I discovered Nero among the ruins of Ostia Anticus, that tourist lure just outside of Rome that has preserved a practically perfect, excavated ancient Roman city.
It was my third extended life in Italy after I had lived in Rome as a boy, when my dad served has served as a U.S. consulate diplomat for nearly six years in an old Republican administration.
Nero was dressed in the anthropomorphic armor of a Roman general, or was even the imperial armor itself. But I still refuse to say he was the Emperor Nero, even though he looked almost exactly like the man’s surviving busts, and he knew it.
My iPod had been filling my ears with the best of Isaac Stern. Later I came to understand how Stern’s perfect violin music must have created a tear between time and spatial dimensions, so Nero must have slipped through a crack from where history’s ghosts go to hide from us. I know this sounds a little baroque, but it can now be scientifically verified.
The misty lines of Nero’s framework came alive as soon as Stern in my ear took on Paganini’s pet composition, “Caprice No. 24 in A Minor.”
Nero had turned up to pull himself through classic vibrations of strings at exactly the one correct time portal in this bucolic Ostia Anticus. But down the road, the path of his incarnation had given me this terrible headache.
This long headache actually began since Princeton’s string-theorist Edward Witten predicted our galaxy was coming to the verge of colliding with an especially large string floating around the universe. In fact, this big string had been spat out at the onset of the Big Bang itself, and now Witten was saying it was at the root of whatever happened, is happening, or will happen to us.
Here was Nero in Anticus to prove it. Nero had formed himself with a series of renderings that grew thicker in the air in front of me, right at an ancient kiln used to bake Roman pizza. When he had finally completed himself in solid flesh and bone and armor, he spoke Latin. Luckily I knew just enough of Romance languages to get a feeling for what he was saying through the Latin roots.
“Ayie,” he exclaimed, which sounded just like the “Ayie” that Roman drivers shout out on their crazy-crossed streets.
“What happened?” I said.
“I need a drink,” he said. “By Jove, I need a drink. Would you buy me a good strong drink for this old boy? I am Nero the emperor, you know.”
“Yes. Of course I will buy you a drink. But I want to know what happened.”
“I will tell you the whole story, father.”
I wasn’t his father, nor was I a priest.
“My name is Charles,” I told him. “If you want your drink, I want you to talk with me.”
He stood there waiting to absorb more. There had been no one else around to share this spectacle, but now that Nero had turned solid, a couple of tourists strolled by to inspect both him and the old kiln. The American tourists accepted both Nero and kiln as decent props in the scenery.
“We can get you one drink,” I said in the most simplistic Italian. “But let’s not make too much of it.”
I understood him better than he could listen to me. “By Jove,” he said. “Let me call you dad.”
“No,” I said, in the slowest Italian I thought that anyone could understand. “I’m not your dad, Nero.”
But no matter what we said, I had already become established as a kind of father to him in his mind – although I was only in my early forties to what were probably Nero’s early thirties – and he became as pliant as Roman cake to my father’s touch.
As I pushed him out of Anticus – gently and discreetly, because he was enough of an attraction in his Roman armor without me adding to it – I guided him to the train station and then finger-pushed him to the train that had taken me from Rome.
“Jove,” he kept saying, every time he saw a new car pull in or out, and especially when he saw an open red Ferrari Scuderia pull into the museum parking lot with a six-foot-tall Italian Ready-to-Wear Goddess walking from it.
His face pulled at the parking lot as he sat across from me in our train and looked at all the traffic.
“These are what we call cars. They are like chariots, but the horse power is inside them,” I told him.
“Cars,” he said. “They move so fast. Aiyee.”
“In Rome, they can become a complete mess, because Roman drivers feel they should not subject their cars to any rigid driving rules.”
A plane was lifting in the air in our window.
“Do you see that, Nero? That is what we call a modern passenger jet plane lifting itself from Rome’s international airport.”
“Hmmmmm.” He stared stonily still at the huge plane that headed into Rome’s constant overhead cumulus clouds. “Wow.”
“It’s a wow moment, huh, Nero?”
“Wow, wow,” he said again. He got even more excited as he pointed to something new. “Roma!”
I had guessed he had seen many of the preserved facets of the eternal; city around where remnants of the Appian Way led them. “I’ll tell you what, Nero. After I get to my hotel room and have a drink, I’ll take you out on a walk of the Appian way.”
Nero acted like a typical tourist to the wildness of Roman driving, using his body language to wave off potential crashes from cars that started out driving right at us. Luckily my apartment was located in an area of Roman learning and culture, and so those who watched us get in, looked on like they were watching Part II of La Strada.
When we got upstairs to my apartment, I ordered a couple of traditionally wrapped bottles of Chianti, which when Nero received his, he sucked it in like he was taking in fresh air. I watched him drink without stop for an entire half of a minute. At the end of the half minute, he spat Chianti out on my velvet rug like he was a dog out in nature.
“Nero, don’t spit. I’m going to get you out of that armor now and into something that makes you look like everyone else, like a normal person.” I came up to him and pulled him up, and then I pushed him out the door and finally towards the piazza behind me that had an unfolding of boutiques. “We’re clothing you now, Nero, old sport,” I told him, like I was his Great Gatsby.
