map Losing Luster

by L.Shapley Bassen

Published in Issue No. 284 ~ January, 2021

A quantum bit of information—called a qubit—can have two values at the same time. With the qubit, you can store more information because you have information in all of its possible states, whereas, in the classical memory system, only one can be stored.


Begin with false dichotomies: should Dennis Luster have told Junior that he wouldn’t pay for the second wedding as he had for the first, or not? Should America have warred in Vietnam/Iraq? When the NJ police said get out of town or go to jail, should Den have driven cross country to Oregon or not?

By the end of the twentieth century, Den Luster had been CIO for two decades for a Japanese conglomerate. Early in his tenure, a portrait had been commissioned by the company, with copies displayed internationally on executive office walls. On the canvas, Den was mid-forties, blue-eyed and red-cheeked, with a full head of dark wavy hair graying at his temples. The paintings were set in forced perspective wooden frames, an already-nostalgic Mid-Century Modern design chosen by a Western decorator before the Asian company overextended into Hollywood film production and retrenched into more familiar xenophobia and rectangular frames. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, such trapezoidal artifacts were highly sought after on eBay, Etsy, and Facebook. Associated with the husband-wife team Charles and Ray Eames, the odd-angled frames for paintings were part of ‘Atomic Mid Century Modern’ design. Collectors were thrilled to find a carpenter creating new ones to order in 2014.

The second wedding took place a month after September 21st, 2001, when the New York Mets had played Atlanta at Shea in the first ballgame after 9/11. Both ballgame and wedding were first anxious steps back to what counselors were calling “the new normal.” Naturally, there were missteps. Mike Piazza’s bottom of the eighth home run that gave the Mets the 3-2 win wasn’t one of them, but Den’s night-before-the wedding rant against his older-son-the-groom for asking him to pay for the second wedding was.

But you could see Den’s point. The first wedding had taken place only six years before at a New York country club overlooking Long Island Sound in upscale Westchester. Junior and his law school classmate had married among fragrant tea roses. Junior had proposed to her in the medieval armor gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Secondarily, Junior proposed in court to his colleague at the premier Manhattan white-shoe law firm Bhest, Billings & Wynn in the City. How did a Jewish girl from Brooklyn get named Bridget?

Den had paid for the first wedding because the first bride’s father had died years before in a mysterious chemical explosion. As a wedding gift, Den had also put the down payment on and bought the furniture for the newlyweds’ house. At the time, Den Luster was still CIO for the Japanese conglomerate, which subsequently abruptly “terminated” all its non-Asian executives. The resulting upheaval took Den from New York to a California company and thereafter another in Massachusetts. Den’s wife of many decades, Renee, had not made the West Coast move, but she did to Concord, and again when a third downsizing shift to northern New Jersey became necessary. There they would have stayed married had it not been for his anger and alcohol. Neither Prozac nor inconsistent abstinence could abate his constant Achilles-like indignation.

The night before Junior’s second wedding, Den had detonated in grief and grievance. “Haven’t I been a better father than mine was? Bridget wants me to pay for her as I did for your first wife?! You make more money than I do now! How can you be so pussy-whipped? How can I have such a son?”

While Renee and her half-sister clung to each other in fear on the far side of the hotel suite, his younger son and brother-in-law tried in vain to contain Den’s explosion. The fallout from that night and wedding next day clouded decades after. The deed was done, and estrangement spread in shock waves.

Den gained some self-pitying solace predicting he would end like his father, “dying alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago.” In 1942, the Manhattan Project engineer had abandoned his family to work on the bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. To support herself, three-year-old Den and his one-year-old sister, his mother resumed her career as a nurse in New York’s Manhattan and put her toddlers in foster care. When Den spoke of his upbringing, he avoided the earliest years and went straight to Notre Dame. “I don’t know who was tougher, the Jesuits or the Marines.” He enlisted and served before the war in Vietnam escalated, meeting his model-Actor’s Studio wife as they campaigned for Kennedy in the generational-transitioning 1960 election.

