Intimacy, n., close connection or union; a euphemism for sexual intercourse; from the Latin intimāre, to put, bring, drive or press into; from intimus, inmost, most profound or closest in friendship; from intus, within.
“Explosions occur only . . where the elements concerned are . . distributed among one another molecularly, or, as in gunpowder, with minute intimacy.” -- Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology, 2nd edition (1870), vol. I, p. 85.
Words lie adjacent to one another in the pages of a book, but in more than one way. You can note the word order as you scan the pages in the usual way, from left to right and top to bottom, trying to make sense out of what you’re reading. But when you close the book and rest it on your nightstand, the words on facing pages come to lie adjacent to one another in another way, forced into an intimacy they can only dream of in their waking state. They socialize, press against one another, and generate new meanings.
Select any arbitrary location on the cover of the book. Hammer a nail through the book at that spot. Record the order in which the nail-tip successively encounters words or overlapping word-pairs.
Procedures and Preliminary Results
Take, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, CBWO-1-33 (the conventional notation for Closed-Book Word Order, pages 1 through 33 – it being understood that one is going from front to back, the standard way of driving nails through books).
try of might blood near me consented write to I went I removed I could
questions concerning this from me house which continue saw so
application waste your nor were Cornelius possessed affection with him
philosophy interest its own deranged experienced
There is a secret story here. All that is required is that the parts be reassembled in the right way.
When you are robbing graves with the aim of joining the various parts together to make a new organic being, your midnight forays inevitably leave you with a few pieces left over. At the same time you find yourself obliged to add one or two artificial pieces that were missing, and you have to dip into your old chest of unused parts.
In the same way, in order to make the new structure hang together after rearranging the words above, you might have to remove a nor and a were, and add a couple of trivial words such as a to and a the. You finally sprinkle it with a few punctuation marks. Carrying out the necessary operations on the word assortment above, and recognizing that certain words have a natural affinity for one another, you find the following:
I experienced the blood removed from me, went with him, saw your own
deranged philosophy concerning this house, so consented to try
to interest Cornelius, who questions me. . . I could continue
to waste its application, which . . . . . Possessed of near-affection, I might write.
These words are the bare bones of a strange tale. It might be the one below. I present it to the reader in epistolary form.
The Final Results
My dear Gregory:
You may already have heard the outline of what happened, but because of the valuable advice you gave me, I feel you deserve to know the details.
We went into the woods at twilight, Cuthbert and I, with a bottle of Merlot, two tin cups, and a box of salted biscuits. By and by a silvery brooklet cut across our path. A few steps downstream it emptied into a crescent-shaped pool with narcissus on one side and a mossy bank on the other. Perhaps it was the Merlot, but before long Cuthbert pushed me gently back onto the soft cushion of moss and whispered, “O Marianne, you are so lovely to look at, so lovely to smell, so lovely to taste . . .” I expected a kiss as he nuzzled my neck, but instead experienced my blood being removed from me – confirming my suspicions about him all along. I must say, however, it was a relaxing, even rapturous, experience. Afterwards I went with him further along the path to a small clearing in the woods, where we made a show of worshipping the waning moon.
As we walked back into town, I began to have doubts about the future that awaited me. In spite of my newly acquired abilities, I wasn’t certain I wanted to use them. I could, as far as the experience was concerned, continue to waste its application, which might in the long run bring me only grief and regret. To Cuthbert’s credit, he allowed me the freedom to choose. So I went with him to the old abandoned house we all know about, at the edge of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery. I saw the house as the epitome of what I used to regard as your deranged philosophy, to the effect that a stay within its walls no later than forty-eight hours after the midnight blood-loss would reverse the effects, and prevent the consequences which would otherwise inevitably ensue.
Now I give Cornelius a call; he is always interested in these moral dilemmas. He questions me about my experience, and my intentions. I tell him as best I can.
Possessed of near affection for you and the other vampires, I thought I might write and let you know how this all came about.
Yours, as ever ,
P.S. I have decided not to spend any time at the house.
Five Red Apples
Harvey, the new grocery clerk, looked at the handwritten order the manager had just handed him: “five red apples.” He glanced down the main aisle to the back of the store, where he could see the large sign on the back wall, “…UITS & VEGET…” In that section, toward the left, there hung by a string from the ceiling a sign marked ‘Apples,’ under which were two bins labeled “red” and green.” From the red bin he picked out, one by one, five apples, placing them in a paper bag. In some unconscious part of his brain there quietly ticked the words “one, two, three, four, five,” a sequence which had been with him since he was two years old.
Harvey naturally hears words in a certain order, and he had been taught from the beginning to move his eyes over written lines from left to right, so that words enter his brain in the same order as they would if he were hearing them. But his actions mirror the words in reverse order. How did he know that the last word in the note was the one he should attend to first? Is language ordered differently from the way the world is?
