Theory on the Origins of Time

By Maggie Shipstead

When Mia sat down at an evening lecture beside a man she recognized as a physics professor, she did not expect to marry him. She expected only to occupy that particular seat for the length of the talk and then to leave and walk back alone to her dormitory, where her roommate was suffering from a sinus infection. But the professor turned to her and said, “You’re in my department.”

“No,” she said. “I’m in chemistry.” She was taken aback — there were only three female physics majors, and all three were arrestingly ugly.

“Oh, dear. My mistake. You must remind me of someone in my department.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say.”

For a moment he looked stern, but then, to her relief, he laughed. He had an odd, shoulder-hopping way of laughing, eyes up and chin down, like a tall, stooped bird, a heron or a crane. The thin lines around his eyes turned upwards in little smiling hyperbolas, and with those lines and his curly hair and his row of crowded, friendly teeth, he seemed to be made entirely out of smiles. “You’re right. I apologize. You look nothing like a physics major.” He angled his body around to offer his hand. “Linus Zimmerman.”

Ordinarily, Mia resented the friendliness of strangers. People, particularly men, spoke to her often, opening with innocuous comments about the weather and then pinioning her to bus seats or shop counters with their droning histories. But Linus had an inquisitiveness that charmed her.

“Where do you hail from?” he asked.

“I hail,” she said, “from the faraway land of Litchfield.” Litchfield was only 30 miles away.

“Ah! What a journey. How are you adjusting?”

“I’m still learning the customs of the natives,” she said.

He kept up a steady stream of questions — What else did she study? What did she think of the new dean? Had she seen “Cuckoo’s Nest” yet? What did she think of it? — until she began to feel glamorous and interesting, especially when he said, “I know why I recognized you. I saw your picture for winning the Kreiss. You must be quite brilliant.”

She said, trying to sound offhand, “You can’t ever be brilliant enough, though, can you?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m not brilliant at all,” he said, shrugging his heron’s shoulders.

Self-deprecation sat well on him. He was tossing her a slow pitch. “Yes,” Mia said boldly. “You have a reputation for being very stupid.”

To her delight, he laughed again. When the lights dimmed and the lecturer stepped behind the podium, they found they could not stop whispering, and soon, his breath tickling her ear, he asked, “Do you want to go get some coffee and stop annoying these poor people around us?”

“Yes!” she said.

Mia’s previous boyfriend, Charlie Larson, whom she had loved, had sat her down four months previously and gently informed her that, while he loved her too, he had an inkling he might be able to find someone better. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, Mims. I have this grass-is-greener feeling. I wish I were ready to settle down, I do. But maybe if we’re apart now, it’ll let us be together in the long term, you know, because maybe all I need is to see what’s out there. Oh, Mims, don’t cry. You know I love you.” Soon afterwards she saw him walking to dinner with a blonde girl whose bare arm he was gripping just above the elbow, his hand encircling her whole bicep like a cuff. Mia had gone home and thrown away every souvenir of him she possessed, but the real Charlie could not, unfortunately, be consigned to the dump. She saw him everywhere. If she dropped a handful of change while buying a sandwich, he was there to pick it up. No one’s laundry but his ever revolved in the machine next to hers, and the blonde head two rows up in the movie theater never belonged to anyone but his new girlfriend.

But once her courtship with Linus was underway, Mia told her roommate that Charlie Larson could marry that blonde girl, he could marry ten blonde girls, and she wouldn’t care. What she had seen in that shallow, spoiled boy she could not say. “All his stupid debonair poses are pure theater, amateur theater,” she said. Charlie did nothing but loaf around the offices of the student newspaper all day, gossiping and smoking pretentious brown cigarettes. Linus was a man, a thinker. She never noticed Linus looking at other women. He lavished her with compliments on her hair, her eyes, the sound of her laugh. Charlie had complimented her on her fine table manners and the speed at which she read but never on her looks. To be objectified, especially by someone older, whose standards for female beauty must be elevated by years of appreciation, thrilled Mia. When Linus proposed after six months, she said yes without hesitating.

“He’s just so old,” her mother said on the phone as though describing the pyramids.

“He’s not old,” Mia said. “You’re older than he is, so what does that make you?”

“But he’s much too old for you. I worry. Being married is hard enough as it is. Being married young is harder. And to a man who could be your father — you’re making things more difficult is all I mean. You can’t possibly anticipate the difficulties.”

“I know,” Mia said.

“He’s so old,” said her mother.

“I hope that’s not your toast at the wedding.”

“You’re such a girl still.”

“I’m not.”

“You are. You can’t know how much you are.”

“I’m not!”

Linus had been married once before, but not for very long, and the woman now lived in Australia. He seldom mentioned her. Mostly he talked about Mia. “You are the loveliest,” he said, “absolutely the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I love this,” he said, touching her knee. “And I love this,” he said, touching her ear. “And this,” he said, resting one fingertip on her sternum. “You’re impossibly fresh. Any fresher and you would dissolve into dew.”

*          *          *

She forgot about Charlie Larson. She knew she would get old and lose her beauty, but at least Linus had a good running start on her. On the day she married him, she was 21 and he was 47. Their wedding, in keeping with Linus’s credo of meeting embarrassment head-on, had a May-December theme, and the tables were strewn with daisy chains and glass icicles and stopped watches. “My child bride,” he called her. “My old man,” she returned. After their vows the length of their kiss raised eyebrows, and everyone who gave a toast agreed the jokes wrote themselves.

Of course Mia dropped out of school after the engagement. They planned that she would complete her degree at another university, but she got pregnant instead. Elsie was born before their first anniversary, and it was while lifting her out of her crib on a summer Sunday morning that Linus had his great insight. He saw, as clearly as he saw the revolving, bonneted ducks of Elsie’s mobile, where time came from.

“I’ve had a thought,” he said, opening the door to the bathroom where Mia lay in the tub with her eyes closed, “that feels interesting, and I think I need some peace and quiet for a while to work it out.”

