Here’s the second section of Eugene Sherman’s part of our evolving story. This is a little longer than the first section, so maybe a cup of tea is in order before you settle in?
And yes, music matters, just as it always does, so give this one a try. If that one doesn’t work you’d better try this one. Sorry, but if neither one gets you there, well, there just ain’t a whole lot I can do for you. So there…or, well, maybe just read for a bit and see if the spirit hits you?
Boston, Massachusetts October, 2001
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.
Theodore RoethkeIn A Dark Time
Most days he walked to class, though he still found the experience painful – some days more than others. And when those ‘special’ days came he used a wheelchair, and his students knew better than to cross swords with him on the days he rolled into his classroom – usually a few minutes late. Maybe because they knew his reputation – because almost everyone on the MIT campus did: The stricken warrior, the aura of the Annapolis grad and the Naval Aviator was never far from anyone’s mind when Professor Sherman came into a room. No, everyone turned and looked and judged the man by the shadow he cast, and not just because this spry, fifty-something year old man still looked like an actor called up from central casting to play the part of the fallen warrior. He was lean, and muscularly so, only now with close-cropped steel gray hair, and Sherman still had both a pilot’s peregrine eyes and the withering, almost caustic professorial wit that almost always kept everyone at a respectful, if somewhat fearful distance. When students got him talking “about things” they learned about his years at Stanford and of his three years quarterbacking the Cardinals, and afterwards these “bull sessions” the hushed, whispered awe surrounding his mystique only grew more intense, and as is usually the case, the aura surrounding the man grew a little more exaggerated with each new retelling.
He was late today, and yes, because he was in his chair. Students in the first few rows – the bright ones – could see the pain in his eyes, the thin bead of sweat on his brow, and they knew he’d had a rough night. And that could only mean one thing…
Unless one of them could refocus his energy and somehow get him talking. Get him to tell one of his legendary “war stories,” because he lost track of time when he fell into that trap – and, if they were clever enough, they might get him to forget about a last minute quiz. Hey, it was always worth a try, right?
But he wasn’t even wearing his leg today, which meant he wouldn’t even try to stand and address the class…and that was something his students dreaded most of all. Instead, and as usual, he switched on the overhead projector and laid a new transparency on the panel…and there it was. A huge, daunting problem in celestial mechanics, almost – but not quite – like the one from the textbook, and to arrive at the solution everything from radial velocities to doppler shifts would be needed for the solution.
“I’m assuming everyone finished chapter three over the weekend? Let’s take a moment to go over any questions you have before you break off into your groups. And, oh, by the by, your answers will need to be on my desk by the end of office hours on Friday…”
Their questions were more involved than expected and this part of class lasted longer than he’d wanted, though he smiled when a couple of kids tried to get him talking about g-forces in jet aircraft for the umpteenth time. Five minutes before class ended he reminded them that their TAs would be on hand to help with any questions during tomorrow’s lab sessions, and as he sent the class on their way he looked down and closed his eyes – the pain now overwhelming.
His hands were shaking by then, too, because the shattered remnants of his left femur felt just like shards of glass tearing into his thigh muscles once again – but that was ‘just the nature of the injury’ – or so his doctors said, implying there was nothing more they could do to help. But just where did that leave him, he asked his physicians? Vicodin? Percocet? Get strung out on pain meds until he blew his liver out – or worse, before the inevitable overdose took him out. Then what? He knew one thing: there was no way he’d be able to keep teaching if he was strung out on pain meds, yet with so much lingering pain for how much longer could he keep real focus in the classroom. How much longer could he be worthy of teaching at this level…?
“Professor Sherman? Are you okay?”
He looked up, saw one of those bright faces from the front row looking down at him, her eyes full of concern. “I’m fine, Beth,” he sighed.
“You don’t look so fine, Doc,” she said, her voice laden with a mother’s concern, and a fair amount of maternal sarcasm, too.
He shrugged. “It is what it is, Beth. Now, is there something I can help you with?”
“Are you going to your office?”
“I’ll push you over, if that’s okay…”
“I don’t suppose my asking you not to would make the slightest difference, would it?”
“No, not in the least.”
He shook his head and looked away. “Well then, please, lead on…oh, great ship of state!”
