Almond shiner

I’ve been called many things in my life, but last night I heard what I believe cannot be topped in what remains of my days. It was around midnight, and Mia and I had gone to bed after an evening of immigration admin that had brought me within a micron of gouging my own eyes out. I had spent hours stitching together our travel history using emails and a magnifying glass to inspect the entry and exit stamps in our passports. Then I did the same thing to retrace where we had lived, and when, down to the day. Throughout, as is my nature, I ranted at no one in particular and provided a running commentary of what I was having to do. Mia, as is her nature, was calmer than I was. She could afford to be calmer because she wasn’t really doing any of the work. Instead, she viewed the whole business almost as an outsider, with passing interest and mild amusement.

“This is for you too, you know?” I said.

“But you’re so good at it,” she replied.

Now she was dropping off to sleep while I tried, finally, to do something I could call my own, and read for a few minutes.

“I’m glad that’s done,” I said with some resentment.

Mia smiled sleepily and mumbled, “You’re my almond shiner.”

“Your what?”

She pressed her head deeper into the pillow. “My almond shiner.”

It took me a few moments to compute this. “Shining armour?”

“Hmm,” she smiled faintly. “My knight.”

As she sank away, I pictured myself standing on a street corner at a little fold-out table, buffing almonds for a living and talking to passersby. That seemed about right, I thought, and turned out the light.

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Another one

My mother has a sharp mind and blunt principles. She and my father were together, I think, for the same reason that electrons and protons are together, attracted by their mutual opposition. My father believed in the truth. This belief was the closest he came to religion. It was the closest he came to something he didn’t question and couldn’t really defend. My mother attacked this faith of his daily. Her assaults on the truth demanded that he step in to defend it, lest it be outgunned and outmanoeuvred, but his resistance was futile. Facts, it turned out, could not compete with drama.

My mother stretched and shrunk numbers to fit whatever story she was telling.

“I’ve told you four hundred and three times,” she’d say.

It was never thousands of times, or a hundred. It was specific, as though she’d counted these instances and there had been, in point of fact, four-hundred-three of them.

“You didn’t,” my father would counter. “It was more like—” he’d say, trailing off as he saw how he’d been suckered into doing the same thing, only with smaller numbers, “more like ten.”

She recounted things in such a way as to completely alter them. She did it so convincingly that my father’s insistence on the truth seemed, if anything, misguided.

“Then your father said,” she’d say, “you have a strong chin for such a weak face.”

“I didn’t say that,” my father would object, “I told you that afterwards.”

Yet, now and then, she bent the truth in a way that even my father was willing to overlook. Once, on some Sunday when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, my father’s oldest brother and all my cousins were over for lunch. My father and my uncle didn’t like one another much, and my aunt was always looking for things to find fault with. When she did, her insults were delivered in a near-Victorian manner.

“How lovely,” she once said of a new dress my mother was wearing. That’s always suited you.”

On this particular Sunday, my mother had made a leg of lamb. As she came from the kitchen toward the table, carrying the leg of lamb on a tray, she tripped and the whole thing bounced into a corner of the dining room. There was a sharp intake of breath from my aunt as my mother scooped it up in a fluid movement. No one said anything. As my mother was about to head back to the kitchen, she stopped, turned, and made an announcement. “Fortunately,” she said, “I have another one.”

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The apex of anger

I don’t think people who lived long ago truly understood anger. As far as I can tell, you only discover how angry you can get when you use a computer or drive a car. Of course, these things anger us for different reasons. A computer is infuriating as only something that is for all intents and purposes magical can be the day it doesn’t work. It’s like a limp wand. You can’t open it up and you can’t throw it across the room without breaking it or risking the sort of magic you don’t want to see. Yet you know that it’s not really the computer’s fault. There is someone, somewhere, whose fault it actually is, and you’d like to kill this person. When you drive a car, it is simpler. There is also someone you’d like to kill, but you know where this person is—in the next car.

I preempt all of this anger by getting angry before I start. That way, I figure, I don’t have to wait until something happens. I can get nicely worked up beforehand, and be ready when it does. I’m primed for hesitant drivers in their Prii—which, believe it or not, is the preferred plural of Prius—for stove-sized pedestrians, reverse parkers, and the like. The anger is less than useless, of course, but I’ve decided to embrace it against all self-help softness. If I cannot compose myself, I might as well compose long sentences using only swear words.

