by David L. Arnett
On the day the poles shifted, Kaspar Korkut was sitting quietly one sunny fall morning outside a coffee shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., reading an article in The Washington Post on battered husbands. The unusual subject was beginning to gain currency in the social welfare community, although Kaspar could easily have written the article from personal experience twenty years earlier.
He was, in fact, 45 years old. His wife Magda was actually quite pretty and trim, too pretty for the good of his psyche and too trim for the good of his body, which too often bore the bruises of her blacker moods. In their twenty years of marriage, they had experienced only one fight, but, as the story goes, it had lasted twenty years.
They had met in Munich, where Kaspar was serving in his first overseas tour at the American Consulate General as a Vice Consul adjudicating visas. The Germans were pressing for the establishment of a visa waiver program; Kaspar would have pressed just as hard in the opposite direction had he known what awaited him. Magda’s maiden name, Hausdrachen, neatly printed on the visa application, should have warned him, but he was growing tired at the end of the day, and, truth be told, he was growing ever more enticed as she smiled at him from the other side of the window.
“It says on your application that you are 22 years old and that you wish to travel as a tourist for three months in the United States. It also says that you are unemployed, single, and that you have only 500 DM in your bank account. I’m afraid that I will not be able to issue the visa, unless I have more definite proof that you will be returning after three months.”
Magda smiled at him flirtatiously and said in passable English, “I don’t have anything with me now. Let me prove it to you at home.”
A more experienced officer, and perhaps a better-looking one, would have thrown her out. Instead, he threw in with her, and she showed him what she had to show. She also got the visa to the United States, although a little bit later as Mrs. Korkut, and his fate was sealed.
As he looked up from his newspaper at the loud screeching across the street, Kaspar observed a perfectly healthy and rather large black cat running apparently for its life from a small creature that appeared to be an unremarkable gray mouse. Must be a shrew, he thought to himself, as he saw the creature gaining on the cat. As the two animals rounded the corner and passed from his line of sight, Kaspar’s thoughts turned to the office and his own current nemesisburly Jack Stark, the Director of the Office of Austrian, German, and Swiss Affairs at the State Department, the man for whom Kaspar labored as Deputy Office Director and served as permanent fall guy.
In the beginning, two years before, Kaspar thought that perhaps all Office Directors claimed the credit for everything that went right in their domains and blamed the rest of the staff for everything that went wrong. A meek but honorable man, Kaspar readily took all blame upon himself, as he genuinely liked his other colleagues and wished only the best for them. The fact that he had been stuck at the FS-02 level for nine years bothered Magda far more than it did him, and his bruises testified silently to the extent of her displeasure.
He was hurt far more by Jack’s refusal to assign the credit to him that he clearly deserved. How many times had he prepared memoranda for Jack’s signature and read the compliments addressed to Jack on the come-back copies without ever hearing a word of acknowledgement from him? How many times had he reminded his boss of meetings about to take place and deadlines about to be missed without a word of gratitude in return? In his last rating, Jack had actually begun the narrative by writing: “Mr. Korkut is a modest officer with much to be modest about.”
Kaspar paid his bill for his coffee and donuts, folded his paper, and began to stroll toward the Harry S. Truman building on C Street, “Main State” for legions of State Department employees. Unfortunately, his marked physical resemblance to President Truman had proved to be no advantage in his career. He stopped two blocks later to join a small but growing crowd of students from George Washington University gaping at a loudly chattering gray squirrel that was nipping ferociously at the tail of a black Labrador retriever that somehow believed it could escape by climbing up a young elm tree. When the squirrel’s teeth finally hit flesh instead of hair, the poor Lab abandoned its climbing pursuits and fled down an alleyway, howling pitifully.
As the crowd split into small conversation groups amid nervous laughter and scattered applause for the still chattering squirrel, Kaspar began to walk again toward Main State with the memory of the fleeing cat suddenly front and center in his consciousness. He empathized with the two small creatures that had somehow turned the tables on their larger foes, and he began to feel an unaccustomed stirring of resentment at the many slights and embarrassments that he had endured for so many years. Even so, it had not yet dawned on him that he had never before really been aware of the slights and embarrassments.