“Oh?” she said. She opened her eyes. He was standing in the doorway holding Elsie and gazing at her breasts. They were painfully full, blue-veined with gumdrop nipples, and they sat half-submerged on her stomach, discharging a milky cloud into the water around her.

“Turns out I might be brilliant after all, love. Can you take the baby?”

“Right now? What’s the insight?” she asked.

“It has to do with time. I need to concentrate and get it down before it disappears. Would you take the baby?”

Part Two

Overnight Linus turned from an orderly, conscientious man into a strange and wild-haired derelict, a mumbler and scribbler who spent his mornings in the garden orating to the roses. He adopted his blue and white striped pajamas as his uniform. When lured to the dinner table, he ate almost nothing and stared so fixedly at Elsie in her highchair that the baby burst into uneasy tears. For six weeks Mia did not know her husband. He did not seem to see her. He rarely came to their bed, and when he did he did not touch her but slept deeply, murmuring out his dreams. She lived in lonely union with Elsie’s suckling mouth and a relentless procession of dirty diapers.

In August he shaved off his madman’s beard and put on a pair of gray trousers that were now much too big and sat down at his typewriter. The sound of the pistoning keys from outside his study doors was so forceful and continuous that he might have been manufacturing cars or running a forge. After only two weeks, on the first day of fall term, the typewriter fell silent, and he came out with a sheaf of papers.

“May I read it?” Mia asked as Linus kissed her cheek and stroked Elsie’s head with one finger while she slept on Mia’s shoulder.

“Soon enough,” he said, putting the papers in his briefcase. “When it’s ready.”

*   *   *

His theory was published to the wonderment of the scientific world. Almost immediately speculation began about a Nobel Prize.

“Well, you know,” a faculty wife said at a luncheon, “his work has to be tested by time. There’s been talk for twenty years about Marcus getting one, but we’re still waiting.”

“But Marie Curie only waited five years,” Mia said. “And Niels Bohr waited nine.”

Another woman arched an eyebrow. “Been doing your research.”

Mia and Linus only had to wait as long as Marie Curie before he answered the ringing, pre-dawn phone and found it was, as he liked to say afterwards, those nice men in Stockholm. Word spread quickly, and when Linus pushed open the heavy wood doors and strode into his morning lecture, he heard the popping of a champagne cork from the hands of his head TA and the applause of his students. He turned to the chalkboard and saw that someone had written “Congratulations Professor Zimmerman!” The sight of those words moved him, he told Mia later, because they were so ordinary, made of the same chalk dust that ghosted the fronts of his trousers with the butterfly shapes of his wiping hands, the same words that might have been written for someone who won a track meet, but they were there because he had changed the world. His life (our life, he said) would never be ordinary again.

“Did you think of us as ordinary?” asked Mia.

“Only in the best way, love.”

The early results of experiments conducted in an enormous underground particle accelerator in Europe had supported the Theory and were said to have decided the Nobel committee in his favor. Later, scuttlebutt emerged that a Portuguese scientist had been all but chosen when he died suddenly and bumped Linus up by a few years. But all the politics barely mattered, Linus said. In the time between the announcement and the ceremony, he was often overcome by the enormity of his accomplishment and would break off mid-sentence to hold Mia’s hand and stare into her eyes as though he were looking into the infinite pinpricked silence of space. She became aware that all his joking modesty, the way, in their first conversation, he had said he wasn’t brilliant at all, was truly a joke, a tarp he threw over his belief in his own genius. All along, like a terrier poised over a gopher hole, he had been waiting for the right idea.

After the banquet, in a room of pale Scandinavian wood, Linus collapsed backwards on the pristine, snowy bed with his tie still white and perfect around his throat and the tails of his coat thrown out beneath him. He was drunk from the excellent wines and from the glory of the evening, and he smiled up at the ceiling with his eyes closed.

“Linus?” Mia said.

“Mmm?”

“Was I all right tonight?”

“Hmm?”

“Did I keep up with the conversation?”

“Yes,” he said, reaching for her like a sleepwalker. “You were everything I needed, Girl Friday. You’re my handy gadget.”

“I didn’t sound stupid?”

“Not that I noticed.”

“Really? I felt like they were humoring me. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt like a one-woman kids’ table.”

“They don’t have a kids’ table at the Nobel Banquet.” He seemed to doze for a moment, and then he said again, “The Nobel Banquet.”

“Linus, wake up. I don’t want it to be over.”

“Fine, fine.”

“You’re a Swedish citizen now.”

“Mmm?”

“Isn’t it funny that you’re a Swedish citizen?”

“Maybe I can get a good deal on a Volvo.”

“We don’t need a good deal anymore.”

“No, I want to set aside that money” — he yawned — “for Elsie.”

“I was so proud of you, Linus.”

“Thank you, love.”

“You won’t trade me in someday for someone smarter? Linus?”

“I don’t think many men sit around wishing for someone smarter.”

The sky outside the window was very dark. It was December, and during the day the sun was a blank white ball traveling in a low and lazy arc above the horizon. Mia wished the northern lights would appear. She had only seen them once before, at her grandmother’s house in Minnesota. On the nightstand was a red leather box stamped with Linus’s name and the date. She lifted the lid, and Alfred Nobel’s golden profile gleamed up at her. At dinner one of the early courses had been a salad with goat cheese and roasted beets, and Mia, not liking either goat cheese or beets, had not cared for it but had eaten it anyway. She said, “Linus, did you see I ate the beets?” But he was asleep.

*          *          *

She never thought of Charlie Larson except in passing until she ran into him at the supermarket a year later. She had not seen him since before the wedding, when they had met by chance one night. He had come toward her through a slant of orange streetlight, and she had flinched at the odor of smoke, sweat, and liquor. Leaning one hand against a brick wall, blocking her way, he had said, “Is it true you’re marrying that old man? Why would you marry that old man?” Now he was walking beside a blonde girl who was pushing a shopping cart, a different blonde girl than the one Mia remembered, though his fingers wrapped around her arm in the same way.

