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Punctuated equilibrium: Sometimes Change Comes Fast

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Third in an occasional series of short short fiction

University of Texas paleontology professor Sam Fister and his wife Sandra both hit 60 with nary a discouraging word. Solid marriage, productive careers, buoyant 401Ks, excellent health, envied house on Cat Mountain all paid for, a grown son gainfully employed.

Sam taught his students that the material world is all there is. He tolerated students who were theistic evolutionists, faithful to Darwin but saying God had started the process rolling. Once every five years a creationist student came along, but a little mockery went a long way.

Over the years Sam started to worry about the continued lack of evidence showing species-to-species transition. But he had written his dissertation under the supervision of Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould, whose theory of “punctuated equilibrium” had everything staying the same for a long time until some geological event led to rapid change, so maybe the gaps weren’t surprising.

Once, at a funeral service for a professor emeritus, some pastor spoke of how questions of meaning bothered more people as they grew older. Sam and Sandra looked at each other and smiled: Not us. Once they went to a neighbor’s wedding where a rabbi noted how earthquakes can suddenly shake our lives. That prodded Sam to contemplate a mathematical equation.

Their stockbroker son, Sam Jr., called weekly and visited monthly. The calls were short because the messages were always sweet: “Everything’s fine.” Sandra always ended by saying, “We’re glad you’re happy. We’ll talk again next week.”

But one spring Junior ran afoul of insider trading regulations. Sandra told him not to worry: “This will blow over and you’ll be back on track.” But it didn’t and he wasn’t. He ended up with prison time on a plea bargain, and Sam wrote him not to despair: “When you come out everything will return to normal.” But Junior did despair, and when he came out in September, he seemed?... changed.

Nice and easy, Sam cautioned himself as he listened to the new Junior tell him about God saving sinners. Keep it calm, even keel, like always. “I hear what you’re saying: You do something for God, He’ll do something for you.” Sam felt he knew about trades like that. He was careful about his health, with cottage cheese rather than hamburgers his normal lunchtime companion. He checked his Fitbit to make sure he took 10,000 steps per day.

The headaches Sam started getting surprised him. His annual checkups had always been happy affairs, but this time his doctor ordered more tests and found a tumor. A quickly scheduled operation got it all, the surgeon said, and Sam felt his life returning to equilibrium. When he told Junior that everything was now fine, the kid’s vehement questioning surprised him: “Why waste your tumor? What does God need to do to get your attention?”

When Junior started talking about Jesus, Sam lost it: “What happened to you in prison? Once every few years a student talks nonsense like that to me, but I expect better from you! Did your brains fall out?”

One December evening Sam and Sandra headed to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse at The Domain. After ordering, Sam went to the restroom, but when he came out his legs suddenly crumpled. Ten seconds later he woke up on the floor, with a woman looking down at him and asking, “Are you OK?” He stood up, said, “I’m fine,” and ambled back to the table. He said nothing to Sandra.

After dessert they wandered through the mall. A flash mob from some evangelical church was singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but with different words: “You don’t delight in sacrifice. You don’t excuse our secret vice. You want from us a broken spirit, do Ya? Create in me a new, clean heart. Give me now a strong, fresh start. So every breath I draw is Hallelujah.”

Suddenly Sam crumpled again. This time Sandra caught him. She called 911 and soon an ambulance sped them to the hospital. Sam kept muttering a word. She thought he was saying, “How did that happen?” But as she leaned over him, she heard, more distinctly, “Hallelujah.”

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