September 5, 2016KR OnlineFiction

What Can the Matter Be?

When Homo sapiens or its hybrid heir has outwitted death, will tragedy be missed or transcendence possible? When history has long revealed the mental limits implicit in that question, what could matter about the centennial and jubilee of August 2014? Would the law of the conservation of matter still be on the books? What were books?

Even when jubilant, Desmond thought in questions.

His wife, Ruth, also a chemical engineer at Cal Tech, did not. Though neither Chumash nor Tongva, Desmond was a native Californian. His forebears included Haitians, Mexicans, and Jamaicans. Ruth’s family had landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. Their sixteenth-century protest had predictably evolved from the 95 Theses to the twenty-first century repudiation of religion altogether. Having rejected the Protestant Old Testament obsession with begats, none of her paternal Eatons shared Desmond’s interest in genealogy, and Ruth’s mother called herself “a lapsed Levy.”

Desmond and Ruth had married at forty and thirty-seven, respectively, and after a year were expecting a baby. In the eighth month, all fetal movement ceased. After medical confirmation, shock numbed only the first days and nights that harrowed for the ninth month. Ruth experienced a kaleidoscope of perceptions of her body as coffin, nightmares of catacombs, and grief that engulfed revulsion. In childhood, her mother had taught her to imagine a worst-possible scenario and how to proceed from it. As if at a cosmic distance, Ruth could see ironic humor and imagined shoving a Creator she didn’t believe in over the event horizon into Its own black hole. In these weeks, murderous intent instantly flooded any moments of blissful blankness. She was terrified by the relief of killing insects and imagining assaults. She was afraid of looking too closely at her husband as he slept.

Awake, Desmond had questions. Only autopsy would indicate answers, but 60% of sudden antenatal death syndrome or SADS remained unexplained. What research was ongoing at Cal Tech? Anywhere? What difference could it make? Was he relieved to sacrifice his own grief on the altar of Ruth’s survival?

Their stillborn daughter, Joan, was induced vaginally on a beautiful day in May. The discovery of paternal chromosomal error uncompensated by maternal DNA began to restore some balance between the couple. Enduring subsequent testing and counseling, they both studied degree-level genetics and returned to their work on energy-producing glass. The sun delivered more energy to the earth in one hour than was currently consumed from fossil fuels, nuclear power, and all renewable energy sources combined in a year. The zodiac rotated in heaven, and on earth a year and a half later, the couple accepted an invitation to join other researchers in the UK on a kind of pilgrimage to photovoltaic sites in France and Spain.

Grades for fall semester were due in mid-December. In the break until the new term began in January, Desmond and Ruth traveled first to meet up with Ruth’s former colleague Sylvia at Cambridge. From London they journeyed to Paris and continued at high speed to the Perpignan train station in southern France. There, they strolled along and stood on the bridge over the River Basse and visited the orange-yellow photovoltaic atrium at the train station. The trio read on their smartphone apps: In a vision on August 27, 1963, Dali had a vision of the city. ‘It all became clear in a flash of cosmic ecstasy, stronger than all those I had had before. I experienced a precise vision of the construction of the cosmos: There, right before me, was the center of the universe.’ Further scrolling revealed the actual painting La gare de Perpignan was in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Virtually presented on their handheld screens was a small image of the train station amid figures of rural farm workers: symbolic of Dali’s obsessive concern with immortality. They recognized at the center of the picture the very model for the giant statue of Dali on the roof of the Perpignan station, poised arms akimbo, legs splayed, looking just like the falling man in the center of his famed Surrealist painting.

Salvador Dali La gare de Perpignan

They lunched on mousse St. Jacques, fish and chicken, frites, and apple clafouti.

“What do you think was Dali’s concept of the Universe when he said Perpignan was the center of it?” Desmond asked.

“He had a vision, it says. Descartes had visions, too,” Sylvia said.

“Three dreams,” Ruth added.

“Psychological phenomena, you mean?” Desmond smiled warmly at his wife.

Conversation moved from details of photovoltaic photosynthesis into idle weather chat. Sylvia said the cloudy chill of December must contrast with Christmas in southern California.

“It’s good to get away,” Ruth said.

“Isn’t the land of the Lotus Eaters wherever you eat lotus?” Desmond said, taking the last bite of his dessert.

With a gentle fingertip, Ruth wiped away a thin mustache of crème fraîche from his upper lip.

When the couple preferred to drive down to the next site, Sylvia discreetly said she wanted to stay over another night in France with her Cambridge crew, and she’d meet Ruth and Desmond back in London before they’d fly back to LA.