She shouldered her book-bag and got behind his wheelchair and started for the hallway, then she pushed him down to the elevators. Once inside she hit the L button and they rode down to the ground floor in silence; once out of the building a crisp autumn sun hit them and she stopped for a moment and turned his chair to face the sun.
“Better take advantage of this sunshine now,” Beth Cohen sighed, “because a month from now it’ll be long gone.”
“And is that your answer to our little problem in radial velocity?”
But Sherman closed his eyes and leaned back, letting the warmth wash over his face for a few minutes – and the funny thing about it was how good the heat felt, and how he felt a little better for spending this little hidden moment out there on the quad – but then she started to push him over to Maclaurin Hall, and from there on up to the Physics Department offices on the fourth floor.
She pushed him into his office, clearly a little winded. “Maybe you should think about getting one of those motorized chairs!” she said, grinning a little.
“Are you saying I weigh too much?” he snickered.
“Who? Me?” she replied, laughing along with him a little as she maneuvered his chair behind the old oak desk in his book-lined office. “No, but I did have a few questions for you…”
“Well, then, take a seat and tell me all about the universe,” he sighed, though he smiled at the girl because – honestly – he liked her.
“Actually, I wanted to see if you were going to be around this weekend?”
“It’s Homecoming Weekend. I have to attend the game, so of course I’ll be around.”
“Well, you see, the thing is…my parents wanted to meet you, and my mom wanted me to ask and see if maybe you’d like to join us for dinner after the game on Saturday…?”
“I don’t have any other plans, so I can’t see any reason why not. Unless something unexpected comes up, let your parents know I’d love to join them – and you, of course.”
“Really? That’d be swell! I’ll call dad and let him know.”
“You’re from New York, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes. How’d you know that?”
I actually read up on all my students, strange as that may seem. I like to know backgrounds and expectations, if nothing else.”
“How do you…”
“Oh, I read your admissions packets. Grades, scores, activities and that horrible essay…”
“Oh dear God…” Beth sighed. “You didn’t…?”
“Interested in observational astronomy since you were seven years old. Math Club, Physics Club, Chess Club, Debate Team, and you even played lacrosse. And the piano, I seem to recall…”
“You remember all that?”
“My dear, it does no good to read a thing and not remember what you’ve learned.”
“It’s just that…”
“Bosh! You train your mind! You read, you recall. You test yourself constantly.”
“You do that with…”
“Yes, with all my students. I owe them, and you, no less. Now, you didn’t push me all the way over here because of my charm and good looks, so what’s on your mind?”
She looked away, lost – for a moment, anyway. “I’m not sure, really. I saw you and something looked wrong…”
“Pain? Are you in pain?”
He smiled. “I think you could call it that, yes.”
“From your accident?”
He nodded, still wondering where this was going.
“How long ago did it happen?”
“Something like twenty five years ago. Beth? What are you getting at?”
“Like I said, Professor Sherman, I’m not sure. Just a feeling…”
“A feeling like…?”
But the girl shook her head again. “I better go now. I’ve got class next period,” she said as she stood and made for the door…but she stopped and looked at him for the longest time, clearly conflicted. “Don’t forget about Saturday, after the game, okay?”
He nodded. “Just let me know when and where.”
And then she was gone.
‘Now, just what the devil was that all about?’ he sighed, even as an owl’s blinking eyes popped into view…
“I am Dr. Deborah Eisenstadt,” the owl said, her amber-gray eyes blinking rapidly now. “And please, do not stand on my account.”
Sherman knew of her, of course. Everyone in the department did. The youngest Nobel laureate in physics ever, and a woman at that, her field was quantum theory and by reputation her personality was colder than absolute zero.
“Yes, please,” Sherman said, standing, “do come in.”
She watched as he winced and scowled. “Please! Sit! I cannot bear to see you suffer so…”
Sherman plopped back down into his wheelchair and let slip a long sigh.
“Men are so stupid!” Eisenstadt added. “Or perhaps I should say vainglorious!”
“I really wish you wouldn’t,” Sherman smiled. “What would the neighbors think?”
“Ah, and so the fighter pilot has a sense of humor, too?”
He coughed at that and shook his head. “We don’t know each other well enough to trade insults like this…”
“Insult? How was that an insult?”
“I wasn’t a fighter pilot, Ma’am. I flew attack aircraft, not fighters.”
She smiled. “I see. Perhaps you will forgive me, but the distinction is lost on me.”
Sherman leaned back and steepled his hands on his chest. “Well, let’s see here. How can I best describe the difference…? Well, see, a fighter pilot shoots down other fighter aircraft, while an attack pilot drops bombs on people, occasionally on troops and tanks but usually on women and little children. My own personal favorite was to drop bombs on orphanages and whore-houses, all things being equal.”
Her lip quivered a little, then she broke out into a deep laughter, laughing so hard she started to cry a little. “Oh, dear, and here I heard you were an angry, embittered stick in the mud!” the owl said as she slapped her leg between gales. “And now it turns out you are just a garden variety, run of the mill asshole!”
Which made Sherman laugh. Harder than he had in weeks. As he stopped he had to clear his eyes, then he leaned forward in his wheelchair and grinned. “So, one asshole to another, what can I do for you this morning, Dr. Eisenstadt.”
“Well, I was recently presented with a rather interesting dilemma, and my moral compass may need a little bit of recalibration before I proceed any further. Do you think you could lend me an hour or so of your time, because I’d like to, well, we may need to proceed beyond the limits of common imagination? But first, do you, by chance, happen to play the piano?”
“I do, yes. Why?”
“Well, there is a young woman I’d like you to meet. This evening, perhaps? At your home, if you please?”
As happened almost every football season, the Columbia Lions waxed the floors with the MIT Engineers for yet another Homecoming Weekend humiliation, but that usually tends to be the case when one team shows up to play football and the other team shows up with slide-rules. Sherman sat in the faculty section of the stands with Deborah Eisenstadt and Elizabeth Bullitt, a Harvard undergrad, glad that at least the temperate fall weather had held and the game had been played under ideal conditions. More than ideal, really.
Leaves that, in years past, would already have been orange or gold were, on this October afternoon, still an unnaturally deep, verdant green, and there was a hurricane tracking northwest near the Azores that the National Hurricane Center was watching; word was that this storm might make landfall between New York City and Boston, and the climate scientists on campus were nervous. Both were unheard of events, or at least they would have been twenty years earlier, yet even now only a few scientists bothered to think about the implications of such changes.
Then there was Elizabeth Bullitt – and her startling presentation.
For…while what she had demonstrated wasn’t exactly time travel, the implications of being able to go back in time and view events from a bystanders perspective had left him speechless.
But perhaps that was because he had chosen to go back and examine, in detail, the night he had been shot down over the Strait of Hormuz. How odd it had been to see the Phoenix missile arcing in from below, then detonating just off his left wingtip. He’d watched himself at work in the cockpit completely oblivious to what was coming – but just as the missile detonated he broke contact with Miss Bullitt and pulled away from the piano, and Deborah had helped him into his wheelchair as he wept.
But that wasn’t the end of it. That wasn’t the crux of the moral dilemma Dr. Eisenstadt faced.
Because she had changed the paradigm.
“What if I told you, Dr. Sherman, that I could send you back to that aircraft of yours again. Not as an observer, but as a participant? Would you know what to do? Would you know how to avoid the missile that changed the direction of your life?”
And though Sherman had tried to wrap his head around what she was suggesting, in the end he rejected the proposition.
“I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do often feel that things happen for a reason…”
“Really?” Eisenstadt said. “I would have never taken you as a determinist. Or that someone with your pedigree would be a mystic…well, this is most unexpected…and a little unsettling.”
“So,” Liz Bullitt said, interrupting Eisenstadt, “if you could go back and kill Hitler when he was a baby, you wouldn’t do that?”
“Because if you maintain such a position,” Eisenstadt added, “aren’t you saying that six million Jews died for some inscrutable reason? In other words, because God deemed their deaths necessary?”
Sherman’s mind had almost blacked-out as he contemplated the implications. “Take it a step further,” he added. “Wouldn’t you be undoing God’s designs?”
But Eisenstadt simply smiled, the smile of someone who had watched an unwary traveler fall into an easily set trap. “But Dr. Sherman,” she sighed, “once you follow that path, who’s to say it isn’t God’s will that you undo the past? Perhaps this is a test. God is testing you, right now. Do you not see the central fallacy of this position?”
