Robert G. Pielke
710 Purdue Drive
Claremont, CA 91711
ESCAPE FROM GIBSLAND
He grabbed the yellow folder for one more look. It was the goddamnedest term paper Douglas Nietzsche had ever read in fifteen years of teaching. The usual swill students turned in hardly merited any attention, but this was different. Somebody had put some genuine thought into it. He wasn’t used to that. Students didn’t “think.” They drank, they screwed, they bull-shitted with greater or lesser degrees of creativity, but “think”? No way.
Once he thought differently about the business of education, but that was a long time ago and a different lifetime. But even in the best of his best times, he had never seen anything like this.
Maybe if he “sweetened” his coffee it would make more sense. He reached into the large bottom drawer of his industrial steel gray desk, a drawer that held numerous partially finished articles, and pulled out a half empty bottle of tequila. Holding it up to the light, he squinted to see the nearly invisible mark he made at the end of last night’s bout with end-of-semester grading. The amber liquid was considerably lower than the mark.
He smiled and wondered about Charlie. During many all night struggles to complete his book, he had more than once sampled the custodian’s personal supply of Wild Turkey. Their offices were at the end of the same corridor, and since they both kept similar odd hours, they often had the occasion to visit each other, thus noticing the similarity of their weaknesses and the locations of their preferred libations. While progress on the book had not been notably enhanced by either his own or the custodian’s beverage, the pain of his effort was temporarily blunted. As a result, there were a lot of mornings-after to conceal from his students, which were not always successful.
Charlie never said a word to anyone. His only response was to “borrow” some of Nietzsche’s tequila when he was in class. After a while, stealing each other’s booze became a kind of game without either one acknowledging it. When they spoke, which was rare, and never for more than a few minutes, it was always with tongues firmly fixed in their cheeks, and their words saying far less than their meaning. Perhaps because of this, there developed a genuine mutual respect. Nietzsche never looked on Charlie from the “lordly” pedestal of an assistant professor, and Charlie Lemont never blamed Nietzsche for the disparity of opportunities their lives manifested. Charlie, a man nearing a modest retirement, his face clearly displaying the crags of an unfulfilled life, was a person who knew that fairness was a young man’s illusion. Douglas Nietzsche, in this sense, was no longer young.
His coffee “sweetened,” Nietzsche returned his attention to the curious term paper. It was nearing midnight. He had graded all the swill hours ago. On this one, however, he hadn’t put a single comment. Even the swill deserved some attention, and he provided it. Swill at was often inventive in its attempt to escape critical scrutiny. Nietzsche knew all about the skill of creating artful bullshit. As a student, he had been so good at it that this artfulness largely contributed to the peculiar direction his academic career had taken -- into a disciple he called “speculative history.” More than a few of his less than supportive colleagues would no doubt agree with this understanding.
But here was a paper that defied categorization. It wasn’t merely that it was virtually a scholarly masterpiece, far too good to be merchandised from the typical Internet term paper mill. Nor was it that he found it utterly and completely convincing. It was the theme -- something about which he was quite familiar: what might have happened had Bonnie and Clyde not met their ignominious end. This student had made a believer out of him, mastering a way of thinking that he had spent his lifetime trying to develop. He wasn’t sure whether to express admiration or jealousy.
As was often the case when attacked by indecision, he sought truth in Señor Tequila d’Oro, a brand not noted for its exquisite taste or cost. Pursing his lips in thought, he touched the “coffee” cup to the yellow folder, raised his eyebrows, smiled with a trace of embittered envy, and took a sip.
Lydia Wright, a person he couldn’t even picture, was challenging him to prove her wrong. Yet, not only was he not capable of doing so, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to, so impeccable was her reasoning. Of course, since the thesis was counter-factual, there was no way to verify or falsify it. It was just speculation. But why did it seem so goddamn unquestionably true? Why was she so good at it? Who in the hell was she, anyway?
Nietzsche polished off the remaining tequila, and reached for the bottle. This time he had no intention of adulterating it with coffee. Two swigs were all that remained, but he was finally ready to comment.
Rather than use a pen to convey the impression of permanence, he selected a standard, yellow painted, number two, Ticonderoga lead pencil for the job – just barely sharp enough to perform its duties -- as if to acknowledge his ambivalence.
