The Cube Root of the Universe

The Cube Root of the Universe


by Lawrence Buentello


“The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
—Albert Einstein


“What is this?”

That was the first question Vince Wolfe asked that night, and perhaps the most pertinent since he’d begun visiting his brother. He’d brought the small cube to the light, as much light as the ineffectual lamp on the table produced, before holding it to his eye. Within the apartment lay any number of exotic artistic inventions, conjured from a mind heavily veiled from the world. His brother was a challenged man, though only a man in years—his body was developed, and his intellect, but he had no practical understanding of the world in which he lived.

Vince asked again, because his brother, brooding over notes written in a tiny script that perhaps only he could interpret, refused to respond. But when he finally raised his head, his still blue eyes peering from a small face framed by unkempt hair, a small smile came to his lips, of satisfaction perhaps, or appreciation.

“It’s the universe,” Dominick Wolfe replied, gesturing awkwardly with the pencil in his hand before returning to his notes. His head moved slightly, as if nodding to himself, but it was really only a neurological tic left over from one of his many surgeries.

Vince lowered the cube and watched his brother’s motion like a man watching an interesting animal, a bird of paradise spreading exotic feathers, or a whale breaching silently near a pier, though his brother’s condition was less interesting for its grace than its resemblance to normal human activity. A waste, he thought—

He’d always been fascinated by nature—in his youth he’d wanted to become a biologist, though declared as a business major in college. But his dreams of financial success were as futile as his academic career. The knowledge he retained of either study was fleeting.

As for Dominick’s latest creation? Another absurdity. But he was curious, so once again he raised the object to the light.

Now he could actually see something inside the cube, which seemed to be comprised of glass panels held resolutely by a copper latticework. Pale light shone through from the other side; within, suspended in a smoky gel, tiny globules of light glimmered faintly. Its delicate appearance didn’t seem to warrant its weight, and he could only wonder what it represented in his brother’s oeuvre of meaningless creations.

“The universe?” he said, trying to find the artistic value in it. His mother represented Dominick as a savant, a creative genius, before she died. Now it was Vince’s responsibility to look in on him from time to time, just to make certain he didn’t injure himself with the tools of his ‘genius’. He’d been coming for a couple of months now, but hadn’t made any appreciable personal connection, and the intellectual barrier was beginning to wear on him.

He lowered the cube, his arm grown weary from holding it.

“What’s it made of?” he asked.

Dominick didn’t answer. Equations appeared in the notebook, born of a mind disinterested in human communication.

Vince touched his brother’s shoulder. Dominick moved away from the sensation curiously. Vince had always been perplexed by the man’s reaction to stimuli, and couldn’t help probing its dimensions. It was cruel to provoke such a reaction in a mentally challenged person, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself.

“What’s it made of, Dominick?”

His brother blinked several times before answering.

“It’s made of whatever the universe is made of,” he said. “It’s the universe. I placed it in a cube. Do you think it’s beautiful?”

Vince smiled. “Yes, I do think it’s beautiful. The universe, I mean. Is it cast in glass? Is that what it is?”

“No. It’s the universe. You’re not listening to me. You never listen to me.”

Dominick seemed to look past him then, lost in thought. Without saying another word he returned his attention to his notes, writing so quickly it seemed as if he were taking dictation.

Vince grew tired of the game and raised the cube to the light again. Somewhere in the vastness of the cube’s interior he thought he saw a faint winking light, but that was probably only the lamplight reflecting off some piece of debris encased in the substance. When he lost interest in the piece, he set it by the lamp and sighed. Though Dominick was now his responsibility, his personal responsibility, he considered the matter an immense waste of time. His brother had no personality to speak of, no connection to the world, no social inclination. He was living in the shadow of his own disability, as functional as he was, and it was embarrassing to observe.

But the anger he felt at having to join his life to such a waste of time smothered any empathy he might have otherwise experienced.

After reconnoitering the kitchen to make certain his brother wouldn’t starve to death, Vince lingered in the living room, hoping to initiate some other line of conversation. But Dominick sat entranced by his calculations, repeating numbers endlessly in a psychic loop that ultimately meant nothing. Frustrated, Vince held the cube in his hand and tried to understand how his brother had pieced it together.

