A Low-Grade Charge That Never Goes Off

                                                    Jenna Orkin

We had been living in Moteru for three months.  My husband Rob was in charge of a new computer outlet there.  Our friends in New York had expressed horror at the idea of our moving to Moteru even though no one ever stayed long.  Moteru was thought of as one of those places where you held your breath til you made a pile of money and brought it home.  In fact, the men who went to Moteru were the sort who wanted to get away from their bosses.  With no one looking over their shoulders they thrived, at least in the beginning. 


"But what will you do?" people had asked me. 

"Same thing I do here; write; take care of Pamela." 


They shook their heads at my stubbornness; my inability to see their point:  Moteru was primitive, despite the recent windfall from the discovery of oil off the coast.  Its history, which until 1958 had remained unwritten, was one of eking out an existence in the desert or the bush; its mindset, that of a people who had never known where their next meal was coming from.  Although Moteru now had what it called a city, by which it meant a part of the desert that had been covered over in concrete, most of the buildings stood abandoned in midconstruction because of some flaw in planning or a deep-rooted nomadic instinct to pack up and go somewhere else.

I was a city girl, our friends insisted.  I didn't understand what it would be like to live without movies, music, stimulating people like themselves.

But it had turned out as Rob and I had thought, except for the money which never did accumulate.  Writing and childrearing kept me busy if lonely although in truth I'd been lonely since long before.  My New York friends were like drinking buddies; the kind who take the edge off loneliness but don't touch the essence of it.  My internal life in Moteru wasn't really so different from what it had been in New York.  The loneliness was just more obvious to other people, more acute to me.

But I chose loneliness as the lesser of the evils available. 

Before we moved to Moteru I'd had fantasies of getting to know the language and the local people; becoming a sort of unofficial sociologist of their culture which no one had bothered to study before.  But after two months there I realized how unrealistic those fantasies were.  While Moterus craved Northern know-how, they were deeply suspicious of us.  Some of their religious taboos - especially the one about a man not being allowed to talk for more than ten minutes to a woman who wasn't a member of his immediate family - made it impossible for us to socialize with them.  The Moteru language was also proving a tough nut to crack.  I learned enough to get by in the marketplace but as thirteen of the letters in the alphabet had no Indo-European equivalent, and as several of them required a gagging reflex, I settled, for the time being, to communicating like most other Northerners, in bad Spanish.  As for sociology, I turned my attention to the thriving Amer-European community, as company brochures described it.

There was no shortage of activities for expatriots in Moteru:  The compound made sure to keep its residents, especially the unemployed wives, busy with yoga, aerobics, classes in the cuisines of whoever was staying there at the moment...  But they all seemed like afterschool activities to keep us from missing home.  I avoided them.  I wasn't going to learn how to make flaky pastry simply because there was nothing else to do; I had a book to write.  Even though the writing was 75% daydreaming, cooking class was giving up completely.  And compound lifestyle was too laid back for my taste.  I didn't want a friendship based on shopping and sitting around the pool.  I would have a real relationship or none.  It was none.   

So I didn't have high hopes when Rob called one Thursday afternoon in January (a pleasant month in Moteru; the evenings are cool) and said, "See if Maria can stay and babysit tonight.  Apparently they've got some kind of bar in the back of the American Consulate; you have to be invited.  It could turn into dinner so tell her we might not be back til ten thirty."  
We got there at six; Rob is punctual when he's eager.  The roar of people having a good time rose from the Consulate as we walked up the dirt driveway.  (The roads in Moteru, like the buildings, were either the latest model or hard scrabble.)  Instead of going in the front entrance we made a detour to an annex in the back which I had learned was called the Grunge.  The bougainvillea on the wall of the Consulate sighed as we passed in the dusk.
