The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Nelda woke up from a dream that she couldn’t remember, except that it had scared her. The Richardson Building was silent around her, nearly deserted on this pre-holiday weekend morning. Her window rattled and she got up and peered out, saw the fronds on a palm tree waving vigorously and a plastic bag skittering down the sidewalk in front of the building in the early morning light. She pulled her blanket close around her and tried to get back to sleep, but her heart was still thumping nervously, her eyes felt itchy, and her skin prickled in the dry air.
“Crud,” she muttered, and sat up again, feeling for her bag on the floor beside her bed, almost knocking over the empty juice bottle next to it. She took out her notebook and pulled out the pen that she’d slipped into its spiral binding the previous evening. Rummaging some more, she found her Walkman, headphones wrapped loosely around it. She unwound them, slipped them on, and pressed Play: she heard a few bars of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” before the player’s power ran down and the music abruptly died.
“Not fair!” she wailed and whipped the headphones off. She’d have to buy some batteries, she thought, and contemplated getting dressed and going out into the windy morning in search of them, and maybe some breakfast, if there was any place that was open at this hour, and then she remembered the thinness of her wallet.
She did have a credit card (“for emergencies only” her mother had said when she presented it to Nelda), and having neither any music to work to, nor any breakfast to eat, almost felt like an emergency as far as Nelda was concerned, but if she used the card to buy breakfast, that would just mean a conversation with her mother about why she had had to charge her meals and what had happened to her allowance. “I’d rather starve,” she muttered. Then she remembered the extra granola bar that one of the campus’ vending machines had accidentally dispensed on Friday (after she’d given it a healthy kick for not dispensing anything at first): if she was right, it was still somewhere in her bag. She smiled to herself: “Crime does pay!” she exulted. She rummaged some more and found the bar.
Heartened, she got out of bed, shivering, and went into the tiny bathroom. A few minutes later, she washed her hands and rinsed out the large blue coffee mug that sat on the toilet tank. The mug bore a decorative gold-leaf label reading “Arsenic.” She slipped into a fluffy bathrobe, grabbed the kettle from the hotplate, filled it from the bathroom tap, and set the kettle to heat. Opening the small cupboard near the foot of her bed, she took out a small jar of instant coffee, squinched up her nose in distaste, and spooned a heap of black crystals from the jar into the mug. It was nasty stuff, but still better than the vending machine coffee on campus. Just barely.
A few minutes later, replete with a granola bar and half the mug of steaming black coffee, she picked up her notebook again and wrapped herself in her bathrobe and blanket chrysalis. She still had no idea how to satisfy Reingold’s assignment.
She wrote an opening sentence, crossed it out, wrote another, crossed it out too, and then a third. That one also sat lifeless on the page, begging to be crossed out as well, and, sighing, Nelda complied.
She put her mug on the night-table, put the notebook beside it, and flung herself back on the bed, putting a pillow over her head. “Kill me now,” she grumbled. Instead, she fell back asleep almost immediately.
When she woke again an hour or so later, she remembered a couple of fragments of the dream that had woken her earlier that day. She sat up, grabbed her notebook, in the process almost knocking over the half-mug of now-cold coffee, and started to scribble.
By noon, she had finished a story that didn’t completely make her want to set fire to the notebook. She leafed through it, crossing out a sentence here and there, inserting a few more, circling one paragraph and drawing an arrow to where it would work better, and then closed the notebook. “It may not be what you want, Mr. Reingold, but I like it,” she said aloud. She got out of bed and went into the bathroom to dispose of the coffee and to take a hot shower. The day was definitely getting better.
A few minutes later, as she climbed out of the tiny shower, she remembered she had no money for lunch. “Crap!” she groaned.
On Monday the computer lab had classes scheduled almost throughout the day, but there was one open access hour between four and five in the afternoon. Though it meant Nelda would have to walk back home after sunset, something she’d promised never to do without an escort, it was her only chance to type up her story and print it out so she could turn it in the next day.
