DEAR READERS: NEW MATERIAL IS ADDED TO ORSON'S STORY AT THE BOTTOM. IT GROWS, ALTHOUGH THE TOP STAYS THE SAME.
Orson shelved the textbook for his Physics 204 course, thinking for the hundredth time that the book was inadequate, and then checked his watch.
His least-favorite student was 15 minutes late for an appointment, after which Orson would have to speed-walk across campus – two-tenths of a mile – for the Provost’s annual speech.
The student had requested the meeting, and Orson made a mental wager with himself that the wretched boy was going to knock off a grandparent and plead he needed to go to a funeral in a distant state on Friday, thereby missing the deadline for his research paper.
If so, it would make the fourth dead relative his students had presented to him this term, each tragically coinciding with a term paper or exam date.
He ran his fingers through thinning sandy hair, scribbled a hasty note, which he taped to his office door, and left with a satisfied “fuck you” on the tip of his tongue. Striding towards the stairs, Orson saw the wretched boy slouching down the hall, headphones on and head bobbing, but kept going because, as everyone knows, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.
Provost Allwyn Steppenheim was the master of the buzzword. He had never met a catch phrase he didn't like, and his annual address contained the entire collection of every phrase he'd accumulated over the previous year.
Orson entered the auditorium and searched the backs of a hundred heads until he found the one belonging to Sheila Searcy, an English Lit professor who kept him sane through meetings of this type. The year before, Sheila had written down the best of the Provost's catch phrases and made a poem by rearranging them, which she emailed to Orson with the subject line, Burn after reading!
It went: Each and every policy and procedure
Reaches for greatness as we promote initiatives, gaining relational excellence.
Underutilized, facilitated and transformational though we be, we strive ever onward to pursue our dreams outside the box.
Orson was scanning an abstract in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Physics (Subthreshold characteristics of ballistic electron emission spectra) when his phone rang.
This was jarring since it was first-cup-of-coffee time on a Sunday morning (too early for telemarketers), and anyway, Orson’s phone never rang.
He penciled a hash mark by the sentence he was reading (where the sub-threshold behavior is discernible above the signal noise) and was reaching for the receiver when it stopped.
The telephone’s dull brrrr was replaced by a bright DING! from the coffee maker, signaling that the drip was completed, and Orson's own electrons softly realigned.
He rose, padded to his kitchenette, fixed a large mug of black brew, and pondered the inside of his pantry whence a bag of Pecan Sandies beckoned.
Back in his chair, he resumed the journal article, enjoying the rough texture of the cookies with hot bitter coffee and the intermittent percussion of his icemaker.
Midmorning, Orson switched to reading poetry – Songs of Mirabai – by a 16th century Rajistani princess.
It was his belief that poets and artists served as their nations’ social critics, and it sometimes shamed him that physicists were among the last to speak out, to rage against the machine, as it were.
Then he castigated himself for using the phrase “as it were,” which sounded fusty and academic.
The princess Mirabai had written,
I am crazy with pain, and no one understands it.
Only the wounded knows the pain of the wounded...
Orson was embarrassed by this direct, unvarnished language that exposed Mirabai's core, and he rather wished that she – or her translator -- had been a bit more circumspect about revealing such bare emotions.
There is a tender moment at the beginning of every semester when a teacher faces a classroom of new students and each has high hopes for the other -- and this occurs before the students cheat on exams or plagiarize or make up lavish excuses for poor work or the professor turns out to be boring or jaded or incompetent.
It was Orson’s experience as a professor of physics that his hopes and those of the students were – and always would be – at odds.
Whereas he wished for curious minds and intense enthusiasm, the heads turned toward him in expectant attention wanted an easy grader and someone (please God) without a foreign accent.
Sometimes, just to fuck with them, he’d open the first class session with a thick Nigerian accent, like that of his departmental chairman, and while doing so, warn about the dismal pass/fail rate for his class.
But then, he’d take pity and, speaking in a friendly mid-American dialect, toss around a little poetry by Tupac Shakur and illustrate modern physics in terms of the energy waves that make cell phones work.
As his students filed out of the first-day lecture hall, he would pretend to himself that a boy or a girl was that rarest of creatures, a budding and brilliant physicist who one day would rise to glory and mention his name in thanks from a stage in Sweden.
Every January, the university president hosted a tea at his gracious home for newly-hired faculty members, and all professors were expected to attend (in semi-formal attire) to welcome them.
Orson spent probably more time than necessary selecting the right tie and socks for the occasion, and in the end he chose the same blue-gray tie and charcoal gray socks as he always wore when required to put on his one and only suit.
