But it was not yet deep into this night, and Asa was not speculating in his Journal about what Plato might have done with Asa Zook's phaseogramic theory of memory. Now, Asa sat watching artificial twilight at the edge of Annabelle Crowe's dissecting microscope, watching her image gradually merge with the shadows and join the darkness where he waited, silently and obediently, for her to speak again.
Her hands poised above the microscope's stage, as though suspended by pure will. Her fingers seemed powered by forces exclusive to themselves. By terminating conversation amid- thoughts, moments before, she'd signaled that an operation was about to commence, and, forthwith, Asa apprehended that a rite had commenced. Her behavior commanded the world about her, 'Be still!' Suddenly, talk would have been desecration. And Asa waited.
But Annabelle was no puffing, snorting Gulliver in the minified world of her magnification. Totally lacking from her movements were the stresses and stains and grunts so perfectly reasonable and understandable when a human eye must guide a human hand within tolerances measured in micrometers. She was an omnipresence, here. Occurrences beneath her lenses seemed predestined; what slipped into place seemed meant to be there from the origin of time. Clearly, she was the mistress of this domain; it was undeniably her fief; but all things here seemed to exist to please her more than obey her. The tips of her instruments executed invisible movements, and only in retrospect did Asa realize that any cutting had gone on. Only after a tiny object moved through the invisible anesthetic fluid was he aware that it had been teased or coaxed or drawn. Yet, while Annabelle remained supremely sovereign, she belonged as much to this domain as it did to her. Perhaps this is the secret, Asa thought.
"I want you to look at this, Asa." Her voice startled him. In an instant, she had vanished into the darkness. The casters on his chair whistled and squealed like impudent little pigs as he scooted over to look into her microscope.
A submerged axolotl dominated the optical field, its primitive soul suspended in chemical narcosis, its belly trussed against soft clay by crossed straight pins magnified to resemble the pylons of a great steel pier. The animal's external gills drew his attention, their blood vessels rendered transparent under the microscope; here blood was not a homogeneous red liquid but individual crimson corpuscles whose flow he likened to pressgangs of draftees driven in pulsatile rushes uphill from arteries into capillaries; then, like mountain infantry in downhill retreat, unhesitatingly racing into veins.
Now he focused the microscope on the surgical field. Annabelle had laid back the animal's velum scalp, opened its translucent skull and exposed the marble- like surface of its brain. "Do its visible textures make you want to touch it, Asa?" She'd read his thoughts.
A faint ping registered within Asa's head, a signal, no doubt, that his time had expired. He wheeled back out of Annabelle's way and resumed his silent vigil. She took her place, worked in silence for less than a minute and then spoke, "I'll put this dissection into ten percent formalin for you.
"Can you see the phaseogram becoming a scientific reality in the brain of the salamander?"
"In principle," he answered. "If the phaseogram truly belongs to Nature and is not an aberration of my own mind. Yes!" But he added. "It is a privilege to peer into your world, Annabelle."
"I always feel that way, too, Asa. It never gets old, to me. When I'm working, it's as though my hands are on the very fabric of life itself. And a line from Troilus and Cressida keeps turning over and over in my mind. 'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.' Do you know that line, Asa?"
"Can you see yourself in my world, Asa?"
He pondered her proposal. "The question must be turned around, Annabelle. Can I still see your world with me in it? Or does its beauty fade as my clumsy hands emerge from the shadows?"
"But I mean with us as collaborators. Your theories, my experiments, our investigations. I know it would work, Asa. I'm certain of it."
"An experimentalist must have a good intuition, a keen sense of the possibilities...of...of reality. Of what's permissible in the real world, Asa."
"My intuition serves me only in the abstract."
"But you seem so responsive to the real world. Or at least the part of the real world that's most important to me. Fish asked me if I'd give some consideration to working with you. I wouldn't give him an answer until I saw how you'd react to my salamanders. 'Will he treat them as laboratory commodities, like test tubes and reagents?' I couldn't work with anyone who lacked respect for my animals. But Asa, you don't merely respect them. You...care about them. At least as much as I do. And I...I very much want to work with you, Asa."
"I've lived most of my life loving what you showed me today -- most of my life camped at Nature's periphery looking for new variants of her old themes; most of my life deriving renewal from experiences such as today's. But I'm a passive observer, like Aristotle. I have no talent for physical intervention. I record. I analyze. I evaluate. But I do not create. I do not synthesize with the media of reality. My creations exist in the abstract."
