The Unlikely Protégé
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 Jonathan Ferrini
 Jonathan Ferrini
The Unlikely Protégé
by Jonathan Ferrini  FollowFollow
I'm a Southern California short story writer and owner of an MFA in Motion Picture/TV production.
The Unlikely Protégé

The Unlikely Protégé

part 2 of 2

To read Part 1 in Issue 91 please click here:

I looked forward to weekends with Rene. She was a senior in high school and was accepted to USC in order to be close to me and home. She wanted to be a physician. We enjoyed visiting Lacy Park which was nestled amongst the mansions of San Marino not far from campus. As we drove past the pristine San Marino mansions, we pointed to those we each liked, and fantasized about raising our family in one of them. We spent our days walking through the park or laying under a favorite tree and sneaking a kiss. Since I lived at home and not far from campus, my bedroom and father's work schedule provided us ample opportunity to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. I long for the days of my youth which provided me the stamina and rapid recovery to engage in intercourse with Rene for hours.

A “Santa Ana” weather condition unique to Southern California created a particularly summer-like November. Rene packed a picnic lunch and suggested we visit Lacy Park and eat under our favorite tree. After laying out the table cloth and removing the flatware and silverware she carefully packed, we enjoyed the cheese, crackers, fried chicken, potato salad, and fruit Rene lovingly prepared. After having our fill, I held her close and whispered I love you in her ear. At that moment, Rene began to cry. I looked deep into her eyes and asked, What’s the matter, baby? “Mickey, I think I’m pregnant.” My heart skipped a beat and fear overcame me. I rose and began to pace, knowing that my future would be derailed if she had a baby. How do you know, I exclaimed. Rene wiped the tears from her eyes and summoned the composure to say “I’ve missed two of my periods, Mickey.” How do you know for sure, Rene? “We need to find a doctor to check my urine, Mickey but I can’t tell my parents and don’t know a doctor and can’t afford to pay for one.” I knew that we had to be certain before jumping to any conclusions and also knew that her parents would be furious and likely demand that we marry and have the baby, which would screw up my career plans. Don’t worry, Rene. I have a plan. We gathered the picnic supplies and headed back to my apartment. We were scared.

I remembered the name of my mother’s ob/gyn physician who delivered me and was surprised to see that Dr. Lass was still practicing medicine in Pasadena. I phoned and was told by the receptionist that we could make an appointment for the urine test and the results would be available within a couple of days. The receptionist confirmed that the results would remain confidential. Thanks to my mother’s social security death benefit and generous scholarship funds, the cost of the medical appointment was covered.

Later in the week, Rene and I entered the doctor's office. I sat in the comfortable waiting room while Rene was examined. Then Doctor Lass asked me to join Rene and him in the examination room. Rene was weeping. “Mickey, although we won’t have the urine tests for a couple of days, my examination of Rene confirms she is about ten weeks pregnant. Your options are to have the baby or an abortion.” We were faced with the most important decision either of us was forced to make in our lives and stark reality was staring each of us directly in the face. “If you choose to have the child, I’m pleased to be your physician but if you choose an abortion, I’ll have to refer you to a clinic as I don’t perform abortions.” Rene began crying harder but Dr. Lass spoke calmly and soothingly. “Take some time to think, it over. There is no hurry but if you choose an abortion, it’s better to complete it sooner rather than later. The receptionist will provide you with the closest clinic which provides abortions.” I placed my arm around Rene as we walked to my car. I opened her door and held her hand as she sat. As I reached for the ignition, Rene grabbed my hand and said, “Mickey, I want the abortion.” Even though I was only eighteen years old, I know it was a difficult decision for Rene and she unselfishly had arrived at the decision so as not to interrupt my career. Rene also believed we would eventually be married with opportunities for children when we were settled later in life.

We arrived at the abortion clinic on a Saturday morning. It was located in an industrial neighborhood and was a far cry from the posh medical office building of Dr. Lass. I could feel Rene’s fear as I escorted her into the crowded waiting room filled to capacity with women of all races and many much further along than Rene. I was taken aback at how calm each of these women were, suggesting they'd had abortions previously. I registered Rene and wrote a check for the procedure, which apparently impressed many of the other patients who were indigent. The receptionist quietly told me, “I’ll see that she gets right in young man.” Within minutes, a nurse came for Rene and led her into the procedure room. Our eyes locked and began to fill with tears. “You can wait here young man or I’ll bring her to your car.” I thanked the kind nurse and hurriedly left the terrible reception room.

