You are reading Fiddleblack #2
I realized only later that what happened with Alexandra Bohm was a sort of weird rehearsal for my subsequent adventures in the tunnels. Upon returning to my apartment after a meeting with Ephraim P. Noble—my old professor who had been forced to resign, at age 73, because of his association with a radical campus group whose methods had become increasingly unsound—I found taped crudely to my bathroom mirror a name and a campus address, written in shaky black marker: Alexandra Bohm, 233 Broom Hall, East. It turns out Broom Hall was where the physicists at the university had their offices. It was in a strange, low-ceilinged area, beneath the library, in a warren of tight passageways and oddly shaped rooms. The lights were all controlled by devices that looked like small egg timers attached periodically to the sides of support posts. When I visited Alexandra the space was cold and dark, and as I walked down the hallway I’d turn on one timer, and then another, and each time the fluorescent lights for my quadrant would flicker on and hum and sputter. It looked more like a storage facility than offices, and there was no one there. Pretty soon the lights behind me would go off, and I learned to set the timer for 30 minutes, the longest amount available.
I walked and walked, the card in my hand with her name on it, passing the office doors: 199, 200, 201, 202, 203. Each door was identical, with the same small window near the middle taped over from the inside. About every ten doors or so there’d be a metal post with another light-timer that I’d turn on. The hallway was cold, and I was glad I had left my coat on. Judging from the looks of things, the only thing people did around here was fill cardboard boxes with papers and folders and computer printouts and pile them outside their office doors. That was all there was to see, except for the occasional drinking fountain, but none of the ones I tried worked.
Then, suddenly, the numbers stopped, at 225. There were more doors ahead, just like all the rest, except they had no numbers on them. I kept going, counting softly beneath my breath, and when I got to what should have been 233, I knocked. There was a sliver of light beneath the door, then a shadow, and then the door opened. And there, before me, was a woman with straight jet-black hair down to her shoulders, army fatigues and thick black eyeliner. She reminded me of Joan Jett. But her voice was soft and welcoming.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you . . .” I held the card out in front of me. She stepped forward, craned her neck around, and looked down at the card.
“That’s me. Where’d you get that from? Marcus?”
“Marcus. Come in.”
The office was like the hallway, a mess, with piles of sagging and splitting cardboard boxes piled up above my head. But the light was different, not fluorescent but warmer. There was a Ramones poster on one wall, and a large black letter X spray-painted onto another wall. The floor was cement, and in the middle of the floor was a manhole cover.
“My name’s Alexandra. Ephraim said you’d be coming, but you’re early,” she said, extending her hand. “Careful of that,” she said, nodding to the manhole over. “Don’t step on it—it’s electrified.”
“Just don’t step on it.” If her office was a mess, her desk was immaculate, with neatly stacked papers on one side, and a laptop and cell phone on the other. She sat down, and motioned for me to sit in the only other chair in the room. She was pretty in a scientific sort of way, if that makes any sense.
“Ephraim said you were interested in entanglement.”
“That’s what he said. Are you?”
“Well not really. I’m not sure . . .” Outside there was a thump in the hall, and Alexandra quickly leaned forward and put her finger to her lips in a shhh sign. After a moment there was another noise, closer, and then a knock at the door. She nodded her head no, and neither of us moved. The knocking stopped, and then started again. Beneath the door I could see the shadow of two legs, and then they disappeared.
“Who was that?” I said quietly.
“Trouble,” she said, “but nothing to worry about. For now.” Her dark eyes darted to the manhole cover, and I pulled my feet in beneath my chair.
“Look, I don’t have a lot of time. You’re asking about entanglement but you’re not interested.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested.”
“How much do you know about physics?”
“Not much. A little.”
“That’s okay. A little is okay. In order to understand entanglement, you just have to pretend that things aren’t the way they seem, because they aren’t. It seems obvious that objects separated by space—say, for instance my chair and your chair, or a book in my office and a book in the library—are totally unconnected. But in fact physics shows—it proves, really—that just because things are spatially separate doesn’t mean they’re really separate. Does this make sense?”
“At the level of photons and such, these entangled particles demonstrate quite clearly that they are connected even though they’re physically separate. But more than that . . .”
Alexandra made a fist with her left hand: “The act of observing this,” she said, nodding toward her left fist, “actually changes this.” She made a fist with her right hand and nodded its way.