“Everyone who’s taken Ethics 101 sees this fallacy, Dr. Eisenstadt, but that doesn’t make the contours of the argument any less perplexing, or, for that matter, real.”
“But you are a scientist!” Eisenstadt cried. “You of all people, you who has embraced a unique worldview!”
“And I am a human being, Deborah. A being acutely attuned to the wonders of the universe, yet not so sure of my place in it that I am willing to turn my back on any of the possibilities I might stumble upon.”
“So…you are willing to consider the possibility of such travel?”
“Of course I am, but I am also more than willing to tell you that you are crossing a line that perhaps you shouldn’t. And I am telling you that right now because I think you should consider your next move very carefully, certainly before you go any further with this. If your hypothesis proves workable, if such travel is indeed possible, you should consider doing so only if you do not disturb an established order.”
“Well then,” Liz said, “tell me this. From our perspective, has the future already been written?”
“I tend to think that it has,” Sherman said, even as he considered the impossibilities of his answer, “but let me explain. Time is, as I understand it, a continuum. Time’s arrow, I think, is the most common descriptor, so if you put two people along that line, say two people separated by a thousand years, and you have an event at the midpoint between these two people, the event is viewed relativistically, or from each viewer’s perspective. To one such person the event is in the future, yet to the other the event is in the past – okay? But, and this is the tricky part, all three are on that line, they are all elements along an established continuum. The person in my future is there because of me, because of us, but also because of that event happening along the continuum, just as the same event is in the other’s past.”
“I had never considered such a thing,” Eisenstadt sighed.
“You need to spend more cold nights at the eyepiece looking at stars,” Sherman told them both, grinning. “Your imagination tends to roam among only the most esoteric thoughts.”
“What are those?” Liz asked, pointing at three huge square framed prints on Sherman’s living room wall.
“Globular clusters. The one on the left is M13, the so-called great cluster in Hercules. The center image is of 47 Tucanae, in Tucana…”
“Tucana? What’s that?”
“The toucan bird. That’s a constellation in the southern sky so most people up north are unfamiliar with it. The image on the right is the grand-daddy of all the globulars, Omega Centauri, in Centaurus, and it’s the biggest globular in our Milky Way galaxy.”
Liz stood and walked over to the image of Omega Centauri and instinctively she peered into the center of the cluster. “Geez, how many stars are in this thing?”
Sherman chuckled. “The best current estimate is ten million.”
“What the fuck!” Liz cried, astonished. “You can’t be serious!”
“Well, yes, I can be. There are only ten thousand in 47 Tucanae, while M13 has a few hundred thousand stars.”
“And these things are just floating around out there in space? Did we just discover them or something?”
“Not really, but our understanding of them is growing. We don’t know why just yet, but these structures are all located in our galactic halo…”
“Well, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a big spiral galaxy, and the galaxy’s spiral arms come together in a huge central region, anad it’s a region like the nucleus of a cell, and there’s a big halo around this nucleus. All of these globular clusters are located in and around this halo, but the strange thing is we find that these same halo structures around other nearby galaxies are also populated by globular clusters, so it turns out they are actually kind of common.”
“Maybe I should take an class or two in Astronomy,” Liz sighed.
“You know,” Eisenstadt said, “it occurs to me that molecules have a nucleus and that electrons orbit these structures, and some of us have begun to call these orbital clouds halos. Could these globular clusters be some sort of analog?”
“I’ve tried to think of them in that way,” Sherman said – a little reluctantly, “but I’m just not sure the analogy holds. The assumption is that there is a huge black hole in the galactic nucleus, and there is contradictory evidence that there might be smaller black holes in the central regions of globular clusters. But…and this is a curious thing, Omega Centauri shows up on an HR diagram as 13 billion years old, but that would make it one of the oldest structures in the universe, which is kind of odd.”
“Unless the small black holes in these clusters are somehow mediating the central black hole,” Eisenstadt replied.
“The thought has crossed my mind,” Sherman sighed, “that the clusters could be mediating the the central black hole…”
“And you two have totally lost me…” Liz Bullitt said, though she was still staring at the image of Omega Centauri – and wondering why all of a sudden she knew this thing was going to be very important to them all.
