S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: “Exquisite Hoax,” by Bill Carr

In retirement, you’re supposed to do those things you’ve always wanted to do.  Whether I like it or not, money, at least for me, is no longer a factor.  Even with money out of the picture, it’s not that easy.  Just yesterday my agent said to me, “I always knew I was destined to accomplish great things.  When I’m able to get you gigs, I know I’ve accomplished the impossible.”  Then, in what’s become a ritual for us, he screws up his face and says, “Philosophy?”

I start to explain that what I lecture on is not just philosophy, but the confluence of philosophy, religion, and science; however, with his desk calendar already out, he’s telling me to write down the date, time and location of my next lecture, and how much compensation, which is generally rather meager, he’s been able to cajole from my newest employer.

He does not fit the stereotype I had of a booking agent.  I pictured her as female, maternal, twenty years younger than I, with incredible attention to detail.  My agent is male, brusque, condescending in a bantering way, and incredibly short on assignment details.

He does manage to get me bookings, however, something I’ve been entirely inept at doing myself.  He finds me lecture slots at philosophical societies, education retreats, churches, synagogues, community centers, and some universities.  When he can’t find gigs for me, and even when he can, he does not hesitate to point out that my subject area is not exactly in demand, and my background in the corporate world actually casts suspicion on my expertise in this academic area.

Mostly, my audiences are appreciative.  Occasionally, after a lecture, some express disdain masquerading as surprise that I don’t have a doctorate.  During the question and answer period, others try to poke holes in my scientific theories.  So far, no one has hurled rotten fruit.

My most popular lecture is one I call Correlations.  I draw connections between ancient beliefs and modern scientific thought.  For example, there is a correlation between the ancient Judaic belief in monotheism and the modern scientific tenet that the laws of nature are constant throughout the universe.  Scientists did not really accept the universality of nature’s laws until the early 20th century.  True, the ancients were superstitious.  Those in authority had a predilection for harassing or disposing of those who claimed established beliefs were all screwed up.  But the ancients were not dumb.

Another correlation is between the biblical Genesis account and the current scientific relationship between the illogical quantum world and the logical macro world.  God created the universe from chaos.  Living beings convert quantum mechanics into logical determinism.  Most of the attendees at my lectures don’t buy into quantum mechanics.  They believe in the time-honored wisdom that my tush can’t be in two places at the same time.  Well, if I went on a crash diet, and reduced my tush to the size of an electron, it could be in two places at the same time.

My most unpopular talk is one I call Comparative Realities.  I’m afraid that in this one I come off as a demotivational speaker.  What we adjudge to be reality is an exquisite hoax. We regard it as reality because it’s head and shoulders in believability above other sensory images we experience, such as dreams, hallucinations, and visions.  I suppose you can throw in theories like parallel universes.  Closer to home are entities that we don’t see clearly – institutions that start out with their purpose in life being serving the public good, then replace this goal with one of staying alive and growing more powerful.  They subsequently imprison and exploit the very cells that created the institution.  Complicating this whole picture is that valid philosophical beliefs such as solipsism and nihilism are treated with disdain because they are just too depressing.  The problem with what we perceive as reality, confirmed by our own adaption and the verification by others with DNA similar to our own, is that reality does not exist the way we experience it.  Our technology provides quite a different picture.  Seemingly impermeable structures such as steel walls are mostly space.  The atom has been compared to a football stadium, with the nucleus resting on the 50-yard-line and the electron cloud revolving at the level of the outer rim of the stadium.  You see a red car coming down the street; if your vision were much more acute, it would not be a red car at all.  It would be all different colors, a melange of various frequencies of light, bouncing off waves of energy in motion.  We abstract out a red car.

Then we have the whole area of quantum weirdness.  The religious belief is that God created the universe from chaos.  In our prime reality, man creates a world of macro logic from quantum weirdness.  Man creates the universe in his mind.

*  *  *

I met her at a meeting of the American Society for Contemporary Philosophy at the Wintergreen Resort, near Charlottesville, Virginia.  This is not the society founded by Benjamin Franklin.  It’s a smaller organization, slightly more offbeat.  I saw her standing at the side of the room.  The lecturer preferred this small, downstairs meeting room to the auditorium in which I spoke.  “A more intimate setting,” he told me.  “Militates against violent ideological clashes.”  This was the evening lecture.  Someone left the door to the patio open.  You could hear the crickets outside.

She’s a good-looking woman, perhaps in her mid-fifties.  About 5 foot 7, trim figure, dark hair.  Glasses with thin frames the color of champagne.  She’s dressed completely in white, which was unusual for this audience:  white blouse, and white shorts.  It reminds me of summer camp, where all-white was the formal dress code.  In the question and answer period, she posed a very perceptive question.

