A formula for distance


Many years ago, my friend Jack lived in his mother’s garage when he had nowhere else to go. He was miserable and slept all day on a little mattress among tins and ladders.

“Come to Cape Town,” I told him when we talked on the phone.

“And live with you?”

“No—”

“Why not?” he asked, perking up. “I’ll stay in the living room and maintain a small footprint in the far corner.”

“You couldn’t maintain a small footprint if we filled you with helium.”

“I’ll stay in your garage.”

“You’re not staying anywhere near me. I was thinking you could start by staying with your brother. Surely he’ll put you up for a while?”

Jack sighed.

“It’s lonely near him.”

“Just until you find a job.”

“What kind of job?” he asked suspiciously.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Work in a shop. Write about wines. Anything.”

He breathed heavily into the receiver.

“I don’t want to work for money,” he stipulated after a moment.

“What then?”

“I’ll work for meaning. I want money by accident.”

Talking to Jack was always like this.

“Only vultures make a living by accident,” I said.

Jack did more heavy breathing.

“It can’t be a full-time job,” he warned after a few moments.

He had said these same words to me on a previous occasion.

“Why not?”

“I need time to think,” he replied.

“You shouldn’t think so much,” I said. “You always have one thought too many. Just get over here.”


He arrived at Christmas and was baffled to find that I wasn’t around.

“Where are you?” he demanded when he called me.

“In Oyster Bay, like every December.”

“Oh. But I’m here. What now?”

We talked for a while and it was immediately clear that things weren’t going to improve overnight.

“There’s a yacht I can crew on,” Jack said. “It sails for Miami in a few days. Six weeks at sea and a flight ticket back.”

“How much do they pay?”

He hesitated.

“Nothing. It’s just a trip.”

“How will that help?”

There was a long pause before he spoke again, this time with a hint of triumph.

“I have forty bucks to my name,” he said.


Jack reconsidered, and the boat sailed. He called me just after New Year.

“This is all your fault,” he said. “I must never listen to you.”

There was what sounded like a struggle on his end.

“What’s that noise?” I asked.

“I’m in the tavern in Gordon’s Bay,” Jack said. “I’m eating Eisbein—”

He grunted amid more noise.

“—and leering at Lauren.”

“It sounds like you’re stirring jelly with a bone. Who’s Lauren?”

Jack ignored my question.

“I’m not going to kill you immediately,” he slobbered. “I’m in a good mood because I’m eating. But I missed the boat because of you.”

“I take it you didn’t go to Miami?”

Jack grunted and wheezed like a bulldog, but didn’t answer.

“Are you still eating?” I asked.

“Have you ever had Eisbein?”

“I don’t want to eat a foot. How are you for money?”

I could hear Jack wiping his mouth.

“Funny you should ask,” he said. “My money is currently in foster care. But I hear it’s doing fine.”

“What’s fine,” I asked, “you know, expressed as a number?”

A female voice interrupted and Jack muffled the phone. When she’d gone he spoke again.

“If you come here, you can see Lauren.”

“And the number?”

“What number?”

“The money.”

“Oh,” Jack said. “Zero.”

“How come you’re eating Eisbein then?”

He sighed in frustrated patience.

“You don’t need money to eat Eisbein,” he explained. “Why do you always confuse such things?”

“Go on—”

“I didn’t buy the Eisbein,” he added after a pause. “If I didn’t listen to you and took that boat instead I wouldn’t now be staying in a tiny room with my kid brother.”

He slavered over his Eisbein again.

“You’re right,” I said when it sounded like he could hear me. “You’d be on that boat right now, in an even tinier room, with someone else’s kid brother.”

“Actually,” Jack said by means of a rebuttal, “my brother was here just now. He’s kicked me out.”

The ease with which Jack managed to use his own misfortunes as support for his arguments always took me by surprise.

“Why?” I asked after a moment.

He cleared his throat.

“The Eisbein.”

It took me a few more seconds to put things together.

“Let me guess,” I said. “It was his Eisbein?”

“Technically,” Jack said in the tone of someone making a finer point, “but he didn’t want it as much as I did.”

For as long as I’d known him, Jack had held an expansive position on food. According to him, all food was actually his, like all cattle belonged to the Maasai. Others were allowed to eat as long as it was understood that he could cut in whenever he felt like it. This was just the way things were, and to bring money into such an arrangement was simply obscene.

“Where will you go?” I asked.

“They’re building something across the street from here. There’s a sign that says they need a caretaker.”


A few weeks later I visited him. The timeshare complex he now looked after was unfinished in a way that was difficult to distinguish from neglect. Things fell apart that were still being built. Jack stayed in a unit on the bottom level, along with building materials and paint.

