I was driving home from work. It was not late in the evening, but, as winter was setting in, dusk had descended early, and it was dark. I was pondering Xiob Ef, a small bronze African statuette that sits on my dresser, when well off in the distance my headlights illuminated a figure on the roadside. As I drew closer, I could make out a person, a small person, who seemed to be clutching something, a sign of some kind . . . when suddenly I was overcome by an extreme sense of deja vu and an intense feeling of dread.
The day is easy to remember, because it was the day Xiob Ef sat up.
Perhaps I should explain. Xiob Ef is a small bronze statuette of oppressed womanhood. I received it unexpectedly in the mail, a small package posted from Africa. It was from Clarissa, one of those mysterious women who have the knack for vanishing completely from your life, only to remind you of their existence just at the moment you finally quit thinking of them. The last I'd heard of Clarissa, she was playing a piano in a bar somewhere in South or North Dakota. She'd stopped on her way back east from Seattle and was holed up with a crop duster. I had implored her in a half dozen letters to give up the fast life in the farm belt and to come live with me, as I'd done on hundreds of other occasions when there seemed to be no prospects of love for me, but to no avail, and after months of receiving no reply, I'd begun once again to forget about her. Then came the package from Africa. Even before I opened it, I knew it was from Clarissa, and the images of our brief time together welled up inside me once again: Clarissa, in her professional phase, with her hair cropped short, dressing in suits with padded shoulders, zipping off to her office in a BMW; meeting for two-hour lunches that nearly got me fired from my job as a file clerk in an accounting firm; late nights, dangling our legs from a railroad trestle while sipping French wine from a shared bottle.
In the letter accompanying Xiob Ef, Clarissa reported she had joined the Peace Corps. Other than the fact that she was enjoying her existence of squalid misery, she offered little information about her life on the dark continent. Xiob Ef, she explained, was a fertility symbol, at least I think that's what the letter said. Clarissa, perhaps intentionally, had run the letters together so that it could well have said "futility" symbol instead. Looking at the statuette, one could not be certain.
Xiob Ef bore a resemblance to oppressed womanhood. She was cast, nude, in a sitting position, her ankles bound. She leaned her forearms on raised knees. Xiob Ef's head was nearly more animal than human. She wore her hair like a jackass's mane, and her ears stuck disproportionately out straight to either side. Her countenance reflected centuries of suffering.
Clarissa pointed out that the statuette actually had two equilibria. In addition to the sitting position, Xiob Ef could be turned over onto her knees where she would balance equally well, an extremely unflattering position reminiscent of an animal posturing. According to Clarissa's letter, there was some superstitious mumbo jumbo attached, so that, if Xiob Ef were left in the kneeling position, she would, when you were to encounter the love of your life, sit up.
Of course I did not believe for a minute that some obscene, lifeless, bronze futility symbol could predict the course of love, and, of course, I left Xiob Ef on my dresser in the kneeling position, where she stayed for months, as Clarissa once again drifted into the deeper recesses of my memory.
Then one morning, as I was struggling with my necktie, I realized Xiob Ef was sitting up on my dresser. Startled, I wondered what kind of trick my subconscious, hungry for company, was playing upon me, but I could not for the life of me recall inverting the statuette. After all, I tried to convince myself, inanimate objects do not, of their own accord, move. Had there been an earthquake during the night? An unlikely event, considering the solid mass of granite upon which I have built my unstable life.
There seemed to be no solution to the mystery, so I went off to work. I was curious, even excited, about the possibility of discovering some new romance, but through the course of the day I encountered no new women in the office, nor any new feminine voices over the telephone. The noon mail brought no word from Clarissa. I considered, at the end of the day, giving fate a helping hand by stopping by one of those bars where the lonely go to meet, although I'd never before had any luck with that approach, and although I decided against the tack, I found myself driving home from work by an indirect and previously unexplored route. Instead of going to a bar, I stopped by a row of newspaper racks at a shopping center and picked up the local weekly entertainment tabloid. I turned immediately to the personal ads, only to find they were all reruns from the previous issue.
Dispirited, I charted a course for home, and it was on an unlighted stretch of two-lane road where first I saw the apparition.
My first instinct in this, the age of paranoia, is to accelerate when I see someone trying to hitch a ride. This inclination was reinforced by the curious sign the person was holding. The sign bore three numbers, separated by colons. At the time I took it to be some kind of religious symbolism, like the Bible citations you see all the time draped over the railings at televised sporting events. But as I passed the hitchhiker, I realized it was female, at which point another instinct asserted itself. I began to brake, but as I slowed, several hundred feet down the road, the car behind me stopped and picked her up.
When I arrived home, only slightly dispirited, I discovered Xiob Ef had reverted to her posture of obeisance.
Xiob Ef next did her doggie trick the morning I was to start a new job. I had won an appointment as administrative assistant in a consulting group thrown together to study recycling options for the local municipal government. Administrative assistant: That's fancy jargon for a glorified secretary; it means you get a little bit more pay than a secretary, and a little bit more title to compensate for the inadequate compensation. So eager was I to begin this new career adventure that I did not realize Xiob Ef was sitting up until, halfway out of my apartment, I decided to take along a handkerchief. As I opened the top draw of my dresser I noticed Xiob Ef had moved again.
