January-February 2010

Cat in a Box

A short story.

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Photo credit: Michael VenturaA wicked grin flitted across his face as he prepared his latest conundrum. Dr. Mueller seemed to be toying with the class, introducing topics not yet comprehensible, all the while taking some perverse satisfaction from our confusion. Occam’s razor and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tortured our young minds, and now with something approaching glee, the physics professor shuffled his notes and lifted his face to the stunned students. “Now I should like to tell you,” he said, “about the paradox of uncertainty.”

Arranged neatly on his desk were a stuffed cat, a cardboard box, some vials and what appeared to be a small Geiger counter. He moved like an actor upon a stage.

“Let us say you wish to record atomic decay within a given space. You place into a box a diabolical instrument that as soon as it detects an atom breaking down, it will smash a small glass vial containing a poison gas. Into the box, which is shielded against any external forces, you place a live cat….”

The students tittered as he lifted the stuffed cat and then the instruments into the cardboard box and folded close the lid.

“Now if the odds of atomic decay are fifty-fifty, the odds of the gas being released and killing the cat are the same. But how can we know the result without opening the box?” Mueller ran his fingers through his wild hair, pausing for effect, knowing we had no answer.

“Obviously, one cannot know. So at this stage of the experiment, the cat could be alive or dead, even-steven, and for our purposes, we must consider it both alive and dead at the same time. It is both at once.”

“That’s crazy,” a voice piped up from the back. I looked over my shoulder to see Jake Silver rising from his desk. “A cat cannot be alive and dead at the same time—”

“Ah, Mr. Silver, that’s where you are wrong. This is a famous thought experiment by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger to illustrate—”

“I don’t believe you. It can’t possibly be both at once.” He began walking to the front of the room. “Life is the opposite of death, and to be dead is to be devoid of life. This can’t be that. Is can’t be isn’t.” In three quick strides, he was at the professor’s table and with a flourish of his hands, he opened the lid to the box, and extracted the plush cat from inside. “Just as I suspected. This cat was never alive to begin with, and therefore, it can never be dead.”

“Sit down, Mr. Silver.”

“But Dr. Mueller, I am sitting down. Sitting and standing at the same time.”

“If you don’t sit, I’ll ask you to leave.”

“But I’ve already gone,” Jake said as he backed out of the room, flashing his middle fingers in the air. “Here and there. In and out. Hello, goodbye.”

We waited, but he never came back. How could you not love the bravado of the guy?

Made of pins and baling wire, he would uncoil and spring apart at the slightest pressure. At least that’s how I remember Jake Silver, 20 years on, as an over-wound spring of pure energy and intellect. He was the one who smuggled a dozen white doves into the university library during finals week and set them free among the stacks. Jake was the one who put the goat on the roof of Old Main during Homecoming. His unpredictability made him a kind of folk hero on campus, but it also engendered some degree of antipathy from the other students, who feared his outrageous nonconformity and his temper.

I don’t know how I ended up rooming with the guy. Perhaps because I amused him, he took me in like a stray. We lived together in the dormitory for two years, and just before senior year, we rented a house so that there would be room for one more person.


She was made of words. Or should I say that words became her? Nadia spoke in lines of unbroken waves. The more she said, the more she came into being, materializing before our eyes, through our hearing, into our bedazzlement. You had to listen to her. She spoke in crisp, clear sentences strung into well-ordered paragraphs, the theses of which seemed irrefutable. A virtuoso, she pierced our lack of understanding. Without pretense, she would freely use her constantly expanding vocabulary, sending her auditors scurrying to the dictionary in the privacy of their rooms to look up ‘‘sigil’’ or ‘‘aurochs’’ or ‘‘catafalque,’’ acknowledging with a grudge that she was correct again.

In a philosophy class we signed up for together, she once asked a question about Emerson’s transcendent giant eyeball, and by the end of a persistent dialogue had driven the professor to tearfully question her vocation. The other students, myself included, simply stopped listening altogether. Two or three fell asleep with their heads upon their desks, folded arms as pillows. Most stared vacantly into space. The girl next to me drew a maze, creating new corridors every time Nadia went off on a tangent. By the end, the maze covered a page, front and back, from which no escape existed. Nadia acquired, like Jake, an undeserved reputation on campus. Some thought her an elitist, an arriviste at our carnival, but if you simply concentrated on what she was saying, you would discover Nadia was simply and manifestly curious about life and ideas. Her abstraction distracted most people, but I delighted in her every thousand-word grunt. The combination of her intelligence and beauty made every hopeless soul fall hopelessly in love with her.

But she loved Jake, and the two odd bodies found in one another perfect consolation to what might otherwise have been an almost unbearable loneliness.

My studies occupied most of my time, though some evenings I could hear the wild rumpus from their bedroom, and once I saw him throw a plate of scrambled eggs against the wall over something she had said. Every so often, they made some big show of their affection for each other in front of me, as though to demonstrate the depth of their devotion, but it was a kind of torture and I did my best to stay in the shadows and out of the way. Though, I think, they were glad to have me around as a kind of buffer to their great exuberance.

