by Alan Arkin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Jack's blunder was disastrous, but what he worried about was: would Einstein have approved?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Dear Mr. Gretch:

Mrs. Burroughs and I are sending your son Jack to you because we do not know what else to do with him. As you can see, we can’t keep him with us in his present condition.

Also, Jack owes us two weeks rent and, since Mrs. Burroughs and I are retired, we would appreciate your sending the money. It has been a dry year and our garden has done poorly.

The only reason we put up with your son in the first place was because we are so hard-pressed.

He saw the sign on the porch, rang the bell and paid Mrs. Burroughs a month’s rent without even looking at the room. Then he ran out to his car and commenced pulling out suitcases and boxes and dragging them upstairs.

After the third trip, Mrs. Burroughs saw he was having trouble with the stuff and he looked kind of worn out, so she offered to help.

He gave her a hard look, as she described it to me when I got home. He said, “I don’t want anyone touching anything. Please don’t interfere.”

“I didn’t mean to interfere,” my wife told him. “I only wanted to help.”

“I don’t want any help,” he said quietly, but with a wild look in his eye, and he staggered upstairs with the last of his baggage and locked the door.

When I got home, Mrs. Burroughs told me she thought I ought to take a look at the new boarder. I went up, thinking we’d have a little chat and straighten things out. I could hear him inside, hammering on something.

He didn’t hear my first knock or the second. I got sore and nearly banged the door down, at which time he decided to open up.

I charged in, ready to fight a bear. And there was this skinny red-headed son of yours glaring at me.

“That’s a lot of hammering you’re doing, son,” I said.

“That’s the only way I can get these boxes open, and don’t call me son.”

“I don’t like to disturb you, Mr. Gretch, but Mrs. Burroughs is a little upset over the way you acted today. I think you ought to come down for a cup of tea and get acquainted.”

“I know I was rude,” he said, looking a little ashamed, “but I have waited for years for a chance to get to work on my own, with no interference. I’ll come down tomorrow, when I have got my equipment set up, and apologize to Mrs. Burroughs then.”

I asked him what he was working on, but he said he would explain later. Before I got out of the door, he was hammering again. He worked till after midnight.

We saw Jack at mealtimes for the next few days, but he didn’t talk much. We learned that he was twenty-six, in spite of his looking like a boy in his teens, that he thought Prof. Einstein the greatest man ever, and that he disliked being called son. Of his experiment, he didn’t have much to say then. He saw Mrs. Burroughs was a little nervous about his experimenting in the guest room and he assured her it was not dangerous.

Before the week was out, we started hearing the noises. The first one was like a wire brush going around a barrel. It went whisk, whisk. Then he rigged up something that went skaboom every few seconds, like a loud heartbeat. Once in a while, he got in a sound like a creaky well pump, but mostly it was skaboom and whisk, which eventually settled down to a steady rhythm, whiskaboom, whiskaboom.

It was kind of pleasant.

Neither of us saw him for two days. The noises kept going on. Mrs. Burroughs was alarmed because he did not answer her knock at mealtimes, and one morning she charged upstairs and hollered at him through the door.

“You stop your nonsense this minute and come down to breakfast!”

“I’m not hungry,” he called back.

“You open this door!” she ordered and, by George, he did. “Your whiskaboom or whatever it is will keep till after breakfast.”

He sat at the table, but he was a tired boy. He had a cold, his eyelids kept batting, and I don’t believe he could have lifted his coffee cup. He tried to look awake, and then over he went with his face in the oatmeal.

Mrs. Burroughs ran for the ammonia, but he was out cold, so we wiped the oatmeal off his face and carried him upstairs.

My wife rubbed Jack’s wrists with garlic and put wet towels on his face, and presently he came to. He looked wildly about the room at his machinery. It was all there, and strange-looking stuff, too.

“Please go away,” he begged. “I’ve got work to do.”

Mrs. Burroughs helped him blow his nose. “There’ll be no work for you, sonny. Not until you’re well. We’ll take care of you.” He didn’t seem to mind being called sonny.

He was sick for a week and we tended him like one of our own. We got to know him pretty well. And we also got to know you.

Now, Mr. Gretch, whatever you are doing in your laboratory is your own business. You could be making atomic disintegrators, for all Jack told us. But he does not like or approve of it and he told us about your running battle with him to keep him working on your project instead of his own.

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