the trigger?”

  But it was as if the boy didn’t hear him. As if he didn’t even remember the last few minutes. “You wanted to know if I had a father, right? I have a father.”

  At the moment Siggy didn’t much care whether the boy had been born in a test tube. But better he should talk about his father than wave the gun around.

  “My father,” said the boy, “spends his life making sure enough Xerox machines are getting sold and putting more ads in the magazines when they aren’t.”

  They crossed the border into Kansas, and Siggy hoped the incident with the pistol wouldn’t get reported across state lines.

  “My father never taught me to ride a bike. My brother did. My brother was killed in Mr. President Nixon’s war. You know?”

  “That was a long time ago,” Siggy said.

  The boy looked at him coldly. “It was yesterday, asshole. You don’t believe those calendars, do you? All lies, so we’ll think it’s OK to forget about it. Maybe your wife died years ago, Mr. Cabdriver, but I thought you loved her better than that.”

  Then the boy looked down at the pistol in his lap, still cocked, still ready to fire.

  “I thought I left this home,” he said in surprise. “What’s it doing here?”

  “I should know?” Siggy asked. “Do me a favor, uncock the thing and put it away.”

  “OK,” the boy said. But he didn’t do anything.

  “Hey, please,” Siggy said. “You scare me, that thing sitting there ready to shoot.”

  The boy bowed his head over the pistol for a few moments. “Let me out,” he said. “Let me get out.”

  “Hey, come on, just put the gun away, you don’t have to get out, I won’t be mad, just put the gun away.”

  The boy looked up at him and there were tears in his eyes, spilling out onto his cheeks. “You think I brought this gun by accident? I don’t want to kill you.”

  “Then why’d you bring it?”

  “I don’t know. Jesus, man, let me out.”

  “You want to go to California, I’m going to California.”

  “I’m dangerous,” the boy said.

  Damn right you’re dangerous, Siggy thought. Damn right. And I’m a doubledamned fool not to let you out of here right this second, right this minute, very next off-ramp I’ll pull over and let him off.

  “Not to me,” Siggy said, wondering why he wasn’t more afraid.

  “To you. I’m dangerous to you.”

  “Not to me.” And Siggy realized why he was so confident. It was the fairy godmother, sitting inside the back of his head. “You think I’m going to let anything happen to you, dummkopf?” she asked him silently. “If you knock off before you make your wish, it ruins my life. The clerical work alone would take years.” I’m crazy, thought Siggy. This boy is nuts, but I’m crazy.

  “Yeah,” the boy said finally, gently letting down the hammer and putting the gun back into the pocket of his jacket. “Not to you.”

  They drove in silence for a while, as the plains flattened out and the sky went even flatter and the sun went dim behind the gray overcast. “Richard Nixon, huh?” the boy asked.

  “Yeah.”

  “You really think they’ll let us get near him?”

  “I’ll see to it,” Siggy said. And it occurred to him for the first time that fairy godmothers might fulfill wishes in unpleasant ways. Wish him dead? I should wish Nixion dead, and this boy goes to prison forever for killing him? Watch it, fairy godmother, he warned. I won’t let you trick me. I have a plan, and I won’t let you trick me into hurting this boy.

  “Hungry, Son?” Siggy asked. “Or can you hold out till Denver?”

  “Denver’s fine,” said the boy. “But don’t call me Son.”

  It was hot in Los Angeles, but as Siggy neared the sea the breezes became steadily cooler. He was tired. He was used to driving, but not so long a stretch, not so far. In a way the freeways were restful—no traffic, no guesswork about where the car to the right would be a few minutes later. People actually paid attention to the lines between lanes. But the freeways went on, relentlessly, mile after mile, until he felt like he was standing still and the road and the scenery played swiftly past him and under him. At last they had brought Los Angeles to him, and here the scenery would stop for him and wait for him to act. San Clemente. Richard Nixon’s house. He found them easily, as if he had always known the way. The boy, asleep beside him for the last few hundred miles, woke up when Siggy brought the cab to a halt.

  “What?” asked the boy, sleepily.

  “Go back to sleep,” Siggy said, getting out of the car. The boy got out, too.

  “This is it?”

  “Yes,” Siggy said, already walking toward the entrance.

  “I gotta pee,” the boy said. But Siggy ignored him, and kept on walking. The boy followed, ran a little, caught up, saying softly, “Shit can’t you even wait a minute?”

  Secret Service men were everywhere, of course, but by now Siggy’s madness was complete. He knew that they could not stop him. He had to meet Richard Nixon, and so he would. He had parked a long way from the mansion, and he just walked in, the boy at his heels. He didn’t climb fences or do anything extraordinary. Just walked up the drive, around the house, and out onto the beach. No one saw him. No one called out to him. Secret Servicemen seemed always to have their backs to him, or to be on an urgent errand somewhere else. He would have his meeting with Richard Nixon. He would use his wish.