Within an hour, Rene was wheeled to the Mustang by the nurse, carefully lifted from the wheel chair and placed within the front seat. She was ashen gray and shivering. I had never seen Rene so exhausted and emotionally drained. “Young man, there may be some minor bleeding but if it increases in severity, take her to the nearest ER.” The nurse handed me a post procedure instruction paper and a tiny envelope with pain pills. “Good luck to both of you.” As I drove out of the parking lot, the nurse gazed at my Mustang with the CalSci insignia proudly displayed within the back window. I drove Rene home and her plan was to tell her parents she had the flu and needed to stay off her feet for a few days. I sweated the next few days realizing that a trip to the ER would reveal the abortion. Three days came and went and life resumed its normal hue but I knew that Rene would carry the experience like baggage for the rest of her life. At eighteen, I couldn’t possibly have fully understood the range of emotions Rene must have undergone and the humiliation and disappointment which accompanied her abortion. Rene and I continued to date but it was never the same. Our conversations were strained and Rene had a faraway look in her eyes. Our dating became less frequent and within a few months, I received the “Dear John” letter. Rene told me that she needed to devote all of her energy to her school work and that I should do the same. She wished me luck. Today, I can appreciate her pain and harbor guilt and misgivings that I wasn’t emotionally available to her in that awful time of need. At times, I also regret the fateful decision we made together and wonder about the family we never had. I will never forget Rene as long as I live.

I was flunking out of CalSci. My fellow freshmen divided themselves into study groups and I bounced from one to another finding myself woefully unprepared for the rigor of CalSci and its curriculum. More importantly, I lacked the passion for science that my fellow freshmen demonstrated. Despite my earnest attempts to prepare for the examinations, they were written by the best scientific minds in the world and designed to test the classroom curriculum in real world everyday applications. It’s the only way the professors at CalSci could test the scientific minds of the future. Some of my classmates would finish the exam early, and I could hear them discuss their answers in the hallway while I struggled to put something of an answer down on the paper.

Friday afternoons with Dick were well intentioned but resulted in a lot of BS and goofing off. Dick never discussed his personal life nor did he invite me to his home. Despite our close association, Dick kept our relationship professional but with a healthy dose of laughter, mutual respect and friendship. Dick’s approach to tutoring me was to make generalizations about the subject matter of each of my classes. I believe he was attempting to fuel my inquisitiveness and self discovery, but it wasn’t helpful to me. After all, Dick’s approach to explaining my courses was that of a genius and Nobel Laureate, to a student who cheated to gain admission.

The old rotary phone in Dick’s office rang one day and I could hear the voice on the other end. Dick motioned for me to remain silent. “Richard, this is Dave Goodman, how are you?” I knew Dave Goodman was also an eminent professor of physics and one of the physics departments Vice Chairman. “What do you want, David, I’m busy at the moment,” Dick curtly mumbled into the phone while scribbling equations on his yellow pad. “I know you have taken a liking to one of our students, Mickey Stein, but I have to make the decision to give him the boot.”

I knew this day was coming and was humiliated that it happened in front of my friend and mentor. I felt a wave of sadness overcome me but also a sense of relief that I would no longer have to pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. To my surprise, Dick shouted into the phone, “Leave him alone! He’s a good kid and working hard at his subjects.” “So you vouch for him, Richard?” Goodman asked. “Yes, David, I do. He’ll get his grades up.” Dick hung up the phone, finished his scribbling, leaned back in his chair and looked at me like a disappointed father. “Mickey, I just received a call from the head of the Physics Department. They don’t think you’re cutting the mustard and they want your ass. You need to get your grades up to get them off our backs. Finals are coming up and I spoke with Professor Simon and got some inside information on his final for you.”