Fred Schweig, the American Consul, let us in.  I'd met him before, at formal occasions: a reception to inaugurate Rob's outlet and a dinner to welcome a new staff member to the Consulate.  Now he was wearing an open shirt and beaming rosily.  
    "The moon is upside-down in this hemisphere," I observed as I stepped over the threshold of the Grunge.
    He kissed me on the cheek.  I'm not sure if it's true about the moon; in a new place old things look odd so maybe the moon had always been upside-down.
    Fred shook his head.  "You say some pretty weird things," he laughed.  He would come to believe that profoundly. 
    The Grunge looked like what it was: the last stop before No-Man's-Land.  The main room had the nicety of decor of a family garage.  Around it in isolation or in clusters, the misfits and woebegone of Moteru were gathered for fellowship and drink. 
    "Hi," said a thin man who was hunched over a gin at one of the wooden counters that jutted utilitarianly from the wall.  
    Hi, we said.
    He put out his hand:  "Beau Wishart."
    We introduced ourselves and took the seats he was showing us at the counter.  He was about forty.  His posture made him look older, his awkwardness, younger.  He had the long, lank hair of an alcoholic. 
    "How long have you been in Moteru?" he asked. 
    "A couple of months," Rob said.
    "Staying long?"
    "Couple of years."
    He asked our purpose in Moteru and we told him.  He told us he imported electrical equipment.  We sat nodding at each other.
    "Say, you ever been to Lausanne?" asked Beau.
    "No," said Rob.  "Have you?"
    "Yeah.  Got back a few days ago as a matter of fact," he said, as though it was a coincidence that he should be talking about the place now.  "My company pays for two tickets a year, anywhere you want to go."
    So did Rob's.  The great selling point of Moteru was that you got to leave a lot.  Christmas bonuses, first prize in the raffle were always a ticket out. 
    "Beautiful.  You gotta see the place.  Skiing, lakes...  How you doin', give me a kiss," Beau said to a tan, blond woman who had just come in and was bouncing with excitement at being back at the Grunge after the Christmas vacation.  "Do you know Rob and Maggie?"  Then to us, "This is Eve, our aerobics instructor."  That explained the bouncing.  We said hi.
    "Hi," said Eve.  "Welcome to the Grunge.  How long have you been living in Moteru?"  No one ever came to visit.
    "' Few months," Rob said.  A little longer than it had been the last time someone had asked him.
    "How long will you be staying?"  We told her.
    "I haven't seen you since you got back from Lausanne," she said playfully to Beau.  "No broken legs, I see."
    "No, it was beautiful.  How was Aspen?"
    "Probably not as beautiful but the skiing was fantastic."
    "I wish I could have gone with you.  I should marry a stewardess and get those discounts Michael gets."  He turned to us.  "Eve's husband is a pilot for Moteru Air."  He leaned forward in a mock whisper:  "If you work for the airline, you can get 80% off!"  That was food for thought.  
    "Depending on the season and how popular the place is you want to go to," Eve amended.
    "You didn't do too badly."
     Everyone had arrived.  Fred came in, a carton of beer in each hand.  He was red-faced and sweating, with a grimace disguised as a grin.  He put the beer down, breathing deeply and wiped his forehead.  Then, slapping the guys on the back, kissing the women who'd come in while he'd been in the cellar, he made his way through the grateful throng; a hail-fellow-well-met or politician running for office.  As he reached Eve he must have gotten a surge of energy for he picked her up and carried her over his shoulder to the bar.  He seemed to carry things a lot.  Maybe he lifted weights and was testing himself.  Eve screamed and laughed.  I've never liked being picked up by men - in the literal sense - even if I love them.  It feels like a benign form of bullying.  I speculated about where the tradition had started of carrying the bride across the threshold - the rape of the Sabine women?
    A game of billiards ended in the next room so more people packed in to the bar.  Beau introduced us to his client Mark and a few other people.  They all worked for an embassy or an airline or a company whose perks consisted of tickets out of Moteru.  The room grew louder as everyone got drunk.  They semed to me like people at Mardi Gras; their fun distorted, unreal and a little sinister.
