Shadow Matter

North Dakota Quarterly is proudly based at the University of North Dakota. As a result, we feel the start of the academic year quite acutely. Students return, faculty return, and campus returns to life.

It’s almost impossible not to think about the classic campus novels, whether Kingsley Amos’s Lucky Jim, John William’s Stoner, or more recent iterations of the genre such as DeLillos’s White Noise, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Julie Schumaker’s Dear Committee Members, or Juliet Lapidos, Talent. In the spirit of these works and their range of tones and topics, we offer J. A. Bernstein’s “Shadow Matter” from NDQ 86.1/2.

For more from that issue go here. We can’t do what we do without both contributors and subscribers. To submit, go here, and to subscribe, go here!

Shadow Matter

The man and his shadow were having dinner one evening at La Grazia, an ornate but moderately priced trattoria west of downtown.

            The man asked his shadow if he’d like wine with his risotto, which came with seared scallops and clams.

            I’ve always liked Burgundy, said his shadow, which was a curious choice here with fish. He bunched his napkin and wiped a few crumbs from his lips.

            The man watched his reflection with something like baffled amusement. So your wife left you this morning?

            She did.

            Is that why you’re dining alone?

            I wouldn’t call it alone. You’ve chosen to eat with me.

            The risotto, when it came, was garnished with pancetta and sage. The shadow stared down at it gloomily. Did you know this came with pork?

            Did you know she was seeing someone else?

            The shadow picked at his lip, or what might have been his lip—it was difficult to see through the haze that comprised his darkened self. I don’t blame her, to be honest.

            The man glanced out at the room. Evidently other diners were watching them, less distracted, it seemed, by the presence of the shade than the fact that they were talking too loud. He always hated it when people whispered, his wife most of all—or ex-wife, he presently deduced. You shouldn’t.

            A swill of wine flittered down through the haze. And it isn’t your drinking. That only comes from—he burped—excuse me. You. Setting down his napkin, he glanced around the room. The hell you all looking at?

            The diners looked on, unsettled, then returned to their plates. Soon the waiter asked them to leave.

            There are few ways, said the shadow, gripping the man’s arm, as they departed like two giddy teens, to grab a free meal in this city.

            Even fewer, he said, to get divorced.

            You know she deserved it.

            You know she did not.

            Lying to you about Scott. Scott was her therapist. At least she’d have the heart to confess—

            Tell that to rehab.

            You never went.

            That’s exactly my point, said the man.

            Outside the dusk greeted them with a pale, windy swoop. The shadow swerved around for a cab. He cut a strange image—like some ghost in the street—while his owner thumbed his phone for a rideshare.

            I can’t believe you’re getting so emotional, said the shadow as they entered the car. It was a black Honda Civic without any plates. Or a driver, it appeared.

            I just feel like it’s a question of respect.

They were watching Interstellar, which the man himself always liked. Being a physicist professionally, albeit untenured, he found the film convincing, at least as Hollywood went.

            Do you ever get the feeling we’re being watched? asked his shadow. He was slouched along a leather divan.

            The man was seated upright upon his recliner, hands softly clasped in his lap. No.

            The only redeeming part of this film, said his shade, setting down his Doritos, which crackled like dust through the air, is that it gives some kind of scientific justification to the presence of ghosts in our lives.

            They aren’t really ghosts.

            Excuse me. Gravitational variations across the fifth dimension from a future, more-intelligent race. The shining air crackled. And I think we should look into a dip.

            Here’s my favorite part.

Don’t you get it yet, TARS? I brought myself here! We’re here to communicate with the three-dimensional world!

            The shadow unfolded his legs, or what might have been his legs. You know, the most ridiculous aspect is this notion of quantum gravity. The idea that R2-D2, or whatever he’s called, could travel inside a black hole, transmit the information, and somehow solve the world’s ills.

            It isn’t implausible.

            Neither’s your tenure.

            The man let that sit a bit, rose from his seat. I think I should give her a call.

            Hello, said his wife, not embittered. Nice of you to call.

            The shadow clutched one end of the phone, the man held the other.

Um, Nell, the man stammered. He yanked the phone and cupped the mic with his palm. I don’t know what to say, he whispered to his shadow. Maybe this wasn’t the best plan.