My Comparative Realities lecture was the following morning.  After my talk, she waited patiently in front of the lectern while a woman berated me for my agnosticism.  “Actually,” I said, “I’m a little to the right of agnosticism.  It’s these 20 or so constants, like the outcroppings of a mathematical model.  If any one of them is altered, the universe doesn’t work.  I have to wonder where those constants came from.”

The woman was not assuaged, but looked up and saw someone else waiting.  “Just wanted to let you know my thoughts,” she said, as she walked away.

The next questioner approaches.  The name badge says Linda Melton, Washington, D.C.

“Thanks for rescuing me,” I say

She’s dressed more formally than the evening before:  black pants suit, and green silk blouse.

“It’s not much of a rescue,” she says.  “I wanted to tell you that I disagreed with virtually everything you said, but liked the way you said it.”

“Do you teach philosophy?”

“Not even close,” she replies.  “I run an abused women’s shelter in D.C.  But I majored in philosophy in college.”

Afterwards, I get her email address from the attendance roster.  One week later I send her a note saying that I’m giving my Correlations talk in Alexandria next week, and was wondering if she’d like to attend.  I feel confident she’ll like this talk better than the last one.  She responds saying she will try to be there.

The Holiday Inn in Alexandria is not as upscale as most of my venues in hotels.  I’ve always liked it, however, because it doesn’t look like other Holiday Inns.  Either by sound business acumen or uncompromising standards from the city’s planners, the chain built a hotel that really blends in with the red-brick motif of the surrounding area.

I have the 7:30 P.M lecture.  It seems to go well.  After the last question, there’s a smattering of applause.

I’m hunched over, detaching my laptop from the video projector.

“You were right,” she says, standing in front of me.  “I liked this talk a lot better than the previous one.

She’s wearing a light blue dress, straps over the shoulders, perfect for an evening lecture and perhaps dinner afterwards in Alexandria.  No glasses this time.  A light tinge of lipstick.

“I’m famished,” I tell her.  “Would you like to join me for a bite to eat.  I know a very nice place on King St.”

She hesitates.  “Well, just for dessert for me.  I ate before I came here.”

I’ve eaten at the Grecian Gardens before.  The food is very good, the atmosphere quiet, and the tables aren’t all scrunched together.  I particularly like the gleaming white archways that separate the two main dining areas, and the dining areas from the kitchen.  There are plenty of customers tonight, but you don’t have to strain to hear what your companion is saying.

I order the vegetarian moussaka and she chooses the large Greek salad.  We decide on saganaki as the appetizer.  As usual, the flaming saganaki draws oohs and aahs, along with cries of “Opa” from the other customers.

“Does your wife ever attend your lectures?” she asks quietly.

“Well, she used to.  The problem is I have a very limited repertoire.”

“And your sons?”

“Same situation.  We’re a geographically dispersed family.  They have their own lives and families now.”

“You know a lot about my family,” I say.

She smiles.  “A girl has to do her homework before she goes to dinner with someone who’s a solipsist and a nihilist.”

“But I told you,” I exclaim.  “I’m neither of those.”  She looks around and puts a finger to her lips.  I lower my voice.  “I’m not even an existentialist.”

I have the feeling she’s putting me on, and I reacted clumsily.  “I have to admit,” I say, “that I didn’t do my homework on you.”

“It’s nothing spectacular.  I’m the director of an abused women’s shelter, which is why I’m in D.C.  I majored in philosophy in college, which is why I attend these lectures.  And I’m divorced, with two grown children.”

She seems anxious to change the subject.  “You mentioned your limited repertoire.  But there have to be more than two subjects.”

“Unfortunately not.  But I’m working on a third.  My agent feels I need something more sociologically relevant.”  I realize I don’t like the direction in which this is going.

“What’s it on?”

“Fidelity.  Or, more precisely, infidelity.”

Her expression brightens.  “I get it,” she says.  “I’m a research subject.”

“Oh, no, not at all.”

She leans forward and looks me in the eye.  “Then why did you ask me out to dinner?”

“You ask very perceptive questions.”

She frowns, turning her attention to her salad.

“And how far along are you on this new lecture?” she asks.

“It’s still in the embryonic stage.”

“Does it have a title?”

“I was thinking of ‘Semper Infidelis’”

“I like it.  And have you established the criteria for infidelity?”

“Penetration.”

“No!” she exclaims, pounding her fist on the table.  She looks to see if any heads have turned our way.  None have.  The customers at the Grecian Corner are more interested in flaming saganaki than in conversational outbursts.

