Paul walked down the street, math paper tucked under his arm, and enjoyed the sensation of wind blowing over his newly shorn scalp. The Southern California sunshine filled a cloudless blue sky and cast a restful air over what would otherwise be a horrible day for Paul. But Paul had confidence that Steve Rossi would work with Ben Rich to find a way to get these hard-asses off his back. Too early yet to panic.
Paul glanced at his watch. Ninety minutes until the movie began. He felt hungry.
On impulse, he walked into the nearest bar & grill and ordered a steak. He sat on a corner bar stool, smelling the tantalizing aroma, and listening to the sizzle of the grill in an adjoining room of the shady establishment. Pulling out his pen, he propped the Ufimtsev paper before him and resumed his close reading. He pulled a pile of stacked napkins overignoring the bartender's raised eyebrowsand began working equations.
Yes, that had to be itdiffraction. Of course. Structural stealth had already made its way onto various planeslike the SR-71, whose long, sleek profile presented a very small front-end radar imagebut this Ufimtsev paper pointed all the way.
The steak, fries, and salad came, and another crisp, cold beer. He munched absently, feeling his hunger lessen and go away. He belched absently as hands appeared out of nowhere and removed his plate. Another small 7-ounce beer appeared, and he sipped at that, feeling a buzz of deep comfort as he began sketching triangles on the napkins.
Suddenly he rose. "What do I owe you?"
The brawny black bartender eyed him suspiciously. "For the food or for the napkins?"
"Huh?" Paul stared at the pile of notes. "Oh. Sure, I'll pay for them."
"Just kidding. But next time." The bartender made lightheartedly threatening body language.
Paul paid and hurried out the door. The sunlight blinded him for a moment, and as he reached for his car keys, his hand encountered his movie ticket. He glanced at his watch. Damn it! Twenty minutes late. Nevermindhe didn't have time to sell the ticket back eitherthat would have to wait for another day. He backed the car out from the curb-nose parking and headed home.
As he pulled into the driveway, he saw Marsha's car parked by her house.
Pete waved from the front porch, and Paul waved back.
Paul went inside his house and dialed the phone.
A woman's languid voice answered. "Yes?"
"Mrs. Garcia. Is Alberto home?"
"Yes, Mr. Owens. I'll get him for you."
A minute later, the young Guatemalan-American's voice came across. "Hello, Mr. P. How's it going?"
"Good, Alberto. I have a job for you if you feel like it."
"You got the money, I got the time."
"I want you to come by as soon as possible and mow my back yard."
"I'm on my way."
Paul took the Ufimtsev paper into the living room. The living room took up a good part of the west end of the small, two-bedroom ranch-style house, with windows on the west side overlooking Marsha's house, and openingson the left, into the parlor and out the front door, on the right, into the kitchen/dining area and out the back door. The bedrooms and the master bath were on the east side of the house, on the other side of a structural wall that ran the length of the house. In the middle was also the hall that led out to the garage, which was stuffed to the rafters with Paul's bicycling, canoeing, skiing, and other sports apparatus, plus his hobby equipment. No car had seen the inside of that garage in years; but then this was Southern California, where people did not have basements or attics, and the garage served that purpose. The floors throughout the house were of bare wood. On a trip to Omni-Mart when he'd first moved in, Paul had picked up some knotted throw rugs in Santa Fe style soft pastels, and those were scattered here and there. The interior of the house had a worn but cozy feel, and an atmosphere of dark, old wood. Paul felt comfortable with it, though he sometimes felt a little lonely, or bored, or something, and he wished he had time to buy more furniture so that the house wouldn't quite have that sole-occupant echoingness.
Quickly, Paul cleared the table of yesterday's dinner plate, plus stacked copies of non-classified professional magazines like Nosecone Review, Aeronautics, The Aero Engineer, and so on. He pulled out his newly acquired desktop calculator, a thing of beauty that did ten digits, ran sines, cosines, and tangents, Fourier Transforms, integrals and derivatives, and moreone of his prized possessions. One day far in the future, he thought, people would have small home computers much smaller than the huge mainframes that one had to build a building around. One of the reasons he spent such long hours at the plant was because of the computer access to the giant IBM OS 360 mainframe.
He began the tedious taskwhich the computer at work would do 100 times faster, if Rossi had let him stay at work todayof approximating the flight surfaces. He had an idea in mind of what this plane would look like, but he kept shaking his head with doubt. From the first sketches, this did not look like any plane he'd ever seen. It looked more like one of the fantastic flying machines in that new science fiction movie, Star Wars. It looked a bit ominous when viewed toward the front, like a preying mantis about to jump on the viewer and devour him. But, he thought, cross one bridge at a time.
