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The Wages of Syntax



Shoot him.

Poison him.

Feed him to the alligators. Tie him up first. Make sure the alligators are really really hungry. Don’t feed them for weeks. Wait until they’re so hungry you’ve got to poke them back into their scummy concrete pond with a big stick.

Smother him.

Run over him with your car, and if you get caught, claim it was an accident. Be distraught. Cry real tears. My god, my god.

Burn the house down.

Sneak into his bathroom and toss a radio into his bath water. But everyone takes showers these days. Okay, so you search high and low for the perfect rubber ducky, palm-sized and yellow and so cute he’ll carry it around in a small brown paper bag so he can look at it now and then and run his fingers down its rubbery sides and pull down its cute little beak just to watch it flip up again, so cute no one could resist running a tub of water and floating the little guy between his knees and making big waves so the duckster wobbles and bobs up and down like crazy.

So he’s smiling and splashing and the rubber ducky is bobbing and riding the waves and you walk in and he says what the hell are you doing here and his blue eyes go wide with fright and you see he hasn’t shaved before he got in the tub and you notice that he’s getting a spare tire and him not even fifty, disgusting, and you say don’t get up! and you plug in the radio and tune in some big band music and then you toss the radio in and fissst! Wait. You might need to put pennies under the fuses before you go in with the radio. Okay, do you take the duck with you after he’s dead? Well, it’s a pretty neat duck, and you’d hate to be without it, and it could be evidence. Okay, so you take the duck with you being very very careful not to make it squeak as you steal into the night and disappear like a shadow.

Or maybe get the colonel to clobber him in the old mill house with a wrench.

Drop something on him from a tall building. Maybe a safe. Or a piano.

Sabotage his brakes.

Make up a story and get him in trouble with the mob.

Stifle him with gas. Fill a room with nitrogen by letting it boil off from dozens of Thermos bottles. So how do you get him to stay in the room? And how do you get all the Thermos bottles open? And how do you get enough Thermos bottles in the first place? Okay, so you go to this big discount store and you buy up the entire supply of school lunch boxes, telling the sales guy that you’re with this lunch for kids program and then you just throw the lunch boxes away, pick a dumpster far far away because it will look like a cartoon massacre, and keep the Thermos bottles.

Now how do you get the liquid nitrogen? Okay, so you cozy up to the guy, no, make that a woman, you cozy up to this chick who runs the liquid nitrogen place and every night you go over there with this big Thermos full of Daiquiris or Rob Roys or whatever it is you discover by asking all her friends that she likes to drink and you spend the evening pouring this favorite drink of hers and after she’s feeling no pain you fill the now empty Thermos up with liquid nitrogen and get on out of there only to come back the next night with a fresh Thermos.

So okay, you have all these Thermos bottles filled with liquid nitrogen, and you get a room and seal up all the really gross cracks; it won’t have to be absolutely tight, and you artfully arrange the bottles around the room, and you send him an invitation that says come experience the interactive art of this really famous artist whose name you can look up later and when he gets there, he reads the instructions that tell him he’s going on a journey around the room and that at each landmark he is to open one of the Thermos bottles and then move on to the next one following the lines you’ve drawn on the floor, and the lines go round and round and that’s what he thinks is making him dizzy and at the very end you have this painting by the famous artist whose name you will look up later and the final note which says sit right down here in this chair provided for that purpose and contemplate this famous painting and he does and he gets lost in the painting thinking that explains his wooziness and that as they say is that.

Toss him a grenade, and yell, hey catch!

Hit him behind the left ear with a blunt object.

Strangle him.

Mail him an exploding cigar. But he doesn’t smoke! So you hang out in front of the hospital and you have these cigars and he’s walking down the street and you run up to him and shout it’s a boy! and hand him a cigar and he puts it in his mouth and you light it and shout gotta run! and run and when you get around the corner you slow down and look casual, act cool, as the explosion rocks and rolls the sidewalk and the buildings around you.

Sneak up behind him and garrote him.

The guillotine.

A staple gun.

A cross bow.

A blowgun.

An ax.

A chain saw.

A rattlesnake.

Booby traps.

Ninja stars.


Spontaneous Competence

Henry Wolfe stopped joking with his classes that he couldn’t be killed until he learned Italian the day it hit him that someone might really be trying to do him in. On the way to class one day last week, just outside his office on the steps in the stairwell he always took down to the ground floor — he never used the elevator in Building 17 — there had been a roller skate placed where he would be sure to step on it. Whoever had put it there must have watched the way he walked to the left so he could lightly touch the handrail. He’d been doing that since his sight began to noticeably deteriorate due to macular degeneration, and him only in his forties — it was like the universe had it in for his eyes. He hadn’t told anyone he couldn’t see much these days. He didn’t want people to start thinking of him as the blind guy.

It had been a close call. Just before he put his foot down on the skate, he remembered that he had forgotten a book in his office, and he had turned back, but then he’d decided it didn’t matter, and he’d turned again to go on down, and all that turning had positioned him more toward the center of the stairs. His foot came down beside the skate instead of on top of it. He bumped the skate with his foot and leaned down and picked it up. He sat down on the stairs and turned the skate over and over in his hands. He moved it in close to his face and then held it at arm’s length trying to see it clearly. Where would anyone get a roller skate these days anyway? Didn’t skaters use roller blades? Had he somehow offended the curator of a museum? Maybe the skate wasn’t for him. Everything didn’t have to be about him. He took the skate downstairs and dropped it off at the lost and found table in the Cognitive Science office.

Today Henry would be talking to his undergrads. He would simplify, but he wouldn’t talk down to them. He wanted them to get the general idea and maybe see some of the wonder and mystery of language and the new wrinkle he had discovered.

