.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 19

It is sometimes said that the past is the key to the future. For the modern mind, hating restraint and tradition, this saying’s truth may hold only if we allow that the future may represent the rebellious opposite of the past. Of course, many who insist on being independent thinkers might bristle at the charge that their decisions are mere reactions to the past, but the urge to be different for the sake of difference is often strong. What have we learned from the media, if not that? “New!” “Been there, done that.” “Let’s do something else for a change.” The pressure for novelty, so deeply rooted in human nature and amplified beyond hysteria by the advertising industry, twists many people in the winds of change.

All this philosophy is presented merely to explain that, because Amy wanted to sleep late the previous morning but did not, this morning she determined to stay in bed and snooze. Saturday morning is the perfect time to stay in bed a little longer than usual, to stretch and relax and feel the sheets and not get up yet. So it was that Amy stayed in bed, enjoying the feel of the pillow on her cheek and the softness of the bed—as dormitory beds go. Markayla also helped to prove the theory of rebellious opposites, because she was already up and out somewhere, having slept late the previous morning. Only Tina was her consistent self, still lying in bed, apparently asleep.

Of course, even our smallest actions have consequences; there are no isolated events. As a consequence of Amy’s luxuriating in bed, the rest of her schedule was delayed. She was later to the shower, later getting dressed, and later to breakfast. Indeed, she entered the dining commons only ten minutes before it closed. The bacon was gone, the fresh cook-to-your-order eggs were gone, the wheat toast was gone, the oranges and pears were gone. Looking over the decimated area, Amy saw that her choices were watery, pre-manufactured, institutional scrambled eggs, grapefruit, white bread, and some kind of granular pudding (tapioca? yogurt? rice pudding?) with an iffy smell.

“How can the food be all gone?” Amy thought. “This is Saturday. No one even gets up for breakfast on Saturday.”

She finally found a single remaining banana, a cup of what Markayla would deny was coffee (brewed long before and now strong and stale), and a glass of sweet, yellowish liquid that the commons had labeled orange juice in a whimsy of creativity.

An interesting insight into personality can be gained by studying how people respond to misadventures. Amy could have blamed the dining commons for failing to provide an adequate amount of food for the morning meal. Managerial incompetence, a deficient planning model, poor inventory control—any of these would have been reasonable charges. Or she could have blamed those students who did come to breakfast. Selfish overeaters, greedy eyes, inconsiderate of the needs of others. She could have named one or two people who might have taken most of the bacon just by themselves. But Amy’s first thought was not to blame others or to hunt for the guilty. Her first thought was to blame herself. “I should have gotten up fifteen minutes earlier,” she told herself. “I shouldn’t be surprised if there’s nothing left at ten minutes before close.”

Back from breakfast, Amy noticed that she had the room to herself. Markayla had still not returned and Tina appeared to have left suddenly, judging by the mess in the bathroom and the clothes strewn on her bed. What urgent mission could have propelled that confused girl out the door? Even some papers had fallen or been brushed off Tina’s desk and onto the floor. Tina’s radio was still playing, squeaking weakly through the headphones. As Amy looked more closely, she noticed that Tina had left her silver lockbox open, and that, in fact, a book, something like a diary, was lying open outside it. Amy had never seen this book before. She had never seen Tina writing in any kind of diary. All of Tina’s notebooks were the typical spiral bound kind common everywhere. No red-cloth hardcover books with gold edges.

Had it been closed, Amy would have insisted to herself that she not open it to look inside. But since the book was already open, her curiosity got the better of her sense of duty and she glanced over at the pages, still several feet away. From a distance, she could see that most of the two pages were covered not by handwriting but by lines that looked like barcodes. She stepped closer, compelled by the unexpected discovery.

