A Visit With Jenkins

A Visit With Jenkins

I went and saw Jenkins again yesterday. He’s funny, the old man, the way he always seems somewhere else, the way he putters around his tile floored kitchen, the way the wood in his house smells wet even here in Arizona. It’s like a spring is there in his house, or maybe that he himself is a spring, and everything he is near drips with the water of the Earth he is connected to.

When I knock at his door, I feel immediately as though I’m knocking at Bilbo Baggins’s door, though Jenkins’s door isn’t round. I’m transported. It’s because I sense all sorts of things on the other side of the door. A tea kettle whistles. Pipe smoke leaks through. An AM radio murmurs. All the while Jenkins’s sweet old voice dances around as he talks himself through his day.

“Just a bit more..”

I knock at the door again.

“If only a spot..”

Something falls and bounces off the wooden floor.

“There it is, too-da-loo..”

Finally, the door swings open. His hair is the first thing I notice, though I’ve seen it thousands of times. It’s bright grey and sticks out from his head incongruously, not unlike a well-known scientist of the 19th century. But his face is puckered, as though his button nose were an axis pulling all the other parts inward on itself.

“Charles!” He reaches quickly for my hands, both of which are occupied by things I brought him. He takes hold of one of my wrists anyway and gives it a shake, and I drop his newspaper because of it.

“You’re getting clumsy in your old age, Charles,” he says, stooping over quickly and grabbing the paper. He turns back to his kitchen, chuckling, into which I follow him with a limp.

“Knee still troubling you?” he asks.

I grunt, annoyed at his spryness.

The room looks just as it sounds. Everything is made of wood, stone, and glass. In an age of metal and plastic, his home is a relic, much like Jenkins.

“I’m only 44,” I say to him.

“Oh, I suppose you think I’m the one getting old,” he says over the tea kettle that is still whistling. “But I’ve never felt younger.” When he looks at me there is a brightness in his eyes, and his little mouth turns up in a yellow smile. Jenkins has smoked a pipe every day since the day I met him at the university a quarter-century ago.

“Your tea is ready,” I say, standing there holding all sorts of things but unable to decide where to put them because of the shrill whistle.

“Ah yes,” he says and goes to remove it from the gas burner. The old gas range is the color of the mediterranean sea, and it hisses the way an old steam engine might. As the whistle dies down, so does my hyperactive mind, and I find places for the things I’ve brought.

“Here are the books,” I say, setting four large volumes down. “And your matches.”

Jenkins still lights his pipe with a match, as though the sulfur were as important as the tobacco in the pipe.

“Ah hello old friend,” he says, touching Crime and Punishment.

“These are heavy books,” I say, opening and closing my fist that had threatened to go numb. “Won’t you request some paperbacks next time?”

Jenkins turns the books, muttering under his breath as if he might find something hiding beneath. He stacks them on a green, wheeled cart. I’ve seen the cart parked in many places around his home, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in the kitchen.

“Have a seat, Charles,” he says to me, gesturing to a chair. “I’ll pour the tea.”

“Oh no,” I say, stepping back, as I always do. “I’ve got to go. Things to do today, appointments to make, classes to teach, you know.”

“Yes I do,” he says, pouring two cups of tea. “All too well. And that’s why I insist.”

I feel like fleeing but sit anyway, and am guilty of wanting to abandon my old professor but feel dumb for feeling guilty. Do I really think I’m so important to him?

“You’ve been drinking Earl Grey since I the 90’s,” I say to him. “Aren’t you tired of it?”

“I’ve been tired of it since the 80s, but just because a man isn’t excited by something anymore doesn’t mean he should abandon it,” he said, sipping his tea. “Old Earl has always been good to me.”

“There are other fine teas.”

“Does a man need to always expand? To always consume something new?”

“Oh, I don’t mean that, just that–”

“It’s human nature, of course,” he says, crossing one bony leg over the other. “It’s why people get fat. They grow, expand, living outside their means. Just because they can.”

I know he’s starting something I don’t want to listen to, but I’m tired, too tired to protest. Frankly, my knee stops hurting when I sit, and I don’t want to stand just yet.

“Blame DNA. As you’ll recall, there was a time when humans’ main motivation was to survive, the way every other species on Earth does. Consume as much as possible, breed as much as possible, grow our populations as much as possible. It’s an instinct. Then, when we were gifted this amazing quality known as high intellect, we transcended any balance given by saber tooth tigers and widespread disease. We’d outsmarted the world of natural instincts.”

I run one finger across the table. There’s a layer of dust. My mind doesn’t want to keep up with Jenkins, but I take a breath and try anyway.

“So you’re blaming our intelligence for the human problem?”

Jenkins smiles at me, fully aware I’m humoring him. It’s why he likes me.

“Not the human problem, but the human condition,” he says. “We are programmed only to survive. But our intelligence has allowed us to win against the threat to our survival. Look at how our species has grown. At one time we were no more numerous than most other mammals on Earth. Now? We’re overcrowded. We exile other species from our cities. We aren’t just competing for resources, we’re claiming to have more of a right to them than any other creature.”

