Second Life

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The best revenge is not revenge at all.
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Most people, when confronted with the failure of their dreams, separate into one of two camps. The ones with good parents, who built up their kids with praise for the good they did, see it as a setback, and picked themselves up and try again. Those with bad parents, those who forgot that it takes ten "attaboys" to cancel out one "you idiot, you'll never amount to anything!," tend to drink themselves into oblivion and self-destruct. Most of the latter group choose spouses like their dysfunctional parents, so they are more likely to self-destruct. Some see this as natural selection.

A rare few straddle both camps. They come from basically good homes where the parents, for whatever reason, fell into self-pity and treated their children as if they were victims who were entitled to success because of that victimhood. Although they are usually successful, the people who marry such partners always get hit from left field by the infidelity of the person with whom they hoped to have families, grow old, and maybe reunite on the other side after the drama of death subsided. They never see it coming.

Such was the case with Travis Denning, age 32, as he stared across the small valley that held a busy road, peering out from the garage apartment of a friend in the lush suburb toward the row of high-rise condominiums opposite. Although he personally liked the idea of a condominium where he would never mow another lawn again, he remembered the words of his mother: "nothing good ever goes on in a condominium." In her view, people sharing a roof, whether condominiums or offices, unleashed the worst of the seven deadly sins. That included lust, a whispering voice in the back of his mind reminded him as he watched the energetic but discoordinated copulation through the tiny glass lenses.

As a systems engineer, Travis specialized in a few intangible skill sets, but first among them was diagnostics or "debugging" as the worms called it ("worm" is old Management slang for programmers, since your average programmer, coder, or developer might as well live under a rock for all of his -- and it's usually a he -- awareness of the world). Management had its own epithet for engineers: "machines." Travis wore this with pride, since in his lifetime, most of what went wrong had happened when people got emotional. He was not only cold as ice and as relentless as steel, but repetitive like a two-stroke engine or transistor. He could be warm with friends (this was a social skill he learned long ago like all the others, through study and practice) but he liked his mind free from the clutter of emotions, trends, and social influences. He was never one for keeping up with the Joneses or trying to be trendy.

His wife, Dana, and he had what he called "sensible nerd sex." It began with silly innuendo like a corny television program and then flowered into gentle smooches all the way to the stairs. They never made out on the stairs -- too much risk of injury if someone slipped, and they were both sensible people -- but instead hopped like little fornicating bunnies up to the bedroom, where they locked the door so that their two kids would not intrude. She would stroke him briefly, covering him with the kisses that he found the most appealing thing in the world, but already he would be impatient, and she would delay him only enough to intensify the eventual explosion. They made love, in the oldest meaning, with close affection and he would hold on until she had at least one orgasm before flooding her with his seed.

"We should do that again," he would say.

"Soon," she would reply. "I've got to do the laundry and make dinner."

"Yeah, and I've got to rebuild the back deck," he would reply.

Laundry, deck, dinner, yard... there was always something that needed doing by each of them. They had picked up a run-down house on the east side, near the university, which had "good bones" as his father would have said, but needed endless work, so getting out the door of his day job and fighting through fifteen minutes of traffic from downtown netted him a chance to spend another few hours sanding, painting, sawing, hammering, and otherwise re-building (more than renovating) this old but solid house. His first big move, since their neighborhood was still "gentrifying" i.e. money trickling in slowly enough that there was no HOA to nag him like a French emperor, was to enclose the porch that ran around the house, since it was built on top of the same slab. With another thousand square feet to work with, they needed reinforced support walls and a back deck to replace the porch, and then he could expand the upstairs out onto the little flat roof over the fireplace. At that point, they would have their dream home in a neighborhood where the meth and crack dealing were gradually being replaces by soy lattes and Volvos.

