The stress cube

When I saw the fidget cube it was love at first sight. The little cube was about an inch on a side. From one face protruded a joystick you could swivel around. Another face had five little rubber knobs—arranged like the five on the side of a die—which you could depress individually. Yet another face revealed a spherical cap you could roll around endlessly. Here was a thing made by someone who understood what it was to daydream, what it was to be lost in thoughts so creative as to be incapable of yielding anything whatsoever. I had to have one.

“Where’d you get this wonderful thing?” I asked my colleague James.

“Isn’t it great,” he said. “Did you see this?”

He showed me a face with a thumb-shaped dent.

“They’re nine dollars on Amazon,” he said.

That evening I went online to find one.

Relieves stress and anxiety, the blurb on Amazon read.

I couldn’t find the exact one James had, but there were many cubes to choose from, ranging from what looked like a flimsy version of James’s cube, to a sturdy luxury model that came with its own little bag, presumably so you could travel with it. I clicked on the luxury model. If I was going to fidget, I was going to fidget in style. The model James had was a nice charcoal colour, but the luxury model only came in black, with all the fidgety parts coloured light pink. This was annoying because I’d really wanted a muted, charcoal cube, like James’s. If I was going to take my cube to work to meet his cube, for instance, I wouldn’t want mine to be the garish one. There was another model, not quite as nice as the luxury one, and without a bag, but it came in various colours, including charcoal. I clicked on a charcoal one.

Only 1 left in stock — order soon, the page said.

No need to rush, I thought—it was half past eleven. I opened a separate tab and checked the luxury model again, just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out, but I was sure. The light pink knobs were hideous. The not-so-luxury cube was actually perfect, come to think of it. Satisfied, I added it to my cart.

This item is no longer available, an error message said.

Somewhere was an asshole, up at this hour, browsing for cubes. I could seem him lying in bed, smugly clicking away.

“Who are you talking to?” my wife whispered.

“No one. Go back to sleep.”

I found what looked like the model James had, but the cube didn’t seem to be of the same quality. I couldn’t very well buy what looked like the same one, only to have mine fall apart before his did. I looked at the luxury cube again. The pink knobs weren’t so bad when I dimmed my screen. They were more reddish in colour, and the whole thing looked a bit like an executive cube.

I ordered it and went to sleep.

The next afternoon I got an email to say that my order of the Luxury Fidget Cube had been cancelled.

“This is bullshit,” I said to Mia. “I never cancelled the order.”

“Was that what you were doing last night? What did you order?”

“This thing—a stress cube. Never mind. They just cancelled it.”

“Amazon knows everything about you,” she said as she walked away. “Maybe they know that it’s useless to send you a stress cube. They cancelled the order for humane reasons.”

I checked the order. Customer Canceled, it said.

“It’s Amazon!” I called after Mia.

“It’s Amazon,” came the echo from upstairs.

I browsed for fidget cubes, found the Luxury Fidget Cube, dimmed my screen, and proceeded to checkout.

Add-on items ship with orders that contain $25 of items shipped by Amazon, it said on the screen. What in purple blazes was this? I couldn’t even buy the cube by itself? Maybe that’s why my order was cancelled before. I added $29 of TotalBoat teak cleaner and completed the purchase.

At work, James’s cube looked puny compared to the cube I knew I was getting. Even its charcoaly colour didn’t make up for the fact that mine had a fourth combination roller on its one side, and a bag.

“So you ordered one?” James said. “I’d like to compare them. I suspect mine’s a fairly cheap one.”

“Mine’s a little more expensive,” I said, mentally adding the teak cleaner. “It comes on Thursday.”

On Thursday I discovered an email sent on Tuesday to explain that order 113-3058039-2629055 of a Luxury Fidget Cube and TotalBoat Teak Cleaner had been delayed. There was a problem shipping the teak cleaner from the supplier. I could cancel the whole order, or wait.

“Are you getting worked up about a stress cube?” Mia asked when I told her. “Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

“Forget the cube!” I fumed. “Just think about this shit for a second. First someone takes the thing I wanted from under my nose! And now this!”

“It’s a stress cube,” she insisted calmly. “It relieves stress.”

“And anxiety—”


“And some teak cleaner.”

“Teak cleaner?”

I poured myself a glass of wine.

“I had to add something or the cube wouldn’t come.”


“The cube was an add-on item,” I mumbled. “I had to order something else.”

Mia took a slow sip of my wine and gave me a hard stare.

“Are you telling me this cube is so cheap that they don’t even sell it by itself?”

“Not necessarily—”

“Never mind,” she said, waving aside my attempt at an argument. “What’s wrong with it?”


“You said that someone had taken what you’d wanted?”

“That was before I saw this one,” I lied. “This is the cube I want.”

“Ok then,” Mia said. “Just relax. It’ll come.”

On the day that Amazon had said it would come, it didn’t come. I checked the mailbox even though I knew that two quarts of teak cleaner would never have fit into it.

“Can you stop?” Mia hissed when I slammed the mail down on the kitchen counter.

She patted my cheek the way she does when she mocks me.


That night I had a fevered dream in which I’d become an old and bitter man. I sat on a small bench in the park and grumpily poked at pigeons with my walking stick while I complained about my cube that never came. The next day a box sat on the doorstep when I got home.

“Tada!” I called out as I carried it inside.

“I hope that’s it,” Mia said.

I ripped open the box.

“What’s this?”

“Ah!” she purred. “It’s modelling clay I ordered for the kids.”

“Where the fuck is my cube!?”

“Give me that,” she grunted as she pried the clay from my hands.

“And where is my teak cleaner—?”

“You know,” she said, out of breath, “do you remember that time you told me not to rush to my yoga class?”

“It’s not the same,” I insisted. “This is extortion! First I had to buy extra shit I didn’t really want, and now none of it arrives!”

“You’re right,” Mia said calmly. “It’s not the same. This is much, much worse.”


You’re much worse.”

“Look,” I said, calming myself, “I know this is silly. It’s just a little cube after all.”

“Go on—”

“Which is why it should be so simple to deliver it.”


“And now some idiot is fidgeting with it at the Amazon fulfillment center! You know, while they wait for the teak cleaner.”

“Yeah right,” Mia said.

“I can see him clearly,” I went on, “sitting on a box, twiddling my cube. He’s in his twenties, and smug. He’s a cousin of the asshole who bought the other cube!”

“What other cube?” Mia asked as I walked away.

The email from TotalBoat arrived later that night, entitled How was you recent TotalBoat order? I almost snapped my laptop in half but then I remembered how stupid I’d felt after I’d kicked a dent in our dishwasher, many years before.

“How does this work?” I asked Mia. “Total-fucking-boat is the reason my cube isn’t here, and now they want me to time travel and tell them about their teak cleaner.”

I’d worry about the cube if I were you,” she replied.

The package arrived a week later. By then I’d taken the moral high ground and didn’t want the cube anymore. The teak cleaner would come in handy, I was sure, but the cube had become an add-on. I was embarrassed by my anger, but Mia was still interested.

“This had better be good,” she said as I began to open the box. “You’ve been sulking and swearing ever since you’ve ordered this stupid thing. Let me see.”

“It’s heavy,” I stalled and shook the box.

“That’s the bonus teak cleaner,” Mia nodded.