These days, his glasses were mostly useless. The world was wavy, like looking through cheap glass or maybe like living underwater, and he counted on auditory cues to gauge how what he was saying was being received. He couldn’t really see his audience.

He had a line guaranteed to make them groan, and he was going to use it right away. He said, “It’s really all very simple.”

They groaned, and he grinned and wrote “Spontaneous Competence” on the chalkboard. With an audience like this, he needed something jazzier, something contemporary, something they could relate to, and since no one in the popular press was calling his effect “Spontaneous Competence” as it should rightly be called, he wrote what they actually were calling it underneath the proper name. He wrote “Universal Translation.”

He could hear them relax, a kind of good-natured settling in. This was more like it. Who knew, maybe the professor would even talk about aliens.

“First, I must convince you that the so called ‘universal translation’ you see on TV and in the movies is impossible in principle.”

And a one and a two and a three.

“And then I will explain how it can be done.”

He turned his head to the left and then to the right so they would think he was looking at them. They won’t listen to you if they think you’re not paying attention to them. But what was that? There in the sea of faces was a startling splotch of orange and peach and blond. The rest of the people were filmed in black and white in comparison. He squinted at the bright spot of color, and it smiled at him, and he was suddenly sure that Sydney Pavlenko had slipped into his class. After all these years. That couldn’t be right. He was pausing too long. He was staring at a stranger, and she was probably squirming in her seat.

Henry realized that he had lost his place, and he experienced a moment of absolute terror. When he’d been new to the teaching game, he’d had a recurring dream in which he’d come to class unprepared and had to stand up in front of all those people with nothing to say. In the dream, he was often dressed in nothing but his underwear.

But he wasn’t new, and he wasn’t really lost, and it was incredibly unlikely that the lost love of his life was sitting in on his undergrad course.

“A language is not a code,” he said. “You can’t just figure it out in isolation. When speaking to someone who doesn’t know your language, it won’t do you any good to talk louder or more slowly. If you’re the language officer on a starship, trying really really hard to understand a language that is totally new won’t actually help much.” He waited for the laugh and when it came he thought it was merely polite. Maybe he should update his references. Or get cooler ones. Nick Sherwood probably had cool references. Maybe he should ask Nick for a few tips — like that was ever going to happen. Nick would be too busy telling anyone who would listen that Henry was crazy.

“We saw how this works with the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The United States used native speakers of the Navajo language to radio information to the field. The enemy could never break this code, because it wasn’t a code.”

He gave them a moment to think about languages and codes.

“Now, imagine you and your ground team land on a strange new planet and a bunch of aliens run jabbering out of the bushes, and your language officer pulls out her trusty Universal Translation Device and starts twisting the knobs and pushing the buttons, and suddenly everyone can understand every word these guys are saying even though no human has ever met them before. In fact, let’s say no human has ever even met other aliens who have met these new guys before. Just how do you suppose this Universal Translation Device could possibly work?”

The silence stretched out uncomfortably. They had no idea.

No, wait. The woman in orange and peach had her hand up.

“Yes?” he said in her direction.

“Computers?” she said, and he knew it was Sydney. Teasing him. She wouldn’t know he couldn’t actually see her.

“Doctor Pavlenko is having her little joke,” he said. “Pulling our legs. Can anyone tell me why this popular answer is no answer at all?”

“Who’s Doctor Pavlenko?” someone asked, and he told them she was a well-known linguist visiting from Italy. She had studied with Umberto Eco. Most of them seemed to know who Eco was, and that made Henry happy and being happy reminded him of happy times, but he didn’t tell them about Sydney’s two perfectly matched moles and the way you could, if you were young and in love and there was a magic marker on the bedside table, draw a smile under those two spots to form a happy face that would make her yelp and jump out of bed and twist around trying to see what you’d drawn on her bottom.

He asked her to stand up, but she wouldn’t do it, and he worried that maybe that wasn’t her after all. He let that go and asked again for reasons why “Computers” wasn’t an answer to his earlier question and someone else said, “But computers already do translation. You can push a button on your cell phone and talk to people in another language now.”

“And how do you suppose that works?” Henry asked.

It didn’t take them long to conclude that there must be an electronic dictionary and a set of electronic grammar rules for both the language you were speaking and the one the your listener was hearing.

“So, the device must know both languages,” he said. “What happens in the case of our aliens where our device has no way of knowing the new language? Could it do an instant translation if the language officer twisted the knobs and pushed the buttons just right?”

No. They conceded that since there could be no dictionary and no grammar rules, the device could not translate the alien language.

“What would have to happen?” Henry asked.

Someone got it.

“The device would have to learn the alien language!”

“Exactly right,” Henry said. “And that would take time. The device would need to interact with native speakers. You’d need someone to hold up a banana and say the word in the new language, and so on. I suppose one way computers might help you is if you sent one ahead to the planet, and it was smart enough to interview aliens, and you gave it enough time to gather the lexicon and grammar, it might be able to help you by the time you got there.”

“Or maybe,” a guy over to the left said, “you could drop off a thousand computers or a million and they all could learn just one little piece from just one alien and radio it all back to a central computer…”

“You must be a computer science major,” Henry said and got a laugh. “Yes, that might work. But what about instant translation? That’s what we’re talking about here today. Can you see any way that could be done?”

They couldn’t.

“Okay,” he said. “As promised, I will now tell you how it can be done. Let me show you a picture of the device we’ll be using.”

He pulled down a white screen over the chalkboard, flipped on his laptop, and projected a picture of a human brain onto the screen.

“You probably already have one of these,” he said. “It’s a quantum device.”

