Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Real Genius

Abby Fung

His father was a genius and his mother was a poor, misunderstood soul. She was the Marilyn Monroe to his Arthur Miller. She could not help it if she was gorgeous, which had aroused the suspicions of his father’s university colleagues. Claire had endured it as long as she could, the subtle digs, the not-so-subtle put-downs, the insinuations that she was having an affair.

The summer after Gene had finished the first grade, Claire put him in the car and drove them through Connecticut and New York to Cleveland. This was the first leg in their cross-country escape from Jerry the Genius. Yet, the more distance they put between them and him, the more they fell under the shadow of his famous last name. Claire was still using Jerry’s credit card and every time they stopped at a gas station, they got the same reaction.

‘Are you related to Dr what’s-his-name, that guy who just won the Nobel Prize for cancer research?’ Jerry had graced the covers of Time and Newsweek and gone on all of the early morning talk shows, but his Polish-Russian surname, all harsh, guttural consonants, was still impossible to pronounce.

Everybody knew somebody who had died from cancer. Prostate and breast, which were considered cancers too scandalous to say out loud, were whispered. Some people even cried.

Claire waited a polite minute or two and then said abruptly, ‘Sorry, but we have to go.’ If they continued to babble on and on, she yanked a pack of cigarettes from her purse and lit one, blowing secondhand smoke rings into their faces until they subsided into silence. Then Claire and Gene ran for the car and shut the door quickly like truant school kids. Claire started the engine and stepped on the accelerator, and their whale of a car fishtailed it out of the parking lot. They were driving a Buick LeSabre in skylark blue, a heavy metal and steel contraption that sucked down gas like Coca-Cola. Every few hours or so, they had to stop and refuel and then the conversation would start up all over again.  

At night, they stopped in dusty motels built with wooden beams and slept in narrow twin beds pushed up against each other. 

That night, Gene propped himself up on his elbow and asked, ‘Is that why you left Dad?’

Claire’s voice was already heavy with the tinge of sleep. ‘Hunh?’

‘Did you leave Dad because he wouldn’t let you smoke?’

‘God no.’ Now Claire was fully awake. She laughed heartily, even maniacally. ‘Your father wanted me to smoke. He could not have cared less about me. It was everyone else he wanted to save. His damn messiah complex, you know.’ Gene remembered that it was the first time he had ever heard his mother swear.

They were rushing across the country to see Claire’s mother in La Jolla, where Claire had been born and raised. Claire’s father had advised Jerry’s graduate school dissertation and passed away shortly after their wedding. Claire had spent her whole life around geniuses, first her father and his friends and then Jerry and his friends. Jerry often reminded Gene that he had an excellent pedigree. He was the grandson of a famous geneticist and the son of a Nobel Prize laureate. He did not bother to mention Claire. 

Claire’s mother lived in a Spanish villa equidistant to UCSD and the beach. Every morning, Claire and Gene frolicked in the surf until the sun rose directly above them in the sky. If it had been up to Jerry, Gene would have calculated equations, learned a new language, or dissected a frog. Gene had a nagging feeling that his father would not have approved of a whole summer spent playing outside and he was grateful when school started up again in the fall.

Gene’s second-grade friends in La Jolla were almost identical to his first-grade friends in Cambridge. He had had visions of them as jocks and surfers, towheaded athletic boys who loved to swim and laugh, but most of his classmates had matted dark hair that fell forward into their eyes and face. Most of them had parents who worked at Scripps or UCSD, and they knew about Jerry, too. 

The divorce between Claire and Jerry was acrimonious. Even though alimony and visitation rights had been negotiated, neither was forthcoming. Once a year, Jerry managed to send a holiday present, which did not ever come on time, but landed in their mailbox after they had arrived home from Hawaii on New Year’s Day. The gifts were inappropriate, in Claire’s opinion. Once, it was a subscription to the scientific journal, Nature. Another time, it was a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary, which they already had in their library in La Jolla. ‘Jerry knows that,’ Claire groused to her mother, Adele. ‘He knows daddy had the exact same collection in our library here. He used to spend so much time in the library with Daddy.’ She acted like Jerry had sent the leather-bound volumes just to spite her. She narrowed her eyes into slits and pursed her lips so that a spray of spittle came out.

In the spring of seventh grade, Gene was invited to take a math exam during study hall. There were only five problems and all of them were hard. When the bell rang, the instructor ordered them to put their pencils down and Gene shook his head ruefully because he had failed to complete the last two problems. But he was his mother’s son, with a naturally sunny disposition, and he forgot all about it by the end of the day.

