Robert Wallace Paolinelli
705 Vallejo St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
ROBERT WALLACE PAOLINELLOI
What is about to be related, fantastic as it may seem, began on a late rainy morning while I was sitting in the Caffe Puccini, a cafe not far from where I live, in San Francisco. The rain was pouring down and, frankly, I had no desire to go out into the storm; so I bought a second cup of coffee and picked up a discarded morning newspaper and let my eyes fall on the captions of the articles which were enough to convince me that I did not want to read the articles, so I searched through the pages until I found the crossword puzzle; and, pulling out my pen and lighting up another cigarette, I began the puzzle with "A palindromic season in Soissons." Well, to begin with, I couldn't remember what palindromic meant, but I knew that Soissons was something French. I read the acrosses and the downs and entered what I could, but soon grew tired and put the crossword puzzle away, drank some more of my rapidly cooling coffee and stared out of the window at the rain.
A man walked by; I took notice of him immediately because he was so very tall and robust and had a large beard and did not have an umbrella and I could see that he was thoroughly drenched. He looked like a drowned bear. Poor fellow, I thought, silently commiserating with him, he needs a hot cup of coffee. The tall stranger entered the cafe, walked to the counter leaving a wet trail; and as he stood ordering, a pool of dripping rainwater collected around his shoes. With coffee in hand, he turned and looked about. The cafe was crowded; I happend to be sitting at a table with two empty chairs, however; he spied the table and came straight towards it.
"May I join you?" he asked with a heavy accent. "Of course, please do," I responded. He put his coffee down, took off his coat and hat, then sat. He sweetened his coffee, then, parting his long moustache, took a long, slurping drink, then taking the cup from his lips he let out a long, satisfying, "Ah," followed by, "now that is a good cup of caffe latte. I came to the right place and none to soon. I don't mind the rain, but the cold wind chilled me to the bone," he said, looking directly at me. "Yes, it's good coffee," I said, trying to be friendly to this wet and cold stranger sharing my table.
He reached into several of his pockets with his big hands; I couldn't help noticing the hair on his fingers and the large gold ring on the index finger of his right hand. It reminded me of a class ring. Not finding what he was looking for in his shirt or pants pockets, he searched in his rain–soaked coat. A look of futility came over his face.
"Apparently, I left my cigarettes back in my room. Would it be asking too much if I took one of yours?"
"Not at all," I said, pushing my pack across the table, "help yourself, and here's a light," wherewith I struck a match and lit his cigarette. "You are very kind, sir, to share both your table and your cigarettes. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Alexei Sherbatskoy. I have just moved into this neighborhood," so saying, he extended his hand cross the table. "And I am Anthony Richmond. How do you do, Mr. Sherbatskoy?"
His handshake was firm but not overpowering, as it can be with big men. I appreciated his immediate openness; after all, we were both trapped (as it were) by the rain which continued to fall.
"You speak excellent English, but with a strong Slavic accent; and with the name, Alexei Sherbatskoy, I've deduced you are a Russian, sir," I said.
He smiled. "Half right. I am a Ukrainian. You know Ukrainia?"
"Only by reputation. Are you from Kiev?"
"Exactly!" he said enthusiastically. "How do you know Kiev?"
I had to admit to him that I knew of Kiev from the Ravel orchestration of the Moussorgsky composition, Pictures at an Exhibition, in which one of the most famous pieces is The Great Gate at Kiev.
"Aha! Moussorgsky––you know his music? Wonderful! I love that work––but I prefer the original piano version. And Ravel? Well, he did a good job in transposing it for orchestra––yet the piano score...delectable..." and he started singing, "La, la la, lala," the melody from The Great Gate at Kiev, in a loud, basso voice, so loud, in fact, that people started staring at him––at us. But my new–found companion ignored the stares of the other customers, if, indeed, he was aware of them at all.
He had a fine voice; I had to admit that; and when he had finished singing, I applauded and said, "Bravo."
"You like music. I know. Are you a musician, sir?"
"No; not a musician. But you are correct: I do like music, in fact, I especially like Russian composers," and I rattled off half a dozen of my favorites, to which Alexei nodded. And when I had finished my litany of composers, he sat very thoughtful for a moment, then frowned and said:––
"But you have left out one of our greatest: Alexander Scriabin. There was a genius, pure genius––and not really appreciated now–a–days, as he should be."
I felt nothing in particular about Mr. Scriabin, not being familiar with his music and said so.
Alexei jumped up. "But he had a deep soul, a powerful love of life. Have you never heard his Symphony Number Three: The Divine Poem?"
He sat down. "Mr. Anthony Richmond, you, I know, love music; I can feel it; but until you have heard Scriabin's Third Symphony, there will be a great gap in your musical life."
Admittedly, I was taken aback by his statement, for truly, I love music and have attended hundreds of concerts and have spent many, many hours listening to recorded music, reading the lives of the composers and so on; and then, to have this presumptuous stranger tell me that until I heard the music of Scriabin there would be a 'great gap' in my musical life––I was offended.
"Well," I said, "have you ever heard the music of Roy Harris?" I said a bit resentful of the slight I felt.
He pursed his lips, squinted his eyes, and with his big hand rubbed his bearded chin. "Roy Harris, Roy Harris––hmm. I'm afraid I must admit total ignorance of this man. Is he a popular music composer?'
"Mr. Sherbatskoy, until you have heard one of Harris' symphonies, there will be a great gap in your musical life. He is a great American composer: symphonies, concerti, chamber music, songs; he was a teacher," I boasted rather smugly.
"Ho, ho, ho!" he burst out. "I capitulate and accept this new gap. You are an outstanding fellow Mr.Anthony Richmond. You must tell me where I can hear this Mr. Harris' music."
I answered immediately: "I have several recordings in my vast record collection."
He burst out into laughter again. "I do believe I have offended you––and don't deny it, sir; please, I accept full responsibility. Do accept my apology by allowing me to buy you a coffee in recompense. Please."
"Very well. I accept your apology and I'll have another caffe latte, thank you."
And feeling his sincere contriteness, and wanting to reciprocate, I reached into my pocket and pulled out an unopened pack of cigarettes. "And with our fresh coffees, we can smoke and continue our most interesting conversation."
"Agreed," he answered, then raised his great body and strode to the counter. When he returned he had not only two coffees, but also, two pastries.
"I do hope you have an appetite, Mr. Richmond. These apple turnovers looked so temptingly delicious, that I could not resist getting us one each. Ah, sometimes it is good to have such a rain; it brings strangers together and makes the heaviness of life lighter," he said almost somberly (yet, oddly) cheerfully.
We ate and drank in silence for a few minutes and watched the rain fall without let up. We smoked and became deeply engrossed watching the rain, the slowly moving traffic and the people walking under an assortment of umbrellas. I was struck by a very large, yellow umbrella being carried by an old Chinese woman. "Look at the sun in the rain," I said, pointing to the old woman who was now directly in front of us at our window table.
"Ah, I see what you mean. You have a poetic soul, Mr. Richmond."
"Thank you. I think you must have one yourself, Mr. Sherbatskoy."
"You are very kind––but your image: 'the sun in the rain,' now that is a poetic soul speaking. If you had not said what you had imagined, I would never have given voice to such an image. No, my new friend, it is you who are the true poet. I?...well, I enjoy poets and poetry, but my soul––no––not poetic––though I feel things deeply, one might even say, poetically. But my soul is too analytical. You see, I am a radio–astronomer by training; but now I teach physics and mathematics. There is no poetry there. Only science, cold, objective."
"How interesting. I'm also a teacher."
