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Through the Looking Glass


Harry Buschman

"What do we mean when we say, 'universe?' It is, of course, only the visible universe -- the part we know ... Professor Gottlieb looked up from his closely spaced words. A soft spring breeze ruffled the curtains at his office window, and he sighed deeply. " ... The words we use are inadequate to describe the true immensity of the void ... "

"Professor, I need to mop under your desk. Could you go outside please?"

The professor, shaken out of his conceptual thesis, threw up his hands and moaned, "Not now, Mrs. Borgia! Can't you go elsewhere? The bathroom," he suggested enthusiastically, "the bathroom, surely -- I was noticing only this morning. There's mold in the corner of the shower."

"I must leave at 4 pm, Professor. If I start the bathroom now I will be here until six."

That was true. Every bit as true as Professor Gottlieb's thesis, and he had no intention of paying Mrs. Borgia for two hours overtime. Although she was worth it. She was the only cleaning woman he had in his three years at Bucknell who didn't steal from him. She also cleaned well. A elderly Italian woman in a permanent crouch - a dust rag in one hand and a dry mop in the other. Her shoes were permanently sprung outwards and she shuffled along with her elbows extended to the rear as though she were poling herself on skis. The professor would try to discourage conversation, but Mrs. Borgia would frequently be so full of her family and friends that they would spill out of her subconscious as she made the bed or washed the breakfast dishes. At such times the professor would pay no more attention to her than he would to the noise of the vacuum cleaner. It was a penalty he paid willingly for living his last years alone.

Professor Gottlieb gathered up his papers and his trusty thesaurus and walked to the hall closet for his coat. "I shall be in the park, Mrs. Borgia. I will leave your wages on the hall table."

Although she was repeating last night's argument with her husband concerning the cost for the replacement of her sister-in-law's upper plate, Mrs. Borgia cast a sharp eye towards the hall table. She made plans to count the money the moment Professor Gottlieb left the apartment.

Uppermost in Professor Gottlieb's mind was a quiet spot in the park where he could reassemble his thoughts concerning quantum mechanics and the almost sure probability of a parallel universe. When his paper was done and read to his peers and finally published in scientific journals, it would certainly bring him celebrity and the blessings of permanent tenure at the university.

He always found it difficult to concentrate in the park -- too much nature. Too many children and parents and pigeons and grass and blue sky. Solitary confinement in a dungeon was probably the ideal place to write a thesis on the cosmos. He was on a roll for a moment back in his apartment -- but that Mrs. Borgia! She had a way of interrupting his train of thought. How could her mundane life, her petty ups and downs stand in the way of the universe? Those feet! "Ah, that was it!" He closed his eyes to visualize the string theory and all he could see was Mrs. Borgia's feet.

Professor Gottlieb found an unoccupied picnic bench in a wooded section of the park. The bench top was filthy; stained from spilled food and pigeon droppings -- he was hesitant about writing in his precious book on such a surface, so he took his coat off and spread it out on the table, then placed his book on that. Then he sat and stared up into the trees, waiting for the universe to make its appearance. He unscrewed the top of his fountain pen just as a softball whistled through the treetops and landed on the table scattering his papers.

Professor Gottlieb was a patient man, and at times he could visualize the very moment of creation -- he could hear the big bang, (if, indeed, that's what it was) he could trace the origins of the galaxies and hold the sun in his hand as though it were no bigger than that particular softball lying on the picnic table. When he was in such a mood it was very difficult to get his attention. But the subject he chose for his life's work was so vast and multi-dimensional he needed the luxury of concentration, and he was often distracted by trivial things.

A young man in a bristling beard, a dirty sweat shirt and wearing a baseball glove that must have wholesaled for $400, burst into the clearing. He glared at Professor Gottlieb with ill-disguised suspicion ... "Hey. You see a ball in here?"

The professor pointed to the ball on the table. "Yes," he said. "Nearly hit me."

"We're playin' ball over here," the man said.

"I know, I can hear you."

The man walked over to Professor Gottlieb and snatched the ball from the table. "Thought it was lost. We only got two."

"Quite a coincidence."

"Huh?" The man gave the Professor a puzzled look and shook his head. While walking out of the clearing he could be heard to mumble, " ... the people y'meet in the park. Oh boy!"

Today did not seem to be a good day for the quiet contemplation of the cosmos. Professor Gottlieb gathered his papers together and tried to regain his composure. Failing that, he sighed deeply and stared into the leafy canopy of trees. He could hear salvos of cheers from the baseball diamond and the occasional crack of a bat. "Who can blame them," he thought. "It's a beautiful spring afternoon. Everybody has a right to play softball on a day like this. The cosmos is in no hurry, it can wait."