“If you talked to the women I counsel,” she says, with quiet determination, “I think you’d have a different opinion.”

“It’s not my opinion.  It’s a cultural standard.”

“In which country?”

“That’s a very good question,” I say.  “It’s a cultural standard in the U.S.  France, for example, has a very different standard.  Cultural relativism.  Spouses, mostly men, can have affairs as long as the media doesn’t stir up indignation.  In the U.S., Arnold has a penchant for groping, but Maria can live with that.  However, when penetration, and the results of penetration become known, acceptance grinds to a halt.”

“I still don’t agree with that,” she says firmly.  “Is that as far as you’ve gotten?”

“I’ve established some conditions conducive to infidelity.  So far I’ve got seven, and the list is still growing.  The ones I have are power, opportunity, attraction, need for a relief-valve, pervasiveness of the practice, delusions of concealment, and the prophecies of mothers of teenage sons.”

She laughs.  “I’m interested in all of those, but you’ve got to explain the last one to me.”

“Well, in its most common occurrence, the teenage son is miserable because the high-school cheerleader he likes won’t go out with him.  She’s interested only in the quarterback on the football team.  His mother tries to console him by saying someday the girls will all be running after him.”

She’s still smiling.  “But my prediction to my son came true,” she asserts.  “When he got to college, the girls wouldn’t leave him alone.”

I shrug my shoulders.  “Well, that could cause later problems.  Or waiting for it to happen could cause later problems.”

“And you?” she asks.  “I’ll bet you were quite the catch in college.”

“Never happened,” I reply.  Sorry, Mom.

How many years ago?  Twenty-five?  I’m on assignment at the Centrex subsidiary in Paris.  There is some degree of power.  The compensation is great.  It’s an American company.  Practically all of the software development is done in the U.S.  The Europeans are anxious for technical expertise, and are willing to pay for it.

Among our closest friends are the Anderssons.  He’s Danish, and she’s from the Netherlands.  His real name is Torben, but he likes to be called Tommy.  He’s big, smart, and athletic.  They have four beautiful, blond kids.  He loves everything about the U.S. – the expanse, music, jeans, language.  They live near us, and we socialize quite a bit.

There’s a small cafeteria on the ground floor of the building in which we work.  The food is quite good.   Almost everyone in our industry center goes there for lunch.  Tommy and I place our trays on the silver tubing that leads past the glass-enclosed food displays.  I don’t like one of the servers.  She’s tall, willowy, and grumpy.  Attractive, though.  Anyone who looks good in a hairnet has to be attractive.

“What do you want?” she asks curtly, in clipped English, as I study the offerings.  “Hurry up, there are people waiting.”

I make my selection, and start toward the register.

“Tommy, how are you!”  I look back.  Her whole face brightens.  She’s smiling broadly.

“What was that all about?” I ask, as we make our way toward an empty table.

“It’s nothing,” Tommy says.  “I took her skiing last weekend.”

That evening we get together with the Anderssons.  They have a huge home in the so-called American section.  When we visited them during our househunting trip, my first reaction was one of envy.  I’ve got to find a rental that at least is close to this – even if we have to strain our international service budget a bit.  If my wife Marilyn felt the same, she didn’t let on.

Tommy’s wife Annika and I are sitting on a billowy, green sofa at the end of their combination living and dining room.  It’s a huge room, running the full length of the house, with a white marble floor.  If you pushed all the furniture against the walls and near the large picture window overlooking the back yard, you could use the room as a dance floor.  Tommy is in the kitchen fixing drinks.  The kids are supposedly playing downstairs.  It’s a little too quiet down there, so Marilyn is checking on them.

Annika is soft-spoken with a pleasant smile.

“He’s strayed, you know,” she says, placing her hand on my arm.  It’s as if she’s not sure whether I know, but it’s best to get it out in the open.  “But,” she adds, “he came back to the fold.”

Well, not completely.  But I say nothing.  Power?  Yes, at least relative to our jobs in the States.  With the International Service Allowance and the other perks, our salaries are quadruple what we made in the States.  We’re making decisions that are usually made at much higher managerial levels back home.  Opportunity – definitely.  Attraction?  She’s more physically appealing than Annika.  Need for a relief valve?  Absolutely.  It’s a glamorous life – we’re forever traveling all over Europe for different meetings, but we do work hard.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  It’s all over the place.  While the husbands lead this glamorous, fast-paced life, the wives get stuck with the nitty-gritty of the cultural transition:  getting the kids in school, running the household, shopping for groceries in a foreign language.  Separations, even divorces, are common.  Wife takes the kids and returns to the states, while the husband carries on – both with the job and the affair.  Delusions of concealment?  Probably not.  She found out once.  Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Never asked Tommy about that.