"Really? What do you teach?"
"English to foreigners. I'm an ESL teacher."
"Yes, yes, I know ESL. Well, that makes things clear. You are a lover of language––a poet. Science and poetry are two irreconcilable fields which can never be in the same place at the same time––if you understand my meaning. But that's life," he said, throwing up his hands as if to dismiss the subject.
I didn't really wish to pursue the subject of the irreconcilable differences between science and poetry, but I was curious about his having said he was a radio astronomer.
"Mr. Sherbatskoy, you said you were trained in radio–astronomy. Why are you not teaching or working in your original field?"
He looked at me a long, scrutinizing time before he answered; his face was hard, but I intuited the hardness was not directed at me for having asked, but rather a great mulling of something. Then he smiled.
"Ah, this day is conducive to story telling; and since you have asked a question out of pure curiosity, I shall tell you a story. I've not talked about my former career in a long while. You really want to know? Well, my rainy day companion, I shall tell you––but if it sounds too fantastic, just tell me and I shall stop and change the subject."
"I'm always ready for the fantastic. I'm all ears." I sat back and waited.
"First, you must know that I once worked at the Kharkov Radio–Astronomy Institute in Moscow. I was a younger man, then, determined to make a name for myself. I worked hard, I also studied English and German and other foreign languages on my own. I have a natural affinity for languages. They come easily to me––nonetheless––I studied so I could read foreign scientific journals. When not actually at work, I still worked studying languages. I must make it clear to you that I am a firm believer in extraterrestrial life. I am convinced there is life on other planets, in other solar systems. Do you believe this?"
"I'm rather a skeptic about extraterrestrial life; but I am willing to hear you out."
"And so you shall; for I have proof!" he said, slapping his hand on the table and rattling our coffee cups. "Proof, I tell you; but no one wanted to accept my evidence––no one. In the course of numerous, independent tests, I detected mysterious sources of radio emissions near the star, Altair. At first I was not certain of what I was detecting. But upon further analysis, after I had filtered out all other sounds, I discovered a repeated pattern and, therefore, I could only conclude that some beings from outer space were sending variable signals to us. When I was certain of my findings, I went immediately to my chief. He heard me out––of course, he was pleasant enough, then dismissed the idea saying my analysis of the data was faulty, that beings on other planets were the realm of science fiction and that I should confine myself, in future, to our work. Can you imagine what a blow that was to my young ego, to my high noble standards of professional comportment? In my enthusiasm I buttoned–holed my colleagues. That was when my eyes were first opened to the narrowness of my chief and my colleagues and the system. Well, I had to stop my tests and go about my business; but my curiosity could not be stopped. In my spare time, with parts from discarded instruments, I secretly built a sophisticated radio and continued on my own––in secret––which was very dangerous, for I could have been accused of being a spy, if caught. After many trials and errors, I was able to establish that the radio signals were not random, but repeated, definite signals. Can you imagine? The first human to hear the radio signals from beings in another solar system!"
His voice grew intenser, he gripped the edge of the table with both hands and a look of contorted fervor came over his face, a look which frightened me, and for a moment I was sorry I'd engaged him in conversation, Was he really a madman? I became unsure of him now.
Nevertheless, I continued to sit there waiting for him to continue. He let go of the table. His face relaxed and he smiled. "You don't believe me. I know. But what I have said is true."
"On the contrary, I neither believe you nor disbelieve you. Thus far you have only told me a story and have presented me with no evidence."
"Aha, now you speak like a scientist. I begin to like you more and more. I Shall give you evidence; but first let me finish my story."
"Please do. My curiosity has been stimulated. Continue."
"Well––let me see––where was I? Ah, yes:"––
He lowered his voice and looked both to the left and to the right. "I was able to receive radio signals and my re–analysis and computations proved they could not have been random signals. It was fantastic. I had to act quickly, so I sent programmed signals out––at great threat to my life. I would have been shot. Nevertheless, all that aside––it was fantastic. So again I went to my chief, presented my evidence and told him I had sent replies, but he would have none of it!" And Alexei slapped the table with his hand, again rattling the cups. "He not only did not believe me, he put me on sick leave, told me I was lucky he wasn't going to turn me over to the police for spying, and made me report to a psychiatric clinic. I understood; I was one step ahead of them in their game of what was going on to discredit me, so I feigned great stress and pretended to the psychiatrist that I had deluded myself. I duly repented my errors––what else would a good party member do?, and asked for guidance from our ideological branch. It worked––as I knew it would. And do you know what happened? I shall tell you: I was given a fourteen day recuperative leave in the Crimea and afterwards was told to report back to my work place. So I took advantage of the vacation, enjoyed myself and reported back. My chief welcomed me like the prodigal son, but he did not allow me to continue working in my former position. No; he told me my department needed to prepare for an international radio–astronomy conference, to be held in Vienna in three months and since I knew both English and German, so well, I was to translate certain papers into each language, papers to be delivered at the conference by my colleagues, and for publication and distribution among the conferees. I jumped at the chance; for from the moment he broached the subject, I knew what I was going to do. I threw myself into the translations. I worked day and night. At times I was exhausted, but I had to show great effort and enthusiasm. Two weeks before the conference was to begin, I handed in my translations––superb ones, I might add. My chief and colleagues were pleased at my fine work, and, as a reward, you might say, I was included in the delegation as an interpreter–translator––as I knew I would be. So, Mr. Anthony Richmond, to make a long story short, after twenty–four hours in Vienna, I fled my hotel in the middle of the night, went to the American Embassy and asked for political asylum. A Soviet scientist defector, I knew, I would be a welcome candidate for asylum. After a lot of rigamarole, I was flown to the states and after a debriefing, I was given a chance to be free. But, alas, even after I had been resettled, I could not get a position in my field. So now I am a physics teacher to indifferent freshmen who don't know the difference between alpha and omega. There, now you have my story."
"Did you receive a reply to the signals you sent out?" I asked naively.
"Not yet. You see, Altair is approximately sixteen light years away, and the signal I sent will take sixteen years to reach, what I think are very sensitive receivers. I'm still waiting. Sixteen years ago I received, then sent out my own signal. Those sixteen years will be up soon and then I shall know more."
"So you've not confirmed anything," I said, feeling a bit disappointed.
"Not confirmed? Of course I've confirmation––a whole box of irrefutable calculations. I knew whereof I speak."
"If that's so, why haven't you shared your discovery with someone here in America. Surely someone would help you."
Alexei looked at me with hard eyes. "Share my discovery? Why that's preposterous...why...why...I...I could never reveal this without being completely in charge myself." He was emphatic. "Moreover, knowing well how the scientific community works, I would, first of all, be discredited, then someone––there is always someone who would use my data to make their own calculations and proclaim himself the harbinger of interstellar communication with an alien race. No, Mr. Anthony Richmond, I cannot share my work with anyone! Do you understand?"
I understood one thing: this Alexei Sherbatskoy was either a genius or a madman and I couldn't then make up my mind which. But I decided I wanted to get away from him. I looked at my watch and feigned amazement. "Oh, I didn't realize how late it was. I must meet a friend for lunch," I said, rising and putting on my raincoat. "I've had a most delightful time, Mr. Sherbatskoy." So saying, I extended my hand. He took it. "And thank you for the cigarettes and your company. Perhaps we will meet again. I like this place and I like you, sir."
"Perhaps we'll meet again. I come here often. Well, I must go––and thank you for the coffee and pastry." He let go of my hand, I picked up my umbrella and, the rain notwithstanding, went out into the storm and headed for my apartment a few blocks away.
