Nature is a con artist that uses misdirection as deftly as sleight-of-hand to keep the thing moving and hidden, but at some cost, genius can beat the shell game. Michael Gottesman of Isle End, 6’ 3”, light-haired and blue-eyed, feels covert glances reach like antennae to touch him. The New York airport is so crowded it resembles an anthill.
He walks, aware of moving within a moving pattern. It is altogether too much to bear, and he is bearing it. The weight of the thing crushes where it is minutely held. It would not have been wrong, merely inadequate, to say he was maddened by it, which includes: Wecj. Peggy. Tyler. He balks at her entirely, yearns to flee east to the tip of the Island to Isle End, the porous land in the water where the earth gives way to sea. Home.
Michael is walking across an airport lobby. A voice announces departures. He walks in his mind back into the spaces of early adolescence. On a dark blue night on Isle End, the sky was neatly printed with constellations. Orion was above him and a girl’s body beneath him. He liked the smallness of females and his own increasing size in an expanding universe. His neck aches as he walks across the airport lobby. His throat burns, his mouth is suddenly dry. There are tears in his eyes and he wants his mother.
The sun is setting. A rim of orange light lines the horizon. Fluid layers of sky darken into a spectrum blue to black. Michael stands outside the airport lobby on a taxi line. He ignores people in line in front and back at him, jostling and dropping parts of themselves. He fixes his sight on the bright horizon line and senses the lowering temperature and the low tide taste of the air. It is La Guardia Airport. October, 1987. A summer day changes into a winter night with the descent of the sun. The wind blows through his thin jacket, cold against his face. He opens the taxi door and settles inside. He has no destination, but he knows an address in Greenwich Village. Tyler’s family had one of their houses there.
Michael looks at the taxi window at the City lights reflecting in the river water. The river is Nature, an arm slipping out of a dark cloak of earth. Woman. Peggy tightened her lips, and something changed in her eyes. The bridge dips down and attaches itself to land. The taxi stops at a light. The driver leans toward the meter to check his fare. He lights a cigarette. The sulfurous flash, the sharp scent, startles Michael. He is scared. He wants his mother, but he leans back into the car seat. He is hungry. It is a problem to solve, which is all right, Michael solves problems.
The taxi stops because Michael has directed it past Tyler’s townhouse south to where the river meets the ocean in an open bay. Money is exchanged. Michael breathes the driver’s cigarette smoke into his lungs. It tastes like autumn bonfires.
It’s dark below Wall Street late at night, but Michael is unaware of his danger and finds a diner, a crevice to crawl into for food. He eats. It makes him feel better than he has for hours since he confronted Wecj, then boarded the shuttle from Boston. The beat of rock music is coming out of a small speaker hooked up in a corner. Beer turns to heat in Michael’s blood – he unzips the windbreaker. They don’t know who they have right here in their midst. The old cosmological key. No, the young one. Michael buys a pack of gum and leaves the diner, and walks down dark streets toward the smell of the river.
She had left soon after his birth. Got an awful lot of mothering mileage out of that one from other women and their daughters.
Michael stands at the water’s edge and looks into the darkness. The only light reflected in the many-faceted water comes from weak blue streetlamps and distant stars, a moonless night. You are supposed to be modern, proud the old lady had so much blood in her, but that’s just words when it’s your mother and she left you in diapers.
Michael wishes he had some grass to smoke at the water’s edge. He doesn’t mind the cold wind blowing his hair into his eyes. It is too long because Peggy wouldn’t cut it. Who is finished with him? his mother, Wecj, Peggy, Tyler. Grass makes him think of Tyler. Michael hears footsteps behind him. He turns his head and sees an old bum approach him unsteadily, palm up. Michael takes out what loose change he can finger in his pocket and gives it to the man.
Tyler and he were friends based on topics in astrophysics/metamathematics. They loved the same things, Q.E.D., each other. Tyler had survived the VN War, was years older than Michael. He wore a sailor’s cap folded down and came from Newport, his home more a museum than a place to live. Michael was disoriented the entire weekend in Rhode Island except when they talked physics. Who mentioned homosexuality? “I’m not like that.” Who said that? So much grass. Lost in the smoke. And found. Wecj and Peggy were both jealous and wrong about Tyler.
Michael turns abruptly – something is falling.
Tyler jumped off a bridge. He walked off it as if he were walking from one room to another. Paste that in the scrapbook. Michael nods to himself. The boy’s off his rocker. Right off the front porch at 20 years old.
Michael turns. In the edge of a shadow outside streetlight circumference two drunks fight. They lift their arms heavily and land punches by chance. They grunt and wheeze and spit. They fall to the ground and quiver there on their backs like beetles. They rise again, and bone thuds onto bone, a sound like a lead ball hitting sacks of flour. Michael goes toward them, yells – a hollow bellow rises from their throats. He slips between them, grabs each one with a fist, then strains to separate them like two halves of a wishbone. It is harder than he thought. They both swing at him. One connects, and Michael falls. Then one of them falls beside him, stinking, and the victor lopes, cursing. Michael raises himself to his knees. He looks at the bum beside him. The man is wrinkled and yellow and splotched, has blood on his face, hands, clothes. Michael’s eyes are wet. He looks up at the river to the sky. The bum sucks in his snot as he comes to. Michael offers him a stick of gum.
