His wife’s jaw stiffened, and she said, “This is normal food.”
“Yeah, if we lived in Jakarta or Calcutta.”
Alice refused to reply.
“Why can’t we have fried pork chops, mashed potatoes with gravy, and frozen peas, anymore?”
“It’s bad for you — spiritually.”
Frank slid his chair away from the table and stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“I going to get food that we materialists eat.”
Frank went into the kitchen. He rooted around in the refrigerator and came up with three shinny pieces of yellow cheese individually wrapped in plastic, four slices of beige lunch meat still in their original polystyrene container along with the liquid preservative, a wilted head of iceberg lettuce, and a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Frank made himself a baloney and cheese sandwich. He bit into the sandwich and was blissfully transported back to his graduate school days, when he was mad about theoretical physics, a crazed lover of quantum physics. Then, he maintained his earthly existence with baloney and cheese sandwiches, Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs, and for the spirit an occasional hearty belt of Jack Daniel’s.
Alice sat at the dining room table, her appetite gone. She remembered the breathing exercises that Yogi Patanjali taught her. Close the right nostril with the right thumb and breathe in deeply through the left nostril. Feel the life-breath sending a current down to the kundalini. Hold the breath for a moment, silently repeating the sacred syllable OM. Then, release the right nostril, close the left nostril with the right forefinger. Exhale through the right nostril, expelling all the impurities from the body. Then, keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, sending a current down to the pingala. Then, release the left nostril, close the right nostril with the right thumb. Exhale through the left nostril, and feel the negative energy leave the soul.
Alice repeated the exercise seven times, just as the Yogi instructed. Her jaw relaxed, although she did not feel at peace with herself or in harmony with the cosmos.
She contemplated how much to raise her voice, so she could be heard in the kitchen and yet not sound angry. “Frank, are you still going tonight?”
Frank took a large bit from his sandwich and desperately tried to remember what he had previously committed himself to. “Going where?”
“You know. To Mother Shankara’s loving-kindness meditation.”
Frank rolled his eyes. He could see it coming. He tossed his sandwich on the Formica kitchen counter top and put up his dukes. He jabbed several times at an imaginary sparring partner. His 5’8”, 150-pound frame became a moving target. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t make it tonight.”
“You promised me.”
“I know.” He threw two left jabs in rapid succession. “But the Lab is being re-organized once again, and . . .”
“You’re never going to go to Mother Shankara’s, are you?” Alice half-shouted “never,” destroying the effects of Yogi Patanjali’s breathing exercises.
Frank threw his arms around his imaginary opponent. He hoped a clinch would result in a draw. “I told you I would sometime.”
“You never do anything I want to do.” A body blow that sent Frank reeling against the kitchen counter. “It’s always what Frank wants.” A punch that dropped him to his knees. Frank, a regular on the Thursday Night Kitchen Fights, quickly stood up. Dazed, he didn’t see the roundhouse right coming. “I’m tired of living this way.”
Back on his knees, he moaned, “You know that’s not true.”
“Loving-kindness meditation would be good for you. I know it would.”
Confused by the right to the head, he made the mistake of asking, “Why’s that?”
“Mother Shankara said your work as a weapons designer is bad karma.”
Frank grimaced, pushed on the floor with both hands, and stood up for the final round. He tried to disarm his attacker. “I helped save the world from the Evil Empire.”
“Don’t joke, Frank, unless you want to spend your next life as a cockroach.”
Frank knew what was coming next, secret body punches gleaned from Eastern religion. He was finished. How could he, a mere nuclear weapons expert, survive an attack by five-foot-two, eyes-of-blue former Lutheran armed with loving-kindness meditation. He threw in the towel. “All right, I’ll go.”
It was not unusual that Frank was TKOed — only twice had he fought to a draw at the Thursday Night Kitchen Fights, and never had he had his right arm raised by the referee. He had no idea why he repeatedly appeared on the card. What was unusual that night was that Frank asked Alice to drive. He sat in the passenger’s seat and dozed on and off during the forty-five-minute drive from Los Alamos to Santa Fe.
