BY: TIM DESMOND
High school physics teacher, Pappy Butler, feels he has a handle on a telepathy-type force that transcends distance and time, which he calls “Zero Time Theory,” and has tried for years to get his paper on this theory published. Meanwhile, he’s having marital problems as well as issues at his high school, where he has crossed the principal and superintendent and is falsely accused of negligence and unprofessional behavior for threatening the school librarian, creating the legal definition of a hostile work environment. But it isn’t until Pappy is given a “molecule machine” by another scientist that his troubles really start. Both the government and a rival scientist also want this machine, and they don’t care who they hurt to get it…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Pappy Butler & His Zero Time Theory by Tim Desmond, Pappy Butler is a high school physics teacher in Florida. While working on a paper about a theory he calls Zero Time, Pappy deals with problems at his school and in his marriage. Little seems to go right for him, including his research paper, which is rejected by every periodical he sends it to. But his trouble really starts when a colleague give him an invention called a molecule machine. Pappy wants the machine to test his theory, the military wants to use it as a weapon, and a rival scientist wants it for his own nefarious purposes. And all Pappy wants to do is write a research paper. I never knew science teachers had such exciting lives.
Like Desmond’s first book, The Doc, this one has a complicated plot that keeps you on your toes, along with interesting characters and fascinating scientific theories. A good, solid read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Pappy Butler & His Zero Time Theory by Tim Desmond is a science fiction thriller with a little something for everyone. It’s a love story…sort of…it’s a thriller, a science fiction high tech mystery, but mostly, it’s interesting. Our hero, Pappy Butler, scientist, high-school teacher, estranged husband, and innocent victim of an uncaring school district, struggles to save his marriage and his job, while researching a never-ending paper on his zero time theory. Intrigued by a story he once heard about a young marine in WWII, who was killed in the South Pacific, but who visited his mother in Iowa in a dream at the moment of his death to tell her that he was okay. To Pappy, this tale made him hypothesize that some things could travel the universe instantaneously or in “zero time.” Now all he had to do was prove it. Enter Dr. Jules and his molecule machine, and then Dr. Van Shanken and the military. When Pappy accepted the “gift” of the molecule machine from Jules, he had no idea of the chain reaction of events he was setting in motion.
The plot is complicated and full of twists and turns, with intriguing and endearing characters. You just can’t help feeling sorry for Pappy as one thing after another goes wrong.
Monday, February 8, Ashville, Florida:
In the evening, they watched Dancing With The Stars. Pappy sipped his bourbon on the rocks from his Mikassa Old Fashion glass. When DWTS was over, he pointed the remote at the TV screen and clicked to another channel while Sunni read a travel magazine. She watched the TV between glances at her magazine.
The ads were running at the top of the hour on most channels.
At a movie channel, he set the remote down. “This is supposed to be a good movie,” he said.
She looked up. “Which one?”
“The Dragon Tattoo Girl,” he said.
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” she corrected him.
“Yeah that’s the one.”
The television ran an ad on another erectile dysfunction drug. Pappy spoke without taking his eyes off the screen. “It must be nice to need it that much.”
She ceased turning pages in the magazine and looked up at the TV ad. “What?”
“What?” he asked.
“What did you just say?”
“I said it must be nice to need it that much.”
She rose and threw the magazine down. “I’m going to bed. You can watch what you want.”
He watched her walk down the hallway to the bedroom, pointed the remote at the TV, and clicked on the guide button. He searched the history channels and then the movie channels. On another movie channel was Swept Away, directed by Lena Wertmuller in 1974. He clicked the OK button. It was old but looked interesting. He began watching it but, after five minutes, he clicked the record button and walked to the bedroom.
As he approached the master bath, he heard the shower water splashing. He could see her through the glass shampooing her hair. “What is it?” he asked.
She kept massaging her sudsy head. “If I had some other place to go, I would go right now. But I don’t. So I think either you or I should decide who stays in this place and who gets an apartment.”
“What are you talking about?”
She raised her voice above the shower sounds. “You know what I’m talking about.”