He starts to explain the thing he has discovered or created – they are the same thing, a symmetry of efforts.
“In the beginning,” Michael says, “was vacuum, but not as we commonly define the word. This is a vacuum we are speaking of which is a symmetry of forces, as for example, when you’re underwater whichever direction you look in the water appears the same. In other words, the evolution of the universe as we know it begins before the beginning or Big Bang, in this vacuum which experienced a kind of asymmetrifying of crystallizing process, just as water turns into the hexagonal lattices of ice. The thing –”
The bum chews the gum glumly and throws the wrapper on the ground. Michael picks it up and puts it in his pocket.
Peggy’s voice says, “You were bound to do it,” echoing Wecj’s orders. Michael believes her because he knows what makes her suffer. Aware again of the cold wind in the night, Michael feels confused about where he is. He goes in search of light and finds a bar. Wecj intended to publish Michael’s work as his own, academic droit de seigneur. “You’re only 20,” Wecj said. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” Peggy said, “who’s the genius of us all?”
He orders scotch. It’s a bigger bar than he imagined, like a set for a cowboy movie, only in modern dress. The bartender at his end of the bar is a young woman with breasts displayed in a low-cut red blouse. She moves to the music. Michael wants to get drunk, stagger into the night and find a bed and fall into it like the vortex of Charybdis where he can drown alone without Tyler, his mother, Peggy – or Wecj. When he orders the third scotch, the red-breasted woman looks and says, “Honey, don’t you think you had enough?”
“Yes, I had enough,” Michael says.
“You got someplace to get to?” she says.
Michael blushes. The alcohol helps; she’s thinking he is aroused by her nipple-edged breasts, which he is. He waves aside the messy moment with an open palm, waiting aside any invitation to her bed because that’s happened often enough. Women always want to look after him. It’s the baby-blue eyes. He can’t touch a woman now without feeling Peggy under his hand. She was 10 the day he was born. They have the same birthday.
Michael walks out of the bar. Tyler was walking next to him on the bridge over the Charles in Cambridge, 3 miles from the university. A high wind Massachusetts day in late April. Stunning sun. Some sailboats sliced through shining water.
“Listen,” Tyler said, “don’t let Wecj do it to you. The thing’s not worth it.”
Michael grabbed Tyler’s forearm. “What’re you talking about?”
“Everything,” Tyler said.
The iron of his grip undoing Michael’s was a surprise followed by shock as Tyler shoved him and ran to the edge of the stone bridge. Cars sped past. There had been Tyler’s bent knee on the stone bridge ledge, his other leg taut and a lever pushing up, two hands on the ledge swinging over, a ballet-arc. Then he was gone. Michael was on the ground, where he’d been pushed. The back of his neck was stone, like the bridge, inclined upward, staring at the empty space that had contained Tyler. Loud horns. He felt cold and raw, as if all his skin had been blown off in the April wind. Sirens. Someone arrived. Arms lifted him. His face was wet, but he couldn’t feel his hands to wipe it away. That was then. Now. He knows precisely what to do. Go home to Isle End.
It is almost dawn. The wind is rising. You can hardly feel it on the ground, but the treetops sway as if disconnected from their trunks, fine antennae to the air and light. It was a long train ride from the City that goes only as far east as Port Wagner on Long Island. Michael steals a bike at the train station. It is 5 miles more from Port Wagner to Isle End. He feels numb as he approaches the Gottesman house. In the past, there had always been anticipation and relief in the curve of the road and the fractal tree branches, the straight line of the gravel driveway, and the big house whose windows were eyes and front door a smiling mouth saying, Welcome Home. Now he feels attached only to a stolen bicycle.
Like a stranger, he nears the side door. He knows where everything belongs except himself. There is a strange leftover smell from the kitchen window. Cabbage? He associates the smell with his stepmother sleeping upstairs beside Dr. Gottesman. In Michael’s old bedroom sleeps their son.
He thinks of the doctor’s office. He walks around the house like a thief — which he is — and rings the bell. He sees the light go on in the upstairs bedroom, hears the high-pitched sound of a little boy’s voice. Michael rings the bell again and looks up. As the sky loses its stars, the office door opens.
Dr. Gottesman looks exactly as he did the last time Michael saw him, a year before at the conferring of degrees ceremony when his Ph.D. was awarded. They had not said much to each other then, and Michael can think of nothing to say now. The bathrobe Dr. Gottesman is wearing is new. His white hair is uncombed and his eyes are still filled with sleep. Dr. Gottesman takes hold of Michael’s arm and leads him into the examining room. The hand feels strong on his arm and makes Michael feels suddenly weak throughout his body, as if all his energy drained into his father. He almost falls.
