Just like a whisper shatters the silence, the name on the wall in bronze letters screamed out to him. No one else seemed to hear it. No one else reacted at all. Not to the name, at least. Not in the same way. They couldn’t possibly. It wasn’t his name, he told himself. He knew that wasn’t entirely true; the name was his, it just wasn’t his. The duality filled his life, the name called out and he answered even when it wasn’t for him. Some nicknaming had remedied that for a time, but how long could he walk around being called by a childhood extension of his name? Longer than he would have ever thought, Wolfson realized. It felt like forever.
Feel the importance, not the effect, he told himself, once again allowing a gaze at the name. He spent most of the time looking out of the corner of his eye, letting the name enter his brain but not fully focusing on it. He needed to avoid doing too much of that. He couldn’t succumb to the thoughts leading in different dangerous directions, each one most likely ending in a break from his controlled sanity. Right then he only tried to remember, latch onto something to help center him in the moment. He was supposed to feel this, experience it viscerally. Perhaps he could just be strong for one more day, bury the fear down deeper, knowing full well it would return, emboldened by unwatched growth. He’d have to choose that option, not wanting to confront that fear no matter how much worse it might get in the future. Tomorrow certainly was a better day.
On this day of reflection, he found himself obsessed with counting. Later, he would freely admit this day changed his view of the future; the infinite expanse now boxed into a finite entity. Not far into that future, he’d discover the irony in how the cemetery workers were on lunch break the day of the funeral, that the family would need to come back to see the name, perhaps enabling Wolfson to arrive with more perspective.
Amidst the stifled cries and outright moans of loss, he calculated. He’d spent the previous few days exploring the requisite angles with which one considered such an event in their lives; the guilt, the despair, the wonder of what lay ahead for both he and his father. He’d spoken with his mother and heard stories of how his father worried about him, how he’d been proud at certain stages, all the things the man would never have told him. Wolfson couldn’t help but consider if her telling him right then breached a contract with the deceased. Wolfson thought it quite possible that the dead have no more desire to have their secrets told than while alive.
They’d all turned to him in those recent few days. Extended family and friends had put a hand on his shoulder. Those who had suffered similar loss said the pain would go away. Some said the pain hadn’t come yet, that the necessary numbness settled in first. Self-protection, they said, defense mechanism, like so many other parts of personalities, the vast majority formed in the hopes of not being hurt. Wolfson agreed with those who said the pain hadn’t come yet. Between the numbness and the silent requests for him to fill his father’s void, Wolfson hadn’t had much time to process. He knew he relished the opportunities not to. He knew he’d wait too long.
Every letter on the wall was in the right place, just the way it might look for Wolfson. The very same name, protruding ever so slightly from the wall, announcing one death and predicting another, and Wolfson had been reduced to mathematics. His father had made it to a few months shy of sixty-four. The elder Wolfson didn’t have any specific health problems. So, the base number the younger Wolfson had to work with was the difference in their ages, twenty-seven. He had that many years left if he did as well as his father. Part amateur mathematician and biologist, he considered the elder Wolfson’s being overweight for decades. Not in that same position, our protagonist could add a few years. Elder Wolfson smoked three packs a day for twenty years; the Younger merely a social smoker. Elder, according the Younger’s constant lamentations, thought ‘fatty’ and ‘healthy‘ interchangeable. Wolfson thought of the constant arguments, the pleading to make his father change. ‘Make’ and ‘change’ don’t go together, he realized, particularly when it came to people. It was one of those few non-communitive mathematical equations. Change could make people do things, but you can’t make people change.
Wolfson couldn’t make his father change, yet his father had changed all of their lives instantaneously. He’d burned the date into their lives forever, changed September 19th for all the rest of their September 19ths. Senior Wolfson never exercised once he turned forty, and had pretty much stopped over a decade before that, unless golf counted. No one counted golf, Junior Wolfson knew. No one who knew what the hell they were talking about, at least. If diet and exercise were as important as the exercise magazines said, he might be able to add a few more years. If drinking was bad, well, then, he might have to shave off a few. He didn’t even want to consider how he handled stress compared to his father. Better to think positively for the moment.
So, where was he at, thirty more years? Thirty-five? He had roughly double the time he’d already spent living, by his calculation. He hit the halfway point, ready for the back nine. Previously, he’d thought he could see the halfway house in the distance. He never thought it was time to make an order. He couldn’t help but think he was the only person who had done such calculations the first time he saw his father’s name on the tomb wall, or whatever they called it. Tomb seemed right. He noticed the fruit flies. The crypt keeper had said they were the result of people bringing in real flowers, which were forbidden. There didn’t seem to be any flowers around. Which mean the bugs fed on something else. There was something not worth pondering.
Through it all, he’d failed at finding the thought, the spot in his heart, the center of the emptiness that could bring him to tears. He felt the tense ball down near his diaphragm, pulling and tightening, begging to be released somehow. He didn’t know this only hinted at the thoughts preparing to wake him at 4AM in the months ahead, the smashes to the solar plexus which would cripple him while driving on certain highways, ones which seemingly had no connection to his deceased father. Wolfson could feel his mother quietly convulse, both crying and holding back at the same time. His mother, one of his benchmarks of inner strength, now reduced to emotional rubble by the mere tick of the clock.
Without a slow progression of sickness or disease, Wolfson realized right then it only took a second. That sweep of the clock’s hand leveled several lives instantly, leaving an indelible emptiness on their souls. Later, it would be about life and death and the time in between. Later, he’d consider the impact after the impact, the effect after the cause. Right then, however, it was about math. He’d found solace in numbers as a child. At five he started writing in a notebook, starting at the number one and continuing, page after page, counting higher and higher. Somewhere, perhaps past the middle of the notebook he thought, he’d find the end. He’d gotten past that, and even into another book until someone told him in an annoyed tone there was no end. There was always one number after the last, going on for infinity.
That word captivated him for days. Even its sound possessed a magic, an entity beyond the letters. In-fin-ity, he’d mutter to himself. No end. He couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t let his mind rest on the concept. The idea fascinated him but the word itself held the power. They’d teach him about it later, both in class and in church. They used harsher-sounding words in church. Everlasting, he remembered. Didn’t have the same magic. Everlasting sounded like an obligation. For ever and ever, or, as they would say at other times, until death do us part. How is it that a religion based on eternal life only binds two people to one lifetime? How was that everlasting? And the math classes compounded the problem. Numbers go on infinitely, and yet there are an infinite number of fractions between two numbers, even more between two fractions. Infinite infinity, he’d come to call it. And the future had always held the same.
Until the day the letters on the wall announced something far different. They spoke of an ending. There was no magic in ‘finity’. It was not even a word. Wolfson thought about this too, how finity didn’t exist. Everyday life meant nothing. A man’s lifetime becoming invisible when pressed up side by side with infinity. The literary side of his mind, the one he had cultivated with painstaking effort, reached out and tried to find the meaning but his mathematical brain, the one which rarely needed prodding, had taken over. Count the years, the days, even the hours if you must.
Just make them count.
John Misak is an English professor at New York Institute of Technology and is the director of their Technical Communication program. He teaches literature, writing, and detective fiction classes. His latest research project explores how virtual reality games can be used as narrative experiences in first-year writing courses. He is the author of five mystery novels, including All in a Row and The Down Side, and has a children’s book series, The Dream Fighter Chronicles, written under the pseudonym Calvin Locke. John likes to focus on the emotional experiences of his characters, and makes this a central concept in his writing.