The two-hour drive south to Terrassa near Barcelona took Desmond and Ruth a more leisurely three in light rain that only made the enclosed space inside the rental car more intimate. As Ruth drove into the Spanish town, Desmond read from his phone: The remains that have been found indicate that the area where Terrassa stands has been inhabited since prehistory. In 2005, during the construction of a tunnel for one of the city’s railway lines, a prehistoric site was found in the Park of Vallparadís, with stone tools and fossils of hunted animals dating back 800,000 to 1,000,000 years, making this is one of the oldest prehistoric sites in Europe.

“You had me at remains,” Ruth said.

The next morning dawned, clear, sunny, and 15.4 degrees Celsius.

“59.72 degrees Fahrenheit,” Ruth said.

“Philistine. Were we this happy on our honeymoon?”

“We didn’t know we were. It’s 67 degrees in Pasadena. A world away.”

Another amorous night was followed by breakfast and a visit to the science museum where a beautiful multicolor curved wall of solar glass gleamed in the sunlight it was turning into electricity.

Façana Fotvoltaica MNACTEC

“This is what the future will look like,” Ruth said, touching her fingertips together and then spreading out her arms in a wide embrace. “Through questing and questions, humanity has expanded the understanding of existence from quarks to quasars.”

Eavesdropping, an English-speaking nun leading a group of school children scolded, “Are you rocket scientists?”

Desmond put up his palm in peace.

“Our species is trying to do in a generation what it took Nature a billion years after the formation of the planet to accomplish,” Ruth said.

“Nature?” the religious demanded.

“Wouldn’t an onion by any other name make you cry?” Desmond asked.


Back in LA a new semester began. Three months passed. If Life were anvil/hammer, Ruth believed she and Desmond were tempered steel. They had been tested.

“Aren’t you invoking the Iron Age? Isn’t ours the Information Era? When did blacksmithing begin?” Desmond asked.

Ruth scrolled from ultrasound portraits to “blacksmith” on her iPhone. The black in blacksmith refers to the black firescale, a layer of oxides that forms on the surface of metal during heating. The Hittites of Anatolia first discovered the smelting of iron ores around 1500 BC.

Their healthy baby was born August 4, 2014. Louis Armstrong was born on the same day in 1901 and Barack Obama in 1961. Around the world, there were centennial memorials of the start of World War I, likewise the jubilee of 1964. Ruth’s parents flew in from Boston for John’s naming party. Her father tersely remembered going to Mississippi in the Freedom Summer, and her mother to wearing a minidress in the heat of the World’s Fair in New York.

“Your grandmother always talked about eating giant bowls of caviar at the Russian Pavilion at New York World’s Fair in 1939, so I had to go to ’64’s. In the Vatican Pavilion, we were moved on a conveyor belt in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Pieta. I went back again and again. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. Until now,” she said, cradling the newborn.

Ruth’s red-headed aunt-the-historian rattled off other notables: “In 1914, the Western ‘Scramble for Africa’ was complete, the Panama Canal opened, and Gandhi left South Africa. In ’64, the Beatles invaded New York, and the Vietnam War escalated in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

Desmond’s colorful relatives had their own multilingual memories of the decades of the twentieth century. In their obvious superior numbers and quotidian proximity to the baby, they deferred for the present to the East Coast guests.

But a film-buff Cal Tech colleague couldn’t resist needling the New Englanders. “In 1914, Charlie Chaplin made his debut in Making a Living, and Disney premiered Mary Poppins in 1964. What, how far do you think we are from Hollywood here?”

Toasting, Desmond’s father said, “In 2064, John will be fifty, and 2114 will be his centennial!”

The noise of cheers and applause made the newborn wail, and Ruth hustled him to a quiet space where the lullaby she sang as she nursed surprised her as much as Desmond who had quickly followed.

Later, alone together and the infant asleep, Desmond asked, “Did you even know you knew the words?”

They stood together at the baby’s crib. Ruth shook her head and sang again quietly.

He promised he’d buy me a basket of posies
A garland of lilies, a garland of roses;
A little straw hat to set off the blue ribbons
That tie up my bonny brown hair.
O dear, what can the matter be?
Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
O dear, what can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.

L. Shapley Bassen, a 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award finalist, had three books published in 2014 in Hong Kong, Canada, and Tennessee. She is a fiction editor for, was a first reader for, and won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship. Her book reviews appear at,, and elsewhere.