29 August 2015

Counting by Factors (A Short Story)

(The following was written over a series of nights this week.  The whole thing has an idea to it, which I would like to pursue with greater seriousness at some later date.  However, for the moment I am satisfied with this expression of it.)


1. Every encounter between people is perfectly defined by the expectations, memories and desires they bring to it. The result is that each encounter is unique, and could be described—if one had the ability to distill out the components—as the product of the features of the people involved, at the precise moment of their meeting.

2. Denis sat alone, counting hairs as he plucked them from his chin. One... two... three... four... The counting was difficult, because he had started pulling at his beard without noticing, and so the sequence had no certain starting point. Was one really one? If not, was ten really ten? On top of this, the further he went, the more hairs came off with each compulsive tug. Was it sixteen that came after fifteen, or was it really twenty?

3. Tricia's cats followed her everywhere. She did not need to instruct them, or worry about them. They did not wander from her. Even when she was alone, she was never alone, because they were always with her.

4. Denis stared down at the pile of hairs fallen on the desk in front of him. He needed groceries. Feeling the baldness of his chin, he asked himself "Can I go out like this?" In the mirror, his image scrutinized his image. He asked it, "How do you compare to the most slovenly person, who could still be called average?" The image didn't answer, being an image, but Denis caught its eye for a moment and guessed what it was thinking. After a few intense moments of mutual scrutiny, they turned together toward the door.

5. Quentin unfolded paper bags. Each paper bag began as a flat, folded rectangle, but it was Quentin's job to make it so that none of the sides touched. After completing this exercise several thousand times, Quentin had concluded that the folded bag would always have some sides touching, unless you destroyed it. And isn't that what folding means?

6. Denis thought little of Tricia's cats. Tricia thought Denis's habit of staring at his own reflection and pulling out his beard was weird. Denis would say, "But Tricia, it cannot be allowed to bring cats everywhere. It cannot be allowed. The cats will hurt someone. The cats will be killed by a car. The cats will upset the merchandise in stores. Look at yourself with these cats!" Tricia would say, "Denis, the cats are a fact of life, a force of nature. They are one of those features of the universe with which we must simply come to grips. If you resist the truth of the cats, your life will end in shipwreck."

7. Septimius laughed. We must admit, he was prone to sudden shifts in thinking. Septimius liked to take things to extremes. He could not discover something new without trying to find out how to break it.

8. Denis knew what he thought about people with cats. In fact, he knew it so simply that he never needed to express it to himself. Instead, he thought about other things. While he and Tricia were discussing the cats, inside he was silent. He looked into her eyes, and he saw her seeing him see her. While the spoken words continued, he thought: "In her eyes I am an image, and in my eyes she is an image. We are hidden from ourselves and from each other."

9. Tricia preferred her cats to most people. They could read her thoughts. Their names were Zweig and Elmo. When she spoke to them in her mind, she would say "When we are united, we are strong." Zweig and Elmo could not read her thoughts, and she knew this. But in her head they were personae, and she knew them this way. Zweig would remind her that "By splitting, one branch becomes two." Elmo only ever spoke to her in silence, counseling peace by his lack of words.

10. Quentin said to Denis, "Did you bring your own?" And Denis said, "I don't need a bag." Quentin touched the soft brown paper, and Denis told him "Thanks, though."

11. Elfrid swept her tongue along her teeth, pressing each gap along the bottom row. She did not know she was doing this. They said that Elfrid was something special, but she didn't think she was. Whenever she was mentioned they said she was important, but she was always being left unmentioned.

12. "Look here," said Tricia, "Would you quit staring at me like that? I know you're not listening when you pluck at your beard." The next moment, Tricia knew that Elmo had spoken peace to Denis in the silence, because he said "Soon I will not have a beard." To himself he thought, "What is a beard, but the wasting away of another life without lasting meaning? The waves of sunlight wash away the ink. Nothing endures."

13. Triscuit was very busy. She could never seem to find time for herself, you know. But though she often and habitually expressed this thought, she did not know what it meant. A reasonable observer would be left with two choices: to conclude that Triscuit was wrong, and spent all of her time on her self; or to conclude that Triscuit must not have a "self", since evidence of a life beyond the things she did each day was nonexistent.

14. Septimius had an excellent plan. Oh yes. The man with the patchy beard did not expect it. Denis stared at his feet as he walked away from the grocery. He stared into them, he saw their rhythmic falling, their pattern of soft contact with the concrete. "Plodding", he said. The man with the shopping cart followed him with his eyes.

15. Quentin spoke to Elmo too, sometimes. Quentin said, "In pop topography, they often speak of sharp folds, or creases." Elmo said nothing. But Zweig picked up the conversation: "Is there 'often' in pop topography?" Tricia held out the cat to him in consolation. Elmo closed his eyes, beholding the All. Quentin handed Tricia her filled bags.

