Ratner's Star

By Yolanda Chavez,2014-11-04 18:59
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Ratner's Star

    ? ? Ratner's Star Don Delillo ? ? ? ADVENTURES Field Experiment Number One 1 SUBSTRATUM 2 FLOW 3 SHAPE 4 EXPANSION 5 DICHOTOMY







    About?? the? Author







    Field Experiment Number One





    Little Billy Twillig stepped aboard a Sony 747 bound for a distant land. This much is known forcertain. He boarded the plane. The plane was a Sony 747, labeled as such, and it was scheduledto arrive at a designated point exactly so many hours after takeoff. This much is subject toverification, pebble-rubbed (khalix, calculus), real as the number one. But ahead was thesomnolent horizon, pulsing in the dust and fumes, a fiction whose limits were determined byone's perspective, not unlike those imaginary quantities (the square root of minus-one, forinstance) that lead to fresh dimensions.

    The plane taxied to a remote runway. Billy was strapped into a window seat. Next to him in theaircraft's five-two-three-two-five seating pattern was a man reading a boating magazine andnext to the man were one, two, three little girls. This was as much nextness as Billy cared toexplore for the moment. He was fourteen years old, smaller than most people that age. Examinedat close range he might be said to feature an uncanny sense of concentration, a fixed intensitythat countervailed his noncommittal brown eyes and generally listless manner. Viewed from adistance he gave the impression that he wasn't entirely at peace with his present surroundings,cagily slouched in his seat, someone newly arrived in this pocket of technology and stalelight. The sound of the miniaturized propulsion system grew louder and soon the plane was inthe air. Its angle of ascent was severe enough to frighten the boy, who had never been on anairplane before. With Sweden at war, he had received his Nobel Prize in a brief ceremony on alawn in Pennyfellow, Connecticut, traveling to and from that locale in the back seat of hisfather's little Ford.

    It was the first Nobel Prize ever given in mathematics. The work that led to the award wasunderstood by only three or four people, all mathematicians, of course, and it was at theirconfidential urging that the Nobel committee, traditionally at a total loss in this field,finally settled on Twillig, born Terwilliger, William Denis Jr., premature every inch of him, asnug fit in a quart mug.

    His father (to backtrack briefly) was a third-rail inspector in the New York subway system.When the boy was seven the elder Terwilliger (known to most as Babe) took him into the subwaysfor the sheer scary fun of it, a sort of Theban initiation. This was, after all, the placewhere Babe spent nearly half his conscious life. It seemed to him perfectly natural that afather should introduce his lone son to the idea that existence tends to be nourished frombelow, from the fear level, the plane of obsession, the starkest tract of awareness. In Babe'smind there was also a notion that the boy would show him increased respect, having seen theregion where he toiled, smelled the dankness and felt the steel. They rode the local for awhile, standing at the very front of the first car to get the motorman's viewpoint. Then theygot off and went along a platform in a deserted station in the South Bronx and into a smalltool room and down some steps and along a passageway and through a door and onto the tracks,where they walked in silence toward the next station. It was a Sunday and therefore reasonablysafe; these were express tracks and no such trains ran on Sunday along this particular line. Alocal went by, however, one track over, shooting slow blue sparks. In this incandescent showerBilly thought he saw a rat. Wide bend ahead. For comic shock effect, Babe made a series ofcrazy people's faces-tongue hanging out, eyes bulging, neck twisted and stiff. Within ten yardsof the next station he singled out a key from the ring of many keys he carried and then openeda small door in the blackened wall and led his son into another tool room and then onto theplatform. And that was all or almost all. A walk down a stretch of dark track. On the way homethey sat in the next-to-last car. A tripping device failed to work and their train, brakinglate, ran into the rear of a stalled work train. Billy found himself on the floor of the car.Ahead was stunned metal, a buckled frame for bodies intersecting in thick smoke. Then there wasa moment of superlunar calm. In this interval, just before he started crying, he realized thereis at least one prime between a given number and its double.

