From Traversing Leonard, winner of the 37th Annual International 3-Day Novel Contest, published by Anvil Press in 2015. Register for the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest here.
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 ex-girlfriend’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!”
“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 pot-belly 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 out-of-state licence plates were identified. Leonard had his obsessions, but when it came to pure science, he was also ahead of his time.