Before the people from the university arrived, Oliver Diven broke the lock and emptied the top drawer of his father’s desk. It contained only one sheet of work, 37 lines with a little tombstone in the bottom right corner to indicate the end of the proof. From the absence of eraser marks and the clarity of the handwriting and the way the paper had been centered in the drawer, Oliver understood the importance of the model, if not a bit of the math. He folded the paper once, twice and slid it into the breast pocket of his suit. He had to fly back to Chicago in the morning for a job interview, and he would not be able to return home to San Francisco until fall break, two weeks later. By then the paper would surely be gone. In the meantime, the assistant professors that came by with flowers and the hopes of collecting his father’s notes for “university records” could wade through the bottom drawer. The only man capable of interpreting that material lay in a casket in the dining room, awaiting his wake with an expression of patience he could never have managed in his living years.
The bottom drawer contained the source material for Sergei Diven’s particular method of genius, a sea of fragmentary notes and diagrams written on everything from rejected grad school applications to Chinese takeout menus. Each evening Sergei would spread these scraps of paper across his desk, pop two Adderall and close his study door. If conditions were just so, by morning a constellation would emerge amongst the scribbles, the beginnings of an idea. By day he napped, drank tea and refined these ideas into the papers that had earned him his reputation as one of America’s preeminent physicists. It was these papers that, just prior to publication, occupied the top drawer. Here they could be enjoyed, admired and mourned before they found their final homes in the pages of Journal of Mathematical Physics, Progress of Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics et al. Oliver planned to mail the paper to Advances, the most prestigious of the bunch, under his father’s name, right after his job interview.
On his flight the next morning, with his iPod battery dead and his Greek Civilizations reading as impenetrable as ever, Oliver removed the paper from his pocket. He noticed faint handwriting on the back. The blue ink caught his eye; his father used only pencil.
Oliver did his best to make out the awful cursive, but he could only read the occasional snippet: “Sleep & the Ocean”; “infectious forgetfulness”; “Apparitions of love, Fear.” Typical, he thought. His mother never used two sides of a sheet of paper; when she left notes behind, his father would make use of the blank halves. Oliver found two more words at the bottom, twice underscored: “Time & Weight.”
Alyssa Diven’s poetic process started with maudlin little phrases like this. Oliver could remember her sitting at the kitchen table for hours, chain-smoking Pall Malls and recording the tremendous sentimentality of a bipolar upswing. When the mood hit full force, she would pack her old leather rucksack and get in the family car and go.
When she returned, sometimes months later, she would bring back with her a collection’s worth of poems. The physical and chemical pressures of her philandering, opiate abuse, and endless driving turned the rotting sentiment of her earlier drafts black, slick, and deadly useful. As an enthusiastic reviewer once wrote, “Alyssa Diven’s poetry does no less than tell hard women how to live well.”
When his father died, Oliver called; she didn’t picked up. He texted. She texted back, “Sorry to hear. Was a good man. Won’t be able to make it home in time for services. But we understand the dead by living, Ollie.”
Oliver read the broken phrases on the page, reciting them like a koan…
When it was bedtime and his father had announced no more reading, lights out, his mother would sneak into his room with a slim chapbook, or a well bound, “Collected Works of,” complete with satin ribbon placeholder. Unlike the paperback novels his father gave him, where stoic cowboys save the town and elderly wizards help the hero defeat evil, the poetry from his mother was full of doubt and equivocation. In those confusing first encounters, Oliver would track his own emotions by which lines he wanted to, and often did, strike out with thick black marker right on the page.
“And yes, I have refought those unfinished encounters.
Still, they remain unfinished.
And yes, I have at times wished myself something different.”
“Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
He went on in this way until one marathon night, some hundred poems in, he found a conclusion that he could not bring himself to edit:
“The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again”
The small man sitting to Oliver’s left tapped him on the shoulder, asking about three letter hockey players; the airline magazine had a crossword on the back page. Oliver folded the paper and placed it back in his pocket. He took his own copy of the magazine from the pouch and buried his thoughts in the puzzle.
Once landed, Oliver took the blue line train from O’Hare into the Loop, a detour he had to make before catching the purple line express out to Evanston. A friend of a friend from his economics discussion section sat at the opposite end of the car. She had a textbook open in her lap, but also craned her neck around. She was very nice, but Oliver could not imagine summoning the energy to say hello. He took the paper from his pocket and held it in front of his face as a disguise. He read the inscrutable symbols, hoping to go unseen…
By age 12, Oliver could throw a baseball farther than most kids and twice as far as his father. Sergei Diven valued excellence. He had also decorated Oliver’s room with motivational posters espousing the role of practice and perseverance in the pursuit of excellence, and so asking to play catch was one of the few ways Oliver could get his father away from his work.