His day job tying together oilfield systems for an energy company took up a lot of his energy, but less of his time now, since he had carefully cultivated his role. In his eyes, the average job was four hours of work surrounded by a week of silliness like meetings, trainings, group bonding, and informing management of details that they would never understand. He built trust with management and his team, got everyone on the same page in terms of vocabulary, and now spent three weeks a month working about twenty hours a week, and one week in the field, a necessary evil that was the core of his job: applying theory by checking every detail to make sure that it was doing its part, and ensuring that the theory fit how nature worked. When you get details wrong on paper, you get a lower grade from the teacher; when you get them wrong at a drill-site a few hours into the wilderness, people can die and landscapes can be poisoned. Not that there was much wilderness left anymore, he thought, but to the guys in suits, anything too far from a mega-discount outlet mall was basically jungle and anarchy.

He had thought they had a good life, too, until a single detail caught his attention: she stopped carrying a specific book and refused to tell him about it.

Despite his hopes to keep her at home with the kids and house, Dana wanted to be relevant and have social stature of her own, outside of simply being a mother. That meant she needed a job, and not just any job, but a meaningful job, so she took one at the school just five miles down the road in what was still seen as a "developing" or perhaps "challenged" area where poverty, drugs, alcohol, gangs, and neglect intersected. South Central High School always made the news because it gave reporters those human interest "hope" stories that make bored people home alone in front of the television or at work scrolling through their little phones feel important and good inside, those nice warm fuzzy feelings we seek when we feel life has left us behind. There were always new hopes for the city there, overcoming poverty and working toward college, and Dana felt proud to be one of the people willing to sacrifice her own wealth in order to raise up the downtrodden.

Travis knew that this fit deeply into her psychology, since in addition to being the most amazing person he had ever met, Dana was tragic. Born Danielle Ruskin to a prosperous family in small town Tyler, Texas, she grew up in the shadow of her older sibling, Clarice, who died young of a tropical fever that blew through after the troops got back from Vietnam. As a result, Dana and the two siblings following got treated as if they were precious, rare, and doomed objects, and this made them both a little spoiled and a good deal chomping at the bit to escape the managed suburban jail sentence her parents had contrived for them. As she entered puberty, her father had the misfortune to be at the grain silos he operated when a teenage malcontent lit up a cigarette outside the empty Tower Seven.

Filled with grain dust which had been thrust airborne by a careless airblast from an errant employee trying to clear Tower Six, the ten-story grain silo detonated immediately, sending a large chunk of masonry crashing through the office. Dana's father is known for his last work in the office, which was to along with another employee shove uncomprehending workers into the metal stairwell, protecting them from the rain of stone which crushed much of his upper body. He lingered on for several days in the hospital before finally tiring of the pain, possibly aware that he would never run, jump, climb, or ride as he had as a boy. After a bright sunny funeral where no one ate the canapes, Dana's mother took over the grain silage business, followed by his brother, and the ensuing load of work and learning ate up the family. Dana grew up a neglected child who had once been able to have any toys or clothes that she wanted, but now took what the thrift store offered when her mother had time to stop in.

As Travis saw it, Dana was a ray of light that just about hid a silvery shadow. She loved her shadow, since it gave her a sense of entitlement. She had grown up poor, after being born rich, and had suffered just like her students. She identified with the underdog, and this made her view Travis, who had grown up not rich but comfortable in the upper quadrant of the population, as spoiled and possibly lazy, in contrast to the virtuous poor in their suffering and long hours. Where he, as an engineer, worshiped simplicity and efficiency, she saw these things as artifacts of privilege that stole money from the marginalized, even if the oil from his fields got everyone, rich and poor, to work and gave them a semi-functional local economy. He knew of this tension but, in the grand tradition of stoic men, hoped rather than believed that it would pass in time.

"You're home early again?" she would say.

"Yep, I got the whole thing working in record time, and it's more robust than the previous configuration," Travis would say.

Dana would pause for a few moments. "So, how's the deck coming?"

