by erin mcclusky
n equals what is left
There was no way to solve for n. They had tried, but the papers had been wrong; an algebraic equation does not always yield the same result in Wisconsin as in California. In his last letter to her he went over the proofs he had done in California and she couldn’t find anything wrong with his math, but in Wisconsin the variable n came out different. She held his letter and his answer for n and knew things would have to end between them. She knew this was emptiness but she couldn’t make herself believe this was 0; the round parallel curves seemed too smug to her. She liked the resignation of 5, the swagger of 7, the lank stance of 1. He is 1, she thought. His thinness never stopped her from wanting more of him.
She knew she would have to write to him. She had found his kidney in the toe of her running shoe and she wanted to know where she should send it to or if he would rather come and get it himself. He was already missing 5 inches of intestine that he had left with his last lover and she thought he would probably want his kidney returned. When they met he told her about the missing intestine and the 2.4 grams of skin tissue gone from his thigh and the piece of rib and he asked her if she would fix him, make him whole. She was always breaking the ends of pencils and the edges of her fingernails, so she told him she couldn’t help. She thought that would be the end of him. But he sent her lists of square roots and radicals and mixed fractions and she started to bend to him. He stood outside her apartment and recited finite equations up to her window, and after a while she let him come inside, sit at her table and talk.
He told her about how he died for the first time. He fell in love with a beautiful accountant who would have nothing to do with him and his imaginary numbers. He begged and pleaded for the accountant’s love but the accountant would not have him. The accountant wanted numbers to be real, to be whole, and divisible by 2 if at all possible. Over coffee, the accountant told him their love would never make sense, that there was no sense in their going on like this. The accountant got up from the table to leave and he, in a fit of desperation, grabbed onto the accountant’s bag. He and the accountant struggled over the bag, the accountant finally yanking it from his hands. The accountant’s payroll book slid out of the bag and fell open on the ground. The shock of seeing the perfect whole numbers written neatly in rows and columns in the accountant’s even hand killed him instantly. The accountant felt bad about killing him and brought him back to life but still refused to see him. He left California and moved to Wisconsin because, he said, when you die once you want to die again.
In Wisconsin he gave 5 inches of his intestines to a nun who prayed to St. Erasmus. The saint was martyred because he spoke too often of a theory that was a loose thread which, if tugged, would unravel everything that passed for the fabric of reality. The nun who prayed to St. Erasmus believed in the saint’s brilliance and directed her prayers to an image of him next to a ship’s windlass. St. Erasmus had escaped from persecution on a ship sailed by angels and, when they saw him depicted next to the windlass, his believers thought he had been martyred by having his intestines wound like the ship’s rope around the windlass. The nun who prayed to St. Erasmus believed that St. Erasmus had come back for her and that, to maintain the image of sainthood, he imitated the saint’s wounds and pulled out 5 inches of his intestines and wound them around a spool for the nun. The nun begged him to leave her and to carry his thread into the world. So he left the convent and the nun had the 5 inches of his intestine wound on a spool placed in a reliquary.
He told her that prayers to St. Erasmus will ease abdominal pain and he said that he always thought love would be like the loops of paper that his mother taught him to twist once and tape together at the ends. He could trace the entire circuit of the paper with his pencil and the line would travel inside and outside the paper curves. His mother said that this was infinity: the ability to draw a line and not stop.
The stories he told sitting at her table were like this. She didn’t need to say anything. She listened carefully and sat with him while he talked. When he was done he stopped talking and she pulled out a pad of legal paper, yellow with red lines, and they worked on proofs, silently, until they were tired. She didn’t regret bringing him into her life as long as he did not ask her a second time to fix him, to make him whole.
There was an evening when he sat down and told her that he had to leave because he did not think he would die in Wisconsin. He told her about his room in California with a bed and a 75-gallon fish tank for his two carniverous fish. He shared sushi with his fish; he ate the rice and nori and they ate the flying fish roe. He asked her to keep the things from his room in Wisconsin; there was a bed and a one-eyed toad in a jar and a one-eyed python in Tupperware under the sink. After he left, he started to send her proofs, he didn’t write about his past loves and what he had lost, the things he talked about when they sat together at her table; he only wrote numbers and variables. She went over his equations carefully and sent him new proofs and corrections. She bought a pink-toed tarantula because she started to miss him. The tarantula had two eyes and the python slid into a funk because he was envious.
