THE BIG BANG THEORY: Short Fiction By Raymond J. Steiner

For the past several years, I’ve been venting some of my frustrations in “short-shorts”, little stories that are short on plot but big on my sometimes acerbic take on life. I’ve been calling them “views from my dark side”. Since I haven’t considered them for publication in ART TIMES for our short fiction segment (not fair to the contributors who are vying for space), I thought I’d share them here with my blog fans. Here’s #1: a bit longish for a short-short, but you may find it entertaining nevertheless.

(Author’s Note: My writing of “The Big Bang Theory” was begun on Labor Day Weekend, 2008. Unknown to me at the time was that approximately one week later, on September 9, 2008, The Big Bang Theory would be re-created on a miniature scale by scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research in their Large Haldron Collider (LHC) housed in a seventeen-mile underground tunnel under the Alps along the Swiss/French border. An outcry from some corners of the scientific community was almost immediately raised as to the possibility that such an experiment could cause a “Black Hole” that might swallow our earth. The experiment went on as planned. Final results of the test are expected sometime in 2009…unless some Black Hole unexpectedly upsets the applecart.)

SINCE MOST READERS insist on their main characters — even minor ones, for that matter — having given names (if not always surnames), let’s call him Joseph. In ancient Hebrew the name meant “he who adds” — though, in some circles back in Nazareth, he was somewhat snidely known as “he who was cuckolded” — which, of course, is another matter altogether and has nothing to do with this story — except, perhaps, peripherally.

But we’ll see.

And, since it costs nothing to do so, let’s also give our protagonist (sounds a bit more weighty than “main character”, doesn’t it?) a surname. Jones. Yes, that’s it. Jones.

Hardly any connotations there, I should think. “Joseph Jones” — alliterative, too.

Most of the time, however, we’ll just refer to him as “Joe”. Though not as impressive as ancient Hebrew, we call this shortening of names today the “KISS” method — “Keep It Simple Stupid”.

O.K.? So, Joe it is.

(Omniscient Author Aside: I was going to call this the “Prologue” — but then thought better of it. First of all, it sounds a bit pretentious for a short story. And, second, and probably more important, everything is “prologue”, for God’s sake. Someone is bound to have pointed that out before. I mean, think about it. This very instant is a prologue to whatever follows, isn’t it? By the same token, how many times have you read “The End” after reading a book or watching a movie? You’re still here, right? So let’s dispense with “Prologues” and “The Ends” and get on with the story. In any event, if we — or at least I am not so sure about “Prologues”, you’ll know when you get to “The End” — believe me.)

Let’s begin where things ought to begin — namely, with the title.

Joe Jones first heard about the “Big Bang Theory” almost 50 years ago while in college, in a course on geology and astronomy, the course called, rather aptly by the students, “Rocks and Stars”.

Recently discharged from his second hitch in the Army (there was a three-year break between his active service terms of, respectively, two and three years — more about that break in due time), he had entered college by the good graces of that service to his country.

He was a couple of years short of his thirtieth birthday.

About the same age, actually, as the often-pompous instructor of Rocks and Stars.

“And so”, the professor nasally droned on as he came to the close of his lecture, “That is the ‘Big Bang Theory’.”

Sounded plausible to Joe.

Then the professor added, as if in afterthought, “How anyone can actually believe that the world was created by some huge ‘being’ striding across the planet, leaving behind hills and valleys in the wake of his footsteps, is beyond me. This is, after all, nineteen-sixty-seven!”

Two of Joe’s classmates happened to be nuns and, when the Professor closed his loose-leaf notebook, one of them raised her hand.

“Yes?” the professor intoned toward the woman as he looked over his professorial half-glasses at her.

“How does a ‘theory’ essentially differ from a ‘theology’? Aren’t both the result of a belief system?” She glanced around the class. “I mean, who really knows how it all began?”

That sounded equally plausible to Joe.

Sort of.

He’d come back to the ‘Big Bang Theory’ quite a number of times in the course of his life.

And, of course, that nun’s comment.

(Omniscient Author’s Note: ((Get over it; it’ll continue.)) I’m going to cease placing quotes around the theory…it just becomes a cumbersome chore in the writing of Joe’s story. If it needs special clarification, however, I might from time to time resort to the practice.)

Let it be said upfront, that a reconciliation — to Joe’s lifelong frustration — between the professorial announcement of The Big Bang Theory and the nun’s comment cum question would, however, never come about.

