Read More: A brief interview with Mary Kay Jennings
I’ve been in this little Connecticut town quite a while now. Holed up in Motel 6 and paying by the week, at The Manager’s request. Sometimes, the police stop me. Say they’ve had complaints I’m “prowling the campus” of the Elite Prep School here. I show them my California driver’s license, my Faculty ID. Tell them I’m investigating the death of a colleague. They seem skeptical. If I have business with the school, they say, I should contact the administration during daylight hours. They say if they see me again after dark, I will spend the night in jail.
I take them at their word and find my way to East of Eden, the bar I go to when I get tired of walking. Ask the barkeep if Masey’s in. Masey’s a waitress. The only person who’s been civil to me in a good long while. “Not tonight,” he says.
I order dinner and eat it at the bar.
I’m a long way from The Institute and the Physics Department of the prestigious West Coast college to which it’s attached. A long way from the bamboo grove where I stood with Department Chair Huey Linn in the rain, a freakish California downpour. Staring down at Bill. Bill, dressed in a grey three-piece suit, off-white shirt, red tie. Bill, lying on the ground as if he had picked a spot beneath the soaring bamboo to take a nap. Bill, who didn’t at all resemble our beloved often-preppie-sometimes-hoodie-wearing Physics Professor.
Bill was dead. Water pooled around his head, elbows, heels of his shoes and ran toward the concrete path where we stood.
The police had cordoned off the area as a crime scene.
In my Motel 6 room are stacks of notebooks I’ve compiled in my search for Bill’s past. Scores of three-inch binders that have each grown to an unwieldy number of pages. Nightly I add information, hoping to connect the dots. I haven’t unbound the pages for days, weeks maybe, for fear of loosing what little order they have.
I entertain the possibility of expanding the number of notebooks for each phase—having a Phase I A and Phase I B for example. But this means a trip to Wally World and I’m just not up to it.
So far, I’ve recorded a series of Important Moments.
- How we were lucky to hire Bill—Dr. William Robert Offermann III—seven years ago when he came to us with a pedigree as long as one’s arm: Connecticut prep, Ph.D. from MIT (summa cum laude), post doc at U VA, scores of scholarly articles, glowing references, impressive papers presented at Stanford, Harvard, Yale.
- How six years later Bill was promoted to Full Professor earlier than anyone in the college’s hundred-year history.
- How Bill’s classes filled the moment registration opened and online bidding wars erupted as students vied for a chance to discover how “Dr. O,” as students called him, “makes physics sexy.”
- How the Department agreed Bill did more to build the physics program’s enrollment, not to mention the department’s image, than all other recruitment tactics combined.
- How his looks alone lured many an undergrad to the Intro Physics class he insisted on teaching each semester, and his remarks that “Physics 101 is the most important course any of us will ever teach; that’s where imaginations are captured” led each of us to teach a beginning physics class the next semester.
- How we followed Bill like puppies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or behind. I’m trying to arrange my notebooks chronologically going backward in time. But time can be a slippery slope.
Example. This entry might belong in a notebook entitled Curious Occurrences. In the fall of Bill’s second year, he approached me and suggested we play racquetball three times a week. “We’re both novices,” he said. Within months he was beating me every game. I suggested he find another partner, but he chucked me on the shoulder and said, “Friends stay together.” We added a third player, our Department Chair Huey Lynn, a tactic often used when two players of unequal skill (Bill and I) are paired up. At first I resented Huey’s presence, especially when we went for beers, but in time I realized that Huey took the pressure off my having to keep up the conversation. Before Huey joined us, Bill asked, “How’s the family?” not knowing he was hitting a nerve. “All right,” I stammered. “I’d like to come over sometime and meet them,” he said as if this were a natural progression of our friendship. I was caught off guard and sure if he met Brenda, he would sense our estrangement, as palpable to me then as the bruise on my thigh where Bill accidentally drilled me with a racquetball. I remained uncomfortably silent until Bill changed the subject. Huey’s presence, I realized, assured I would not be put in that situation again. And later, when we gathered for a barbecue or a holiday brunch, thanks to Huey, his friendly wife and two calm children, the difficulties between Brenda and me remained unnoticed.
Backward Chronology has its challenges. Like where do I put this next item? In a notebook entitled Bill’s Brilliance? Phase IA minus1?