He closed his book and tucked it under his arm, "So it goes," he thought. Then he saw Henry Claymouth, Political Science Associate, a moon faced man on tenure track and, for now at least, lumbering up the cinder track. He looked as though he were at the point of exhaustion. Henry was under forty, and when a man is in Political Science he should be in better shape. Instead, Henry's face was lobster red, and his cheeks were puffed out like those of a blowfish. He pulled up at Professor Gottlieb's table and sat down. He couldn't speak but he gave the impression that if the Professor would give him a moment or two to pull himself together, he would have something to say. For the moment, however he looked as though someone had pulled his plug.

"Don't try to talk, Henry," the Professor warned him. "A man of your size -- you shouldn't be running like this."

"I have ... I have to ... get in ..." he patted his belly and shook his head ruefully.

"Let's walk together, Henry. We'll walk slowly. It often helps to get your breath back if you walk a little."

They started down the cinder path together and the Professor made the mistake of asking Claymouth a question -- "It's going well, Henry -- no? How's your freshman class?"

They stopped walking at that moment and Claymouth began to breathe deeply. Professor Gottlieb was impressed with the sheer volume of air Claymouth required -- "Like inflating an air mattress," he thought.

"The - freshman - class - is - above average," he breathed. "They seem to get smarter every year."

"If I could say the same. Ah! How wonderful that would be." The color was fading now from Claymouth's face. It left two cherry red blotches. One in each cheek. "I think, sometimes Claymouth ... " he sighed deeply ... " the field I have chosen was not meant for human understanding."

"Well, suppose you did understand it, what difference would it make? There's nothing you could do about it anyway."

"True. I suppose that is true. But, on the other hand, isn't that the way it is with Political Science as well?"

The two men paused to think about it. They were near the carrousel and both of them decided to sit and watch it. On Saturday's it was always filled with children. Their happy voices blended with the raucous hurdy-gurdy and the cheers of their parents who stood by watching them pass by in an endless circling race of wooden horses.

"No winners. Just players," said Professor Gottlieb. "Would you like a ride on the merry-go-round, Claymouth?"

"I'm too tired, really Professor. I would just like to sit here and ... "

" ... and what, Claymouth?"

"I forgot what I was going to say. We're too old to ride the carrousel, Professor - suppose someone saw us?"

"Going around in circles, you mean? We would be admitting it wouldn't we? I tried to get some work done earlier today. Every time I made a stab at it, something stopped me. Come Claymouth, I'll treat. You can sit there as well as here."

In spite of his reservations Henry Claymouth followed Professor Gottlieb to the ticket agent in his little kiosk at the side of the carrousel. The Professor reached in his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. "We'd like to go around indefinitely," he told the agent. He gave the man a twenty dollar bill.

"That'll give you about forty rides. you're sure. ain'tcha? If I see y'botherin' the kids, you're gonna be in a lotta trouble."

"We have things to discuss, we have no interest in the children. Come Claymouth -- there are swans as well as horses -- and I see a tiger. Would you like to ride a tiger, Claymouth?"

"I don't know why I've let you talk me into this, Professor. I should finish my run and get home, I have to make up a test on Public Law and Human Rights." Claymouth jiggled nervously as they stood by the entrance waiting for the carrousel to stop.

"Make time, Claymouth." The Professor looped a garland of tickets around Henry Claymouth's fat neck. "There is time, Claymouth. Time and space. Forget Aristotle -- a flash in the pan. If he were alive today he would be laughed at as an idiot."

Professor Gottlieb chose a white horse. One with its two front feet pawing the air. It had a golden plastic mane the color of corn silk, wide frenzied eyes and flaring nostrils. The carrousel had stopped leaving the horse in its highest position, making it difficult for the Professor to mount up. He took two or three preliminary hops on his right foot with his left in the stirrup without much success. "You take the swan boat, Henry. You can hold my papers."

"Yes, by all means, something tranquil. I'll watch you up there on your horse, that will be all the excitement I need."

Unencumbered now, Professor Gottlieb mounted the white horse and sat up straight in the saddle. "Magnificent! What a view! I feel like General Robert E. Lee." He looked down at Henry Claymouth and grinned at him like a schoolboy. "Are you sure you'll be safe in the swan boat, Henry?"

"We're not going to stay here long, are we Professor? I really have to be getting back."

To the loud and raucous strains of Tales of the Vienna Woods the carrousel jerked into action. The Professor's face lit up with a happy smile as his horse began to move up and down -- slowly at first, then picking up the pace as the carrousel picked up speed. He held the reins in his left hand and slapped the horse's rump with his right. "Are you with me, Henry? Creatio ex Nihilo!!"

