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Authors: Charlie Haas

The Enthusiast

BOOK: The Enthusiast
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The Enthusiast

A Novel

Charlie Haas

For B.K.

Contents

Part One
Empty Orchestra

1

I was bicycling home from my last day of high…

2

Walking through the college library with an introductory law book…

3

At the second building I tried in Clayton, a chalk-green…

4

A year after I left Clayton, Mom called to tell…

5

I had my own America going, a huge room lined…

6

In my ten years on the road I never got…

7

Cozy. This is Agnes,” the woman who answered the phone…

8

It fell to me to be the public face of…

Part Two
Empty Hand

9

Tom Patrick bought everything he saw, and no one could…

10

Patti and I walked out of the Kansas City airport…

11

I got a call at work from Pete Levitan, the…

12

I landed in Idaho in blowing snow and rented a…

13

We just bought this,” Walter Denise said, handing me a…

14

I'm going to Colorado to see Dad on tour,” Barney…

15

A week later Barney called and said, “I'm going to…

16

I flew overnight to Houston, rented an Accent, and drove…

17

None of this goes,” Gerald said, pointing to the lizard…

18

First geese,” Deirdre said, spotting them in the rushes just…

19

Yesterday at breakfast Patti told me that her brother-in-law, Stewart,…

part one
empty orchestra

I
was bicycling home from my last day of high school when I saw a bright yellow stripe go tearing across the sky. It slowed down, made a sweeping turn, and raced back the other way, fifty feet above the six black buildings in the middle of town.

I pedaled faster up the hill toward the buildings. They were vacant, but they'd recently been the home of Controlled Dynamics, an aerospace-defense company that did a lot of classified work. For a second I wondered if the flying stripe was a secret project, forgotten in the shutdown, that had broken out of the buildings and was searching, duckling-like, for its engineer dad. As I got closer I saw that it was made of fabric and shaped like a parachute with its sides cut off, the ends dipping down as the middle strained upward: a really big kite.

When I crested the hill I could see the guy flying it. He was sitting on a low three-wheeled cart that was being towed by the fifteen-foot kite, working the heavy strings with his hands and steering the cart with his feet, easily doing thirty. It was late afternoon and seventy-five degrees, the sky a vibrating turquoise. Our town, Rancho Cahuenga, was in the desert east of L.A., with constant irrigation to keep the lawns from dying in peace.

When the guy saw me he pulled the kite straight overhead, stopping the cart. He looked twenty-five, with a surfer's build and haircut.

“How you doing?” he said, reeling the kite in and letting it fall on the grass. “I'm Don.”

“I'm Henry,” I said. “I've never seen one of those.”

“Kite buggy. Want to try it?”

“Okay.” I'd never been that good at sports, but how bad could I be at a sport no one had heard of? “Thanks.”

He stood up off the cart and led me to the parking lot. “You live around here?”

I nodded.

“This is a great spot. Is it always empty?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It's out of business.” Controlled Dynamics had shut down six weeks earlier, putting half the adults in town, including my father, out of work.

“Exquisite,” Don said. “This was
created
for buggy.” He gestured around the windy parking lot, empty except for some guys loading desks into a truck marked
OFFICE LIQUIDATORS
.

Don had another kite in his van, the same shape but smaller. He got it out and handed me its lines. “Try flying this one first,” he said, and left me in the parking lot while he went back to riding the buggy with the bigger kite.

I had to run only a few feet before the breeze lifted the kite. In
half an hour I was swinging my arms to work the lines, crouching and swiveling to keep the kite up when the wind shifted.

Then I learned to do it standing still, and the kite and I had an understanding. When Don saw me picking places in the sky, putting the kite in them and making it stay, he rode over to me. I sat on the buggy as he took the small kite from me and gave me the lines of the big one, which was hovering overhead. “Just drop it a little toward where you want to go,” he said.

I did, and for a second I thought the wind would pull my arms off. Then the buggy moved out. The low-centered gravity and tight steering were like a race car's, my outstretched legs were inches off the ground, and the shock of speed was doubled by the quiet, with only a faint hum of wind in the kite lines. I sped wide-eyed past Dad's old office, finally exercising my California birthright to go fast on something crazy.

There were five seconds of exhilaration, followed by fear, as I shot down the rise toward an asphalt curb. Don had said to brake by steering upwind and doing a 180, but it took me a circle and a half to stop, while all of Rancho Cahuenga—school, the mall, the dentist's, the ravine we used to bounce down on our bikes, Linda Stuber's house where, fully clothed, we ground against each other on her parents' bed, and the freeway out of town—smeared past me. The tour took six seconds. When it ended I was laughing, gasping, and hoping Don liked the site of my dad's termination enough to stay, because I wanted to go again, not just once but till far-off further notice.

