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A Miracle of Degree
part 5
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
This Present Silence
* * * * * * * * * * *

We stop that night on a broad and lonely hill on the edge of civilization. The night is a dark one, but clear, one of those nights where if you stare hard enough into the blue-black sky, you get the feeling that you really _could_ see forever. The stars are out in force, all of them, not just the bright ones you can see from the city. The BMW's motor is pleasantly warm; it's performed admirably all day, and we have stopped with a little bit of regret on my part, almost as though I would have liked to go all night. I'm getting bleary from the long travel, though, and my body's starting to tell me that it's been way too long since I've driven a cycle. I'm going to hurt like the dickens in the morning. Screw it. This is the most alive I've felt in years, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let achy muscles stop me.

This particular spot was Eppie's choice. She campaigned hard for it. I was thinking she might prefer a motel, but she seemed to be of my same mind in the area of sleeping out under the stars this evening. The reason, as I soon find out, that Eppie was so insistent on this particular spot, is that it's within viewing range of one of the new drive-in-movie complexes. Last I heard, these things had gone out in the 80's, and enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 10's before lapsing into obscurity again. Now they're back in. Society. Go fig. Anyway, save for advances in technology, the concept has remained pretty much the same. In the distance, larger-than-life (literally) movie stars flicker in 3D-IMAX across the horizon, engaged in a futuristic kick-boxing tournament for the future of the galaxy. It looks like one of the new Paul Chang action flicks. Eppie sits and watches, grossly entertained, munching on handfuls of the long grass as she might popcorn. I fiddle with the cycle's radio in an attempt to pick up the sound.

"Quit messing with it an' come an' watch the movie!" She says.

"I'm trying to get the sound, here." I reply.

"Forget about it. All it is is people beating the shit outta each other. We don't need sound."

"Eppie. Watch the language."

"You say it all the time," she quips.

"Yeah, well, you're not me," I counter lamely, and saunter over to where Eppie is sitting. I turn around a couple times without even thinking about it and sit down next to her. We watch in silence for a little while.

"Oof." She says, quietly, in response to a rather nasty kick to the gut, played out in utter noiselessness, of course.

A Pause.

"Yow." Our hero has, in defiance of everyday physics, broken somebody's skull with his own forehead. I try to imagine exactly what the sickening crunch would sound like in the minds of Hollywood sound-effect artists.

More silence.

"You know," I say, "I'd really probably understand better exactly _why_ they were beating the shit out of each other if I could hear the dialogue."

"Probably not." She rips up another handful of grass, eyes fixed on the distant movie. "Ouch." She adds, through her chewing.

More silence.

"'So!'" says Eppie, suddenly. "'You wish to fight me, do you?!?" Her eyes are still glued on the movie. I grin at her.

"'That is why I am here making silly pre-fight postures at you, yes!'" I say, picking up the game.

"'Ah!'" says Eppie, deliberately making the words go out-of-sync with the character's moving lips. "'Now I remember you. You were that evil child who took my lunch money in third grade! And then you pushed me down the stairs!'"

"'Ha Ha!'" I say. "'Yes, Mister Chang. I see you remember me. I whipped your pathetic little hiney to a pulp at our first meeting, even without the hugely strong cybernetic arm that I now have! As soon as I get done with this insipid dialogue, I'm going to break you into snack-sized chunks!'"

"'Ah, yes, but you fail to realize that I have something you never will!'"

"'And that is?!?'"

A gratuitous camera angle occurs. Eppie picks up on it. "'A nice ass!'" We both dissolve into giggles as Paul Chang, Warrior of the Future, beats the shit out of yet another hapless extra. I smile at her. She's not looking at me, but who cares.

"Bix?" She says, after a while.

"Mm hm?"

"You said my dad's a book-shop owner?"

"Mm hm. Retired now, though."

"What's... he like?"

I had dreaded this question from the moment we started out. I finger the several folded pages in my pocket, a bit nervously. For a second I consider giving her the entirety of the memoirs right here and now. Letting her read them for herself. Sort out her opinions from there. She's a big enough girl. After trying out the idea for a bit, I dismiss it. Best give it to her gradually.

