`WOULD you like a lead brick?'' Margaret asked. That's what I like about being a journalist: People ask you the oddest questions. ``Would I what?'' I replied.
``As a souvenir of your visit,'' she said.
Outside, the Midwestern autumn shed its warmth on the Illinois landscape. Inside the corrugated steel building, Margaret had been explaining what I'd come halfway across America to see: the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a four-mile-long circular tunnel dug into the farmland, around which pieces of atoms are set whirling until they smash into one another at energies of 2 trillion volts.
``We use the bricks to shield against radiation,'' she continued. ``We've got a lot of extras - they make good doorstops.'' Dutifully, I selected a modest-size one from the stack by the door. It was dark gray, slightly greasy to the touch - and astonishingly heavy, like a whole armload of firewood compressed into a paperback book.
``Thanks,'' I said, trying to appear nonchalant as I found myself listing dangerously to starboard. As we walked out to my car, Margaret chatted amiably about the physicists I'd be meeting over dinner. I experimented with several postures. For a while I dangled the brick by my side - with studied indifference, the way a husband carries his wife's purse while she's busy in a shop. When I felt my fingers slipping, I flexed it up to shoulder height, like a weight lifter ready to press. We reached the car just as the elbow was beginning to penetrate the rib cage. I plunked it into the trunk and forgot about it.
Until the next day, that is. That's when I remembered that I'd flown, not driven, to Chicago - that this was a rented car, that I had no luggage to check, and that I'd have to take the brick home in my carry-on bag.
``What's that]?'' said the uniformed woman at the Midway Airport security checkpoint, squinting at the X-rayed image on her video screen.
My heart sank. I'd just returned the car to a lot that seemed miles away - and walked down the long, sun-warmed hallway toward the gate. Twice I'd had to stop and set down my bag - and my briefcase, and the case with my tape recorder and portable computer, and the plastic bag with gifts for the family - and rearrange the load. Now, my collar damp under my tie and perspiration trickling behind one ear, I knew I had to explain myself.
``It's a lead brick,'' I said carelessly, the way you'd say, ``Oh, that's just my shampoo.''
``A lead brick,'' I said, mopping my brow and trying not to look nervous. A couple of years ago, writing a series of articles on terrorism, I'd learned that security guards are trained to spot unusually anxious and shifty-eyed passengers.
``Why do you have a lead brick?'' she said evenly, scrutinizing me over the top of her screen.
I told her about Fermilab, 2 trillion-volt protons, and radioactivity. That didn't seem to help. So I explained that I was just a journalist.
``I'm afraid I'll have to have a look,'' she said. I groped among the dirty socks and pulled it out. She picked it up, gasped, and put it down.
``Technically I'm not supposed to let you on with this,'' she said. ``It could be used as a weapon.''
``A weapon!'' I said. ``I can hardly lift it.''
``I know,'' she said, beginning to soften. ``But I'll have to register it anyway. Do you have a business card?''
I handed her one. She wrote something on her clipboard, smiled, and waved me through. I stuffed the brick back in among the laundry, trudged down to the gate, boarded the plane, and shuffled down to my window seat.
The young woman on the aisle was already reading. As I opened the overhead compartment and eased her jacket to one side, she glanced up sourly. I waited until she looked back at her book. Then, with a deep breath, I jerked the bag up to shoulder height and rammed it into the bin. Finally, with a cheerful ``Excuse me,'' I squeezed in front of her, tucked my things under the seat, opened the air vent wide, and settled back.
Alas, it was no use. The more I thought about that blasted brick in those plastic bins, the more uneasy I got. What if we hit some turbulence? I thought. That thing could come right through the ceiling.
``So sorry,'' I said, standing up and smiling lamely at her. She sighed peevishly, closed her book on her finger, and drew back her knees. I clambered into the aisle and opened the bin. But I couldn't exactly take the suitcase down: Passengers were still boarding, and I was sure to stagger suspiciously under the weight. So I unzipped it in place. She's trying not to stare, I thought, as I stood on tiptoe for what seemed an eternity, my arm buried up to the shoulder in the bin, groping about with sweaty fingers for a greasy lead brick and trying to look casual.
Suddenly I got hold of it. And then, of course, came the quandary. Should I take it out in full view, like a box of chocolates - as though people took lead bricks out of overhead bins every day? Or should I try to explain? She already thinks I'm weird enough, I thought: If I lean over and say, ``Just a little lead brick, ha-ha - want to see?'' she'll probably howl for the security police and run screaming all the way to the Loop. I concluded that I'd best conceal it.
So I glanced furtively up and down the aisle, pretending to busy myself with the zippers on my bag. At last she began reading again. With a single deft motion - or as deft as you can be when you're squashed up against a seat-back holding a lead brick extended at arm's length - I pulled it to the edge of the bin and caught it in my other hand. Then I serenely stuffed hand and brick, Napoleon-fashion, inside my suit jacket.
``Excuse me again - so sorry,'' I said, dripping with sincerity and perspiration, keeping my back to her. I could feel her annoyance passing into deep suspicion. Slithering one-armed past her knees, I carefully avoided her sidelong glances as I flopped into my seat. Then I set the brick uncomfortably on my thigh and made an exaggerated show of searching my inside jacket pocket for a pen. That must have calmed her. She slid back into her book. I slid the brick down the far side of my leg onto the floor. But when I tried to kick it up under the seat, it wouldn't budge. So at last, with a great show of yawning, I lowered my seat-back and stretched out full-length - being careful, as I did so, to catch the brick under my heel and shove it forward out of sight.
I never did speak to her. She wasted no time getting off when we landed in Boston. I suppose that's just as well. What, after all, do you say to a young lady who's convinced you're up to nine kinds of evil: ``I'm actually just a journalist on assignment''? I can almost hear her reply. ``Sure, bud,'' she'd say, reaching for the call button, ``and I'm the Ayatollah's grandmother.''
Oh, well, Margaret will understand. I keep meaning to write her and tell her the brick now sits on the floor by my study door. She probably thinks it reminds me of her 2 trillion-volt proton collisions. Actually, it reminds me that nothing makes you feel more guilty than trying to act innocent when you really are.