the fixed point of Asa Zook/paul pietsch -- copyright 1996 by Paul Pietsch

chapter 19 Tough

A younger Asa Zook would immediately have asked Fish to clarify 'tough on Annabelle.' But bit- by- bit over the years, Asa had slowly and painfully discovered the language of social interchange to be full of poorly defined terms for unspecified apprehensions. To dig for clarification where clarity does not -- cannot -- exist was like exploratory surgery on an inoperative region of the brain. Asa surmised that 'tough' would arise in connection with the paper Annabelle planned to present in Minneapolis at the Anatomy meetings. "Should I deliver the talk?" he'd tried, feebly.

She had laughed and said, "Asa, they'd eat you alive on technical trivia." From her high spirits, Asa concluded that Annabelle had no expectation of whatever 'tough' was. Except for Fish's remark, Asa would not have broken stride on Sol's theory to follow her to Minneapolis.

Havering had recently opened a Computations and Systems Analysis Laboratory. Equipped with the new Burroughs 5000 digital computer, the Comp Lab, as everyone soon called it, churned through its day- to- day activities, attended by platoons of baby faced wizards in broadcloth shirts and silk neckties who spoke a tongue and practiced rituals all their own creation. Asa had developed a tangential interest in cybernetics and information theory when they first emerged, had written two articles on the implications of the binary bit and had learned Algol, the computer's program language. Several Comp Lab's cadre knew of Asa's papers, and because of them they permitted him inside their carefully guarded perimeter. "You're like a tame chimpanzee to them, Asa" Joyce allowed, "but not a colleague -- or even another person. The xenophobic bastards!"

Joyce had actually supplied the initial impetus for the Comp Lab. Wouldn't a Univac save people like Asa from the tedium of their own calculations? And, she persisted with Fish: how could a research institution honestly claim itself to be "on the front line" without a first- rate computer? Money? The federal government couldn't get rid of it fast enough, "Especially for projects of this sort, Fish." Not long afterwards, Fish's days became filled with activity whose outcome some months later was, as Joyce read aloud to Asa from the Washington Post, "A powerful new arm in the struggle against society's most dread disease." And Joyce was the main reason Asa turned his calculations over to "Big Burr," as Havering people referred to the main computer, itself. For reasons she would not discuss, Joyce actually begged Asa, "Let Big Burr do your calculations, please, Asa. Please dear."

In Algol, Asa encountered the very first new language he truly disliked. "Perhaps my intuition balks at the linearity," he told Joyce. The computer's utilization of memory, he found "fundamentally unlike living intelligence."

But Asa admitted his own computing could not begin to match Big Burr's extraordinary speed and efficiency. "Not when the necessary programs exist." And when Minneapolis came up, he was in the midst of "debugging" a new program he hoped would handle Sol Perlmutter's equations. Worse, Mrs. Rowan informed him, since Dr. Crowe was scheduled for late in the day, Asa would have to spend the night in a hotel. (He would have preferred a park bench.) Perhaps he should take some of the calculations along to fill in the time, he mused. Joyce drew his head to her bosom and begged him not to.

But she quickly regained her humor. "How would it look if you forgot to go to the presentation?" Besides, hadn't he been wishing for just such a hiatus to catch up on those new reports about messenger RNA? And how long had it been since he'd read a novel?

Asa left the calculations out of his briefcase.

It was after the talk, in the events of the subsequent evening, and from his reflections during the night that Asa synthesized the bits into a whole and deduced the meaning in the message 'tough'. He also uncovered crises.


During the twelve minutes while Annabelle's talk was in progress, Asa marveled at her command of detail. Her slides were flawless (unlike his); her narrative precisely fitted each illustration. If he had never heard of the Independence principle before this day, he would have left thoroughly convinced that muscles and skeletons differentiate independently and would have come away believing, as she closed: "We submit the proposition, therefore, that the logic of morphogenesis is inextricably bound to harmonic phase information."

