Tuesday, July 18, 2006



So it’s autumn. You're working for Niels Bohr and you find yourself annoyed by the way he leaves apple cores lying on your desk. Every time you turn your head another seems to appear. It started with just the local, the Cox’s Orange Pippin, which at least lasted a while before the rot set in. Now it’s Macintosh, Cortland- he’s been having them shipped in from America for the past ten days. They arrive in a small wooden crate and He rubs his hands together and claps twice, softly. This expensive delivery, it’s an eccentricity that the Institute is glad to pay for, and one that you reassure yourself will pass.

But see, Look! His desk remains clean; the common workspace remains clean. There are no apple cores by the test tubes or burners, none in the lip of the chalkboard. Only on your own desk, the one in the corner, does the discarded fruit go. Macintosh, Red Delicious; Tooth-whittled down to a set of columns that droop at the middle. They are always turning brown and releasing sugars into the air.
And yet- you never see him set them down. When he comes over to your desk to ask you a question or to beg your assistance, his hands are always spotless and empty. But then, walking away with him, you glance over your shoulder. Look, there are two new apple cores cluttering your corner! And his hands are still clean. It is a bit like bad magic. It is a bit like some strange sort of gravity at work. It is a bit tiresome. Flies have begun crawling on your stack of typing paper. Your fingers get sticky when you place a fresh sheet of it in your typewriter and the bits of oozing syrup are gumming up your keys.
You asked Heisenberg when he was around one afternoon and he only laughed and patted you on the back. You’ve asked others but they were all too busy to reply. You mean to ask Niels about this but the moment never seems to arrive. Your patience is growing short, but he is a nice, depressed man in many respects. And the thought of reprimanding an elder horrifies you quietly, in moments when you find the apple cores jamming your own personal train of thoughts.

So what's to be done? You go outside, walk down the cobble stone street from the university and underneath a tree that you always call an elm but in reality looks nothing like one. You know this, but you continue calling it an 'elm'. From the street you can still see Niels sitting by the window and writing- His silhouette takes a bite out of another Macintosh.
And across the street you go to ask the paper man if he has any chips delivered yet. It's rained out here sometime but you didn't notice.
It is 5:00 A.M.- and a darker 5:00 A.M. than when you started working for the university. 5:00 A.M. is your midnight. And this is the time for your stroll and your snack. You catch yourself in the middle of the street, step back as a taxi rushes past. Drunken revelers wave at you from the window. They seem less joyous here than they did in London. You wave back. And then you’re across.
"Hello Mr. Lolland- any chips?"
"nah sir, no. truck won't be round for another fi'teen minutes- you kin wait if you like-" He gets his produce fresh every morning- from a lorry truck with green fringe letters that spell out something unintelligible. There’s too much dirt covering the print to see.
Mr. Lolland looks at you while he sets up shop. Can you wait? You consider, weighing the time in your pocket. Over your shoulder the university is methodically buzzing with quantum business. There's a slight fog between you and it- always is at five in the morning.
"’think I might just do that- hand me a paper Mr. Lolland" you ask politely, and reach out of your pocket with some change. It’s cold and clammy and you feel almost guilty as it drops into his clean dry hand.
But Mr. Lolland doesn’t notice. He hands you the morning news.
On the front page of the paper is a picture of a man in boots- he has just bought some land a quarter mile from here and is saying that on the property he will be building a theatre for motion pictures- the fourth in town now- but there is something quite serious in his tone- and in the blur of print his eyes seem to tell you something about he kind of man he is. There is no joy there. Only process. Turning light into information. And profit.
The truck pulls up- you are reading your paper as your friend the storeowner conducts his morning purchase. The driver gets out and steps around the corner. Mr. Lolland has opened his back door. They exchange secret pleasantries around the corner in back. You can hear the general shape of their voices, the rises and the falls, but the wind and echoes muddle the distinctions.
‘They are unloading the truck’ you think, informed by the shortness of their breathing.
After a while, their volume increases suddenly and you hear a slap on the back, or a handshake. You hear Mr. Lolland open his back door again and cart his goods in, and you hear the start of the driver’s engine. As it’s driving away you notice that it must have recently been washed- but damn if it isn’t just out of eyeshot when you try to read the green letters.
You hear Mr. Lolland lugging his products back to the kitchen, followed by the splattering of oil pop pop popping electrically all over the kitchen. It settles down and the aroma of potatoes fills the shop.

On page ten there Is a story about a killing in America. On twelve they talk about sports. And now you can hear Mr. Lolland coming out from the kitchen, right behind your newsprint curtain. Time to stop reading.

