There had always been something he should have known but somehow didn’t. There had always been a sea he couldn’t cross inside his mind.
He remembered his mother taking him to a first communion in the basement of a church when he was small. The church was where, he couldn’t say; somewhere in the Boston area, like Saugus maybe. He remembered asking his mother what a communion was and Gloria telling him, “It’s a Catholic religious ceremony.” She put on high heels and lipstick for it. They met a man at the party. Everyone was standing by a table with bowls of potato salad and platters of sandwiches and helium balloons except the man, who stood at the back of the party, not like a guest but as if he worked there like a janitor. His mother told Corey to say hello, not to be a stranger. The man spoke to him and Corey didn’t understand what he was saying. The man explained it was because he was talking to him in pig Latin.
She invited the man over to their house to play chess with her. Later, Corey asked who he was and she said, “You know him. That’s your father.”
The man who was supposed to be Corey’s father acted more like an uncle or a family friend who would see them for the occasional weekend. Sometimes, he’d drop in wherever they were staying and meet Gloria’s roommates, who tended to be shocked by his intellect. Sometimes, Corey and Gloria would have to drive to meet him. Gloria would navigate out into the rural suburbs of farm stands, cornfields, office parks and the commuter rail, to a highway strip mall—and there he’d be, wearing tinted sunglasses like a Mafioso, waiting to buy them ice cream.
Gloria had met him when she was still in school. He was an East Boston man who worked at MIT. Corey grew up addressing him by name, as Leonard.
There were many interesting things about Leonard. His last name was Agoglia, but his driver’s license said DeCarlo. As a child, he had lived, he said, in an apartment above a gumball factory and taken showers at an East Boston community center. Leonard’s mother had been on state assistance. He’d had seven brothers and sisters, but all the boys had died. His father had been a drug addict, a heroin junkie, a neighborhood figure who belonged to the streets. Leonard would see him sleeping outside Eddie C’s, waiting for Tripe Wednesday. Allegedly, Leonard’s father had shot a man in Malden on orders from the local faction of La Cosa Nostra. In high school in the mid-1970s, Leonard had denounced the Vietnam War. The other kids, whose fathers wore American flag stickers on their hardhats and followed longhaired protesters onto the Boston Common to confront them with violence, had labeled him a communist.
“I was more of a Workers Party socialist. I was highly aware of economic injustice. When our check ran out at the end of the month, my sisters and I would dig for clams on the flats. Otherwise we wouldn’t eat. When I was fourteen, I lied about my age to get a job as a machinist.”
Leonard’s mother had been a strict woman. Leonard had told Gloria a number of memorable stories about her. Corey heard that she would wait until the market was closing on Friday to get the fish that no one wanted. “Once, I touched a fish in her pan,” Leonard said, “and a worm came out and wrapped around my finger.”
Gloria shuddered and Corey was amazed.
But the most interesting thing about Leonard was that while he was working there as a campus security officer, he was also studying physics at MIT.
Everything had been stacked against Leonard from the start, said Gloria, who was his biggest champion. He had to wear expensive aviator glasses for his headaches, a curse that made him suffer. And don’t forget that all his brothers died. The East Boston schools were no good: a throwaway education for throwaway kids, the idea being that they were going to grow up to pour concrete, and here was this special young person with nowhere to turn, with no one to recognize his gifts, no nurturance—it was something she could relate to.
“And then he’s working as a security guard at MIT, and he starts reading Springer-Verlag textbooks on quantum mechanics.” If you listened to the story of Leonard’s life as Gloria told it, apparently Leonard had discovered his gift for scientific thought much the same way Siddhartha had found enlightenment one day beneath the banyan tree.
Corey had no frame of reference for how hard physics at MIT was, but everyone said it was hard; it was as hard as anything could get intellectually, and to go there while working as a campus cop had to be unheard-of. More than once, Corey had heard his mother and her friends comparing Leonard to Good Will Hunting.
