by L. S. Bassen
Stranger than fiction was the newly discovered truth that there was more water under the Earth than in all the oceans on its surface. When the GOP shut down the United States government on October 1, 2013, Judith Sedgwick was one of the DOJ lawyers furloughed in NYC. Like other personnel labeled non-excepted, Judith was then forbidden access to DOJ files and office. She had spent the first week and a half at home, opening arcane online links whose words italicized in her mind. She remembered 9/11 when she had also been forced to stay away from work. Those dozen years earlier, the bank building where she had been an executive was gouged, then shrouded in black drapery. Contaminants and corruption caused its final demolition to wait a decade. Since 2001, Judith had changed course in more ways than after her divorce in 1981 when her ex had taken their five-year-old daughter Sarah — Siv — first to the City in London and then home to Norway.
In 2001, Siv was twenty-five, and Judith rejected finance. After law school, she joined the DOJ. She had moved from Manhattan to a Brooklyn waterfront condo. On this early October morning in the middle of the second week of her forced furlough, Judith was again Googling the shutdown date. The week before, she had found the title of an old paperback she took out of the library because October the First Is Too Late was not available as an e-book. The time travel science fiction adventure by Fred Hoyle was a Professor Hoyle's time travel science fiction adventure, a more modern relative of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Solar beams play havoc with terrestrial time: England is in the '60's, but WWI is still raging in western Europe, Greece is in the golden age of Pericles, while the United States is some thousands of years in the future; and Russia and Asia are reduced to a glass-like plain, fused by the burnt-out sun of a far distant future.
In 2013 Brooklyn, Judith's thirty-seven year old daughter Siv awakened in the second bedroom. She had a notable career as a film and TV actress in Norway and Germany, arriving in New York in July to begin a role in a popular TV series set in a prison. Judith could hear Siv stealthily opening and shutting closet, bedroom, and bathroom doors.
"I'm not stealing anything," her daughter called. "Although that would be in character. I'm just trying not to irritate you."
Moments later, dressed for a quick exit, Siv entered the modern living space. No makeup, natural blond hair cut short in spikes, thin and tall like her father. Judith's white cat curled around Siv's ankle, purred, and slip-slided away like the Paul Simon song.
"Was I talking out loud again?" Judith said.
"Even louder. The US government can't stay closed forever. The House already voted your retro pay."
"Will they repay the also-furloughed poison ivy-eating goats at The Gateway National Recreation Area?"
"The what? Where?"
"In Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Aren't you eating any breakfast?"
"No matter how early a call I've got, Mother, you're always up. Do you ever rest?"
"Do we only speak in questions?"
"As in Macbeth?"
"Do I remind you of Lady Macbeth?" Judith asked.
"Aren't you Achilles? Isn't the GOP-Agamemnon keeping you from your beloved Briseis-fraud case? Why not take your fury out for a walk today? Go to town?" Siv waved, no kiss, and the door closed.
Giving the double entendre its due, Judith repeated, "Go to town?"
Earbuds in place, Judith walked across the Brooklyn Bridge listening to Billie Holiday's “Autumn in New York.” Like the sunshine on the river below, the lyrics glittered on the melody's surface. Lower Manhattan's heights and depths always reminded her of the Grand Canyon. A memory of a vacation tryst bobbed up like the raft Judith had shared with a man whose name she forgot, but she remembered the song was by Vladimir Dukelsky, aka Vernon Duke, born this October week in Russia in 1903, the same year as her father, a Massachusetts Sedgwick.
There was a street in Boston named for her family. Her Great-something-grandfather Theodore had been the lawyer representing the original Rosa Parks of civil rights, Mumbet Freeman, whose 1781 court case ended slavery in Massachusetts. Taking the last steps on the epic Brooklyn Bridge, Judith noted the sparingly voiced A diminished to the G minor 7th in the musical bridge of Vernon Duke's song. His noble Russian family had fled the Revolution to Constantinople and arrived in New York where Gershwin got him to go lowbrow. The lyric invited her to feel I'm home, and Judith stepped onto Manhattan.
