Thursday, August 11, 2005

Chapter 8: November 4, 2030

Maybe it was a coincidence that the Chinese had decided to have the first man land on Mars the day before the United States election day, in prime time for the Eastern Time zone. Then again, maybe the fact that HBO had the exclusive rights to non-Chinese coverage of the landing, for which it had paid handsomely, had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, space buffs had had almost five years to plan ahead for this landmark event in human history and there were parties all over town as people gathered to see it happen. Just about everyone on Earth knew the names of most of the members of the twenty person mission. Most journalists coercing the story could even rattle off the names of the leaders with credible Mandarin accents. All of the crew members were Chinese, and while the crew was from diverse backgrounds within China, all of the leaders were from Beijing.

DeVeux Events hadn’t landed the biggest party, at the Museum of Natural History, but, the Denver Country Club Party which they did get was as much as they could handle anyway. Normally, Lily did only ice sculptures, for which she received a 50% commission, but for this job, Mark needed everyone he could get, so Lily was helping to set up tables, carrying trays of appetizers and clearing empty glasses. When the moment came, campaign bottles would pop and everyone on staff would dispatch glasses full of it to the guests as if it was a New Year’s Eve Party.

In the main hall, the HBO coverage played on a huge screen at the front of the room. In a side room, a six foot diameter hologram of Mars spun slowly, surrounded by charts, timelines and diagrams on preprinted poster boards. It wasn’t quite museum quality, but was good enough to win a top prize at a high school science fair. This particular display, hologram and all, won the top prize at the South High School Science Fair.

Fatima Kwam, the young woman who’d prepared the project was hovering over it and piercing her natural tendency towards social awkwardness with her earnest desire to explain the mission. Fatima Kwam looked out of place in the country club. Three-quarters of a century after the civil rights movement began, the country club was mostly full of white faces, with just a smattering of Asian and black members. Most of the guests were in evening gowns, but Fatima wore a plain, loose gray wool sweater, a long plain skirt that went down to her ankles where it met sensible dull leather loafers, and a transparent silk veil that didn’t really obscure her face, but made a statement about her faith. She wore no jewelry, except a cheap watch buried under her sweater. Her hair was short without being boyish. In a corner of the room near the main hall, her father, a severe looking man in his early 40s wearing a simple navy blue suit instead of the tuxedo sported by most of the older male guests, watched her silently from a distance.

When one of the regular serving crew had been asked questions about the foot by Fatima’s father, Mark had dispatched Lily to handle it after briefly explaining which foods in the menu had pork or alcohol in them.

As Lily came in, Fatima was immersed in her pitch.

“So, I understand that you’re the President of the South High School Space Club. Do I have that right?”, an older man with a curled mustache asked.

“That’s right. I helped found the Club at South three and a half years ago as a Freshman. Everyone was doing it. I doubt there’s a high school in the country without one now. The Administration may have felt that it was no big deal because unmanned missions are more cost effective than manned missions, but NASA just didn’t get it. This trip captured the world’s imagination. When more than a year had passed and no one had really don’t anything to acknowledge what all of us were interested in, we started a club. Ms. Frisk, the physics teacher, was great. She really encouraged us. When my senior year came, I became the President.”

Lily turned away and spoke to Fatima’s father.

“Mr. Kwam.”, Lily said, getting his attention. “Mr. DeVeux, said you had some questions about the menu. I usually work with clients to co-plan events, so he asked me to discuss the menu with you.”

Mr. Kwam averted his eyes from Lily, who was considerably less modest in her attire, with cleveage pressing against her servant’s black and whites, but he did answer her.

“Yes, I did. As you probably know, Fatima and I are Muslims, and its important to us that we not have any food or drink prohibited by our religion - such as pork or alcohol. Could you tell me what has gone into the various appetizers?”

