by Bob Beach
Shift change at the Ford plant was the usual Chinese fire drill. Second shift regulars coming off the line poured out the doors and surged into The Altered State, a boxy little bar and grill just past the parking lot. Ready to rock, they fanned out across the room and started banging the tables for service. Pinball machines came alive in the dark corners, flashing and chattering. Waitresses raced from table to table, shouting orders at the bar, and the sizzle of burgers filled the air. In minutes the room was a wriggling crush of sweaty, off-duty auto workers.
Smitty hunkered defensively on his barstool, guarding his Blue Moon Ale. The crowd at his back surged suddenly as a red-faced Halloran wedged his beefy body through the pack and squeezed onto the stool next to him.
“Hey, perfessor. Whatcha drinkin’?”
Smitty held up his bottle.
“Ahhh, that craft shit.” He shouted down the bar—“Don!”
In a second Don appeared, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bar rag. “How ya doin,’ Halloran? Name your poison.”
“Two Buds and another sissy beer for my girlfriend here,” said Halloran.
He winked at Smitty. “Gotta catch up.”
A replay of last night’s game popped up on all the big screens, and the crowd gave an enthusiastic roar. Willie Nelson wailed away on the sound system, not giving a shit about the Pistons.
“How’s life in the front office treatin’ you?” asked Halloran. “Bet you miss the earmuffs.”
“So quiet I can hear myself think.”
“Don’t think too hard—they might make you president.”
“Less chance of getting laid off, anyway.”
They sat and drank and watched the bedlam in the mirror behind the bar.
“Hey,” said Halloran. “Those two girls in the booth by the door. The ones from shipping. I think they’re checkin’ us out.”
“You mean the two blind, ugly ones?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Willie gave way to Ted Nugent, and the noise level jumped a few decibels.
“So what metaphysical problem you chewin’ on these days, perfessor?” asked Halloran. “What new part of the universe you dissectin’? Still worried about black holes swallowin’ us up or politics pullin’ us apart?”
Smitty smiled. “You heard about Schrodinger’s cat?”
“The meathead on the drill press? What’d he do, come home drunk and nuke it for breakfast by mistake?”
“No, that’s Schrader,” said Smitty. “Schrodinger was a scientist in Sweden or Denmark or Lapland or somewhere. I remember something about Copenhagen. One of those little European countries where they have funny squiggles over their vowels. Say their words like somebody stuck a hot rock up their butt.”
“Do they even have cats there? Ain’t Lapland all snow and ice?” Halloran spun around on his stool, checking the crowd. “I saw a snow leopard in the zoo, once. Maybe they have snow cats.”
“Never heard of snow cats.”
Don sped by, sliding two Buds and a Blue Moon in their direction.
“Lapland has reindeer,” said Halloran. “Reindeer like snow.”
“Schrodinger didn’t say anything about reindeer. Anyway, this is a made-up cat.”
“A made-up Laplandish cat?” asked Halloran. He snorted. “Why didn’t he just get a real reindeer?”
“Dunno. Probably couldn’t find a box big enough.”
“I guess. Be hell trying to get a reindeer to use a box, anyway.”
“No, no,” said Smitty. “He puts this cat inside the box. It’s an experiment. He says once the cat’s in the box, we don’t know if it’s dead or alive.”
“Bullshit. It’s a made-up cat—we already know it ain’t alive.”
“It’s not just the cat. There’s also radium, cat poison in a glass jar, a Geiger counter and a hammer. There’s just enough radium to have a fifty-fifty chance of tripping the counter. If it does, it lets the hammer fly, smashes the glass, releases the poison.” Smitty snapped his fingers. “Bingo—dead cat.”
“I never heard of cat poison,” said Halloran. “Who the hell wants to kill cats, anyway? My wife spends hours watching cute videos on YouTube.”
“Well, hell, it’s probably just a general kind of poison.”
“How long does it take to kill a cat? Poison a rat, takes hours. Even days.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Smitty. “Schrodinger must be right. He got a Nobel Prize.”
Somewhere on the other side of the packed room, a tray of glassware hit the floor in a loud crash, inciting cheers from the crowd.
“Nobel. Isn’t that the guy who invented dynamite?”
“Dynamite,” said Halloran. “Now that’s somethin’ I can understand. Would that work?”
“Would what work?”
“Dynamite. Instead of poison. You wouldn’t have to wait all day to see what happened to the damn cat.”
“Yeah, that’d be quicker. If you didn’t mind blowing the cat all to fucking hell. Plus the box and anybody standing around. Hard to see the point.”
“So what is the point, genius?”
“Schrodinger says since we don’t know if the hammer fell, we don’t know if the cat’s dead or alive. It’s kind of both at the same time—in two quantum states. And it doesn’t make up its mind which one it is until we look. As soon as we look, we get a dead cat or an alive cat. Depends on whether the counter picked up any radiation and the hammer busted the glass.”