Annabelle smiled at the moderator, signaling she was ready to begin the three minute question period. During her presentation, a few random sounds made up the background noise: whisperings, the hum and click of the slide projector, an occasional tobacco cough or the creak of a chair. But now the room became silent. No applause. No questions. No comments. No exchanges of remarks or even salutations among members of the audience. Not so much as a cleared throat. Yet not a seat was empty anywhere in the converted banquet room. And the stillness persisted, as stark as an anatomy laboratory without a class in session.

Annabelle soon turned, nodded to the moderator and started down from the stage. Asa retrieved her slides and met her coming up the side aisle.

"You were very good, Annabelle," he said.

Her eyes were tearing, Asa surmised from the dense mephitis of cigarette smoke. "I need a drink," she said and clutched his arm for support.

They went to a cocktail lounge off the lobby. He ordered black coffee, and Annabelle, "Scotch on the rocks. Make that a double." She sat for several minutes, head turned sharply to one side, one elbow on the table, lips distorted by the pressure of her fingers. Finally, she looked at him. "You don't grasp what went on in there, do you Asa?" She did not await a reply. "They completely and unequivocally rejected it. En masse, they clamped down their narrow little minds, Asa, and...They...They snubbed us. They're going to totally ignore the Independence Principle. Totally!"

Her drink arrived and she stopped talking to take a large swallow. Then another. "The bastards," she declared and snapped her fingers for the waitress.

"It is a new idea, Annabelle. It may take getting used to."

"Bullshit. If it had just been that we'd at least have had questions about techniques, probes about our controls, negative comments, critical remarks -- which I expected. But not no reaction. No reaction at all..." Her glass was empty again, and she was craning for the waitress.

"Perhaps it was surface apathy."

"Almost every established investigator in my field was in that room, Asa. It is not apathy. They're closing me out of the goddamn field. Out..."

He suggested that she go to her room and lie down.

"I want more to drink!"

"You are consuming too much ethanol in too brief a period, Annabelle," he tried. When she persisted, he finally talked her into having a bottle of Teachers sent up to her room. On the way to the elevator, he had to support her around the waist in order to check her staggering. "Joyce wouldn't like this, Asa," she said. At her room, he decided to put her to bed. "Joycey's not going to like it at all, at all," she sang as he searched her purse for the key.

"Please don't leave me alone," she pleaded after he eased her down onto a settee to remove her shoes. "I can't be by myself now, Asa. I must be with somebody I love and trust."

He took the chair at the writing desk and listened. They were a damn bunch of shits, she insisted. Of course they wouldn't listen to Independence. It blasted the bedrock from under their pinhead beliefs. Asa answered a knock on the door. It was the waiter, and he carried the tray to the writing desk. Asa thanked him in Tagalog. They chatted briefly on the way to the door. Asa gave him a hundred dollar bill and said the change was the tip.

By the time Asa returned, Annabelle had already poured herself a large glass of whiskey and had transferred to the edge of the bed.

"Maybe if I were a Jap you'd show more interest in me."

Asa said he was profoundly interested in her, "And concerned." But, and he apologized for it, he was very inept in matters such as these.

She knew! She knew! She waved her arm and the ice cubes clinked in her almost emptied glass. "Oh, how I do know, Asa Zooky."

She stood, walked very slowly to the desk and set down the still undrained glass. Good, he thought, she has stopped drinking. She turned, staggered to the toilet but did not close the door. He heard her urinating. She swagged back to the desk and refilled her glass. "You should try a snort, Aza. Iss good for what ails you." She offered him the second glass on the tray. He shook his head, considered admonishing her but could not think of words that would be both appropriate and effective.

"You jez have no idea Azazook what this real worl's all about." In his cocoon, guarded by his beloved Joycey and his palsywalsy Fishcake there weren't any pimps and junkies and shitheels. Little girls didn't get felt up by dirty old men. Students didn't cheat on their exams. Professors weren't out for all the pussy they could grab. "The fuggers." She bet if she was a man they wouldn't have snubbed her. Maybe he should have given the talk. Asa disagreed and told her about the scanty attention to his research. "That's because..." She stopped talking to sneeze. ...That was because nobody had the foggiest notion of what he was talking about. "But those bastards understood today. Oh boy, did they understand."

