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“Hi,” Kim said.
The man glanced at the little girl and then back at the cable dangling from the wall. A gray metal box, about the size of a cigar box, lay open on the floor next to him. Red, green, and yellow wires extended from holes in two sides. “Hey, kid. What’s up?”
She looked up at the dusty ceiling fan, rotating on a squeaky shaft. “Fan,” she said. “Ceiling, attic, roof, clouds, sky, space, stars.”
The man turned on his knees to stare at her.
She gazed at the loopy fan. “I don’t know what comes after the stars.”
He grinned. “What’s down?”
She glanced at the young man and then at the floor. “Rug, floor, apartment 3F, apartment 2F, apartment 1F, basement, dirt.” She turned back to him. “I don’t know what’s under the dirt?”
Her countenance was that of butter that had once been liquid, whipped and then frozen. Penetrating brown eyes showed not a flicker of emotion.
He was a slim fellow. A bit too skinny, more like malnourished. He didn’t wear a uniform, just a gray button-down oxford over a pea-green tee-shirt, grass-stained jeans, no belt, sneakers that had been white at one time and wool socks—one brown, the other black. His face seemed always about to break into a smile. A name tag clung with one steal claw to his breast pocket, hanging at a angle. He was a day or two beyond needing a shave.
“Raymond Hunter,” she said, tilting her head at the same angle as his name tag. “What’s under the dirt?” She held a rag doll in the crook of her arm. The doll appeared to be older than her five years, much older.
Raymond blinked. He had no family, unless one counted Tinkerbell, Chip and Dale, Beauregard, and Fuzzle, as family. They were, respectively, a one-winged parrot, two white mice that had either been tortured half to death by deranged drug addicts or endured months, or perhaps years participating in some sort of bleeding-edge lab experiments—both of them were hairless, crippled and totally nuts. Rounding out the rest of the crew was a blind toy Pomeranian, and a worn-out yellow-dappled-brown cat with no front feet. Dinner at his walk-up apartment in the Bronx was an interesting time of day because everyone ate at the same table.
“What’s under the dirt?” Raymond repeated her question. “Let me think. First comes the dragon nests made of feathers and old newspapers, then worm city followed by the bat graveyard and then probably snake houses made of bamboo and bubble gum.”
She stared at him for a moment. “No, I mean really. What’s down there?”
“Oh, you want the scientific stuff, right?”
“Okay. Under the dirt comes the crust of the earth, then molten rock. You know what molten means?”
“Melted or liquefied by extreme heat.”
“Close enough,” he said. “Anyway, after the molten rock comes melted metals, like iron, gold and then lead.”
“Gold is heavier than lead.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it in Mama’s cycopea.”
“Oh, come on. A little kid cannot read an encyclopedia.”
“I got money.”
“All right, I’ll bet you a five you can’t read an encyclopedia.” He grinned, trying to get a smile out of her.
She turned and ran from the room, her short red polka-doted-white dress flaring out and her bare feet pattering over the dirty rug. A moment later, she ran back to Raymond and held out her hand. There in her pink little palm was a shiny nickel.
Raymond stood on his knees and shoved a hand into his jeans pocket, bringing out a few coins. He picked out a nickel. “Okay, my nickel against yours that you can’t…”
She snatched the coin from his hand and ran to an open door on the opposite side of the room. She stopped to peek into the dark room, and then eased inside. Soon she slipped out of the room and ran back with a large book under her arm. On the spine of the book was “Funk and Wagnall Se-Sr”.
She laid the book and the two nickels on the floor and began flipping pages. Soon she found what she wanted and shifted her doll to the other arm, running her finger down the page. She began to read; “Specific Gravity is a special case of relative density defined as the ratio of the density of a given…” She stopped and looked up at him. “How do you say that word, Raymond?”
He turned his head to see where she pointed. “Um, substance.”
“Density of a given um substance, to the density of water. Um substances with a specific gravity greater than 1 are heavier than water, and those with a specific gravity of less than 1 are lighter than water. For example…” she ran her finger down a long list of substances. “Gold has a specific gravity of 19.3, meaning it is 19.3 times heavier than water and…” She went farther down the list. “Lead is 11.34.” She looked up at him. “Which means gold would be under the lead.”
“You said under the dirt is the crust of the earth, then molten rock. And then after the molten rock comes melted metals, like iron, gold and then lead.”