Halloran straightened up and swiveled around to face Smitty. He cocked his head and dug around in his ear for a few seconds, like he was trying to pull out a cockroach. “Lemme get this straight. You’ve got a box with either a live cat or a dead cat and you don’t know which it is until you look?”
He stopped digging in his ear and rolled his eyes. “Whattaya think a guy like this makes? A real, honest to God professor, Ph.D. and all. Hundred grand? Two? Hell, a Nobel’s gotta be a million right there. A redneck like me pulls down twenty-five fifty an hour stamping out parts eight, ten hours a day. This pointy-head looks under a box and tells you if a cat’s dead or not.”
“He doesn’t actually do it.” Smitty said. “It’s just hypothetical.”
“He gets a mil for just thinkin’ about puttin’ a made-up cat in a hypothetical box. Don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Where do you get all this screwball stuff, anyway? You a certified member of the Royal Academy of Weird Scientific Bullcrap? Get the journal in the mail, all printed in Latin and shit?”
Smitty grinned. “I read it in a Modern Science at the dentist’s office.”
Halloran stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. Don looked up from down the bar and Halloran held up two fingers. He turned back to Smitty.
“You got a classy dentist. I can see some practical use, though.”
“You put somethin’ in a box and don’t look at it and it’s not really alive until you take it out, right?”
“There has to be poison, too,” said Smitty.
“That works. I was thinkin’ about my mother in law. Have to be a fuckin’ big box, though.”
“Hell, your mother in law wouldn’t shut up long enough for it to work. Part of the deal is that we can’t know—if she’s yapping the whole time, we’d know she’s alive.”
“Who cares? It’s fifty-fifty she’ll come out dead. Especially if we used dynamite.”
Don ran by again, slowing enough to drop off two fresh beers, collect the dead soldiers and give the counter a quick swipe.
“Gotta be careful here,” said Smitty. “Remember, she’s gonna be in two quantum states at the same time. What if there’s a screwup and neither one dies? Bingo—two mother in laws!”
Halloran started giggling. “Be just like her, too. Harder to kill than a two-headed snake, even with dynamite!”
Springsteen started riffing on the juke box and the crowd cheered again. A couple girls had managed to find enough floor space to dance.
“Seriously, though,” said Halloran. “Does anybody even believe this shit? It’s just some egghead tryin’ to get a grant so he don’t have to do any real teachin.’”
“I guess a lot of eggheads believe it. Okay, maybe not the cat, but the two-quantum-state thing with a quark or maybe a boson.”
“Quark?” asked Halloran. “Boson? What the fuck are you talkin’ about perfessor? Look—the Pistons are on.”
“I don’t know,” said Smitty. “Maybe they got a point. Halloran, didn’t you ever think there’s more to the universe than that beer in your hand? That there’s something going on underneath that makes it all tick? Didn’t you ever want to know where we came from?”
“I came from Philly,” said Halloran. “Look, perfessor—the whole point of comin’ here is you don’t have to think. This stool is real.” He punched the seat. “If it wasn’t, I’d be sittin’ on the floor. This beer’s real. Or it better be, I’m payin’ three bucks a bottle for it…
“Hey—see those two new chicks just came in? I think they’re checkin’ us out! Listen, I gotta take a leak. Don’t let anybody take my seat unless it’s one of those chicks.” Halloran staggered off his stool and lurched in the general direction of the men’s room.
The women squeezed on past and shoved their way into a crowd at one of the tables. Smitty drained his last beer and fingered a hole in the knee of his blue jeans. The crowd, now fed and watered, had settled down. A few had started filing out to the parking lot, looking forward to their warm beds. In a minute, Halloran was back, swinging his bulk onto the stool.
“Y’know, perfessor, gimme gas that gets a hundred miles a gallon, or a cure for hemorrhoids—the kind of science I can understand. Don’t tell me global warmin’s gonna flood the world or this beer in my hand don’t really exist.” He examined it closely just to make sure. He lowered his voice and leaned in Smitty’s direction. “Don’t it make you crazy, thinkin’ about all this weird crap all the time?”
Halloran stood up and waved down the bar at Don. “Two more and two shots!” he shouted. He turned to Smitty. “We need to get hammered. I’m gettin’ a headache just thinkin’ about this shit. I tell you, perfessor, if made-up quantum zombie cats is the future, wake me up when it’s over.
“Hey, look—the shipping girls are still there. Let’s go buy ‘em a beer. You can tell ‘em about Schrader.” He nudged Smitty with his elbow. “Just a couple stray cats ourselves, right? Just waitin’ for somebody to pick us up and take us home.”
Smitty sighed and reached for his coat. “Guess I’ll pass, Halloran. One of us has to show up for work tomorrow.”
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing