Scribbles: Beaker's Theorem
copyright 1995 Brian D. Jones
“Like the man said, ‘if it ain’t true, it ought to be.’”
I sort of woke up at that. Not because it was a profound or original thought, (it was neither), but because it was the first thing Wide Dread had said as long as I’d known him. It may have been the first thing he’d said since he walked through the sally-port, because nobody else in here had ever heard him speak, either. Wide Dread’s lack of conversation was a topic of conversation among the population inside, in a manner of speaking. Or not speaking. Anyway, that sentence started a conversation worth remembering, so I did. You’re reading what I remember, and Wide Dread’s right; if it ain’t true, it ought to be.
So, like I said, I woke up a bit when that sentence picked Wide Dread’s liplock and escaped into that fine June morning.
Looking back, maybe the setting was what started it. Nothing but a perfect Sunday morning- not too hot, little puffs of breeze to evaporate the sweat from your forehead just before it trickles down your nose, fluffy cumulus clouds decorating the sky, and no work. As I said, nothing but a perfect Sunday morning.
But, in prison, nothing is something.
Wide Dread and I had assumed our usual warm weather goofing -off positions, sprawled on our backs on the old bleachers along the softball diamond’s third base line, propped on our elbows, faces tilted to the sun like a pair of sunflowers dressed in Bureau of Prisons o.d. This was as close to freedom as we got. Maybe that feeling of freedom inspired Wide Dread to furlough some words. I don’t know. I wasn’t worried about examining his motivation at the time- I was more concerned that the sound of my jaw hitting the ground would startle the big bastard into shutting up. I figured, if it was important enough for him to say it, it was important enough for me to listen to.
So, in my calm, cool, collected way, I casually turned to Wide Dread and asked, “What did you say?”
He opened his eyes, turned his big head toward me, and repeated,
“Like the man said, ‘if it ain’t true, it oughta be.’”
I nodded my head a few times, like I was pondering the wisdom of Dread’s unexpected utterance. Then I raised the ante.
“If what ain’t true, it oughta be?”
“Just thinkin’ out loud.”
I clenched and unclenched my fists, wrestling with the urge to slug the obtuse joker. First thing he says in the four years, eight months and twenty-two days that I’d known him, and now he gets coy on me.
I really didn’t have to work all that hard to restrain the slug urge. Wide Dread is called Wide Dread for a reason- he looks like an African-American bulldozer with braids. Assaulting the man might jumpstart his story, but I wouldn’t hear it if my eardrums were introducing themselves to my colon. I decided to take a more diplomatic tack.
“What are you thinking about, Wide Dread?”
“Prison. Do you realize that prison is a place filled with hope?”
It’s an old joke on the inside. I hand Dread the punchline.
“Yeah. I hope I get bail, I hope I get a visit, I hope I get parole...” I smiled.
Wide just looked at me and shook his head like my fourth grade teacher that time I said the capitol of Montana was “M”. What the hell? Here’s a guy who’s talking for the first time in years, looking at me like I’ve just failed an exam for which he’d tutored me.
“No, Intel. No joke, man.”
He got this look in his eyes like he was gazing across a white sand beach at foamy blue breakers cresting a reef that I couldn’t, and never would, see.
“No, my friend, prison is a place where hope truly exists. Maybe the only place. Here, high school dropouts, given enough time, can get law degrees. Anarchic killers become devout pacifists. Rapists grow vegetables and violets. Embezzlers learn how to sculpt. Only in prison is all of this possible. Do you know why, Intel?”
My mouth was swinging wide open again, and I just sort of wiggled my head in a negative fashion. I was stunned. Not only was Wide Dread talking, he was sounding intelligent! I felt the same way a father would if his infant started quoting Shakespeare during dad’s “This Little Piggy “ routine: amazed, elated, proud, and a little ashamed of my condescension. And a little defensive. I mean, the guy’s as big as a house, tough as a tank, and mute as a fish, he’s got to be dumb as a rock, right? It was a logical assumption... wrong, but logical. My conversation with Dread was proving revelatory.
“Time, Intel. Here in prison, we have a stockpile of the world’s most precious commodity, our only unrenewable resource.
Given enough time, various natural forces will create more oil, more gold, more diamonds, water, trees.
But what creates more time? When a moment has passed, how do you replace it?
Inside these walls we don’t have gold, or oil. What resources do we have?
