“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it
is stranger than we can imagine.”—J.B.S. Haldane
Eliot wrote: Picture your brain as a room. The major functions are like furniture. Each in its own place, and you can move from sofa to chair to ottoman, or even lie across more than one piece of furniture at the same time. Memory is like air in the room, dispersed everywhere. Musical ability is a specific accessory, like a vase on the mantle. Anger is a Doberman pinscher halfway out of the door from the kitchen. Algebra just fell down the heat duct. Love of your sibling is a water spill that evaporated three weeks ago.
Well, maybe not accurate, Eliot thought, and hit DELETE. Or maybe too accurate for his asshole English class. What kind of writing assignment was “Explain something important using an extended metaphor?”
He closed his school tablet and paced around the room. Cold, cheerless, bereft—or was that his own fault? Partly his own fault, he admitted; Eliot prided himself on self-honesty. He could turn up the heat, pick up the pizza boxes, open the curtains to the May sunshine. He did none of these things. Cold and cheerless matched bereft, and there was nothing to do about bereft. Well, one thing. He went to the fireplace (cold ashes, months old) and from the mantel plucked the ceramic pig and threw it as hard as he could onto the stone hearth. It shattered into pink shards.
Then he left the apartment and caught the bus to the hospital.
Eliot’s father had been entered into Ononeida Psychiatric Hospital ten days ago, for a religious conversion in which he saw the clear image of Zeus on a strawberry toaster pastry.
Ononeida, named for an Indian tribe that had once occupied Marthorn City, was accustomed to religious visions, and Carl Tremling was a mathematician, a group known for being eccentric. Ordinarily the hospital would not have admitted him at all. But Dr. Tremling had reacted to the toaster pastry with some violence, flinging furniture out of the apartment window and sobbing that there was dice being played with the universe after all, and that the center would not hold. A flung end-table, imitation Queen Anne, had hit the mailman, who was not seriously injured but was considerably perturbed. Carl Tremling was deemed a danger to others and possibly himself.
A brain scan had failed to find temporal lobe epilepsy, the usual cause of religious visions. Dr. Tremling had continued to sob and to fling whatever furniture the orderlies were not quick enough to defend. Also, the psychiatrist on intake duty, who had recognized both the Einstein and Yeats quotes, was puzzled over the choice of Zeus as the toaster-pastry image. The usual thing was either Christ or the Virgin Mary.
The commitment papers had been signed by Dr. Tremling’s sister, a sweet, dim, easily frightened woman who had never been comfortable with her brilliant brother but who was fond of Eliot. She was leaving the hospital as her nephew arrived.
“Eliot! Are you alone?”
“Yes, Aunt Sue.” In Susan Tremling Fisher’s mind, Eliot was perpetually nine instead of sixteen, and should not be riding buses alone. “How is he?”
“The same.” She sighed. “Only they want to—he wants to—Eliot, are you eating enough? You look thinner.”
“You shouldn’t stay in that apartment alone. Anything could happen! Please come and stay with Uncle Ned and me, you know we’d love to have you and I hate to think of you alone in that big apartment without—”
If Eliot didn’t stop her, she would start her Poor Motherless Lamb speech. “What does Dad want to do?”
“You said ‘They want to—he wants to’—so what do the doctors want to do?”
She sighed again. “I wish I had your memory, Eliot. You get it from poor Carl. That doctor with the mustache, he wants to try some new procedure on Carl.”
“What new procedure?”
“I can’t recall the name …” She fumbled in her purse as if the name might be among the tissues and supermarket coupons.
“Was it Selective Memory Obliteration Neural Re-Routing?”
“Yes! The very words! Your memory, Eliot, I swear, your mother would have been so proud of—”
Eliot grabbed her arm. “Are you going to let them operate? Are you?”
“Why, Eliot! You’re hurting me!”
He let go. “I’m sorry. But—you are going to let them operate, aren’t you?”
Aunt Sue looked at him. She had small eyes of no particular color, and a little mouth that was pursing and unpursing in distress. But she was a Tremling. Into those small eyes came stubbornness, an unthinking but resolute stubbornness and yet somehow murky, like a muddy pool over bedrock. She said gently, “I couldn’t do that.”
“Carl will come to himself eventually, Eliot. He’s had spells before, you know—why, just consider that time he shut himself up in my spare room for six days and wouldn’t even come out to eat! I had to bring him meals on a tray!”
“He was working on his big breakthrough on the topography of knots!”
“Not only would he not eat, he wouldn’t even wash. I had to air that room out for two days afterward, and in February. But Carl came out of that spell and he’ll come out of this one, too. You just wait and see.”
