NEW FICTION : Scientific Method

I WAS AN INSECT COLLECTOR and was learning from my brother Lawrence to worship the scientific method. In grammar school I made a project of pinning the insects I scooped from the molding pile of grass and leaves in the yard next door to our house. Hundreds of earwigs and silverfish and slate-gray potato bugs scrambled in the glovesful of dirt I lifted from the pile and then sorted over a mayonnaise jar behind the back porch. I punched air holes in the lid and closed it over a piece of cheesecloth from my mother's kitchen. In the jar the insects ran furiously. They climbed jerkily on the walls and slid back into heaps while a faint gray powder--some product of their wings or bodies--gathered on the lower, curved edge of glass. I collected it and tried to look at it through Lawrence's mirror microscope, though in the view piece--whose bright-circled ring resembled a weird, lunar eclipse--it never looked like anything more than magnified gravel or, as I said to Lawrence when he asked me to systematically describe what I saw, little pieces of dirt.

My sister Darienne put her hand on her small breasts the first time I showed her the strange, turned-over sight of the insects' prickly legs and dark underbellies against the glass. "Edgar Gordon," she said softly, leaning back against the wall of her room, "you are a cruel tyrant." I laughed. She was three years older than I was but something about her made her seem younger. She had petit-mal epilepsy for which she took medicine every day and because of which, as our mother said, she had unusual sympathy for things. All the windows of her room were open because a fly had come in and she wanted it to leave. In one corner stood her easel, propped against the glass so that she could paint the sparrows that nested in our buckeye, and in another stood her music stand and the black, pocked-plastic oboe case. I set the jar down on it.

"Pick that up this instant," she said.

I shook it in my hand and the hundreds of scrambling earwigs and silverfish and potato bugs flipped and landed like a pancake. Darienne took hold of the window seat. "I'll tell you one thing," she whispered, "vermin are not coming into my room."

"They're my project, Dary."

"Well, my project is to keep them out of the house."

I clenched my jaw. While she sat there I held the jar in front of us and positioned its wide bottom so she could see the thousands of legs against the glass. That evening before dinner when I set the sweating jar in the pantry, my mother picked it up and took it out through the back door. Darienne sat smiling at me. That night before I went up to bed I went outside and peered inside it with a flashlight to where the insects had organized themselves into layers roughly by species. The fat potato bugs lay curled in the gutter; the silverfish made a low layer along the bottom; the dozens of earwigs milled on top. In the flashlight's weak yellow beam, antennae rose against the glass, as black and thin as threads.

But the next morning when I went out to the yard only a few silverfish lay in the bottom of the jar. They were stiff and barely moving, their bodies flattened in the early throes of death. I leaned down. All the earwigs and potato bugs were gone. I was nine or ten at the time, and this was my first encounter with the mysteries of nature. The punctured lid was tightly screwed in place. I knew something of the life of insects, that they changed forms in concealed, stupendous ways--caterpillars into butterflies, larvae into wasps--and when I went in to breakfast that morning I had the feeling of having seen a rare demonstration. We ate eggs and rye toast with the crusts cut off, and when I had waited sufficiently long I told my mother and Darienne and Lawrence about what I had seen. My mother nodded and smiled, put down her fork as I spoke. "That is a miracle," she said. "A miracle of nature, but a miracle all the same."

Darienne drank from a glass of orange juice and set it down. Then she told me insects could metamorphize and slip through the small holes in cheesecloth or a punctured lid. She took another sip from her glass. Such was the miraculous tumult of nature, she said. This was the actual phrase she used. Lawrence was quiet. That year he had begun teaching science at St. Ignatius High and had been silent around the house for months, thinking of more important things. The jar stood just outside the screen door to the kitchen, and I looked over at it while Darienne explained miraculous escapes in nature: Tadpoles in danger turned into frogs and hopped away. Lawrence sipped coffee as she spoke. Flying fish took to the air. Imperiled, my insects had returned to their spore stages and evaporated. She lifted her hands and flapped them like wings as she said this. She returned them to her lap and smiled across the table at me. Then Lawrence said, "Bullshit."

I looked at him. The way I saw it, he and Darienne had been allies for years. "Bullshit," he said again.

"Lawrence," said Darienne.

"My," said my mother.

"My what?" said Lawrence. "One of you let those buggers out, and Ed knows it." Then he was quiet again. For at least a minute nobody spoke. I looked out the door at the bottle, which overnight had picked up a coat of dew. One of the silverfish that had appeared dead was apparently only stunned. It hobbled along the perimeter, its hind segment angled away like a scorpion's. Lawrence stood and left the kitchen.

"Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain," said my mother.

I looked at her and Darienne, who both had their hands folded on the tablecloth. I loved my brother. "I didn't hear God's name in there," I said. I let out my breath. "I heard something else, but not His name." Then I looked at my plate.