He enjoyed the inevitability of these social occasions because they anchored him, and he suspected that, without the regularity of the university calendar, he would get lost under the hummocked research papers and journals on his desk and become compost.
At the party, Orson found a wall to lean against and, while he enjoyed two fingers of the president’s Scotch (neat), he watched the convivial swirl of colleagues – some of them in saris, dashikis and turbans – being civilized toward each other.
In his mind’s eye, however, he saw each person carrying a knife with which to stab the others in the back – some sheathed or hidden, some visible and glinting. ‘Never go unarmed into the halls of academe,’ whispered the conspiratorial voice of his inner warrior, ‘and don’t forget it.’
Orson is halfway through a lecture about the physics of weather, reviewing the way that an object’s mass (a thunderhead, for example) ties force and acceleration together.
A student asks how much a cloud weighs, and Orson explains that mass is not the same as weight, and he gives the equation.
He moves on to open a discussion about lightning and how a magnetic field has lines that reach out beyond the rainclouds so that lightning can actually strike a city far from the original storm.
“As a matter of fact, a thunderstorm raging in Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said, projecting a map on the front wall, “struck in Madagascar, under clear skies, one sixth of the way around the world!”
A forest of arms go up in the air, and Orson feels a slight pulse of hope beating in his neck as he points to a student waving her hand.
“Sir,” she says, “Will the stuff you tell us, like, out loud, be on the exam or is it just, like, gonna be the stuff in the textbook?
As a Southerner, Orson knows full well the dangerous waters of a conversation about religion with anyone but immediate family.
But as a scientist down to his marrow, he wants to lobotomize the ‘Young Earth Creationists’ because, as he tells his friend and colleague Sheila Searcy over lunch, “they won’t miss brains that they’re not using.”
He then relates a recent experience he had while explaining chaos vs. order to a class.
“This one girl says she doesn’t believe in the Big Bang Theory, and I ask ‘why not?’ She says, ‘If you set off a bomb in a junkyard, BANG, the result wouldn’t be a smooth running, perfectly formed car, so why do you think the universe got started that way?’ I considered explaining that the universe is still junk that's evolving and changing, billions of years after, but the look on her face said GENESIS ONE, and scaling that wall just seemed too exhausting.”
When Orson and his sister were school children, they had puzzled their teachers with white flashes of brilliance and what then was termed 'antisocial behavior.'
Had they been born 30 years later, they might have been diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, based on a shared lack of interest in popularity, their photographic memories and emotionless faces.
And even though they displayed no affection for each other, Orson and Alana were attuned as if a wire connected their minds, sending signals along a frequency only Luna moths could hear.
As young adults, they went their separate ways to quality universities where they made one friend apiece, joined music societies and graduated magna cum lauda without once writing letters to each other or calling on birthdays.
Orson considers all this, now, in middle age, and sends Alana an email that reads, “Meet me at the old place near the ugly thing next Sunday at 1 p.m. for lunch.”
He knows she’ll be there.
Orson is sitting upright in his restaurant chair as if a drill sergeant has commanded him to attention, and he is eating his meat in the British fashion, with fork tines turned down.
Alana, in a bouclé shawl and small neat tam, talks without animation about her job and new apartment. The food before them is riotously spicy, but neither reaches for water or wine.
It is as if their mouths, cooled for so long by unemotional speech, are immune to heat.
This Hungarian restaurant was a social station of the cross for their parents, long ago, where they ate and drank and talked party politics with friends and neighbors, arguing and laughing with a zest incomprehensible to their children.
Next door squatted a hideous Eastern Orthodox Church with bricks like rotten teeth and a painful life-sized crucifix (complete with scarlet wounds) that had given Alana nightmares when she was eight.
Meanwhile, Orson says, “You’re looking healthy, Alana,” knowing she’ll remember to respond, “Cuz I never drink from the Orson wells.”
It is a black and white photograph on shiny paper, taken with a Kodak Brownie camera in 1956.
It is the sole artifact Orson has kept from childhood, not sentimentally but anthropologically, as one might keep a pottery shard that shows the culture of a long-gone tribe.
Four people are grouped together – parents behind and small children in front – and the faces of the mother and father proclaim that blue skies are just around the corner.
The father’s hair rises like a cresting wave above a suntanned face, and his left hand holds a filterless cigarette.
The mother’s skirt is levitating with the help of crinolines, and her dark penciled eyebrows are such a period piece by themselves that Orson laughs.
The boy and girl are present yet absent, more like mannequins of children than living children.
They gaze into the camera like they’ve been told, but while the entire photograph is sharp, their eyes alone look out of focus.