We stayed in an Armani boutique for over an hour. For the first half hour. Nero picked up flavorful Armani’s men’s ties that were the brightest colors of the lot. He could not seem to understand what ties were used for. He kept acting as if they were some kind of artistic instruments, gathering several in his hands to dangle like a puppeteer against the chromatic colors.
“No, Nero. The ties are to put around your neck.”
“Arrgh,” he said, as if he were choking, grabbing at his throat.
“You put a tie around your neck, like this.”
“Arrgh,” he said much louder, and he punched my jaw.
He had small hands, and his punch did not set me back far, but I made too much noise crashing onto the floor. Then the other customers and the workers began to notice us, especially as I was wiggling around on the floor while Nero was strutting around wearing his suit of ancient Roman armor. Soon everyone was helping me up while they took turns giving Nero a dirty look. A salesman rushed up to me and asked what help I needed.
“Dress him,” I said. “Thank you.”
Nero took another half hour, picking what seemed to be dozens of pants and shirts for himself. He especially liked any collars, sleeves or hems that had flair and any colors that rhymed with Roman sunlight. When we came back I hired an enlarged street urchin on the spot to carry the armor in a box, holding it with both arms all around it. I wanted it as preserved as possible for the carbon history test I had planned.
“Nero, I know you can’t understand me perfectly well,” I said in my slowest Italian, when we had settled into my apartment again. I turned my official tape recorder on, so that none of this would get lost. “But listen carefully so you can get a general feeling of what I am saying.”
“In your time, Nero, you learned about a Latin scientist named Lucretius, who was really the first person who seriously wrote about the atoms built up into all the things that exist. You have heard of Lucretius, huh?”
“Jove, I know about Lucretius. He died a long time ago, Dad.”
“But now it is 2,000 years later after he died. Today, our modern Lucretius is a physicist at Princeton University named Witten. Witten gives me a terrible headache when I read him, but he is just as brilliant as your Lucretius, even more so. He has picked up with atoms where Lucretius got started, at their basic parts, their strings.”
“Strings, strings,” said Nero, jumping up suddenly, singing an epiphany.
“What do you think about strings, Nero?”
“I’m a violinist, Dad.”
“Nero, Witten has shown us why we are floating into the biggest string in the universe right now. Do you know what that means?
“It means that the graves are opening. It means that’s why you are here now. You had died, but the disruption of the big string had opened the portal where your past life was hiding. Nero, have you ever seen a flame go out?”
“I don’t mean to change the subject, Dad, but where do you order that Chianti?”
“No, listen, Nero. When you were dead, you were living in one of Witten’s thirteen tiny dimensions he has discovered in his mathematics. The four dimensions we live in are huge, you see, and we are huge, huge beings. But the other thirteen dimensions are so tiny that they are only detected by running out one of Einstein’s final formulas to their final remainders.”
“Goodbye, Dad. I’m going to go get that Chianti.”
He stood at the door and shrugged. “Do you want to give me some money, Dad?” he asked, “for a drink, or what?”
“I want you to talk with me.” I came up to him and bumped him, and after I practically squeezed his ears into his head, he yelled out in pain. “You were crunched in those little dimensions all those years, Nero, but I was playing some good Isaac Stern today and because of the string theory, you came out to our four big dimensions again and here you are, son.”
“I’m getting out of here and I will get some Chianti for sure.” He ran out the door and left me squeezing just air in my hands.
Nero gave me the impression that without any money, he wouldn’t be gone for very long. While he was gone, I looked up Witten’s faculty email at the Princeton University directory and wrote to him what had happened. I had in fact discovered the lowest octave of the Witten string theory, and I told him so. The lowest octave was figured by string theorists as the common ground of all the energy, matter and time compiled in the universe -- it is the initial sound of the Big Bang itself. I explained that it was some kind of random interference getting to Isaac Stern’s violin performance that brought me there, literally opening the grave of a random ancient Roman who was within hearing distance. I implored Dr. Witten to send me a response soon.
Nero came staggering back in over six hours later, smelling all over with Chianti. “You do not treat me like an emperor,” he told me, with all kinds of drunken murdering of his syllables. “I sit on the streets and beg for money like some kind of drunken bum, so I can go on a drunk.”
“Nero, stop trying to tell me you’re an emperor.”
“I’m an emperor, and I am sick of this bloody treatment and bloody disrespect of me.”
“Well I am a scientist, Nero. I am actually an insurance broker and an actuary, but I’m a scientist in my spare time. I understand the odds of picking up a Roman emperor from some kind of time portal I just happened to be standing in. You can’t be anything but an ordinary ancient Roman, because ancient Romans come a dime a dozen compared to real emperors. I am in the business of odds making, you see. I have American certification as an actuary”
“I want a good bed to sleep in now.”
He sat on my sofa, and then in a few seconds he was lying in it. Within another minute he was snoring.
The next day, I didn’t get the response I expected from Witten. But I decided on my own that I would keep everything in place in the meantime. Nero was staying with me, and that’s that.
