Agent Provocateur

By Alexander Irvine, illustration by Ben Strickland

It's July in Detroit, a Thursday afternoon in 1940. I am twelve years old. From my seat in the left-field upper deck at Briggs Stadium, I can look over my shoulder and see the General Motors Building towering over Woodward Avenue. Cars stream up and down Michigan Avenue, Fords and Chevrolets and Buicks and the occasional Nash, many driven by the same hands that built them. I look at my hands and imagine that they will become autoworker's hands, large-knuckled and scarred, grime worked so deep into the wrinkles that even Lava soap will never get it out.

My father's shadow falls across me. He sits on my right and balances three mustard-slathered hot dogs on his lap. I look at his hands and try to count the dozens of pale round pinhole scars that mark his wrists and forearms. My father works for the Ford Motor Company as a welder. He is thirty-one years old and seems to me to contain all the knowledge in the world.

I take a hot dog and devour it in three bites, then reach for another. "Christ, kid," my father says around a mouthful. "You and Babe Ruth. Tell you what, why don't we flip for this one and I'll go get another at the seventh-inning stretch?"

On the field, Schoolboy Rowe is warming up before the fourth and the Boston Red Sox are milling around the steps of their dugout. Rowe is throwing well and the Bosox are in a bit of a slump; still, three innings could take forty minutes. I am twelve years old. I could starve to death in forty minutes.

"Deal," I say.

Dad flips a quarter.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that the act of observing an object displaces that object, so that its true position and direction cannot both be determined at once. Or so we were taught in high school.

The Baseball Encyclopedia states that Moe Berg hit six home runs in a major-league career spanning parts of thirteen seasons with four teams. It was said of him that he could speak twelve languages, but couldn't hit in any of them; Berg was the most scholarly of baseball players, and he made joking notes about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle while he watched the man himself lecture in Switzerland during World War II, all the while deciding whether or not to kill him. I think Moe Berg would understand the subtle shifts my memories of him undergo every time I dredge them up from my seventy years' worth of neurochemical silt.

I was Moe Berg's biggest fan in 1940, even though he'd sort of officially retired at the end of the '39 season. Like him, I loved baseball, and like him, I loved to read -- a combination unusual among twelve-year-olds as it is in major-league clubhouses. I even went so far as to adopt some of his eccentricities. When I found out that he wouldn't read a newspaper that someone else had touched, I demanded that I be the first in our house to get the Free Press off the porch. Nobody else could touch the sports section until I'd gotten a look at the box scores. Only virgin agate type for this devotee of the national pastime.

Berg stayed on with the Red Sox as a warmup catcher and a kind of team guru, but never played a game after 1939, and by the time the war heated up, he was Agent Berg of the OSS. His photographs of Tokyo, taken on a goodwill tour of American baseball players just before the war, guided Jimmy Doolittle's bombers, and his good sense saved Werner Heisenberg's life.

At least, that's what the history books say. I remember things a little differently.

I remember, for example, Moe Berg's seventh home run.

I call tails. The quarter glitters through its arc over my dad's hand, looking like any number of slow-motion coin flips I've seen in fifty years of movies since then. Dad catches it in his right hand, slaps it onto the back of his left. "You sure?"

I nod. He takes away his hand. It's tails.

"Here you go," Dad says. The last hot dog is gone before Rowe has taken his eighth warmup.

And then, would you believe it, Moe Berg steps to the plate. The Tigers public-address announcer sounds like he can't believe it either; his voice hesitates, and is momentarily lost in the echoes of his last word. "Sox, sox, ox, ox, ox." The crowd stirs, and people look up from their scorecards to see if it could actually be Moe Berg taking a last practice cut and scuffing dirt away from the back of the batter's box. Baseball fans are always alert to the possibility of history being made.

For me, Berg's appearance is better than a ticket to the World Series. I take off my Tiger cap and look at his autograph, scrawled across the underside of the bill last August. I'd had to fight my way through the crowd around Ted Williams to get near the dugout, and Berg was just sitting on the corner of the dugout steps, rolling a quarter across the backs of his fingers and watching the crowd for pretty girls. When I'd leaned over the railing to hand him my cap, he'd cracked a smile at the Old English D. "You know what an agent provocateur is, kid?"

"No sir," I said, "but I'll go home and look it up after the game."

His smile broadened just a bit, and he scribbled his name on my cap and tossed it back to me.

Now he stands in, and Rowe fires a dipping fastball at the knees. Berg watches it go by, shakes his head, waits on the next pitch.

