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Unbound Fiction
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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

"Logic Game," by Doug Dorst (January 20, 2000)
"Lydia and her husband, Oscar, are giving a dinner party. They have invited eight of their oldest and best friends. The guests must be seated at the dinner table according to the following rules...."

"Girl and Marble Boy," by Edith Pearlman (December 29, 1999)
"Nina Logan stood facing the masterpiece. Its nakedness had unnerved the Lauras. Its beauty had been lost on the twins. Its politics had left the potheads cold. Its pose had sent her mother off on a mysterious errand."

"Dreams of the Old Green Man," by Poe Ballantine (November 17, 1999)
"Death wore plaid green knickers and a large silver pocket-watch that made a sound like a lumberjack cutting down a tree. I knew if he kissed me I would die."

"Be Here Now," by Lisa Zeidner (October 20, 1999)
"Everyone knows that misery is messy. But happiness, Alice thought, is messy too. Dense, busy. Weed-studded."

"The Bell Rope," by M. J. Clement (September 22, 1999)
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't want to cause any trouble, no parent should have to go through this, death of a child is a cruel thing."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

March 22, 2000

Contamination, by Dalia Rosenfeld

Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads. He has forgiven me for months of mood swings and bad behavior, and while I sit in my new office filing papers and answering phone calls, he crouches quietly on a cold limestone suface under the ground, scraping mineral deposits into a brown leather pouch.

Today, when we meet for lunch, bits of gray sediment fall from his hair and onto the table. Igor brushes them off, and asks me how my morning was. I observe in him a man trying to understand the structure and processes of the earth, and I find his question impossible to answer. I think of gypsum crystals, saltpeter, the skeletons of animals thousands of years old buried in the cavern fills above Igor's head. Looking down, I reply, "No, how was your morning?"

After lunch I return to my office and study the people sitting around me. Some I can smell but not see; others I can see but not hear. Russel approaches my desk and hands me a slip of paper with the letters k-r-u-m-h-o-l-z written on it. "You think that's right?" he asks shyly. "It's not a name you come across every day."

I examine the letters and with a red pencil change the 'u' to an 'o' and insert a 't' before the 'z.' "I know this man," I say. "Business-process reengineering. Quality-management facilitation. You'll have to do more to get on his good side than spell his name right. He's a tyrant."

Russel nods and backs away. "I hear he's tough as nails. But his wife does spectacular flower arrangements for wedding receptions. Some catering, too. Ed thinks we shouldn't write her off."

I  go home with a bag of groceries for dinner and a headache. Igor is sitting at the kitchen table, legs crossed, reading a book. I ask him whether he wants a turkey sandwich for dinner, and he shakes his head. I ask him whether he wants a baked potato with sour cream for dinner, and he shakes his head again. I peer into the grocery bag and empty what's left, a carton of eggs and an overripe avocado. "If possible, I'd like the carton of eggs," Igor requests. "But if possible, just the carton."

While I make myself an omelet, Igor spoons out mineral samples from various containers into each compartment of the egg carton. "Bat droppings," he announces with the third spoonful. "Try to guess why they are black."

I guess: "From the bats." I guess: "From the darkness of the cave."

Igor holds up the spoon, and I cover my plate with my hand. "From the horny shells of insects that bats eat, but can't digest," he explains. "They are rich in phosphorous and other substances that can be used as fertilizer."

I watch as Igor spoons out one sample after another into the compartments, arranging his data for preservation and future reference. It reminds me of the filing I do in the office. The difference is that Igor's data, once stored away, has the ability to change form, or to decompose and disappear entirely, leaving behind nothing but a pungent odor or a faint suggestion of what it once was. I offer Igor a final forkful of omelet, which he rejects, and drop the plate into the sink.

After dinner, Igor laments about the poor conditions in which he is compelled to work. "Every morning I have to wait in line with the tourists until a man in a flannel shirt comes and unlocks the gate barring the entrance to the cave. Once inside, I take refuge in a narrow slot that connects a domepit with an older main passage. There, I can hope for five minutes of solitude in which I can collect the samples I need and explore the area undisturbed. After those five minutes, my work as a speleologist ceases, and I become indistinguishable from the hordes of people making their way toward me, squealing at a small crustacean or lining up to take a picture of a calcite rod."

Igor knows he is not a speleologist, but an immigrant from Russia with an interest in anything that does not require him to sit at a desk. When one passion wanes, another soon takes its place. I have renewed my promise -- after breaking it over an episode with birds -- to support him in his pursuits, and not to interfere.

I ask Igor why he needs solitude to collect mineral samples. Before answering, he closes the egg carton and puts it in the refrigerator. "Solitude prevents contamination," he says simply. While I wait for him to explain, he walks into the living room and turns on the television. From the kitchen I hear the voices of contestants and the countdown of a clock. I imagine myself sitting next to Igor on the couch, hearing the same sounds, seeing the same images. I remain in the kitchen and pick at a scab on my knee, the only activity I can conceive of that's comparable to the one taking place in the other room. We spend the rest of the evening apart, like cave spores, settling into separate environments to germinate and develop -- in the best of all possible outcomes -- into a mature form of the species.