“It comes with a bag,” I reminded her.

“I don’t care if it comes with a La-Z-Boy. Show me.”

The Luxury Fidget Cube didn’t look very luxurious in person.

“Is this it?” Mia asked as she inspected the cube. “What’s this colour? Intestines?”

“It’s hideous,” I mumbled.

“Nice,” Mia said, reading the labels of the two bottles of teak cleaner. “Part A, and part B.”

“What’s nice about that?”

“They go with part C—the Cube.”

For a fleeting moment I could see myself, sitting on a bench in the park, poking at pigeons.

“Look on the bright side,” Mia said as she patted my cheek. “It comes with a bag.”

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The secret suicide of questions

On my tenth birthday I shot a sparrow that sat in a tree. I don’t know why. My father had promised that I could use his old air gun when I turned ten, and once I started shooting at things, it sort of just happened. The bird dropped from the branch and hit the lawn with a dull little thud. My father came from the house and looked at it.

“Come here,” he said.

He took the gun from me and knelt by the bird on the lawn.

“Come and hold it,” he told me.

I didn’t want to. The little bird was still breathing and there was a smear of blood on its chest where the pellet had penetrated.

“How can you shoot this bird and then refuse to touch it?” my father asked.

He carefully picked up the bird and held it out in his hand.

“Have some respect,” he said. “Killing is intimate. It’s not something you can just walk away from.”

I bit back tears and nodded.

“If you’re going to kill,” he said softly, seeing how I felt, “you need to know what it is to die.”

Even though I was just ten that day, I can still remember his exact words.

“What do you mean,” I asked, “know what it is to die?”

“Sit right here,” he said as he handed me the bird. “Stay with this bird until it’s dead. Stay with it until a part of you has died with it.”

Then he left me there and was gone for a long time.

I sat on the lawn, holding the sparrow, while the shadow of the tree it had fallen from edged across the yard. The little bird died slowly. It shuddered every few seconds, clenched its claws and stretched its little neck as though it was reaching for something. And then it stopped. Whatever magic it was that moved it simply slipped away. How could I know what it was to die? I had just seen it and yet I had no idea what it was like.

“Is it dead?” my father asked when he returned from the house.

He sat down on the lawn next to me and hugged his knees.

“I want you to think about something,” he said after a while, and cleared his throat. “This sparrow had a father.”

“I’m sorry—” I began.

“Maybe it’s also dead,” my father went on, ignoring me, “but once there must have been such a bird. And that bird had a father too, and so on, all the way back.”

With his words he showed me a long line of birds, strung between the spikes of known events, like a makeshift fence.

“On your birthday,” he said, “today, ten years ago, one of these father birds was alive. When I was born, another one was alive. This older one would have a son, and that son would have a son and so on, all the way to the sparrow alive at your birth, and then to this one you’re holding now—the one you’ve killed.”

I felt like crying but my father kept talking.

“And you,” he said, “you have a father too—me—and I had one, and so did he, and so on and on.”

As he did for the bird, he drew a long line in time.

“On this day, ten thousand years ago, one of these men was alive. On this day, ten million years ago, some male thing was alive in Africa who would be our grandfather somehow.”

I placed the sparrow on the grass between us.

“Were there dates back then?” I asked.

My father said something about calendars while he stroked the feathers of the little bird. Then he resumed.

“Here’s the thing that amazes me every time I think about it,” he said. “Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Imagine flipping through pictures of you, me, my father, his father, and so on, one by one, men who look stranger and stranger as you go back in time, until they’re no longer human, until they’re no longer even mammals. Can you imagine that?”

I tried to imagine how brutish my ten-thousandth grandfather must have been.

“Now imagine,” my father said, “doing the same with this bird. First it’s just one bird after the other, and then they begin to change, until they become some sort of reptile, and so on.”

“I can see that,” I said, even though I couldn’t quite see the birds becoming brutish.

My father turned so he could look at me.

“Somewhere, as you do this, you’ll be looking at the same picture.”

At first I didn’t know what he meant.

“Somewhere,” he said, “around three hundred and twenty millions years ago, there lived a male animal who was the grandfather of both you and this bird. This animal had two sons. They must have been fairly similar, and yet something came between them—a mountain range or a spell of rain, who knows—and because of that the one son became you, and the other son became this sparrow.”

My father looked at nothing in particular while I thought this over.

“Isn’t that something?” he said at length.

The giant circle he’d drawn in time seemed unthinkable. It started out from two brothers hundreds of millions of years ago and came together with me killing my distant cousin today. And yet, I knew, it had to be so.

“But what separated them?” I asked. “It must have been important.”

“It doesn’t matter,” my father said. “Something did. The right question to ask is what separated you now.”

I glanced at the little bird.

“And when you ask the right question,” my father went on, “you don’t need to know the answer.”

He gently picked up the little bird and handed it to me.

“Do the right thing,” he said.

When he’d gone, I buried the sparrow in a flowerbed. I had held it to the end, like my father had asked me to do, but I still didn’t know what it was to die. Hiding the little bird in the ground left me feeling incomplete, as though I’d buried a part of myself with it, but I didn’t know what that part was. In the late spring, daisies flowered where the sparrow was buried. I hoped that they would somehow look different, that they would release the sparrow and make me whole again, but they didn’t. Many years later, the tree in which the little bird had sat was long gone and a pavement covered the place where the flowerbed had been. My father was dying of cancer and we sat together on the patio at the back of the house. I reminded him of his words that day.

“Did I say that?” he wondered.

He swallowed with difficulty and stared into the garden.

“I was younger that day than you are now,” he remarked. “I can’t remember what I said.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know what part I meant,” he replied and smiled wryly at his play on words.

He fumbled with the corner of the blanket my mother had put over him.

“Maybe that’s what it is to die,” he said once I’d helped him. “We die a bit every day. It’s how we live. Why shouldn’t we die that way?”

We sat together in silence until he fell asleep. My father had been right all along, I thought. Answers knew nothing about the secret suicide of questions.

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Zelda’s spiral

The 41 bus runs between Lake City and downtown Seattle. In the mornings the bus is fairly empty where I board it on the corner of Lake City Way and NE 125th Street. I usually get to sit in the back seat, on the right, away from the sun. Here I can write, as I do now. On most days the bus fills up with people who instantly go to sleep, or incessantly worry their phones. There’s very little difference between being asleep and swiping away on a screen, and so these people all look crazy to me. But now and then there’s someone who’s really crazy on the bus. These people are always tolerated, silently, no matter what they do. I’ve seen a woman with blue hair in a fairy outfit, waving a little wand about and putting charms on everyone around her. No one said anything. I’ve seen a businessman in a pinstripe suit, with pointy shoes, who looked perfectly normal except for the fact that he wore a Mr Incredible eye mask. No one said anything. One afternoon an educated drug addict made an impassioned speech about social reform to a Starbucks cup he held aloft. People glanced at him, but no one said anything.

The problem wasn’t that these people needed to get a grip. They had a grip, but they were holding on to the wrong thing. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. I marveled at their craziness, saw myself reflected for a moment in the warped mirror they held up to the world, and moved on. But with Zelda it wasn’t like that.

