POWER is the perfume. It mingles with the other perfumes, the food smells, it seeps between the sounds of dishes and utensils and whispers. We reek of power. The air is more nourishing than the meal. This pure sense of belonging brings water to my eyes. I would not be surprised if other eyes are wet. There is fusion here. We are one.
Of course it is not the same for the children. Amos is bored. He is thinking of TV shows he is missing. Amanda is happier, content just to be here. She reaches for a fork and begins to play with it. Trina lifts it out of her hand. Amanda doesn't mind. She adores her mother. I reach for Trina's lovely hand. I give it a squeeze. Her hand is unresponsive. Understandable. She must be feeling the pride and purpose of the moment. She does not want to complicate that splendid emotion. She does look gorgeous. Her profile could be on money.
Even her father is still. That is unusual for Homer Brogg. He is perpetual motion. My mother-in-law, Lauren, looks over at him. His tranquility prompts her to check to see if he is alive. Homer nods solemnly, as if this was a church not a hotel.
Music begins. Lights fade. A screen is lowered behind the dais. We are about to see a video.
The scene is a hospital delivery room. The walls are painted in gay pastels. The nurses wear rainbow gowns. The obstetrician is in blue pastel, the anesthesiologist wears pink. The soon-to-be mother is radiant in a lime green nightie. She is a long-haired blonde of about twenty with huge eyes and bow lips. The excited father, masked and standing to her left, wears a white suit, tie and shoes. There is one red dot on his tie. They seem poised to sing but in fact everyone is highly concentrated.
The mother suddenly leans her head backward. There is an incredible smile on her face, a lovely blush to her cheeks. She moans but not in pain. Her moan is tremulous. The father bites his lip. He makes a funny face. A nurse looks over at him and titters. She has seen this kind of thing before.
The child is born. The doctor's back obscures the actual gush of life (and that is just as well considering the family audience). The nurses bustle about sponging the infant. It is a squirming, healthy male who is already howling for attention.
"A boy," the doctor says. "A wonderful, strapping fellow."
"How did you do that?" the father says. The jubilant mother touches him gently on his nose.
"You had something to do with it," she says.
The head nurse takes the baby. The music changes to a driving, suspenseful chord. She carries the newborn to the Hoffenstein IV. The machine is as new as the baby, the latest model, pristine titanium and chrome. The nurse switches it on and lights dance. She presses information into the keyboard. A glass slab slides forward and the baby is placed there.
There are quick, full frame portraits of the others in the room: father, mother, doctor, nurses, anesthesiologist. Their faces have lost the triumphant smile. The baby's face seems older.
The Hoffenstein IV withdraws the slab and takes the tyke into itself. A canopy closes over the baby like a camera lens focusing. A metal arm darts from the canopy and stamps the baby's head. The mother gasps. She sits forward. The father restrains her. The baby wails, more startled than hurt. The slab ejects him.
The head nurse lifts, comforts and carries the child back to the doctor who has put on a pair of glasses. He examines the Bar Code stamped on the tiny forehead.
"Mrs. Martin, I am very pleased to tell you that your son is . . . Code A. Yes, we are talking Major Administrative Potential here."
The father steps forward to see for himself. He bends over the A-Coded male. "But Ellen is Code K and I'm Code G," he says. "I'm a plumber. A damn good plumber but a plumber."
The doctor lovingly embraces him. His voice is all compassion. "There is the miracle," he says, "in your proverbial nutshell." Music rises as the father himself presents their son to its mother. Under her nightie, two splendid breasts rise like volcanos. We know the baby will be well fed and on his way.
The music crests. The screen goes to black and is withdrawn on cables that lift it out of sight. A mellow voice announces, "Ladies and Gentlemen . . . the man. The myth. The beloved. Let us welcome Dr. Lawrence Hoffenstein!"
If somebody had said to me, "James Wander, you will someday be in the same room with Dr. Hoffenstein," I would not have believed it. And if they told me what I would feel when the man appeared, all one hundred pounds of him, a skeletal elf with a tuft of white hair crowning his huge head, pencil legs carrying him toward the podium, one arm waving in a greeting, if they told me the depth and resonance of my response, I would have said bullshit.
Dr. Lawrence Hoffenstein moves, frame-by-frame, across the stage, leaning into the thick, still air like a paper boat fighting invisible current. The air becomes time. Time is the current he fights and we watch the incredible battle. Hoffenstein propels himself forward. We stand and cheer. Such explosive admiration demands outlet. My belly is an old stove. Coals are shoveled into it, I boil and broil. Steam shoots from every orifice. I glow, sweat drenches my shirt, I nearly lose consciousness.
I grab for Trina's arm. It isn't there. The rush of blood subsides. I am still vertical. That alone strikes me as miraculous. My father-in-law once told an interviewer that he depended on an inner gyroscope for his own stability and I know what he meant. Hoffenstein creeps along as the cheers peak. They are his tailwind. Pride is his sail. He takes the microphone and waits for quiet, he holds up his arms in the universal gesture for enough-is-enough. But it isn't enough, God knows. It isn't nearly enough. His arms cork our frenzy. The screen lowers behind him. Video amplifies his image ten times.