October in New York was decorated for Halloween in the orange and black of Siv's hit TV series. Judith walked with impatient urban gait, frowning at people who glared right back. She passed City Hall and neared the yoga studio on Warren Street. Judith switched from Billie Holiday to the recommended Paul Horn playlist. How was she supposed to be in the moment when she couldn't help trying to identify the instruments? The flutes, drums, and echo of ghostly New Age monks and nuns were arguments against the yoga instructor's call for alternate consciousness.
Moreover, Judith craved her DOJ office like an addict. The reiki music couldn't compete with the case she'd been working on. While it wasn't the biggest recent award wrested from Wall Street vices, it was nearing a billion-dollar-plus settlement. For a second Wednesday, she entered the strange building, avoided the claustrophobic elevator, and stomped the stairs to the third floor studio. Already unrolling their mats were the middle-aged male twins the instructor had nicknamed for drums, Bayan and Dayan. The yoga regulars' clubbiness infuriated Judith. The government of the people by the people had shut down the government for the people. On this perfect autumn morning, what on Earth forced such healthy people to idleness instead of work?
At a wall of cubbies, she tucked away sneakers and clothes but moved earbuds and iPhone to her tote bag. Judith seethed at greetings that imitated the instructor's, "Ready to shake your asanas?!" She wished they'd all perish from the earth, but she unrolled her mat and put her tote in its corner. As she stretched, Judith avoided eye contact. A woman tapped her shoulder, pointing to the tote and cubbies. Judith scowled and turned her back on a lady-who-lunched.
Tom (no surnames) began class by turning on a disk player. He was a retired NYC cop, tall, trim, and balding. A synthesizer's deliberate tempo underlay acoustic guitar and flutes. Major keys resolved to major chords accompanied by singing bowls and Tibetan bells. Songs had a ten or fifteen minute cycle and repetitive minor variations. The group assumed the first asana, mountain pose, and Tom began a lulling patter that punctuated each position.
"Be still as the mountain. Cease samsara. Stop creating worlds and then moving into them. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing us. Buddha asked, 'Which do you think is greater: the water in the oceans or the tears you've shed?' The samsara's parameters of spacetime are not the pre-existing context in which we wander. They are the result of our wandering."
Spacetime? Judith grimaced at Tom's pretensions as much as at her own in attempting urdvah danurasana. Totally ignorant of geography and yoga in early childhood, Judith had assumed the 'wheel pose' was her own exuberant invention. Through her forties, she had arched into the backbend to show off strength and flexibility. Now the pose broke the law of possibility. Judith was the oldest one in the room.
Tom called for balasana. All faces and bodies tucked to the floor in 'child pose' that looked to Judith like Muslim prostration. She stiffened at submission, but her muscles sighed with relief.
Over the prone forms, Tom intoned, "Breathe in Prana, the life force, travel on your yoga. Yoga is a journey to unite with the Universe, which belongs to you…where you belong…you are not alien…YOU are the Universe…"
Forehead pressed to the mat, Judith breathed, "Fails prima facie."
Class was winding down. Tom directed them to turn on their backs and inhale more Prana. Minutes of respiration were followed by ritual familiar from the previous lesson, concluding with prayer hands and the communal expression of "Namaste."
Once outdoors, Judith translated for the bodies crowding the sidewalk at lunchtime, "'The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.' As if." Her sunglasses shielded against the hard sun high above the tall buildings. Go to town, Siv had advised. Judith's psychiatrist once suggested that ceaseless motion was her drug of choice. It was too early to go home. Rather than return to Brooklyn, she walked uptown. It was only October, and she had miles to go before any woodsy snowy evening. It was a good thing that Judith obeyed the Don't Walk sign on Duane Street. A truck turned illegally right into the crosswalk. Brakes, horns, and curses screamed. Judith joined the shouting several beats later.
"We are not the Universe! We don't belong! The matter we're made of is no more than four percent of EVERYTHING!"
The light changed, and the crowd moved quickly away from the near disaster and likely lunatic. Only since Siv's summer arrival had Judith become aware that she talked aloud to herself. At the dark end of every long day at the DOJ office, she had delighted in the sound of silence. She stopped at another curb. In memory, Judith could hear the Simon & Garfunkel melody and lyric. Silence was more than her old friend; it was her true spouse. The song recalled a walk uptown beside her college roommate.