The one thing they can’t take away from us.
And some of us have lots of it .”
He was losing me. “Yeah, okay Dread. What’s your point?”
“Have you ever thought of escaping, Intel?”
Wide Dread’s eyes were twinkling, and he wore a thin little smile on his grille. His question wasn’t as funny to me as it was to him.
“Ha. You’re a fuckin’ laff-riot, Dread.”
It wasn’t funny at all.
Escape was all I thought about
My name is Giovanni Marcuzzi. Yeah, I know, to earn a label like that, my parents must have hated me from birth. I also know what your next assumption will be: Italian name, in jail, must be mafioso.
Both my parents are professors at Michigan State. I grew up in Ann Arbor, graduated high school at fifteen, got a scholarship to one of the three-initial ivy-league schools, the whole child prodigy schtick.
I got into computers. Hacking, phreaking, virus bombs, you name it. Hooked up with a network of like-minded cyber-geeks and hacked into the world of big-time computer crime. I ate, drank, and slept PIN numbers, passwords, and defense algorithms. I was sort of a computer savant. I couldn’t pass English or History without cramming and tutoring, but I could get you an American Express Platinum card, erase your criminal history and change your gpa to 4.0 on your college transcript in about fifteen minutes.
I got caught punching The Big One.
I had hacked into the DoD’s Pentagon mainframe and was tying payroll and logistics functions in knots with Merry Christmas goto loops. ‘Twas the season, after all. The Department of Defense went ballistic, (no pun intended) and nailed four of us still sitting at our terminals.
Big Brother can move damn quick when he wants to.
My three cohorts fingered me as the brains of the operation. Kind of flattering, considering the fact that I was a sophomore and they were all MSc. post-grads. Flattering as hell until the judge gifted them each with three years probation, and sentenced me to the guideline’s max:
Forty-five years, Federal time, which means no early release, no good time, no parole.
Harsh? Like the judge said, “One man’s hip little cyber-crime is another man’s treason and sedition. I’m the other man. Your game is over.”
Life behind bars, effectively. I was eighteen when I was sentenced, and would walk out the front gates into the world no sooner than age sixty-three.
Not an attractive future.
It’s the only goal I’ve got left. I’ve flushed away more escape plans than toilet paper in my cell.
I will break out.
Given enough time.
Oh, the “Intel” tag? I was branded with that in here. You’ve seen the label on the case of a CPU, the one that says “Intel Inside”? Some cons have seen it, too. Now I’m Intel, inside. Get it? I’m stuck with it, until I’m sixty-three.
“Sorry, Intel, I didn’t mean to belittle you, but you prove my point. This place is an excellent research facility. Your time is your own. No worries about bills, dates, mortgages, insurance, anything. The administration makes most of your decisions for you- what you eat, when you eat, when you have to be in your cell, when you work, even where you work. It allows you to turn your mind to other tasks.
And that means that anything is possible.
Did I ever tell you why I am in here, in this prison?”
“Uh, no, Wide Dread. This is the first time you’ve ever talked to me.”
“Right. Sorry, Intel. As I was saying, prison inmates have more time to think than any scientist, researcher, or think-tanker in the country. Use that time wisely and the results can be surprising.”
“I was transferred from FCI Lompoc in California. I was imprisoned there on a drug offense, not an unusual crime for a young man of my socio-economic class. My sentence was fifteen years. Now, I don’t know how long I’ll be a guest here.”
I was a bit puzzled.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
Every con knows how long he’s been in, and knows what day he’s getting out. It’s the only goal you have inside. Getting out keeps you going on.
“Hold on, Intel, I’ll get to that. Now where was I?”
Dread closed his eyes as if prompting himself.
“Right. I spent six years in Lompoc, and for the last two my cellmate was an older guy from Berkeley. I don’t mean older as a euphemism for retired, I mean older than me. He was a fading hippy, I guess that would be the best description. His hair was grey-streaked blond, tied back in a ponytail, and he had a scraggly beard that looked like it was going grey faster than his hair, which was receding faster than it was greying. Anyways, he was a little guy like you, about five-seven, but skinnier. Scrawny would be more accurate, and I soon understood why. His brain was so busy working on other things, he often forgot to eat. That reinforced my assumption of his intelligence; forgetting to eat this shit shows outstanding intellect.”
