Issue Eighteen - Summer 2011

Between Plausibility and Truth

By Stefon Mears

I crawl out of bed, yawning with my whole torso as I pull on my faded red bathrobe. I am twenty-eight years old and living alone in an apartment in Beaverton, Oregon. The complex is nicer than I could have afforded in the Bay Area, with a pool and gymnasium. I still need to find a job if I want to keep it.

My sleep-addled brain barely registers the open front door as I amble towards the kitchen. My living room jolts me awake. Why is it half-empty?

* * *

Pat Burrell, batting for the San Francisco Giants, swings at a fastball and misses it by fractions, his bat a little too low and perhaps a little too slow. Strike three. He is out, failing his half of the hit-and-run, while his teammate Buster Posey scrambles from first base to second. Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann catches the pitch, jumps to his feet, and flings the ball to second base. It arrives just ahead of the runner, but way offline. Second baseman Brooks Conrad leaps up and away, snags the errant ball, and slaps it on the sliding Posey, whose foot stretches for the base.

“Safe,” bellows the umpire, arms wide.

The television announcers are flabbergasted. The Braves fans are furious. They are sure Posey is out. They watch it over and over on replays, each time more certain.

The umpire, Paul Emmel, is involved in every game of the series, and after it ends no one complains that he was unfair, or calls for an investigation. He called the play he saw, and in the play he saw the runner was safe.

The fans, announcers and umpire are all certain of the truth.

* * *

Awake, but in shock, my eyes tell me everything before I can react.

My stereo is gone, speakers and all. It had been a birthday present from my parents a few months earlier. Only a mocking border of dust shows where it once sat on the now-barren chest. The three hundred compact discs I played on it, collected over the previous decade and organized chronologically by artist, are gone. The carpeting where their boxes had been is dented from their weight.

The television my parents gave me for Christmas five years ago is gone. The end table that displayed it remains, doors still open, but none of the videotapes inside are missing. They are former blanks, filled with movies recorded off of cable. My favorite movies are still here.

My books haven’t been touched. Not the robber’s style, I guess.

My computer, built up from parts by my own hand, is gone: monitor, keyboard, mouse and all. All my contacts. All my addresses and phone numbers.

Every word I’ve written since college.

No.

* * *

In 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have successfully achieved cold fusion in a laboratory. This nuclear reaction, if true, could revolutionize the energy industry, providing amazing amounts of energy at a negligible cost.

They were quickly denounced as either fraudulent or incompetent. Several attempts by other scientists had proven unable to duplicate their results. They could have suggested studies and analysis to perfect the reported technique. The scientific community went beyond this. They did not say that the Pons-Fleischmann experiment needed refinement. They said that their attempts to repeat it provided nothing like cold fusion.

Those who failed reported their conclusion persuasively to the greater scientific community, and through them the media: their attempts had failed because the Pons-Fleischmann claim was not true.

But it was Pons and Fleischmann who conducted their experiment. Pons and Fleischmann who witnessed and recorded their results. They allowed that there may have been flaws in their report, but they insisted that their results were true. They have never retracted their claim.

Pons and Fleischmann might have saved their reputations if they confessed to reporting errors or attributed their claim to an excess of enthusiasm. Scientists across the world would have drawn millions of dollars in research grants if they corroborated the discovery of cold fusion. But science pursues truth, and both sides believe they’ve found it.

* * *

My body begins registering what my eyes are telling me. My feet root themselves to the floor. My legs shake. Cold wraps around my throat and shoulders like a shawl. My arms reach forward, tense and ready to throttle someone long since gone.

Gone.

“No.” It is all I can say. Over and over. My cheeks blaze with shame and tension. Tears pour down my face. My ears burn. The word streams out of me, faster and faster, whipping my head back and forth. My arms fold in to clutch my ribs.

This is too much to bear. I have no job. I have no girlfriend. Now this. It cracks me open, splits me asunder to the keystone at my core. The keystone refuses.

“NO!” I roar loud enough to make a lion proud. This cannot be true. I will not let it be true. I reject this reality with every fiber of my being.

“FUCK THIS!”

I run back to my bedroom, throw my robe on its hook, slam myself back into bed and yank the covers over my head.

* * *

People often talk about the truth as though it is a certain thing, fixed and immutable. We talk about “getting to” it, “learning” it, “telling” it. When we disagree, we hope to have it “on our side”, and when rumors bring us bad tidings, we hope it “will come out.”

Those are things we say, but as a society they do not reflect how we behave. We hold up truth as an ideal, a goal, but what we accept is likelihood. Consensus.

A man flees police pursuit in a white Ford Bronco before a national television audience. His inevitable capture is followed by exoneration in the courtroom and crucifixion in the media. Millions of people across the United States are certain of the man’s guilt, but they did not witness the trial, much less the murder.

The jury found him innocent, but the consensus says that he is guilty, so his guilt is accepted as truth.

A woman calls a radio station, talking on the air in frantic tones about the U.F.O. she just saw. No one takes her seriously, because the consensus says that U.F.O.’s do not exist. None of us saw what she saw, but we assume she is deluded, mistaken. We decide the truth.

Two cases: one unique and famous, one generic and forgettable. And yet, for both, we look for plausibility to find truth.

* * *

I open my eyes, awake, but fear worries away my stomach. My skin is clammy as I slip out of bed, my thin robe adding little warmth when I slide it on. I take a deep breath, shuddering, and force my legs, one at a time, to carry me to the kitchen.

On the way I see that the front door is shut. Did I do that?

I close my eyes as I reach the living room. One more deep breath and I must look.

Everything is there. Just like it was never gone. I manage a step before collapsing into my desk chair, tears flowing with gratitude.

* * *

This isn’t a story I tell before midnight. It requires space, and silence, often dim lighting, and always a trusted audience. Even so, I worry that it will be grated away by laughter, so I end with something like, “It was the wildest dream I’ve ever had.” Dreams are easy. Our society likes weird dreams, so people accept the story when I dismiss it as one. It becomes likely enough to be treated as true.

But I am the one who was there. I am the one who lived through it, crying and shaking and denying it faster than I could breathe. I am the one who can see and feel it in my mind as clearly as my wedding, my high school graduation, my first Little League playoff game.

When I am alone I cannot dismiss the memory, though sometimes I wish I could. It denies my efforts at disbelief. It’s too vivid. It lacks the distant, ephemeral feeling I know from remembered dreams.

When I am alone I cannot hide behind consensus. I have to face that experience without easy answers. I tell myself it’s better that way. I remember Robert Anton Wilson, who cautioned against letting beliefs shape experiences, when it should be the other way around. He called it “mistaking the map for the territory.” Whatever happened that morning, it wasn’t on any map I know.

There is wonder in that thought, but not much comfort.

Copyright Mears 2011

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