He sent her a telegram like they did to announce a death in the Civil War and it said,
I always wanted STOP love to be STOP something I could keep STOPbut love is STOP nothing but water and stars STOP n equals what is left STOP
how things fall
She thought of things falling and picked up the phone.
The phone rang only once and with the receiver to her ear she heard the dial-tone but didn’t hang up right away. She listened to that sound for a while imagining him holding the phone to his ear and listening before dialing her number and hanging up after one ring.
She knew that he was still in love with her and that was why he let the phone ring once. If he wasn’t in love with her he might wait until she picked up the phone and they might talk and things might turn out differently but this way they were both sure of one thing: he was still in love with her.
They had fallen in love in an abandoned hotel. He had let her into the building so she could take pictures of the hotel before it was demolished. The hotel rooms had been here for 126 years and would be gone in 3 days.
The story went that a man had died in this hotel although the bellboy swore that he was dead before he checked in at the front desk.
Coffee had been spilled in this hotel and dishes broken and sheets wrinkled. There used to be a switchboard with a switchboard operator attached by headphones and cords. She connected long-distance calls and confirmed room service orders: scrambled eggs and toast, something else to spill, maybe orange juice this time.
Abraham Lincoln had stayed there but he didn’t feel like dancing in the ballroom; if there had been music or a dance he might have cut a rug or two.
A famous harmonica player had stayed there. He was a rhythmic player, he did this thing called chucking that was a popping sound like a rim shot on a snare drum. His job was to make other people sound good. At his funeral they said he was a good man; he always played the right thing at the right time.
Kennedy had not stayed there but might have if he hadn’t gone to Texas that day.
They say electric jazz, or maybe they said eclectic jazz, was born there on the second floor in the room by the fire escape.
For a while they kept a parrot in a cage in the lobby thinking that was something that nice hotels did but no one could remember its name and when it got tired of being unnamed it left.
There was a man who tried to sell immortality out of his suitcase. He said it was an ancient recipe from China and some people bought a bottle. He took it himself, every day, letting the mercury bounce through his blood.
There were guests with less than 10 fingers and some with closer to 12 fingers. There were guests who had come in 2nd or 3rd in beauty contests. There were a lot of words spoken that couldn’t be taken back. There were a lot that didn’t get said. There were people no one wanted to be there and people who weren’t there but should have been. There had been a lot of waiting.
Now the hotel was close to empty. There were staircases, some carpet, and the windows but everything else was gone. Inside each room there was a different colored shag carpeting. The suites had been cut into singles and the porcelain and cut-glass bathroom fixtures had been removed and replaced with plastic and fake brass. Everything been stripped down to drywall and sheetrock and painted with a high gloss titanium white.
In room 26, with ochre shag carpeting he found a photograph of a woman laughing, a blur of another woman entering the house behind her. On the back in blue ballpoint it said, “My sister Nancy 1989,” then three words crossed out and “Good” written in the middle. In the hotel, when he handed her the photograph and before he let go, the crossed out words made the most sense to her. At the registration desk he found a sign that said “Elevator,” and gave it to her. He found a piece of old wall paper with nothing written on it and he gave her that too. In room 18 with avocado shag carpeting, he found a blue satin heel with black scuff marks; he kept this.
On the first, second and third floor they had not touched and he had not spoken except to say, “here,” when he handed her the things and in room 31, with yellow carpeting, he had stood in the northeast corner of the room and said in a whisper, “no place to seek her out again; only swallows now in the locked hall.” She was in the doorway of room 31 focusing her camera down the 3rd floor hallway and when she looked back over her shoulder he was carefully examining the sink faucets and she didn’t want to ask him about what he had said.
In the basement he showed her a room full of springs. They were too big for a person to bend and release. The light from a small window showed that the springs covered the floor and the tables. He got up onto one of the thick metal springs, balancing carefully on the rim with his toes turned in and curved over the edge of the spring. The spring held his weight and did not move. He stood very still on this spring and reached for her hand like he might ask her to bounce with him. But he didn’t say anything and after a while he stepped down carefully from the spring and led her back up the stairs, still holding her hand, not wanting to let go of the potential movement of the spring and of her.