"Isn't the process ultimately the same? Isn't creating a theory like inventing a new experiment? Isn't there some generic creativity with limitless ways of expressing it?"
"I accept that a Platonic idea of creativity exists, yes. And I believe its universal elements account for the kinship between the true artist and the genuine philosopher."
"That's what I'm suggesting, Asa. I'm sort of a Platonist, myself. When I look at a liver cell under the microscope, I recognize it as a liver cell even though I've never seen that particular one before. I immediately appreciate its liverness. Why should creativity -- creativeness -- be any different?"
"There is the practical matter of special talents, Annabelle."
"Which makes people more interesting than liver cells." They laughed softly together.
"The very constraints of individuality set the stage for community, Asa. Even among cells. But we're like cells in that we enjoy our individual existence -- as cells seem to do. And we maintain and preserve our individuality by adding our special contributions to the body as a whole. Does that sound half- baked to a philosopher?"
"It does not. But to carry along your cytological metaphor, Annabelle, the wrong cell in the wrong place can destroy the whole. And this, I truly fear about my entering your world."
"You're far too serious, Asa Zook. I suppose you've been told that before." ***
Suddenly, the overhead lights came dazzlingly on. Asa squinted. And when he was able to focus, Annabelle Crowe was sitting goddess straight before him, lab coat not at all concealing the Venus underneath, eyes a- twinkle, holding a corked vial between a thumb and middle finger, offering him her dissected salamander. "Here he is, Asa, fixed. Take him with you. See if inspecting his brain puts any experimental ideas into yours."
The birds awoke Asa, and he immediately thought of Joyce. She had given him her private number and made him promise to call her this morning. Fish had offered him a job, he told her. She was excited, she said. She agreed he should not rush into a decision, especially if it meant giving up teaching. She too admonished him for his seriousness. When he described Annabelle Crowe, Joyce insisted on flying up that morning and meeting him at a motel near Idlewild. After they made love, and as he held her, Joyce asked, "Is Annabelle beautiful?" Asa said she was. "Is she a good piece of ass, too?" Only after Asa said in all probability and Joyce bounced from the bed and called him a licentious, womanizing, double- crossing, whoremonging sonofbitching bastard did he realize she was jealous.
"Oh God, what am I saying, Asa," she cried out and flung herself into his arms. She sobbed deeply for several minutes while he stroked and kissed her hair and tried to console her. Then Joyce apologized for her possessiveness, said he had a perfect right to see whomsoever he wished and, "after all" they weren't man and wife.
"We are much more than that, Joyce." She wanted to make love again. Without supplying the history or identifying the source, Asa recounted Anita's maxim.
"How poetic," Joyce said. "And how sensible." She eased away from him and went to the bathroom. He could hear her urinating but could not make out what she was asking.
"What is it you're saying, Joyce?"
Returning and kneeling naked against his bare thighs, Joyce asked, "Is jealously a form of insanity? When you described HER on the phone, it was as though some kind of poison was suddenly released inside my brain. Immediately, I wanted to hurt you. Really hurt you. And hurt myself, too. Then I became intensely hot for you. My rationality seemed to disintegrate. And do you know something, dear. I hate to admit this. My orgasm was the most intense so far. Yet it didn't help. In fact, I was even more jealous afterwards. But as you were holding me, something remarkable happened. The instant I felt reassured -- in the snap of a finger -- the entire fit vanished. Excuse my metaphors, but it was as though the poison had been sucked down a drain pipe in my soul. And sanity gushed back into my brain.
"Asa, do you suppose Annabelle provoked a deep, subconscious dread within me? A dread of losing you for a third time in my life? I'd die if I lost you, you know." She pressed her fingers to his lips. "Don't answer, Asa. Let's not start down that alley again." And playfully she jumped up hooked her panties with a big toe and declared, "You know this is the third day in a row I've worn drawers." Squirming into them, she giggled. "I'm going to leave Asa Zook smeared all over me for the rest of the day." She had him fasten her brassière. Then she went to the bureau mirror to apply lipstick. "Am I attractive, Asa? I mean...as compared to..."
"That was a stupid, silly question. Forgive me, please dear."
"It was not a stupid question. You should not have had to ask it of me. You are seeking assurances I should be providing without having to be asked. Therefore, let me articulate what you doubtless already know from my behavior but are entitled to hear again and again and again. I love you totally, Joyce. Eternally." She set down the comb she had just picked up and walked to him.