And smokes it out to left-center.

Keep your eye on it, look it in.

I'm on my feet cheering even before it occurs to me that the ball might have home-run distance. The ball reaches the peak of its arc, and the two Tiger outfielders slow to a jog, watching it head for the fence. Head for me. I remember thinking that: it's heading right for me. I reach up, watching the ball curve a bit as it sails down out of the sky and worrying that it'll go over my head. I don't have my glove, but otherwise for the longest second of my life it's just like the field behind Estabrook school, watching the ball and hearing my dad's voice in my head. Keep your eye on it, look it in. Two hands.

The sound of the ball hitting my palms is almost exactly like the sound of my dad smacking the quarter onto the back of his hand. Someone bumps into me and I fall between the rows of seats. On the way down I bang my head, hard, on a seat or someone's knee, and fold up like Max Schmeling. But I'm not completely out, I'm still cradling the ball like one of the eggs the high-school girls have to carry around for their home-ec projects. My dad hauls me to my feet, and the knot of fans around me disperses as quickly as it converged. A few people slap me on the back and say, "Nice catch."

"Look at you, Avery my boy," Dad says. "You eat all my hot dogs and catch a home run."

"A Moe Berg home run," I say, looking at the ball. An oblong smudge covers part of the Spalding logo. Moe Berg's bat was there, I think. It's almost as good as shaking hands with him. I look up and he's rounding third, two of him, accepting a laughing double handshake from the twinned third-base coach.

It's like a dream. Berg starts to get blurry, and there is a roaring in my ears, and my father says something else but I'm too busy falling down to hear him.

And then it is a dream, or anyway it's different. Avery isn't in the ballpark any more, and his father isn't around; in fact, nobody is. He's alone in a room that seems to have walls, a ceiling, and a floor, but when he looks at them he can't quite tell whether or not they're there.

No, he's not alone. There's a man in the room. Like the walls, his face is indistinct, but Avery can tell he's wearing a tuxedo like the one in his parents' wedding picture.

"What just happened didn't really happen," the man says.

Avery is twelve years old. "Sure it did," he says. "I was there."

"Where was there?"

"Briggs Stadium, at the ballgame. I caught this ball," Avery says, holding it up to him so the man will have to believe him. He has the ball, therefore there was a home run.

Only the ball is a quarter, like the one Avery's dad flipped for the hot dog. A 1936 quarter, with three short parallel gouges across the eagle's right wing.

"Where's my ball?" Avery looks around the room.

"There is no ball. What you have is what you caught."

"Come on," Avery says scornfully. "Ted Williams couldn't hit a quarter out of the park. Hank Greenberg couldn't. Jimmie Foxx couldn't. You expect me to believe Moe Berg did?"

"What do you have in your hand?"

"A quarter."

"Then that must be what you caught."

"No way. You stole it, didn't you? You stole my ball."

"Avery. Listen to me. There's a reason it's a quarter."

"Sure there is. It's a quarter because you stole my ball and you're such a cheapskate you only gave me a quarter for it." Avery throws the quarter at the man, but it stops halfway between them, spinning in the air just as it did on its way through the summer air in Briggs Stadium.

"Now you've done it," the man says.

Where am I going, where have I been, how do I know both at once? I'm seventy-two years old, retired from the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, to a seaside cottage in Seal Harbor, Maine. The Tigers have won three World Series since the day I saw (or didn't see) Moe Berg's home run -- in '45, '68, and '84. The Red Sox haven't won any. The four years they've gone, they've lost in seven games every damn time. The last time was 1986, when Red Sox Nation really thought the Curse had been lifted; but after Mookie Wilson's seeing-eye grounder found its way through Bill Buckner's legs, it would almost have been better if the Angels had beaten the Sox in the AL playoffs. At least then . . . but if, if, if. "If chickens had lips," my dad used to say, "they would whistle." No use speculating on ifs. It wasn't easy growing up a Red Sox fan in Detroit, but I managed, mostly because, as with Moe Berg's autograph under the bill of my Tiger cap, I kept my allegiance carefully hidden.

In summer, I take a radio out on my porch and listen to the Sox while watching the waves come in from the North Atlantic. Waves crash on every shore, and I wonder every single day if there's some kind of middle point from which waves radiate in every direction. The still point of the turning world, as Eliot put it. The place where choices resolve into certainties.

If there is such a place, I would like very much to see it, to know it exists. I would like very much to know whether or not my choice killed my father.

The quarter's in the air.