On the other side of the world, in a logical land where one reads from left to right but where the first words, the ones toward the left, are the ones that one attends to first. There the grocery stores are organized differently. The grocery clerk, Heinrich, reads the same note. He leaves his counter and walks along the aisles, in the order he has known from childhood, “one, two, three, four, five.” He turns and walks down aisle number Five. This is where are located all the items that can be purchased in groups of five. There are places for five bananas, five boxes of animal crackers, five small containers of yogurt, five bottles of soda pop, and so on. (The preceding aisle has the same items, but in groups of four.)
Aisle Five, like every aisle, has floor-to-ceiling shelving in all the colors of the rainbow. He finds the shelves that are painted red. Here are pull-out bins, one containing containing five strawberries, another five cranberries, still others five cherries, five raspberries, five pomegranates, five red onions, five bottles of ketchup, five tomatoes, five bottles of tomato juice, five packages of Kit-Kat candies, five bottles of Tabasco sauce, five cylinders of wax-coated Gouda cheese, five cans of spaghetti sauce, five packages of beef jerky, five beets, or five red peppers. About eight feet up is the bin with five red apples. Heinrich finds a ladder, climbs up, pulls out the bin, and carries it back to his counter. There he dumps its contents into a paper bag, which he places in a cardboard box, which will be delivered to the customer later that afternoon.
Note 1: …after Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations). However things are, might they not have been otherwise?
Note 2: The pattern in English (number-adjective-noun, five-red-apples) is also generally used in German, Greek, Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, among other languages. The pattern in French, Italian, Spanish, Celtic, Gaelic, and others is number-adjective-noun (“five-apples-red”). In Swahili it is noun-number-adjective (“apples-five-red”).
Note 3: Marketers suggest that distributing a product at several locations throughout a store, exposing customers to the same product more than once, will boost sales.
The Hidden Clue
There is a kind of crossword puzzle in which the answer for each clue is contained in anagram form within the clue itself. For example, the clue for a three-letter word at 6-Across might be “source of gold.” And the answer is in the clue: source of gold.
In Colin Dexter’s detective novel The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse’s familiarity with this kind of crossword puzzle enables him to ferret out the probable location of a missing body, from a poem that the clever murderer has sent to the press. In each of the five stanzas of the poem there occur letters which on rearrangement spell out the name of a wooded area just west of Oxford, England: Wytham Great Wood. Morse is sure this is intentional on the part of the murderer-poet. He thinks it highly improbable that these six letters in various arrangements would occur in each stanza by chance alone. Morse says that he has checked with his mathematician friends on the probability, but he does not give the calculation.
In English the letters h, a, and m occur so frequently, in fact, that it is almost certain they would occur in many places throughout the poem; and w, while less frequent, is still common enough to be likely to be found at least once in a stanza of any length. The key to the improbability therefore lies only in the relatively uncommon letter y in combination with w, t, h, a and m. One would have liked the probability calculation to have been be pinned down.
On another continent the murderer (presumably the same one) has struck again, and has again hidden the body. The murderer, not wanting to be accused of copyright infringement, still full of re-Morse, unable to sleep at night and secretly wishing to be caught, sends off a new poem, this time to the Orlando Sentinel, the local Florida newspaper.
Oh find me! Find me! For I am not so lost
That one whose hands were fitting ‘round my throat
Can, sinner, stay forever tossed
Upon his darkling bed of misery.
Within the tunnel of the water’s hymns
The grasping tendrils of the bottom’s weed
Do clutch and kiss my shrinking limbs
Until my dreams do give me liberty.
‘Twas not a night in which to crassly drown
Nor yet to staidly swing from branch unrobed.
So work the dragline, find the gown,
Before the bitter anniversary.
Chief P. Rooney of the Orlando Police Department, having read The Way Through the Woods, sends a copy of the poem to Inspector Morse to see what he can make of it. He receives this reply from England three days later:
Dear Chief Rooney:
It is obvious from the poem that the body of the victim has been weighted down and sunk in some body of water. I have consulted a map of the Orlando area, and have come up with only one possibility. My analysis, supplemented by my mathematician friends’ calculations, is as follows.
(1) Each stanza contains the letters a, e, l, w, and m. This by itself (as I eventually realized) is not informative; each of these letters is sufficiently common that any stanza is almost certain to contain at least one of each of them. More telling are the following facts:
(2) Each stanza contains at least one letter k, which in English occurs at a frequency of only 0.8%. This makes possible the combination l-a-k-e.
(3) Each stanza also contains nn, ss, and tt; these double-letter combinations occur in the English language at frequencies of 0.07%, 0.3%, and 0.3%, respectively.
(4) From this information, my mathematician friends tell me, one can calculate that the probability that by pure chance k, nn, ss, and tt occur together in a single stanza containing 126 letters is just slightly more than 1 in 200. That this combination is seen in each of three successive stanzas is almost impossible: the overall probability is about 1 in 7,000,000.
