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Authors: Jim Shepard

You Think That's Bad

BOOK: You Think That's Bad
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ALSO BY JIM SHEPARD

Like You'd Understand, Anyway: Stories
Project X
Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories
Nosferatu
Batting Against Castro: Stories
Kiss of the Wolf
Lights Out in the Reptile House
Paper Doll
Flights

AS EDITOR

You've Got to Read This
(with Ron Hansen)
Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs
(with Amy Hempel)
Writers at the Movies

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

Copyright © 2011 by Jim Shepard
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The following stories were previously published: “Happy with Crocodiles” in
American Scholar;
“Poland Is Watching” in
The Atlantic;
“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” in
Electric Literature;
“Classical Scenes of Farewell” and “The Netherlands Lives with Water” in
McSweeney's;
“Boys Town” in
The New Yorker;
“Minotaur” in
Playboy;
“Low-Hanging Fruit” in
Tin House;
“In Cretaceous Seas” in
Vice;
and “The Track of the Assassins” in
Zoetrope: All-Story
.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Shepard, Jim.
You think that's bad / by Jim Shepard. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-59556-0
I. Title.
PS3569.H39384Y68 2011
813′.54—dc22        2010035998

Jacket image: Contortionist from Thiele's Photo Rooms /
George Eastman House / Gallery Stock
Jacket design by Jason Booher

v3.1

For Shep

Contents
Minotaur

Kenny I hadn't seen in, what, three, four years. Kenny started with me way back when, the two of us standing there with our hands in our pants right outside the wormhole. Kenny wanders into the Windsock last night like the Keith Richards version of himself with this girl who looks like some movie star's daughter. “Is that you?” he says when he spots me in a booth. “This is the guy you're always talking about?” Carly asks once we're a few minutes into the conversation. The girl's name turns out to be Celestine. Talking to me, every so often he gets distracted and we have to wait until he takes his mouth away from hers.

“So my husband brings you up all the time and then, when I ask what you did together, he always goes, ‘I can't help you there,' ” Carly tells him. “Which of course he knows I know. But he likes to say it anyway.”

With her fingers Celestine brings his cheek over toward her, like nobody's talking, and once they're kissing she works on gently opening his mouth with hers. After a while he makes a sound that's apparently the one she wanted to hear, and she disengages and returns her attention to us.

“How's your wife?” Carly asks him.

Kenny says they're separated and that she's settled down with a project manager from Lockheed.

“Nice to meet you,” Carly tells Celestine.

“Mmm-
hmm
,” Celestine says.

The wormhole for Kenny and me was what people in the industry call the black world, which is all about projects so far off the books that you're not even allowed to put CLASSIFIED in the gap in your résumé afterwards. You're told during recruitment that people in the know will know, and that when it comes to everybody else you shouldn't give a shit.

If you want to know how big the black world is, go click on
COMPTROLLER
and then
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
on the DOD's Web site and make a list of the line items with names like Cerulean Blue and budgets listed as “No Number.” Then compare the number of budget items you
can
add up, and subtract that from the DOD's printed budget. Now
there's
an eye-opener for you home actuaries: you're looking at a difference of forty billion dollars.

The black world's everywhere: regular air bases have restricted compounds; defense industries have permanently segregated sites. And anywhere that no one in his right mind would ever go to in the Southwest, there's a black base. Drive along a wash in the back of nowhere in Nevada and you'll suddenly hit a newish fence that goes on forever. Follow the fence and you'll encounter some bland-looking guys in an unmarked pickup. Refuse to do what they say and they'll shoot the tires out from under you and give you a lift to the county lockup.

All of this was
before
9/11. You can imagine what it's like now.

For a while Kenny helped out at Groom Lake as an engineering troubleshooter for a C-5 airlift squadron that flew only late-night operations, ferrying classified aircraft from the aerospace plants to the test sites. They had a patch that featured a crescent moon over
NOYFB
. “None Of Your Fucking Business,” he explained when I first saw it. He said that during the down time he hung with the stealth-bomber guys with their
Huge Deposit-No Return
jackets, and he told his wife when she asked that he worked in the Nellis Range, which was a little like telling someone that you worked in the Alps.

I'd met him a few years earlier when Minotaur was hatched out
at Lockheed's Skunk Works. He'd been brought in for the sister program, Minion. We were developing an ATOP—an Advanced Technology Observation Platform—and even over the crapper it read:
Furtim Vigilans: Vigilance Through Stealth
.