A week later, with the air warm, the day bright with a brilliant sun in a perfectly blue sky, and, it being Saturday, I decided I would go fishing. I walked to the Embarcadero, found a spot to my liking near one of the piers, readied my gear, baited my hooks, cast out my line, then sat down on my folding stool and contemplated the serenity of the bay and gazed at some sail boats moving lazily thereon.
I was not five minutes in this most relaxed state when I felt a nibble, then a stronger one, then a jerk. I pulled up on the rod and knew by the feel of it that I'd caught something big. I reeled in the line until my leader broke the surface and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a fat perch wiggling. Hauling in the flapping fish, I unhooked it and put it into my bucket.
A good pound or so, I thought, as I rebaited my hook and cast out again. Well, it was just my day; a rare one––when no sooner did my line hit the water I had another strike! Within an hour I had six fat perch in my bucket and it was not yet eleven a.m. I packed my gear and treated myself to a taxi ride home. After having cleaned my fish, I took a shower, dressed and decided to go to my favorite Chinese restaurant to celebrate my fisherman's luck. The fish I would save for dinner.
The restaurant was not crowded and sitting at a table, whom did I see (and no place to hide)? none other than Alexei Sherbatskoy, who saw me, waved, stood up and called to me:––
"Anthony Richmond. Hello. Welcome to my humble table," he said, gesturing for me to take a seat.
What else could I do? I took Alexei's out–stretched hand. "Nice to see you," he said, in a genuinely friendly manner. He addressed a waitress (to my surprise) in Chinese and she said something back to him, then left, and returned with two bottles of beer and a huge platter of steamed clams.
"You are my guest," he said, "bon appetie." I saw no way out except to comply with my generous host. Thanking him, I toasted his good health with a raise of my beer, then dove into the clams with enthusiasm because madman or not, I happen to like clams, very, very much.
Just as the last clams were being downed, the waitress arrived with a dish of squid and greens, a dish of chicken with black mushrooms. "Dig in," said my host; and to the waitress he again spoke in Chinese and off she went, returning with two more beers and a big bowl of steamed rice. My mouth watered; my eyes glowed with delight at the gastronomic delights spread before us.
"Eat, eat," said Alexei with rustic enthusiasm. I lifted my beer. "To your good health," I said. He lifted his bottle: "And to yours. Salud!" He almost drained the bottle and, if one's future health could be gauged by how long of a drink is drunk in a toast, then I shall enjoy good health for many years to come. His capacity for drink was prodigious. By the time we'd finished our lunch, no less than four empty bottles of beer, a piece, stood on the table––all four having been drained by the both of us to our good health. I was tipsy and said so.
"Good, good. Being a little drunk is good for the spirit. The world is a cruel place, Anthony Richmond, and being tipsy takes the edge off, as it is said. One can never be too sure that a rosey life will always be rosey––so enjoy life while you can."
In my euphoric state I called him a pessimist.
"Pessimist? Ho, my tipsy friend, quite the contrary, I am an eternal optimist––otherwise, I would have received the tonsure long ago and become a monk."
The very idea of this very hirsute man saying he would have shaved his head and become a monk made such a funny impression on me that I burst into laughter, loud guffaws. "A monk! Ha! I can't even pretend to imagine you a monk, Alexei."
And with a low, serious, almost hurt voice he asked: "And why not a monk? I'm a sensitive, spiritual man; I have suffered and seen some suffering in my time. Why would I not be a monk? It's a way of surrendering one's vanity, one's sense of overblown self–importance and a monk's life is a noble path. You are a cynic, Anthony Richmond." His tone was admonishing and I felt like an ass––and I apologized.
"Alexei, I am no cynic. I'm drunk and everything seems funny. I apologize most sincerely. Forgive me; I know you are a deeply sensitive man." And I hung my head in true contrition.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It felt heavy, but warm and comforting. "Anthony Richmond," he said in a low, forgiving voice, "it takes a man with a big heart and a kind soul to ask for forgiveness. Look at me," he said, in a commanding tone. I looked up.
"You are forgiven. Between men who eat and drink together––and get drunk––there must always be forgiveness. I, too, am drunk; but not as drunk as you. Come, let's be off. A brisk walk will bring us a modicum of sobriety, then let's go to the Italian cafe where we met. What do you say? Air, and a good walk and some expresso will do us some good."
"Only if you allow me to be the coffee host," I added.
"Agreed. Ah, it is good to eat and drink––maybe even cry a little. Ah, life is too good, sometimes, to be true, my friend, too good to be true––in spite––yes, in spite of everything." He slapped me on the shoulder. "Smile, Anthony Richmond––life is short."
We walked all the way to Coit Tower, down the Filbert Street stairs to the Embarcadero. By the time we reached the docks, I was sober and being at the docks reminded me of all that fresh fish in my refrigerator. "Alexei, I went fishing this morning. I've got lots of fresh perch and, well, when we get hungry again, I invite you to eat with me. What do you say?"
"Ho! A fine idea. You are a delightful fellow. Yes, as you say, when we get hungry again. Yes, yes, absolutely, and I shall stop and buy a bottle of vodka and––what kind of wine do you like? No matter; we shall get a fine bottle. Aha! See what I told you: sometimes life is too good to be true."
"But why do you say that––and say it almost joyfully?"
"Should I say it sadly?"
"No; but why say life is too good to be true?"
"Just because it is so. When I first received indications of our friends in the stars, I became convinced that life here on earth was a dream, a giant, narrow–minded dream kept alive by man's inability to see wondrous things alive at the tip of his nose! Then I became aware of how some pseudo–sophisticated people become bored––or so they feign––with what they are eating or become pretentious about wine, for example: vintages, smelling the cork and all of that rot––utter nonsense of false concern about things which need not be considered. Life is mysterious enough without all the pretentious protocols about basics. Man drinks to forget his cares, to lift his spirits. What does it matter where the grape was grown? It's the quality of the intoxication that counts. Don't you see? The reality, the truth is always with us; only we mask it in protocol, ritual and rites which are meaningless. Is that clear? Life is spontaneous, renewed every second, and society bogs it down with its exclusions of things, or groups or classes at the exclusion of what really is important. That kind of attitude is anti–life and, stupid."
"It doesn't matter. It is only words I speak and I'm getting tired of talking. Let's go for our coffee. Shall we not?"
I was too muddled by what he'd said to carry on an intelligent rebuttal––if rebuttal were needed. So we quickened our pace and headed back to North Beach and the Caffe Puccini.
With a double espresso down my throat, I was feeling good again. Alexei had bought a newspaper and was reading some article intently. The cafe was crowded, There wasn't an empty chair to be had. We were sitting at a back table on an upholstered bench, under the large photograph of Maestro Giacomo Puccini himself.. I spied two charming women with cups in hand looking for a place to sit. I nudged Alexei. "Alexei, those two women are looking for a place to sit. Shall we invite them to our table?"
"A capital idea. Ladies," he called out, "over here; there's room on the bench." He rose and bowed slightly and waved them over. They smiled, huddled tete–a–tete, then, holding their coffees high, made their way through the maze of chairs and crowded tables.
"Thank you," said one, a petite, chestnut–haired woman, wearing a long black coat buttoned all the way up. She wore a tan, knitted beret on her head and had a friendly, cheery smile which I couldn't help admiring; her companion was tall, about five nine, Rubenesque in build; she had tightly curled red hair and a soft, almost sad face.
"Welcome to the kingdom of two lonely bachelors only waiting for an opportunity to entertain such lovely creatures as yourselves. Allow me to introduce myself and my friend: I am Alexei Sherbatskoy, at your service, and this is my friend, Anthony Richmond––also at your service, I'm sure," said Alexei with panache.
