Dad calls me at about eight, for the first time in a year. The office is very nearly empty, this project is very nearly due, and Dad is in jail. Again.
My first two names are John Wilkes. My last name is Bouck. I was conceived atop an American flag in the back of a pickup truck in Chicago three days before the Democratic Convention got underway, and four days before the same truck left Chicago ten minutes before the tear gas, carrying my mother and ten other people crammed onto the same American flag.
My father was the one who pushed my mother into the truck. He stayed behind, and got off fairly easy by being busted for posession and civil disruption after the second or third time the riot cops charged the lines. He received a dislocated shoulder and a mild concussion. He was also furious for being out of the action while some protesters avoided arrest for the whole Convention. He rejoined my mother a week afterward, the police having nothing to hold him for except their own seven years of baton-fondling conservative outrage. A month after that they were married. No one ever called them Mr. and Mrs. Bouck.
One of the many things I do that my father doesn't approve of is work here. I'm a software engineer for Intelligent Solutions, a name which means as little as the company itself. For the past year I've been part of a five-man no-woman team building a piece of wage-optimization software for a client. It's a very sexy piece of software, lots of pretty colors and graphs, often simultaneously. You tell it all about your workforce; it shows you how to get maximal production for minimal employee wages. Big companies are drooling over this sort of software -- human resource optimization, or words to that effect. I haven't told my father that. Like many of his contemporaries, my father went through a Marxist phase that didn't survive the invasion of Afghanistan. Other things my father does not approve of are the money I make, the pager on one hip, the cellphone on the other, and the number of American flags hanging on the outside of this building. All paid for by the company.
"John?" It's Dad.
"If the rain falls upward from the lake, where does it go?" It's definitely Dad.
"Little circles on the sky, little different, none alike," I answer. They're lines from a poem we wrote together when I was six, memorized and burned. It's a "security precaution" from back when he was being followed by the FBI all the time, or at least thought he was.
"Okay, okay. I'm sure you can guess where I'm calling from."
"Burnt to a cinder. Never changes. Bad old town."
"What happened?" I shouldn't be having this conversation casually. I should be demanding details, arranging bail, catching the next available plane in near-panic. Simpson County once had more prisoners yanked out of jails than anywhere else in the South. They'd be found a day or two later, hanging from trees by their shoelaces. But most of them were black. Twice my father has been jumped by rednecks in that county -- the first time they cut most of his hair off, and the other they pulled out his burning-flag earring, but that was all. When I was little I thought he was crazy. Now I suspect he's immortal. Crazy, but immortal.
"The annual sit-in. It was almost polite this time. When the cops came we didn't have to do anything to make them arrest us. No one hurt. Quite gentlemanly."
"Draw a crowd?"
"The usual. I think most of them just come to see us get arrested. Their forces triumph. Gets more relaxed every year, though. Pretty soon the cops will show up with barbecues and their wives."
"Not exactly the point, though."
"So do you need anything? Attorney? Bail? Mint chocolate hacksaw casserole?" Mostly, I begin to realize, I want to get off the phone.
"Not really. They stuck all the demonstrators in cells together so we outnumber the usual suspects, and we'll be out tomorrow morning with the usual column inch for the wire services."
"Any special reason for calling, then?" I ask. There's no polite way to get off the phone when my father is on the other end of it. Telephones, for him, are the same as microphones. It takes a riot squad or a good joint to detach him.
"Not really. Just wondered how you were, that sort of thing." There's no subtle way either, I remember. "What keeps you in the office this late? That damn secretary of yours didn't even want to admit you were around."
"She's not my secretary. She's one of the night-secs for the building."
"Whatever. What're you doing?"
"SQL coding. The Leyson-Evermann project." I don't want to get into this.
"Who, who and who?"
"Structured Query Language is a way of talking to a database. Leyson and Evermann are the two executives who got the contract for the company. I've never met them."
"You're doing their work without ever meeting them?"
"It's nothing, Dad. It's how the company works. Their work was getting the contract. My team builds the software."
"And?" His voice is challenging.
"And that's it. The project is due in another few days. The buyer pays up, we move on to the next new thing. Life goes on."
"What does it do, this thing you're making?"
Another issue I'd prefer to avoid. I temporize: "I don't think I could explain it. It's pretty complicated. Statistical analysis, mostly."
