Tuesday, September 6, 2011

ONE MINUTE PAST MIDNIGHT: Time for another bedtime story by Charles Johnson

I just finished after a month of work (all of August) a new sci-fi story, entitled "One Minute Past Midnight," for the yearly Bedtime Stories fund-raiser to be held by Humanities Washington on September 30. This is the 13th year for this event, one I've written a new story for every year since 1999, and all these stories have been published, five of them appearing in my third story collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (Scribner, 2005). The other writers participating this fall are Jamie Ford, Stephanie Kallos, Jim Lynch, and my former UW colleague, poet Heather McHugh, a recent recipient of a MacArthur fellowship.

Each year the writers featured at this event compose a new story based on a topic, theme or "prompt" related in some way to "bedtime" and given to us by  the board of directors for Humanities Washington in the spring. Twenty-one previous works from this event were published last year in Nightlights: Stories & Essays from Northwest Authors, edited by Julie Ziegler, the executive director at Humanities Washington, and containing my foreword. (The book is available from Amazon or Humanities Washington.) 

This year the topic was "12:01." Over the weekend I passed a late draft of my story by two writer/teacher friends in California and Connecticut for their reaction and comments. They gave me some very good suggestions, and yesterday I incorporated them into the final draft for the story. I'd like to say more about "One Minute Past Midnight," but it has two surprise endings, something I've not attempted before, and I don't want to spoil the experience of the story for future readers. 

           However, I can offer a sample from the story's opening:

           This was the first night Ethan Bean had taken his boss, Jessica Sweeney, to dinner at the Palace Kitchen in Belltown. He chose that Tom Douglas restaurant based on its good reviews and the fact that it stayed open until 2 AM, which was convenient because if you were a visitor and arrived in Seattle late, hungry and tired, or if you were like Ethan and Jessica, who were both young scientists and usually had to work off the clock, you were thankful for a place like the Palace Kitchen. Groups of workers downtown drifted there on week nights like this one, a warm evening in late August. True enough, it was crowded and noisy at 9 PM when they arrived, but they were seated quickly. Ethan noticed that the walls felt warm and welcoming, and there was an open kitchen with an applewood grill you could smell as soon you walked through the front door. He knew Jessica was a foodie, so Ethan hoped she would enjoy this experience and maybe give him his first goodnight kiss. And, more than anything else, Ethan hoped that tonight, after a day of wall-to-wall work, she would not do to him what she’d done on every one of their previous dinner dates.

He was certain she could see by now that he was in love with her. But for reasons she never explained, Jessica always had to be back at their workplace before midnight. With her being his boss, he was reluctant to press her for an explanation, but it did make him wonder: Did she sleep there? Or did she end their evenings together early in order to keep the proper distance between employees of different rank? He didn’t have a cross-eyed guess, and so he wondered just how much did he really know about her?

Despite this mystery he couldn’t unriddle, which would end this evening, although Ethan didn’t know that, of this much he was certain:

 Six months ago, Jessica had taken him under her protective wing as her assistant and protégé when he started work at Prometheus Labs in West Seattle, and he, a person who was always a bit awkward in social situations, was profoundly grateful for her guidance and companionship. She was a thirty-year-old MacArthur fellow, who studied Tibetan Buddhism at Sakya Monastery in Greenwood, took lessons at the Eight Limbs Yoga center in Wedgwood, and held doctorate degrees in both computer science and developmental psychology. Added to which, and most important of all, she was the lead scientist in their division. In other words, she was directing their latest project, which was duplicating the work of Dr. Craig Venter, whose institute in California created the first artificial, synthetic cell, one capable of self-replicating.

By contrast, Ethan, was twenty-five, and had yet to find the time for a hobby since he was fresh out of M.I.T. with post-doc work at Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville California, where he’d devoted his time to molecular biology. His I.Q. was north of 160. Some of the technicians at Prometheus Labs saw him as being a team player, and said so on their performance evaluations. Others felt he was naïf, too square and humorless, a complaint that rankled him.  And a few thought he was maybe even a little stuck on himself, thinking he was cute because he had a classic, round baby face with full lips and chuffy cheeks, a large forehead, and big ears on either side of his large, top-heavy head.  But always Jessica defended him against his detractors. She had a reason for doing that, which was the fact that they worked so well together as a duo, like Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler, his strength being careful observation and compiling empirical data while she had the kind of mind that made big conceptual connections. He simply had never felt such compatibility with another person. She was everything he wanted in a woman---someone who had none of his defects and possessed all the virtues he lacked, and normally that would have made someone as logical as Ethan wonder why in the world she would want him. But a coworker had confided in him that Jessica called him Mr. Right and a “keeper” when he wasn’t around. That made his spirits soar. At Prometheus Labs, she seemed to be the only one who understood his schoolboy shyness and recognized that what he so woefully lacked in social skills he more than made up for by being a tireless worker like herself. Sometimes she even mothered him, pinching lint off his jacket and from his hair.  He felt he could tell her anything. So why was she so secretive about her midnight disappearances?


  1. This was a passage excellently written by Charles Johnson. After there were no more words on the page to read, I found that I had been unknowingly caught up in the world that he has created.

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