July 22, 2010 Email to Dr. Edward Witten:
Dear Dr. Witten: As I have previously written, I am an American expatriate insurance broker now living in Rome. Previously, I had owned a brokerage in Elk City, California, which I have now sold to my manager there so that I can re-establish a car insurance brokerage primarily for English-speaking residents and visitors in lovely Roma.
I have been a supporter for your string theory for decades, ever since the New York Times Sunday magazine wrote a cover story that I recall was titled “Is this the most intelligent man on earth?”
I perfectly understand that your string theory is based on a Keatsian supposition that the universe is actually a long symphony of beautiful music in seventeen octaves that reach into seventeen different dimensions, four dimensions that are right at my fingertips as I key this in report.
In the Keatsian Theory, of course, I am referring to the English poet John Keats, who died in the eighteenth century when he was only 25 years old, shortly after he wrote, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The lowest octave -- because it has the most beauty of any musical sound – also has the most truth. On a recent excursion to an ancient city, Dr. Witten, that lowest octave was processed from my radio, permitting as you predicted a time portal to open and for a man who had been dead for thousands of years to leap out from that breech.
Today that man is living with me in Rome. But as he is still completely unsuited for our era, I have pre-occupied some of his empty time by making him a courier, allowing him to deliver revised insurance papers to my clients when they have – for example – added an endorsement to their policy over the phone. In the process of all this, he is of course developing greater facility with the modern Italian language.
But he returns to my home drunk and volatile. Last night he kicked my bedroom door in and said I was exploiting him, and he forced me to give him some money so he could as he expressed it “go on a drunk.”
I believe, Dr. Witten, that the most extremely important fact to be gleaned from this email is that the traveler needs scientific maintenance and protection, most obviously to come from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. Please advise.
Charles W. Deerforth
Two days after I had emailed this missile to Princeton, a distraught woman with blond curls falling all over her face rushed into my office, stopped at my desk in the rear, and dropped her purse into one of my chairs as if it were bad snakes she was dumping.
“You had a mad man in my house,” she said to me.
“Your stupid courier.”
As her voice rose, her blond curls hanging from her head started to become question marks. “What did he do?” I asked her. “Did he deliver your policies?”
“I don’t care about your insurance policies. I’m cancelling my insurance. He barged in and said he loved my terrace and all that. Then he went out on the terrace, opened his bag, and took out a violin.”
“Nero’s really into playing that violin.”
“Here your courier comes to invade my house and without my permission plays it for my whole neighborhood to hear.”
“Did he just do one movement?”
“What do you mean?”
“When he comes home, because he lives with me, he plays his violin. He can go for hours on just one movement at a time. It can drive me crazy. Did he develop anything beyond a damned first movement?”
“Goodbye,” she said, with her back looking at me. “Goodbye, goodbye to your lousy premium notices.”
A couple of days later I decided to write Dr, Witten again, even though I hadn’t heard from him since I already sent the previous two emails:
Dear Dr. Witten. It is me again, Charles Deerforth, the expatriate insurance broker in Rome. I have already sent you two emails, and this is the third, in case you are weak in mathematics (LOL). I have already mentioned many times in various blogs and in my letters how indebted I am to you for your string theory findings, especially your theory, the giant string. This is the big string that exploded out of the Big Bang, which to my understanding you have formulated into a warning that our galaxy is nearing this Big String, producing all kinds of magnetic fields in our brain and in our thinking.
In my experience around Rome recently, I found some evidence of a breach in time portals, that you predicted would accompany chaos deriving from too much nearness to the Big String. An ancient man walked out of a portal at the moment when the violinist Isaac Stern breached a particularly low octave on his strings. Mr. Stern has had already passed from this earth, and there is no doubt that there was otherworldly interference in Mr. Stern’s low octave, which frankly turned the time coordinates around here into hell on earth. Let me explain.
Dr. Witten, I have had a horrible time putting up with this ancient man who practically lurched out at me from another time, perhaps provoked by the Big String drifting closer. Last week he didn’t come home, and I smelled smoke. I finally looked outside to find three houses burning, and my guest playing his violin on the terrace of one my former insurance clients, with my former client looking like Medusa and hitting him with something and screaming at him.
My guest’s name is “Nero.” He says he is the emperor Nero, but of course I know better than that. I wasn’t born yesterday. There must have been millions of men named “Nero” in ancient Rome. In any case I haven’t seen Nero for nearly a week now. But I still have his armor, which I would like to lend to carbon testing. I would be happy to send his armor to you for proper validation of your time theory. May I have an address by which I could send the evidence to you? Yours very truly, Charles Deerforth, M.S.
It has been over six months now since I have sent that unanswered email or heard anything from Nero. Perhaps I need to remind myself that most people go through their lives without anything extraordinary happening to them. But when a human being encounters that rare extraordinary event, the experience lessens the already slim odds of the extraordinary event happening twice. I will have to reconcile myself to the fact that I was lucky to have one of these experiences happen to me.
So now arrives this strange feeling of being a totally ordinary American in Italy.
written by Chris Sharp