It only took her half an hour to type the thing, revising frantically as she went, but when she was done the printer kept jamming and she barely got two copies printed before the lab closed down.
The moon was in its last quarter, so it was dark as she trudged back down to the Village. She kept to the well-lighted main street that ran up into the campus from the Village, and there were enough people around that she felt relatively safe, but every so often she passed by a shadowy bush or wall and veered as far away from it as she could. By the time she got back to the Richardson, she was tired and shivering, and found the building’s lobby a haven of comfort as she entered. Even better, she found an envelope in her mailbox that contained her weekly allowance: two crisp twenty dollar bills and a five! Riches beyond compare. “We eat tonight!” she chortled as she climbed up the stairwell.
Then she remembered she’d have to go back out into the dark and the wind if she wanted to get anything for dinner.
She made up for it the next morning with a huge breakfast that she barely finished just before Reingold’s class. She turned the story in at the end of class and then immediately felt a twinge of panic, suddenly convinced that it would come back bleeding red ink and bearing a rotund, mocking “D”. She walked out of the classroom downcast.
“Hey, Nelda, wait up!” she heard. Glen Lake. Damn!
He puffed up next to her. “How are you doing? Wanna grab some coffee?”
Nelda stopped and, as she was trying to come up with a believable excuse to say No, Angel appeared at her side. “Sweetie,” she said, “I really need to talk to you!”
Nelda turned to Glen, shrugged apologetically, and walked off with Angel. “Thank you, thank you!” she whispered as they left the building.
“Don’t mention it,” Angel laughed under her breath. They wandered up to the cafeteria’s west patio where a couple of other members of the PWW had already gathered.
“I saw you turned your story in at the end of class today,” Diana said as Nelda sat down.
“Well, I had to. It was due today, right?” Nelda looked confused.
“It is. But not until the end of the day. You can put it in Reingold’s mailbox any time before 5. Just use the machine in the department office to put a time-stamp on it.”
“What?” Nelda cried out. “How could I not have known about this? I could have spent the afternoon fixing it! I only have one other class today!” She buried her face in her hands. “This is awful.”
“Why? Does it need much fixing?” asked Danny.
“It needs to be torn up into little pieces and scattered to the winds, like those guys,” Nelda grumped, gesturing toward a few brown leaves that the wind was playfully driving past their table.
“It can’t be that bad,” Angel said soothingly.
“Oh, yes it can!” Nelda pulled her copy out of her bag and handed it over. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what the assignment meant, so I wrote this instead,” she said. “It’s silly and stupid.”
Angel began reading, with Danny and Diana taking a page from her each time she finished one. Shawna wandered up and sat down.
“What’re we doing?” she asked.
“Reading Nelda’s story,” said Diana, handing her the first page.
“Oh, gawd!” Nelda whimpered, her face buried in her folded arms on the table.
Angel finished, wordlessly handing the last page to Danny. She stared at Nelda, who peeked out at her.
“Terrible, right?” she said.
“Yes, but not like you mean. ‘Terrible’ as in terrifying!”
Nelda raised her head. “It isn’t the worst thing you’ve ever read?” she asked in a small voice.
“Not at all,” Angel said softly. “But gosh, Nelda, it is as creepy as hell! How did you come up with that? I mean, Jesus!”
Danny and Diana were just finishing it; Shawna was catching up on the pages they’d handed her. “Shut up! Let me finish!” she demanded. She quickly got to the last page, turned it face down on the small stack of pages, and handed the story back to Nelda. They all sat, staring at her. Shawna finally spoke: “Damn it, girl, you have a dark, dark soul!” She paused. “It’s really good. I hate your guts, you know.”
“Is it?” Nelda asked, brightening.
“Too many commas, and you can’t spell for shit…but yes, it’s good,” said Shawna.
“How did you come up with the idea?” Angel asked again.
Nelda shrugged. “I sorta dreamed it.”