Pidge did a comic Einstein impression, 'Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.'
"I say identity is the illusion."
Still accented, Pidge teased, "So serious…ly, arguing with Einstein?"
Judith had nicknamed Paloma ('pigeon') Shapiro at their first meeting in their freshman dorm room.
"I'm awed," Pidge had said. "You're the Sedgwick who won Brom & Bett v. John Ashley, Esq.? The topic of my application essay and, I'm sure, the reason I got accepted!"
"That was my father's Great-something-grandpa Theodore. My mother is Jewish. An alumna like her mother before her and countless Sedgwick females."
"Legacies. My mother's a black Puerto Rican."
Pidge's inheritance also included a rent-controlled condo on the upper West Side. Maybe Pidge still shared it with the obnoxious woman who sat on another Named Chair at Columbia. They'd been together for decades, experts in archeological languages. Pearl Feria's name echoed FIRREA, the fraud-punishing law in Judith's billion dollar-plus case. Judith kept walking north. She scrolled her iPhone for Uber. Go to town.
The landphone rang. Paloma could hardly believe the name on Caller I.D.
From the kitchen, Pearl heard half the conversation.
"You'll never believe it," Paloma said. "That was Judy Sedgwick."
"Your roommate who looked like Colleen Dewhurst?"
"Colleen Dewhurst died. Judy is at Zabar's picking up lunch for us."
"Is there time to escape? You haven't seen her in millennia."
"'At least before we rescued the pooch. Pearl, the things she and I confided in each other! Her mother's miscarriage before Judy was born. Her older, Nobel sister, epileptic and psychotic. Judy had to be ignored. Her mother's family owned the business, the money her father married into. He stayed home from work once for two months. They didn't call it a breakdown. They didn't call it depression. Judy chain-smoked cigarettes and picked skin off her heels until they bled."
"You breathed in a lot of secondhand smoke. Early memories are so deep," Pearl said, "they get stratified. Continents separate, collide, and behold, the Himalayas."
The buzzer sounded. Pidge opened the door, and Judith crossed the threshold carrying two bulging bags of aromatic food. Pearl led the way to the kitchen.
"Judy, you're blond!" Pidge said.
Judith touched her hair, then Pidge's. "Your Jewfro went white? Pearl, what pact did you make with hair dye – or the devil?"
"Shoshone roots. We don't go gray as early as you white eyes. But I still look like Olive Oyl."
Pidge and Pearl took plates and glasses and cutlery out of cabinets and drawers.
Judith focused on the delicatessen. "I got seedless rye and plain bagels. Either of you had diverticulitis? How I miss pistachios. Do you like halvah?"
"We like everything," Pidge said.
"Why are you here, coming out of nowhere?" Pearl said.
"I was just wandering. Surprised to find you home."
"Alive, you mean," Pearl said.
"I would've gone up to St. John the Divine. Or the Cloisters. Are you two retired?"
"Still at the university. Just not on Wednesdays. Give Judy the tour. The rest of all this, I'll put out," Pearl said.
"You always did," Judith said.
Pidge tugged Judith's sleeve and showed her the office behind the kitchen. She led her old classmate through a book-lined living room. October sunshine filled the windows and cast a wide spotlight across a worn Persian rug and dark sofa. Upon plump cushions a mixed breed spaniel slept.
"He was unwanted fifteen years ago," Pidge said. "He looked like Lady and the Tramp's puppy, if Lady had been a King Charles, not a cocker spaniel."
"My white cat is Balinese-if-you-please, with eyes bluer than mine," Judith said.
They walked down a hallway to a bathroom and two open bedroom doors.
"Everything changed," Judith said. "This must be Pearl's room – it was your daughter –"
"Yes, Marta – for your mother –?"
"– died over a decade ago. Marta is thirty-four, with four-year-old twins, in Silicon Valley. I've seen your Siv on TV. Doesn't she favor Anders?"
Judith stumbled and gasped. Pidge caught her, and almost as fast, Judith disengaged.