I was a little embarrassed by his elaborate introduction––(but really I was envious that he could stand out so boldly, whereas I am a little shy about such things). However, I warmed to the occasion, and, taking courage from my bold companion, I also stood. "It is our honor and pleasure to have you share our table," I said, as urbanely as possible, and proffered my hand; and as each took it, I bowed at the waist and kissed each hand, then sank back into my seat, impressed with myself for having done something I'd never done before.
The women introduced themselves as Lily (the petite one) and Sharon, the redheaded, Rubenesque woman who was staring at Alexei most curiously.
"Monsieur Richmond and myself met under similar circumstances," said Alexei, "the cafe was crowded, as it is today, and I joined him at his table and we became fast friends. What a remarkable coincidence. Don't you think so?"
The women looked at each other not knowing what to say, and I was concerned that Alexei's charm and exuberance was, perhaps, intimidating, thus the women's silence.
"Are you guys for real?" said the petite Lily. There was a hint of sarcasm in her voice, which did not escape me, nor go unnoticed by quick–witted Alexei,who had resat himself.
"Most honored lady," said Sherbatskoy, in a most dignified manner, addressing the one called Lily, "obviously you find fault in our most polite manner; this new age of chic casualness, has, perhaps, numbed the finer points of human relationships in you. Mr. Richmond and I are true gentlemen––not quite knights in shining armor––there's still a bit of the rogue in both of us; nonetheless, gentlemen of the first water, who pay court to the gentler sex, by treating them, as every gentleman should, with utmost deference. Had we been men of the new, casual, morality types, we would not have even considered getting your attention and offering you a place to sit, then introducing ourselves as we have done. Mr. Anthony Richmond, my boon colleague in adventure, stood up, kind ladies, took each of your dainty hands and pressed them to his lips as only a gentleman of the old school would have done. Now I ask you in all good conscience, does our gentlemanly comportment deserve the suspicions you harbor and the derision which I heard in your voice? After all, we are harmless and honorable men with honorable intentions."
What happened next I could not believe, but let me explain: As he spoke, one of those silences which happen in noisy places coincided with his beginning to speak to Lily, and Alexei had not lowered his voice; and with the cyclical quiet, everyone stopped to listen to him. I only became aware of the silence when I heard the first "Bravo!" and the beginning of intermittent applause; for now the entire Caffe Puccini was an appreciative audience to my "colleague in adventure's" monologue.
"I wish they would have invited me," said a woman's voice nearby.
"You male chauvinist creep!" shouted a woman who stood up. She was dressed in one of those pseudo–World War Two bombardier jackets, the leather of which has been processed to look old and well worn; she wore loose, black, harem–like balloon pants which tapered at her ankles.
"What a bunch of medieval drivel. Guys like you think soft talking a woman with all that malarkey is cool––well it isn't––and I'm damn tired of still hearing women referred to as the 'gentler sex.' Haven't you heard? We've had a revolution and we won!" she blasted, pointing a finger to herself.
By this time Alexei was on his feet, His tallness stood taller; he held his right arm across his midsection; in his hand was a burning cigarette, four fingers of his left hand were in his jacket pocket and his thumb was sticking out. He looked straight at the vituperative women's libber, with an angelic smile on his face. He was the epitome of majesty. I had to hand it to him: he could stand his own under any conditions.
The hush in the cafe was stunning; even the employees behind the counter craned their necks to see what was going on; new comers at the door walked in quietly, as if they were interlopers at some dramatic presentation.
"And another thing," the irate woman went on to say, "kissing a woman's hand has got to be one of the greatest farces of the ages. What shit!"
Alexei waited patiently for her to finish; and when she did finally shut up, he began:––
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said dramatically," I was not aware that my private conversation with these dear ladies, had been overheard by you customers of this fine cafe," he said, turning and nodding to Sharon and Lily, then turned back to the customers. "And, further, I am slightly shocked, nevertheless, mildly amused, also, that such sentiments and actions as have been expressed are now suddenly and without provocation, attacked from across the room. For this, ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for any inconvenience my overheard conversation may have caused any of you. It is not I who makes a spectacle of a most private conversation; not I, but that woman––" and he snapped out his arm from his pocket and pointed an accusing finger at her, "who has broken the spell of this place and turned it into a sexual power struggle based on nothing more than a warped sense of judgmental, self–righteousness––and directed at me and my colleague," and dropping his arm, turned and gestured to me, then turned back to his target, dropped his arm and once again, put his hand back into his pocket.
"Madam," he continued, in his well–chosen, evenly spoken words, "if how a man, causing you no harm, comports himself in front of women so upsets you that you sling vile epithets at him in a public place, then, you, madam, are more to be pitied than anything else; and yet, I regret, as a true gentleman, that something I may have said, or have done, has upset you so; for that, I humbly apologize," and he bowed his head toward her.
As Alexei spoke, the woman with the bombardiers jacket was getting angrier and angrier; she doubled her fists; her cheeks were puffed out and her face grew red. She stood as if ready to push chairs and people aside and go at Alexei; who had lifted his head, and turning it to the employees behind the bar, called out, "A coffee to anyone who asks––and come to me for the bill."
As he turned, the bombardier–jacketed woman shouted: "You jerk! You pompous, sanctimonious asshole! You belong in a fucking museum! Come on, Shirley," she said to her companion, "let's go." She turned toward the door with Shirley right behind her; at the door she turned. Alexei's back was to her so he did not see her stick out her middle finger and jab it into the air at him; but I saw it; however, I had been turned into a consummate gentleman, so I stood up and said loudly enough for her to hear:
"Toleration of the crude is the hallmark of a true gentleman, madam."
"Aaggh!" she shouted at me and disappeared out the door and hurried down Columbus Avenue with Shirley close behind.
The applause and cheering went on for at least a full minute. The cups rattled and some people whistled and approached us, extending their hands and complimenting us. One woman, a charming, silver–haired lady of about seventy or so, who spoke English with a delicately cultured Swedish accent, took hold of my hand and Alexei's. "It does an old woman's heart good to know that honorable gentlemen still exist. May I join you?"
And before either Alexei or myself knew it, people were pushing their tables and chairs closer to us; soon it was an arena of the analysis of the scene which had just taken place.
Our two original guests huddled next to one another in utter awe of what was going on. I was thrilled at such instant celebratedness; but I didn't let it go to my head. Nevertheless, I took advantage of it and acted far more urbanely and continental than is natural with me.
Alexei was drinking in the attention and the conversation. He indulged himself by kissing hands and double cheek kisses which he called "la moda italiana," Italian style. Alicia, one of the expresso makers, came over with a tally in her hand.
"Sixteen espressos, five caffe lattes, twelve cappuccinos, comes to forty–one dollars and forty–five cents, please," she said, laying the tally in front of him.
"Excellent," he said. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out his wallet, and, taking out a fifty dollar bill handed it to her saying, "keep the change."
"Con mucho gusto," she said.
"And here," I said, pulling a fiver out of my wallet and handing it to her. Oh, I felt the essence of the hero, the man–about–town. Women were putting their arms around my shoulders, I was being pecked on the cheek and the neck by half a dozen admiring lips. I was surrounded by the good smells and touches of WOMAN! I was in paradise.
The elderly Swedish woman and a young man were speaking to Alexei in French. They were having an animated conversation while at the same time he was carrying on a conversation in German with a couple standing; and by the few phrases of German I was able to understand, they were inviting us to some political rally or other; but I heard him decline with several "Nein Dankes," and they left.
