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Six months ago a friend of mine and I left doctoral programs in chemistry under certain different circumstances. Tom, a true scientist, got a letter at Oak Ridge, where he was finishing up his degree, informing him he had a job for the taking in Alabama—a high-level, nuclear police-chaperon affair, to judge from what he gleefully told me. I, scientist by default, by process of elimination, got a letter from my girlfriend in Norway letting me know in the subtlest, happiest way imaginable that I would not be joining her there as we had planned upon completion of my degree. When you are told that your fiancée, a promising post-doc to an internationally famous crystallographer expatriated from Brooklyn, finds that sagacious mentor "a cute little guy (only five three!)" who "eats eggs on his hamburgers!"—you can read all the handwriting on the wall you ever need to read. I called her up, twice (once, as the rhyme puts it, for the money—$300; and once for the show—a considerable theater of her releasing, in a two-hour transatlantic tear burst, from the gunny sack of our entire six years off-and-on together, every crime of impassion I committed, and these transgressions I admit were endless, ranging from birthdays forgotten to old lovers not forgotten), and got a picture, as you can only on a telephone costing you a month's stipend, of her veritable sainthood for having put up for so long with the entire sham she convinced me I was, and was certain, as I reluctantly hung up the second time, that I had lost the finest, purest girl ever there would be for me. The starch in my doctorate will, which had not been much to begin with, vanished.
I trudged around the lab more bowlegged or splayfooted toward purpose than usual for about two weeks, when I got a card from Tom in Alabama. Tom is the sort of natural scientist who can learn, say, Schrödinger, while penciling Walt Disney characters in the margins and filling their balloons with the integrals and derivatives required on the following day's examination, and the first thing I saw on the card was a Goofyesque figure clearly representing Tom holding a Geiger counter to the rear end of an armadillo. Around the card this same figure pursued armadillos in odd attitudes and circumstances.
With a magnifying glass—Tom can put, he claims, four thousand words on a postcard—I made out this:
Remember Elaine? (Good girl.) I married her. Sold tent. Sold Mustang. It was a good car. Goofytom is doing what he does. Did you know armadillo feces register most accurately low-level hot traces around reactors? Me neither. P.U. Have my own desk. Partially stuffed mouse in drawer, lower left. Story behind that. Cotton sticking from his eyes makes him look like a ghoul mouse.
A badge and some ID papers have been found belonging to a certain ... no! yes! ... Fenster Ludge. Colleagues plenty Silkwood-worried.
The ghoul mouse refers obliquely to one of our maturer pastimes together before he moved to Oak Ridge (I stayed in Knoxville). We shot rats in our apartments with his slingshot. They (the apartments) were owned by the same notorious slumlord, and we found this competitive exercise preferable to registering formal complaints about the infestation. Neither of us wanted the rents to go up, either—Tom for true want and I for false (I was, still am, for that matter, abjuring some more or less family money, of which I am supposed to lay claim to plenty, but that is a longer story). The tent he mentions is one of two army field hospitals we bought for twenty dollars apiece and wadded cumbrously into our respective rat squats, providing thereby our rats with rich, paraffiny tunnels to hide in and our firing ranges with good, solid, gratifying backstops. It was almost as good to get a loud canvas pop as it was to get a rat.
Tom created Fenster Ludge when he discovered that one carrel in a suite of eight was empty. He made out a nameplate for the empty space, provided Fenster with some of his own books and supplies, and then began to ask his six new colleagues in the suite if anyone had seen "this Fenster Ludge guy." No one had. I caught Tom unable to contain a giggle one day during a discussion of the Fenster Ludge guy, why no one had seen him, etc. Someone finally claimed to have spotted a fellow fitting the presumed description of a man who might be called Fenster Ludge. And now he has taken Fenster to the sinister zones of nuclear cover-ups.
This card brought me somehow full circle to the Norway letter of two weeks before, and without feeling too bad about that per se (I don't think), I did feel bad, wasted. I sat for a bit and then did a significant thing without needing to analyze its merits, without needing to run the customary assay upon its advisability and consequences, short term and long, and self-actualization costs. I quit chemistry. I put Tom's card down on a heavy slate table and walked into Dr. Friedeman's office and said, I quit. Doctoral resignation is not standardly done—I have seen men thrown from offices, one nearly hurled from a balcony—but Friedeman took it like the godly sufferer that he is.
"Son," he said, standing up and taking me by the shoulder, "when the fire for inorgany that is in your heart reignites, come back. There'll be a place in the sun for you." I chuckled at this, and Friedeman did, too. We shook hands.
