Sunday, November 16, 2014

Devil's Arithmetic

If you know me, you know certain unalienable truths to be absolutely true. One is that sometimes the opening sentences of the pieces I write make Yogi Berra look articulate. Another is that I am good at being the center of attention and making people laugh. Then I am really good at speaking my mind. Add in that I am a damn good writer. Oh, and I am a superb ventriloquist and a decent mimic. However, I am terrible at math. Actually, the correct adjective is shiteous. Addition and subtraction are done on my fingers and toes. The rest is handled by calculator app.

My father is good at math, so much so he worked as an accountant before going to law school and specializing in taxation. As for my mother, she is God awful at math but still better than I am. Wendell is good at math, but his true talent and skill lie in the sciences. Skipper was excellent in math, but excelled in all subjects in school so much so that she was valedictorian of her high school class. On the other hand, I basically was lucky to escape math with a C.

One marking period, I got my usual progress report in the subject. My father freaked. As for my mom, she was somewhat more understanding. During dinner, my dad decided to let his feelings be known. Yelling at me, he informed me that this was no way to go in life. Mind you he ignored the writing award I won, and the perfect scores I got in history. So I said, “Dad, stop acting so surprised. I am always failing math midway through the term. The thing that saves me is I get a C. I get a progress notice every nine weeks. It’s happened since I was in second grade and isn’t going to change. Newsflash, I suck at math.” Of course, my Pops didn’t like that and I wasn’t allowed to use the phone for three weeks.

I wasn’t just bad at math, I was awesomely bad. It wasn’t like I didn’t try either. One time, our teacher told us to check our test answers. I listened because I didn’t want to make a mistake. Despite the fact I accepted my fate as the perpetual struggling math student, I wanted so desperately to be good. So I checked my test answers. I rechecked. I checked again. Then I turned my test in. There was never a paper which so much red ink when it was returned. To answer your question, I failed but I failed big. I got a ten percent on the exam. This was pitiful and incredible at the same time. So I wrote, “FUCK YOU MATH” on my paper.

My mother, who always has believed in meeting one’s fears head on, saw what I wrote and decorated my binder without my permission. In sparkly lettering, she wrote, “NO FEAR MATH.” Needless to say, my classmates all thought this was laughable, as in laughable at me and not with me. Every time I walked the halls someone idiot always yelled, “No Fear Math!”

To which I would yell, “Fuck your mother!”

Then they would yell, “At least mine doesn’t decorate my binder when I’m not around.” I had nothing to say back. They were correct. Math was ruining my life in every way possible.

My parents invested in math tutors for us. In part it was to augment what Skipper and Wendell already had, but also because math was such a struggle for yours truly. One of my favorite tutors of all time was Charlie, a guy from Thailand and engineering graduate student at Carnegie Mellon. Charlie was a kind man and the soul of patience when it came to my mathematical disability. More often than not, my answers were wrong but Charlie never lost it with me, even at my dumbest. We both knew I had no aptitude with numbers, and Charlie knew if he survived an hour with me his next hour with Skipper would be cake.

One day, during one of my usual disasters called a tutoring session, I was way off with my answer to some dumb equation I haven’t used since that time, may it rot in the pits of hell. While most of my sessions with poor Charlie were rough, this was akin to a horror show with numbers. While usually peaceable kingdom, Charlie was biting his tongue. When I showed him the answer, Charlie said in this thick Thai accent, eyes bugging behind his thick horn rimmed glasses, “What the hell were you thinking!”

The following year, I no longer had to take math in school and haven’t had to take math since. It was the greatest day in my life, the last math paper I turned in. I was done with the demon math. It could torture other children. I was free from it’s evil clutches. Is math a man? According to one Harvard President, forced to step down, he insisted women were innately worse at math than men. Skipper is quite good and I am quite awful. Maybe he used my old tests to back up his thesis. Maybe math is a woman. I say this because God is she a royal bitch.

While I am not forced to do math, these days I still dream about it. I have a reoccurring nightmare that I am still in high school, and have to take a math test. Or in another version of this nightmare, I have a math class I have not shown up to all semester and had no idea I was in, and now I have to do all the work or fail. So maybe I haven’t taken a math class or math test in years, but the memories are like Vietnam, they still haunt me. In the words of the film Apocalypse Now, “Oh the horror!”

