Mothers and Daughters
Copyright© 2016 by Lazlo Zalezac
The local bookstore, like many others, had a small area off to one side. There they served coffee and provided tables where customers could read books while enjoying their gourmet brew. There was a public Wi-Fi, and many of the people seated in the coffee area were bent over laptops surfing the web, answering emails, or just writing.
The coffee shop existed with the expectation that the customer might actually buy the books they were reading. What actually happened was that books collected on the tables, and had to be re-shelved almost hourly. It was probably accurate to say that the bookstore made more money by selling coffee than by selling books to the people who took advantage of the coffee shop.
One of the regulars at the bookstore coffee shop was a gentleman by the name of Alex Cage. Physically, Alex was not an impressive example of the male gender. He was of average height, average build, brown hair, and brown eyes. Except for the constant expression of distracted introspective thought, he had rather bland facial features.
He was so well known by the people who worked at the bookstore coffee shop that he didn’t need to order. As soon as they observed him enter the bookstore, they started preparing his coffee. He had a standing account with the coffee shop, on which he prepaid for a month’s worth of coffee on the first of the month. It was a mutually beneficial agreement in that it streamlined the process of getting his morning coffee, and made it easy on the staff on those rare occasions when they were particularly busy.
It was a few minutes after ten when Alex Cage entered the bookstore. The barista had noticed him enter, and filled a Styrofoam cup with simple black coffee. He put the lid on the cup, and set it on the counter at the same time Alex reached for it. Alex grabbed the cup of coffee and headed to one of the tables. He sat down and took a tentative sip of the hot beverage through the small hole in the lid. Frowning, he removed the plastic lid, and watched the steam rise from the open cup.
He blew across the top of the cup, hoping to speed up the cooling process. He didn’t know if it actually helped or not. As he did most mornings he vowed to look it up, knowing even as he thought about it that he would forget by the time he returned home. He took another little sip despite the fact that the coffee was still too hot to drink.
A young woman had been watching him as he crossed the bookstore and grabbed the coffee without saying a word. She took a deep breath to gather her courage and walked over to his table. She stopped in front of him and stood there looking at him, as if to get his attention.
When he looked up at her, she signed, “Good morning.”
Surprised at having someone greet him using American Sign Language, he stared at her for moment. Then, with fingers moving twice as fast as hers, Alex signed back, “Good morning.”
They were not using the full expressive version of American Sign Language, with the thousands of hand gestures, but the less complex finger-spelling. Where the woman used slight pauses between words as is proper, he used a rather odd slashing motion with his hand between words.
“Do you mind if I join you?” she signed thinking that trying to keep up with him was going to be a real challenge.
One would think that a single man in his early thirties would spend more than a second giving an attractive young woman the once over, but Alex tended to live inside his mind, and people just didn’t register with him immediately. His thoughts were more concerned with the cup of coffee, which was too hot to drink at the moment.
Alex gestured to the seat across from him, and then signed, “Be my guest.”
The young woman took a seat rather surprised by the indifference with which he looked at her. His eyes seemed to rest on her face or her hand rather than taking in the whole package. In her humble opinion ... well. perhaps not quite that humble ... she felt that she was a very attractive young woman, who should be able to turn the head of a guy like him.
Wondering if he was bothered by her interruption, she signed, “I hope you do not mind me intruding on your reading time like this. I do not have many chances to practice signing.”
“I am not reading. I am just having my morning coffee,” he signed back, again making that unusual slashing motion between words. He glanced down at his coffee cup and then signed, “How did you know I knew ASL?”
“I saw you signing to someone the other day,” she signed back.
“Oh,” he said trying to remember when he signed in a public place where someone could see him signing. He drew a complete blank.
Surprised to hear him speak without that flatness in voice that many hearing impaired individuals possessed, she said, “You aren’t hearing impaired?”
“No, I’m not,” he answered.
“Oh,” she said somewhat at a loss.
She had honestly felt that he might enjoy a little company with someone who knew ASL. Her brother, who had been totally deaf since birth, often signed about the delight of discovering someone new who knew ASL.
“You look disappointed.”
Flustered, she said, “No. Is your wife or one of your kids deaf?”
“I’m not married; and, if I have kids, I’ve never met them,” he replied with a smile. He had to laugh at the shocked expression on her face.
“So who do you sign to?” she asked.
“Nobody, really,” Alex said. After a moment of thought, he added, “In fact, you’re the first person I’ve ever signed with.”
Convinced that he was lying to her, she frowned while looking at him. She had clearly seen him standing in his front yard, facing the window, and signing for someone to open the garage door. After he had finished signing, the garage door starting opening. He had even signed back a simple thank you. She wondered if he was actually married, and if this lie wasn’t some weird attempt to get into her panties.