There’s a job category here we don’t have in the States:  International Assignment Representative.  For our industry center, these roles are filled by three local French women, all in their early twenties, and members of the human resources department.  They act as surrogate secretaries/wives.  They handle medical reimbursement, arranging for car registration, making airline reservations, assisting in shopping for appliances, and overseeing reimbursement under the light-fixtures compensation plan.  This plan came into being when one assignee managed to convince human resources that the company should reimburse for the purchase of new light fixtures for the home.  These young women are very competent in what they do.

I get the sexy one.  Her name is Gabrielle.  She’s also my mixed doubles tennis partner.  We’re playing a match against another industry center on beautiful, Har-Tru courts.  Everyone here still wears all white at a tennis match.  Gabrielle and I lose the first set, and are down a break in the second.  I hit a ball that’s close but called out.  “You called that out?” I ask the male opponent.  He just looks at me.  “Could you check the mark?” I ask.  It seems that’s just not done here in a mixed doubles match.  He studies me.  His partner eyes me with disdain.  Gabrielle looks at me with surprise.  “You thought that was in?” he finally asks.  “I did,” I reply.  “Why don’t you just check the mark?”  “Play it good,” he says to his partner, turning and throwing a ball to her.  Gabrielle and I go on to win the match.

When Gabrielle wears a miniskirt, heads turn.  Even when she walks by with a mid-length skirt, heads turn.  At work there’s a Christmas party in the break room.  All the chairs are up against the walls.  They’re all occupied.  Some people, holding their drinks, are talking in the center of the room.  Everyone is feeling pretty convivial.  Gabrielle enters, wearing a miniskirt.  She sees me and smiles hello.   I don’t get up.  “Hi,” I say, nodding my head.  I look around.  Not an empty chair in sight.  “Why don’t you sit on my lap?”  She does, putting her arms around my neck and resting her head on my shoulder.  Some heads turn and smile, but others pay no attention.  This is a festive occasion.  I can feel Gabrielle’s breath and hair on my neck.  “You don’t want to get involved, do you?” she whispers.  The directness of the question takes me by surprise.  Can’t I have a little time to think it over?  I can feel my face reddening.  “No,” I reply.  “I guess not.”

Power?  Yes.  Opportunity ?  Yes.  Attraction?  That’s a tough one.  Definitely a sexual attraction.  If it’s not a total attraction, does it count as fidelity?  Overall I’m more attracted to our French secretary.  She’s pretty, flirtatious, married, loves things American, and draws a distinct line against anything more than flirtation.  Need for a relief valve?  Absolutely.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  It’s all over the place.  Delusions of concealment?  None.  Not a chance of concealment.  Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Sorry again, Mom.  Not enough volume.

I pay the bill, and Linda and I leave the restaurant.  The night air has gotten chillier.  I help Linda on with her sweater.

“Did you drive here?” I ask.

“I’m not that masochistic.  I took a cab.”

“There are always taxis in front of the Holiday Inn,” I say.  “I’d like to take you home, but I have the early lecture slot tomorrow morning.”

We walk in silence toward the Holiday Inn.

“I’d like to see you again,” I say quietly.

She stops and looks me in the eye.

“I mean,” I tell her, “when, if ever, I finish this next lecture.”

“I don’t understand you,” she says firmly.  “Do you have an open marriage?”

“No.  I believe it’s quite closed.”

“But your problem is your wife doesn’t really understand you.”

“I think she understands me quite well.”

“Tell me this.  Does she invite individual men out to dinner?”

“Actually, she does.  She’s a vice president of a public relations firm.”

We continue walking, neither of us saying a word.

“You know,” I say quietly, “I don’t see what the problem is with our just being friends.  It doesn’t mean we have to leap into bed together.”

She stops again.  This time she’s angry.

“You may be surprised to know,” she says, “that some of my clients are quite sophisticated.  I warn them against situations exactly like this.”

We reach the Holiday Inn.  There’s a taxi waiting by the entrance.  I open the door to the back seat and watch her get in.

“I don’t suppose I’ll see you again,” I say.

The summary should probably be applied in all cases.  Power?  I suppose so.  It could be the teacher/student relationship.  Opportunity ?  Yes.  Attraction?  Definitely – a total attraction.   Need for a relief valve?  I don’t think so.  Not any more.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  No idea.  You can’t make a judgment based on Philip Roth novels.  Delusions of concealment?  Maybe a few.  I could be better at that than I used to be.   Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Unfulfilled, and going backwards.

“That’s not necessarily true,” she says, closing the car door.

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