ITEM: Bill could get projects underway in less time than it took most of us to begin the grant-writing process. Bill saw far beyond the horizon; the rest of us plodded through details just to see the forest. The Department appointed Bill as Interim Director of its internationally known Institute, and shortly after, Bill advocated for someone with “Quantum Chaos expertise.” My area. Two months later, I was appointed.
I was assigned the Polonium Project and charged with discovering an efficient way to isolate polonium for use in antistatic devices and as a source of neutrons. Bill tried to help me get started. “You have to work smarter,” he said, “not harder.”
Consequently, I bought my first notebook and entitled it The Polonium Project. I recorded each stage of the process. Each velocity was documented; each equation archived for future reference. No detail escaped notation.
Meanwhile, Bill worked his magic: he received grant after grant, presented papers at Fermilab and CERN, amassed research results weighty enough to keep the Institute afloat, produced YouTube videos that made the most difficult physics concepts accessible, authored the graphic novel, Physics IS Sexy, that became an instant best-seller. As a result of his phenomenal accomplishments, the student body voted Bill “Professor of the Year.” The college promoted him to Full Professor and simultaneously named him Institute Director.
ITEM: About this time Bill began good-naturedly referring to all freshman students as “Willie Bob” as though each were a clone of his former self. We in the Physics Department were amused; it seemed implausible to imagine that Dr. William Robert Offermann III was ever an awkward freshman at any university. “Willie Bob walks onto campus for the first time . . .” Bill would quip, purse his lips, look heavenward for guidance. “Willie Bob just took his first Physics exam . . ..” “You’ll never guess what Willie Bob blurted out in class . . ..” I, along with others in the department, laughed helplessly at Bill’s anecdotes admitting that we too had “Willie Bobs”—naïve, awkward, ignorant of the college experience, ill-prepared for life. Still, none of us could equate the Willie Bob image with the Bill we knew. Given Bill’s copious output and colossal energy, we took the term “Willie Bob” to be one of Bill’s self-deprecating jokes. Deflecting compliments was part of his charm.
ITEM: Progress on the Polonium Project ground to a halt. To compensate, I stayed late at The Institute. Worked long hours into the night. Ignored my wife and daughters. Amassed scores of notebooks documenting three years of research. As the Project’s deadline loomed, isolating polonium proved beyond my grasp, and my wife confessed that loneliness had driven her to take a lover. On cue Bill arrived to clap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re almost there.” He spent a few nights at the lab, reviewed my data, and suggested several ways polonium could be isolated. He generously gave me credit although the “breakthrough” represented only a minor advance in the Institute’s thrust to, in Bill’s words, “return to cutting edge, future-focused research.”
So where do I put these ITEMS? In a Prelude? A Preface? A Placemarker? A Chapter? It’s especially confusing if you’re incognito and lying low at the Motel 6. Maybe this should be in a notebook called Deadlines or Dead Lines.
Maybe I’ll just title the next one Dead.
Backward chronology is a bitch.
I’ve begun to catalogue just details. The Devil lies therein.
DETAIL #1: Bill’s body is still on ice when his Memorial Service is held. Cause of his death is deemed suspicious, but not yet determined.
DETAIL #2: The small chapel where the service is held is filled to overflowing. Bill had hundreds of adoring students, but no wife, children, girl friend, boy friend.
DETAIL #3: Bill’s past remains a mystery. The only contact in Bill’s records turns out to be an elderly resident in a Rhode Island nursing home who has no recollection of Bill.
DETAIL #4: Bill’s hometown has been a ghost town since the 1920s.
DETAIL #5: The wreath of black magnolias shaped like a “7” delivered just before the Memorial Service reveals only his membership in U VA’s prestigious secret society.
DETAIL #6: Bill’s death and the enigmas surrounding his past prove more painful than my father’s passing, my wife’s infidelity, separation from my children.
DETAIL #7: Bill’s presence is more powerful in death than it was in life.
DETAIL #8: Huey Linn and two Institute members suggest that, since my research funds are “still pending,” I “take a week. Go to Charlottesville. MIT. Find out about Bill. You were Bill’s friend,” they say.
DETAIL #9: I take this as a return to my before-Bill status as the department’s most expendable member.