 

O
ur family moved to Rancho Cahuenga just before I was born, when my brother Barney was two. Dad was a deputy program manager for completions at Controlled Dynamics, trying to keep forty scientists on schedule, while Mom put in palm trees
for a living and Barney was a genius who'd tested off all the charts there were.

Mom seemed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward adulthood, but Dad had signed on eagerly. He was modestly overweight and spent his weekdays in suit pants, a faintly shiny short-sleeve business shirt, a tie and tie clip, but no jacket. It was the executive uniform at Controlled Dynamics, and when he went out to lunch with his colleagues they looked like a roving band of assistant principals. Mom dressed for work like an iffy hitchhiker, in shorts, sandals, and a Mexican dishtowel shirt. She had muscles and a brown-bag tan from carrying eight-foot palm trees off the truck in her arms, and kept her hair in a short flip she could wash every night.

Barney was thin and four inches taller than I was, his long face a perfect setting for his stare of concentration. He wore gray T-shirts and olive-drab shorts every day. When he turned twelve the pants got long, but that was all the self-consciousness puberty got out of him.

I spent a lot of my childhood staring at Barney's stare, which looked around our bland landscape and saw number series and decaying waves of motion. At its fiercest, the stare bounced off the air an inch in front of him and went back inside his head, where there were weightless particles, one-dimensional bottles, and all the other things that people like Barney can prove are real and people unlike Barney hurt themselves just trying to think about.

My favorite room in the house was Barney's, filled with a science kid's essentials—microscope, centrifuge, periodic table pinup, and a record collection of hectic Yes and Genesis. I spent hours in there, nailing his science fair easels together and listening with rapt incomprehension as he explained his experiments. When I was eleven I started to see the burden he carried.
The town was built on science and a lot was expected of him—not just for his future, but for everyone's. At thirteen he walked around sometimes with the gravest of grownup faces, like a NASA spokesman taking questions when radio contact with the mission is lost.

 

T
he hundred-acre housing developments surrounding Controlled Dynamics went up fast, but you could tell the planning was enlightened because half the streets curved for no reason and there were lots of traffic-calming cul-de-sacs, making the local road map look like a drawing of beans on a vine. Biking to school, I'd see construction crews fanning out over the lumpy dirt plots of a new phase. A week later there'd be fresh wood framing on the concrete slabs, and then Tyvek, rebar, PVC pipe, and new families moving in before the next holiday themed the mall.

One Saturday I rode my bike onto Rheostat Way and out into the sameness, under a sun that made the new houses age faster than Cadillacs. There were two house models, the Ponderosa (tan shingle, tanner stucco) and the Klondike (the Ponderosa reversed, with an extra half-bath), alternating for miles, with an occasional frying toddler on a Big Wheel for color. I thought when I grew up I'd have to see nothing but interesting cities, maybe two or three a day, to even things up.

After a mile I turned my bike toward home and increased my speed to Mach Schwinn, a kid's escape velocity, the houses a flipbook about nothing happening. With a leaning turn, I shot into our cul-de-sac and up our driveway, where I jammed on the brakes and peeled rubber. I hadn't planned it, but there it was: my own smudge, an eighteen-inch variation in the landscape.

I rode out and did it a few more times, the lines getting longer as I gained technique. The last time I rode up, Dad came charging out of the house. Panicking, I hit the brakes harder than before, making my best mark yet and almost swerving into him as he asked what the hell I was doing.

“I was just—”

“You were defacing the house,” he said. “This is part of the house. The house isn't something you play with.” When I got yelled at, it was always by Dad, or—only a handful of times, but the worst handful I could imagine—by Barney. Mom tended to avoid these scenes. Her own parents had been yellers, and religious ones at that.

It was Barney who rescued me, coming out of the house and saying, “Dad, are you worried about the driveway? I think it's okay. That rubber's only a few microns. It'll wash away when it rains.”

Dad stopped yelling. He nodded as if he were weighing the argument, but in Rancho Cahuenga, Barney's brilliance was like being thirteen and having the Bomb.

“Don't do that again,” Dad said to me. “And hose it down, now.” He went back inside.

“That's not really what he's mad about,” Barney said. “They lost the aileron contract.”

“He told you that?”

