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Autumn Leaf

Don Morgan

JW was on stage in front of hundreds of students and visitors, and he had nothing prepared. He would just start, he thought, and the words would come as they always did.

On the other side of the curtain, he could hear the level of conversation rising, and he knew that the time for him to speak was approaching.

Peering through a slit in the curtain, he found Samantha on the left side, about halfway down; she was arranging her fat purse on top of her jacket; she was looking around and pushing as deeply into the seat as she could.

Just then, a hand clasped him on the shoulder, and someone asked him if he was ready. JW was as prepared as he could be. And with that, another man appeared on stage at the podium saying something that resulted in laughter and then applause as the curtain opened.

JW was still standing where he was when he spotted Samantha as the curtain swept past him and the spotlight found him.

He smiled at the audience a little uncomfortably, using his thick eyebrows to help shield his eyes from the light. He started to speak but realized that his voice could not be heard. He needed to be at the microphone; bowing slightly, he walked to the podium, took a drink of water, wishing it was something more substantial and began speaking.

“A LONG TIME ago, I read that complexity is the result of a lack of understanding.” JW smiled at his audience a beat too long, he thought, some were stirring. “I will try to keep it simple so that I don’t appear too foolish.”

He looked around the stage, “I feel naked without a blackboard or whiteboard or whatever it is now.” Some laughter.

“How many are here because you read something I wrote, and it made sense to you?” The auditorium was full of students crowding the aisles and the two doors that led into the hall. There were a couple of hands in the air. JW looked over the entire assembly and decided that it was time to begin. “In the next few minutes, I am going to tell you about the essence of life; I am going to give you the answers.” He paused,”I am sure you have already thought of the questions.” There was murmuring and laughter from the audience.

“As most of you know, I am a math professor here at the University. But I don’t think you will need to know a lot of that to understand what I will say here tonight. Mathematics isn’t for everyone, and certainly, it isn’t the only way to look at things or understand life, but it is my life’s training and my point of view. There will be many other completely valid and acceptable ways of framing what I say. If I make it clear enough, you will be able to do that.” JW paused, searching through the mental outline he was creating for his speech, rechecking the priorities, rechecking the completeness. He paused with his finger to his lips, “Yes, yes, I can say that. In the end, they are all one.

“I would like to lay the groundwork for what I have to say in simple and practical human terms.’, Again, he looked around for a blackboard, not finding one, he dropped his shoulders a little and went on.

“How many here think that the world is flat?

“Anyone here think that the universe is finite, you know, maybe only has so many galaxies- what 42 or so? And Maybe things can get only so small, right? Or maybe just so big, right? Who sees these limitations in the universe? Go on, it’s OK, admit it, no one will laugh.” Laughter.

“Well, no one is raising their hands, but I am not sure that means anything.

“Assuming that you do think that the world is not flat, that the universe is not finite, then maybe you believe that the universe is infinite- not a bad idea, considering.” Looking at the left side of the auditorium, “Yes, there are still parking spaces left.”


“There is a fact remarked upon by all sorts of philosophers and scientists, from Lao Tze to Newton and Coulomb. Some call it a law which seems silly because any attempt to violate it simply re-inforces it.”


“The idea is that if you can get a bit of stuff in a space to have any kind of charge, be it positive or negative, then there will be somewhere associated with it an equal charge of opposite polarity.

“So it is with practical truths; they are reflected many times in many places,” he finished nodding his head.

JW PUT HIS finger to his cheek, “Can I say that?” Then “Yes, I can say that.” jabbing the air with that same finger.

“PRECEPT TWO in the Dao De Jing talks about beauty and to have beauty means to have what is ugly; Newton is concerned here with an electrical charge,.

“Please forgive me, for now, I make a leap. With this ‘practical truth’ in mind, if we return to infinity, we can say that this universe then contains an uncountable number of things, an endless number of positive and an infinite number of negative things, as well as all those things in between, which can allow us to reasonably assume. This is a little daunting…”

JW looked around.

“If all these things don’t cancel each other out, that would make one infinity larger or smaller than another, right? Countable and finite. But if the universe is infinite, at the end of the day, as I hear my students say all the time, the tally sheet, the sum of all positive and negative, that is, of all things in the universe, is and must be equal to zero.