“We don’t know. It doesn’t seem reasonable, does it? How could simply observing one thing cause another thing to change? The only possible answer is that they are somehow connected. Now, at the level that you or I perceive reality, this doesn’t seem possible. But at the subatomic level, it’s all true. It’s a different reality down there. But it’s also our reality.”
The office seemed darker, and if I had wondered at first why Ephraim would send me here, I understood now.
“What about for people? Is it true for people, too?” I asked.
“Is what true?”
“Entanglement. What you’ve just described. That they are connected, despite being separated.”
“Theoretically, yes, but . . .”
“I mean, people are made up of atoms, right?”
“Before I answer that, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said.
“What did Ephraim tell you about the machine, and the man charged with protecting it?”
I will say this now, although I did not say it to Alexandra: the machine in all its entangled darkness and pitiless, centerless chaos is my earliest memory. It is there, a black thing, in the bright open desert of childhood, before it has been populated with teachers and friends and wooden school desks (the Mouse Table with Michelle Saunders and her kindergarten sand-colored hair) and pennies in plastic tubes and malls and loyalties and possessions and books and rituals and mirrors and a concept of the future tense (death) and God and the abstract need for forgiveness and a minister saying that Martin Luther said that the wood of the manger that Jesus was born in was the wood of the cross that he would be nailed to and the rituals of seating on the yellow school busses and the tossing trees in the June wind that make you wonder about the small nests and all those girls raped and murdered in Mexico that you read about and even cried about before forgetting about them and some of them with police handcuffs and one of them a ten-year-old hung upside down from a hook in the ceiling over a bed where she was beaten like a piñata and then cut down and raped again before she died and then dumped off the side of a desert road that you imagined as cartoons of the Road Runner who did not find the girl because he was speeding trailing cheap cartoon dust and more cheaply animated dust and the dust of the future which you could not see, not the death of your sister or those willow trees along the muddy banks of the Maumee River or the heaviness of the brown water upon the rocks or the way the sun beat down in August to remind you of the imminence of the sun which was, in that month, not an abstraction or some thing to be blocked with a visor in a car but a real and terrible star that made your life possible, you realizing this for the first time and wondering, was it really God’s design or just some accident of the universe that made it temporarily warm enough for life, warm enough for human love, the sort of love that could even move the mother of the girl hung upside down and beaten and raped and murdered to forgive those men, because thinking about thinking—actually conceptualizing the thought process in your brain—this was what made us human, tragically, because to be aware of awareness is such a curse, and the machine as I imagined it was something like that, a mechanism that when you looked upon it you couldn’t help but think about what it meant to look upon it, so that the machine was really a reminder not of the machine itself, but of consciousness of consciousness, and oh how I wanted to forget all that and just gaze upon the machine without giving it a second thought, without thinking about my sister, and the God who created her and let her disappear, and if I could forgive that God or if He would demand that I ask for forgiveness first, as if I was the one to blame, as if I was the one who created people who tortured other people, who hung them upside down and beat them, as if I was the one who must bow down on bended knees to ask for forgiveness when, after all, it was not I who created such people, such monsters, that in fact it was God who should ask forgiveness from me, for creating such a world and asking me not to notice enough to wake up each morning and push all the horrors of the accumulated night out of my head, as if the machine itself was not a constant reminder of the machine, as if its giant gears did not move eternally, the alpha and the omega, forever before and forever after, and my sister’s disappearance (and maybe worse) just one more terrible thing to be forgotten some day, like all the other terrible things, except the big historical ones which became myth, handled with clinical care by the historians, who profited from repeating the stories over and over, but my sister’s story, because it was just another part of the machine, and since you could not gaze upon the machine without thinking about gazing upon the machine, never really saw it for what it was, never saw that all the terrible things were not aberrations, or flaws, but the basic conditions of the machine itself.
“He didn’t tell me much, to be honest,” I said. “I never was really sure if I could believe his stories about the machine.”
“Stories like that are hard to believe, I guess.”
“So what, specifically, did he say?”
“That the machine was real and that it was the ‘center of everything.’ Those were his words. Almost like he thought I should know this already.”
“But did he caution you about it?”
To this day, I don’t know if Alexandra said this to warn me on purpose, or if it was merely a phrase that she let slip.