12.A first cousin to Alana and Orson sends them feel-good emails telling them to live, love, laugh and "dance like no one's looking."
Orson just deletes everything the cousin sends, but Alana reads them and puzzles over the alien words and sentiments, trying to find some link between the greeting card emotions and her own.
It is as if they use two distinct languages and need a third to translate them, a Rosetta stone or maybe an oracle.
She knows that she is missing a vital ingredient or organ that others have -- and so is Orson -- and that the missing part keeps her from "feeling what normal people feel," as the doctors have explained.
It's not as if she was raised among inhospitable rocks: her parents were happy, warm, loving people.
Alana rolls her chair back from the computer, taps her feet three times, rolls forward, taps the space bar twice, then shuts it down. She walks along a pre-arranged path from her desk to the kitchen, taps three times and shuts the light at precisely 9:09 p.m.
Orson hums a long-ago song (The very thought of you, and I forget to do, the very ordinary things that everyone ought to do) but he doesn't believe the lyrics; love has never made him forget what ought to be done.
Long ago and far away a girl gave her heart to him, but all too soon she left, saying, "Your love for me has to be more than room temperature," which Orson thought was overdramatic.
He hums while he runs the sweeper over the neutral (unassuming) Berber carpeting (being careful not to use the brush, which pulls at the fibers) and happily anticipates the arrival of the postman with his weekly physics journals.
The apartment is spare and clean-looking, as if a poor grad student lived there, not a highly paid full professor.
It has a lovely view, but even lovelier is the sole occupant of the master bedroom: a red camping tent that contains the perfectly Orson-sized sleeping bag and a nest of pillows on which he has been sleeping since he was a boy.
No one else has ever slept in this private inner sanctum ( not even room-temp girl), although Orson keeps a regulation Queen bed with pretty sheets in another room for when attractive women want to take him for a test drive.
Orson awoke from a bright, chaotic dream into a hardcore January day. He tried to grasp the dream’s receding smoke strands -- kites? a village square?-- but they eluded him.
He lay against his pillow nest inside a red, nylon camping tent, shucking off sleep in layers until he felt the blunt nudge of reality.
Sleepiness was to Orson what chocolate was to his sister Alana: a pure experience of pleasure dimmed only slightly at its edges by guilt.
He felt languid, solitary and catlike in his sleep cave whereas outside were only sharp-edged things and biting wind.
It had been a long time – maybe years – since Orson had called in sick and cancelled class, and even as he thought the words 'accrued leave,' one of his arms snaked out of the sleeping bag and plucked up his Blackberry.
Orson and his sister Alana had enjoyed a running joke, one time, about Hawaiians hoarding all the vowels and the Serbs hoarding all the consonants. He'd make up names of Yugoslavian war criminals, like Brdyzstan Krmudgnlik, and she would reply with the names of their Polynesian mistresses, like Aloanauiala Holaoli, though how the two lovers happened to be in the same country was never stated.
But then Orson fell into physics and went away to graduate school, and the romantic fate of the Serbo-Pacific lovers was never settled.
He had spent many years studying the behavior of neutrinos (Alana said these were small fur-bearing animals) and just as many years reading all about genetics and the occurrence of Asperger's Syndrome in non-twin siblings.
But the inability to change is hardly ever due to information deficit, and no amount of books or scholarly journals could help Orson overcome his complete indifference to all human emotions save that of ironic humor.
It was as if love were a vowel belonging only to some people who hoarded it away, and he was a man caught in wintry Serbia, destined to forever mete out his feelings through consonant-clenched teeth.
16. JFK once said, “We aim to go to the moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard: fuck easy.” Okay, so he didn’t say the last two words in public, in front of his archbishop and the microphones and LIFE Magazine, but you know he said it privately to those bright and gleaming boys, those astronauts, all of them brimming with that miracle endorphin that wells up when you are included in the joke in the innermost circle.
Orson studied old photographs of their faces, seeing only farmers’ sons and scions of Princeton economics profs – nobody remarkable at all except that they were plucked out of the teeming postwar masses and set atop the shoulders of physicists like himself.
Why were there no photos of Kennedy with the brilliant scientists who designed the rockets’ systems so that ships could break free of almighty gravity, or those who measured the planetary currents and slipstreams with bloodied, bitten fingernails so that the astronauts would splash down just so, and not in godforsaken Mozambique?
Fuck-easy was sitting strapped into the capsule and fuck-easy was taking orders from Houston, and fuck-easy was riding in a champagne tickertape parade when it was over. Meanwhile, fuck-hard wiped their glasses and gathered up their instruments and toasted each other with warm Tang in paper cups.