Asa revisited Havering that afternoon for a careful look at Annabelle Crowe's axolotl breeding colony. The pedigree of her principal strain went back to one established in 1931 by Rufus Humphrey, she said, as they walked down the hall. The animals she routinely employed traced to a pair she'd brought from Buffalo where she did her graduate work. She regretted her tight schedule and that she would be unable to "hang around." But she was turning him over to capable hands.
They entered a door marked "AXOLOTL COLONY" and were immediately met by a young man. "Asa, I want you to meet my animal tender, Julio Hernandez. I'll be leaving you in has care," she said and left.
Asa greeted Julio in Spanish. Julio gleamed a perfect set of teeth and extended a sorrel- colored arm of the diameter and hardness of a mop handle. In a machine gun burst of Puerto Rican Spanish, mixed with English, he explained that he "snuck (English)" on the subway and got over here fast every day after school, fed the animals, changed the water, mixed the tubs of Holtfreter's salt solution, washed the stacks of dirty finger bowls, squeegeed down the floor, ran over to the Polack pet store on Second Avenue for twenty- five cents tubifex from the sewers, picked up Doc Crowe's Tribune from the Jew candy store (Doc Zook wasn't Jewish, was he? But Julio liked Jews, anyway!) -- where he used to buy three loose cigarettes but didn't anymore because he had been training to become a second baseman (which was before he decided to become a scientist but stayed quit from the weed anyway); then bought himself a hot dog from the old guinea's pushcart -- when he had a spare dime; then came back and did his math homework and....Julio stopped suddenly, laughed and switched completely to English. "Hey man," Asa talked a funny kind of Spanish. "Where you learn that shit?"
Without waiting for an answer, Julio continued in English. He'd heard Doc Zook was good at math. What about trig? Did he give out lessons? "'Cause up in my school they don't tell us oogots about periodic functions"; and his brother Carlos said "They might axe that shit on the Regents." And if he didn't get good marks on the Regents the "Whyguys..."[The what? ] White guys -- they wouldn't let him into CCNY. And you had to go to college to become a scientist, "Right Doc?" Then Julio's grin disappeared and he stood at attention. "You teach me periodic functions, Doc, and I pay you."
Asa said it would be a privilege to teach Julio, but he couldn't accept payment. Julio refused Asa's offer. Asa had an idea. He would tutor Julio in exchange for a demonstration of the behavior of salamanders.
"You got you a deal, Doc." Julio's hard little hand and big warm smile came forth simultaneously. But he imposed a condition that made Asa laugh. "Talk only English, Doc, so I know what you're talking about."
Julio had already "changed the little guys." Little guys? "The larvae. They eat the tubifex I buy yesterday." But if Doc Zook wanted to watch right now, Julio was getting ready for the "Mamalucee."
"The big guys. The adult axolotls. The Mamaluchios." Julio transposed from a smile to a leer. "You never heard of the Mamaluchee where you live, Doc?" Julio slipped a hand under his rubber apron, through the side slit of his white lab coat and brought forth a pocket comb. He flexed the comb over the edge of a work bench. "Up on the block, a Hundred- and- Fifteenth Street, you catch a guy sleeping on the stoop and you go ---" He released the flexed end of the comb, and it snapped abruptly against the surface of the bench. "You give him a mamaluchee on the head. You go zappo!" He snapped the comb a second time. "The guy gets a mamaluchee. A lump." Asa remained puzzled. "Patience, Doc. You live longer that way."
Julio removed a clear plastic plate from the freezing compartment of the refrigerator. On the plate was a thin, squarely- trimmed slab of beef liver. Julio produce a knife from his pants pocket, and shtitttt! Instantaneously, seven inches of mirror steel swished into existence. Following motions concatenated with the swish of the blade, the still frozen slab of liver became equivalent rectangular prisms and the rectangles redish- brown cubes. Finished cutting, Julio carefully rinsed the blade under a gentle stream of warm water, dutifully dried and polished the steel on a surgical gauze pad and offered the instrument to Asa. Yes, it was a splendid knife. Instinctively, Asa folded the blade into the handle. He attempted to return the prize to Julio. "Sell it to you, Doc." Asa explained that he was already overstocked with now rarely used fishing knives and that it would be an injustice for such a fine piece of craftsmanship to suffer almost certain disuse.