It wasn’t because he hadn’t tried…believe me, he did.

He never took it as a simple “part of a course” kind of thing. The idea of everything starting with some kind of explosion in space (if ‘space’ existed at the time — or even now, for that matter) made a certain amount of sense to Joe…and, as I said, so also did the nun’s opposing query.

And, although he could sympathize with the nun’s consternation, he could more readily picture such a thing as a Big Bang actually happening — as opposed, say, to the Adam and Eve thing.

He did enjoy Michelangelo’s famous near-touch between God and Adam on the Sistine Ceiling, but could never quite get the idea out of his head that God was saying to Adam — in stentorian terms, of course — “Pull My Finger!”

Sounded a lot like a pictorial rendition of the Big Bang Theory to Joe, anyway.

But still — Michelangelo’s stunning talent notwithstanding — not quite a satisfactory reconciliation between the professor and the nun.

In any event, that moment in his Rocks and Stars class was never truly erased from Joe’s memory banks.

In fact, not a great deal of what he had learned in college ever strayed too far from his thoughts. He was, as noted, about ten years older than his fellow students (as were, presumably, the two nuns who, incidentally, shared another class with him, a Media Course that featured on its reading list, of all things, quite a few of the then-current cult comics which, to Joe, were kind of racy — especially Crumb’s work — and he would entertain fantasies as to how those two nuns would read their homework back at the convent by the aid of a flashlight while huddled under the blankets) and took his studies quite seriously. Where five reference texts were required, he would read ten — or more. And though not a note taker — or perhaps because he was not a note taker — he tended to keep a lot in his mind.

Joe’s last year of active service was spent at a Canadian Air Force Base up near the Hudson Bay. He — along with about two-hundred other GI’s  — were there as guests of the Canadian Government and their task involved testing various weapons under arctic conditions (our government was still concerned at the time about Russia using the Bering Straits as an entryway into our space). It was, despite the bleakness of the landscape and the bitter temperatures, not onerous duty, and Joe found plenty of time to visit the well-stocked library during the 365 days he was required to spend there.

The library, for Joe, was a new thing, and he read a lot without really keeping track of what he was reading.

Since this was his second tour of active duty, he found himself (as he did in college) somewhat older than many of his fellow servicemen. Some were college graduates — or at least, had some college under their belts — and it was they who introduced him to the concept of opening books. Serious books.

He had, of course, read comics when he was a kid and, when he had to, whatever textbook was thrust at him in elementary and/or high school. Coming from a home where learning for its own sake did not count for much — learning a trade was what real men did — Joe became a mediocre pupil and, having a certain amount of native intelligence, did just enough to get by without overly dog-earing his schoolbooks. It was probably back then that he fell into the habit of non-note-taking.

Anyway, he pretty much devoured the library at the base, sometimes guided by his educated fellow-soldiers, and sometimes not. His only criterion was to pretty much stay clear of fiction.

It was, clearly, as a result of all this book-opening that Joe decided, upon getting discharged from active duty this time, that he’d go to college.

But first — as promised — a word or two about that three-year break between his terms of active service.

Upon his (first) discharge from the Army, he quickly discovered that he could not go home again. Having never heard of Thomas Wolfe’s book, You Can’t Go Home Again, he thought that his situation was unique.

It wasn’t.

Joe, like most of his fellow GI’s, just had simply grown a bit since leaving home to climb aboard the bus that would take him to Fort Devon, Massachusetts — not intellectually, really, but certainly in experience. It came as a shock to him to learn that his fellow inductees came from homes and cultures that varied considerably from his own…some better, but also some a lot worse.

In any event, different.

So, seeing the world through new eyes, so to speak, as his fellow trainees-in-killing traded stories about home, Joe decided — somewhere along the line — that he did not have to — could not — go back to his parents’ home and simply pick up where he left off.

Leaving his duffle bag at a bus station not too far from Fort Dix from where he was discharged from active duty, he wrapped a few sets of underwear along with a toothbrush in a clean shirt, and set off for the South, figuring that not having to deal with cold weather was at least one thing he would not have to worry about.

From the South, Joe went West, then along the Canadian/American border back East, then back South, then West…and, well, you get the picture.

He went from state to state, job to job (menial ­job to menial job), picking up — well, experience — as he criss-crossed the country over the next three years.