“Infinity is an artist’s idea of balance. Many problems solve if we can include everything.

“Do you see? We have a sum.

“The answer is zero. Everything and nothing. It is a perfect balance.”

THE FIRST PAPER that JW published after Avi’s death, his attempt to understand what had happened, was called “About Nothing.” It argued that the only perfect balance, the only concept that could possibly contain nothing and everything, was infinity itself. It was a perfect balance. And infiinty could account for everything and nothing. It was all very simple; nothing was the single answer to everything.

‘So, it doesn’t matter what you eat or what you love or even what you think because sooner or later, everything has to be eaten, loved and thought to create the balance, the whole, the infinity. This is your part, don’t be afraid of it and don’t demean it. It is necessary. Every action you take, every move you make is necesssary.

‘What do I fear? What do I think? What do I know? The universe, an endless collection of reflections.

‘If something is good, then it is also evil, making judgment a waste of effort. Fear nothing, think nothing, know everything.

‘If a person knows infinity, then everything is his and if nothing is out of reach, then so is the universe.”

And he knew he was right. But how could he come up with the actual meaning of life that could be expressed so simply? Avi’s death was necessary and so was his reaction to it.

His papers and articles brought him notoriety and trouble. He spoke freely, in class and outside of it. There were calls for his dismissal; someone said that his work was not academic, some said it frivolous and egocentric, nihilistic, and, of course, there were those that liked it.

The students loved the controversy and readily rallied to his defense, and JW found that he enjoyed this sort of popularity. He was surrounded by students asking questions about his theories. Now, instead of studying into the night in an effort to understand what happened to his son, he sat in his office or classroom in discussion with his students and an occasional colleague.

“WHAT?” JW said loudly and abruptly.

With a faint mocking tone, “We are born into a world locked between the horizons that surround us, the sun, the moon serve as a clock; our closest friends and attachments are Mom and Dad or aunt and uncle, in my case.”

More laughter.

“We know the smell of grass, what it means to say the sun is shining. We see the moon and blanket of stars our planet is wrapped in. We know sweat, and we know tears. There seems to be some sort of plan, and many speak of a god.

“And, in all truth, it is enough if this embrace can grant you a life of purpose, fairness, some freedom and love. It is a beautiful model,” he turned his head away from the audience, “if a bit parochial.

Returning to his audience, “most of us find that there is more. The universe doesn’t end at the horizons; some of us have even come to believe it doesn’t end at all. Anyway, that’s what the math says.

“Complete solutions must take infinity into account plus the acknowledgment that we can only know it but may not be able to define it. We, each and every one, are, as though mirrors turned inward, reflections of the whole of infinity.

“In a nutshell, we don’t have to remember past lives, because our past lives surround us, they are every face we see. The universe lasts but an instant and for eternity.

“And there is no death, not for the being, the universe. Another ‘law,’ called the ‘conservation of energy’, says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it is transformed from one form to another”.

“I am guessing that some of you probably know why many people would reject these thoughts; having a finite scope does make life easier to understand.” JW shrugged and turned away from his audience for a moment.

WHEN AVI was killed, JW and Sheila hugged and paced the house, room to room, through  most of the night.

They were somewhere, no thoughts.

There were promises to help, promises not to forget.

The house was cold, a shell fraught with incomprehensible confusion.

Sheila became involved in her life, her career; she said she would like to participate more in JW’s. JW was too busy and would like to be with her more. Staring out the kitchen window, they promised to be closer.

At 4 am, they lay in bed, stunned, isolated and bewildered. From nowhere, JW said, “We could pretend that he has run away and that he will always be OK, happy; we just won’t be able to see him.” Sheila didn’t answer; it sounded crazy. It would never work; he felt a little bit of warmth from it for a moment. He could pretend, he thought, but it would never work.

That morning, like every other, JW watched the darkness end and the morning sunrise, hoping to see the moment when the darkness became blue. In a blink, it was over – he had missed it again. JW wondered if he would ever see it.

And there on the lawn, this chilly, numb morning, the tangled pieces of Avi’s tricycle lay where the police had left them, innocent and confused- Chinese puzzle rings. There was no way to fix it; who would want to? It died with Avi, its soul, it’s meaning left with Avi.