Travis never felt much guilt. He put in as much work around the house as she did, although he did "man things" as his mother would have called it while Dana did "woman things." He had torn the house down to the studs while they were still living in an apartment, reboarded the entire thing including the former porches, and re-sided the house. The deck became an engineering project of its own, since he wanted to not only build a large space for them to relax, but cover it with a roof to shelter it from the sun, all while not making it butt ugly like so many of the additions his well-heeled friends had splashed out unknown sums for. But he let into his heart the first resentment, and he took extra time with the deck, simply because she was always urging him on to work, work, work as if work were an end in itself and not a means to an end.

He felt some guilt for it, of course, but that lush sensation reminded him of his own parents, who had worked such long hours at their jobs that nothing he could do would ever measure up. When he brought home a report card from the first letter of the alphabet, they immediately responded with queries about what summer internships and volunteer activities he had planned in order to get into a good college. He shocked everyone by going to a second-tier state school, getting solidly good grades and working directly with industry, so that his application to a first-rate graduate program in engineering at Texas A&M University not only got immediate consideration, but slid him into a research group where he could make contacts directly with the energy industry. Travis refused to feel tragic about this; he had never missed a meal except through punishment, and at some level, he knew his parents loved him, even if through a fug of their own confused feelings of martyrdom.

In his mind, Travis saw himself as a good husband, although the one thing he took from religion was that all of us are flawed, and whatever deity exists tolerates us simply because we can have enough goodness in our hearts to try to overcome ourselves. For Travis, holiness came in the form of solid engineering: theory that turned out to work in the real world, resilient designs that avoided risk, and most of all efficiency so that no one wasted their lives trying to babysit yet another heap of glitchy technology. In the moments when he conceptualized, blueprinted, and built his systems, he felt like he was making himself understand the works of an absent deity whose genius had infinite dimension. He tried to do the same in his home life, but being a slightly nerdy and highly masculine engineer, he saw it through the man-filter, and this led to the unraveling, since he was not meeting his wife on terms she could understand.

"You know, we could sell this house," she said one night, as they lay cuddling after another round of lovemaking that blasted his socks off (at least, he found one in the stairwell and another on top of the dresser).

"I just got it to where we can enjoy it," he murmured. "Why would we sell?"

"There are all of these deserving families out there," she said. "We could sell it to them for a fair price, like what we paid for it."

"Honey, that's your thing," he said softly. "My thing is to do good, and be rewarded for it. The problem in this world is that not enough people who do good see any reward, so even less people try to be good."

"We could get another, and do your renovation," she continued. "You know, like house flippers."

Travis winced at the scoff that burbled out of him unbidden. "House flippers take a wreck, throw on a cosmetic improvement, and sell it for big bucks," he said. "That's not good, that's bad, just looking good, although not as good as you do right now."

"Well, that way you could do good for the deserving, and still come out ahead," she said.

Having learned from his mother and father that often the best answer was to say nothing, he stayed silent, and slipped into a troubled sleep.

Travis had a secret life, although he would have revealed it to his wife had she been interested enough to ask. She viewed his world as man-things, and considered whatever he did in the room in the forgotten southeast corner of the house -- his office -- as both a mystery and somewhat beneath her. She might have been interested to see, in the floor-to-ceiling bookcase he had constructed from oak boards recovered from a demolished shed on one of their "digs" or oilfield ventures, a shelf under the ones creaking with engineering textbooks, guides to the C++ programming language and its many intricacies, and geophysical refrence tomes. On this shelf, two removed from the floor, books of a different sort mellowed under the pale electric nights as he read late into the night. He liked grand stories, whether westerns or the epics of Faulkner, and women featured as prominently as men in the writing. He found a subtle kind of adventure in the urban identity crises of Barbara Pym, the country struggle for self-respect of Miss Read, and the quest for knowing oneself of the later works of Mary Shelley, just as he did in the adventures of Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, and Dashiell Hammett.