            The shadow glanced up at him, amused.

            I’m sorry, Dear, that I went away

            Don’t even start. I’m coming tomorrow night for my stuff. I want you out of the apartment by eight.

            Okay, said the man amidst sobs—his own or his wife’s wasn’t clear. Okay.

            Well, that was productive, said the man, pouring scotch.

            His shadow looked on in dismay. At least you did it soberly, relatively speaking.

            A glimmer of moon streaked the sky, between the blinds’ slats. A city bus roared down Canal.

One of the less glamorous aspects of being a professor, particularly at a second-rate college like his, was counseling students, especially those seeking professional advice. When one, Janine Felt, entered his office the next morning, dressed in rather somber apparel—as if in mourning, he thought, for her grade—the man noticed she had a strangely placid mien, as if she’d just witnessed a terrorist attack or, worse, run into his wife.

            How can I help you?

            Professor _____, thank you for seeing me. It’s nothing really—

            Call me _____. He rarely did this with undergraduates, even those he liked.

            Excuse me, _____. Janine smiled glibly. She had definitely run into his wife. (The woman taught mechanics and even co-advised a few grads.) I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about your divorce. This was the first he’d learned of it. And also that you’re leaving next month.

            I’m leaving? the man thought. His shadow looked on scared, having seated himself along the raised desk. Wonder who reported me. Might have been the drinking in class. (He’d explained the finer points of fluid dynamics using Russian Standard and a lime.) Probably not a student, and not even, he’d guess, his ex-wife. She had no incentive economically. Even if she wanted him out.

            Yes, well, I’ve got this conference at CERN. Neutrino oscillation.

            So the leave isn’t permanent?

            Nothing in this world is permanent, he bantered. Not even marriage. Now, about your grade on that test—

            Well, I wanted to ask you. One of the questions, the one on mirror matter, can you explain what that is?

            He leaned back stoically, folded his arms. Glanced at the shade on his desk. It’s a hypothetical counterpart to everyday matter, perhaps a kind of dark matter, except the symmetry it displays is off. He uncapped a marker and drew along the board by his desk.

Θ+ → π+ + π0

Her eyes gently traced his. She was probably the smartest one in his class.

            Some call it shadow matter, and some folks suggest whole galaxies and stars mirror ours.

            So that explains the hidden mass of the universe?

            Exactly, he said with unease. She was clearly coming onto him, or perhaps just enthused that he’d offered to write her a glowing letter of support. That was before the recent midterm, of course. And even then his hopes hadn’t been great.

            What about the P-symmetry?

            That’s an excellent question.

            He wanted to embrace her. He couldn’t, he knew. And it’s possible his wife had set a trap. It wouldn’t be beneath her. Let’s meet for coffee some time.

            She watched him opaquely. His shade wiped the board. Don’t even start, said the ghost.

That evening, while his wife did her best to vacate the apartment, taking everything but his dog and a few moldering editions of Physics Today (in which he sometimes penned bad reviews), the man repaired to his normal retreat, a bar up the street called At Bat.

            Sitting adjacent to the city’s new baseball stadium, it was undoubtedly a tourist trap. Yet the team had been struggling for years; hence, the new facility—at taxpayers’ expense. And it was a rainy evening in March.

            The bar was nearly vacant, as usual, and a rusting batting cage spanned the top floor. One would like to say he was new to the premises, but his name was actually carved on the wall—in a modest little plaque, where he was denoted as Professor, for having clobbered eleven home runs.

            Tonight, as he entered the rotting cage, which reeked of stale Coronas and piss, he tried not to dwell on what his wife was now doing, or the student who had left in a huff (okay, he shouldn’t have asked that, but at least he hadn’t touched her thigh; credit his demon).

            Did you call, asked the shade, who was slumped along the net, cradling a couple of balls.

            The man inserted his quarter, having settled on a bat—an old, aluminum Mizuno, which he’d nicknamed Nell for his wife.

            It’s your fault, said the shade, that she sat on your review. You never should have given her a vote, much less let her judge you.

            Yeah, well, Ron—his Department Chair—said it was fine.

            I’m sure they never slept together.

            The first pitch clanked off the mat, a kind of rubber backstop on which was plastered a peeling picture of the local team’s catcher, who’d been traded all of last week.