For years, Leonard had been saying he was working on what physicists called a result of some kind. He talked at length about his intellectual work, about why he wasn’t having much luck with it: He needed to get away; he needed time. Our capitalist society stood in his way; he had to make a living like a peasant. As the years passed without a result, she worried for him. Was he getting bitter? A professor to whom he submitted a paper had failed to respond. She listened to Leonard’s diatribes about the man; they lasted months. She grew afraid to ask him about science, even in the most general way. A safer subject was union politics (the campus cops were unionized, he said—and they were all screwed up). He made it sound as if he was busy all the time. He said he planned to become a millionaire. He was always away, always disappearing, always occupied, always involved in something, but she had a feeling it was nothing after all.
When they first met, she recalled, Leonard used to talk to her in an endless stream of science metaphors. There had been no question in her mind that he was a genius. To make herself more interesting to him, she’d tried reading popularized science books. Usually she retained nothing from these efforts, but James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science had made a lasting impression on her and changed the way she saw the world. It described the fractal geometry of nature, the patterns in random, unpredictable and turbulent phenomena, like storms and weather.
Trees, lightning, river deltas all shared the same geometry, a self-replicating fractal pattern where the large-scale structure was repeated on the small scale, on the smallest scale, no matter how far down you went. This endlessly reiterated self-dependency could amplify the tiniest disturbance—the flutter of a butterfly’s wing—into a hurricane that took down houses. If you looked into a storm deeply enough, a complex tapestry emerged, often of fantastic beauty. She thought the Mandelbrot set looked exactly like a Tibetan mandala.
Nature could not be understood, not ever. To experience chaos, she saw you didn’t need a storm. All you needed was the right man. Leonard always left her. He was like her inspirations. She never knew when he would call on her again. She recognized the faucet turned off, but not quite all the way, inside his head. And hers as well. If you plotted his visits on a graph, the self-similar beauty would emerge. The minutes with him would look like the weeks, and the weeks would look like the years. All the essays she’d never written and never would. It would make a fractal, Gloria was certain. It would bloom like clouds or be a starfish or a tree.
Once, when Corey was ten, he and his mom had driven out to meet Leonard at a D’Angelo’s sub shop off Route 2 near the town of Ayer. Pine trees rose above the restaurant, which was next door to a dry cleaner’s and a quiet grocery store with a long brown roof— and all around them there were trees and the suburban silence and the sun falling silently into the wells of greenery below the stone-gray highway.
Gloria was wearing a hippie dress and round blue sunglasses that made her look like a thin, blonde-headed Janis Joplin. They had finished eating and each now sat before an empty paper plate that used to hold a sandwich.
Leonard wiped his hands and cleared his throat. “I’ve got it now,” he said and began telling them the structure of the universe. “Some people think the universe has seven dimensions. Some people think it’s expanding like a balloon. Some say it’s flat. But I know now that those models are wrong. The evidence points to multiple universes.”
Gloria was thrilled. Multiple universes reminded her of a Tibetan mandala. “Worlds bubbling into existence all around us. Bubbling up and vanishing!” She sighed. What excited her was to see the convergence of Eastern and Western cosmologies, as suggested in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, a book on the haunting similarity between traditional Taoist views of the universe and modern physics, which she was trying to comprehend—with difficulty!
“That’s not a good book,” Leonard remarked. “It’s been discredited”; and she stopped talking.
“Anyway. Multiple universes: That’s the model. My intuitive starting point. I still have to prove everything. And then after I prove everything, I have to prove it to a peer review board, if I want to get credit for it.”
“The good old peer review board,” said Gloria. “We know about them.”
“They’re very capable of putting professional self-interest before the search for truth.”
“So if you were flying up there in a spaceship, what would it look like?” Corey asked.
“It would look the same as it always looks to people in spaceships.”
“What would it look like?” Gloria asked. “What, the universe?”
“The multiple universes, all the bubbling worlds. Or is that a dumb question?”
“It wouldn’t look like anything. You can only be in one bubble at a time. It would look the same as this one.”
“Why couldn’t you break out of one bubble and fly to the next one?” Corey asked.
An excerpt from the book The War for Gloria © 2021 by Atticus Lish, published by Knopf on September 7, 2021.