So close


“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories” is the first line of what novel?

I stared at the words chalked onto the board next to the cash register in my favorite coffee shop. J was filling my mug with Brazilian Top Sky roast, her back to me.

The words were familiar. I’d read that book. My first impression, floating up through the layers of my consciousness, faded into view: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell. Was that it? I thought.

“Grey” seemed familiar. Nothing like a dystopian work to make a virtue of colorlessness. So did the mention of the building only being thirty-four stories high. In many cities that’s a smallish skyscraper. That mention made the novel in question almost certainly a work of science-fiction.

But the folks here try to be tricky. On the Fourth of March they had a question whose answer was “March forth!” (the question was “What’s the only day of the year that’s also a command?”) They’d asked for Paul McCartney’s middle name (which is Paul). Tricky folks, these. Almost never did they go for the obvious answer.

Was there anything in the news lately that would make “Nineteen Eighty-Four” topical? Besides the Bush Administration, of course, imprisoning people without a trial or due process or recourse to even legal representation; invading a country that posed no threat to us; allowing polluters more latitude under legislation called “Clear Skies Act”.

As J. turned to give me my mug, I furrowed my brow, pointed at the sign, and said, “Nineteen Eighty-Four? Is that it?”

She leaned to the side so she could read the answer, stuck on a Post-It note to the cash register. “Nope!” She waited for me to keep guessing.

Nothing came to mind. I gave up. “I give up.”

“You give up?” she confirmed.

I nodded. I was smiling in my defeat. “What is it?”

She read the Post-It note again to make sure. “Brave New World.”

“Argh!” I mock-growled. “I was so close!”

J. nodded and handed me my coffee. “You were!”