The Meditations of Fra Colleoni
"But does it work?"
Dr. Seaver leaned back in his chair and blew on his mug of instant soup. The steam fogged his glasses. "Of course not. It's just a thought experiment."
"Oh," I said, picking up a doohickey on the professor's desk. "Of course." The doohickey, or maybe gizmo is a better word, had protruding wires and springs and blinking lights that changed pattern as I turned the thing over in my hands. Dr. Seaver watched me indulgently.
"It's based," he continued, "on a faulty premise: the idea of the circular spectrum."
"The what now?" I returned the gizmo to its spot.
"The circular spectrum. The idea that all extremes meet up with their opposite extreme if pushed far enough."
"All extremes? You mean like cold and hot?"
"Yes, for instance."
"So if you make something cold enough, it will eventually be hot?"
"Yes, that's the idea. And of course it's ridiculous if you use cold and hot as an example."
He paused for a moment, and it had the feel of an admonishment. "Of course," I acquiesced.
"Or any physical properties. But take love and hate. Everyone knows that love and hate are closer to each other than they are to indifference. That's what Fra Colleoni was thinking about when he developed his theory."
"Ah, Fra Calloni, that's the guy ..."
"Colleoni, yeah. I have his book here." Dr. Seaver set down his soup, swiveled his chair, and ran his finger down a stack of books on a file cabinet. "Here we are." He leaned the top of the stack back and pulled out a wine-red, ragged, cloth-bound book. "You can borrow it if you're interested."
"Yes, thank you very much!" I took the offered book and leafed through the pages. My smile froze on my face. It was in Italian. Did he actually think I could read this?
"He was an alchemist, of course."
"Of course," I echoed. There were some diagrams at least. Some tables. Some ... recipes?
"His goal was to convert baser materials into gold. But instead of starting with something like lead, he went with the basest materials he could find."
I looked up from the book. "Like what?"
"Like dog feces. Like jackel testicles. Really. Like ... decomposing flesh. "
The professor seemed to consider my assessment seriously. "Possibly. But at the time, 50 years before Newton's Principia, that was about as close to science as people got."
"But how could he possibly think he could turn dog shit into gold?"
"Well the idea was to take a base material and debase it even more. So ... he spit on it. He cursed it. He shunned it." I laughed. "Yes," said the professor, "and by pushing the debasement further and further he hoped to reach the other extreme, the purest material, which at the time was considered to be gold." He took a long, loud sip of soup. "And he claimed success. He claimed to have produced grains of gold in his lumps of shit and flesh."
"Really? And what do you think happened?"
"Well, nothing of the sort, obviously."
Then the professor got a telephone call, and we said goodbye. I hesitated for a moment with the book in my hands. I had half a mind to leave it on the desk with a shrug, but pride prevented me. I took it home and left it on a countertop for a week before picking it up again.
When I did finally pick it up, I sat with it at my computer and typed sections of it into a translator, and I tried to decipher the resulting nonsense. Perhaps it was nonsense to begin with. I flipped to the back of the book and found a short list close to the end, a recipe maybe, but only two items. I could see about that at least.
The first item was "spirito puro". Pure spirit? But also, alcohol! Now we were getting somewhere! The next item: "succo." Juice, essence, pith. It sounded like a recipe for a cocktail!
In solidarity with Fra Colleoni I got out the vodka and the orange juice, and I made myself a screwdriver.
Two hours later I was sitting on the couch in a stupor, listening to the buzz of silence in my living room. The brief period of euphoria that had followed my second drink had subsided. The glass-topped coffee table and the plastic-wheeled television stand looked strangely glossy and drab at the same time, like an oil-painting of a desolate landscape. One should not drink alone, or so I am told, but there was nobody there to drink with. I fixed myself another screwdriver and almost toppled over when I leaned down to put the empty vodka bottle in the recycling bin.
I plopped back on the couch with the book and my drink. I opened the book to a random page and began to read. To my amazement I found the Italian vaguely comprehensible. "I can read Italian!" I slurred to myself and chuckled. Good ol' Fra Colleoni was saying something about the spiritual dimension of his theory. How debasement of one's spirit can lead to genuine spiritual insights.
"You sly dog!" The guy was probably an alcoholic, slept with whores, lied to his neighbors, swindled his associates, whipped himself at night and cried himself to sleep. All in the name of ultimate spiritual awakening. "Cheers!" I took a last drink and zonked out.
I visited Dr. Seaver the next day, despite a throbbing head. He looked preoccupied but made an effort to smile and offered me a chair.
"Here's that book."
"Ah, The Meditations."
He made no move to take the book from me, so I just slid it onto the corner of his desk. I looked for the gizmo but it was missing.
"And what did you think?" he asked.
"Well, I followed one of his recipes. Now I have a raging hangover."
Dr. Seaver laughed. I don't think I'd ever heard him laugh before. "Oh, that recipe."
"And did it work?"
"No, not really."
"Right." He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk. He seemed suddenly nervous and fidgety. "Say, speaking of spirito puro, some friends and I are meeting for drinks this evening. Perhaps you'd like to join us?" He picked up a pen and started whacking the palm of his hand fiercely enough for it to appear painful.
I was surprised and hesitated to accept his offer. I shy away from crowds, and the idea of meeting a group at a bar made me anxious. On the other hand the sting of loneliness from the previous night was fresh, and Dr. Seaver tended to provide interesting conversation. "Sure, that sounds great. Thanks!"
Dr. Seaver leaned back in his chair. "Great!" He bit down on the pen almost viciously. "McGill's on 3rd Street. You know the place?"
"I've heard of it."
