TRAVERS­ING LEONARD

Craig Savel

Geist - - Features - CRAIG SAVEL

Win­ner of the 37th An­nual In­ter­na­tional 3-Day Novel Con­test

He’s in my room. I can hear him. I can smell his breath. I know that he had a bagel with cream cheese and lox for break­fast. His hy­giene isn’t what most peo­ple’s sense of per­sonal clean­li­ness is. But then again, why should it be? I’ve never known him to have friends, to get laid. He knows only three things: math, physics, and how to be re­ally an­noy­ing.

“Leonard, what do you want?” I ask, the be­gin­ning and end punc­tu­ated with stage sighs hop­ing he will get the hint. I re­al­ize it is the same voice I used to use for my ex­girl­friend’s cat, who used to paw me awake at five in the morn­ing for kib­ble.

That was how it started and I wished I had lis­tened to what­ever ex­ec­u­tive func­tion I had in my brain and kicked his ass out onto Broad­way. But I felt sorry for the old man and he had no place to go. Leonard Zav­it­sky was a leg­end in the physics com­mu­nity. Even af­ter he had be­come a washed-up dis­grace, he was still an awe-in­spir­ing pres­ence. I had been around academia for a while. I knew how stupid, petty, and ve­nal the smartest of the smartest were. When he talked of a con­spir­acy be­cause he wasn’t a “team player” I was not one to dis­agree. When my fac­ulty men­tor told me that spend­ing too much time with that guy—“i don’t even fuck­ing know if he is on fac­ulty” was what he said— would not be a help in any ten­ure-track tro­phy, I should have lis­tened, but in­stead some sense of jus­tice made me al­low him to be a part of my life.

“Young man,” he be­gan with his com­bi­na­tion of Brook­lyn and news­caster voice that made me laugh. He al­most al­ways called me “young man” in­stead of Paul. I was only Paul when he was an­gry with me.

“Young man, I need to know if you are truly se­ri­ous about what we dis­cussed last night. You know that I don’t have the tech­no­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of the younger gen­er­a­tion, but—well apart from that in­ci­dent for which I am per­sona non grata in the cam­pus—you know that I would be the one head­ing this depart­ment, even act­ing as your men­tor and fac­ulty ad­vi­sor. You know that I am right.”

I don’t think he re­al­ized how that voice gave the im­pres­sion of some­one who wanted to be more than he was, but that was Leonard. The first time I met him, I thought he was a jan­i­tor or some­thing. He had white hair at ev­ery an­gle, a paunch, and he didn’t bathe much. Col­leagues joked about the Leonard Con­den­sate, one whiff of which re­duced mat­ter into muck. He stuffed news­pa­pers in his pock­ets to read on his ram­blings in Up­per Man­hat­tan. He never took the sub­way, only walked. No­body knew where he slept. Many peo­ple in the depart­ment at Columbia weren’t even sure if he was still draw­ing a salary. The truth was that some older pro­fes­sors, now dod­der­ing emer­i­tuses or emerita or what­ever, still had feel­ings for Leonard and thought that his trans­gres­sions, while great, didn’t can­cel out his gen­uine work as a young man. He could at least get a job as a cus­to­dian, which is what he, in fact, was. I don’t think he ever pushed a broom in his life but it was a place for him to go to and be an­noy­ing, and also a place for him to swoop in and make real con­tri­bu­tions to physics. Mostly he ei­ther hung around the li­brary and cadged in­vi­ta­tions to var­i­ous lab­o­ra­to­ries or roamed the fa­mous tun­nels un­der the cam­pus. Once in the dead of win­ter he even went up to La­mont-do­herty, the ge­ol­ogy lab which is up in Rock­land County. He walked there.

“Leonard, I am not sure I can do that. Know­ing you has al­ready put me in deep shit with the head of the depart­ment. He wants to know why I am…”

“Hang­ing around with a dod­der­ing old fool who faked num­bers on his re­search and tra­verses the tun­nels be­neath the uni­ver­sity to break into class­rooms, right?” “Well, yes, al­though I know you are a ge­nius.” “Don’t pa­tron­ize me, Paul!” “I’m not.” “Young man, you know I have an Er­dos num­ber of 1. You know that I birthed the quan­tum many-worlds hy­poth­e­sis, do you not? Those num­bers weren’t faked. They may have been es­ti­mated a bit but it was merely an in­ad­ver­tent er­ror. We didn’t have fancy word pro­ces­sors in those days. Any er­ror was sim­ply care­less­ness. I will only ad­mit to slop­pi­ness.”