Zelda squeezed into the seat next to me one morning. She had to squeeze to get in because she was basically a stove with a head and two stubby arms. I think her name was Zelda because it said so on a hardcover notebook that she clutched to the continental shelf of her bosom. On the cover of the book was written, in an ornately curly script, Zelda’s Spiral. The text had been adorned with little flowers and there was a small kitten poking its head out from behind the Z. Besides that, Zelda was odd in two ways. Every few seconds she bared her teeth, like a macaque monkey. As she did this, she hissed and sighed. When she hissed the first time, I thought that she’d seen something on my screen and disapproved of it. But she continued to bare her teeth and hiss, as though her gums were itching. It had nothing to do with me. The other thing she did was more disturbing. She rocked from left to right and back again on her vast buttocks, lifting each one from the seat and tucking it in more tightly as she put it down. It looked like she was doing origami with her underwear. Maybe, I thought, she bared her teeth whenever she got a fold wrong. Her rocking and hissing was beginning to annoy me when she opened the notebook.

Every page was a marvel of pygmy cartoons and a dense spiral of writing. The writing started at the top of the page, then continued down the right, then along the bottom, up the left and then on and on like that toward the center of the page. Drawings of cutesy cats and podgy birds and flowers with faces filled the gaps between some words.

Zelda has produced a monument to OCD, I typed as a new line on my screen. Then I deleted Zelda, and replaced it with She. Zelda hissed and sighed and tucked in her right buttock. She had already progressed a few lines along the page that was now open, and I glanced at it furtively.

“M didn’t come this weekend,” she’d written along the top of her page.

I looked out the window to feign disinterest while Zelda hissed and tucked in her left buttock, bumped against me and sighed.

Who can blame M?, I typed on a new line.

Then I deleted blame M and typed we blame as Zelda turned her book.

“Saw M at UW,” she now calligraphed down the inside right edge of her spiral.

She bit her pen, added a small dot to a row of dots in the top left corner of the page, drew a little cat and tucked in both her buttocks. As she sighed, I glanced at the page again and tried to read other sentences.

“300 lbs by Friday,” one line read.

Along the bottom it continued, I could tell after turning my head a little, “Call D if I make it.”

Zelda hissed and bared her teeth, and sighed. I looked out the window again and wondered what it must be like to hope to weigh three hundred pounds. Zelda rocked toward me and tucked in her left buttock.

Hands-free origami, I typed on a new line. Then I deleted the line and let the cursor blink where it was. I wanted to type And tell D what?, but I was afraid she might read what was on my screen.

Zelda turned the book again and bit her pen for inspiration.

“YES to focus. NO to fuss,” she wrote along the bottom edge of her spiral.

I felt like asking what that had to do with the rest of what was on the page, but of course I couldn’t. She added another dot to the row of dots in the corner of the page, which I now decided was a count of some kind. She bit her pen again and drew a Tweety-like bird that perched in the Y of YES. Then she rocked away from me and tucked in her right buttock.

I glanced at her page. Down the right, amid other lines, was a line that was adorned with a sad-faced flower and read, “Called D anyway.”

Beside me, Zelda hissed and sighed and turned the book so that she could write along the left edge of her spiral. I watched as she carefully wrote, “Creep on the bus is reading what I write.”

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What you can do with a hundred million dollars

When I was a teenager and so covered in pimples that I knew everything, I argued with my mother about money.

“One day,” I announced, “I’m going to be rich.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“What do you mean, what does that mean?”

“What’s rich?” she asked.

“I’m going to have a hundred million dollars,” I declared.

“What can you do with a hundred million dollars?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What do you mean, what can I do? One hundred million dollars!”

My mother lit a cigarette and wrote something on the back of an envelope.

“Here,” she said.

She’d written $100,000,000.

“What’s this?” I asked and tossed the envelope onto the table.

“It’s a hundred million dollars,” she said.

“It’s not,” I sneered. “It’s a stupid envelope with a number on it.”

“Well,” my mother said as she sat down at the table, “if you had a hundred million dollars in the bank, it would look just like that. A stupid number on a piece of paper, or a screen.”

“I know—” I began.

“Just having that money is what’s stupid,” she went on. “If you don’t use it, you might as well not have it.”

It began to feel as though my mother was going to talk me out of my hundred million dollars.

“I know—” I said again.

“Why do you want it?” she added.

“So I can buy stuff.”

“Ah,” she mused, “stuff. What kind of stuff? Things, or experience?”


“A car is a thing,” my mother said, “just like money is a thing. A drive is an experience. What do you want?”

“I want my own car,” I said.

“To look at, or to drive?”

“To drive,” I conceded.

“See,” my mother said, “you don’t really want a car, just like you don’t really want a hundred million dollars. You want what you can do with those things, not the things themselves.”

“Somehow you’ve done away with the hundred million dollars,” I complained. “I don’t like that. I want a hundred million dollars.”

She got up and came around to my side of the table.

“You already have a hundred million dollars,” she said calmly.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” she said. “You just don’t know it. Would you like to see what I mean?”

“Can we just talk about being rich?” I groaned.

“Close your eyes,” my mother said.


“Just do it.”

I closed my eyes reluctantly. I could hear her move away from the table and open a drawer a little way off. Then she returned.

“Keep them shut,” she instructed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m blindfolding you.”

She wrapped a strip of dark cloth around my head and secured it in place with something else. I couldn’t see anything.

“There,” my mother said when she’d finished. “Now you’re blind.”


“And here’s a hundred million dollars.”

She retrieved the envelope from the table and placed it in my hand.

“You’ve been struck blind,” she said, “in exchange for a hundred million dollars.”

“It’s just an envelope,” I said.

“Imagine, OK?”

She moved away and lit a cigarette. The flick of her lighter sounded metallic now that I could only hear it.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now we wait,” she said.

“What for?”

But she didn’t answer me.

“Where are you going?” I wanted to know as she began to walk away.

“I’m going downstairs to work,” she said. “You don’t have to. You’re rich, remember?”

When she’d gone I sat at the table and tried to imagine that I’d closed my eyes on purpose because I was concentrating on a problem. My father had once pointed at the clock on the wall when it was exactly noon and asked me what the time would be when next the hour and minute hand were on top of one another. I thought about this until I got to the point where I knew I had to divide twelve by eleven, but I wanted to make a drawing to see exactly why. After a few minutes I tried to move about but it felt as though unseen spikes would pierce my eyes. I kept going toward the stairs, but I couldn’t do so without covering my blindfolded eyes with one hand, leaving me only one hand to feel around with. I found my way back to the table and sat down again. Even though I’d known this kitchen my entire life, it was now a place of strange sounds and narrow spaces. There were red-breasted weavers in the tree outside the window. I listened to their chirping and tried to imagine that I could see out the window, right through the blindfold, but it was hard and I couldn’t keep an image in focus for more than a fleeting moment. I wondered what the colour red sounded like. I could hear the traffic in the street behind our house, and a dog barking for a moment, far away. To sit at this table without the blindfold is to be a part of these things, but blindness had crystalised me as something separate. I desperately wanted the blindfold off, but that would’ve given in to my mother, and so I just waited.

“Being rich isn’t so great, is it?” she said when she returned. “Even for twenty minutes.”

It had felt like an hour.

“Would you like to see again?” she asked.