In the twilight zone between consciousness and sleep, images and feeling surfaced from the happiest time of his life, the year he spent at General Atomics in San Diego, working on Project Orion, a program to develop a space vehicle propelled by small thermonuclear devices, a brilliant idea conceived by Freddy de Hoffman and Stan Ulam, the co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb. Frank would never again work on a project that generated such enthusiasm among scientists and engineers. The space vehicle of Project Orion was a starship — a small town of 150 scientists and engineers — a traveling laboratory with life support systems for generations. Although no one said it, everyone silently agreed that the best and the brightest were abandoning troubled Earth, forever.
A slight jolt awoke Frank. Instead of landing on the Planet Eden in the galaxy Andromeda, he was sitting in his Saab 900S in the parking lot of Wild Oats, a natural food store in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Why are we stopping here?” Frank asked. “I thought we were going to Mother what’s-her-face’s loving-kindness meditation.”
“We’re running out of tempeh.” Alice got out of the car and slammed the door behind her.
Frank watched his wife recede from him and disappear into the store. The digital clock on the dashboard ticked off the seconds, and after 120 of them went by, Frank got out of the car.
Inside the natural food supermarket, he searched up and down the aisles for Alice. He spotted her standing in front of a cheese display. She was talking with Tom Berger and his wife Linda, who supported her artist husband by working as a reference librarian at the Oppenheimer Center of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Frank was not surprised to see that the artist was dressed in a blue blazer, a button-down shirt, chinos, and white canvas deck shoes. Frank had learned long ago that the new breed of artists did not have beards and wild hair, nor did they wait in front of an easel down some back alley or in a remote canyon for the right light to appear. The new breed worked from eight to five, took coffee breaks, and painted from photographs.
Tom waved, and Frank knew he had no choice but to go over to the cheese department and attempt to strike up a cheery conversation.
Tom stuck out his arm, and said to Frank, “I thought you never eat organic food.”
“I’m now a lapsed materialist. I’m even eating tempeh.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“Neither do I! But I still believe that nothing is good for you unless it comes out of a petrochemical plant.”
Alice said, “Frank is going with me tonight to Mother Shankara’s loving-kindness meditation.”
Linda, a short woman with thick glasses and mousy brown hair, said, “I’ve heard good things about Mother Shankara. We want to check out loving-kindness.”
“You should. It’s given me a whole new outlook on life. I know that Frank . . . “
Her husband cut her off. “Tom are you still painting chairs?”
“I’ve just completed a new series: Lawn Chairs with Left Chirality.”
In the burgeoning Santa Fe art market, Tom Berger was known as the Chair Master. He painted chairs made from oak, plastic, canvas, tubular metal, cypress, epoxy, and stone, but only chairs. He had always painted the chairs facing the viewer, until one day Frank suggested he turn the chairs slightly to the left or to the right. Frank’s suggestion produced a breakthrough for Tom Berger. A new world of possibilities opened for the artist, one that Frank described as chirality, a technical term used to denote the handedness of elementary particles.
“Left chirality,” Frank said. “Are the chairs facing to the left or to the right?”
“To the left.”
“No, no. That’s right chirality.”
“You mean, I’ve gotten it wrong again?”
“Let me explain. Think of the chair as moving downward, and imagine your thumb . . .”
“Stop,” Tom shouted. “I’ll never get this damn physics right.”
“It’s simple. You’ve just got to remember one basic truth. Things are not what they appear to be. The Earth seems immobile, but is in orbit around the Sun. What looks to be left is right; what seems to be transcendent beauty is sublimated sex; and what appears to be spiritual is an accident of evolution.” Frank raised his right hand directly overhead, pointed his index finger to the heavens, and shouted, “Boys and girls, listen to the one great lesson of science. Everything is the opposite of what it appears to be. I’ll defend that great truth until my dying day.”
Tom applauded, but the other Wild Oats customers in the cheese section suddenly needed organically-grown fruits and vegetables.
Alice grabbed Frank by the arm, and said, “We’ve got to go,” and then headed for the door with her husband in tow.
Outside, she said, “Why do you insist on embarrassing me like that?”
Frank shrugged her anger off. “I’ll drive; just give me directions to Mother what’s-her-face’s.”
The loving-kindness sessions were held on the east side of Santa Fe, where over a period of ten years wealthy Anglos from California, Texas, and New York had moved in and driven the price of real estate up and the Spanish out. Now, the new arrivals sought spiritual guidance from Native Americans and Eastern Indians.