I grunted my agreement; you don’t see restaurant critics beating down the gates of Federal prisons looking for culinary secrets.
Wide Dread adjusted his bulk on the bleachers and continued.
“His name was Paul, and although I know his last name I won’t tell you, ‘cause it’s not important, and it could cause problems later. We all called him Beaker. I don’t know who came up with the tag, but it was universally adopted in Housing Unit 3-Baker. Beaker was down on a manufacturing beef. Interesting case- he was manufacturing a hallucinogen that no one had ever seen before. According to him, and I will add that Beaker’s opinion was supported by experts at his trial, according to the transcripts, his drug had no side effects, no physically addictive components, just a pleasant four to eight hour mind-expanding high. Beaker figured he couldn’t be busted because his formula wasn’t on any controlled substances list. If the suits couldn’t say it was illegal, he couldn’t be busted, right?”
The logic worked, so I nodded. Then my prison-born-and-bred cynicism kicked into gear.
“Logic aside, he still got busted, though, right? What happened?”
“He got busted like every other white man from
,” he snorted, “nailed dispensing good cheer at a Grateful Dead concert in Berkeley . When are these dumb academic motherfuckers gonna learn that there are more cops interested in what you’re sniffin’ than rich kids groovin’ on Jerry’s riffin’?” Oakland
Wide Dread hung his head sorrowfully before continuing.
“Some folks spend an awful lot of money on schoolin’ and never learn a damn thing. Beaker wasn’t even charging for the stuff. “
Dread barked another snort of contempt.
“Shit, in Compton, we may be undereducated in everything but ebonics, but we’re still smart enough to get paid! Beaker was just giving his shit away, like it was still the sixties and peace and love and all that bullshit still meant something. He figured that if he wasn’t taking payment, he wasn’t dealing- if he got busted, he couldn’t be convicted. Beside, his little potion was brand new-”
“...and if it’s not on the controlled substances list it’s not illegal.” I interrupted helpfully.
Wide Dread’s eyes narrowed and his brows met in a deep, dark, angry looking crease above his nose. I was scared he might hit me, and more scared he might just shut up. His tale had hooked me, and I wanted to hear the rest. Luckily, all I got was a verbal warning.
It was enough.
“My story, Intel. Don’t try to steal my thunder. I’ll tell it my own way, in my own time.”
His eyebrows returned to neutral corners and he clapped me on the back to demonstrate that no harm was done.
I had the bruise for a month.
He got back on track:
“You’re right, Intel. Beaker thought he was untouchable. The DEA disagreed. They decided that if he was giving it out, and people were enjoying it, and it wasn’t in a bottle that had been taxed, it must be illegal. According to Beaker’s sentencing transcript, the judge agreed. I’m paraphrasing here, but the judge said something like, ‘ I see the list of controlled substances as a guideline, and anyone with any common sense should see that this, whatever it is, should be included. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’m inclined to include it with the ducks. Whatever it is.’”
“Beaker took the max: twenty-five for manufacture, twenty-five for distribution, and five for conspiracy, concurrent. And he hadn’t even named the stuff yet.”
“Turns out chemistry was only Beaker’s hobby. He was, by vocation, a free-lance physicist. He called himself ‘an electron-gun-for-hire.’ He worked on projects for a variety of different companies, dabbling in this and that. I won’t pretend to know what he worked on, or for who, but I will tell you that he usually lost me about seven words into a conversation. I’m not stupid, but Beaker was beyond intelligent; he was on a whole different level from anyone I’d ever known, not that I ‘ve ‘zactly been hangin’ at MIT, or nothin’.
“He was pretty quiet his first week in, like most virgins, but he wasn’t scared like most, you know? He wasn’t tough, or cocky, just seemed real sure of himself, like no one else was in his world. One unusual motherfucker.”
I remember my first week. I almost crapped myself if anyone spoke to me, and I sweated non-stop. Maybe Beaker hadn’t heard the same stories about prison I’d heard. This place was a real culture shock, and more than one night I’d cried myself to sleep.
Some nights I still do.
If you’re not scared shitless coming in off the street, you should see a psychiatrist. This is prison! No one should like it, or be indifferent to it, for Chrissakes. You’re supposed to kick and scream and resist incarceration. That’s why it works.