"Done what?" Avery says.

"The quarter's in the air. Now you'll have to make a call before it comes down."

"Why?" Avery looks at the man again, and he's sitting in a chair that wasn't there a minute ago. The quarter spins at his eye level.

"To decide what happens."

"What am I deciding?"

"You have two choices to make, Avery. Only one depends on the coin, so we'll deal with the other one first. Let me tell you a story." The man shifts in the chair, getting comfortable. "In a year and a half, America will be at war with Germany and Japan."

"No we won't," Avery says. "Roosevelt said we were staying out of it."

"Yes, he did. But it will happen anyway."

"How do you know?"

"Because that's what I do. I know. In fact, you might say that's what I am. Someone who knows."

Avery squints at the man, trying to make his face stay still long enough to get a look at it. "Someone who knows, huh? Well, do you know what you look like?"

"You're misunderstanding. Avery, I only look like this because that's the easiest way for you to see me."

"It'd be easier if you had a face," Avery says.

"Fine," the man says. "Give me one."

"It's that easy?" The man nods. "Okay." And the man has Avery's father's face.

"Are you more comfortable now?" the man says.

"Tell me what you mean, 'someone who knows.'"

"I mean that I didn't exist until a particular thing had to be known. When I know what needs to be known, then I will no longer exist."

Avery is catching on. "So you only exist as long as you don't know what you need to know?"

The man with Avery's father's face nods.

"Tell me the story," Avery says.

It is easy to be retired in the nineties, especially when you've had the career I did. You collect your retirement and your Social Security. You try to make day lilies grow on the Maine seacoast. You take morning hikes with your wife in Acadia National Park. If you get bored, you do consulting for people in the automotive industry.

I cannot get bored, because when I get bored I start thinking about Moe Berg, quarters, afternoons in July when my father would use a sick day and take me to ballgames.

I have earned a lot of money from consulting work.

My wife's name is Donna. She's a little taller than I am, and a lot thinner, and her hair is exactly the color of a full moon high in a winter sky. We've been married for thirty-seven years, and I don't think I know how to love another woman any more. She wants me to slow down a little, enjoy the golden years. She wants to know why I don't want to go to Europe. We are happy together, and our children haven't turned up on any talk shows to claim abuse or neglect.

I wish I could tell Donna why I don't want to go to Europe, but I've hidden that away like an enemy autograph under the bill of a sweat-stained Detroit Tigers baseball cap.

Moe Berg died in New York in 1972, outliving my father by twenty-eight years. After his death, Donna and I went to New York for the first time.

"There is a scientist named Werner Heisenberg," the man with Avery's father's face says.

"Is he German?" The man nods. "So we'll be at war with him," Avery says.

"Yes. Heisenberg is already very famous as a scientist, and when the war starts, he will work for the Nazis trying to split the atom and develop an atomic bomb. Here is the choice you must make: does Moe Berg kill this man Heisenberg or not?"

"Moe Berg kill somebody? He's a baseball player."

"Presently, yes. But when the war breaks out, he will join the Office of Strategic Services and act as a spy for the United States. One of his assignments, in 1944, will be to attend a lecture given by Heisenberg. Berg will have been instructed to shoot Heisenberg if he believes that the Nazis are nearly able to construct an atomic bomb."

"You're crazy," Avery says. "I read about atomic bombs in Astounding. There's no such thing."

"There will be."

Still dubious, Avery says, "Even if there is, what's that got to do with my ball?"

"If Moe Berg hits another home run, he will play more often this season. Being a little old for the Army, he will play next season as well, and the OSS will hire someone in his place. The man that they hire and send to Heisenberg's lecture will kill Heisenberg."

"Big deal," Avery says. "If there is such a thing as an atomic bomb, we sure don't want Hitler to have it."

"But what if killing Heisenberg has no influence on the Nazis' ability to build an atomic bomb before the United States does? Then a brilliant scientist will have been assassinated for no gain." Avery doesn't say anything, and the man continues. "If Heisenberg's assassination is successful, other German physicists will be targeted. The result of this will be that the men who would have built America's space program will either be dead or frightened into going to Russia when the war ends."

"Space program?" Avery is suddenly excited. He's just read H. G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon a month ago, and if atomic bombs, why not men on the moon? "Are we going to the moon?" His mind fills with images of sleek, silvery rockets, blasting off into space. With him aboard. He will be an astronaut.

"That depends, Avery. There are many possibilities, but this much is certain: if Heisenberg is killed, the people who first set foot on the moon will not be American. And perhaps no one will at all."