Joe grew wiser — as in “wise guy” — and, at times, a bit reckless in his judgment calls as he traveled on, re-inventing himself as he went along, happily not giving a shit where he went or what he did — or who or what he left behind.

“Can’t you ever be serious?”

“Well, I was serious once…it was sometime back in 1949.” Joe looked up at the ceiling. “Was the worst ten minutes of my life, so I never tried it again.”

“Sheesh!”

He shrugged.

“I mean, really. Can’t we just have a simple conversation over a cup of coffee?”

He gazed into her hazel eyes.

“O.K.” he said. “Have a good day,” and, over his shoulder, “I’ll get this.”

She looked at him in exasperation.

“Sheesh!”

He’s impossible! she thought.

She was pretty, he thought, and shut the café door behind him.

There came a time when Joe realized that his luck would not hold out forever and there was a good chance that he would either wind up in prison somewhere or, perhaps, even dead. And, although he lacked bookish knowledge, he was smart enough to know that enough was enough.

He knew where he could get three meals a day, a roof over his head, and, most important, a re-introduction to discipline.

So, Joe re-enlisted in the U.S. Army and, as noted above, this time discovered the library.

So, when he got to college, compared to many of his fellow students, Joe was well-read — but a somewhat muddled well-read.

Grabbing books willy-nilly from the library while up in the arctic, he came away with such fuzzy notions  — to cite just one instance — as Kant and Plato being contemporaries — they were all “in the now” for him as their works sat there on the shelves, and he never bothered to read introductions and such. Who knew that they lived thousands of years apart?

Joe certainly didn’t.

What college did for him was to put things in chronological order, and what that did was to make him see that it was the evolution of ideas that mattered — that Plato came before Kant, for example — and that had to be true since the mind-set of one necessarily followed the other.

Same with Literature, Science, whatever.

For Joe, college meant things falling into place.

He liked the logic of it all…the steady progression of ideas.

The tricky part was trying to keep track of which ideas mattered and which to let keep falling out of place. The simple truth was, that some people thought “backwards”, duping unwary readers into a retrogression of thought that simply took up time and led, well, nowhere. He quickly learned to ignore them.

What he learned in science classes — like Rocks and Stars, for instance — was that he couldn’t take a whole lot of what he was being told too seriously since, already, today’s scientists were snickering about the howlers made by Copernicus, Newton, and so on. What was the point in keeping this stuff in his head, if twenty or fifty years from now, people would point and say, “Look at the crap they believed back then! Can you imagine?”

So, a certain amount of sorting had to be constantly attended to as he sought his reconciliation between the classroom utterances of the professor and the nun.

The other thing he learned in college — and this was important — was that you had to be really, really careful about making sharp distinctions between books that were labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”.

Oh, yeah…real careful.

His ace-in-the-hole, though, was what he had learned prior to his years in college: namely those easily slipped-in-to-and-out-of personas that he underwent during his years on the road.

He learned to be very, very careful never to take himself too seriously — who knew who he’d be next week, or month, or year?

Because he had no clue — his background was distinctly hard-hat — when they asked him what major he was going to pursue at college, he had to stop and think. All he knew — all he was versed in, he learned to say — was lower-class Brooklyn culture, a series of menial jobs as clerk, laborer and carpet layer, followed by his first (involuntary) military service, his three-year itinerant life with a string of more menial jobs, and then, his second (voluntary) military service, so what did he know about “declaring” a major?

Well, he could draw…he always knew how to draw.

“Art,” he blurted. “I want to be an Art Major.”

“Wow,” Joe would say later in life, “now that was some blunder — a major blunder!”

Two sessions in a studio art class were enough to let him know in no uncertain terms that he knew nothing about making art.

Hell, according to the Professor — a Mondrian aficionado, Joe would later learn — Joe’s skimpy sketchbook of drawings — of trees, of mountains, of brooks — wasn’t “art” at all.

Zhis is art,” his Professor said, as he pressed a piece of paper against a clear pane of glass on which he had squeezed out a few blobs of paint.

“Huh?” was all Joe could muster.

“Id’s how you sqveeze the baint…id’s how you brezz der baber!”

Right.

Joe quietly first moved into Art History — if only to learn about how the past masters went about “sqveezing und brezzing” — and, eventually on into Philosophy and Literature.