My mother wound her watch, which is what she always did when she was thinking, and when she said I could be excused I went out to the yard. Out there, alone, I stood behind the porch stairs hidden from view and looked up into the sky. It was so bright the blue had become nearly white. I had heard about teen-agers in California going blind by looking too long at the sun. I leaned my head back and glanced at it. Then I looked down at the porch wood. In the center of my vision a splotch of bleached-out color wavered. My science project was due in a week, and I had to think of something besides insects. Boy blinds self for school project , I whispered. I glanced at the sun again and the blotch in the center of my vision grew blank. I closed my eyes and considered other science projects. I thought about making a clay map of Wisconsin, of putting in a plastic chute hooked to a hose so that real water could flow in the Mississippi. I thought about a paper-mache volcano.

When I opened my eyes Lawrence was on the porch, so I went over to him and picked up the jar. I removed the lid and the rubber-banded cheesecloth and let the silverfish fall out onto the dirt, where they lay still for a minute or so until a few of them crawled away.

"Edgar," he said. "We're going to make you a real science project."

"I know where you can get a million bugs."

"I know," he said. "But you can do a pecker-weight more than just collect the bugs from some old lady's pile of leaves. We'll classify them. That's what we'll do. Classification is the basis of natural science." He raised his eyebrows, and I raised mine back. "What does Miss Hardwick expect you to make anyway," he said, "paper-mache volcanoes?"

"What's wrong with a volcano?"

"I think it's about time I taught you something important," he said. He put his hand on my shoulder. "Hardwick's going to give you the old grandmother's scientific education." He spat onto the wood of the porch and stepped on it. "I guess I'm the one who's going to have to give you the real one."

And that fall he did. Everything was changing in those days. I had grown three inches over the summer, and when I walked with my head up I tripped on the mismatched sidewalk cracks. Upstairs in her room, Darienne was learning to oil-paint. My mother made her sleep with two extra wool blankets so that she could keep all of her windows open. Next door to her, where Lawrence and I shared a bedroom, the turpentined air that had blown outside through her windows blew back in through ours. I slept next to the glass, and if I left it open I woke with a headache. In Darienne's room the canvases lay stacked against the wall: four oranges, placed in a blue bowl; four oranges, scattered on the tablecloth; four oranges, balanced on the arms of the two unmatched wicker couches out back.

"Science is predictable," Lawrence said to me one afternoon. I had come upstairs and he had taken me into Darienne's room. She was out. He picked up a painting of the oranges and held it to the light. "It's predictable, so you can use it to an advantage."

"Be careful of those."

He stared at me. "This is the start of your scientific education."

"Sorry."

"I mean, look at this." He held the picture in front of me. "Oranges," he said. He reached into the pile and yanked out another canvas from the middle, so fast the other paintings barely shifted. He held it up. "What's this?" he asked.

"Oranges, too."

"What's the difference between them?"

I thought for a moment. "You scratched one," I said. I laughed. He looked at me. I cleared my throat. "There isn't much difference."

"But there is ," he said. "The light is different, the shape of the oranges is different. In this one they're the same size, but in this one the left one is bigger." He set the two paintings down. "So, what good does that do?"

"I see what you mean."

"That's what your sister calls art," he said. "Drawing oranges in enough ways you can't recognize them. But what good does that do?"

"You're right."

"Art," he said. He chuckled. "Art." He put his left hand behind him. "For Leonardo da Vinci," he said, "art was an important thing, but what Darienne does--" He paused. "What Darienne does is indulgence." He tapped his thigh. " Self- indulgence."

"Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter."

"Right, Ed." He looked at me significantly. "Da Vinci wasn't doing art just because he couldn't fit in. He invented the submarine, too." Then he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out an aspirin jar, and when he emptied it onto his palm something dark fell out of it. It was a fly. It lay on his open hand next to the dusty discs of aspirin.

"Now," he said. "What would you call this?"

I thought for a moment. I didn't know what he was getting at. "Art?" I said.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"You said art ," he said. "Jesus H." He dropped the aspirins onto the floor and stepped on them with his boot heel. Then he opened the cap and dropped the fly back in. "You're as bad as Darienne."

"I was just kidding, Lawrence."

He put the jar back in his pocket.

"Come on," I said. "That was just a joke."

"All right," he said. He pulled out the jar again and emptied the fly onto his hand. "Now, what would you call this?"

I got up. "A fly."

He reached into his other pocket and emptied another jar onto the same palm. Side by side in his hand now were two flies. I peered at them. The new one had a green, iridescent body and legs that were mottled with back-slanting barbs. "Now, what would you call this one?"

"It's a fly too."

"They can't both be flies."

"Why not?"

"That's like them both being the same oranges in the two paintings, even though they're different."

"But those are both flies, Lawrence."

"Listen," he said, "starting today, you're going to learn to talk about the world accurately. Unlike painting," he said, "this will do you some good."

"One of them's a green fly," I said.

He said something.

"What?"

"Order Diptera," he said. "Division Schizophora."

I looked at him.

"Say that," he said. "Order Diptera, division Schizophora."

"Order Diptera, division Schizophora."

"Family Muscidae," he said. "Family Calliphoridae."

"What are you talking about, Lawrence?"

"One of these is a housefly," he said. "The black one. It's called Musca domestica ." He shook his palm. "The other's a blowfly. Phaenicia sericata. "

"The green one."

