Thursday, September 17, 2009

Distant Cousin--Excerpts

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It was cold and dark in the bottom of the canyon, but the crisp, dry air was wonderfully exhilarating. Overhead, the sky was lightening on one side...that had to be east. She recalled the image of her map: west Texas, U.S.A., a canyon below the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, or so she hoped.

She climbed carefully upwards, towards the lightening sky. Rocks and pebbles clattered lightly under her feet. In the gathering light she could make out all kinds of odd plants, some with formidable thorns. Out of curiosity, she touched a cactus and got pricked by a sharp spine.

She had wondered what the air might smell like. It was bracing: crisp and light and clean. There were subtle notes of some cool, spicy fragrance probably from a plant, but she had no idea which one or ones. Eventually she reached the top of the canyon to discover a hard, smooth surface along the crest, extending out of sight around curves both above and below her. A highway, she realized. And there! There was the observatory: two silver domes on two peaks a good ways off, glinting softly in the first light. That’s what I want! she thought. Sucking her prickled finger in the dawn stillness, she began walking up the road toward the observatory.

After rounding two or three curves it had grown light enough to see to the horizon. The view was stupendous. Hills and mountains receded into the distance, in a silence that could almost be heard. The curvature of the earth was visible, impossibly far away. A contrail marked the sky high overhead, like a silver scratch. Had she made one herself earlier? She had no idea.

She had landed in the edge of a range of rugged desert mountains, in one of many canyons that opened out to a giant plain in front of her. In the distance on the far side of the plain were more, but lower, hills and mountains. She could now see that the canyon she had clambered out of was full of huge boulders at the bottom. There were small trees here and there, and more clumps of low trees in adjacent canyons. She'd been expecting a denser forest, but perhaps this area was too dry to support one. There seemed to be only one highway across the plain. Where it disappeared among the hills on the horizon, a handful of lights twinkled dimly. If that was a town, it was the only one around for as far as she could see.

Walking in the silent, chill air was exhilarating. Her shoes made a crunching sound in the gravel just off the pavement, but progress was easier, more quiet, and faster on the pavement itself. The cool, gentle breeze smelled wonderful.
After rounding two curves, she became aware of a sound down the highway behind her. At first a faint sigh, it grew louder, and she had almost decided to jump down into the canyon when two lights appeared. It was an automobile! In no time at all it passed her, and then red lights brightened on the back of it. It stopped, two white lights came on, and it slowly rolled back to where she stood. A glass panel slid down. She had almost decided to run for the canyon when a woman's head appeared in the opening and a voice said, "Hey, miss, you need a ride?"

She forced her heart to quit pounding and stepped toward the automobile. The dark face in the window was smiling, and the voice had been kindly. Finally she stammered "Oh, thank you, no. I'm just walking up to the observatory."
"Oooh, that's a long walk on a cold morning," the woman said. "I work there. That's where I'm going. Get in. I'll give you a ride!"

She had seen enough movies to know that passengers rode next to the driver, so she walked to the other side, opened the door, and got in. The car gathered speed up the mountain.

She had just begun to consider the etiquette of the situation--who should speak first?--when the woman said "Oooh, this is a cold morning for a walk! And going all the way to the observatory! They don't open for visitors until nine o'clock! You gonna have to wait! You wanna see the stars?"

"Uh, no, ma’am...I want to talk to the director, to Dr. Harcroft."

"Ooooh, I know him! I clean his office! He's a very smart man! He knows everything about the stars. But he's very messy! You wouldn't believe the mess he make in just one day! I can show you his office! Those people, they stay up all night looking through their telescopes, but they sleep late--you might not see him until lunch time. I hope you patient!"

She smiled and nodded at the driver--a bit of good fortune, perhaps. There's one thing she wouldn't have to worry about. If only the rest went as smoothly.


Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite were collectively filled with great joy, and not a little relief, none more so than Hartley Braithwaite. They were in their own meeting room in their own building, and by golly, if they wanted to smoke cigars they would smoke cigars. Bynum and Caxton actually lit up--Benning and Braithwaite merely smiled and acquiesced, out of expansive good humor. Gary Lollar had won a silver medal in an individual swimming event and a gold in a relay, Cheryl Ford had just won the gold medal for the 10,000 meters, and their long shot Ana Darcy had snagged a cycling gold medal out of the blue for Barbados. Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite's athletes were four for three. Life was good!