He circled a place on the brain. “This is Wernicke’s Area,” he said. He drew another circle. “And this is Broca’s Area.” He marked one more place. “And here is an area I’m calling Wolfe’s Point. Why am I calling it that? Because I can. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a body part named after him?”

He turned off the brain picture and moved the screen up again. Then he said, “Simply stated the discovery is this. We have found a way to stimulate Wolfe’s Point in certain people in such a way that if the person is put in a position where making a translation is extremely important, if there is a precipitating event, that person’s brain looks ahead to a time when they actually do speak the language and makes the translation.”

While they were thinking about it, he wrote “precipitating event” on the chalkboard.

“Now it turns out this works because our brains are already time traveling all the time,” he said. “We do it in the ordinary parsing of language. We just don’t go as far as the people who experience spontaneous competence in an unknown language. Instead our brains make very tiny jumps ahead in time when we do ‘word sense disambiguation.’”

Before they could panic, he explained the problem of the brain figuring out quickly what a word meant. There were usually several possible meanings, and in order to parse and make sense of a sentence, the listener needed to choose the appropriate meaning. But often the appropriate meaning could not be determined until the words later on in the sentence were known. The listener should be constantly backtracking, and the whole process should be jerky, but that was not the case.

“Instead,” Henry said. “It is now known the quantum device that is the human brain looks ahead a little ways into the future and sees what the words later in the sentence are in order to decide on the meanings of the word currently being heard and understood.”

He paused and listened, but he heard no grumbling, and they weren’t throwing rotten fruit, so he figured he was okay. “What we’ve found is that a one-time electrical stimulation of Wolfe’s Point in some people allows the brain to look much farther ahead in time. In fact, we don’t know if there are limits to how far ahead such brains can look. We do know there needs to be an event or need to trigger the translation. That is, such people cannot just do it. From a subjective point of view, it feels like it just happens. Questions?”

Sydney again. He scanned around for other hands, but they would be waiting to see what the other professor had to say before asking their own questions. He nodded in her direction.

“Can you do it?”

You know I can, he didn’t say. He said, “Yes. You might think that like any good mad scientist, I experimented on myself first, but that is not the case. We had a group of around ten volunteers all demonstrating the effect before I decided to see what it was like.”

That was not entirely true. He didn’t know how to tell them that he had experienced spontaneous competence once before the deliberate stimulation of his brain had occurred. It would sound very unscientific. He was not sure he believed it himself. He wondered if Sydney remembered the incident. It had changed his life. The research proceeded in a straight line to success after that day. How different things might have been if she had stayed.

Another hand. “Let me get this straight,” a young man said. “The hypothetical aliens run out of the bushes and start talking and you can instantly understand them because your brain has looked ahead to a time where you know how to speak the alien language?”

“That’s right,” Henry said.

“But how do you know how to speak the language in the future?”

“Why, you have to learn it,” Henry said. “You have to sit down with the books and tapes or the alien informants and learn the language in the old-fashioned way so you will know it when your brain in the past looks ahead to do the translation.”

“But what if something happens to you?”

Hey, this guy was pretty smart, Henry thought. He wished he could see him so he could remember to talk to him, maybe suggest grad school. Oh well, he could ask around and find out who it was. “What do you mean?” Henry asked to keep him talking.

“Well, what would happen if you died before you learned the language?”

Ah, there it was after all. He might as well have started out telling them he couldn’t be killed until he learned Italian. He couldn’t tell them that now, not about the Italian anyway, not with Sydney in the crowd, and it had to be her, it just had to be. “If I’m right about how it works, what do you think that means in regard to your question?”

There was a burst of chatter as they all talked it over with their neighbors. Then someone said suddenly and loudly, “It means you can’t be killed until you learn the language!”

“Bingo,” Henry said.

What a good stopping point. He wouldn’t be able to see his watch without making it painfully obvious how poor his sight was, but long experience told him he was close enough to the end of the hour to call it quits there.

“So, think about that,” he said, “and we’ll pick it up there next time.”

He lost sight of the woman in the bright colors as the students gathered their stuff and got up and left the lecture room through several exits. They moved past him like a noisy river.

Henry tried to not be too obvious about it as he peered around for Sydney. What was she doing back in the States? How long was she staying? Did he have the courage to ask her out to dinner? Students were still moving past him, and he didn’t see her. Maybe it had not been her in the first place. She had, after all, only spoken a few words.

But then there she was, very close, right there in fact, smiling, holding out her arms. He took her hands and she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Hello, Henry,” she said.

There were wavy lines across her underwater face, but she looked wonderful.

“Sydney,” he said. “When did you get back? What are you doing here?”

“Later,” she said. “I’ve got to run. I’ll call you.”

Then she was gone.

He gathered up his papers quickly so he could follow and see which way she went. On top of his notes was a puzzling object. He picked it up. It was a little yellow rubber duck — maybe three inches long and not quite that tall. It had an orange beak and black eyelashes. What was she trying to tell him? He stuffed his notes into his briefcase. He dropped the duck into his shirt pocket. It was pretty cute. He hurried out after Sydney.

When he got outside he saw her getting into a car. The car made a wide turn and came very close. The driver gave him a honk and a wave. Nick Sherwood.



Henry dreams of their last night together and the incident that launched his career.

The two of them.

Maybe they’ve just had dinner. Maybe they’re having coffee now. Brandy. Mints. The moon. Summer breeze off the river. He’s trying to talk her into not going home to Italy.

She tells him why she must leave.

Please, please, please don’t leave me, Sydney.

“But you told me you couldn’t speak Italian,” she says.

“I don’t speak Italian.”

“So what do you think it is we’re speaking?”

“English,” he says, “of course, we’re speaking English.”

“No,” she says, “it’s just that when this is written down, the words will be translated into English. In truth, we’re speaking Italian.”