But nothing prepares you for the modern car. The modern car offers all the opportunities for rage that we’ve come to expect from older cars, but it has a computer inside of it and this adds an orthogonal dimension of outrage. My Ford Escape is a modest car as cars go, but a modern car nonetheless. It came equipped with a computer that is voiced by a synthesised woman who sounds positively post-coital. When I get into this Ford I might as well forget about the ire inspired by other drivers, and get ready for anger of the combined kind.

“Doong—doong—doong,” the Ford goes until I buckle up.

At this point, seconds in, I’m already seething. Who decided to let cars enforce a law? I wear a seat belt because it makes sense, but I feel ready to rebel when the car insists that I do. I’m surprised they haven’t yet mandated that cars refuse to start until you’re strapped in and have submitted to a quick eye exam and a breathalyser test.

“Call Mia,” I say after pressing the voice command button.


“I didn’t get that,” the sleepy woman intones. “You can say, navigate to, or…”

“Call Mia!” I try again.

“Mamma Mia,” Siri cuts in from my phone, having somehow felt summoned, “here we go again, by Abba.”

At this point, I’m probably a few hundred meters from where I started, but I’m ready to kill the next guy in a Prius. All of this is sort of normal and happens more or less every time I get into my car. The apex of anger, however, can only be reached with the help of the navigation system.

“Obey traffic laws,” the sleepy woman slurs at an intersection where I desperately need the system to kick in and tell me which way to turn, “and use voice commands while driving.”

By the time she gets through all of her warnings and tells me what to do, I’ve had to turn the wrong way and am swept along in a concatenation of swearing.

“Rerouting,” she interrupts Frida and Agnetha who wail blue since the day we parted.

The truly infuriating aspect of the navigation system is its indifference in the face of our anger. Rerouting is not what Mia would say. If we ever get truly intelligent navigation systems, I hope that they also act the way humans would.

“What the fuck!?” I’d like the system of the future to shriek. “You meathead! I said left!”

But it’s no use. By the time we can have a system like that, we’d be strapped in the back seat, driven around by the car itself. Who knows, perhaps I’m wrong about anger and computers and cars. Perhaps real anger is the destiny of the people of the future who will helplessly watch as the self-driving Prius ahead of them hesitates and slows down for no reason whatsoever.

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But begun

My maternal grandmother lost her parents to the Spanish flu, in early 1919. She was nine years old at the time. Her mother died in the morning. A servant rode to the undertaker in town and returned with men and a cart to collect the body. The undertaker’s men took one look at my grandmother’s father and went outside to sit under a tree and smoke until he was dead an hour or so later. That day, my grandmother and her sisters went to live with their grandparents.

My great-great-grandfather was a fussy and fastidious man. He interfered in everything, and no detail escaped his attention. Tasks had to be completed just so, and nothing else would do. His particular standards were such that the farm workers grew accustomed to standing around while he explained exactly how he wanted them to do something, and watching him complete the task in the process.

“Oh lordy, no,” he’d say to servants cutting meat to feed a sausage mincer. “Not like that!”

My grandmother told us that he’d then cut the meat into perfect cubes. “We do it neatly,” he’d say and feed the cubes into the mincer while the workers watched in puzzlement.

His wife, my great-great-grandmother, was not like that. She was a severe and tight-lipped woman. She didn’t care much for details, and she was not given to trifling emotions like sympathy and regret. She wanted to get things done.

“During the Boer War,” my grandmother told us, “when the English came to burn the farm, she set fire to things herself before they could.”

When she turned forty-three (see the story The half-life of simplicity), she had her coffin made, ready to be used. She had wanted a say in what it looked like, and she wanted to be familiar with it by the time they put her into it. As so often happens, difficult people live long lives, despite their belief that the Angel of Death is perched on the headboard. My great-great-grandmother did not die young and the coffin stood on the verandah for another forty years, filled from time to time with dried peaches.