    The stewardess arrived, driving a motorized food cart. Billy preferred looking out the windowto eating. There was nothing to see, just faded space, but the sense of an environmentsomewhere beyond this pressurized chunk of tubing, a distant whisper of the biosphere, made himfeel less constricted. He tried to think in a context of Sumerian gesh-time, hoping to convincehimself this would make the journey seem one fourth as long as it really was. That wedge systemthey used. Powers of sixty. Sixty a vertical wedge. Sixty shekels to a mina. Sixty minas to atalent. Gods numbered one to sixty. He'd recently read (handwriting cunning and urgent) thatthe sixty-system was about four thousand years old, obviously far from extinct. More cleverthan most, those Mesopotamians. Natural algebraic capacity. Beady-eyed men in zigguratspredicting eclipse.

    He squeezed past the man and his little girl tribe and went back to find the toilet. There wereeleven, all in use. As he waited in the passageway between doors he was approached by a largerosy man nearly palpitating with the kind of relentless affability that the experience oftravel never fails to induce in some people.

    "My mouth says hello."


    "I'm Eberhard Fearing," the man said. "Haven't I seen you in the media?"

    "I was on television a couple of times."

    "I was duly impressed. You demonstrated an absolute mastery as I recall. 'Brilliant' doesn'tbegin to say it. Loved your technical phraseology in particular. Mathematicians are a weirdbreed. I know because I use them in my work. Planning and procedures. Let's hear you say athing or two."

    "I'm not brilliant in person."

    "I want to assure you that I admire your kind of intellect. Hard, cold and cutting, sir. What'syour destination?"

"Not allowed to say."

    "Flying right on through or deplaning along the way?"

    "I do not comment."

    "Where's your spirit of adventure?"

    "First time in the air."

    "Nervous, is it? Let's hear some mathematics then. Seriously, what say?"

    "I don't think so for the time being."

    "No room for cunctation in any line of work. But yours especially. Gifts can vanish withoutwarning. Reach sixteen and it's all gone. Nothing ahead but a completely normative life.Shouldn't you be smiling?"


    "We're strangers on a plane," Fearing said. "We're having a friendly talk about this and that.Calls for smiles, don't you think? That's what travel's all about. Supposed to release all thatpent-up friendliness."

    A door opened and from one of the toilets limped an elderly woman with a plum-colored growthbehind her left ear. He hesitated before entering the same toilet, afraid she had left behindsome unnamable horror, the result of a runaway gland. Old people's shitpiss. Diseased in thiscase. Discolored beyond recognition. Possibly unflushed. Finally he stepped in, determined toescape Eberhard Fearing, bolting himself into the stainless-steel compartment and noting in themirror how unlike himself he looked, neat enough in sport coat and tie but unusually pale andsomehow tired, as though this manufactured air were threatening his very flesh, drawing outneeded chemicals and replacing them with evil solvents made in New Jersey. Around him atvarying heights were slots, nozzles, vents and cantilevered receptacles; issuing from some ofthese was a lubricated hum that suggested elaborate recycling and a stingy purity, this localsound merely part of a more pervasive vibration, the remote systaltic throb of the aircraftitself.


    Something about that word implied a threat. It wasn't like a foreign word as much as anextraterrestrial linguistic unit or a vibratory disturbance just over the line that ends thislife. Some words frightened him slightly in their intimations of compressed menace. "Gout.""Ohm." "Ergot." "Pulp." These seemed organic sounds having little to do with language, meaningor the ordered contours of simple letters of the alphabet. Other words had a soothing effect.Long after he'd acquainted himself with curves of the seventh degree he came across'adictionary definition of the word "cosine," discovering there a beauty no less formal than he'dfound in the garment-folds of graphed equations (although there were grounds for questioningthe absolute correctness of the definition):

    The abscissa of the endpoint of an arc of a unit circle centered at the origin of a two-dimensional coordinate system, the arc being of length x and measured counterclockwise from thepoint (1, 0) if x is positive; or clockwise if x is negative.

