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No GUTS, No Glory

Written by Edward M. Lerner

I have a theory about baseball caps and intelligence. Grown men who wear baseball caps move their lips when they read. Grown men who wear baseball caps backwards can't read. Okay, I'll make exceptions for actual pro ball players.

And then, in a league of his own, we have Alistair Winkler. The first words I heard from Alistair's lips, plaintively spoken, were, "Have you seen my baseball cap? I can't find it."

Appearances can be deceiving.

* * *

I had just emerged from my office, too bored for the usual charade. You know: where my secretary keeps a client waiting to show how little I need the business. Right.

Winkler was looking all around, befuddled. He was comfortably middle-aged, average in height and spare-tire size. His eyes, behind Coke-bottle-bottom lenses, were muddy brown. It was windy today; my new client hadn't bothered to comb his sparse hair since coming inside—maybe not since the Carter administration. For sure, that was when he'd bought his tweed sport coat. Lapels don't lie.

"Mr. Winkler?" I said. "Come this way, please. My secretary will be happy to look for your cap." It might even have been true. Phyllis was as bored as I.

My client clutched a shoebox that leaked receipts. If only he had misplaced that. He mumbled something as I settled him at the conference table.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Doctor Winkler."

"Sorry." Appearances can be deceiving, I thought, reaching for his box. "When you made your appointment, did Phyllis tell you to bring your last three returns?"

"They're in the box."

Meaning they were, at best, folded. Based on the crumbled receipts, I'd have bet on finding the returns wadded up. Too bad I didn't have any money; I'd have won. Sliding the old 1040s back and forth across a table edge to flatten them, I asked. "So what's your field?"

Winkler mumbled again, something about guts. That was less disturbing than his old returns, which, it appeared, he had prepared himself. He sure wrote like a doctor.

"Um," I responded insightfully. "I don't understand medical specialties. Does that make you a GI doc?" As in: It may be shit to you, but it's my bread and butter.

Winkler's hearty laugh surprised me. "I'm a Ph.D. in physics, not a medical doctor. GUT stands for grand unified theory. You're familiar, of course, with the work aimed at unifying the gravitational, electroweak, and strong nuclear forces."

Electro-who? I hid behind an old tax form, where an odd entry caught my eye. "What's this $407,000 in 'other income' from two years ago?"

Winkler scratched his head, then brightened. "Oh, that must be my share of the Nobel."

I did say appearances can be deceiving, didn't I?

* * *

We went through Winkler's old returns, me tsk-tsking at the many missed deductions. Just what I could recover with a corrected last-year return would more than pay my fees.

According to Alistair, Einstein once said the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax. Apparently Einstein had had problems with his grand unified theory, too. I think my client had taken on both GUTs and his returns as a dare.

Alistair read physics journals with one eye as we worked. I'd have needed both eyes, absolute silence, and a brain transplant.

Still, I could read the cover. Okay, a handful of words on the cover. "Black holes?" I commented, making conversation. "Pretty heavy stuff. I bet you could even explain where all the mortgage money is disappearing."

Not billions. Hundreds of billions. Even the T word was beginning to crop up in the news. I'm an accountant, and still these were numbers beyond meaning. Down a black hole? Sure. Why not.

But look who I was talking to: A man who hadn't claimed a personal exemption for his youngest child. Maybe that was too much to ask. Alistair, Jr., was only four. The boy hadn't had long to make an impression.

Winkler smiled uncertainly at my little joke, then frowned. His eyes glazed over. I mean, I knew by then that he marched to a different drummer—but suddenly it seemed like the drummer resided on Pluto. Alistair's pen started flying over a scrap of paper, which happened to be the back of a receipt. He shushed me when I cleared my throat.

As abruptly as Winkler had left planet Earth, he returned. "Why yes," Alistair said, "I do have a theory about the mortgage mess."

* * *

They make the best piña coladas here in the islands. It must be the fresh coconut milk. Or the lack of extradition. Now, where was I?

Ah, yes. Straight from my chat with Alistair, I began investigating new office space. I sold my car and pawned my office furniture to do it, but—just barely—I signed a lease on a small office only two floors above the main branch of Great Big First American Federal Trust Savings Bank. That isn't exactly the name. After so many mergers, no bank's name made sense. The bank with the cute cartoon eagle in their ads.

Name notwithstanding, the depositors had lost their trust and feared for their savings. The bank was hemorrhaging cash. I knew the feeling, but that wasn't why I wanted this lease.