    At nine the bar closed and a group of us went out to dinner: Fred Schweig and his wife, Nancy who taught English at the high school that had just opened; Beau and Mark; Eve and Michael; two women called Terry and Meg, who I later found out were stewardesses; me and Rob.  Nancy was a tall woman, with gray eyes beneath a straight brow; attractive in an understated way that's recognized by women sooner than men.  People said she and Fred made a striking couple.  Once in a roast, someone described them in a double entendre as being "head and shoulders above the rest."  She had a career woman's short, streaked hair which suited her.  The impression she gave was one of steadiness; I would have had no qualms leaving Pamela with her for a few hours.   
     As we entered the restaurant, I waved to the ubiquitous picture of Moteru's Prince Casius which smiled down on us from the wall.  Without that harmless - and hopeless - wagging of fingers in the ears, life in Moteru would have been unbearable.  Foreigners couldn't leave the country without the permission of native sponsors; imports of anything that was produced locally were banned so we were dependent on local food, lightbulbs that lasted five days, toilet paper in the tradition of the English colonists who left in 'fifty-two.  Meanwhile over the border seventy miles away was modern, cosmopolitan Semburi which had offered to send advisers and experts to Moteru but Prince Casius had refused. 
    Beau and Rob smiled at my muggery then cleared their throats.  It was considered in poor taste to joke about Moteru when we were making money there.  People expressed sympathy for the local laws while breaking them at will.
    Responding to a subliminal message from the corner of my eye I glanced at Nancy.  She was freezing me with a look as though she had diplomatic immunity to subversive humor.
    Tolerance was her stock in trade.  Diplomats affect it no matter what the local customs.  Their badge of honor is not to say what they think but to blend in; they are chameleons.  So it follows that the one thing she couldn't tolerate was someone who wasn't as tolerant as she was.  I, on the other hand, prided myself on being a Bohemian, an artist; tolerant but also outspoken in my opinions.  I moved so as not to sit next to her.
    The maitre d' showed us to our table where we sat and studied the menu as though it was a hand we'd been dealt at cards.  As they decided on what cards to play, people looked up.  Fred called the waiter over and we agreed on a general order of assorted hors d'oeuvres to start. 
    "Have any of you tried that new restaurant across the street from St. John's?" asked Beau when the waiter left.  "Indian place?"
    Fred shook his head.  "Haven't gotten around to it.  I hear it's good, though.  Did you try it?"
    "Yeah!  It was; pretty good.  Not as good as the one that closed, remember?"  He looked around to see if anyone did.  "Rajusthan Palace?"
    "Oh, I was so sad when that closed," moaned Eve. "We used to go there at least once a week.  That was my favorite restaurant.  The lamb vindaloo... "  She stretched out the last syllable in a moan.
    "Nancy likes the food at the Marriott but I like Gearey's," said Fred with a naughty gleam in his eye.  A few people chuckled.  The subtext of Fred's observation was, "Nancy likes fancy food but give me a juicy, red steak."  "Whenever one of the kids gets homesick, we take them for barbecue at Gearey's."
    "Oh," said Beau in mock dismay, "get homesick here?  Why would anyone do that?  Moteru has everything we have back home."  Everybody laughed including Nancy.  I suppose Beau, as an old friend, had earned more latitude than I.  But she immediately dabbed at her lips with her napkin, wiping away her smile.
    "How did your pillows look when you got them home?" she asked Mark, a tall, beefy man of about twenty-eight with a beard, probably to make him look older.  
    "I put them in the bedroom.  They didn't go with the rug in the living-room.  They look better in the bedroom."  He nodded, agreeing with himself.  "I'm going to get more for the living-room, though."
    "Mm!  We have some in the bedroom also.  How about you, Beau?  I like that hanging you have in the hall.  Is that from here or did you get it on your trip to Thailand?"