    He undid his zipper, bent his knees to rearrange a snarled section of underwear and thenslipped his dangle (as he'd been taught to call it) out of his pants. Words and numbers.Writing and calculating. Tablet-houses between two rivers. Dubshar nished. Scribe of counting.How did it go? Aš nun eš limmu ia aš imin ussu ilimmu u. Ever one more number, individual anddistinct, fixed in place, absolutely whole. He tapped the underside of his dangle in an effortto influence whatever membranous sac was storing his urine. Oldest known numerals. What had heread in the manuscript? Pre-cuneiform. Marked with tapered stylus on clay slabs. Number asprimitive intuition. Number self-generated. Number developing in the child's mind spontaneously

    and nonverbally. Whole numbers viewed as the spark of all ancient mathematical ideas. How didit go? "The fact that such ideas consistently outlive the civilizations that give rise to themand the languages in which they are expressed might prompt a speculation or two concerningprehistoric man and his mathematics. What predated the base of sixty? Calendric notations onbone tools? Toes and fingers? Or something far too grand for the modern mind to imagine.Although the true excavation is just beginning, it's not too early to prepare ourselves forsome startling reversals." Clockwise positive. Counterclockwise negative.

    Eventually he managed to dispatch a few feeble drops of urine into what appeared to be abottomless cistern. Then he washed his hands and combed his hair, using the large teeth of thecomb because he believed wide furrows made him look older. A bandage covered a small cut on histhumb and he peeled it off now, sucking briefly at the crude wound and then flushing thebandage down the germless well, imagining for a moment an identical plastic strip floating tothe surface of the water that filled a stainless-steel wash basin in a toilet on an airlinerabove an antipodal point. He double-checked his zipper. For the mirror he poured forth astereotyped Oriental smile, an antismile really, one he'd learned from old movies on TV. Headded a few formal nods and then unlocked the door and eased out of the tiny silver cubicle.

    In his seat he rolled his tie carefully all the way up to the knotted part and then watched itdrop down again, doing this over and over, using both hands to furl and then timing the releaseprecisely, left and right hand opening at the same instant. After a long time the plane landedfor a refueling stop. When they were in the air again he went sideways up the aisle past thetoilets and into the rock garden. The area was crowded. He sat in a little sling, trying hardnot to stare at this or that woman arranged in the odd deltoid chairs that were scatteredabout, ladies poised for worldly conversation, and he wondered what there was about high-altitude travel that made them seem so mysterious and available, two stages to contemplate,knees high and tight, bodies partly reclined and set back from the radiant legs. All around himpeople were solemnly embalmed in their own attitudes of conviviality. They drank and gestured,filling the paths of the rock garden. Occasionally a particular face would collapse toward akind of wild intelligence so that within the larger block of features a shrunken head appeared,aflame with revelation. Inner levels. Subsets. Underlying layers. In a chair nearby was a womanin her fifties, wide-eyed and petite. She wore a bright frock and her hair was cut straightacross the forehead at eyebrow level. For her age she was the cutest woman he'd ever seen.Glancing at the travel folder she was reading, he was able to make out the large type on thefront cover.






    She looked up, smiled and pointed to a plaid shoulder bag that sat drooping between her feet.He tried to respond with an expression that would make her think he had misinterpreted hergesture as a simple greeting that required no further communication.

    "Basenji," she said.

    "Translate please."

    "I smuggled him aboard in my bag. Such a good puppy. I'm sure he'd like to say hello to you.'Hi, pally. Where ya headed?' "

    "I make no reply."

"You're not an Amerasian, are you?"

    "What's that?"

    "What they used to call war kids," she said. "GI papa, native mama. They sold for five hundreddollars in Bangkok. 'And that's no phony baloney, bub.' You're about the right age for anAmerasian. My name's Mrs. Roger Laporte. 'Hi, I'm Barnaby Laporte. Whereabouts you go toschool, good buddy?' "

    She listened to every word of his reply with the eager obedience of someone about to undergomajor surgery. When he finished telling her about the Center, she leaned toward the shoulderbag and patted it. In addition to being cute, Mrs. Laporte had a distinct shimmer of kindnessabout her. It was amazing how often kind-looking people turned out to be crazy. He wonderedgravely whether things had reached such a bad state that only crazy people attemptedcommonplace acts of kindness, that the crazy and the kind were one and the same. When she spokeon behalf of the dog, she tucked her head into her body and squeaked. It was the cutest thingabout her.

    "You must be very lonely," she said. "Spending all your time with grownups and doing all thatresearch behind closed doors without the sunshine and exercise your body needs for someone yourage. Mr. Laporte went to night school."