To the horror of my new landlord, I hunkered down in my unfurnished office. I had barely scraped together enough money to move in. This had to work—and fast.

The universe failed to share my sense of urgency. I hate that in a universe.

Days later, dispirited, I needed reassurance. Or clarification. Or electroshock. I arranged to visit Alistair at his house to discuss his returns. Even he might have noticed the barrenness of my office. A dead fern would.

Casually, in the middle of a discussion about his itemizable deductions, I asked, "So everything is quantum mechanical? I'm not sure what that means."

He tugged pensively at his hair, and the resemblance to Einstein increased a bit. "Okay, try this. To you and me, matter looks like it's made of stuff—particles, but matter also has a wave nature.

"A particle's position is described by a probability function that resembles the mathematical description of a water wave. The particle isn't at any one location with certainty; instead it has some probability of being anywhere. Until you measure it. Then it has to be someplace, of course."

Those two abused words again: of course. Did Winkler ever say anything to which the phrase applied? I nodded.

"Naturally the probability is highest that a particle will be where you expect it—that is, at the crest of the wave. Still, there is a probability that the particle will turn up elsewhere."

Like receipts escaping the shoebox, I thought. Alistair swore he had had lots more receipts.

Alistair brightened as an example occurred to him. "The particles that comprise an atomic nucleus lack the energy to escape from the forces that bind them. Only the particles don't know that."

"Huh," I contributed. So much for clarification. Or reassurance.

Alistair gestured grandly. "Think of a bullet shot into the air. It's too slow to overcome Earth's gravity, so it falls back. In the same way, there are forces that won't let a particle escape from a nucleus. Still . . ."

We were circling around to our conversation of the other day, if not by a route as mundane as a circle. Maybe that was because Winkler grooved on tiny, wrapped-up-on-themselves, invisibly small dimensions. Seven or eight of them? Don't ask me.

"Still?" I prompted hopefully.

Alistair nodded. "There is a low but real probability that the particle exists outside the nucleus. That's why, occasionally, a particle simply appears far away. The farther away, the less likely, of course. Given enough atoms, and enough time, things will escape by quantum tunneling. Not that there are tunnels, of course."

Of course, twice.

Alistair didn't see me flinch. He was on a roll. "That's radiation. That's how a plutonium atom turns spontaneously into uranium. Its nucleus emits an alpha particle."

"Really?" I asked. Double-declining-balance depreciation, I got, and the alternative minimum tax. But this?

"Oh, yes. That's why there is virtually no naturally occurring plutonium on Earth. Over the eons, almost all of it has decayed into uranium."

"And everything behaves quantum mechanically," I said, tapping a Schedule B with my pencil, not much liking the skepticism in my voice. My car hadn't been much, but I missed it. What the hell had I done? "Stuff shows up in places it can't get."

"If it's made of atoms, it does," Alistair said firmly. "It's all only a matter of probability. Trust me on this."

"I do," I lied.

But soon I would believe. My office, when I returned that evening, thinking about measuring positions and about tunnels that weren't—

Brimmed with cash. Made of atoms.

The next day, the feds took over Great Big First American Federal Trust Savings Bank.

* * *

I'm as human as the next guy, so, yeah, it occasionally bothers me that I don't precisely understand where my money came from. Precision is overrated.

Let me tell you a story.

This high-school class is holding its twenty-fifth reunion. Naturally everyone is checking out everyone else. There's this one guy who no one recognizes: the guy who drove up in the new Jaguar, wearing the Italian suit. The ballroom buzzes with speculation until the class president works up his nerve to ask. "I'm sorry, my friend," Prez says, "but I can't place you. Are you sure you're at the right reunion?"

The mystery guest smiles condescendingly. "To be honest, I dropped out before graduation. Maybe I should leave."

Prez takes another look at that two-thousand-dollar suit and starts sucking up. Mr. Most Likely To Succeed hadn't. "No, no. Anyone who attended Jefferson is welcome. Now what's your name again?"

To make a long story short—if it's not too late—the rich guy no one can place was the class dummy, and he's made a fortune in the restaurant business. The class president swallows hard and asks, "How did you do it? I've heard profit margins are very thin at restaurants."

"Oh they are," agrees the dummy. "I only make ten percent."

Prez is incredulous, remembering the Jag. "Ten percent?"

"That's right. I buy a steak for five dollars and sell it for fifty dollars."

I understand the ten percent that I need to, too.

* * *

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