The car was gone, the police had moved it the night before, but the tire marks were still there written on the street in black.

He sat in his pajamas on the concrete steps to the porch for most of that day, noticing that people would cross to the other side of the street before passing. People he knew passed looking at him and dropped their heads.

But then one man he hardly knew did cross the street, came up and threw his arms around him. JW was stunned and didn’t know what to do or say. The man started to say something but stopped, smiled with his lips while his eyes, unable to protect themselves, echoed JW’s hollowness. The man turned and left quickly.

Days passed, insensibly. Each time he saw Sheila, he would touch or hug her, though they rarely spoke.

Neighbors brought food.

JW set about trying to understand what he felt.

Months passed. JW re-geared his mind for papers and tests.

Sheila returned to work at the television station, and neither spent much time at home. They rarely saw each other, and when they did, it was to share a drink or dinner with colleagues.

Now, months later, he stood over this tangled mess in the garage, eyes searching for evidence of his son, his spirit.

JW PUBLISHED ANOTHER paper that winter; he didn’t even bother submitting to the mainstream mathematics venues but to a scholarly but alternative publication. It was a paper that described the meaning of life with mathematics. It was the result of his research, thought and introspection.

It is only necessary, he wrote, that one removes oneself from the motion, the collective and continuous motion of living to see that life is a continuous sum of moments. These moments each express change through interaction with the vast universe of independent activity and change. Sometimes you can control what you experience, sometimes you cannot. 

‘As each snowflake rides the subtle currents to a destination different from every other,” he wrote.

‘I THINK THAT where most of us have a problem with this idea of balance is: if there is a perfect balance, where is it? What I mean is: you can lose a loved one for which there is no replacement, live knowing only want, children die young knowing only pain. The list goes on, and I am sure that each of you could add something to it.

‘Balance exists, as we mathematicians are want to say, in the limit as one attempts to view the entire collection of things as a whole. Though this balance may not be immediately perceptible in the individual and separate collection of things called a lifetime, it exists. Be patient. Your existence will be populated with all things. Because the balance occurs across the whole of infinity, not necessarily in one small collection of things.”

JW felt lonely outside the very universe he studied, but now things were much clearer.

JW turned back to the auditorium.

“But now we have this vast something-nothing, right? Oh, OK, it is infinity, so it is greater than huge, but can I say that? Can I say that for this talk? Does anyone have any problem with me saying that? Everyone understands what I mean. Good, good.

“OK, now we have this really big, this measureless thing-nothing, right? What can you do with that? A collection of all things- doesn’t that smack of chaos? No, no, it doesn’t. And I will tell you why,” JW poked the air with his finger, beginning to get excited, and recognizing this, he chuckled.

“It is because we, each of us, is a unique viewpoint, the intersection of an infinite number of relationships, you, me, here, the position of the sun, the earth, each of the stars. All of these things make you different from me. We are the universe as viewed from individual, unique viewpoints.

“Each of us is a unique view of this universe. Does that make sense?

A WHILE AFTER JW returned to work, he became aware of one of his students.

He became aware of how she looked, what she wore and where she sat in his classes. He became aware that she was often around the math department, the parking lot and the cafeteria. And he became aware that if he didn’t see her, he looked for her.

Then, one day, she was standing in the doorway to his office asking to come in, and JW noticed her eyes, so deeply personal he felt her gaze no less than if she had reached out and touched him. Her name was Samantha, and she wanted very much for him to be her advisor. She knew how busy he must be with all his projects, but it would be such an honor and… JW interrupted her. “Yes, yes, of course,” he said. He would be delighted to work with her.

Now, she spoke when she saw him, and they were often together. At the beginning of the following semester, he hired her to work with him in class and on his projects.

Something was happening, and JW was very curious.

Change is a moment when the incalculable, the impossible, happens. It is discontinuity.

He wanted to know about this; he needed to know about this to fully understand. He knew that it existed, and he knew that once passed, it is impossible to re-visit; he must not miss it.