“Bless my soul,” he said. “Mrs. Nobel Prize. I hardly know what to say.”

“You’re Mia!” said the blonde girl.

Elsie, standing with one arm around Mia’s right leg, pointed into the girl’s cart. “Those are the cookies I want,” she said.

The girl laughed. Charlie said, “This is my girlfriend, Loni” at the same time Mia said, “We have cookies at home.”

Then Mia said “Oh!” and “Nice to meet you!” at the same time the girl said, “She’s welcome to have one” about the cookies, to which Mia said, “Oh, no thank you” and shook the girl’s hand.

“I’m going to run and grab the milk,” the girl said. “But you stay and catch up. No, stay. Stay and talk. I’ll be right back.” Charlie watched her go.

“This is Elsie,” Mia offered. Elsie had straight smooth hair the color of sweet corn, and Mia touched the child’s head with her fingers.

“I’m six,” said Elsie. “Is that so?” he said, rousing himself. “Go easy on the cookies, and you’ll be a stunner like your mother.”

“You never called me a stunner.”

“Sure I did. Lots of times.” He took a can of green beans from a shelf and began tossing it from one hand to the other. “So how are you? Do you still hate me?”

“I never hated you.”

“You’ve never been a good liar.”

“Well, you deserved it.”

“If we’re going to get into this, I’ll say I’m sorry I said those things. I should have handled the break-up differently.”

“You’re the one who brought it up,” she said, surprised at how the old anger returned. “I didn’t need to be handled. I just wanted to be with someone who’s not unforgivably entitled.”

“I think it’s correct to say—”

“Has an unforgivable sense of entitlement.”

“What about Mr. Nobel Prize?”

“He’s very humble.”

“That’s impressive. If I had a Nobel Prize, I’d want to be fanned with palm fronds and fed bon-bons.”

“Everyone says that. But he’s working harder than ever. It’s painful to think your life has already sailed over its highest point.”

“Then it’s just down, down into the ground,” he said. “I hope I haven’t already peaked.” He set the green beans back on the shelf. “That would be a letdown.”

With his hands empty, without a blonde girl to cling to like a ladder in a swimming pool, he looked forlorn. “I’m sure you haven’t,” Mia said.

He smiled. “Did you know that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite?”

“I did.”

“And he felt guilty, and that’s why he established the prize?”

“I think there’s more to it than that.”

He made a pssh noise and flicked his fingers. “But that’s the heart of it,” he said, “so who cares about the rest?”

Elsie had been digging in Mia’s purse, and she pulled a bright blue rabbit’s foot from it that she offered to Charlie. “This is for you.”

“How nice. Thank you.” He took it and held it, rubbing the tiny paw between his fingers while he gazed over Mia’s shoulder. She turned. The blonde girl stood motionless in front of the dairy case, silhouetted in the fluorescent-lit distance. “There I was saying I could do better,” he said, “and then along comes this guy who understands the workings of the cosmos and snaps you up. I’ve read some interviews. What does he call you? His pocketknife?”

“Handy gadget.”

“That’s it. I like that. It suits.”

“I hate it, actually.” Mia touched Elsie’s hair again. “Well, Charlie, it was good to see you. I’m glad things have worked out for the best.”

“Sure,” he said. He was still looking past her. “Here comes Loni. Finally.”

“Well, goodbye,” Mia said.

Charlie held out the rabbit’s foot to Elsie. “Goodbye, Elsie.”

She put up her small hands, fending him off. “No, it’s for you.”

“I don’t think you should give away your mother’s lucky charm.”

“No,” Mia said. “It’s hers. She can do what she wants with it.”

He hesitated and then put it in his pocket. “Well, thank you, Elsie.”

The rest of the day was colored in golds and yellows. The illustriousness of her husband and the beauty of her child propelled Mia through the check-out line, floated her across the parking lot. In the car, reaching down to put her purse by Elsie’s feet, she took the little girl’s foot in its white shoe and held it, marveling at the softness of her ankle. Elsie’s whole body was soft enough to have been filled from a pastry tube.

“That’s my foot,” Elsie said.

“It’s a wonderful foot,” Mia said. How relieved she was to be something other than the spar to which Charlie Larson clung. She had not been at all jealous of that Loni person. She wanted to drive to campus and find Linus and kiss him. She had worn a silk gown the color of red grapes, and she had eaten at a table with the queen of Sweden.

Part Three

The year Elsie started high school, Linus retired. He was becoming forgetful, and, the head of his department pointed out, it would be a terrible shame if he were to end his career with his students feeling sorry for him. A party was thrown at the Faculty Club. The theme of the party was time: the cake was made to look like the face of a clock, and stopped watches were scattered around the punch bowl.

Mia did not complain about her life. She loved Linus still, though she privately lamented the imbalance in their sex drives (he was 62 when he retired, she 35). Her mother’s voice, unbidden, returned to her: “He’s so old.” And the polite questions of others always led back to the truth that she had never finished college, never had a job, that her profession was being the wife of a famous man. Those were the holes that let in the air that oxidized her happiness. She informed Linus she would be going back to school to finish her degree, and after that she planned to go on for her doctorate.

“All you have to do,” she said to Linus one evening as she was making dinner, “is pick Elsie up from school and take her to soccer or tennis on the days I have class. And you can do the grocery shopping. I’ll make you lists.”

“But,” Linus said, “I need lots of time to think. Part of the point of retiring is to finally have time to think. I need some good, solid, uninterrupted time.”

“Linus, honestly. You’ll have plenty of time to think. But you’ll also have time to pick Elsie up at school. Soon she’ll be driving and we’ll never see her again, so you might as well enjoy her now.”

“Yes,” he conceded. “That’s true.” Elsie loved sports and dogs and had little in common with her father, and for this he loved her, because he loved all the mysterious forces of the universe. Then he said, “What do you need this degree for? What difference does it make?”

“You promised!” she said, abandoning a head of lettuce in the sink and turning on him. “I’ve been waiting for 15 years! I don’t want to feel like your concubine any more.”