Mother Shankara’s group rented space from the Zen Mountain Cloud Center. Frank followed Alice’s directions to the Center. He parked his car in an empty space between a Ranger Rover and a Volvo station wagon.
He followed Alice up the gravel path to the Center. At the main entrance, he did what Alice did. He took his shoes off and placed them to the left of the door, under a large Buddhist temple bell that hung from an enormous roof timber.
Inside, Frank again mimicked Alice. He picked up with both hands a brown meditation cushion that reminded him of a giant mushroom cap that he had seen as a kid in a fairy tale book.
Alice and he faced what Frank took to be the door to the Meditation Hall. He thought good at least we can sit in the back. Alice threw open the door for him to enter, and he was shocked to see a room full of people seated on cushions on the floor and facing him! A moment later he saw more meditators seated on the raised platform that ringed the room. Frank froze. Alice went ahead of him, and he followed, several paces behind. She climbed up on an unoccupied portion of the platform, assumed a full lotus position on her cushion, and, then, closed her eyes.
Frank thought now, what do I do? Where is Tom Berger with his chairs, when I need him. He didn’t see one empty place on the floor, but he did see one encouraging thing. Many people instead of being in a full lotus position were kneeling on their cushions. He felt like a fool as he climbed up on the platform next to his wife.
A gong sounded. Two young women, one dressed in Levis and a Gramici rocking climbing shirt and the other in an Indian Sari, entered the Hall. The women were a matched pair, even the short, blond hair of the casually dressed one complemented the dark, cascading curls of the other. Both women were obviously American, and in their mid-thirties. The women took the unoccupied platform near the door.
The woman in Levis said, “We will sit for fifteen minutes, and then Mother Shankara will speak to us.” A gong sounded.
Frank listened to the gong-sound fade away. He panicked about sitting motionless for fifteen minutes. He observed the people in the room. Most were in their forties, affluent, probably worked out at El Gancho Racquet Club, and, no doubt, were eaters of the accursed tempeh. Frank closed his eyes. He heard the deep breathing of his wife and the wheezing of a young woman seated next to him — a mild asthmatic, he thought. Strangely, a quietness did come over him.
A gong sounded, and the silence ended. The young woman with what was once called a “manly haircut” said, “Tonight, Mother Shankara will remind us about loving-kindness.” She moved her upturned hand toward the young woman seated next to her.
Frank couldn’t believe it. The young American woman dressed in the Sari was Mother Shankara!
The spiritual leader placed the palms of her hands together and bowed. Everyone in the room, except for Frank, did the same.
Mother Shankara began, “Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply . . .” Frank thought he detected a bagels-and-lox accent beneath the Colonial English. “We all desire a greater sense of connection with others. But our fear of intimacy — both with others and ourselves — creates feelings of pain and longing. . . .”
Another long pause. Frank observed the nodding heads and raptured faces.
“The path of loving-kindness leads to the radiant, joyful heart within each one of us. Through practice, we cultivate compassion and joy. When we meditate we radiate loving-kindness and bring peace and love to the world.”
A woman seated on the floor raised her hand, but the spiritual leader ignored her. “Tonight, we have a very special treat. Helen Carlin is leaving for Nepal next week. But tonight, she is going to chant to us in Pali.”
A woman in a half-lotus position directly across the Meditation Hall from Frank lifted up a small musical instrument that had been resting beside her on the platform. She began to sing, and her very thin face became peaceful.
Frank, like most theoretical physicists and mathematicians, loved music, especially Bach and Mozart. He thought the chant immensely beautiful and the sound of the hand organ that Miss Carlin accompanied herself with delightful.
When the singer finished, Mother Shankara said, “Beautiful. Beautiful. I was transported back to the time of the Buddha.”
The waving hand reappeared. Mother Shankara said, “Yes, my dear.”
“Mother Shankara, my loving-kindness practice isn’t working for me.”
“How’s that, my dear?”
“No matter how much I meditate the man next door refuses to tear down his ugly fence.”
“Dear, you mustn’t give up.”
“But it is so discouraging. I think good thoughts, but that bastard won’t budge.”
“Remember the Buddha. Keep peace in your heart, and your life will change.”
“But . . .”