Beth Cohen had left a message on Sherman’s home telephone that dinner reservations had been made for six-thirty that evening. They didn’t want to presume but had made reservations at the Chart House out on the old pier past the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, and for an instant he thought about calling and cancelling, but then he reconsidered. He needed a night out with non-academics every now and then and tonight would fit that bill perfectly. He recalled her father was some sort of stock-broker in New York City and that her mother was a physician of some sort, so they’d be interesting, articulate people and certainly worth getting to know, certainly worth spending a Saturday evening with. So…he left the stadium – and Deborah and Liz – and returned home to change clothes – and his leg – then he called for a taxi and waited down on the street for the cab to arrive.
He’d not been to this Chart House but had always enjoyed the one in Annapolis, and this one was similar – yet quite different. Dark woods and vibrant prints defined the interior, and this restaurant appeared to be scattered up multiple floors, while it seemed every window looked out on Boston Harbor. He was early and waited in the bar off the entry, but Beth showed up moments later – looking pale and quite upset.
“Is something wrong?” he asked when she took a seat across from his.
She nodded. “Something’s up between my parents, lots of shouting in the hotel room so I told them I’d come on over without them.”
“I see. Is this a new development?”
She shook her head, though tentatively. “Not really. It usually just simmers along, but occasionally they boils over.”
“Should I leave, or am I needed for moral support?”
She smiled, but even so he could tell she had been close to tears, and recently, if those reddened eyes were a reliable indicator, anyway. “If you don’t mind, moral support sounds kind of good right about now.”
“Then here I am, m’Lady, the wounded warrior in all his faded glory! I stand ready to support you! Now…are you 21 – or did you bring fake ID?”
“Neither. I don’t drink.”
“Now that is indeed curious, Beth Cohen. An undergrad, and in Boston no less, who doesn’t drink. Surely you know you are a statistical impossibility?”
She laughed and he enjoyed the change that came over her. “I hate to admit it, but I’m a Diet Coke fiend.”
He scrunched up and contorted his face before he let slip a long “E-e-e-w-w-w-w, no, not that crap!”
“Sorry, but there you have it.”
“Why don’t you take a walk on the wild side and have a plain old Coke?”
She took out a small vial from her purse and handed it him, and when he turned it over in his hand he saw it was some sort of insulin – and he handed it back a little sheepishly. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he whispered.
“No apologies, please. I just wish I’d had a camera! Those faces you made would make excellent blackmail material!”
“I doubt you’ll need any. Your answers were perfect.”
“Really? You graded ours already?”
“Every group, yes. Last night, as a matter of fact. And your group did very well.”
“When are we going out to the observatory?”
“If the weather cooperates, next week – as planned.”
He watched as Beth’s parents walked into the bar just then; her father appeared to be an imperious, overbearing oaf used to pushing people around, while her mother seemed to be, predictably enough, an easy-going, gracious woman who was also rather easy on the eyes. Tall, almost willowy, Betty Cohen looked – on this first glance, anyway – like a pure-bred Manhattan socialite. Austere, almost Japanese infused couture that seemed lifted right out of a film from the 40s, and though she had deployed make-up for the evening, nothing about her face appeared garish or over-done.
Marcus Cohen, on the other hand, was bordering on the fat side of the equation, and his Brooks Brothers tie looked a little like a hangman’s noose. As it was still warm out, Marcus had donned khaki slacks and a light blue shirt under an old navy blazer – complete with some kind of bogus crest sewn on the left pocket – and Sherman did his best not to laugh out loud when he saw that.
“Our table’s ready,” Mr. Cohen snarled, letting everyone in the bar know that he really didn’t want to be there, and that he’d much rather have been somewhere, indeed, anywhere else. Beth cringed under the weight of too many years of such oafishness, and even Betty seemed to turn inward – for a moment, at least – until a hostess appeared by her side, waiting to take them to their table.
Which turned out to be on the second floor.
And there was no elevator.
And Sherman’s chafed leg was already screaming “No! Please, no more stairs!”