Professor Simon’s physics course was tough and I was certain to fail it. I couldn’t believe that Dick was going to give me the answers or even a copy of the test. “Focus on a bicycle wheel and a baseball both moving through space and time simultaneously. Imagine the physics involved and you’ll be fine.” This was a typical Dick Feinberg tutorial session and I left it more confused than when I arrived! I knew that I had “dodged a bullet” with Dr. Goodman but sooner rather than later he would pay me another visit and perhaps Dick couldn’t protect me.

During one of our Friday tutorial sessions, we were discussing motorcycles. I told Dick about a trail head with two entrances and two exits in the mountains where I rode. I told him that regardless of which of the two entrances I chose, a second rider would arrive at the exit of the trail at the same time as me despite the trails being completely dissimilar including length. Dick scoffed at the idea suggesting that the trails, although different, may be longer or shorter in length and that the ability of the rider and capability of his motorcycle must be accounted for. He brushed the phenomenon off as coincidence and suggested we were naively validating our hoped-for conclusions with sloppy testing. Although I had ridden these two trails many times before with a variety of second riders of varying skill, I knew instinctively that I was correct because we had measured the distance on many occasions but I couldn’t explain it scientifically. Furthermore, I wasn’t about to question Dick Feinberg’s conclusion. Dick sat there and stared at me silently waiting for a well-reasoned reply. He had become my friend and like an uncle to me and I couldn’t disappoint him because he was intellectually challenging me in the traditional scientific way of things. I was going to give Dick an answer even if it was full of BS. I was a capable writer and always borrowed from my surroundings for the subject matter of my fiction. I hurriedly glanced about the room looking for inspiration, my heart racing, and my palms growing moist with perspiration. Dick was twirling a paperclip with his fingers which was distracting me. My life was about to change forever. There was something about the paperclip which fascinated me and drew me to a closer examination. I looked for another paperclip that I could use to spin my fiction and provide Dick with an answer. On the floor beneath my chair was the most beautiful specimen of a paperclip you can ever imagine. I have carried the same paperclip in my shirt pocket every day of my life since then. I held the paperclip in front of Dick’s face and said, My riding experience is “elliptical” like this paperclip. Dick took notice when I said elliptical and the expression on his face was unfamiliar to me. He had the inquisitiveness of a student again and I realized that he had studied ellipses at sometime in his career. I felt like a “snake oil” salesman attempting to sell a line of BS to a Nobel Laureate, but I owed Dick something of an explanation, so I continued. At that moment, I heard the reassuring voices of my Junior High PE and mathematics teachers encouraging me to take my best shot. “Think, Mickey, Think.” “Don’t give up, never quit.”

Notice that the clip has two pointed ends which are alongside each other. Dick stared intently at my paperclip. Notice that regardless of which pointed end you choose, you will continue along an elliptical path which leads you out the end of the other point and this will always be the case regardless of which pointed end of the clip you embark upon. I knew Dick well enough to know that I had his attention but hadn’t “sold him” on anything yet. My mind gravitated to my last lovemaking session with Rene. It was intense and exhausted both of us. In particular, I remembered the mattress on my bed wasn’t firm. When we were on top of one another, we made a significant depression within the soft mattress which rose up around us as if enveloping us. When we left the bed, the mattress regained its original flat composure. I enjoyed the softness of the mattress because it permitted me greater agility and maneuverability during intercourse with Rene. I was inspired and continued to sell my snake oil. What the hell, I could only embarrass myself and be wrong. I continued. I pulled the paperclip apart and said, This is the universe as a flat plain, Dick. Notice the two pointed ends of the clip are now at opposite ends and one can only enter and exit at one point. Imagine a depression on this flat plane which bends the paperclip back into its original manufactured state with both ends of the pointed clip alongside each other. You see, Dick, it’s like a mattress which is soft and becomes depressed when one lies atop it. The paperclip may explain déjà vu because we always come back again. At that point, Dick rose from his chair and I witnessed intensity about him I had never seen before. I was frightened and expected him to throw me out of the office. “It’s not a mattress, Mickey. It’s the plane of the universe and the depression which occurs upon it is often a dying star growing so small that it ultimately becomes a black hole. The mass of the star doesn’t disappear but becomes concentrated as it shrinks and creates a depression within the plane or fabric of the universe”.