When they went to play long toss in the park they brought two five-gallon buckets, one full of balls and the other empty. Sergei would position himself at the foot of the park’s namesake, Caballo Hill, with the empty bucket. Oliver would take the full bucket and walk off 120 feet. “Ready?” he’d shout. Sergei would nod. Oliver would float the first ten throws to his father, lobbing them high up in the sky. Sergei would catch about half of these, and he batted down the rest with the gigantic yellow softball mitt he had purchased at a thrift shop. As Oliver warmed up, the throws strengthened and flattened out. These Sergei would fan at like a bullfighter, occasionally catching one, the rest running up, then trickling back down the hillside. Once Oliver’s bucket was empty, he’d wipe the sweat from his brow and wave his salt-stained Giants cap in the air. This was the signal for them both to pick up their buckets and meet in the middle to swap empty for full. If it was warm and dry out, Oliver would keep on throwing until the last daylight faded, when Sergei would say, “The next one’s going to break my nose. It’s already crooked enough. Let’s go home.”
“Oliver!” Friend of a friend from economics discussion section Jess waved from the other end of the car and walked over. “What’s up? Raj had told me you were out of town—where’d you go?”
“Hey Jess, didn’t see you there. I was just visiting family. How are you?”
“I’m great! Thanks for asking! What are you reading?”
“So do you know what you’re doing next year?”
“Nah, not yet. I’m interviewing at Quantum this weekend.”
“Quantum? Fancy! Didn’t peg you as the prop trading type. Aren’t you a little too…” Jess trailed off.
“It’s O.K., Jess, you can say liberal—you’re father can’t hear you from all the way in Connecticut.”
“Oliver! You’re always so mean to me! But yeah, I guess I thought you were like, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ status.”
“Just casting wide nets, I suppose.”
“‘They all go finance eventually, just like how all the ex-hippies voted Reagan back in my day.’ That’s what my dad says.”
“He has a gift for aphorism, doesn’t he?”
“A gift for what?”
“Nothing.” The train arrived at Jackson. “Here’s my transfer. I’ll see ya, Jess.”
“Bye Oliver! Good luck!”
One more transfer and a train ride later, Oliver got off at the Foster stop in Evanston. On the walk home, he mulled over the paper. Whenever he read, memories of his mother and father fell from their respective sides of the page, like pressed flowers from an old diary. He had to double back when he accidentally walked a block past his building, his legs on autopilot as he admired each fragile, long dead petal.
Once home, Oliver stripped off his suit for the first time in two days. His roommate Raj had broken their iron, thinking he could put dish soap in it instead of water. There was no time to dry-clean his suit before tomorrow evening, when his weekend-long interview began. Instead, he hung the suit on the bathroom towel rack, letting the steam work out the wrinkles.
In the living room, Oliver flopped facedown onto the couch in his underwear and moaned. Sports highlights played on the television. Oliver pretended to read Thucydides. Raj read the news on his laptop. At the commercial, Oliver picked his head up from the couch cushion. “Hey, you ever feel like… I don’t know, like, everything you know has ended and nothing new has begun, so you’re just totally adrift?”
“No. Nope. Nein. We’re not playing this game,” said Raj.
“Your existential mind-fuck game.”
“I don’t do that.”
“You most certainly do. And then I’m up rereading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it’s all downhill from there.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t know what I’m talking about? How about, ‘Do engineers ever think, on their deathbed, that they could have been painters?’ You came up with that little gem right after I got hired. Or, ‘Why do we tell ourselves the sky and water are blue when the color of both are constantly in flux? Wouldn’t we have a more truthful relationship with death if we didn’t insist on flattening the scenery around us into artificially static constructs?’ Ring any bells? Oh right. That was you. Last week.”
“Never mind, then.”
“Which is not to say I’m not terribly sorry your father died. Because I am, obviously.”
“You’re still going to your interview, though?”
“Yeah. What else am I going to do? Still need a job next year, don’t I?”
“Yup. It’s good to keep busy, too.”