"I just lost my breath."
"Take a deep one now."
"No. It just struck me. For only five years… I was a mother… thirty-two years ago… hardly even then, with nannies, daycare, all the money, and… all the men. When he took custody, Anders made the only first move in his entire life."
"Let's get some food into you," Pidge said, leading the way to the dining table. "You always had just a cigarette for breakfast."
"Now I just have coffee, and I am not-excepted."
"What does that mean?"
The three women sat down, and Judith explained the GOP shutdown of the United States government, "Since October the first…"
"…is too late," Pidge said. "That's the title of a wonderful sci fi novel by Fred Hoyle."
Judith paled again.
"Not-excepted, how curious," Pidge said. "We know four sentences that if you went back 15,000 years and spoke them to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, they'd understand you because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the sentences are words that have descended unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age. You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes! Those few words mean the same thing and sound almost the same, as they did then."
"Well, it put some color back into your cheeks," Pidge said.
Judith thanked Pearl for a glass of seltzer, "You had a son."
"Issa," Pearl smiled, "whose name means wolf. He's 32 and a new father."
"Siv is thirty-seven and alone. 'Not lonely.' Methinks she protests too much," Judith said.
Pearl heaped plates with food. "She sounds just like you. As a mother, you were a fraud."
Judith didn't blink. "Did you know that Satan means accuser?"
"From the Hebrew sin-tet-nun," Pearl said.
"Didn't we honestly want their fathers once?"
"Maybe twice. We were honest whore-moans."
Pidge shook her head. Then the three women ate silently.
Finally, Judith turned to Pidge, "That first day we met, I was Boston suburb, and you were New York City."
"I was brown and you were the only white who'd ever heard of Brom & Bett v. Ashley."
Pearl bit into a pickle that audibly snapped.
Judith said, "I guess Vassar thought you'd become the lawyer."
"When we were sophomores," Pidge said, "one night you got up from your desk and said you wouldn't move without a reason."
Flourishing the pickle, Pearl said, "At U Montana I'd have called that sophomoronic. This furlough, Judy? Why not just retire? You're more than old and rich enough."
"I like exposing Wall Street fraud and recovering billions of dollars," Judith said.
"Who gets the money?" Pearl asked. "The people who were defrauded?"
"It varies depending on the nature of the recovery. Fines and forfeiture can go to Treasury, restitution to victims. It depends on the details of the judgment. What keeps you two working?" Judith said.
Pearl clapped her hands. "We may not wind up Nobel laureates like your sister, but wait, I'll show you!" Pearl rushed to the office behind the kitchen.
"Well, that lit a fire under her," Judith said, "and look at you."
"We are unearthing a lost world," Pidge breathed, "a Rosetta Stone for the Minoans!"
Pearl returned wearing curator gloves, a small object in the palm of one hand.
"Careful," Pidge said. "That's a copy. It was unearthed only last year. In secure conditions, we work on the original from the Faroe Islands."
Judith looked at the Cycladic object shaped like the palace throne in Knossos. "I've been to Crete and Santorini, but where are the Faroe Islands?"
"Northwest of the Orkneys, north of Scotland. 3600 years ago, long before the compass, the Minoans used 'sunstones' for navigation…" Pidge ran out of breath.
Pearl took over. "Below Yellowstone where my family all work is the world's most massive active volcano. The last time it erupted was 640,000 years ago. I grew up discovering fossils so I only hope to become one. But you've always avoided reading the strata on the wall! Now the dentata in our mouths can't bite into a thick steak or a juicy youth," Pearl waved the Minoan artifact in Judith's face, "it's naked truth that's really sexy!" Pearl touched her forehead and sizzled "Yessssss!"
"You've sniffed too many Yellowstone vents," Judith said.
"They're called fumaroles."
Judith turned from Pearl. "Pidge, we knew everything about each other. Siv took her middle name in a language I can't speak. She doesn't belong, you're both full of fumes, and I'm out of work."
"Are those real tears?" Pearl said. "You'll go back to your billions, Judy. The Wall Street Journal, no less, said the Banana Republicans are on a suicide mission. Your shutdown isn't the Minoan catastrophe. That really was the first end of the world."