Statistical analysis. That's true enough, but the math genius on the team is the only one who could explain it. The last time he tried was at a budget meeting, where after forty five minutes, forty four of which were beyond everyone in the room, the directors gave us the funding to shut him up.
"What's it do?" Dad asks again.
"I said, it's complicated."
"So complicated you don't want to tell me?" He talks slowly; he's got a whole night, and would probably be happy to spend it this way. Relaxed; he probably has his feet up.
"It's a human resource management analyzer." Maybe that will satisfy him -- he knows what "human resources" means now, much as he hates it.
"It analyzes managers?" Now he's chuckling a little. Not many people laugh when they're angry. It's part of how he stayed in a good mood through thirty years of -isms and was-ms. In first grade I came home with a black eye earned on the playground after refusing to salute the flag, he chuckled. He also sat me down and wouldn't let me go until I could tell him what I thought the Pledge meant. He chuckled a little after I finished telling him, too.
"It takes analysis of employees and makes recommendations to the managers."
"Sounds like Kissinger."
"I'll take your word for it." I suspect he's probably insulting me -- my father considers my name among his most radical acts. "But it saves work for managers, so less of them are needed to maintain the workforce."
It doesn't work. "Aristocracy, then," he says. I can hear the bend in his voice from wedging it through his grin. "Even oligarchy. Maybe more like Nixon." He's insulting me. As if he didn't have better things to do from jail than call me up and point out my inadequacies.
A small red LED on my monitor begins to fade out. It's the signal that the unit will turn itself off in another moment. It looks like someone carrying a torch walking past a tiny window. I can hear Dad breathing on the other end of the phone. He's not worried. He's immortal.
The breathing goes on, mixing with the static like breeze on fresh snow. I never saw snow until I went on a company-sponsored ski trip a few years ago. A sort of hiring bonus. They flew us to the Rockies in business class. Dad called it a piece of unsubtle icing on a shapely cupcake of bribery. I think he was stoned at the time.
The breeze changes to a gust. I hear jailhouse shoes slapping a concrete floor. The gust swooshes around a second, stops. For an instant I see him grabbed from behind by a Sheriff, tossed to the group of overall-clad, rope-carrying goons standing in the open jailhouse. The red LED winks out. The monitor shuts off with a soft zwop. The room goes dark.
"It's hard to love somebody by telephone," says Dad's voice in the darkness.
"I know," I say, after a pause. I press the receiver hard to my ear.
"I haven't seen you since Exxon-Valdez," he says.
"I hardly got off the stage and you were gone again. You haven't joined me on a march since."
"I've been busy," I say, and this is true. Also meaningless.
"We're not much of a family these days," he says, matter-of-fact. I wonder if he's talking to me.
"Family Values," I reply. "Protest by example. Bodies before the bulldozer."
"Lives before the bulldozer. It's a refrain. Your mother and I taught you that."
"It's not the right place for the act, I think."
"It's a strong example. Self-sacrificial. You taught me that, too."
"What," he says, "do we do?" The voice is slow and steady, but faintly weary and ragged as well.
I hold the receiver a moment. I have no idea what we ought to do. In the middle of this a scuffle comes from behind the computer. A furry blob bounds over the keyboard and onto my chest, sticks there by its claws. Point, one of our office cats. An elderly joke in the field. The other is Click to the GUI designers, Drool to everyone else. Point, overjoyed to find someone so late at night, abstains the cooling monitor, slides down and wedges himself into my lap.
"What was that?" Dad wants to know.
"Point. The cat."
"It sounds like a gravel truck."
"He has an active feedback interface," I say, then translate. "He purrs loud."
"Where were we?" Point has broken his concentration. Mine too.
"A long void after Valdez," I venture.
"Uh huh. The Bush administration. See?"
"I think so."
"I doubt that. I just now made it up. Don't see how it applies at all."
"Oh." I try not to sound obedient. Dad hates that sound. Once or twice he's broken off in the middle of a speech to yell at the audience to quit agreeing with him. He never gets time off for good behavior. "I miss you," I say, trying to sound serious. It's easier than I thought.
"That's why I called. I miss you too. I'm in a jail cell in Simpson County, Mississippi, with half a dozen activists and three teenagers who were out for the thrill. Hard not to think of your family under conditions like that."
"You ever think about Grace?" I ask. Grace is my mom. Dad tried to get me to call him by his first name, too, but it didn't stick.