“My mother!” he mutters, shaking his head in wonder at what’s just happened to him, but then he wakes up to an empty bed and remembers he let her go home alone years and years ago.

But now she’s back.



The duck was all about power and death. You send in the girl with the symbol of death. It says a lot that you could make her do it. It makes a statement. She’s home, and she’s with you now. Henry probably wouldn’t get it. I didn’t really expect the duck to end up in the tub.

My beef with Henry Wolfe boiled down to this. If the universe worked the way Henry said it worked, then the universe was goofy, and I could not abide a goofy universe. On the other hand, Henry’s death before he could learn Italian would prove time travel was not involved in his so-called “Spontaneous Competence” effect.

To date my campaign had not been a huge success, but a couple of failed attempts on his life did not prove Henry could not be killed. It would take only one successful attempt to prove my proposition. The tire pressure thing hadn’t worked, but that had been a half-hearted attempt anyway. I had not fully committed to the program at that point. I’d been just noodling around. Likewise the spiders in his house. The skate in the stairwell hadn’t worked either. Part of the problem was that the death needed to look like an accident. There are always constraints on your methods.

The time had come to drop something on Henry’s head. Something hard and heavy. Something specific.

My office was just down the hall and around the corner from Henry’s office on the third floor of Building 17, but I was on the wrong side of the tracks in the Cognitive Science Department. Since this was Oregon, everyone politely pretended that Henry and his team were not more important than the rest of us, but all the action was up in his neighborhood these days. That didn’t mean those of us down here doing grammar and such were totally ignored. Students came and went. Guys with packages. There would be enough traffic that I would need to be careful in my campaign to rain down something lethal on Henry.

I had been observing Henry closely for weeks. I had created tables and drawn charts and then calculated the probabilities of him being at any given location at any given time. Ask me where Henry Wolfe would be at say two o’clock this afternoon, and I could tell you and be right most of the time. Hey, maybe part of my brain was looking ahead in time with a special talent for knowing where people would be! The Sherwood Effect for finding the trees in the forest. No, forget it. What a joke. Don’t even think about it.

My plan was to get into a disguise and then make my way up to the fourth floor. I knew of no safes or pianos in Building 17. There were lots of metal filing cabinets, but it would be hard to argue that one of those falling out of a window and hitting Henry on the head was an accident. What I did have going for me was Professor Meiko Kawa and her bonsai trees. She had a whole forest of them growing in pots on the fire escape above and a little to the left of the door Henry would be stepping out of at a particular time. He always paused to look around like he was afraid someone might have taken out the sidewalk or something while he was up in his office.

Hey, taking out the sidewalk and digging a deep pit might be a good idea.

No need. I would bean him with a bonsai. A specific bonsai in a cast iron pot. It looked like a little oak tree, but what do I know about trees?

Not many men in Oregon wear ties. It’s another one of the things, like the rain, the rain, the rain that drives me nuts about the place. I should have held out for Hawaii or Arizona, but as a new PhD way back when in a field that was not hugely popular, I thought I was lucky to get what I got, and maybe I’d been right. Life here had been pretty good even if dimly lighted. I had those full spectrum sunlamps in my condo and in my office, and they helped some. But it wasn’t the rain so much as the ties that concerned me the day I would drop a potted tree on Henry Wolfe. The general lack of ties would make disguising myself easier. I’m the kind of guy who always wears a tie in public, not just for weddings and funerals like most people here. I usually wear a jacket, too, although I’ve been known to take it off and sling it over my shoulder in a gesture meant to put people at ease. I shave all of my face, and I get a haircut every two weeks. You don’t have to look like you live in the woods just because you do.

From my box of stuff gathered for the job at hand, I pulled an oval mirror, three feet tall and a couple of feet wide. I set it aside and took out a hammer and nail and drove the nail into the wall between the bookshelf and the window and then hung the mirror up. I took a long look at myself. Yes, there I was. Next I loosened my tie and then with a flourish jerked it from around my neck, and my image changed before my very eyes. That was not the Nick Sherwood everyone knew!

Well, it still kind of looked like Dr. Sherwood. You could imagine ringing his bell at three in the morning, buzzing, banging on the door until the porch light comes on and he opens the door and you look him up and down and notice how different he looks without his tie.

The difference was not great enough. I would need another layer or two of disguise and misdirection. Sometimes I think it would be good to be invisible like so many of my colleagues are invisible, but I am not invisible. People notice me. Students are all the time raising a hand in greeting, saying, “Morning, Doctor Sherwood.”

“Hiya Nick!”

“Yo Nickster!”

“Hey, Nick nack how’s it paddy-wacking?”

Actually, no one ever says any of those more informal things, but you can see they’re thinking them, the way the corners of the mouth quiver as they struggle to maintain the proper student/teacher distance. I can always feel eyes on me as I move down the halls and up and down the stairs.

Just taking off my tie wasn’t going to do it. I’d considered a false beard and mustache, but I didn’t really know how to apply them, and if a disguise looked fake, it would be worse than useless. Instead I found a baseball cap with no logo. I attached a long ponytail to the back of it. I had constructed the ponytail from a cheap wig I bought at a department store from a woman who thought I was some kind of drag queen, maybe a new drag queen buying his first wig. I let her think that. Who cared? She was very helpful.

No tie. The baseball cap and the ponytail, and finally a pair of sunglasses. Perfect.

If anyone noticed me at all, they certainly would not connect me to Professor Nick Sherwood, the world famous grammarian. Just some guy, they’d say. You see guys like that all over campus.