“It’s not the same! Don’t you understand, his whole mental construct has been turned upside down!”
“That’s exactly what he said when he came out of my spare room with those knot numbers,” she said triumphantly. “Knots! But even as a boy Carl took fits, why I remember when he was just eight years old and he found out that somebody named Girdle proved there were things you couldn’t prove, why that doesn’t even make common sense to—”
“Aunt Sue! You have to sign the papers allowing this operation!”
“No. I won’t. Eliot, you listen to me. I went online last night and read about this Memory Obligation Whatever. It’s new and it’s dangerous because the doctors don’t really know what they’re doing yet. In one case, after the operation a woman didn’t even remember who she was, or recognize her own children, or anything! In another case, a man could no longer read and—get this!—he couldn’t relearn how to do it, either! Something had just gone missing in his brain as a result of the operation. Imagine Carl unable to read! We can’t risk—“
Eliot was no longer listening. He’d known Aunt Sue all his life; she wasn’t going to budge. He barreled down the hall and rattled the door to the ward, which was of course locked. An orderly wielding a mop peered at him through the reinforced glass and pantomimed pressing the call button.
“Yes?” said the disembodied voice of a nurse. Eliot recognized it.
“Mary, I want to see Dr. Tallman!”
“Oh, Eliot, I’m glad you came just now, your father is quiet and—”
“I don’t want to see my father! I want to see Dr. Tallman!”
“He’s not here, dear. I’ll just buzz you in.”
Mary came out of the nurse’s station to meet him. Middle-aged, kind, motherly, she radiated the kind of brisk competence that Eliot admired, and had seen so little of in his own disordered household. Or at least he would have admired it if it weren’t for the motherliness. She saw him not as the intellectual he knew himself to be, but rather as the skinny, short, floppy-haired kid he seemed to be. He was smarter than Mary, smarter than Aunt Sue, smarter than most of the world, so why the hell couldn’t the world notice that?
“I want to see Dr. Tallman!”
“He’s not on the ward, dear.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. Eliot, you seem upset.”
“I am upset! Isn’t my father going to have SMON-R? Because my aunt wouldn’t sign the papers?”
Motherliness gave way to professionalism. “You know I can’t discuss this with you.”
No one would discuss anything with Eliot. He didn’t count. The rational world didn’t count, not in here. Eliot glared at Mary, who gazed calmly back. He said, “I’ll sign them! I will!”
“You’re underage, Eliot. And your father is non compos mentis. Did you come to visit? He’s in the day room. But if you’re going to upset him, it might be better if you chose another time to visit.”
Eliot bolted past her and ran into the day room.
His father was not flinging furniture. He slumped inert in a chair, staring at the TV, which showed a rerun of Jeopardy. Eliot groaned. His father had published papers in scientific journals, developed algorithms for high-resolution space imagery, had a promising lead on actually solving the Riemann Hypothesis. He did not watch Jeopardy. This was the anti-psychotic drugs, not the real Carl Tremling. Everything the hospital was doing was just making the situation worse.
Alex Trebek said, “The tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, or an object at rest to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.”
“How are you doing?”
“Just fine.” But he frowned. “Only I can’t quite … there was something…”
Something. There were a lot of somethings. There was rational thought, and logical progressions, and the need to restore a man’s proper intellect.
Someone on the TV said, “What is ‘inertia’?”
“Zeus,” Dr. Tremling brought out triumphantly. “Who would have believed—” All at once his face sagged from underneath, like a pie crust cooling. “Who would have believed …” His face crumpled and he clutched Eliot’s sleeve. “It’s real, Eliot! It’s loose in the world and nothing that I thought was true—”
“It was a toaster pastry, Dad!”
Three patients slowly swiveled their heads at Eliot’s raised voice. He lowered it. “Listen to me. Please listen to me. The doctors want to do a procedure on you called Selective Memory Obliteration Neural Re-Routing. It will remove the memory of the … the incident from your mind. Only Aunt Sue—”
“Where’s the pig?” Dr. Tremling said.
Eliot rocked back and forth with frustration. “Even if Aunt Sue won’t sign the papers, if you can seem reasonably lucid—in compos mentis—then—”
“I asked you to bring the pig!”
Dr. Tremling stared at Eliot. Then he threw back his head and howled at the ceiling. Two orderlies, a nurse, and four patients sprang to attention. Dr. Tremling rose, overcoming the inertia of his drugs, and picked up his chair. His face was a mask of grief. “It isn’t true. Nothing I believed is true! The universe—Zeus—dice—”
Eliot shouted, “It was just a fucking toaster pastry!”