"You know I do."
A flurry of static rises up in the connection. I hear him talking when it subsides, know I've missed something. "Say that again," I tell him. "I couldn't hear."
"You weren't supposed to. It's my little battle prayer for your mother."
"Before the meeting of the forces. Marchers against the edifice, cops against students. That kind of thing."
"But she never went on any more marches after 1968."
"Not after Chicago. She wanted to stay alive and intact for your sake."
"And you went in her place?"
"More or less. I didn't have the shining armor, but it felt that way."
"It didn't help."
His voice goes silent and I realize I've said too much. The shoes shuffle on the concrete floor, Dad takes a breath, lets it out. "Who do you love now, John?"
"You and Grace. That's easy enough. And... this woman in Accounts Payable."
Thirty five years of angry radical chic throws back its heads and howls into the end of the phone. It comes out as a quick rasp, then Dad's voice comes down on top of it. Strong and steady, like his arms lifting my mother. "What's her name?"
"There's not much to tell. We met in the company cafe. We went out a few times. I taught her some programming. She taught me how to tell where the company is shaving my paychecks."
"Sounds to me like there's a lot to tell. You two get along?"
"We've talked about getting married."
"Does that mean you get along?"
"I guess so. Yes. Yes, we get along."
"What's the one thing about her you wouldn't tell anyone but your father?" It sounds like a challenge, but it also sounds like he's smiling.
I have to think about that for a minute. "She likes to wear Old Glory underwear."
The rasp comes again, and then his laughter bursts up through the middle of it. A bigger laugh bursts through that one, echoes off the walls of the cell. I hear the other prisoners laughing too, not knowing what's funny. Maybe just seeing the old radical laughing sets them off. It goes on for a minute, and he comes back on the line. Now he sounds like he's talking through a smile the size of the Grand Canyon. Relief is washing around me -- my father's main use for flags has been burning them at demonstrations. The one I was conceived on was to have been burned the next day. But it's true, that's the one thing I'd only admit to my father, the Big Bad Rad. Not that he'd like it, but the prisoners are still laughing.
"I trust you can convince her to stop wearing them without too much trouble," he says, and the prisoners get it, start off again. He doesn't. It's an easy joke, not his style. His style is bitter parody, inciting audiences to action. But, after a moment, he chuckles.
"So," he drawls after a long moment of intermittent giggling. Point, tried of being vibrated, scoots away. "So. What else ought I to know about your Circe. Does she live up to her name?"
"I'm hardly a proper judge."
"Indeed. I'll have to meet her, then I'll tell you. Does she have comparably interesting parentage?"
Not so giggly a matter. "Her father's a stockbroker, hideously wealthy family. Her mother's an alcoholic with a bad social inferiority complex."
"Nicely developed sense of opinions, I see. What do they think of you?"
"Her mother adores me, she's flattered someone took an interest in her daughter. She seems to think it implies an interest in her as well, or instead. She sees little enough of it from her husband."
"And the patriarch?" Dad asks. He's giggling again.
"Circe showed me his closet once. I don't think he cares to be seen out of a grey suit. His being in a room makes everything grayer."
"For all I know I've led sit-ins at his company gates. How does he fancy you?"
"Well, he doesn't know my parentage."
"Vastly helpful, no doubt. No doubt also we shall face a great many turbulent moment, and a great many looks of horror shall adorn our respective faces."
"The wedding will be calamitous," I say.
"Disasterously. The groom's family will refuse to commence the ceremony in the absence of a Bhikku, and the bride's will likely insist everyone wear clothes and remain straight and sober till afterward. Still and all, what of Circe herself?"
"It'll take some time," I muse, "but she'll come around to our side of things eventually." It's not that simple, and both ends of the phone know it. But for now it's right and proper. The Mississippi end of the connection grumbles a bit in a satisfied way, as if settling down to wait out a winterful of static. The other prisoners are quiet.
Outside the building, the flags hang limp and still. I think of the flag in the pickup in Chicago -- did it meet its intended use elsewhere? Dad wouldn't know. That flag went with my mother, away from the city as fast as the truck would go with its load. Nixon won the election.
"Circe Pemman," he says softly. "Circe and Grace. A pity they'll never meet."
"They'd hate each other," I protest.
"Yup," he says, and giggles.