He was quiet a moment and swallowed, but his saliva stuck in his throat. He felt a sinking in his stomach and the hint of nausea. As he began stripping, he heard her sobs above the spray. He opened the shower door and stepped in. He smelled the sweet odor of the shampoo. There was another nozzle in the long tiled wall and he turned the hot water on for that one. She had her eyes closed and held her head under the spray to rinse out the shampoo. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, but she resisted his hug, twisting around and away. He gripped her again from behind and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him, sideways now. She did not resist. He held her with her left side against him.
“I mean it, Pappy.”
“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
She twisted again and pulled away. “It isn’t that.”
She hesitated then turned off the water and opened the shower door. “It’s everything. It’s more than my complaints about you’re meticulousness, or about you hating my messy places. We don’t talk any more. When I try, something else always comes up. I know that I don’t want you like you want. It isn’t you, it’s me. So I’ll sleep in the guest room until I can get a place.”
“That’s crazy,” he said.
“I’ll stay here until after the Las Vegas trip and the family reunion,” she said. “Then you can find your love, and move her in and be happier with all your important work and writing your crazy papers, and the two of you can talk about your students until the end of time.”
He felt sicker now, turned his nozzle off, and followed her out. “That isn’t fair. You know that we both had a past when we came into this thing.”
“This will give you a chance to go back,” she said. “You live in the past, anyway.”
She didn’t look up while wringing out the face cloth. “Quit calling me crazy.”
He held out his hands while making his point. “I only meant that you know how the mind works. It’ll find things to support what you’re saying, even when it’s wrong or not true.”
She threw down the face cloth. “That’s how your mind works.”
He did not cave. “Everyone’s mind does that. Besides, I love you.”
She took a towel off a rack. “I love you too. But it’s crazy like we are now. You’re distant, detached, nothing bothers you, and I don’t want you touching me.” She toweled her hair and bent over, wiping her legs and feet.
He took a towel off of a rack. “What about all of our plans? What about the kids?”
She pulled on a cotton gown, as always without wearing panties. “The kids are grown, they’ll get over it.” She paused. “And fuck the plans.”
He watched Sunni walk out to the hall toward the guest room. The sickness in his stomach felt like a knot and a pain. He followed her down the hall as she went into the guest bedroom and closed the door. He hesitated at the door, looking at the door knob, then continued to the kitchen and opened the cabinet for the ibuprofen bottle of tablets.
Tuesday, February 9:
In the morning, he got up late. He felt hung over as he dressed. As he went past the guest room to the kitchen, he noticed Sunni was not there. He checked outside and saw that her car was gone. He looked at the stove clock and realized he needed to leave so the car pool would not be left hanging. He grabbed his briefcase and a bottle of water and drove to the strip mall where they were parked and waiting. He put his briefcase in the trunk of a black Honda Civic, slammed the lid, opened the rear door, and sat in the back. “Morning, guys. Sorry I was late.”
“We’re all right,” the driver said.
The car pool driver was Luke Mann, Savage Unified Teachers Association President. Art teacher Kelly Shore rode in the front, and special ED teacher Shirley Gibson rode in back with Pappy.
“Good morning, Pappy,” Shirley said.
Kelly turned her head from the front seat. “Everything all right? You look rattled.”
Pappy managed a smile. “I’m all right. It was a crazy morning.”
Kelly turned back toward the front. “We know what that’s like.”
At school, they all split up to go to their classrooms. Some went to the office to sign in, others did that later. Pappy lagged behind the others. As he was last leaving the car, he slammed the Honda trunk lid. He crossed over the lawn island in the middle of the staff parking lot and another car rolled by. The driver window was down and teacher Liza Walraven spoke as she rolled past him. “You want some candy, little boy?”
Pappy waved, shook his head, and kept walking. Then she laughed and drove around the island to park on the other side. Pappy did not wait for her.
Wednesday, February 10:
Savage High School was named after the infamous Major James Savage, miner, soldier, trader, and discoverer of Yosemite Valley. The naming of the district was a mystery to many who did not know that the founding superintendent was a native of central California. It wasn’t the largest high school in the three-county area, but was one of the newest, built in 1985.