Like much of the rest of the world, however, they were curious about what the enigmatic Ms. Darcy would do next. The morning after the bicycle race she was scheduled to run in the 100 meter finals, and that afternoon the high jump event began. The day after that she was to start the long jump, and the day after that, although it seemed impossible, she was scheduled for the preliminaries of the 10 meter diving event. The announcers at the affected venues were beginning to take increasing notice.

The next morning all four partners showed up without complaint at the unlawyerly hour of 7:30 am to gather before the television cart in their meeting room. Mrs. Anderson, the secretary, had splurged on a catered breakfast without even asking Jack Benning if he wanted it. She hovered in the background with an eye on the screen, where a 400 meter women's semifinal heat was taking place. As it ended and cut to a commercial break, the commentators dropped a teaser: "When we come back, we'll go to the finals of the women's 100 meter race in Dublin's Olympic stadium. We'll see if the favored American, DeShawn Williams, and the other favorite, Miriam Mkeba from Kenya, can be challenged by the Barbadian Ana Darcy, who just won gold in the cycling road race. It seems unlikely that a cyclist could stay in there with the fastest women in the world, especially after her grueling victory, but we'll soon find out. First, these messages...."

The partners hastened to pour their coffee and select some food before the commercials ended. Mrs. Anderson had never seen lawyers this nervous before. "Cool" was their normal professional demeanor. But now, they were not cool.
When the commercials ended, all talk in the room ceased. The screen showed the eight runners, Darcy in a middle lane, by far the shortest and lightest. The banner with her four digit number on it wrapped so far around her chest that only three numbers could be seen at a time. The camera panned across the group slowly as the announcers identified the runners and provided a couple details about each for the audience. Darcy's team gold medal of the previous day was mentioned, the color commentator adding, "Darcy's favored position in one of the middle lanes was earned from her fast time in the qualifying heat, but that was run before the bicycle race. It remains to be seen if she has anything left for this all-out sprint. And now, the runners get set...."

At some signal inaudible to the partners in the room, the runners stopped jumping and quivering and began to set themselves in their starting blocks, placing their hands with exaggerated care on the track. Darcy backed into her blocks and kneeled with little fuss, setting her spread fingers down easily. Another inaudible signal, and all the women raised up off their knees, put their rears in the air, and their heads down. Then there was a sharp crack, and they took off--except Darcy, who stood up calmly and glanced to one side.

Before anyone could register surprise there was another bang and the runners broke stride and slowed to a stop. "A false start!" hollered the announcer. "One of the runners left too soon! But Ana Darcy, in lane 4, didn't leave the blocks at all, Art! Let's see the slow motion replay of that. Yes, there it is--the Kenyan, Miriam Mkeba, in lane 5, left a fraction of a second too soon. But note that Darcy, next to her, never left the blocks at all. She stood up just as the starting gun went off. Does that mean that she wasn't going to try to run, that she used up everything she had on the bicycle? Or maybe she has a pulled muscle...she’s looking very serious right now. Maybe she’s hurt. We'll have to see if she takes her place for the restart of this race, or if she simply leaves the track."

The runners repeated their elaborate positioning and tensed for the gun once again. When it went off, everyone shot out of the blocks, Darcy included. At the ten meter point she was a step ahead of the American next to her. At twenty five meters she was two steps ahead and visibly accelerating. At the finish line she was a good eight meters ahead of the second place American, her legs a blur.

The race clock showed a time of 9.6 seconds. At first, the crowd and even the announcers sat in stunned silence. They had just seen a new world record set by a full six tenths of a second, an unbelievably huge margin in such a short race. Darcy was congratulating the American silver medalist and the other runners around her, but as the magnitude of what they had seen sank in, the crowd finally began shouting and applauding.
The announcers were shouting too, to be heard over the crowd. "That's amazing, Art! Let's see that again, with the clock superimposed." They ran the tape of the race again, in slow motion, twice, from different angles. When they finished the crowd was still standing and applauding. Someone pressed a Barbadian flag into Darcy's hands. She looked as though she didn't know what to do with it. The American runner pushed her into a victory lap and accompanied her all the way around the track.

Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite looked at each other with solemn faces, then back at the screen, as if that might explain something. Finally, Jack Benning stood up. After about ten seconds, he sat back down. He swiveled his chair to face the plate glass overlooking the bay. Then he swiveled to face the table. Bynum was looking at his coffee, Caxton at the television. Only Braithwaite met Benning’s gaze. "What the hell was that, Hartley?" he said. Braithwaite's face didn't change.

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