It wasn't the secrecy as much as the slogans and patches and badges that drove Carly nuts. “Only you guys would have
patches
for secret programs,” she said. “Like what're we supposed to do, be
intrigued
?
Guess
what's going on?”

In the old days Kenny's unit had as its symbol the mushroom, and under it, in Latin:
Always in the Dark
. The black world's big on patches and Latin. I had one for Minotaur that read
Doing God's Work with Other People's Money
. I'd heard there was a unit out at Point Mugu that had the ultimate patch: just a black-on-black circle.

“ ‘Gustatus Similis Pullus,' ” Carly said. She was tilting her head to read an oval yellow patch on Kenny's shoulder.

“You know Latin?” he asked.

“Do you know how long I've been tired of this?” she told him.


I
don't know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.

“ ‘Tastes Like Chicken,' ” he translated.

“Nice,” Carly told him.

“I don't get it,” Celestine said.

“Neither does she,” he told her.

“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.

“People're supposed to taste like chicken,” I finally told them.

“Oh, right,” Carly said. “So what're you guys doing, eating people?”

“That's what we do: we eat people,” Kenny agreed. He made teeth with his forefingers and thumbs and had them bite up and down.

Carly gave him a head shake and turned to the bar. “Are we gonna order?” she asked.

It's all infowar now. Delivering or screwing up content. We can convince a surface-to-air missile that it's a Maytag dryer. Tell an over-the-horizon radar array that it's through for the day, or that it
wants to play music. And we've got lookdown capabilities that can tell you from space whether your aunt's having a Diet Coke or a regular.

What Carly's forgetting is that it's not just about teasing. There's something to be said for esprit de corps. There's all that home-team stuff.

I heard from various sources that Kenny's been all over: Kirtland, Hanscom, White Sands, Groom Lake, Tonopah. “What's my motto?” he said, in front of his wife, the last time I saw him. “ ‘A Lifetime of Silence,' ” she answered back, as though he'd told her in the nicest possible way to go fuck herself.

What's it like? Carly asked me once. Not being able to tell the people you're
closest
to anything about what you care about most? She was talking about how upset I was at Kenny's having dropped right off the face of the earth. He'd gone off to his new assignment without a backwards glance some two weeks before, with not even a
Have a good one, bucko
left behind on a Post-it. She was talking about having just come home from a good vacation with her husband and watching him throw his drink onto the roof because of an e-mail in response to some inquiries that read
No can do, in terms of a back tell. Your Hansel stipulated no bread crumbs
.

The glass had rolled back off the shingles into the azaleas. By way of explaining the duration of my upset, I'd let her in on a little of what I'd risked by that little fishing expedition. I asked if she had any idea how long it took to get the kind of security clearance her breadwinner toted around or how many federales with pocket protectors had fine-tooth-combed my every last Visa bill.

“I almost said hello to you two Christmases ago,” Kenny told me now. “Out at SWC in Schriever.”

“You were at SWC in Schriever?” I asked.

“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Carly said. “Don't talk like this if you're not going to tell us what it means.”

“The Space Warfare Center in Colorado,” Kenny said, shrugging when he saw my face. “Let's give the bad guys a fighting chance.”

“I didn't know we
had
a Space Warfare Center,” Celestine said.

“A Space Warfare Center?” Kenny asked her.

At our rehearsal dinner, now three years back in the rearview mirror, during a lull at our table Carly's college roommate said, “I never had a black eye, but I always kinda wished I did.” Carly looked surprised and said, “Well, I licked one all over once.” And everybody looked at her. “You licked a black eye?” I finally asked. And Carly went, “Oh, I thought she said ‘black
guy.
' ”

“You licked a black guy all over?” I asked her later that night. She couldn't see my face in the dark but she knew what I was getting at.

“I did. And it was
so
good,” she said. Then she put a hand on the inside of each of my knees and spread my legs as wide as she could.

“What's the biggest secret you think I ever kept from you?” she asked during our most recent relocation, which was last Memorial Day. We had a parakeet in the backseat and were bouncing a U-Haul over a road that you would have said hadn't seen vehicular traffic in twenty-five years. I'd been lent out to Northrup and couldn't even tell her for how long.

“I don't know,” I told her. “I figured you had nothing
but
secrets.” Then she dropped the subject, so for two weeks I went through her e-mails.

“I don't know anything about this Kenny guy,” she told me the day I threw the drink. “Except that you can't get over that he disappeared.”

“You know, sometimes you just register a connection,” I told her later that night in bed. “And not talking about it doesn't have to be some big deal.”

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