After being at this school several years, Pappy still wasn’t sure about how they handled their grant application process. After classes, he went to the district office and asked for a grant application for a “395 grant” for technology. If there were technology sessions that he could attend at the NSTA convention in Las Vegas, then the 395 grant could apply. He was directed to another financial secretary in the back offices. He found that office.
Patty was dark haired, attractive, and remained seated. “Good afternoon, Mr. Butler.”
Pappy remained standing. “Good afternoon. I was told to see you about a grant application.”
Her expression turned serious. “Who told you that?”
“Clarice in the front office sent me to you just now,” he explained.
Patty shook her head. “I only sign one page and then the papers go to the assistant superintendent. I don’t think Clarice knows.”
“Oh, I see.”
She hesitated. “The grant applications that I’ve seen go through the most were written by Harry Dregory. He has received several grants for the media center. That’s how the entire building became renovated last year.”
“Yes. I think he would be the place to start. I’m sure that he would help you.”
“All right. Thank you, Patty.”
“You’re quite welcome.”
Pappy went to see Harry Dregory, the librarian and media specialist. Harry’s office was in the library and Pappy hoped to find Harry helpful, as he really didn’t know about grant connections and had never walked a grant through the district process.
Harry was on his computer in a semi-darkened office in the library. Pappy knocked on the frame of the opened doorway.
“Good afternoon, Harry,” Pappy said.
Harry didn’t look up from the screen. “Hi, what can I do for you?”
“I’m told you handle three-ninety-five grant applications.”
“Who told you that?”
“Patty in district finance office.”
“I’m surprised they were that helpful, but, yes, it’s true.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“I’m going to the National Science Teacher’s Convention, and I’d like to get a grant to fund it,” Pappy explained.
“Are you going to be learning or getting any computer training or buying software, or even evaluating software there,” Harry asked.
“Sure, I think all of that.”
“Okay,” Harry said with enthusiasm. “I think that’ll work.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Just give me a cost of fees, and anything else, and I’ll take care of it.”
“Airfare, too?” Pappy said. “I’m flying.”
“No, the district usually will give you a credit card for that, if you were driving. But, I’ll check.”
“Great. See you later.”
“Later,” Harry said and looked back at his screen as Pappy turned and left Harry’s office.
Pappy walked out of the library. That was easy, he thought.
It was a new morning. Pappy walked across the campus quad to the main office. It was his prep time, second period, and the campus was empty of students. It was a clear morning, but the air stank from the new winery’s dump area along the river to the east. He approached the office corner and two students walked into his view to his right, ten feet in front of him. One student walked behind another. The trailing student sped up and socked the other one on the side of the head.
“Hey,” Pappy yelled and ran to them.
The student who was hit whirled around and bent down to duck another blow. The fight ensued as both boys went down onto the concrete walkway at the corner of the office doors. Pappy dropped his books and papers in order to break up the two boys. They were struggling to return blows, one on his back and the original attacker on top. Pappy bent down and grabbed the attacker’s shoulders in order to pull him off the other student.
A third student then came to the fight. Pappy felt this third student tugging on his shoulders to pull Pappy off the fighters. “Don’t do it, Mr. Butler. You’ll get hurt, sir.”
Pappy lost his footing and went down on one knee for a moment, and the kid on top of him had leverage to pull Pappy to the side and off the two fighters. Then the attacker on top rose and began to kick the student in the head. The student covered his head with an arm and started to rise. Though one kick managed to connect, the student covered his head with both arms again. The kicker then fell on the downed student and threw new punches. Pappy broke free from the third student, reached down, and managed to pull the top kid off the other.
The vice-principal and a secretary ran out of the office doors twenty feet away from the corner. Pappy had control of the student and turned him over to the VP. The attacking student was winded and was now compliant. The secretary helped the student from the concrete and escorted him to the nurse’s office. The kid’s face was swollen with bright red oozing from the abrasions. The third student had turned to run away, but the principal had appeared, stopped him from leaving, and escorted him to the interior of the office also.