He opened his arms. “Now, now, now, now,” he said. She went to him; he pulled her into his lap.

“You’re my concubine?”

“That’s what everyone thinks.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“The international scientific community, world leaders, diplomats, all of academia, my mother.”

“All right,” he said. “All right then. What is a family without two Ph.D.s? Nothing! It’s a disgrace. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. I’ll buy the groceries, and I will pick up . . .” He stopped. He was looking at the refrigerator, at Elsie’s picture.

“Elsie.”

“Yes, Elsie. I will pick up Elsie.”

*   *   *

Chemistry, Mia found, no longer interested her. The undergraduate self who had loved the long hours in the lab, the company of determined premeds, the invisibility of atoms and molecules — that self seemed to have gone. History now engaged her sense of glamour. She finished her bachelor’s in a year and was accepted to a doctoral program, where she began plowing rapidly through her coursework, making up for lost time. “I’m interested in cultural attitudes during the 1920s towards wealth and vice, where and why they are seen to intersect, how they are defined by cultural media,” she told her advisor.

He steepled his fingers. “Bootleggers and the Charleston.”

Embarrassed, she nodded. “I’m interested in a particular bootlegger named Jimmy Souza. He’s a criminal sort of Horatio Alger story. There was a song written about him; it sparked a small dance craze . . .”

Her advisor was already waving his hands. “Fine, fine, fine,” he said.

She moved a desk and some filing cabinets into the guest bedroom and called it her office. She tacked up photos: the bootlegger Jimmy Souza alone and with his flapper girlfriends, the car where he was eventually gunned down near the Canadian border, a shot of the convent outside Philadelphia where he spent his childhood. She studied his face. He died when he was 29. The girl who was shot with him had been 16, a runaway. From the basement Mia rescued an old record player, and she listened to jazz while she worked.

Linus was not as in demand as he once was, and she found time to strip the wallpaper from the upstairs walls and paint them shades of blue and cream. She cleaned out the basement and the attic, but when she began rounding up the downstairs furniture for disposal, she found that Elsie would not hear of it.

“I like these things,” Elsie said, clutching the back of a chair. “I want them to stay.”

Mia looked around the room. There were some lovely things here and there — Chinese vases, Persian rugs, an abstract bronze of a goat given to them by a famous sculptor — but the furniture was too formal: stiff-backed and perched on pointy little mahogany legs. Linus had inherited the lot from his mother, a woman by most accounts as oppressive as her taste in furniture and whose early death had spared Mia her acquaintance but not her dreary, Gothic skyline of looming armoires and wing chairs.

“We’ll get prettier furniture,” Mia said. “You’ll like the new things too. Sometimes things should change.”

“I don’t see anything that should change. What should change?”

“First your tone and then this couch. I really don’t think it’s your decision.”

“Isn’t it Dad’s decision? Dad!” Elsie called. “Dad!”

There was the sound of doors rolling open. Linus appeared as a tilted, pale rift in the hallway shadows.

Elsie, the prosecutor, pointed stiff-armed at Mia. “Mom says she’s going to get rid of Grandma’s furniture and buy all new stuff.”

“I didn’t say all new. I just said some.”

“But get rid of the old?” Linus said.

“We already talked about this, Linus. We agreed.”

“Furniture is so expensive,” Elsie said. “Why should we spend money to replace what we have? I think Grandma’s things should stay in the family.”

“Oh, Elsie, if you feel that way, we’ll put all this in storage for you.”

“That’s even more money. Dad, this seems really wasteful to me.”

Linus looked at Mia. “The prize money is supposed to be kept for Elsie.”

“We have other money. We don’t have to touch that.”

Linus was fading backwards, tugged by an invisible undertow. “Yes, I think maybe it’s too expensive,” he murmured. “Let’s just stay as we are.” He disappeared back down the hallway, and Elsie wriggled in triumph against the unyielding cushions of the maroon sofa.

*   *   *

It began as a harmless trend of forgotten nouns and retold stories, of Elsie waiting on the edge of a soccer field as dusk fell, but as Linus approached 70, confusion and bewilderment moved into the tenements and alleyways of his mind and strung their laundry from window to window. He called the cat by the name of his brother who had died in the Korean War. When Elsie phoned from college, she found herself playing a whole cast of family members, many of whom were dead: his mother, his grandmother, his Aunt Patience, Mia, someone named Judy. Every week or so Mrs. Meyers, who lived two doors down, would appear on the Zimmermans’ doorstep with Linus behind her. “I’m scared to death he’s going to fall in the pool when no one’s around,” she told Mia. “I found him in my rose beds. Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind, but I just planted.” Every day Linus went to work in his study, but the banging of his typewriter was the clanging of a pump at an empty well.

“I think I would like a banana,” Linus said one morning, appearing in the doorway of Mia’s study.

She came out of her dissertation slowly, drowsily. “You’ve had enough,” she said.

“No. No, I’ve had some soup, but I haven’t had any bananas.”

“You’ve had two already.”

“It’s been years since I had a banana.”

“Fine,” Mia said. “You haven’t had any soup, but fine. Let’s go have a banana.”

He ate the banana. “This tastes strange,” he said. “Not like I expected.”

Mia said, “Isn’t it time to go to work?”

He said he supposed it was. She steered him towards his study, but within an hour he was back in her doorway. “You know, I would love a banana,” he said.

By mid-afternoon he had eaten the entire bunch of bananas — six bananas. Mia took him to the kitchen where the peels were stacked on the table, and she said, “Linus, I don’t have any more bananas. You ate them all. One, two, three, four, five, six. You’ve had six bananas, today. You’ll be sick, and we don’t have any more bananas.” She took his face between her hands. “Listen to me. I’m telling you the truth. You ate all the bananas, Linus.”

He stared at her solemnly from between her hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot.”

“It’s fine. It’s fine,” she said. She kissed him. She released his face.

He said, “You know, I think I’d like a banana.”