How do you know all this?

Avery is silent, staring at the floor that isn't quite a floor. More like a lot of different floors, each of which is almost there but not quite. "How do you know all this?" he asks.

"I don't know. Before you arrived here, I didn't exist. When you leave, I won't exist. But as long as this particular uncertainty persists, so do I."

"Does it matter who lands on the moon?" Avery asks.

"Perhaps not. But it might matter very much who has the first atomic bomb."

Avery watches the quarter spinning. If he moves a bit to one side or the other, he can make it look like the man with his father's face has quarters for eyes. A Moe Berg home-run ball; something to tell the guys about. He thinks.

"Okay," Avery says after a while. "You can have the ball."

Sometimes the moon looks like a coin, its endless maria spreading their eagle wings across the landscape. On summer nights I wait for it to rise above the distortion near the horizon, and then I sit up late thinking that the moon spins just like that quarter did. Full, gibbous, half, fingernail, new. After a summer of late nights I have a time-lapse movie in my head, and sometimes when I dream the man with my father's face has moons for eyes. They flicker like film that isn't moving quite fast enough to fool the eye.

Heads or tails. Fifty-fifty. Position or velocity. The cat is alive, the cat is dead. But if you flip a coin ten times, you don't often get five of each. I flip coins a lot, especially when it's summer and I'm up late and there's a fingernail moon.

Werner Heisenberg: Nazi or good citizen doing what he thought was right? Fifty-fifty. Most of his biographers and all of his friends say that he was simply a German, and when his country was at war he was duty-bound to build them an atomic pile. I wonder sometimes how much thought he gave to what Hitler would do with an atomic bomb.

On December 15, 1944, Heisenberg gave a lecture on S-matrix theory at ETH in Zurich. Moe Berg was there, posing as a Swiss student, an Arab businessman, or a French merchant, depending on whose account you believe. This is uncertainty: you can know that Moe Berg was in a place, but not how he got there. Were there Saudi businessmen or Dijonnese merchants? Certainly there were Swiss students. And certainly there was Moe Berg, agent provocateur.

I imagine the scene. Heisenberg, red-haired, balding, gnomish, looking older than his years, paces in front of a blackboard as he speaks. His left hand never leaves his pocket. In the audience, Berg listens attentively, taking notes. As I listen, Berg writes, I am uncertain -- see: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle -- what to do to H. He jokes with himself: discussing math while Rome burns. An automatic pistol weighs down Berg's coat pocket, and a cyanide capsule slides back and forth in the watch pocket of his trousers when he shifts his weight.

Heisenberg speaks, Berg watches, and a coin spins in the air.

"Does that stop the war?" Avery asks. "If I give the ball back?"

"No, the war will happen. But your choice can change the way it ends, and what happens after."

Avery has been thinking. "Why?" he asks. "Just because I caught a ball?"

"Partially." The man shifts, and his right eye becomes a spinning quarter. "Think of ripples. A stone falls in water; how far do the ripples go?"

"Until they hit something else," Avery says. He thinks of his grandfather's cottage up north, near Traverse City. There is a pond in the woods near the cottage, and Avery catches frogs there. He is seeing the ripples the frogs make when they escape him into the brown water.

"The ball you caught is a stone thrown into the frog pond of history, if you'll pardon my borrowing your image," the man says. "The ripples thrown out by its fall come into contact with a sequence of other events."

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" Avery asks.

"In one sense," the man says, "I am what you're thinking. Or, more precisely, what you would be thinking if you had more information than you possess at the game."

Avery pauses for a long time, watching the quarter spin. "Are you me?"

"You'll have to forgive me, Avery," the man says. The expression on his face reminds Avery of the time he asked his father how eyelashes knew when to stop growing. "I only know so much."

"But you know about this war that hasn't happened, and you're telling me about atomic bombs and going to the moon," Avery protests. "How do you know one thing and not something else?"

"Because some things haven't been decided yet. Call the toss, Avery."

"Not until you tell me where I am. Where we are."

"We aren't anywhere. For us to be somewhere, you would have to have made a decision. And when you've made a decision, I won't be here. I won't be anywhere. I only exist in the space of your uncertainty."

"Who are you, then? Are you God or something?"

The man shakes his head.

"Did God send you? Is there a God? How come He doesn't decide this instead of leaving it to me?"

Still shaking his head, the man says, "I can't answer any of those questions. I have told you all I can. You've already ensured that Moe Berg will attend Heisenberg's lecture; now you decide what will happen when he does."