Gradually the witnesses, one by one, two by two, left and at the end of three quarters of an hour later, the Caffe Puccini was half empty.
"Anthony––my new comrade–in–arms, I salute you. Please stand" I stood. "I embrace you as a brother." And he took me in a great bear hug of an embrace and planted a kiss on each of my cheeks as do French generals when awarding medals for heroism. He released me and stood back. "'Under the bludgeoning of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed,'" he quoted Invictus.
It occurred to me suddenly that even if Alexei had his head in the cosmos about extra–galactical aliens, he was a man of deep honor and dignity, a true gentleman, kind, happy–go–lucky, very serious but funny and spontaneous, a lover of life and willing to stand his ground when a showdown was necessary. At that moment I became his true friend, his student, in a way, his tried and true companion through thick or thin.
"And Alexei, I salute you and embrace you in brotherhood and perpetual solidarity," and with my five foot seven inches of height, I pulled up as straight and as dignified as I could be, reached out and embraced him warmly, then reaching up, I pulled his head down and through his beard planted a French general's kiss on his hairy cheeks.
Lily and Sharon stood up. "What are you guys, a couple of fags?" said Sharon, tossing her coat over her shoulders. 'Let's get away from here, Lil," and off they went.
Alexei and I looked at each other for a moment then burst into laughter. And through our laughter we understood the depth of our honorable alliance, in spite of the crassness of the world.
"Whenever you're hungry," I said, "remember, I've got all that fish in my frig."
"Capital, capital. It's exactly what we need. Come, first to the liquor store, then off we go. For all of this excitement has had a decided effect on my appetite, Anthony Richmond.
I fried the fish and put on some rice while Alexei sat in my front room deeply engrossed in a Roy Harris symphony I had spun for him on my stereo.
On the kitchen table was a bottle of vodka Alexei had bought, and in the frig was a bottle of wine, selected by Alexei. We'd already had a couple of snorts of the Finnish vodka and my head was spinning––but not so much that I couldn't concentrate on my cooking and, at the same time, on the beautiful English horn solo of the Harris symphony coming to me from the next room.
I truly appreciated Alexei's openness and ability to say he didn't know something and to apologize if he rubbed me the wrong way, and, his generosity was overwhelming. When we were at the liquor store he wanted to buy me several bottles of vodka and wine. That's the kind of man he is.
After the night of our fish fry and more music of American composers, Alexei and I became bosom buddies who went to the Caffe Puccini often, and to concerts and for long walks which were always filled with deep conversations on the nature of things.
He even invited me to a faculty cocktail party, where I met his academic colleagues who thought highly of him. The faculty gathering, for me, was a bit boring; I've my own colleagues who have similar functions; nevertheless, these functions do have their positive sides, for at the faculty cocktail party I was introduced to a faculty member, a teacher of chemistry and physics, in fact, an office mate of Alexei's.
She was a tall beauty, almost five ten, who looked like a copy of an ancient bas–relief of the Nymph Leucothea, I had seen at the Lateran Museum in Rome––and she spoke with a delightful Texas accent. Her hair was the color of the desert and she wore a subtle, though nonetheless intoxicating scent, which had me quietly drawing in that scent with deep, silent, inhalations.
Emily Warren was her name, and she hailed from Witchita Falls, Texas, had studied in Austin, Cambridge and M.I.T. she was pleasant and we hit it off immediately––and in spite of our divergent heights, left together, along with Alexei who suggested we all go to his place and listen to Scriabin. We agreed.
Alexei's apartment had a small kitchen, a very large front room, which he called his studio, and a medium sized, sparsely furnished bedroom in which were a chest of drawers, a chair and a single wooden bed which Alexei said he had made himself to accommodate his size.
Everything in his apartment was neat and orderly––except his desk, which was piled high with books and notebooks and graphs and paper and scientific journals in half a dozen languages. His studio had plants, too; they hung from the ceiling, were on shelves, near the window and next to a large leather easy chair was an avocado tree, about five feet tall, slender, and with deep green leaves. He said he had planted the seed after having eaten the tasty avocado.
By his desk was a personal computer and next to the computer was a tape deck with two large speakers.
After we had settled in with coffee and some delicious anise cookies, he played for us three Scriabin symphonies, one after another, with only a short "intermission" to refill the coffee cups and to go to the bathroom.
Listening to the music in that almost monastic quiet of Alexei's apartment, made the beautiful music even more beautiful and I was touched deeply by it; and suddenly I began to cry.
"Little, brother," he called out to me, "are you okay?"
I wiped my eyes and looked up. Emily walked over, too, and asked after me.
"I'm fine, fine. It's only...well, the music, it has moved me to tears."
"Ho, ho!" shouted Alexei. "You see what I told you? Scriabin had a deep soul––and it has connected with your soul. I knew you would like him. Anthony Richmond, very few people would allow themselves to be moved by such music. Consider yourself a finely tuned instrument–soul in the great orchestra of life."
"Emily, you see the power of good music?" he said to her. "If only scientists could move people with their theories as does fine music."
"They're not the same, Alexei," she responded, as she returned to her seat. "Music is pure sound, unseeable, untouchable, transient. Scientific theories are explanations of observable phenomena or based on calculations and experimentation."
"Spoken like a true scientist, Emily. I agree with you––however––would it not be thrilling if our students, for example, could be as moved when I expound on thermodynamics or the mysteries of pi? Yes, yes, I know; they are not the same thing. Nevertheless, one can be an idealist,"
"Alexei," she said, scooting out to the edge of her chair, "your idealism is too pure for your own good. The world is what it is, and nothing is going to change it; not music, not science––not even idealism."
"Why you sound like a cynic, Emily. I never expected to hear such a remark from you."
"I'm not a cynic. I'm just as much an idealist as you––but I don't go crying in my beer. God, the way you talk sometimes makes me want to scream! Ideals are the realm of dreams. Pragmatism, utility, interests––these are what move the world."
"Yes; you are a cynic, Emily. But at least you admit to idealism––so there is still hope for you," he said with a smile on his face.
"Lord have mercy!" exclaimed Emily. "You are incorrigible."
"Wait, wait," I said, "idealism can't ever be realized––but as long as someone keeps an ideal alive, people can, at least, strive for the ideal––even if they never make it come true. An innate aspect of idealism is the struggle to achieve it. And maybe it's better not to achieve the ideal."
"Why do men always like to struggle? Anthony, I'm surprised to hear you say what you just did. Why must we struggle?"
"Because it's our nature to struggle, When we reach utopia we get lazy and complaisant."
"Says you," she retorted. "That's a fallacious statement because no one, or no culture, to my knowledge or to the general knowledge, has ever achieved a utopia––so there," she ended, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms across her chest.
"Brava!" shouted Alexei.
"Ok, you've got me there. There's never been idealism manifest," I continued, "no utopias, but my whole point is that we should never stop trying for the ideal, otherwise the ideal will die," I said with deep fervor, for I truly believe that.
"Spoken like a true idealist, Anthony," said Emily. "I admire your ideals. Alexei," she said, turning to him, "do you still have some of that excellent dessert muscat wine you served me last time I was here? All this talk about idealism makes me crave something sweet and soothing, ha ha," she ended with a merry laugh.
"Yes. You would like some? Very well. I shall bring the bottle and three glasses and we can toast to idealism, pragmatism, utility and the insanity of the civilized world."