Pappy picked up his books and papers and followed the group to the office. One boy was parked in the VP’s office and the other was parked in a chair in the principal’s office. Pappy remained at the front counter inside and gave an oral report to the VP about what happened. “Can you write that up, Pappy?”
“Sure thing. Email all right?”
“Yes. Make it on letterhead. I’ll print out what I need,” the VP said.
“Thanks. You hurt?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Good. Good job, too.”
“They fight before?” Pappy asked.
“Not here. But this is going to be a huge legal thing,” the VP said.
“Two things. One, the kicking is using deadly force. And two, this goes back to a fight downtown at the Rip and Go. A kid was jumped in the parking lot and nearly beaten to death by a group of guys.”
“I remember that. Couple months ago.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, the kid jumped here just now is a witness in that court case.”
“That means these guys here are trying to beat up a witness?”
“You got it.”
They nodded to each other and Pappy left the office. He smiled as he recalled the VP calling him Pappy. He hadn’t said, “Mr. Butler” as in meetings. Maybe he liked the name. Pappy’s full name was Papetieri Butler. His mother was French of Norman extraction and a war bride his father brought home from Europe after World War II. Pappy wondered why she’d named him after a box of writing supplies. She fancied herself an artist and was a poet in their prairie town of Salina, Kansas. The Butlers were from a family of physicians, the patriarch was an Irish immigrant who settled in Chicago. Pappy’s father studied medicine at Loyola, then he opened a practice in Salina.
Pappy smiled to himself as he walked across the empty quad to his classroom. He was thinking of his old high school math teacher Sal Pippirato. Pippirato always called Pappy by his full name Papetieri. Maybe he liked it because of the consonance in both names. Sal Pippirato was a nice memory.
As Pappy was in the open between the buildings, he heard the roar. He looked up at the sky. The broken clear-weather cumulus clouds floated lazily as the yellow Grumman Ag Cat duster turned on a final approach to the single strip of the rural airport east of town. The plane disappeared beyond the trees. Pappy was hit again with the pungent odor of the winery dump. It was strong.
Once in the classroom, Pappy turned on the computer again. He turned to the black stone counter top of the front demonstration bench and arranged his papers in order to give the next class. He checked on the disc he wanted to use in the separate laptop cabled to the power-point projector, as he planned to give a new chapter presentation today.
His desk and the interior door to the storeroom preparation work area were in the back of the room. He liked his desk in the back of the class. The white boards, screen, and fume hood were in the front, behind the demonstration bench. The glass-enclosed hood was for safely performing dangerous experiments, which were no longer done. A chemistry student project was running inside the hood. The student was repeating Miller’s experiment from the 1950s, attempting to also get amino acids from a primitive atmosphere. The experiment drew a lot of attention because of the buzzing and arc of the high voltage spark inside the top of the reaction flask.
Pappy taught two sections of physics, two sections of chemistry, and two sections of ninth grade Earth science. A small school made a lot of demands on the numbers of courses taught. Science teachers had the added demands of setting up labs for each subject. For Pappy, it was like teaching six subjects. Then there were the extra-curricular activities of class advisor, club advisor, running game concessions for fund raising, game and sports event duties, dance duties, prom event if your class were juniors that year, and through all the seasons and both semesters.
The math teacher Dan McCool looked at Pappy and did a double take.
“What?” Pappy asked.
“Your tie isn’t straight or something.”
Pappy reached up, tightened, and adjusted his blue tie knot under his beige buttoned-down collar. He spoke while adjusting. “Oh, thanks.” He turned to use the small window in the door as a mirror. “I broke up a fight second period.”
“Jeez,” Dan said.
“Yeah and a third kid tried to stop me from stopping the fight.” Pappy turned to face Dan again.
“You got hit?”
“No, no, nothing like that. But he was tugging at me to get out of it.”
“I try to avoid those things,” Dan quipped.
“Couldn’t be helped. This kid jumped the other right in front of me as if I wasn’t there. The attacker kid was oblivious to me.”
Students walked near, and Pappy hesitated. “I’ll tell you later.”
Dan nodded. “Right.”
The beginning-of-period bell was about to ring. Pappy opened the door, latched it open. The bell rang and he stood as students exited the math class next door.