“That's not likely, Henry. He doesn't talk about things that go wrong. I heard it at school. My point is that you can't rely on everything he says. Like that music? That's not the real samba.”

Dad played light Brazilian on the living room stereo whenever he was home. The low-normal Baroque of “Summer Samba” was embossed on our brains.

“The real samba's about life in the slums,” Barney said. “There are guys in Rio de Janeiro that stand on top of moving
trains. They call it train surfing. Sometimes they get killed, but they don't think their lives are worth anything anyway. That's the kind of thing the songs are about. The government puts the singers in jail.”

“Have you heard it?”

“Do you think the record store here would have that?” His comforting always had an element of pop quiz. “They only sell the most popular crap in the world. That's what keeps it popular.” He pointed at the rubber lines and said, “I think they look good, actually. At least it's different from the other driveways. Were you trying to see something? Like how long a mark you could make?”

“I guess.”

“Then it was an experiment. Your materials were the bike and the driveway.”

“Can you do an experiment if you're not trying to?”

“Sure. That's how they got penicillin.”

“Actually, I don't even know why I was doing it.”

“That's even better,” Barney said. “Your materials were the bike, the driveway, and you.”

 

W
hen I was thirteen and Barney was fifteen he won his second regional science fair. A month later the phone rang after dinner. Dad called us all to the kitchen and handed the receiver to Barney with a grin.

“Yes. Thank you,” Barney said calmly into the phone. “Okay. Yes.” When he hung up he said, “I'm going to the nationals. It's in greater Chicago in three weeks.”

Mom and Dad hugged him, but then he said, “I want to take Henry. Just the two of us.” They talked it over and gave us permission the next day, not even seeming hurt.

Travel without parents was new, but Barney aced it, whisking us by plane and shuttle to a six-story business hotel in Highland Park. We were surrounded by science kids, and because there were only geeks around, there were no geeks. Barney relaxed, the stare easing into a near-smile, as he talked mesons and photometers into the night.

When he spoke to me about those things at home I could only nod. Now he'd found other people like him, whose voices mumbling, “Cool proof,” wove with his. At first I was afraid he wouldn't want to talk to me at all, but instead he was nicer than usual, introducing me to everyone and saying I'd been a huge help on his projects, as if I'd sweated over the postulates with him instead of just washing his slides.

We made friends with a Korean American girl from Indiana whose polypeptide experiment came in first, followed by Barney's fluid dynamics problem, and a curly-haired guy from the Bronx High School of Science who described everything he liked as “choice.” The four of us ran laughing down cinderblock hotel stairwells, ate shrimp cocktails and ice cream from silver bowls, shook hands with smiling men in suits, and committed egghead vandalism. We didn't have minibar keys, but Barney picked the lock on ours in thirty seconds, and instead of drinking the liquor, the way normal high school kids would have done, we invented the antigravity minibar, gluing the snacks and bottles in upside down to make the next business traveler rethink his assumptions.

The second night, after the awards dinner, I woke up at 2:00
A.M.
and found Barney out on the balcony in his gym shorts. I joined him at the railing and he said, “You see what happens when we get out of that town?”

The
we
killed me. I'd never been as close to him as I was then, watching the blobs of light bounce on the surface of the
swimming pool and feeling like an ex-kid, a tetherball cut loose and flying.

 

O
ne night near the end of my senior year Dad came home late, didn't put on samba, and sank into a living room chair, pale and sweaty. Mom and I stood looking at him for a few minutes before he said, “We're going under.”

“Oh shit, sweetie,” Mom said. “I'm sorry.”

“They were trying to keep it going another quarter,” Dad said. “Trowbridge had a conference call with everyone from his place in Vail.”

I said, “So, but your job—”

“I don't have a job anymore,” Dad said. “No one does.”

For the next two months the
L.A. Times
doled out revelations of Controlled Dynamics's contract-padding and trick accounting, climaxing with the news that the company's management had drained the employee pension fund. When the CEO told a reporter that the employees were his family, and that he'd pursue every conceivable avenue to see that his family was made whole, we knew we were screwed.

Dad sent out three hundred résumés. He had some projects lined up around the house but he forgot to get finishing nails on his first trip to Lumber City and never went back. On most days he opened the garage door, put a web chair at the top of the driveway, and sat looking out at the street with the not-now eyes of a guy riding public transit. A lot of his fellow ex-executives did the same at their houses. You could take a twenty-minute detour to avoid passing Controlled Dynamics, and many people did, but there was no way to miss all those sad puppet theaters of the unemployed.

BOOK: The Enthusiast
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