The Old Man Had Gravity by Don Hartshorn

He seemed so frail in the huge hospital bed, lying in the center with the covers tucked up under his arms, like a doll in a toy bassinet.  With his wild, thin white hair and his lined, mustached face that carried years of heartache and triumph he could have been anyone’s grandfather spending his last days under constant supervision.

Though his eyes were closed they were always moving behind the lids, his mind whirling and spinning, thoughts racing from here to there and back again.  When he arrived the day before, he told me that he hadn’t had as much time to think in nearly fifty years, and that he’d forgotten how he liked to follow wherever his imagination wandered.  He raised a bony finger then, about to make a point in that way he had, but he paused, looking far away.  The thought of fifty years seemed to weigh him down and when he closed his eyes he fell asleep.

I wheeled his breakfast into the room, blinking from the bright sunlight streaming in through the open blinds.  He stirred in his bed, raising a shaking hand at the window.

“Sorry about that, sir,” I said.  “We’ve got a new orderly at night.  He obviously forgot.”

“Don’t close them all the way yet,” he said as I reached the window.  His charming European accent made the ladies swoon, even now.   He sat up slowly.  “Down just a little bit.  I like to see the sunbeams.”

Tiny sparkles swirled in the slanted light, sublime dances of Brownian motion.

“Beautiful,” he said with a smile, “like little angels.  And yet it’s just dust.  The universe is a marvelous thing, my friend.”

“I brought you eggs and bacon,” I said, lifting the lid off the plate.  “We have orange juice too, but the doctor doesn’t want you to have coffee.”

A wry smile lit up his face, and he shrugged.  “Does he really think a cup of coffee will make a difference now?”

“You should eat, sir,” I said.  My eyes sought out the papers he brought in with him the night before, there, on the desk.  He’d been out of bed, working against doctor’s orders.

“I am… not so hungry,” he replied, sinking back.  “I don’t have long, you know.”

“You shouldn’t talk like that,” I chided.  “Keep your spirits up.”

“Only a foolish man denies the inevitable,” he said, closing his eyes.  “And I have been foolish many times.  But not now.”

I watched him breathe and think.  I’d been doing this long enough that I could tell he was right; he didn’t have much time at all.  Maybe no more than an hour, possibly far less.  He seemed resigned to it, accepting of it, as older people that close to the end usually were.  But his eyes moved behind his lids, he was still thinking, still pondering the imponderable.

The papers beckoned me, a siren song drawing me to the desk.  The words slanted across the page, the writing spidery and weak, the phrases strung together in that way Germans seemed to have.  He’d been in America for decades, but he still wrote in his native language.

“It’s a speech,” he said from the bed.  “For an anniversary I do not think I will be attending.  Go ahead, you may read it if you want.  If you can make sense of my scratchings.  My first wife always scolded me for my penmanship.”

“You should have been sleeping,” I said.  “Moving around too much will only make things worse.”

A small chuckle escaped his lips.  “Things do not get much worse than this, my friend.  My only regret is that I spent time working on a speech I knew I would never present, instead of real work.”

Leafing through the pages I searched for what I knew was there, what had to be there.  I found nothing but words, elegant and noble and full of emotion, but still just words.

“You seem disappointed,” he said.  I turned to find him sitting up, even leaning forward slightly though that must have been painful.  “You were expecting maybe to find something more?”

So perceptive.  I had to remind myself that he had made a living, made himself famous, by his ability to see things in ways others didn’t or couldn’t.  Or shouldn’t.

“I just thought that… given who you are…” I sputtered, trying to choose my words carefully and utterly failing, “… you would have been…”

“You are thinking there should be equations, yes?” he said, his eyes sparkling with mischievous glee.  “Some secrets to the universe scribbled on my deathbed?”

I said nothing, but he’d gotten it exactly right.  He watched me, running his finger across his thick mustache.

“What is your name, young man?”  He beckoned me to the bed with a wave.

“Anthony,” I replied as he grasped my hand.

He looked into my eyes, staring for long seconds.  “I do not think so,” he said finally.  “But if that is what you want me to call you, I will.”

My heart pounded in my chest.  Anthony was the name I used in my work.  A pen name, something to hide behind, not even close to the name my mother had given me.  So perceptive.

“Where are you from, Anthony?” he asked.

“I grew up in Trenton,” I said, the story I was sticking with, “but I’ve been here for a few years.”

“We will never get anywhere if you keep lying to me, Anthony,” he said.  “You are no more from New Jersey than I am.”

He still had hold of my hand, a firm grip that belied his frailty.  “You should rest, sir,” I said, slowly escaping his grasp.  “The doctor doesn’t want you upset.”

“I’m not upset,” he said, pursing his lips as he stared at me.  “But I am puzzled.  I like puzzles, though.  I’ve spent my life figuring them out.”