At the second wedding, his younger son Jim failed in his attempts to cheer Den, who sat drinking alone with a floral centerpiece. As a sophomore undergrad, Jim had already begun his Silicon Valley ascent, selling his first tech company to Microsoft before turning twenty-one. When he had flown out to California to sign documents, he had been too young to rent a car at the airport.

By 2008, the Lusters lived in northern New Jersey. There were at least two New Jerseys: the crude, criminal, clownish one familiar in popular media and another one altogether as invisible as the entrance road to Princeton University, and as elite, where October fox hunting and May/August horse shows were part of the landscape. Den and Renee lived between in an exurban townhouse complex that had replaced cornfields still growing nearby Oklahoma high as an elephant’s eye. Husband and wife communicated chiefly through habit and rumor. Though she nursed Den through quadruple bypass surgery, Renee had long before created the quilt of her life, and Den did not sleep under it. They had moved from Westchester, New York, to New Jersey on the morning of September 11, 2001.

“We saw the smoke as we crossed the George Washington Bridge,” Renee said.

She had not heard from Junior in Manhattan until late that awful night because phone lines were overloaded, and it had taken him that much time to get to his apartment uptown. All that day, she had been occupied with the movers and terror. She had no memory of Den that day. Renee knew he had driven one of the cars only because it was in their new garage.

After the move, she resumed her pattern of activities: running, bridge, and housekeeping. Several times a year, she followed the competitive bridge playing circuit, which took her to San Francisco and extended visits with Jim, who was married with children. Den built a shop for himself in the townhouse basement. He picked up bridge and began playing non-competitively at Renee’s club. He also tried to pick up a woman at his bridge table. She was the wife of the mayor of the town, but he no longer resembled the Australian actor who had starred in Jurassic Park as he had in his thirties. The mayor’s wife rebuffed Den and joined a different group of card players.

Two linebacker-sized officers crowded the front steps of the New Jersey townhouse the morning they came for Den, but he was in Manhattan at an onsite meeting with an international credit card company where he consulted on computer qubit R & D. Renee had to sit down on the living room couch when the police showed her the evidence of Den’s emailed threats to the mayor’s wife and the photos of her car.

“To avoid any copycat, the Mayor and his wife prefer to avoid publicity. Mr. Luster can either leave the vicinity immediately or face arrest.”

Dated on a recent 3:14 a.m., Den had emailed a one-word order, “RUN!” The photos showed the car later the same morning with four slashed tires.

Den denied everything because he didn’t remember doing it. But of course, the computer record identified him as irrefutably as did the fingerprints on his shop tool found near the car.

“You must have been drunk,” Renee said. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Divorce papers are being drawn up now. Your bags are packed. Go.”

He drove cross country. It was May. A long lost but easily-found-in-Oregon Marine buddy agreed to put Den up for a while.

Semper fi,” he’d said on the phone when Den called out of the blue.

The drive was a dissociative mix of shock, despair, and reckless joy. He played the car radio rather than his iPod, and somewhere in Nebraska when Don McLean wailed, “They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie/ Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/ And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye/ Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die/This’ll be the day that I die,” it didn’t depress Den. On the contrary, he rolled down the windows and yowled along with the lyrics, tasting the idea of single malt on his dry tongue but watching the speed limit and looking out for cops on I-84.

Day to day life in Oregon took shape. Den was a Marine; he knew how to survive. His facility with the latest research on qubit encryption technology kept him on retainer at the credit card conglomerate. When new acquaintances asked, he explained, “It’s really hard to find factors of very large prime numbers. And quantum computing is extremely useful for factoring very large prime numbers. Credit card companies assign you a public key to encode credit card information. The key is the product of two large prime numbers, which only the website seller knows. Without a quantum computer, it would be impossible to figure out the two prime numbers that are multiplied together to make the key-which protects your information from being shared.”

The eyes-glazed-over effect resulted in attention Den enjoyed. Within months he moved into the home of an eager forty-something divorcee and resumed a sex life that had ended with Renee nearly two decades earlier. He and Adrienne drank like Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses. Den invested in her restaurant and created a new shop in her basement, repairing things around the house.