Once more, he began to walk toward Main State, and it occurred to him that he had better hurry or he would not reach the office by 0830. For the first time in his life, however, it also occurred to him that he really didn’t care whether he was late or not. As he began to savor that surprising thought, running it several times through unfamiliar corners in his mind, he spied two nondescript gray rabbits in the yard to his left that had jumped from behind a bush and were sniffing intently at what appeared to be carrot peelings that had fallen from a nearby trash can. As he drew closer, Kaspar could see that the much smaller female rabbit had also begun to sniff at the hindquarters of the much larger male. With no warning, the female jumped on the back of the male and began to hump wildly.
Before the incongruity of the scene could really sink in, Kaspar’s thoughts flashed sharply to the reception at the Germany Embassy the week before in honor of the visiting Minister of Foreign Affairs. Magda luxuriated in all such events at the Embassy, and the opportunity to please her by providing access to such invitations was the main reason why Kaspar had not requested a transfer from his office long before. Nevertheless, this particular event had marked a crossing of the threshold in his relations with Jack, who had been drinking too much as usual and making full and loud use of his fluent but ungrammatical German. Just as Caspar began to walk across the wide reception hall to caution Jack about the uncomfortable volume of his speech, he saw Magda reach for Jack’s hand and pull him slowly but firmly away from his loud discussion with one of the First Secretaries at the Embassy and lead him out of the crowded hall, through an archway, and into a small anteroom. Proud of his wife’s diplomatic finesse, Kaspar crossed under the archway and peered into the anteroom to make sure that Jack was not berating her, only to witness the two in a locked embrace and Jack’s hands playing an impassioned jazz bass on her back and bottom.
Turning immediately in shock and embarrassment away from the scene and walking back through the archway and into the crowd, a stunned Kaspar stumbled through the rest of the evening with no memory whatsoever of a single word spoken to him. He did remember that Jack returned as boisterous as ever, even more so than before, and that Magda seemed to glow with life and beauty, although she slapped him later for “abandoning” her to her own devices at the reception. Jack chewed him out mercilessly the next day for not preparing notes on conversations that he would then claim had been his own. “What’s the use of perfect German if you don’t have anything to say?” Jack had asked.
Kaspar had tried to forget the reception and the clear evidence of his wife’s betrayal, but the image of the two embracing had been returning to him unbidden throughout the weekat first as a reminder of shame, then as an odd form of titillation, and finally, now, as a source of genuine, seething anger.
He doubled his pace and quickly found himself at the side entrance of Main State on 21st Street. As he descended the steps that would eventually lead him to the elevators and the higher floors, animated conversations all around him broke through his angry reverie.
“No one really understands what it means,” intoned one voice. “Throw away your compass,” said another.
After passing through security in the basement, he found himself in a crowded, noisy elevator that stopped on the first floor. Pushed out unwillingly by the flow of passengers, he instinctively jabbed at the body behind him with a sharp elbow and heard a pained intake of breath that pleased him. Before he could focus on the novelty of acting instinctively, let alone finding pleasure in someone else’s pain, he was swept down the hall with countless others toward the hubbub at the main entrance hall of the headquarters building.
Surprisingly adept at pushing his way through the mass of people, he finally stood in front of one of the television sets mounted in strategic corners of the lobby and intersecting hallways and listened intently to the voice of a news announcer above the din: “Yes, the world’s scientists have confirmed that the poles of the earth suddenly reversed themselves this morning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time The President has called for an immediate cabinet meeting, and he will address the nation later today. The White House Science Adviser has issued a statement urging calm and reminding everyone that the poles have shifted on many occasions throughout the earth’s history. We will be right back with a live interview with .“
As people around him turned to voice their disbelief and concern in the confused atmosphere, Kaspar abandoned any hope of reaching the main elevators and pushed his way instead to the nearest staircase and trudged up the three floors to the long corridor that housed the Austria-Germany-Switzerland offices. In the past, he had sometimes imagined himself in that corridor as a small mouse being squeezed through the innards of a great white serpent. At that moment, though, he realized that the corridor was actually part of a vast interconnected maze, and he looked forward to capturing the dimwitted rat within itand neutering it in the noble pursuit of skimming sludge from the gene pool.
As he burst through the office door in search of Jack, the secretary looked up from her desk and smiled at him warmly, disarming him for an instant. “Oh, Kaspar,” she beamed, “what a morning this has been! Jack has come and gone. He asked that you check his messages.” She paused for a moment, really looking at him for the first time, and added with genuine concern, “Are you all right, Kaspar?”