DETAIL #10: Brenda seems relieved at my departure. When I stop to bid the girls farewell (Brenda has taken an apartment in Eagle Lake), the girls cling to me briefly, then bounce off to dress for their afternoon at the zoo. Time away will “give you some distance,” Brenda remarks, then adds, “You’ve been distant for years.” I refuse to dignify this with a reply.
Here’s two more DETAILS from the DEAD. These wake me up at night—if I’m asleep. Which isn’t often. Because I’m on to something. ON TO SOMETHING. BIG.
DETAIL #11: April Fool’s was on a Friday and we celebrated at The Mighty Hog, a hole-in-the-wall bar Bill discovered his first semester on campus—now the department hangout. We physics professors know a lot about the Big Bang and subatomic particles no one has ever laid eyes on, but not much about each other. But, under Bill’s tutelage, we became a community. Everyone was in a jovial mood that afternoon, and Huey Linn, with his awkward sense of timing and a few too many drinks, clanked on his glass with a spoon and said, “I think we should hear from our own Willie Bob.”
Bill rose from the ranks with great aplomb and gave one of the most inspiring off-the-cuff speeches any of us had ever heard. He talked about how he was “a mere post-doc from U VA” when hired, a “Willie Bob who had somehow gamed the system.” Even with an advanced degree from MIT, his life had been on hold until he “found” our Department of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy and began his “calling” as physics professor and Institute member. “We all have an opportunity to make new discoveries in the quantum realm,” Bill said, “—a realm fraught with entanglements as mysterious as life itself.” He paused the precise number of seconds for dramatic effect and then added, “In the world of Quantum Information Science, we are all Willie Bobs.” His remarks brought chants of “Wil-LIE! Wil-LIE!” from even the most dour department member.
The moment was transformative—like a political rally. Or the laying on of hands.
Huey Linn might be the Department Chair, but Bill was our leader.
DETAIL #12: The following Monday, Huey Linn and I were in the bamboo grove staring down at Bill’s dead body.
DETAILS always add up. This time they add up to Bill’s dead body. When the details add up and they’re all connected, you’re DEAD.
I’ve amassed quite a number of notebooks trying to connect details. I must have forty or fifty notebooks. The Motel Manager keeps asking me to move them so they can clean.
But, I’m trying to work smarter not harder, like Bill said. For example, Phase I covers Bill’s time as a Post Doc at U VA. I’ll give you some Phase I Highlights, I call them. I started a list. The list turned into LEADS.
Phase I: (U VA)
- None of the physics professors at U VA remember Bill as the charismatic, generous, brilliant, visionary I knew. They remark on his intellect, though, and his genius in quantum computing.
- No new information is garnered from the Vice Provost’s Office for Faculty Affairs, the College of Arts and Sciences, or the Physics Department aside from the fact that Bill had been a post doc there.
- I already know what none of them does. About the Secret Society, I mean. It’s all documented in Phase I.
- LEAD #1: A Physics Professor there picked Bill up once when Bill’s car was in the shop. Bill was house sitting a mansion at the edge of town at the time. I check it out. The house is listed for sale now: $3.4 M. The housekeeper, a woman in her late thirties, answers the door. When I show her Bill’s photograph on my phone, I see a flicker of recognition. She denies knowing him—a little too quickly, I think—and shuts the door.
- LEAD #2: There’s a crowded bar near the U VA campus much like The Mighty Hog near ours, and it’s a Friday night. I chat and order, order and chat hoping to jog some professor or bartender’s memory. I am paying up when the call comes—robotic and garbled—but I know it’s not a recording. Get a pen The Voice says. Gives directions. Wear a ball cap. I’m certain The Voice is an answer to my Written Request—the letter I placed at the base of Jefferson’s statue in the Rotunda. I’ve done my homework and know that’s the only way to contact U VA’s secret society. At midnight, The Voice materializes behind me on the Rotunda rooftop, a kind of terrace for fancy affairs. Do not turn around the Voice says and explains that the Society voted Bill in because he wished to atone, he wished to do good. The Voice says I should remember Bill as I knew him. A prodigy? I say. That’s all you need to know, The Voice says. I count to twenty as The Voice demands and run to the railing, but see no sign of movement beneath the stand of trees stretching before me in the dark. Still, a real breakthrough.