He made it to the stairs, big, wide open wood things designed by an architect well-steeped in 70s excess, and as he grabbed the rail he sucked in a little breath and started up, one painful tread at a time. And Beth, bless her heart, came and took his free arm in hers and walked with him the entire way. Which, as it happened, lasted what felt like a solid half hour, maybe longer, and Markus had already ordered a scotch and soda by then, though Betty had graciously decided to wait.
And the oafish paternalism continued unabated through their drinks, then their salads came and Beth reached under the table and delicately took Sherman’s hand in her’s when her father, who had been droning on and on about some new big deal he was working on, decided to change tacks.
“So tell me, Sherman, what’s with the leg? Born that way, or did you get clipped in an accident?”
He looked at Beth as her father spoke, at her innocent shrug and casual smile, and he knew she’d not told them all that much about him, so he turned to face Markus Cohen.
“I’m not sure I’d call it an accident, Mr. Cohen, but no, I wasn’t born this way.”
“So? What happened?”
“An Iranian tried to kill me. He almost succeeded, too.”
“What?” Cohen said, startled into silence.
“An Iranian F-14, Mr. Cohen. The pilot tried to kill me.”
“Are you saying you were shot down? By an Iranian F-14?”
“I am, yes, because I was.”
“And what were you in? I assume an airliner or something?”
“No, sir. I was flying an A-6 Intruder.”
“You a naval aviator?”
“I was indeed, sir.”
“I don’t seem to remember anything in the news about a shoot-down. When did this happen?”
“In ’79, a few months after the embassy takeover.”
Cohen nodded. “Yeah, I bet Carter swept that one under the rug as fast as he could.”
Sherman did not dignify that comment with a reply, he simply stared of Cohen.
“Where’d you go to school?” Markus asked, sitting back in his chair, the noose around his neck tightening just a little.
“Oh? Good sailing program down there.”
“I played football.”
“Really? You don’t much look like football material…”
“Quarterback. Three years.”
The noose tightened a bit more as Cohen’s face darkened, and a line of sweat appeared along his upper lip. “And now you’re teaching astronomy? What’s with that?”
Sherman simply shrugged, though his eyes were tightly focused on Cohen’s.
“I see,” Cohen said as he patted his face with his napkin. “Well, here come the steaks. Hope everyone’s hungry!”
Beth Cohen squeezed Sherman’s hand once before she let him go, and for some reason he immediately missed the reassuring touch of her skin on his. But Markus Cohen wasn’t through just yet, not by a long shot. Unable to bully Sherman, the stockbroker then decided to turn on his wife – at least when he wasn’t stuffing massive slabs of steak into his mouth – and Sherman watched the unremitting assault not really understanding why the woman was taking it. Perhaps because she was used to it? Too gracious to make a scene, perhaps? Or was she just a slave to this boorish stockbroker’s sweat-soaked money?
They skipped dessert, though Markus insisted on glasses of port all around.
Sherman didn’t argue, but neither did he drink – and he passed on the obligatory cigar, too. And then, suddenly and suspiciously far too soon, Cohen announced that he needed to head back to New York and that he had a limo waiting downstairs. This came as a surprise to both Beth and Betty Cohen, yet just as she was about to stand and protest another woman approached their table.
“Are you Mrs. Markus Cohen?” the stranger asked…and everything seemed to slip into slow motion after that innocent question settled – like the dust of broken dreams – over the room.
Sherman couldn’t believe what he was watching, and he looked at Beth, then at her mother while divorce papers were served right there in the middle of this packed restaurant. People at surrounding tables stopped what they were doing and stared, the room growing infinitely silent within the span of a single heartbeat, and when Beth started to cry he stood, glowering at Markus Sherman, remembering that at all cost he would remain an officer and a gentleman but wanting more than anything in the world to get his hands around Cohen’s fat neck and get to work.
But then he was gone.
Betty Cohen sat in shell-shocked silence, staring straight ahead in wide-eyed despair, all the questions she must have had about the choices she’d made in her life beating in the air overhead like some kind of pitiless vulture circling up there just out of sight.
Sherman went to Beth and put his arms protectively around her, held her close while the tears came…
Then their waiter came up tp him with the bill. “Who gets the bad news?” the blond-headed surfer dude in white polo shirt and madras shorts said, and for the first time that evening Sherman felt like laughing.
