The Particle Theory

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 8 minutes

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MOM WAS A SCURLOCK, once a respected name, but folks in town just called her Annie Screwloose. I knew this from an early age, and I knew what it implied. 

She must have been aware what people called her, but we never spoke of it until one day, in battle, I shot it as a bolt to her heart.

She puckered her mouth and carried on. “People speak ill of others thinking it will make them feel good about themselves. You picked up their mocking name because you’re mad and want to hurt me.” She shoved a cat off a kitchen chair and sat down. “I understand your anger more than I understand their meanness. I wish you could partake of the joy all around you.”

I groaned. “Not this again. About the particles.”

She smiled. “Yes, the particles. Particles of joy in the air about us. I can feel them, see them, hear them, even taste them—and they transform my life.” Her face was radiant. “Why can’t you do the same?”

“Get my life transformed by particles? Mom, that’s crazy talk. There are no particles!”

“You needn’t shout.”

I glanced around the room at the gas stove she had had installed right next to the disused woodstove, never discarding the woodstove, which had loomed there for as long as I could remember—after all, there was “oodles of space in this kitchen.” My glance took in the stacks of newspapers and magazines on top of that old woodstove, mingled with cookbooks of the world’s great cuisines, and a line of motley dishes on the floor holding several kinds of pet food, which spilled onto the patchy linoleum. 

I capped my survey with a loud sniff of the air around us, which held an odor I never smelled in anyone else’s house. “You’re not some solitary saint protecting her only son. You’re a loony-tunes who drove her husband away and keeps all knowledge of him from me. What was he like? I don’t know. I never met him.”

“The less you know of that man, the better.”

 “I’ll be eighteen soon, Mom. I’ll find him.”

#

“Hello, Dad.” 

“Don’t give me that bullshit.” He spat out the words, then launched into a fit of coughing that made me wonder whether he would live out his latest sentence.

“You ought to get that looked at.” 

He gained control of his breathing and glared at me across the amored glass barrier. “Don’t be a wiseass with me. I didn’t have to come out here and see you at all.” He rose from the straight-backed chair on his side of the glass.

“Wait,” I said. “I’m sorry I offended you. I just need—”

“Yeah, what do you need, sonny?” He sank into the chair again, more slowly than he had risen. “Nothin’ I can give you.” His eyes were dead.

“When you said ‘sonny’ just now, was that ‘sonny’ as in ‘son’? It took me years to find you. Can you at least acknowledge I’m your issue?” 

He made a sour face. It puckered the wrinkles around his mouth. I was still in my twenties, so there’s no way he could have been the age his wrinkles testified.

“Look,” he said. “I got no issues. You wanna be my son, what’s in it for me?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Forget it.” I got up to go.

“That’s right, just cut me loose. Forget I ever existed.” His eyes suddenly sparked with fire. “You tell Miss Annie Scurlock: Thanks for nothing.” 

“Tell her yourself, you son of a bitch.” 

I went to the secure door and tapped on the glass. The deputy on the other side saw me and buzzed me through. “Get what you came for?” he asked, his face impassive.

“Got what I could get.”

#

I didn’t want to come home. I’ve been doing just fine on my own—learning a trade, paying my way, traveling light. I have no attachments and want none. I do better as a solo. But she was my mother. 

Her neighbor, Mister Johnson, got in touch with me. I drove overnight to get here, took my stuff into the empty house. It still had the old smell. I sat in the kitchen, depressed, for a few minutes, then got up and went to the hospital.

She had shrunk to a mere wisp. Her eyes were bright when I came into the room, and she looked at me with recognition.

“Hello, Mom.”

She smiled and blinked. They had said at the nurses’ station that she no longer had the power of speech.

“I found the old bastard a few years ago. In jail, naturally.”

The light went out of her eyes.

“You were right about him.”

She closed her eyes and that was that.

The funeral director asked whether I wanted to specify a charity for memorial gifts. I thought of all the cats and dogs that used to be around our house, and I said the humane society.

“That’s very fitting,” he said. He looked down at the blotter on his desk, then raised his eyes again. “I suppose you know they took her cats away a few months ago.”

I gulped. “No, I didn’t.” That explained why I found no animals in the house. “I suppose it was for the best.”

“Frankly, they were getting to be a problem. After they took them away, a few volunteers from the church came by and helped clean up her house. Did the best they could, anyway, to put it right.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that, either. Keep the humane society for the memorial gifts, but I’ll send a donation to the church.” 

“I’m sure it will be appreciated.”