(5) Therefore it is not by chance that each stanza contains, besides l + a + k + e, also w + m + nn + ss + tt. Each stanza has been deliberately constructed to contain those letters.
I suggest you narrow your search to Lake Winnemissett, about 40 miles north of Orlando.
Sincerely yours, E. Morse
Detective Chief Inspector
Criminal Investigations Department
Thames Valley Police Headquarters
Kidlington, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
Did a drag of Lake Winnemissett turn up a body? This is a meaningless question. The lake and the letter-combination frequencies are real enough, but the crime itself is, after all, a fabrication.
illustration by Landis Blair
The first thing he noticed when he returned to his hotel room that evening was the brown toilet-kit sitting next to his own on the shelf above the sink in the bathroom. Then in the bedroom he saw the suitcase in the narrow space between the wall and the bed furthest from the window. He checked the closet. A small, neatly pressed grayish-blue suit hung on the front hanger, an equally neat white shirt on the hanger behind that. The socks that he had left drying on the front hanger that morning had been moved back, and were now draped over the shoulders of his jacket.
“I am terribly sorry, sir,” said the girl at the front desk, in accented English. “Didn't you tell us you would be willing to share a room?”
“Yes, but the room is very small, and I told the girl who was here yesterday that I had changed my mind. She said there would be no problem. She said I could stay in the room as a single for the whole week.”
"I am sorry." She hesitated. "Don't you know Mr. Veloon?"
"No, I don't.”
The man sitting further back behind the counter said with an unctuous smile, “Yes, yes, you are right,” he said. “Excuse me, you are right. Mr. Veloon arrived very late last night, and I can understand how it must . . . . In the one way it is humorous, but in the other way it is completely not humorous. I understand.”
“You are the manager?”
“Yes, I am the manager.”
“What is your name?”
“It is over there on the sign, sir.”
“Well, Mr. von Hansdorf, you can just put me in another room.”
“No, I cannot do that, sir. We are completely booked for this night. But it is completely our fault. If you can just stay in the room for tonight, there will be no charge. I will find another room for you tomorrow night, I promise you. You can just bring your luggage here to the desk tomorrow morning, and you can ask for the new room key when you return in the evening.”
“But what if you're not here when I come back? I’ll have to go over all this again with whoever is here at the desk.”
“No, I assure you, it will be taken care of. I give you my word.”
As the elevator ticked its way back up to the fifth floor, he thought, “This so-called German efficiency is highly overrated.”
He wondered what kind of name Veloon was; probably Malaysian or Burmese.
When he returned from the meetings late that night, he found the room empty, but the television on. He turned it off and surveyed the bed situation. He managed to pull his bed several inches closer to the window. At least it wouldn't be so much like sleeping in a double bed.
He undressed, crawled between the sheets and pulled up the blanket. He turned toward the window, even though he didn't like lying on his left side. After a while he fell asleep.
After midnight he was awakened by the sound of the door opening. The room light flashed on and then off. He didn't move. He heard the hangers rattling loosely, and the bathroom door closing. A couple of minutes later the toilet flushed. Then the bed creaked slightly, the bedclothes shifted softly, and there was a sigh. About ten minutes later the sound of regular breathing told him Mr. Veloon was asleep.
He rolled over. There was just enough light from the window for him to make out the slight figure lying on its back, the dark hair contrasting with the white pillow, the thin dark face and prominent nose silhouetted against the white wall beyond.
Twice during the night he was awakened again by a few words spoken rapidly and distinctly in the dark. Mr. Veloon was talking in his sleep. It was not English.
The dawn of an overcast day filtered through the window curtain, and he awoke. Quietly he went to the bathroom; quickly he shaved and showered. He dressed and moved softly around the room, collecting his things. Fortunately he had oiled the zipper on his old bag before the trip.
Glancing over at the other bed, he confirmed his uncertain assessment of last night: a narrow brown face, long straight dark hair just covering the tops of his ears. The arms lay under the covers; the rigid pose was almost corpse-like.
It was strange to think how different Mr. Veloon was, almost as if he belonged to a different species. Their remote ancestors had evolved separately on opposite sides of the world. The two of them were now separated by biology, and certainly by culture and probably religion. Seen through dark eyes, Mr. Veloon’s view of reality and his expectations of life would probably be unrecognizable. In this room for six hours during the night, they overlapped only in sleep.
He stepped into the hall and closed the door softly behind him.
Maybe with the desk-girl’s imperfect pronunciation, he had misunderstood her—he couldn't find the name in the conference schedule. Perhaps he hadn’t registered, and the list didn't include the names of those who had come just to listen.
The conference dinner that evening went well. He wasn't sure Bavarian cooking was to his taste, although maybe he could get used to it if he stayed long enough. The Chinese man to his left had been in Germany four years; he said it had indeed taken him a while to get used to the food.