“Yes, Leonard, you and Er­dos were tight bros.”

“Tight what? I don’t un­der­stand the ar­got of you young id­iots. Young man, frankly, I am a bit per­son­ally hurt by your at­tacks. Er­dos knew I was right. He and I used to take am­phet­a­mines and talk math for days non-stop. It was a tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence. You young peo­ple think you in­vented per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs? You did not. We knew, Paul, we knew that with the cor­rect man­age­ment of an elec­tro­mag­netic field, the ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy that we didn’t have in those days, and, a bit of luck, we could the­o­ret­i­cally tra­verse the quan­tum uni­verses, an in­fini­tude of uni­verses like bub­bles on a string.”

“Er­dos was a math­e­ma­ti­cian, not a physi­cist, he was pure math. Did he even know what string the­ory or quan­tum bub­bles were?”

He went on as if he didn’t even con­sider what I just said. “And how would we man­age that field? All it would take is a Fara­day cage, and some pre­cise mea­sure­ment equip­ment, of the type we sim­ply did not have in my younger days, young man.”

I re­al­ized I had to go to the bath­room but I was naked, and here was Leonard sit­ting on the end of my bed, breath­ing heav­ily the odour of a good old Up­per West Side Jewish break­fast of the kind you ac­tu­ally can’t get on the Up­per West Side any­more. Long Is­land mem­o­ries flooded into me. Most of them were not good. I had fled the ’burbs and the LIRR and the big hair. I wasn’t go­ing back.

Leonard wasn’t go­ing to move, I had to piss. Oh well, I doubted he’d even no­tice my naked­ness and I don’t think he had a sex­ual thought in his life—a true math monk. I jumped up naked and made for the bath­room. “Leonard, I have to pee. I’ll be right back.”

“Of course, young man, I know how I am in­con­ve­nienc­ing you. But let me con­tinue. And how will we en­code the in­for­ma­tion so that the ob­li­gate ran­dom­ness which is in­her­ent in quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment, and that is man­dated by both the­ory and ex­per­i­ment, can be over­come?”

My naked­ness and the fact that I was us­ing the toi­let didn’t seem to faze Leonard. I also knew that Leonard used the toi­let be­cause there was piss all over the seat and on the floor.

“Damn Leonard, can’t you lift up the seat to pee, and aim? I mean, there’s piss all over the floor!”

“I am sorry, young man, but when you are as old as I am the prostate plays cruel jokes on you. You’ll see.”

“You could still clean up af­ter your­self.”

“I will, of course, I will, but let’s talk about for­mu­lae. I know we can solve this.”

“For­mu­las Leonard, ‘for­mu­lae’ sounds ridicu­lous, even sci­en­tists don’t talk like that nowa­days. You don’t call two sta­di­ums ‘sta­dia’ do you?”

“I do, young man, of course I do, what else would you call them?”

I went back to my bed­room to put on cargo pants and a t-shirt, all the while Leonard tail­ing me. I re­solved, or rather I should have re­solved, to kick him out right there. His leg­endary an­noy­ing qual­i­ties weren’t charm­ing any­more. He wasn’t the old ec­cen­tric you tell friends about. This wasn’t Tues­days with Mor­rie, but rather some old for­mer ge­nius rant­ing about time travel and quan­tum in­for­ma­tion signalling and quan­tum tele­por­ta­tion into al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties. The “spooky ac­tion at a dis­tance” Ein­stein couldn’t abide. Yet I knew that in the­ory Leonard’s idea was solid. The math was cor­rect. I was do­ing sim­i­lar re­search my­self.

“Leonard, look, I have to go, you can stay here, but please let me go and do my work. We can talk tonight. I prom­ise.” Leonard de­flated as he al­ways did, his small pot­belly sagged more than it usu­ally did and his white hair seemed to move on its own to flow over his fore­head. I de­flated him but he re­sponded with a quick OK. I started to give him a spare key, but then he stopped me.

“No need, young man; there isn’t a lock in this world that I can’t pick.”

I sighed and left, hop­ing that the apart­ment would still be in some order of clean­li­ness when I re­turned. I didn’t know what Leonard would do all day. It was a week­end. Per­haps walk Cen­tral Park or Morn­ing­side Park look­ing at trees. Or per­haps he played the li­cence plate game where he would walk and walk and only stop when enough outof-state li­cence plates were iden­ti­fied. Leonard had his ob­ses­sions, but when it came to pure sci­ence, he was also ahead of his time. Craig Savel is a web de­vel­oper for a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that does work in the de­vel­op­ing world. He lives in Man­hat­tan.

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