“He spent most of his time lying in his bunk. At this point I’m trying to figure this squirrel out. I mean, here’s a guy facing serious time, and he doesn’t seem to give a shit. Just a little out of character, especially for a first offender. The second week, things got stranger. Beaker started spending all of his spare time sitting at the desk, filling notebook after notebook with these complex equations. I don’t think we’d said more than thirty words to each other since he’d been on the count, but this was sufficiently different, I had to ask.”
Again I nodded. Prison literature usually consists of GED workbooks, letters to Penthouse, lawsuits, and the painstaking calculations necessary to decide if you can afford a pack of smokes from the commissary this week, or whether it’s two-for-three again. Most inmates can’t spell algebra.
“As I said, Beaker usually lost me about seven words into a conversation, and this was our first real conversation, so I was lost. I wagged my head and tried to look thoughtful, not that it mattered much- I think Beaker just liked talking about something that he knew. I’d ask a question that I hoped was intelligent, and he’d blather on for about ten minutes, then sort of trail off, and I’d ask another question, and he’d give me another answer I didn’t understand, and so on. We went on like this for quite a while. Months, in fact. I even began to understand some of it.
“Beaker told me he was working on a ‘resonance’ project. I asked what he meant, and he showed me all of his notebooks of calculations, you know, x=3y, pi r squared, shit like that. Then he tears into a rant on Coulomb’s Law and Aether Theory and fractals and Newton’s laws and that was something I finally understood. You heard of m’man Isaac Newton, right?”
“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” I confirmed.
Wide Dread laughed.
“That’s the shit. Anyway, Beaker said 'exactly' and stopped there. Now, I was kinda intrigued, so I leveled with him and told him I didn’t understand a goddamn thing he was sayin’, and could he give me the layman’s version? ‘No problem,’ he replied, and explained in basic terms what he was working on. It was out there, man. Where the buses don’t run.”
“What was it?”
Dread took a deep breath.
“Beaker had this idea about what he called ‘molecular resonance theory’. Resonance is basically a fancy term for vibrations. Everything vibrates naturally at the molecular level, and Beaker had taken that and combined it with basic molecular and sub-atomic particle science and come up with what he called his ‘flour sifter theory’.
“He asked me if I knew what a flour sifter was, and I said ‘yeah, like a coffee can sorta thing witha crank on the side and a screen for a bottom,’ and he laughed at that like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He said I had an ability to succinctly describe the obvious, which pleased me at the time, but looking back, it was a pretty patronizing, wasn’t it? Anyway, he said ‘grains of flour are smaller than the holes in the screen in the bottom of the sifter, right? But when you pour flour into the sifter, it won’t fall through the screen on it’s own, will it? The sifter has to be agitated, the handle has to be turned, it has to vibrate, resonate, and all the particles have to be in harmony before the flour will sift through. Molecules are like the flour and the sifter. I’m trying to prove that if you get two disparate materials to resonate sympathetically, one will pass through the other with no damage to either one! Even with dense metals like lead or uranium, the distance between the molecules is much larger than the molecules themselves, so, in theory, selective molecular resonant alignment is possible.’
“By the time Beaker got to that last part, he was hardly able to sit still. His hands were waving, his butt was wriggling around on the chair, and he had this light in his eye that was scary. Intel, he looked insane. Right then, I knew what a mad scientist looked like, because one was bunkin’ in my house, yo. Beaker had filled eighteen notebooks with equations and formulas trying to find the perfect vibrations. Eighteen! In prison. With no lab, no computers, not even a calculator.”
“That does seem a little beyond the norm,” I again agreed.
Wide Dread rolled his eyes.
“No shit, whiteboy. Anyways, the little guy had put months of effort into this, so I didn’t laugh at him, but I did write off our conversations as a monumental waste of time. I mean, I was obviously dealing with a state hospital candidate here. He sounded brilliant, but this whole deal was nuts.
“We didn’t talk much after that. Beaker continued to scribble in his notebooks, and I played solitaire and read Sidney Sheldon. We still got along, no drama, just in our own separate worlds. Just like that first week.
“I guess it was about eleven months later, I come back from my job in the paint shop, and something in my crib was different. The cell seemed emptier. Then I noticed it; Beaker’s stack of notebooks was gone.
“ I mentioned it to Beaker when he came back from his library job, and he looked at me with those wild eyes and said he’d gotten rid of them. All that work.”
Risking an ass-kicking, I butted in.
Dread threw me another deathstare.