The first night at Quantum there were no questions; instead, the interviewers took the final pool of applicants out to play Whirlyball and get drunk. Oliver thought he had played it smart, having two fewer drinks than the interviewers. This way he wouldn’t seem like a drag, but he also wouldn’t be hungover for the morning session. When the night was over and the applicants piled into cabs back to the hotel, Oliver breathed a sigh of relief. His small talk had been on point. He didn’t get sent home early for overdrinking, as other applicants had. He even scored four points in his last game of Whirlyball. It was not until he was back in his hotel room under the covers with the lamp switched off that he realized his mistake.
Sometimes it came slowly, though recently all at once: the clutch on his throat, the twist in his guts, that awful sense of being both too big and too small for one’s own skin. Neither drunk enough to pass out nor sober enough to manage the symptoms, Oliver simply groaned, “Well, fuck me,” and climbed out of bed. Without his usual remedies handy—pot, cheese crackers, stationary cycling—he would have to improvise.
First, Oliver took a 40-minute cold shower, listening to NPR stories about war and famine and AIDS.
When juxtaposing his personal anxieties against real horror didn’t work, Oliver put on the hotel bathrobe and wrapped his red winter scarf around his head.
He lied supine on the carpet and watched sitcoms on Netflix, volume full blast, balancing the laptop on his chest, which rose and fell in American Psychiatry Association’s Panic Attack Breathing Exercise #2 Time.
After 5 episodes, Oliver set out to do 200 pushups. He finished 37.
He watched late-night television and the infomercials for diet amphetamines that followed.
He listened to “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” on loop, writing the lyrics in aimless spirals on the hotel notepad.
He pulled the Bible out of the bedside drawer and read the Gospels straight through. After he finished John, Oliver removed the towel he had thrown over the alarm clock’s accusatory glow. It read 4:27 A.M.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
In the bottom of his backpack, amongst the granola crumbles and half-finished crosswords, Oliver found a packet of two Nyquil capsules and a stray Tylenol with codeine. He swallowed them dry. He went into the minibar and downed two single-serving bottles of Chopin Vodka, Sergei Diven’s drink of choice. Admiring the profile sketch of the dead pianist and the smoothness of the frosted glass, Oliver recalled the single bottle his father kept on his desk. However many showed up in the recycling bin, it was always just the one on his desk.
Oliver remembered the paper. He stumbled over to the closet and removed it from his coat pocket. The steam from leaving his suit in the bathroom to de-wrinkle had caused the ink to run and the lead to smudge. In his fugue, the already muddled markings wavered on the page. He sat on the floor and put his head between his knees. He held the paper at a distance and squinted and read the phrases…
When he was five, Oliver’s mother stayed home for an entire year. Rather than take her notes on the road, she had decided to write poems about her son. Oliver remembered how nice it was to wake up in those days, knowing that when he went downstairs for breakfast he would find his mother waiting for him. Once he fixed his cereal, she announced what aspect of his person she would next transpose into poetry. “Today, darling, all I want to do is write a sonnet about the way your pinky toe curls under his neighbor. I don’t know if he’s hiding from his walking duties or if he’s helping prop up a friend in need. What do you think?” Oliver tried to answer, but he found he couldn’t speak. “What do you think?” she repeated. He pried at his lips with his fingers; he pushed their seam with his tongue; he squeezed his cheeks together with both hands—whatever he tried, his mouth remained shut. “Oliver, I’m serious. What do you think?”
The paper slipped from Oliver’s hands. He picked it up and tried to refocus on the phrases, but the sweat from his thumbs had only smeared the ink more. He flipped the paper over and read the symbols…
Sitting on the upstairs bathroom floor, knees hugged to his chest, arms draping a towel around him, Oliver let the shower run and pretended like he was nowhere. This was an old habit. Before adolescence and its accompanying odors struck, not showering was an easy price to pay for five minutes of the perfect solitude of everyone thinking Oliver was somewhere he wasn’t, even if that somewhere was only a few feet away. He leaned his neck against the slatted wooden towel cabinet and sucked in the hot air, clearing his chest. “Oliver, you almost done?” There was his father’s voice, making sure he didn’t miss the school bus. Any moment he’d ask,
“What are you doing in there?” Oliver started. The voice was no longer his father’s, but a woman’s he did not recognize. He looked down. The tile had turned from pink marble to grey linoleum, and his legs had sprouted coarse black hair and stretched out from under the towel. “What are you doing in there?” asked the stranger. “We’re going to be late…”
Oliver woke up at seven hollowed out. In the emptiness, a calm lucidity bloomed. He had somehow made it under the covers. He sat up and looked around the room. Empty single-serving liquor bottles littered the floor, 12 in all. After some inelegant stretching, he got up to hide the bottles. Once he tucked the shame behind the bed skirt, all that remained from the episode was a paranoia that the interviewers would see him and somehow know what had happened—not by way of hidden camera or some other form of surveillance, but that they just would. In daytime, this feeling was easily managed. Oliver went down to the gym and ran three miles on the treadmill. He showered, shaved, put on his suit, tied his shoes, clasped his watch, folded the paper, put it in the same coat pocket and took a deep breath. He looked in the mirror. The paranoia had fled, scared off by the easy confidence that comes along with being young and smart and poised for monetary success.