    "The one in the hall... "  He frowned.  "Oh that one!  That's from Thailand.  But I got a couple upstairs that're from here."  Silk was cheap in Moteru, one of the few local products worth buying.
    "Did you get them at the market?"
    "No, they're from a guy in Quruuth."
    I learned more than I ever wanted to know about everyone's silk wall hangings and pillows.  I might have been able to get into the subject except that the people discussing it were bored too.        
   The waiter arrived with the hors d'oeuvres.
    "Mm!" said Eve, taking what looked like a frankfurter in pastry.  I took one and bit.  Frankfurter in pastry.  The influence of the fridge still clung around the middle.  "Not bad!" Eve decided.
    "Mm."  Everyone nodded as they chewed. 
    This agreement on the quality of the starch-and-lard-wrapped frankfurter made me lonely.  I felt like shouting, "This is fucking awful."  Beau looked at me with his mouth full, his eyebrows up in inquiry.
    I wanted to give an ambiguous answer while also toeing the line of politeness.           
    "Mm," I said with a side-to-side nod that meant to convey, "So-so."  Inside my head, a Mr. Hyde voice cried, "NOT!"   I was fed up with our out-of-tune chirping. 
    "Beau!" said Terry, "how was your trip to Lausanne?"
    As Beau answered,  I turned to Fred in order to shush the voice in my head.
    "So how do you like having to entertain so much?" I asked.  There was always talk on the compound about dinners honoring this or that business or entrepreneur at the Consulate.
    "'T's all right," he said, taking a second frankfurter.  "It can get a little overwhelming when we have to do it every night."
    "What about having to be on your best behavior all the time?"
    Fred didn't answer.
    I went on, nudging him towards a confidence, "I think I'd be a terrible diplomat."
    "Can't say that that part bothers me," he said in a conclusive tone that meant, "No further comment."  He gave me a gleaming smile that warded off probing as the glare of the sun on the surface of the sea makes one look away.
    "Hey, did you guys know that Mark was in Tanzania over Christmas?" Beau asked.  I had a soft spot for Beau, always trying to crank up the interest level of the conversation. 
    "You were?!" exclaimed Nancy.  "How exciting!"
    "Yeah," said Mark sheepishly.
    "How was it?" she asked with the enthusiasm one might affect for a child or sick person.  The approach was probably effective in her teaching. 
    "It was great."  We waited to hear specifics.  "It was really great."
    "Did you go alone or were you with a group?"
    "No, me and my Dad went.  Last year he went to the Antarctic.  This was the first time he asked me to go with him."
    "Adventurous guy," commented Eve, avoiding the pathos of Mark's relationship with his father.
    "What does he do?" asked Terry, a timid young woman who'd finally gotten the courage to speak.
    "He's retired."
    "He was a doctor," Beau interjected.  "He operated on Prince Casius' brother, once." 
    "Did you see any animals?" Nancy steered us away from politics.
    "Yeah.  We saw lots of animals."  
    He looked like a six foot schoolboy before the Board of Examiners.  "We saw some zebra... "
    "Any big cats?" asked Terry.  I have to say for the expats, they appreciated travel.
    "We saw a leopard," reported Mark hopefully.  "We didn't see a kill, though," he added, looking down in shame at what he imagined to be our disappointment.
    "I bet your niece loves it when you come home and tell her stories," said Meg.  "You're her exciting uncle with all the adventures."
    "She does, yeah, but the others... "  He shook his head.  "They're not that interested.  All they talk about is, you know, mortgages... "
    They were lost souls, descendants of Maugham's rubber-planters; the off-beat sons of successful fathers who went abroad to become men and returned home with tales of zebra and leopards that no one asked to hear.
    Nancy turned to Eve.  "I hear you're teaching an advanced class this semester." 
    "Yeah, first time.  I'm kind of nervous."