“Do you mind if I take this with me?” he asked, not expecting an answer.

Dominick raised his head at the question, first glancing at the cube, and then regarding his brother.

“Carry the universe with you as you go,” he said, apropos of nothing. Then he nodded and returned to his writing.

God save me, Vince thought, shaking his head. He thought he might use the cube as a paperweight. It was certainly heavy enough.

***

Marlene was sleeping again.

When Vince returned to their apartment from the store he would usually find her waiting for him, but not lately. An empty wine bottle stood on the table by the sofa. She lay sprawled, one arm hanging wickedly over the side.

Vince closed the door and sat on the chair by the sofa. For a moment he studied the cube again, secretly marveling at his brother’s ingenuity, before setting it on the table by the wine bottle. One object contained the universe; the other the fading aspirations of a once-beautiful woman. But perhaps that was unfair. She was still beautiful, her body still carrying the essence of a voluptuous youth—inside she was fading, like an ancient print, the art of her released from its obligations as her potential faded like a poorly kept painting. She used to paint fairly well, dreaming of art shows and notoriety; but the art shows never manifested, nor the notoriety. Together they’d found new ways to insult the dreams of their youth. Alcohol was only one method. Supporting each other’s spiritual dissolution was another.

He knew their relationship would die one day, but not today.

He reached out impulsively to stroke her hair, trying to sense some connection to the past.

She stirred at the sensation, groaned, then rolled over on her elbow to face him.

He moved the hair from her eyes, and she smiled, perhaps remembering some pleasant dream, or perhaps it was only the wine’s effect.

“How was work?” she said.

“Same as always,” he said. “But a paycheck is a paycheck.”

“I thought you were stopping by to see your brother?”

“I did.”

“And you’re back already?”

“What’s the use in staying longer? I was only talking to myself.”

“You’re not trying hard enough.”

She didn’t seem drunk; this was either a testament to the strength of her constitution, or an indication that she didn’t drink nearly as much as he thought she did. In the back of his mind he’d hoped she would be drunk—that would have saved him from having to recount his evening in painful detail, something she always seemed determined to have him do no matter how many times he objected to being interrogated.

“I’m not a psychologist.”

“You’re mother seemed to do just fine with him.”

“My mother had a dedication to futility unmatched by mortal man.”

“So you keep telling me. But we all have responsibilities in life.”

“Responsibilities? That’s just a politic way of saying I have no life of my own anymore.”

She smiled halfway, a sardonic expression he hated, but which always seemed to follow his displays of self-pity.

“What was your life like before your mother died?”

He said nothing. He had no intention of recounting his mother’s virtues, or lack thereof. A beautiful, educated woman abandoned her life to care for a child that couldn’t begin to return that kind of love, and used up any love she might have kept for Vince as well. It wasn’t fair of Marlene to use her example, but he understood her intent and couldn’t really debate the point.

“That’s why we’re good together,” she said, still smiling. “We both talk a good game, but never follow through.”

She picked up the empty wine bottle, tilted it, examining it for any liquid still hiding at the bottom, then set it down again. Then she reached past the bottle and picked up the cube. For a moment she held it in both hands, feeling the weight of it, before raising it to her eyes to study it. When it grew too heavy, she held it on her knees and turned to him again.

“What is this?” she said.

He laughed. He couldn’t help himself.

“That’s exactly what I asked my brother.”

“Well?”

Vince, still hurt by her remark, decided to let it go for now. What good would it do to argue?

“He told me it was the universe,” he said, leaning closer. “I guess it’s one of his weird little projects.”

“It’s so heavy. What’s it made of?”

“The universe.”

“I’m serious.”

“That’s what he told me,” he said, leaning back. “And that’s when I left. He was writing again in one of his journals and didn’t seem interested in talking.”

“What’s he writing?”

“God knows. Gibberish, most likely.”

She nodded. “And he gave it to you?”

“I asked him if I could have it.”

“Why did you want it?”

Vince shrugged. “I can use it as a paperweight.”

“What papers do you have that need to be weighted down?”

He plucked it from her knees and held in it his hands. He really didn’t like being interrogated—it was one of her worst habits. Why did they stay together? He always complained of her need to know every detail of his existence, and she always criticized his negative perceptions of life. What was the equation? The product of two negative numbers is a positive number?

