the physicist

by dm gillis

There is no heartbeat like this one, of seventy in a minute, hung like a Rembrandt on a wall inside of me. In a 4am diner telephone booth. My rattling hands, unable to slot the nickel or dial the running number – ALpine-5690. But finally, and with mercy, it’s done.

“Hello?” Her voice. “Hello?”

It is the role of the fugitive, in narrative and in life, to hesitate at this moment. To avoid giving anyone a hold on the confusion. I’m living parallel to this rule. I quietly focus on the payphone coin slots, without knowing why.

“Is this you, David?” Felicity says. There is caution and upset in her voice.

Another rule is that people are always waiting for the fugitive to call, a premise so indisputable as to be accepted as true without controversy.

“Yes,” I say.

“Where are you?”

“The city.”

“Where, though?”

“That’s not why I called.”

“Why then? Everybody is so worried.”

I pause. Where am I? I mustn’t say. Maybe somewhere downtown cops huddle round a speaker on a metal table in a dim room, listening. At the telephone company, men in shop coats and graveyard shift operators examine switches and look for lights on wall sized circuit boards, attempting to trace my call.

“So, do you know what has happened?” I ask.

Now Felicity pauses. There are clicking sounds on the line. Distant nearly invisible voices overlapping our call. Men talking about deliveries, about morning. One laughs. Do they hear us?

“Have they gotten to you yet?” I say.

“Yes.”

“What did you tell them?”

“What could I tell them?” she says. “I don’t know what anybody’s talking about.”

“The papers.”

“Papers?”

Pause.

“Yes,” I say. “The goddamn papers I took from the Company lab. My papers. I’ve been working on them for a year. I had to smuggle them out. The information will change things — look, I need money.”

“I have none. You know it.”

“Your mother, then.”

“No.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?”

“Go to them. Apologise. You’re valuable, what you know. They’ll forgive you.”

“I can’t. They’ll burn everything. They probably already have. Except what I have with me now.”

“Then live rough. There’s no in-between.”

“What?”

There’s a blunt Bakelite rumble in the cradle of the telephone, and then a click. Felicity has rung off.

I sit down at the lunch counter. The coffee is night coffee. It keeps the nocturnal planet alive. Thick, black and acid. It burns like a torch going down, and rages in my empty belly. Through the broad window, I can see the early light begin to spill onto the street. Like a tide. The papers.

I light a cigarette. Coffee’s a nickel. Smokes, twenty cents. I take the change from my pocket, spill it onto the countertop and count. The waitress watches out of the corner of her eye.

The theorems and algorithms. No one on the outside believes in their importance, or they all have a gun to their heads.

Two dollars and seventy-eight cents.  Live rough. That’s all there is.

“You got enough for some breakfast there, mister,” the waitress says. “You look hungry. Why not have some ham and eggs?”

She looks hungry, too. Her pink uniform’s shabby, worn on too many late shifts. Her hair, slightly undone.

“Sure,” I say. “Why not.”

She writes my order down fast, like it’s the lunch rush, and hands it to the cook through a square hole in the wall. The cook studies it and walks away. She hasn’t asked how I want my eggs.

“You know what I figure?” she says, coming back to the counter.

“What?” I say.

“I figure a fella deserves a break, now and then.”

“Do you?”

“Sure,” she says. “It’s not like you’re a bad guy. The numbers just aren’t on your side.”

“Numbers? What are you talking about?”

“We get plenty of bad guys in this joint,” she says. “Mob thugs. Government people with guns under their jackets. Even some geniuses like you, with slide rules and a half dozen different pencils in their shirt pockets. ‘Cept them geniuses aren’t on the square, like you. They all work on the same side, and cash in. Then they expect a nobody like me to finger decent people for ‘em, you know?”

“No,” I say, pushing my empty coffee cup forward. “Fill me up.”

“Sure,” she pours.

“Take the cook for example,” she says. “Right now he’s callin’ some of them bad boys. The ones from the government with the guns. They’ll be here in a minute, and they’ll slide into that booth over there and order coffee and toast. Like they was just moseying on by, and decided on some breakfast in this here glamorous all night establishment. But they’ll be here for you. I don’t get how fellas like you always end up here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Smart fellas, I mean,” she says. “Who discover the secret of the universe, or somethin’. Or maybe little green men on Jupiter. Then they gotta run ‘cause they ain’t supposed to know it. And the bad guys come after ‘em, and find ‘em here. Every time, sittin’ where you are now. Different faces, but in that exact same stool. With exactly two dollars and seventy-eight cents in their pocket, worrying ’bout the price of a deck of smokes. You don’t know it yet, but that’s what’s happenin’. Even that telephone call you made was just like every other telephone call.”

Now the door opens and two men in trench coats walk in and take a booth.

“See?”

“What the hell’s going on?” I say.

“You oughta know. You’re the physicist, monkeying round with space and time. You oughta know how a guy can get trapped in a twister and end up in the wrong place every time.”

She’s right, I do. It’s just theory, though. A game of equations.

“How do you know I’m a physicist?”

She places the ham and eggs in front of me.

“Eat ‘em up,” she says. “It’s on the house, always is. It ain’t much of a last meal. But then this ain’t much of a diner, neither. We got bugs, and the cook don’t wash his hands.”

From behind me, I hear one of the men in the booth say, “Two coffee and toast, Millie.”

Millie writes down the order, passes it to the cook and pours the coffee.

My eggs are scrambled. Just the way I like them.

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