Kaspar was not all right. He suppressed a strong urge to shout at her and anyone else who invaded his personal space, which had grown to about six feet in all directions. Instead, he said in a surprisingly low voice, “I’m feeling a little strange. Did Jack say when he would be back?”
“No He ranted a little bit about you being late and then said that the morning was shot anyway and that he would be back after lunch. He didn’t seem quite himself either.”
Kaspar lifted his eyes momentarily from the secretary, who appeared unusually well-groomed and attractive to him, and became aware that the rest of the staff was gathered around the television set in their small conference room. The local newscaster seemed more excited than his profession usually allowed: “City officials advise everyone to exercise extreme caution around wild animals and to keep their pets indoors. There is no logical connection to the pole shift, but the erratic behavior is widespread and apparently growing.”
Kaspar turned his attention back to the secretary and said in his markedly lower voice, “I’ll check the messages, Trudy. That is an enticing perfume, by the way. And hemlines are shorter, I see.”
While Trudy’s eyes continued to widen, in part because she was not wearing perfume, Kaspar sauntered into Jack’s office, closed the door, and sat down smoothly behind the large, polished desk. It felt right somehow to be there. He flicked through five yellow telephone call messages, throwing the one from the Deputy Secretary’s office into the wastebasket, and reached toward the in-boxwhen he suddenly saw the cell phone partially concealed beneath an empty routing envelope. Jack must have really been in a hurry, he thought.
In fact, Jack’s constant use of his cell phone was legendary, as he used the frequent calls to bolster his sense of importance and frequently interrupted ongoing conversations in his office to begin new ones on the phone. He often bragged about having the German Ambassador’s private number keyed into the phone.
“He did say to check his messages,” Kaspar noted out loud. He picked up the phone and began to scroll happily through its functions, starting with “Recent” calls, which revealed nothing of interest, and shifting to “Messages.” He listened with fascination under “Voice Mail” to two steamy messages from a young woman with an active sexual imagination, and keen memory of detail, obviously, whose voice Kaspar recognized beyond all doubt as belonging to the nineteen-year-old daughter of the German Ambassador, a freshman at Georgetown University.
More than pleased, Kaspar was about to fold up the phone and place it again beneath the envelope, when his eye hit upon “Text Messages.” Scrolling quickly, he pressed “Enter" early salivating with anticipation . . . and stared numbly at the most recent entry, dated that morningMagda’s cell phone number.
Vacantly pushing the “View” button, Kaspar read, “You can’t believe how hot I am. The mouse has left. Wo ist mein Kater?”
Kaspar folded the phone and placed it in his coat pocket. As he stood up and pushed the chair back, he heard a muffled shriek behind him. A beautiful but terrified hawk cowered on the windowsill beyond the thick glass as a pigeon pecked methodically at its head and two other pigeons approached.
He opened the door and walked into the common area. The burning anger had vanished. He felt preternaturally cool and calm. He stood in the doorway of the conference room and watched the news headlines scroll horizontally along the bottom of the CNN screen, most dealing with the polar shift and a few touching upon the familiar regional wars that he had joined the State Department to try to prevent as an idealistic young academic.
A distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair and beard was identified on screen as Professor of Anthropology Freidrich Kreeger of Harvard University. Kaspar listened:
“These reports are coming in from all over the world. There can be no further doubt. Natural enemies in the animal world are experiencing role reversals. How? Why? We know that migratory birds use iron-rich areas in their brains to navigate along the earth’s magnetic lines. We also know that all creatures, including ourselves, possess similar structures. We never took them very seriously before, frankly. It now appears that the reversal of the earth’s poles has altered behavior in fundamental ways. My colleagues in Zoology and Paleontology are already speculating now about the demise of the giant reptiles and simultaneous rise of the small mammalian species. I myself have begun to wonder anew about the disappearance of the Neanderthals and the supremacy of the Cro-Magnons. There might have been some inter-breeding, as many have proposed, but that doesn’t explain the mass disappearance. Fortunately, modern Man has no natural enemies today .”
Kaspar realized that he had heard enough. “I’ll be out for a while, gang,” he said to his colleagues, interrupting the broadcast. “The Secretary will be at the White House, and nothing much will happen around here until the President’s address.”
“But we still have action memos to send up the line,” objected one of the officers.