“I just wanted it,” he said. “I don’t really know why.”

“Maybe you do want some connection with him.”

He laughed again. “Please, no psychoanalysis. Not tonight.”

“It’s not psychoanalysis, it’s just common sense. You want to connect with your brother but you don’t know how.”

“Do you always have to do the opposite of what I ask you to do?”

“You’re afraid, and you know it,” she said, rising. She bent and kissed the top of his head perfunctorily. “All you have to do is talk to him. If he’s reluctant, just keep trying. You’ll get there. Ask him about his writing. Ask him about his work.”

“I’ve tried.”

“Really? Have you really tried, or just given a half-hearted effort like you always do?”

He bit his lip against his response. She liked to watch him lose his temper; it seemed to be her favorite hobby. But he wouldn’t, not tonight. His feelings were too conflicted.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

She stood quietly for a moment, then said, “I’m going to bed now. Coming?”

“In a few minutes,” he said, staring down at his hands. He needed those few minutes to regain control of his emotions.

When she left the room he picked up the cube again, then leaned back toward the lamp. Its density not only increased its weight, it also made the material fairly opaque. Still, faint glimpses of light shone through occasionally, quite beautifully. It seemed to contain something he couldn’t quite identify, some ordinary material that only appeared exotic in the cube’s configuration.

He set the cube on the table again.

Perhaps Marlene was right. Perhaps he did have to apply himself a little more dynamically before his brother would let him into his world.

After a few minutes he rose from the chair and walked toward the bedroom, hoping she was already asleep.

***

Over the next few days he considered various approaches to the problem of his brother. He’d watched his mother interact with Dominick of course; she was very good at coaxing him from his clinical self-absorption, but he hadn’t studied her technique—he’d always been more interested in escaping his mother’s devotion than emulating it. One family member trapped by circumstance was all the universe was owed, at least in his estimation.

But Marlene’s subtle accusations echoed in his thoughts and angered him even more than the thought of his responsibilities. They argued too often these days, and he wondered if Dominick was really to blame. Perhaps if he could normalize his relationship with his brother she might begin to think of him again as a decent human being. She seemed to be more emotionally distant the last few days and the change in her worried him. It wasn’t so long ago that they never used their own human failings as ammunition in an emotional war.

The next time he visited his brother’s apartment he immediately attacked his routine duties, picking up laundry and placing the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, closing cabinet doors and checking on the cleanliness of the bathroom, so he would have enough time to implement his plan.

Dominick barely noticed his presence—he sat reading under a lamp, a thick, difficult physics textbook whose pages turned with a disturbing quickness. Vince, standing in the hallway as he dried his hands on a towel, wondered if his brother was actually reading the book. As a boy, he would gloss over the pictures in comic books and beg Vince to read the continuity to him.

Vince had brought the cube with him in his coat pocket and had set it on the table by the sofa before beginning his chores.

Now he lifted it in his hand as he sat near his brother, feigning a close examination of it while surreptitiously watching Dominick.

“I showed your cube to Marlene,” Vince said. “You remember Marlene, don’t you? She thought it was very pretty.”

Dominick continued reading, though he seemed to nod briefly at the mention of her name.

“I told her that you said it was the universe. Do you remember telling me that? But she didn’t understand. Dominick, can you explain the cube to me so I can tell Marlene about it when I see her again?”

For a moment he thought his brother would simply continue reading and ignore him completely. But then Dominick cocked his head to one side, never staring directly at Vince, but offering his attention nonetheless.

“It’s the universe,” Dominick said.

“Yes, I know,” Vince said, leaning a little closer. “But what’s it made of? It’s a model, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s the universe. The universe is in the cube.”

“I know it might seem to you that the universe is in the cube, but it’s really not. Otherwise we would be in the cube, too, because we’re part of the universe. Don’t you see?”

“The universe is an energetic field held within its own properties of existence,” Dominick said in a toneless voice. “The energy field exists within a set of co-ordinates reflected in the space-time continuum that holds it, so it also exists within the dimensional representations of itself. But the continuum is timeless, it contains all times, even from the time it was very young. I calculated the co-ordinates for the universal timeframe from when it was very young and translated them into the cube, so the cube holds the dimensional co-ordinates for the early universe within its frame.”

