The old man in greasy coveralls stood on the back porch of his cinderblock ranch and surveyed the sprawling junkyard with his good eye. Vehicle carcasses, trashed appliances, heaps of metal, and leaking 55-gallon drums of god-knows-what covered his 30-acre parcel of rolling scrubland in a blank spot on the map near Honeoye, New York.
“Junk ain’t what it used to be,” he said, with a heavy sigh.
“How’s that, Gomp?” The old man’s grandson tightened a nut on a 1965 GM carburetor, which was mounted on a stand under the extended porch roof. Summer was almost over, and he was dreading the long bus ride back to his mother’s house in Cincinnati and the return to high school, books, and exams.
“It’s a throw-away world, boy. When I was young, every car on the road was scabbed with rust. Some cars, you could look right through the fenders to the other side.”
“I’ve seen some of those in the back lot. Though hard to tell when they rusted, they’ve been there so long.” He gave the butterfly valve a squirt of WD-40 then wiped his finger across his sparse mustache. He liked the smell. It reminded him of working on projects with his father, Gomp’s son, who’d also been a tinkerer. In the genes, maybe. The memory was muddled now, overlapped by ten years of experience, but flashed to life with the smell of oil or hot solder or the feel of a wrench in his hand. Nothing gave him more pleasure.
He took off his Reds cap, pushed the hair out of his eyes, and smiled.
“You miss my point, boy. Folks would drive cars til they fell right apart. If the rust got bad, they’d patch it up: slap on bondo, buff it down, paint it up, make it go a few more years.”
“Guess people nowadays just prefer new.”
“When my father went car shoppin’, you know how he compared one ta’nother? Pounds for the dollar. That’s right. He’d say, that car gives me more pounds’a iron for my hard-earned dollar so that’s the one I’ll buy. And he drove the hell outta that car till there was hardly nothing left but four wheels and a seat to sit on.”
“Times have changed, huh?” He liked to humor the old man.
“People then had respect for the goods. It’s like the Dow Jones used to be.”
“Ya lost me, Gomp.” He tested the valve. It felt weightless and pivoted under his breath.
“Measured durable goods, like cars and washing machines and such. Durable ‘cause they were made to last. You hear the term durable goods much these days?”
“Not much.” But he had read something about it in economics class, an elective course he’d taken the year before. His mother’s idea. It had also been her idea that he spend part of each summer with Gomp, but seemed less enthusiastic about it lately. He understood; Gomp helped fill the void after his father died. She valued him as a role model – but only to a point. She didn’t want her son to run a junk yard for a living.
“Damn right. Because they ain’t durable no more and no one gives a shit.”
“Where do you get all this, Gomp?”
“The old ‘puter we found in that heap’a fire salvage? I got it working. Use my phone as a hot spot. Get internet fine as any fancy new machine, thank you very much.”
“That’s great, Gomp.” The boy was impressed. Gomp a computer geek!
“And I been reading a lot online about all sorts of shit lately. We’re in a huge war, all of humanity, but everyone’s givin’ up.”
“Huh?” The boy set down the WD-40 and rag he’d been holding. He wondered if Gomp had gone over the edge this time.
“It’s like a grandfather clock winding down. Like, like a car burning gas. Like, like the Grand Canyon!”
“Ya lost me again.”
“Entropy, boy! Remember that word. When the clock finally runs down and all the gas runs out and the river cuts the world in half and the sun winks out, the answer is entropy!”
“Ok, but…what’s the question?”
“The question is how come? Entropy says everything runs down, runs out. The water cuts down through the rock, not the other way. There’s no stopping it.”
“Well then,” the boy said, “I guess that’s that.” And he turned his attention back to the carburetor.
“But it ain’t! You can slow it down. That’s what we used to do. We patched up that rusty car. Remember grandma’s kitchen stove? It’s out there now,” he said, waving toward the junkyard, “because you can’t get parts for it no more. You get old, people don’t care, ya get thrown away.”
And then it clicked. The boy understood. Ever since his stroke, Gomp had been obsessed with life and death, breaking the cycle. He’d raged for days when Gommie died, and his anger had smoldered ever since, like an underground fire, following seams that fueled it.
“It ain’t up for a vote, boy! We’re stuck with it, like it or not. “You can let it have its way with you,” he said, raising his balled fists to his chest, “or you can fight it.”
“What should I do with this carburetor, Gomp? Good as new, now.”
“Put it in the shed with the other refurbs. Somebody might want it someday. Then I got another project for ya.”
The shed was a windowless 30’ x 40’ pole barn clad in dented sheet aluminum a hundred yards or so behind the house. Two mercury vapor lamps hung from the ceiling and illuminated the space with a cold blue light. The air smelled of wood and oil. Racks of salvaged parts and refurbs lined the walls. The old man led the boy to a pallet of equipment at the far end.
“This the project?” the boy said, looking over the parts. “Is that an old Kelvinator?”
“1957,” the old man said.
“Why’s it sideways?”
“Took out the compressor to make room for other parts.”
“And this other stuff?”
“That there is a Geiger counter. Behind that is a ’76 Polaris snowmobile engine. Two-cycle. In that little box there? Wrist watch, Radium Dial Company, 1928. Damn thing is radioactive.”
“I don’t get it. What are you making, Gomp?
“Something called a Schrodinger box. Guy named Schrodinger dreamed it up in 1935 to show how a cat could be dead and alive at the same time.”
The boy stared at the parts and pursed his lips. His head was so full of questions he didn’t know what to say.
“But they never built the damn thing. Guess they figured they were so smart they didn’t need to. Ya know, eggheads like Einstein. They called it a thought experiment. I like that.” He chuckled. “I can do one of them anytime. Gee, I wonder what would happen if I drank a 12-pack? Maybe I’d get drunk. That’s bull. I’d rather just have the beer and find out for sure!”
“Does this have something to do with entropy?”
“Damn straight. The cat’s dead one place and alive somewheres else. They call it the many worlds interpretation. You can just keep skipping from one to ‘nother forever. Knowed as quantum immortality. Maybe the only kind there is.”
“Wow,” he said. Laughter bubbled up in his throat. He forced it down. “Are you sure it’s not, like, fake science or something? There’s a lot of bogus info on the Web.”
His grandfather frowned. “Look boy, I don’t have time to explain it. It’s complicated. A lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. I just need your help to hook it all together.”
“But what the heck is it supposed to do?”
“Near as I can tell, it works somethin’ like this: I climb in the Kelvinator and shut the door, radiation from the watch kicks off the Geiger, which starts the engine, which pumps exhaust into the fridge.”
The boy took a deep breath.
“It sounds dangerous.” Meaning suicidal. But he didn’t want to talk about death or think about Gomp dying. He didn’t want Gomp thinking about it. But he clearly was.
“Not if there’s one’a me still kickin’ someplace else. But I’m not dead or alive til you peek inside. Don’t ask me why, just is. That’s the secret. Like with the cat.”
The boy stepped back. He felt something shift inside, like he was suddenly older than his grandfather.
“I can’t help you with this, Gomp. I don’t believe it. Besides, no one should get in a fridge, especially not the old ones that latch – freaks me out just thinking about it. How about I take off that door? Safer that way.”
The old man threw a tarp over the parts on the pallet. “I’m not crazy, boy. Just trying to make somethin’ new out of all this.”
The boy wasn’t quite sure what his grandfather meant by “all this,” but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to help him commit suicide. They didn’t discuss it again before the boy left for Cincinnati a week later.
He’d always been a good student. Good grades across the board. As a result, in his senior year, he could choose from a number of electives. He took Introduction to Physics. Of course, it didn’t delve deeply into quantum mechanics, but it helped him understand what Gomp had been talking about. The theories of many worlds, of quantum immortality. He was relieved to learn that Gomp was not crazy. But they were only theories!
In late October, he got an email from Gomp (and copied to his mother) saying he was staying with an army buddy in Florida for the winter. “You know how it is,” he said. “It’s hard to deal with the cold when you’re run down.” It ended with, “looking forward to seeing you in June as usual!” They didn’t hear from him again all winter, and when June rolled around and they still hadn’t heard, his mother wondered if they should try to contact Gomp’s friend in Florida. The boy suspected the worst, but didn’t tell his mother, in case Gomp was fine and back home but just not responding, which was not entirely out of character. After much discussion, she allowed him to go. On the tedious bus journey he was plagued by waking nightmares and barely slept an hour or two during the entire twelve-hour trip.
The gate at the base of Gomp’s long gravel driveway was locked when he arrived. He found the key in the usual hiding place and reached through the chain link to open the padlock and let himself in. The house was locked as well. He rang the bell and waited. He peered through a window.
“Yo,” he shouted, “anyone home?” Perhaps, he thought, Gomp was working out in the shed.
Or perhaps he was out in the shed and not working.
The shed was not locked. He opened the sliding doors and switched on the lights. The Schrodinger box gleamed dully at the far end of the space. When he got closer, he could see that the parts had been assembled as Gomp had described. It was silent; the Geiger counter batteries were long dead and the snowmobile engine’s gas tank was empty. There was only one thing left to do.
He dreaded what he would find. But what if the theories were right? That Gomp wasn’t dead or alive until someone looked in the box? Where did he exist in the meantime? Some inconceivable limbo.
His stomach churned.
He opened the door of the Kelvinator. His vision flickered and hearing registered a piercing sound like that of rending fabric.
In another universe, Gomp looked up, coughed, blinked, and grinned.
“Good to see you,” he said to the boy, who was as wide-eyed and astonished as his quantum clone, his severed self, was anguished. “How much time did I buy?”
About the Author: Rob Tyler lives in Upstate New York, known primarily for foul weather and disease-bearing ticks, which has shaped his preference for indoor activities. His stories, flash fiction, and prose poems tend to focus on themes of love, loss, and transformation. On those rare occasions when the weather is good and the ticks are scarce, you might find him running trails, canoe camping in the Adirondacks, or straightening up the crooked little Victorian he shares with a strangely aloof cat rescued from Attica prison some years ago. She usually sits out of reach and ignores him. His two 20-something daughters are farther away, but ignore him less, for which he is grateful.