"That's right. They're both in the order Diptera and the division Schizophora, though. But they're in different families." He opened his palm and we looked at the two insects. Their bodies were sprinkled with aspirin powder. "We could be in the Sahara desert, Edgar," he said, "and you could be in the Ibo tribe, and I could say Phaenicia sericata and you would picture this little green blowfly, and I could say Musca domestica and you would picture this black housefly." He smiled at me.

"Wow."

"With art," he said, "there's no way you could do that."

That week he helped me make a mounted display of the Shield-Backed Bugs. We went out into the leaf pile again and instead of scooping the scrambling hordes into jars I searched out just the Shield-Backs and led twelve of them into a glass chemistry vial in which Lawrence had placed a cotton patch soaked in ethyl cyanate. With the cork lid tamped down they moved jerkily on the walls, then calmly, then stuporously. When they died we removed them and pinned them onto cork pads according to directions he read aloud to me from a book he had brought home from school, "World of Insects." I set them in rows of three, arranged in size, pinned them through the crackly shell and along the last extended segment of thelegs. Order Hemiptera I wrote in Magic Marker across a taped index card. Superfamily Scutelleroidea , Family Scutelleridae , though these words made no more sense to me than Chinese.

The next day he taught me the scheme of biological classification and drilled me so I could memorize it. "King Philip Come Out For God's Sake," I repeated under my breath: Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. "Phylum Arthropoda," I recited to him while he held the book open at his desk, "Class Insecta." But after that the dozens of orders became jumbled in my mind. "Protura, Thysanura, Collembola," I could say with confidence, but after that my memory waned. "Ephemoroptera?" I mumbled. "Odonta?" He snapped the book shut. "Call me again," he said, "when you know it."

A few nights later my mother called us downstairs to the living room, where we found her in her robe at the table, her hands still squeezed inside her yellow rubber dish gloves. Her hair was pulled back and a patch of dried soap bubbles clung to her cheek. Next to her at the table, staring straight at the painting of the barge on our dining room wall, sat Darienne. She wasn't moving. Her chin, angled up slightly from normal, didn't move toward Lawrence or me when we entered. Her eyes didn't blink. We sat down. Next to her on the rug a small stack of her paintings lay on some newspapers. I watched my sister for at least a minute while nobody said anything. "If you don't blink," I said finally, "your eyes will dry out."

"Please, Edgar," Mrs. Silver said from the door. Mrs. Silver was my mother's best friend.

"It's true," I said. "The lids will stick open." I pretended my own eyes were stuck and tired to close them. Lawrence laughed. Darienne didn't, but she blinked twice.

My mother put both her hands flat out on the table. "I'm afraid something unpleasant has happened," she said. Darienne looked at her. My mother cleared her throat. "It's important to remember that we are a family," she continued. She looked down at the place mat in front of her. I did the same, where in the cracks between the table leaves I saw an ant working among hundreds of yellowish crumbs that I had never noticed before. "Is there anything more important than that?" she asked.

She was looking at me. I glanced at Lawrence. I had the suspicion there were things more important than family, and that Lawrence expected me to know what they were. While we'd been pinning the Shield Backs he'd talked to me about how important it was to be rigorously observant, that the scientist's creed was paramount to progress. I looked up again. My mother and Mrs. Silver were looking at me with their faces tilted forward as though there were a scent in the air. "Well," said my mother, "is there?"

I turned away from them for a moment and winked at Lawrence. "No," I said. I nodded twice. "There's nothing more important than family."

"Good, Edgar," said Mrs. Silver.

"Then I'm going to ask you two what happened to something that's very important to your sister," said my mother, "and I know one of you will come forward." She nodded at Darienne, who reached below her chair with her right hand and brought up the painting of her oranges. Three broad scratches cut across the canvas. She held it up in front of us. When she lowered the painting again her eyes were wet. "Ruined," she said.

"Well," said my mother.

"Ruined."

"That's terrible, Dary," I said. I pretended to look closely at the painting, in which the oranges were shaded and lightened in changing mixes of gold and white and orange. "That's a beautiful piece of work, Dary," I said. "It really is."

She looked halfway toward me. "Do you think so?" she whispered.

"Yeah, definitely. And I don't think it's at all ruined."

She looked away again. "Ruined," she said.

"We'd like to know which of you two is responsible," said Mrs. Silver. She looked at Lawrence, held her gaze on him a moment, then turned to me. There was a hard cast to her face that I had never seen before. I looked away to glance at my brother, whose jaw was set. I set mine as well.

Then an idea came to me. "Darienne," I said. "I did it."

She began to weep. She got up from her chair, slid the scratched canvas in front of me on the table, and left the room.

"How could you, Ed?" said Mrs. Silver. Then she got up too.

My mother stood as well. She walked into the kitchen, then appeared back in the doorway. "Well," she said, pulling off her dish gloves, "at least you were honest."

Lawrence and I were alone at the table now. I looked up at him. We looked into each other's eyes for a while, just the two of us, his jaw relaxing, the corners of his mouth slightly, delicately, turning up.

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