Vince sat back a moment, amazed at the complexity of his brother’s statement. What in the world was he talking about? Vince wasn’t an uneducated man, but he wasn’t a scientist, either. He did, however, understand the use of obfuscating language, and so knew jargon when he heard it.

He leaned forward again, rotating the cube in his hands.

“But it’s just a block of glass or something,” he said. “This cube doesn’t hold the universe.”

Dominick’s mouth moved oddly, as if he were biting the inside of his cheek. Then he spoke again.

“No, it doesn’t hold the universe. It holds the dimensional co-ordinates in which the universe of that time exists. The cube is small because the co-ordinates reflect the size of the universe when it expressed itself within those co-ordinates.”

“That’s nonsense, Dominick. You do know that, don’t you? If this cube held the universe it would weigh trillions of tons. It would have an immense mass.”

“You’re thinking too conventionally,” Dominick said. “Gravity was created by the creation of the matter that influenced itself. The universe would have mass only relative to itself in its dimensional timeframe. When the universe was that small it didn’t express weight in the same terms because gravity didn’t yet exist in the way we know it now. The universe you’re holding is different from the one in which we live. In its own dimensional timeframe it has very little weight.”

Vince thought about this for a moment, then said, “That’s really clever, but if this is really the universe of billions of years ago wouldn’t it also express an enormous amount of energy? I only see a few specks of light inside.”

“Stars shine because of the nuclear reactions within them,” Dominick said. “When the universe was young those reactions hadn’t yet occurred. You’re still thinking in the wrong terms. You have to imagine the universe at its birth.”

“But if it was the universe we know, it would still have incredible mass, wouldn’t it?”

“Measured against what? Itself? There’s nothing outside of itself to use to measure it.”

Vince first smiled, then laughed softly to himself. He was amazed at his brother’s ability to create a fantasy of scientific nonsense.

“All right,” he said, “let’s just say all that’s true. How did you capture the universe in a cube?

“I didn’t capture the universe, only its co-ordinates.”

“Then how did you capture its co-ordinates?”

Dominick said nothing for a moment, then abruptly rose from his chair, letting the textbook clatter to the floor. He stumbled past Vince to his desk where he began sloughing through stacks of papers, pushing them indiscriminately to the floor.

“It’s in my notes,” he said, slapping the papers, then picking through them, occasionally peering at one like a profoundly nearsighted man.

Vince, startled by the display, stood quickly and waved his hand.

“Never mind, Dominick,” he said, watching his brother scatter pages everywhere, “it’s not important. You can show me later.”

Dominick abruptly ceased his assault on his papers, cast a sideways glance at Vince, then clumsily returned to his chair. He picked up the book and opened it under the lamp. The ensuing silence suggested to Vince that his brother considered the subject now closed. It was a strange, unemotional display that unnerved him.

He sat for a while studying his brother, perhaps too much like someone watching the behavior of an exotic animal in a zoo. But Dominick’s behavior was prosaic. Only his conversation was exotic, a finely woven tapestry of illusion. Still, he was functional in his own way. Only his quasi-autistic approach to life illustrated his human tragedy. He was no savant; their mother simply mistook his scientific gibberish for genius.

Vince, suspecting that he’d made absolutely no progress at all with his brother, slipped the cube angrily into his coat pocket and left the apartment.

***

Later that night, as he sat rotating the cube in his hand waiting to recount his limited success with Dominick, Marlene walked through the door and told him they needed to talk.

He wasn’t ready; he knew the subject had been on her mind, he knew she’d been on the verge of saying something but had always turned away from it at the last minute. Now the words found their way into the air, into his heart, and he felt the heaviness sink from his chest to his stomach.

She sat next to him, pulling a hand through her hair nervously, before speaking again.

“We have to talk about the future,” she said. “Our future.”

He set the cube on the table by the lamp, trying to steal a few seconds to organize his arguments. But they were the same old arguments, and he knew they wouldn’t survive close scrutiny.

“You’re not happy,” he said, more as a statement of fact than anything else.

“No, I’m not happy,” she said. She’d been drinking, but she wasn’t drunk. Perhaps she’d had one or two drinks to firm her resolve before returning to the apartment. “I haven’t been for some time. And I don’t think you’re happy, either. You haven’t been happy with me.”