But as carefully as he watched, he could not see it. It wasn’t in the moments he stood outside Samantha’s door listening to the tumblers roll into place as she turned the key in the lock. It wasn’t in the motion of his arm swinging over her head to open the door. It wasn’t in the movement of her body as she turned.

Nor was it in the half-smile on her face as she looked up into his eyes or their kisses.

He had missed it. Mired in each moment, he missed it.

This is what happens when you search for the truth, he thought, lost in pieces.

“AND A UNIQUE viewpoint,” JW continued, “Also results in unique perceptions; perceptions whose quantity, quality depends solely on each of us. Time is an example.

“Einstein said that time was proportional to the speed of light. Time moved more slowly as you approach that speed. (please note that time is also affected by mass, though here we will stick with the speed of light.)

“Here, I will argue that what he was really talking about was change. Time is not a straight, evenly divided line; it is different for each of us. It is wiggly even reversible.” JW touched his nose with the tip of his right forefinger and looked down, “I spent a great deal of my childhood looking at and for this thing called change.

“I wanted to witness the moment when one thing was now another. The precise moment when the light of dawn spread over the earth to become morning. When a child was conceived. Divorce, a love affair, death?

“We make decisions but can only identify the moment of question and the moment of resolution. Let us take the moment you fall in love. Falling in love is really a transformation, a whole array of decisions. You are not in love, and then you are. And everything, everything is different. Did you see it when it changed? Or did you simply realize one day that everything was different?”

JW’s PARENTS were killed in a freak accident in India when he was nine. He went to live with his aunt and uncle in a small community on the beach in California called The Bay.

His friends, school- everything that he thought he had changed. He’d been in Connecticut until a few days before when suddenly he was in California with his aunt. He struggled to find the moment of change, but there were so many moments, and none of them by itself made the difference.

As a boy, he fell in love with the girl across the street, Jennie. It took him completely by surprise. He was fourteen and not at all sure what was happening to him.

“AND CHANGE DEPENDS on our attention to something, doesn’t it?” JW’s eyes wandered over the audience, “If we attend to something very closely allowing few distractions or other thoughts, it appears to occur very slowly. If we barely pay any attention at all, our thoughts mostly on other things, change can occur very quickly- like growing up.” A scattering of laughter.

“I propose that we as beings are traveling at a speed greater than anything thus far measured, so to speak, and time is solely dependent on how often we take notice. Some call that sampling.

“If we pursue this idea, we arrive at what some philosophers call Samadhi. That is, if we can focus our attention on one thing such that no other thought intercedes, we are ‘sampling’ at such a speed that time slows to a stop. That is time or phase in Quantum Mechanics”

JENNIE SMELLED LIKE bread. She was sleeping with her arms around JW’s chest and her legs around his left leg; her hair was everywhere.

JW was awake, dreamy and unwilling to move. What was this feeling? He looks at the part in her hair and her pink scalp and at the fine blond hair on her deeply tanned arms and then her pale buttocks separated by a gentle valley. Her innocence and simplicity touched him.

He could feel her breathing and watched her body rise and fall ever so slightly.

If only he could absorb her, he thought, have her whole in his heart, but he could not; he had tried. He could only hold her closer and then not nearly close enough. And that particular agony of separation only made the moment more magnificent.

JW felt wonderful, held her and longed for her at the same time. These memories of Jennie would never leave him. This life was perhaps merely a dream, he thought, holding her a little tighter.

JW REALIZED that he had not looked at his audience in some time. He had been re-weighing each of his thoughts, using his hands to arrange them in front of him, animate them. He looked up, smiled quickly and put his attention on them.

“Oh, yes, the full meaning of life. The purpose, the ‘why am I here?’ question. And we are talking about the human being here, not the spiritual being. Well, it is all involved in point of view, and I can make the answer anything I want and so can you.

“But I can tell you that it is for the simple process of living that you are here. If you can find a way to make eating, sleeping, laughing and making love enjoyable, please do.

Thank you. Have a good night.”

WHEN HE LEFT the auditorium with Samantha, he knew things were about to change. And he was going to let them.

▪ ▪ ▪

Don Morgan has been writing all his life in an extensive range of areas and genres. Recently, his work appeared in Eclectica, Raven’s Perch and was accepted at Amaranth Review.

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