His East Coast life was over, and Jim had kept his distance in San Francisco for several years after Den made a drunken pass at his young wife, but eventually, this younger son, who often traveled for business that included stops in Portland, would visit him. By 2014, Jim left his wife and six-year-old daughter home but brought along his nine-year-old son and the children’s nanny Mercedes, who was happy to come along as she would get a chance to see her sister Esperanza who was a nurse in Portland. Jim had warned Mercedes about his father, but he needn’t have. Den was on his best behavior during the visit. Adrienne stayed at the restaurant while Den avoided alcohol and any mention of his own father’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb when his grandson said that he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up.

“An astronaut,” Luke added.

When they ate lunch together, and Luke asked for some of Jim’s food, Den put his palm up to halt the sharing. “How much do you want, 5/12 or 9/18?”

Luke knew the question and answer. “9/18 because half is bigger than 5/12.”

Jim remembered his father doing the same thing with him. It was the happiest he saw Den during the entire visit.

In the selfies Jim sent to his wife Heather, the four of them posed at Portland’s glorious Multnomah Falls, but Den kept himself in the margin of every photo as if to avoid full facial recognition, something Jim had not noticed until his wife mentioned it after the return home.

Mercedes confided in Heather that Jim’s father had asked “if there were any more at home like her,” at which remark Heather winced and waited for worse. Instead, Mercedes went on, “I told Mr. Luster I do have an older sister who is a hospice nurse in Portland. Then he said, “Maybe my luck is changing.'”

Soon, Jim questioned Den, who admitted he had “distant Stage IV prostate cancer requiring immediate surgery.”

Jim returned to Portland for the operation and stayed after. In a moment of lucidity during the post-op drugged state, Den asked, “What was your perspective on your brother’s wedding?”

“He shouldn’t have asked, and you shouldn’t have said what you did, how you did.”

Despite morphine, it hurt for Den to reply, “I paid for it, didn’t I?”

Jim’s eyes overflowed. “Yes, you have.”

Den was moved directly into terminal care, and Jim arranged for Mercedes’s sister to nurse his father. When conscious, Den contrasted Renee’s care after his heart surgery with Adrienne’s avoidance of the hospice. He didn’t miss her. Esperanza appeared to him surrounded by a halo he hoped would not disappear before he died. The nurse not only listened but also talked to him. Her accent was more pronounced than Mercedes’, her voice lower and more musical. She said she collected Midcentury Modern objects.

“I wish I could afford the furniture, but it’s so dear now,” Esperanza said.

She showed Mr. Luster photos on her phone of the pieces she did have in her small apartment, a large mirrored shadow box, and an “Atomic dual drum shade” table lamp.

“I don’t remember so much orange,” Den said. “I wasn’t looking.”

He slept peacefully when Esperanza was near. He had dreams that she was his mother, contrite, and caring in her ultimate return.

Esperanza was experienced with the transference and did nothing to awaken her patient from terminal mercies. However, she was surprised that after Mr. Luster’s passing, she was contacted on behalf of the son by a lawyer who said that she had been named in his will. The lawyer said the son would not contest his father’s wish to leave Esperanza an original forced perspective portrait. Jim insisted that the hospice allow her the extravagant gift. Esperanza considered replacing the painting inside the marvelous frame, but she kept it as is, believing both the man’s face and the frame together were valuable as Eames-era artifacts.


alternate w/o song lyric for page 5: “The drive was a dissociative mix of shock, despair, and reckless joy. He played the car radio rather than his iPod, and somewhere in Nebraska, when Don McLean wailed his elegiac farewell about his dying day, it didn’t depress Den. On the contrary, he rolled down the windows and yowled along with the lyrics, tasting the idea of single malt on his dry tongue, but watching the speed limit and looking out for cops on I-84.”

account_box More About

L. Shapley Bassen's "Portrait of a Giant Squid" was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. She was Fiction Editor for till cessation of publication after 6 yrs], 2014 author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and 2017novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others.