“Yes, I have. I love you, Marlene.”

She smiled, a tired, beautiful smile that refused to mock his sincerity.

“I know you love me, Vince. But I don’t think you like me very much anymore.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is. I won’t make you say it, even though we both know we’ve been making each other pretty miserable these last few months.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, taking her hand. “After my mother died things went bad.”

“No,” she said, “that’s not true. They were going bad long before that. It’s not your mother’s fault, or your brother’s fault. This is our fault.”

He stared at her hand for a long time before raising his head.

“Are you leaving?”

She nodded.

“I talked to Karen about it,” she said. “I can stay with her until I find my own place.”

He released her hand. There was something final in the act, as if some connection had been abruptly severed.

“I know I haven’t been the man you hoped I’d be,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. And I’m sorry about getting you involved in caring for my brother.”

“It’s not that—”

“It’s exactly that,” he said. It was difficult keeping the anger from his voice when he spoke of it. “I’m chained to my brother forever, or until one of us dies. And that’ll probably be me. Not that my mother ever gave a damn about what happened to me.”

“You have to stop blaming your family for everything in your life, Vince.”

“Why shouldn’t I? Not only did she make me promise to watch over him, she left all her money in trust for him. Not a dime for me, not even a token gesture of her love. Why shouldn’t I feel some negativity?”

“She knew you could make a life for yourself, that’s why. She knew you wouldn’t have to depend on her like your brother did. What did you expect her to do?”

“I expected her to throw a little love my way,” he said. “I expected her share her life with me, too, not just devote herself to my brother. He’s emotionally dead, damn it, he can’t respond to love like a healthy human being. I don’t even think he knows what love is. And she expected me to take over where she left off.”

“You know, you’re really pretty good at feeling sorry for yourself. You should hear yourself talk about it as if you were in prison or something.”

“That’s pretty much all I have left, isn’t it? After you leave? Then what? Do you think a line of women is going to form outside my door for the chance to get involved with a guy who’s tethered to some mental defective? Isn’t that why you’re leaving?”

“No, it’s not,” she said, standing. “I’m leaving because we’re not good for each other anymore. Maybe we were never good for each other. I look in the mirror every morning and see the person I’ve become. I know I drink too much, too. It helps me forget what I see in the mirror. And I haven’t painted for a long time now, something I should never have let happen. Vince, I need a chance to be something more than I am. And you do, too. But I don’t think either of us will ever have the chance if we keep supporting each other’s worst qualities. That’s why I’m leaving.”

She began to cry, though fighting to remain in control of herself.

He didn’t rise to comfort her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, almost helplessly. It was the only thing he could think of to say that wasn’t a lie.

She calmed herself after a moment, then said, before turning toward the bedroom, “I’ll start moving my things tomorrow.”

He nodded, but said nothing.

When he was alone again he sat turning the cube in his hands, his mind filled with too many thoughts. He loved her, but felt poisoned by her, as much as she felt poisoned by him. He wouldn’t argue with her—he knew she was right, and was only vaguely jealous that she’d been the one to find the courage to initiate the process. He’d let his ambitions die long ago, and knew they weren’t ever going to return. Caring for his brother had been his most constructive use of time in recent memory, and yet he was decrying its imposition in his life.

If he could turn back time, perhaps he’d turn it back just far enough to recapture his lost ambitions, just far enough to make certain he didn’t lose his desire for a better life—

He envied Dominick his ability to live inside abstract concepts of the universe. Having no need for love and comfort left him free to enjoy a mindless existence in scientific delusions.

What do I do now? he thought.

***

A couple of days later he returned to his brother’s apartment through a dense rain, a sudden storm drowning out the grace of the perfectly beautiful stars. He’d stopped in a bar on the way, and knew it was a mistake to visit Dominick afterward, but he was just a little too drunk for self-restraint. He carried the universe in his coat pocket the entire way, having taken it with him when he left his own apartment. He and Marlene had had a loud, sober argument before he left; she’d come to get the last of her things, though he thought it might have been a cheap excuse to lecture him one more time before leaving. Go on, he’d said, leave already, I’m not in the mood for another sermon.

