One day in Grenoble

In retrospect, maybe bringing a severed head to the opera was not such a good idea.

The damn thing wouldn’t shut up.  All through the first two acts, there it was, under my coat, cracking wise.  People kept shusshing me.

It’d seemed like a good idea at the time, for reasons which, as you will soon see, had to do with a conversation I’d had back in 1948.  I was in Grenoble that summer, and one day I was relaxing at a sidewalk cafe, sipping Miller from a brandy snifter, and trying to feign interest in Hilda’s latest diatribe.  Hilda, an Olympic luge team turned actress, was more than half drunk that day, and grousing about some guy called Mario.

“Damn Mario,” she kept saying.  “Just damn him.  Who does he think he is?”

“Mario, I’d assume,” I said.  Hilda’s eyes narrowed, and I realized the question probably had been rhetorical.

“Thinks he’s somebody.  Thinks he’s le big shot.”  She downed a glass of wine, poured another.  “Okay, so he is a big shot.  That’s no excuse.”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

“Doctor.  Big research guy.  Director of the RCD.”


“Center for Dyslexia Research.”


“Big busy man.  Got no time for me.  Got time for bimbos, but no time for me.”

“But, Hilda, you are a b… ooh, shiny!”  Well, it was.

“And you know what?  You know what burns me up?  He gets away with it. He just walks all over anyone he feels like, and he gets away with it. You’d think after all this time someone would’ve hauled off and slugged him.  But no.  No retribution for Mario, no sir.  He just goes on living like a damn prince.”

This was getting out of hand.  I had to say something to buck her up. “Hey, Hilda, listen,” I said.  “We’re just infinitesimal motes in a gargantuan universe, you know?  And in an infinite universe, any possible finite microstate must recur in infinitely many places. Which means somewhere out there, right now, there’s an infinite number of Earths with an infinite number of Marios.  And some of those Marios get off easy, sure, but an infinite number of other Marios are right now are having their cojones ripped off by bull mastiffs.  Think about it!”

She lit a cigarette.  “What,” she asked, “are you talking about? Something like Poincare recurrence?  Only in the spatial domain?”

“Yeah, babe.  Yeah.  Poincare recurrence.  You got it.”

“And what,” she went on, fixing me with her steely gaze, “if the universe is finite?”

That stopped me.  I hadn’t even considered that possibility.  “OK, look,” I said, backpedaling furiously.  “We don’t know.  The universe could be finite.  Could be infinite.  But, look, babe.  Give ’em, what, about fifty, sixty years?  They’ll have the data.  They’ll have answers by then, and you know what, Hilda?  I predict they’ll find the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and it’s geometrically flat, and it’ll expand forever, and it’s infinite.  With an infinite number of Marios.  And an infinite number of bull mastiffs.  You wait and see, Hilda, I just know it.”

She blew smoke in my face.  “You little snot,” she said.  “What the hell do you know about Poincare recurrence?”

Well, the years passed, and sure enough, eventually, everything I’d predicted came true.  But I don’t know whether Hilda lived to see it. When she stood and walked away that summer day in 1948, that was the last I ever saw of her.

And that, I was about to say, is why I brought a severed head to the opera, but looking back over what I’ve written, I confess the connection is not as clear as I’d thought it would be.  Perhaps there was no connection.  Maybe I just imagined it.

Maybe not.

Finally, it was the intermission.  I took the head and stuck it, hatbox and all, in the lead soprano’s dressing room.  Then I went for a drink.