I was in for a bit of a disappointment, romance-wise. The entire staff of our group, even my secretary, was male. The principal investigator, the engineers, the technical writer, the field inspectors - all men. The closest to a woman in the office was Leslie, the computer programmer, an effeminate little fellow with a high-pitched voice who did not seem old enough to shave.
As we tackled the task of finding ways to delay the exhaustion of available space in the county landfill, I found myself able to forget about romance by immersing myself in my work. And Xiob Ef remained seated upright on my dresser.
Until that horrible morning, less than a month into my assignment with the consulting firm when, as I drove to work, I heard the news on my car radio: Dr. Beryl Berkovitz, esteemed scientist and leader in the local conservation movement, was dead. Dr. Beryl Berkovitz, my boss. Murdered.
The consulting firm, having lost its head, was dismantled, its members left to go their separate ways. My way was to home, to ponder the curious ways of the world, as well as to scan the want ads for my next employment. Xiob Ef, meanwhile, had returned to her knees.
Such were the events that led, once again, to my sighting of the sign-bearing apparition by the roadside. Well aware that Xiob Ef had that day again sat up, I wondered what to do, whether to speed up or slow down, when I finally could make out the numbers on the sign: "10:21:51."
No matter your level of resolve, prudence will take a backseat to curiosity when you see a hitchhiker holding a sign with your birthday written on it. I screeched to a stop ten feet shy of the hitchhiker, who appeared in the glare of my headlights to be a slight, not unattractive young woman, although the way she was squinting detracted a bit from her appearance, until I realized she was squinting because of the lights shining in her eyes.
After she had gotten into the car and I had regained a comfortable velocity, I turned to her and asked, "Where to?"
She looked me square in the face and without so much as a hint of a smile said, "Your place."
I'm not certain whether it was due to apprehension or anticipation, but my heart skipped a beat.
Ignoring the most obvious topic of conversation, the fact that this total stranger had flagged me down by announcing she knew my birthday, I tried to engage the enigmatic young woman in discourse. I skirted general topics from the uncommonly wet weather we had been having for the past year to the unusual volatility of the stock market, even broaching topics, such as basketball and the planting of bulbs during the cold season, on which I am ill-prepared to make more than the most cursory observations, all to no avail. My passenger sat there as mysterious and as secretive as the sphinx.
It was not until we were inside my apartment that I dared to mention my curiosity about the sign. We were in my bedroom: She was sitting on my bed, while I stood at its foot looking at her.
"Turn around for a moment," she said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Turn around," she repeated.
I turned my back on her. I found myself confronted by the forlorn stare of Xiob Ef. "How did you know my birthday?" I asked.
Instead of answering me, she posed a question of her own. "What are you doing," she asked, "usurping the working territory of women?"
"I beg your pardon?" I asked. There was something disconcertingly familiar in her whine.
"Is it not bad enough that you men have completely dominated civilization? Can't you at least leave what few jobs, what little dignity we have, for us?"
Then it hit me. The voice was that of Leslie, the computer programmer. I was utterly humiliated. I had been taken in by a man.
I whirled around, saying, "Leslie," as I turned, to be rebuked by an incontrovertable image.
There before stood a naked woman - a bit small-breasted, mind you, but clearly a woman.
To add to my confusion, she said, "That's right, I'm Leslie." Then, before I could realize what was happening, she brandished, from behind her back, a dagger.
She swung the weapon wildly at me. I leapt back, just dodging the blade and crashing into my dresser. I slid to the floor and found myself sitting in a position not too dissimilar from that posed by Xiob Ef the last time I'd looked. But Xiob Ef was no longer sitting on the dresser. She had been knocked off the dresser and had tumbled to the floor, where she had actually landed, I would in retrospect realize, on her side, a position I had not previously considered. I had no time to ponder such matters, however, for Leslie was coming at me again, the knife in her outstretched hand aimed straight for my heart. In fact, the only reason I knew Xiob Ef was on the floor at all was because, as I drew back in panic, my hand came to rest upon that curious figurine. My fingers instinctively curled around Xiob Ef, and as Leslie prepared to make her final lunge, I flung the statuette.
Smack! Xiob Ef caught Leslie square between the eyes. Down they went, Leslie, unconscious, sprawled out on her back with her hands stretched out to the sides, like a child playing dead in a game of cowboys and Indians, while Xiob Ef, no less unconscious, had reverted to her familiar stance on arms and knees.
What could make a person commit a murder? Worse, what heinous mistreatment could possibly induce someone randomly to seek out total strangers in order to bring them to an untimely end? Not one or two strangers, mind you, but dozens, for Leslie wound up taking the rap for a number of unsolved homicides all over the country. Could it be an unhappy childhood, an abusive parent, a broken heart? Or, perhaps, we really will, in the end, be subject to retribution for a million years of oppression. Perhaps Leslie was merely on the vanguard, a harbinger of bad times ahead.
Sometimes I find myself discussing these issues with Xiob Ef, who has an honored place, forever seated, atop my computer terminal, where I feel she can safely watch over me. It is easy for me to drift into such a reverie, where I can lose all sense of space and time, until I am awakened by a slap in the face by reality, such as, why, this package I just received, from a college somewhere in the southwestern U.S., containing a paper, written by Clarissa, who has found a place on the mathematics faculty, on the subject of "Chaos," a paper I think I will defer reading until a later date.