Friedeman was a card, and probably the one good scientist in the country with sufficient crazed grace to accept for long a dilettante like me. He was, on the side, a lay Baptist preacher, all disappointment to him a designed trial from God, so in a way I could hardly have presumed to have disappointed him. Try as I did, I could not imagine him delivering low religion, for his science is virtually high Anglican if not Catholic in its reach and style. He was capable of saying, "We know full well in our hearts that this bond is not less than three angstroms," and this faith could well be responsible for three years of failing, dogged experimentation to prove the improbable. For proving the improbable, and for thereby discovering the unknown, he is regarded a dean of inorganic chemistry the world over, yet he walks around his lab blessing beakers known to have contained winning results, pocketing lucky magnetic stir bars.
We shook hands, and I almost doubted myself, but kept going, kept quitting, quit. I walked out into the bright afternoon feeling truly released, as if out of the army or prison, and felt this relief most oddly for not having known before it any real oppression. I do not yet know the components of the feeling, a kind of deep-breath, first-of-spring freshness.
I met two women in the Smokies one night who told me they had been elementary-school teachers and quit, secretaries and quit, and presently they were stewardesses and thinking of quitting that. I remarked that they seemed to do a bit of quitting and one of them snapped, "You have to start before you can quit." I stood there on the bright catwalk wondering what I'd started, and why, and why I felt so very frisky.
What I'd started, as near as I can tell now, is a kind of fit of starts governed by nothing except a distaste for plans. For a casual, relaxed fellow with, as I have confessed, a bit of money in the closet, I suddenly came to realize I had a network of plans about me as stifling as the web of ambition any good young law student or medical student has, and I completely did not recognize the need for it. This money: no big deal; the old man would like for his drilling-supply business to remain in the family and that is me and that is about a two-million-dollar net thing and it had not particularly appealed to me yet. I had been occupied, I suppose, with a kind of disguised rich boy's finding himself before assuming the obligation of the family fortune, and I had been doing it as correctly, I thought, as I could (that is, by not using any of the money, by doing nothing to endanger its source, by "applying" myself in some uphill and admirable endeavor the meanwhile, if science still can be said to be uphill and admirable). It must have occurred to me during the transatlantic jilt and upon discovering Tom's little predicament that I was doing not much really at all in the way of finding myself, which phrase I do not relish; and I was not doing much, anything, in the way of having fun. Rich boys ignoring their money ought to have fun.
So what I started that day was apparently a series of impulses which qualified for my interest if I could detect no point in them at all. I got a job sewing giant tents, learned to box, moved in with a woman who's a sometime amateur actress.
My training in science was not wasted: I can smell plans where there are none and so avoid them. In any good lab you look down about a two-year tunnel of programmed proving every rare day that you could possibly be said to begin anything, and even the chance that you will not prove what you hope to prove is planned for, accommodatable by an existing plan for happy accidents. And my training supplies me this: I sit every morning now recording these planless times, taking these notes with a near-Ph.D.'s mechanical care. I have a last blue-gridded notebook and I sit at a wire- mesh patio table and try to effect some shape, some contour, from these raw data of the wasty wonderful days since I quit. I quit the tent sewing and the boxing. I started the actress-living-with. I quit my room—gave away everything in it. I started these notes.CHAPTER 2
Before I got to this major starting and quitting I did some warm-up starting and quitting. I started going to revivals and quit, I started to seduce the Orphan and quit, I talked for the very last time to the Veteran, during which time I decided to quit making fun of him. I did all this the night after quitting Friedeman, and some of it is not inexplicable. The data point of the spontaneous taking in of a tent revival, for example, has to do with getting home and breathing the waxy air of my field hospital and wondering about Friedeman's preaching, and seeing my cute deco dimestore-framed portrait of Miss Dr. Eminence in Love with Polanski looking sexier and smarter and righter than ever, and needing something to do other than make a third phone call. Before I could get going to the revival, the Veteran started yelling at his dead nigger.
He was stomping around hard in his steel-soled jungle boots, presumably trying to shake the dead nigger out of hiding. This was customary. As was not customary, I went over to have a look. I usually waited until he came to my room (next to his) to ask me if I'd seen the dead nigger.
Before I could knock, he jerked open his door.
"What!" he said.
"I'm here to help you catch him."
"You've been in my house?"
"No, man. No way, man. I've been listening." This was a somewhat standard exchange for us, a kind of password ritual.