Claymouth stared up at the Professor with an expression of mixed wonder and fright, then he suddenly realized he was riding backward in the swan boat. He hastily changed seats so he could face forward. Again he looked up at the Professor urging his wooden horse onward. The man had flipped, certainly. Professor Gottlieb was a noted astronomer, a respected physical scientist -- had he gone mad? He had taken off his hat and was beating it on the horse's rump, his straggly gray hair was standing on end. "Creatio ex Nihilo. indeed!"

The hurdy-gurdy changed tunes, the locale changed from the Vienna Woods to the land of William Tell. The carrousel slowed to a halt and the expression of bliss on the face of Professor Gottlieb was overshadowed by expression of nausea on that of Henry Claymouth.

"You look a little peaked, Henry. You should be up here with me or over there on the back of that black Arab charger. That's the way to go around in circles. Swan boats are for sissies."

Claymouth looked up at the mounted Professor "I've really had enough, Professor. Can we leave now?"

"But we've got tickets for the whole afternoon, Claymouth -- we're just getting started."

"We can give the tickets to the children ..."

"Listen to that organ, Claymouth. It's enough to give a man a terminal erection."

They went around again -- and then again. By this time Claymouth was pitched forward in his seat with his head between his knees. Professor Gottlieb looked down at him and shook his head. He reluctantly dismounted and put his hand on Claymouth's shoulder. "Come old man, let's go. Maybe I can use these tickets another day."

The two men left the carrousel, one with regret and one with relief. They found themselves out on the cinder path again. They had some difficulty walking a straight line -- "It comes, I think from traveling in circles," the Professor suggested. "We are like the mice in the Life Science lab. We have been trained to bear left. You see, Henry ... " he went on, "if we were to meet people walking towards us in our condition, we would avoid confrontation and ... "

"It's been an illuminating afternoon, Professor."

"Hasn't it though. I seem to have forgotten all about the outer reaches of the universe."

Henry's pace quickened a bit as they neared his apartment. "I never had much interest in the universe to begin with," Henry said, then added, "thanks for the ride on the merry-go-round, Professor - I haven't been on one since I was a boy."

"I've never been on one," the Professor said. "I'm from Dresden, you know. The carrousels were all destroyed in the war ... like much of everything else. Well ... " The Professor shook his head sadly. "So it goes. Lots of luck putting your test together, Henry."

Professor Gottlieb walked on. His apartment was a shade more upscale than Claymouth's and two blocks closer to the college gate. The refinement was negligible, however, and only faculty and fourth year students were aware of such niceties. One difference, however, that even you and I would notice was in the cleanliness of the two apartments. Professor Gottlieb could afford a cleaning woman twice a week from ten to four and Claymouth had to do his cleaning himself.

As the Professor approached his apartment, he glanced up at his window on the second floor, it was closed, and he couldn't remember closing it. That must mean that Mrs. Borgia had left for the day. Wonderful, he thought as he gripped his papers tightly. "I've neglected my work today. Taken time off from the universe." He made plans. Chinese food from Lum How, "Lum How here. Yes. In fifteen minutes. What you want?" He even decided to open a bottle of Chardonnay, and he needed the Beethoven quartets - let me not forget Beethoven. If anyone can show me the limits of the universe, Beethoven will.

He finished half the wine before the Chinese food made its appearance at his door. Then he sat down at his desk surrounded by his papers, his computer, his printer, his telephone, his recorder and the deadly aroma of monosodium glutamate.

Fifteen minutes. Yes, Lum. Right on the dot. A minute for every billion light years. That's what he wrote in his papers that afternoon. Fifteen billion light years. On a clear Andean mountain in Chile someone photographed a faint smudge of light at the edge of this universe. Was it far away, or are we far away? What can they see out there that we can't see from here? Are their noses pressed against the window of our cosmos? What can they see?

Perhaps, he thought. Perhaps like goldfish in a bowl they can stare out into the living room of another existence and see the master sitting in an easy chair with his son on his lap watching the Pittsburg Pirates play the Cincinnati Reds. Could it be as simple as all that?

The Professor remembered as a child pressing his nose against the baker's window and longing to taste the cakes and pies and cookies his mother promised to make and never did. And here he was, today, closing the circle of his years -- riding a merry-go-round and reaching for the stars.

He thought of the laws he lived by. The ones men make for themselves -- to make the punishment fit the crime. Nothing more, nothing less. "Evaluation of Governmental Policy." That's what Claymouth called it -- set up by Aristotle and adjusted by Machiavelli. We bask in Democracy. One size fits all, although it fits some better than it does others.

"I wonder if it works any better on the other side of the glass?"

©Harry Buschman

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