“Oh, gawd, the stink is still here,” Dan said, coming out of his classroom.
“Yeah, afraid so,” Pappy said.
“When the rooms are closed up, it isn’t so bad.”
“I might try some of those air freshener things you plug in.”
“Good idea. I covered for Lisa’s English class last week, and she had those. It smelled great in there,” Dan explained.
“I might too,” Pappy said. “Students have complained for years about the various lab odors.”
Dan laughed. “Yeah, they tell me about your room, too.”
“Meeting today,” Pappy said as he changed the subject.
“Don’t get me started.”
Pappy laughed then.
“I can’t wait to see Gibson sit there and read the sports pages as the principal is talking,” Dan said.
“I don’t blame him, but it is rude.”
Students began filing past the two teachers as they entered the classrooms.
One gave Pappy a high five.
“Morning, Mr. B,” another said.
Pappy held up a fist and knuckles outward for a knuckle tap.
“Yo, Mr. B.”
And another said, “Yeah, you the ‘B’ man.”
Dan laughed out loud at the display and then the bell rang. “See you at the break.” He then closed his door.
Pappy nodded and followed the last of his students into the room. Third period was beginning.
The rest of the day went by without incident. Physics lab, two Earth lectures, lunch, chemistry lecture, and one last physics lab completed a regular schedule. He cleaned up after the last lab and arranged some chemistry lab items for first period the next morning. It was a constant juggling act.
He worked in the empty classroom, setting up lab equipment for the next lab day.
Pappy drove onto his street. He saw her car and felt a tingle of excitement, even after all these years. She was home earlier than him, as usual. He parked, opened the garage door with the remote control, and walked into the laundry room. “I’m home,” he called out from the kitchen.
There was no reply. He walked through the family room to a sliding door, through it, and onto a back patio.
She was placing bird seed on a feeder on the wooden fence.
“Hey,” he said. “I’ll start the grill.”
She turned. “Did you forget we’re going out with Nan and Larry?”
“Oh. God, yeah, I did forget.”
She turned back to check the seed in the feeder and closed the seed bag.
“So, we’re going, like everything is all right between us?” he asked.
She walked toward the potting bench and tucked the seed bag on a shelf. “Sure. Why not?”
He watched her a moment then agreed. “Okay.”
“They’re our best friends,” she said. “They’d be really hurt by this, the way they love us too.”
“It’s going to be bad enough later. I can’t deal with it all right now,” she told him.
He turned, without responding, walked back to the family room, and looked for the TV remote. She’s distracted and distant as usual today. He found the remote and clicked on the news channel. Zilke jumped up on his lap to be held. “It’s all right, girl.” He scratched her ears and she turned to nestle with her snout resting on his thigh. “It’ll be all right, Zilke. At least I hope so.” He rubbed her back.
Nan and Larry Charles met Sunni and Pappy in the foyer of the Ashville Smokehouse. They exchanged hugs and waited on the varnished bench in front of the maitre d’s podium to be seated. After five minutes, they were led to their booth.
The open tables surrounded a U-shaped sports bar with exposed sheet metal ducting, assembly line beer bottles, and steel-rod stringers extended overhead as the intentional motif of the locally famous barbecue house.
Larry sat on the inside on one side of the booth and rubbed his hands together. “What are you going to order, Pappy?”
Without looking at the menu, Pappy answered. “The pulled pork plate.”
“Oh, yeah. I like that too,” Larry said, studying the menu.
“I’m going to try the chicken tonight instead of the salad wedge combo,” Nan said.
“Me too,” Sunni agreed.
The server came, took their drink orders, and left.
Nan clapped her hands together. “All right, where are we going for our annual vacation this summer?”
“I was thinking of sailing to the Bahamas,” Larry said.
“On a tour?” Pappy asked.
“Oh, God no,” Larry said. “We rent a sail boat and sail ourselves.”
Sunni laughed. “Like the movie Four Seasons?”
“Oh that would be funny,” Nan said.
Pappy remained quiet but smiled.
Larry was clearly serious and held a palm out. “Well, what do you think?”