Oddly, the Big Bang Theory seemed to happily fit in with whatever courses he took…and, I might add, without any undue “sqveezing” or “brezzing”. In a way, it was comforting to know that something remained in his day-to-day mind-expansion.

In any event, the professor and the nun always found room in his thoughts.

They’d just finished dessert and were sipping white wine from slender-stemmed glasses.

It was a pretty posh restaurant for Joe, but — well, she was pretty nifty, and he was trying to impress her.

They had shared a philosophy class, and Joe had some fancy balancing acts to perform as he tried to concentrate on what was being said in front of the class and stealing glances at her as she sat in a seat to his left. Her honey-colored hair and finely-sculpted features finally got the better of him and he’d asked her out.

He gazed over the rim of his wine glass at the few freckles that adorned her nose.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said with a smile.

“Just mulling over how much José Ortega y Gasset was really influenced by Schopenhauer.”

“Huh?”

He shook his head and waved his hand airily over the still un-cleared dessert dishes.

“You know,” she said, “you think too much.”

“Oh, hey! I told a joke once… it was back in 1949. Hmmm, let’s see if I can get the punch-line right.”

She still was pretty nifty, though.

When Joe left college — with more of a hodge-podge of learning then a real “major” under his belt — he did what most graduates do who have no clue as to what direction to take in life: he taught.

He taught English in Junior and Senior High Schools — where he learned immeasurably more from his pupils than he had ever taught them — and, later, English Composition and Literature at a community college. Other than being a bit larger and older than his 7th through 12th graders, he didn’t find much difference in his college students — the dull ones would forever remain dull and there was no amount of pedanticism that could ever diminish the intelligence of the naturally quick.

The classes he most enjoyed were at both ends of the spectrum — the so-called ‘honors’ and ‘slow-learner’ kids. Those in the middle — called the ‘regents classes’ in the New York State School Systems — were largely unchallenging, obediently doing their homework, reading their assignments, and keeping their thoughts along the proper and prescribed ruts promulgated by our “education” programs.

Most teachers preferred the ‘regents’ kids, probably because not many of them knew the literal meaning of ‘education’ and went the way they were led by college student-teacher courses.

Anyway.

He dated a few colleagues during his tenure as a teacher, but found that they invariably came from the dull side of their own student rolls and quickly dropped that habit.

He brought up the Big Bang Theory in the faculty room one day during lunch one time.

Big mistake.

“I had a “big bang” once, said a fellow teacher. “She must have weighed three-hundred pounds!”

Haw, haws, all around.

It wasn’t that Joe was a prude — far from it. But this was a science teacher and Joe was really looking for information.

But then, he should have known. The same science teacher once asked him how come he was growing a beard.

Joe looked at him.

“How come?”

The science teacher looked at him.

“You’re a science teacher, and you ask me ‘how come I grow a beard’?”

“And?”

Joe stared at him. “How do you imagine I do that? Sit around, hold my breath, and squeeze my face outward?”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Well, I don’t grow a beard on purpose! It just comes. As a science teacher it seems you ought to know that. You ought to be asking me how come I don’t shave, you lunkhead!”

“Jeez. English teachers!”

If only to counteract whatever bad influences they might have been experiencing from their science teachers, Joe once asked his ninth-grade honors class if any present would like to go aboard one of NASA’s spaceships, to travel in space.

Most of the boys eagerly responded with a resounding “Yes!”

Not all of them, of course — some were a little hesitant to sign right up on the dotted line. Or, perhaps they were just a bit wary of the question, having gotten used to Joe’s often “off-the-wall” class openings.

When the noise settled down, he then asked them what they thought they were doing right at that moment.

Rows of questioning eyes met his gaze as it swept over the classroom.

“Don’t you realize that we’re traveling through space right now?” he asked.

A chorus of “What do you mean?”

“Well, the earth is moving, right? Spinning and turning on its axis as it travels around the sun. And the sun is moving right? On its own path through space…right?”

Silence.

“So, here we are, right now, sailing through space that we’ve never been in before.”

Silence.

“So, our planet here is really just a great, big spaceship, isn’t it?”

Murmurings.

“O.K. astronauts. Let’s get on with today’s lesson. I want about a one-hundred-fifty-word composition on…”

Groan.

It took a while, but he eventually came to see that he was fitting right in to the “dull” thing himself.

His constant thoughts about the Big Bang Theory, however, saved him from perpetrating further damage to his charges and, though it came back to bite him in the ass in the form of a diminished pension in later years, he was pleased with himself when, after fifteen years, he quit the Public School System in mid-year.