Just as every addict has a pusher, Travis Denning had a favorite bookstore. Blue Bell Books took up the lee side of a corner building in the "unimproved" section of downtown that being isolated from the rest by warehouses, experienced very little of the traffic in drugs, sex, and violence that made much of the rest uninhabitable after dark. It still had burglar bars on the windows, but these were painted a bright blue like the sign above on the one-story brick cube. Unlike your average bookstore, this one seemed to be dedicated to a special collection: books that were important to know in order to live a good life. This meant the kind of stories he liked where some ordinary (but not average) person encountered a struggle beyond their strength, yet worked up the will to approach it nonetheless. The good guys did not always win in the big stories, but they always won over themselves, he thought.

He had found it while driving to pick up a fidgety little gadget for one of his wellheads, and on impulse, had stopped in. He almost immediately regretted it. Over a worn green carpet, metal shelves loomed, stocked with books of mostly used condition, casting angular shadows on the floor as the lights above flickered. There was an old school desk at the rear with the obligatory computer screen and credit card terminal. If he had hoped for a comfortable chair, no such thing presented itself, and the walls despite being painted a cheerful blue radiated a kind of sickly green in the stuttering light of the fluorescent bulbs above. A woman seemed to be alternating between stocking books and answering the phone, and he reflected that she had designed her appearance to be ugly. The khaki pants looked like they came from a North Vietnamese uniform, and her peasant blouse might have been standard attire in a Mexican cartel. Instead of stylish shoes, she wore hiking boots, and had pulled her auburn hair back in a ponytail that showed the ragged results of what he guessed was grocery store generic shampoo. Her large glasses entirely obscured her face so that he felt he was staring at an owl, but she had a pleasant smile which would sneak out from behind her clouded face periodically as she made a little "hmmpf!" sound when sliding books onto a top shelf.

Travis had finally located the section, indicated by letters printed on one of those scrapbook-style label printers, for authors whose names began with "P," when the light cut out again.

"What the hey?" he mumbled, then, looking up, "a flaky ballast, maybe a bad line."

A voice cut into his musings. "Yes, I know the lights don't work right. Yes, I will do something about it. No, that's not now," she said, too shrilly -- on the edge of anger -- for Travis.

"No need to take it out on me," he said. "I get it: you run this shop, it's your baby, and everything's going wrong. When you get done being Christ on the cross and are ready to be Buddha under his yew tree, ask me nicely."

"No charity," she said firmly. "I'll get to it eventually."

Travis gave her a look that silenced her immediately, and she stepped back. We should describe Travis here: at five feet and eleven and a half inches, he had light brown, almost blond hair, and the kind of face that you might have seen on the cover of an old Western. He was not beautiful, but handsome in a functional way, and not muscled, but muscular, as any man who enjoys hiking, building things, and cultivating a garden of sweet habaneros would be. His face presented a blank not because of a lack of thoughts, but a detachment from the world, she decided after a moment. At first, she had feared him because of the sudden violence for which high testosterone men were known, but on reflection thought him unlikely to act unfairly. Men with this kind of power almost never took interest in those they could harm easily, since there was no challenge in it. Nonetheless she stepped back quickly.

Seizing the stepladder, Travis stepped up and inspected the light. He reminded her of the slow, methodical approach her father took which used to irritate her as a little girl. First the cover came off, then with his pocketknife he checked the screws, then tightened the conduit. He reset the bulbs, blew out some dust, and re-settled the cover. The flickering continued.

"Well?" she said, a bit more brattily than she intended.

"Diagnostics time," said Travis. "There's nothing wrong with the fixture despite being, uh, entry-level. This is not the only light flickering. It could be that all the ballasts are bad, or that you have an electrical problem." He tracked the conduit back to the the rear of the facility where there were two doors. Yanking open the first, he spotted a toilet and sink, so he opened the second, to his chagrin noticing the harridan pointing to a sign on the first door that said RESTROOM. The unmarked door yielded a back office which was basically a stack of books and a desk with a lamp and brown paper bag on it. Lunch, he thought, as he probed behind books for her electrical panel. Without waiting for permission, he squeezed the clasp and opened the creeling metal door, then shined the desk lamp into it.