Traversing Leonard

CRAIG SAVEL

From Traversing Leonard, winner of the 37th Annual International 3-Day Novel Contest, published by Anvil Press in 215. 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!”

“I’m not.”

“Young man, you know I have an Erdos number of 1. You know that I birthed the quantum many-worlds hypo

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