When he left teaching, he did what most failed English teachers do: he decided to become a writer.

But, now’s a good time to talk a little about The Big Bang Theory.  I’ll set it forth in its simplest terms since, as I said, much of what passes for science today — i.e. “truth”, “fact”, “reality” — is eventually pooh-poohed by later, presumably more savvy scientists. So we’ll leave out whatever flourishes have been added to the original concept.

Note, please, that I said, “talk a little about” The Big Bang Theory. I say that because, although fairly simple in the saying, the knotty part is the “why”…but then, isn’t that always the case with important things? So why, or how, or when The Big Bang Theory began is still pretty much up for grabs.

What is theorized is this: an initial point in space gathered together (remember, don’t ask why, how, or when) and compressed into a critical mass with enough energy to cause it to explode, sending it out in all directions. As bits of energy traveled through space (whatever that is) and put distance between themselves and their source, they slowed, transformed, and congealed into lumps of stuff — called “matter” by the cognoscenti because it sounded better than “stuff” — first miniscule lumps (“molecules”, “photons”, “electrons”, “neutrons”, “protons”, “particles”, etc. for you science majors, and “bits”, “pieces’, “globules”, “jots”, “iotas”, “specks” and whatever for the rest of us), then merging into larger and larger chunks — even unto bulky planets like Jupiter.

Along with all this moving about — or, at least, out — there exists here and there “Black Holes” into which some of that energy/matter falls into and disappears. More on that coming up.

Somewhere, sometime, during the course of projection through space, slowing down, and making “something” of itself, some of that energy became us.

            (Aside: What we’ve managed to do with “us” is a long and often sad story — too long and too sad to go into at this time.)

Now to many, this rendition of how the Universe started is a bit sterile, a bit devoid of — well — a sentient touch. But then, bits of stuff called “humans” came on the scene a little late to start claiming some kind of seniority and first-hand knowledge…and Joe Jones felt, that on the whole, it was a fairly objective take on the whole thing.

Sure, he could see the nun’s point…but then her take had been pretty much larded over by explanations that sounded a lot like human invention. Some of it, in fact, a little too inventive, like walking on water, rising from the dead, magical healings, changing wine into water — you know, stuff like that.

Joe could see where the nun’s beliefs could be comforting, of course.

I mean, who wants to see him/herself as a random piece of slowed down energy making its way through space? Or falling into Black Holes?

Joe certainly didn’t want to. After all, he was just as human as the nun.

Consequently, as he hurtled — well, strolled or meandered, maybe — through his particular bit of “space” (still, whatever that is), he spent a good part of his life trying to reconcile the two views.

Especially after he found that, so far, he was pretty much striking out in the male/female thing, and as a true “major” of anything, and as a teacher, and, well, in just about everything he turned his hand to. Not that he did things badly — just that however he was doing whatever he was doing, was just not “his thing” — as his students used to put it. Going through the motions just didn’t seem like a purposeful life (as the nun might put it) to Joe.

Writing, then, seemed just the thing…and, from the outside anyway, he could look busy as he sat with his fingers poised over the keys of his typewriter, staring out the window, and “reconciling” things.

The trouble was, Joseph Jones had already been hurtling — (oh, right; meandering, strolling — through — oh, shit! — what is this stuff, anyway? God, how I hate this word “space” — Omniscient Author intruding here…again) — for a little over fifty years now and, as any Literary Pundit can tell you, a little late to begin a career as a writer.

Well, maybe not — as the girls might put it — a writer writer. Joe Jones never figured to become, like, a famous novelist or anything. Who’d read a book written by someone named “Joe Jones” — even knowing, perhaps, that “Joseph” meant “he who adds” — or “was cuckolded” — or whatever? Even “Joseph Jones” sounds a bit lightweight, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Joe envisioned himself as more of an essayist than as a novelist. Essayists could noodle around ideas and stuff…state opinions, for instance, and then glibly defend them through fancy word-smithing.

Geez…his head was always full of words and stuff. Why not write about them?

If only to get rid of them…

Like for example:

•Why was Aristotle so sure that Plato was wrong when he leaned toward mysticism? Was he around when The Big Bang started? Wasn’t he as much at sea as Job was? (Or was it Jonah who was at sea?)

•What in hell did Kant mean by “pure” reason?