            Let’s see what Miggy thinks, said the man, referring to the catcher.

            The peeling image looked on with alarming intensity.

            I’ll bet he overperforms in Oakland.

            So would your wife, said the shade.

            The next pitch ball sailed high, and the man barely glimpsed it amidst the velvet haze of the bar—the whole place smelled fetid, and not unlike the old park.

            Dig in, said his shadow, softly spitting on the ball. Let’s see how you do with a curve.

            The man bit his lip and took a massive swing. The yellow ball sailed through the tarps. Put that on a fucking plaque, TARS.

            The rotting cage creaked.

            You don’t think she’s there now with Scott? He’s probably handling her arrearage.

            The next hit nearly shattered the beam, one of the metal uprights that supported the rear, into which he’d thrown the full weight of his swing.

            Save it for the deposition.

            I think you should lay off the Coors.

In truth the man had been expecting the vote and had already received an offer from a school of somewhat lesser repute. It was located in western Montana, or possibly Missouri—he couldn’t recall—and he’d debated at what stage he’d break the news to his wife. That was before the altercation—okay, he’d slapped Scott; the man wasn’t even worth a damn punch—and the offer was still pending, assuming his wife’s lover didn’t sue (the background check was still imminent). Thoughts of this sort might have fazed a more conscientious man than he. But the man, who was himself somewhat vapid, both emotionally and intellectually (though he denied the latter and somewhat prided himself on the former), had resolved not to dwell on such things, and, to his credit, did not, even later that evening as he stood outside his building smoking a Marlboro Red. How he’d come to possess it wasn’t clear. Perhaps his shade was responsible. It wasn’t even clear if smoking was legal in this city. Certainly public intoxication was not.

            Hi Nell, he said, watching his wife, or what might have been his wife—his vision was blurred—scrape the pavement by the door. She’d donned high heels for the occasion, perhaps to look good, and he watched her ferry a box, which she proceeded to lug to the back of her Rover, a black beast that was idled out front.

            Get the fuck away from me, he thought he heard her say. Then a flash scurried up from his ribs, what appeared to be a claw-looking hand. It seized his arm. Don’t you touch her, it said in the unmistakable baritone of Scott, her psychotherapist.

            The man found himself half-amused. He could never quite correlate the fact that Scott, who was less than five-three, half-Filipino, and whiskered, like some portly seal, spoke with a baritone voice. The man even wondered if he’d had a box implanted.

            The Rover sped off, down Canal.

            The man was left stooped against the glass door, a long, golden leash in his hand. It dawned on him that his ostensible purpose in coming here, in returning to his abode, which was otherwise vacant, was to try to walk his poor dog.

            That fucking thing’s scared of you, said a voice from the hall. The man peered inside the glass door. Beside the brass mailboxes, seated on a bench, his shadow was scratching his groin. He was holding Better Homes and Gardens, as if perusing its pages. Along the bench lay a smoldering cigar. He puffed it gently, having set down the page.

I don’t understand the purpose of this exercise, said his student, who was seated in class. At least a dozen more looked on confused. Three others were sleeping. Janine, for her part, was wide-awake, dutifully writing and probably taking notes for the harassment suit she would file.

            Consider this cigarette a defined length, he said, pinching it, twirling it around with this thumb. (He’d always considered himself something of an entertainer, and he regretted having not worn a suit.) Let’s say it’s three inches. Now we can translate it freely in space. That is, we can whirl it around—here he spun it with aplomb, even balanced it gently on his nose; nobody laughed at this, not even the freshmen—and move it from place to place. Do its physical properties change as it moves?

            Nobody so much as grunted. Janine dimly smiled.

            No. The physical material, the atoms that compose it, the atoms arranged into molecules, the molecules arranged into tobacco, paper, filter, what have you, these things don’t change as we translate it through space. That’s the point of symmetry. We could write any equation we want about the cigarette—about its leptons and quarks, its atoms and molecules, electrical potential, angular momentum, and more—here he nestled it into his lips—and the equation wouldn’t change across variations in space. This point is crucial, he mumbled. Now, when we do physics, we assume that the laws and equations don’t change, no matter where we go. That’s what we mean by symmetry. He snapped his Bic.

            A couple of eyes perked up.