  And he was standing where the water charged up the sand, always falling short of its last achievement as the tide ebbed. The boy stood beside him. Siggy watched the house, but the boy watched Siggy. “I thought they had us,” the boy said. “I can’t believe we got in here.”

  “Sh,” Siggy answered softly. “Sh.”

  Siggy felt as nervous as a virgin at her wedding, more dreading than longing for what was to come. What if Nixon thinks I’m a fool? he thought. He needn’t have worried. As he stood in the sand, Nixon emerged from the house, came down to the beach, and stopped at the waterline, staring out to sea. He was alone.

  Taking a deep breath, Siggy walked to him. The sand kept slipping under his feet, so that every step forward tried to turn him out of his path. He persevered, and stood beside Richard Nixon. It was the face, the nose, at
once the heavily shadowed evil face of the Herblock cartoons and the hopeful, strong face of the man Siggy had voted for three times.

  “Mr. Nixon,” Siggy said.

  Nixon did not turn at first. He just said, “How did you get here?”

  Siggy shrugged. “I had to see you.”

  Then Nixon turned to him, his face set to smile. Siggy watched as Nixon’s eyes met his, then glanced over his shoulder at the boy, who was walking up, who stopped just behind Siggy.

  The boy spoke. “We’ve come to kill you,” he said.

  And the boy had his hand in his pocket, where the gun was, and Siggy felt a moment of panic. But the voice of the fairy godmother sounded gently in his ear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Take your time.”

  So Siggy shook his head at the boy, who frowned but did not shoot, and then Siggy turned back to Nixon. The former president was still smiling, his eyes narrowed a bit, but not showing any fear. Siggy felt a moment of satisfaction. This was the Nixon he had admired, the man with such great physical courage, who had faced mobs of Communists in Venezuela and Peru without flinching.

  “You wouldn’t be the first to want to,” Nixon said.

  “Oh, but I don’t want to,” Siggy said. “I have to. For America.”

  “Ah.” Nixon nodded, knowingly. “We all do the most unpleasant things, don’t we, for America.”

  Siggy felt a stab of relief. He understood, which would make it all so much easier.

  “You’re lucky,” Nixon said. “I came out here alone, this once. To say good-bye. I’m leaving here. Tomorrow I would have been gone.” He shook his head slightly, slowly, from side to side. “Well, get on with it. I can’t stop you.”

  “Oh,” Siggy said. “I’m not going to shoot you. All I have to do is wish you dead.” Behind him Siggy heard the boy gasp a little. And Nixon sighed slightly. For a moment it sounded to Siggy like disappointment. Then he realized it was relief. And the smile returned to Nixon’s face.

  “But not today,” Siggy went on. I can’t just wish for you to be assassinated now, Mr. Nixon. Or for you to die in bed or in an accident. The damage is done. So I’ll have to have you die in the past.”

  The boy made a soft noise behind him.

  Nixon nodded wisely. “That will be much better, I think.”

  “So I’ve decided that the best time will be right after you’re sworn into office the second time. In 1972, before the Watergate thing got out of hand, right after you got a peace treaty from the Vietnamese and right after your landslide victory. Then an assassin picks you off, and you’re a bigger hero and a greater legend than Kennedy.”

  “And everything since then?” Nixon asked.

  “Changed. They won’t keep after you, you see, after you’re dead. You’ll be a pleasant memory to almost everybody. Their hate will be gone, mostly.”

  Nixon shook his head. “You said your wish was supposed to be for the good of America, didn’t you?”

  Siggy nodded.

  “Well, if I had been assassinated then, Spiro Agnew would have become president.”

  Siggy had forgotten. Spiro Agnew. What a bum. There was no way that could be good for the country. “You’re right,” Siggy said. “So it’ll have to be before. Right before the election. It’ll be almost as good then, you were leading in the polls.”

  “But then,” Nixon said, “George McGovern would have been president.”

  Worse and worse. Siggy began to realize the difficulties involved in carrying out his responsibility. Everything he changed would have consequences. How could he fix the country’s woes, if he kept increasing them with the changes he made?

  “And if you have me killed in 1968, it’s either Spiro Agnew or Hubert Humphrey,” Nixon added. “Maybe you’ll just have to wish for me to win in 1960.”

  Siggy thought of that. Thought very carefully. “No,” he said. “That would be good for you. It would have made you a better president, not to have those bad experiences first. But would you have taken us to the moon? Would you have kept the Vietnam War as small as it was?”

  “Smaller,” Nixon said. “I would have won it by 1964.”

  Siggy shook his head. “And been at war with Red China, and the world might have been destroyed, and millions of people killed. I don’t think the wrong man won in 1960.”

  Nixon’s face went kind of sad. “Then maybe it would be kindest of all if you simply wished for me to lose every election I ever tried. Keep me out of Congress, out of the vice-presidency. Let me be a used car salesman.” And he smiled a twisted, sad smile.

  Siggy reached out and touched the man’s shoulder. “Maybe I should,” he said, and the boy behind him made another soft sound.