They were barcodes. There on the two facing pages, several barcodes had been pasted, cut out from ordinary product packages. Interspersed among the pasted codes were written numbers, always ten digits long. Amy felt her heart begin to beat heavily as she looked around. She felt guilty. But she flipped a few pages. The book was filled with barcodes and handwritten ten-digit numbers, page after page. Each entry had a brief description of a product, such as “Shampoo” or “Pen.” For most of the entries, the number four had been circled in the barcode or number string, and a note written under it, “Authorized by Four.” For other entries, the entries without a circled four in the code, there was a note, “Authorized by Green.”

Amy ran to the bathroom and grabbed Tina’s shampoo bottle. She quickly compared the ten digits written in the book to the barcode number on the shampoo bottle. They were the same. Back at Tina’s desk, Amy noticed that the number four had been circled in green ink in the barcode on the back of one of Tina’s CD’s. Turning over the box of tissues on Tina’s desk, Amy noticed that the bar code had been cut away, and a green checkmark, together with “A4” had been written. Amy reasoned that the barcode itself was probably pasted somewhere in the book.

She thought it odd that those bar codes that seem to be everywhere were so difficult to find when she looked around the room. Her desk calendar had come in a box, which had been thrown away. Her ballerina, still standing gracefully with her arms crossed and head slightly down, eyes averted, had come with a tag, no longer present. Clock. No, from a box. Dictionary? No. Shrink wrapped or on the dust jacket, which was gone. Box of floppy disks. There was a barcode on it. It had a four in the second set of digits.

Amy ran back into the bathroom. She looked at Tina’s products first. The barcode of her hairspray had a four; her mousse had four fours; her mouthwash, none; her toothpaste, two fours. Amy’s hairspray also had a four; her mouthwash (the same brand as Tina’s) none; toothpaste, none; shampoo, two fours.

Everything of Tina’s, except the mouthwash, had a four in the barcode. Why not the mouthwash? Otherwise, the consistency of fours seemed to have something to do with Tina’s book. Amy had the feeling that she was learning something, gaining some kind of understanding, but she did not know what it was yet. She remembered one of her father’s favorite sayings, “Our lives are told by our receipts.” He had gotten insight into many cases by studying the paperwork and store receipts left lying around. Amy felt that she was looking into Tina’s life by looking at the book. But she felt a little scared. She also felt uncomfortably that she was somehow spying on Tina, invading the girl’s privacy. So she turned the book back as she had found it and went back to her own desk. Then she decided to take a walk, hoping that Tina would return and put her things back together soon.

Amy grabbed a little book of poems by her favorite poet and her father’s namesake, George Herbert, and set out across campus. Matt was out somewhere playing basketball, so he was not available to talk to. “Who is Green?” she thought, quickly running over the names of every professor and student she could think of. There was a Michael Green in her critical thinking class, but no other Greens came to mind. She doubted that Michael was connected with Tina’s barcodes. She sat by her favorite fountain on campus, the one with a fairly realistic small waterfall, and started to read. It was difficult to concentrate.

“Authorized by Four. Authorized by Green,” she thought. She turned her book over to look at its barcode. It did not have a four in it. And the cover was blue. Then she remembered Tina’s comment about Blue being the enemy of Green. “Must be the color green,” she thought. But what did that mean? Then she also remembered how Tina had looked at the barcodes on the boxes of the radios she was considering. “She must be shopping by barcode number or something,” Amy thought. The number four in the barcode is somehow significant. Everything she buys has to have a number four in it or be authorized by Green, whoever he is. Like the mouthwash.”

Then it occurred to her. The mouthwash was green. Amy whispered, “Duh,” to herself. Green was the color. Green things were authorized by their color. Things with a four in the barcode were authorized by the number, and if they did not have a four, they had to be green to be authorized. “That makes sense,” Amy said to herself, and then felt startled to realize what she had just said. Still, she thought, given Tina’s bizarre assumptions—that purchased items needed to be authorized in some way, and that the color and the number were the two methods—the girl was acting reasonably or at least logically. She owned nothing in violation of those self-imposed rules.

“Of course, the question is, what does it mean to say that something has been authorized? And why does it have to be authorized in the first place?” Amy wondered.