The next morning I arrive at work an hour early. In the darkness of my cubicle I file a stack of papers, write a memo, pour myself a cup of coffee. When these tasks are complete, I run my hands along the panels of the cubicle and feel for what I know is not there -- a secret passage, a narrow slot that opens up to a crawl space padded with the last five hundred letters I have had to answer, the last three years of dictation I have had to take. My fingers wander over the top of the highest panel to explore a side known to me by sight but not by touch. My body leans heavily against the plastic, allowing my fingers more room to maneuver. When they can reach no lower, a foreign, sweaty hand clamps down on them, and I scream.

Russel's head peers over the divider, a dark sun rising from the west. "That was fun," he says eagerly, letting go of my hand. "Kind of like a pantomime, or a Morse code, but with an element of the workaday world thrown in. What were you trying to signal?"

I turn my back to the panel, only to face an identical one on the other side: a cubicle for the ages. "Why are you sitting at your desk in the dark?" I ignore Russel's queries.

"I got here early to type up a letter to Kromholtz, and the door was open," he says. "It reminded me of some of those late-night movies I used to watch when I couldn't fall asleep. One actually took place in an office building, pretty high up, too, just like this one. Maybe you saw it, something with 'hemlock' in the title?"

Igor and I never have trouble falling asleep. Sometimes, when our eyes have already committed themselves to unconsciousness, our hands wander languidly across the sheets until they come to rest on a shoulder or a half-exposed breast. It is as close as we come to intimacy; if we are lucky, dreams complete the gesture and bring us a little closer.

I walk over to the door and turn on the lights. "Finish your letter to Kromholtz," I advise Russel. "Forget about the hemlock movie."

Russel returns to his desk, alternately nodding and shaking his head. "You probably think the hemlock was in the coffee, but it wasn't. It was in the bathroom soap. Went right through the skin. The killer wanted to see who washed their hands after using the toilet and who didn't. Those who didn't suffered a worse fate than the others. You don't even want to know."

It is barely 11:30 when Igor appears at my cubicle, accompanied by a young man in a thick flannel shirt and hiking boots. Igor is visibly nervous; he too is dressed in flannel -- a shirt I have never seen before, nearly identical to the young man's -- and makes no attempt to wipe his blackened hands before reaching for mine and leading me out the door.

"This is Tom," he says, introducing me to the young man as we step into the elevator. "The cave warden."

Tom chuckles and begins to fiddle with what looks like the head of a small, high-powered flashlight in his breast pocket. "Igor is always the first one to arrive in the morning, trying to beat the crowds," he says. "Sometimes I wish I could just hand him the keys and go back to bed."

Igor squeezes my hand, and I feel the grime of 10,000 years enter my bloodstream. "Are we going to the cave now?" I ask, confused.

Igor lets go of my hand and picks up his pace, leaving Tom and me to follow. "Of course not," he calls out behind him. "The cave is closed for lunch, so I thought we'd eat lunch. It opens again in one hour, so we have to hurry."

Within three minutes, Tom, Igor, and I are sitting at a plastic table in the McDonald's around the corner from my office. The restaurant is full, and the smell of disinfectant strong. I feel that if I crane my neck just far enough, I will be able to peer out the door and around the corner and spot Russel, his face pressed against the office window seven stories up, his hands pantomiming indistinct but fateful signals in my direction.

Before any of us goes up to place an order, Igor slaps a hand against his forehead, a gesture he's learned since coming to America but has not yet mastered, and hurriedly excuses himself to retrieve a brown bag lunch he claims to have left in my office. "The sardines in the refrigerator only had one more day," he explains to Tom. "And this was the day."

Hamburgers in hand, Tom and I sit passively and wait for Igor to return. Tom asks me about work, and I ask Tom about Igor. Among other things, I want to know how Igor conducts himself in the presence of others in the cave, whether in the process of collecting his mineral samples he scorns the tourists that get in his way or treats them with respect. I do not tell Tom why such information is of interest to me, that it will help me calculate, when Igor sits at the kitchen table separating his findings into the good and the bad, just how far the contamination has spread.

Tom does not know the answers to my questions, but explains that occasional short-temperedness is common in low-pressure cave environments. "I've been known to lose it a few times myself," he assures me. "Usually in the dark zone, where all the beetles and the bats are. They still freak me out, even after all my training."

I nod and take another bite of my hamburger. I feel that if I crane my neck just far enough, I will be able to peer out the door and see Igor running full speed in the direction of the cave, five miles down the road, then stopping after a few feet to hail a cab to whisk him away to his destination. Once he has arrived, he will try to jump the fence that separates him from the solitude he has been seeking. On the third try, just when Tom and I have reached for the french fries at the same time and grazed the tips of each other's fingers, he will succeed.

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More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is currently living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she teaches English composition and is working on a collection of short stories. Her stories and poems have appeared in such journals as Tikkun, Shenandoah, Midstream, and Response.

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