“I needed that pig!” He flung the chair at the wall. Orderlies rushed forward.
Nurse Mary grabbed Eliot and hustled him out of the room. “I told you not to upset him!”
“I didn’t upset him, you did, by not giving him what he needs! Do you know how finely balanced a mathematician’s brain is, how prone to obsessions already, and it needs to be clear to—you’re refusing to remove a tumor from his brain!”
“Your father does not have a brain tumor, and you need to leave now,” Mary said, hustling him down the hallway.
A male voice said, “I’ll take scientific terms for 400, Alex.”
“It’s his brain!” Eliot shouted. He meant: My brain, and he knew it, and the knowledge made him even angrier.
Mary got him to the door of the ward, keyed in a code to unlock it, and waved him through. As he stalked off, she called after him, “Eliot? Dear? Do you have enough money for the bus home?”
Eliot’s parents had met at college, where both studied mathematics. Even though Eliot’s mother was not beautiful, there were few girls in the graduate math program, and she was sought after by every mathematician with enough social skills to approach her, including two of the professors. Her own social skills lacked coherence, but something in Carl Tremling appealed to her. She emailed her bewildered mother, “There is a boy here I think I like. He’s interested in nothing but algorithms and pigs.” Carl, who had grown up in farm country, had a theory that pigs were much smarter than other animals and deserved respect.
Fuming on the bus, Eliot wondered why his father had wanted the ceramic pig. Did he have a premonition that in its artificial pink wrinkles he might see Hermes, god of mathematics? Aphrodite? His dead wife? How could his mind have so betrayed Carl Tremling? Eliot wanted his father back, and in his own mind.
Eliot’s mind was so much like his father’s. Everybody said so.
“Fuck,” he said aloud, which caused a man to glare at him across the bus aisle and a woman to change her seat. Embarrassed, Eliot pulled out his school tablet.
Memory, he wrote, is a bridge between what you are today and what you were for all the days before that. All your life you go back and forth across that bridge, extending and reinforcing it. You add a new strut. You hang flower pots on the railing. You lay down kitty litter during icy weather. You chase away the kids who are smoking pot on top of the pilings and under the roadway. Then one day, a section of the bridge gives way. When that happens, it is criminal to not repair it. An unrepaired bridge is like a deep pothole on a dark road and—
Two metaphors. This was not working. And it was due Tuesday.
The man across the aisle was still watching him. Probably thought that Eliot was some sort of gang-affiliated punk. Well, no, not that, not with his build and clothing. A crazy, then. The man thought Eliot might be a gun-toting, cheerleader-loathing shooter who would court death to kill everybody on the bus, perhaps because school shooting was now such a risk, what with all the metal detectors and guards and lock-down protocols.
I am not a shooter, Eliot silently told the man. He was a rationalist and an intellectual, and he just wanted his father back, whole, the way he had been before.
He got off the bus at his Aunt Sue’s building.
The building was depressing because it was so smug. It looked as if nothing bad could ever happen here as long as the stoop was swept clean and the curtains were a bright color and the flower boxes were watered. Nothing bad! Wanna bet? Inside, his aunt’s apartment was even worse. Her decorating style was country-mystic, with wreaths of dried flowers and tapestries of unicorns and small ceramic plaques that said things like “LET A SMILE BE YOUR UMBRELLA.”
“Aunt Sue, I have to tell you things I didn’t get a chance to say at the hospital. Please listen to me.”
“Of course, Eliot. Don’t I always?”
Almost never. But he composed himself and arranged his arguments. “I was online last night, too. Those two cases you mentioned, the man who couldn’t read again and the woman who didn’t recognize her kids, were anomalies. Selective Memory Obliteration Neural Re-Routing is new, yes, but it passed clinical trials and FDA approval and it has an eighty-nine percent success rate, with a one percent confidence level. Of the remaining eleven percent, two-thirds were neither better nor worse after the operation. That leaves only three-point-eight percent and when you take into account those with only minor—”
“You’re not listening!”
“I am listening. Nobody is going to cut into Carl’s brain.”
“But he believes he saw a defunct Greek god in a toaster pastry!”
“Eliot, is that so bad?”
“It’s not true!”
“Well, it’s true that Carl saw it, anyway, or he wouldn’t be so upset. He’ll come out of whatever spell he’s having about it, he always does. And anyway, I don’t understand Carl’s reaction. Would it be so bad to believe this Zeus-god is around?”
“That’s the part that’s not true!”
She shrugged. “Are you so sure you know what’s true?”
“Yes!” Eliot shouted. “Mathematics is true! Physics is true! Memory can play us false, there’s a ton of research on that, nobody can be sure if their memories are accurate—” He stopped, no longer sure what he was saying.