“Not today,” Kaspar responded. “Today is hooker hookey day, I mean. Trust me.”
Kaspar left them to one breaking news announcement after another and paused at the entrance door to smile at Trudy, who was sitting to the side with her ankles crossed and skirt slightly above her knees.
“You’re terrific, Trudy,” he said. “This office really wouldn’t run without you.” She smiled back happily.
Kaspar ran down the stairs and through the reception hall, jumped in a cab in front of Main State, stopped at a drug store long enough to buy a disposable camera and a roll of electrical tape, and tipped the waiting driver generously to rush him the last few blocks to his apartment on I Street.
At exactly 1000, he stood outside the door of the apartment that he could not afford on the third floor of the brick building that he used to think of as home. He could hear the television set inside, although he knew that no one would be watching it. He slipped his key in the lock softly, opened the door without a sound, and walked quietly down the hallway and past the living room, where the television was also tuned to CNN. The real sound was coming from his bedroom, however, where Magda was demonstrating her own powers of imagination for an obviously appreciative Jack, whose back, Kaspar noted, was oddly covered by luxuriant black hair.
When the flash from the first shot startled them, they both turned their heads toward the doorway, and Kaspar took the second and the third. Still stunned, they watched him place the small camera in his pocket, walk calmly over to his dresser, and pull out a .38 snub-nosed revolver from underneath his socks. Since Magda had never done the laundry, she had no idea where his socks were, let alone his arsenal.
At this point, both of them finally snatched up the bedclothes to cover themselves and shrank back in fear as Kaspar swung the gun in their direction. He pulled the electrical tape out of his coat pocket and spoke calmly and clearly in his new, low-pitched voice: “Magda, take this tape and tie Jack’s hands behind him. Jack, lie on your stomach and put your hands behind your back. Magda, if you don’t do this right, I can’t answer for the consequences.”
Jack flipped on to his stomach like a trained seal and folded his hands behind his back. Magda hesitated until he cocked the hammer of the revolver and ordered loudly, “Do it!” She had never heard assertiveness in his voice before, and the lower tone of his voice frightened her. She began to wrap the tape furiously around Jack’s wrists and arms.
“That’s fine,” Kaspar said finally, still pointing the gun vaguely at the two of them on the bed. “Now get up, both of you, and go sit on the couch in the living room Without your clothes!”
Kaspar turned up the volume on the television and ordered them to sit quietly and watch. A succession of animal clips demonstrating role reversals was interspersed between correspondent reports from the world’s capitals. News of renewed fighting in such habitual trouble spots as Iraq, Darfur, and Kashmir scrolled beneath the picture. The interview with Professor Kreeger was repeated, and he again referred to Neanderthals and intoned once more, “Fortunately, modern Man has no natural enemies today.”
“He’s wrong about that, of course,” said Kaspar, turning off the set. “Man’s natural enemy is the most vicious of them all. There have been no animal attacks on us simply because Man’s natural enemy is Man. The same wars will continue with different leaders and different aggressors. I even felt the hate rising in me today as well, and the temptation to hurt others for the sheer pleasure of it, particularly you two. But those instincts can and must be resisted.”
They glared at him with undisguised hatred. Magda was trembling as she stared at the gun, torn between her own fear and a compulsion to grab for the weapon.
“And the Neanderthals have not all disappeared,” said Kaspar, gesturing toward Jack’s hairy back. “Their genes are still with us, more so in some than others, of course. But even they can be resisted, Jack. We don’t have to give in to our baser impulses.”
He paused for effect and wondered whether anything he had said had penetrated the bony ridges along their foreheads.
“I’m going to give you a lesson in diplomacy, Jack,” he said. “Man created diplomacy as a means of dealing peacefully with those who are different, as a means of resolving conflict without bashing in someone’s head with a club.”
Kaspar noted that Magda had moved to the edge of the sofa and that the muscles in her legs had tensed.
“First, there is deterrence,” he said, pointing the gun directly at Magda, who fell back heavily on the sofa, her face reddening even more. “There is also trust but verify, a means of believing in the basic goodness of our fellow men without sacrificing the power of the intellect altogether. Here, Magda, take the gun.”
Kaspar tossed the gun on to Magda’s lap with a gentle underhand flip.