It turned out that Gene was some kind of genius. The school called Claire at home and told her he was one of twelve kids (only twelve kids!) in the nation who had gotten at least three math problems right. Gene could attend a college-level math camp over the summer free of charge. ‘Gene the Genius,’ Claire said bitterly. ‘First Daddy and then Jerry and now you.’ She did not want Gene to fly out to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She shook out a package of long, thin cigarettes from her purse and lit one. She inhaled, held her breath, and then exhaled with a satisfied and sensual Aaaah. In a throaty, conspiratorial voice, she leaned forward and whispered, ‘This is just another one of Jerry’s tricks.’

‘Tricks?’ Gene protested. ‘But he doesn’t even work on mathematics.’

Claire didn’t care. She waved her arms about, scattering smoldering embers that threatened to erupt into fires on their wine-coloured carpet. ‘What could you work on there that you couldn’t do here?’

Gene remained undeterred. ‘I dunno, lotsa stuff. Math stuff.’ Claire said he could go over her dead body. Gene decided to go anyways, and Claire lived and complained about it non-stop on their daily telephone calls.

The math camp instructors were graduate students at the university where Jerry taught, and although they were not in his department, they all knew who he was. They treated Gene with polite deference and gave each other knowing winks and glances when his name was called, as if he were a celebrity. One of them, Adam, said he felt especially close to Gene because he was dating a girl who worked in Jerry’s lab. 

‘So is Jerry your granddad or what?’ Adam finally screwed up the courage to ask Gene one day.

‘He’s my dad.’ Gene frowned and furrowed his eyebrows.

‘So are you staying with him?’

‘No.’ Gene’s hands jerked as he copied down an equation from the blackboard. He knew that Jerry had moved into a much bigger house than the one he had been born in, but he did not know where. Claire had steadfastly refused to tell him, and Gene and Jerry had lost touch. Gene erased the equation and wrote it out again very, very deliberately, ignoring Adam until the older boy eventually moved away.

By some strange twist of fate, Jerry showed up on the steps outside the classroom that afternoon. He hung back by the rhododendron bushes – lurking dejectedly like some sort of delinquent – until all the students and instructors had left for the day and Gene was finally alone. 

‘Hey son.’ Gene did not turn around. 

‘Hey Gene.’ Gene finally turned around and recognized Jerry after a long minute or two. Everything about him was grey – his hair, his face, his clothes. It was an ashen grey, the colour of twilight and decline, the fall of an empire. 

‘Hey,’ Gene squeaked out. His mouth tried hard to form the word ‘dad’ but his throat could not manage to squeeze it out. It just lodged there like phlegm. Gene swallowed, and silently followed Jerry home after Jerry suggested it. They walked together in silence.

Now Jerry lived in a large house with rambling trellises and a solarium. It was dark inside, with wood panelling that could be lit up by fireplaces on drafty winter nights. But right now, it was summer. In the house hovered a quiet woman, who looked obstinate yet meek. She looked obstinate when Jerry turned around, and she looked meek when he stared at her with his impenetrable, glassy eyes. 

‘This is my son, Gene,’ Jerry told her. He thrust Gene forward. Gene was a healthy youth, burnished golden brown from his time in the California sun. In contrast, she had a very pale, moon-like face, set against coal-dark hair. They stood awkwardly face to face, nearly the same height. Then she went into the kitchen to ‘fetch drinks.’ Those were her words, which made Gene think of a shaggy St Bernard dog. She came back with a tumbler of Scotch for Jerry and a glass of coke for Gene. They were both amber, nearly identical, except that Jerry’s drink contained ice and Gene’s didn’t. She clinked the ice around until it settled and then moved quickly away into the study.  

Jerry did not try to push himself on to Gene. Gene would not have stood for it if he had. Jerry simply asked Gene if he was enjoying math camp, and Gene said yes. Then Jerry asked Gene what they were working on. Gene showed him the math equation he had been struggling with all day and Jerry jotted down a few theorems, which were actually helpful. By the end of the night, Gene had managed to work out the entire proof.

It was satisfying, so satisfying, that Gene returned to Jerry’s house, uninvited, the following week. He made his way past neat clapboard houses still standing from Tory times until he saw a statue of Longfellow dressed up as a Greek philosopher. Longfellow wore a wreath of leaves around his head and stretched his arms out in intellectual exhortation. This was Gene’s signal to turn left. Sure enough, Jerry’s rambling trellises beckoned from the next block.