I checked my watch. It was time to make my way up to the fourth floor. I picked up a paper bag with the stuff I would need and opened my office door. I looked down the hall in both directions and then slipped out and locked the door. I didn’t pass anyone on my way to the stairwell. As I climbed the stairs Wagner’s tune about the Valkyries, also known as “kill the wabbit,” reverberated in my skull.

There was a woman way down the hall on the fourth floor but she was looking the other way. I hurried down to the alcove outside Meiko’s fire escape garden. No one saw me. So far the disguise had been totally useless, but better safe than sorry.

There was a small arrangement of furniture in the alcove. It was meant to be a place where students could sit and read while waiting to see one of the professors or graduate assistants who had offices on this floor. The arrangement probably followed the rules of Feng Shui but since I knew nothing of those rules, I couldn’t be sure. I did know that one big stuffed chair would serve nicely as a blind I could hide behind while working my plan to drop a pot on Henry’s head.

I put my paper bag of stuff down behind the chair and then walked quickly down the hall to the janitor’s closet. I have had a master key to Building 17 for many years. I got it when I was on the committee that interfaced with Facility Services. I had a copy made and then gave the original back when it was time to do so. Having keys was good. I had one to Henry’s house, too, but if today’s project was successful, I wouldn’t need it.

Unless I bought the house. It was a pretty cool place, and it would soon be up for sale.

From the janitor’s closet I selected a push broom and a squeegee with a handle around the same length as the broom. I quickly closed and locked the door and hurried back to Meiko’s alcove.

I got down behind the chair and opened my bag of stuff. I took out a rectangular shaving mirror and a roll of duct tape. I taped the mirror to the right angle the squeegee made with its handle. I would poke this out of the window and through the pots until I could look down at the door and see when Henry came out. Then I would nudge the pot in question off the edge with the push broom. Once the pot landed on Henry’s head, I would pull back my devices, rip the mirror off the squeegee, and quickly return the broom and squeegee to the closet. I would continue down the hall and take a different set of stairs back to the third floor. If the coast was clear, I’d slip back into my office. Otherwise, I would continue on and take yet another stairway down to the ground and just drive home where I would hear the news of Henry Wolfe’s untimely death on the radio.

I eased the window open and poked the mirror out over the edge. The angle was odd, but I could see the door. I glanced at my watch. Any time now. I moved the broom into position. The tree in question needed to be right on the edge, so I pushed. It wasn’t moving. Surely it couldn’t be that heavy. I pushed harder. The pot tipped a little and I quickly pulled back. Maybe it was just stuck to the fire escape by stuff running out the hole in the bottom. Didn’t all flowerpots have holes in the bottom? Henry would be stepping out of the door soon. I would miss my chance. I pushed harder with the broom and the pot moved suddenly right up to the edge and tipped, and I sucked in my breath. I may have made a sound, too. The pot settled back and didn’t fall over the side. I quickly looked around the chair to see if a crowd had gathered to see what the ponytail guy was doing crouched behind the chair in the bonsai alcove, but there was no one there.

And when I looked back into the mirror there was Henry, already outside, already peering around like he was looking through a thick fog. (I actually couldn’t see him peering from the fourth floor but I knew from previous observations that he was peering and that at any moment he would step away and be out of the kill zone.)

I gave the bonsai in the cast iron pot a good shove with the push broom.

Bombs away.

But what was this? Even as the pot went over the edge, Henry snapped open his umbrella. Couldn’t the fool see it wasn’t raining? Since it was usually raining, was he acting out of habit? But, no, he did not ordinarily open his umbrella when it wasn’t raining. Just as the pot hit the umbrella, I could see Henry’s left leg move out as he stepped away.

The pot ripped through the umbrella, and Henry jumped forward with a yelp.

I had missed. Henry’s umbrella had deflected the pot just enough to miss him. I pulled the mirror and the broom back inside and quickly closed the window.

It wasn’t like there was a dead professor of Cognitive Science sprawled outside the northwest entrance of Building 17, but people might still be running in this direction to see how one of Professor Meiko Kawa’s pots could have fallen from the fire escape. I should get moving. I would be a sitting duck disguised and crouched behind a chair clutching the tools of my crime.

I had a horrible moment of doubt. What if Henry were right?


I am not the coyote.

Shut up. Just shut up.



I should not have let Nick bully me into delivering the duck. I wanted no part of whatever was going on between those two. I didn’t know what the duck could possibly mean, and I had no interest in knowing. I just put it down on top of Henry’s notes and let it go at that. It was none of my business.

Henry hadn’t changed much over the years. He looked older, but I could still see a lot of the boy scientist in him in spite of the silly gray beard and wild hair.

I wondered what life would have been like if we had not been so adult when we were young, if he had said to hell with the fellowship in Pennsylvania, I’m coming to Italy with you, or if I had told him I really didn’t need to go home just then; there were programs I could apply for in the States. If we had not promised to write.

Silly thoughts. Who knew what he had grown up to be? And for every good thing Henry and I might have had together, I would have to give up something I had now — like Luisa, my wonderful daughter, who I did not see enough of these days since she moved in with her father in London so she could study economics, of all things. I was so proud of her. You can’t have everything. You really can’t.

My mother had named me after the city in Australia not because she was Australian but because she was an American married to a Russian who had emigrated to Italy and lots of people back home in Orange County were naming their babies things like that in those days. My mother had never been truly happy in Italy and as soon as my father died, she moved back to California.

Now, I had come to bury her, too.

It had been a spectacular service. My mother had made many friends since she returned. I hadn’t realized. There were relatives I had not met, too. They were all very polite. Whenever I spoke, people smiled. I think it was my accent.