The woman with the short-cropped hair interrupted, “Mother Shankara, we thank you for your wisdom. The loving-kindness meditation is over. Please join us in the kitchen for tea.”
Frank wanted to bolt for the parking lot, but Alice grabbed his arm and directed him toward Mother Shankara.
“So, you are Alice’s husband. I am Mother Shankara, née Sharon Goldberg, and now the channeler of the Hindu Goddess Namagiri.”
“Please to meet you.” Frank couldn’t bring himself to say Mother Shankara.
“Have you heard of the Goddess Namagiri?”
Frank shook his head no.
“You know the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan?”
“Of course.” Frank had recently read a biography about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a Hindu with a meager education, who intuitively grasped complex equations that brilliant mathematicians struggled years to prove.
“Then, you must know that the Goddess Namagiri whispered most beautiful and profound mathematical relations into Ramanujan’s ear.”
Frank did remember that Ramanujan claimed that some Hindu deity spoke to him. “Mathematicians say strange things.”
“Do you know why I am here in Santa Fe?” Mother Shankara asked.
“To spread the message of loving-kindness?”
“Namagiri has sent me here to re-connect the scientists at Los Alamos to eternal beauty. They have been corrupted by Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds, and I am to bring them back to peace and love.”
Frank desperately wanted to leave. He thought another Santa Fe loony, but then what had he expected. “Peace and love. We tried that in the Sixties along with grass. It didn’t work.”
“Loving-kindness meditation will.”
Frank bolted for the exit, leaving Alice behind. When he reached the main entrance, he heard Mother Shankara shout from the Meditation Hall, “Are you going tomorrow?”
Frank turned around and asked, “Where?”
“To the Hiroshima Memorial Rally at Los Alamos.”
Frank could feel his face turn red, and he stomped out the door. He hurriedly pulled on his shoes, tied them too tight, and, in anger, rang the temple bell.
He cursed himself all the way to the car. He waited in the front seat for Alice. When she arrived, she got in the back seat.
“Are you going to ride home back there?”
“If you can stalk off to the kitchen during dinner, I can ride back here by myself.”
“I can tell you one thing. You’re not going to any damn peace rally tomorrow.”
Alice replied, “OM.”
Frank turned around and saw that Alice was seated in a full lotus position. His face turned red again, and he shouted, “Do you want me to lose my job!”
Frank turned around. He hit the steering wheel twice with the palms of his hands, and, then, started the car. As soon as he got the car off the Zen Mountain Cloud Center property and onto the Old Santa Fe Trail, he shouted, “I’m tired of this spiritual nonsense. If you go to that peace rally, we’re finished.”
All the way back to the Atomic City, Alice practiced loving-kindness meditation, chanting the sacred syllable OM, while Frank ranted and raved, until he wore himself out.
The next morning at 7:55, Frank was seated in the main auditorium of Los Alamos National Laboratory, waiting for Sig Hecker, the Director of the Laboratory, to announce to the assembled staff members the latest restructuring plan for LANL. Frank had been employed at LANL long enough to have witnessed the acronym of the principal government funding agency of the Laboratory to change from AEC to ERDA to DOE and the management practices to evolve from virtually none to Matrix Management to Total Quality Management to whatever Sig Hecker was going to reveal in a few moments.
The Director walked on stage. He was short, sported a bushy mustache, and wore heavy wire-rimmed glasses that were once de rigueur at the Nevada Test Site and were now ten years out of fashion. The Director cracked a lame joke that no one laughed at and then announced the new paradigm for applying science and technology to national needs. “I have seen what can be done in organizations that truly empower their people. Empowerment is unlocking the potential in each and everyone of us. But empowerment without responsibility results in anarchy. So, as we change our Laboratory’s role in the post-Cold-War world, we must focus much more on organizational effectiveness, and not just on individual effectiveness or personal fulfillment . . . blah, blah, blah.”
Frank tuned out when he heard Hecker say, “focus much more on organizational effectiveness.” To him the new restructuring meant another manager in the boat, so that seven coxswains shouted at the one rower, and the boat went in tighter circles. The bureaucracy was winning, and creativity losing.