To Dr. Gottesman, the young man looks like his first wife, whom he loved. Michael has her eyes and skin, but he has his father’s narrow lips that always seemed to be demanding how and why.
“I’m sick,” Michael says.
“Let me take a look, then.”
The room smells familiarly of alcohol and ointment and pills. Michael contrasts the office he shared with Peggy. There was a dusty mess of green chalkboard no one dared erase, nor touch papers, reports, and books for fear a scrap of work or a corner of equations on the board might later fit into place. Well, they could erase it now because they did. The equation is complete in Michael’s mind, and in it the thing gleams like gold.
Their university office smelled of nervous sweat in woolen sweaters in winter and stale air conditioning in the summer. It smelled of enclosure. The doctor’s office is clean and antiseptic, whole and open, peaceful as always.
Dr. Gottesman directs Michael to lie down on the examination table. He leans over his son, pressing his stomach, then his abdomen.
“Does that hurt?” the doctor says. His voice is low, interested, and impersonal.
He taps Michael’s back, then moves his hand lower, and using the side of his hand, sharply raps Michael’s lower back twice on each side. Michael sits up stiffly.
“It’s not kidneys,” Michael says.
“Can you keep anything down?”
“I can’t remember,” Michael says.
“You need some tests,” Dr. Gottesman says. “What else is the matter?”
“Matter,” Michael whispers. His teeth begin chattering and he’s trembling. He can’t stop it because he isn’t making it happen. The skin of his scalp is crawling in waves. He can’t speak.
“You have fever,” the doctor says.
With terrific effort, Michael speaks through clenched teeth. He hears a strange sound pass through his lips, as if someone else were groaning. His breath is short. “Oh, Dad. I’m so scared.”
“What are you scared of?” Dr. Gottesman says. He takes the boy’s arm and helps him off the table and leads him down the hallways to his paneled office. He seats Michael in a leather chair facing the desk. He sits on the edge of the desk, close to the boy.
“I’m really scared,” Michael says.
“Yes. Of what?”
“The thing. I found the constant.”
“Did you tell Wecj?”
“Why? He’s not my father.” The space between Michael’s chair and the desk deepens and widens into a canyon.
Dr. Gottesman touches Michael’s shoulder, feels him trembling, and puts his hand back on the edge of his desk.
“Refer me to a psychiatrist,” Michael says. His hands have stopped shaking. A paralysis of some sort is taking over. His throat is tight. What time is it? What is Time? “I stole a bike to get here from the train.”
“It’s light now. We’ll go to the hospital in my car,” Dr. Gottesman says. “Michael?”
That’s it. That is the voice he’d come home for. It closes his eyes like fingertips, undresses him, put him into bed and still speaks comfortingly as he falls into sleep. Michael’s head becomes too heavy for his neck hold up. He bends over and holds it in his cold hands, leaning into his thighs, elbows pressing sharply.
“I want…” Michael begins, but he can’t breathe.
Dr. Gottesman catches Michael as he falls. The doctor struggles to carry the young man to a couch. Dr. Gottesman calls his wife, then sits beside the boy, stroking the wet hair off Michael’s forehead.
Michael hears a voice coming from the top of the well. He sees stars spiraling like firework pinwheels. He sinks again.
There is dark water at the bottom of the well, and he’s beneath the water. He falls through rooms, but there is always a pillow beneath his cheek, and he can see with an interior eye that it is needlepointed. The stitches are soothingly geometrical and handmade. Dark, wavy underwater currents lift and lower him. There is pain. A silver piercing.
Water has inundated Isle End. The flood has finally come. There were voices of women and children. When there is a field fire, water is strung along in buckets to save the harvest, but what can you do when water rushes in? Fire can’t put out water.
“What did you say?” Dr. Gottesman says.
He feels so sad. Michael moves his lips. It takes sound a long time to move through water. “The thing…”
“We’re going to the hospital now,” Dr. Gottesman says.
“He doesn’t hear you,” his wife says. “What is he whispering?”
What direction is the car going? The window glass is so cold against Michael’s cheek. “Therefore, it is clear…” Michael says. The thing is so beautiful, gleaming. “Therefore, it is clear… 6.27 times 10 to the 36th…”
“It’s all right…nearly there now…called ahead…expected.”
Movement ceases. Which shell is the thing under? More silver piercing. Michael’s lips are chapped and he is so heavy. He is sinking. Then many arms reach him, and he opens his wounded palms to them, borne off into their white embrace. Out of perfect hot darkness into cooling light something gleams, it shines. He can see.
L. Shapley Bassen’s grandmother was a telegrapher on Wall Street a century ago who taught her to read and tapped messages to her in Morse Code. A New Yorker living in Rhode Island, she is a multi-published & prize-winning author of fiction, poetry, & drama.