Aunt Sue said calmly, “Well, if memory is playing Carl false, then he’s all the more likely to get over it, isn’t he?”
“No! It isn’t—I didn’t mean—”
“Wouldn’t you like some walnut cake, Eliot? I baked it fresh this morning.”
Hopeless. They came from two different planets. And she—this kind, stupid woman who inexplicably shared one-quarter of his genes—held the power. In a truly rational world, that couldn’t have been true.
“Cream-cheese icing,” she said brightly, and caressed his cheek.
Eliot wrote: Memory is like a corn stalk. Corn blight can wreck any entire economy, starve an entire nation, but it responds to science. Find the bad gene, cut it out, replace it with a genetically engineered Bt gene that fights blight because it allows the use of strong pesticides and voila! Memory functions again! Science triumphs!
Possibly the worst writing he had ever done. He hit DELETE.
His father’s liquor cabinet still held three inches of Scotch. Eliot poured himself two fingers’ worth, so he could sleep.
The next morning, just as he was leaving to catch the bus for school, the hospital called.
“The answer,” his father said, “is obvious.”
It wasn’t obvious to Eliot. His father sat in the day room, out of his bathrobe and dressed in his ordinary baggy khakis and badly-pilled sweater. Dr. Tremling had shaved. He looked just as he once did, and Eliot would have felt hopeful if he hadn’t felt so bewildered, or if the new twitch at the corner of his father’s left eye wasn’t beating madly and irregularly as a malfunctioning metronome.
“I did see what I thought I saw,” his father said carefully. “I know so, in a way that, although it defies explanation, is so incontrovertible that—”
“Dad,” Eliot said, equally carefully—if only that twitch would stop! “You can’t actually ‘know’ that for certain. Surely you’re aware that all our minds can play tricks on us that—”
“Not this time,” Dr. Tremling said simply. “I saw it. And I know it was true, not just an aberration of pastry. I know, too, that mathematics, the whole rational underpinning of the universe, is also true. The dichotomy was … upsetting me.”
Upsetting him. Eliot glanced around at the mental hospital, the orderlies watchful in the corners of the room, the barred window. His father had always had a gift for understatement, which was in part what had made this whole thing so … so upsetting.
“What I failed to see,” Dr. Tremling said, “was that this is a gift. I have just been handed my life’s work.”
“I thought the topography of knots was your life’s work?”
“It was, yes. But now my life’s work is to find the rational and mathematical underpinnings for this new phenomenon.”
“For Zeus? In a toaster pastry?”
The twitch beat faster, even more irregularly. “I concede that it is a big job.”
“There must be a larger consciousness, Eliot. If so, it is a physical entity, made up of energy and matter, must be a physical entity. And a physical entity can be described mathematically, possibly through a system that does not yet exist, possibly based on non-local quantum physics.”
Eliot managed to say, “You aren’t a quantum physicist.”
“I can learn.” Twitch twitch TWITCH. “Do you remember what Werner Heisenberg said about belief systems? ‘What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.’ I need a new method of questioning to lead toward a new mathematics.”
“Well, that’s a—”
“They’re letting me have my laptop back, with controlled wifi access, until I go home.”
“Have they said when that might be?”
“Possibly in a few more weeks.”
Dr. Tremling beamed, twitching. Eliot tried to beam, too. He was getting what he’d wanted—his father back home, working on mathematics. Only—“a new mathematics”? His father was not Godel or Einstein or Heisenberg. He wasn’t even an endowed chair.
Eliot burst out, before he knew he was going to say anything, “There’s no evidence for any larger consciousness! It’s mystical wish-fulfillment, a non-rational delusion! There’s just no evidence!”
“I’m the evidence. Son, I don’t think I actually told you what I experienced.” He leaned closer; involuntarily Eliot leaned back. “It was Zeus, but it was also Odin, was Christ, was … oh, let me think … was Isis and Sedna and Bumba and Quetzalcoatl. It was all of them and none of them because the images were in my mind. Of course they were, where else could they possibly be? But here’s the thing—the images are unimportant. They’re just metaphors, and not very good ones—arrows pointing to something that has neither image nor words, but just is. That thing is—how can I explain this?—the world behind the world. Didn’t you ever feel in childhood that all at once you sort of glimpsed a flash of a great mystery underlying everything, a bright meaning to it all? I know you did because everybody does. Then we grow up and lose that. But it’s still there, bright and shining as solid as … as an end table, or a pig. I saw it and now I know it exists in a way that goes beyond any need to question its existence—the way I know, for instance, that prime numbers are infinite. It’s the world beyond the world, the space filled with shining light, the mystery. Do you see?”
