Paul came to a screeching stop in his driveway.
He got out of the car. As he raised the old garage door, it made a shudder and a crash.
He flicked on the lights.
His canoe, his bicycle, his skis sat there gathering dust.
He pulled the 23-pound aluminum racing bicycle out and slammed the door shut.
In the house, he got a glass of water. He nearly felt faint and had to steady himself at the kitchen sink. He changed into a T-shirt and shorts. Slipped into his tennis shoes. Dug his helmet out of the hall closet on his way out.
He swung onto the bicycle and began pedaling furiously, letting his anger out on the machine. The road gritted under his tires like broken glass, like snarling teeth. He clenched his jaws and leaned over the curved handlebars, pumping uphill in first gear, pumping in 7th gear on flat stretches.
Pretty soon, he was far from home, far from the plant, far from his troubles.
Sweaty and tired, he slowed to a steady pace. The work of bicycling took over from the work of being scared, of being angry, of having butterflies. The anxiety was still there but it was more abstract than the cramp in his right calf, the aching of his gluteal muscles, the redness and pulpiness of his palms as they gripped the sticky electrical tape wrapped around the handlebars. He began to puff a bitout of shape!
At last, he stopped for a cola in a strip mall.
Then he turned back home. Pumping, pumping...
Hypnotized with fatigue, he rolled into the driveway, kicked the bike aside, tossed his helmet off with both hands, and threw himself on his back on the lawn. Gasping for air, he rolled around, trying to stop panting. He wound up on all fours, sucking oxygen through abraded lips scoured by hours of cycling in the desert air.
God, this was crazy.
Slowly, he limped into the house.
He took a long, hot shower, then soaked in the hot water left over.
Finally, toweling himself off, he went into the kitchen to get a beer.
Pete's voice piped in the doorway. "Mr. Owens!"
Paul nearly dropped his towel.
Pete's shadow was glued to the screen, his nose and fingertips pink. "Mr. Owens?"
"Hi, Pete. Gimme a minute."
Paul dressed quickly and went to the door toweling his hair. "How are you?"
"I'm fine. Can I come in?"
"Sure." Paul pushed the door open.
Pete came in, his blue eyes serious, his hands in his pockets. "Are you going to fly model airplanes today?"
"Uhwell, I wasn't planning on it."
Pete stared at him stolidly, and Paul began to think there had to be something more than suffering from this anxiety. "You wanna fly the plane awhile?"
Pete grinned and waved his fist. "Yeah!"
"Okay, come on."
Paul sat on the porch, while the boy ran around the yard, and the white wings of Condor I dipped this way and that.
"Nice job of fixing it," Pete said.
"Thanks. It wasn't much. Lucky you didn't sit on it or anything."
"Yeah. That would have been a shame. She's a beauty."
Paul thought about the boy's father. What could he say? Marsha had made it clear he must watch every word. Should he ask: "do you like planes a lot?" or "wanna be a pilot?" No, it was best to remain silent. Let the kid enjoy himself.
Round and round Condor went over the radar array. Up. Down. Left. Right. Yaw. Roll. Pitch.
The stealth design would have to be on all sides. Diamond shapes that threw off radar signals the way a diamond threw off sparkling wheels of light. In fact, this object, if it should ever fly, would have to be faceted like a diamond, with thousands of flat triangular shapes, none of which would have a radar cross-section greater than the point of a pin. To prove that, he'd have to build a model. Damn it! He wished he were at the plant so he could start right away. Typically, he'd spent the next few weeks practically living in his laboratory, working day and night, sending out for sandwiches and milk.
But maybe this was a godsend.
He smiled at the little 9 year old boy innocently hopping around.
Condor swooped down and looped between several posts before soaring high again. Paul clapped. "Hey, that was great!"
Someone else clapped and whistled. Marsha, watching from her kitchen window.