Gene made his way up the path to the back door and knocked tentatively. A blonde came to the door and told him Jerry wasn’t home. He was sure it was a different woman from the one he had seen here last week because she had a thick Southern accent.

‘Can I come inside and wait?’ Gene asked. ‘I’m Jerry’s son.’

She looked surprised but tried not to show it. Only the heightened arch of her pale, fair eyebrows gave her away. ‘I’m Lurelayne.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Lure-layne.’ She spelled it out slowly.

Gene studied the lists tacked with fruit magnets to the front door of the refrigerator. Lists of movies. Lists of books. Lists of tasks. It was all so orderly, like the lists Gene built and rebuilt in his head. 

Meanwhile, Lurelayne made tuna sandwiches and shook out a bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips. They brought their plates into the living room and watched TV on two armchairs (he on the right and she on the left) until they heard the wheels of Jerry’s car turn into the driveway.

Jerry opened the screen door in the back and let it slam while Lurelayne jumped to her feet and swept their tuna fish sandwich crumbs on to her plate.

‘Hi honey,’ she said as she tried to slide the plates into the kitchen sink unnoticed. She went over and stood next to Jerry but was careful not to touch him. ‘Did you eat yet?’

‘Of course,’ Jerry replied reproachfully, tapping the face of his watch for her benefit. ‘It’s already seven.’ He removed his barn jacket and his shoes, which were wet from the summer thunderstorm outside and placed them in the hallway closet.

When he turned around, he saw Gene. ‘Oh,’ he said finally. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Watching TV.’

‘They don’t have TV where you live?’

‘Not cable.’

‘What’s on cable?’ The suspicious voice came out again.

Law and Order.’

‘Oh.’ Jerry jerked his head up and down with approval. ‘I like Law and Order.’ He went into the living room and settled into the armchair in front of the TV where Gene had formerly sat. ‘You can sit over there, Gene.’ Jerry swept his arm magnanimously in the direction of Lurelayne’s seat, and Gene complied. 

Lurelayne got on her hands and knees and busied herself cleaning out the cinder-filled fireplace, then lit up three logs. The logs refused to light and she had to stand very close, stoking them with an iron poker until flames lapped at her hands and toes, threatening to engulf them. When the room finally grew warm enough, Lurelayne bustled into the kitchen to get Jerry a glass of Scotch, with ice, filled up three inches from the bottom, just like that other lady had done the last time Gene was there.

During the commercial break, Gene shifted his attention to the grandfather clock behind Jerry’s head. Jerry caught Gene’s eye, and together, in unison, they said, ‘133.’

‘Do you still do that?’

‘Of course!’ Jerry had taught Gene the multiplication tables by making him multiply the hour by the minute every time they passed a dial or a digital clock. Gene did multiple calculations every time he crossed the street. He had a childlike phobia of busy intersections and pacified himself by counting the number of cars in the street, gauging how fast each was going, and then arriving at the blended probability of an accident. Calculating numbers made Gene feel certain and secure. It filled him with an awesome power in the pit of his stomach. Seven minutes later, they called out ‘182’ gleefully, again in unison.

By the end of the summer, Gene had decided to stay in Cambridge. Claire flew all the way from San Diego to dissuade him, even though she hated flying with a passion. At the Greenhouse Cafe in Harvard Square, she ordered coffee without milk or sugar and sighed and fluttered her hands above the table. Gene saw that she had bitten her fingernails and the nibs of her cuticles down to nothing. She was so anxious she was going to eat herself whole. 

Gene told Claire he had already made up his mind. He had been born here, after all. He was the grandson of a geneticist and the son of a Nobel Prize laureate. He had to earn – no, to take – his rightful place in the family lineage. 

‘But I’m your mom,’ Claire pleaded. ‘We’ve lived together all your life, while you barely know anything about Dad.’

‘Dad isn’t putting me up to this,’ Gene told her, lifting his eyes skyward to recall the argument he had prepared so carefully in his head. ‘I’ve already made up my mind to stay and I’d like you to support me.’ His voice was patient but definite.  

The creases on Claire’s forehead deepened to lines, and her hands flew up in the air again, like those of an orchestra conductor. ‘Well, I don’t know what else to say.’