That evening was the beginning of a long and ardent association with Emily. By and by we went out often, we became fond of each other and gradually fell in love. Alexei was always part of us, too, for we invited him along many times. At the end of the semester, Alexei announced that he was going away for most of the summer––but would not tell us where, and we did not press him because he told us that when he returned he would have startling, astounding news. When he said that I assumed he was talking about his radio signals to Altair––sixteen years before.
"Have you heard from Alexei?" asked Emily.
"No; have you? I asked back.
"Not a word. He's got a stack of mail a foot high on his office desk and there's to be a faculty meeting day after tomorrow. I've called him––but only that damn answering machine answers with the same message he recorded before he left. I've stopped leaving messages. I'm beginning to worry, Anthony. Will you go over and ask his landlady if she's heard anything? And give me a call if you find him. Okay, honey?" said her mellifluous voice over the telephone.
Of course I would, for I was as concerned about our friend as she. I walked over to his place and rang his door bell; I knocked loudly, too, on his door. No answer. I decided to ring his landlady's bell to ask if she had heard anything.
I was on my way downstairs when I heard the street door open and a familiar voice say, "Be careful; don't drop those boxes; the contents are delicate." It was Alexei!
"Alexei! I shouted. "Welcome back. Where have you been? Emily and I were beginning to worry about you."
His eyes lit up. "Ah, my little brother! Good to see you," he said, as he let a cab driver go ahead of him on the stairs. The driver had four boxes , one piled on top of the other in his arms. Alexei carried a suitcase and a duffle bag. "Here, let me help you," I volunteered, taking the duffle bag from him. The bag was heavy. "What's in here?" I asked.
"For you, Emily, my colleagues."
Paying the driver, he embraced me, then dropped into his easy chair and let out a deep sigh. "At last, I am home. I have begun disliking traveling. It is such a tedious task––and I've been in airplanes for––well, no matter how many hours––they are all equally dull––flying cocktail lounges. But it's good to be back. Ha! Anthony, you and Emily thought, perhaps, I'd fallen off the face of the earth? Well, my good friend, Alexei Sherbatskoy was ever aware of his friends––but I was so damnably busy this entire summer..."
"Where did you go? Where have you been for all these weeks? And you never wrote."
"Forgive me, forgive me, I am not a letter writer––not even picture postcards. As to where I've been? That must wait. I have a story to tell you Anthony Richmond, a story, as it is said, that will knock your socks off. Please, help me open some windows this apartment is too stuffy. I've been gone so long."
I helped him open some windows, but that easy chore did not abate my curiosity which was now excited. However, I knew better than to press him. I understood Alexei well enough to know that if he was going to say anything it would be in his own time. So I waited. Nonetheless, I was happy to have him back. I telephoned Emily. "He's back. He walked in just a few minutes ago. Alexei," I called out, "Emily wants to speak to you."
"Emily, ma petite fleur, how are you? I missed you. It's good to hear your voice. Of course I'm in good health. Yes, yes, do; please come over directly. I'll tell Anthony. Bye bye," and turning to me said Emily was on her way.
"Let me help you unpack."
"No, not necessary. I will leave the bags; they can wait. I just want to sit with a glass of wine after a hot shower, so, if you will excuse me––make yourself at home and let Emily in if I'm still in the shower when she gets here," and off he went to his bedroom.
While he was showering, and I waited for Emily, I looked at the flight tags on his baggage. By the abbreviations I saw that he'd been to Albuquerque, Houston, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. What a curious itinerary, I thought as Emily rang and let herself in before I could get up.
"Hello, sweetheart," she said, walking over to me and kissing me on the cheek. I liked her affectionate ways. "Where's Alexei? How is he?"
"Right now he's in the shower and as far as I can tell he's okay and in high spirits––as usual. He has presents for us," I said, pointing to the duffle bag, "and he says he's got a story. And when Alexei says he's got a story, you know its' going to be too fantastic to believe."
"Don't I know that––but I'm glad he's back and I'm damned curious about his whereabouts these past two months," she said, looking at the luggage.
"Alexei said he wanted to drink some wine when he came out of the shower. I'll get some glasses. You know where he keeps his wine, Emily. Get a bottle of his best," I said.
He came out of the shower dressed in a long, jade green terry cloth robe that made him look like an oriental potentate. He was barefooted and his long hair and beard were flat against his head and face. He looked fierce, but I knew better. He embraced Emily, then sat in his great leather chair. "The comfort of one's humble abode is priceless. Please, dear Emily, do pour the wine."
The three of us drank several toasts to his homecoming and our reunion.
""It is so good to be back among dear friends. Do forgive me, both of you, for not writing, but you know how intense I get. When I was in New Mexico, I thought about the two of you and was going to call, but I had to rush back to my lab. God, what a summer I've had," he said, half in excitement and half with a sense of: My task is done and now I'm home.
"Well?" I asked, waiting for him to say something further.
"Well what?" he replied.
"Your story. You said you were going to tell a story."
"Of course. But one needs time. I've just returned, I must rest and drink some wine, talk and visit with friends; moreover, I've not eaten yet; and if I am to relate to you the events of the summer, I need lots of food to give me energy. Later, we shall go out to eat and then over some coffee and cognac, I will share with you both my most unusual and highly successful project. It's so good to be with familiar faces and places. I've discovered that I no longer enjoy extensive travel and residences away from San Francisco. Odd. And to think I've got half my head somewhere in outer space, but I don't want to leave home––so to speak. Am I getting parochial in my advanced years, my friends?" he said, with a jocular tone in his voice.
"Alexei, you're keeping me on pins and needles," said Emily. "What's all the mystery about?"
"You misunderstand me, my dear. There is no mystery. It is science, pure and simple. I'm not a mystic. I deal in the proven laws of the universe. I assure you––all in due course. Now all I want to do is play. Damn it, I've worked so hard. Pour me another glass and let old Alexei be transformed by the blood of Bacchus!" he said, jovially, lifting up his glass as Emily refilled it. "To science and to the greatest scientist: that ancient one who created wine––now that was some scientist, don't you think so?" with which he drank a hearty toast, and, putting his glass down said, "If you will allow me to sleep for one hour, then I will take us all out to dinner to that Basque restaurant, Des Alpes, on Broadway. You can meet me there. You know where it is, no?"
"Yes, I know it. How about you, Emily?"
"Okay by me. Will you give us our presents after dinner?"
"No, but right now. You're welcome to stay and open them," say saying, he went to the duffle bag, opened it and carefully pulled out several boxes of various sizes until he found ours and put them aside, them handed them to us. 'Now I am off for my nap. One hour. Until later, then," and Alexei plodded off to his bedroom.
Emily unwrapped a shiny black piece of pottery with a beautifully incised design of Indian symbols. She looked underneath and read out loud, "Maria Martinez, New Mexico. Oh, isn't it lovely, Anthony. I've always admired her work," she said, as she gazed in delight at the special gift. "He surely knows how to please me," she said. "Hurry up, open yours."
I had a box made out of a dark walnut–like wood; when I opened it I saw it was lined with purple velvet. In the middle of the velvet was a silver ring and mounted on the ring was a smooth, rounded turquoise stone. I took it from the box and held it up for Emily to see.
"It's beautiful," she said, "put it on," she urged, which I did. It fitted my ring finger of my right hand perfectly. It was a handsome ring and the stone stood out majestically. I was so pleased by his thoughtfulness. I remember we'd once discussed jewelry, and I'd mentioned my like of turquoise and silver and Alexei had remembered that. Emily put her bowl into her purse and we left the apartment very quietly, shutting the door behind us.
Des Alpes Restaurant delighted us all; after our seven course Basque meal with wine, we sat drinking cognac and coffee and eating vanilla ice cream.