“You ate them all. There aren’t any left!”

“Somebody else must have must have eaten them, because I didn’t.”

“Linus, I am telling you that you’ve had six bananas.”

“I would like a banana.”

“They’re all gone,” she said. “Yes! We have no bananas. We have no bananas today!”

“Just GIVE me,” he said, “a goddamn BANANA!”

“You ate them,” she said.

*   *   *

Three men came with a large truck and took away Linus’s mother’s furniture. Mrs. Meyers agreed to watch Linus while the house was being emptied. When he came home, he gaped at the naked living room and said, “What is this, the Waldorf-Astoria?”

“Do you think it is?” asked Mia.

“This is the ballroom. I can tell by the chandeliers.” He stepped back from her and held up his arms as though inviting her to dance. She moved into his arms, interlaced her fingers with his own and put his hand on her back, but he just stood there, gazing up through the ceiling.

From the cushions of her new reading chair, Mia looked out the window into her yard and thought how much more might be done with it. She hired a gardener, and they had long talks about what should go where. She dug a shallow fishpond. She went to nurseries where she stood and tried to imagine what the different plants would look like in her garden. At one of these nurseries, Jeremiah’s Plants and Supplies, a man in wire spectacles and green clogs touched her elbow while she contemplated rows of goldenrod.

“What are you planting?” he asked.

He was Jeremiah. He had seen her there before, he said. She remembered him, too. They talked about trees, flowers, shrubs, bulbs, seeds, water, shade, butterflies, birds.

“I can’t tell you how many annuals I’ve planted thinking they were perennials,” she said. “Or how many sun plants I’ve planted in the shade. The only reason my thumb would be green is out of envy for the thumbs that don’t kill plants. Like yours.”

He fanned his fingers out in front of him and tilted his head to one side, inspecting them for greenness. “Would you have dinner with me?” he asked.

“Oh! Oh, thank you, I would, but I’m married. I suppose I still could, but I don’t know. I’d have to think about it.”

“You’re not wearing a ring.”

She didn’t remember taking off her ring; she had no idea where it might be. “That’s strange,” she said. “I can’t imagine where it is. I must have taken it off.”

“Maybe you’re not really married.”

“No! I promise I am. Look, you can even see the indentation on my finger.”

“Then maybe it’s a sign,” he said, winking.

Driving home, she thought her way through the house, looking for the ring. She might have taken it off in her office or while she did the dishes or while she read in bed. It might be in the soapdish beside her sink. Could it simply have slipped off somewhere? She had lost some weight; anything was possible. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she was surprised by the yellow spires of goldenrod waving there, and her heart jumped. She thought of Jeremiah. She told herself she was only feeling the harmless high of flattery, a welcome reminder that her husband’s affliction (or even his existence) was not written on her face for everyone to see. But, later, as she cleaned his urine from the floor of their bedroom while he sat sideways in the bathtub in soiled pajamas, she allowed the word “temptation” into her mind and let it sit there.

Part Four

Of the inhabitants of the Marshall-Tribb Residence, one was a painter, one was a poet, two were professors, one was an architect, one was a judge, two were ordinary people, and one was a violinist, a virtuoso named Rodrigo Delgado. The tenth resident, a sculptor, had recently died, leaving a room open for Linus. The director was a small and sympathetic man who began sentences with “Many caregivers . . .” “Many caregivers start to feel like they are losing their minds too.” “Many caregivers feel an urge to grieve for their loved ones even while they are still alive. This is perfectly natural.” He showed Mia through the Residence, a long, low house with big windows and the cheerfulness of a kindergarten classroom. On one wall flourished a construction paper garden of purple flowers and fat, stingerless bees. In the kitchen a woman in bright scrubs dug scoops of crumbly powder from a plastic bin marked “Oatmeal Cookie Mix.” Linus had a room with a bed that could raised and lowered with a controller. There was a desk for his typewriter and a bathroom outfitted with aluminum safety bars. In a glass case outside his door, Mia arranged photos of Elsie, a wedding portrait of herself, a photo of Linus receiving his Prize, and a slim hardback copy of the Theory. She had also brought a dried rose from their garden and a stopped watch, but she changed her mind and took them out of the case.

“Isn’t it nice here?” Mia asked.

“Yes,” Linus said, sitting on his bed. “When can I go home?”

That was his refrain during the first weeks of his stay. He wanted to go home. When would Mia take him home?

“Where is home?” she asked.

He thought for a moment. “Amarillo,” he said. He had spent part of his childhood in Amarillo, but Mia had never been. She imagined a desert like the set of a school play: wagon wheels and fat green cacti with their arms up in surrender.

“This is home. You’re home right now.” “No,” he said shaking his head, “I want to go home. Take me home with you.”

When she left, he clung to her, asking to go home. After she closed the door behind her, she watched through the window as he sat on a bench in the hallway and cried, his shoulders bent in their heron’s hunch. T.J., the man who helped him take showers, came and led him away by the hand.

*          *          *

At a party, Mia ran into a classmate who told her Charlie Larson had become editor-in-chief of a political magazine and lived in Washington D.C. with his wife and three sons.

“He’s been a very daring investor,” the woman said. “He’s richer than Croesus. His wife is something important at the Smithsonian. They live in a gorgeous townhouse. They have a painting by Georgia O’Keefe!”

“The wife, is she a blonde?”

“Gretchen? No, brunette.”

“She must not be who I was thinking of, then. Good for Charlie. The last time I saw him he seemed adrift.”

She drove west to Ohio to visit Elsie, who was the same: tan and ponytailed, always in shiny soccer shorts and blue rubber slides. She seemed more muscular than before, more solid, like she would not be budged from her corner of the world, and when Mia commented on this, she said “Coach is big into weights.”

Mia drove on. She went all the way to Amarillo and walked through the Palo Duro canyon, where she found red rocks and quiet. She was only gone for two weeks, but when she returned, Linus no longer asked to be taken home.

“Well, hello!” he said when he saw her. “Nice to see you.” She stroked his head, and he said, “Hey, thanks for rubbing me.”