While she hardly ever said anything, my great-great-grandmother is remembered to this day in a saying we have taken from her. In the nineteen-thirties, my grandmother told us, my great-great-grandfather started having headaches. He refused to travel to town to see a doctor, but he whimpered incessantly from the pain.

“Stop complaining!” my great-great-grandmother apparently snapped. “Go see the doctor.”

“The doctor can come to see me,” he replied.

Indeed, a few months later, when a gaping hole had opened above his temple, the doctor came to see him. By then my great-great-grandfather was almost delirious with pain, and it was too late. He had a meningeal tumour, and that was that. The doctor and my great-great-grandmother stood at the bedroom door and discussed the course his illness would take. My grandmother, then in her twenties, stood quietly by. From his bed, my great-great-grandfather moaned that he’d like a mirror so he could inspect the hole himself. At this point, my great-great-grandmother turned on him and uttered the words we use today in jest and sarcasm.

“Be quiet!” she snapped. “Your suffering has but begun.”

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The fucking game

Today, for no reason I can think of, I remembered the time Jack didn’t meet Amy. I’ve mentioned Jack’s tendency to un-meet women before (see the stories The one-lion cure for depression and A formula for distance), but I somehow forgot about the first and most telling example of this.

At the heart of Jack’s trouble with women lay the insurmountable problem of touching. The idea that a woman might want to touch him was at variance with his assumption that women were abstract versions of men who never became violent and smelled better. Once a would-be girlfriend became touchy, she became concrete. At that point, Jack left skid marks.

Then came Amy. Jack was sitting at his usual table in the far corner of our favourite coffee shop, brooding over a poem he was writing. The way he related it to me, he was furiously writing, minding his own business. But I’ve heard from others that he was staring into the distance while he slowly destroyed a plastic plant that stood nearby. Amy appeared out of nowhere and sat down at his table. She began to talk. She was a philosophy student, she said. She delivered a monologue about Derrida and Chomsky and modern physics and Zen and music and artificial intelligence. She asked no questions, and Jack never said a word. Then she left.

“She’s perfect,” Jack told me.

He returned to the coffee shop for the rest of the week but Amy didn’t show up. In her absence, she became even more perfect. Jack carefully constructed the details of their future relationship using the evidence of her talking and what it implied.

“We’ll be unsullied by vulgar physical details,” he theorised over the weekend. “There won’t be sex or anything like that.”

He resolved to seek her out in the coming week and get to know her. On Tuesday she came to the coffee shop but his nerves failed him and he did nothing. He sat in his corner and watched her having coffee at another table with friends. After an hour or so, they left.

“Nothing stopped her,” Jack fumed. “Is she testing me? Am I to take my turn now?”

“That’s how it works,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s crap,” he seethed. “It’s just a fucking game.”


He moved around in his small kitchen, picking things up and putting them down again.

“I hate games,” he said at length.

“Remember when you told me that there wouldn’t be sex or anything like that?” I said.


“You’re right. There won’t be. There won’t be anything, for that matter, if you don’t do something.”

“But it’s crap.”

“What do you want? A cosmic connection?”

Jack kicked his dustbin.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t want this primitive shit. It’s what animals do.”

The next week he returned to the coffee shop, sat in his corner, and waited for Amy to show up. When she did, he ignored her, but he furtively noted her body language, the movements of her hands, the way she tossed her hair, and the way she and her friends glanced at one another’s shoes.

“It was all bullshit,” he told me. “She knows nothing about physics.”

“And you know nothing about chemistry,” I said.

“She’ll be needy,” Jack countered. “And she’ll want a lot of touching.”

When I flopped into the only comfortable chair he owned, Jack summarised everything. “I’m done with love,” he declared. “It’s crap.”

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The stupid suit

My father had a brown jumpsuit that he put on whenever he wanted to work on something in the house or garden. Over the years, the jumpsuit became tattered and shrank with repeated washing until it was so short in its legs as to look more like plus fours. But my father loved it and refused to replace it. The thing made him look ridiculous. Once, when a new school friend of mine visited, he spotted my father working in the garden in his jumpsuit, smoking a pipe.

“Who’s that?” my friend hesitated.

“Who?” I asked.

“That—that man?”

Perhaps because he looked so ridiculous, my father reliably did stupid things when he wore his jumpsuit. On my sister’s eighth birthday, when there were many little girls milling around our pool, he saw nothing wrong with walking around in his brown jumpsuit, looking like an off-duty clown. When I got bored and began to tease my sister and her friends, my father marched into the pool area to see what the commotion was about.

“Hey!” he howled and stabbed at the air with his cigar while he advanced on me. “If you—”

With that, he misjudged the edge of the pool and toppled into it like a felled tree.

“Who’s that?” one of the girls asked when he surfaced.

While this was a mere misstep, the same cannot be said of the day he quite literally painted himself into a corner. We heard him calling from his new study.

“What’s wrong with you?” my mother asked as she surveyed the scene.

“I didn’t see,” my father replied sheepishly.

He stood in the only unpainted spot of the new hardwood floor at the far end of the room. He looked particularly forlorn in his silly jumpsuit.

“This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done,” my mother declared. After a moment she added, “Including the time you fell out of that tree because you’d sawn off the branch you were sitting on.”

“I know,” my father sighed. “I get distracted.”

“Well,” my mother said as she lit a cigarette, “you’ll have plenty of time to focus now. I’ll toss you a book.”

For us, the jumpsuit spelled trouble. Whenever something had to get done, my father disappeared to go put it on. Once he had it on, there was no limit to how bad things could get. It was a little like Clark Kent stepping into a telephone booth to become Superman, but with the opposite outcome. One day, a few years after the painting incident, my father managed to outdo himself. My mother complained that the rinsing sink in the scullery had become blocked.

“Dammit,” my father muttered. “Did you have to fill it halfway before you decided to tell me?”

“It’s a scullery,” my mother called after him as he went off to get into his jumpsuit.

“What idiot designed this?” he complained a few minutes later as he lay on his back under the sink, fumbling with a spanner to loosen the jamb nut that secured the gasket. He’d explained that he planned to drain the water from the sink by uncoupling the pipes below it, but it wasn’t clear to the rest of us what this would achieve.

“It’s going to come down in your face,” my mother remarked and lit a cigarette.

For her, it was home theatre. In fact, we had all gathered around, partly to cheer my father on and partly so that we wouldn’t miss out on whatever happened next.

“I’m not that stupid,” he said through clenched teeth.

Sure enough, he loosened the nut, got out of the way, and pulled the pipe free. The dirty water from the sink above drained into a bucket and relatively little spilled onto the floor.

“There,” he said in triumph as he got up, holding the reeking bucket. “See?”

“What next?” my mother asked.

“One step at a time,” my father said and glared at her over his glasses. “First we dump this.”

In a fluid movement, he emptied the bucket into the sink.

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All and none

The year I turned twenty-three, I was alone in my parent’s house on Christmas Eve (see the story The red wheelbarrow). It had been a sweltering day, and it hadn’t cooled down much during the evening. I had left the windows open to let in what little breeze there was. At two in the morning, I was still awake, reading the Douglas Adams book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At the end of chapter twenty-seven, the supercomputer Deep Thought had just revealed that the answer to the Great Question, the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was in fact forty-two.

As I sat back to marvel at this, there was a juddering screech of brakes followed by a loud crash. The sound had come from the Old Military Road, today called the M33, that passed behind our house. I ran out to the pool and peered over the wall, but there was nothing. About a block up from us this road intersected another large artery called Glenwood Road. I couldn’t see this intersection from the wall as there was a bend in the road, but I could make out flashing amber lights.

That was quick I thought as I jogged barefoot up Old Military Road. It hadn’t even been a minute. How could tow trucks be on the scene already?

But I was wrong. What I had seen was the flashing indicator of a BMW into which a pickup truck had smashed from the side. It was eerily quiet but for the sound of water and oil and gasoline that dripped from both vehicles onto the warm road. There was glass everywhere and I had to approach carefully so as not to step in it. The truck was closest to me. The driver-side window was open and the driver, a man who was perhaps in his thirties, was dead. I had never seen a dead person up close before and had always expected that it would be obvious why they had died, that they’d be broken in ways I would be able to understand. But all that seemed to be wrong with this man was a thin runnel of blood that trickled from his right ear and a strange bulge in his neck.