Phase II (MIT):
Phase II is a different matter. Let me remind you, we’re going back in time, not forward; yet, we’re getting closer to answers. Weird, right? Weirder: the inconsistencies. Phase II is the Phase of Inconsistencies. I summarize these here:
- INCONSISTENCY #1: Armed with my Faculty ID, photocopies of Bill’s college transcripts showing MIT’s official seal, and a letter from Huey Linn on college letterhead, I approach the MIT Registrar. Severe woman. Red suit. Dyed black hair. Sensible shoes. The Problem: the records she accesses fail to show that William Robert Offermann III ever officially enrolled in any course listed on the transcripts she holds in her hand. He was a whiz in quantum computing, I offer. At this, the Registrar’s mouth becomes a thin straight line. Practical joke? she asks. No Ma’am I reply.
- INCONSISTENCY #2: Turns out someone named Bill Offermann did enroll in 216 courses from MIT’s Open Courseware Program since the pilot in 2002.
The Problem: He’s still enrolled in three graduate courses: Two philosophy—Metaphysics and Ethics and Epistemology: Self-Knowledge; and one math—Quantum Computation.
At this point, I begin to draw some Conclusions and decide multiple notebooks for the different Phases is a good idea.
- CONCLUSION #1: Bill is—was—a hacker. A computer genius. I conclude Bill gamed the system and received an advanced degree in physics from MIT. Two hundred sixteen courses—almost twice the number one normally takes for a B.S., M.S., Ph.D. This conclusion takes a number of note-taking nights and causes me to begin a new section.
At this point, Huey Linn calls to say funding is in for my Research Grant and I’m needed back at the college. Says the police are questioning everyone in the department. Says I need to return immediately.
Huey, I say. Really?
- CONCLUSION #2: I am ON TO SOMETHING BIG. Something that can’t be contained in notebooks, no matter how many I accumulate. It’s about Life. It’s about Death. About what happens when we die. Bill is larger than all of it. Larger than life. Larger than Death. Larger than Life After Death.
- CONCLUSION #3: WOW !
Phase III: Interim.
Bill always said, when you don’t know what to do, STOP. THINK. IT’LL COME. I decide to follow this advice.
And when I stop, I think of another of Bill’s aphorisms: THE ANSWER MAY BE VERY SIMPLE. In this case, it appears to be.
Phase III: Interim. I am watching Bill’s aphorisms play themselves out.
- APHORISM #1: Think. It’ll come. I do this. I sit right down in my motel room and Google William Robert Offermann I, II, and III. Pay the fee for background checks. Takes two nights and a day.
- APHORISM #2: The answer may be very simple. Turns out, it may be. Offermann I is a retired former CEO of a well-known financial institution. Offermann II is deceased, his death recorded as accidental.Would have been Bill’s age. I pull up Offermann II’s obit. Accidental death. Age 17. Elite Prep School in Connecticut.
Offermann III: No record.
All this calls for some questions and takes another entire day and a half. Needless to say, I’m not sleeping much or often.
- QUESTION #1: Who is/was William Robert Offermann III?
- QUESTION #2: How did he become a Full Physics Professor at our college, Institute Director, Professor of the Year?
Sometimes the answer is a question.
I drive the rental, a 2016 Ford Fiesta, from MIT to Podunk, Connecticut where Bill attended the Elite Prep School. I’m here now. I call this Notebook Phase IV. But it’s much more than Phase IV.
I’ve been under cover in the Motel 6 paying The Manager by the week for quite a while. He’s afraid I’m going to skip. Take a lamp or some towels. Insists I make a deposit if I plan on staying. Says most customers are passers-through. I might be a passer-through, I say. I would like to be a passer-through.
But there’s this email from Huey. Says the police believe Bill’s death was foul play. Says they’ve talked to everyone in the Department except me. […]
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
Mary Kay Jennings has taught English, Creative Writing, and humanities & have been Faculty Editor of The Prism, the literary and arts magazine at San Jacinto College in Houston for a number of years. She’s published a couple of stories, a Humanities Mini Text entitled Stories That Changed the World (ShortWorks: Freiburg Germany & Los Angeles, 2015), founded the Authors of Our Time Program at the college (hosting writers Justin Cronin, David Eagleman and others), and given many national presentations on the power of storytelling. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Rice University. She’s completing her novel, The Infinite Game.
Read More: A brief interview with Mary Kay Jennings