            He grimly expected an alarm to go off. Perhaps he’d be fined now, or worse.

            But it’s a radical assumption. Because the universe itself isn’t necessarily translationally invariant. In fact, we have no proof for that. We’re not even sure—

            Dr. _____.

            He spun around to find Ron, his Department Chair, peering in the doorway.

            Now the whole class was awake. The burning smoke wafted. The man thought about swallowing it whole.

            Please see me after class. Nothing urgent.

            Near the back, Janine sighed. His shadow looked on from the rear.

Driving home on the expressway that afternoon, listening to sports radio, the man considered crashing his car. It wasn’t angst over his soon-to-be-ending position (the vote itself hadn’t been close), much less the loss of his wife (from whom, he well admitted, he’d been growing quite distant for years; they’d barely spoken since marrying; and his job, he well knew, was wholly on account of hers), but more the revelation that he had no real prospect in life, no future promise, not even the minutest hope. Even his baseball team was disastrous—their ace starter was injured, and they’d pawned their star catcher for beans. He wondered exactly where in his life he’d gone wrong. Perhaps in proposing to his wife at Cornell—he should have thrown her from a gorge there, or better yet himself, but he was too much of a coward, even then. He wondered if other people felt as despondent, if they reflected this much on their lives.

            No, they don’t, said his shadow, reaching for the dial, settling on an alt-country band. They don’t even care. They worry about the mortgage and cats.

            I had a dog once.

            You let it go in traffic.

            Distance has no way, the band was growling, of making love understandable.

            At least I didn’t smoke in class.

            Well, yes, you did.

Welcome to Wendy’s. May I take your order? said the voice inside the display.

            Yes, I’d like a pack of Newport Lights, the Spicy Chicken Caesar, a martini with gin, and my wife.

            I can help you with the Chicken Caesar.

            Have you ever heard of Edwin Hubble?

            A Buick behind him inched closer. The vapored moon rose.

            He wrote a great book called The Realm of the Nebulae. You should pick it up if you can.

            Will that be the full-sized order?

            They also named a telescope after him, but it’s the book with which I’ve always been impressed. I even quoted it a couple times to my students. This one line—

            Your total is six twenty-nine.

            It’s my favorite. He says: Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows and search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.

            Please pull up to the window.

            The man smiled peacefully, set the car in drive.

            Soon his shadow appeared in the booth. Hubble was a pretty overrated astronomer.

            And a shameless self-promoter, as well.

            But I get what he was saying about the shadows, said his shadow. Our search for truth is ill-defined. Extra salt?

            I just feel like she loved me.

            No, she didn’t, said the shade. Your marriage was a ruse. Much like the Standard Model. Or your third-year-review, to be frank.

            Let’s keep it going, said the Buick, behind them.

            The shadow adjusted the brim of his visor. Have a nice day, he said.

It’s at this point in the story that solace normally comes. Or at least a gripping, final revelation. In the case of our man, and his shadow, as it were—which may or may not have been physically present; such is the mystery of words—our final encounter takes place in a rather seedy locale, as one might expect for a man of his comportment: an adult bookstore west of downtown.

            It wasn’t too far from La Grazia, in fact, in an area that had yet to revive. The block was still a holdout from the days of urban industry, when automaking hadn’t gone south. A few dive bars remained, and a crumbling brick store labeled Twang’s.

            The man for his part had never been, though he’d driven past it routinely and found his curiosity piqued. This time, feeling semi-nihilistic, or in need of some earthly escape, he decided to take a quick peek.

            He parked his Jetta out front, wondering if he’d ever again see it. A few motorcycles stood by the wall, which was utterly featureless but for a single red door.

            Inside the smell was crippling, like Lysol and Mace, and racks of magazines littered the walls. The man wondered who in this day and age still purchased magazines. At the desk sat a weasely figure. He was penciling Sudoku and sipping a Diet Sprite. Arcade’s on the left.

            The man wondered what about his appearance would present him as in need of relief. Perhaps his dusty glasses, hefty, rimmed Browlines that had been trendy a dozen years back. Or maybe it was the corduroy jacket with patches that grew less and less ironic each fall.

            Credit card only. Paper towels in the back. The weasel kept etching his grid.