"No," Avery says. "All I'm doing is calling a coin toss. I gave you the ball. That was a decision. This isn't."

"True. It has to happen this way, though. Conservation of information. I violated causality by telling you what would happen as a result of your last choice. Now you have to choose without knowing, even though I could tell you, so it balances out." Something flickers on his face, Avery's father's face. It looks like guilt.

"What am I deciding?"

"Whether Moe Berg kills Werner Heisenberg."

"It's not fair," Avery says. "That's why I gave you the ball, so Heisenberg wouldn't get killed. Stupid German. I should have kept the ball. Why couldn't I keep the ball and call the toss?"

"I already explained that. Call the toss, Avery. Collapse the wave function," the man says. "Either it happens or it doesn't."

"Tails," Avery says. And it is.

And I am back in Briggs Stadium with Bobby Doerr leading off the fourth inning, and my father holding me up with his scarred welder's hands. "Avery," he says. "You okay, son?"

"Yeah, Dad. I'm okay." I look around at Briggs Stadium, at the worn patches in the outfield, the flakes of rust on the bolts that hold the seats in the concrete floors. I have done something, I realize. It is all the same, but it will be different.

My father looks closely at me, concern in his eyes. "I'm okay, Dad," I insist.

"Okay, bud," he says. "That was your last hot dog for the day, though."

I feel the back of my head. No lump, no sore spot, no nothing. The Tigers lose, there are no home runs hit to left-center, and the next time I read a newspaper article about Moe Berg, it says he hit six home runs over the course of a major-league career that ended in 1939.

And Werner Heisenberg dies in Munich at the ripe old age of seventy-five, and atomic bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Neil Armstrong lands on the moon instead of a man named Yevgeny or Sergei or Yuri.

And my father dies in World War II, on December 11, 1944, when a plane that had recently carried Moe Berg to France crashes in the English Channel.

I was forty-one years old, watching on television from my new house in Farmington Hills, when Neil Armstrong spoke from the surface of the moon. The Tigers had won the World Series the year before, salving the wounds from the '67 riots that prompted me, like so many other white folks, to leave for the suburbs. I had long since given up on being an astronaut.

My father had been dead for nearly twenty-five years.

Ripples, the man with my father's face had said. Ripples propagate until they run into something, or until entropy robs them of their energy and they subside back into the flat surface of the water. I caught a ball once, at Briggs Stadium in the summer of 1940, and my father helped me up and said, "Look at you, Avery my boy."

Agent Provocateur illustration © 2002 Ben Strickland

Look at me, Dad. Briggs Stadium has been Tiger Stadium for thirty-five years now, and the welder's son from East Detroit became an executive with a custom-built home in the suburbs, and I saved Werner Heisenberg's life, and maybe I cost you yours.

I sit on the porch of my house in Maine, watching the waves come in and wondering where they come from. I wonder where the still point is, the place where waves are born and decisions hang between heads and tails.

Sometimes I talk to myself. More often I fall asleep and the sea breeze brings me dreams of men who are almost my father.

When I talk to myself, this is the question: If you had called heads, would your father be alive? If Moe Berg had never gone to France with Werner Heisenberg's life in his hands, a different plane would have been waiting for Dad at the cratered airstrip outside of Lyon.

Would that other plane have crashed?

I was twelve years old. I thought I did the right thing.

Would Moe Berg's seventh home run have put my father on a different plane?

The cat is alive. The cat is dead.

The Red Sox are playing a twi-night doubleheader tonight. Donna comes outside and sits next to me in the Adirondack chair I built for her the year I retired. She touches me on the back of the neck, then reads in the waning afternoon. I watch the shadow of my chimney crawl down the sloping lawn into the quiet surf, for just this moment content to know where I am, for just this moment content to believe in where I have been. The still point of the turning world. Waves come in like epicycles rippling through the larger cycles of tides, and the moon's revolution around the Earth, and the Earth's revolution around the sun.

Coins spinning, waiting for someone to call the toss.


Copyright © 2002 Alexander Irvine

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Alex Irvine

Alex Irvine is a native of Ypsilanti, Michigan. He has published short fiction in F&SF, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and other places. His novel A Scattering of Jades is coming out from Tor in July. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife Beth and children Emma and Ian. For more information about him and his work, see his Web site.

Ben Strickland splits his time between art and literature, two disciplines which he tries to fuse by doing illustrations. Visit his Web site to view more of his work.