"He's a good man." I say.

She seems unsatisfied. "...and...?"

"He... tried hard. To do what he thought was right. He really did, Eppie. And he loved you very much. Sorry. _Loves_ you very much."

"Must not have loved me _that_ much." She says, petulantly.

"He did." I say, somewhat more sharply than I'd intended to.

She doesn't respond for some time. Then, "Tell me."

I sigh. "Okay. I want you to promise me that you'll really think about what I'm telling you and not go making snap judgments, okay?"

She nods.

"Because your father... well..."

I trail off. There's nothing I can say here that the story itself won't eventually cover. I refuse to make excuses for him, but somehow I am unwilling to assign him all blame, either. Which leaves me with nothing to say.

I decide to scrap it all and start over. "All right." And I begin. To tell her the story, as I know it. The same story I still can't come to terms with, the same story I wouldn't believe myself if I didn't have it right here in my pocket, scribed carefully in Murphy's crabbed old handwriting.

The story of her father.

* * * * * * * * * * *
Irina and Murphy, I
* * * * * * * * * * *

I suppose that in all matters such as this it's good to put down a bit of an introduction. God knows whether or not anyone else will ever read these pages, but if I'm going to spend the time sitting here recording everything that I am now feeling about Irina and my darling Hepzibah, I'm going to do it right. So. To begin at the beginning.

She was beautiful.

I want to write that, first and foremost, because that, I think, is the one thing that will remain with me from here onwards until the bitter end. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she was beautiful. Thin, pale, and blonde with eyes of the purest shade of coral-blue that I've ever seen. And it wasn't a wispy sort of beauty either. This was clearly a woman of strong Caucasian stock, whose mountain-dwelling ancestors were hacking a living out of the rocks when your great-grandfather's great-grandfather was just a wee little thing. Strength, honed and refined in the silver-forges of culture and class and pedigree. I believe truly that I loved her from the first moment I saw her, even though the rationalist in me even now scoffs at the idea. Perhaps it would have been a better situation all around if the rationalist in me would have done just a tiny bit more of the scoffing.

At any rate. This was how she appeared to me when she first appeared in my shop. She was wearing a beautiful Merino sweater and well-kept jeans of deep indigo. She had a satchel slung across her back, and she carried one of those new-fangled palm-top computers to boot.

She was alone in the shop, of course, looking and browsing about the stacks like any other patron. Occasionally, however, I would catch a glimpse of something, somehow, a bit different. The way she would sometimes take a moment out of her extensive searching and cross-referencing on the tiny computer to simply remove one of the volumes from its place on the shelves and flip through its pages, eyes _closed_. Breathing. And the way she would make _certain_ that she placed it back in _exactly_ the same place when she was done. A University student, I surmised at the time... but one who was quite a cut above the rest. One who didn't see books simply as tools, a means to an end, but as an _art_. In and unto themselves, independent even of the words therein. I recall casually wandering out from my position behind the cashier's stand and inspecting the stacks in the wake of her passage, and I remember being quite surprised that I could not perceive in my post hoc review which books she had been selecting. And this was not a matter of simply "misplaced" works, books where they should not be. The girl had actually returned the books to their precise _depth_ on the shelves. It was as though they had never been touched.

A woman after my own heart.

Smiling softly to myself, I meandered closer to her position and delivered the typical "can I help you?" with what was, I admit, a considerably higher degree of sincerity than I typically use under these circumstances.

She turned to me, almost surprised, and then told me what she was looking for. Her voice, when it came, was a wonderful liquid Russian-flavored English exactly as beautiful as she was. Consider me a dirty old man in my thoughts by this point, if you will. You'd be nigh close to the mark. In my experience, most everyone in the world goes to their grave having experienced the joy of marriage at least once; I am, to this day, the exception that proves that rule. To all the rest, I was too obsessive, perhaps. Too lacking in ambition. Too tempermental. Too... perfectionistic. And as for me, I was ever waiting for the better to come along. I was fully forty years of age before I began to worry that maybe, _I_ had been the one who had been wrong all this time.