“Certainly.”, Lily responded. And, she quickly launched into a rundown of the menu from pork sausage rolls, to wine sauce soaked pastries, to acceptable vegetable trays, to permissible lamb-matzo ball dumplings, to permissible chicken soup, to forbidden pork lard cake slices. She also explained that while most of the drinks were alcoholic, that any glass with blue ring dangling around the stem was non-alcoholic. As one of her co-workers went by, she grabbed several lamb-matzo ball dumplings, and a glass of apple cider and presented it to him.

“Thank you.”, Mr. Kwam responded, after hearing the presentation from Lily, and he brought the plate and glass to his daughter.

“These foods are safe to eat. I spoke with Mr. DeVeux’s assistant to confirm it.”, he told his daughter.

Fatima smiled and took a deep drink of cider, her throat getting sore from so much talking.

Soon a bell rang, and the guests gathered in the main hall. The first man set foot on Mars. The man doing so made a statement about the power of the People working together, quickly translated from Mandarin to English by an HBO translator, corks popped, campaign was distributed, and on a third or fourth round, Lily personally brought two glasses of sparkling grape juice (accompanied with an explanation of what it was) to Fatima and her father.

Dinner was served half an hour later, and it was all Lily could do to keep up. By the time the desert was served and the sun had set her usual smile had faded to a painted on facsimile of a smile and Lily was regretting her decision to wear even low heels for this function.

Once the closing speech from the Country Club Night Owls Chairman was over and the scientifically minded people in the crowd had gravitated to the telescopes set up on the greens to watch Mars what was now early evening, Lily took a break in the front room with the Mars display. Fatima had retreated there as well and was sitting next to Lily. Comfortable that the guests were no longer interested in his daughter, Fatima’s father had drifted into the front drive to enjoy a glass of tea by himself.

“I’m really impressed.”, Lily told Fatima, to make conversation. “I was never very good at school. I didn’t even graduate from high school.”

Fatima wrinkled her nose, not quite sure what to make of that. “My father would kill me if I didn’t make good grades. He was a professor of Islamic law back in Nigeria, even though now he just rents old cement trucks to contractors. He isn’t thrilled by the fact that I spend all my time at meetings of a club full of boys, either. If it weren’t for the fact that my brother is in the club too, he wouldn’t let me participate at all.” Fatima glanced over to make sure her father was still safely outside as she said it.

Lily thought a bit about how to respond to that.

“Is it nice having a brother?”, Lily asked. “I never had any siblings.”

“Oh, a brother can be O.K. My older brother, happy to chaperone me at my meetings at all hours, as long as I don’t tell my dad that he drinks beer with his friends. But, brothers can be awfully bossy. And, of course, I have to do all the housework with my mom, even though my older brother and my two younger brothers are all perfectly capable of it.”

“Do you have plans for college?”, Lily asked, knowing that most science fair kids did.

“Yes. I was just accepted to C.U. a couple of weeks ago, and the guidance counselor at school said I’ve got a good chance of getting a scholarship. Good think too. Otherwise, my father would probably never be willing to spend the money on me. Sending the boys abroad to study Islam is much higher on his financial priority scale. He’s a leader in the community and so he feels like he has to send them to keep up appearances.”

Fatima glanced over to see her father heading back in and spoke quickly.

“Could I get your number. I’ve been here all night and you’re the only person who seems to really care about me as a person. Father won’t let me spend time with men, and I have to study so much I don’t get much time to meet other women either. Father told me you make the most beautiful ice sculptures. He’s seen them in the paper. Maybe we could talk again?”, Fatima was almost pleading. Clearly, she was one lonely girl.

“Sure.”, Lily said, writing her number on a napkin. The irony of her, who’d never had family, being a big sister to a woman who had a huge family did not escape her, but she heard the tone of Fatima’s voice and couldn’t help but to want to help her any way she could.

A few moments later, Fatima’s father came in and they started moving the project out to their dirt covered pickup truck. Lily helped carry poster boards and the hologram projector. Her father politely said thank you and asked for her name. In a moment they had vanished into the 1st Avenue traffic in front of the country club.

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