The Pleasure of My Company (6 page)

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
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I stood
on the sidewalk facing the street with Kinko’s directly opposite me. The Land
Cruiser was on my right, so I hung to the left side of the driveway. There was
no way to justify the presence of that bumper. No, if I crossed a driveway
while a foreign object

 

 

jutted into it, I would be
committing a violation of logic. But, simultaneously driven forward and
backward, I angled the Land Cruiser out of my peripheral vision and made it to
the curb. Alas. My foot stepped toward the street, but I couldn’t quite put it
down. Was that a pain I felt in my left arm? My hands became cold and moist,
and my heart squeezed like a fist. I just couldn’t dismiss the presence of that
fender. My toe touched the asphalt for support, which was an unfortunate manoeuvre
because I was now standing with my left foot fully flat in the driveway and my
right foot on point in the street. With my heart rapidly accelerating and my
brain aware of impending death, my saliva was drying out so rapidly that I
couldn’t remove my tongue from the roof of my mouth. But I did not scream out.
Why? For propriety. Inside me the fires of hell were churning and stirring; but
outwardly I was as still as a Rodin.

I
pulled my foot back to safety. But I had leaned too far out; my toes were at
the edge of the driveway and my body was tilting over my gravitational centre.
In other words, I was about to fall into the street. I windmilled both of my
arms in giant circles hoping for some reverse thrust, and there was a moment,
eons long, when all 180 pounds of me were balanced on the head of a pin while
my arms spun backward at tornado speed. But then an angel must have breathed on
me, because I felt an infinitesimal nudge, which caused me to rock back on my
heels, and I was able to step back onto the sidewalk. I looked across the
street to Kinko’s, where it sparkled in the sun like Shangri-la, but I was separated
from it by a treacherous abyss. Kinko’s would have to wait, but the terror
would not leave. I decided to head toward home where I could make a magic
square.

Making
a magic square would alphabetize my brain. “Alphabetize” is my slang for “alpha-beta-ize,”
meaning, raise my alphas and lower my betas. Staring into a square that has
been divided into 256 smaller squares, all empty, all needing unique numbers,
numbers that will produce the identical sum whether they’re read vertically or
horizontally, focuses the mind. During moments of crisis, I’ve created magic
squares composed of sixteen, forty-nine, even sixty-four boxes, and never once
has it failed to level me out. Here’s last year’s, after two seventy-five-watt
bulbs blew out on a Sunday and I had no replacements:

Each
column and row adds up to 260. But this is a lousy 8 X 8 square. Making a 16 X
16 square would soothe even the edgiest neurotic. Benjamin Franklin—who as far
as I know was not an edgy neurotic—was a magic square enthusiast. I assume he
tackled them when he was not preoccupied with boffing a Parisian beauty, a
distraction I do not have. His most famous square was a king-size brainteaser
that did not sum correctly at the diagonals, unless the diagonals were bent
like boomerangs. Now that’s flair, plus he dodged electrocution by kite.
Albrecht Dürer played with them too, which is good enough for me.

I
pulled my leaden feet to the art supply store and purchased a
three-foot-by-three-foot white poster board. If I was going to make a 256-box square,
I wanted it to be big enough so I didn’t have to write the numbers
microscopically. I was, after the Kinko’s incident, walking in a self-imposed
narrow corridor of behavioural possibilities, meaning there were very few moves
I could make or thoughts I could think that weren’t verboten. So the purchase
didn’t go well. I required myself to keep both hands in my pockets. In order to
pay, I had to shove all ten fingers deep in my pants and flip cash onto the
counter with my hyperactive thumbs. I got a few impatient stares, too, and then
a little help was sympathetically offered from a well-dressed businessman who
plucked a few singles from the wadded-up bills that peeked out from my pockets
and gave them to the clerk. If this makes me sound helpless, I feel you should
know that I don’t enter this state very often and it is something I could snap
out of, it’s just that I don’t want to.

Once
home, I laid the poster board on my kitchen table and, with a Magic Marker and
T square, quickly outlined a box. I drew more lines, creating 256 empty spaces.
I then sat in front of it as though it were an altar and meditated on its
holiness. Fixing my eyes on row 1, column 1, a number appeared in my mind, the
number 47,800. I entered it into the square. I focused on another position.
Eventually I wrote a number in it: 30,831. As soon as I wrote 30,831, I felt my
anxiety lessen. Which makes sense: The intuiting of the second number
necessarily implied all the other numbers in the grid, numbers that were not
yet known to me but that existed somewhere in my mind. I felt like a lover who
knows there is someone out there for him, but it is someone he has not yet
met.

I
filled in a few other numbers, pausing to let the image of the square hover in
my black mental space. Its grids were like a skeleton through which I could
see the rest of the uncommitted mathematical universe. Occasionally a number
appeared in the imaginary square and I would write it down in the corresponding
space of my cardboard version. The making of the square gave me the feeling
that I was participating in the world, that the rational universe had given me
something that was mine and only mine, because you see, there are more possible
magic square solutions than there are nanoseconds since the Big Bang.