At any rate. I have a profound appreciation for the nature of the woman. I must stress that I do believe that this is the case. I never intended disrespect to her, and I will ever maintain that my intentions, at least, were good.

"Excuse me." She said. "I am looking for a book. But I cannot remember the name it was that wrote it."

"Do you know the title?" I asked.

"Ah, yes. It is 'Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe.' I am performing a paper on it for my Literature class."

Almost before she was done with the sentence, I had gone and returned with the book in question. "Here we are, missus. George Eliot." I said. "I'm a bit surprised that your professor assigns you a book and then makes you gallumph to the old and secondhand shops to find it."

"Oh, no." She said. "Doctor Mulhaus ordered plenty of copies for the University Bookstore. But..." She trailed off, a faint flush creeping into her cheeks.

"But what?" I pressed.

"They... they aren't _hardbound._" She said, stroking the impeccably-kept canvas binding of the spine.

All I could do was smile.

"Anyway, I am surprised." She said. "Normally my program tells me what names there are, but this one, it was not having." She held up her computer. I knew the program she was using. One of those phooey-all "comprehensive" databases with a positively ludicrous number of boolean variables and search strings and all that hoo ha.

"Rubbish." I said. "You'd best to throw the damn thing away." Only afterwards, as is always the case, did I realize the bluntness of my words. But the girl didn't seem to mind. She actually seemed rather amused.

"Oh, I cannot. This computer was a gift from my father when I left Moscow."

"I dunna mean the computer." I said, the old brogue creeping in there yet again. "I mean the program."

"But what was wrong?" She asked.

I looked at the small screen. Then, my face lit up.

"There's your problem, missus." I gestured at the screen, and the girl followed my finger to the place where I was pointing.

"Gender." I said. "You entered 'Male.' Just goes to show what kind of damnfool a mind it takes to design one of these bits of wastefulness."

She looked at me, genuinely confused. "I restricted the search to save time because I was sure I remembered that it was a man's name who wrote it...?" She frowned. "_George_ Eliot?"

I shrugged. "Literary climate a' the time. 'Twas the old gehl's pen-name. People wunna take novels comin' from womenfolks seriously. Mary Ann Evans becomes George Eliot. So, as you see, we have Gender Confusions."

She chuckled slightly, then, and looked down at the book. "Thank you." She said. "I was about to have to go back to Doctor Mulhaus and ask questions, and then he would have had to explain everything to me. I am glad that I did not have to go through all that... Rubbish?"

I smiled. "Rubbish, yes. Tell me..." I said, curiously, "what exactly _is_ it that you're writing about _Silas Marner_?"

"Oh." She said. "We are preparing an 'integration of critical commentary.' Many many different people writing about _Silas Marner_ and we are integrating them and talking about the... validity... of their talking."

"Hm." I say.

The words that came next from my mouth will serve as some sort of testament as to the connection I felt with this young girl, even at this comparatively early stage.

"I... er... have something that might be... of help to you." I said. "I... er... have something... in my... ahm... personal stacks."

Her curiosity was piqued. I blathered on.

"Well, you see, twenty-some odd years ago, I was at this little bookshop-cafe that used to be downtown, went by some damnfool name that I can'a for the life of me remember. Not there anymore, I s'pect. Anyway..." I said, relaxing against one of the shelves, "I was sitting there on the second floor drinking a cup of coffee, when who d'ya suppose was sitting there but Susan Yang."

"_The_ Susan Yang? Here in Ithaca?"

"Ayup." I said, with exaggerated modesty. "Aneeeway, what do you suppose she was _reading_ but a paperback copy of this very work, just scrawling notes in the margins like she's famous for. I recognized 'er, we struck up a chat, and wouldn'tcha know it, she was jes' so _tickled_ that I thought so highly of her commentaries tha' she offered me the copy she'd been scribbling in right then and there."

The girl's jaw dropped, ever so slightly, and I _knew_ the magnitude of this event had not been lost on her.