    "Oh, I'm sure it'll be very popular.  You always are."
    Eve laughed self-consciously.
    "I remember Doug Hellman was so funny when you won the bicycle race.  I don't think he expected that.
    'How about you, Maggie?"
    It was my turn and she was making the best of it with a forced smile, giving me the opportunity for a fresh start.  "How are you liking Moteru?  I heard you were living at Jasmine."        Jasmine Estates, our extravagantly named compound, was the most sought after in the city.  Her voice took on an aura of, "Wow!  You should be grateful."  When I visited other compounds, I was.
    Her face was set like her husband's when he deflected my inquiry.  The question was to be given its narrowest interpretation:  Not, "Are you liking it a lot?  A little?  Not at all?"  But as though it assumed I did like Moteru; she was only waiting to hear in what way.  I was being directed not to elaborate on my satirical gest at the door.
    "I'm getting some work done."
    "Good for you!  It's good that you have so much discipline."  She didn't ask what sort of work it was.
    "Maggie's from New York," said Beau, as though that explained the discipline.
    "Oh!" replied Nancy in a tone more appropriate to a disclosure such as, "Maggie just got out of Sing Sing." 
    "She's used to the bright lights," he went on with a teasing glance at me, "Intellectual Stimulation."
    "I'm sure you can find people here who are interested in the same things you are," Nancy said virtuously.  "I understand Jasmine has a very busy activity center."
    "Where are you from?" I asked.
    "Oh, Iowa originally," she answered contentedly.  "Although Fred's family are mostly in Minnesota now."  We were on her home ground; she was happy.  "But of course we've been doing this so long I don't know if you could really say we're from Iowa anymore."
    She sounded bemused rather than wistful.  I wondered what lay underneath.
    "This is a long way from Iowa in every sense."
    "We're always happy wherever they want to send us," she answered and I realized I was seeing the prototype of the word "diplomatic."  "Fred loves his job.  And fortunately mine is portable."
    "Is there any place you've wanted to stay and live?"
    "Oh, I don't know.  They each have something, you know?"  She sounded as though I'd asked her to choose between her two children.  "Although perhaps if we could go back to India..."
    "That was my dream country when I was a child.  It seemed so colorful."
    "Oh it is!"  She became animated.  "The festivals!"  She stopped as though to keep herself from giving away a secret.  She shook her head, presumably at the memory of the festivals, and turned to Rob.  "What's this I hear about your company opening a branch in Hong Kong?"
    She conducted conversations like the Queen, allotting two minutes to everyone but giving them her full attention, goading them along with murmurs of sympathy, making it a quality two minutes.  That done, she spent the remainder of the evening talking cozily to Terry and Meg.
    It's strange to say, after such wry observation, but I was irked at being shortchanged.  Particularly at the two minute cut-off, just when things started to heat up.  But she kept life at arm's length; near enough to reach out and touch it, if she chose; far enough to skip away from its grasp. 

    The Grunge became our social life.  Rob was happy not so much because he had a good time as because he could tell our New York friends they were wrong.  ("But it's not exactly the hub of the universe.  What do you do for friends?"  "What are you talking about?  There's happy hour every week at the American Consulate, for a start."  "Really?")   He had the attitude towards Moteru of people from Cleveland who defend their city by saying, "We have the best orchestra in the country," whether or not they go to hear it.
    The atmosphere was aggressively fun-loving.  Making your way through the crowd was like going through the line in a certain children's party game when everyone gets to spank you.  "So how ya doin'?" people asked as they slapped you on the back.  "Ya got a babysitter?  Good for you!  Goin' a get another drink?"  This dialogue was repeated with each person you met until you got to the oasis of the bar.
    Somehow amidst the buffoonery a clique evolved and took hold.  There was the sea of proles who came and went.  Then there was the In crowd who took turns helping Nancy behind the bar.  I was out and didn't care, which may explain my outcast state.  I was a snob.  It drove me crazy when as soon as we sat down in a restaurant after the Grunge, we discussed the others.  All the restaurants were mediocre, period.  Why harp on it? 