I mumbled that I’d like to. She carefully took off the blindfold and for a few moments I blinked in the dazzling light.

“The hundred million dollars,” she said and held out her hand.

I gave her the envelope.

“By tonight—” she remarked as she lit a cigarette, “or tomorrow—you’d have happily paid a hundred million dollars just to see again. A hundred million dollars just to have what you’ve had all along.”

I felt shallow and ungrateful and so I said nothing.

“And?” my mother asked after a few moments.

“I see,” I said.

She smiled to herself.

That’s what you can do with a hundred million dollars.”

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An evening out of oddness

Everyone is someone else’s weirdo. When I first came across this quote I instantly knew it to be true. It had to be. Somewhere on earth there had to be someone who would take me for a weirdo, surely? In fact, there was probably someone who’d rank me as the number one weirdo they’d ever come across. I imagined the sort of person who’d be weird enough to think me weird, smiled to myself, and forgot about it.

Years later I rented a small apartment in Cape Town. It overlooked Beach Road, just where the Mouille Point rocks met a seawall and a raised esplanade that curved away to the west and the distant cliffs of Lion’s Head. From my window I could smell the salty air and the snags of kelp that sighed in the water just beyond the rocks. Gulls wheeled overhead and cormorants sheered across the waves in their thousands at sunset. It was wonderful. Yet, I was miserable. My life was a failure and there was no defence against this charge. Entered into evidence were two damning exhibits—exhibit A, money, and exhibit B, my girlfriend. I had no A and too much B. I wanted it to be the other way around. There was lots of money everywhere but I couldn’t seem to get my hands on any of it. Every month I sank further into debt. My girlfriend—let’s call her Daphne—was sweet and loving, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she was fast becoming a permanent souvenir of what was supposed to be a brief affair. She wasn’t the right one for me. Daphne was loyal, too, and as I grew poorer, she became more adamantly attached.

Every day, in the early evening, I went for a walk along the esplanade so I could fantasise about money and getting rid of Daphne. I imagined winning the lottery and coming home to catch Daphne in bed with Donald, a swarthy guy she worked with. I hated Donald for reasons I couldn’t name. Catching Daphne in bed with him would’ve made me jealous, no doubt, but the next day I would’ve clutched my winning ticket until I felt better. As I walked along, I scaled down my fantasies. Winning the lottery wasn’t going to happen. The odds were against it, especially since I never bought a ticket. What if I helped an old widow to cross the street and it turned out that she’d lost her only son, whom I resembled? We’d talk every day and she’d end up bequeathing her house and considerable fortune to me. There was a house in Bantry Bay that I really liked, but there was no old widow living in it. Every time I toyed with this fantasy, there were no widows around. They were as hard to find as Daphne was difficult to get rid of. Like the lottery, the widow wasn’t going to happen. But daydreaming was seamless and as I walked along, I peered into the places I passed, wondering who the people were that lived in them, and how I could by some miracle of luck displace them. Most of the sea front along my walk was built up, save for a few short stretches where the original beach houses still held out against progress. One house in particular was interesting. It was small and had the date 1899 embossed on the gable of its awning. And in it lived a weird old woman.

The old woman was bandy-legged and stooped like a question mark. She wore a shawl and a head scarf from which a hooked nose protruded. She also had a gnarled walking stick like a witch in a picture I once saw. If she was a widow, her husband had died on purpose. Sometimes, at about the time I was out, the old woman left her house, shuffled across Beach Road and exercised her two cats along a stretch of the esplanade. The cats were on leashes, like dogs, and strained against them. As the woman struggled along, the cats weaved across her path, braiding their leashes.

“Pavel! Yakov!” she once called out to the cats as she passed me where I stood. “Stop pullingk!”

It was an arresting sight, this weird old gypsy with her canine cats. Who was she, I wondered. Why did she speak in English to her cats when she was obviously from somewhere in Eastern Europe? How could she afford a house by the sea when I didn’t have a blue cent to scratch my arse with?

Her walk took her along the first stretch of the esplanade, near her house. Sometimes I was there at the time she came by and then I’d stand at the railing and pretend not to see her. Pavel and Yakov attracted much attention, of course, but I tried to watch the old woman instead. The cats were weird because she was weird. As if staggering along was not difficult enough, she often stopped, fumbled in a bag she had slung over her shoulder, took out a small notebook and wrote in it. Then she nodded to herself and shuffled along.

The best place from which to watch her was where the seawall curved inward above a tiny beach. Here I could look out to sea and still see people along the esplanade. When the tide was high, the waves rolled into the wall and dumped pebbles and bits of kelp onto the esplanade. I leaned out over the railings as far as balance allowed and tossed back into the water the pebbles that the sea had rejected earlier. I used them two at a time, like clay pigeons. It was a mindless pastime, but as it was exceedingly difficult to hit the first pebble with the second, it gave me something to do while I waited for the old woman. It also gave me time to practice my breakup speech to Daphne.

“Daphne,” I’d say as a picked up two pebbles, “it’s better this way.”

Then I’d toss the first pebble in a gentle arc and try to hit it with the second. When I got it right I did a little dance, I think, but I cannot now remember. The gratification of success was instantly lost, and so I’d start all over again.

One evening, just as the two stones collided in mid-air, there was a hand at my arm. I turned to find the old woman peering up at me. She had a dark moustache and three stout hairs that grew between her watery eyes. She was even weirder up close than she’d been in the distance.

“You,” she croaked, “must be de maddest perr-son I khav evor seen.”

She gripped my elbow while Pavel and Yakov strained to walk on.

“Tell-a me,” she continued, “do you khav strange dreams?”

I was lost for words. As I searched for something to say, she ran her tongue over her lips in anticipation.

“Y-yes,” I stammered at length. “I do.”

“Aha!” she wheezed and steered me away from the railing. “Tell-a me evoryting!”

Her hobby, she said—her passion—was people who were mad.

“I was psycholgist,” she explained.

“But—but I’m not mad,” I said.

“Aha!” she wheezed and held up a bony finger.

She stopped and dug the notebook from her bag. The cats strained forward and she handed their leashes to me. Then she opened the notebook to reveal a list of times and dates. She poked at it with her bony finger.

“I khav written down times you stand khere,” she testified and waved at the sea, “throwingk yourself away.”

I looked at the scrawled writing as she flipped the pages but I didn’t really see any of it. As we stood there in the fading light, I had what I’m sure was an out-of-body experience. I could see us clearly, as though from a vantage point beyond the railing, over the water. I saw the old woman and the notebook in which my oddness was recorded. I saw myself standing beside her, holding the leashes of her cats, held by the arm like a naughty boy. I could see Daphne sitting on my sofa with her feet tucked beneath her while she read a magazine. I could see into the apartments along the beach and into the lives of those who lived in them. And I could see, for the first time, how all of us were equal before the changeless sea.

“But I’m not mad,” I said again.

“Aha!” the old woman wheezed.

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A wall across time

You can’t sit by the river of time, my father used to say. He always said this casually, as though he was merely pointing out that it could not be done, whenever he found me staring into space instead of doing my homework or something else he considered useful. When I didn’t react, he got more animated.

“Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky,” he’d say in exasperation, pointing at the sky. To impress on me what he meant, he’d add, as a kind of visual emphasis, “like wet sacks of shit.”