            He wondered if Nell had arrived in the Bahamas—she was taking sabbatical in May, her whiskered therapist in tow—and what he would say to his folks. They half-expected this, having written him off long ago.

            Passing beside a felt curtain, which he didn’t want to touch, he noticed the glowing VIDEO ARCADE sign lighting the wall, an anachronism if there ever was. Much like himself, he supposed.

            About a dozen red booths comprised the rear section, all of them empty, he saw. The place reeked of smoke and who knew what lingering smells. Yet he found himself compelled here, strangely overwhelmed, as if he’d entered an alternate world. He wondered what Nell would say. Good for you, hon. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be at my shrink’s. Grinning, he downed a Celexa and uncapped the lid of his flask.

            Entering the third or fourth booth—he couldn’t discern—he seated himself along the vinyl bench and faced the bright, pixeled display. Hi there, sweet, said a voice on his screen. It was Janine, he could see, from his class.

            She was seated at his desk, raising the hem of her skirt. He’d never known her to wear plaid but, slowly unbuckling his belt, didn’t stop to consider that fact.

            Please insert your credit card now, she explained. And whatever else you would like.

            He wondered why he hadn’t come sooner.

            Resting his head along the wall, he began to feel aroused, though from what he still couldn’t quite say. He’d never paid for porn before—who would do that?—and the face along his screen had since changed.

            Janine had been replaced by Jessica Chastain, who was rocketing now through space.

            Love it, said a voice to his left.

            When the man turned to face it, he found himself startled by the sight of a hole in the wall. A small, greased encircling, like a portal, he thought, to some world. He didn’t question the nature of its stains, or what it was doing there.

            How’d you like a rub? asked the voice.

            The man coughed.

            Go ahead TARS, said Jessica Chastain. Translate the data, and feed it to me.

            The man, who had hardly been trained in astronomical physics—his specialty was particles and waves—began to reflect on an article he’d read this past week, one by Clarke and Foot in Phys. Lett. B., in anticipation of his conference at CERN—for which, he grimly realized, he still hadn’t purchased a flight. In the article, they’d theorized the possibility of detecting mirror matter in a liquid xenon target chamber via nuclear recoils.

L = LSM + Ldark + Lmix

At the most basic level, the equation implied a duplicate set of elementary particles: mirror quarks, mirror leptons, mirror gauge bosons, and a mirror Higgs particle. He also wondered if that included some broader formulation, like a composite version of the self.

            Releasing his manhood, inserting it neatly in the hole, he began to dwell on their conclusion: that the XENON experiments would reveal mirror matter, or at least provide a definitive test.

            No, they won’t, said a voice, from deep inside the wall.

            The man slowly opened his eyes. He could smell the molded siding, and the fat vinyl bench, and the pixelated glow of the screen.

            They cannot.

            So how will they know? the man asked himself, feeling the damp of the wall.

            They will not.

            And will we ever know?

            We will not, said his shade. That is the mystery of life.

            Along the screen he could see a grainy image of his wife making love to Scott in the sand. A few palm trees stirred, past the surf. And in the moonlight above, past its milky, blue haze, his wounded dachshund was paddling, making his way through the sky.

Walking out from the store, nearly blinded by the afternoon sun, the man checked his pants—his wallet was still present—and his Jetta appeared parked and untouched. That all appeared promising.

            It was then, of course, that his phone rang, as denoted by a thrum on his waist.

            He answered it slowly, half-expecting the voice of a lawyer, or his wife, or who knew. This was even worse.

            The call was from Rolla, Missouri. Groggily, he answered.

            Hi, Dr. _____. Dean _____ here. How’s life in _____?

            I’m doing swell, said the man.

            Well, that’s great. Listen, we’ve had a bit of news with your offer, and I’m afraid something else has come up. And, well, to cut to the chase, we’re running a little short now on funds, but we’re really optimistic that things will work out by the start of next year. And if you’d like to reapply then—

            The man clicked OFF on his phone. He glanced around the lot. He thought he heard laughing somewhere. Perhaps the arcade. Then he realized, he knew, it was him.


J. A. Bernstein is the author of a novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the A.W.P. Award Series and Hackney Prizes; and a chapbook, Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review, 2019), which won the Wilhelmus Prize. He teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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