Immediately after the Director finished giving new “purpose and direction to the Laboratory in the post-Cold-War environment,” Frank went to his office to recover from the barrage of bullshit. Restructuring posed no threat to his position. The end of the Cold War caused spending on nuclear weapons to increase, not decrease. Suddenly, atomic devices and thermonuclear gadgets had become unsafe, and great technical ingenuity and enormous funds were now required to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. Frank’s new official title was Stockpile Steward, a position would last well beyond his retirement.
Shortly after three that afternoon, a young man with short blond hair walked through the opened door of Frank’s office. The man wore a sports coat and a tie, unusual attire for a Laboratory employee, even the Director that morning wore a sport shirt and a bolo tie.
The stranger said, “May I sit down?”
“Sure,” Frank answered.
The stranger closed the door, and then took the visitor’s chair facing Frank. “I’m Lou Harris, a security officer.”
Frank shook the hand that Harris extended to him.
“I have a couple of questions I would like to ask you.”
Frank thought, here it comes. At the height of the Cold War, Laboratory Security had no reason to justify its existence, so it did little. But everything was different, now. The collapse of the Evil Empire forced Security to quadruple its efforts. If no breeches of security existed, Security was out of business.
“Frank, may I call you Frank?”
“Frank, what do you know about the demonstration planned for this afternoon?”
Frank knew with Security you played dumb and offered no information. “What demonstration?”
“The Hiroshima Peace Rally at Ashley Pond.”
“Ashley Pond” was a whimsy of physicists. The real Ashley Pond was the founder of the New Mexico Boy’s Ranch that J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves commandeered for the Manhattan Project. The name “Ashley Pond” for most Los Alamos residents now meant the pond surrounded by a large grassy area in the center of town.
Frank shook his head, protruded his lower lip, and then said, “Nothing.”
“We know that last night your car was parked at the Zen Mountain Cloud Center.”
“Do you know that the organizers of this protest work out of this center?”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“May I ask you what you were doing at the Zen Mountain Cloud Center last night?”
“I accompanied my wife to a loving-kindness meditation. I think it’s a bunch of crap. But you know how women are.”
“Is your wife attending the rally?”
Frank hesitated a moment. The sonofabitch from Security had trapped him. Frank decided to tell as little of the truth as possible.
“Probably, despite my entreaties not to.” The sonofabitch smiled, and Frank hated his guts.
“Frank, we would like you to attend the protest, mingle with the rabble rousers, and learn what you can.”
Frank thought, so this is what Sig Hecker meant by empowerment — the chance to spy on your wife.
“You want me to be a spy?”
“Not exactly. Let’s say a good citizen.”
“I’m already a Stockpile Steward.”
“That’s fine. But Security needs a little help here.”
Frank resisted a bit more before agreeing to show up at Ashley Pond around six and to stay until the candle light vigil finished at midnight.
Frank did not leave the Lab until 7:30. He was in no hurry to get to the rally, and besides he figured the twilight would help him mingled more easily with the rabble rousers. As he pulled out of the parking lot, he noticed that road paving equipment blocked the main entrances to the Administration Building and the Oppenheimer Center.
He parked his car on a side street two blocks from Ashley Pond. When he arrived at the lawn surrounding the pond, he was puzzled by the absence of people and immediately concluded that the rally must have become a protest march against nuclear weapons. He had no idea what to do. He walked toward the pond and then he saw six people sitting on the ground, cross-legged, and apparently meditating. His wife was not one of them.
He thought how in the hell can I mingle in a crowd of six people. Screw it! I’m going home. Then, he spotted Alice, in a full lotus position, under a large pine tree. He walked slowly and quietly toward her. When he reached her, he gently put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Alice, honey, the Cold War is over.”
That night Alice took two Triazolam and went to bed early. Frank went out on the patio with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He watched the stars come out. He couldn’t figure it out, either. Why are we all so goddamn lonely?
Orion appeared on the Eastern horizon. He remembered how as a young boy he always looked for Orion, the first constellation after the Big Dipper that he had learned. Later, working on Project Orion was the best year of his life. If the limited test ban treaty hadn’t been signed, killing the development of thermonuclear rocket propulsion, he, Freddy de Hoffman, and Stan Ulam would now be headed for Andromeda. He stared at Orion — and for once told himself the truth — he would rather be anyplace than here and now.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Silhouette of Trees During Night Time,” courtesy of Creative Commons.