Unaware of the effect that his answer had on her, he took another sip of his coffee. It was still a little too hot to comfortably drink it. He blew across the liquid hoping to cool it down a little more. He asked, “Do you know if blowing on hot coffee actually cools it down?”
“I think so. Everyone does it. If I remember correctly, it is cooling the coffee through evaporation,” she answered.
“I know that. Does blowing across the coffee speed up the evaporation process?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered.
“I’m going to have to look that up when I get home,” Alex said thinking that if he really thought about it that he’d know the answer, but it wasn’t really that important.
“Why wait? I’m sure there’s a book here that has the answer,” she said gesturing to the rows of books that filled the bookstore.
“It would take me forever to find it. At home, I’d have the answer in ten seconds or less,” he replied dismissing the entire contents of the bookstore with a lazy wave of one hand.
He took another sip and decided that it had cooled down enough to really drink it. He took a big swallow of the coffee, and then sighed in satisfaction. It was as if he could feel the caffeine rushing into his blood stream.
“I love the first cup of coffee in the morning,” he said.
“I usually have one five minutes after I wake in the morning,” she said.
Looking a little embarrassed, he said, “I don’t have much luck with coffeepots. It’s a lot safer coming here first thing in the morning.”
There was an awful lot of information in his reply that tickled Sherry’s curiosity. For one, what did luck have to do with coffeepots? It’s not like they were rocket science. In addition, it was well after ten, and he was talking about it as though it was the first thing in the morning. “It’s after ten.”
“I know. I had to get up early today,” he said while scrubbing his face with his left hand. “I’ve got a lunch meeting. Actually, it’ll be a breakfast meeting for me.”
“What time do you normally get up?” she asked.
“Noon or thereabouts. It depends, really.”
“Lots of things.”
“Mostly on when I go to bed. It’s kind of hard to wake up at seven in the morning when you go to bed at eight. I don’t keep regular hours. I’m more likely to catnap than sleep for eight straight hours like most people. I guess you could say that I don’t keep hours much at all,” Alex answered.
It had taken a reminder to take a heavy duty sleeping pill to get to bed at two in the morning, so that he would wake at nine. He had been rousted out of bed at nine. A quick shower, shave, and scraping the fuzz from his teeth took thirty minutes of his morning. The only caffeine he had gotten before this coffee, was from a half empty can of soda that had been sitting on his desk, since an hour before he had gone to bed. It was flat, room temperature, and served no gastronomic purpose other than to suggest it was something best consumed while fresh and cold.
“It must be nice to have understanding bosses,” she commented.
“I don’t work for anyone. I have customers ... and they’re worse than bosses. I can never figure that one out. I have something they need from me and they give me attitude. One of these days, I’ll give them what they want, made out of pure plastic explosive. Boom! No more customers.”
He took another sip and, figuratively, felt that at least twenty percent of his higher-order brain functions were beginning to come on line. Details of his upcoming meeting with his accountant started percolating through his conscious mind. Any time he wanted to do something, his accountant would start spouting nonsense words involving taxes, assets, and returns on investment, when all he wanted to do was purchase something.
She shook her head. “That’s a hell of a way to run a business.”
He took another drink of his coffee and sat there looking at her. He had run out of conversation topics and didn’t know what to say next. He yawned, just barely getting a hand over his mouth in time. The sleeping pill always left a metallic taste in his mouth.
“By the way, I’m Sherry Miller.”
“I’m Alex Cage.”
The name sounded familiar to Sherry but she couldn’t place it at first which was odd since she actually used the name several times a day when talking about her work. When she did realize where she had heard the name before, she discounted the possibility that the man was the individual who she regularly mentioned.
“One of my textbooks is written by Alex Cage,” Sherry said thinking he would be interested in knowing that someone with his name had published a book.
“Which book are you talking about? Neural Nets and Genetic Algorithms or Algorithms in Signal Processing?”
“Neural Nets and Genetic Algorithms,” Sherry answered surprised that he knew about the author Alex Cage.
He frowned in disgust and mumbled, “Evidence of a misspent youth rises once again to bite me on the ass.”
“It’s a great book. Half of my doctoral research is based on applying the concepts laid out in it,” Sherry objected.
“Who’s your professor? Gary Tiege?”
“Yes,” Sherry answered, realizing that this man was the famous Dr. Gage. She was also rather pleased that he actually knew her thesis adviser.
“He’s better than most of them.”
“Them?” Sherry asked wondering what he meant by that.