“Fuck, that was my question. Why? Beaker says ‘the equations and proofs weren’t important, believing them was. Nobody has to prove to you that two plus two equals four, you simply believe it. ‘ He believed he was right, so the calculations didn’t matter.
“Beaker had either gone all the way ‘round the bend, or he’d finally come to his senses. The Doctor Frankenstein look in his eyes told me it was more likely the first, not the second. I figured he’d move on to some other obsession, like mathematically proving the existence of Elvis. Maybe Beaker had always been like this. He didn’t seem all that choked up about getting rid of his books, so I didn’t give it no more thought. We chowed separately, like usual, I played some solitaire, Beaker read a little, lights out came, and I crashed. Same old, same old.
“Until I was very rudely awakened at first count the next morning by two unsmiling, sweaty, palefaced guards... backed by the goon squad, in full shakedown bust-up gear, batons and all.
“I was informed that my two-man cell was one man short on the count, and since I was there, Beaker obviously wasn’t, so could I please tell them WHERE THE HELL HE WAS?”
Dread threw back his head and laughed until tears ran down his scarred cheeks. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and continued with his tale.
“Intel, they took me to the hole, SOP, locked the whole unit down, and tore the cell apart. No tunnel, no Beaker. The door was still locked when they rousted me, so he hadn’t gotten out that way. Even if he had, there’s a guard forty feet away, and that night it was Burke, and he’s so straight his fuckin’ price can’t be paid on this mortal coil... incorruptible.”
Again, my own knowledge backed Dread’s logic: You can pick a lock open, but you can’t pick it closed, and even if you could, why bother? Beside, all Fed joints have different locks on each unit access door and sallyport, and constant guard patrols. Unless you own a guard, you’re not walking out through the doors. Period.
“The bars on the windows weren’t cut, the bricks were all solid, and they even took me down to the infirmary and x-rayed me to make sure I hadn’t eaten the little bugger. Beaker had completely disappeared.
“Ninety days later, they shipped me here, straight from the hole. It’s been almost five years, and still no sign of Beaker.
“I think that’s one file that will always remain open.
“I’m a bit of an embarassment to the Feds now. They don’t want to believe that Beaker escaped, because it’s impossible. They would love to charge me with taking him off the count, but there’s no proof that I killed him. No blood, no remains, and my belly x-ray was clean.”
He saw the question in my eyes and quickly continued.
“I didn’t. Beaker simply ceased to exist where he was supposed to exist, and it’s hard for a human brain to grasp that concept. Especially a Fed-crat brain. For lack of any better strategy, the Bureau of Prisons keeps a close eye on me. My cell is definitely bugged, and the guards check my cell twice as often as everybody else, hoping to catch me doing something.
“I’ve been silent since Beaker’s departure; it’s safer that way. I tend to lose cellmates because of it. Most cons think it’s kind of creepy.
“I’ve also been quiet because I think better that way, and I think about Beaker’s vanishing act a lot. I think about the gleam in his eye, and I’ve come to a conclusion: It wasn’t insanity, it was excitement. He’d found the answer, the brass ring, the way out. He was crazy like a fox.
That’s my tale. As I said, if it ain’t true, it oughta be.”
He looked at me.
I looked at him.
A long moment passed on the warm breeze.
“Wide Dread, you are so full of shit, I’m gonna change your tag to Septic Tank. First speech you make in almost five years and this is it? I don’t buy it. A guy disappears by vibrating? Why not just say Scotty beamed him up?”
I sat up on the bleachers and ticked off the plot holes on my fingers.
“No equipment. No vibrators, or resonators, or any such shit, oh shit, now I’m inventing gadgets that don’t exist , to fit some theory that doesn’t exist! I’m starting to buy what your selling! Dread, I’m sorry, but it’s im-fucking-possible.”
I saw in Dread’s eyes what he must have seen in Beaker’s. He looked insane, but triumphantly insane.
“You’re missing the point, Intel. I agree it probably is bullshit, but Beaker believed it, and that’s all that really mattered.
“Science is really only another religion. Pi r squared works because we believe. The square root of sixteen is four because we believe. The world is round, because we believe.
Dread got up and dusted off his jumpsuit.
“If you believe and hope, anything is possible... given enough time.”
The mad light faded from his eyes, and Wide Dread started down the bleachers.
“Let’s go eat.”
Dread disappeared before morning count.