He barely noticed the sudden burp of a lawnmower, the drifting aromas of blue smoke from a mix of oil and gasoline, and then the wet juicy hay smell of newly mown vegetation. The smell pleased him, distantly, because it was something from home that he associated with Spring and pleasure. But he kept right on working.
Sure, he thought, the right combination of structure and surface would multiply the diffraction effect many times over. It would remain for testing to determine just how significant. But it looked to him as if this configuration would do the trick. One day in the future, computers would be much more powerful, and he would design a plane that was all curves, with no flat surfaces to return a radar signal straight to its source. For now, with limited 1970s memory capacity, he'd have to settle for a configuration of triangular surfaces, all of them skewed at angles to each other to diffuse a radar signal.
The afternoon sun was getting wan, throwing long shadows, when there was a knock on the door. Paul got up to answer, feeling a crick in his back from hunching for hours.
The smiling young man's boisterousness was almost painful as it disrupted Paul's concentration. "Whassup, Mister P.?" Alberto grinned widely. He was a big kid of 18, wearing jeans stained green, and he swung a pair of ugly work gloves that looked soggy.
Paul gave him a check for twenty bucks and Alberto took off, waving gratefully.
Then another voice piped up. "Hey, Mr. Owens. What are you doing?"
Paul grinned. "Oh, hi, Pete. I'm doing my math homework. What are you doing?"
Pete tilted his head to the side and peered suspiciously from his side of the fence. "Adults don't have homework."
"Some do. Is yours done?"
"No. I'm stuck on long division."
"Want some help?"
Pete made a face. "Yeah, I guess. Hold on, I better check with Mom." He ran off in a whirl of legs.
Paul walked around the front yard, stretching.
Marsha appeared, smiling. "Hi." She looked uncertain. "Is Peter bothering you?"
"Not at all. I was going to help him with his arithmetic."
She warmed. "Oh, would you? That would be so nice."
"Send him over. We'll work in the living room. You can come over too, if you like."
He went into the house and tried as best as he could to tidy things up. Amazing, how one suddenly noticed the amount of disorderlike the ironing board that needed to be put away; and the basket of clothing that had now waited six weeks to be ironed...should have asked Mrs. Garcia if she'd been sick, because she normally came twice a month to clean and do laundry.
He spotted Marsha and Pete coming hand in hand. Yesss!
It wasn't that he was plotting to help Pete to see her, but he was glad she was coming over. She seemed everything a woman should be, he thought, and he couldn't figure out why that was. She was pretty, though not beautiful. She was warm, but not gushy or anything. She seemed a little distant, or darty like a jackrabbit, he thought, but maybe she was shy. Or, damn it, maybe there was a man in her life. Where was Pete's father? Who was Pete's father?
"Knock knock," she called.
"Screen door's open."
"What a nice house," she said sincerely.
Paul was embarrassed by the house's worn appearance. He wanted to say something like "aw, you're just supposed to say that," or "yeah if I put a coat of paint on it," but all he could manage was "Would you like some tea?"
"Why." Her eyes rolled in consideration. "Sure."
Paul put the kettle on and got cups out while she sat at the livingroom table and Pete laid his math book and his tablet and his pencils out.
She sat with one ankle hooked around a chair lega fine figure, he thought, an artist's dream to sketch, in her form-fitting jeans. She wore mahogany loafers, a white blouse, and a white wool sweater with tiny red and blue flowers along the seams. She flipped idly through his notes. Seeing the Ufimtsev paper, she made wide eyes and her mouth opened. "Wow. Petey, honey, look at that arithmetic."
Pete groaned. "I can't figure any of that out. Why does it have a's and x's in it? Looks like the printer got all mixed up and mushed the words and the numbers together."
Paul laughed. "Yeah, well, he did, kind of, on purpose. You see, when you are a mathematician, you read mathematical notation the way lay people read text."
Marsha looked up. "I didn't realize you are a mathematician." Her eyes radiated a new respect.
"Guilty as accused. Well, to an extent, I'm really an engineer." How to explain this? "I was in a combined master's/doctor's program at M.I.T., and I got bored with all the theoretical stuff. I'm a hands on guy. Rockwell came along and recruited me, and I took the job. It pays well, and I get to play all day." At least until today, he added inwardly, morosely.
The kettle began to whistle, and Paul went into the kitchen. He turned off the gas stove and set cups and saucers on the pale yellow tiled counter. Spoons. Tea bags. Sugar.