What these things were that would not befall me like wet sacks of shit was never specified. My father made no sense when he was exasperated, and he was exasperated often. I stared into space a lot, sitting by the river of time, as he put it.

“When are you planning to wake up?” he interrupted my reverie one Saturday morning when we were building a terrace wall at our beach house.

He’d insisted that I help him, but I didn’t feel like it and was staring into space.

“You know,” he said as he leaned on his spade, “rounded to the nearest decade?”

“I’m awake,” I mumbled.

He shook his head, wiped his brow with the back of his gardening glove and adjusted his glasses.

“You wouldn’t look awake if I put a thousand Volts through you,” he remarked.

“I’m awake when I do my own things,” I retorted.

“What did that teacher say?” my father asked. “The one who looks like a Hampshire pig?”


“That’s the one.”

I swallowed. Mr Killian was a near-spherical psycho who had taken a particular dislike in me.

“He said all I had to do was keel over and stink.”

My father wiped his brow again and smiled to himself.

“Wouldn’t you like to look at this wall one day,” he asked, changing the topic, “and know that you helped your father build it?”

“I guess,” I said and looked at the wall. “But you make me hold things and it’s boring.”

“I make you hold things,” my father replied, “so you won’t run away.”

He had a point. I once drifted off and left him crawling around inside the roof where he tapped various metal pipes for hours, hoping to hear me call out from the scullery that he’d found the one containing its electric wiring.

While it was natural for my father to think me lazy, it was rather that I wanted to be someone else, elsewhere, elsewhen. I imagined myself as a minor messiah, speaking in parables and understanding animals. I daydreamed of being picked up by passing aliens. Most of all, I wished to travel back in time to hurt Mr Killian when he was a boy. As I dreamed of all this, I talked to myself and had vigorous disagreements with invisible people. I never knew what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I was a little lazy too. Nonetheless, my father’s warning against inaction had the opposite effect to what he’d intended. It sounded to me as though I could indeed sit by the river of time but that it was forbidden to do so. This added an extra dimension of pleasure to staring into space and doing nothing—it wasn’t merely wasteful; it was illegal.

“Why do you look so fucking smug?” my father once asked after he’d delivered what felt like an hour-long speech about the nature of fulfillment and how little of it I would attain if I continued down the road to indolence. “Work is a form of love,” he went on. “Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky—”

“Yeah, I know,” I dismissed him, “like wet sacks of shit.”

But, of course, he was right. All I’d seen of the river of time were the waterfalls and rapids that are childhood and puberty. I didn’t yet know how helplessly adrift I actually was, dragged along in the stream, one second every second, one day per day. Then, as the years went by, the river left the mountains and things slowed down. The days became more alike. People came and went. I realised that work had better be a form of love, like my father had said, because I seemed to be doing little else. My investment in daydreaming also paid off. Things began to fall into my lap like wet sacks of shit. At last I understood what my father had meant all those years before—the sort of things that fell into your lap were not the sort of things you really wanted. They were OK, as things went, but they were not the greatness you had dreamt of.

Now, years later still, the river is nearing the sea. My father is long gone and his grandson stands before me, the very embodiment of absence. JD is ten. He looks like my father but he acts like me. We’re at the beach house where my father built a terrace wall one Saturday morning so many years ago. JD and I have come outside so that I can interrogate him.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I ask.

JD stares into the distance and tries to stand on one foot.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I say in an effort to control myself.

He looks at me and furrows his brow to concentrate.

“And?” I ask.


“What were you thinking!?”

“It was a light saber,” he says and does a Darth Vader sound.

“It was a neon tube,” I correct him with strangled restraint. “You know, the sort that breaks.”

“Well,” he mumbles and looks past me again, “it felt like a light saber.”

“You didn’t think,” I say, “that’s what. When are you planning to start?”

“Start what?”

“Thinking, dammit!”

“I think!” JD shouts. “I think about all the things I’m going to put in my movie.”

Ever since he was six he has claimed to be the world’s best director, frustrated in his calling by his nagging family and the silly requirements of school.

“Your movie won’t get made if you don’t start thinking about other things too.”

He looks past me and it’s clear that he’s elsewhere already. With a pang I see myself, as my father must have, standing in the same spot JD now does.

“Can I go?” JD asks and scratches his knee.

As he walks back to the house, I look again at the wall. It has stood here for most of my life, day in and day out, while a giant fig tree has grown to overshadow it. I’d give anything now to have my childhood wish come true and travel back in time, not to hurt Mr Killian, but to help my father one Saturday when I’m fourteen and wanted to be elsewhere. When we take a break from our work, I’ll walk back to the house, like my son now does, and have a cool drink on the patio while my father smokes a cigarette. My mother will come to argue with my father about her plan for the wall, but I’ll carry on working without him. At sunset we’ll go outside to look at our wall together. My mother will be there and she’ll tell us how this is still wrong, and that, and my father will say that I mustn’t mind her and that he’s glad we did this today.

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Three Jorges

“Where’s Jorge?” I asked Jorge.

I was speaking to one of three Jorges who worked in our São Paulo offices. The one on the phone was Jorge the 3rd. I called him that because he seemed a touch mad and was always extremely happy or in actual tears. He once sulked and cried at a desk in a corner about a feature he wanted us to add to the software we were working on. When we agreed, he clapped his hands and danced around. Now he sobbed again on the other end of the line.

“Jorge is stolen,” he managed to say.

The Jorge I asked about was Jorge the 1st. He was the opposite of Jorge the 3rd, stable and aloof, and he was the lead salesman in the São Paulo office.


“Sim…yes,” Jorge the 3rd sniffed. “Gone.”

As it turned out, Jorge the 1st had been abducted from an ATM by a gang of thieves, taken into the forest, persuaded to divulge all his PINs, and then left there while they emptied out his accounts. Jorge the 2nd called me two days later.

“Jorge is return-ed,” he announced.

Jorge the 2nd was an acolyte of Jorge the 1st. He copied his mannerisms and moved with him like an anxious shadow. When Jorge the 1st was stolen, Jorge the 2nd was distraught, leaving us to wonder whether he was merely bewildered or upset that he hadn’t been stolen too.

“Is he OK?” I asked.

“Yes. See when you come.”

I was due in São Paolo in two weeks to visit a prospective client with the three Jorges. As a requirement before travelling to Brazil, I had to get a yellow fever shot. A few days later, I saw a doctor.

“Some people have a reaction to this,” he said as he withdrew the needle. “About ten, eleven days later.”

“That’s when I’m in Brazil,” I winced. “What do you mean, reaction?”

“Well,” the doctor said as he disposed of the needle, “a little bout of yellow fever, actually—headaches, fatigue, the chills—that sort of thing.”

The headache started on the flight over. By the time we descended into the vast concrete forest of São Paulo, I was pouring with sweat and felt like dying. At the hotel was a note to call Jorge the 1st.

“Ah,” he conceded. “You here.”

“I think I’m dying,” I whimpered.

“Nonsense,” he soothed.

“It’s the shot they gave me. I’ve got yellow fever.”

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st insisted. “We will discuss of tomorrow. We come get you.”

“No, you’re busy, don’t—”

But he’d hung up.

The three Jorges arrived in a golden Jaguar.

“Get in,” Jorge the 1st said.