•Why did Schopenhauer put women, cows and Christians in the same category? (What did he have against cows?)

•How close to the truth was José Ortega y Gasset when he said that we were all “shipwrecked” at birth?

•Would anyone ever really come up with a good definition of “art”?

•Do we care that Heraclitus could never manage to step into the same river again?

•Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son and then, at the last minute, say, “Hey, hold on a sec. I didn’t mean to (as the girls might say) kill, kill him. I just wanted to see if — heh, heh — you really, really, loved Me.”?

•Was Thales given enough credit for being the first philosopher when he stated, “All things are water”?

•And, speaking of water, how come it’s made up of hydrogen and oxygen,

two of the most flammable (or is it inflammable) elements on the planet?

•Are dreams actually a form of wish fulfillment? (Yikes!)

•If Nietzsche claimed that God was dead, does this mean that he thought that He once lived?

•If Nietzsche was full of scheiss and God is still around, Can He create a rock big enough that He can’t lift it?

•Why is it so uncomfortable to read Johann Gottfried Herder when he points out that about 99% of what we know is “second hand” knowledge?

•Was Otto Rank correct when he called pre-historic artists spiritual seekers?

•On a more mundane level, how come so many liberal Democrats live like Republicans and then cheat on their taxes so as to avoid ponying up when it comes time to pay the piper for all that stuff they claim we all need?

•And so on and so forth…

Of more immediate concern to Joe was what he was doing here and just why and how and when his own personal little clump of energy was going to peter out. Hence, his continuing predilection to continue opening books ever since his college days.

He’d read, or read about — if not always understood — all of the above, and then some, hoping to find some way of making sense of The Big Bang Theory — at least insofar as it affected him.

So why not try his hand at writing essays — if only to make up for his not taking notes for all those years of reading and studying?

Although Joe did have a smattering of religious upbringing as a child, he usually credited the nun in his Rocks and Stars class with sending him down a long and twisty path through a number of different belief systems along the way. Books about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam (and other more esoteric faiths) were sporadically interspersed with books on philosophy, physics, art, ancient history, and gardening. He didn’t much care about architecture, science fiction (there was enough of that in the so-called real stuff), politics, psychology/psychotherapy, and sports. In fact, he hated the latter three with some passion.

Politics was too oily, too slippery, for serious thought-grappling, while studies of the psyche interesting, but in the end, a bit airy-fairy. As a teacher, he had to take psychology courses and was always a bit annoyed (and suspicious) that the first chapters of such “psych” texts always tried to pitch themselves as a “science”…whereas anyone living on this planet for more than a few years knew that we still couldn’t even predict the weather, which was infinitely less complex to figure out than what made up a human mind. As for the “therapy” end of it, he had strong feelings that most therapists were themselves identity-sufferers, hanging out shingles in the hopes of finding company to share the misery they wallowed in. Perhaps it was just the fact that he’d spent so much of his life in trying to understand himself — especially vis-à-vis his untangling of the conundrum concerning The Professor and the Nun — (Omniscient Author Again: I like that. “The Professor and the Nun.” Sounds like something from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) — that he was unwilling to dump the problem on some stranger that did not — that could not — trace his trajectory through life.

Which leaves sports — and that’s what Joe always said: “Leave it” — since, as far as he was concerned, “Sports” — with a capital “S” — had no legitimate business taking up room in a mature mind.

Joe was smart enough to know that, on all three counts, he was stereotyping; he was also smart enough to know that all stereotypes, no matter the distortions, had deep roots in truth.

In any event, he carried little guilt over harboring those particular stereotypes.

He met her at the entrance of an espresso café where he could sit in a corner, nurse a cappuccino, and scribble away in his notebook without being overly bothered by either waitresses or other patrons.

She smells nice. Like cinnamon and oranges.

“You first,” he said, as he opened the door.

“Thank you.”

He smiled and took note of the way her black turtleneck sweater filled out in front.

The upshot was that they decided to sit together.

Things were going swimmingly as they slowly sipped their cappuccinos.

He noted how gracefully she held her knees together, hidden under a long plaid skirt that came to the middle of her calf-high boots.

Then: “Well, obviously you’d been abused there.”

He’d just shared with her the fact that he had no distinct memories of the inside of his home…not the living room, the dining room (if they even had one), the kitchen — not even his own bedroom.

“I find it odd,” Joe had said. “I mean, I lived there until I was twelve years old.”

