Polly Armitage

Someone called my name, trotting toward me on the pathway from Jones Hall.Tall, dark hair, awkward as she approached, Monica DeRaspe had taken my calculus course the previous semester.She had a question for me.It’s not from your course. She giggled, nervous.It feels like everything is infinite.That there is an infinite amount that can be learned.All this truth surrounds things.It doesn’t matter what.I can see it, this infinite richness everywhere.It’s like it’s calling me forward?Do you think that’s weird? she said.I don’t know what you mean.Is it because I’m unique?Unique how? I said.After an awkward silence, she mumbled an apology and walked off toward Jones Hall.Not wanting to give her the impression I was following her, I headed back toward my office, banging through the oak doors of Thompson, taking stairs two at a time to the fourth floor.The passageway that led to the tower was in the middle of the building.One flight up was the coffee room where Ron and I had met, dark and vacant.I scrambled up the stairs that led to the sixth floor, then out the small door into the cold night air, up the steep ladder to the open roof.The towering evergreen trees of the quad cut jagged shapes of black in the gray sky as they swayed under the strong wind.I searched for the stars, but the cloud cover blocked them out.In perches like this, ancient astronomers contemplated the night sky from twilight to dawn.Tycho Brahe on an island in Europe.The Anasazi in the deserts of North America.Though I could not see them, I knew many billions of galaxies lived beyond those clouds.Each galaxy with a hundred billion stars.Tonight I could see only a dozen stars with the dark clouds blown in from the ocean.Her question upset me because her question was my question.We think we’ve taken it into account with our mathematical symbols, with our infinite summations, with our infinitesimal distance.It openly mocks these attempts.Even the simplest form, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is a transcendental number beyond our reach.We calculate to a thousand decimal places and we feel good about our approximation but it’s an approximation, not the number.Even if the approximation is serviceable for our engineering projects, there is a sense that we haven’t really made any progress, for no matter how far down we’ve drilled with our calculations, an infinity of decimals remain, unseen, laughing at our Sisyphean failure.The origin of the universe is an infinity that expands into the known universe.We don’t know the meaning of a universe coming from infinity.It’s the same with our knowledge of the end, with the universe expanding into an infinite future.That’s what draws us on.Why couldn’t I just say that to her?When I speak of the earliest moments of the universe, I am only too happy to say the expansion rate is evidence that the universe knows how to construct stars and galaxies.Well, if the universe in the form of primordial plasma knew where it was headed, why shouldn’t the contemporary universe know where it is headed?The fir trees were suddenly bathed in light, as if someone had snapped their photograph with a flash camera.I looked behind me and saw the next column of lightning, then the crack of thunder from the first hit.The winds kicked up even higher and made the swinging branches of the Douglas firs into a giant instrument of sound.Another flash, this one a double branch of lightning, the thunder tight and loud, the storm coming directly at me.It sounded like heavy chains dragged across sharp gravel rocks, then the wall of water hit and plastered my hair against my skull.I was one of the highest bodies on campus other than the trees, a passive lightning rod, but I held on to the brick wall, a captain taking his whaling ship into the source of the thunder and lightning.My confidence that meeting with Ron would bring back my health proved to be hollow.Without warning, my pulse would shoot up to 250 beats a minute, each beat an electric jolt in my chest.I had to hide the chest pains from Denise.The first time they hit, she demanded we go to the emergency room at Sacred Heart Hospital on North K Street.By the time we got there, it had begun to ease up, but the staff insisted on putting me through a battery of tests anyway.You might have had a heart attack.Are you under any additional stress? My life was collapsing.I was waking up at night streaming with sweat.I did not fully know what was happening, but I knew if I admitted this out loud I would break down.No matter what time of day it might hit.This plan worked well in that as soon as I dulled the pain, the heart seemed to calm down on its own.The hard part was when it kicked in and no alcohol was available.This was a challenge because there was no rhyme or reason as to when it would start.I had just driven home after teaching and was sitting in the car and found Denise and Thomas Ian playing together in the front yard.She wore pink slacks and a white blouse covered with pink roses.She waved excitedly when she saw me.They were about to try something dramatic.She steadied the trike by holding the handlebars with one hand and the back of the seat with the other.With his stiff little arms, he managed to hold the front wheel straight, and when he and his trike glided to a stop right at the edge of the sidewalk, he seemed bewildered that it had come to an end.He immediately looked up at me as if hoping I would help him make sense of it, or perhaps applaud.I left the car there at the curb, got out, and shut the door.I knew by the sound it had not shut completely.It was a defect in the door that I knew only too well.Looking around behind me I could see that, yes, the door was ajar as usual.Half an inch off from being shut.I reopened the door and slammed it hard with both my hands on the window.

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