"Catch who, then?" (This was also: my answer would help corroborate the existence of the prowling dead nigger.)
"The dead nigger."
"Dead nigger is right," he shouted, turning and marching into his room, gesturing wildly, his arms swinging with violence and surrender at once. "Every time I leave, dead fucking nigger pisses all over the place."
Under his open window was a puddle. It was water, rainwater, but it would not do to tell the Veteran this.
"The sonofabitch," I said, pulling a long face at the puddle. I overdid it—a hair too much sympathy tended to alienate him from its source. He became suspicious. There was nothing to do for it now.
"Does the radio bother you?" His clock radio was on, low.
"I'll turn it fucking off, then." He landed on his bed on his knees and violently twisted the radio off. I'd been in a few of these minuets with him before and had discovered it a mistake to change course. To tell him now that it had been noisy as hell and to thank him would deepen the suspicion and send him on a new, uncharted rant. Once he asked me how I liked his mother.
"The radio was fine," I said.
"If it bothers you, just speak up! Say something!"
We both pondered the puddle.
Standing there, having quit over at school, for the first time I was willing to try to understand this madman, to find out what had happened. Before, I had been willing only to play with him in the interest of an amateur knowledge of what I presumed was paranoia. It is funny how a little uncertainty, a little petty love-and-life dislocation like mine, can give you pause, tune you quickly to the genuine losses around you.
I knew enough not to ask anything remotely like what happened. All I could do was stand there and regard the puddle with him. He was calming down. I noticed I had not come with my hunting knife, which I always did—fully drawn and kept between the Veteran and myself to not the least distress on the part of the Veteran. I was talking to the Veteran unarmed.
I wondered how I'd look with something like a little true mileage on me. I noticed for the first time what the Veteran really looked like: he was handsome. You couldn't tell how many times his odometer might already have been around. He was not quite a bright, careful boy.
There was finally a bit of powerful logic in this dead-fucking-nigger thing, too. The rooms—all of them—did smell like piss, and the smell did seem to strengthen when you were away, and the Veteran's puddle was perpetual, whereas my window, always open, never seemed to take in rain. And the Veteran had absolutely nothing in his room to steal except his cheap clock radio, which is the perfect inspiration for a petty thief to foul things. Standing there with him, I thought finally that his truest touch was in believing his tormentor dead: I half thought there might be something to it all whenever he said dead.
The only sense this makes is to see the scene and its effect on me as what we call an energy of activation in the long series of planless, purposeless goings-on that followed. I have been occupied since all the quitting began with people who are anything but custodians of their chances in life.
I am determined to draw a curve through these plotless days which will make order of them, to force a spline accurately down along the roller coaster of nonsense I started riding when I left the lab. A giant component of the reaction series I can hazard now (living with Mary, and having so splendid a time I wonder where I was but here all my life) has to do with women, with what my real relation to them is and is to be. For surely Miss Dr. Eminence in Love with Polanski was right. I was wrong for her, I was wrong to her, I was wrong with her. And I have a few suspicions that the wrongness is something not simply personal between me and her. I have some reservations about—I shall hazard a very early hypothesis, as only a false scientist would—young women in general, about this whole teasing setup. Which setup I needn't attempt to describe yet. What happened next falls precisely upon the curve of this function I would describe.CHAPTER 3
I quit the Veteran and his room. In the hall I ran into the Nurse, as I called her then. I call her the Orphan now, for what was about to go down. The Veteran was yelling something at the dead nigger. "Y'all find him?" she asked.
"He's tricky, I bet."
Ordinarily I would have complied with some eye rolling and offered to tell her some Veteran stories, but having gone and got righteous, having gone in there unarmed, half looking for the dead nigger myself, I failed to respond. This was timing: for months I had stumbled around in this hall trying to locate a natural opener with this woman, whose full head of red hair suggested to me electric sex. We had passed, nodded, paused, resumed, slipped into respective rat ranges across the hall from one another a hundred times. Now we were talking, and I was not going to talk. She rested a load of books on her hip and said, "You want a beer?"
I followed her in. She went out of sight and came back with two beers and her mail, which she tossed through at a table, kicking off her shoes and rubbing her stockinged feet together. I saw that she was in not a nurse's uniform but a simple white shift, the only thing I'd ever seen her in. I sat down and pretended to be comfortable.
"Just crap," she said of the mail.
Excerpted from A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. Copyright © 1987 Padgett Powell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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