Fiction: Scientific Methods by James Sallis

One of the really great things about little magazines is that authors often feel a sense a loyalty and over the years submit regularly creating a balance between new and familiar voices.

Such is the case with Jim Sallis. From what I can gather, his first contribution to NDQ was the essay “American Solitude” that appeared in issue 51.3-4 1983. He followed it up with the poem “Country Music” in 1985 (53.4) and we published “Sentences” in 1986. We put out the essay “Making up America” in 1993 (61.4) which you can read on his site

The opening two paragraphs of “Making up America” are just great (in part because I’ve been thinking a good bit about the American West these days):

America is America because it fills the space of America, because the space that is America fills it.

America is history searching for ways and places to happen, time but a trick (like willing suspension of disbelief) to keep everything from happening at once. At the center of America, at its heart, there is no time: buffalo graze the flatlands of the shopping malls, Plains Indians withdraw wampum from Money Marts. You must belive this.

Sallis is perhaps best known for his “Lew Griffin” series published by Soho Books or for his novel Drive which was the basis for the movie of the same name. He’s also an accomplished translator, essayist, and has recently published Sarah Jane (Soho 2019).

We published “Scientific Methods” in NDQ 86.3/4 and you can read it below.

Remember that NDQ relies on our outstanding contributors, editors, and subscribers to thrive. Please consider submitting to NDQsubscribing, or downloading our previous volume. For some content from NDQ 86.1/2, click here, and for content from our most recent issue, 86.3/4, click here.  

Scientific Methods

No one is allowed to write about the university’s collider for fear the neighborhood, led perhaps by owners of the cattle ranch half a mile up the road, or of the apple orchards due south, will rise up in arms. No journalists are to be admitted, queries concerning same will be denied, the whole thing’s strictly on the QT. Alone at night, one imagines villagers converging on the castle with pitchforks and lanterns.

Here is what we know: That another world exists, and that if we can but find the tiniest crack it will open itself to us.

Here is what I know: That I must reconcile

1. what Marta said to me this morning, staring into her waffle as though the words were written there
2. growing suspicion that my work is of no consequence
3. the footprint of a gigantic corporation

There’s an equation in there somewhere. Equations being the one true and lasting beauty in this world.

(In the interest of full disclosure I should add, above, that this other world might just as well engulf as enrich us.)

Meanwhile, moments of the day trickle into the blender, hit the stove and sizzle.

“You missed the meeting,” A.G. says.

He waits. Water glugs in the cooler. Swallowed air, a void, rises to the top and is gone.

“Glad to hear it.”

“The problem of secondary categorization was addressed.”

“Addressed, forwarded, and returned to sender, I’m sure – as always.”

“B.R. took attendance.” Our beloved manager. Third-rate scientist to bureaucrat between one recent Friday and the next.

“Then at least someone got something out of it.”

“Not much of a company man, are you, T.M.?”

He swings hard right to the aisle as though in the single dance step he knows and ambles away, head abob over cubicle walls, wearing his yellow Friday t-shirt. The front is bare. The back reads

CHAOS
THE FINAL STRUCTURE

Physicists. A fun-loving lot.

Here’s what we do: We take a particle that is so small it’s mostly imagination. We whirl it around till it’s going faster than is possible and we push it into another particle to see what happens. We do this Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:14 AM. We have all manner of ideas what will happen. Some of these ideas turn out to be true.

Here’s what I do: I pull out my handheld and type in I will try to be a better person. Thumbs hover as I think. Who? I send it to myself.

It’s casual Friday, B.R.’s premiere contribution to productivity and worker morale, so the halls teem with cargo shorts, fake jerseys and flip-flops, B.R.’s second contribution being the monstrous TV in the break room where Dana (substitute halter top and sweats for above) spends most of her time. She’ll sit in there forever, suddenly jump out to her cubicle and click keys at light speed for five or ten minutes, then go back. As far as I can tell, she never watches the TV or for that matter even knows what’s on. When I asked her, she told me it was like being immersed in water, like floating. And that it cut out all the other noise. Let her think clearly.

Today she wears a single earring that’s heavy with brass and hangs to her shoulder. Her head tips ever so slightly to that side.

Thinking clearly. I sort of remember that. Too much stuff in my head now. Like boxes full of old clothes and photos and untouched birthday gifts stacked half to the ceiling in the spare room. You just know you’ll use it all someday.

I look up as R.K. emerges from the supply room with an ink cartridge clutched between thumb and first finger. He never shuts doors. Supply room, phone room, break room, it doesn’t matter, he steps away leaving half an inch of daylight between door and frame. The rest of us have got so used to following along, closing doors, that we don’t much notice we’re doing it anymore.

I do have to wonder what use he might have for an ink cartridge, as we dwell exclusively in cyberland and never print anything out, endlessly skyhopping data from desktop to remote to handheld or smartphone.

Fridays, the local bagpipe brigade in an amazement of plaid crosses the plaza below us on its ceremonial way to Main Street and City Park. Ceremonial of what, no one quite remembers, but after lunch everyone’s standing at the window up front watching, albeit that, from three stories up, through double-paned glass, all we can hear is what sounds like a huge mosquito. And drums, of course.

Ah, the spinning of mallets. The rise and fall of knobby knees. The swing and sway of mighty sporrans.

They’ve been doing this, I’m told, for eighty-plus years; some of those now marching are great-grandsons of original members. Tribalism is not dead. Nor tradition.

Nor am I, though this year’s scan, from last Tuesday, does not look good. “Definitely something there,” Doctor Freeman tells me. He points to what looks like a spill of milk on the black film with its many ghosts, moves one finger in a close circle. The tumor of which I was delivered nine years ago may no longer be an only child.

More tests, then. And I’ve always been good at taking tests. Back as an undergrad I rarely read assignments on subjects in which I had no interest, English, sociology and so on, and rarely studied, but did well on mid-terms and finals.

Mid-term or final, I’ll ace this one too.

J.T. walks by behind me in the corridor between cubicles, speaking to no one that I can see. Yes, he says. And again, further along, quieter now: Yes. I sit here as the second yes speeds down the corridor to where I sit waiting to see what will happen.

~

Jim Sallis’s novel Sarah Jane was published this fall, along with reissues of six previous novels and a fifth poetry collection, Ain’t Long ‘Fore Day. Other books include a biography of Chester Himes, a translation of Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin, and the source novel for the Cannes-winning film Drive.

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