That’s when she delivered the line above.

He looked at her. “Abused?”

“Of course! Why else would you block out your memories of your home?”

He shrugged. “Because I have a bad memory?”

“Come on! Get real!” She twirled her plastic mixer delicately. “It’s not so unusual, you know. All of us have bad memories of one kind or another.”

“I remember a good memory…it was when I was about five or so…”

She smelled nice, though. Kind of spicy, like.

He wondered if Aristotle, Plato, Kant, or Schopenhauer could remember their early bedrooms.

(Since Heraclitus couldn’t re-locate that stream, he wouldn’t even entertain that notion.)

Joe wasn’t really sure why he thought that it was the nun who sent him down the various religious paths, but he was pretty sure — at least, at first — it was because of the “Black Hole” thing. Along with The Big Bang Theory came a rider that posited the possibility of something called a Black Hole (note, I’ve already dropped the quotes) into which, at times — who knew when, where, or how — matter might be swallowed up and disappear.

Disappear?

Not that this necessarily bothered Joe — it was just that the idea of nothingness left him — well — kind of empty.

Of course, the nun had her own version of a black hole — and hers had the added attraction of fire.

But was fire really a better alternative to nothing?

As the years went by, however, the Black Hole part of The Big Bang concept far outweighed whatever alternative any of the religions seem to offer if only because it didn’t seem to have any pain or suffering attached to it.

I mean, a Black Hole would accept you whether you were good or bad.

Didn’t matter.

What is there about emptiness, nothingness, or non-being, anyway that is so distasteful to the sensitivity of most? Joe certainly had no desire to experience a horrible death, to die of something long, drawn-out and painful, something too abhorrent for others to have to witness.

But is not-being a horror? Some Frenchman long ago referred to the concept of nothingness as la grandeur du rien.

Could it, in fact, be something grand? (Or was Joe perhaps giving the French a bit too much credence here?)

Whatever.

Besides, there was a distinct possibility — according to some scientists — that falling into a Black Hole might mean that — because all that stuff was being changed back into energy and — here’s the kicker — was being compressed when it reached the bottom — or the end — or whatever you called the other side of a Black Hole — which sounded pretty much like the beginning of another Big Bang and some serious re-cycling of matter — us, incidentally, along with everything else.

So, falling into a Black Hole didn’t necessarily mean — as you-know-who might say — empty empty.

And, who knew? It could be a good thing with all that “sqveezing und brezzing” going on as the Black Hole was being crammed full, right?

I mean, not everybody saw pressure as a bad thing.

Sara Robbins, for example, once wrote about how such pressure could be bracing — at least for some — in her book of poetry, “Crushed for Better Wine”.

And, Joe certainly knew a few who could stand to gain by a little deflation, if not downright compression.

For a while there, art — and especially artists — took up a good part of his time after he left teaching, and that, because he had an inkling that art and artists might hold some clue concerning his search for — well, for meaning. At least in his own trajectory through spa… — through life.

If Otto Rank was right, and the early image-makers were some kind of Ur-priests, then perhaps they had an inside track into the mystery of beginnings — especially since they were working at it before language was invented and the various “Wise Men” began their embroidery sessions while sitting around campfires.

Art, after all, was — is — a language (like music) and Joe felt that perhaps if he could only learn to “read” it, then he might make some headway into reconciling the Professor and the Nun.

So Joe, somewhat of a pilgrim himself, turned his attention — and his writing — to art and artists, sometimes reviewing or critiquing exhibitions and sometimes profiling living artists.

He made a small income in critiquing/reviewing/profiling for a number of publications, eventually even flying in the face of his Art Professor’s admonition that what he was doing wasn’t “Art” and — dare we say it — doing some of his own painting along the way — you know, just for the hell of it.

Joe never really took his painting seriously — he painted “pictures” rather than “paintings” — and always secretly admitted to himself that “Herr Brofezzor” was probably right on the money. What he did, no matter how you sliced it, wasn’t “Art”, and he knew this in his heart of hearts because, no matter what he painted, none of it ever brought him one iota closer to solving his dilemma of reconciliation. In fact, like a good deal of his writing, it was merely another way of expressing his frustration at finding answers.

More about “answers” directly.

He’d already noticed her when, to his surprise, she seemed to be coming his way.

He was at an art opening and, as she approached, he pretended being absorbed in the swirl of colors smeared over the canvas hanging in front of him.