Julio poked at a piece of liver with the handle of a forceps. "Got to thaw a little more," he explained. "Got to shimmy. Doc Crowe says the salamander has to think the meat is a worm. They don't eat it if you just throw it in the water. Not even if they starving. So help me, Doc!" as though swearing an oath, Julio raised his right hand and placed his left palm on his chest.
Asa fell in and marched behind Julio. They entered a room within the room. "Get the door, hehn, Doc." Asa closed the door behind them. "Gotta watch the temperature." If they didn't and it got too hot for the animals, "Doc Crowe bites her nails." He stared momentarily at Asa. "And if she bites her nails, that ain't right, man."
A commercial air conditioner grumbled in the inner room. An automatic timer constituted the light switch. A large soapstone water table and pumice- pointed sink divided the room into subsections. Stacked on one side were rows and columns of crystalline finger bowls, each labeled with the pedigree number and spawning date of the embryos or larvae it contained. The other tables supported shoe box- shaped receptacles, each half full of water, each housing what looked like an over- ripe banana on legs. "The big guys," Julio pointed and grinned. "The breeders."
Julio set the plate of liver to one side and winked at Asa. Then with fingers, he began drumming the edge of the table while counter- pointing his digital beats with syncopated puffs of his lips. "Carmen Cavallaro," he said. "I'm telling my Mamaluchios, 'Come and get it.'"
Randomly positioned in the water when Julio began his tattoo, the axolotls now began slowly turning. Half- swimming, half- walking, they inched forward. Asa crouched for an eye- level look at one well nourished denizen. "He'd like to eat you, Doc," Julio interspersed into his percussive jitsu. Asa quickly stood up.
After each animal had come forward, Julio transferred the plate of diced liver at the far edge of the line of bowls, produced the comb and winked at Asa. He flexed the comb an inch above the lip of one bowl. "Now watch careful, Doc." He released the comb and it snapped against the plastic. "Mamaluchee," Julio sang out. The animal's bushy external gills flexed. After a brief interval, the creature braced its legs as though about to do push- ups. Then it arched its muscular back and looked directly up at Julio's face. Julio exchanged the comb for a pair of forceps, plucked a cube of liver from the plate and dangled it above the poised animal. In a moment, he lowered the jiggling meat to the water. As the liver crossed the interface between air and fluid, the axolotl struck: a loud splash and the liver instantly vanished.
Julio turned to Asa. "I give the dish a Mamaluchee, and the liver, it disappears, Zappo!"
Julio let Asa perform the rite for Mamaluchio Number Two. Then Julio became silent and intent, and with dispatch repeated the ritual for every adult axolotl in the room.
"Listen carefully for the wisdom of the children," Asa wrote "They speak a simple truth." He allowed his memory to replay his day with Julio and the Mamaluchee.
Had Julio ever heard of Pavlov, Thorndike or Watson, Asa had asked. "Who?"
Julio had insisted, "Animals, they smart. You take flies, for instance." When he was a kid, Julio told, he used to catch them and pull off their wings so they couldn't "excape"; then he'd teach them tricks. For example? Like which aspirin box not to crawl into the next time if they didn't want to get stuck on flypaper with a little red pepper on it.. "Roaches, too, Doc. They pretty slick." And Doc Zook ought to see rats sometime. "Ma-dawn," they learn just like that. He snapped his fingers. ('Ma-dawn' was "Wop," he inserted.) When Doc Crowe first showed him how to feed salamanders, Julio said to himself, "Sheed. That ain't the right way." And he taught them the mamaluchee. Because it was fun? "Yeah. Sure." But he got done quicker. Then he could do his homework. Doc Crowe said it was okay. "Go axe her if you don't believe me." Asa assured Julio that he believed him.
Accompanying Julio on his errands, Asa had asked the age at which the animals can become Mamaluchios. "Hey that wasn't in the deal Doc." He nevertheless answered Asa's question. At the hot dog vendor, when Julio wanted to flip coins to see who paid, Asa suggested the meal as the quid pro quo for the additional information. Julio said, "Aaah, I was only fooling, Doc!" He'd tell him for free. And he wanted to "treat" Asa. Now it was Asa's turn for pride, and he also offered to buy lemonade. Julio shook his head, no! When the octogenarian vendor bent over the steam table to reach the bun rack, Julio turned to one side, baffled his mouth with the back of his hand and, pointing with his eyes at a row of dangling glass mugs, mimed, "Germs."