When she came into class that next Monday morning, Sherman saw her eyes were still puffy and red-rimmed, so he had to assume the rest of Beth’s weekend had been a total bust. Still, it was hard to imagine how it could have been worse that what he’d seen – and experienced. He passed out the next assignment and gave a short lecture before he handed out their graded lab assignments from last week, then he dismissed class.
And he waited.
And when she just sat there, still in shocked silence, he rolled over and waited next to her.
And still she sat, lost in the silence of her grief.
“Does it ever go away?” she finally whispered.
“In time, if you meet things head-on, the pain won’t be so overwhelming.”
“I’m not sure even I know what that means.”
He sighed. “May I ask you something?”
She looked up at him, her face now a streaky mess, but she nodded.
“Were they happy together? Your mom and dad?”
She shrugged, hesitated as she sifted through fields of memories, then she picked one and looked it over. “No. Probably not.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“You don’t have any happy memories with them?”
“Not together,” she sighed. “Only when I was with…” she thought as her voice trailed off into the field.
“When you were with your mom, right?”
She nodded, and then she really began to cry.
“And never with your father?” Sherman added, almost regretting the question but knowing it had to be asked.
“When I was little…”
“What changed, Beth?”
“I did,” she said, her head falling with her tears. “I got fat…needed glasses…and all of a sudden I wasn’t his little baby girl anymore…because then I was frumpy old Beth…”
“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight, okay? Your mom and dad weren’t happy together and your father is, just to make matters a little more more clear, a bit of an asshole?”
She sat up abruptly, trying to decide whether to laugh or to be offended, but in the end she just looked at Sherman – not quite sure how she felt.
“And that, Beth,” Sherman added, “is what you’ve got to come to terms with.”
“Your feelings, Beth. For your father – as a human being, and for this thing we like to call ‘family’ – because right now you’re grieving for the loss of something vitally important, and the important questions aren’t going to be easy to see for a while.”
“Do you have a family?”
“You never got married?”
He shook his head. “After I lost my leg I never really felt whole, and I’ve always kind of assumed it would be kind of a turn off for people…”
“Man…are you serious? Mom thinks you’re hot!”
“Beth, your mother probably needs to go see someone for a serious vision problem.”
“So…how’d you get to be so smart about people? You like some kind of wise man or something?”
“I am old, therefore I am wise.”
“She wanted me to thank you again for Saturday night…”
The three of them had walked – slowly – back to her hotel over at Rowe’s Wharf and he’d stayed with them when they’d opted to go to the bar for Irish coffees and Crème Brûlée. They sat by a fireplace full of glowing embers and he’d listened, wondering once again how someone could do what Markus had done to his family, but deciding to ask about happier times. So they’d sat, for several hours as it happened, talking about life and families and just about anything other than what was coming next.
And then they’d talked about skiing.
How all of them – all but Markus, actually – had enjoyed skiing when they were young. Or younger, in Beth’s case. And then Betty had talked about learning to ski when she was in high school, on a trip out to Colorado over spring break her junior year. How scared she’d been, then how exhilarated. Beth recalled learning to ski up at Stowe on a middle school trip, which led Sherman to talk about a place near Tahoe called Sugar Bowl and how he and his father had gone skiing almost every weekend together.
“What about your mother?” Betty asked. “She never joined you?”
“Rarely. She was almost always in the lab out, or out on the floor seeing patients.”
“What’s her specialty?”
“Infectious diseases, but when HIV hit San Francisco she was on the front lines of a new kind of war.”
“I remember. San Francisco was ground zero – in the beginning, anyway.”
“That’s right…you’re a physician, too. Mind if I ask what your specialty is?”
“Oncology,” Betty replied, and that was usually the end of that line of questioning, but not so with Gene Sherman. No, he’d asked pointed, informed questions and she’d been impressed with the depth of his knowledge. so much so that she’d soon forgotten all about Markus Cohen…
‘So that’s what he’s up to,’ she said to herself. ‘Getting us to think about anything other than…’
“Why’d you go into astronomy, Professor Sherman?” Beth asked, changing the flow of the conversation.
