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art by Jonathan Westbrook

What Jerry Knows

Shane D. Rhinewald was raised and continues to live in Western New York. Heís a public relations professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when thereís hockey on TV, of course). He remembers his mother sitting at the kitchen table and writing down his childhood stories of knights and dragons long before he could handle a pen. He owes this one to her.

Jerry sits in his favorite chair--the one with the red, plastic back. He says the others just don't feel right. His eyes dart around the room with boyish wonder, but they're a man's eyes, milky with cataracts, edged with wrinkles. He looks at the black and white pictures on the wall depicting historic events and gives me the date (down to the time of day in some cases) for everything from the Kennedy assassination to the shooting at Columbine.
"Jerry, how do you feel today?" I ask, tapping my pen. Every session starts with a similar line of questioning; Jerry likes the routine. "Do you know how you feel?"
"No," he says. His eyes return to the pictures on the walls, and he launches into a lecture about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He likes to say Khrushchev.
I let him finish. "Do you know what a savant is, Jerry?"
His tongue flicks across his lips. He recites, "A person with a developmental disorder that has one or more areas of expertise, ability, or brilliance that contrasts with the individual's overall limitations."
"And do you know any savants?"
"No," Jerry says. He sounds disappointed, but a picture of Dwight Eisenhower delivering the presidential farewell address distracts him.
"Think about my question again. Do you know any savants, Jerry? Do you know someone really good at something, someone really smart?"
He ignores my question and tells me that Eisenhower was the 34th president and died on March 28, 1969. It was a Friday.
"OK. A new question then, Jerry. Do you know what planet we're on?"
That gets his attention. He points at a picture of an astronaut putting a flag in a green field.
"It's not a planet. It's Baglioni VIII, the smallest moon of the gas giant Telious III, which revolves around a sun half the size of the one Earth does. We're 8.2724 light years from Earth, or 8.27243 if you want me to take it out another decimal. Or--"
"That's good enough, Jerry," I say. "Do you know why we left Earth?"
He shakes his head and demands juice. I tell him he'll have to wait until we're done talking, and after promising him both apple and cranberry, he agrees to continue answering questions.
"Tell me about the Third World War," I say, pointing to a picture on the wall showing a torn American flag being raised by two bloodied soldiers.
"The Third World War started in 2107 AD as a proxy war between Israel and Iran, through which the United States and Russia reignited the Cold War," he says. He adds with a laugh, "Khrushchev. Khrushchev."
"And what happened to the oceans after?"
He pauses. "The fallout from the war ate a hole in the ozone layer that caused the icecaps to melt more quickly, and the oceans rose 20.45 centimeters a year."
"And what did that mean for humanity? What did people fear? What was the feeling at the time?"
Jerry shrugs. He'd rather point out more pictures and fire off the dates of key events in the Third World War, ending with the Truce of Earth on May 2, 2121. When he finishes, he shouts that he wants his juice now, so I put my notepad aside and go ask an aide to fetch it for him. While she's gone, I resume my line of questioning.
"Jerry, do you know the formula that made anti-matter propulsion possible?"
He tells me, and I understand none of it. It's just strange names and numbers that sound like mindless ramblings.
"And do you know it's your formula? You came up with it, Jerry. You created that."
Jerry just fiddles with the sides of his chair. The aide returns, and he sips his juice while I tell him how he helped get some people off Earth with his scientific breakthroughs. I tell him that without the advances in technology his mind helped unlock, we'd still be stuck in our own solar system. He complains that the cranberry juice tastes like a different brand than last week.
"Do you know a lot about spaceships, Jerry?"
He smiles--or at least I like to think he does. He goes on to tell me all about how they work, down to the individual lines of code in their navigating software. Ships are his favorite, he tells me, because of all the numbers involved. Everything in the universe works because of numbers. Lots and lots of them. He sees them in his head and considers them his only friends.
When he finishes, I ask, "Do you know that you're a special man, Jerry?"
He knows that the Milky Way Galaxy is 7.85 trillion cubic light years in volume. He knows that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. He knows that a uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which six are valence electrons. But he doesn't know that mankind owes him a debt of gratitude--and he probably never will.
"Well, you are a special man, Jerry," I say, smiling. I touch his arm. "And not just because you helped save humanity."
He sips his juice.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Author Comments

Iíve always been fascinated by savants. Thereís something beautiful yet sad about their brilliance--itís the brain at its finest and perhaps also at its worst. I wanted to explore that dichotomy and use it as a tool to tell a larger tale about our future.

- Shane D. Rhinewald
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