Recently, I got a glaring reminder about how bad at math I am. My boss Bruce called me to do a Hershey Kiss singing telegram on Long Island. He told me it was in Levittown, a suburb that is not all that far out in Long Island. While I had not been there in a while, I had done some shows there years ago. The people are more or less blue collar and love to laugh at dirty jokes. Yes, my mind of peeps. Bruce told me the client chipped in for a cab, but to map it before I accepted the assignment in case the trip was too insane.

Bruce also told me the client wanted me to read a Bible verse to his wife. Apparently it was his birthday and he couldn’t be there. Maybe he was trying to convert people somewhere, and being the annoying heels those people can be they were probably going to shoot him so he wanted to say happy birthday in case he ended up dead. The whole thing seemed slightly goony to me, but business is business.

I mapped the destination. It was an hour by foot. My heart began to beat out of my chest. I became concerned that I would become stranded, because some of the middle of no where destinations have no cabs. I emailed and texted Bruce, concerned. He called me back and insisted it would be 10 minutes by car, max. I told Bruce he was assuming there were cabs. Then Bruce told me the client told him there were cabs. I told Bruce I mapped it and the train station the client gave was wrong and there were no cabs.

Bruce informed me that if I took the car from the train to the destination, it was ten minutes max. He said taking a cab to Chelsea was ten minutes max, same with the subway. I told Bruce he had neglected to account for traffic in the city and the point was mute. We began arguing and finally he said, “Save this debate for someone else who wants to have it.” Then he hung up on me.

I was stunned. Bruce hung up on me. Now I was on thin ice with my boss. I mapquested car directions from the train. Bruce was correct, it was ten minutes. My old nemesis math had come back to torture me yet again. To make matters worse, the random Bible verse had poured demon oil on this whole thing. I didn’t know how or when to apologize to my boss for being so math retarded. I decided to wait ten minutes, or perhaps until the next day.

The guilt gnawed at me. I love my boss. So after some thinking I texted Bruce. He was eager to accept my apology as well, and blamed the Bible passage for making me so insane. I don’t know what it is, but religion makes everyone a dumbass. That coupled with math was the perfect recipe for my mini breakdown.

The day of the delivery came and getting there hell on wheels, literally. The Bible verse and the fact math was involved already put a deadly pal on the thing I loved most. Because I had to transfer trains at Jamaica, I had to jump tracks. The track I had to get to was on the other side of the station and the train pulled away as I got there. To make matters worse, I found out the internet gave me bad directions and the client was right to begin with. So when I finally got on the right train I was winded.
When I finally arrived on Long Island, Wantagh, I was still early with some time to kill. In the train station, I made friends with some of the local townies. One man, a career alcoholic missing teeth in pertinent places, informed me he had been kicked out of the house yet again by his wife. The man also told me he had eight children and was currently living in the homeless shelter down the road. Eight children, how was he going to financially support them? This man was unemployed. Finally, someone who was worse at math than I am.

His friend, in a move to impress me, told me he was recently released from a boot camp alternative to incarceration program upstate. Another one of his buddies was visibly trashed after a long day of working on a high rise. Seeing them made me feel better and worse about my spat with Bruce. It made me feel better because they all probably failed math in school, and for as much as I sucked I still earned a passing grade. Hey, it’s barely but I passed. At the same time, these guys couldn’t keep a job if their lives depended on it. I had gotten into a fight with my boss. Plus I actually liked my job. Life wasn’t half bad. These dudes went out of their way to impress me. Years ago, they would have been my dream men. Now they impress me, but not in a good way. Still, I found them funny.

As luck would have it, there was a cab stand at the station. The driver agreed to wait for me as I delivered the telegram. When I told him what I did he said, “Singing telegrams? They still have those.”

When we finally got to the destination, the moon shone on the suburban lawn and was clear in the crisp, autumnal night sky. The smell of wood fireplaces wafted through my nose. In the city, one never smells such things. However, in the quiet suburbs, a planet of their own, they are ever present reminders that there is life outside of Gotham City. As I walked to the front door, the moon glistened on my Hershey Kiss costume. It sparkled as if I were under bright stage lights ready to perform for thousands of people instead of one unsuspecting person. With my bag of kisses in hand, I knocked.