We gathered at the house of my mother’s friend, Alice, afterwards. The food was piled high and strange. There were two wiggly green hemispheres like a soccer ball cut in half or maybe alien boobs. It turned out to be green Jell-O with shaved carrots. I wondered if that was one of my mother’s favorite dishes. She had never made such a thing in Italy. Soon the sober mood had lifted, and if you didn’t know why these friends had gotten together, you would not have guessed it was to say goodbye to my mother. Until someone made a toast, that is. There were many toasts.

My mother’s friends made me think of my own American friends. I had planned to fly home the day after the funeral, but I didn’t really have to. I was already on the west coast. I could fly up to Oregon. Henry and Nick were both at the same school. I couldn’t imagine how that had happened. It might be interesting to see the boys again. I still thought of them as the boys, as in boys will be boys.

So, I just flew up there. No one answered the phone in Henry’s office, so I asked for Nick’s number and he answered and picked me up at the airport and took me to a hamburger place where I learned the two of them were still playing games I could not comprehend. He looked around and then winked and poured me an alcoholic drink he called a “Rob Roy” from a Scooby Doo Thermos bottle.

Give Henry the duck, Sydney. Please? It’ll be fun.

It wasn’t fun. I just put it down. Henry didn’t even look at it.

Nick didn’t ask me why I was in the country, and I didn’t feel like telling him about my mother. We had never been that close. It was easy to see by the way he looked at me that our not being that close did not please him. On the flight up, I was thinking that if Henry didn’t work out, I might be open to getting a little closer to Nick Sherwood, but now I remembered everything about him that had convinced me not to get close to him in the old days. He hadn’t changed much. He talked and he talked and he never heard a word you said in return. A few minutes with him and you were exhausted. He did tell me where Henry was, and I made him drop me off on campus.

Henry seemed so distant after class. It was like he was looking at me but not seeing me. Maybe he was looking into the past and seeing the girl I had been. Or maybe he didn’t want to see me at all. Suddenly I didn’t feel like speaking to him. Who was this man anyway? It had sounded like fun coming up here to see an old boyfriend I hardly remembered, but now I was having second thoughts. Maybe I panicked. I put the duck down and left.

And there was Nick again. I got in his car, and he drove me to my hotel. I called the airport and booked a flight home the next day. Then I spent the afternoon watching television. It was incomprehensible. When I could not take a minute more, I took a cab back to campus to find Henry. We could at least have dinner or something.

The woman in the Cognitive Science office told me he’d gone home. Something about a pot falling out of a window. Had he been hurt? No one thought so. Can you give me his address?

Well, I don’t know . . . .

Oh, come on, I’m Sydney Pavlenko. From Italy? You know, I teach linguistics in Rome? We’re old friends?

And now here I was. I had let the taxi drive off. The house was brown; cedar siding, I guessed. There were two floors. Shaggy trees. The grounds were not exactly neglected, but they had the look of a place where the owner hired someone to clip and mow just often enough so the villagers didn’t surround the place with torches and pitchforks. Henry Wolfe the mad scientist. It made me smile.

I rang the doorbell.



What was she trying to tell him with the little yellow duck? She pops back into his life after all those years, gives him a bathtub toy, and leaves again? Clean up your act? Or maybe it was a pun. Maybe she was psychic and telling him to watch out for the bonsai.

“Duck, Henry!”

He had been shaken by the near miss. He had looked back up the side of the building but could see no more than a blur of the fire escape on the fourth floor. The pot had broken into a few pieces but hadn’t shattered.

He nudged the pieces with his toe. He knew he should report the accident to campus security, but he didn’t feel like taking the time and trouble. If there had been witnesses, they weren’t showing themselves.

He just wanted to go home. He had another class. He didn’t think he could face it. He dug into his briefcase and got his cell phone and called the Cog Sci office and told them about the falling pot. Someone should go up and make sure Meiko’s other trees were all well back from the edge.

He took the bus home.

The next time he took his driving test, they would take away his license and it would probably be a good thing, too. He’d been taking the bus to work for days now, and it wasn’t so bad. Low tire pressure had convinced him he should do that. He hadn’t even noticed that all of his tires were almost flat. A woman had gotten out of her car at a stoplight and walked up to his window to ask if he realized all of his tires were dangerously low. Her face had been blurry. He’d gotten the tires pumped up and had parked the car in his driveway and hadn’t driven since.

He did believe that he was on the right track with his explanation for spontaneous competence, and he did think it therefore followed that he wouldn’t die until he learned all the languages he had translated, but that was not the part of the process that interested him. Henry didn’t spend much time worrying about death. Subjectively speaking, time began sometime after he was born and would end when he died. Whatever happened between the two points was all there was. He was happy to admit, and would say as much to his undergrad class next time they met, that there were other possibilities. He would tell them to consider the many worlds theory. What if the translator looks ahead into a different universe with a different future from the one she might end up experiencing? He suspected that was not the case, but he liked to tell his students he could, of course, be wrong. Science was all about admitting you could be wrong.

He had learned French, and he had spent a sabbatical year in Australia with the Gaalpu clan learning Yolngu. He had meant to spend only a few weeks learning about didgeridoos from the master Djalu Gurruwiwi, but there had been a precipitating event — flames and people running and a trapped child and the burning need to say something. He had never learned Italian, but not because he thought his ignorance would protect him from death. He had not yet learned Italian because he had never given up the idea that someday Sydney would teach him to speak the language, maybe while feeding him strawberries in a gondola.

When he got home, he took the duck into his office so he could look at it under strong magnification. It was possible she had written a message somewhere on it in very small letters. He flipped on the computer, and the screen was projected onto a wall he had painted white. This was the secret that allowed him to continue his work without help. He could read perfectly well if the letters were a foot tall. He sat down at his desk facing the white wall and moused over to his email. Nothing that couldn’t wait.