"An _unpublished_ Yang commentary?"

"Ayup." I said again.

I could see the literofanatical glint begin in her eyes. I recognized it on the dot. I've seen it in my own bathroom mirror often enough, after all.

"But... that..." She trailed off.

I smiled. "Care to take a gander at it?" I asked, mildly.

"Yes!" She said, gleamingly.

And so it went. To this day, I do believe that she's the only person I've let touch that damn thing save myself. And, God bless me, I actually went so far as to _offer_ it to her. On a loan, of course. I wouldn't _give_ the Yang commentary on Silas Marner away to anyone, not even her. But this simple gesture, I believe, now, looking back on it in retrospect, was the first time I had ever really, truly, _trusted_ anyone with my Books. Really _trusted_ them.

Her name, I would learn, was Irina.

* * *

Weeks passed. On into months. Irina stopped back into the shop a couple times in the first two weeks out. The next two weeks, she began showing up more frequently. Over the course of the next month, it became a regular occurrence. And after three, Irina became a fixture in my shop, stopping in almost daily on some academic errand or simply to talk between and after classes, sometimes far into the evening. She would browse the back room, the one I simply did not let people enter, long and far into the night, carefully picking through the ancient leatherbound first-runs and unique commentaries and one-of-a-kind works beneath the warm, dark brown illumination of the indirect light. Sometimes when the nights got very late I would call her out for some coffee (we never take coffee into the Back Room, no we do not...) and we would chat about her latest finds. All too frequently, she would be able to bring up a point about this or that commentary or this or that edition as it compared to this or that other edition that I myself had never even seen nor thought of. And she never brought the damn computer back into my shop, partially, I think, to humor me. And thus we passed our months.

Occasionally, she would even talk about herself. Her family. A pretty impressive line. _Smart_ people. Irina's father was the founder and C.E.O. of the Muscovite branch of one of the world's foremost network computing corporations. Her mother was a physicist. And her brother had been one of the final human players ever to beat IBM's Deep Blue at its own infernal game. And Irina... well, she was a genius as well. I suppose, by some tests, so am I. Just goes to show how much use 'genius' is in this world.

And sometimes, during the very good, or the very bad times, the Bailey's would find its way into the coffee as well.

Like the night her roommate nearly killed herself in their shared bathroom with non-prescription sleep aids, and she spent all evening on into the morning crying onto my shoulder as we sat on the porch of the shop, waiting for the sunrise. Or the night that she scored the Beta Sig Scholarship of Merit award for an outstanding literary work, and I treated her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant. Or the time that...

There is a longer pause in that above break than can be suggested in a single line. I've gone to get the Bailey's again myself. It _is_ needed sometimes.

Or the time that... she came to me... half-crying and half-laughing about a poor grade she got on her latest Lit paper for not acknowledging a critical source in her reference list on the simple grounds that her Doctor Mulhaus would not _possibly_ believe from where it had come. (The unpublished Niedelmeyer Portfolio, if you must know.) That same time that we sat there long, long after close, letting the inertia of the alcohol build and build in our systems, Irina needing the release (a 'D' on a major thesis paper is not something a highly-driven honor student can take lightly) and me... needing...

And me, needing Irina. Let me not say that I have attempted to excuse myself, then.

It was cold that night, I remember. Very, very cold.

The sort of night where one suggests simply not walking home. The sort of night where you discover the colliding impracticality of arthritis and gallantry and the having of only one bed.

Neither of us knew what we were doing, that night. Maybe it was the Bailey's, or maybe it was just us doing what we would have done all along, or maybe it was some combination of the two. I must _emphasize_ here that... it was... completely consentual. I would never... ever...

Another long pause taken in one line break, there.

That night was also notable for one more reason. It contained, somewhere in its depths, the biggest single unknowing lie that I have ever, ever spoken.

It was there, with us crowded in my very own bed, the faint drafts wafting over and cooling my perspiring brow, when I reached the tiny distance across my mattress to her small, now strangely-fragile form and uttered the words,

"Ssh. It's going to be all right."

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