Asa said her audience today was but a tiny fraction of the scientific community. It would take persistence and time to educate the culture as a whole, which was where their -- his and Annabelle's -- true obligation lie. She should take comfort from how well her brain scrambling experiments had been received by the psychologists and biophysicists.

"But they're not my peers." Psychology and biophysics weren't "My field...Oh dear..." She began to cry. "I wish Joyce were only here." Fish too. The sonofabitch. How could he let her walk into a buzz saw like this? "No," she insisted between sobs, Asa simply did not know what science was really like, let alone -- she pointed her glass toward the window --"The rest of that out there." What it was like for a woman. Did he ever know that she had the lowest rank and salary of any senior scientist at Havering? She prevented his reply with, "Of course not." . Did she ever tell him how she once sat across the desk interviewing for a job in an anatomy department and the sonofabitchin' swine of a chairman flat out told her he wouldn't hire a woman? Nooo, she knew he didn't know, even though she'd told Joyce. And she was five times the scientist that fat slob who got the friggin' job was . And how many fat slob women did he see in science? "A Phi Beta Kappa key and a neat little ass is openers for us." After another trip to the bottle, she returned to the settee, tried to cross her legs and failed. She wore no panties, he could not help observing. Suddenly, she straightened up, took a long, deep breath and held it for a moment. She exhaled slowly and said, coherently, "I shall quit science, Asa."

"It would be a terrible loss."

"I can't endure the price of truth, Asa Zook."

"The price?"

"Rejection." She bent forward, rested her forearms on her knees and rolled the empty glass between the palms of both hands. She cried softly for a while. The beauty he had always admired seemed to be returning. Then she stopped crying and looked up at him. "Will you make love to me, Asa?"

"In the way I believe you mean, Annabelle, no I will not."

"Am I not attractive to you?"

"You are very beautiful, Annabelle, even now."

She rose, staggered to the table and spilled whiskey on the floor as she poured another glass. He jumped up to catch her as she teetered back to the settee and stood above her as she drained the glass.

"Please let me put you to bed, Annabelle."

"Daz zackly what I wan ya t' do Azook." He bent to lift her, and she threw her arms about his neck. Traces of musky perfume became evident as he raised her body. She closed her eyes and rested her cheek on his clavicle. The beat of her heart pushed her breast against him in rhythmic caresses. "Kiz me," she whispered as he lowered her to the bed. He removed her clothing. Then responding to a cue he had perceived en route to the bed, he knelt, cupped her left breast in the palm of his hand and held it out of the way as he placed his ear against her chest wall. In an instant, he realized she had a severely damaged mitral valve. He worked the bed clothes down underneath her, rolled her onto her belly, adjusted her head to prevent the aspiration of vomit and carefully covered her up. Then he removed his jacket and shoes, eased down beside her and laid his arm across her shoulders.


Asa had opened the discussion to enlist Joyce's aid and advice. But: "You what?" she cried out as he tried to supply the preliminary background. Did he honestly expect her to swallow a story like that? Even him? All night with a hot number like that? And here she spent her days -- faithful no less -- in the midst of the world's longest running sexfest since Sodom and...And...And with someone she loved as a sister. Did he really expect her to fall for such palter. She'd dealt with mendacity all her adult life, knew every ass- covering maneuver there was. And goddamn it! No! She wasn't going to calm down and listen. He'd betrayed her. And Annabelle! Oh how could she have done..."Annabelle!" Anyone else. Anyone else, and she might simply have written it off and hoped only that he hadn't caught the clap. But Annabelle! "Oh Asa, how could you." And with that, "I don't want to hear another dissembling word!" She hastily packed her briefcase and said she was going back to Washington where, "at least the lies are honest ."

She did not return to New York during the rest of the week. Nor did she come home for the weekend. Asa telephoned her office several times. She did not respond to her private line. And each time he called the receptionist or an aide would return to say, "Sorry, Dr. Zook," Mrs. Zook couldn't be reached just now; was in committee; had just stepped out to lunch; hadn't returned from lunch; was at a roll call; was tied up in conference with the Vice President; wasn't yet in for the day...Would he care to leave a message?