A minute later she came outside, wearing a long fine cotton print dress in warm russets and yellows, that outlined the fine contours of her slim figure as she walked and as the wind blew around her. Her smile sparkled, and Paul was captivated. He felt a little sad, because he understood her loss. He understood that he had no chance with her, and he let that thought go away as if he were releasing a helium balloon.
"Peter, you be careful with that plane."
"Okay, Mom!" Pete piped without looking at her. He chased Condor's snow-white tail.
"How are you?" she asked, standing near him with her hands clasped behind her back. Her expression was complex and unreadablebut pleasant and companionable.
"I've had better days."
"That bad, huh?"
"Thanks to that new batch of auditors."
"Oh, the old Navy chiefs?" She laughed. "They are a regulation crew if I ever saw one."
"Have you met Alex Fitch yet?"
She shook her head lightly. Nothing registered in her eyes, so he knew she had not met Fitch yet. He did not have a good feeling about any of them, but especially Fitch.
"I'm going away for the weekend," he said. The plan was forming in his head as he spoke. "I want to get away from it all for a few days. I'm wondering if you can watch the store for me. You know, just look in on the house now and then."
"I'll be happy to."
Condor flew over Marsha's head as Pete came running. "Where are you going to?"
Paul thought for a second. "San Diego, I think. I'll just drive down there and do a little surfing."
"I'd like to learn how to surf."
"I'm a good swimmer. My dad taught me how to swim."
The two adults remained carefully silent. Pete ran to catch Condor before it could crash. The engine conked outno more fueland landed in his arms.
"Well done," Paul said.
Pete came running and handed the plane and the controls over. "Will you take me surfing some time?"
"Sure. If your mom says it's okay."
"Can we go to San Diego with you?"
Paul laughed and Marsha gasped.
"I'm serious. I've always wanted to go surfing, and I hear it's real great at Solana Beach. You know the Beach Boys song?" Pete swiveled his hips and snapped his fingers as if the Beach Boys' music were playing. "Surfing U.S.A. Down in La Jolla, and Waiamea too. Bushy bushy blond surfing, surfing U.S.A.!"
"Wow," Paul said, "a pop singer too."
"I'm sorry," Marsha said, "we're going to be busy this weekend, and I'm sorry my son is."
"We are not, Mom," Pete said. "We are just going to hang around and be bored, like we are every weekend."
"Don't argue with me, Peter."
"I'm not, I'm just saying"
"It would be fine with me," Paul said, not nearly half seriously.
"I wanna go!" Pete yelled.
"He said we could."
"I'm sorry," Paul said. "Me and my big mouth."
"I'll think about it."
Paul handed the plane back to the boy. "See if you can fly it to the ravine and back."
"Okay!" Pete and the plane sped away.
Paul told her: "I understand your situation. Look, we're neighbors and we're friends. I need a short vacation, and if you'd like to get away, you're welcome."
"How would we fit into your Mustang? Or my little car?"
"I'm planning to borrow a friend's VW bus. It has a pop-up camper on top. You and Pete could sleep in that, and I'll just pitch my pup tent alongside."
"Absolutely not. That would be inconveniencing you."
"I could really use the company," he said. "The friendship would far outweigh a little inconvenience."
She looked at him for a long minute. "Okay." She shrugged. "Okay," she repeated seeming to like the idea. She nodded to herself, smiling.
Paul extended a hand, and she shook. "Plato will go with us," he promised, and he meant it.
That evening, Paul stayed up late at the dining room table with catalogs, a pad, pencils, a drawing kit including compass and protractor, a slide rule, his calculator, and a T-square. He knew what he must do. On Monday, he would have to hit the deck running. He must have a plan, and this would be it: He would build a small model of his plane. It would not be enough to convince Steve and Ben that the concept worked on paper. He would build a small mockup. He could not possibly duplicate in cardboard the thousands of tiny triangular facets needed, but if the model could even diminish the signature by 25% he'd be doing better than most of the absorption composites.
He hardly noticed that the lights winked out, one by one, next door.