He was met with blank stares. The server appeared at the end of their booth with their drinks and passed them around. “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes,” Larry said. “I’ll have the burnt ends plate with the jalapeno coleslaw.”
He passed his menu over to her. She took the other’s orders and menus and left the table.
“Well,” Pappy began. “This summer is going to be tough to fit in. “We have this huge family reunion thing going on this summer. I think we told you about this before.”
Larry sipped his drink and shook his head. “First we’ve heard of it.”
“It’s been planned for a while by others in the family. They’ve made reservations down at the Keys.”
“Oh, now that’s a shame,” Nan said sarcastically.
Sunny set her drink down. “Why don’t you two come on down there too?”
Pappy held his glass to drink, but stopped in mid motion as he blinked at hearing Sunni’s words. He watched her expression.
She was serious.
Nan turned her head toward Larry. “Oh, we wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“It’ll be fine. Pappy and I insist.”
Larry shrugged. “What are the dates?”
“Late June, or the last week,” Pappy said. “Maybe a few other days too.
“I don’t know,” Larry said. ”I have a major teacher training thing in that week.”
“Ashville Unified District thing?” Pappy asked.
Larry nodded and then shook his head. “It was negotiated, and we’re getting paid for it.”
Pappy looked at Nan then at Larry. “Why didn’t they do it during the school year calendar?”
“The ATA teachers association wanted to, but the district said that they couldn’t fit it in, and that they need to do it.”
Nan frowned. “That’s a bummer, honey.”
Larry brightened. “Tell you what,” he said. “I think that we could swing coming down for a couple days of that.”
“Oh, marvelous,” Sunny said.
Pappy smiled and raised his drink glass. “To the Keys.”
With the clinks of the glassware, they recited all around, “To the Keys, to the Keys, to the Keys.”
The server arrived with their plates. Larry began cutting part of his beef burnt ends pieces. “By the way, Pappy, do you remember Matt Castor? It was first in the news couple years ago. Anyway, he just found out that he has been cleared in some court.”
Pappy chewed and swallowed. “Was that the same Caster who was fired a couple years ago?”
“That’s the one. He’s really a very nice guy. He taught history, coached a swim team. The kids all admired him.”
“I don’t remember the details. What did he do, or what was he accused of?”
“He’d been arresting for harassing another teacher, who was also a coach. Her lawyer was making the claim of a hostile workplace. He claims he made no threats against this woman. He was suspended and in jail for a while. Got a lawyer and fought it.”
“So, he got cleared?”
“Oh, yeah. He explained it all in an email that he just sent out, explaining how he won this judgment in court. Part of it was explaining what he went through to get his name cleared, and that he wanted all his friends to know the truth.”
“Wow. He sounds kinda crazy,” Nan said.
Larry shrugged. “Yes, but he did go through hell.”
Pappy sipped his drink. “Sounds like the district over reacted.”
Larry nodded. “Exactly. It’s like they were scared of being sued, but then all the districts are running scared of the legal problems of abuse of either students or staff.”
“But this guy emailed all his problems out to others?” Sunni asked.
“Yep,” Larry said. “Here.” He pulled out his smart phone, pulled up the email app. “You can read right here.” He passed his phone over to Sunni.
Sunni took a bite of fried chicken and chewed while she read the email. She scrolled through it twice. And shook her head. “Oh, my.”
“See what I mean?” Larry said.
Sunni handed the phone to Nan. She took more time to read it than Sunni had, closed her eyes, then handed the phone to Pappy. Nan took a bite of her meal before speaking. “The poor man.”
Pappy read the email very quickly and handed the phone back. “Can he get rehired?” he asked.
Larry took a bite and spoke with his mouth full. “I doubt it. With all of that, he couldn’t work for the past two years and he had all those fees that broke him,” Larry informed them.
Pappy shook his head. “How embarrassing for him, that he sent it all out like this.”
Larry pocketed the phone. “True. A nice guy, but, jeez, what an idiotic bastard.”
“Maybe the troubles drove him to that state,” Nan suggested. “The poor man.”
© 2016 by Tim Desmond