by Mark Beyer
The day after Bernardo’s funeral, Odd Steiner tells Ernest just about the opposite of what Ruthie, Ernest’s girlfriend, said to him. Her science mind would do this, and he has to accept that.
OS “Your historian mind – maybe also a part of your own past – it looks for patterns. A natural event, I mean for you and me. Let’s be open. A third of the Western World walks the streets with a look of utter bewilderment on their pasty faces. So … Have you ever considered that everything happens randomly? No? Okay, even patterns do this b-c we almost never know what is somebody’s ‘pattern’ that we run against. Or smash into. If it’s the second, that, too, randomizes the pattern.”
E “You’re saying we’re billiard balls after the break, or corn kernels in a hot-air popper.”
OS “Only when they hit each other—ball or popped corn, there is no difference. That’s the pattern that sets off randomness: for the billiard balls, they are racked into a tight triangle, but never exactly the same tightness, or the same spot on the table. Therefore some randomness is inherent. So, too, the popping kernels: density, shape, rate at which each pops. They never can do it simultaneously. Pop, that is. The air you speak of in the hot-air popper circulates with a pattern, unless the power supply is wonky, or the parts have become worn, or the inexact number of popping kernels from each use spins in the drum. So, predictably, popped kernels could travel in non-random elliptical paths. But not all kernels are aerodynamically alike. Add to that their different weights and the like—internal water volume, carbohydrate structure, you know what I’m saying—you must take into account the collisions as soon as the first few kernels begin to pop. Ergo, thusly, and so … randomness rules.”
E “How then are humans like popcorn kernels? Have I missed–”
OS “You used the simile yourself. I was only riffing on the image you provided. My image – or images – are people, their thoughts emotions desires and motivations. Tell me, what in history hasn’t been random?”
E “War. Death. Each have some predictability. Um… some empirical scientific experiments come to mind. For instance the atomic bomb, after the first one, admittedly, proved it couldn’t activate all Earthly particles and thus destroy the planet in one grand electro-zap explosion. I’m certain other examples exist.”
OS “Yes, agreed. A few others, anyway. Which forces the question, Is this the best we can do as a species?”
E “Why do you sell LP gas for a living? You’re the guy who needs to be in a university.”
OS “Sorry, friend Wain. Not to insult you or your kind b-c you provide a great potential for new generations, but when I peddle gas I learn more about humanity than any method available that lets us look over our shoulders with easy eyes on ugly history. You won’t hear me saying someone’s got to do what you do anymore than a change of the pronoun points a finger the other direction.”
He frowns deeply, then smiles with such warmth on his red mouth, in the moisture of his green eyes, serious eyes and ironic mouth, that Ernest wonders if they are to hug.
E “I don’t know if what I’m about to say makes complete sense. At this time. I’m sure it did to the people who made it work, or tried to. Here it is: systems of society helped establish normalcy to people’s lives before which had been terrible patterns: slavery, oppression, famine, woman used for trade and sale, the need for nomadic movement. Societies, on any scale, worked to establish order, therein trying to prevent the randomness of invasion, poor trade, poor weather for their crops, infidelity amongst the tribe, and any number of ills that affect to destroy society.”
OS “Which of these have been eradicated?”
E “Globally? None, of course.”
OS “Yes, globally does make the difference. Always had. Unless you wish to be accused of ethno-centrism, racism, hemispherism, hegemony, imperialism, or simple neglect … not to mention ignorance. So, which?”
E “This is why I prefaced my idea around sense. Maybe polio, the plague, TB? No, they exist somewhere. Science at its best is always for those with money or a rich source of exploitable resources. It’s no use trying, as I’d first thought. Which is why I focus on patterns of socio-economic-political patterns. Randomness as a base needs systems to build a shield.”
OS “Yeah. I’d use the word ‘veil’ myself. A less skeptical person might use ‘smoke-screen’ and be closer to the truth but further from believability. Everyone likes a good conspiracy theory, but few will sign their name to one.”
E “Sounds like more the skeptic then.”
OS “Okay. So try critic, cynic, realist. Hmm … maybe conspiracy theorist does fit best.”
E “The conspiracy of patterns?”
OS “Or the conspiracy that all is random. Recall pre-defenestration.”
E “Lots still believe. They base their lives around their belief. Predetermined birth advantages or disadvantage. Schooling. Health, universal or pay-as-you-go. The social sciences thrive on such belief. So do politicians who use the findings for good and bad purposes. That’s the primary reason why experts are needed. Barbarians at the gates. Barbarians in possession of the skeleton key.”
OS “The denser the cloud, the greater the diffusion of voices, the easier the division of right and wrong.”
E “Talk about a conspiracy theory.”
OS “Give me something more that is a pattern – a system – that isn’t also used randomly, or is itself a pattern. Wait, allow me: punishment. Your favorite subject.”
E “It is. Some day maybe I’ll tell you why. I should.” He knows he won’t.
OS “Someday make me listen. Make that a random event.”
Mark Beyer is the author of four novels: The Village Wit, What Beauty, Max, the blind guy, and the forthcoming The Janitor: or, I Am Not What I Am. His writing has won awards for the short story and for news features. Mark lives in Europe with his wife.