"And now, my friends, I shall give account of myself––if you will so indulge me," said Alexei. One thing about him: he was never one to have a preamble to his raconteuring.
"We drink first to a good story, and, as the Italians say: 'Se non e vero e ben trovato," I said, lifting my glass in the air where they joined theirs with mine.
"Here, here," said Alexei, "very well put, Anthony. I am sure you won't be disappointed. You both know my story about my discovery––I also know you still think I'm a crackpot, albeit it a loveable crackpot, but hear me out. I had a lead on some very sophisticated radio equipment which had been advertised for sale at public auction at one of the scientific labs, Los Alamos, in New Mexico; so I went there and made the highest bid and got it for a pittance––a real bargain, considering the millions that went into the research and development of that equipment. Nonetheless, I took everything to a mountain cabin I'd rented, and set up my equipment and antennas. That took a long time. The calibration alone took me almost a week because I could only do it at certain times of the early morning, and then I had trouble with my portable generator's carbon brushes, so I had to drive almost a hundred miles back and forth for spare parts, install them, then I had to do some rewiring because of a short. You can't begin to imagine the little things that need to be done and that can also go wrong. I forgot to push one small button and I lost a whole night's work.
"But when I was finally ready to receive, I had immediate results––the sensitivity of the apparatus was beyond my own expectation. I invested most of my money for high tech equipment to continue my work and I'm not sorry I did it."
When he said that, I understood why Alexei lived such a modest life; most of his money went into his interstellar radio project. I had to congratulate him (silently, of course) on his dedication. Maybe there was something to all his talk after all. Therefore, I listened intently as he continued his narration in a sometimes detached manner.
"I had to go to Puerto Rico to confirm some doubts of my own; and I'll tell you briefly what my concerns were. Namely: was what I was receiving but an echo of my own transmission? I had no way to confirm this; I tried with what equipment I had, but with no satisfying results. I have an acquaintance, we met at a convention several years ago and we have carried on an extensive correspondence. I also helped him with some complex computations he was working on for his doctorate––so he owed me a favor. I tell you, my friends, I was in a frenzy. Was I, at last, to be exposed a fool––and by myself? Can you imagine? I thought I'd been deluding myself. I had to confirm. So I flew down to San Juan with all my data. I didn't tell my loyal correspondent the true reason––but neither did I lie to him. At the Arecibo radio telescope, where he works, they had the kind of computers and instruments I needed to confirm me or denounce me as a fool. My acquaintance agreed to give me some of his computer time in the privacy of his office and I got a pass to use certain instruments and I came away convinced I am the great genius I say I am! My friends, the confirmation was that I was not getting my echo or a bounced transmission. No; I was receiving the signal from a steady source, on the same frequency I had received it sixteen years before! I flew back to New Mexico as fast as possible and sent out my own signal and re–analyzed my data and the patterns of my own signals."
"And what were they?" asked Emily, who was listening intently, too.
"Originally I had sent out a series of waves, just like Morse code, dots and dashes, and on three different frequencies, orchestrated, them, you might say with a long, continuous wave as a sort of basso continuo, while simultaneously sending rhythmically, intermittent signals on two other frequencies, as what you might call my melody and harm,ony. Yes, I like that, hmm..." He stopped for a moment and lifted his eyes as if in distracted thought, but quickly reanimated himself.
"That's a rather poetic way of putting it––it must be your poetic influence on me, Anthony, my friend––but where was I? Yes, the waves were orchestrated––synchronized and what I got back was a duplication of my original three signals on the same wavelengths and the three signals all in proper sequence and rhythm!" His voice was dramatic and he leaped up from where he sat. "The signals I'd received corresponded one–hundred percent––and only intelligent life could have duplicated my complex symphony of radio waves!"
"Emily, Anthony Richmond, I have proof positive to confirm contact with intelligence not of this planet, not of this solar system! The proof is irrefutable,. My data is faultless. I am the new Christopher Columbus of the age of interstellar communication––a cosmic Columbus. Perhaps that will be the title of my book when I chose to write it. A rather catchy title, if I don't say so myself."
I felt giddy, caught somewhere between science fiction and being now a part of universal history along with my sweet Emily. The very first two people to be told of the awesome confirmation of life beyond our planet! Man's great question was now answered––and I imagined the can of worms which would now be opened, and Alexei would be right in the center of it. He would have the notice of the whole world for years to come. Suddenly I was frightened by all this supposed exposure to fame. Both Emily and I would also become famous through association, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to be part of it. Or so I thought at the time.
"Well," said Emily, "when are you going to call a press conference?" she asked most seriously.
Alexei looked at her with an incredulous look on his face and then his features changed and I thought he was going to burst into anger, but, instead, he burst into a paroxysm of guffaws and knee slapping laughter. His whole body shook in laughter. It took a while for Alexei to compose himself, and when he did he announced: "Press conference? You don't understand. All I've done is confirm. I have not communicated any ideas. We've not spoken. That must be very clear, or didn't I make that clear? Can you imagine just calling out 'tra, la, la,' to someone and they, copying you? You've not spoken. Oh, you could change 'la' to lu, li, lo,' but you'd still not have exchanged anything about your ideas or how to plant corn or compute astronomical figures or exchange formulas. Do you see?"
I saw it and so did Emily, who rejoined: "Does that mean you're not going to share this discovery with the world?"
"That's it exactly. I have to wait another sixteen years. And during that time I must figure out a way to communicate more fully, more deeply, and I'm certain my star friends will find a way to teach me, and I them, each other's respective languages. I was thinking I could develop a new way to teach languages––but that's another project. The new semester starts soon. I have to earn some more money to go back to my New Mexico cabin and send more signals. Frankly I am not so sure what to do next."
"But by announcing your work, there wouldn't be any problem about money. Any number of universities or government agencies would offer you funds, equipment, staff. You could run the whole show and call the shots," said Emily.
"Don't you think I know that?" came his reply. "I come from a place where the government controlled all the sciences. I want no part of any government––or university––which is just a scaled down version of a government. Once you take money from any source, you are ipso facto beholden to that source. You say 'run the whole show.' That's exactly what I'm going to do and when I've got the name and address of my dear friends out there," and he jabbed a finger toward the sky, "I shall announce my discovery to the whole world. But before I release my glorious finding, the world needs to concede something to me. My information will be expensive."
I was suddenly struck almost stupid by what he'd said. "Alexei, do you mean to sell your findings to the highest bidder for money? I can't believe you would do that?"
"Of course not. I am no mercenary; not a parasite or an opportunist. What will I need money for? No, I will trade my findings for the unconditional destruction of every source of nuclear power, the immediate cessation of the mining of uranium and the immediate cessation of the construction of atomic weapons, and the immediate disarming of them, and a universal ban on any further bomb testing. When the world agrees to that, only then will I give the world my findings––every iota of data. I won't need any of it."
"But that's crazy, Alexei," burst in Emily. "You can't barter on those terms. Your discovery belongs to the world. You can't deny the information."
"I most certainly can and I'm doing just that. Look at all the good scientists who help create weapons––all kinds of weapons. Do you think that's noble and that the information they used was for the good of humanity? Absolutely not. Do not try to appeal to my sense of the impersonality of scientific information. It will be revealed under my conditions, or I simply destroy my records and equipment and retire to some nice quiet spot in the mountains and take up pottery and trout fishing."
It was then that I got my burst of a strange idea and I was so excited I could barely speak. But I got it out. "Alexei, I'm a language teacher, let me figure out a way to teach them English!"
