Quantum Mechanic

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On June 11th,  17-year-old Kelly McArthur was killed after his ’67 Camaro was t-boned by an ’81 Acura. There was a tricky light on Greebrier and 67th that was regularly ignored by teens and the elderly. The police report would later reveal that he had blown through the intersection on a solid red light, where the Acura kissed the driver’s side at 55 mph.

The accident was the lead story on Fremont’s local news. Tales were spread about parts of Kelly being picked up for nearly three hours after the incident. Gregg Rosen had a sensitive stomach, and vomited upon hearing these high school hallway tidbits.

Today was June 14th, and a candlelight vigil was scheduled at 8p.m. Gregg had seen the spectacle broadcast many times before – the tiny white taper candles, the crude collaged posters, the fresh flowers that became weak and wilted as they sagged against fences and light posts. Tears freely mingling with sweat and spittle, as visitors to the accident site fumbled recollection of a victim whose life had been spent under the hood of a car.

Gregg had grown up with Kelly, but never truly known him. It wasn’t that Kelly was unknowable – he was just so pure in his simplicity, so true to his upbringing, so genuine in every action, that he took knowing him for granted.

***

Mr. Crane had been out sick, and 4th hour Physics had a substitute who insisted everyone call him Garth instead of Mr. Templeton. He looked like every weird uncle – scraggly gray ponytail, thin mustache, Hawaiian shirt, blue eyes in a perpetual state of Santa jolliness, an earring that hadn’t aged well. Instead of assigning busywork, he asked if anyone in the class had heard of Schrödinger’s Cat. A few stray hands were raised, but not enough to bottle up the tale. 

He explained that it was a thought experiment developed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to argue that subatomic events could not be easily replicated on a large scale. According to Einstein and a few others who dipped their toes into quantum theory, there existed a scenario in which atoms are simultaneously in two or more states, which compress into one state only when measured by physicists. Schrödinger argued that if this were true, then a cat in a box could be both alive and dead, but that when the box was opened, it would have to be one or the other.

“So, if quantum theory is the real fucking deal, then we’d have to accept that something can be simultaneously alive and dead. Like zombies.”

At this point, twenty-five glazed eyes were attached to bodies in various states of rest – hands on chins, shoulders slumped, arms curled around sleepy heads. Even resurrected cats and expletives couldn’t wake the dead. The only alert mind belonged to Gregg, who had listened with such rapt intensity that Garth asked if he wanted to chat about quantum physics after school.

“So, is it cool to ask where you’ve applied?”

“MIT, Stanford, Cal Poly, buncha others ones.”

“Well shit, you don’t need to worry. I’d recommend a book to you, but it’s probably easier if I just e-mail you something.”

It was called “Quantum Physics: A Beginners Guide,” by Alastair Reynolds. Gregg used the name to construct the author’s face: square jaw, thick rimmed glasses, a serious, downturned mouth, a tweed coat paired with a turtleneck. Maybe a pipe. He decided that physicists must have private shoppers who keep them stocked in a wardrobe ripe for ass-kicking. Chapter One was cleverly titled “Quantum Physics is not Rocket Science.”

Four hours later, Gregg stared at his bedroom wall with wide, watery eyes, exhaled, and closed his laptop. Whenever he finished a particularly satisfying book, he would reread the final paragraph at least five times, then slam the pages shut for good. However, this valuable hardware was a 16th birthday present, so he settled for a rewarding click as the screen went to black.

It all made sense. He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d read, only that it explained why his dreams were of Kelly speaking to him about his own death – narrating it as it happened. Did it also explain why the scene was in a cold, black desert, where the Camaro was a wild coyote and the stoplight a 30-foot saguaro holding in its long arm a single white blossom? Had he ever even been to a desert?

***

They had met in daycare at age four, dropped off at the same time every morning when Gregg’s mom left to teach high school and Kelly’s mom handled the finer points of human resource management. Kelly had introduced himself wordlessly – by smacking goldfish crackers out of Gregg’s hand, then hugging him in apology.

The mothers were at a loss with what to do with the odd couple – the Jew and the Stoic whose only mutual interest was each other’s company. Miming a phrase from a Saturday morning cartoon, Gregg insisted they were “true blue friends to the end.”  In conversation with her husband, Gregg’s mom would jokingly compare Kelly to Lennie in Of Mice and Men, and wondered when he might inquire about the rabbits. Kelly’s mom would ponder Hanukkah presents – what to give, when? Were chocolate coins garish?

There was Cub Scouts, Little League, after-school programs, summer trips to the lake and winter sharing of holidays. There were photographs of 12-year-olds in swim trunks with skinny arms around each other, mouths open with laughter. Conversations between the boys were one-sided, but not painfully so – Kelly always the willing recipient of Gregg’s countless ponderings. Gregg’s girlish curls and penchant for game show trivia made him a target for bullies, and that is where Kelly silently, lyrically gave back – throwing punches and socking stomachs until he built a  transparent shield that would secure his friend from future intrusions.