  “But no,” Nixon said. “You wanted to save America. And it wouldn’t make any difference to keep me out of government. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. There would have been a Richard Nixon anyway. If they hadn’t wanted me, I wouldn’t have been there. If Richard Nixon hadn’t existed, they would have made one.”

  Siggy sighed. “Then I don’t know what to do,” he said.

  Nixon turned and looked out over the water. “I only did what they wanted me to do. And when they changed their minds, they were surprised at what I was.” The beach was cold and damp between waves. The breeze from the land carried the air of Los Angeles with it, and it made the beach smell slimy and old. “Maybe,” Nixon said, “there’s nothing you can wish for that will save America. Maybe there’s nothing you can do at all.”

  And the noise the boy made was loud enough that Siggy at last turned to look at him. To his surprise, the boy was no longer standing up. He was sitting cross-legged in the sand, bowed over, his hands gripping each other behind his neck. His body shook.

  “What’s wrong, Son?” Nixon asked. He sounded concerned.

  The boy looked up, anger and grief in his face. “You,” he said, and his voice shook. “You can call me Son.”

  Nixon knelt in the sand, painfully as if his leg hurt, and touched the boy’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, Son?”

  “His brother was killed in Vietnam,” Siggy said, as if that explained anything.

  “I’m sorry,” Nixon said. “I’m really sorry.”

  The boy threw off Nixon’s hand. “Do you think that matters? Do you think it makes any difference how sorry you are?” The words stung Nixon, clearly. He shuddered as if his face had been slapped.

  “I don’t know what else I can do,” Nixon said softly.

  The boy’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the lapels of his suit, pulling him down until they were face to face, and the boy screamed, “You can pay for it! You can pay and pay and pay—” and the boy’s lips and teeth were almost touching Nixon’s face, and Nixon looked pathetic and helpless in the boy’s grip, flecks of the boy’s spit beginning to dot his cheeks and lips. Siggy watched, and realized there was nothing that Nixon could do that would pay it all, that would give the boy back what he had lost, realized that Nixon had not really taken it from the boy. Had not taken it, could not return it, was as much a victim as anyone else. How could Siggy, with a single wish, set it all right? How could he even up all the scales?

  “Think, idiot,” said the fairy godmother. “I’m losing patience.”

  “I don’t know what to do,” he said to her.

  “And you’re the one with the plan,” she answered contemptuously.

  The boy was still screaming, again and again, and Nixon was weeping now, silently letting the tears flow to join the spittle on his face, as if to agree, as if to make it unanimous.

  “I wish,” said Siggy, “for everyone to forgive you, Mr. Nixon. For everyone in America to stop hating you, little by little, until all the hate is gone.”

  The fairy godmother danced in his mind, waving her wand around and turning everything pink.

  And the boy stopped screaming and let go of Nixon, gazed wonderingly into the old man’s eyes at the tears there, and said, “I’m sorry for you,” and meant it with all his he
art. Then Siggy helped the boy to his feet and they turned away, leaving Nixon on the beach. The world was tinged with pink and Siggy put his arm around the boy and they smiled at each other. And they headed back to the cab. Siggy saw the fairy godmother flying away ahead of them, north and east from San Clemente, trailing stars behind her as she flew.

  “Bibbity bobbity boo,” she cried, and she was gone.

  THE PORCELAIN SALAMANDER

  They called their country the Beautiful Land, and they were right. It perched on the edge of the continent. Before the Beautiful Land stretched the broad ocean, which few dared to cross; behind it stood the steep Rising, a cliff so high and sheer that few dared to climb. And in such isolation the people, who called themselves, of course, the Beautiful People, lived splendid lives.

  Not all were rich, of course. And not all were happy. But there was such a majesty to living in the Beautiful Land that the poverty could easily be missed by the undiscerning eye, and misery seemed so very fleeting.

  Except to Kiren.

  To Kiren, misery was the way of life. For though she lived in a rich house with servants and had, it seemed, anything she could possibly want, she was deeply miserable most of the time. For this was a land where cursing and blessing and magic worked—not always, and not always in the way the person doing it might have planned—but sometimes the cursing worked, and in her case it had.

  Not that she had done anything to deserve it; she had been as innocent as any other child in her cradle. But her mother had been a weak woman, and the pain and terror of giving birth had killed her. And Kiren’s father loved his wife so much that when he learned of the news, and saw the baby that had been born even as her mother died, he cried out, “You killed her! You killed her! May you never move a muscle in your life, until you lose someone you love as much as I loved her!” It was a terrible curse, and the nurse wept when she heard it, and the doctors stopped Kiren’s father’s mouth so that he could say no more in his madness.

  But his curse took hold, and though he regretted it a million times during Kiren’s infancy and childhood, there was nothing he could do. Oh, the curse was not all that strong. Kiren did learn to walk, after a fashion. And she could stand for as much as two minutes at a time. But most of the times she sat or lay down, because she grew so weary, and her muscles only weakly did what she told them to. She could lift a spoon to her mouth, but soon became tired, and had to be fed. She scarcely had the energy to chew.

 

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