06 June 2015

Schrödinger’s Dickens

By Bud Koenemund

  It began innocently enough. 0300 on a Sunday, and I’m awake, tossing and turning in my bed. Finally, I decide it’s a good time for a bit of Spring cleaning in my office. I’ve been writing a lot lately, and things have slipped through the cracks. I need to do some filing, and I am gradually losing the eternal war on dust.

  I trudge down to my basement office, open The iTunes to play some music, and begin cleaning and straightening. I file, I shred, I wipe, I pick up a photograph of my niece that needs to go in a frame. Moving to the chiffarobe in the alcove, I pull open the door…and there it sits: Schrödinger’s Dickens.

  Physicists, and fans of The Big Bang Theory, are familiar with Erwin Schrödinger’s proposed thought experiment involving a cat, a box, and a flask of poison – even if on only the most rudimentary level. But, precious few are aware of Schrödinger’s Dickens. The box has been replaced by a padded UPS Express envelope; the cat by a book, and the poison by something far more deadly – memory.

  Truth be told, however, this isn’t about Schrödinger, or Dickens, or chiffarobes. In the end, it’s about a woman, the man who loved her, and the madness that still haunts him.

  In May 2013, out of the blue, “Her” sent me an armful of books once owned by her grandmother. Old stuff; rare stuff; stuff one could not easily find outside well-tended family collections. When I asked why, she told me she didn’t have room to store them. I offered to act as curator, and foster them until she had the required space.

  “You don’t want them?” she asked.

  “Il mio respiro,” I insisted, “I don’t want your grandmother’s books. I want your grandmother’s granddaughter.”

  I’d been in love – an unrequited love – with “Her” for 15 years, and we were in one of the half-dozen or so periods when she’d return to my life after a long absence, and let me think I had a chance with her; that this time she’d feel the same way about me. She’d re-appeared more than a year earlier, we talked, and e-mailed, and texted, and I quickly handed her my heart…again. To be honest, although she’d nearly killed me several times, I’d never fallen out of love with her.

  We discussed the books she’d sent. She mentioned her grandmother also had a first edition signed by Charles Dickens. I told her it would probably be worth a ton of money. And, I joked that I’d be happy to hold on to it as well. She laughed, and we never talked about it again.

  It’s been nearly two years since I last spoke to her; 18 months since I’ve responded to her in any way. I realized – actually, I simply finally accepted – that she was lying to me, again. So, except for the Christmas gift I sent that year, I stopped communicating with her.

  I know what you’re thinking. “What an idiot!” “Why would you send her a Christmas gift?” Well, months earlier, I’d gone far out of my way for her – to get a unique and almost ungettable gift – asking the quarterback of her favorite NFL team – a guy who rarely signs autographs, even for little kids – to sign a football for her. And, in my own defense, I hate that team with the fire of a thousand suns. I didn’t want the ball in my house.

  Just before Christmas, I received the aforementioned shipping envelope. It was easy to tell it contained a book. I knew I wasn’t going to open the package, so I put it in a red plastic Coca-Cola crate on a shelf in the chiffarobe, and tried to forget about it – to the extent I ever forget about anything related to “Her.”

  But, as so often happens, thoughts percolated in my fevered brain: Did she send me the Dickens? I mean, did she think a book would soothe my pain? Or, perhaps it was merely meant to repay me for the autograph beyond hope. Those questions remain unanswered.

  Even after all this time, I still receive the occasional text message from her, and cards on my birthday and Christmas. I don’t open them, or respond. I place them in the crate, along with other assorted “Her” memorabilia – photographs, letters, a lock of hair she cut off in a bar not long after we met in 1998, a stone I picked up at the New York Renaissance Faire the day we went together, and a Sea Otter Beanie Baby she handed me in the middle of a deserted street.

  That’s where my Schrödinger lives – the envelope resting atop reminders of my wasted love – lurking in the dark; waiting to release the poison. In the same way the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, it both contains and does not contain a signed, first edition of Dickens’ work. Unless I open it, I’ll never be sure.

  If I were smart – please, no comments from the peanut gallery – I’d delete the voice mails and texts on my phone. And, I’d toss that crate in the garbage. Problem solved! In one fell swoop there would be fewer things lying about to surprise me with memories.

  Of course, if I do that, I might be throwing away a treasure; something inherently valuable – in a monetary sense, yes – but in a broader sense, a piece of history; of art; something truly irreplaceable. And, if I opened it to avoid doing that – and the cat is alive – I’m harboring one more thing that reminds me of “Her.”

  There’s the rub. The paradox – my paradox – is that whether or not a particular book is there, thinking about it – like any of a million other things – makes me think about “Her,” which exposes a terrible truth: like that cat, I am both alive and dead…and my office still needs to be dusted.

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