+++

When Amy returned to the room, Tina was back and the signs of a hasty exit had been cleaned up. The silver box was once again closed and Tina’s barcode book was not in sight. Tina sat at her desk, flipping through a well-worn magazine.

“Hi, Tina,” Amy said.

“Oh, hello,” Tina replied, without enthusiasm.

Amy did not know what to say, so she said nothing. She needed to talk to someone to find out what to do. She thought Shelley might be able to give her some ideas, so she called her. Shelley had just returned to her room, too, and invited Amy over.

+++

“Hi, Amy,” Shelley said. “Hey, you look worried. What happened? Did you decide you’d really try to do all the assigned reading in your classes?”

“No, it’s not me, it’s Tina.”

“What did she do now?” The question seemed to imply that Shelley had heard something about Tina and her past behavior that Amy still knew nothing about.

“I’m really worried about her. She’s totally losing touch with reality.”

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s got a book with barcodes in it, for all the products she buys.”

“What’s so unreasonable about that?” Shelley relaxed a little.

“Well, it’s not a question of being reasonable. It’s a question of being sane.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, what’s reasonable to us depends on our assumptions. Most people who act like idiots think they are being reasonable because their assumptions are dumb.”

“Yeah. We’re all good rationalizers. I’ve tried it myself. Works great. Except I sometimes feel guilty afterwards.”

“That’s just it. If our assumptions, our values, are wrong or foolish, our conclusions are, too. And if our assumptions are plainly bizarre, like Tina’s, our reasonable conclusions will be bizarre, too.”

“So if we try to reason without the right values, we’re nuts?”

“No, most of us don’t have Tina’s excuse. We let ourselves get dragged all over the place by our passions and rationalizations.”

“You have passions?” asked Shelley, with mock disbelief.

“You know what I mean.”

“I sure do, and I can hardly wait to find out more.”

“Shelley.”

“I know. Be serious. Okay. So. The right values.”

“Well, you have to get values from somewhere. Advertising, your friends, famous actors, whatever.”

“And I take it you don’t get yours from any of these places.”

“Let’s just say I try not to.”

“So where do you get them?”

 “Well, there’s this Book.”

“Okay, I get it. Your values come right from the Big Guy, huh?”

“Uh huh.”

“Written on stone and all that.”

“Well, some of them are written on stone, but the most important are written on the heart.”

“Oh, Amy, you’re sweet.”

“Don’t you mean quaint?”

“No, no. You’re just so different. I mean, a lot of my friends would do just anything to be cool.” Shelley paused to think of an example. “Which is why there’s so much barfing going on every Saturday night. But for you, there’s something more important than being cool. That’s almost—almost mature.”

“Oh, please.”

“No, I’m serious. You’re okay, Amy.”

“Thanks.”

“But, and I don’t know how to ask this, but, you know, why?”

“Well, not only are those values worthy, but they don’t change every five minutes.”

“Yeah, but not just the values, but the whole God thing.”

“God makes the world make sense.”

“I don’ get it.”

“Well, without God, we would have a universe filled with beauty and kindness and cruelty and suffering and love and all of it meaningless and empty. That makes no sense to me. I think life has meaning. Love has meaning and suffering has meaning.”

“But how do you know that what you believe is true?”

“I guess it’s a combination of faith and reason.”

“I thought faith and reason were opposites.”

“No. My faith gives me my values and is the foundation for reason.”

“Faith is a foundation for reason?” Shelley asked, this time genuinely confused, as if someone had said that high speed was the key to safe driving on icy roads.

“Yeah. In a sort of secular way, you have to have faith, or trust, to believe that your brain is capable of making rational decisions.”

“Especially with so much evidence to the contrary.”

“And my faith tells me that truth and justice and moral values and stuff like that are real and not just made up or personal, and so they can be included in making decisions.”

“But if God is behind reason, we’ll all have to do a lot better at thinking, and make better decisions.”