In an alcoholically fuzzed scrawl, barely distinguishable from his usual semi-legible penmanship, he wrote, “Exceptionally well-written and insightful, yet without empirical support this can only be an exercise in purely speculative reasoning. You have established beyond a doubt the logical possibility of your claim, but there is no reason why the merely logical should have any connection with the actual.”
He gave the paper a “B+.”
* * *
Suffering an intense hangover, Nietzsche was in no mood to meet his classes, but he promised that he’d have all their papers ready. Almost everyone in his first two classes showed up. What he was nervously awaiting, however, was his third class of the day, his advanced course, “Anomalies in American History.” This was a course he had to fight to get adopted. Few of his colleagues were willing to admit that such anomalies existed; hence, they considered the course a matter of pure self-indulgence. They were right, of course. It was an outgrowth of his specialty, “Speculative History” -- not a specialty acknowledged by scholars as sufficiently “scholarly.”
This was the first time he had taught the course, and it filled immediately. It included, among others, the mysterious Lydia Wright. He still couldn’t picture her, but he’d obviously find out who she was when she picked up her folder. He couldn’t imagine her not wanting it back ‑ it was far too good not to see what he thought of it.
As the class came to an end and the students began shuffling out, picking up their papers as they left, a sinking feeling grew in his stomach. The yellow folder was becoming ever more conspicuous amongst the term papers not yet retrieved. Soon it was alone on the table. The discomfort of alcohol abuse now in full possession of his body, Nietzsche’s mood darkened even further with the realization she wasn’t going to show. “Shit,” he muttered, it being the least offensive of the numerous unutterable thoughts in his mind at the moment. He grabbed the folder off the table, nearly slicing it across the face of an unsuspecting student who happened to pass by, and stormed back to his office, continuing to mutter: “insolent sow”…”reptilian ganglia”…”lese majesty”! A person with such creativity has the goddamned duty…the goddamned fucking duty, he thought, to accept praise when it’s offered. I expect this person to stand in front of me, so I can tell her she did a father-fucking great job!
Charlie Lemont was pushing a broom along the empty corridor, pretending to be oblivious to Nietzsche charging by. Nietzsche was certainly unaware of Charlie. As Nietzsche approached his office, however, Charlie quietly observed, “A bad night, professor?” He evinced the hint of a smile. Or was it a smirk?
“What?” Nietzsche was distracted. Although Charlie didn’t raise his eyes off the floor he was so carefully, and so pointlessly, sweeping, Nietzsche could understand why he was amused. I’m a fucking mess, he thought. His three-day growth of whiskers and a pair of corrosively reddened eyes would probably send Charlie back to check the barely visible grease pencil line on his bottle to see how much Nietzsche had “borrowed.”
“Yeah, self-abuse – the liquid kind…and don’t call me ‘professor.’ The chances of me getting a promotion are only slightly better than a verified sighting of Elvis.”
Charlie gave him a quick once-over, and whispered so that only Nietzsche could hear. “You keep this up, you’re gonna give self-abuse a bad name.” Then, staring directly into Nietzsche’s eyes, arching one eyebrow up onto his forehead, he added, “You might should wanna, ah, freshen up just a tad before you go in. There’s one hell of a good lookin’ girl waitin’ inside.”
* * *
She appeared to be in her early thirties, not much younger than Nietzsche. Darkly complected with almost iridescent green eyes, he couldn’t imagine what combination of ethnicities had produced this marvel. Although not exactly beautiful, she wore the adjective “exotic” extremely well. It was almost as if she had been designed by a genetic engineer assigned to manufacture Nietzsche’s favorite fantasy. She stiffly faced the door as Nietzsche entered, as if coming to attention, ready to be inspected by a superior officer.
Nietzsche surreptitiously checked his zipper and casually tucked in his shirt, suddenly feeling he was the one being inspected. She had been speaking for several seconds before Nietzsche realized that this incredible woman was indeed the very Lydia Wright who was, literally a minute ago, the recipient of his desultory cursing. He took a deep breath. “Excuse me,” he interrupted. “I’m afraid I’m not really with it today. I didn’t catch what you said.”
She smiled icily. “I was asking whether you had had a chance to comment on my paper. I would very much like to know whether you think my ideas have any credibility.”
“Please,” he said, “how about sitting down for a while.” He motioned for her to take a seat in an old, pink overstuffed chair that had been a fixture in this office long before he was hired.
Reluctantly, she complied.
