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Algebra

by Nancy Ames

A spark of recognition exploded in my face and some ignorant
bystanders laughed at me for staring with my arms full. He was
just turning around, with his hat shading his eyes from the
brutal fluorescence, when a strident female voice from somewhere
above us announced, "Shoppers are warned not to enter the parking
facility. There has been an explosion. Mr. James Carter is requested
to report to the seventh floor immediately." The muzak resumed.

Was it only my imagination or did everybody in the hardware department
suddenly look furtive? All around me, people were bowing their heads
and looking at the floor. Not one person`s eyes met mine while I
scanned the walls for the nearest exit.

I was distractedly thinking that it couldn`t possibly be him, not after
all this time, and trying to remember the disastrous circumstances that
had forced him finally to leave the country in... 1986, wasn`t it? His
wrinkled face was paper white and grim when he looked up, and his hollow
eyes stared past me without making contact. I guess I have aged so much
in the past few years that I shouldn`t have expected him to know me right
away, really. But I knew him all right.

And then he moved so abruptly that the momentary suspense was shattered
and all the shoppers began to rush toward the elevators and escalators at
once, impeding each other and multiplying the noise and confusion.

I became unreasonably angry when he tried to push past me and I grabbed
him firmly by the overcoat. I have put on a bit of weight lately and can
be quite an obstacle at times, I am told. A couple of aisles over, a young
sales clerk was speaking rapidly into a red telephone and she did seem to
glance at us once or twice.

I said, "Jimmy!" in a harsh whisper and he did recognize my voice, luckily.
His face changed colour again to a bright unhealthy pink and he took my
hand in a painful grip. He groaned, "Annie, get me out of here!"

By now I had spotted the nearest exit, a door to the stairs. In the emergency,
the old training kicked in beautifully and I decided to evade and disarm. In
a faltering old lady`s voice, I quavered, "Here, my dear, just grab on to my
arm now. You do look godawful, so we`ll just have to make the most of our
infirmities."

As I hoped, Jimmy caught on quick and together we dithered and doddered our
way to the stairs and outside, avoiding the chirping mob. I was counting on
the perfectly normal human tendency to ignore the aged and weak, which worked
like a charm. I had to fake most of it but the poor old lad did look quite
bad and I knew somehow he was going on nerve alone. He was skin and bones
under the heavy overcoat and his hands were cold in mine.

Well, some time later, I had him in my own kitchen, steaming mugs of hot tea in
front of us on the table. This kitchen, and the house as well really, seems much
too big since Jack died and the boys grew up, although, of course, all four of
the boys come by often to touch base, so to speak, and I sometimes think that I
do almost as much cooking and baking as I did when they were kids. Quick energy.
They always have needed lots of quick energy to keep up with the galloping idea
factories under their hair. Generally I just watch in wonder nowadays, while
giving pep talks to my poor old legs. I was awfully hard on them today - on my
legs, I mean - because I practically had to carry Jimmy home with me, along with
all my shopping-bags, of course.

But anyway, here we are now and my good dog is stretched out across the doorway,
right where I like to see him... lovely day, actually, with the sky a delicate
blue and all the fluffy little white clouds floating along above the chimneys
down the road. I suppose it would be a good idea to put my feet up for a minute,
blood to the brain... think a bit. Jimmy looks absolutely drastic, exhausted.
Weakened liver maybe or bad kidneys causing that greenish tinge around the eyes
or possibly heart going wrong somehow...

"How`s about a shot of brandy, Jimmy? I do feel the need myself, I must admit."

"Thanks, Annie. I am feel horribly washed out. Got to make contact soon. They`ll
think I got blown away."

I gave him a hard look in the bleary old eye, shrugged my shoulders and croaked,
"Let them."

He frowned and lowered his gaze to his knobby fingers lying on his knees and
said nothing, seeming to shrink down inside himself.

I got up and found a few things and set the brandy down on the table for him,
raised my own glass and gave him my best smile, admittedly a wreck of its former
self, put some cheer into my voice and said, "Amazing to see you again whatever
the circumstances, old thing. Down the hatch with it now." We drank quickly. I
decided to put some soup and sandwiches under his nose immediately. Achieve
revival. He looked so terribly thin and limp. Oh, well. It`s a bloody wonder
that any of us are still on the hoof at all.

For the vast majority of people, life is a simple exercise in arithmetic. You
win some and you lose some. A day`s events make an addition or a subtraction.
But at certain times and places, things don`t add up quite so easily. Those who
survive long enough to think it over may discover a higher mathematics of living.
We are introduced to the intellectual thrills of balancing equations and painfully
learn to derive the unknown factor.

Of course ordinary problems cannot be solved in this way and, as we soon realized,
ordinary people are repelled by this kind of logic. It is subtle and slippery and
it moves in the shadows. It moves...

But those of us who owe our lives to situational algebra can never just go back
and forget it. Inevitably, we began to recognize and seek each other out. There is
a something that only appears through motion, through action, not magical but only
another level of reality, you might say. It`s an unstable existence but anything
else comes to seem so boring when you are young.

Yes, we learned how to recognize each other. In the early years there were, sadly,
a great number of spectacular spinouts. But experience taught the survivors and
for a couple of decades things stabilized considerably. But these days it seems
that the desperations of approaching old age have made some of us as reckless as
naughty children. Oh, well...

Jimmy`s cold hand took hold of my little finger, in a tight painful grip, and he
said, "I have done a lot of good, Annie. I know I have." He took a deep shaky
breath then, a sigh really. "You know, along with the other stuff."

I gave him my straightest look, not tender at all, nodded, closed my eyes, and
whispered, "Yes. I know."

01/29/2019

Author's Note: first person fiction again

Posted on 01/29/2019
Copyright © 2019 Nancy Ames

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