“I said all that?”
“I made it up.”
“Big people should not lie to little kids.”
“Making things up for kids is not lying.”
“What is it, then?”
She looked down at the open book on the floor, thinking about what he had said. She picked up her two nickels. “What comes after the gold down there?”
“I think it would be lead again, and then iron, molten rock, the crust of the earth and then dirt again.”
She glanced at him. “You think the earth is square, don’t you, Raymond.”
The girl jumped and recoiled backward as if she had been slapped across the face. Both she and the man jerked their heads toward the doorway where the girl had come back with the book.
There stood a disheveled woman in a ratty unbuttoned sea-blue bathrobe. Mousey hair fell in clumps around a sagging face. An unlit, half-smoked cigarette hung from her lips as if it had grown out of her mouth.
“That better not be one of my books on the floor.” The cigarette flopped up and down with her icy words, sending a curlicue of cold ashes into free fall.
The girl folded down a corner of one page, closed the book, picked it up, and hurried toward the door where the woman stood with her hands on her hips. She turned sideways to slip past her mother, staying as far from her as she could. The sound of something heavy sliding on wood came from the room, and then the girl returned.
“Find my lighter, you worthless little brat.” The woman spoke to the girl, but her eyes bore into the man. “What the hell you looking at?”
The woman’s open bathrobe displayed a dingy gray nightie ending at mid-thigh. Her right leg was thin and heavily veined, while the other was made of shiny parts, having the appearance of a chrome-plated skeleton.
“I said what the hell you looking at?” Louder this time. Cigarette ashes drifted down to settle on thin gray fabric stretched over barely restrained breasts.
Raymond shook his head, more to regain his senses than anything else. He jerked his eyes down to this work. “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
“Why are you here?” She took her lighter from the girl and puffed her cigarette butt to life.
“I’m still working on your new fiber-optic cable.”
“My God, how frigging long does it take to run a simple goddamned cable?”
“I’m almost finished.”
“Good, then you can get the hell out of my home.” She blew smoke from her nose and took the cigarette from her lips. “I suppose you been out here pumping my kid for information while I slept, huh?”
“No, I wasn’t pumping your kid.” Raymond concentrated on his field simulator test instrument. All the LEDs blinked red. He unscrewed a connector and checked to be sure he hadn’t burred the tiny fiber optic cable. After reconnecting the cable, he flipped his cellphone open and pushed a button. “Hey Beazer, I got no signal up here in 4F.”
“I know that,” Beazer said over the phone.
“What’s the holdup?”
“What’s the holdup?” He raised his voice six decibels. “What’s the holdup! You wanna drag your lazy butt down here and clean the dog pee out my junction box?”
“Did I stutter or what?”
“I’m just wondering how you got dog pee in your junction box.”
“How I got dog pee in my junction box?” Emphasis on “I”. “How I got dog pee in my junction box?”
Raymond held the phone away from his ear.
“Go get my beer.”
Raymond glanced up, thinking the woman spoke to him. But she held a ten-dollar bill out to the kid. It was wrapped around something flat. The girl grabbed the money and ran for the door.
“And don’t do no jaw-jaw with none of those stinking bums and addicts on the street, either,” she yelled at the girl’s back. “Remember what I told you. I brought you into this world and I can take you out just as easy.” By the time she finished this last line, she had turned her glassy-eyed stare on Raymond.
The front door slammed.
“What the hell was that?” Beazer asked over the phone.
“A door slamming.”
“I mean before that? You got a banshee or somethin’ up there?”
“Yeah, somethin’.” He glanced at the woman, and then cradled the phone on his shoulder, holding it with his tilted head. He picked up his test box and tapped a red LED with his finger. “Get me the hell out of here, Beazer,” he whispered
“Me? I ain’t coming up there with a crazy banshee running loose.”
“Get the cables spliced so I can hook up and go.”
“I got my hairdryer going. God, I never knew hot boxer urine smelled so rotten.”
“You want the whole sordid story, don’t chu? You can’t wait to sit around the table tonight with Tinkerbell, Chip and Dale, Beauregard, and Fuzzle, telling them all about how their ole pal Beazer got his wires soaked in yellow dog stuff. You’ll all probably be laughing you mangy butts off till midnight on this one.”
Raymond sighed. “Yeah, all right, tell me the story. But don’t stop working. My whole life may be hanging by a thread here.”
