When I was nearly finished watering the orchard I called Frances on my cell phone, as she’d requested. The job was done by the time she arrived. I sat near the little stone pumphouse, in a plastic chair, exactly the kind that Franco at La Piazzetta uses in his outdoor café.
The gate opened.
“Haloooo!” Frances cried.
She entered, then closed the gate. She put her bag down, went right to the reel, and began to unroll the white hose that I’d just used.
“A little trick of mine,” she said, threading its end through a branch of the fig tree. Slowly she removed her thin wrap-around, revealing a tight, black two-piece bathing suit. She stepped under the stream of water. “Oh, my,” she said. “That’s cold. But good!”
Suzanne dried herself with a big towel, then wrapped it around her body and sat down. “Those stonemasons didn’t pay attention when they were burning the other day," she said. "Now most of the leaves of two trees are dead."
She fumbled in her straw bag for cigarettes. She put one between her lips, looked for her lighter. I took out my Zippo, made it go “whump.” She bent over, took a deep drag, leaned back and blew the smoke to the sky.
“Are you employed in Rome?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“What do you do?”
“I teach English.”
“At a university?”
“No, I do it privately because there’s more money in it.”
“Do Italians consider English a difficult language?”
“No, not at all.”
Short answers. Deep drags, exhalations of smoke. She glanced to one side of the orchard. Then to the other. She got up, walked over to a tree. Inspected its lemons, bright on their branches. Came back. Sat down.
I continued my probing. She said she grew up atheist. Then her mother started going to an Espiscopal Church, and decided she’d offer her daughter the opportunity to get baptized. Suzanne had no desire to allow a fat old gray-haired cleric pour water over her.
We discussed St. Augustine, which she pronounced like the town in Florida. A breezy dismissal. This theologian did not interest Suzanne. A crazy man, a politician.
“Did you know that Julian of Norwich considered the Holy Trinity a metaphor?” she asked.
“No, but I’m sure that one can be derived.”
“It goes like this:
“Remove any one of the elements, desire, knowledge or power," she said, “and nothing can happen.”
I smiled. “That's an intriguing formulation. I suppose such a construct was necessary to invent way back when because it supports action, which is another way of describing self-preservation.”
“Everything in the universe is an idea,” she said.
And she added that she has an old friend, a man of large and important ideas. Dr. Leonard Schiff, at Stanford University. “He’s a true genius who someday will win the Nobel Prize,” she said. “No question about it.”
She said Professor Schiff is working with NASA on a project—named Gravity Probe B—that will test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. It will involve the close observation of the spin of four gyroscopes in a satellite in polar orbit around the earth.
“These gyroscopes will be made of glass spheres, which are so perfectly spherical that if one were enlarged to the size of the earth, the highest mountain would be only eight feet,” Suzanne said. “This represents a sphericity approaching atomic levels—less than 0.3 millionth of an inch variance for a gyro of 1.5 inches wide.”
Now, she said, the General Relativity theory insists that the orientation of a rotating gyroscope is affected by what earth’s gravity does to Space-Time. Space-Time can be simply described as a bed sheet and earth as a ball pressing down on it.
Einstein believed that when a gyroscope moves through this indentation by orbiting the earth, its spin direction will be altered. Earth not only indents Space-Time, but also drags it along in a spiral pattern—similar to the wrinkles in the bed sheet when the ball is turned.
This frame-dragging effect should add an additional, though smaller, offset to the gyroscope’s tilt: 42 milliarcs per year in orbit—an angle equivalent to the width of a human hair seen from a distance of 10 miles.
“Where does quantum physics fit in all this?” I asked.
“It fits, uh…everywhere,” she said.
Not so, I learned afterward. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics—the two great theoretical achievements of 20th century physics—are said to be utterly incompatible. Furthermore because theoreticians are still unable to unite the four forces of nature—gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces—they suspect that General Relativity needs amendment.
But by then Suzanne appeared to be bored by the Gravity Probe subject. Time to talk about something else.
“And what about this garden?” she asked. “Is this a sacred place?”
“Well,” I said, “that old wheelbarrow, the pile of sheet rock and plastic roofing material, and all those weeds and rubble suggest at first glance that this is just another trash heap.”
“But it IS, nevertheless, a sacred place,” she said.
I explained that I’m linear and orderly. “If this were my property, the first thing I’d do would be to get that that stuff hauled out of here. Or put off to the side neatly.”
Then we discussed Art. I suggested that creating forms is imposing order on chaos. Arranging disparate objects into a pattern creates the illusion of meaning.
She frowned. “Say that again.”
“Put any number of objects in a circle, or a triangle,” I said. “This makes them more interesting—or apparently meaningful—than if they were just scattered randomly. That’s what composition is all about.”
Her continued frown said she didn’t quite believe this was so.
“Art provides eminently plausible answers to unanswerable questions,” I said.
“Life is art,” she said.
“Not quite,” I countered. “Tape record a conversation, make an accurate transcription. It will read like drivel because the greater part of communication is nonverbal, and thus our speech is fragmented and repetitious. In a piece of good fiction, however, the dialog is wholly artifical, yet it seems more real than ‘life.’”
Suzanne said nothing. She took out another cigarette. Again, I made my Zippo go “whump.”
“Art is necessary, I said, “because it poignantly and intelligently represents the human struggle. Shopenhauer believed that art brings comfort because it transforms our pain into knowledge.”
Suzanne looked skeptical.
“And there’s plenty of pain,” I continued. “As we grow older we notice something really scary. People are dying all around us. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Sooner or later, they all go down, and we realize we might be next. It’s terrifying.”
“There is no terror,” she said. “They love it.”
“Yes, of course. It pleases them.”
“As an altar boy I served at a very large number of funerals. I can tell you those people weeping and wailing beside the grave were not enjoying the experience.”
“But they were. Deep down they were having a great time.”
I laughed. “Oh, I see. They just weren’t aware of how much pleasure they were experiencing.”
Suzanne looked grim. “I said earlier that everything in the universe is an idea. You are an idea. Death is an idea.”
“And like a theologian you tell me with confidence that your notion of the grieving crowd at the funeral is the correct one, whereas mine is not.”
Suzanne’s cell phone went off. Her daughter. Toward the end of the conversation, Suzanne said, “So, Lara, you are not going to join grandma, Sylvia and I at dinner?”
I recalled an earlier encounter with Suzanne at the café, when I used the phrase “She did good” as irony, as in “I ain’t gonna do it.” Suzanne had corrected me, saying that she was surprised that a professional writer would make such a mistake.
What did we talk about next? I don’t recall. Just some trivial stuff. The garden was now in shadow. Above the far wall the villa covered by pink stucco glowed from the low sun. I reached for my bag.
“Time for me to head back home,” I said.
“Wait,” Suzanne said. “Let me get my stuff. I don’t want to get locked up in here.”
When we were outside, I rolled the green gate shut and pushed the heavy brass padlock until it clicked. Then without turning I waved, said “Ciao!” and headed up the mountain.