Oliver breezed through the morning session. The interviewers asked the sort of logic questions reputed, by those who had a knack for them, as measuring “raw intelligence.” As a child, Oliver’s father had drilled him on this exact sort of question in any spare moment: car rides, waiting in line, over dinner. “One man tells only truths, the other only lies. “Alex is two years older than David, who is half the age of Peter.” “How many shuffles produce a perfectly random deck? What if there are jokers?” These propositions were so familiar that solving them was not frustrating for Oliver, but bitterly nostalgic.
By noon, they dismissed 11 of the 20 applicants. Lunch, said the interviewers, would be at their favorite place, a chophouse just down the block.
The menu had no vegetarian entrees. While Oliver sorted through which sides had bacon crumbles and which did not, the head interviewer clinked his knife against his glass. The applicants snapped to attention.
“This is how it ought to be,” he said. “Men eating steak. Enjoy this meal, gentlemen. By the end of the day, five of you will be Quantum traders. The rest of you will have had some damn good meat on our dime. Plus, you can always go work for,” he named another firm and the table laughed. “Now eat, and drink, and hell, drink some more, if you like.”
One applicant ordered “three fingers” of scotch “neat,” negotiating the vocabulary as a sixth grader does his first necktie. The two closest to him followed suit. “Four fingers for me,” said another. The first applicant looked at them like, “My idea, mine!”
“Do you have anything bigger than the 36-ounce porterhouse? I’m not sure it’s going to be enough,” asked an applicant of the busboy refilling his water.
“So when are the strippers coming?” joked another. At this remark his competition fell quiet and looked over, hoping he had gone too far and would be sent home on the spot.
Just when the applicant’s fleshy red face lost its last drop of color, an interviewer pointed at him and said, “This guy!” The table laughed. Thinking he had no other choice, knowing that wasn’t strictly true, or true at all, and suppressing that knowledge anyway, Oliver dove in.
“‘Three fingers of scotch,’ James? Fingers? This is America—we order shots. Kun-Ho, that porterhouse weighs more than you in a wet trench coat—I think it’ll do you fine. And Parker, you would call for strippers—have you ever gotten pussy without your daddy’s AmEx?”
“He speaks! The silent one speaks,” said the “This guy!” interviewer. The table laughed.
Oliver ordered a whiskey and a steak and a baked potato with sour cream, cheddar, and bacon crumbles. Whenever the table laughed, he would drop another piece of meat into the napkin on his lap and shake it onto the floor. By the end of the meal, he had managed to get all of the bacon and most of the steak under the table.
While the check was being processed and the other applicants struggled to finish their drinks, Oliver stole into the bathroom. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top button and leaned over the sink and splashed cold water onto his face. One eye on the door to make sure no one was coming in, Oliver took the paper from his pocket and unfolded it out on the sink countertop. A puddle he had not noticed saturated the top left corner of the paper. “Shit,” he muttered, lifting the paper before any more water seeped in. Oliver examined the damage: the ink and lead were not only blurred, but now also mingled through the wet fiber. He read, trying to tell apart phrase from symbol…
Faucets and faces and basins flickered before him in a schizophrenic slide show, some images lasting a full second, others only long enough to register as an echo. He heard an atonal whir and the occasional clacking, like a vacuum with a quarter stuck in the brush roll. In the mirror before him, years of tooth-picking, hair-parting and tie-straightening collaged into a composite Oliver, fuzzy and only vaguely recognizable, save for his green-brown eyes, which, however their frame appeared, not once lost their unmistakable sense of distance. In the doorway behind, a figure loomed. His mother? His father?
“Nice! Getting your game face on?” An interviewer entered the bathroom. He cracked a grin like he and Oliver were friends. Oliver looked over and grinned back like, “Yeah, totally,” returning the paper to his pocket.
The final question was an awful question that no one ought to ask.
“Well?” said the interviewer.