Dick picked up his old rotary phone, dialed and waited for an answer. I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end ask, “Chief Librarian, how may I help you?” Dick was scribbling feverishly on a yellow notepad. “This is Dick Feinberg. I’m sending my Research Assistant over to the library with instructions to wait for you to pull the following publications.” To this day, I can’t recall which specific publications he wanted except that they were scholarly publications, textbooks, and research papers concerning ellipses. He hung up the phone and his passion for intellectual pursuit engulfed him. I had never seen Dick like this before. He was hungry for knowledge and excited to pursue it. “Mickey, get over to the library and tell them Dick Feinberg sent you with orders to wait. Bring everything back to the office. Here’s a key to the door if I’m not here. Put the stack of publications behind my desk and out of sight.”

There is a great deal of competition at CalSci. Despite the genius of the professors and student body, original, innovative, world changing ideas are difficult to come by and everybody is looking for an edge and the opportunity to discover the next big thing. David Goodman was an example of such competition. He was a brilliant physicist but lost his edge with each graying hair over time. He seemed angry about it. Instead of retiring with honor, he chose to stay on and assume the administrative duties of Vice Chairman of the Physics Department. In David’s mind, it was better to be part of the action then not at all. He developed a reputation of being nosey and always eaves-dropping on others' conversations within the department, as he was seeking his edge! Although no longer a research scientist, David had great power within CalSci.

Word spread about my work with Feinberg and my professors cut me slack on classroom attendance and my final grades. In addition, Dick sponsored me in several independent study courses and awarded me with top grades, which bolstered my GPA. For Dick Feinberg, my observation about the entry and exit points of a motorcycle trail or paperclip were the foundations about the emergence, disappearance, and return of light, matter, and energy in the form of subatomic particles. It was Dick Feinberg’s unique ability and passion to describe this phenomenon in the language of his peers, mathematics and physics, which brought my hunch to life. Dick began to calculate, postulate, and theorize in mathematical and physics terms the phenomenon I developed. I was expected to assist Dick in the collection of publications to bolster his theories and critique his mathematical and physics conclusions regardless of the fact that I couldn’t understand any of it. I will never forget the graciousness of Dick’s invitation to assist him and was humbled when he awarded me a co-author credit on all of the publications, which changed my life forever. I was watching a genius at work from a front row seat!

I was summoned to David Goodman’s office one afternoon. I was ushered into the large, well-appointed office David occupied as Vice Chair of the Physics Department, which was in stark contrast to the bedroom sized cluttered office Dick maintained. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the size of the office which made the reputation of its occupant, but the volume and quality of the physics produced inside the office. Testaments to David’s former illustrious career in Physics adorned the walls with many awards, citations, and photographs with important scientists and politicians. David was close to Dick’s age but lacked the child-like sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around him. David’s demeanor was cold, aloof, distant, and calculating. I sat in a low leather chair designed so the chair's occupant was at a lower eye level than David’s. David kept me waiting while he finished reading a scientific journal and sipped his afternoon tea from a tea cup with saucer. David placed the journal down on the desk, sighed, and said “Mr. Stein you’re failing at CalSci.” He picked up a folder with my name on it, opened the dossier which contained my CalSci and high school records and began to read from it. “Mr. Stein, I see that you graduated from an undistinguished local public high school without a history of sending any students to CalSci. I further see that neither of your parents were college graduates. I must congratulate you on your stellar performance on the College Boards. You defeated the odds which were stacked against you!”