There is his Bar Code, the first. It wriggles with the wrinkled skin of his ancient forehead. But there it is and we cheer again. Hoffenstein lets his head bow, he can't fight the outpouring of affection. Then there is total silence.
It happens without any cue. We quit our noise the way country bugs abdicate their insect song at exactly the same instant and leave you to drop through the soundless hole. Hoffenstein raises his head as best he can, sips water from a crystal glass, and speaks.
I expect him to creak like an old building, I expect him to gargle rust. I am wrong and a fool. This is the voice that changed the world. It snaps out at us, it flails at us, it thunders from a mouth no wider than a drain. On the video screen his magnified tongue thrashes between fragile teeth. Each tooth marks a victory, the man is a hundred years old.
"Here I am," Dr. Lawrence Hoffenstein says, "much to my surprise. A handful of lust and dust. Your wonderful applause, your generous cheers come to me like echoes through snow and I remind myself that all is vanity and a striving after wind. Please, friends, be seated. We are family. This is a family affair."
It feels wrong but we sit. Not all at once. In clumps and clusters. It is hard to sit in his presence. "At this time in my life I not only hear my own echoes, I see them. They are fleshed out and palpable as milky young girls. What do I see? I see a time when this planet was in the clutch of spiders. Our world was woven into a malevolent cocoon of disharmony and hatred. Earth writhed in space. We made stars vomit. We cracked the skin of creation. Our children dreamed of a fiery final mushroom cloud. The sweet air turned rancid. Our moon was startled. Our trees were turning to bonsai with tangled limbs. They shed their leaves. Their roots sucked acid. Where was hope and where was God? The spiders waited. They injected our brains with arrogance, greed, poisons so virulent as to unravel our very DNA. Disease ravaged every neighborhood. We encased ourselves inside leaky condoms of self-interest."
Dr. Hoffenstein begins to cough. He coughs violently, in separate hacks. His hand grabs for more water. He floods his throat with a long drink that dribbles down his chin. The video makes it look like a waterfall. We gasp in unison but his gyroscope works and he recovers himself.
"Then it became my privilege and my honor to develop and perfect the Hoffenstein I, the Human Bar Code."
Of course we leap to our feet cheering again. We vent for a full five minutes. Then we settle back into our seats. Hoffenstein listens and sees more of his echoes. He keeps us waiting.
"Does the man have a sense of timing?" Homer Brogg whispers to me. That is Homer's supreme compliment, since he has none himself.
"Now, with virtually total acceptance, 98 percent of the inhabitants of blessed Planet Earth are coded at birth. Name, social security number, sex, birthdate and most important . . . degree of potential. The Hoffenstein Gradation does not say to any individual 'This is what you are' but 'This is what you can be!' Within each Code designation there is ample room for personal achievement. For minimum and maximum Actuality Realization. What a person does with his or her Code is entirely up to that person. Codes are determined democratically by the Prime Mother Computer whose only purpose is the welfare of the Earth and the citizens who dwell upon her generous bosom."
We applaud as a picture of Earth appears on the video screen. She is beautiful, perfectly formed, deliciously placed in a universe of such harmony as to turn numbers into music. "Only I know the location of the Prime Mother Computer who we jokingly call Surrogate Madonna. And let us never forget those true heroes and heroines who built her, then willingly died to protect her secrets. They are with us tonight and I do homage to their glorious ghosts. Let us remember them now."
The screen is covered with unknown faces. We bow our heads. How many of us would agree to give our lives to the future without even the fanfare of war? They did their job in record time knowing that when it was done they would be executed and their executioners executed in mass suicide. Even their burial place is unknown except to Hoffenstein. They pledged their spirits to eternal silence. So many of the faces are young. I look at my own children and shudder.
"Friends, family of mine, let me say that I shall never forget your tribute to me tonight. I shall remember every face in this room. My very atoms hold your images like guarded treasure. When I recycle into flowers or birds or beasts or as part of another human life, my most minute fragment will still remember you, will remember this evening. And believe me when I say that from the pinnacle of my obscene age echoes come to me not only from the past but from the future! I hear and see a choir of millions united in a synchronous hymn of joyous praise. A cathedral spire that shines brighter than gold. Are these only the dreams of a doddering scientist? That is for you to decide. Only you. Make my vision live! Be Proud of Your Code!" He reaches up a spindly arm, a blue hand touches his own Code, tapping his skull.
A waiter drops a tray and dumps dregs of mousse on a mogul. Who cares? They both scream, "Be Proud of Your Code!" We all scream out as Dr. Lawrence Hoffenstein walks backward until he is swallowed by the billowing curtain. I kiss my wife and my mother-in-law. I shake hands with my son and embrace my daughter. Homer slaps me on the shoulder. Our flag and the Earth flag are on-screen now in colors so bright I wince.
I see Trina putting the tassled menu into her purse. She wants a souvenir. I grin at her. She wrinkles her Bar Code in response.
It is hard for me not to believe in Luck.
n e x t