Withdrawing the yellow folder from his emaciated leather briefcase, something a student had left in his office years earlier, he quickly tried to figure out why he had never noticed her before. This was his prize class and his smallest to boot. Maybe, like some of his friends, all one of them, had been telling him, he really was drinking too much. His typical reply was always something to the effect that, “the verb ‘drinking’ and the adverbial phrase ‘too much’ are logically incompatible.” However, if this woman had escaped his attention all semester, this friend just might have something. Maybe he was a practicing, self-denying, alcoholic. If so, he silently vowed to “ascend the wagon” forthwith! He tried to conceal his shaking hand as he gave her the folder. “This is an extraordinary piece of work, “he mumbled,” but I’m sure you already know that.”
“Thank you,” she said without conviction, paging quickly to the end. After reading his short, two-sentence comment, there was more than a suggestion of irritation in her voice. “I was hoping you would be a little more specific. I mean is the sequence of events as I’ve described them more than merely logically possible? What kind of probability would you assign to it? You wouldn’t say that all logically possible events are equally probable, would you?”
“Of course not.” Why was she being so serious about all this? It’s only a term paper. “What’s the difference? It’s only speculation, and that’s all it can be.”
“I realize that,” she paused, thinking, “but I would really like to know your opinion on the odds.”
“The odds. A numerical appraisal of the probability that the events as I have portrayed them might actually have occurred as I have speculated.”
“I know what you mean, but why, for god’s sake?”
“Because you are so very good at doing this kind of thing.” She could see the puzzled look on his face. “I read those four articles you did about the horrors that would have resulted if certain key events had not taken place.”
“And other events had taken place instead.”
Nietzsche paused and stared at her, trying to quickly digest what she had said. “Well, I guess I’m impressed,” he finally stammered. “I don’t think there are more than ten other people on the whole planet who’ve read them.” Aside from the University Tenure Committee, he thought. And putting it mildly, they were not exactly bowled over. “Speculative history is not,” they pronounced, and he remembered the haughty emphasis they placed on the word “not,” after which they paused for emphasis, “an accepted specialization within the study of history.”
Lydia Wright continued, “I found them utterly convincing.”
This doesn’t make any sense, he thought. Then, out loud, “Where did you get copies of the articles? Our library certainly doesn’t have any.” Odd, he continued to himself, trying to put this all together, she doesn’t seem to be an ass-kisser or an academic groupie.
“Well,” he replied, forgetting that she never answered his question, “I found your term paper pretty convincing too.” He didn’t tell her that he found it disturbing as well. She was not only doing the very same thing he had done in those four severely scorned articles, speculative history, and doing it just as well if not better. Her topic was also one he planned to include in his book.
Hearing his compliment, she seemed to loosen up, but the change was barely perceptible. “I apologize for not being able to attend all of your classes, but my work requires me to travel irregularly and unpredictably.”
“What do you do?” It suddenly dawned on him that she had never been to even one of his classes. No matter how much his drinking might be out of control, he would certainly have noticed her, even if she had never spoken a word. She was obviously lying.
“I’m a courier.”
“And for whom do you ‘courie’?”
“Anyone who wants their material hand carried -- mostly multinational businesses.”
Drugs? He wondered. “Were you able to make any of your classes this semester?”
With that she looked at her watch and abruptly stood up. “Thank you, Dr. Nietzsche. I wish we had more time to explore the ramifications of your articles,” and added with an undisguised touch of rebuke, “as well as mine.”
“Maybe we could do it some other time.” He wasn’t going to let the moment pass without making at least a feeble attempt to see her again.
She angrily muttered something under her breath that Nietzsche couldn’t hear.
“What?” A curse? No. Women like this rarely curse.
“I said…” Then, seemingly thinking better of it, she said, “I’ll be in touch…trust me.”
As she opened the office door to leave, Nietzsche saw the Chair of the History Department standing outside, waiting to see him. She had that exasperated look on her face that told him he was in for another one of her lectures designed to set his life straight. Beth Bergman-King was actually his closest, and only, friend, and one of the very few academics who thought his scholarly work was in some way worthwhile. Hired at the same time, she had quickly advanced up the academic ladder while he remained in the tenuous position of hoping to avoid perishing by publishing.
“Hiya, B. B. What’d I do now?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said while the eyeing the departing Lydia Wright as she slid past into the hallway.
“Christ, Beth! What do you take me for?” He bowed his head to double-check.