The following Tuesday the hotel was gone but she went and he was there waiting for her in front of the hotel rubble. She wanted to see him so that she would understand the scratched out writing on the back of the photograph of someone’s sister Nancy. She wanted to know who he was seeking in room 31 that was now stirred in with the lobby and room 24 and room 16 and the elevator shaft. She wanted to press in and release the springs. She thought, he is Tuesday without Wednesday or Monday.
He climbed over the fence and walked across the flattened hotel to where she stood on the other side of the hotel rubble. He looped his fingers through the fence and stuck his nose through an opening and said as much as he would ever say to her.
“I dreamt that in a turquoise and azure world where I expected to see huge purple birds and six-pointed stars, I watched you light candles upside down. The windows on the blue town houses reflected the yellow sun rising above the powder-blue sun and the sky was full of wings and leaves and flames. I couldn’t see the rest of the man with the Venetian mask but I saw angels like afterthoughts in circles of algorithms, halos of cosine and tangent. Minstrels in green watched me fall backwards, arms and legs held straight out like I was paper or a sheet of glass. Edge over edge and light from the suns. The scholar was sleeping at the foot of his desk or maybe he was praying. There was a violin player dissolving into red notes and her blue violin. You were there too – watching trees grow without land in the angle between water and sky. Between blue and blue was blue. You had the candles lit by then and the green minstrels were taking a break and I was still falling flat into two-dimensions and planar beauty, my left knee slightly bent. I didn’t know if it was falling or sleep but I woke before the morning was half full.”
He dreams in color, she thought.
He let go of the fence and reached into his pocket and pulled out the blue satin heel with the black scuff marks. It was the right shoe and it looked like it was about her size. She understood that this one shoe was not what he wanted, that it wasn’t enough. She took off her left shoe and passed it to him through the fence and took off her other shoe and put it in her bag and walked home barefoot.
There was one thing she wanted to know, that is, one thing that she wanted to ask this woman who was carefully unwrapping and untying her life. The woman who was doing the unraveling, asking all the questions, was the clerk at the post-office; and the woman who was being untied was just a woman, some age, a little tall, who wore sensible shoes and fell in love so quietly that it shook the whole town. The post-office clerk was holding a letter, a letter addressed to the woman, the address written in irregular lines and the envelope covered in ink drawings of heads exploding, houses shot through with bullets and birthday cakes, no return address but a huge penis painted in green ink. The post-office clerk wanted answers before she would give the woman her mail. What business was it of said-artist or said nut-case to draw such filth on a piece of mail that the public would be exposed to? And what did birthday cakes have to do with this filth, this pornography? The woman said something maybe answered her said it was love or desire or pain or longing or none of those things, or maybe she just grabbed her mail and walked out of the post-office and got on her bicycle and rode up the hill to her house, or maybe down the hill to her house; or maybe she didn’t have a bicycle or a house and just sat down or kept standing or started walking and read her letter, or maybe she threw the letter out, or let the post-office clerk keep it, knowing already who it was from and what it would contain.
What she wanted to know was–before the business of the letter and before she asked if there was any mail for her, and before she ever fell in love– if love always meant loss. The first time she fell in love was when the circus came to town with that one circus performer who rode a llama and sang Puccini arias. The man and his llama made grown women with their hair freshly set cry and pull at their starched hair and tear at their stockings. No one expected the llama to be sexy but even the men woke up tangled in bed sheets thinking about the llama’s long neck and blunt nose and round eyes. The singer sang about all the things they couldn’t have in a language that no one understood and no one slept when the circus was in town; the llama and the man’s voice kept them awake, sitting in diners, picking at day-old pie and staring into the oily residue floating in their coffee cups.
No one knew how the circus had come to their town or where it was from or where it went after they woke up one morning to find it gone from the town square. The day after the circus left women filled the beauty salons trying to restore their hair after so much yanking and anguish. The men tried to forget the llama and remember what they had woken up to in a cold sweat before the circus but they couldn’t remember and slept late. And there was something they couldn’t understand or reset or fix: the waitress from the diner who wore sensible shoes and was some age and a little tall and who had brought them serving after serving of day-old pie and oily coffee. When the whole town was mad with longing for this man and his llama, the waitress had smiled and refilled coffee cups and said nothing about the tables of whole families eating day-old pie at 2 a clock in the morning. You see, she had fallen in love.