I swayed where I stood on the curb outside the hotel, dizzy with nausea and an indescribable urge to be back in my room.

“You look sheet,” Jorge the 3rd observed as we drove off.

“You feel better soon,” Jorge the 1st predicted. “We go churrascaria.”

“Yes,” Jorge the 2nd agreed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Barbecue churrascaria,” Jorge the 3rd said. “All you want.”

The idea of eating turned my stomach.

“I don’t want to eat,” I wheezed.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed.

“Yes,” Jorge the 2nd agreed.

At the churrascaria we sat at a private table Jorge the 1st had arranged. The three Jorges beamed at me but I couldn’t smile back. Inside my skull was a screw prying it open. I was agitated by the waiters who rushed about with skewers of meat as people at other tables put up little green flags to signal that they wanted more. I wanted to throw up and die, but I couldn’t decide which to do first.

“Don’t worry,” Jorge the 1st said. “Tomorrow better.”

“I’m not going to make tomorrow,” I said.

“No,” Jorge the 1st explained, “tomorrow we sell client. Now discuss.”

My desire to discuss business was not large. I wanted to lie down and sweat into a soft cushion.

“Let’s not,” I said.

“Eat,” Jorge the 3rd suggested and held out a ball of unidentifiable meat on a small skewer.

“What’s that?”

“Coração de galinha frito,” Jorge the 1st said and made a small circle with his thumb and index finger. “Veery special.”

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd confirmed and popped one into his mouth.

I tried it warily. It tasted odd and bounced around inside my mouth before I managed to swallow it.

“What is that?”

“Heart of chicken!” Jorge the 3rd exclaimed and clapped his hands.

“I don’t feel so good,” I whimpered.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed. “We go somewhere veery special.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” I said. “I want to sleep.”

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd said and made a small circle with his fingers.


The Jorges smiled.

“You see,” Jorge the 1st said. “Finish eat.”

Half an hour later, Jorge the 1st swung his Jaguar up a small alley and stopped in front of a door beside which many girls loitered in extremely short dresses.

“I want to go back to the hotel,” I begged.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed as they marched me inside.

“Jorge!” an older woman called and stepped from behind a gilded desk in the foyer.

“Carmen,” Jorge the 1st purred as they embraced.

Then he turned to me and said a long sentence in Portuguese. Carmen looked me up and down and nodded grimly while he spoke.

“Perdão,” she said and collared me.

While Carmen inspected me, a pretty girl handed the Jorges name tags that read Jorge.

“You’ve been here before?” I asked sideways of Jorge the 3rd.

“VIP,” Carmen announced and pinned a tag to my shirt.

She released me and patted my chest the way mothers do with their grownup sons.

“Veery special,” Jorge the 2nd said and made a small circle with his fingers. “V-I-P.”

“I want to—” I began.

“Nonsense,” Jorge the 1st soothed and guided me through a dark doorway.

By then it was clear that we were at a strip club. I’d hoped that we weren’t, but it seemed to be so. I’d been dragged to strip clubs twice before, and had hated it. I simply had no interest in naked women I didn’t know. I did want to see naked women, to be clear, but only if I knew them and had talked them into that condition. I loved the playful subterfuge of women too much to start out with the bare essentials. Now we were going to see a lot of naked women and I was in no condition to do so. My head throbbed and I desperately wanted to barf a single coração de galinha.

Beyond the door, things were not as bad as I’d feared. There was only one naked woman, a rather fat and tanned one who turned lazily around a pole like a grilled chicken. She was on a little stage. The rest of the club was a dark atrium, with low tables and deep chairs, surrounded by a balcony and rooms a floor above. It took only a few seconds to realise that things were in fact a lot worse than they would have been had we been at a strip club. As we sat down at a table Jorge the 1st had reserved, four skimpily dressed girls took up their positions on the armrests of our chairs. The one perched on my chair had pendulous, large breasts. I remember them now because I cannot remember her face. She said something in Portuguese to the Jorges, slid her hand absently into my crotch and began to knead me. In the chair across from me, Jorge the 2nd made a small circle with his fingers and grinned. He too was being palpated, as were the other Jorges. For a fleeting moment I was reminded of a nightmare I once had, a nightmare in which I was propelled through a medley of inadequacies and left naked, cowering in a public place, wondering how I’d got there.

“I don’t think—” I began.

“Don’t think,” Jorge the 1st soothed and waved aside my complaints. “That is Sabrina.”

“Hello,” I said and tried to shift away from her probing hand.

Sabrina leaned in and put her lips inside my ear.

“Fuck,” she declared.

Even if I’d wanted to, there was going to be no fucking.

“I’m sorry—” I tried again.

She grabbed me a little harder.

“Sex,” she mouthed hotly.

Across from me, Jorge the 1st was engulfed by a wide-bottomed girl with even larger breasts than Sabrina. Jorge the 3rd looked like he was being tickled. Jorge the 2nd had gotten up and was being led away by a tall girl, presumably to the rooms upstairs, where he would no doubt be devoured like a male spider. With some effort I rose from my seat.

“I can’t do this,” I croaked.

“Sit down,” Jorge the 1st said from amid a tangle of limbs.

“I need to sleep,” I blurted and sat down again.

Sabrina had my neck in a lock and darted her tongue into my ear. She said something in Portuguese.

“What?” I asked as I managed to pull away.

She repeated it to the Jorges.

“Sabrina says,” Jorge the 1st replied, having surfaced from underneath the girl at his chair, “for just a leettle money, she will make you veery happy.”

He made a small circle with his fingers.

“I don’t want to be happy,” I spluttered. “I want to sleep.”

“Sabrina bootiful!” Jorge the 3rd cried archly. “Look!”

I looked at Sabrina but her breasts were in the way.

“I know,” I said, “but she’s not for me…really.”

While Jorge the 3rd shook his head in sad astonishment, Jorge the 1st summoned a large man to our table. The man wore a shiny, open-collared shirt, and had a bouncy mattress of chest hair on which rested an outsized crucifix. He was clearly the owner. Jorge the 1st explained something to him in Portuguese. The owner nodded, shot me a dark look, and took Sabrina away.

“You like Maria better,” Jorge the 1st explained.

“No,” I whined. “I won’t like Maria, I promise. I just want to go home.”

There were stabbing pains in my eyes and my head throbbed so badly that I could hear my pulse. Maria arrived promptly and appeared to be everything Sabrina was not. She was very tall, and her breasts were smaller. She was also a man. Before she could take up her position on the arm of my chair I jumped up again.

“You no like any womans?” Jorge the 1st asked as he picked up his keys from the table and waved Mario away.

“I do,” I stuttered.

“Yes?” he mused as he got up to go. “You married, não?”

Before I could answer, he held up his hand in stipulation.

“With a woman?”

“Of course I am,” I sighed.

“Por quê?” he murmured as he led me outside.

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more thicker than forget

Our English teacher in my senior year was an elfish man called Hank. Hank looked like a kid who had snuck in among the teachers like a spy. Around school, he was a legend. We’d heard that he was crazy and that he kept a violin in his cupboard and played on it whenever he lost interest in teaching. We’d heard that he sometimes sat in his chair on top of his desk during classes. There were rumours that his wife was weird too and that Hank had to ride in the back of their car when she picked him up after school because their bulldog wanted to sit in the front.