“This is perfect,” I said.

“I sleep on a little mattress among tins and ladders—again. How’s that perfect?”

We looked around his room. The scene was very familiar. As always Jack had piled vast numbers of similar things together, like a bowerbird. There was a washing basket filled with wine corks and various large bottles that contained colourful diodes, resistors and capacitors. Along the wall were towers of beer cans that he’d collected from all over the world. His underpants were balled together and kept that way by a pair of earphones. His room looked like the trolley of an obsessive vagrant.

“You were almost out on the street,” I remarked.

“The toilet doesn’t work,” he said and watched me closely. “I have to go to the fifth floor to take a shit.”

I struggled not to laugh. “It beats shitting in a ditch.”


“How much do they pay?” I asked when we were seated in the tavern across the street.

“Almost nothing,” Jack said. “It’s not even enough for food.”

I wanted to ask how this was different from the boat to Miami, but Jack continued.

“The developer is a prick,” he added. “He wants me to supervise the builders. Can you believe that?”

Jack had a point. You might as well ask a Rottweiler to guard a bag of potatoes.

“Isn’t that what the job is?” I asked all the same.

Jack waved this aside.

“I don’t have time for that,” he declared.

“What happens when those units sell?”

He gave me a deadpan look.

“They won’t as long as I’m the one who shows people around.”

As we continued to talk it became clear that even though Jack now had a place to start from, he wasn’t starting. He spent his days sitting in the tavern. He poured over small notebooks in which he drew diagrams and wrote random observations. He loomed and brooded and intrigued the waitresses, but he over-analysed everything they said. They were put off, he suspected, because he had no money, but he couldn’t be sure.

“You can be sure,” I laughed. “To them, you’re a bad provider, a bad hunter.”

“I’m not here to hunt,” he muttered. “I’m just lonely, that’s all.”

Jack’s loneliness had always puzzled me. He knew more people in any single place than I new across the globe. He met them through his interests, and his interest were wide and varied. For as long as I’d known him, Jack had studied and collected everything that interested him, until he had tried every variation, until he could name every experience. When he became fascinated with orchids, he collected hundreds of specimens and demanded an old computer of mine so he could rip out its fan and use it to pamper a particularly delicate one. His childhood interest in electronics became an obsession with speakers and amplifiers of which he designed and built so many that he had to leave some in the care of his friends for lack of space. The hard drinking of his youth matured into a patronage of wine and beer that baffled and charmed the vintners and brewers he ensnared in scholarly debates. But with people his scrutiny didn’t work. He studied them and so he pushed them away. People were the one thing he couldn’t collect.

“You know what I mean,” I said after a moment. “You’d be less lonely if you were more two-ly.”

“Fuck,” he sighed. “Sometimes I sit here for a whole day and all I do is dent the air.”

A young waitress arrived with menus.

“Is this your friend?” she asked Jack.

“Sometimes,” he said darkly.

Then he turned to me.

“This is Lauren.”

“Hello,” I hesitated.

She was younger than I’d imagined, and more beautiful.

“Hi,” she replied.

For a moment I wondered how I was going to introduce myself given that Jack hadn’t, but then Jack said, “How do you like her so far?”

At this, Lauren slipped in behind the table and sat on his knee.

“And?” she teased.

“I like you fine,” I squirmed. “It’s him I don’t like.”

“What’s not to like?” she giggled and inspected Jack.

She pinched his cheek and got up again.

“He’s cuddly.”

She tucked her hair behind her ears and walked to another table.

Cuddly?” Jack said when she was gone. “I was bristly and dangerous just yesterday. She’s never sat on my knee before.”

“It’s not my fault—”

Jack looked around as though he was seeing the tavern for the first time.

“Fuck women,” he growled.

A granny at the next table looked up sharply. Jack caught her eye and nodded slowly to confirm that she’d be included.

“Everything’s a game to them,” he added with some menace.

“Of course it’s a game,” I hissed and leant forward. “Why don’t you study it, like you’ve studied wine? Become a connoisseur.”

“I don’t like games,” Jack grumbled. “I don’t like things that won’t stay still.”

“What? Women?”

“Yes—and people.”

“The whole point is that they won’t stay still. What do you want? Statues?”

“No—” Jack wavered. “It’s just that they’re easier to be with when they’re not around.”

I sat back. Here it was, I thought, Jack’s formula for distance.

“Lauren’s a little young,” I remarked.

“So what?” he muttered and stared at the menu.

“What I mean—” I began and waved at the world beyond the tavern.

“I know what you mean,” Jack said and looked out the window. “It makes no difference. I’m lonely everywhere.”



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