Asa went to Washington. Bill Griffith said he would see what he could do. He soon emerged to say he was real sorry, Asa. Asa started to leave. But instead, he turned. Bill rose to block his entry. "Please, Asa," he said. As gently as he possibly could, Asa grasped Bill's arm, moved him aside and entered Joyce's office.

Bill followed. "I tried to stop him, Joyce. But he darn near dislocated my shoulder."

Joyce looked up, her pen poised above a legal- sized yellow pad, the silken ends of blouse tie dangling onto the ruled paper. "It's all right Bill," she said. Bill left and closed the door. Asa walked to her desk and her gaze followed him. Her faced was covered with a heavy mask of cosmetics, the mascara not at all concealing her bad need of a good night's sleep.

"I ask you to hear all I must say, Joyce."

"I'm numb, Asa. I would prefer it if you'd simply go away and not exacerbate my deep grief."

He felt her pain, he said. He deeply regretted his crudity. However, he believed Joyce knew his failings, understood his deficiencies, apprehended his blind spots. Also, he knew of no one alive with her ability to see beyond appearances and recognize plain truth. She listened without interruption. Then, "Please don't," she begged after he finished and started around the desk to take her into his arms.

Perhaps she was overreacting, she said. Perhaps it was her festering fear about his and Annabelle's truly beautiful relationship. Perhaps it was fear of her own inadequacy. But something had given way inside her. Some part of her id was simply trying to save itself from an inevitable calamity. She would not speculate about ultimate causes. And possibly -- just possibly -- the whole thing would settle down to the bottom of her soul somewhere and she'd want him again. Yes, of course, she believe what he told her. "The journalistic facts, at least." She probably believed him in New York. She knew he never lied; that nothing could ever make him lie. But the truth was more than just the facts. Somehow, she'd have to heal. And if she could not would simply have to go on for both of them. Could he call her, he asked, perhaps at midweek? "I am not going to answer you, Asa," was her only reply.

Above the ocean on the plane back to New York, Asa made a decision. First, though, he would have to see Annabelle; then Fish. And then...He did not let the remainder of the thought reach the verbal surface.

Annabelle was in her office. Her face flushed as he entered. "I am not a physician any longer," he said. "But..." She had known about the murmur, she said, but not of its severity. He assured her that it could be repaired. Then he discussed 'tough' and finally drew a deep breath. Her solution was "unphilosophical."

She made no promises but mused something about solace among her salamanders. She apologized for her behavior and said she was unaccustomed to that much alcohol. Asa mentioned neither. He told her to take comfort in her masterpiece and her rare gift for turning thought into knowledge. Before he left, he took her head in both hands and kissed her gently on the cheek.

Dr. Adrian was in conference with one of the trustees, Mrs. Gibson said. "Well," if it was that urgent and simply couldn't keep, she'd let him wait in Dr. Adrian's working office. In a few minutes Fish briskly entered and sat at his steel desk. Asa first told him about Annabelle's need for surgery. Then he raised the subject of her rank and salary which, he insisted should, minimally, equal his own. Finally, he argued, the injustice at issue was inextricably a part of 'tough.' "The two are joined by the same head," he heard his voice saying. Fish squinted, then glanced at his wrist watch. Finally, shaking his head from side to side, he interrupted.

"It is none of your damned business, Dr. Zook. Only because of our close relationship have I listened this long. And only because you are very special to me am I even going to give you the courtesy of a response before I kick you out of my office. Annabelle Crowe's status will remain unchanged until I decide when or whether to change it. Period!"

Asa returned to his office. He stuffed Sol's research into his briefcase. Then he sat at his typewriter and wrote his letter of resignation from Havering.

He stopped at the farm to pick up his big slide rule and Momma's kerosene lamp. Poppa and two of Raymond's roofers were atop the new wing of the house. Millie's girl said the Missus and the children had gone to the church in Mrs. Overfield's car, all except the two big boys, and did Asa want "a samich or anything?" He thanked her and said no.