“She was my first true love,” he replied, shrugging sheepishly as he turned and grinned at her. “Looking up at the stars, in a way, set my course for the rest of my life. That, and watching Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. I wanted to be an astronaut after that, and so I went to Annapolis, got my wings, and I was on my way…”
“And then you got shot down,” Beth whispered, so many things coming into focus as she looked at the mechanical remnants of his left leg.
“Yes, and then I got shot down, but that’s the point of all this, Beth – the point I’m trying to make, anyway. Life is change, and it always has been, and as smart as we like to think we are we just can’t prepare for every eventuality. If we tried we’d never get anywhere so we have to become resilient, we have to learn to roll with the punches. To get up when we get knocked down, to smile and learn from the experience and then move on…”
Then, a knock on the classroom door brought him back to the present, and one of his teaching assistants came in and handed a note over to Sherman. ‘Urgent you call home ASAP’ said the note from his faculty secretary, and he sighed as he sifted through the words on the yellow post-it note, dreading what he realized had to be coming next.
“Beth, I need to head up to the office and make a few calls now…”
“Okay. Mind if I push you over?”
“Oh, that’s not really necessary…”
“I’d like to, if you don’t mind,” Beth said. “I find it kind of relaxing.”
Sherman shrugged and they followed the TA back to the Physics building, and when they got to his office Sherman asked his TA to hang around for a few minutes – “Just in case…”
So Beth and the TA waited in the anteroom while Eugene Sherman called his mother back in Menlo Park. His father had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and while he’d tried to read up on the disease, nothing he’d found had proven at all encouraging…
Now he dialed the same number they’d had for more than fifty years, a telephone number almost ingrained in the cells of his brain.
“Hi, Mom,” he said when his mother answered. “What’s up?”
“It’s your father, Gene. He’s had a stroke, and I think you’d better come home now.”
He held back the tears he’d always known would come when his father got close, but even so, as he processed her words he almost instantly felt like he was suffocating. “Today?” he managed to ask, just as constrictions grabbed his neck.
“Yes, as soon as you can.”
“I’m on my way. I’ll see you in a little bit, Mom.”
He put down the phone and punched the button for his secretary.
“Liz, I’m gonna need…”
“Professor, I have you booked on Delta, on the twelve-thirty to San Francisco. You just have enough time to get home and packed. I’ll have TAs assigned to cover your classes, so you’d better get going…”
Beth pushed him downstairs and onto the shuttle that took him over to EastGate, and she went up to his flat with him and helped him pack, and all of this simply happened – kind of out of the blue. He didn’t ask, and neither did she. Then she went with him over to Logan and helped him get his bag checked, and she pushed him over to the security checkpoint after that, too.
“I’m afraid I’m beginning to depend on you a little too much, Beth,” he told her while they sneaked along to the metal screening stands.
“Glad I could be here for you, Professor.”
He held his left hand out and she took it, and once again he felt a little electric jolt when her skin touched his. “I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong about all this, but I have to admit I enjoy your company.”
She squeezed his hand then, then leaned over and gently kissed him on the forehead – then she handed him a little note, just before she turned and walked off through the meandering crowd queuing up behind him.
He pushed himself up to the screening agent, who was nice enough to call a RedCap to take him on out to the gate, and he looked at the Delta L-1011 waiting out there on the ramp, waiting to take him home.
Then he looked at Beth’s note.
“Professor Sherman,” she wrote, “here’s my number at the dorm. Please call and let me know when you’re returning and I’ll pick you up when you get to the baggage claim area. Also, my mom wanted to talk to you, and here’s her number. I’ll be thinking about you. L, Beth.”
“Extraordinary,” he said – just under his breath – and then they called for those needing assistance to come and board the aircraft so he pushed himself over to the door and another RedCap helped him down the Jetway to the waiting jet. They took his wheelchair at the main door and he hopped to seat 1A, breaking out in a sweat as a result, but then a flight attendant brought him a glass of champagne and a hot towel to freshen up with. He sat there breathlessly, with his pulse pounding in his forehead when, a few minutes later, the doors closed…and then the jet began pushing back from the terminal.
And then he saw Beth standing up there on an observation platform – and as he realized who it was it looked to him as if she was staring right at him. Then he saw her smile and blow him a kiss, just before she turned and disappeared – again.
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.
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