“Hmm,” said Oliver. Was he meant to answer directly? Or was the United States Security & Exchange Commission’s Most Wanted testing his moral compass? “I think…”
Outside the 27th floor office of Quantum Trading LLC, rain loomed. Oliver imagined what he would do if he were back on campus. If he were back on campus, he would have rolled a joint, put on his waxed cotton raincoat and walked down to the lakefront. If he timed the walk just right, using the temperature and the humidity and the wind as his predictors, he would have arrived at the coast just as the storm began. He would have chosen one of the polyhedral concrete boulders that gated Chicago’s North Shore from the wild of Lake Michigan, opened his umbrella, sat cross-legged and let transcendental daydreams wash over him as the rain replenished the lake.
But he was not back on campus. He was in a reflective glass box 300 feet up in the sky, and from this vantage point Oliver felt less like a subject to the impending storm and more like its creator. Olivus, Greek God of Rain.
“Would you like me to repeat the question?”
“There is a terrorist attack in downtown Chicago. Early reports indicate Islamic. What’s your move?”
The best Oliver could do was to appear thoughtful as he stalled. He furrowed his brow and looked out the window. If the position in question were God of Rain, the answer would have been easy: conjure up a storm to put out the fire. But futures trading: what ought a benevolent God of Futures Trading do? Buy? Sell? And more importantly, who cared? Dumping oil vega and gamma shorts, exploiting arbitrage opportunities opened up by high frequency firms’ vulnerability to black swan events—a viable short term profit strategy would be little comfort to the victims and their families. Whenever he tried to string a sentence together, the jargon tangled in knots on Oliver’s tongue.
“I would remind you that time is money,” said the interviewer.
“Huh?” said Oliver.
“Time is money. Every moment you delay is profit lost.”
“Oh, right. Of course.”
“Would you like me to repeat the question?”
“No, that’s O.K., I—“
“There is a terrorist attack in downtown Chicago. Early reports indicate Islamic. What’s your move?”
The third time the question broke his rhythm completely. Trying to answer now felt like resuming an intricate piece of music after a screw-up smack dab in the middle—all of the buildup lost, it seemed impossible to Oliver that he had been playing with such elegance just a moment ago. Which caused him to wonder: what was that song, anyway? Now that he thought about it, there had been something grotesque about the melody—like a beautiful ode to an unworthy subject. Like the leitmotif of a villain. Like a very clever lie.
The sky opened up. Tired, hungry, not a little bit hysterical, Oliver put his hand to his chest. He felt the outline of the paper through his coat. He pulled it out.
“We don’t allow prepared answers,” said the interviewer.
The repeated folding and this last unfolding caused a tear in the paper. Between the tear and the steam and the spill, the difference between sides had become nothing more than a formality. With the frustration (and wonder) of a curious illiterate, Oliver followed the unreadable marks across the page…
Oliver heard the patter of early morning rain against his bedroom window in San Francisco. He heard the steady rat-a-tat-tat on the El platform overhang five years on, waiting at his stop to go home from work far too late. He heard the roar of an apocalyptic hurricane off the coast of Florida, the one that would kill him 52 years later.
He saw his mother coming up the porch stairs, spinning her umbrella and singing Fleetwood Mac, the day before she left for good. He saw his father in work boots and his ratty Stanford hoodie, digging a canal in the front yard to keep their new pine tree, just a Charlie Brown thing back then, from flooding. He saw his own children, two girls and a boy, jumping in puddles in front of a home in a city he did not recognize.
He smelled baseball dirt, leather cleats, rotting fish, gasoline, onion grass, molded rubber, drenched wool, bonfire ash, floral perfume, hot cider and a finished oak coffin surrounded by the stale tobacco walls of a house three months after the smoker who lived there had quit, or gone.
Oliver’s hands clenched, crumpling the paper.
“Well? “ asked the interviewer. “What’s your move?”
“I don’t. I pass.”
“Why? If we look at past trends, futures options speculation after tragedy has great potential for—”
“No. No, I’m done with that.” Oliver stood up from his chair and showed himself out. He took the elevator down the 27 floors and crossed the lobby and walked through the rain to the nearest El station. As he tread through the nascent puddles and currents, he did his best not to think about the ruined paper, forgotten on the prop trader’s floor—the water was rising, and if he didn’t want to sink he had to start shedding, to make room for the lighter and more dangerous now, now, Now.
Michael Fu lives in Chicago, where he writes software for a living. His fiction can be found above and in a green milk crate under his desk.