So I came home. Now I sit here staring at the old woodstove. There are only a few magazines and newspapers on it. There are large patches of rust on the cast iron, but it’s a real antique. I’ll bet it could be restored and sold to somebody for real bucks.

It occurs to me to wonder what it would take to fix up this old house. It’s a large Victorian, in the family since the glory days of the Scurlocks. Now it’s mine. It might be worth the investment.

Now I notice a dish on the floor in the corner by the pantry door. Something’s in it that looks like dog food. 

A scratch and a whimper at the back door. I get up, open the back door, and there stands a scrawny-looking mutt, some kind of a terrier I guess. He backs up and gives a half-growl, because he doesn’t recognize me. But his tail wags. I’ll bet this is where he comes to get fed.

I open the door. He scurries in, still half-suspicious, yet hungry. 

He makes a beeline for the dish with the dog food and gobbles it down. 

I watch him. “Hello, Mutt. My name is Frank.” 

He finishes the last morsel, looks up at me, and gives a sudden, whole-body shake. A beam of sunshine slants down through the window, and the dog’s shake sends up a thousand motes of dust, dander, and debris. They rise and swirl, tiny specks in the golden light. 

Something makes me think of Mom, and I realize for the first time in my life I’m seeing particles of joy.

The End

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Dispatch from the Northern Front

Stop the presses! I went for a walk. Outside.

A polar vortex has hovered over Madison for a month or more. Last week it sagged south enough to humiliate the Lone Star State. Blasted with snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s and 30s, the Texas power grid collapsed, causing several days of misery and danger for some three million Texans, including friends and relatives of mine. I hope and pray for their safety.

There is, believe me, no gloat in it when I say: Our snow is deeper, and our temperatures are colder. We in Wisconsin are better prepared for winter, that’s all, since we are blessed with so much of it every year. Still, the past month has been a trial, even for us. 

Our house

We’ve been continuously below freezing, below zero much of the time—rivaling the record winter of 1978-79. We’ve had forty inches of snow, which is only a little above average for this time of year. But most of it came in January and February, and during this long cold stretch practically none has melted. It towers up to four or five feet on both sides of every street and sidewalk. Even in the dead center of our yard, it’s probably two feet deep.

With day and night temperatures clustered around zero, I’ve chosen to huddle indoors. Even in my house it’s cold. But yesterday the mercury rose to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun shone. It was past time to exercise my new hip, so I walked all the way around the block. 

A neighbor’s window sign exhorted me: FIND JOY.

My friend Bill Martinez once told me: “Even if an experience is not particularly enjoyable, or even if it’s perfectly miserable, we can still enjoy it.” I’ve thought about that for more than fifty years and have concluded he is right. 

We enjoy something by taking joy in it. And the only way to take joy in something is to put joy into it. Joy comes from us, from within. It’s already there, a free gift from God. Use it or lose it. If you don’t exercise your joy muscle, it goes to flab. 

So my neighbor’s sign reminded me to work on that as I walked. I’ll admit there are circumstances under which it might be harder to find joy. But strolling yesterday through a snowcape with my face turning red from the cold was a piece of cake. Joy enough for anyone.

My neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, making my trek easy. The new hip limbered up well. With my Duluth Trading Company jacket, my scarf, gloves, stocking cap, and my sunglasses against the snow-glare, I was the perfect neighborhood tourist. The scenes through which I passed made me proud to be a Madisonian.

Southerners see photos of snow-covered landscapes and marvel at the beauty. Northerners know that a day or two after it falls, the snow is gray-brown, dingy, slushy—befouled by man, machine, and pet. This month, however, is an exception. Our neighborhood really is beautiful.

Forty inches of snow has fallen two or four inches at a time, once or twice a week. With continuously low temperatures it does not melt. A weekly or semi-weekly dusting of new snow keeps our city decked out like a New England Christmas card.

I saw neither hide nor hair of my old school chum, Milo Bung. Too cold for him, no doubt.

The telltale cord.

A neighbor has a nifty black Ford F-150 pickup truck. It sits outdoors in his driveway. I suppose other things occupy his two-car garage. Still, no worries. An orange heavy-duty drop cord ran from under the garage door to the front of the truck. He has what we all had in the old days: An electric tank heater, dipstick heater, or lower radiator hose heater to make sure that warm water or oil circulates through the engine block and keeps the engine primed for a trouble-free winter start. Good man.

I rounded the corner near home, and boy, was it good to get back inside. Baby, it’s cold outside.

Mute appeal. Could this be Milo?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

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