Where Do You Stop?
by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy



Of Memory and Mush

Sometimes my memory seems to be mush, with shining moments scattered through it like chips of marble in wet cement or peas stirred into mashed potatoes.  I’d like to be able to take a closer look at some of those moments, but whenever I reach for one I disturb the mush, and the moment I seek sometimes sinks out of sight.  I reach, I scoop, I grab.  Sometimes I get what I’m after, but more often I come up with nothing but mush, or I get hold of a different moment, not the one I wanted.  Reaching for a chip of marble, I come up with a pea. 
     Once in a while, though, something—some random turbulence in the mush, perhaps—brings to the top a chip that surprises me, one I haven’t looked for, but one I’m happy to see, like the one that surfaced on a fall morning about two years ago while I was sitting in the sun, reading the Babbington Reporter—the chip that led me to write this book. 
     Albertine’s parents were visiting, it was a fine morning, and we were all having breakfast on the new deck behind the hotel.  Albertine and I have come to enjoy the early days of fall more than any other part of the year.  The weather is still fine but there are few guests at the hotel, so there isn’t all that much for us to do—beyond entertaining her parents on their annual visit. 
     Mr. and Mrs. Gaudet—Martin and Anna—are very fond of me, and I milk their fondness for all it’s worth.  That morning, I was lingering over my breakfast, enjoying the sun.  Martin padded into the kitchen to fetch me more coffee, Anna spread marmalade on my high-fiber toast, and I turned to “We Pay a Call,” the Reporter’s weekly interview with an interesting Babbingtonian. That week, the Reporter had called on Vivian Stillwell, only daughter of the entertainers Florence Hill and Fred Lucas. 
     Flo and Freddie, as they’d been known professionally, had been enormously popular as radio performers and, later, in the early days of television, ended their career as co-hosts of a daytime show.  The interviewer wanted to talk about Vivian’s collection of Flo-and-Freddie memorabilia, but Vivian kept trying to steer him away from what she referred to as “that old junk” and into the cellar, where she had her laboratory, her cold fusion experiments, and her homemade scanning tunneling microscope, or STM. 
     Vivian’s STM allowed her to examine matter on an atomic scale, thanks to a tungsten probe cunningly sharpened to a point just a single atom across.  When she applied voltage to this probe, electrons left the tip and, exploiting some quantum-mechanical hocus-pocus, “tunneled” across the narrow gap between the probe and the specimen.  While Vivian guided the probe across the specimen in a raster pattern, a system of piezoelectric controls, a feedback generator, and some other clever gadgetry produced images so fine that they allowed her to see individual atoms. 
     All that I found interesting enough, but here’s the part that really got me.  “To begin a scan,” said Vivian with undisguised pride, “I've got to maneuver the tip of the probe into position only about one nanometer—that's a billionth of a meter, pal—above the specimen—so close that the electron clouds of the atom at the tip of the probe and of the nearest atom of the specimen overlap.”
When I read those words, my jaw dropped, and I let the Reporter fall into my lap. My eyes drifted out of focus.  A feeling of the most pleasant nostalgia spread through me.  An extremely vivid pictorial memory lit up my mind’s eye like the final starburst at the end of the annual Clam Fest fireworks display. A little smile formed on my face. 
     “Peter!” said Mrs. Gaudet.
     “What?” I said, or squeaked, certain that the little smile had betrayed my thoughts, thoughts best kept from Albertine’s mother. 
     “Your toast,” she said. “It’s getting cold.” 
     “Oh,” said I, relieved. “That. Well. That’s nothing.” 
     “Nothing?” she said.
     “I mean—thank you.  Thank you.  I—was just—ah—”
“You’ve been in another world,” she said.  “I know.” 
     “You mean the—uh—the way I kind of drifted off?”  I said. “I can explain that—I—”
     “Your head’s in the clouds,” said Anna.  “I know what you were thinking about, too.”
     “Heh-heh-heh,” said I.  “Well, Anna, you’re a woman of the world.  I’m sure you understand that—” 
     “The next book,” she said triumphantly. 
     “I guess you caught me,” I said, relieved that she hadn’t. 
     “Oh, I know how your mind works,” she claimed.  “I’ve known you quite a long time, Peter.  I can tell what you’re thinking by the expression on your face.” 
     I said nothing at all to that, just smiled and ate my toast and drank my coffee, but the truth was that the little smile that had nearly given me away came from the dazzling memory of Miss Rheingold’s legs. 
     Miss Rheingold’s legs had come to mind because Vivian Stillwell’s description of her atomic-level imaging system had made me say to myself, “Hey, wait a minute! If the electron clouds of an atom in the tip and the closest bit of the specimen overlap, what has happened to the boundary between tip and specimen? How can we say where the tip stops and the specimen starts?” 
     That thought immediately led to another.  It made me think of an old obligation undischarged: the paper I was supposed to write for Miss Rheingold, who taught me general science for part of the seventh grade and had those unforgettable legs.  From that beginning I rambled on and on and on through that time of my life.  It wasn’t long before I came upon something that made me laugh out loud. 
     “What’s so funny?” said a voice, but the wrong voice for the memory. 
     “Huh? What?” I said, looking around.  I had expected to hear the voice of my old friend Raskol, as a boy, calling to me from a rickety tower on a hilltop in the middle of a grove of bamboo, but it was Albertine’s father who was asking me the question, smiling at me from across the bistro table where we sat.  “Oh,” I said.  “I’m sorry, Martin.  It’s—um—well, Anna can tell you—it’s just as she said—I’m thinking of the next book—in fact, I’m thinking of the end of the next book.” 
     This time I was telling the truth.  I closed my eyes and resumed my backward ramble until I found myself standing in a locker in the Purlieu Street School, in the heat of an August night.  Because I was ten, I fit in a locker, though without much space to spare.  If I moved, the coat hook would poke into the back of my neck, but I didn’t move much, because I didn’t want to make any noise.  I was where I wasn’t supposed to be, and I couldn’t allow myself to be discovered.  I was not afraid, though.  I was thrilled.  I was playing a game with the watchman.  I was thrilled, too, as an adult reliving the moment, because I knew what I couldn’t have known at the time, that while I was there, hiding in that locker, I was gathering impressions that would lead—a year later—to my inventing a game and thereby to my building a permanent memorial, a beacon, marking a single moment of my childhood.  This memorial beacon would also be my seventh-grade science project, the final requirement of my general science paper, though at the time when I was standing in the locker the paper hadn’t been assigned yet, and when it was assigned it would take about thirty-five years to finish.