The surf pounded in angry earnest, and the unusually loud roar, even for this sea, drew Asa's attention before he reached the porch. Still holding his briefcase, he walked down to the beach. For several minutes, he watched the turbulent swells fulminate at him. After a while, he glanced at his briefcase. Then he held it up to eye level. Simultaneously addressing it and the sea, he called out, "One of you will own me on this mean day. Who has the stronger desire?" He cupped his ear with his free hand as though collecting the sound of a distant voice. After a moment, he turned toward the bungalow, flung the briefcase high in the air and watched it bounce end over end and kick up dry sand. Then he undressed. Naked, standing on the wet apron of sand, and using his hands as a megaphone, he yelled at top voice, "Who else but you, God!"

Asa stepped into the bone- cracking cold and plunged into the next green- white turmoil. He surfaced in a spiral to take the full crash of the next breaking swell. Then he was being thrust landward. But he fought his way through the boil until he began to feel the undertow trying to unpeel him.

"Turn to the shore." It was his own voice ringing in his ears. He spun around, complying, and began his most powerful strokes. You tire more quickly than the boy. "Yes, I do." Although he accelerated, his pace was futile. A rising crest took him high enough to see the breakwater, which he used as a reference to judge his distance from the shore. Then for an instant, he was in a trough.

'In the stillness between two waves of the sea!' the Deep Brain declared.

"Will you hound me to the very end?" he screamed out.

To almost the fixed point between life and death, I shall be with you; to a moment just before the one is part of the other, Asa.

"Riemann's words," he shouted. "When the one is part of the other!" And in that instant, Asa Zook saw his theory from beginning to end, as a philosophical whole.

Now he truly wanted the shore. "I must finish it." I must. I must. Too late, Asa. Too late, the left side of his mind laughed. He had indeed exhausted himself beyond the method of his boyhood escape. Even if he did not cramp, he would soon lose consciousness. And his quivering muscles were already signaling the imminent onset of the excruciation he would feel in a another second or two.

The first contracture struck as a turbid swell carried him high into the air. By the time he plummeted, both calves had jack- buckled tight against his thighs. His feet clenched into fists. The meat of his hamstrings had massed into hammer- hard rock. His undisplaced weight quickly sank. He tried to hold his breath, but too late. At the first cold smack of brine against its lining, his larynx slammed shut. If his eyes were open, he could not tell. For wherever he was, it was black. Relax Asa, it will go more easily that way, the left side of his mind advised.

I cannot die on this day!

His hands found the hardened hillocks on the backs of his thighs and his massaging fingers coaxed the contractures to release his knees. Carefully, now, to the surface! he urged. With arms arching and legs moving just enough for displacement the water above him turned pale. And then there was light. Don't gasp, the Deep Brain advised; or you will intensify the laryngospasm. His obedience brought immediate relaxation of his entire pharynx. He took a polite breath. Then another. Then a third. And then he filled his chest with precious air.

Now a new horror. The sea was rapidly propelling him toward the breakwater. And on this day the surf assaulted the rubble mound more savagely than ever before.

So this is what you have in store for me, sea. Not drowning. You hate me too much for that. You will murder me against my own stronghold. The very refraction of the waves against the artificial barrier, an effect of the breakwater itself, created the Poisson fury now hurtling him inexorably closer and closer to extinction.

Dive! Without hesitating, he half- somersaulted, was beneath the surface, swimming straight down and departing the turbulence above him. Down, down, down into the cold darkness; down until pressure popped one of his eardrums. Down until his outstretched fingers rammed into the class B blocks of the breakwater's flanged base. Working with the undertow, climbing as much as swimming, he slowly ascended along the submerged, artificial slope until surface currents rudely shoved his head. Stop! Asa wedged himself into a crack between two submerged armor blocks in order to cancel the cavitational effects of subsurface eddies. He waited. Then in a momentary ebb -- 'In the stillness between two waves of the sea!' -- Asa Zook propelled himself into the air, onto the windward face of the breakwater, and, with the last measure of his strength scampered like a ruined rat, up the superstructure only a fraction of a microblink ahead of the sea's next lethal blow.

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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