His eyes bored through me and I backed off, clearing away the breakfast he wouldn’t eat.  I had begged for this assignment, I’d done extra work, put in more hours training than anyone, and my supervisors had moved me to the top of the list.  I thought I was unassailable, that my veneer was impenetrable.  But he was picking me apart almost as an afterthought.

“Unfortunately, I’m anything but a puzzle,” I lied, unable to keep my pulse from rising.  “I just do my work, go home, and catch ‘I Love Lucy’ on the television.”

He nodded sagely, his hand to his chin.  “Of course you do.”

Had they been wrong about this?  There should be equations on paper, something to put in his archives and discover in a few years.  But if they weren’t with the speech, where were they?

He still stared at me from the bed, his breath shallower now.

“What is your ancestry, Anthony?” he asked.  “Your people, where are they from?”

“Trenton, like I said,” I replied, too quickly.  He’d rattled me and I was unable to recover.  “I think on my mother’s side we’re a bit Irish, a bit French.  On my father’s side German and English.”

He smiled again, as if I’d said exactly what he expected me to.  “Yes, that seems very plausible for an American.  People born here seldom take account of these things, you know.  In Europe ancestry is everything.”

From the way he looked at me I got the feeling that he was playing with me, stringing me along, allowing me enough freedom to slip up.

“Can I get you more comfortable, sir?” I asked, reaching for the pillow.

He fell backwards, settling in, and his eyes glittered mirthfully.  “This is just how I like it.  Thank you for asking though.”

And then I knew.  The pillows.

“You are familiar to me,” he said.  His chin raised as regarded me carefully.  “Where might I know you from, my friend?”

“I was here when you came in yesterday,” I replied.  “I’m the duty orderly for this shift.”

He shook his head.  “Before.  Where would I have met you before all this business with my insides?”

I couldn’t help it, I froze.  Only briefly, the merest pause, but that hesitation told him volumes.

“We’ve never met before they admitted you here,” I lied.  He was a small boy, no more than ten or twelve, walking the streets of Munich.  He was with with Max Talmud, and it was an indulgence I allowed myself, a glimpse in person, nothing more.  I didn’t know he had even seen me, much less noticed me enough to remember me.

“As you say,” he replied, again with that knowing smile, “since you’ve spent your life here in New Jersey.”

He relaxed, heaving a deep sigh and pulling the covers up to his chin.  The papers I was looking for, the papers I absolutely had to retrieve, were in that bed.  Under the pillows most likely.  I took my black bag from the cart and opened it, feeling the small electric spark as it activated.

“You know, something just occurred to me,” he said, his words softer now.  “Your name, Anthony, is the same as the patron saint of lost causes.  Or of lost souls.  Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?”

How was he doing this?  I had chosen the name for exactly that reason, a private joke that he had guessed in one try.  No words came to me, so I nodded mutely.

“I might be Jewish,” he continued, “but I do read quite a bit.  As the saying goes, some of my best friends are Catholic.  But that rascal Bohr is Lutheran.”

He laughed then, a soft throaty chuckle that filled the room.  I didn’t have much time, his family and colleagues would soon arrive.  They couldn’t find those equations; they hadn’t before, and they shouldn’t now.

“Maybe you’d like to sit?” I asked.  “Take a look out the window?”

“You are trying so very hard,” he said, a mentor evaluating his pupil’s progress.  “You could just take them, you know.  I am feeling very weak, I would not be able to stop you.”

Of course I could, but I would never lay hands on him.  Not him.  I eased into the desk chair, feeling his eyes on me.  I had no idea what to do next, my training didn’t prepare me for someone like him.

“You must be from somewhere quite… extraordinary, I would guess,” he said.

No sense denying something when I was such an open book to him.  “What makes you say that?”

He raised a shaking hand towards the window.  “The angels have stopped dancing.”

Dust motes hung suspended in the sunbeams, unmoving.  After I’d opened my black bag the sun hadn’t advanced in the sky, the hands on the clock hadn’t ticked forward.  We were in the moment ‘between’ and that would not last indefinitely.  So perceptive.  Even now, minutes away from the end, he noticed everything.

“Would you do me the favor of speaking plainly, Anthony?” he asked.  “Give an old man that courtesy.”

The one thing we weren’t supposed to do, ever, was reveal ourselves.  Infiltration was our business, in and out, our objective achieved and no one ever the wiser.  But being in that hospital room, with him of all people, the restriction seemed pointless.

“Those equations,” I said, the words coming slowly as I forced them out of my mouth, “the progress you made, the incredible discovery you achieved last night…  I’m sorry sir, you were never supposed to have figured it out.”

A smile creased his lined face, and he nodded.  “I thought it might be something like that.  It is a neat little thing, what I did.  It’s been rattling around my head for years.  Decades, actually, since before the War.  The solution came to me quite suddenly, as I was writing that speech.  And you’ve come to take it away.”