“The ego-driven, wannabe egg-heads.” He snorted at the shocked expression on her face and added, “You know ... university professors.”
Her initial shock at his dismissive attitude towards academicians turned into amusement. She said, “It sounds to me like you don’t think too much of university professors.”
“Well, I think a person is better off doing one thing well rather than a bunch of things poorly. It’s impossible to be a researcher, teacher, and politician, all at the same time,” Alex declared. He shook his head and added, “It’s always the politics of the job that destroys what could be a fine mind.”
“I take it you didn’t get tenure,” Sherry said knowing that the tenure process tended to retain the politically minded at the expense of the technically brilliant.
Although tenure was supposedly based on three key things, namely scholarship, teaching, and service to the university, the real criteria was an adeptness at politics. Her favorite professor had failed to get tenure. He had been an outstanding instructor, but hadn’t written a sufficient quantity of peer-reviewed articles to satisfy the tenure committee. It didn’t seem to matter to that august body that his students thought he was a great professor and that he had actually published more in five years than many of the committee members had published in the last twenty. She suspected that a few members on the tenure committee were not comfortable with the fact that he was a good teacher.
“What? No! I didn’t even try. I quit after working less than one year, there. The politics smelled so bad that I thought I was locked in an outhouse,” Alex said with absolute disgust in his voice.
“I’ve never seen so many people fight so hard about so little, in my entire life. How can you think great thoughts if you’re always being interrupted by students and having to attend pathetic little meetings where people argue about whose office is the biggest? You can’t.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Alex snorted. “Two of the learned assholes got into an argument about whose office was bigger. They measured it and found that one of the offices was larger by one square inch. It was pathetic. The errors in measurement probably led to a calculated result that was off by more than one square inch.”
“I got tired of listening to them argue, so I took a hammer and indented the wall where it met the floor so that one square inch was added to the floor space of the smaller office. Then I told them both that if I heard them argue about the matter one more time, I would use that same hammer to decrease the volume of their craniums by one cubic inch, confident that the only thing I would be displacing would be vacuum.”
“I did. That little incident prompted my departure from the university.”
“You were fired?”
“One of those ‘you can’t fire me because I quit’ kind of things?” she asked.
“No. Right after I increased the floor space of that one office, I packed up my books, told the department chair to find someone to take over my classes, and then left the university. I didn’t want anything to do with any place that could turn reasonably intelligent people into whimpering whiny idiots like those two. A university is the last place an intelligent and creative person should work.”
Sherry didn’t know if she agreed with that characterization of life at a university or not. Her life’s goal was to get a position as a university professor. It seemed to her that life as a professor was about as good of a career as anything she had seen. Although she was attending a large state school, she wanted a position in a smaller place where the classes wouldn’t have so many people and the demands on faculty would not be quite as intense as on the larger campuses.
Alex finished his cup of coffee and rose from his chair. While turning to walk away, he casually said, “Bye.”
He walked off without a backwards glance at her. Startled by his abrupt departure, Sherry stared at his back, wondering if she had done something to insult him. He made a minor detour on his way out of the store to toss the empty cup into a trashcan. Knowing he wouldn’t see it, she waved to his back and said, “Bye.”
It was late in the afternoon when Sherry went to the university to work on her research. She no longer had to attend classes, and her work schedule was very flexible. After all, it didn’t require much supervision when all she did was spend entire evenings in her office working on her computer program. She didn’t even talk to anyone on most of the days that she went to work. She had just barely settled in when her thesis adviser, Gary Tiege, stopped by her office to check up on her progress.
“How’s it going?” Gary asked.
“I’m still running the training data through it,” Sherry answered.
Her research was pretty novel. When she was in the process of trying to identify a research project, she had been driving home and had heard her brakes make a very slight noise, when she went to stop at a traffic light. She then realized that equipment often made unusual noises before breaking down. She came up with the idea that by classifying unusual sounds, or vibrations, that she could have an early diagnostic system that might be of value in a manufacturing environment. She had taken the idea to Gary Tiege and he had agreed to supervise her research.
She had spent weeks in the university machine shop, taking vibration measurements on an old lathe that they still used. The man who ran the machine shop, Mr. Stanford, had patiently made minor alterations to the lathe, so that it was running at less than optimal settings, and then helped her make recordings of the machine in operation. There were all kinds of things he could do to make the lathe run in a less than optimal manner. He had adjusted the belt mechanism so that it wasn’t properly tightened and slipped at times. He put in old used bits that had long lost their sharpness. He loosened a few bolts here and there that caused the casing around the lathe to rattle. The net result was nearly ten hours of recordings of two minutes each that could be used for training her neural net program.