“I’m sorry I was gone so long,” she said. “I missed you.”

“Oh, that’s all right. Those things happen.”

“Elsie sends her love.”

“Oh, that’s nice. I’m glad for her.”

Two sour-faced women were sitting on a sofa watching The Three Stooges. Rodrigo Delgado, the violinist, sat in an armchair staring at nothing. Mia watched him eat an entire apple, core and all.

“T.J.,” Mia said when T.J. came to load one of the women into a wheelchair, “is it okay that he ate that whole apple?”

“So far so good,” said T.J. “We can’t stop him. If we take it away from him, he goes and gets another. He eats orange peels too.” Rodrigo sat looking at his hands, his lips moving slightly.

Mia asked, “What’s on your mind today, Linus?”

Linus, who had become very wrinkled, smiled at her with his whole face. “I don’t have a mind.”

“What is that like for you?” He considered. “Not bad.” He told her that he had begun taking trips to China and Brazil. “My wife comes with me,” he said, “so I’m not alone. We’ve been married five years today.”

“Your wife?”

“Theresa.”

Jealousy — unexpected and, she knew, silly — washed to the ends of Mia’s nerves. She stroked Linus’s head. “Linus, Theresa hasn’t been your wife for a long time. I’m your wife.”

He started in astonishment. “You’re not my wife,” he said.

“What do you mean? Who do you think I am?” He looked at her through slitty eyes while he thought, and then he smiled. “I think you’re a great guy.”

*   *   *

Mia visited Linus most mornings. Now that Linus had stopped asking to be taken home, her visits to him were unpleasant only because she felt drawn under by the slow pace of life at Marshall-Tribb, lulled towards an old age that was not hers. She might as well be a white-haired woman in sweatpants, one of the living tombstones who sat and watched “The Honeymooners” day after day. Her husband’s mind was crumbling away inside his stalwart body, and she was being thrown on his pyre by the hands of time and disease.

Late one gray afternoon the doorbell rang, and Mia saw an unfamiliar face through the peephole, a young man. She opened the door. “Yes?” she said. He looked Indian, maybe Pakistani, and his clothes were tucked, belted, and buttoned around his plump shape with aggressive neatness. He was holding a brown briefcase that he set down carefully but still almost tripped over when he lurched forward to shake Mia’s hand.

“Hello! I’m Clarence Patel.”

“Are you?” she said.

“You must be Mrs. Zimmerman.”

“Dr. Zimmerman.”

He flung his hands up in surprise. “Yes? Dr? Really? I had no idea there were two Drs. Zimmerman.”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“What are you a Dr. of?”

“History. Only recently.”

Really? You must have magnificent conversations over dinner. To be a mouse living under your table! Only I’m sure there are no mice under your table.” She nodded, and he let the silence spin off its reel for a moment before he said, opening his arms, “Well, here I am.”

“Here you are. How can I help you?”

An expression of great surprise opened his eyes and mouth wide. “What? You mean you don’t know why I’m here? Has your husband not mentioned me?”

“No. No, he hasn’t.”

“Really? I’ve written letters. Twenty-six letters. I’ve sent thirteen e-mails. Eleven times I’ve attempted to leave messages at his office phone number, but the machine always says that it is full.”

Mia thought of a cardboard box she had been filling with unopened mail for Linus since before her road trip. “Why don’t you come inside?” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

“Is he here?” Clarence asked.

“He’s out. You’re an admirer of his?”

He hesitated for part of a second, but he said, “Yes, very much so. I’ve devoted a great deal of study to his ideas.”

Leading him to the kitchen, Mia saw the house as a stranger might see it: soothing, tasteful, muted. She walked ahead, sensing that behind her Clarence’s head was swiveling around like a weather instrument. The contents of the bookshelves, the framed photographs on tables and walls, the furniture she had chosen — all were clues to the true nature of Linus Zimmerman. The harsh scrape of metal on dirt came from outside the kitchen windows, and they looked to see Roger Gardner, the gardener, turning over the earth in the rose beds. Mia set a plate of macaroons in front of Clarence. His tongue and teeth flocked with dampened coconut, he explained that he was finishing his Ph.D. and, though his heart was torn into many pieces by this sad turn of events, his dissertation had come to be a refutation of Linus’s theory.

“I set out simply to study the Theory. I thought that I might be able to find a corollary, some small contribution I could make to shore up the findings made by your husband. I swear it was not my intention to in any way topple his work. But the more my work progressed, though I have the most respect for your husband, Mrs. Dr. Zimmerman, the more I saw that time does not come from where he thinks it comes from.”

He swallowed the last of a macaroon, but Mia did not offer him a glass of water. “May I read it?” she said.

He unlocked his briefcase and handed her a slim pile of papers. “The introduction should be enough to see,” he said.

Part Five

Mia read the pages without looking up, though she was aware of the sound of Clarence chewing macaroons and of Roger Gardner’s hoe in the rose beds. When she finished, she stood up and knocked on the window. “Roger!” she called. “Roger, that’s enough! It’s going to rain.” The gardener held his palm out to the sky and looked up. She poured a glass of water for Clarence Patel. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.”

“Thank you,” he said, urgently seizing the glass. He ran his tongue around his gums. “My advisor thinks it’s sound. And my publishers.”

“How old are you?”

“28.”

“My husband was 48 when he wrote the Theory.”

“I know.”

“I think I need just a minute. If you’ll excuse me.”

Mia went outside and stood in her garden. Roger had gone into the tool shed, and she heard tools being stacked and a heavy bag of something being dragged over gritty cement. It was late November, almost December. The trees at the edge of the yard looked like smoke turned into trees. For years the finest minds in the world had agreed on the Theory, taught it to millions of students, built new theories on the foundation of its authenticity. How was it possible that the boy sitting at her kitchen table with a stomach full of macaroons could have seen something no one else had? But, came another voice, weren’t theories always being challenged or disproven, even by the young? Especially by the young? What could ever be known for certain? Even if Clarence Patel’s reasoning held, no one would ever be able to go back and observe the beginnings of time or recreate the conditions in a lab and settle things once and for all. A raindrop struck the top of her head. Expanding rings patterned the brown surface of her fishpond, rippling the reflected trees. Linus had always believed that the physical sensation of his insight and the firestorm of thought it released were proof of his theory’s truth. But now his mind had proven to be a betrayer, a charlatan. Perhaps his insight was only smoke and mirrors, a show put on by his neurons.