The rain had partially sobered him, though. By the time he got to Dominick’s door the pleasant haze of inebriation had softened into a sullen stupor. He was even able to slip his key into the lock on the first attempt.

He sat with a flourish on the sofa, his wet coat staining the cushions.

Dominick didn’t even raise his head from his notebook. His writing was fluid, unconcerned.

Vince smiled.

“How’re you doing, Einstein?” he said. “Working out the unified field theory for the rest of us?”

His brother failed to respond. Vince felt a subtle anger stirring in his chest.

“Marlene finally left me,” he said. “You remember Marlene, don’t you? Of course you don’t. You don’t even remember who I am.”

He laughed at this, wiping the rainwater from his face. Then he reached into his coat pocket and removed the cube. He stared at it a moment before placing it beneath the lamp.

“It’s just as well. We were only feeding on each other, like vampires sucking the blood from one another, only spiritually. Isn’t that a pretty picture? Now maybe we can both have normal, productive lives. Achieve great things, find a cure for cancer, who knows? Of course, neither of our accomplishments could ever compare with the product of your genius—”

He gestured extravagantly toward his brother, who still sat writing in his journal.

“No, of course not,” Vince said, staring at the cube again. “In order for a person to enjoy your level of genius he would have to be an emotionless robot, completely self-centered and dependent only on his own inner world to feel fulfilled. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that true, you God damned idiot?”

Vince waited for a response. Dominick kept writing.

Vince laughed, then almost choked on a hiccup.

“It must be a beautiful life for you,” he said, recovering, “to never be aware of the level of your incapacities, to never be aware of your own profound failure. Well I’m aware of my own failure, and let me tell you it’s no blissful revelation. So you keep writing, you keep peeling away the layers of creation, so the rest of us can worship at the altar of your genius.”

He sighed deeply, then held his face in his hands for a moment, intense memories filling his mind, of growing up, living with his obsessive mother, watching his only brother perform the muted rituals of the tiny world in which he lived; flunking out of college, jumping from one job to the next, finally settling with Marlene into a life that held some promise. Now the promise was gone and he was alone with his brother again, moved back in time to a place he’d never left. He lifted his face from his hands and stared at Dominick.

It wasn’t his fault, really. Left to himself he’d continue on until the food was gone, and then he’d slowly starve to death as he furiously wrote equations into a never-ending series of notebooks. His mother was really the only person keeping him alive; and now, it was Vince’s turn.

He rose from the sofa and pulled off his coat. The rainwater chilled him, made him shiver. He saw the cube sitting beneath the lamp, gleaming oddly in the light. He picked it up and stumbled toward his brother.

Dominick barely noticed his presence.

“What’s the secret of it all?” Vince asked, dropping a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Dominick, startled by the gesture, stared up blankly.

“You know it, don’t you?” Vince asked, holding the cube before Dominick’s eyes. “What’s it all about? What is the meaning of existence? What is the purpose of the universe?”

Dominick’s lips trembled, as if he were actually trying to formulate an answer.

“Dominick,” Vince said, “answer me. What’s it all about?”

For a moment only silence existed between them.

And then, after glancing quickly at the cube, his brother said, “The cube root of the universe is zero.”

Then Dominick stared down at his notebook again, fingering his pencil.

Vince stared at the moving pencil, almost hypnotized. Then he rose away from his brother and lurched back toward the sofa.

“I guess that’s it, then,” he said, staring fiercely at the cube. “It all comes down to zero, doesn’t it? I’m a zero, you’re a zero, Marlene’s a zero. Our mother was a phenomenal zero, and here we all are in the middle of the universe.”

Marlene was right—he sounded painfully self-pitying. Since there was no one else in the room to hear him, he found himself his own audience, and he didn’t like the performance. For once in his life he wished he could follow through on something meaningful, something that might benefit or change the world in some small way; something greater than the sum of so many negative numbers.

He held the cube to the light a moment, trying to find them all inside the ethereal gloom, but all he saw was darkness.

Then, suddenly furious at the futility of it, he turned to the wall and raised the cube over his shoulder.

“Maybe I can play God for once,” he said. “Let’s see what happens when it starts all over again.”

He hurled the cube at the wall with all his strength, hoping for some revelation.

But the universe only brought itself back to zero.