I sip my tea. It tastes dusty.

“We don’t live within our means, but within the means of the entire planet. We assume everything the world contains is for us, and we forget that we started as servants of the planet.”

I interrupt him. “Don’t you mean as stewards?”

“Good point, Charles. But no.” He sips his tea, forcing me to wait. Then he smiles. “In a bright future, we’ll be stewards. But we began as servants. The world around us was our master, and we worked for it. We were its inhabitants. Remember, there was a time when we worshipped the sun, moon, stars, and Earth as gods. We sacrificed virgins and lambs and years worth of crops for the gods’ approval. But as we became more and more intelligent, we’ve assumed the world belongs to us instead, that we are the gods. The student has not only surpassed the teacher but has also unwittingly assumed himself Dean with no education on how to be Dean. Great power demands great responsibility. Without responsibility, power will teach us with great bustings of the ass.”

“You’re on a roll today,” I say, sipping my tea.

“I’m a bit cranky,” he says. “But future generations will experience life in the way that we decide for them. We don’t have to be intentional about it. We can just allow human instincts to decide. It’s what we’ve done so far.”

Jenkins looks across the room with half-closed eyelids. “Surely, those future humans are already experiencing life, in the future, that is. They affect us like we do them. Time isn’t linear. Or perhaps it isn’t real at all, just a way for us to measure our births and deaths.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Would we really exist without observing our lives with time?”

“This isn’t a discussion of quantum physics,” he says, waving dismissively. “As I was saying, there’s a bright and beautiful future occurring for the Futurians, and they’re trying to communicate with us how to ensure that future. But are we listening? Or are we ignoring their messages? For every message we ignore, do the Futurians watch some beautiful aspect of their lives disappear? Is that the Mandela Effect, after all? Are Futurians ignoring it, or are they finding ways to defend themselves from its effects?”

I cough. “Go on,” I say, wanting him to get to the point, but unable to break my fascination with his brain.

“People are still ignoring climate change. We have highways cutting across the country and can drive from Phoenix to LA in half a day, but do we really need to? Is it really serving anyone other than the desperate little selves in us that need to prove we are the greatest species on Earth? At what expense are we willing to try and prove this?”

“Probably at the expense of all else,” I say. “I don’t think people are concerned beyond the weekend, much less their lifetime. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t science’s greatest ambition to show humans their own humanity?” I pause. “I think we’re trying to prove to ourselves that we’re worth saving.”

Jenkins stands and goes to the old stove to bring the teapot over. I tell him no with a shake of the hand, but he fills my cup anyway. I smell the warm, lavender-like familiarity of the tea. He’s giving me room to think, so I lean back in my chair and take a deep breath.

“Many see the future as a place vacant of humans,” I say, “a place where we have consumed too many resources, grown too quickly, and ran ourselves out of room to exist, somehow affecting our environment strongly enough that it can no longer support us. But we are survivors. Look at the Toba eruption. Survival is so deeply ingrained in us, even if we fill the seas with plastic, we’ll find a way to survive. You must see how much better our lives are now than a hundred, thousand, or ten thousand years ago. We’re not only evolved to survive but also for hedonism. People are fat because people enjoy life, not because they are desperate to feel important.”

Jenkins is over to the dusty window looking out.

“Maybe you’re right, Charles.”

I can’t help but feel good about these words. I haven’t heard Jenkins concede to anyone, ever, so I don’t think he’ll be doing so with me, but I do enjoy the rarity that is his approval.

“But then again,” he says, and my smile vanishes, “is it really in our best interest to simply survive so well?”

“Of course it is,” I say, “it’s what every creature’s best interest is.”

“Ah,” he says, still looking out the window. “But that isn’t true. The prairie dogs are not protecting themselves any differently from coyotes than 1000 years ago. The fish of the Atlantic have not built missiles to destroy sharks. Earthworms have not put birds in cages. There is a natural balance among all other species but our own.”

“I don’t see your point.” I cross my legs. “Should we go back to being hunter-gatherers, then?”

“Survival isn’t enough,” he says. “We’ve reached a point where more is demanded of us. It’s time to reprogram survival instincts into the instinct to thrive. Just because a man can eat all the food he could ever desire, do the least amount of physical work necessary, and reproduce as much as possible while easily eliminating others with his evolved weaponry, doesn’t mean he should.”

“Of course not,” I say to his back.

“Abiding by our basic, most fundamental instincts, that’s exactly what a man will do.”

“But we also have higher ambitions. We have dreams. We love. We wish and try and laugh and hope. We are a complicated species,” I say as if it answered anything at all.

“We are complex,” he agrees, “but we are shirking high-minded-responsibility for the low hanging fruit of existence. Religion, philosophy, and intellectual pursuits have touched some of the higher limbs, but no one is climbing the tree of life to look at the rest of the forest. There is a whole other realm of possibility. And most aren’t concerned with it. The right choice is often the difficult one, but our natural inclination is to take the easy route, to simply survive.”

He turns back from the window.