She came back inside and sat down, folding her hands on the table. “You have to understand,” she said to Clarence, “that my husband made one major contribution to the world. His life has revolved around the Theory for years. And you’re turning it into, what, a joke? Scientific gossip? No one’s going to give you a Nobel Prize for this. People want to believe they understand the universe, and you’re just a messenger telling them that they don’t.”

Clarence frowned. He spoke almost reluctantly. “I needed a subject for my dissertation. And this is what came to me. I am sorry, but I must admit I am also proud. Someone else would have thought of it if I didn’t.”

“Yes, and I’m sure someone will come along someday, knock on your door, and contradict your idea, but that still might not help Linus, especially since he’ll be dead.”

“He’s not so old. Maybe it will be he who contradicts me.”

“I doubt it.”

“So, he doesn’t know? He never read my letters?”

“No.”

Clarence looked around. “I hope he’s not ill?”

“He is, actually. He hasn’t read your letters. He’s been away and hasn’t been able to keep up with his correspondence. I’m sorry.”

Outside, in the waning daylight, the rain had begun. If Mia had not been lonely, she would not have asked Clarence to stay to dinner. But she set him to peeling potatoes. When they talked about their studies, she was surprised that he seemed to defer to her and decided it was only because she was older and because she was the wife of Linus Zimmerman. She told him about Jimmy Souza. “He was charismatic,” she said. “Gutsy. I think my supervisors thought I was too close to my subject. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll turn it into a book. I wanted to roll around in all that glamour.”

“Glamour?” said Clarence. “You don’t think you have glamour?”

“When I was deciding what I wanted to study, I wanted to be close to a life that was fast and loud. The grass is always greener. My life is very dignified — it’s my job to be that for Linus, to contribute to his dignity. I thought I was being rebellious when I married him, but I was settling down like anyone else.”

“No,” Clarence said, shaking his head fervently. “No, you are closer to an extraordinary mind than anyone else in the world. That is an enormous responsibility and a privilege. You have an exceptional life.”

“Maybe all lives are ordinary once you live them.”

Inevitably the talk turned to the Nobel. “What was it like?” he asked moonily, sipping his glass of wine.

“I wore a burgundy silk dress,” she said. “And I ate at the same table as the queen of Sweden. There was a salad with beets, and I’d never been able to stomach beets and haven’t eaten them since, but I ate them. I would have eaten ground glass. And for one course there was pheasant. I’d never had pheasant, and it was wonderful.”

“Glamour!” Clarence said. “That is glamour. What else?” She told him everything she could remember. As she talked he kept refilling his glass of wine, each time saying, “I shouldn’t, but it is very tasty.”

“All it needs is a pheasant.”

Clarence raised his glass. “If I win a Nobel, I’ll send you ten pheasants.”

“I told you. You’re just the messenger.”

“I’m working my way up,” he said.

When they saw that the rain had begun to freeze on the road and on the trees, she decided Clarence would stay. “You can’t drive in this,” she told him.

“And I’ve drunk all your wine!” he said, throwing out his arms.

After Mia had him settled in the guest room, she took a book to bed. She had only read a few pages when there was a knock at the door. It was Clarence, straining the buttons of a set of Linus’s blue and white pajamas. “I was wondering,” he said, “if you would show me the red dress.”

The dress hung in Mia’s closet, pressed between her other clothes like an autumn leaf in the pages of a book. She tugged on the corner of its clear garment bag and angled it into the light. “Here,” she said. She unzipped the bag and touched the fabric. “Worn only once.”

“Like a wedding dress,” Clarence said. He touched the fabric. “Would you put it on?”

“Oh, God,” she said. “No. I couldn’t. I don’t know if it even fits. Why don’t I just show you a picture?”

“I saw a picture in the other room. That is why I want you to put it on.”

“Well.” Mia hesitated. “All right. Wait outside. I’ll try.” The dress when she removed it from the bag smelled of nothing in particular: dust, time, the inside of the bag. She took off her nightgown and stepped naked into the puddle of silk, pulling it up around her. The corseting ribs in the bodice strained a little, but she could zip it most of the way up. When she got stuck, she opened the door and presented her back to Clarence, saying, “Zip me.”

When she stepped away from him, he said, “It fits!”

“I know. It’s a miracle. The miraculous withering of age.”

“You’re not old.”

“You’re right. I’m not.” She laughed. “I’m really not.”

Clarence was resting one hand against his check and smiling. “It’s lovely,” he said.

“I wish I could put that whole night back on. That’s what you need to discover how to do, Clarence. Then you’ll eat your pheasant.”

“And you’ll eat your pheasant too, and we can clink our glasses across the years. Is it the same queen of Sweden?”

“I think so.” “Wait, just wait a moment. I want to get my — I have a little camera.”

When he left, she lifted the skirt off the floor and turned around once, watching the fabric lift away. She turned again. A cheval mirror stood beside her chest of drawers, and in it as she turned she glimpsed herself and also a pair of black shoes left at the foot of the bed and a black bathrobe on the bed, and in her dizziness and her intoxication from the dress and the wine, her eyes put the areas of blackness together to make the shape of Linus on his back, arms spread, looking at a ceiling that had existed twenty years earlier in Stockholm. She stopped spinning. She tossed the bathrobe from the bed and swiped the wrinkles from the bedspread with her hand. When Clarence returned, she was looking in the mirror.

“Okay!” he said. “Say cheese!”

She did not turn to him. “I never noticed before that I have my mother’s arms. Why didn’t anyone tell me? I shouldn’t be wearing this.”