“A lecherous, drunk with a penchant for outraging everyone who can affect your tenure decision.”
“Aside from that, I mean.”
Beth Bergman-King sneered, and nodded with undisguised innuendo toward the door.
“Never touched her.” He smiled.
“You did ask her to meet you for a drink, I assume?”
“Of course,” he lied. “I’m not totally stupid.”
“No, just morally bankrupt.”
“She turned me down.”
“For that she deserves an ‘A.’”
“Actually, I think she’s brilliant…a little intense, but definitely an incredible thinker.”
She sat down across from and got right to the point: “You are too. Publish your book, big fella.” She wet her lips with her tongue and re-crossed her legs, flashing him a brief glimpse.
“You win. I’ll get it done.” Another lie.
“So how is it coming, really?
Nietzsche leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. “I never realized that there were so many bizarre events in American history. I’m having a hell of a time keeping it manageable.”
“Why not try writing about significant events for a change?”
“All events are significant, as I so fruitlessly tried to point out in four fucking articles to very little world-wide acclaim! Damn, I shouldn’t waste my time on this; maybe I should write fiction like everybody says.” And with that, he vowed to give it a try some day – just to show them the difference.
“Douglas, I think you’re a genius. But other people, people with power, tend to be blinded by brilliance. Have you thought about including events that are commonly acknowledged as significant? Not like your articles, treasures of speculation though they may be.”
“But what about the identity of Lincoln’s assassin?”
“A curiosity, but hardly Earth-shattering -- Crazy Wife Kills President.”
“The Lindbergh kidnapping?”
“Big deal – Ransom Paid, Baby Returned.
“Our secret contact with Ho Chi Minh?”
“We were lucky – Accord With Ho Avoids War.”
“Well, how about the day John Lennon was shot?”
“So what – Bullet Grazes Beatles’ Arm. Really, Douglas. I just hope you’re more convincing in your book. What you’re saying about them amounts to nothing but trivia in the minds of more, shall we say, pedestrian historians. I know you made a good case about alternate possibilities, but the book has to go in a different direction. You don’t have to give up your ideas, just deal with some events that are important to others as well.”
“I am, my dear. I’m showing why these events are so goddamn important and why we were so damn lucky they went the way they did. It could have been otherwise, you know.” He briefly thought about mentioning the curious coincidence about Bonnie and Clyde, but dismissed it. She would no doubt see this, too, as insignificant.
“Don’t go there, Doug. I’m told that’s speculation. And there’s no tenure awaiting you there!”
“So, let me get this straight: I can give up what I do best and get tenured...and drink heavily. Or, I stick with it and lose my job...and drink heavily.” Right?
“Humph,” she sneered. “Logic!”
* * *
It was an awkward moment for Nietzsche. He didn’t want to confront the possibility – he avoided the term “likelihood” ‑ that an “occasional” taste of high-proof alcohol had become ever more a necessity for him. Nevertheless, he sought out Charlie.
“Busy?” Nietzsche asked.
Charlie was relaxing in on old rocking chair he had fixed up after someone had tossed it. He smiled and casually nodded a wordless “nope.”
“In that case, there’d better be more than a smidgen left of that gut dissolving Wild Turkey.”
Charlie reached into a cabinet behind him and from amongst the vials of cleaning ingredients, polishes and the like, he captured the object d’request. He held it up to the light and shook it. “Appears to be enough.”
“Bless you.” Nietzsche grabbed the only remaining seat, a sturdy, prison-constructed, wooden chair, sat down, reversed it and used the back to rest his arms.
Charlie’s “office” was actually a small, windowless enclosure under the back stairwell, catty cornered from Nietzsche’s own office. It provided an amply secluded place for polishing off a bottle.
“Ah yes, professor, I usually take my breaks right here during class times. It helps dispel the demons.”
“Don’t call me ‘professor.’”
They drank quietly at first.
Charlie was no stranger to Wild Turkey. He knocked down two for every one of Nietzsche’s. Occasionally, they would smile, self-consciously, at each other, but their smiles betrayed little joy. For Nietzsche there were ancient wounds, suppressed but not forgotten. And for Charlie there was some unknown source of pain, which Nietzsche chose not to probe.
“Is it a woman?” Charlie asked.
“Can’t go wrong with a guess like that.”
“That why you drink?”
“Do I drink?” Nietzsche smiled.
“Do I drink?” Charlie replied in kind.
Together, they fell into a more relaxed bout of laughter, which progressed quickly for Charlie into an uncontrollable coughing fit. When he began to gag and wheeze -- having trouble breathing, Nietzsche became concerned. “Are you all right?” Charlie himself seemed to be alarmed.
Between wheezes Charlie whispered, “Ever since my heart attack, I get a little nervous when the ol’ lungs rebel.”
“When was that? How bad was it?”
Charlie waved the questions aside. “Years ago. They said I fully recovered, but you never forget.”
Nietzsche persisted. “How bad was it?”
“Ahhh, it was nothin’.” Charlie gradually recovered his composure, but showed no sign of elaborating. “I’m all right now.”
Nodding to the bottle, with only a trace of Wild Turkey clinging to the sides, Nietzsche said, “I guess this wasn’t such a good idea.” Charlie had lapsed into a private reverie, and not wanting to disturb him, Nietzsche wondered if he should take his leave. He whispered. “But I sure appreciate it.”
He began to struggle out of his chair, but stopped when Charlie looked up at him, with haunted eyes.
“They said I died.”
“What?” Nietzsche stopped cold.
“It was one of those ‘near death experiences,’ they said.”
“You mean the kind of thing where you feel like you’re being drawn up a tunnel toward some kind of light, and where you meet members of your family who’ve already died?”
“You got it…except for meeting my family. I wouldn’t have recognized them.”
“Because I don’t remember a goddamn thing from before the heart attack ‑ no family, no friends, no schools…nothin’. They even had to teach me how to talk again.”
“But surely your wallet, your fingerprints, your license, your…”
“Oh, I know all that. I ‘know’ who I am and all that…I just can’t remember any of it.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Wiped clean.” Charlie laughed. “It’s like being ‘born again.’”
Nietzsche shrugged, feeling at a loss for words. “Hallelujah.”
Striding briskly through the corridor, Douglas Nietzsche felt he knew something of what Lazarus must have felt. His physical appearance and health had gradually deteriorated to the point where passersby would occasionally toss a dollar or two next to him on the park bench. Although never recognized as a slave to the latest fashion, or any fashion for that matter, he had nevertheless always taken great care with his personal hygiene -- to the point of fastidiousness. The attribution “anal retentive personality” was not unknown to him. After a tragic marriage it was all downhill. If it weren’t for his doctorate and a respectable, albeit tenuous, teaching position at one of California’s prestigious universities, Nietzsche might easily have joined the derelicts roaming the depths of the inner city.
Now, clean shaven, hair professionally styled and wearing clothing that was shockingly au currant, heads turned involuntarily as he neared his office. This was indeed something to see. One colleague paused in mid lecture, gazed out of the classroom and promptly lost his place. Groups of students stacked against the wall waiting for their next class fell silent, their jaws dropping.
Nietzsche gave all of this no notice whatsoever. He had an appointment to keep. And there she was, standing by his door, right on schedule.
“Ms Wright.” He was formal, yet pleasant.
“Professor Nietzsche.” She was equally formal, and considerably less pleasant.
“Would that it were,” he muttered.
She tilted her head, puzzled.
Nietzsche looked at her. “I’m not a professor, and chances are I never will be.”
“What are the odds against it happening?” she abruptly asked.
The utter sincerity of her question, completely missing his humor, made him laugh, puzzling her even more. Damn, he thought, you’re an incredibly strange woman.
Pushing the door open against the boxes of books and papers that cluttered the floor, he motioned her in. She squeezed past him toward the faded pink chair facing his desk, brushing the tips of her breasts ever so slightly against him.
Were her nipples hard, he wondered. “Coffee?”
“No. I would like to get directly to the point.”
Brrr. This is not going to go as well as I’d like. “Okay. At least sit down and stay awhile,” mentally kicking himself for using a cliché.
As if following orders, she sat down.
He poured himself a mug of coffee; this time it was straight from the plantations of Juan Valdez. “I guess you want to talk about the grade I gave you.”
“Not at all. I want what I paid for.”
“Your comments. I want to know what you think of what I wrote. I don’t care about the grade.”
“I see.” Was she for real? Every student said this, but none of them ever meant it. “But I did tell you. What more do you want to know?”
“You implied that it was logically possible for chaos to have resulted, if Bonnie and Clyde had escaped capture.”
“Yes, and I meant it.”
“Well, what about the empirical probability?”
“You mean you still want me to give you the mathematical odds of what might have happened?” He tried to be facetious but couldn’t bring it off.
“Not exactly. I want the mathematical odds of what would have happened.”
She seemed even more serious than before. “Aside from the grammar, what’s the difference?”
She sat rigidly upright in the chair without moving a muscle or hinting at a smile, staring directly into Nietzsche’s eyes, and started to answer, “You are missing...” then abruptly stopped. “Perhaps nothing.”
Nietzsche’s eyes, however, as if having a mind of their own, slid surreptitiously over her body. They gave particular attention to her legs, which, while tightly crossed, displayed themselves dramatically from beneath a short and tightly affixed, leather skirt.
“Please pay attention,” she said sternly. His observations of her body did not escape her attention.
Embarrassed by her comment on his blatant lechery, he was wordless. But he couldn’t bring himself to stop without another glance or two. He gazed upward, across her navel, over her breasts, finally focusing on her face. It was the absolute determination in her eyes that abruptly forced him to relinquish his sensual meandering, bringing him out of his body into his mind. This was not at all what he had anticipated.
He sighed, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel self-conscious.”
“You didn’t. I don’t care if you look at my body. I just want you to use your mind.”
“Okay. Deal. But you do realize that odds like that can only be a guess.”
“Of course. But you know the intricacies of American history better than anyone, so your ‘guess’ is bound to be the best available.” She continued to stare intently into his eyes, waiting.
He thought for a moment, reaching unconsciously into his desk drawer for the tequila. “Okay. I’ll give you my best guess, but you’re going to have to do something for me in return.” He began to top off his coffee, but stopped, suddenly realizing what he was doing. Barely a half jigger made it into the cup before he put the bottle away.
“What?” This exotic object of his fascination took no notice of his momentary lapse. She was more interested in his attempt to strike a bargain. “So what do you want?” She was serious.
Nietzsche had only been half-serious in proposing a deal, but she seemed willing to give him anything he asked for, and for an instant he was tempted to ask for something other than what he proposed. “All I want is for you to tell me why you’re so goddamn interested in Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Of course,” she answered, without the slightest hesitation. “I have a wager with a friend about what odds you would give. It’s not about Bonnie and Clyde at all. It’s about you.” Her eyes didn’t move from his.
He didn’t believe this any more than she did. It was completely obvious that her so-called explanation had been readied in advance, and she was making absolutely no effort to conceal her fabrication. She simply didn’t care. This made it all the more obvious that the real reason was of the utmost importance to her. “I see. How much did you bet?”
“A considerable amount.”
“And what odds did you bet on?”
“I won’t tell you that. It might influence your judgment.”
“You’re right. I might try to please you or even irritate you by what I conclude.”
“So, what do you say? Out of a hundred, what odds would you give?”
This was now definitely far into the world of the weird. I wasted good liquor money, he thought, on clothes and a top-notch coif just to impress this cold and calculating bitch. And, he added, I’d do it all over again, too. “Out of a hundred?…No more than one…tops.”
“What!” Her shock was genuine. “Why?” So was her anger.
I said one…one out of the hundred you gave me to work with.” He was also getting a bit irritated. “You asked me…I told you.”
“Sorry.” She calmed down instantly. “Now please give me your explanation. That’s what I paid for.”
He sighed, trying to keep his mind on the substance of the conversation and not on the unspoken reasons for her demand. What did she really want? “Okay, I’ll play along,” he said, then swallowed the last of his “coffee.”
With more than a little irritation, he answered. “It’s only one out of a hundred, because these two criminals became significant only as a result of the movie made about them. Jesus Christ, the only thing people really have in mind when they think of them is a mental picture of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway holding hands and getting hung together. Even if they had somehow eluded their captors, it wouldn’t have been all that earth-shattering, as you seem to think. Sure, they would’ve gone on killing and looting, but they would never be more than just outlaws. Their affect on history would be negligible.” He tried to gulp down the remainder of his slightly “sweetened” coffee, grimacing when he realized the cup was empty. “Actually, to be completely honest, a more accurate assessment of the odds would be one in a thousand, if not a million!! Satisfied?”
She lowered her eyes, crestfallen. “Yes.” After a deep sigh she got up to leave.
“So you lost the bet?”
“What?” Then added, “Yes.” She was totally disinterested in any further conversation.
She totally ignored him, got up and left.
* * *
Nietzsche’s couch had acquired over the years a few broken springs, making a comfortable use of it exceedingly difficulty. Beth Bergman-King was sitting on the edge to prevent a spring from tearing her dress, while watching Nietzsche pace back and forth in front of her. The small, Hollywood bungalow was perilously close to losing its status as a “fixer-upper” to the more appropriate appellation of “condemned.” Its furnishings, except for a few inherited antiques, had long since anticipated this decline.
“Do you remember Daniel Bartsky, a lecturer in the Math Department?” He asked her.
“Of course. He was the computer whiz fired for creatively altering the personnel files of several his least favorite colleagues.”
“Making him one of my most favored colleagues,” Nietzsche smiled. His eyes made an obvious pass across her squirming derriere as he opened a bottle of wine.
“You’re setting me up, right?” She held out a wineglass for him to fill.
He poured slowly. “I picked up delightful Beaujolais at Trader Joe’s. It may taste pretty good.”
Beth Bergman-King took the bottle from him and read the sticker. “Hmm. Only if there’s a merciful god,” she said, returning it to him. “So what about Bartsky?”
“It has to do with Lydia Wright.”
“No kidding.” She rolled her eyes.
“Just listen. Then tell me if I’m crazy. The aforementioned, and alleged, friend of mine happened upon some very interesting information about her.”
“So you’re still in contact with Daniel.”
“Just ‘happened upon it’? Hacking?”
“Whatever.” Nietzsche shook off her sarcasm. “Listen to this: Lydia Wright was the sole survivor of a plane crash!”
“Yeah…?” Beth turned her head to the side.
“It was a very unlikely plane crash to have any survivors.”
“So? She was exceptionally fortunate. Maybe even a miracle. What are you getting at?”
“B.B.!” Nietzsche looked at her with a pained expression. “The plane exploded at thirty five thousand feet! No one could have survived that…no one.”
Beth’s expression became quizzical. She sipped her wine pensively. “Thirty five thousand feet?”
“Not an inch less.”
He’s positive. All sorts of evidence and records prove it.”
“Yeah…just a tad more than a miracle, wouldn’t you say?
“Could you call her survival a ‘near death experience’?”
“Well, my dear, that’s the second so called miraculous escape from death I’ve heard today.” He paused and waited.
Nietzsche took a deep breath and continued. “The other person was our custodian. Charlie and Lydia, it turns out, have another thing in common.”
“Charlie’s from Telico, Texas and Lydia’s from Rowena, Texas.”
“And...?” Though puzzled, she went along with his scenario. “I still do not see the big deal. So they’re both from Texas. So what?”
“Those are the home towns of Bonnie and Clyde.”
“That is a little serendipitous.” Beth took a big sip of her wine. “But is this significant?”
“You tell me. I decided to do my own alternate scenario of Bonnie and Clyde -- for my book.”
Beth rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I know...trivia. In my scenario I speculate what would have happened if, instead of being captured, they were ambushed by a posse near Gibsland, Louisiana and killed in a massive hail of bullets.”
Beth asked for more wine, but made no comment.
“Well, as I see it, it would result in the two of them becoming mythic folk heroes, leading thousands of young people into a life of crime.”
“That would be a bad thing, right?” Beth could be a bit sarcastic.
Nietzsche, however, wasn’t finished. “I have another “what-if” in my book you might find interesting in this connection.”
“Go ahead, I see there’s still more wine in that bottle.”
Nietzsche smiled. “Suppose for a moment that when people have so-called ‘near-death’ experiences, they can be, for the lack of a better word, waylaid and ‘replaced’ by evil people who died at the same moment. It’s the evil people who then to return to life.”
“Sounds like a great science fiction story. You’re in the wrong profession.”
Nietzsche ignored her. “I know, I know....But there’s a caveat...the evil people can only do this if they have actually met the people they replace – like if they lived in the same town.”
“Oh...,” was all Beth Bergman-King had to say.
“One more thing.”
“I’ve never written anything like this before in my entire life. I decided to try it on a whim...just to show my many ‘fans’ that speculative history and speculative fiction are two different animals.”
Beth Bergman-King quaffed her drink and got ready to leave. “If I didn’t know better, my crazy admirer, I’d think you were telling me that whatever you write comes true.” She laughed.
Douglas Nietzsche didn’t.