I was at their wedding the June after senior year—not only the best man, but, I think, she would have asked me to be maid of honor as well were it not for the fact of a younger sister. We drifted, as friends often do, and the letters and phone calls and e-mail became more widely spaced, often only in connection with the holidays or the special occasion of the birth of their two sons, whom I had never actually met. Two decades had passed, and I had not thought of them in any concrete way for quite some time, not till the invitation tracked me down. They were offering a month with them at their grand old house at the shore. A chance to reconnect, some nostalgic reunion to mark the passing of time.

“The boys,” Nadia wrote, “will be on Outward Bound, so we’ll have the place to ourselves.” At first reading, I thought perhaps that Jake and the twins would be gone, but upon reflection realized that she was merely notifying me that no children would be around. I have an undeserved reputation for hating children. Perhaps it is a sign of an incipient and premature midlife crisis, but I was feeling all of 40 and sorry about it. So, I said yes, it would be good to see them, to reminisce, to catch up on each other’s lives, to spend a few weeks with no obligations, out in the sun, next to the sea.

To make sure we would recognize each other at the airport, we agreed to wear red polo shirts. To the other passengers and welcoming parties at the gate, we must have looked like long-lost members of the same bowling team or perhaps a group of tourists determined not to lose one another in the crowd. We looked like triplets. Older, certainly, with the minor surface aging, but essentially the same, and the old ease erased any strangeness or discomfit that long absences often create. Jake was still Jake, pensive, ticking, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as we headed off the island ferry and drove east to their summer home. Nadia, who had never learned to drive, was still Nadia, kibitzing from the backseat, issuing a monologue that took us across the water without so much as a pause. Although I could not always hear her from the front seat, I was happy to see her as she talked, and happy to see Jake, who seemed fundamentally settled. When we pulled up the oyster-shell drive, a small mocha-colored cat sunned himself on the top porch step. It rose to rub against my ankles when I took the steps.

“I’d like you to meet Schrödinger,” Nadia said.

“Like the physicist?”

“Jake’s idea.”

On the island, their old Victorian had a panoramic view of the ocean, and from my window, I could see a few people baking in the sun or strolling along the edge. The house was dead quiet, shushed by the maternal rhythms of the sea. Jake and Nadia’s muffled voices occasionally rolled under the silence as I unpacked, and the cat crept into my room to spy on me. When my knapsack was empty and the last of my things tucked away, I spoke to the cat. “And what can I do for you, Herr Doktor?” Schrödinger sprang to the bed and curled up like a king where the edge of the pillows met the mattress. I sat beside him, petting between his soft ears, and looked about the room, my home for the next four weeks. His fur felt oddly like the hair of a baby human.

One of the twin boys evidently slept in the bedroom when he was not climbing mountains or sailing dinghies with his brother. Photographs in their frames lined the walls, tiled more or less at eye level, and I was some time studying the family’s changing portrait, seeing how babies bear the later smiles and eyes of teenagers, how their parents morph more slowly, changing haircuts and fashions, but irreducibly the same people. One could almost see the artificial superstructure beneath Jake’s skin; you could almost hear Nadia create herself word by word. On the night table, a photograph had been placed, recently I guess, of Nadia, Jake and me, taken some college summer day long ago. I stood in between them, and each had draped an arm across my shoulders. The cat rolled on his back, nearly purring, demanding a belly rub. As I scratched, I studied the threesome in the picture, who seemed more real somehow than the people in the house.

“I see you are trying to steal my heart’s desire.” Nadia stood behind me in the doorway. Schrödinger rolled over and scrambled down to his mistress’s feet. “Come, I’ll show you the house.”

A century old, the house had absorbed the sea. Its wooden paneling, layered with varnish, smelled of saltwater, sand and sunlight. As she swung open the heavy doors, Nadia told a story about each room, a catalogue of peculiarities from the smoothed finials on the stair railing to the copperplate doorknobs and keyholes, turning verdigris, no matter how often she scrubbed and polished. Jake and Nadia slept in the grand bedroom at the top of the stairs, at the extreme end of the hall from my temporary digs, and I found through sundry experimentation that one could effectively box out the noises in the house by shutting every door and opening both my windows to the calming roar of the night tide. Although in the morning, the laughing gulls and rising sun made a mockery of repose.

But I get ahead of myself. The first few days with Jake and Nadia were like the parable of the prodigal son. They killed the fatted calf—or in this case, the biggest lobsters I have ever seen, followed by an evening clambake and bonfire on the beach the next night. For some reason, it was only the three of us at all times. Their neighbors, surely summer people, too, were polite, waving to me from their porches, but my queries about them were met with Jake’s shrugged shoulders or Nadia’s silence. My hosts were with me day and night, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Jake fell asleep one star-filled evening on the sand, and Nadia, perhaps a little drunk, sat down next to me and wrapped a blanket around our shoulders.

“Tell me about your life,” I said. “Are you happy still?”

“My life is divine, a dream come true, everything that I hoped and wished and prayed for. The boys are growing up into fine young men, nothing at all like Jake or me or you, or should I say the less veridical aspects of our characters. They are good boys, will make good men, and fathers, and have many friends and do great, good deeds. They live so much more broadly and completely than we ever did, worried as we were, so much about ourselves and what others thought. I watch them in their sleep and still think them angels.”

Echoing her tone, I told her that I would like to meet these gentlemen some day.

She laughed at the moon. From some distant spot, a dog barked at a shadow in the water.

“And Jake? He is happy, too?”