Jack shouted, “Shoot the fool!” Magda leaped from the couch with revolver in hand, pointed it from six feet away at Kaspar’s heart, and pulled the trigger while hissing, “Good-bye, Loser!”
The hammer fell with a loud “click,” and Kaspar said calmly, “You don’t really think that I would keep a loaded gun in the house, do you? In any case, you have certainly verified that you are both completely untrustworthy.”
Enraged, Magda threw the gun past his head wildly and advanced on him with frothing menace. “I’ll beat you to a pulp, you pipsqueak!” she yelled, while Jack struggled up from the sofa.
Her right fist glanced off Kaspar’s forehead, and her momentum caused her to stumble to the left. She quickly righted herself and turned, expecting to see him covering his head with both arms as usual. The heavy slap on her cheek came from nowhere, jolting her backward abruptly, and she fell to the floor on her backside with a thump.
“In the case of a first strike,” Kaspar said quietly but firmly, “the legal community grants the aggrieved party the right to retaliation.” Stunned and shaken, Magda could only stare at him from the floor in disbelief.
Finally on his feet, Jack bellowed and charged, stubbing both big toes on the carpet, losing his balance immediately with his hands tied behind his back, and sprawled headfirst and painfully to the floor next to Magda.
“Maybe you’re used to being tied up and naked, Jack, but try to look at this situation a little differently,” said Kaspar. Jack moaned. “You are guilty of violating all of the norms of civilized behavior, both personal and international. You see, you have invaded my home, trafficked in my wife, spat upon my religious belief in the sacrament of marriage, tyrannized the office, ignored my intellectual property rights, and, perhaps worst of all, destroyed invaluable cultural property in the form of the German language, and I now have you in a position where I might exercise much needed population control and reduce the amount of hormoned beef in the world all at a single stroke, so to speak.” Jack looked up sharply, his eyes widening, and tried desperately to assume the fetal position.
“But, instead, all I wish to do at this point is declare an armistice and move to negotiations. What do you say?” Jack nodded vigorously. Magda still sat dumbfounded, although her eyes were beginning to focus again.
“These are the terms then,” said Kaspar. “Magda, I’m divorcing you immediately. I won’t use the photographs unless you insist on alimony. Jack, you will treat everyone at the office with the utmost respect and dignity, and you will give credit where it is due. It really is that simple. Are we agreed, or is it to be all-out war?”
“Agreed,” croaked Jack without hesitation.
“Of course, I agree, you fool,” said Magda acidly. “The last thing I want is to be married to you. Jack and I love each other. He’s the one going places in the Department. And he’ll destroy you as soon as he’s free. We’ll be happily married, and he’ll drive you out of the office and out of the Department. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Is that right, Jack? Are you intending to violate the terms of the treaty?”
Actually, Jack wished that Magda would shut up. His nose was bleeding, his arms ached, and he was cold. He was also thoroughly humiliated and apprehensive in the presence of his new opponent. Yes, of course he would destroy Kaspar later, and quickly, but there was no reason to remind him of that fact.
Kaspar reached into the desk and pulled out a pair of gleaming scissors. Jack gasped, and even Magda scooted backward in terror as Kaspar walked slowly towards them. He bent down, handed the scissors to Magda, and said, “Cut him loose.”
As she did so, she began to taunt her erstwhile husband, “You’re so stupid, along with everything else. Jack and I get each other, and you get nothing. You always give away your advantages, always.”
Kaspar looked closely at his enemies, examined his list of alternatives, and selected the nuclear option.
“You clearly need to learn one more lesson in diplomacy, Jack,” he said. “Security consciousness.”
He drew the cell phone out of his coat pocket, clicked on “Address Book,” and dialed the number. “Hello, Mr. Ambassador,” he said. “This is a friend. I have confidential information about your family. And you have a need to know.”
One week after the day the poles shifted, Kaspar stood in his new office, looking out the window. The pile of colorful feathers on the windowsill confirmed that the doves had indeed overcome the hawks. The laughter and cheers echoing above the voice of the CNN newscaster in the conference room confirmed that despotic regimes around the globe were continuing to fall to the very people that they had oppressed. Trudy’s reflection in the window as she gazed at her new boss from the doorway with admiration and something more warmed him. The new glow in the sky explained by scientists as a lingering magnetic plasma matched the glow in his heart, and Kaspar knew that an old promise had been fulfilled at last and that the meek had indeed inherited the earth.