He pulled down a magnifier and flipped on its light and carefully examined the duck. No messages.

Was it something from their past? Was he supposed to remember the night something romantic happened having to do with ducks? If that was it, he didn’t get it. Maybe the message was I’ve missed you missed you missed you and I’ve been thinking about you every day of every year we’ve been apart so meet me . . . meet me . . . down at the duck pond?

Someone rang his doorbell.

When he opened the door, she was there, blurry but smiling, and she smelled wonderful.

“Sydney,” he said.

“You’re busy,” she said.


Then he realized she was looking at the duck in his hand. He grinned and shrugged and put it in his shirt pocket and stepped aside. “Come in,” he said.

She walked past him into the house and down a short hall that opened into the big room which was most of the ground floor. There was a wall of windows overlooking the largely undeveloped forest on the south side of the city hills.

“Nice place,” she said. “Lots of wood.”

“Can I get you a drink?”

“Not now,” she said and turned to him and put one hand on his chest and leaned up and kissed him. “Come with me,” she said and took his hand.

“Where?” he asked.


They made love, a little desperately at first, but then they settled into one another, and it was like the old days. Well, maybe not so acrobatic, but good. He could almost believe no time had passed between those old happy days and today.

“I want to take a bath,” she said.

“Can I join you in the shower?”

“Not a shower,” she said. “A bath.”

“Can I watch?”

She got out of bed and walked into the bathroom without answering him. A moment later the water came on.

Henry remained propped up on his pillows listening to her fill the tub. She was softly singing a tune he didn’t know, words he couldn’t quite hear, Italian probably. If he were closer would he do a translation? Did this situation count as a precipitating event? Did he have a need to know? Or something important to say?

He got up and walked toward the bathroom. Along the way, he stepped on his shirt, and something squeaked. The duck. He bent down and picked it up and carried it with him into the bathroom. It hit him that this bath, right here in his house, might have been the reason she gave him the duck in the first place.

She was already stretched out in the tub when he came in.

“I hope you’re not suggesting a threesome,” she said.


“The duck.”

“Sure I am,” he said, “you, me, and the duckster.” He gave it a squeak and dropped it into the water in front of her.

“Okay, get in,” she said. She pulled up her knees.

He got in. There wasn’t much room. “We need to be sitting the other way.” He stood up.

“Oh, so you want the pipes to be poking me in the back?”

“No,” he said and stepped out and then back in behind her. “Scoot up just a little.”

He lowered himself into the water behind her, and she snuggled back against him. He reached around her and caressed down her breasts and stomach, and the duck bobbed and rode the waves between her knees.

There was a noise downstairs.

Burglars, bears, the cleaning woman, squirrels, ghosts?

Henry couldn’t decide if he should get up and go look, and in the end, he waited too long. The bathroom door banged open, and Nick Sherwood came in holding a handgun out in front of himself like a cop in a crack house.

“How did you get in here?” Henry shouted, then thought that was a pretty stupid thing to shout at a man with a gun, but this was goofy Nick Sherwood for crying out loud. It had to be some kind of sick joke.

“I’ve got a key,” Nick said.

Henry couldn’t see the expression on Nick’s face clearly, but from the way Nick kept moving the gun around and getting taller and then shorter, like he was maybe standing up on his toes, Henry concluded Nick was trying to get a clear shot that wouldn’t hit Sydney.

“You gave him a key to your house?” she asked.

“I did not give him a key to my house,” Henry said.

“You look wild and disheveled, Nick,” Sydney said. “Doesn’t he look wild and disheveled, Henry?”

“I don’t know. I mean, sure, he does. Wild and disheveled.”

“I should have known you’d jump in bed with him the first chance you got,” Nick said.

“What business is that of yours?” she asked.

“How can you ask me that, Sydney? After all we’ve meant to one another. I’ve never given up on us.”

“What us?” she said. “It’s all in your head, Nick. Think about it. I’m pretty sure we’ve never even shaken hands.”

Nick closed the lid of the toilet and sat down. “Your argument is compelling,” he said.

They sat like that for a moment, no one speaking, Nick looking at his hand or the gun in his hand, Henry holding Sydney tight, the duck riding the ripples between her knees. He could feel her trembling a little.

“This isn’t about you anyway, Sydney.” Nick stood up. “I didn’t expect you to be here. It’s too bad you got caught up in the middle of this.”

“So what is this all about then, Nick?” Henry asked.

“Well, here we are,” Nick said. “I should have brought a radio.”

“There’s a radio over by the clothes hamper,” Henry said. Why was he being helpful? Nick had clearly gone crazy. Crazy for love? Had the man been so smitten with Sydney all these years that he’d finally snapped when she came back to Henry?

Nick laughed. “Of course, there would be!” He backed away toward the radio. He kept the gun on them like he thought maybe they’d leap up and overpower him. He grabbed the radio and walked back toward the tub but was soon pulled up short. “The cord’s not long enough.”

“Long enough for what?” Sydney asked.

Nick put the radio back down and turned it on. Flute music. Handel, Henry thought. Nick turned the radio off.

“Such coincidences have been noise in the data,” Nick said. “I lower your tire pressure, you quit driving. I don’t know what happened to the spiders I released in your house. I put a skate on the stairs, you don’t step on it. I put poison in your soup, you eat a sandwich and decide you’re too full for soup. I drop a little tree on you, you step away just in time. You’re in the bath, I want to throw a radio in with you, the cord isn’t long enough. You add all of this up, and what do you get? Noise.”

“I think I see where you’re going with this Nick,” Henry said. “You’ve been trying to kill me!”

“Over me?” Sydney asked.

“This is not about you,” Nick said. “This is a dispute over a point of scientific theory.”