I sat motionless, growing angry by David’s suggestion that I might not be good enough to be at CalSci due to the high school I attended, and most importantly, my parentage. David placed the dossier down on his desk, took a sip of tea, carefully placed the tea cup within the saucer and said, “Even more remarkable is your association with one of CalSci’s preeminent professors. Tell me, Mr. Stein, what are you and Dick Feinberg up to concerning ellipticals?” David stared at me coldly like a shark staring at its prey just before devouring it. I hesitated but David’s peering eyes penetrated me and he was determined to wait as long as necessary to get his answer. I don’t know what you mean by “up to,” Dean Goodman. I’m Professor Feinberg’s research assistant and Professor Feinberg tutors me once per week. I could see that my answer irritated David, who sat up in his leather chair. He leaned in so close to me I could smell the tea on his breath. “Listen to me, Mr. Stein. Your grades at CalSci are well below academic probation levels and with one stroke of my pen, I can have you dismissed from CalSci and there is nothing Dick Feinberg can do about it. You see Mr. Stein, Dick Feinberg is a warm hearted and generous man but at the end of the day, I control the budget for the Physics Department and I’m charged with allocating a generous amount of federal and private monies to the faculty. Dick Feinberg is a pragmatist and he wouldn’t jeopardize his funding over the likes of you. Now, once more, what are the two of you up to in your research concerning ellipticals?” For the second time in my life, I faced a decision with life changing consequences. I had both everything to gain and everything to lose depending upon my answer. I could divulge the results of Dick’s research and possibly remain in school or honor my friendship and fidelity to Dick and keep his work confidential. I reached down deep into my soul and without hesitation told Dean Goodman I had nothing further to say about the matter and I was willing to accept the consequences. David Goodman was noticeably upset, red faced, and had his bluff called by a nineteen year old kid who was his intellectual inferior. David picked up the journal and raised it to his face saying, “That’s all for now, Mr. Stein. I’ll take your predicament here at CalSci under advisement.” I left the office certain that I would find a notice of dismissal from CalSci arrive in the mail but I also felt a new found belief in myself that for the first time in my life, I had made the correct moral decision. I faced down a more powerful foe than myself with the ability to terminate my career, in favor of defending one of the kindest and most thoughtful men I had ever met, Dick Feinberg. I had made the correct decision and was ready to accept the consequences.

Dean Goodman never contacted me. Dick and I worked together on a daily basis throughout my undergraduate career. I would graduate from CalSci with a BS degree in Physics, barely squeaking by with a C- average. On a beautiful spring day, I graduated much to the joy of my father who was joined by my PE and mathematics Junior High School teachers, and Rene who was attending medical school. Rene moved on with her life but chose to attend my graduation as a friend. All during the commencement ceremony, I heard the voice of my mother in better times and I felt her loving presence. In non-mathematical and physics terms, I knew my paperclip and motorcycle trail theory had merit and it was possible for everyone to return again at some time just like my mom, mentors, and former girlfriend. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain the phenomenon with physics or math. What matters is that I knew it’s real. I cried like a baby behind my gown pulled up to cover my face.

Despite four years of intensive study, Dick’s work wasn’t completed. By this time, the physics world was abuzz with Dick’s theory of an elliptical universe. It wasn’t uncommon to release the theory and begin accepting criticism from the best physics minds throughout the world. Dick and I traveled throughout the world and I was able to go places and meet people which would have never been possible but for my meeting Dick Feinberg in the faculty parking lot. I was able to fly with the aid of valium prescribed by the campus medical office. To my surprise, the worldwide physics community associated me closely with Dick Feinberg’s theory and I was courted to complete graduate studies in Physics by the most prestigious universities in the world. Dick arranged for my admission to the doctoral program in Physics at CalSci with a full scholarship. It would result in my being awarded both a MS in Science and a PhD within 5 years. I accepted without hesitation. It was ironic that Dean Goodman approved my admission to the graduate program in Physics because even the Vice Chairman of the Physics Department at CalSci wouldn’t stand in the way of a second Nobel Prize awarded to Dick Feinberg and the resulting funding and international prestige which would accompany the Prize. In later years, David Goodman was asked to accept early retirement by the President of CalSci, when it came to the President’s attention that rumors of plagiarism surrounded David’s recent scientific research. Unril the day David Goodman retired from CalSci and despite my appointment to the faculty, he would never speak a word to me. As David traversed the path of the paperclip and motorcycle trail, he chose to create divots and conflict upon an otherwise smooth plane of space and time. Like all of us, David’s past was also traversing the paperclip and motorcycle trail simultaneously and wasn’t far behind him. David’s past caught up with him and David was ejected out the end of the paperclip and trail ungracefully. I always muttered the phrase “what goes around, comes around” after encountering David Goodman.

That was the toughest first lecture to the freshman physics class I ever experienced. The eager young student’s questions are becoming harder for me to answer. I find it hard to believe that the office I now occupy was formerly the office of the late, great Dick Feinberg who died about a decade ago. Dick didn’t win a second Nobel Prize but our theory remains intact and the subject of continuous exploration by the world’s greatest physicists. I’m unable to make the mathematical and physics contributions necessary for the furtherance of Dick’s work but I’m happy to remain on the sidelines and watch those more capable of advancing the theory.