“If people of the future are begging us to stop burning fossil fuels and building bombs, we can’t hear them over our instincts. Instincts come easily, loudly, and they come naturally. Reprogramming our instincts, now that would be difficult.”

I’m watching his eyes, waiting, but he is waiting for me. I sigh and chant, “How does one create an instinct?”

He winks. My annoyance amuses him. “By creating habits. Ninety-five percent of people on Earth are simply taking what they are given. Ninety-five percent don’t question why fluoride is in the water supply, even though the Nazis used it to keep inmates passive in their camps. They aren’t considering why they feel compelled to go buy things they saw in a commercial they have no need for. They aren’t–”

“Come off it,” I say. “I’m aware of propaganda.”

He shuffles to the fridge and opens the door.

“My point is that science’s highest ambition is not only to expose the truth but to use it to reprogram the habits of the masses. Only by changing our habits can we change our instincts. Up until this point in time, it’s only been done with mass media, by those with money and power, and they have been using science instead of the other way around. Most people get their programming from the tiny amount of people in power with the most money.”

He brings a plate of cheese from the fridge and sets it down.

“Science is failing. It’s simply encouraging us to survive more easily. Science should be showing humans how to be stewards of the Earth. How to be good.”

I take a piece of cheese and touch my tongue with it. I stop and say, “You’re blurring the lines between science and theology, between ethics and moral obligation.”

He sets his teacup down and shows me his palms. “Are you insisting that there should be a difference? The truth is the truth, and everything else is speculative. Shouldn’t our lives be centered around the truth instead of speculation?”

I set my cup down a little too hard. I say, “You can’t change thousands of years of faith, or millions of years of instinct, by putting up billboards or making movies. What is this about? We’re a flawed race, but I don’t know how else to proceed except to trust that humans will continue surviving and hopefully, we’ll recognize when we royally mess up. We’ve had ‘higher intellect’ for one, maybe two hundred thousand years? We’re a young species in the grand scheme of consciousness. Just children. How else can children learn but to fall and scrape their knees?”

He pumps his fist, the way a coach might. “Now you’ve got it!” He pumps his fist with his words. “We are children.” He’s grinning like an idiot. “But we are fat children sitting in the dirt at recess, eating our lunch before it’s time to.”

I sigh and lean back to finish my tea. “I’m unable to keep having these conversations with you.”

He goes on without seeming to notice. “It’s up to us to show some restraint, to stand up and go chase the other kids, even if we’re bound not to catch them. And to eat lunch with everyone else. We’ve done nothing to deserve an early lunch beyond getting very, very lucky.”

I’m tired of being with him. As if he can sense this, he sits down and pats the Dostoevsky novel.

“‘Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.’”

“I don’t need Russian wisdom,” I say.

“This isn’t about you, Charles,” he says. “It’s about your students, and the professors who look up to you.”

“They don’t look up to me.”

He barks a laugh. “I said the same thing,” he says. “Then they gave me that.” He points at the plaque on the wall. I’d watched him receive it a decade earlier.

“We can’t trust our instincts anymore,” he says softly. “We must instruct them.”

I look at him for a long moment then stand. “I’ve got to get going.”

Jenkins is underlining something in the book.

“Hey,” I say. “That’s a library book, Jenkins.”

“And I’m just doing my part,” he says to me, “to make sure someone knows they aren’t the only one who found this passage stirring.” He looks satisfied.

“You don’t make sense,” I say and turn for the door.

“Charles,” he says. I turn back. “Next time, why don’t you bring a friend?”

“A friend?” I say, thinking of all the friends in the past who had kicked me beneath the table for bringing them to Jenkins.

“Sure,” he says, “a young professor, a promising student, anyone who would… appreciate our dialogues.”

“I don’t think–” I start, but a face pops into my head. A young student of mine who seems to find everything I speak about boring. Brilliant, but a little jerk.

My face must give me away, because Jenkins smiles and says, “I’ll supply the tea.”

I look around his kitchen, at the stacks of biographies and classics, of the epics and manuscripts of great men and women from the ages, and I nod.

“See you, Jenkins,” I say.

“I see you, Charles.”

Outside, the breeze ruffles my hair and cools me. Jenkins house is warm, like my father’s. There’s a group of children riding up the street towards me on their bicycles, screaming and racing each other. I feel something like agitation at the children. But it’s not about them. I remind myself I was once a child, same as Jenkins, that I’d raced for things just as obnoxiously.

Behind me, I hear Jenkins turn the AM radio up loud. It’s talk radio, something about a concertist who is deaf and blind. I pull myself away from Jenkins’ door, from his thoughts and books and his gravity, and I stumble down to the sidewalk. I turn and face where the children are heading, and I begin to trot. My knee shouts at me, but I press on.

The children must understand, even if they don’t know why they understand because they find a new urgency at racing an adult limping in fine clothes. I’m running then, abandoning my dignity and my knee injury. I race along, my pointed leather shoes slapping the concrete and pleated pants shaking in the wind. The kids scream and push harder on their pedals, trying hard to catch me. They’re grinning, watching my back and the bottoms of my feet.

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