A woman across the table told a story about last year's conference. A male colleague—he didn't catch the name—had shown, as the introduction to his talk, a slide of a naked woman. To catch people's attention, he had said. Several women had walked out. The session-organizer had later told the speaker his action had been inappropriate. According to witnesses, he had replied, “Well, if they can't take it, maybe they should stick to being housewives.”
The woman across from him said, “The reprimand apparently made an impression, though, because later that year the man had called the editor of a journal he was submitting an article to, and asked if any of those women were on the editorial board. He said he didn't want them making decisions about whether his article was acceptable for publication. The editor refused to answer the question. He said that the members of the editorial board, whoever was on it, were professional enough to review the article on its merits.
As he listened to this story, he thought of Arthur Miller's “A View from the Bridge,” that last scene about the man letting himself be completely known—something about truth being holy. He said to the woman across the table, “Well, to make such a remark about housewives, at least he had the courage to reveal his attitude towards women—if you can call that courage,” he added.
At the end of the dinner, the chairman—the chairperson—tapped on his glass and announced that it was time for the awards. There was an award for the most entertaining talk and another one for the most informative. Some of the awards were rather silly, such as the one for the talk that had run longest past the allotted time. But it was all in good fun, and he applauded along with everyone else.
Then Rosenbaum took the microphone. He revealed an unexpected comedic talent. He was not really much of a singer, but he was surprisingly adept at yodeling. He must have practiced a long time.
“Ein Judenjodler, a Jewish yodeler!” quipped the man on his right. “There can't be many of those!”
On the walk back from the conference center, the others turned off into the Biergarten. But it was late, and he was tired. He walked on to the hotel alone.
At the front desk he asked for the key to his new room.
“But this is room 518!” he said. "The same room! And where is Mr. Veloon?"
“He had to leave early, sir,” the girl said. “It is very sad. His son suddenly took ill. Only seven months old. Something about bronchitis, I think. I am not sure.” She added, “Your luggage we have taken back to your room, sir.”
He thought, “What kind of a man would go to a conference abroad with his son as ill as that?”
Farnham the Magician
for Serena Lurie
After dinner they repaired to the billiard room. A cozy fire flickered at one end of the room. Mr. Hornsby, the host, waved them toward the bar at the opposite end. ‘Help yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. There’s port, or brandy if you’d like, or almost anything else,’ he said with a small laugh. ‘Glasses are in the cabinet above, left-hand side.’ Hornsby was a tall, genial man with a devil-may-care attitude. He was dressed informally in slippers and vest, like most such bachelors; clenched between his teeth was a pipe from which curled heavenward, at intervals, friendly plumes of smoke. Outside, the cold rain continued falling in sheets, illumined by the light from the high windows, curtaining off the darkness beyond and giving the billiard room the air of a ship lost in an immense malevolent blackness. But inside all was warm and bright and comfortable.
The number of Hornsby’s guests varied from month to month depending on whether any of the regulars, his neighbours, had brought along anyone else. Tonight there were eight altogether, not counting the two children who had been dragged out of their beds. There were Nilsson and his wife and her two sisters, Lansborough and his wife, and the other two bachelors, Boltzman and Farnham. Mr. Farnham, as it later turned out, was no one’s guest. No one knew him. They all had assumed he was a friend of one of the others.
He was somewhat stocky, broad in the shoulders, and not very tall. The hair of his head was cut unusually short, not at all in the current style. He walked with a slight shuffle and a slight stoop, as if with some congenital deformity. Heavy eyebrows overhung piercing dark eyes. A faint smile continually played around his unnaturally red lips, strikingly set in a pale complexion. The others, entering the vestibule from outside, had changed their muddy boots for slippers. Strangely, Farnham, who had arrived late, was wearing one of the clean pairs of Wellingtons that habitually hung from pegs just inside the door.
They shot a few rounds of eight-ball. Boltzman was the best player, prideful in his superiority, followed by Lansborough. Farnham possessed an indifferent ability. He frequently missed the easy shot, although he occasionally succeeded at a bank shot beyond the skill of most. Even though he usually ended up losing, he evidently enjoyed taking risks.
After an hour or two, Farnham said he was growing weary of the competitive play. ‘Gentlemen, and ladies, let me show you a little trick I picked up on the Continent,’ he said to the assembly. ‘I think you’ll find it amusing. Colonel Lansborough, sir, would you mind removing your glass from the rail, there? It would be a shame to have it spill accidentally and ruin the playing field. And Mr. Nilsson, I hope you’ll be so kind as to check all six pockets, and confirm that they’re all empty and that I haven’t hidden anything in them. That will be essential for the proper appreciation of what I hope to show you in a minute. Finally, Hornsby, you have the honour of the break.’