She didn’t even know that the circus had arrived and she only heard garbled Italian sung falsetto from the back of a surly looking llama when she saw the circus performer ride around the center ring during his performance. She didn’t notice the women sitting next to her holding onto clumps of hair and clothing and sweat and tears. She didn’t see the men eyeing the llama’s pen at night, their hands out of sight and their throats a little tense from breathing in ragged breaths. It was maybe even a little before the circus came to town that she fell in love. In their frenzy no one noticed that she was in love and also that she was not strung out on this voice and this llama. But when the circus and the man and the llama left and things started to return to what they were before, the town started to notice that she was moving in the opposite direction from them and moving towards pity and pain and frenzy and anguish.
It took a long time for people to figure out that she had fallen in love and that her love had left with the circus and that they hadn’t noticed the falling in love or being in love but only saw the loss. She carried her loss like a weapon hurling it about and throwing it at people who stared and flinging it at anyone who asked if she was alright and jabbing it at children and dogs. The people gave her a wide berth and stopped coming into the diner; they didn’t have much use for the diner now that they could sleep again and didn’t need the day-old pie and oily coffee. After a while it started to seem like she had always been this way. They had almost forgotten that she had fallen in love and lost her love and that was what had made her walk heavily in her sensible shoes and look older than her age. Then the letters started to arrive.
The first one wasn’t even a letter. The mail truck pulled up behind the post-office and the driver handed the clerk the bag of mail and a form to sign and asked about her son who was having a hard time in school and then the driver reached into his pocket and pulled out the last piece of mail for the town. It was an egg with the 68 cents postage taped to the shell and the address and the waitress’s name written in blue crayon.
The letters arrived sporadically, sometimes two or three at once and then nothing for months. The post-office clerk signed for the letter written on grocery bags, the rock with $34.27 in postage taped to it, the envelope covered in recipes for roasted eggplant, the polo mallet with $19.90 in postage taped to it, the letter covered in paintings of snails in mid-coitus. The letters were never satisfying to the post-office clerk or to the waitress because they never said what they wanted them to say. The letters made the waitress feel her loss more acutely and made her hate the sender and regret every moment of every day spent with the sender who wouldn’t even write the return address. The one-sided correspondence went on for years and the town grew anxious for its moral fiber with such questionable material coming into the town. Mostly it was the post-office clerk who was nervous and disliked handling the letters and objects. The post-office clerk felt the great weight of her government position and therefore spread her discontent throughout the town so that she, “the impartial government employee,” would not be passing judgement. Once the town was properly scared about the implications and possibilities of such mail being received in the town there was very little question of what had to be done. The town had its children and dogs to think of and wanted the correspondence to end as quickly and quietly as possible.
But when they went to look for the waitress they couldn’t find her. They couldn’t find the waitress to find out the source of these letters and objects. They had forgotten if she lived up the hill or down the hill, if she owned a bicycle or had walked to work at the diner or if she even had a house. When they went to the diner she wasn’t there and no one could remember when they had seen her last or when she had started working there or where she had come from. They tried to remember what she had looked like or how old she was and who had been in the 5th grade with her but no one could remember anything about her except for the sound of the plate against the tables when she served the day-old pie. Even the post-office clerk who might have spoken to her last–who might have fired off questions about the letter with the green unmentionable that was still waiting to be picked up–wondered if maybe she, the post-office clerk, hadn’t been imagining what she would have said to the waitress if the waitress had shown up to get that letter. The town gave up its search after a few weeks and the mail piled up in the post office until one night in November when the clerk and her children burned everything in a small fire behind the post-office.
No one ever talked about the man who sang Puccini arias and rode the llama and the waitress who held the town together with pie and coffee. Years later when some woman in the town would get it in to her head that she was in love someone would bring up the waitress and talk about loss and love and how you could lose so much that you disappeared. If the woman-who-thought-she-was-in-love wasn’t convinced they would bring her to the post-office and show her the only thing that wasn’t burned by the post office clerk. She kept it in a drawer in the back of the office and would take it out only in the most dire of cases and show the woman-who-thought-she-was-in-love the envelope with the ink drawings and tell the story of a one-way correspondence that took as it gave.
Erin McCluskey holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. She has a BA in fine art and art history from Beloit College. Her work has been published in Five Fingers Review and Puerto del Sol. She is currently working on a collection of interrelated short stories.