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The Bomb

An excerpt from 'The Vault Apocalyptia'



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Mathematics, of course, and its applications engrossed him, for what, he reasoned, wasn't improved through its precepts? Once, for instance, after observing at practice the varsity softball team, he confidently coached abler batters at what angle uppercut to shave off a swing in order to better bean a pitcher with a calculated line drive. While mates sucking Red Hots frolicked amid twilit hours in front yards and streetsides, playing at war with peashooters and water balloons, there was Ruben hunkered curbside over his Big Chief tablet, ponderously penciling grids by the edge of a balsa ruler and graphing ratios of targets hit to peas shot and balloons filled. When a pissing contest was called and the neighborhood boys gathered by the church lot after school, giggling like gnomes and peeling from the folds of their shorts dinky peckers tweezed between thumb and forefinger, Rube was there too doling out water and near beer and plotting pissarc trajectories by twigscratch in the sand.

He could exemplify the pacifistic introvert yet loved nothing more than the crunch of cracking bicuspids as he elbowed a home team's forward. Naturally was Rube a reader, the kind that gorged on words. The dulcet sonnet could wrench a tear from his eye though tragic drama better suited his personal aesthetic, especially romances of the type ending in lovers' mutual suicide. He read for elucidation treatises by Clausewitz, Sun-tzu, and Nicomachus of Gerasa; for pleasure works by Kaempffert, Gustave Le Bon, and the great Mesmer; and with gusto the utopian futures of Wells. Often, in recovery from the noise of days, he'd indulge a yearning for solitude and spend whole nights rooftop sketching in conté crayon the black void between stars and composing little sapphics on the hugeness of it all. He felt, at these times, the sensation of being observed, studied by some wadza in the heavens, prepared, he sensed, for something momentous by strangers above the clouds . . .

WHO'S YOUR DADDY? The bio of father of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer is subject to some tasteless revisionism in ‘The Vault Apocalyptia.’
  • WHO'S YOUR DADDY? The bio of father of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer is subject to some tasteless revisionism in ‘The Vault Apocalyptia.’

Under astonished tutors he mastered a host of additional tongues, rapidly, that he'd intone fluently as English though which he insisted on speaking, to his delight and his instructors' chagrin, simultaneously, for a lark. He attempted romantic rondeaux, in Sanskrit, though confessed to his intendeds feeling stumped getting shringara and pralaya to rhyme right. High school held little challenge for the young Rube (he was then two years junior his freshman classmates), and to bide the odd hours he hatched reckless and elaborate pranks. He laced fruits with fun drugs, like the ergots, and stealthily set them on teachers' desks during recess, stuck with cards forged in bullies' script. One afternoon, to the principal's dismay, he linked the school's master clock to its phone system then privately chuckled as every incoming call projected the hands two minutes closer the final bell. His antics won him by turns the applause of fellow students, who thought him heroic and clever, and the reproach of exasperated faculty, who found him archly aloof. His spirits might ascend on wings of sublimest glory or as quickly plummet under weight of direst melancholy dispelled finally by his quandary over whether suicide, homicide, or omnicide would best abate his gripping teenage angst.

Buffeted by pubescence, Rube acquired the gawky features redolent of classic scientific "queerness." He had a cropped rust do, freckles the size of lentils, a planktoothed girlshy rictus, and ears that stuck out like two ivory cabinet handles. He had a beetling brow with a stately tall forehead which inclined above it sheer as the Galveston seawall. His lips were thin, the width of a good thick one bisected, and he had a beakish nose, a hawk's nose, that earned him the envy of his peers when he later found his calling. His eyes might seem claygray then silversteel or even oilbrown, with a gaze that looked piercing and sharp when imperturbable yet perturbed and dull when nothing in sight worth piercing appeared. From a long frame lithe limbs hung like halfwilling accomplices unsure of their role in a crime plot. His feet tripped over each other like newly paired dance partners, and his nimble fanlike hands, ambidextrous, which pantomimed tortuously when he spoke, as if explicating to a tribe of foreign laloplegics, seemed uncertain what the other was doing, so often did things twice. His neck was too spindly, like a lollipop stick, his shoulders too narrow, his complexion too fair, his chest too caved, his fingers too fine, his back too bowed, his grip too limp and his touch too clammy, and his arches were flat, with toes too splayed when they weren't, in weather too cold, curling under.

For diversion Rube preferred fraternal outings but did attend, begrudgingly, his junior prom with one Tulia Hognose, a bookish and tubby sort (beauty frightened as much as it fascinated chary Rube), and it was during the course of the evening that he beheld his first breast. Something in its curve repelled him though and he sought in future to forswear its ilk, but his condition polyorchitis eventually exerted its influence and landed him a doomed marriage in later years. When, in his mid teens, his father's bomb shelter was razed by a small brush fire Rube, then scouting universities, resolved to devote himself fully to the study of applied physics. He was sixteen when he entered MIT—the freshest yet to pledge Phi Beta Epsilon. He topped the curriculum with ease and swiftly, and among numerous honors won Rube earned that rare prize, an interview with the Hertz Foundation. High marks on their Industry Acronym Recognition Exam (the IARE) secured him a graduate fellowship at California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which led soon after to fulltime hire. Upon submitting his dissertation at the age of twentytwo Rube cultivated a magnificent mustache to mark the occasion, with bristly bars of sideburn to match. . . .

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