“And some of those decisions will tell us we shouldn’t do what we want to.”

“Oh, I hate that. But Amy, haven’t you ever lost your reason in the face of an overwhelming passion?” Shelley was gently baiting Amy.

To Shelley’s surprise, Amy said, “Yeah. Remember I told you that Matt and I met at the store where we put together furniture? Well, we had been doing that for a couple of weeks and I was beginning to like him a little.”

“A sort of ‘love at first two weeks’?” Shelley asked. “Soon followed by overwhelming passion?” Shelley’s eyebrows were going up and down.

“No, just liking. But anyway, he was still trying to get this other girl at the store interested in him. We’d be sitting on the floor, with me holding a couple of pieces of wood together while Matt tightened the screws on the other end and she would walk by and he’d just about lose control. Guys get so distracted over nothing, it’s just irritating.”

“So was she really hot?”

“Not to me. And that was all the more irritating. She was always ticked off about everything. She’d walk around and say, ‘Where’s the rag that belongs here?’ or ‘You pushed that sofa in crooked’ and then make a tiny adjustment. She always had a sneering tone of voice. I called her Miss Angry. I couldn’t believe Matt was interested in her.”

“Sort of made you doubt his sanity, huh?” said Shelley.

“One time she came up to Matt and said, ‘You forgot to turn the light off in the storeroom.’ And he said, ‘I did? I’m sorry.’ So she says, ‘I had to turn it off for you. You shouldn’t leave the light on. I’m not here to turn off lights for you. Next time be sure you turn off the light.’ And on and on. And all this in a tone like he’d burned her house down.

“She could’ve just turned off the light and not made herself a goddess over it.”

“Yeah, I mean, he just forgot one time. Why give the guy this big verbal beating for it? But that’s how she was about everything. What could he see in her?”

“Cute dimples?”

“I don’t know. Well, anyway, one time I thought I’d use a little ploy—”

“Wait!” Shelley said. “You use ploys? Oh, Amy, I am learning so much about you. Please go on.”

“No, I mean, I made him a sack lunch, hoping he would get a clue that I liked him.”

“Ah,” said Shelley, nodding largely, as if comprehending deeply. “The old food ploy. Yes, yes, though I should think that triple chocolate fudge decadence brownies might be a tad more effective than a sack lunch. Or maybe a home cooked dinner.”

“Oh, right,” said Amy. “A home cooked dinner here in the dorm. That’s logical.”

“But you see,” said Shelley, pointing her finger, “I have no faith to base my reason on. You have to put up with my faithless logic. But do go on.”

“So, I gave him the lunch. He even split the sandwich with me. I thought I was doing great, until Miss Angry walks by. I thought he’d twist his head off watching her.”

“Ooh, major point loss.”

“So, anyway, the next day I made him another sack lunch.”

“You don’t learn very fast, do you?”

“I gave it to him and said, ‘Here’s a sandwich, some chips, and an egg.’ Only I didn’t tell him what kind of egg.”

“Ah, the old rotten egg ploy. Good girl.”

“No, it wasn’t rotten. It just wasn’t hard boiled.”

“So when he cracked it open and splashed it all over himself, you said, ‘The yolk’s on you, bucko!’ Oh, Amy, you’re so totally wicked. I love it.”

“No,” said Amy, a little defensively. “The second he broke it I repented—”

“Aw,” said Shelley.

“—and apologized profusely, pretending that I made a mistake and it was supposed to be hard boiled.”

“Tsk. Amy.”

“So I even lied to cover up my original plan.”

“Amy. Amy. Amy. I am so shocked. This is quite a confession. That is probably the worst, the wildest, the most dramatic example of passion wrenching control from reason that I’ve ever heard. And no doubt you thought you were being reasonable.”

“I guess I didn’t think about it in those terms at the time.”

“Temporary insanity, I calls it,” Shelley said, mimicking a classic Hollywood pirate.