If you are about to begin
your reading of 
Where Do You Stop?
here, I urge you to read 
the preliminaries first, 
because they are integral 
parts of the work. 
   Mark Dorset

Things left undone—how they haunt us. At any rate, they haunt me.  I’ve noticed that they don’t haunt everyone else.  A great many people seem to be able to walk through their days without hearing at their heels the dogged shuffle of neglected duties, but I am not a member of that lighthearted crew.  The things I ought to have done are there behind me always, each with a hook in me, holding on with a thin but sturdy line, dragging along behind me, a nagging reminder of a debt I ought to pay to the past before I pack up and move on to something new.  So, it is a happy occasion when I get an opportunity to clip one of those strings and leave a millstone in the dust. 
     I had left Miss Rheingold’s general science paper unfinished all those years ago because its requirements were so daunting and bewildering.  It was much more demanding than anything I had encountered in school before I encountered Miss Rheingold.  For one thing, the paper had to be quite long, and until she came along my classmates and I had grown accustomed to working in a shorter form—one side of a sheet of paper with widely spaced lines.  I liked that form just fine.  I could take in all my work at a glance and check it for the seamless integration of ideas that I worked to achieve.  Now I was going to have to blather on about a single subject for far longer than I thought I could.
     For another thing, the paper had no fixed deadline.  We were to turn it in when we thought it was ready for Miss Rheingold to read.  This meant that we had to impose a kind of discipline on ourselves that none of us was accustomed to: we had to work until the job was finished—but we didn’t really know what finished meant.  We had never had to decide when a job was finished before.  It had been finished when the time was up.  Finished meant no more than ended.  Often it just meant that the bell had rung. 
     For yet another thing—and this is the main thing that kept me from turning the paper in while Miss Rheingold was still around to receive it—the paper had to include a project, either an experiment or a demonstration, that illustrated its thesis.  I didn’t devise a project that satisfied me until after the school year was over and Miss Rheingold was gone (in fact, I didn’t even realize that the project I had devised was the project I needed to complete my paper until that morning when I was sitting on the deck with Albertine’s parents, remembering Miss Rheingold’s legs). 
Finally, and most exasperatingly, the paper had to answer an enormous, nearly imponderable question, the one that is the title of this book.  If it seems like a simple question to you, try thinking about it with a ten- or eleven-year-old brain.  Well, where are the edges of things?  Where in space-time, for instance, does one phase of your life end and another begin?  Where do you mark the onset of an idea, a discovery?  Where do you mark the end of a belief?  Where does my table end and the keyboard of my computer begin?  Vivian’s description of her homemade STM set me to pondering such questions all over again, and that was the start of my work on this book—or was it?  Perhaps my work on this book really started with my work on Miss Rheingold’s science assignment.  Perhaps it began even earlier.  Regardless of when it began, it is now, I think, finished at last. 
     I am astonished at how long this book became.  I tried to cut some of the details, but I couldn’t eliminate split session, the broadcasting career of Flo and Freddie, the drumlin in our back yard, my lighthouse, the terrazzo floor of the Purlieu Street School, splines, green blackboards, Miss Rheingold’s legs and perfume, the smell of new pencils, shandy, Quanto the Minimum, Elementary Introductory Physics Made Easy for Beginners (Book One), Marvin’s mother’s redfish court bouillon, my mother’s business ventures, fried baloney, Ariane’s hip, or Kap’n Klam’s flirtation with hamburgers, and despite my cuts I think there may still be too many gadgets in here, but I couldn’t eliminate any of the ones that appeared on “Fantastic Contraptions,” or the windup record player, the combination locks on the lockers in the school, the flour bomb, my Shackleton Superba, the Lodkochnikovs’ television set, or the windflowers, and so this book is as long as it is, which is, I hope, just as long as it ought to be.

Peter Leroy
Small’s Island 
February 8, 1991


Extremely Funny
-- The New York Times Book Review

Luminously Intelligent Fun
-- Time


Where do You Stop? is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press, at $10.00.

You should be able to find Where do You Stop?at your local bookstore, but you can also order it by phone from:

Bookbound at 1-800-959-7323 
Book Call at 1-800-255-2665 (worldwide 1-203-966-5470)
You can order it on the Web from Amazon.com Books.

Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft

Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.

Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.

For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec “Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.

The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.





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