"Bravo!" shouted Alexei. "That's the spirit, maestro––exactly the sort of contribution that could make humanity not so arrogant, not so centered on itself. Another manifestation of life on a far planet would shake us to our very foundations philosophically and there would be, I'm sure, a hundred years of arguments on whether or not confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence was proof that God, or the various gods––did not only create human beings. Yes, Anthony Richmond, a fine idea; and next summer, when I go back to New Mexico, you shall join me and together we shall take ESL to outer space! And we have this whole year to prepare our first lesson. Oh, la, la, we must celebrate. Come, let us go to a bistro I know and have a drink to the teacher who brought English to the cosmos."
For days afterwards I was consumed by my fantasy. A hundred times I was given distinguished awards by great universities and learned societies; my face appeared on the cover of world–famous magazines and I had to hire clerks to answer my mail and personal bodyguards to keep away the crowds that followed me around. I gloried in the daydreams until the first week of the new semester; and gradually, being once again in front of students and my small coaching groups, my class preparation, my correcting papers, staff meetings and the like, my excitement and daydreaming waned, but not my enthusiasm for my proposed project; and during restful times, I gave the project considerable thought.
I reviewed all the current ESL methods of instruction, but I didn't think any of them workable; and many times I felt frustrated because I couldn't think of a way to teach entities sixteen light years away the English language via interstellar radio communication––every sixteen years.
One of my greatest frustrations was that I could not send my voice. So I would have to have a most original idea of instruction.
Then, one day, as I was sitting in the Caffe Puccini, with my morning coffee, I felt like a fool. All week I'd been eager for the summer to come; everyday I would look at the calendar with the same eagerness students have waiting for summer vacation––yet, suddenly, in the quiet seven a.m. cafe, I felt as if I were a dupe in some swindle––not that I thought Alexei had deceived me, no; I'd volunteered my services and now I felt a perfect ass chasing after star–students––why I was as wacko as Alexei, and I didn't like him and I didn't like myself and I decided that when I saw him next, I would tell him that I was withdrawing my offer.
Well, no sooner had I had that thought when Alexei himself walked in.
"Anthony! So good to see you so early in the morning. Will you have another coffee? Ah, I've got an appetite this morning for just bread and butter. Will you join me? I'll order two."
"Sure, another coffee and I'll take you up on the bread and butter, too; then I'd like to talk to you about something."
"Oh, you have that look on your face. Something very serious must be troubling you. Do you need a loan? Have you and Emily had some misunderstanding? Tell Alexei. He will try to help. But first we must drink coffee and eat. One is always in a better frame of mind with a full stomach."
Leave it to Alexei to put off discovering the secrets of the universe until he's eaten––that's what used to irk me about him––and which I, also, envied him for: his ability to put off some important thing for something as common as coffee, bread and butter.
While we broke bread and munched our home–made foccacetta, made by Dina, the owner–baker, who served us personally, Alexei kept looking at me with grave, Slavic eyes, penetrating eyes, which seemed capable of looking into my soul. Sometimes Alexei was very frightening.
He belched politely into his half–closed hand then lit a cigarette.
"What's on your mind?" he asked in a good–intentioned voice, and his concern gave me the confidence to tell him exactly how I felt, which I did, opened my heart of doubts to him. I was serious.
As I finished, he roared with laughter. I was insulted and sat there in a huff waiting for his buffoonery to end; by now I should have known better than to be affronted by his behavior––that's the way Alexei lived his life. Nevertheless, his laughter ended and I was ready for him with my counterattack which he defused instantly by turning spontaneously into the concerned friend.
"Anthony, I hear how you feel: cheated, duped––yes, you feel that way, but I am not doing any of those things you feel to you. You are part of history, great history, whether you wish to believe it or not. You must believe, Anthony Richmond, believe Alexei. I am not leading you down a science fiction trail and you are not a victim of some madman seized by his fantasy. I had a feeling you would have the kinds of sentiments you've just expressed; maybe if I were you I'd feel the same way. Consider your doubts as illusions. I am your friend, I would not deceive you. I have a high sense of integrity. I have told you only the truth. I swear it."
He spoke with such warmth, such sincerity that I was touched and once again I felt good about the project.
"I'm sorry for having doubted you, Alexei."
"It is nothing. We must work together and devote our energies to the task at hand and let go of our egos. We are working for the cosmos! Do you fully understand that and appreciate that, yet?"
He said that with that far–off, other–worldly gleam of half madness, half genius which I was forever witnessing in Alexei.
Very well, that was the end of that and we got down to some serious, theoretical problems on the interstellar transmission of language lessons. Just as we were getting started, we were interrupted; it was Emily. She had a curious look on her face. She stared at Alexei. "Have you been following the news?" she asked him.
"No; I've not read a paper in days; and you know I never watch television. Why do you ask?"
"There's been a coup d'etat in the Soviet Union. It looks like communism is on its way out!" she said excitedly.
Alexei grabbed the newspaper she had been holding, and with his usual intensity began to read the front page story. "But this is amazing. I can't believe it. But it is so. Why...why...I can go home!" And he burst into tears, and for a long time he wept and spoke only in Russian. Emily stroked his head and I rubbed his back and we, all three of us were weeping. Alexei because he could return to his motherland he pined for and Emily and I in empathy with our friend.
When at last he had emptied his emotions, he ordered wine––despite the early hour––to drink a toast to the collapse of the tyranny which had ruled for far too long.
"Now what will you do?" I asked.
"Do? Why return to the Ukraine––that's what I will do. Soon we will be independent. They will need good teachers. I must go home. I shall resign, give my landlady notice, pack my bags and fly to Kiev, my friend, fly to my dear mother and my siblings and my aunties and uncles and my dozens of cousins. Oh, I feel as if a great weight has been lifted from my soul."
"But what about our project?" I ejaculated.
"Our project? Ho! my dear friend," said Alexei, who put one of his big arms around my shoulders, "our project, little brother, will continue if you wish to join me in Kiev. Come, you can live with me. I will help you get an ESL job–no problem. Emily can come too. I will find her a good position. Alexei still has many connections. And I shall get a position at the university and we can continue together and bring the destiny of the cosmos to earth."
I knew I did not want to leave San Francisco and go live in Kiev in spite of the greatness of our projected work. No; I would stay because of late Emily and I were talking seriously about marriage, of buying a house and maybe having some kids. But I didn't want to say anything just then to spoil his elation.
As Emily and I drove back from the airport after having seen Alexei off, we were both crying because we had lost our good friend.
The other day I received a long letter and a photograph of Alexei and his family. He wrote:––
"I still find it hard to believe I am back after so many years of absence. Nevertheless, I am now in contact with my former boss at the Kharkov Institute; he is not so skeptical as he once was. So there is still hope for our project, little brother. I shall keep you informed. In the meanwhile, think of me often. Drink my health with Emily. And if you can, name one of your children after me. I embrace you from afar.
think of me often.
Be part of it. Or so I thought at the time.
"Well," said Emily, "when are you going to call a press conference seriously.
Alexei looked at her with an incredulous look on his face and then his features changed and I burst in laughter. It took a while for Alexei to compose himself, and when he did he announced: "Press conference? I have not communicated any ideas. We've not spoken. That must be very clear, or didn't I make that clear? Can you imagine just calling out 'tra, la, la,' to someone and they, copying you? You've not spoken. Oh, you could change 'la' to lu, li, lo,' but you'd still not have exchanged anything about your ideas or how to plant corn or compute astronomical figures or exchange formulas. Do you see?"
I saw it and so did Emily, who rejoined: "Does that me