    He hadn't clipped his toenails in a while and he realized that when he moved the toes of hisright foot up and down, one particularly long nail scratched against the inside of his Orion-acrylic sock. He passed the time allowing his toenail to catch and scrape, making a tiny growl.He wanted to sit somewhere else but was sure Mrs. Laporte would say something the moment he gotto his feet. A man fell out of a hammock, his cocktail glass shattering on one of the rocks inthe garden. If the dog's called Barnaby, did she name her kids Fido and Spot? Her large eyesblinked twice and then she hugged herself and shrugged, smiling in his direction-a series ofgestures he readily interpreted as perkiness for its own sake. Of course that left him theproblem of figuring out what to do in return.

    "So that's a dog in there you sneaked aboard," he said. "What happens if it barks?"

    "Basenji," she said.

    He found a dark lounge and went inside. Two men sat at a table playing an Egyptian board game.Squares of equal size. Penalties levied. Element of chance. Billy recognized the game; he'dseen it played at the Center by colleagues of his. Numerous geometric pieces. Single bird-shaped piece. He thought of the "number beasts" of that time-animals used to symbolize variousquantities. Tadpole equaled one hundred thousand because of the huge swarms that populated themud when the waters of the Nile retreated after seasonal flooding. Men called rope-stretchershad surveyed the unplotted land, using knots to measure equal units. Taxation and geometry. Inthe dimness Eberhard Fearing gradually assumed effective form. Legs walking left.

    "Good to see you."


    "Absolutely correct."


    He had a passing knowledge of the mathematical texts of the period. Problem of seven people whoeach have seven cats which each consume seven mice which each had nibbled seven ears of barleyfrom each of which would have grown seven measures of corn. Legs walking left were a plus signon a papyrus scroll.

    "How was the bathroom?" Fearing said.

"I liked it."

    "Mine was first-rate."

    "Pretty nice."

    "Some plane."

    "The size."

    "Exactly," Fearing said. "You've hit on it. I was telling a gal back there all about you. She'dreally like to hear you hold forth. What say I get her and make a threesome out of it."

    "I may not be here later."

    "Where will you be?"

    "I may have to meet some people."

    "Just tell me where. We'll have a get-together."

    "I'm not sure they're aboard," he said. "See, the thing of it is I'm not sure they're aboard."

    "In other words you made an appointment beforehand to see these people. Before you even got onthe plane."


    "Certain section of the aircraft at a certain time."

    "Near the toilets."

    "And now you're not even sure they're aboard."


    "These people of yours."

    "That's the thing."

    "How many of them?" Fearing said.

    "Could be four, could be more."

    "What are they-mathematicians?"

    "Some yes, some other."

    "Near the toilets."

    "I just inspected," Billy said. "They're not there yet."

    "I admire your intellect, sir. Admire it mightily."

    "I heard that. Good to hear."

    "Because there is no commodity we're shorter of than intellectual know-how. A man like meunderstands that. Nice talking to you. Ever find yourself nearby, why, drop on in. I'm neareverything. Great churches. A lot of parking. Bring your associates if they ever turn up."

    "They'll like to come."

    "I use you people in my work."

    The men at the board appeared to be on the verge of sleep. No theoretical reasoning or basictheorems. The practical science of physical arrangement. Sense of mass. Scientists stillprobing limestone blocks with radar to discover what's buried in those pyramids. He thought ofthe obelisk in Central Park and wondered if he'd ever get to examine an actual fragment of

sacred writing.

    Directions for knowing all dark things.

    The plane flew above the weather. He went to sit alone in a rear area behind equipment racksand anticrash icons. A stressless hour passed. Or maybe four such hours. He'd forgotten whichmotion he was using to stroke through time, minute or gesh. This part of the airplane hadapparently not been used for a while. It was dusty and cramped, its true dimensions concealedby an intricate series of partitions. Real plastic here as opposed to the synthetic updatedvariations in the forward areas. A sort of Old Quarter. He put both feet up on the front of theseat and hunkered, noting the array of digits molded into the chair, a set of individualpolymerized bumps located between his shoes-? -such that, rightsided and divided by ascrambled set of its own first three digits, yields a result just one number away from thedivisor; such that digits of divisor and result match digits of original array (save one); suchthat each consecutive number (divisor a,nd result) is the sum of the cubes of its digits. Infact nothing bored him more than playful calculations. Yet his capacity to fathom theproperties of the integers was such that he sometimes found himself watching a number unfold toreveal the reproductive structure within. Eber-hard Fearing. It was only a partial lie he'dtold that travel-happy man. A meeting was scheduled to take place (person or persons unknown),although not at this altitude. He closed his eyes. Jetliner passing through the sphere ofvapor, through the blank amalgam of gases, moisture and particulate matter. Bloated metalritually marked. A loud buzzer sounded.