Cradling the stone copy, Pearl exited to the office.
Pidge opened a can of Cel-ray soda and gave half to Judith.
"I don't remember our ending," Judith said.
"Neither do I. You and Anders made a fortune on Wall Street. I went to grad school in linguistics."
"I remember being sick and refusing to go to the infirmary. You were leaving for a weekend at Amherst? Your hand on my forehead was cool. Your gold charm bracelet jingled and your perfume – I thought you were my mother."
Pearl returned. Judith surveyed the table, food eaten, beverages drunk, paper napkins used. She stood. The dog moved off the couch like an old man. He limped to Judith, licked her hand, then weakly barked.
"Now he smells my cat," Judith said.
"When shall we three meet again," Pidge said, opening the door.
"In thunder, lightning, or in rain," Pearl went on. "When the hurley burley's done…"
The door closed before the elevator arrived. The two scholars cleared the table and put things away.
"You think you'll ever see her again?" Pearl asked.
Paloma sighed. "I won't hold my breath."
Judith kept walking south on Amsterdam Avenue. She turned as the route curved at 72nd Street into Broadway paved atop the aboriginal Lenape trail. Before locating her cab at Columbus Circle, she looked at the renovated façade of the landmark Lollipop building where during college she'd been invited to a champagne breakfast above The Huntington Hartford Museum. Judith recalled stumbling drunkenly through a surreal Dali exhibit as the divorced Mad Men dad flirted with her and his own daughter.
Car horns blasted the memory. The UberX driver looked younger than Siv. Her low surround-sound music was alien. The rear view mirror reflected an orange sun lowering into darkening bands. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – when she went to work — Judith could sustain the illusion of identity. But in the black sedan, she felt like a nameless particle conveyed through indifferent spacetime. She closed her eyes. Breathe in Prana.
Late that night, Siv returned from the day's filming. The TV was on and an open laptop highlighted the white cat snug beside Judith.
"Hei, Mamma," Siv whispered.
The cat leaped from the couch to the cushioned piano bench, then vaulted to the lid of the shiny black upright. Purring, it resumed a porcelain pose.
Judith blinked and sat up. "I wasn't asleep."
"Of course you weren't." Siv sank onto the couch and looked at the small open screen. "Did you go to town?"
"Do you have another early call for tomorrow morning?"
"An hour later. I believe that's called 'sleeping in.' I was told it's unlikely for your shutout to go on past a deadline next week. I mentioned the New Jersey goats. Likely no back pay but plenty of poison ivy."
"A shutout means one team can't score any points," Judith said.
"Nobody thinks the GOP is scoring any points."
Judith closed the laptop. "It's late."
Siv turned off the TV. They walked to the bedrooms on opposite sides of the living room. From across the East River, the jeweled lower Manhattan skyline dimly lighted the space between them. Judith paused.
"I did. Go to town. Saw an old roommate. You can't go home again."
Siv halted. "To Norway? Why not?"
"Oh, no, it's just an expression," Judith said. "There's no return trip to the past."
Siv breathed out. "Well, it was done when it was done, wasn't it? I've signed to be in a film with another vintage Vassar alum."
"Wow. You never said."
She yawned. "It's just something else you and I never shared."
"Where will you film?"
"Here. In New York. When I was five, why didn't you fight for me?"
"I couldn't win."
"Did you even want to?" Siv said. "Your career and clitoris won."
"What about yours? Do you want a husband and child? Will you live with me now?"
"Is that an invitation or eviction?"
"Could we live without interrogation?" Judith said.
"Where would be the justice in that?"
In another week more than 800,000 furloughed government workers returned to work. The shutdown had taken billions of dollars' liquidity out of the economy. Four hundred miles under, in the Earth's mantle, H2O in a phase neither water, ice, or vapor continued secure inside the molecular structure of a mineral called ringwoodite in oceans three times the size of those above the crust. Plate tectonics cycled the water in and out, and the water affected the partial melting of rock higher up. Geological processes on the Earth's surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, were an expression of what was going on invisibly inside the Earth. Scientists had looked for missing deep water for decades.