“Well, that’s because you didn’t experience it. But if I can find the right mathematics, that’s a better arrow than verbal metaphors can ever be.”
Eliot saw in his father’s eyes the gleam of fanaticism. “Dad!” he cried, in pure anguish, but Dr. Tremling only put his hand on Eliot’s knee, a startlingly rare gesture of affection, and said, “Wait, son. Just wait.”
Eliot couldn’t wait. His English assignment was due by third period, which began, with the logic of high school scheduling, at 10:34 a.m. No late assignments were accepted. His tablet on his knees on the crowded bus, Eliot wrote: Memory is not a room or a bridge or a corn stalk with blight. Memory is not a metaphor because nothing is a metaphor. Metaphors are constructions of a fanciful imagination, not reality. In reality everything is what it is, and that is—or certainly should be!—enough for anybody!
The little boy sitting next to him said, “Hey, man, you hit that thing so hard, you gonna break it.”
“Shut up,” Eliot said.
“Get fucked,” the kid answered.
But Eliot already was.
Dr. Tremling came home three weeks later. He was required to see a therapist three times a week. Aunt Sue bustled over, cooked for two days straight, and stocked the freezer with meals. When Eliot and his father sat down to eat, Dr. Tremling’s eye twitched convulsively. Meals were the only time they met. His father chewed absently and spoke little, but then, that had always been true. The rest of the time he stayed in his study, working. Eliot did not ask on what. He didn’t want to know.
Everything felt suspended. Eliot went to school, took his AP classes, expressed scorn for the jocks and goths who teased him, felt superior to his teachers, read obsessively—all normal. And yet not. One day, when his father was at a therapy session, Eliot slid into Dr. Tremling’s study and looked at his notebooks and, to the extent he could find them amid such sloppy electronic housekeeping, his computer files. There didn’t seem to be much notation, and what there was, Eliot couldn’t follow. He wasn’t a mathematician, after all. And his father appeared to have invented a new symbol for something, a sort of Olympic thunderbolt that seemed to have left- and right-handed versions. Eliot groaned and closed the file.
Only once did Eliot ask, “So how’s it going, Dad?”
“It’s difficult,” Dr. Tremling said.
No shit. “Have you had any more … uh … incidents?”
“That’s irrelevant, son. I only needed one.” But his face twitched harder than ever.
Three weeks after he came home, Dr. Tremling gave up. He hadn’t slept for a few nights and his face sagged like a bloodhound’s. But he was calm when he said to Eliot, “I’m going to have the operation.”
“You are?” Eliot’s heart leapt and then, inexplicably, sank. “Why? When?”
His father answered with something of his old precision. “Because there is no mathematics of a larger conscious entity. On Tuesday at eight in the morning. Dr. Tallman certified me able to sign my own papers.”
“Oh.” For a long terrible moment Eliot thought he had nothing more to say. But then he managed, “I’m sorry about the pig.”
“It’s not important,” Dr. Tremling said, which should have been the first clue.
On Tuesday Eliot rose at 5:00 a.m., and took a cab to the hospital. He sat with his father in Pre-Op, in a vibrantly and mistakenly orange waiting room during the operation, and beside his father’s bed in Post-Op. Dr. Tremling recovered well and came home a week later. He was quiet, subdued. When the new term started, he resumed teaching at the university. He read the professional journals, weeded the garden, fended off his sister. Nobody mentioned the incident, and Dr. Tremling never did, either, since hospital tests had verified that it was gone from his memory. Everything back to normal.
But not really. Something had gone missing, Eliot thought—some part of his father that, though inarticulate, had made his eyes shine at a breakthough in mathematics. That had made him love pigs. That had led him, in passion, to fling bad student problem sets and blockhead professional papers across the room, as later he would fling furniture. Something was definitely missing.
“Isn’t it wonderful that Carl is exactly the way he used to be?” enthused Aunt Sue. “Modern medicine is just amazing!”
Eliot didn’t answer her. On the way home from school, he got off the bus one stop early. He ducked into the Safeway as if planning to rob it, carrying out his purchase more secretively than he’d ever carried out the Trojans he never got to use. In his room, he locked the door, opened the grocery boxes, and spread out their contents on the bed.
On the dresser.
On the desk, beside his calculus homework.
On the computer keyboard.
When there were no other surfaces left, on the not-very-clean carpet.
Then, hoping, he stared at the toaster pastries until his head ached and his eyes crossed from strain.
Eliot wrote, “Metaphor is all we have.” But the assignment had been due weeks ago, and his teacher refused to alter his grade.