    He calculated with the ease of a coastal bird haunting an updraft. But beauty was mere sceneryunless it was severe, adhering strictly to a set of consistent inner codes, and this he clearlyperceived, the arch-reality of pure mathematics, its austere disposition, its links tosimplicity and permanence; the formal balances it maintains, inevitability adjacent tosurprise, exactitude to generality; the endless disdain of mathematics for what is slack in thecharacter of its practitioners and what is trivial and needlessly repetitive in their work; itsprecision as a language; its claim to necessary conclusions; its pursuit of connective patternsand significant form; the manifold freedom it offers in the very strictures it persistentlyupholds.

    Mathematics made sense.

    He lowered his feet to the floor, eyes still closed, a circumstance that gave anyone watchingenough time to determine what it was that made the boy appear an adept of concentration-simplyhis physical stillness, the seeming compression of his frame into a more comprehensive object.It was a stillness unaffected by the shifting of his feet and yet completely obliterated thesecond his eyes came open. This latter act served to release upon the world a presenceessentially seriocomic in nature, that of early adolescence trying to conceal itself in a foldof apathy.

    The buzzer sounded once more and a light flashed on and off. He returned to his seat. The planelanded to refuel again and this time he was one of the passengers getting off. He made his waythrough a dense crowd of people, none of whom seemed to be going anywhere or meeting anyone. Hewondered if they lived at the airport. Maybe there was no room for them in the city and theycame out here to settle, sleeping in oil drums in unused hangars, getting up at sunrise andheading indoors to loiter. He reached his destination, a special boarding gate in an isolatedpart of the airport. Two men were there to meet him. They'd already collected his suitcase andnow led him aboard another plane, much smaller than the first, no other passengers, some spaceto yawn and sprawl. His escorts were named Ottum and Hof. The flight was relatively short andafter the aircraft set down on a deserted landing strip the boy and two men walked to a waitinglimousine. Billy had the enormous back seat to himself. As Ottum started the car, his partnerturned and pointed to a small sign taped to the folded-over underside of one of the jumpseats.


    Please refrain from smoking out of consideration for the driver of this vehicle, who suffersfrom:

    [? ] Hypertension???????????? [? ] Walking pneumonia

    [? ] Tuberculosis????????????? [? ] Smoke-related allergies

    [x] Asthma?????????????????????? [? ] Labored breathing

    [? ] Bronchial asthma????? [x] Other


    "We'll be there in twenty some odd minutes," Ottum said.

    "This a Cadillac, this car?"

    "None other."

    "It came almost as a shock to see it. That's why I ask. Way in the middle of nowhere."

    "No mistaking one of these vehicles," Hof said. "Custom job from top to bottom. What we call ameticulously customized motor vehicle. It's a Cadillac all right."

    "The Rolls-Royce of automobiles," Ottum said.

    Billy had been instructed not to tell anyone where he was going. There wasn't much he couldhave said, to Eberhard Fearing or anyone else, even if he'd wanted to. He knew the name of theplace but very little about it. Apparently the people in charge were still defining theirobjectives and therefore did not release information except in minimum trickles. As to thereason his specific presence was considered essential, not a word had been spoken.

    "Is this thing bulletproof?"

    "Absolutely, top to bottom."

    "I never thought so. I just asked the question because you think of a limousine this big asmight as well having all the extras."

    "It's for the top people," Hof said.

    "Did it ever get shot at?"

    "Course not."

    "It's not a bubbletop, I notice."

    "He notices," Hof said.

    "I heard," Ottum said.

    "Not a bubbletop, he notices."

    "Two terrific sense of humors."

    "Be a kid."

    "I was only talking back."

    "Just be a kid," Hof said.

    He tried to revel in the expensive pleasures of the back seat, toying with gadgets and scrapingthe soles of his shoes on the edges of the collapsed jumpseats, freeing himself of whateverforeign matter had accumulated there recently.

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