        And the continual talk of trips, the one just taken, the next one... even the chain-travelling itself, as though from a compulsive need to prove that the sorry little country we were stranded in rivalled in possibility the world's great capitals - all this was, I was convinced, an evasion; running away from some darkness at the center of the being.  I love travel and hearing about it but what struck me about these people's accounts of their trips was that they never said anything.  They spoke in Hallmarkese.  Travel adventures are unique, requiring the courage to say what no man or woman has said before.  But the Grungians were wary of the unusual  - What subversion did it reveal?
    One night, I learned.  Stewart had just come back from Nepal, and we'd gathered round to debrief him.
    "It was nice," he said.
    Everyone nodded.  It must have been.  Nepal, they'd heard, was a beautiful country; very interesting; exotic.
    "Except when we got lost.  That wasn't so great."
    "Lost?!" I cried.  "In the Himalayas?"
    "Yeah."
    "For how long?"
    I was blustering, feeling for the nucleus, the essence of the experience.
    "Not too long.  The guide found us."
    I couldn't understand why these people, with stories at their fingertips, held back on telling them.  For me, half the purpose of travel lay in the experience; the other half, in the story.  Events take a moment; the memory trails like the tail of a comet.  But the Grungians weren't interested in memory; only in the next fix.  Why did they so stubbornly refuse to examine their lives?
    A few days later Rikki, a country singer who'd been in Moteru for twelve years, explained.  She thought of me as a fellow artist and had undertaken to initiate me into the local mores:
    "They went to find some kind of hashish; supposed to be incredible.  I'd like to go there some time," she added wistfully.  I remembered a reference she'd made to taking quaaludes in college.
    Now I understood the foot-shuffling, the laconic responses.  I was surrounded by middle-aged teenagers sneaking cigarettes behind the barn.
    There was, of course, the flip side to this cover-up, the lewd jokes:  Allusions to stewardesses known before marriage or - in jest - on flights to far-off ports; chortling over the sexual practices of Prince Casius, his brothers, cousins and cabinet ministers.  (There was considerable overlap between the first two categories and the third.)
    Looked at head on, the regulars at the Grunge seemed to be having a great time in Moteru.  Their lives read like an article in a glossy brochure: the pool on weekends with a party Saturday night; dinner out three or four times a week for the In crowd.  There was no illness or tragedy among them or even in the whole expatriot community.  Strangely, though, as soon as they left Moteru, Meg and Craig, the manager of a hardware store, were diagnosed with cancer, a phenomenon I attributed to the sun in which they'd frolicked so happily and for such long stretches.  But in the ironic way that happens with places that seem blessed, these blows just added to Moteru's air of being Shangri-La, bestowing carefree happiness on those who stayed within its borders.  There were no old people either which contributed to the sense of Paradise and immortality.  Every so often a child drowned but no one we knew well and there was no change in pool protocol or behavior.  A blissful blitheness reigned.  I know of only one affair.    
    This idyllic set-up, Pleasantville thriving in the desert, I suspected of being either mindless or false.  It worked only so long as no one asked questions. 
    Even the bawdy humor was just another cover; more revealing than, "How's the book coming?  Am I in it?" (said without a trace of concern that that was a real possibility) but a veil, nonetheless.  The surface of the crowd at the Grunge was smoothe, without a fissure opening onto the depths.
    But we went there week after week.  It was an excuse to put on decent clothes.
    Nancy, in particular, bored me:  the way she kept the conversation to safe, well-worn paths guaranteed to lull rather than to excite; a denial - except by the admission implicit in those giggles - that there was anything wrong with the country we were stranded in.  She allowed herself to enjoy subversiveness only passively.
    "How's the school doing?" I asked her one night.