“Have you got any preliminary results?” Gary asked.
Sherry said, “After putting a quarter of the training data through it, I ran some of the test data. It was about seventy percent accurate in identifying that a problem existed in the equipment. Unfortunately, it also had a lot of false positives.”
“It should perform better with more training,” Gary said after considering the matter for a moment.
Well aware of that fact, Sherry said, “By the way, I met Alex Cage this morning.”
“I didn’t know he was still in town,” Gary said looking surprised. “What did you think of him?”
“I don’t know. He told me some weird story about two professors arguing over the sizes of their offices.”
Looking around furtively, Gary said, “I wouldn’t talk about that too loudly. There are some people with very long memories and a few of them are on your dissertation committee.”
“You mean it was true,” Sherry asked.
“Yes, it was.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Did he really take a hammer to one of the offices?” Sherry asked.
“Yes, he did. My reaction when I heard what Alex did was to laugh. Apparently, I was the only one laughing. Of course, I wasn’t laughing for long. Alex quit and two professors ended up in my office wanting to lynch him. Dr. Dimsdale wanted to call a SWAT team after Alex and have him arrested for making threats. There was a lot of excitement that day.”
“Why were they in your office?” Sherry asked.
“I was the department chair at the time.”
“I didn’t know you were the department chair,” Sherry said. “I bet you had to scramble to cover his classes.”
“That wasn’t a big deal. I called in two adjuncts and they took over his undergraduate classes. I took over his graduate signal processing class.”
“I didn’t really believe him when he told me that story,” Sherry said.
Gary was quiet for a moment before he went over to her office door and closed it. Sherry raised an eyebrow upon seeing him do that. It was virtually unheard of for a male faculty member to meet with a female student behind closed doors. The potential for a sexual harassment suit was huge and not a single member of the faculty was willing to take the risk of being sued.
Licking his lips nervously, he said, “I’ve never met anyone quite as brilliant as Alex Cage. The guy is extraordinary. I mean, he was the one I went to when I had questions. He always had an answer for me. It didn’t matter how difficult the problem.
“The thing is ... he wasn’t only brilliant, he was also imaginative. You don’t know how rare that combination of talents is. There are a lot of smart people walking around on this campus, but one, or maybe two, can dream up new things and make them a reality.
“To be quite honest, your research is one of those kinds of things. I mean, you came up with the idea. You aren’t continuing the work of some professor here on campus. You are heading off into the great unknown all on your own, without much support from the faculty. That’s very unlike ninety-nine percent of our graduate students who slavishly work for their adviser in exchange for a degree. Admittedly, you aren’t the first person to address this problem, but on this campus you are breaking your own ground in pursuing it.
“Alex did that with the same kind of ease that you or I breathe air. We’d be talking and he’d come up with some new idea just out of blue, and then he would explain to me how it could done, until I was convinced that it was actually possible. He was doing that all of the time. I was in awe of him, at times.
“Sometimes after a particularly good idea, he’d disappear into his office. He’d emerge a couple of days later with a program that would just knock my socks off. It wasn’t a frequent occasion for him to do that but it did cause problems. He’d miss meetings because he was busy coding, and then all hell would break loose. On a few occasions, he’d even miss a class. I don’t have to tell you that’s a real bad idea for a tenure-track faculty member.
“I tried to protect him as much as possible, but the politics in this place can be pretty bad. A lot of people hated him. They felt he was arrogant and conceited. He didn’t even try to sugarcoat his opinion of some of the other professors. He regularly called Dr. Dimsdale, Dr. Dimwit. He even did it to his face, in meetings, and in very public venues.”
Sherry said, “I can’t imagine anyone saying something like that to Dr. Dimsdale.”
Gary laughed. “Alex did that with great regularity. I’m telling you this, because I have a suggestion. If it is at all possible for you to talk to him again, do so. Tell him about your research. I’m sure that you’ll get his interest.
“Listen to what he says. Don’t argue against his suggestions. You should ask probing questions to better understand what he’s suggesting. I’m not in his class. You aren’t in his class. He’s the master and you’ll learn more from one conversation with him than you will in a month of talking with me.”
Sherry said, “He can’t be better than you.”
“I’m a realist. On the great scale of competence, I’m decent, not brilliant. There are a lot of great composers, but there are only a handful in the ranks of Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. There are a lot of great authors, but there’s only one Shakespeare, one Jack London, and one Ernest Hemingway. I’m saying that in the area of computer programming, Alex Cage is of equal stature with Beethoven and Shakespeare,” Gary said.
Gary said, “Never, I repeat, never mention his name on this campus.”
Edited by Morgan
Edited By TeNderLoin