Jen Fawkes: “Mastermind” from One Story #186, 12/2/13

Photo by Hillary Ryland

Photo by Hillary Ryland

This morning, as my gaze roamed over the assemblage of eye patches, graying temples, prosthetic limbs, and straining waistbands that filled the Central Control Room, I thought of you. Mowing the lawn, driving the station wagon, seated at the head of the dining table. Not that you’re anything like them, the members of our Organization, those aging international outlaws who stood around sipping the coffee and nibbling the pastries I’d had flown in from the Professor’s favorite Viennese bakery. To the best of my recollection, you never cared for sweets, an attitude you share with Rags Randall, our team’s computer and communications expert. Although none of us knows his exact age, it’s obvious that Rags is still a child, and when the Professor initially approached me about bringing him into the Organization, I was resistant. Children make me nervous. But the Professor insisted, and although I’d already seen evidence that my mentor’s mind was fraying, I obeyed. As I’ve always obeyed.

I didn’t think I was interested in this story, kind of sneered at it. Come on, Rags Randall, child computer prodigy and communications expert? Rappelling twins? Beatrice Bot, the Maneater of Manchester? Jiang Lau, The Tiny Terror of Taipei? I’m all for humor, camp, fun, but this seemed like imitation camp. But it got me in the end. Call me a sentimental fool, but you take an aimless depressive, water it with paternal conflict, fertilize with self-destruction – and it’ll grow on me every time.

The current project undertaken by this nefarious Organization involves blowing up Mt. Rushmore if 100 world leaders don’t immediately resign their positions. Ok, the reason given is unconvincing – I think it’s supposed to be. But the Professor, head of the Organization, is suffering from some Alzheimer’s-like condition, so to him, it probably seems perfectly logical. It’d be a better story if this element were more solid, sure; like, why now? Just what are the complaints? But maybe not, because the real story lies in the loyalty and dedication of the members of the Organization.

I first encountered the Professor twenty-five years ago, while working as an adjuster in your insurance office. You remember; this was after I failed out of college for the second time. I’d been on the job nine months when I started waking in the still dead of each night, sweating profusely, my heart a-hammer. Unable to slide back into slumber, I would roam the nocturnal streets of our city, and once, before I knew it, I snatched the purse that dangled from the shoulder of a woman walking toward me. The act filled me with a cruel concoction of purpose and self-loathing, and a petty crime spree ensued. After rolling a drunk one night, after striking the grizzled old man repeatedly in the face, I helped him to his feet, dusted him off, apologized, gave him all the money in my pocket. I heard someone left and turned to find the Professor seated on a nearby bench, decked out in a camelhair overcoat and fedora.
Son, the Professor said, I think you’re the one I’ve been waiting for. Stick with me. I’ll take you places. Show you things.

Everybody’s got unresolved father issues.

The only actual father in the story is offscreen; the story, addressed to him, is a kind of apostrophic monologue Carl composes in his head as events transpire. The story of destroying Mt. Rushmore (boy, is Fawkes going to end up on some NSA watchlist or what) is conflated with Carl’s biography (and, for a little over-the-top, a volcano eruption). Now, you might feel that weighs down Carl’s story; for some of us, a little faith is required to even get there. And Carl’s story isn’t anything we haven’t heard before; it’s not fleshed out enough. If you’re the right kind of reader, you flesh it out yourself as you read. If you’re not the right kind of reader, it’ll probably go flat. You have to want it. Interesting: sometimes, when I write about a story, I talk myself into it; this time, I’m talking myself out of it. But I had to talk myself into it in the first place, to talk myself out of it; if I wait long enough, I may talk myself back into it again. A worthwhile exercise, really, but perhaps more than the casual reader is willing to undertake.

Rags never speaks…His hand is small, and always sticky, and although my initial instinct is to pull away from his touch, I don’t. I can recall taking your hand the exact same way, thousands of times, as a boy, and I remember the images that would orbit through my mind as I clung to you – Rocky Mountains and giant sequoias and El Capitan, a granite monolith that stands in Yosemite National Park – thinks deeply embedded, enduring, solid. I cannot help but feel saddened by the thought of what Rags must see, as he clings to me.

What I was most interested in when all was said and done was Fawkes’ One Story Q&A. Fawkes (they really should’ve run this story in early November, don’t you think?) a movie fan, and mentions a host of films in connection with this story (Bond is the obvious one, I guess, but I’ve never been much of a Bond fan) and with her writing in general, but never mentions the two that I thought of as I read: Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 remake) and Sneakers.

I like that she appreciates “stories that are narrated from the margins;” I always liked observer-narrators myself. Anyone can write a story about the star of the football team, but it’s the equipment manager that has a fuller view of what’s going on.

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