by Jeremy Warach
"It's not magic," the disheveled yet composed older man told Sam. "It's just harnessing the energy of space."
Sam nodded and tried to shift his attention back to his newspaper. The nearly empty subway car swayed and rattled as it wound its way through the Bronx. The man had taken a seat uncomfortably close to Sam and begun speaking casually, as if the two were old friends meeting after work.
"Empty space is not really empty, you see," the man continued professorially, projecting as if for a larger audience than Sam. He would have looked appropriate standing behind a lectern, Sam thought, watching him from the corner of his eye while trying to look like he was reading his paper. Had the man's beard been trimmed and his tweed jacket not been falling apart at the seams and had he not smelled as he did, he would have been charismatic. The man was used to public speaking.
"All of space is filled with energy. It is a seething ocean of energy, a roiling cauldron of squarks and gluons and photinos and pi-tau-omega mesons. An undiscovered country of virtual particles whose dance is too subtle for us too see, let alone harness." He chuckled. "Most of us."
A young man in jeans and a t-shirt faded beyond legibility took the ear buds out of his ears and watched the older man, who took no notice of the boy's attention.
"Learning how to take hold of this energy is the alchemy of our age, a fool's errand, something which cannot be learned until centuries from now or maybe it was discovered and forgotten millenia ago or maybe it is never to be and never possible to be. But maybe," he paused, turned to Sam and fixed him with a cool grey stare, "maybe it's been encoded in our DNA. By whoever or whatever it was that created our gene sequences. Maybe we innately know how to do it and just have to learn the right moves, like a baby learning to walk. The walking is built into his genes, it just takes the right environment for it to manifest itself, such as parents with two legs who already know how to walk."
The boy in the t-shirt was smiling, grooving along with what this bedraggled mystic was saying. Sam was annoyed but entranced. He wanted not to be interested, but the man's speech had a rhythm which he could not ignore.
"It was a surprise to me, of course, as it would have been to anyone, to realize he was able to tame the cosmic energy source and bend it to his will. But, like walking, once it was taught to me, it was the most natural thing in the world. It fell into place just like walking and became part of me, part of my being, part of who and what I am."
The man's fingers danced in the air in front of him. "So, if I can, as some might call it, 'conjure' things into existence, it is not magic, nor a miracle, just physics."
Sam could no longer pretend indifference. "Did you say conjure things out of thin air? Just make things appear?" His newspaper lay rumpled in his lap.
The older man nodded. "A hamburger, an ingot of gold, a flaming sword."
Sam took note of the man's appearance. "A clean change of clothes?"
The man looked up at Sam and said nothing.
The train's brakes screeched and Sam winced at the sound as the car pulled into a station and the doors opened. Sam grabbed his newspaper and scooted toward the door, shooting back "Good luck with that" over his shoulder to the older man. The doors closed with the prerecorded chime of a bell and the train started off to its next stop.
The boy in jeans slid closer to the man, who was watching his shoes and smiling.
"Hey," the boy said. The man looked up, wide-eyed and hopeful. "I got what you were saying about the vacuum energy of space, but isn't it true that anything that comes up out of that energy is temporary? It disappears back into the vacuum before it can be seen or used?"
"Almost true," the man said expectantly.
"Or… it could be made permanent if something else disappeared to replace it?"
"Perhaps," said the man and smiled, staring a faraway stare. "But don't listen to what lunatics say."
The train slowed into the next station. The boy got up, smiled at the man, and walked through the opened doors.
"Young man," heard the boy. He turned and saw the older man sitting on his seat, holding aloft a flaming sword. The man's eyes glittered with reflected fire. The subway doors closed, and the boy and the man watched each other as the train pulled away from the station.
* * *
In Skokie, Illinois, Sheldon Nudelman leaned over and peered into the clothes dryer. The lightbulb inside was burnt out, so he had to feel around, but his hand felt nothing inside except the steel drum.
"Are you sure it's not in the laundry bag?" he called to his wife Clara.
There was a pause, then Clara called back. "No! The laundry bag is empty!"
Sheldon stood up and stretched his back from side to side, muttering, "How can it be possible to lose just one sock from every load of laundry?"