Spruce Hill, Philadelphia | June, 2000
That Saturday afternoon at the convention center was enough to knock us out of our usual orbit and send us off to smoke our own stashes in private. No more Stoner Paradise adventures. This isn’t anything new, but it usually happens during the school year when academia presses down on Marcus like invisible furniture. I don’t know. Something changed in him that day. He became surlier than even I sometimes get, which is saying something. I decide to hang back and let him come around, which he does, and it’s nasty.
It’s the Monday after the expo. I’m coming home from work, sad that I hoped he wouldn’t be there. But no, there he is, sitting at the ginormous oak table in the dining room as always, head down, lost in the muffled daylight.
“You have a message. It’s in the kitchen. Who’s Mandy?”
The place is a fucking mess. His fault, mostly. The grad student is like an indoor cat, even in the summer: motionless for hours at a time, falling asleep in passing sunbeams, barely registering your presence. I negotiate a path through the piles of clothes and empty junk food packages to the kitchen and find the note: Mandy, Mandy’s number. (I already have it from her business card.) Was I going to go to the book club meeting? Tonight? And the address. Yeah, probably. I’m probably going to go. I finished Van Zorn’s book last night and really need someone to talk to about it. So, good timing.
“Who’s Mandy?” Marcus asks again as I make for my bedroom.
I sigh and turn around.
He turns in his chair to face me. Has some serious rings around his eyes. “Since when do you belong to a book club?” The question does not come from a place of curiosity.
“Since your mom.”
“Fine. Have it your way.”
He turns back to his pile of notes. I usher the professor into my bedroom, much merping and circling at my socked feet.
I stop just as I’m closing my bedroom door.
“Are you reading. For the book club.”
“Uh, this one.” I grab it from my nightstand and bring it out to the dining room.
For reasons I don’t understand I’m embarrassed, like he has a right to laugh at something that’s deeply important to me. It’s mine, a private thing. The name sounds weird coming out of someone else’s mouth.
“Thucydides Was Wrong: A Treatise on Hyper-Dimensional Gods by Ford Van Zorn. You get this at the thing? The conference?”
He slaps it shut with one hand, flips it over, and does a bounce of quiet laughter.
“Never mind.” I grab it and storm back to my room.
I read the first two hundred pages the day I bought it, stoned and in bed, Professor Waffles purring madly and twisted around my ankles. There it was, pretty much every crazy thought that I’d ever had in my whole life, but was too afraid to say out loud. Right there in that book, e.g., why is it impossible for the human mind to comprehend infinity? Why do people insist that time travel would lead to paradoxes, when the obvious solution is to admit a forest of ever-forking timelines? Why do we believe that nature wouldn’t work without man-like gods running it? Why don’t we seem to care about the philosophical and societal consequences of the more profound and baffling aspects of mathematics and theoretical physics? Why do we continually assume that alien life—were it ever to visit us—would look anything like us, or think like us, or even be able to see us? Who’s to say they’d even live in three-dimensional space, or be the same size, or communicate on the same frequencies, or breathe air of any kind? Isn’t the Big Bang just a really big black hole? Is it just a regular black hole on the other side, one of billions, in some alternate universe? Is every black hole in our universe a big bang for someone else? And so on.
This is the kind of crap Marcus won’t take seriously, probably because it only comes up when we’re high, and he gives me the look. Oh, Balero.
He’s still yammering on, even though I’m fully in my bedroom with the door closed.
“No, I mean good for you. For getting involved in something. Even if it is a little whacked out.”
I shoot out of my bedroom like a bullet from a gun.
“What are you working on right now?” I ask.
“What? Some shit for my advisor. Housekeeping mostly, some…”
“No, on your off time. What are you writing?”
He looks down.
“Oh. Uh, a piece for Out There.”
That stupid fucking zine.
“What on?” I ask again.
“The fuck do you care?”
“A piece on ah… on Kenneth Arnold. Why?”
“Right. And who’s that?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s a… Look, I know what you’re trying to say, and I can see that you’re angry. Fine. You’re saying the shit I’m into is just as weird as the shit you’re into. I was just talking. I didn’t mean anything by it. Well, kind of I did. The writer, is this the guy you saw speak at the thing, the Dutch guy?” An eyebrow poke at the word Dutch.
“OK.” I turn around and slam my bedroom door, sending Professor Waffles flying under the bed. Two seconds later Marcus is at my door.
“I’m sorry, Balero. It’s just that… You have so much fucking potential. You’re one of the smartest people I know, actually.”
I load a bowl and fire up some Bowie on the CD Walkman.
“Cool. Fuck off, please. Thank you.”
I can still hear his muffled voice over the opening notes of The Width Of A Circle.
“I just don’t want to see you get caught up with an obvious moron like Van Zorn. He’s a showman, a snake oil salesman. You see that. That isn’t even a real Dutch name!”
I don’t hear the rest of what he says.