Freshman year split the atom. While Gregg excelled in abstract numbers and could be depended upon to always “solve for x,” Kelly explored cars like a man explores his new lover’s body – tugging gently at belts, massaging distributor caps, pressing his ear to the fender to hear its heartbeat. Kelly’s dad owned the largest car repair in Fremont, and Gregg’s mom always said that Kelly had been baptized with motor oil. He began assisting his dad on easy diagnoses, then moved on to advanced repair. He lived and breathed American-made muscle cars, and the Camaro was a gift he gave himself after three years of rebuilding the engine, reupholstering the seats, and giving it a custom kelly green paint job.

Gregg remembered shadowing Kelly once and watching him snort, nose flared like a crazed bull when he had trouble removing the thermostat. He was born for another time, when these pursuits garnered more respect, and meant a future that was  moderately lucrative and considered noble.

He could never quite put his finger on a moment, on a day, on an incident. There were enough hormones coursing through his body at 13 that they blocked all sense, delayed realization, and made him care less about strengthening a bond and care more about Jennifer Lloyd’s D-cups. Plus, there were the advanced classes, the pressure he placed on himself to excel. There were excuses, and long silences that didn’t just belong to Kelly.

Gregg’s Bar Mitzvah was almost exclusively a Christian affair apart from Gregg’s immediate family and a few teenage cousins flown in from New Jersey. Sandy-haired boys from school with pale, heart-shaped faces and nervous grins fidgeted while Gregg recited from the Torah, and stifled laughs when he tripped over a word that sounded like sticky oatmeal in the mouth. In what now seemed like a final act of devotion, Kelly silenced the group with a single, piercing gaze.

Relationships begin and end in the high school cafeteria, and the first day of school after summer break treats each student like a newly shuffled playing card. Kelly shifted position to his fellow auto repair classmates. Gregg joined friends from Academic Decathlon. Without words, only glances of false disinterest, they began spinning in different orbits.

***

Gregg’s mom was pulling two loaves of challah from the oven when he came downstairs. They were one of a handful of Jewish families in town, and she felt that times of mourning were best marked by the sharing of tradition. Also, the act of baking calmed her nerves, and she hoped the smell in the kitchen would make Gregg nostalgic for something other than a lost friend.

He sat silently at the kitchen table, his left foot crossed over his right and twitching like a rabbit’s kick. Always anxious.

“Do you know about the Double-Slit Experiment?”

There was something vaguely unnerving about the phrase that gave her pause.

“Not sure…but tell me what it means, baby.”

As he tried his best to explain how light can be both waves and particles, her head became a swarm of the tiniest matter, movement upon movement, swirling into what physicists describe as an “electron cloud.” His brain was swimming against the tide, but it was because he saw something valuable on a faraway island.

“That’s some pretty out-there stuff, hon. But it’s good that you’re interested, since you’ll be majoring in something like that in college. Ok, why don’t you be ready in 15 minutes and we’ll walk to the park. Kelly’s parents are going to meet us at a quarter to eight.”

College. The word rang in his ears, but no longer filled him with dread. Before all this, the THIS was college. Now it seemed like whatever choice he’d have to make was infinitely easier than burying his friend. Tomorrow he’d be the youngest pallbearer, and his father feared his weak arms would give under the weight. He did not fear this.

***

Kelly’s vigil was in Logan Park, a placed soaked in memories of birthday picnics and scraped knees. Gregg’s mom began to cry as soon as they rounded the corner and they saw Kelly’s parents. They were gaunt and gray, and had escaped the paradox of time travel by aging 20 years in a matter of days. Good Midwestern stock was hardy until a deep freeze. She hugged them and handed them the loaves wrapped in parchment and tied with simple twine. These were only two of nearly a dozen dishes she’d already brought to their home. Kelly’s dad shook Gregg’s hand – always a formal handshake with grit-filled fingernails. Kelly’s mom looked at him with unfocused eyes – the latest rumor was that she was being medicated regularly. His consolation was that they didn’t see any lost, future promise when they saw Gregg – they had seen Kelly’s future as clear as glass, and it wasn’t college, or even a move to a different town. He had always been an open book with the words missing.

Gregg never thought of endings, only beginnings. This was natural for someone so young. He had spent the last three days grasping for an explanation. Quantum physics told him that the matter of life could never be pinned down. Was it solace? He wasn’t sure.

“Are you ready?”

“Yeah.”

His mom gently squeezed his shoulder and handed him a candle. A breeze pulled and pushed shadows across his olive skin as hundreds were lit.

He thought first of Kelly’s cold, shredded body in a closed casket, bloated with chemicals that only prolonged his date with dirt. Then he thought of Kelly as stardust, countless and strewn across vast spaces in the universe, his essence the confetti of colors that form the Northern Lights. Finally, he thought of many Kelly’s, all existing simultaneously, ready at a moment’s notice to compress into one, true reality – the boy who was always under the hood, who defended Gregg to any and all critics, who was a true blue friend until the end. Gregg liked that reality best.

He cupped the candle flame, and blew it out.

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