She stopped a moment. She, it seemed to me, considered her words carefully.
There was another rap at the door, this time more insistent. Alexandra put her finger to her lips again, slowly stood up, walked across the room to a filing cabinet, pulled out two pairs of thick yellow rubber gloves, like the kind that electrical linemen wear, gave one pair to me, and slipped one pair on herself. She reached beneath her desk and withdrew a long metal bar with a narrowed tip that she inserted quickly but carefully beneath the lip of the manhole cover. The knocking at the door continued, louder than before, and for the first time I was frightened. Alexandra crawled into the hole in the floor that had been covered by the manhole lid first, and then I followed, still wearing the rubber gloves. The ladder was rusted metal that descended into pitch black. Above me I could hear, faintly, the sound of someone knocking at the office door and then, after a few moments, something louder, as if the door was being kicked.
“Faster, you’ve got to move faster,” she said. “They probably won’t follow us down, but they’ll drop things on us. Rocks. Bricks. We’ve got to hurry.”
So we descended. After a while, it was impossible to tell how far we had gone. Above me, the circle of light had shrunk to about the size of a silver dollar. My calf muscles were tired and sore, and my hands were sweating in the gloves. The air was warmer, sweeter, stagnant. Suddenly a shadow appeared overhead, and a head and the upper part of a body emerged in the circle of light in silhouette.
“Stop. Hug the ladder. Tuck your head beneath one of the rungs,” said Alexandra. I held tight, and within seconds I felt something whistle by my ear. And then another, this time clanking and sparking off one of the ladder rungs somewhere above me. A moment passed, and then some other object, softly whishing down. Then quiet again. And then a noise, the sound of the manhole cover being replaced, blocking out all the light above. Pure dark. The unrepentant darkness of childhood fear.
“Don’t worry,” Alexandra said, “there’s another way up. We just have to wait a while, and be careful. Let’s keep moving.” And so we did, down and down into ever greater darkness, the air thick and heavy, my mind drifting back to childhood and the blanket tents in my cousin’s bedroom as we imagined ourselves in the wild, holding perfectly still so the wolves and bears couldn’t detect us. Down, down. We kept going. And I wondered—it wasn’t the first time the question had entered my head—what if I just let go? What would happen? Perhaps I’d fall forever, come out of a hole on the other side of the earth, or land in water, or in space.
Then from below, Alexandra’s voice: “Watch out. We’re almost there.”
At the bottom: a hard floor and soft light, coming from an enormous metal box with loose wires hanging from its sides. We took off our gloves and dropped them to the floor.
“An old telephone switching station,” she said, “that I doubt anyone even remembers is here.”
“Does it still work?”
“I don’t think so. It’s all digital now. Not as romantic looking as this. Too abstract. Not physical enough. Can you imagine your voice going through this thing? Now your voice is sliced 6,000 times per second, sent across the line, and then recoded.”
“How do you know?”
“I helped design them. The problem was how to keep it all from overheating. We even tried ice, when all else failed. Not a great idea.”
Suddenly Alexandra reached for the metal door of the switching station. Why she touched it with her bare fingers, I don’t know.
A loud snap and a shower of sparks.
I shielded my eyes.
After the sparks, utter darkness. I called her name, but no answer. I crouched down to feel for the gloves, my fingertips tracing the cold cement floor. Who knows how much time passed in the darkness. I called out her name and my voice trailed away from me in all directions at once.
The place I was in now, there really was no name for it.
Wherever it was, Alexandra had brought me here, and what I realized, too late, was that the people who had pounded at the office door at the top of the ladder I had just descended were not there to harm me, but to save me, and that it was her—Alexandra Bohm—who had led me into this darkness, which seemed to have swallowed even the ladder. My only way was forward, but even this was confused. After who knows how long of wandering in the dark I found the ladder again, and gripped it and pushed my hot face against its cool metal and began to climb up and out of the darkness only to realize that this was not the same ladder, that its rungs were not rough from rust but smooth and new. Perhaps I was climbing into an even greater danger.
And yet still I climbed.
Nicholas Rombes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Oxford American, Exquisite Corpse, WigLeaf, The Believer, Prick of the Spindle, and other places. He writes a column for The Rumpus and is author of the 33 1/3 book Ramones.