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Momentum or Position

by Channie Greenberg

Stanley stared into his brown bag. Things used to be so simple.

His father had schooled him in Hans Bethe’s nucleosynthesis and had admonished all listeners that fission was disproportionately expensive. Dad had tendered, too, that the government should further underwrite fusion reactor design.

The scientist shook his head. Reactor types were no longer his life’s focus. To no avail, he had tried to apply Heisenberg’s principles to people. His mantra had become “Individuals could either be understood by the rate at which they changed settings or by the stations that they frequented.” His mantra hadn’t worked.

His mother, for example, who had insisted on being delivered to their community’s mahjong hour, had evolved into an elder who had demanded to be chauffeured to a noncredit course on snowboarding. Meanwhile, his wife, Tohar, had been adamant that as long as Idaho National Laboratory paid Stanley to maintain SNAP-10A, it made no difference whether Mom stood outside of city limits catching chukars with her bare hands or got transported, by her son, to other equally peculiar activities.

Apparently, when Mom wasn’t home, Tohar could indulge in eating entire Toblerone bars or in viewing YouTube videos on kidding goats. Sometimes, she even sucked down chocolate while watching birthing ruminants.

All Quantum Bayesianism aside, Stanley’s troubles began when Mom’s brain disease had exacerbated. Rather than become stymied by her mounting neurological malfunctions, Mom had become an excited electron that refused to return to its ground state. Simply, if Tohar left the living room to tend to laundry, Mom would skedaddle into the neighbor’s elderberry patch, discard her clothing, and “paint” herself with ripe fruit.

Likewise, if Tohar took Mom grocery shopping but swept her eyes off of Mom long enough to select onions, Mom would run to the store’s entryway and “auction off” the contents of Tohar’s purse. At most, only when Stanley, or any of the care providers who chaperoned city-funded senior activities, was present, Tohar could be off-duty.

It seemed that it had been years since that day when the nuclear engineer’s cellphone had vibrated with a call from Tohar announcing that she was at Fanning Field, flying from there to Salt Lake City, and jetting from SLC to JFK. At the time, she had shouted, “I think I’m going home to my mother, on Long Island but, possibly, I’ll bunk with my sister, in Teaneck; or, perhaps, I’ll visit my college roommate, in Spring Valley. I’ll let you know. Maybe.”

Before Stanley could compose his thoughts, the phone had rung, again. “In case you’re wondering, I bought Mom a two-week stay at Gables Assisted Living. I am a very considerate spouse. Going forward, you might want to pay for in-home management or enroll Mom in a daycare program. You seem okay handling nights and weekends.” Tohar abruptly cut off. Stanley thought that he had heard a boarding announcement in the background.

Weeks became months. Mom continued to decline.

Stanley continued to work on SNAP-10A. Mostly, he charted the heat trails left by the decay of the reactor’s plutonium-238. Decades ago, the Air Force had claimed that a faulty command receiver had turned off the device. Stanley and a few other Idahoans knew otherwise (his work was both tedious and fascinating.)

More time passed. Tohar yet failed to come home.

Stanley permanently enrolled Mom at Gables. He visited her, daily, on the way to the lab, as well as visited her on Sundays. Mom didn’t seem to mind her relocation; she was increasingly using her mahjong tiles to construct dioramas and was increasingly taking solace in putting on and taking off her snow boots.

As for Stanley, his reality continued to stay out of sync with Tohar’s. It was as though she was tunneling through most of the significant relationships they’d built over their shared span. No reports of infidelity reached him, but he was privy to tales of others of her adventures.

For instance, Hans Weimer, a former chair of the American Nuclear Society’s Reactor Physics Division and the former best man at Stanley and Tohar’s wedding, had posted Instagram pictures of himself, of his wife and of Tohar at College Park’s Aviation Museum. What’s more, Zhi Ruo Shan, who, like Stanley, had been a teaching assistant for Dr. Ivan Petrov’s Stellar Structure and Evolution course, had tweeted for a fortnight about the deliciousness of the fennel in Tohar’s chicken soup and about the yumminess of the orange zest adorning Tohar’s hummus with beef.

Most recently, Stanley’s brother, Eric, had made mention on the family’s WhatsApp platform that it was a boon having Tohar babysit. He suggested that Stanley join her in New Mexico if just to hug his lone sibling or, if less probably, to become one among the few staff members of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center entitled to fidget with its linear accelerator.

Nonetheless, all that Stanley could determine, from sampling those and related bits and bobs of social media, was that Tohar was flitting around their universe; he couldn’t surmise the totality of her whereabouts. Conversely, when she SMSed him outside of airports or train stations, he could fairly accurately predict her route, but he couldn’t guess the duration of her stay at subsequent destinations.

Tohar slowly emptied their joint bank account.

Mom’s health worsened.

Interesting events took place on SNAP-10A, but Stanley could disclose those findings only to his immediate boss.

After another season passed, Mom died.

As though she and Mom had been entangled, Tohar suddenly reappeared.

That morning, when Stanley was packing his tuna fish sandwich and his apple slices, he had heard a cab pulling into their driveway. Tohar had bounded in, had cut the crusts off of his bread and had finished dividing his fruit. Thereafter, she had sprung toward their bedroom and had locked the door.

Back in his office, Stanley looked once more at his lunch and sighed. Heisenberg would have made a poor marriage counselor.

Copyright © 2020 by Channie Greenberg

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