Monday, May 3, 2010

"Sum"

Note: The following piece was written as part of the flash fiction challenge Sweet Dreams hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti has published numerous short stories in various literary journals and crime zines, including Spinetingler Magazine, A Twist of Noir and Thrilling New Detective Magazine. She blogs about writing, books, movies, politics, life and music at pattinase.

Jeffery didn't like meeting students in coffee houses. During four years as a private tutor, he'd adopted "quiet is king" as his personal mantra. But even parks, dorm common areas and cafeterias were preferable to this Starbucks at the corner of Broward and Federal because of one simple factor: music. It was tough enough to focus on the areas in which Jeffrey specialized -- linear algebra, enumerative combinatorics and other math-centric subjects -- without a soundtrack.

Also, Leslie really didn't need any extra diversions.

"I haven't heard this one in ages," she exclaimed around the rim of her fourth chai latte.

Jeffrey ignored Annie Lennox's crooning about the seven seas and circled the column marked f(x) on Leslie's notepad. "No," he said, pushing the pad back across to her.

"Such a great beat," Leslie said, bobbing her head to the writhing synth riff.

Jeffrey grit his teeth. So far that evening she'd steered the conversation towards Petrarchan sonnets, Keats' letters to Fanny Brawne and the implied post-apocalyptic setting of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. He'd tried to turn it back to Poisson distributions and hypothesis testing. He reached across a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse that Leslie had been paging through when he arrived and tapped on the pad. "Incorrect."

Leslie rolled her eyes. "Why this time?"

"What are the required conditions for a discrete probability distribution again? First, f(x) must be greater than zero. Second, the sum of f(x) needs to equal --"

"That dress."

"Uh," Jeffrey said.

"On the woman who just walked in."

"Ah."

"I wonder where she bought it."

"Hmmm," Jeffrey said.

"What would you call that color? It's so striking. Maybe iceberg or cerulean."

"I'd say blue."

"It reminds me of that Wilkie Collins' novel. Only The Woman in White was about a woman in, well, white."

"It's definitely blue," Jeffrey said flatly. "And her hair is definitely red."

"You," she said, "have no imagination."

"I can imagine what will happen if you haven't mastered discrete distributions by the time you take your test next week."

"I'm having a hard time caring," she said, lifting her latte.

"You should." Jeffrey scooped up an unused stirrer and thrust it through the bottom of her cup with a quick jab.

"Hey!" Leslie exclaimed, knocking the book of poetry off the table as she jerked the cup back.

"In discrete probability distributions, f(x) has to sum to one. Otherwise, the entire thing leaks away, like your latte and your future in general if you don't start focusing."

"That's not fair," she said, staunching the flow from her hemorrhaging cup with a wad of napkins.

"You aren't paying me to be fair. You're paying me to help you pass."

"You aren't helping by ruining my chai."

"Winging off about Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Kelly Link or some other meaningless topic doesn't help either."

"They aren't meaningless. They're magical. They --"

"-- have nothing to do with statistics," Jeffrey interrupted. "Tell me this: If you love literature so much, why are you studying business?"

Leslie looked down. Broke her stirrer in half. Then into fourths. Then eighths.

"Let me guess," Jeffrey said. "You lost the will for freelancing after the five-hundredth-or-so rejection. You don't like grading papers, so teaching is out. You thought you could earn a decent paycheck with an MBA. Only it's hard to balance studying with penning flowery descriptions of European cities. So where's your novel set? I'm guessing Bruges. Lots of old-world color."

"You really are a jerk," Leslie said.

"A realistic one. No one needs lovely diction or well-rounded characters."

"Keats said that beauty is truth and truth beauty."

"He died penniless and spitting blood."

"Well, if your numbers are the sum of everything, then the world's a pretty empty place."

Jeffrey tried not to smile. "Leslie, do you think the globe spins on anything other than what's concrete and quantifiable? Poetry doesn't exactly pump life through your veins."

Silence hung between them like a body at the end of a noose. Leslie broke it by rummaging through her purse.

"So," Jeffery said, "shall we move on to binomials?"

Leslie dropped a handful of bills onto the table. "I think I'm done."

"Wait, there's a lot of material left," Jeffrey began, but she was up and headed for the door, purse thrown over a shoulder, textbook clutched to her chest. He sighed.

Only as he stuffed the money into his wallet did he notice the book of poetry on the floor. Jeffrey groaned, grabbed it, and shot to his feet, inadvertently catching himself full in the side on one of the table's sharp corners. He grimaced as he bolted for the door.