    "Very well.  We're all really happy with the way things have turned out.  The students seem enthusiastic and I think we have a good staff." 
    "How about the parents?" I asked because I'd heard diatribes from some of them.
    She must have known what I was getting at because she said, "There was a period of adjustment in the beginning but I think everyone's settled down."  She was fifty, sixteen years older than I and not about to confide in me.
    She had the same butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth approach to personal questions.  She drew from stock footage of pseudointimate revelations that had passed the censor. 
    "What's it like, having to pick up and move every few years?" I asked her another time.
    "It's always sad to leave a place - you make such good friends in two years...  But we've been lucky to get to see so much of the world."
    "And giving all those parties; it must be hard having people in your house all the time."
    "Oh, it's not that difficult giving parties; it gives us a chance to get to know people better."
    She rarely used the word "I," particularly when stating an opinion.  She used the spousal "we:"  "Fred & I feel... "  The phrase, which she pronounced, "Fred 'n' I feel," cries for the ampersand with its suggestion of linked arms.  If there was any discord between them, the phrase implied, it only threw into relief the over-all harmony of the marriage.
    "We don't have enough time to ourselves but who does?  And Fred 'n' I agreed a long time ago that we wouldn't schedule anything on the children's birthdays.
    'The only thing we used to mind was that Patricia had to go away to school but it's been good for her to have to take care of herself. 
    'To tell you the truth, I think this hecticness is a blessing in disguise.  We're really very private people and this just makes the time we do get together so much more special."
    To listen to her, the Schweigs had the American dream Plus:  a Beaver Cleaver life only enhanced by travel and a mansion.  The white picket fence was longer; there was a chicken in every pot and there were thirty pots because a hundred people were coming to dinner.  They were able to preserve this illusion of perfection, I reflected dryly,  by staying at each post no more than three years:  long enough for the friendships to ripen; not long enough for them to rot.
    If she had an original thought she saved it for the safety of her own home.  Maybe that was what she meant when she said, "We're really very private people."  For in company she never spoke spontaneously or had a conversation whose outcome she couldn't predict.   (A misprint of "never" in an earlier draft was "nervous.")  Communicating with her about anything real was like getting an unusual request through a city bureacracy. 
   The other side of the coin of her bland dialogue was an apparently inexhaustible interest in listening.  I watched her one night as Craig complained about his assistant at the hardware store:
   "Well, you know, we have to use the locals for all the clerical stuff and they're just not used to this kind of work, if you know what I mean.
    'I have one guy, Jesse, nice guy but...  Last week I tell 'im, 'Get me a 4.0 mm steel drill bit.  I find out he's ordered a batch of 2.4's.  Like, 'So what?  What's the difference?'  I mean - ?"  He opened his palms in rhetorical disbelief.
    I had to admire her.  Nancy listened deeply, waiting.  It was the Mike Wallace technique; the stance inviting more disclosure.
    Listeners are clever people.  I've since reflected on the irony of her name: "Schweig" which in German means "silence."  Wilhelm Reich had a theory that people try to live up to their names.  And I've always thought it no coincidence that "silent" and "listen" are anagrams.  In Nancy's case, the listener was the perfect persona for a shy person:  She lived vicariously through other people's stories.  Thus was her natural curiosity fed.  For she had just enough curiosity to elicit confidences but not so much as to get out of hand.  About curiosity I think she went through the looking-glass:  She thought it was polite to affect it but the real thing was uncouth. 
    The listener's stance also seduced, making her popular.  And, most neatly, it warded off questions about herself.
    But she did have to walk a fine line, inviting complaints without admitting she agreed with them.  And of course, she never complained, herself, even about Patricia leaving the nest at fourteen.  Her acknowledgment of suffering manifest itself in beer and sympathy.  She played dea ex machina, hovering above the rest of humanity within arm's reach so she could mingle at will.  But when things got too messy, she retreated to Olympus.