2 Pi to Live
by CHAZ BRENCHLEY
He was famous once, a prodigy, a child on the TV. I’ve seen the clips: small boy in a big chair, chanting numbers. His eyes looked overwhelmed, but not by the studio and not by the host, not even the first time. What was overwhelming, what carried him away was what he found in his own head, I thought: what he was finding, moment by moment, every predetermined unpredicted step of it. He teetered on the edge of awe just at the way his thoughts stalked ahead of him, in pursuit of this ever-unreeling number.
Those early clips, his mother was with him: nervous but proud, as she felt she ought to be, reaching to ruffle her son’s hair because that was what proud mothers did with their incomprehensible children. She could never ruffle the contents of his mind. His voice rang on, clear and incantatory. Digit by digit, the infant phenomenon reciting the value of pi.
Later on, it’s his father who sits with him. No one mentions the mother now. He’s a teenage wunderkind, and everyone asks about college. His father shrugs and shakes his head; what does a boy like this need with college, what can they teach him that would make it worth interrupting this thing he does, what keeps him famous, this record string, this pi?
His father, clearly, is taking a slice of pi. There’s a living in it, boasting up his boy. It’s not that the lad has memorized unheard-of quantities of others’ calculations; these numbers are coming fresh, he’s working the math in his head there, monotonous as clockwork. That’s worth paying for. These days there’s a machine to check him, a screen ticking off the proper digits behind his head where he has no sight of them, to prove he isn’t cheating. It also says how far he’s got since he started this extraordinary sum. Pi to a hundred and thirty million places, the last clip I’ve seen, still going strong.
But that was then and this is now. Novelty expires; so does childhood. Computers, of course, outraced him long ago. Universities lost interest in his mind, and so too did the TV. Just an idiot savant, got plenty of those, no thanks.
When Johnny found him, when he dragged me down to see, the prodigious child was a man of middle age: thin of body, thin of hair, as though he wore himself to a nub with the effort of calculation. His voice too, ground down after decades of whispering pi for public entertainment.
He really wasn’t very entertaining any more. Johnny had turned him up as a carnival sideshow. He was lucky, in a way, I guess. It was that kind of travelling show where you just pay once at the gate, all-day pass, see everything. No one had to bark for Simple Simon, and just as well: who would turn out their pockets, after all, to hear a man chant a string of numbers in a tent? Never mind what the computer said beside him, nearly half a billion digits now; it was astonishing, perhaps, but nobody cared. Nobody could care. He should be grateful, someone was willing to keep him fed and clothed and cared for. She was a woman, who owned the carnival; perhaps that made a difference. Perhaps not. Perhaps she just had a fondness for numbers, even outside her own bottom line.
Anyway, there he sat, an aging man in an empty tent. Though it wasn’t empty, of course, because we were in it. Johnny had paid again to come again, to bring me.
Simon–and his name really was Simon: coincidence or else his parents had changed it very early on, to make the pi-man connection long before he ever was a man – didn’t speak to us, or acknowledge us at all. His eyes looked blankly, as though all his gaze were inward, at the whiteboard of his mind where he worked that dreadful sum. His voice never faltered; it was a pendulum fully wound, metronomic, pulsing to the rhythm of his brain. It frightened me, almost, but I still sat half an hour while shadows came and went in the doorway, puzzled adults and curious children hesitating on the threshold of wonder, deciding against.
At last it was Johnny who tugged us out of there, tugged me with his fingers clenched in my shirt, I was that hard to get moving.
Out in the neon and the noise, I was bewildered for a while, all structure snatched away: how could the world be anything other than number, how did these people live?
When Johnny let me stand still, we were in the shadow of a trailer, in the smell of oil and onions, among the taut angled guys of another tent.
“Mind your feet,” he said, and, “Here, eat,” pressing something round and warm and flabby into my hand, a burger I hadn’t seen him buy. “I knew you’d be like this,” he said. “Bite, chew, swallow. In that order.”
Sometimes, it’s easier just to follow orders. I tasted nothing, but familiar process – bite, chew, swallow – brought me back, at least a little way. When my hand was empty, when the food was gone I took a breath, opened my mouth and was forestalled; he drew a can from a pocket, popped the tab and passed it to me, chill and damp.
“Sugar rush,” he said. “Tilt, swallow. Try not to choke.”
The foaming bite of it in my mouth, bitter cold and sweet as sin, cutting through grease and lingering nastiness: I swallowed, gasped, tilted and swallowed again.
“Right,” said Johnny. “Now. Questions.”
“What happens,” I said, “what happens when he stops?”
“The stars go out. Obviously.”
“No, but seriously. Every night. He has to stop, he has to eat and sleep. What does he do?”
I had this nightmare image of the numbers still ticking on in his head, relentless in his dreams.
“I don’t know. If we wait, maybe we can ask him. Maybe we can see. Next question.”
Johnny knows me too well. Of course there was another question. Now that I was out from the hypnotic beat of it, all I had was questions. First you see the thing itself, then you try to see all the way around it, define its borders, find the ground that’s safe.
“Why does he do it? When there isn’t a solution, when there can’t be any end…” One nightmare breeds another: now I saw him as an old man, old and sick, restless with calculation, digits ticking over like time made manifest and himself caught in the fever of it, picking at his bedclothes with fingers like needles, as if he could tattoo his chant of figures physically into the world. Leave us marked with number, his number, his own. Pi to the power of Simon.