Kim bounded down the stairs and burst out the front door of her apartment building. She ran passed a man in the middle of the block. He used a hairdryer to blow hot air into a large gray box mounted on the curb near a light pole while talking to someone on his cellphone.
She was curious about what was so wet inside that box, but she ran on toward the Shop-N-Pack.
“Hey, Kimmy,” a slurred voice came from a dark doorway recessed down and away from the sidewalk.
Kim ran on.
“Don’t forget yor ole buddy pal on way back,” the wino yelled. “I need a drink worsen yor mama ever do.” The old bum stumbled out of his hole and staggered over to watch the man with the hairdryer.
Kim ran through the front door of the Shop-N-Pack, setting off a loud buzzer. At the rear of the store, she struggled to lift a six-pack of Coors Cold Gold from the cooler, laying her doll on top of the carton. Back at the front counter, she shoved the six-pack up and over the edge, grabbing her doll as it slid off the beer carton.
The young Pakistani man leaned over the counter to see his tiny customer. “Ah, it is none other than the one-and-only Kim, friend to all the world.”
“And friend to all the stars in the sky too.”
“Ahem,” Razi cleared his throat and quoted, “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.” He cocked his ear, waiting.
“Who hold Zam-Zammah,” Kim continued the quotation, “that fire-breathing dragon, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.”
“Ah,” Razi said, “’tis music to mine ears to hear Kipling quoted in precise exactitude, and perfect cadence. Now to business.” He pointed to a sign taped to the front of the counter. “Young lady, are you above the age of eighteen years?”
“Yes, Sir. Here is my driver’s license.” She stretched up to give Razi the ten-dollar bill and her mother’s ID.
“Date of birth, January 18, 1972,” he read from the ID card. “That would make you approximately…”
“Thirty-seven years old,” said the little girl, still without the slightest trace of emotion.
“Hmm.” He glanced at her and then back at the driver’s license. “You don’t look much like your photo.”
“Ah, that explains it.” He opened his cash drawer to make change for her. “You know, Kim…” Razi said, placing the six-pack and her change from the ten in a brown paper sack. “Me, you, and your mother are all going to jail someday.”
She nodded, reaching to take the heavy sack from him.
“They’ll throw me in the drunk tank, your mother in with a nest of lesbos and you in with the renegade puppies and kittens.”
“I hope you get the puppies and kittens too, Razi. What’s a drunk tank?”
“That’s a hole in the bottom of the jail where they put all the winos and alkies.”
“Like Billy Bo and Alice Windchester?” she asked.
“What are lesbos?”
The annoying buzzer went off and the two of them turned toward the open door where a black cop loomed, blocking out most of the sunlight.
All three stood motionless for a half minute, as if each of them were sizing up the situation.
“Hey, Kim,” the cop said. “Whatchu got in that big brown bag?”
“Bubble gum, Officer Benjamin.” She ran for the door as he held it open for her.
“Razi, my man,” Officer Benjamin said as the door swung closed and he pointed to a pack of Camels above the counter. “You, Kim, and her mom are all going to jail one of these fine days. Probably me too.”
“Yeah, I know.” Razi tossed the Camels on the counter. “But it might not be so bad. Kim will be incarcerated with puppies and kittens, and her mon will be tossed in with the drunks.” He turned to make change for the officer.
“What about you and me, Razi. Who will they throw us in with?”
Kim slowed to a walk when she came to the man with the hairdryer. She shifted her heavy load to her left hip and stepped off the curb to walk around behind him. She was fascinated by the maze of colored wires and fiber optic cables inside the box, but something smelled awful.
“All right, Hunter my boy,” the man said into his cell phone. “Four more splices and you will be back on the air.” He wore a Yankees baseball cap turned backwards and a purple tee-shirt reading “Rehab Is for Quitters”.
Kim hurried on with her mother’s beer.
“Hey, Kimmy, ole buddy ole pal.”
While Beazer Rom Ciccio worked to dry out his circuits and finish connecting the last four fiber optic cables, Archibald Ledbetter, Senior Programmer at Harvard Medical School Computer Center, prepared to download fourteen revised databases for the Computer Actuated Medical Diagnosis System at the USC medical center.
These databases are accessed via PDAs, notebook computers and cell phones throughout the medical center and the nearby school of medicine. Doctors, interns, and med students key in sets of symptoms and instantly receive a selection of probable diagnoses.