None of these rumours prepared us for Hank. We arrived for our first lesson with some excitement, but Hank didn’t show up. We milled around, unsure whether to break down the classroom or kill one another. The next day he was there. He had his back to the class when we entered and was writing on the blackboard. He wrote with both hands at the same time, a different set of instructions down the left and right sides of the board. We filed in behind him and took up our seats. There was complete silence as we watched him. Even John, a boy who needed to talk in order to breathe, was quiet. I watched John as he sat next to me. We were in the back of the class, with the rest of the slackers, but John was speechless. When Hank had finished writing, he walked up and down the aisles between our desks and hummed to himself while we copied the assignments from the board.

After that first day we were powerless to do anything but receive from him. Like a hypnotist, Hank had opened us up. Our involvement with him was immediate, and personal. Early on he asked that we address him by name.

“Don’t call me sir,” he insisted. “It’s disrespectful.”

“I can’t call you Hank, sir,” John complained.

“Why not?” Hank asked and paused at John’s desk.

“Well,” John hesitated, “at home we have a parrot called Hank, sir. It’s going to be difficult.”

Hank smiled and returned to the front of the class.

“At home we have a toilet called john,” he said. “What do think we should do?”

Most of the time, Hank seemed unwilling to teach. Sometimes he was reading when we arrived and continued to do so even after we’d sat down. Once, he took his book and left. During some lessons he sat on top of his desk, in his chair, surveying the class like a tribal chief. Now and then, when the mood took him, he played his violin, probing at unfinished tunes we didn’t know. And always he wrote on the board in ways that defied imagination. He could write backwards, from right to left, and he sometimes turned and addressed the class while he continued to write behind his back. In this was his spell over us. Watching him at the board was like watching a street artist sketch out the unconnected lines that would shape a face. His writing freed us from the conduct of letters and made us literate for the first time.

When he taught, Hank did so with honesty and passion. Those parts of the syllabus he didn’t like, he paid scant attention. We did almost no grammar. He preferred literature, and his passion was poetry. Even so, he disliked Shakespeare.

“He was selfish,” he said. “He left nothing for us. But Eliot—or Williams, or Cummings—they’re incomplete. We can see ourselves in them.”

We did poetry on Fridays, just before the weekend. One Friday he was seated on top of his desk when we got there.

“Today,” he purred, “we’re doing something different. We should be dissecting some silly sonnet, but I’ve brought you something else instead.”

On our desks lay copies of a poem by Cummings, love is more thicker than forget.

“Today,” he went on, “we will violate Edward Estlin Cummings, as we’ve violated so many others before him. But today I ask a simple question: what is he trying to say?”

There were murmurs of dissent as Hank scanned the class for a volunteer.

“Sandy,” he asked a studious girl at the front of the class, “please read.”

“Thank God,” John whispered next to me.

Sandy got up, held the paper and read, “love is more thicker than forget / more thinner than recall / more seldom than a wave is wet / more frequent than to fail,” and read on to the last line, “is higher than the sky.”

Then she sat down.

“What is he trying to say?” Hank asked.

Sandy had an analysis ready. She mentioned how Cummings depicted love with childlike words, how he used contrast to show its many forms, how he used alliteration and metaphors, and how, she thought, he showed that love could never die.

“That’s good,” Hank said, “very good.”

He sat for a moment, as if lost in thought.

“Something is missing,” he mused.

Sandy looked dismayed.

“Read it again,” he said, “and tell me this: what is he trying to say?”

Sandy read again, more slowly this time. Then she folded and unfolded the poem along different lines.

“That, too, is good,” Hank said when she was done. “Still,” he added, “it isn’t quite right either. Read it again.”

Sandy read the poem again.

“What is he trying to say?”

Sandy looked ready to cry. She’d said all she could say about the poem, and still Hank wasn’t satisfied. She had failed.

“Just stay with me,” Hank calmed her, “will you? What is he trying to say?”

Of her own, Sandy read the poem again. Her explanation was shorter this time and had more to do with Hank than with the poem. She seemed lonely standing at her desk and the rest of us kept quiet.

“What is he trying to say?” Hank asked again.

“I don’t know,” she stuttered.

“You do,” Hank said. “Believe me.”

He said nothing after that. For twenty minutes there was silence as we read and re-read the poem, looking for the essence Hank had in mind. When the bell rang, Hank finally spoke.

“If we like Cummings,” he said and cleared his throat, “we must trust him. I asked what he’s trying to say, but maybe he’s said it already.”

He got up and stood next to his chair. Then he read the poem aloud, taking his time to savour each word. When he finished, he looked at us for a few moments before he spoke.

That is what he’s trying to say,” he said. “Nothing more.”

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Special Relativity

My father believed in moral absolutes, despite everything he knew about the workings of the universe. He kept his promises and he told the truth. It was the least he could do in a world of chaos. My mother couldn’t care less about the workings of the universe. She felt no need to strain against its chaos. Instead, she added to it. Unlike my father, she made promises she had no intention of keeping. She once promised to let him teach her to play chess if he’d help her shop for a sofa. When it came time to learn chess, she lay on the sofa and laughed and laughed. My father was perplexed. Had he not shopped for a sofa? What was the problem?

The truth was equally pliable. If it interfered with a story my mother wished to tell, she changed it on the spot. In her stories, my father often did things he hadn’t done at all. He could never understand how she managed to do this. Was it she who missed the point, or was it he?

Because the truths of physics and mathematics were impossible to change, my mother rejected them. As far as she was concerned, there was no reason why they had to be that way. She was pretty sure that humans didn’t know everything they thought they did about the world, and that mathematics was just a cryptic ruse to cover it up. Because my father loved these things, my mother could rile him about them. Once, when she complained about gravity, he took the bait.

“What do you mean,” he growled, “what good is gravity?”

“It does me no good,” my mother dismissed him. “It limits my freedom.”

My father swallowed with difficulty as he calmed himself and followed her around the room.

“Tell me,” he asked, “what do you think the tango would look like in outer space, free of gravity?”

“I don’t care about the tango,” my mother replied.

“What do you care about?”

“My breasts,” she said after some thought. “I’d like them to be weightless.”


“Yes,” she said. “Free.”

“Then you’d better undock them from the mother ship,” my father said.

My mother lit a cigarette and waved it about in a grand gesture.

“You give up far too easily,” she said. “They must stay docked. But they must point where I’m pointing.”

My father tried to ignore this.

“It’s limits that give you freedom,” he said.

But my mother was no longer listening.

Even though it never worked, my father continued to believe that he could one day instill a respect for the laws of nature in my mother. She encouraged his efforts from time to time but only so she could thwart them. Once, when he tried to explain time dilation to me, she hovered nearby.

“That’s Einstein’s stuff, isn’t it?” she interjected.

My father paused in drawing the diagram he was busy with.

“It’s not Einstein’s,” he said. “He just discovered it.”

“I knew it!” my mother cried. “Whenever something doesn’t make sense, Einstein’s involved.”

My father pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“It does make sense,” he said, “because it’s true. Satellites and space telescopes work because of it.”

“How do they know that time slows down?”

My father looked at my mother and then at me.

“It’s been tested many times,” he sighed.


He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief.