Dick remained my friend and colleague up until the last days of his life, which had become ravaged by cancer. I was introduced to Dick’s personal life when I met his two former wives and grown children at his funeral. I was touched when they said in unison, “We’re so happy to finally meet the student Dick so often talked about.” It doesn’t surprise me that I often feel his presence and cajoling to do my very best. Richard Feinberg and Mickey Stein’s friendship was forged by a mutual appreciation of the world around us and a sense of awe and wonder as to how and why it was put together. Richard chose mathematics and physics to share his wonder. I chose words. We each use a “toolkit” the universe bestows upon us and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a slide rule, lug wrench, or chainsaw. What matters is that you use the tools given to you as you move along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Dick’s the ellipse. I’ve learned over time that people like Richard Feinberg make the choice to move through space and time with grace and humility and end up leaving the largest footprint on the fabric of the universe. Their spirit continues to motivate and inspire long after they pass. We all have that choice.

My father’s death from Alzheimer’s complications followed shortly after Dick’s death and I remain proud of both my father and mother for choosing the same loving and inspiring path along the ellipse that Dick choose. Both my parents and Richard Feinberg shaped my life and I will remain forever grateful to them. I never saw Rene again after graduation. I presume she is a physician and I hope she is happy. I was fortunate to have known her love, kindness, and inspiration. I’ve dated many fine women, had good and bad relationships, but remain alone. Perhaps one day, I’ll discover the answer to this puzzle. Like those warm summer nights of my youth, I often find myself laying awake in bed and pondering my fate. My College Board scores gained my admission to the colleges of my dreams and I could have easily accepted their offers of admission and embarked upon a career as a corporate deal making lawyer. But why did I choose CalSci and the more difficult path it entailed? I’ll never know the answer but my late night conclusion is always the same. It’s the path I was destined to take as I moved along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Richard’s space time ellipse. It was Mickey Stein’s destiny to cheat his way into CalSci, meet Richard Feinberg, and set in motion a theory of the universe which may someday change the way mankind sees their role in the universe. If I’m lucky, it may change the way mankind chooses to move through space and time. I hope so.

I see a large envelope arrived with my other mail with the return address of a Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr., PhD, Evanston, Illinois. My heart skips a beat. Was this my Klark returning from the grave? Did he fake his suicide? Could this be the end of my career? I take a deep breath and regain my composure when I see “Sr.” and conclude it might be Klark’s father. I tear open the large envelope which contains a weathered sealed envelope with 1970’s postage and addressed to me at my high school home. The return address is that of Klark Kalman at the old Pasadena mansion. A handwritten note is “paper clipped” to the old sealed envelope and reads:

“Dear Dr. Stein: I came across this envelope amongst my son’s belongings recently and it appears to have never been mailed. (Better late than never). My son spoke of your friendship and was impressed by your enterprising nature. I am also impressed with your career, Dr. Stein and wished the same for Klark. Best wishes, Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr. PhD. Dept. of Physics."

I open the weathered envelope which includes the fake ID’s Klark had used to take my tests. I sit back in my chair and feel an overwhelming sense of relief and melancholy. I didn’t know Klark and frankly didn’t care about him other than what he could accomplish for me. I was touched that despite his own genius, he was impressed by my “enterprise” and I was saddened to hear that he considered me his friend. I can now appreciate the profound sadness, loneliness, and the despair he must have felt failing his subjects and not living up to his professor father’s expectations while entombed within the old lady’s mansion. Klark made his journey along the paperclip and motorcycle trail and returned to say hello to me. My hunch born during a Friday afternoon tutorial which later became Dicks attempt at a second Nobel Prize in Physics was vindicated again!

My opening lecture to the freshman physics students is always the same: “Remember my motorcycle trail and paperclip theories which became the foundation of Dick’s elliptical universe postulate. Tread lightly as you progress through life and always try and leave a positive impression upon the fabric of space and time because you never know who may return to greet you along the way. Most of all be careful of what you wish for. It may come true.”



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