The driver and passenger of the BMW were also dead. Unlike the man, they had been mangled by the impact of the collision. The driver had been thrown onto the passenger and they seemed to be holding one another a last time.

I stood there with them for what felt like hours before other cars and emergency services arrived. Everything these people were planning to do a few minutes earlier had been reduced to the amber flashing of an indicator. The plastic and metal and glass would be cleaned up. By the next day, others would pass there without knowing. The death of these people would tear a hole in the lives of others, but the rest of the world would know nothing about it.

All of it mattered, it seemed to me, and none of it did.

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Jack puts his foot down

Before Jack moved to Cape Town (see the story A formula for distance), he lived in Johannesburg and worked as a steward for South African Airways. I use the verb worked loosely here. During the previous year or so, Jack had begun to slack off considerably. He no longer cared for South African Airways. The person who had always ensured that he got the best shifts, to the best destinations, had unfortunately been promoted. In her place had been appointed an upstart who had an unreasonable sense of fairness. Jack got treated like everyone else.

“I’ve been there for twenty years!” he exclaimed. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Has it been that long?”

“What?” Jack asked suspiciously.

“I mean,” I said, “you’ve had it good for twenty years. It was going to stop at some point, right?”

By Jack’s secret logic, the opposite was true. If he’d had it good for twenty years, there was no earthly reason why it needed to have changed now.

“I guess,” he admitted with some reluctance. “But it’s also that the allure of being elsewhere has worn off.”

Instead of taking it as a simple fact of human psychology, Jack blamed South African Airways for this, too.

“They’ve robbed me,” he once explained. “I used to love going somewhere.”

In rebellion, he slacked off. Because he couldn’t slack off while he was on a plane, he had to slack off by not being on the plane in the first place. He befriended doctors and leaned on them until they phrased near-mystical definitions of ailments he had mostly invented. Using their sick notes, he was absent from work for astounding periods of time. Then, as was bound to happen, South African Airways jettisoned him with corporate gusto. Jack was enraged, despite having wanted out. He had always imagined that he’d leave the airline in the equivalent of an acrimonious divorce and sue them for millions. Being let go instead was like getting dumped by a cheating girlfriend.

“Fuck’em,” he said when I visited a few months later.

He spoke with the air of someone who’d decided to get nasty.

“They owe me,” he added. “They’re going to pay.”

“On balance, you probably owe them,” I said.

“For what? Look at my foot.”

He took off his shoe and planted his foot on the chair while he watched me closely. His foot was smelly and hairy and had been the subject of many of our arguments over the years. It looked lumpier than when I last saw it.

“Yes?” I asked.

“That’s not a foot,” he explained. “That’s a piece of dog shit, shaped like a shoe. And—”

He pulled up the hem of his trousers.

“—what man my age has varicose veins like this?”

It was difficult not to laugh. “Is that from standing too much?” I giggled.

Jack looked from me to his foot and sighed. “And those goddamned shoes. I’m a size thirteen.”

“Maybe you were just too big to fly,” I offered.

“Fuck’em,” Jack said with new resolve. “They made me depressed.”

“You’ve always been depressed.”

“I used to be depressed in a nice way,” Jack muttered as he struggled to get his shoe back on, “about deep things. Now I’m depressed about all things.”

“You’re older,” I said. “It works like that.”

While Jack shuffled into what passed for his kitchen, I looked around. As had happened everywhere he’d ever lived, Jack had transformed what must have started out as an empty space into the intestines of chaos. Dust and grime covered everything so deeply that one could see the routes he had walked along. From the table, where I sat, a path cut through balls of dust to the kitchen, much like a path through vegetation. His spice racks, which covered a whole wall, were so ensnared in tendrils of oily dust and hair that they looked as though they had been grilled under a layer of Gruyère. From opposite the table, a large, ill-tempered fish was watching me from its tank.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Jack answered without even looking my way. “That’s John,” he said. “He thinks he’s hungry.”


“Yeah,” Jack said. “There used to be two of them.”

John regarded me while moving only his pectoral fins.

“What was the other one called?” I asked. “And where’s it?”