“Hi,” she said.

He pulled his eyes — now only three or four inches from the surface of the canvas — away and faced her, trying to appear lost in thought.

“Oh…hello.”

He liked the shape of her ears.

“So, are you satisfied with the conventions so far?” she asked.

“Uh…what ‘conventions’ are we talking about?”

“The Democratic — the Republican!” She rolled her eyes. “Duh!”

“Oh, them.” He rolled his eyes. “I haven’t been following them.”

“So how are you going to know how to vote?”

“Er…vote?”

Big eye roll, this time. “Don’t you vote?”

Joe shrugged and turned back to the painting — which, as far as he could see, persisted in remaining just a swirl of colors.

She stood her ground.

He turned to face her again. “I did vote once…sometime back in…”

But she’d already stomped off across the room.

            Nice ears, though.

So, now we move on to answers.

Joe learned — way too late in life — that it was not the answers they gave, but rather the questions they asked that determined a person’s intelligence.

He grew wary of confident people — and particularly, now that so much of his attention was drawn (no pun intended) to it, wary of confident artists, for it was they, who among all peoples who ought not, could so seductively lead you astray, who could lead you into blind alleys, stony cliff-faces and bottomless oceans…albeit pretty alleys, cliff-faces, and oceans.

If The Big Bang Theory told Joe anything, it was that answers did not lie in the latest work of art. Out of the scores of artists he’d met, he could count on one hand those who were true artists, those who did not point at their latest creations but at their continuing struggle. Their energies, they knew, were still in trajectory, still moving towards an end that they could not envision. They knew that all works of art were but mere way-stations, temporary stop-overs, simple interludes, in an as yet not finished symphony of Big — and now — Little Bangs. A never-ending series of little bangs. Pops. Whispers. Even a few whimpers.

There were days —many days — that Joe felt his mind was itself a Black Hole. A Black Hole into which his thoughts, his learning, his writings — all that made up his inner world — were falling, falling, being “sqveezed und brezzed” into smaller and smaller bits of compressed energy.

And, let it be baldly stated right here that, from time to time, Joe had even entertained the idea of initiating his own rendition of a Big Bang — in the form of a gun to his head…but what would that result in but just one more piece of energy hurtling into nothingness?

A tiny echo of the real thing.

A ricocheting footnote to what was already an aimless path through time.

Creating his own Black Hole through his cranium — though it strongly appealed to him at times — flew in the face of everything he’d done, every hour he’d spent reading, learning, unlearning — everything.

As an answer, it would only engender more questions…and not even good questions at that.

As a work of art, it would hardly be original.

The bigger picture eventually began dawning on Joe.

Writing was no surer way of reconciling his professor and nun than any other. In looking back at his words, he found them as insubstantial as any other work of art he had so far encountered.

“His words”. His indeed. Most of the time they came unbidden, coming when they wanted to come, demanding to come whether he willed them or not.

Words, when you came right down to it, were just one more form of congealed energy on their way to — who knew where?

And when they did not — would not — come, he felt exactly what it was like to be in a Black Hole.

If he could point the finger at false artists, he could now point it at false writers as well — whether they be poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, preachers, politicians — all words were, at bottom, empty sounds signifying nothing.

And whether that bit of energy congealed as a planet, a mountain range, an elephant, a human being, a gnat — or a work of art — that’s all that it was: a congealed bit of energy that still held on to the secret of its origin.

He noticed her standing at the buffet table, quietly talking with another woman. Her profile, classically formed, was near-perfect. Her gray-streaked hair was pulled back in a pony tail that trailed down over her back.

“Who is that?” Joe asked an acquaintance.

“Oh, her? That’s Janet — Janet McClain. I think she’s a poet.”

He slowly made his way toward her, casually lifting a glass of white wine from the tray of a roving waiter, stopping a few feet from her to carefully choose a cheese-covered cracker.

He turned to her and brought his eyebrows together.

“Aren’t you Janet McClain? The poet?”

“Yes,” she said, then turned away and moved across the room.

There were times, when quietly slipping over into a Black Hole — self-made or not — seemed very, very tempting indeed to Joseph Jones.

I mean, how much more reconciled can you get than being all lumped into one compressed ball of energy?

Who knows? Maybe on the other end he would be “sqveezed und brezzed” into a bottle of fine vintage wine next time?

Now that would be a work of art!

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