No answer. The meter on the cab was probably going up like that scene in Arsenic and Old Lace. I told him I would tip him well for waiting, but the rate was probably going up. I am bad at math and even I know that. Plus I always tip my drivers well. I knocked and tried the door bell. The barking of a dog answered with every knock and ring instead of a person. This canine grew more and more furious each time I tried to get a human. It was as if I was interrupting Cujo’s favorite TV show and he had a bone to pick, no pun intended.

As there was no answer, it was one of those moments where I questioned my life’s decisions. No one was answering the door. At times like this, my job can be rather frustrating. Yeah, her husband, the one that quoted the Bible, said she would be home. Yet there was no woman home. Maybe she was off sinning. That is when I began to regret shirking out of math because I was bad at it. Maybe math and I should have been better friends. Sure, I would be boring as hell, but I wouldn’t have an angry cabbie glaring at me, a large dog barking at me, and have no one to greet my performance and my bag of kisses.

Just then a woman answered. In her night sweats, it was clear she had been woken up. Our Cujo was next to her. Instead of being the big dog I feared, he was a little man with Napoleon syndrome who growled and treated me with the utmost suspicion. This is the dog that would have eaten my math homework and I would have let the vile little fiend.

“Who are you?” She asked rubbing sleepy sand out of her eyes and trying to calm her fur covered body guard.

“I am a Kiss from someone who remembered your birthday!” I said excitedly. I began to sing, and Cujo continued barking. By now, he was less harmless and more the unintentional accompanist to my performance. At first the woman looked puzzled, then she smiled, and finally she laughed. I had warmed her up.

Then it came time for the Bible verse, the craziest part of the delivery. The demon dog growled as I read it, but as tears came into his owner’s eyes, he calmed. She was speechless. I was almost speechless as well, but talking is a large part of my job so I had to keep going.

When I was done I handed her a bag of Hershey Kisses. Seeing she was happy, the pup had calmed as well. I was no threat to his home. Rather, he was now wagging his tail. While the approval of the recipient is key, the approval of an angry dog has value that no words or money can be attached to. Either way, I had won.

Finally, she said, “This is odd and wonderful at the same time. Wait right here, I have something for you.” She left, and I glanced at my driver signaling one minute. He gave me the thumbs up and was smiling. Apparently he had enjoyed the performance, too.

When the woman emerged, she had a surprised $20 tip for me. This was amazing. While I am God awful at math, I know an extra tip means cha-ching. On the way back to the station, the cabbie told me that he was recently divorced and his wife had tried to take everything, including his car. He told me they were still friendly, but when the sex stopped he knew it was over. That is when I stopped regretting my pitiful mathematical abilities. Sure, people who were good at math had normal jobs and such. Maybe they even had stability. One thing is for certain, in no way are their boring, predictable lives that end with a logical answer to every question as exciting as mine. They also age badly and have crows feet. I, on the other hand, remain young with my never ending sense of adventure. Sure my life might kill me, but damnit I will die having fun.

I let Bruce know about the surprise monetary donation, which he was pleased about. Sure, April could be crazy but she was decent at what she did. The next day Bruce got a glowing review from the client. In it, the client said how pleased his wife was, and how she was surprised and awed to see me. He told Bruce God loved him and blessed him several times in the review. Sure, it was a little nutty, but someone telling you God loves you instead of that God hates your guts is a kinder, more benevolent gesture.

The client was happy, Bruce was happy, and I was happy. I used to think the devil created math, and maybe he did. But my mother once said it best when I came home after a tear streaked math experience. “April, God doesn’t give us everything. You might be bad at math but you have other talents.”

So maybe while the devil has created math, God or whatever is upstairs made me good at being the center of attention, making people laugh, speaking my mind, writing, ventriloquism, and gave me a thirst for adventure and sent me on a never ending quest for truth. God or whatever is upstairs also gave me that experience as a gentle reminder that I am doing the right thing with myself, and I am where I in fact do belong. There is no price tag to be put on a smile. Just as the universe needs those who are good at crunching numbers, they need people like myself, too.

Still, math is evil. Math is the devil’s son or daughter. Fuck you, math. Fuck you.

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