“Obviously the result of some bad meat, cheese, and an undercooked potato,” Shawna said. “Good gravy!”
Nelda relaxed. Maybe she wouldn’t get a “D” after all.
On some days you could see the entire San Fernando Valley from the top of Topanga Canyon, but today wasn’t one of those days: the haze completely shrouded Panorama City, and even Chatsworth could barely be discerned through a gauzy beige veil.
Herbert was celebrating. The financial aid office had finally recovered sufficiently from its water-logging to begin disbursing scholarship funds, and he had wakened this morning to find an alert in his book telling him that his bank balance had received a welcome, and substantial, transfusion. On top of that, his account had also been credited with his interning pay. He felt on top of the world.
And that’s how he decided to celebrate: he didn’t have to go into work until the afternoon so he caught a car to ferry him and his bike to the lookout at the top of Topanga Canyon. From there he could ride all the way down to the coast on this hazy but pleasant spring morning. He adjusted his helmet, checked his mirrors, cranked up his music, shot a stream into his mouth from his water bottle, and rode out onto the highway’s bike lane.
As he passed the Theatricum Botanicum, his music dropped in volume for a moment and he heard a message chime. He slowed down and stopped by the side of the path and took out his book. Sheila had pinged him and he smiled broadly.
They had had a second date two nights after the first. This one had involved handholding in a theater’s darkness and then, standing beside Sheila's car-share in the parking lot, a goodnight kiss that was a few degrees north of platonic. Then they had a third date that had approached more closer to True North. That had been a couple of days ago, and he hadn’t seen her in person since, though they had exchanged many messages, full of subtext that was adorable only to the people involved, and chatted a couple of times. He had an assignment that would take him to Special Collections tomorrow during her shift, and they had made plans to have lunch.
The message was short:
call me ASAP. have NEWS.
A little avatar with pixie-cut hair bounced on its heels beside the message and made kissy faces.
He sent back:
on topanga coasting to coast
Fortune continued to smile on him: when he got to the end of the canyon highway he managed to catch a southbound coastal bus that was just pulling up and was back in his apartment before noon. He washed his face, changed his shirt, flopped down on the couch and called Sheila.
“Hi,” she said happily.
“Hi! Are you calling from work?” He could see bookshelves behind her.
“I’m not calling at all: you called me,” she pointed out.
“But you asked me to,” he pointed out in return.
“I did, I did.” She grinned. “But no, I’m not at work. I’m at home working on something for my installations design seminar. That’s sorta what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Herbert was baffled. “Oh?”
“Got a minute?” she asked.
“I’ve got a couple of hours. I don’t have to be at work until three.” He propped his book up on the coffee table and leaned back.
“So, remember the archival crate that had the floppy disk we found?”
“Well, I was poking around in it today and found a folded up sheet at the bottom that had some instructions for using the ‘Word Processor Writing Project’ lab.”
“‘Word Pro…’” Herbert’s eyes widened. “WPWP?”
“I think so. And there was even a date on the page header: October 7, 1986.”
He sat back, thunderstruck. “Really.”
“Wow, Sheils, that’s fantastic!”
“Did you just call me ‘Sheils’?” she asked, looking fierce.
“Don’t do it again!” she said, but smiled as she did. “The only one who calls me that is my sister, Kelly, and when she does it never means anything good.”
Herbert continued: “Anyway, that gives me a lot more to go on. I can probably find something about that lab with a little research, and maybe even find out what word processor it used.” He paused. “Of course, once we know that, we’re still at a dead end.” He sighed, “Unless I can convince someone at DMP to take up the investigation, we can only guess at what’s on the disk.”
“I may have a solution for that,” Sheila said.
“Really.” She looked down for a second and tapped something. “That’s where my project for installation design comes in.”
“I hear what you are saying, and I don’t have any idea what it means. ‘Installation design’?”