“Maybe it’s just too hard to stop. Maybe he believes in what he’s doing. Maybe one man has to do this, so that all the rest of us are free. We can ask.”
Johnny has this ruthlessness, he never offers comfort; or else it’s just that he’s ruthless with me, because I need that. Because I deserve it. Whatever. He fielded my questions and tossed them back unresolved, leaving me still uneasy with speculation.
We lingered, then, and walked the carnival: in and out of booths, true freakshow under the shrieks and clatter of the rides. At last the crowds thinned, the glee faded; as if in response lights flickered in warning, voices called from one end of the ground to the other, “Closing now, shutting down, make your way to the gate please and go home.”
No one enforced that call, no one tried to chivvy us out. All day could mean all night, for all that anyone cared; the carnies’ wagons were all inside the fence, and not all of them would be sleeping alone or with each other. Not all of them would be sleeping at all.
I still needed to see, to know how Simon slept, if he slept, if the numbers let him. How do you pause a human calculation?
We made our way back to his tent and there he was, still chanting: but on his feet now, bending over the laptop on a table behind his chair. Working to the rhythm of his own voice. Glancing up at us this time, seeing us, surprised: still not faltering in his count, though, not until he had pressed a key sequence and closed the lid on the laptop.
The screen display vanished. At the same time, his voice fell silent. It was like the death, the little death of number. It staggered me; I wanted to clutch at something, at the tent-pole or at Johnny’s arm, just to reassure myself that there was still solidity in the world, that fabric was not fraying into that sudden absence.
Simon struggled, it seemed, to speak, to find anything to say that was not an expression of pi. In the end he had to, though; neither one of us had any words to offer, here in his territory, at the heart of his calculation.
Bending his voice around all the awkwardnesses of words and meanings, he said, “Did you want me?”
In honesty, not. There was nothing of him, without that string of numbers: nothing left to want. Except that he had answers, maybe, some.
I said, “I’m sorry, I do have to ask. What’s happening in your head, right now? Are you still working the math, ticking off the numbers?”
He smiled, with that weariness that some mistake for wisdom. I’m not original, I never imagined myself to be so; of course he had been asked before, how not? Likely the TV stations cut his answer, went to sponsors and their messages, not wanting to disappoint with banality. “No, no. I know the next calculation, I remember that but I don’t work it through. It can wait. Thirty thousand a day, that’s my ration.”
“Yes. Why not?”
“No reason.” He had to stop somewhere; why not there? But, “Does the computer ping you at the total, or…?”
“I count,” he said. “The computer is just showmanship: for your benefit, not mine. I don’t use it.”
I don’t need it, he meant. Alongside working pi, he was counting digits, just as his software did. This man was beginning to terrify me. I might understand intellectually about the ordered mind, but in the flesh it was another thing. Wet brain-matter ought not to function this way.
Even so: order and purpose are not the same, and I did still have to ask. I was hesitant – if heroes have feet of clay, who knows what muck might hide below a layer of perfect clarity? I was terrified to find that he was mad in any sort, a believer, an enthusiast, a missionary.
Still. Had to ask. “Why do you do it, though, this thing? What’s the point?”
He shrugged. “It’s a living.”
I looked around the empty tent, poverty made manifest. “Hardly that. With a mind like yours – well. You ought to be in college. Teaching math, researching…”
“Not this, you mean? Not debasing myself with a performance no one cares about in a tent where no one’s listening?”
“Yes,” I said, “exactly that,” though in fact I thought it was perhaps number that he debased, more than himself.
He said, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it matter whether anyone hears it? It’s down, it’s gone.”
Was he saying that he didn’t know how to stop, or else that he didn’t dare? After such a life, a man might be frightened to find himself a hollow thing, dead from the inside, if he didn’t rise every day to the sap of pi. I could see that, but, “You must know more about pi than any man alive. You don’t have to abandon it, just … not do this. You don’t need to be doing this. Surely?”
“Someone does,” he said, and there it was, a glimpse behind the curtain, where mania dwells.
Had to ask. “Why?”
“Because numbers matter, they’re entitled. Pi is a road, it needs someone to walk it.”
“There are computers,” Johnny said, jumping in at first sight of my face. “They can do that, faster and farther than any human in a lifetime…”
“Unmanned missions,” Simon said, “Mars rovers, space probes, sure. It’s not the same. We’re an exploring species; we do need actually to go there. Someone has to follow pi, see where it leads, what’s out there.”
“You can’t,” Johnny protested, still watching me. “No one can.”
“It is in the nature of the journey,” he said, “that we should die on the way. Still moving, still going forward. That much is … written. It’s in the math.”
“So you pass it on,” he said. “It’s a relay. Someone else can pick up where I leave off.”
“There isn’t anyone else. Who’s like you?”
“People can learn. They can go slowly. Thirty a day, not thirty thousand. Just as long as they take the baton and go on, keep it moving. Footprints in the dust. It’s important.”
He was right, it was. Oh, the world would go on turning if we left it. We could let the machines have all the numbers and nothing would fall down, nothing would crumble. We could turn our backs to the infinite and focus on what was small and within reach, capable to our hands. But what we lost would be something of ourselves, that mattered more than all the reaches of the universe.
Johnny knew. He might not be following Simon all the way, but he was following me. Everything I wasn’t saying, I could see it all reflected right there in his eyes, in his appalled understanding.
Inside my head, I was just dipping my toe in, testing the water.
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