“Actually, you may be right, Sydney,” Henry said. “Maybe this is just a fight over a girl.”

“A girl?” Sydney tried to twist around and look at him but he didn’t let her go, and she settled back. “The water is getting cold,” she said.

“That’s not it,” Nick said. “When I shoot you, it will prove once and for all that the universe cannot be preprogrammed as your theory would have us believe. I am the wild card, the monkey wrench.”

“Yeah, you’re a mover and a shaker, Nick,” Henry said. “The Indiana Jones of the grammar world. “

“Make all of the jokes you like,” Nick said.

“Sit down and think about it,” Henry said.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Nick said.

“Oh, sit down, Nick,” Sydney said. “Why do you think Henry’s discovery of universal translation has happened now?”

“Actually that’s not what I call it,” Henry said.

Nick sat back down on the toilet. “Okay. So, tell me, why now?”

“Clearly,” she said, “it’s in preparation for first contact. Obviously, we are about to discover that we are not alone in the universe, and someone will have to be able to talk to them.”

Henry and Nick had nothing to say about that. Sydney plucked the duck out of the water and gave it a couple of squeaks. After another moment of silence, she squeaked the duck again.

“Imagine for a moment I’m right about how it works,” Henry said. “When you try to shoot me the gun will jam or something.”

“Unlikely,” Nick said. “I’ve tested it at that shooting range out on I5.”

“I’ve driven by there,” Henry said.

“Where would you get a gun, Nick?” Sydney asked.

“Anyone can get a gun,” Nick said. “This is America.”

“So, you tested the gun,” Henry said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t fail.”

“Actually, I thought of that, too.” Nick shifted the gun to his other hand and dug into his pants pocket.

Henry couldn’t make out what he was doing, holding something that gleamed. “What is that?”

“It’s a knife,” Sydney said.

“Even if the gun fails,” Nick said, “I figure I can take you out with this.” He stood up and came over to the tub. He got down on one knee.

“Watch out,” Henry said. “You’re going to get your tie wet.”

“Shut up.” Nick pulled the hammer back and put the gun to Henry’s head.

Sydney scooted forward and twisted around to face the two men.

“Hold still!” Nick said. “Hey, maybe you’re here so when the gun fails, and I have to use the knife there will be too many people for me to handle, and once again I will fail. No, wait. The gun should work just fine on you.”

Nick pulled the gun away from Henry and pointed it at Sydney.

“I thought you loved me!” she said.

“You’ve convinced me I was wrong,” Nick said. “Will you stop squeaking that duck?”

“Jesus,” Henry said. “A crime of passion? The spurned lover. Think of all the blood, Nick!”

“Well, you two are in a bathtub.” Nick lifted the knife and put the point to the side of Henry’s throat.

“Imagine you’ve just shot Sydney,” Henry said quickly.

“I wouldn’t have to actually kill her,” Nick said.

“So, you’ve shot Sydney,” Henry said, “and since the gun goes off, you get cocky and point it at me and pull the trigger again, but the gun fails this time, of course. All that’s left is the knife.”

“There’s no way the knife can fail,” Nick said.

“That’s probably correct,” Henry said, “so, what do you suppose will have to stop working at that point?”

“What do you mean?”

He does!” Sydney said. “Nick himself stops working at that moment.”

She came up on her knees still squeaking the duck.

“That’s right, Nick,” Henry said. “You’ve got the knife at my throat, and it looks like you cannot fail to kill me, so something has to happen to you. Maybe you have a massive heart attack and drop dead on the spot.”

“Can’t we figure out a way for that to happen before he shoots me?” Sydney asked.

“Think about it, Nick,” Henry said. “What if I’m right?”

“You can’t be right,” Nick said.

“Oh, stop it, Nick!” Sydney shouted. “Just stop it! The only way for this to be resolved is for you to drop dead. Or leave. You could just take your damn duck and leave.” She stopped squeaking the duck and tossed it at him.

In his two handed attempt to catch the duck, Nick pulled the knife away from Henry’s throat, leaving a long bleeding scratch, and he dropped the gun into the water.

He did catch the duck.

Henry and Sydney scrambled around shouting and swearing in the water, mostly getting in one another’s way. Then Henry found the gun and pulled it up and pointed it at Nick.

Nick was turning the duck over and over in his hands. He looked up when Henry told him to drop the knife.

“I hate to admit it,” Nick said. “But I’m beginning to believe you’re right about the spontaneous competence effect, Henry.”

“Tell it to the judge!” Sydney shouted.

“Nonsense. You won’t be able to prove anything on me.” Nick folded his knife and put it away. “I’ll just say you borrowed the gun, Henry, and you can explain how it got in the bathtub with your girlfriend.”

Henry didn’t put the gun down for several minutes after Nick left the bathroom. He listened carefully, hoping to hear the stairs creak, or a car door slam, or an engine start up. Finally, all he heard was silence. Nick had gone. He put the gun down and helped Sydney out of the tub.

And later he cooked her dinner and served it out on the deck overlooking the forest. Salmon and broccoli. Red potatoes. White wine.

She told him about her mother. She told him about her daughter living in London with her former husband. He told her about his eyes. They had coffee as darkness approached.

“I’m flying home tomorrow,” she said.


“Yes,” she said.

When in this or any other universe did you ever get such a second chance? He searched for the right words. It was vital that she understand exactly what he meant.

He could not find the perfect phrase.

Finally, he said, “Can I come, too?”

“Really?” Did she sound happy? “That might be fun!” Yes, she sounded happy.

“Wonderful,” he said. “Tell me, Sydney, are we speaking Italian now or English?”

“English,” she said, “Of course, we’re speaking English. Do you think I’m trying to kill you?”

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