Friday, March 14, 2008

March FFC: orion_mk3: Numerology

by orion_mk3

The man was seated on the concrete lip of a planter, as he often was, paying no attention to the passing students and merrily belting out a tune with harmonica and washboard. The board at his feet often contained a message—Carrie could recall it saying "time well wasted" a few weeks ago, and the other day it had read "the devil always leaves the porch light on."

Today, though, there was nothing but a large inkjet-bright "2."

"I've been meaning to ask," Carrie said to her friend Amy as they neared the player. "Who's that?"

Amy shrugged. "One of the weirdoes big colleges invariably attract. Whenever the weather's good, he's out here banging and blowing like a trumpet in a trash compactor."

"Yeah, I've seen him a few times. But where's he from?" She noted his ill-fitting thrift store clothing. "Is he homeless?"

"I dunno."

"I'll ask him," Carrie said, veering toward the player.

"Carrie, don't!" Amy hissed. "He's probably crazy or diseased or both."

"Now, now, what's the first thing Dr. Himmel said in SCWK 102? Every encounter is an opportunity to help the invisible."

"Whatever you say," Amy sighed. "Just don't go getting yourself on 'America's Most Wanted' as the tragic victim." She kept walking.

Carrie politely waited until the one-man band had stopped playing, and sat down next to him.

"Hello," he said. "Lovely afternoon, isn't it?"

"It is!" Carrie said, beaming her best smile. "What brings you out here today, Mr…?"

"I'm just a humble instrumentalist," he replied. "And today I'm playing in honor of the number 2."

"Why 2?" Carrie asked. She thought she detected a fixation; maybe the man was schizophrenic.

"Because it's truly wonderful," the instrumantalist replied. "2's prime, so just about anything can be reduced to it that isn't prime itself. Go on, give me a number."

"88," Carrie answered, thinking of piano keys.

"2 times 44 is 88, 2 times 22 is 44, 2 times 11 is 22, and then you're down to primes! Just 2 and 11 left.”

"I see." Revising her initial estimate, Carrie settled on delusion with a hint of autism thrown in for flavor—that was the instrumentalist's problem, no question.

"2's the razor that separates every number in existence into evens and odds, even though it's a very odd prime number in and of itself!” he continued. “Every number in the world's got to be pounded against 2 to see which way it breaks!"

Delusions of grandeur, too; the inflating of everyday events to hyperbolic proportions. Carrie nodded, mentally refining her diagnosis.

"At the same time, 2 is the smallest base you can use to display a meaningful number. Binary—1's and 0's, you know—is base 2, but 2 isn't even present! In fact, it's the surest sign you're out of binary country, where there's no such thing as 2."

"Hm," Carrie murmured. Definitely some kind of delusion, compounded by strange and impossible claims. No such thing as 2? Maybe it had been stolen by the one world government or the black helicopters.

"And how's this for a trick? What's 2+2?"

"4." Maybe there was some sort of childhood trauma, a root cause.

"2 x 2?"

"4 again." Add obsessive compulsion to the mix.


"Still 4." Perhaps a trauma on a day with a prominent 2?

The instrumentalist laughed. "Only number in the world that's true for. But what's the square root of two?"

Carrie only remembered a smattering of roots from high school. "I don't know."

"Exactly! No one does for sure. The square root of two is an irrational number, a decimal that goes on forever without repeating."

The instrumentalist spread his hands, smiling; Carrie saw her chance. "So why do you know so much about 2? Did something bad happen when you were 2, or on the 2nd of some month? I'm here to talk if you need it."

"No, no, nothing of the sort," the instrumentalist laughed. "I did my thesis on the divisibility of irrational numbers by 2, especially Pythagorian and Erd├Ás-Borwein constants."

Carrie blinked. "Thesis?" It was more serious than she thought; the man was a former academic fallen to insanity, like Kaczynski but hopefully without explosives.

"Yes, I did it at this very university in 1977; they offered me a research position as a result."

"Ah," Carrie said, hoping to probe deeper into the man's psyche. "Why'd you leave?"

"I didn't," the instrumentalist grinned.

"Y-you mean…?"

The man handed Carrie a piece of paper; unfolded, she saw it was a mathematics PhD. "Doesn't do me much good on the wall, does it?" he said. "I like to keep it on my person."

"But…but why the harmonica, the washboard, and the signs?"

"Great conversation starters," the instrumentalist replied. "And before you know it, you've learned something. Just look at how much you now know about the number 2. Every meeting is an opportunity to enlighten the ignorant, after all."

He leaned in closer. "And, just between you and me, I enjoy messing with people's perceptions a little; you learn a lot about what people are really like. And I love to play before an audience, too, even though I'm not terribly good even with years of practice."

Carrie couldn't think of a response.

"Don't say much, do you young lady?"

"I…I have to go now. I have class," Carrie said, standing. Every now and then, of course, there were people that just couldn't be helped. Yes, that was it—the instrumentalist's psychoses were so deeply rooted that there was nothing she could do. Best to write him off as a lost cause and move on, of course. She'd tried, after all, and couldn't very well be expected to make much of a difference in ten minutes.

"Of course!" The instrumentalist waved. "Come back next week. I think the sign'll say 'time's an allusion' then, or maybe 'space is infinitely spaced.' You'll get a kick out of those, you bet!"


In orion_mk3's own words: I'm a former student and teacher of literature who's driven by some inner madness to pen things at irregular intervals. I work it in between classes and during long stretches in the campus library.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

What a very clever twist! I like this PhD dude.

But... doesn't anyone miss him where he ought to be?

orion_mk3 said...

Ah, but researchers can have a flexible schedule, especially with tenure and seniority :)

A. Catherine Noon said...

I love this: Like a trumpet in a trash compactor. That is awesome! I like how she continues to miss the point. Your professor actually reminds me of people I've known in college. Like to twist peoples' perceptions. Lovely! Very unexpected!

~Liz~ said...

I like the distinct personalities that you've given your characters, especially the professor. It seems he isn't the only one messing with people's perceptions. Great story.

Eaton Bennett said...

I like that you packed so much into that piece and that it had
a way of saying don't go by what you see or think you see.

Kathleen Oxley said...

I really enjoyed this! I feel like I have a good feel for these two characters in such a short space. Loved all the math details too (I was a math major for a year in college)!

Great job!!

bunnygirl said...

Very clever and intelligent. For many years there was a man who wandered the streets near where I lived, dirty, homeless and truly insane. People said he was a former university professor. Hopefully it wasn't the number 2 that drove him over the edge!

You got a lot of very clever observations about both numbers and people into a short amount of space. Great job, and I hope you try to get this into one of the zines!

Gwen Mitchell said...

I loved this variation on the theme, and your characterizations were great - especially how she's still in denial even after she knows what's up, and he's still pimping, like someone truly passionate about their work would.