The word insanity reminded both girls of their original topic, Tina. Amy briefly shared some of Tina’s other strange behaviors and wondered aloud what to do for the girl.

“Worms in her food, huh?” Shelley mused. “Now in the DC, I’d believe it. But at a restaurant, that is strange.”

“There were no worms. Matt and I both looked pretty close. She imagined them.”

“Hmm. I don’t know, Amy.”

“And she can’t or won’t see that there is something wrong.”

“So what are you going to do. Just leave her alone? Or ask Melanie to move her?”

“I’d like to help her. But how?”

“I don’t know, girl.”

“I’ve made an appointment with Counseling Services to see if they can help.”

“You like helping other people, don’t you, Amy?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that Tina really needs help. Needs someone.”

+++

The counselor was the best hope. But since Amy was going to call her parents tonight anyway, as she did every Saturday, she decided to tell her father about her plans. He listened without comment until she had finished.

“That sounds like about the best you can do,” her father said. “Let’s hope she realizes she needs help. That’s the most difficult situation. When people need help, but they won’t admit it or don’t realize it. They may not be happy, but based on their view of reality, they don’t see any solution. They won’t listen to other people. They won’t try your solution because it doesn’t fit with what they believe is true. So they stay trapped by their own false beliefs.”

“Which to them are reasonable.”

“Yeah. And because for some reason they want to believe them. It’s just like some of the shoplifters I’ve seen. They’ll tell you they are honest people. And they rationalize their stealing. If they believed that stealing from the store was really wrong, that it makes them thieves, then they’d have to stop stealing.”

“Or admit that they are crooks.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Speaking of that, Daddy, did you catch any crooks today?”

“Well, not today, but we did this week.”

“So, tell me all about it.”

Detective Herbert laughed. He knew he had received his cue.

“Just this last Thursday we broke up a boiler room operation where a bunch of guys were defrauding mostly older folks with a phony contest scheme.”

“That’s so sad when older people get cheated.”

“It makes me angry. But we got these guys good. They should be doing a good bit of time.”

“What did they do?”

“They called and said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a week in Hawaii. All you have to do is send us the $149 processing fee and the $89 prize claim insurance fee and it’s yours.’”

“Another case of too good to be true?”

“Yeah, another case of you can’t believe your desires.”

“Did a lot of people fall for that?”

“Evidently, yes. These guys had all the bases covered. If someone said, ‘I didn’t enter a contest,’ they said, ‘This was an automatic entry from your credit card company. During the last three months, every time you made a purchase, you were automatically entered in the contest.’ Pretty much everybody had made a purchase in the last three months. And, of course, the opportunity to charge the so-called processing fees opened people up to giving out their credit card numbers. If they balked, the guys said that charging it would enter them into the contest again in a special prize category with increased odds. If they still balked, the guys said they needed the card number to supposedly confirm their entry numbers.”

“Oh, Daddy. I can’t believe people are that bad. And cheating older people, too?”

“We got copies of the script. They talk about the palm trees and the warm sand of the beaches, what a nice experience for the golden years. Things like that.”

“So their imagination could carry them away.”

“The crooks even claimed that the contest was guaranteed by some group called the NCAC, the National Contest Acceptance Corporation. Sounds great, but the phone number the guys handed out to people who wanted to check was just another phone in their boiler room. Naturally they gave themselves a good report for being legitimate. And if people said they’d never heard of the NCAC, the guys acted all surprised and tried to embarrass the callers by telling them how famous the group is. Headquarters in New York and all.

“That is so evil. And cruel.”

“We’re still working with Justice to freeze bank accounts all over creation.”

“Wow.”

Amy’s father was silent. His story had been told. Amy then talked to her mother. She said that Amy sounded tired. “You’re not staying up too late are you?” Mrs. Herbert asked. “Are you getting your rest?” This and other questions reminded Amy of how difficult it is to be a mother at a distance. Amy reassured her that her daughter was doing the laundry regularly, eating sensibly, and taking care of her skin.

.



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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com