When you let the paper drop you find yourself staring. In front of you is not a shuffled basket but a single wedged piece of fried potato. It is gigantic. It measures nearly four feet across and is sagging over the edges of the counter- Mr. Lolland has placed several sheets of butcher paper below it. You poke it with your finger and it does not budge.
“…well”- and you let the paper drop, look down at your woefully inadequate fork and knife- and the now miniature paper cup of mayonnaise to its side.
"tha's a, …that's quite a chip here you have, Mr. Lolland."
He seems distracted- he's cleaning some glasses.
"ye' they grow'em that way now. It's the new ones!"
He nods and smiles politely then continues scrubbing at the glass with his piece of steel wool.
You stare it at it for quite some time- picking up your fork and putting it down again.
“Not enjoying your chip sir?”
You can think of nothing to say but Mr. Lolland nods in secret confidence.
"I unnerstand. Too much for you sir.” He says quietly. He tosses it in the trash- or at least the bottom of it- as he removes his hand the entire rubbish bin tips over on its side. A loud whoomp puffs into the air, sound waves scattering toward your ears. Scratching his head he glances back at you and again laughs politely.
…“Too much for anyone I'd say. Nice morning sir" he says –propping the rubbish bin up again, and he heads to the back kitchen.
You think of telling him that he could just simply cut the large potato down to a facsimile of normal sized chips. You suppose he hasn’t figured out this next step. You mean to ask him about the farm where they come from, about the truck that delivers then and so on. But you don’t want to embarrass him, so you decide to keep quiet and pick up your paper.
The rubbish bin slides and then drops over again. Whoomp. Mr. Lolland comes out.
He shrugs his shoulders cartoonishly, turns to look at you-shoulders still up- and exclaims
“Eh! Potatoes!” in a vaudevillian way. He is smiling a defeated smile as he goes back to the kitchen.

It seems darker than when you left the lab. You are taking the long way around when it happens. There are three of them.
“Copenhagen”. Is all you think as your cheek hits down hard onto a particularly large, smooth cobble stone. On the other side of flesh you feel two teeth shatter. One cuts deep into your tongue.
When you wake up seconds later- and can hear three voices shouting raucously many blocks away - you cannot recall if it was a fist or a foot that struck you down. But they were young. Had they been older you would probably have a broken bone or two. You listen as their voices add distance. They own the morning. And then they bounce out of earshot. You stand up and, patting yourself down, you remark aloud that your wallet is still there and, as you open it, that only half the cash has been removed from the billkeep. You spit; Listen to the porcelain jingle of teeth against stone in the dark.
A police van sirens by as you walk along.
“Never when you need them” you think. The van slow a bit after passing you but you wave it on. The blood is still running inside your mouth. You need to get to a mirror and don’t wish to speak with anyone until you have done so. It is discomforting to speak with someone when you don’t know what they are seeing when they respond to you; having to imagine your new face through their concerned tone of voice. But the police are gone now. It is peaceful here, again, in Copenhagen, at 5:30 in the morning.
You walk across campus with solid steps.
There is one in the third floor, a bathroom, with two mirrors facing each other on opposite walls. You can feel wetness on the back of your head and know this bathroom will provide you with a more complete view of your physical situation.
You reach the door and push it open- for the first time noticing that you knuckles are scraped pink and red. Inside, upstairs, you let your eyes slowly meet up to your reflected face. It is not as bad as you thought. And the teeth you felt – neither were completely shattered; only a corner from each. You will call the dentist in a few hours and by dinner, when you bite down into the pot roast, it will feel just right.
And as you bob your head this way and that- you see the corridor of you stretching back and disappearing only because you block part of its passage. You bob your head this way or that trying to see around yourself but it’s no use- so you begin counting- how many reflections back do I go in here? At 15 it begins to get hard to tell what’s what.
If only you could remove yourself you would see your reflection go on forever- and you laugh-you wash up and continue drinking and spitting water till the blood has stopped.
You finish cleaning up without looking in the mirror.
Walking down the hall you think of Mr. Lolland. How will he fit into the ‘world of tomorrow’ you are helping to create? Atoms and the shape of everything in between us? He doesn’t even know to cut the chips down to a normal size. You slide down the banister to the second floor and your feet hit too quick at the bottom. Walking down the linoleum hall, you feel a pain in your ankle.
When you get back to the lab, Niels is still there. He has just completed a letter to his brother Harald, home with the flu.
Niels is crying. He is crying over his father. You know this. You can tell by the silent shaking of his profile in the dark. It is as familiar to you as the smell of potatoes.
Outside it is still quiet and the soft quiet is reflected perfectly here in the lab, until he speaks.

“His heart attack has affected me. And this research is in its honour.”
“his “ you think- “his”. Not ‘its”. “his”.
That was years ago- the dedication. Back in 1911 when he completed his thesis. And he makes this statement once in awhile- just before the sun rises. You aren’t sure if he realizes his grammatical error. You chalk it up to emotional grief.
Niels looks over at you and meagerly composes himself.
“I trust you, you know”, he says. He then removes himself politely from the room. He has not noticed your condition. You glance down at the letter he’s left on the desk:

… Don't talk about it to anyone, for otherwise I couldn't write to you about it so soon. ... You understand that I may yet be wrong; for it hasn't been worked out fully yet (but I don't think its wrong). ... Believe me, I am eager to finish it in a hurry, and to do so I have taken a couple of days off from the laboratory (this is also a secret).

You know of a file cabinet in the back of Niels Bohr’s office. You have heard that inside it are dozens, maybe hundreds, of copies of this letter. You know he first wrote this letter several years ago, and that, like the previous statement about his father’s heart attack, rewriting it is a comfort to him in difficult times. The file cabinet must be nearly full by now.

No one has ever seen this cabinet drawer open, however, so it’s contents remains a mystery to you; just so much scientific gossip to others. You drop a number of apple cores into your receptacle, shoo flies away, and sit down. Back to work, there are numbers to be taken down. It is 6:30 A.M., and Copenhagen is waking up.


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