Every day looks the same through the bottom of a bottle, the only question is where you drink it. I drink it in my office when I’m happy, and tell the secretary to leave me alone because a man should get used to being alone when he’s happy. I go to the watering hole across the street, the Envy Bar and Grill they call it, when I’m unhappy. A man needs distractions when he’s unhappy, especially if he’s the kind of drunk who looks for trouble.
A man with my skills has an easy time finding trouble, and maybe that’s why I drink so much. This is an old man’s field, because too many of the kids die off before they know what’s good for them. By the time the Nobel committee gets around to reading a paper with your name on it you’ve gone through three wives and a full head of hair, and none of them are coming back.
I was thinking about the sound a gun makes when a bullet slides along the chamber, so I was at Envy nursing a scotch and a wicked hangover, when she slid into my booth – and I knew that a woman like her has a little black book full of trouble. Her hair was the kind of jet black where light goes to retire; her legs didn’t quit and those heels were giving them a pep talk. Her dress must have been cut low by a team of opticians developing the sight line, and her lab coat was spotless. A lab coat like that means research grant, maybe from a private foundation but more likely from the Department of Defense.
“You Schoenberg?” she asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”
“Maybe I want you sober.”
“Maybe I want a fifth law of thermodynamics.”
“Can I call you Carl?”
“Can I measure you for wind resistance?”
She wasn’t going anywhere. She had a job to do. We both knew it. “Let’s not beat around the bush,” she said. “I represent some moneyed interests. The kind of people who get tenure at Harvard and Princeton. They need help and they need it kept quiet. They sent me to you.”
I took a swig of whiskey. It doesn’t help me think, but maybe I don’t want to think. “A girl like you shouldn’t be running errands for the faculty lounge, sweetheart. You should be at home making high energy collisions.”
She scowled. “You disgust me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if the situation weren’t dire. The Higgs-Boson is missing, mister Schoenberg, and I don’t think I have to tell you what that means.”
I whistled. “So neutrinos have no mass.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“We’d like to make it your problem, Mr. Schoenberg. And we’re willing to make it worth your while.”
“Keep talking.” I was going to regret this.
She reached into her dress and pulled out a color photograph. She slid it across the table. “Do you recognize this?”
I barely glanced at it. There was no point to playing games. “Yeah. It’s the universe.”
“Well, I don’t have to tell you that what we can see of it is only a small fraction of what the equations demand be here.”
“So we’re trying to find dark matter, Mr. Schoenberg. We’re trying to find dark energy. There’s a foundation … I’m not naming names … that’s very interested in finding the rest of the universe. Very interested. I’m talking about conferences, big ones; stipends; as many research assistants as we want; a separate computer lab for our graduate students. Maybe there’s a Fields Medal in it, too. I wouldn’t be surprised. This thing’s big, Mr. Schoenberg: it goes all the way to the top.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it made.”
Her eyes flashed. She really didn’t like me. Sorry my collar’s rumpled and my shoes aren’t Birkenstocks, sweetheart. Some of us have to live in the real world.
“I told you, Mr. Schoenberg, the Higgs-Boson is missing, and without that we don’t even have the standard model to fall back on.”
I motioned to the bartender to bring me another scotch. “Standard model’s bunk anyway.”
“Don’t say that,” she hissed. “Never say that.”
“Don’t come to my bar and tell me what to say, sweetheart.”
“This looks bad, Mr. Schoenberg. Very bad. I’m here to ask you to make it better.”
Mickey brought my drink over. He saw the look on my face. “This kid bothering you Carl?” he asked. “You want I should …” he cracked his knuckles, “… read her some of my poetry?” Mickey will do anything for a regular. Besides, I once taught him Boltzman’s transport equation when he was having trouble with a two bit dean at a community college.
“Not yet, Mickey,” I said, taking the glass. “Not yet.”
I turned back to the dame. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
She leaned forward. “You think we pulled your name out of a hat?” she snarled. “You may be a sodden drunk and half a man, but you’ve got a reputation. You’re remembered in Switzerland, Mr. Schoenberg. The team at the Large Hadron Collider has been trying to ‘friend’ you on Facebook for years. Your 1983 paper on the fractal geometry of quantum topology in branes is cited in the footnotes of every paper they publish. Even when it’s just in Scientific American.”
I took a deep breath. “I didn’t know that.”
“Maybe you didn’t want to know that.”
“That’s right: maybe I didn’t.” I held up my glass and pointed a finger in her face. “And maybe you don’t know what happens when a man and three of his closest colleagues have a little too much to drink in Sir Isaac Newton’s old office at Cambridge. You have no idea what it’s like when they start doodling on the blackboard, then old man Hawking wheels in. In moments like that things get said about time, sweetheart. Things that can never be unsaid, even if they’re true and causality is epiphenomenal. Maybe I don’t want to remember that. Maybe I want it to disappear like a photon down a black hole. So don’t judge me.”
“Fine,” she said. “Fine.” Like she’d rather be dead than seen with me. “You don’t have to like us. But I bet you need our money. And our ties to DOD. And Google. You ever need to search for something on Google, Mr. Schoenberg? They’ve got a private algorithm for VIP’s – it’s even faster.”
Dammit, she knew what a man like me needs. “I have a weakness for money and relational databases.”
She ran her hand through her hair. “Mmmmm, I bet you do. How do you feel about … fellowships?”
I grabbed her hand and held it in front of us both. “Not teaching!”
She relaxed her grip into mine. “Research. You’d never even have to see an undergraduate.”
“I want my coffee served by one of those post-docs who stripped to get through grad school.”
“They’re usually in the humanities …”
“No humanities! And no social sciences with the word ‘evolutionary’ in front of them. That’s such crap.”
“I’ll take care of it. All of it. Just …” and her face went hard again. “Find the universe.”
I nodded. “You’ve got your man.”
She smiled like an angel. A fallen angel.
If I believed in God I would think he’d sent her to me. But in my time I’ve learned you can only trust a .45 caliber and tenure. With eyes like that I bet she could have sailed right through peer review without anyone ever knowing what was really in her heart. At least to within a standard deviation.
“Mickey!” I called out. “Get a whiskey for the lady. Put it on my tab.”
The kid nodded. “What about you, Mr. Schoenberg?”
I stood up and straightened my hat. “I’m gonna get the universe to pay it off.”
He laughed. “There ain’t enough stars in the sky.”
I walked out with an ugly feeling in my gut that the kid was right. It was my problem now.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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