"That's wonderful!" she gushed. She had really neat little white teeth, he noticed, and sweet lips with a touch of red lipstick. Oddly, it looked as if she'd freshly applied that lipstick, becausehe dimly rememberedlipstick wore off during the course of a day. He remembered that from his mother, who'd gone to work every morning as a bookkeeper, and returned looking tired and bleary in the evenings, her lips looking pale. "Well I have big news!"
"What is it?" Paul picked up the large tray and headed into the livingroom.
"I got a job today at Lockheed."
"Congratulations." Paul set down the tray. She reached over, eager to help set things out. She had small, neat hands, with a little chip of rouge on each fingernail. No rings.
"I'm going to be working with various departments as an assistant auditor."
Paul frowned. "With which division is that?"
"Lockheed." She shrugged. "That's all I know. Division 243. I'm working for a Mrs. Norma Wilson. Nice lady."
Relieved not to hear any more about his friends of that morning, Paul sat down and juggled his hot teacup between his hands. He glanced down at Pete's papers.
She said: "It was going to either be Lockheed or one of the big studios. I have my degree in accounting, and I need to start working on my California CPA license, so it's a relief to know that I have steady work now."
"Can you help with this one?" Pete asked, pointing with an ink-stained finger.
Paul looked at the book. "Okay... 250 divided by 49. That 49 is almost 50, right? How many times does 50 go into 250?"
"Er..." Pete looked at his mom, who prompted him with a certain look. "Five?" he said uncertainly.
Marsha prodded: "Honey, you know that. Be sure of yourself."
"Good work," Paul said. "I see you know your multiplication tables."
Marsha said: "With an accountant for his mother, I hope so. We grilled him on the tables until he was blue in the face."
We? Paul wondered.
Paul said to Pete: "So you know the answer is somewhere around 5."
"I get it," Pete said. "49 is less than 50, so it is going to be 5. So I'll write a 5 up here. But then what do I do?"
Paul walked him through two of the problems. Then Pete started working on his own. Paul said: "I'm gonna take a peek into the back yard to see how my lawn looks. Care to join me?"
"Sure." She seemed at ease.
They walked through the kitchen, outside, across the porch, and down onto the lawn. Alberto had done a sterling job. All 25 wooden posts were exposed, each with a small dome shaped object on top.
"I saw the boy cutting the lawn," Marsha said. "I was going to ask... what are all those things?"
Paul stood with his hands in his pockets. She was a little shorter than he, maybe by three inches. "This is a little awkward. I have a security clearance, and I can't talk about my work. But I bring a little home sometimes; well, a lot of times; and this has to do with radar. I may already have said too much. I kind of fly my model airplanes over this array to do little tests. I have to ask you not to say anything to anyone."
"I promise." She looked just as awkward. "I guess this is as good a time as any, now that Peter is busy and out of earshot. I wanted you to know that he's very sensitive about his father."
The missing ring.
"My husband was a test pilot. He was killed in a crash at Nellis Air Force Base when Peter was six."
"I'm very sorry to hear that." Ouch.
"I'm telling you that, not to make you feel sorry for us, but so you don't say the wrong thing."
"I appreciate that."
There was a long silence.
"Mom, I'm done!"
"We'll be right in, sweetie. Check your work."
"I'll take a look at it for him."
"I don't want to put you out."
"I'm enjoying myself."
"You're very nice." She squinted into the sun, shielded her eyes a moment, then turned and regarded him directly. "I still miss him very much. I'm not ready for anything." She whirled and hurried toward the house.
Thanks for being straight with me, he wanted to say, but she fled from him. With a tinge of regret, he noted the shapeliness rear figurenot an overly skinny woman, but softly curvy without excess. The woman next door.
He followed her into the house. She already sat back in her seat, acting as if nothing had transpired, but a certain glow was gone. Paul sat down beside her son. "Let's see what you've got here, pal. First one's correct..." He checked them all. "Perfect. That was quick. Man, you must be a smart boy."
"Good genes," Marsha said.
"Good," Paul said. How to say this? How to keep the door open? "Well, you're very nice neighbors and I hope you will come over to visit more often."
She touched his arm with her fingertip, with that new colder formality. "Next time I bake a cake, you'll have to come get a piece."
"I'd like that," he said, treading his way through the hidden signals carefully. "And Pete, anytime you need help, you just come and ask."
"Can I fly your airplane again?"
"Not today, honey," she said.
"I have work to do," Paul told the boy, ruffling Pete's hair. "Maybe over the weekend."
Marsha cleaned up the tea cups, taking everything to the kitchen. In a wink, she washed the cups. "Where does the sugar go?"
"Leave it. I'll clean up."
"Thanks," she said, brushing past him, son in tow.
"Bye," Pete called out as she pulled him out the door.