Hans leaned forward on his yard-sale-caliber easy chair and stirred his wine spritzer with a plastic drink sword. "You and Debra wouldn't fight so much if you had more karmatrons."
"Karmatrons?" Rob glanced at his wife. How had they been so unlucky to share an apartment wall with Hans and his wife, Susan? The worst Rob had expected tonight was stilted conversation, not a grilling on his marriage. Hans had invited them over for drinks and then bombarded them with questions ranging from why Debra was always late to how often they argued in public. Pompous jerk.
Hans looked the stereotypical college professor with his tweed jacket and patched elbows. "I'm exploring whether certain elementary particles influence our behavior. There are good and bad karma particles. Karmatrons and anti-karmatrons."
Rob sipped his beer. "Karmatrons make us happy?"
Hans yawned. "Let's say they facilitate a more pleasant aura."
Rob wondered why he was discussing Debra's shortcomings with such a pretentious snob. "Karmatrons make you fight less?"
"In a very simplistic analysis, that explanation might suffice."
Susan emerged from the kitchen with steaming-hot nachos. She set the platter on the table and sat down. She winked at Rob. "Y'all know Hans' theory is a load of bull."
"No, it's science, dear." Hans patted Susan's knee.
"If we had some extra karmatrons, maybe you'd be more than a visiting instructor," Susan told her husband. "You might have friends in the physics department."
Hans gave a dry laugh. "I'm working on it."
Susan sipped her vodka collins. "Bless your heart."
Hans flashed a paper-thin smile at Debra. "Now, Debra, what irritates you about Rob?"
Debra laughed. "He never listens. He just nods and smiles, like he's following some tips from a seminar on conversation skills."
Rob stared at Debra. Why wasn't she more annoyed? Last night they'd fought for hours, because Debra said he didn't pay attention to her.
"Debra?" Rob called out when he returned from class the next day.
She glared at him from their battered Formica table.
Rob sighed. The last month all they'd done was fight. "What's wrong now?"
"I hope nobody in the English department kept you waiting."
Rob put a dog-eared stack of Faulkner novels on the table. “I met with my thesis committee. It's no cakewalk discussing Sisyphean motifs and poker in Faulkner."
She rolled her eyes. "Being a grad student's so exhausting."
"And waitressing's a real job?"
She crossed her arms. "Why'd you tell Hans about our fights?"
"Me?" Rob raised his voice. "You bitched about me snoring."
Debra jumped up, knocking her chair onto the linoleum floor. "Why don't you move out?"
She'd gone from zero to sixty in a flash. Was there no middle ground? Next door they could discuss anything. Here, at home, they just fought.
Rob scowled at Debra. "Why don't you move out?"
Debra flung her purse over her shoulder. "Fine, I will."
"Where are you going?"
"Susan's." She slammed the door.
Rob paced around the parking lot until he calmed down. Finally, he saw Susan exit her apartment. She got into a rusty pick-up and sped off, leaving the front door open. He told himself it was worth it. He stepped inside. "Debra?"
Debra sat on a futon, her eyes red. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I got so upset."
Rob put his arm round her. "I'm sorry, too."
"Susan ran out to get some vodka." She sighed. "It's so calm here."
"Yeah." Rob opened a closet. "I wonder . . ."
"Are you looking for something?"
"Yep. A happiness-sucker. Did you hear what Hans said about karmatrons?"
Debra nodded. "He wouldn't shut up about it."
Rob heard a buzzing from the air vent. He dropped to his hands and knees. "Something's in here."
"Watch out. Susan will be back any minute."
He popped the vent. Inside, two hoses protruded from something that resembled a trumpet. One hose was taped to the duct; the other pressed against the vent cover.
"Son of a bitch." Rob pried off the tape. One hose covered a small square of plywood. Moving the wood, Rob saw a pinprick of light coming through the wall behind the duct. "He's pumping bad mojo into our place."
"Rob." Debra handed him a notebook.
He stood up. "Where'd you find that?
Debra smiled. "I did some snooping, too."
The notebook was full of graphs and numbers. Hans was studying two groups: the negative group (Debra and Rob) and the positive group (Hans and Susan). The notebook was labeled: Effect of Displacement of Anti-Karmatrons.
Rob pictured Hans, drinking glass against the wall, feverishly collecting data. Even in the karmatron-flooded air, the idea pissed Rob off. He switched the two hoses, replaced everything and put the vent back. "Let's see how Hans likes a taste of his own medicine."
Past midnight Rob woke to the sound of arguing next door. He turned to Debra, who put a finger to her mouth. Together they listened to the neighbors.
Susan's voice came through the paper-thin walls. "You experimented on Rob and Debra?"
"Now, dear, you—"
"Don't use your professor voice on me. I'm not one of your students."
"I won't be quiet." Something scraped near the baseboard. "Is this your karma pump?"
"Shut up!" A loud crash. "Now it's scrap."
Debra sat up. "Do we argue like that?"
God, he hoped not. The only good thing about the fighting was that he'd learned a lot about Debra. "No, we're not like them.”
“I like Susan.”
Rob nodded. “Me too. She had nothing to do with Hans' experiments. I wish we could get her out of there."
As if on cue, Susan shouted, “What if I tell your department how you've been taking lab equipment home with you?”
Hans snickered. “They don't care what a non-physicist thinks.”
“We'll see about that!” A door slammed.
“Jackass,” Debra muttered.
Rob imagined how Hans might fare tomorrow. If anti-karmatrons got Hans fired . . .
That would be karma.