Jack returned to the table with an orange-looking cheese, wrapped in a see-through piece of parchment paper. It smelled worse than his foot.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “It smells like onions and cow shit.”

“Vieux Boulogne,” Jack announced. “Washed in beer.”

“And I guess it’s expensive?”

“I knew someone in Paris,” Jack explained. “The other fish was also John.”

“Two Johns?”

“I couldn’t give the good name to only one of them,” Jack said.

“Where’s John the Second?” I asked.

“John the First killed him,” Jack said. “I was overseas.”

I looked at John the First. Knowing that he’d killed John the Second made him seem larger, and even more sullen. Perhaps he was hungry, after all. Jack tapped a plastic tube that stood on the table, near the fish tank. At this, John wiggled his body and moved a micron closer to the glass.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a worm farm,” Jack said. “I stoke it with orange peels and other shit, and then John eats the worms.”

As if on cue, it looked as though John gave us a tiny nod.

“Are you going to give him one?” I asked.

“He’s full.”

“How do you know?”

“He looks full.”

I looked again at John. The part of the glass where he hung to stare at the table was clean, like the pathway from the table to the kitchen, but the rest of the tank was filthy. Everything of Jack’s ended up being like him.

“He ate seven worms before you came,” Jack continued. “He must be full.”

“He wants some cheese,” I ventured.

“He’s not having any,” Jack said firmly.

“You’ve given him some before, right?”

Jack began to re-wrap the Vieux Boulogne.

“When you sat right here,” I went on. “Just the two of you?”

“This is my last one of these,” Jack said. “He’s not having any of it.”

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Degrees of freedom

At university, Jack and I befriended a talented guy called Adrian. At the time, Adrian knew everything there was to know about terminals and mainframes, things we were only dimly aware of. This was slightly annoying. He often spoke about computers and networks in sentences comprised almost entirely of words we didn’t understand. All the same, we viewed this skill of his as something quaintly foreign and unimportant, like calligraphy. What was more immediately upsetting was Adrian’s gift for mathematics. Jack and I were once interested in a puzzle that required fitting different pieces into a rectangular tray. While we argued about possible solutions, Adrian wrote down what I would much later recognize as a generating function. This beast, he explained, could be used to find the total number of solutions to the puzzle we were fumbling with, as well as others like it. All he needed to do was get to a terminal so he could explain the whole thing to the mainframe.

Perhaps as a direct consequence of his mathematical talent, Adrian failed Applied Mathematics 101, the first half of the first-year Applied Mathematics course. Many lesser people had passed this course, but it was simply too mundane to warrant Adrian’s attention. When he sat for the exam it turned out that there were a few things that even he couldn’t figure out from scratch in the allotted time.

“Plus,” he fumed quietly, “the lecturer is an idiot. He has the mathematical intuition of a forklift.”

“Who’s he?” we asked.

“Morton,” Adrian said with visible disgust. “The t is silent.”

Despite Morton’s efforts to stop him, Adrian obtained permission to continue with the second half of the year’s course, Applied Mathematics 102, taught by a different lecturer, and passed it. Yet, he had not passed Applied Mathematics 1 in its entirety. With special permission, he progressed to second-year courses in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics the following year. In a twist of fate, the Applied Mathematics Department combined Applied Mathematics 101 and 102, and from then on there was a single final exam, presided over by Morton.

At the end of the year, Adrian sat for the Applied Mathematics 1 exam, having first had to overcome the objections of Morton who claimed that as he hadn’t even attended class, he wasn’t eligible to take the exam. But the head of the department, Professor Sauer, liked Adrian and overruled Morton.

Adrian took the exam, and failed.

“Isn’t this moron just marking you down?” we asked.

“No,” Adrian admitted. “I failed.”

“Why?” we wondered. “You’re beyond all that.”

“I know,” he said dryly, “but things look smaller in the rearview mirror than they actually are.”

This pattern continued for two more years. Adrian obtained renewed special permissions to advance. Professor Sauer overruled the increasingly strident objections from Morton. Adrian took the exam without any preparation, and failed. At the end of four years, he had completed his entire degree but still had not passed Applied Mathematics 1.