Outside, the moon sliced a white sliver in the firmament. Traffic lights splashed primaries on asphalt. None of the remaining cars in the parking lot bore a student parking sticker. Jeffrey swore softly, ran a hand through his hair and realized he felt ... wrong. His side was sticky, and when he looked down, he realized why.

Jeffrey had heard of certain saltwater bays that shimmered like stars from high concentrations of bioluminescent dinoflagellates. The liquid coursing from his side looked like how he imagined they must, a spurt of shimmering brilliance leaking from a gash below his ribs. He lowered himself to the sidewalk to forestall a growing dizziness, the liquid spreading warm and slick around him. The book slipped from his hands, wind idly flipping its pages, and Jeffrey glimpsed a fragment of verse before it was snatched away:
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Pain stabbed through Jeffrey as he reached for the book, unable to add up why he had -- had -- to read those words again.

"For Thine is the Kingdom," he murmured when his trembling fingers found the correct page.

And then he felt something begin to seam in his side.

22 comments:

Loren Eaton said...

Post Script: "Sum" is my first attempt at magical realism, so be kind y'all.

sandra seamans said...

This is very beautiful, Loren! Don't know much about magical realism but I'd read more.

r2 said...

I enjoyed it. Great work. There are some wonderful lines in there.

Fleur Bradley: said...

I really liked this. Very beautiful. Your dialogue is perfect, btw.

pattinase (abbott) said...

So many lovely words here. And different from the rest. Math never sounded this interesting.

Evan Lewis said...

Death by poetry. It's like Keats' revenge. Good stuff.

Ron Phillips said...

Nicely done. I don't think I could interweave math and poetry together so well.

Loren Eaton said...

Sandra,

Truth be told, I don't know much about it either -- but I'm glad you liked the story!

Loren Eaton said...

R2,

Thank you! I wrote a fair amount of it on the plane as I flew home from a business trip, so I'm just glad it got done.

Loren Eaton said...

Fleur,

Gracias, madam. I particularly liked the line about how Keats died. Glad that one survived revision.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

I'm actually studying for a stats final tonight, believe it or not. The subject matter lands a little close to home. I haven't even gotten to read any of the other entries yet; I'm hoping to do so by Wednesday.

Loren Eaton said...

Evan,

Death -- or is it life? That (to quote the Bard of Avon) is the question.

Loren Eaton said...

Ron,

Thank you! I'm glad it succeeded. Never sure how they'll turn out before they're down on paper.

B. Nagel said...

Eenteresting. Very eenteresting. I think it's wonderful, Loren.

One question. The feeling of something beginning to seam in his side. This is the healing power of Keats i.e. poetry, yes? And therefore the magical realism, yes?

Katherine Tomlinson said...

Beautiful words and woven so well. Made me want to look up definitions of those math disciplines. Loved him piercing the cup to get her attention. I very much enjoyed your story.

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

Yup, that's pretty much it. The "seaming" is Jeffrey somehow coming to terms with the fact that world may not only turn on what's concrete and quantifiable. The weird shimmery non-blood also fits his statement about poetry and the poem he's reading at the end. I'm sure you know which one that is!

Glad you liked it. I think I'm warming to it. It's just so different from what I usually write.

Loren Eaton said...

An FYI for that final bit of verse in case any of you are interested ...

Loren Eaton said...

Katherine,

Thanks for reading! Almost all of the math stuff came from graduate level statistics. From right here, in fact. I've actually got a final tonight, which I really should be studying for.

Scattercat said...

I liked it up until the use of "seam" as a verb. That completely threw a wrench in my reading. Can you even do that? I mean, yes, I worked out what it meant, but darned if it didn't throw me for a complete loop the first time.

(I was also a bit confused why Jeffery was the one who got to have poetry for blood, since he seems so determinedly mundane. I figured he'd catch the girl in the process of sublimating into words or some such.)

Loren Eaton said...

My penchant for odd word choice strikes again! Yeah, I didn't get to take this one through much revision, truth be told.

The "stuff" (for lack of a better word) isn't supposed to be poetry per se. It's supposed to be the part of Jeffrey's life that isn't concrete and quantifiable, the part he's been denying. He doesn't quite sum, which is why he breaks open so easily. Like I said, first attempt at the genre. Definitely need some practice at it.

Paul D. Brazill said...

wasn't what I expected but I did like it.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, Paul. I'm not sure it was entirely what I expected either!