The system, designed by Archibald and his associates, uses fuzzy logic and hierarchical definability to arrive at diagnoses with a ninety-eight percent degree of accuracy.
Kim returned to apartment 4F, opened the six-pack carton, and placed three of the remaining five cans of beer in the door of the refrigerator. She put the empty carton in the trash bin and took two beers to her mother in her bedroom.
Kim was glad to see Raymond was still there, working on the cable.
Raymond glanced up and gave her a wink. “Catherine, check this out.”
“My name is Kim,” she whispered.
“Your mother called you Catherine.” He whispered also.
“She doesn’t know my name is Kim.”
“Ah, I see. Anyway, hit the lights and I’ll show you something really cool.”
She ran to the light switch by the door and reached up to turn off the lights. When she got back to Raymond, she saw he held a tiny glowing line.
He put his hand over the end of the fiber optic cable and she could see the bones inside his fingers. He flashed it on the wall, making a tiny laser show.
“Here,” he said. “You try it.”
She took it from him and flashed it around.
“All I have right now is a test signal, but as soon as Beazer gets those circuits dried out, we’ll have a hundred and fifty live TV shows coming out of that little cable. Flash it over here for a minute. Something’s wrong with my test box.”
She moved the light to his fingers, and watched him pull an electronic gizmo from the box.
“Darn,” Raymond said. “My disambiguation oscillator is fried.”
She glanced at the dead oscillator in his hand, and then at him as she flashed the light on his face. “What is a…”
“Nevermind, I’ll explain it to you when I get back. I’m going to run down to the truck to see if I have a new one. You can have yourself a game of light-chaser while I’m gone.”
Kim played the tiny light beam over the wall and ceiling. She flashed it on her hand and then on her arm. She turned it toward her eye to see how bright the light was.
Two events happened at the instant Kim put the fiber optics cable to her eye; Beazer’s hairdryer slipped from his hand, falling into a puddle of yellow water, and Archibald Ledbetter hit the enter key on his computer keyboard, initiating the download of seventy gigabytes of medical diagnosis data, algorithms and probability tables, along with a wide assortment of voice and video clips, and 140,000 high-resolution photographs.
The hairdryer short-circuited, sending sparks flying from the makeshift connection Beazer had made in his junction box. The sudden jolt not only knocked Beazer on his butt, but it also sent an electrical surge up the line, throwing breakers at the Greenwich Village substation. The automatic overload system rerouted all phone calls, Internet service and TV cable programs across spare networks set aside especially for this purpose. The unusually high volume of voice and data swamped the spare networks and began a rolling cascade of misdirected calls, interrupted Internet service and scrambled TV shows.
One misdirected series of data packets originating at Harvard University did not arrived at the USC computers in California as was intended, but instead flowed into Bronx apartment 4F.
In the space of time it took Raymond to run down to his truck for a new disambiguation oscillator, enough medical data to fill a computer hard drive streamed from the fiber optics cable and directly into Kim’s left eye.
When Raymond puffed back into the apartment, he found Kim staring at the wall, with the blinking cable still in her hand.
Like a subdued cobra, the loose end of the tiny cable swayed from side to side, sending a brightly colored miniature rainbow of pulsating light sweeping across the girl’s face.
Raymond flipped the lights on. “You okay, Kim?” He pulled the cable from her tight grip.
Kim turned to him in slow motion. She blinked twice, and then once more. “Sebaceous cyst.”
She reached to touch his neck, below the jaw. “That looks like a sebaceous cyst.”
“Oh, yeah.” He rubbed the skin eruption with his finger. “I gotta get that thing lanced.”
“Sebaceous cysts are not dangerous and can usually be ignored,” Kim said. “Placing a warm moist cloth over the area may help the cyst drain and heal. If you have a small inflamed cyst, your doctor may inject it with a steroid medicine that reduces swelling. If the cyst becomes swollen, tender, or large, your doctor may surgically remove it. This procedure is done in the doctor’s office. A cyst may return after it has been surgically removed.”
Raymond narrowed his eyes on her. “You talk like a book. Did you sneak into your mother’s encyclopedia while I was downstairs?”
“Then where did all that sebaceous cysts stuff come from?”
“I don’t know, it’s just there.”
“I-I don’t know where it is, Raymond, but there’s a whole bunch more things in there with it.”