“You know how, when you go to a museum or a library exhibit or an art gallery, the stuff you go to see? It’s not all just piled up higgledy-piggledy, but presented to its best advantage.”
He laughed. “‘Higgledy-piggledy’?”
“You know, jumbled, muddled, strewn about…”
“Oh, I know what it means. I’ve just never heard anyone use it in conversation before!” He stifled his chuckles. “Sorry. Go on.”
“As I was saying, the stuff you see in exhibits and galleries doesn’t just show up and arrange itself. Someone takes the trouble to design the best way to show the stuff. That’s installation design in a nutshell. You have to arrange the stuff—pictures, books, busts, what have you—and you have to establish sight lines, work out lighting, figure out traffic flows, accommodate security…” She stopped. “I could go on and on, but you get the point.”
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“So that’s what we’re doing in my seminar. Finding something to exhibit and come up with a design for the exhibit installation. It doesn’t even have to be real: just virtual mock-ups. But real is better.” She smiled. “Extra-credit.”
“Okay, I get the point of the class. But what does that have to…oh. Oh! You mean you want to…”
“Exploit poor dead Auntie Nell’s moldering bones. Use some of the stuff in the collection for an exhibit. Nelly Goody: The Early Years.”
Herbert stood up and walked behind the couch, bouncing up and down, then leaned over the back of the couch, still bouncing, to look into Sheila’s eyes in his book. “Damn, that’s a great idea!”
“My plan is to just root around in the crates and see what stuff I can find to populate the exhibit…I only need a dozen or so pieces, really…”
“And you want to show the floppy disk and the lab instructions. That’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!!”
“No, I don’t want to show the disk. Well, I do, but what I really want to do is to show what’s on the disk,” she said.
Sheila looked sly. “My seminar prof is my faculty advisor. And she can approve an unpaid professional consultant for my project.” She pointed at him.
“Me?” Herbert once more looked befuddled.
“You. You have a paid position at the DMP, right?”
“Yes, technically, but I’m only an intern.”
“Doesn’t matter. If you get paid, you’re a professional.”
“That’s a nice way of looking at it. So?”
“So you can be my liaison consultant with the DMP. And my advisor can get someone to do the actual tech work on the disk.”
“How can she…?”
“You know the lobby at the DMP? Who do you think arranged to have it arranged? You’re walking through an installation every time you go to work,” she said. “And Virginia Trzeszkowski led the design team.” She paused. “As a personal favor to the project director of the DMP.” She paused again. “He’s her husband.” And she crowed triumphantly.
“How long have you known this?” Herbert asked, astounded.
“We had coffee today after the seminar. That is, she had coffee, and I…never mind, not important. Anyway, she asked me what I thought my seminar project would be, and just then I thought of the Goody Collection, and I remembered the disk, and the instructions—I just found them before class this morning!—never mind, not important. And so I told her about all of it, and about how Auntie Nell had gone to college right here and it would be a perfect project to showcase the stuff in her collection from that time. But Trzeswkowski’s the one who said it would be simply lovely if we could find out what’s on the disk, and set up a display with a mockup of a period computer displaying what Nell had on the disk, and with the disk itself displayed as part of the exhibit.”
“She came up with…” Herbert said.
Sheila smiled impishly and brushed her hair nonchalantly from her forehead. “I may have tossed in a few leading phrases as we talked.”
“Only a few,” Herbert said.
“Three or four. Maybe five.”
“I see.” She clapped her hands. “So you get to be my liaison with DMP, and maybe even get to boss some of your bosses around—in my name of course…”
“Of course,” Herbert said, marveling.
He heard a faint ding. She looked down at her wrist. “Oh, I gotta get going! I’ll see you tomorrow. And I expect you to liaise with me closely.” She tittered sweetly. “See you!”
“See you,” he said to a page that had already gone blank.
Herbert closed his book and leaned back. “I think I’m in love,” he said out loud to his empty apartment.
Sheila said something much the same out loud to her parents’ empty library.
Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved