"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The Atlases at Home: The Children
Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow
Exclusive to STR
NOTE: The following story first appeared in the spring 1989 edition of the magazine Nomos: Studies in Spontaneous Order, where it was illustrated by James W. Judson. With the release of the movie “Atlas Shrugged,” perhaps it is time for a re-release of this bit of fun from an admirer of Ayn Rand.
She was a living syllogism ― torn from the crackling pages of a book, given substance and form, suffused with energy: one need only read the calm determination on her untroubled brow, perceive the intensity behind the emerald flash in her eyes, interpret the set of her jaw, and trace the outline of her breasts against the loosely clinging fabric of her finely woven sweater, and all of the rest simply had to be as it was. She was late for class, but there was no hint of apology on her face. Perhaps there was no room.
Her name was Andromeda.
His roll call interrupted by her entrance, Mr. d’Arc, the geometry teacher, couldn't keep his eyes from following the delicate curves of her figure ― over and over again. For one individual in the classroom, her presence was less an interruption than a completion: Alex. His eyes raked over her form, ransacking every inch of her flesh ― more revealed than disguised beneath the thin layer of wool, the faint coarseness of its texture acting as counterpoint, emphasizing the polished smoothness of her skin, the silvery-gray tone of the fibers serving only to bring out the glowing blush of incarnadine in her cheeks. When he was finished raking, Alex shifted uneasily in his desk, rearranging his books to obscure the inevitable physical response of his body to the metaphysical fact of her being. He only hoped nobody noticed.
He didn't have to worry. Everyone else was looking at Andromeda too ― the boys with open lust, snickering to their buddies, the girls with icy darts of malice and jealousy. As she took in her new surroundings, sweeping the classroom with the penetrating gaze of an accountant taking an inventory of columns and rows of figures, Andromeda's eyes paused only twice ― once on Mr. d’Arc, standing next to his desk at the front of the room, and again, for only the fraction of a second longer that betrayed the magnitude of its importance, on the face of Bart, Alex's brother. For the instant during which their eyes met ― each noticing who was looking at whom, the order in which they received the look, and understanding the significance of those looks and the nearly imperceptible differences in the lengths of the pauses ― a right isosceles triangle was etched into the air over the heads of the students, like a laser cutting through the fog over a field of sheep on a damp autumn morning. Mr. d’Arc occupied the central angle ― as the instructor, in a position of might, therefore, right; Andromeda and Bart defined the two subordinate angles, smaller but far more acute. Alex, despite his raking, was completely left out. Never a member of any inner circle, he wasn’t even a tangent in this ménage à trois.
Her spell was broken by an impalpable change as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, turning toward an empty seat at the back of the room ― not the farthest from Bart, a choice that would have betrayed the intensity of her reaction to his presence, but a seat with no salient characteristics whatsoever, aside from that very deficit and the fact of its selection by her, itself an undeniable acknowledgment of its singularity.
There was no mistaking the goal of her movement, the flawless efficiency of her steps as she approached her destination, and the tight economy of her turn as she stood poised, motionless, before gravity was conceded the privilege, if only for a moment, of being used to lower her body into place. To those closest at hand, however, the direction was reversed. The chair seemed to be exalted, raised to the fullest potential of its designed use, somehow achieving an end previously attempted but never reached, as the shining black leather of her pants, encasing her lower body like a second skin, made contact with its cool white surface, gently cradling, but not imprisoning her form, precisely bent twice, once at the knees, once at the hips. To those looking on, her passage from the doorway was a single fluid motion, an exercise in feline grace and silence. But, as if refusing to be captured in the stereotyped image of a metaphor, the electric shock of her orange-red hair and the razor-edged corners of its half-inch length ripped across their field of vision. The combined effect: a paradox which left them feeling both soothed and lacerated.
It was over almost before anyone was aware that anything had taken place. And like the key to a memory, only the faint pungency of her perfume remained suspended in the air as proof of what had taken place ― and, then, only long enough to be perceived.
"Alex, please go to the board and copy the figure on page three."
"Alex," Mr. d'Arc repeated," please do so now."
Alex looked around himself and then focused on Mr. d'Arc. "I'm sorry. Were you speaking to me?"
"For some time. Please, copy the figure on page three while I finish taking attendance." Back in the world of the living, Alex had a problem: his physical response to Andromeda promised to call out an even greater audible response from his fellow students if he obeyed the command. He tried to stall for time, flipping through the pages of his book, feigning incompetence while trying to conjure up memories of Mrs. Starginski, his 260-pound neighbor, scrubbing her bathroom tile grout in the nude. Alex's bedroom window looked out directly into the Starginski bathroom on the second floor. He tried to revive the image of doughy billows of cellulite smothering Mrs. Starginski's backside. He tried to focus on imaginary pores and warts and ingrown hairs, but it didn't work. He was seventeen, and his hormones were on parade.
''Alex, is something wrong?"
"Uh, yes. I…I think I feel dizzy."
"It just happened."
"Is this a recurring problem?"
"No, I just felt it suddenly."
"Well, we have to get going," he said as he scribbled on a small pad of yellow paper. "So here's a pass. Just take your books and wait in the nurse's center down the hall."
"Uh…can't I just wait here a minute?" There was no way out.
Everything had seemed to be going so well at first. He thought he had it made when Andromeda walked in, even though she ignored him. Everything was under control, his self-confidence unquestionable. But then it just seemed to go down the tubes. First she only had eyes for Bart, then she sat two rows away where he couldn't see her, and now he had to get up no matter what. Fear of embarrassment seemed to make his body even more disobedient. He felt like every eye was on him, every mind reading his thoughts. He even thought he heard a few girls titter and some of the boys chuckling derisively. As he sat there not knowing what to do, not saying anything, fidgeting with his books, his suspicions became reality. There was now no mistaking the barely suppressed laughter.
"I'm waiting, Alex. Let's go. Now."
"Uh…" His day was starting to crash around him, and there was no way out. He began moving to leave his chair and rush out of the room. There was a buzzing in his head as he began to stand up, and the noise in the classroom became louder, the wash of sounds melting together, becoming less distinct as it grew to a dull roar…
He awoke with a start. He was in his own bed, the alarm clock humming insistently on his nightstand. They were definitely getting worse ― the dreams. While they weren't really nightmares, yet, they were much more intense lately, at least more so than when they had started, he thought, as he rummaged through the clutter surrounding the alarm clock. Finally he found the pack of cigarettes and shook one out into his palm ― one of the last from the Valley, he sighed. Pretty soon he'd end up smoking the same stuff as the others in his school ― a crude mixture of tobacco and unidentified leaves, he shrugged. Lighting up, he inhaled deeply, savoring the rich taste of his first puff of the day. He aimlessly rolled the cigarette in his fingers, watching the gold dollar sign reflecting warmly in the pale morning light of his bedroom.
He had practically been raised on these things, he thought back. Four years…four years old when he started. At least that's what mom said. And Bart started before that. Always ahead of me, he mumbled to himself, rising off the bed and pacing slowly up to the window.
He couldn't recall the first time he had smoked a cigarette, but he could remember his earliest childlike associations of cigarette smoking with being happy and alive. He remembered the many evenings when his parents would gently rouse him from sleep and fetch him from his bedroom into the living room where they were entertaining guests; how they would set him on the coffee table and try to teach him to smoke, placing a lighted cigarette in his tiny fingers, carefully showing him which end to raise to his lips, coaxing him to inhale, and laughing sympathetically with their guests as he coughed when the smoke reached his lungs.
But it wasn't so much the parties and people that made him want to smoke as a child. It was more basic than that. He could remember how, like clockwork, he was awakened every morning by the ratcheting sound of his parents coughing as they put on their robes and slippers in their bedroom across the hall and by the bracing smell of their first cigarettes wafting through the air. Until he was five, smoker's hack was his alarm clock, his link with conscious life.
In his little boy's mind, he had made the connection, forming one of his earliest concepts: the formula for emerging from death-like sleep and into the bright clarity of each new day was somehow wrapped up with the morning cough, the first cigarette ― and later, with the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Once he had mastered the technique, he remembered how he had swelled with pride each morning as he toddled eagerly from his bedroom, sleep in his eyes, sometimes carrying his stuffed red caboose, to join his parents at the breakfast table for that first cigarette ― they were very strict about his not smoking in bed ― and smiling to his parents, how he would pour himself a cup of coffee, steaming hot and black, made from beans grown in Uncle Juan Francisco's orchard.
It seemed so long ago, he thought, as he came out of his reverie and put on his robe. Glancing briefly out the window, across the space between the houses, he was grateful that the Starginskis' bathroom window was closed and fogged up this morning. He turned and made his way across the bedroom, trying to avoid stepping on the mess of books and papers lying scattered around the floor. In some way, he was very much like his mother. As he turned from his bedroom, his father was just leaving the bathroom, clouds of steam following him out into the hall.
"Better hurry, Alex. You're running late this morning."
"I know, dad. I'll just skip breakfast."
''Again? I don't like this new habit you've picked up. Come on, let's put some steam in the engine, eh?" he said, putting his arm around his son and shuffling down the stairs.
As they entered the kitchen and Alex began measuring coffee into the pot, his father eyed him suspiciously. ''Alex, where did you get that cigarette?"
"Oh," said Alex, "I'm sorry, I know they're for you and mom and special company, but…but I just couldn't stand that garbage from the store. Last night I was finishing my homework, and it was late, and I took a pack from the hall closet."
"You should have asked first."
"I know, but you and mom were already asleep, and I needed it bad."
"Oh really?" said his father, "and just when did you start using language like that around this house?"
"Sorry," he replied, "I mean I wanted it badly." He then turned quickly to yank the glass carafe out from under the faucet before it overflowed. It hit the side of the sink and broke into several large pieces.
"That's the second ― or is it third? ― time this month, Alex."
"I know," he answered, "I guess I'm just clumsy."
''And how, dad! You should have seen him yesterday at football practice: all thumbs." Interrupting, Bart burst into the kitchen, fully dressed, his face ruddy and glowing with health. "Looks like you took care of the Java again today, eh buddy?" he said as he crossed the room in three long strides and smashed Alex's right shoulder with a brotherly, but nonetheless painful, jab.
''And look at this," he continued, pulling the cigarette from Alex's mouth. "The private stock. Not many of these left." He popped it back into Alex's mouth, still open in protesting surprise, and lifted the pack of cigarettes from Alex's pajama top, shook several into his palm, and then put the pack into his own shirt pocket. He returned two smokes to Alex and lit the other three in the gas flame of the stove. He gave one to his father, put one in his own mouth, and headed toward the kitchen door just as his mother was entering.
"Good morning, mother," he said, offering her the remaining cigarette, already lit. "This is for you."
"Thank you, Bart. You're always so thoughtful," she praised, brushing her long thin fingers through his brown hair. She drew deeply on the cigarette and walked over to her husband. Placing her hand behind his neck, she gave him a warm kiss on his mouth. "Good morning, Shawn," she said aloud. "That's for last night," she whispered in his ear.
Flushing with pleasure at her words, her husband returned the kiss just as enthusiastically. "Nobody but you, Tanya," he rumbled under his breath. But his eyes carried the rest of his message far more eloquently, expressing a sentiment and simultaneous ethical judgment of such intensity and all-encompassing application, that mere words would have robbed it of meaning ― its essence denied existence by the destruction wrought by mere verbal approximation. If there was the slightest doubt concerning the nature of the message ― highly unlikely as both of them had years of lengthy nonverbal philosophical discussions behind them ― the affection they displayed as they gently kissed the newest collection of bruises, scratches, and bites would resolve it.
ORIGINAL AUTHOR’S NOTE: A resident of Jersey City, New Jersey, Lawrence M. Ludlow is a marketing writer for a Princeton-based architectural design firm. He has previously written satires for Nomos, and he dedicated this most recent work to himself.