“Your mother must have had the arms of a goddess. Turn towards me, please. Let me take your portrait in that beautiful dress.”

“It’s a shroud,” Mia said. His camera flashed once. “I need to take it off. Unzip me. Just a bit, please, not all the way.”

The memory of the dress and the tumorous presence of Clarence in the guest room kept Mia awake. She listened to the rain. If she were in a movie, Clarence would be the redemptive lover sent by fate, and she would tiptoe down the hall in her white nightgown and get in bed with him, seduce him while Jimmy Souza’s pockmarked face leered down at her. She considered whether she actually had any desire for Clarence, and the thought of his soft belly and the dark hair that forced its way over the tightly buttoned collar of her husband’s pajama top convinced her that she did not. But she had not been touched in a long time. She thought of Jeremiah with his plants and his green clogs. She wondered, with all the usual pangs, when Linus would die. She wished that Clarence and his dissertation had not come along until after Linus was dead. She wouldn’t have minded if Clarence had waited for her to shuffle off the mortal coil too. Elsie would be fine. Elsie had insulated herself from the world of the mind ever since she realized as a child that her teachers were disappointed in her because she was not a genius. Not close, no cigar. Elsie sent all her energy to the spring-loaded part of her brain that controlled her arms, legs, and feet.

Mia drifted off. She saw Clarence in top hat and tails. He yanked a sheet off a lump that turned out to be Linus with a mermaid tail. Flashbulbs popped. Linus lolled miserably to one side. She woke with a jerk and heard the silence of the stopped rain. In the quiet, she became aware that somewhere in the most trodden-upon part of her, in the badlands of her heart, a tiny, hateful imp was singing a gleeful song. Linus had been wrong. She was not a feeble sucker-fish hanging off her husband’s genius. He was as perplexed and defeated by the universe as she was. She got out of bed and opened the window. Blue light glazed the garden. Everything — the flowers, the pond, the earth newly turned by Roger Gardner, the bare trees — wore a glass glove of ice. This place was enchanted, she thought; it would never change. When the cold air began to settle on her face and shoulders as though to bring her under the same frozen sheet, she closed the window and returned to bed. Outside, the sky played echo-maker to the sound of breaking branches.

*   *   *

“I’ll take you to him,” she said to Clarence the next morning as he ate waffle after waffle. “You can tell him yourself.”

She led Clarence through the Marshall-Tribb Residence without speaking, letting him swivel his head all around. She saw him looking at the alarms on the doors, the handrails in the hallways, the glass cases that held pictures of young, remarkable people, the frail woman who shuffled past bedecked in Mardi Gras beads, her eyes in her bobbling head focused everywhere and nowhere. “There’s a fiesta today,” the woman said to Clarence, her voice like a mewling kitten.

“Lucky us,” Clarence replied. Then he whispered, “You said he was ill.”

“He is.”

“You didn’t say he has Alzheimer’s. Why did you not just say so?”

“I don’t tell people. Especially not strangers who appear on my doorstep.”

Linus was sitting on a couch and gazing at a piece of wall just to the right of “I Love Lucy.” Rodrigo Delgado was making a slow circuit of the room. With his left hand, he held an orange under his chin.

“Hello, love,” Mia said to Linus.

“Hello!” he replied.

She gestured to Clarence to sit in a chair beside Linus, and she sat on the couch. “What’s on your mind today?” she asked.

“I was thinking,” said Linus. “about a lecture I’m giving on CBS. For a show hosted by a very tall man. He’s a wonderful man. I believe he is the son of God.”

“What are you lecturing about?”

Linus looked at her and something passed behind his eyes. His smile faded.

“You don’t know?” Mia said.

“No,” he said.

“That’s okay.”

Clarence pointed to Rodrigo Delgado. “Is it okay that he’s eating that orange peel?”

“He does that. Linus, I’ve brought someone to see you. This is Clarence.”

“Hello!” said Clarence too loudly.

“Well, hi there!” said Linus. His smile came back.

“Clarence wanted to visit you.”

“Your wife has been very kind to me,” Clarence said. “She showed me a beautiful dress.”

Linus laughed. “She’s not my wife,” he said.

“You said you were his wife,” Clarence said to Mia.

“Linus,” Mia said. “Of course I’m your wife. Tell Clarence how long we’ve been married.”

He looked shocked. “Married!” he said. “We’re not married. You’re my mama!”

Mia stroked his head. “He loved his mother,” she said to Clarence, “so I take that as a compliment. Do you want to tell him? You can see it won’t make a difference.”

“No, you tell him.”

Mia took Linus’s hands in hers. After she had found her own wedding band on her nightstand, she had searched for his too, had it resized, and wore it above her own. She looked at their hands, his like her grandfather’s, and she felt grateful for having married young, for the possibility of another life after this one. Next time she would build her life with mud and brick.

“Linus,” Mia said. “I want you to listen. This young man has a theory that he believes disqualifies your theory. Other people think he’s right. His work is going to be published.” She leaned forward and touched his knee. “What I’m saying is that you — the Theory — might have been wrong.”

Linus looked at her with his brows knitted together and his lips pursed. Beside her, Clarence squirmed and wrang his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish it could have been otherwise, but my duty is to science.”

Linus looked at Clarence with his brows still knitted together and his lips still pursed. He looked back and forth between them. Then he smiled his smile of a million smiles, his whole face creasing into benevolence. “Hey, that’s great,” he said. “Isn’t life crazy sometimes? You know what, I’m thinking about taking a trip. Here they let us run around outside sometimes, but I think I need something bigger. I think maybe Australia because that’s where my wife lives. I think maybe China or Amarillo.”

Mia heard the tick-tocking of a distant clock, unseen and immeasurably large, filling the silence of space with its metronomic telling of the way things must be. She looked past Linus and his wrinkled, smiling and radiant face. In an armchair by the window, reaching with both arms into another time, Rodrigo Delgado lifted his violin and began to play.