Hornsby duly complied with the request. No ball was sunk on the break. The cue ball rested near the right side-rail, about halfway between the side pocket and the far right corner of the table.
‘Colonel Lansborough,’ said Farnham, ‘you’ve been rather quiet all evening. Tell me, sir, where is your family from?’
‘My family is from Lancashire,’ replied Lansborough.
‘Ah, Lancashire!’ exclaimed Farnham. ‘A fine coat of arms! Two lions on either side of an escutcheon featuring three Red Roses on a field of gold! Let’s see, the Red Rose of Lancaster would correspond to the three-ball, wouldn’t it? Solid red, yes. Three-ball in the end pocket on the left, then!’
It was a straight shot, and Farnham had no trouble sending the three-ball into the end pocket.
‘Now, Colonel Lansborough, if you would be so good as to retrieve your three-ball from the pocket…”
Lansborough walked around the end of the table, reached into the pocket and pulled out the billiard ball. But it was not the three-ball. It was the size of a billiard-ball all right, but it was cream-coloured, and a map of the world was etched onto its surface, with all seven continents in the correct disposition. Off the western coast of Europe the British Isles could be made out. Lansborough, a look of bewilderment on his face, showed the miniature globe around. A tiny red pimple was raised at the location where Lancashire County would be.
‘Lest you think this is a plant, gentlemen,’ said Farnham, ‘let’s try pocketing another ball. Who would like to have a go?’
‘Try me,” said Nilsson.
‘I would guess Sweden, am I right? National flag with the cross of yellow?’ Nilsson nodded his assent.
‘Yellow stripe, that would be the nine-ball…in the far side pocket, then.’
There followed the wooden ‘thunk’ of the cue stick and the click of the cue-ball just off the right center of the nine-ball, which went off at a twenty-degree angle into the side pocket in front of Nilsson. Nilsson reached in and retrieved the ball. Again it was cream-coloured, but this time it had a slightly raised cucumber-shaped region running north and south between Norway and the Gulf of Bothnia.
‘Remarkable!’ exclaimed Boltzman. ‘I cannot believe this. I swear, you must have arranged all this beforehand, putting those globes in some hidden part of the pockets. Upon my soul, I swear you cannot do this a third time!’
‘Your soul, sir?’ said Farnham. ‘Would you like to see the demonstration once more? Eleven-ball in the far corner? I believe your ancestors came from Austria…’
Late that evening, towards midnight, the guests departed, retrieving their footwear from the vestibule. Boltzman and Farnham were the last to leave. The rain had stopped. The boots Farnham had been wearing were carefully hung back on the pegs. By the light of the outside side-door lamp could be clearly seen, in the muddy path leading away from the house, alongside a pair of outward-bound boot-prints, the impression of a cloven hoof.
Sanskrit and Electrodynamics
On Saturday evening, or maybe it was Monday, I went to a party on the other side of the city, or maybe it was next door. It wasn’t exactly a party, because parties are supposed to be fun, and this one wasn’t. It was more of a gathering. There were six or seven people present, or maybe it was ten or twelve. As you’ll see, there was definitely some ambiguity about the number.
A man was sitting on a chair with his back against a side wall, with his wife sitting on another chair next to him, turned sideways. She had short, straight dark hair, shorn as if with a pair of scissors just below ear-line. She did not speak, and mostly just stared straight ahead except for a slight movement of her head from time to time. The man himself was tall, angular, with close-cropped dark hair, a narrow face and a small mouth. He had what you might call a five-o’clock shadow but it was more pronounced than the phrase implies: maybe ten-o’clock. There was something not quite right about his appearance, as if he’d been in an accident, or perhaps had a touch of cerebral palsy from birth. He had a tic that caused him at intervals, briefly and quickly, to turn his head sideways as he was speaking to me. But he spoke clearly enough.
He said, “If I tell you a secret, will you promise never to tell anyone else?”
“Not even my wife?” I said. “I don’t keep any secrets from her.”
“Not even your wife,” he said. “No one.”
He continued, “First let me show you this.” From behind his chair he pulled out a large thin paper-bound pamphlet of about twenty pages.
“I know what that is,” I said. “I’ve seen them before. That’s a scientific monograph, the kind that used to be popular in the scientific world a century and a half ago.”
“Yes,” the man said. “Isn’t it beautiful? Look at these colored engravings, the plants, the birds, the insects.”
As I turned the pages, admiring the artwork, the leaves on the pages began to bend and turn as if in a breeze, and the birds leaned over from their perches to pick off the pale, shimmering, flittering insects.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” said the man, in that instant turning his head sideways. And in that moment I saw his secret. He was telling it to me not in words but in that gesture. In profile, he and his wife were identical: the same forehead, the same aquiline nose, the same lips. They were one person, distorted slightly by some trick of refracted light, the way gravitational lensing by a near galaxy produces two images of a more distant galaxy. He turned back to me and smiled faintly.
The host of the gathering interrupted. “Here’s something else,” he said enthusiastically, dragging out from under a table a large toolbox. Opening it, he pulled out fifteen metal bars of similar length and lined them up in parallel on the floor. “Now watch,” he said. He gently touched the bar on the left end of the array. The bar broke into three pieces, partially angling themselves right, left, and right. Then, as if in a chain reaction, the next two bars tilted toward each other at their top ends while the fourth bar reoriented itself and slid over to bridge the second and third bars horizontally near their lower ends; the fifth and seventh bars remained immobile while the sixth moved into a slanted position to touch them at their top and bottom ends respectively; the eighth bar broke in the same way the first had . . . and so on down the line, until twenty seconds later the arrangement looked like this:
“Some metals,” our host said, “are just inherently natural word-formers. What you just saw is distantly related to that word-game called ‘anase’ in New Orleans—three syllables, accent on the second syllable, third syllable pronounced ‘say’; no known origin for that word—not Sanskrit; African, maybe. It’s that game where you start with a word and then change one letter at a time to end up with a totally different word, and all the intermediate words have to make sense. If you start with ‘part’ how do you get to ‘dine’? You go through ‘dart,’ ‘dirt,’ and dint.’”
“But that’s child’s play,” he continued. “In this house we use whole sentences. With all the intermediate sentences making sense, if you begin with ‘Quantum electrodynamics takes as a starting point the classic view of a box containing all the atoms in the universe which may be treated as having natural modes describable in terms of a distribution of harmonic oscillators with couplings between the oscillators and matter,’ how do you get to ‘It is necessary that the writer should intersect the lives of his dramatis personae at a given hour; all that remains is to decide which hour it shall be: there is no more reason why they should not first be observed lying in a bassinette than that the reader should make their acquaintance in despairing middle age, having just been pulled out of a canal’?”
“While you’re thinking about that, let me show you something else,” said our host. He reached into the tool box. Other members of the group gathered around to watch. He began taking items out one by one, placing them on the floor in no particular arrangement: nuts, bolts, nails, wrenches, screwdrivers, gaskets, pliers, chisels, clamps, drills, screws, rotors, bearings, pipes, levers, grommets, pulleys, valves, camshafts, pistons, and on and on, well beyond what the toolbox could hold, until the guests had to back into the corners and stand on the tables and there was no longer any of the floor visible. And still, sitting on top of the growing pile, the host continued pulling tools from the uncanny box.
I escaped through the front door, in my mind the suspicion—no, the near certainty—that what I had been witnessing was a glimpse of the visual chaos that the newborn baby encounters on first entering the world—a foretaste of death.
My Cabin in Kazakhstan
My cabin in Kazakhstan is nestled deep in the woods. You can see squirrels playing around the doorsill. I never bother locking the door, because there’s no one else around and nothing to steal. There is just the morning melodies of the birds, the soft song of the pine trees, and the wildflowers. Every evening, before the sun sinks too low and you can no longer see the paths, I take a walk out into the forest. From my doorway there is only one path, but after about ten minutes it branches into two, one to the right and the other straight ahead. After about a mile the right-hand path doubles back on itself. The straight-ahead path soon also curves around to the right, at first more or less paralleling the first path but then diverging, so that from it you can no longer see the first one. Just before it turns east at the curve, the second path sends out two backward-curving branches to the left that bend again and then head south—a near one and a far one. By “near” I mean the path that eventually leads back to close to where my cabin is, although you could never get back to my cabin that way, so it’s a bit deceptive; and by “far” I mean the path that just leads you deeper into the woods, farther away from my cabin. Not counting the original path from the cabin, that makes four different paths.
I should mention one more. Right where the first path turns around, doubling back westward again, right at that sharp bend, there’s another path, not so obvious initially, one that continues on, eventually leading to a narrow bridge that crosses a dangerous river. That’s five paths in all. I call them First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth, in the order I’ve described them.
The paths have different personalities. I’ve gotten to know them in the months since my return, some better than others, and they’ve gotten to know me.
By now the First Path is an old friend—comfortable, one you can tell anything to, one that you know always looks forward to your turning up, one that greets you familiarly and then leads you back home when it begins to get dark. It never makes any demands. As it returns me to the cabin path it says, “Take it easy. See you next time.”
The Second Path is an adventure. It takes you into unfamiliar places, out of your usual routine. I say, “I’m not sure about you. Where are you leading me?” It answers, playfully but not very reassuringly, “You never know, do you?” I tread carefully. A noise out of sight on the left is worrying. A bear? A wolf? Where should I run to? I look to see if there’s a tree I can climb, but there isn’t. I walk steadily onward. If this were a graveyard I would be whistling. Maybe it will be my graveyard. “Aren’t you running along parallel to the First Path?” I ask. “Not any more,” it says. “I think I should turn back now,” I say. “As you wish,” it says, “but I’m a little disappointed in your lack of spirit.” So I say, “Well, maybe when I get to know you better…” As I regain the cabin path I’m thinking that maybe a little adrenalin does me good after all.
The Third Path is another old friend. I take it almost as often as I take the First Path. I go as far as the lonely old birch tree, a stranger among the pines. How it got there I can’t imagine. When I turn back, the Third Path says, “I know this is as far as you want to go, and that’s all right with me. We’ll draw a line here. We won’t venture further. If we did, you might find me not so agreeable after all. Besides, I might learn things about you that, frankly, I’d rather not know. So we’ll keep things as they are.” “Okay,” I say.
The Fourth Path, the “far” path, is not really a comrade in any sense, certainly not a companion, more of an acquaintance. But in a way I prize its company more than the others, because of its experience and its daring. Perhaps it’s more of a guide and a guru. It knows more than I will ever know. A few minutes after it heads south—southwest, really—it introduces a little jag, a zigzag, as if to cut itself off from the other paths behind it, knowing that they cannot follow. It’s not that the others don’t have the courage; they just don’t have the intelligence. Nor do I. After a certain point I can no longer follow it. The Fourth Path knows that, and it continues on its way, leaving me behind to make my own way back to the cabin. Who knows where the Fourth Path goes? Maybe it leads to some mountain path that’s not even visible from the forest.
The Fifth Path I don’t know very well. A couple of times it took me to the edge of the river and said, “Once you step foot on that bridge I’m not responsible for you.” I looked at the flimsy bridge—it had no handrails at all—and tried to imagine myself safely on the other side. But in my imagination I fell into the turbulent water halfway across and was swept downstream. I looked at the Fifth Path as it led up to the bridge, and decided to turn back. “I thought not,” said the Fifth Path. “But I’m always here if sometime you want to try again.”
It’s good to have these friends. They do lead me away from my cabin, but they always lead me back again. Here in the forest it’s good to have the solitude and the freedom I love. It’s good to have the cabin, with only a squirrel or the occasional indigenous thrush or chickadee for visitors. My heart lifts up when I see the cabin again through the trees. What good would it be to look for happiness elsewhere? When the branches of the trees are burdened with snow and the paths are unrecognizable and difficult, my dreams and I settle down together by the warmth of the fireplace. Here in the cabin I wait for spring. This is my paradise.
A Custom-Made Shirt
I was recently in Portland, Maine, a city I had never visited before and where I was attending a literary conference. I entered a department store to buy a new shirt. A sign hanging from the ceiling at the back said, “Men’s Clothing,” so I went there. One of the aisles was marked “Shirts.” But the long rod between the stanchions had nothing but empty hangers. Was the store completely sold out of shirts? That seemed impossible.
I sought out the floor assistant. “No, sir,” he said, “the shirts are all there. We have just taken all their attributes and moved them to the side wall of the store. If you’ll just go over there,” he said, pointing, “you can pick out whatever features in a shirt you’re looking for.”
I glanced back at the rod holding the hangers. That’s something new, I thought, shirts without properties. In my mind’s eye there momentarily appeared ghostly shirts hanging from the hangers, but they were too blurry, too shifting and indistinct, transparent almost, for me to make out anything definite.
I made my way over to the side wall. Built into the wall were a large number of empty shelves and cubby-holes of varying heights and depths, six from top to floor and maybe fifty from side to side, about three hundred in all. They all appeared to be empty, but some of them seemed to have interior lighting that gave off a blue glow, or green or beige or some other color.
In front of the shelving at fifteen-foot intervals were stacks of baskets that looked like the baskets we used to collect apples in during those crisp autumn days when I was a boy. Each basket was circular in shape, about eighteen inches deep, with the top rim about two feet across, slightly wider in diameter than the bottom rim. On the top rim a heavy-wire half-hoop ran from one side to the other, with a cylindrical green handle in its center. Each basket was made of three-inch vertical slats held together and reinforced by a two-inch wooden strip that ran around the body of the basket halfway between the upper and lower rims. At least the baskets are real, I thought.
Each basket had a label glued to the outside of the top rim, halfway between the two points where the wire handle was fastened to the rim. The label read “Property Basket.” Just what I need, I thought to myself, properties with no objects to attach them to. How would I tell one color from another, one size or shape from another? What was I supposed to do?
“May I be of help, sir?” asked the floor assistant, who had followed me over. “Just hold the basket like this, sir, and reach in with your hand, using a scooping or sweeping motion toward the basket. When you have picked out the properties you want, sir, go back over to the hangers where the shirts are, choose one, and use the reverse motion from the basket onto the hanger.”