“It’s too soon,” I replied, my pulse coming rapidly.  “After your work in Nineteen-Oh-Five, it took nearly two hundred years for people to come up with unification.  You wouldn’t believe the blood, sweat, and tears poured into it.  Careers made.  Careers lost.  Near the end wars fought over it.  Somehow, some way, you’ve shortcut the process by one-hundred-fifty years.”

“Says who?” he asked.

I blinked, still surprised and horrified by my willingness to speak so openly.  My chest heaved and I gasped as if I’d run a marathon.

“I’m sorry?” I replied.

“Who is in charge of saying when a discovery can or must be made?  It comes when it comes, and that is all you need concern yourself with.”

He was digging deeper and deeper, putting me further and further in conflict with my oath, with all my training.  But this was right, if anyone needed the explanation he did.

“Those equations shouldn’t be!” I protested, too loudly.  “You never made them.  You never wrote them down.  No one ever found them.  No one ever misused them.”

He raised a bent, gnarled finger.  “Ah… this is the crux of the matter then.  It is not that I made the discovery, but that I wrote it down.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, finding it easier and easier to tell the truth the longer I did it. “Those equations will be stored in your archives, your personal papers.  And someone will find those sheets a few years from now.  And they’ll show the equations to someone who recognizes them for what they are.  And people will pick them apart, and debate them, and get them wrong.  But eventually…”

“Eventually they’ll discuss the equations in the barber shop, on a radio show, on the television,” he said, nodding to himself, “like they do my other work.  Yes, I understand.”

“No one found those equations, sir,” I said, almost pleading.  “I mean… they did, but it’s not supposed to happen.  Terrible things resulted.”

He pursed his lips, thinking again.  His hand raised to his lips as if he were clutching a pipe that wasn’t there.  “I can imagine that.  Look what they did with my special relativity.”

Leaning forward, I rested my head in my hands, suddenly exhausted.  “If the Twentieth Century gets those equations, if they know how everything in the universe is connected…”

“I told you I understood,” he replied gently.  “They say I’m a genius, after all.”

He sat up and fished underneath his pillow, finally producing two crisp sheets of paper, covered front to back with scribbles and diagrams and equations.  He held them out to me, impatiently shaking them at me when I didn’t immediately rise from the chair.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, tears coming to my eyes.  “I know what this work means to you.”

“It’s all so simple really,” he said, tapping the pages as I took them from him.  “It requires a certain leap of faith, but anything worth the effort always does.  And don’t worry, I agree with you.  It’s too soon for this.  Imagine the trouble Schweitzer would have on his hands if this got out.”

I scanned the pages, confirming that these were the ones causing the problems.  Just ink on paper, but more destructive than every bomb ever made.  I folded the pages and sealed them away inside my black bag.

“Oh, look, the angels have begun waltzing again,” he said, delighted.  The dust motes in the sunbeams rose and fell, their random motion elegant and mesmerizing.  “It’s a grand irony, isn’t it?  The dying man’s final epiphany, the thing to change the world as we know it, does exactly that.  Just too soon.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, my triumph dulled with the knowledge of what I was taking from him.  “If it’s any consolation at all, we have a place where we keep these things.  Bits of history that never happened.  People will remember you for this.”

“Please, call me Albert,” he said, his expressive, famous face breaking into a smile.  He held his hand out to me.  “We have a history, you and I.”

I shook his hand, unable to stop the smile from spreading across my face.

“I would imagine you must leave, yes?” Albert prodded gently.  “Your duties as orderly probably take you very far from here.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.  “It’s been a privilege meeting you.”

He grimaced, clutching at his abdomen.  He didn’t have long.

“And it has been most interesting meeting you, Anthony,” he replied.  “The universe is a marvelous thing indeed.”

He settled back onto the pillows, the discomfort from his internal bleeding plain on his face.  His eyes closed, but they still moved behind the lids, the ideas flying fast and furious.

As far as anyone knew, or ever would know, in his last hours Albert worked on a speech he was to present on the seventh anniversary of the founding of the nation of Israel.  His efforts at discovering a grand unification of the fundamental forces of nature, his life’s work for most of his career, would end with nothing accomplished.  As it always had been.

I left the speech on the desk, but I took the pen.  Just in case.


Don has been writing for years, doing freelance editing and copywriting for small publishers and ad agencies while honing his storytelling skills. He recently returned to his native Texas from a nine-year stint in Pasadena, California, and being home reignited his creative spark. He has several projects in the works, many of which are set in Texas, not coincidentally. Unable to abide free time, he also owns a small business with his brother-in-law. He really wants a dog, but his lease says ‘no pets’ so he’s kind of stuck.

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