‘I guess there is nothing else to say.’ Gene push-ed his chair back and stood up. He did not trust himself to look back. He waited until there was a crowd nearly a dozen thick before he permitted himself to stare at her through the plate-glass window and saw her opening and closing her mouth like a fish.

At the end of the summer, Gene flew back to La Jolla to pack up his room. Claire moved circumspectly around Gene, giving him his space. She was afraid to talk, to set him off. On the last night, his room contained only a desk, a bed, and a bedside table, on top of which lay a giant conch shell.

‘So what do you think?’ Claire asked, sweeping her arms across the empty expanse of the room.

Gene picked up the conch shell, a prop he had used in a junior high production of Lord of the Flies, and blew it in her general direction. It emitted a loud noise and then he said good night, bowing slightly before he turned away. The next morning, Gene left for Cambridge. He still did not know what to say when he left Claire, standing bereft, at the airport.

On Friday, Gene’s boxes arrived in Cambridge from La Jolla, and he and Lurelayne spent all day unpacking the boxes (in his room) and the next day repacking all of the stuff he didn’t need (in the basement). On Saturday night, Jerry, who had been conveniently absent for the past two days, declared that it was time for a hike. 

Lurelayne expressed neither surprise nor excitement. She packed careful, virtuous lunches for all three of them: rice crackers, gluten-free sandwiches, and all-natural juice boxes, thrust into primary-colored coolant bags with Velcro seals. She gathered jackets, galoshes and umbrellas for all three of them (in case it rained) and then pulled the car out of the driveway and along the kerb. She did not even know yet where they were going. 

Jerry bent his tall frame into the front passenger seat of the Subaru station wagon at the last minute and said, ‘Why, hello there! Isn’t it grand that we’re going all the way up to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire today?’ He said this to Lurelayne but beamed at Gene in the backseat.

Jerry’s jovial attitude gave them permission to have fun. Lurelayne started up a Simon and Garfunkel CD and tapped the steering wheel in time to the rhythm of ‘Cecilia’ and ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’. When ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ came on, Jerry even bellowed the chorus in a cow’s bass voice while Gene bounced up and down in the back seat like a yapping poodle.

When they arrived, they parked at the head of the Skyline Loop, but went only a hundred yards before Gene realised that they had forgotten their lunch bags. Lurelayne ran back to the car to ‘fetch their Velcro bags’ while Jerry tied his shoes. When he had finished, Jerry sat on his haunches on a log and grumbled, ‘Just what could be taking her so long?’

He wanted to get going with the hike, which would take them about two hours, so they could get back before the sun set. At first, Jerry, Gene, and Lurelayne stuck close together like a small nomad family. Then they reached the top of a hill and Gene barrelled ahead, crashing through bushes and forest until he had lost them. When he turned around to see where they were, Gene tripped over a fallen branch, landed on a wet patch of discoloured leaves, and slid. At the bottom of the hill, he finally came to an abrupt stop and heard an awful snapping sound.

‘Dad,’ Gene wailed (the word tripped easily off of his tongue now). ‘I think I broke my ankle. Daaaaaaadddd – where are you?’

After several minutes, Lurelayne’s voice rose up dimly in answer to his. Lurelayne had been a nurse, and now she was authoritative and brisk and efficient. ‘Hurry!’ she said in her thick Southern accent as she crashed through the bushes. ‘Hurry. If we don’t get to him in time, the ankle will set like that and then it’ll be irreparable.’ The word ‘set’ sounded like ‘sit’.

Gene heard her molasses voice call out through the sun-dappled leaves and the pitter-patter of her breakneck run. But it was Jerry who arrived first. Jerry broke through the thicket just as Lurelayne called out again, urging him on, from someplace far away. 

‘Dad!’ Gene called out in relief.

Jerry rose up and moved towards Gene like a tall, omnipotent messiah. He took long, purposeful steps, and the look of a brilliant idea splayed across his face in mid-stride. A shaft of sunlight pierced the thick of that dark, green forest and shone directly upon Jerry. It ranged playfully over his face, hiding the lines and crevices to illuminate a youthful radiance.

Suddenly, Jerry stopped, retracted his outstretched hand, and refused to walk any closer to Gene, or to help him up. 

Gene fell back against the grass. His golden tan had faded to white. The throbbing pain in his ankle became so excruciating he could no longer feel it. He was about to pass out. But just before his eyes rolled into the back of his head, Jerry came over and knelt down by Gene’s side. ‘With this injury, you’ll never leave me,’ he whispered. ‘You’ll always be my very own genius, my Gene.’