“It’s stupid,” he moaned. “By now it should be obvious that I can pass it.”

“Sure,” we agreed.

“Plus,” he added, “I’ve passed the important half of it already.”

He wrangled some extraordinary permission from Professor Sauer and was allowed to enrol in a Master’s programme, with the private understanding that he’d pass Applied Mathematics 1 as soon as possible.

“As soon as humanly possible,” Adrian quoted.

“I forgot to mention,” he went on as though it was an afterthought, “Morton has moved up in the world, as all morons do, and is now a PhD student.”

While Morton continued to jealously guard the elusive Applied Mathematics 1, it turned out that he was now also the lecturer for some of Adrian’s Master’s classes. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then, in what must be a rare superposition of genius and stupidity, Adrian solved the very problem Morton was building his PhD around.

“I don’t know why he’s so upset,” Adrian marvelled. “In fact, he should be grateful. All I did was to prove that his planned approach couldn’t work.”

But Morton didn’t see things this way. He made life difficult for Adrian at every turn and told whoever would listen that Adrian had not even been able to pass Applied Mathematics 1. After a few more weeks, Adrian quit the Mathematics programme and moved to the one-year Master’s programme in Computer Science. This move required a breathtaking combination of extraordinary permissions and begging. Professor Sauer, who had to do most of the begging, was clear. “I had to convince them of your brilliance,” Adrian quoted, “and so it’s now or never. You pass Applied Mathematics 1 at the end of the year, or you’re done.”

Adrian slipped into the Master’s programme in Computer Science against the same low resistance he’d experienced in Mathematics. Things came easily to him. He paid attention to his coursework and his thesis only intermittently. Behind the scenes, Morton worked to sour the Computer Science Department against him, but Adrian was philosophical about it.

“With enemies like Morton, who needs friends?”

On weekends, Adrian assisted in the lab where all the terminals were.

“Shouldn’t you study some Applied Mathematics?” we asked.

“I’m working on it,” he smiled.

“I’m graduating,” he told us near the end of the year. “I’m getting a Bachelor’s and a Master’s.”

“Did you pass?” we asked.


“What do you mean, yes?”

“Actually,” Adrian said, “I took Prof Sauer’s advice.”

“What advice?”

“When he said humanly. As soon as humanly possible, remember?”


“It got me to thinking,” he clarified, “that word, humanly. All that’s needed to pass is that a human says you’ve passed. Actually passing isn’t required, is it?”


“I got Morton to pass me.”

Jack and I looked at one another. “How?”

“Well,” Adrian explained with some relish, “the university admin system has this login screen—”

It was sounding like calligraphy again, but we had to listen.

“—and I made a screen that looks just like it. Each time a session started, my fake screen would show, and someone would type in their credentials.

“What’s a session?” we asked.

Adrian waved this away. “Then I’d save their username and password to a file, and kill my screen.”


“And so they’d curse and log in again.”

While we still didn’t understand calligraphy, it was beginning to look useful.

“And after a few weeks, I found Morton’s credentials,” Adrian beamed. “I logged in as him and gave myself a pass for Applied Mathematics 1.”

A few years later my father became the head of the Department of Informatics. As he was now close to where Adrian’s fraud had been committed, I told him about it.

“Apparently this Morton guy raised a stink,” I said, “saying he’d never passed Adrian. But Sauer had had enough of Morton and gave him an ultimatum to shut up or ship out.”

“I’ve always liked Prof Sauer,” my father mused.

“But aren’t you upset?”

“Why should I be upset?”

“Because you care about the truth,” I countered.

My father tamped his pipe and looked out the window.

“I care about many things,” he said after a moment. He struck a match and puffed on his pipe to char the tobacco, moving the flame around the bowl the way I’d seen him do for as long as I could remember. “I’ve never met this Adrian friend of yours, but it sounds to me like he deserves a degree of some kind.”

The aroma of my father’s tobacco was new. Until recently he’d smoked a locally made cherry tobacco, but now he’d discovered Davidoff’s Danish Mixture. He struck another match and sucked its flame more deeply into the bowl.

“But,” he said between puffs, “I have met Morton.”


My father sighed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he said.

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