Iowa Writes

DAVID WATTS
An excerpt from "The orange wire problem," from the orange wire problem and other tales from the doctor's office


It's the Orange Wire Problem, he said. Then he leaned back in his camp chair and looked me straight in the eye, raising one eyebrow in a manner intended to say that, beyond question, everyone should know what the Orange Wire Problem is.


In this way he put me at a calculated disadvantage, simultaneously in a state of deficiency and curiosity. I now possessed the best combination of qualities for an audience about to be abused by a storyteller.


Dinner and dominoes had been cleared away, and the fire was crackling in the pit beyond our tired, rapacious feet. Though a member in good standing in this men's club for many years, I am seldom present at these late-night gatherings, partly because I am busy being busy, partly because I feel it strange to socialize without women present. What keeps me coming back is the opportunity to play the great classics in the club orchestra, where I play French horn, and the slow discovery that men in the absence of women are very different animals. They can actually be quite interesting. Without the drive for female attention men relax and open up a bit.


It's one of the fundamental ideas of the universe, he said, half figuring we thought he was lying, half tantalizing us with a possible truth.

It's the Orange Wire Problem, he said. Then he leaned back in his camp chair and looked me straight in the eye, raising one eyebrow in a manner intended to say that, beyond question, everyone should know what the Orange Wire Problem is.


In this way he put me at a calculated disadvantage, simultaneously in a state of deficiency and curiosity. I now possessed the best combination of qualities for an audience about to be abused by a storyteller.


Dinner and dominoes had been cleared away, and the fire was crackling in the pit beyond our tired, rapacious feet. Though a member in good standing in this men's club for many years, I am seldom present at these late-night gatherings, partly because I am busy being busy, partly because I feel it strange to socialize without women present. What keeps me coming back is the opportunity to play the great classics in the club orchestra, where I play French horn, and the slow discovery that men in the absence of women are very different animals. They can actually be quite interesting. Without the drive for female attention men relax and open up a bit.


It's one of the fundamental ideas of the universe, he said, half figuring we thought he was lying, half tantalizing us with a possible truth.


Then, as bait, he left a little agitated silence that called forth a feeling of awkwardness, knowing what was expected, knowing he required some kind of gesture to entreat him—just a little playful begging before he'd consent to go on.


I bit the bait. What is? I said.


Let me tell you about this, he said.


By this time of the encampment we'd already had the long dinner-table talks we always have about chemistry and health. Nicolas is a brilliant engineer, quick, authoritative, and, at the same time, an outspoken medical agnostic. Something in his past made him distrust doctors and the stuff they spew they call science. He took as his hero not James Watson or Francis Crick but Andrew Weil. He surfs the Net. He comes up with all the cancer preventatives and cures that sound, on the surface, astounding but, as I occasionally point out, lack the science to hold water.


Whereupon we would discuss again the opposing truths of Koch's postulates—the cornerstones of science, which hold that anything true is only observable as true in a strictly controlled circumstance and that it must, in identical circumstances, be able to be reproduced exactly—scientific method, in a word, as opposed to the art of empirical observation. I myself am a poet and somewhat of a doubter, one who has recognized the inadequacy of science as it is currently imagined to explain all the mysteries of the universe, and so Nicolas knew he had in me an audience that would not reject him outright.


[. . .]


Nicolas settled in. His audience settled in.


It promised to be an adventure into the intuitive.


My friend built a car, he said. From the nuts up. I watched him out in his back yard with parts spread all around, smoking like meteors from a lava shower. Months this way he was out there tinkering and swearing.


Nobody moved. Nick was on a roll.


It was an obsession. He skipped meals, missed meetings, let the phone ring…Finally, in springtime, he finished. A glimmering red Maserati-like bitch of a car—and he'd built every goddamn inch of it.

I went out with him. Towed it to a spot in the country with a lot of road and not a lot of cops. Fired it up, and it ran great! Topped out at a hundred ten. Only one problem. . .


Now if I'd been able to move my eyes at this point, I would have seen that our circle had grown, attracting other listeners like tufts of lint to a ball of static electricity.


Everything was great. . . except for one little thing. Ran fine. Handled good. But as soon as the engine warmed up—he paused here for dramatic effect—it quit.


[. . .]

So my friend took the car apart right down to the frame and built it back again. . . Same damn thing.


So I told him, listen, what you need is a psychic.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


DAVID WATTS

David Watts practices medicine in San Francisco. A poet, musician, television host, and teacher, he is the author of Bedside Manners and Slow Walking at Jenner-by-the-Sea. He also produced Healing Words: Poetry and the Art of Medicine, which was broadcast nationally on PBS in the summer of 2008.


Established in 1969 and housed in the historic Kuhl House, the oldest house still standing in Iowa City, the University of Iowa Press publishes scholarly books and a wide variety of titles that will appeal to general readers. As the only university press in the state, it is dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the region.

UIowa Press

This page was first displayed
on March 11, 2009

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