Back at Havering, Julio had led Asa to a vacant conference room, handed him a piece of chalk and said, "Okay, Doc. Pay up." Julio quickly grasped the meaning of periodic functions. Asa taught him how to perform the calculations on a slide rule. "That's a neat thing, that slide rule of yours, Doc."
"Would you accept it as a gift of friendship, Julio?"
Julio pondered the slide rule for a moment, became very serious and responded, "Thank you, Dr. Zook," he said, and offered his hand.
Annabelle Crowe had walked with Asa to the cross- town bus stop. "He is an utterly astonishing person," Asa said of Julio.
"I thought you'd like him," Annabelle said. She kissed Asa on the cheek just before he hopped aboard the bus.
Poppa, or possibly Raymond, had boarded up the windows and doors with heavy plywood. Although its screening was in disrepair, the porch looked usable without further ado. The outdoor fireplace was half buried in drifted sand. And the pump head was gone. Which was just as well. For Asa was in no physical condition to haul water.
He unloaded enough gear from the car to dig out the fireplace and get the coffee water started. Then he replaced his boots with sneakers, put on his field jacket and walked down to greet his dangerous old friend.
"Hello!" he called out. The sound of the surf seemed like the roaring refrain of a harassed lion. "I miss you nowadays," Asa shouted. The hissing and pounding took the sound of his voice as part of themselves. "You are far too menacing today, even for just the feet."
He climbed the breakwater and walked slowly along its jagged crest, out to its seaward extreme. The gray- green water showed no sign of life: no ships, boats, fishermen, sharks. "We're alone," Asa shouted. "Have you swallowed up the rest of the world?" A heavy swell crashed into the breakwater and the spray wet his face. He caught some of the briny drip with his tongue. "You're still delicious." He backed up and perched on the angled face of a class A block.
"I could not make such a decision without consulting you. If you could hear, I would tell you what I have been learning recently about all things wavy, including you. And myself. We all belong to a oneness. We are all the children of a single space- time. We are all descendants of the same love. And when I love another, I love you all the more for it. And when you lend me your thunderous wisdom, we are all the wiser."
He watched for a while, felt the spray, heard the roar, tasted the brine and watched the never- ending rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall. The surface changed continually, was not quite the same from one moment to the next. Yet the change of the changing change never changed. The sea showed the real meaning of immutability. Not the stark motionlessness of an inert cube of matter. But the recapitulated recapitulation of a dynamic logos. "Riemann knew it," Asa called out. "Einstein knew it. If Plato had spoken their mathematical tongues, Socrates would have proclaimed it to the ages." The sea revealed the phaseogram, the whatness of the psyche, the prize he had chased since boyhood and finally began to catch up to at the end of youth.
Asa watched the sea until the spray no longer reached the breakwater's crest, until the tide withdrew the fury for another shore. He stood to go but tarried just a little longer. Then he put both hands to his mouth and gestured a double kiss.
The coffee had boiled away in his absence. He cleaned the pot and began again. Hoisting a handful of sand, he addressed the fire. "Even an agate pot can be regenerated with gifts of the sea. We find you, blessed Nature, in the most routine chores of a day."
He had eaten no lunch, but it was dusk before he felt any desire for food. He dumped beans into a frying pan, added shavings of cheese and as an afterthought tossed in a can of sardines. He cut the lid off a can of peaches and slurped the sweet juice. As he watched the contents of the frying pan, he speared voluptuous peach halves, plumped them into his mouth and grinned as he champed the pulpy deliciousness. After the cheese melted, he poured another canteen cup of coffee and carried the meal to the step of the porch.
It was the time of sunset, and for a moment he wished he had a view of the western sky. "But I face you tonight," he said softly to the sea. "I face you!" he shouted.
The blue above the ocean deepened as he watched, and in a short while the moon appeared. "A mad man's moon! How fitting!" He thought he heard the faint refrain of music and for an instant mistook his precepts for hallucinations. But it was his dance pavilion, after all. "Girls in bobby socks and Angora sweaters," he said through a mouthful of beans and cheese and fish. Movies and dancing and accepted offers of beer. "Anita." His memory recreated her in the colors she most dignified. "Odette." And the anonymous cocktail hostess he probably should have asked for a date. And the woman whose tenderness had prompted him to plant a rosebush. And the student who defied the dress code. What was that child's name? And Annabelle. And Joyce. Above all, Joyce! He poured another coffee and sat a little closer to the fire.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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