The
square was not so much created as transcribed. Hours later, when I wrote the
final number in the final box and every sum of every column and row totalled 491,384,
I noted that my earlier curbside collapse had been ameliorated. I had eased up
on my psychic accelerator, and now I wished I had someone to talk to. Philipa
maybe, even Brian (anagram for “brain”—ha!), who I now considered as my closest
link to normalcy. After all, when Brian ached over Philipa, he could still
climb two flights up and weep, repent, seduce her, or buy her something. But my
salvation, the making of the square, was so pointless; there was no person attached
to it, no person to shut me out or take me in. This healing was symptomatic
only, so I tacked the cardboard to a wall over Granny’s chair in the living
room in hopes that viewing it would

 

 

counter my next bout of
anxiety the way two aspirin counter a headache.

Clarissa
burst through the door clutching a stack of books and folders in front of her
as though she were ploughing through to the end zone. She wasn’t though; she
was just keeping her Tuesday appointment with me. She had brought me a few
things, probably donations from a charitable organization that likes to help
half-wits. A box of pens, which I could use, some cans of soup, and a soccer
ball. These offerings only added to my confusion about what Clarissa’s
relationship to me actually is. A real shrink wouldn’t give gifts, and a real
social worker wouldn’t shrink me. Clarissa does both. It could be, though, that
she’s not shrinking me at all, that she’s just asking me questions out of
concern, which would be highly unprofessional.

“How…
uh…” Clarissa stopped mid-sentence to regroup. She laid down her things. “How
have you been?” she finally asked, her standard opener.

 

I
couldn’t tell her about the only two things that had happened to me since last
Friday. You see, if I told her about my relationship with Elizabeth and of my
misadventures with Philipa, I would seem like a two-timer. I didn’t want to
tell her about Kinko’s, because why embarrass myself? But while I was trying to
come up with something I could tell her, I had this continuing tangential
thought: Clarissa is distracted. This is a woman who could talk non-stop, but
she was beginning to halt and stammer. I could only watch and wonder.

“Ohmigod,”
she said, “did you make this?” and she picked up some half-baked pun-intended
ceramic object from my so-called coffee table, and I said yes, even though it
had a factory stamp on the bottom and she knew I was lying, but I loved to
watch her accommodate me. Then she halted, threw the back of her hand to her
forehead, murmured several “uhs,” and got on the subject of her uncle who
collected ceramics, and I knew that Clarissa had forgotten that she was
supposed to ask me questions and I was supposed to talk. But here’s the next
thing I noticed. While she spun out this tale of her uncle, something was going
on in the street that took her attention. Her head turned, her words slowed and
lengthened, and her eyes followed something or someone moving at a walking
pace. The whole episode lasted just seconds and ended when she turned to me and
said, “Do you ever think you’d like to make more ceramics?”

Yipes.
Is that what she thinks of me? That I’m far gone enough to be put in a straitjacket
in front of a potter’s wheel where I can sculpt vases with my one free nose? I
have some image work to do, because if one person is thinking it then others
are, too.

By now
the view out the window had become more interesting, because what had so
transfixed Clarissa had wandered into my field of vision. I saw on the sidewalk
a woman with raven hair, probably in her early forties. She was bent down as
she walked, holding the hand of a one-year-old boy who toddled along beside her
like a starfish. I had looked out this window for years and knew its every traveller,
could cull tourists from locals, could discern guests from relatives, and I had
never seen this raven-haired woman nor this one-year-old child. But Clarissa
spotted them and was either curious or knew something about them that I didn’t
know.

Then
Clarissa broke the spell. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Oh,” I
said. “It’s a magic square.”

Clarissa
arched her body back while she studied my proudest 256 boxes.

“Every
column and row adds up to four hundred ninety-one thousand, three hundred
eighty-four,” I said.

“You
made this?”

“Last
night. Do you know Albrecht Dürer?” I asked. Clarissa nodded. I crouched down
to my bookshelf, crawling along the floor and reading the titles sideways. I
retrieved one of my few art books. (Most of my books are about barbed wire.
Barbed wire is a collectible where I come from. I admired these books once at
Granny’s house and she sent them to me after Granddaddy died.) My book on Dürer
was a real bargain-basement edition with colour plates so out of register they
looked like Dürer had painted with sludge. But it did have a reproduction of
his etching
Melancholy,
in which he incorporated a magic square. He even
worked in the numbers 15 and 14, which is the year the print was made, 1514. I
showed the etching to Clarissa and she seemed spellbound; she touched the page,
lightly moving her fingers across it as if she were reading Braille. While her
hand remained in place she raised her eyes to the wall where I had tacked up my
square. She then went to her Filofax and pulled Out a Palm Pilot, tapping in
the numbers, checking my math. I knew that magic squares were not to be
grasped with calculators; it is their mystery and symmetry that thrill. But I
didn’t say anything, choosing to let her remain in the mathematical world.
Satisfied that it all worked out, she stuck the instrument back into its
leatherette case and turned to me.

“Is
this something you do?” she said.

“Yes.”

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
10.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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