“Do you actually want to know?” he asked uneasily.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“Not really,” she said. “I want to know about those travelling twins you mentioned.”

“Oh God,” my father whispered.

“It’s about time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Why’s the one older?” she demanded.

My father rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on.

“Because time slowed down for the twin who travelled.”

“Things go slower when you travel,” my mother agreed.

“Jesus,” my father said under his breath, “take me now.”

“Why not the other way around?” my mother asked.

“Because the one who travelled experienced time dilation,” my father said, “not the one who stayed behind.”

My mother stubbed out her cigarette.

“If it’s all supposed to be relative,” she said, “why can’t it be the other way around? Why can’t the travelling twin say that he remained where he was and that the earth and his twin moved off?”

“There are other considerations,” my father said wearily.

My mother regarded him.

“If it makes so much sense,” she said, “why can’t you explain it to me? Didn’t Einstein say that if you couldn’t say it in English, you didn’t understand it?”

“It wasn’t Einstein who said that,” my father countered. “It was Rutherford. He said you should be able to explain it to a barmaid.”

“So I’m dumber than a barmaid?”

“Here we go,” my father sighed.

“I don’t think you understand this stuff yourself,” my mother added.

“I do,” my father said, “but it takes some mathematics to explain.”

“Why hide the thing in mathematics?”

“It’s not hidden. It’s made visible, that’s what. Mathematics is a language like any other. Unfortunately you can’t say things like she died mysteriously in mathematics, but I could give it a try.”

My mother lit another cigarette.

“It’s about as useful as a wooden leg for swimming,” she remarked.

I’d seen this pattern of argument before. It always started with some law of physics that my mother didn’t like, and ended up at the foundations, mathematics.

“Mathematics is not only useful,” my father insisted, “it’s vital. I’ll demonstrate with something simpler.”

“Are you serious?” my mother said.

My father held up one hand as he drew a diagram of an inverted parabola with the other.

“Imagine the English are over here,” he announced, “with their longbows.”

He pointed at the one end of the parabola and drew two stick men with crude bows. Then he drew two stick men beyond the far end of the parabola.

“And the French are over here,” he added.

My mother stared at the diagram in disbelief.

“Now,” my father went on, “the English see that their arrows are falling twenty feet short of the French.”

He pointed at the gap between the parabola and the French stick men.

“The arrows travel in a parabola, like this—”

“Those archers didn’t know mathematics,” my mother objected.

“Dammit!” my father exclaimed. “Forget that. Just imagine. Ok?”

“Go on.”

My father looked at me. Then he resumed.

“If those mathematical archers knew how to calculate the correct parabola, they could use it to figure out the angle at which to shoot to hit the French. Like this—”

He drew a different parabola that hit the French stick men.

“See?” he said.

My mother shook her head slowly.

“That’s nonsense,” she said. “Just move the English twenty feet closer.”

When she was gone we sat together in silence. After a while my father spoke.

“One day you must do what I did,” he said.


“Find a woman who can bring out the worst in you.”

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Jack’s thing

We were drunk and Jack was in a destructive mood.

“Let’s throw my car away,” he slurred defiantly as he steadied himself against the table. “Let’s drive it to the bridge and push it into the river.”

Because it made him angry, Jack didn’t often mention his car. He said things like, “I can’t come because, you know,” which meant that his car was in a deconstructed state and that he didn’t want to talk about it. Not talking about the car also avoided the ridicule of his friends. We struggled to understand why he called it a car to begin with. Most cars are symmetric, factory-made things of a single colour, capable of movement under the influence of fuel. Jack’s car was not like that. From a distance it looked like avant-garde sculpture. No two panels were the same colour. Things poked out of it at odd angles. Up close it was clear that different parts had been Frankensteined together with duct tape, large bolts and welts of welding. It was a one-car junkyard. It started and made car-like noises whenever the planets were aligned, but this only qualified it as a wreck, and no more.

The car used to belong to Jack’s father who was chronically incapable of throwing things away. He had given the car to Jack to avoid having to get rid of it himself. For him, it was an extreme measure. When we were kids, I often marvelled at the collection of abandoned things in Jack’s back yard, things his father could not part with. There were three old washing machines, for example. One of them had sunk into the ground almost entirely. The second one was used as a barbeque and chickens lived in the third. Jack’s father had given up on these machines but he had not let them go. He had given up on the car, too, but he had happily given it to Jack.

Jack was like his father, only more so. Where his father had retreated, Jack declared war. He lavished a constant and violent attention upon the car, beating it up and breaking it down. Now and then his devotion paid off and the car behaved for a day or so, but that was about it. Most of the time, Jack’s progress was in reverse. The car had no windows and no bumpers. The bonnet was gone because Jack had ripped it off in a fit of rage when he tried to work on what passed for the engine. There was a wooden box where the driver seat used to be. There was also no steering wheel. In its place Jack had welded rods to the steering column. Due to a deep dent in the roof on the driver’s side, Jack wore a helmet when he drove the car and sat with his head cocked out of the window.

It was clear to everyone else that the car would never really work again, at least not reliably, but Jack didn’t care about that. To give up on the car would have meant defeat in the senseless war he had waged, a war that could now be made less senseless only through victory. Over time, Jack developed a fanatical loyalty toward his car, the kind that exists between sworn enemies. As a consequence he often trusted the car when he really shouldn’t have. He was once missing for a couple of days when he managed to start the car and decided to take a trip through the desert, where the car promptly stopped. When the car was towed home out of the desert a few days later, Jack did what he always did when the car disappointed him—he went to work on it.

Now he wanted to throw it away.

Drive it to the bridge?” I asked. “Can we even do that?”

Jack gave me a withering look.

“Don’t talk like that,” he cautioned.

Years of struggle had made Jack superstitious about the car. He never spoke badly about it within earshot. Sometimes, before he descended upon the car to work on it, he said every swearword he knew at a safe distance. The more fickle the car became, the larger the body of beliefs that attended it. At one point it got so bad that Jack only tried to start the car on alternate Wednesdays. But none of these methods ever worked. The best approach was to take the car by surprise. It could be driven by accident only, without intent.

“Let’s take a look,” I suggested. “Maybe we drive to the bridge, maybe we don’t.”

We took our drinks and staggered downstairs. We talked about other things, ignoring the car completely. Then we got into it by accident and settled down. As if he didn’t mean it, Jack turned the key. There was a strange noise.

“Fuck,” he explained. “Shit and fart and piss and drool.”


“I forgot. I lost the rotor.”

“What’s that?”

Jack turned the key again, just to make sure.

“The thing that turns,” he muttered. “The thing in the distributor.”

“How could you lose it?”

“I took it out and hid it, but I can’t remember where.”

“Why’d you do that?”

Jack turned to me with some difficulty, shifting on his box, and studied my face as he made his next pronouncement.

“There are people who want to steal this car,” he said darkly.

I laughed out loud.

“You’re like a jealous husband with an ugly wife,” I said. “Nobody wants this thing.”

Jack sulked as he considered this possibility.

“Besides,” I added, “our chances of driving to the bridge were about the same, rotor or no rotor.”

We got out and stumbled back to his apartment.

“Why did you want to throw it away?” I asked as we sat down.

“I can’t remember now,” Jack mumbled.

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