16. "I... I... I.... I...." Denis heard this in his head. He heard his voice playing back the voice of someone else he had heard speaking of himself. "I..." He thought a little bit about the limitations of self-awareness. He contemplated the vastness of the myriad.

17. Ezekiel bent over the front left tire of his father's car. It was sinking into the pavement. He had noticed that when you look closely, tires are always sinking into the pavement a little. Ezekiel was too young to ask about the relation between the arc length of the wheel's contact with the road and the internal pressure of the tire. He hugged the tire, because he fit around it well.

18. It was evening, and Denis had shaved. He was watching the cats with Tricia. Tricia thought about the mechanics of machine looms and how her carpet must have been woven. Elmo was silent. Tricia said, "A cat could never go deep sea fishing. For cats, fishing seems to be something more like a slap on the surface." Denis said "It is because they are so social. A cat can never reach the riches of the deep, because it cannot be alone. And Tricia said, "In solitude one more often sinks into the depths... of one's own navel, and finds nothing more than undigested remnants of yesterday's food."

19. Whenever Nina washed the dishes, she would look at the task as being almost done. She did this with many routine tasks. It was easier to finish up than to start something. And, after all, given the number of dishes she had washed so far in her life, the current load was always only the tiniest fraction of the whole job.

20. Quentin complained that books about knots focused too little on the practicalities of knot tying. He said to Denis, "All the books on knots are pop topography. What if I want to learn about rope handling instead of trefoils?" Denis quoted back at him the line: "I’ve got these words that mean completely different things inside myself, and it’s tearing me apart." To himself, Denis simply repeated over and over again his latest mantra, "Wasabi sunrise. Wasabi sunrise." He wondered a little at Quentin's unusual interests.

21. It was just as he had planned. The cats were jogging calmly in Tricia's wake. She was looking for some carrot juice, with which to make a cocktail. Septimius peered at her from the magazine rack. She saw him. He did not move, but mouthed the words at her, "Cats are inferior animals." She called back: "They know how to avoid catastrophes."

22. Elfrid did not know Denis. Nevertheless, one day when they were sitting next to each other on the train, she took his hand, squeezed it, and told him "It's ok. It's ok." He squeezed her hand back. Without looking over, he told her "I love you. I am very grateful."

23. Ian behaved oddly. He never spoke of textiles. He never thought about the production chain for plastic bottles. His behavior was robotic and regimented, but without any apparent design on his part. Many evenings he sat with empty eyes, gazing at the play of dancing lights on a screen.

24. Tricia set six candles out on the table. She wanted dinner to be perfect. The wall behind her chair was a mirror. She debated: should we face each other, or sit at angles? Denis preferred to sit at angles at meals, because there was space for his gaze to wander without the risk of locking eyes with someone. Elmo perched in her chair, his furry arms resting on the edge of the table. Six candles, eight bits of china, twelve rose petals on each plate. One table, four of them (including the cats). Her and Denis. Perhaps not perfect, but close. Denis had told her, "I will arrive by midnight."

25. Late at night, Quentin thought about warding off vampires. He said, "Crossing your fingers is supposed to ward off evil, like holding out a crucifix." He wanted to practice tying knots in cherry stems with his tongue, but he did not like cherries. It seemed a waste to only use the stem. The quiet of the room at night was brilliant. Still, he shouldn't fall asleep.

26. Triscuit took the letter confirming Denis's resignation. She told him what she thought: "I don't want to have to go through another round of hiring to replace you." Denis said, "I am nothing. I am simply dead tissue in the institutional body, which is now being expelled." Triscuit didn't hear him, because she had no ears. Denis said, "In reality, this body is dead, and I must escape before its lifelessness infects me."

27. Tricia had triple checked everything three times. She sat now, legs folded, on the floor, with Elmo and Zweig facing her. Elmo said nothing. Zweig stared in the mirror.

28. Septimius looked with loathing at Denis. Denis remarked to him "Do you hate me because you are complete? Is it that completion in human life means that death is at hand?" Inwardly, Denis saw immediately that these thoughts made no sense at all. Septimius simply told him: "I must conquer Britain. But if I cannot conquer you, how can I conquer a whole island full of people? Sometimes it is the stability of life that is the greatest impediment to someone's advancement."

29. Twila enjoyed baking eggs. More time consuming, it's true, but she loved the texture and warmth of them.

30. At midnight Quentin wandered down to the apartment below him. He told Tricia, "I would like to join you for dinner". Tricia was surprised but pleased. She said, "You are very welcome." When Denis arrived, he thought for a moment. He told Quentin, "It has been an interesting day."