Facing me were three empty shelf-spaces marked small, medium, and large. I felt silly, but did as he advised and went ahead and made the sweeping motion from the medium-sized shelf into my basket. Further along there was a cubby-hole glowing a pale blue; another one said pearl buttons; still another, left-hand breast pocket with flap; and so on. There was also a shelf marked “Hawaiian”; I’ll skip that one, I said to myself. After I had made all my choices I returned to the rack with the hangers, still feeling ridiculous. Moving one of the hangers to the end of the rod, I just turned the whole basket upside down over it, intending nothing more than to get this senseless exercise over with. But within two seconds there gradually materialized, hanging down from the hanger, just the shirt I had had in mind.
I paid the cashier, who wrapped the shirt in tissue paper and placed it carefully in a paper bag. I took it and left. The mystery of the Universe! Outside again, I felt the fresh sea-breeze against my face, heard the seagulls squawking in the distance as they wheeled over Back Cove, saw the white clouds scudding overhead. Order was restored in the world, and a wave of satisfaction washed over me.
Let me tell you about my old girlfriend Jennifer, and how I lost her. For months after that fateful evening, tears would still come to my eyes whenever I thought of her. Even now, after all these years, a deep sadness enters my soul at her memory.
The four of us, Jennifer and I and her parents, were driving back from an evening at the Opera—it was Don Giovanni, I remember. Jennifer and I were both old enough to drive, but in those days society said we were too young to go out together without being chaperoned.
Jennifer was very intelligent, which is one of the reasons I loved her so. Quantum physics was her thing. I remember after a high-school physics class she would stand at the blackboard, covering it with equations while the rest of us looked on, wide-eyed, as we listened to her passionate explanations.
On our way home, Jennifer was in the front seat next to her father, and I was in the back seat with her mother. One of those awkward silences enveloped us as they often do in such circumstances.
I said, “Let me tell you about something interesting I discovered yesterday. You know about prime numbers, right? Well, here’s the thing,” I continued. “Actually, let me start with the number seven, because that’s when I first noticed this interesting pattern. So, if you take the fraction one-seventh and write it out as a decimal number, you get 0.142857142857142857 and so on, never ending, just repeating like that. The interesting part is that two-sevenths is the same sequence, it just starts in a different place. It goes, like, 0.285714285714285714 and so on. Three-sevenths starts 0.428571 and so on, like that. You can picture it in your mind as a wheel with those numbers around the border like a clock face—notice that it’s six numbers, one less than the prime number seven. Where you begin, going around the circle, depends on the fraction, how many sevenths you start with.”
There was a dead silence in the car. The only sound was the engine. Jennifer turned around, gave me a long look, and then faced forward again. Slightly panicked, I plunged ahead.
“And it’s not just seven,” I said. “Every prime number is like that, with wheels. With thirteen, there are two wheels, six numbers on each wheel, adding up to twelve, one less than thirteen. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t remember the exact sequence of numbers for thirteenths right now, but there has to be a zero in there someplace, because ten is less than thirteen.”
After a minute, gathering up my courage, I said, rather weakly, “Only it doesn’t work with five, even though five is a prime number, because five goes into ten evenly. It all has something to do with the base ten.”
I stopped. The parents must have been thinking, “at last.” The awkward silence fell on us again. The father concentrated on his driving. The mother looked out of the side window at the passing lights. Jennifer was silent, continuing to look straight ahead.
They dropped me off at home. I had trouble falling asleep, thinking about how gauche I had been. The next day, mid-morning, I walked over to Jennifer’s house. Her mother said that Jennifer was “indisposed”—that was the word she used—and was not seeing anyone. She suggested I come back again in a couple of days.
Dutifully, I did. This time her mother said that Jennifer didn’t want to see me. “But,” she said, “she asked me to give you this note.” The note read, “Am now on 383. Have discovered higher-order patterns where there are multiple-wheel primes. Am also investigating fractions in the base eight.”
I never saw Jennifer again, although I did read about her from time to time.
Christina: What do you want for your birthday?
Christina: Okay, I can get you that. I think it’s on the list of things that the amazon distribution centers have; I’ll go ahead and order it.
William: That will probably cost you, at least for the shipping.
Christina: Yeah, probably. Although I’m afraid that if I order nothing, they may not even send it.
William: Sure they will. It’ll probably come in a medium-sized package.
Christina: That makes no sense. Why would they put nothing in a package, and then send it?
William: Well, you can’t send nothing without putting something around it to contain it. I don’t think the Post Office would accept nothing that isn’t wrapped properly.
Christina: Sure they would. I’ll bet you if I went down to the corner right now and put nothing in the Post Office box, they would come by and collect nothing at all, and you’d get nothing by the end of the week.
William: Well, maybe . . .
Christina: In fact, the Post Office would collect nothing from our corner, nor from any of the other places where you have friends. They would collect nothing from all over. And then on Friday you’d go to our mailbox and find nothing there. You would see how loved you are by all your friends everywhere!
(Thanks to William J. Shaw)