So I drove into town that evening. I paused to exhale outside the door to McGill's, which was bumpy with layer upon layer of paint. Inside a couple at a table glanced at me, but the bar appeared empty otherwise. As I moved in, however, Dr. Seaver's form emerged from behind a photograph-encrusted column. He was at the bar shoveling salted peanuts into his mouth, one eye on the television suspended above a row of whisky bottles.
"Ah, you're here." He wiped his hand on his shirt and pumped mine up and down. "Have a seat." His hand and eye drifted back to the peanut bowl and television respectively.
"So, I'm the first to arrive?" I asked.
"Ha! No, that would be me." He drained the remains of his beer and brought the glass down violently. "Jimmy!"
"I mean of the friends you're meeting."
The bartender emerged from a back room. Dr. Seaver snapped his fingers and pointed to his empty glass, but the bartender ignored him. "Evening," he said to me. "What can I get you?"
"Hair of the dog for my friend here!" the professor cackled as he slapped my back.
"What he's having," I mumbled. The bartender nodded and swiped Dr. Seaver's glass off the counter.
"The first to arrive." Dr. Seaver rolled the words over on his thick tongue. "You are the first. You're not just the first, you are the last. You are the only." The bartender placed fresh pints in front of us.
"Excuse me?" I said to the professor.
"I exaggerated! I prevaricated! I fibbed! I lied!" He looked at me with glassy eyes. Then he lifted the beer and poured it down his throat in one long, determined gulp.
"Whoa," I said.
"Friends?! I don't have any! Jimmy!" He snapped his fingers at his beer.
"I ...," I said. "I'm your friend."
He looked at me wonderingly for a moment, then he waved a hand at me. "Bah!" He shoved my shoulder. He swiveled his stool towards me and poked me in the chest. "Let me explain this to you. I ... am a blowhard." He poked me again. "I am an arrogant prick." Poke. "I don't have friends, nor do I wish to." Poke.
At that moment, the bartender reached across the bar and grabbed the professor's wrist. "Harry," he said with exaggerated calm, "we talked about this."
Dr. Seaver yanked his wrist out of the bartender's grip and swiveled back to the bar, chastened.
"Now," continued the bartender, "I'll give you one more beer and then I'm going to call you a cab."
Dr. Seaver resumed the peanut-eating, television-watching configuration I had found him in.
"I'll drive him home," I said.
"You sure?" asked the bartender? I nodded. "Suit yourself."
We sat in silence then for a while, Dr. Seaver and I, both nursing beers, eating peanuts, and watching an episode of Taxi. When I saw both of our glasses were empty I stood up.
"Dr. Seaver, let me give you a ride home."
He stood and grimaced at me. "Lead the way."
I started driving towards the university apartments where I knew he lived. After about a minute he said, "Pull over!" and I could tell by the convulsions in his throat what he wanted to do. Before I came to a complete stop he opened the door and vomited. He wretched for a minute and then got out of the car with a groan. He laid on the sidewalk.
I got out and walked around. His arms were spread out, his eyes wide, staring at the sky.
"Just leave me here," he said in the middle of a long exhale.
He laid right next to an overflowing trash can. There was gum on the ground, a used condom, a plastic bag of dog shit that had burst open.
"Come on, Dr. Seaver, you can't lie on the sidewalk. I'll take you home." I tugged on the sleeve of his jacket, but he was dead weight.
"If you are my friend, you may as well call me Harry."
"Okay, Harry, let's ..."
"The stars are out tonight. It was overcast today, but the clouds have moved away."
I looked up. "Uh huh," I said. I sat on the curb. "Harry, what are you doing?"
"An experiment." His eyes rolled back in his head. "The circular spectrum." He sounded sober.
"You don't really believe in that shit."
"But it works." He smiled beatifically. "It really works."
A moment later he was asleep. I groaned. I couldn't leave him there. I pulled him up to a sitting posture and with a monumental effort lifted him on my shoulder and got him in the car. The back of his head smacked the door frame. "Sorry, Dr. Seaver. Harry."
I didn't know the exact apartment he lived in, so I drove him to my house. I managed to get him inside and on the couch. I covered him with a blanket and he curled up like a child, smacking his lips.
I was awakened the following morning by whistling and the smell of coffee and scrambled eggs. I emerged to find Harry fairly dancing in the kitchen. "Timothy, my friend! Sit! Eat! I must be off, department meeting. I am the dean, you know."
I sat down to a breakfast more complete and elaborate than any I had ever prepared for myself.
It was more than a week before I saw him again. I visited him in his office as I used to.
"Hi, there ..." I began. He looked at me with vague annoyance. There was a steaming cup of soup on his desk. I was going to use his first name, but it suddenly felt wrong. "... Dr. Seaver."
"Timothy." His eyes lowered to his desk as he rifled through some papers, evidently unable to find something. "No strange theories to share with you today. Nothing but paperwork, boring dull tedious paperwork."
"That's okay." The gizmo was back. I picked it up but it did not respond as expected with a delightful blinking of lights. "I just wanted to say hi and see how you were."
He paused his frantic paper-rustling. "Batteries are dead," he said. Then, in an odd sing-song voice, "The magic is gone. The illusion broken."
I set the gizmo down. "That's alright, Harry."
He looked up at me. "Is it alright? Really?"
"Yes," I said. "It is."
He leaned back in his chair. After a moment he picked up his soup and took a long, thoughtful sip. The steam fogged his glasses. "Fra Colleoni would be proud."
About the Author: David Hammond lives in Northern Virginia with three females who are way more talented than he is. He has, on occasion, been so sad that he was happy. More of his writing can be found at oldshoepress.com.