number talk by jmforceton

28 Feb

“Driving this Mini on this side of the road is unnatural. I’m sure that ‘statistically’ we would have been safer taking the train from London and just using the Metro in Paris.”

Sam’s wife Mary smiles, “Maybe, but don’t you think ‘aesthetically’ the view through the open windows makes up for it? Besides we’ll be able to see some of the country too, before we go back.”

Moments later Sam is listening to Barbara Streisand’s “Memories”, but his mind drifts back to Boston, where he had gotten the phone call 23 years ago. He is alone in his dorm studying and his Aunt Margaret is telling him that his mother and father had been in a car crash on their way home from New York City. He is unconscious that the Mini Cooper is slowing down.

His 8 year old daughter, Sarah, is in the back seat with Billy, Mary’s 10 year old son.

Mary looks back at Sarah, “Sarah, please turn that down a little, I can hear it here in the front seat.” They are sharing ear buds from her Ipod Nano.

“But Daddy’s old music is too loud!” Sam does not hear her. Mary turns the radio down.

Sam had rented the car at chaotic Heathrow earlier in the week and they had toured the London countryside. Today he put the car on the Chunnel auto train and arriving in Calais, they had just had a long lunch stop at an oceanside park. It is a humid, warm, blue sky day with a steady salt air breeze coming off the channel.

After the relaxing break they throw their books and Sarah’s soccer ball into the back seat. Mary’s book, “Obelisque”, the author’s portrait showing on the back cover, is on top of Sam’s book. His book, “The Age of Entanglement”, deals with quantum physics, a diversion for a mathematician?

On the road, in open country, Mary stares out the window, head down, “I still can’t get over the ending, a “Bourne” style chase scene and the mother of 6 kids, recently totally recovered from breast cancer, dies in a horrific crash with the wrong way driver at the Place de la Concorde? I lost a best friend! How could the author do that?”

“I agree; it’s a highly improbable ending.”

Sarah hears improbable, turns the volume up on her Nano.

Now in light traffic and rolling hills, Sam says little the next hour, pondering issues in the last chapter of the book; fascinating issues Einstein and physicist Niels Bohr had debated years ago, here in Europe.

Approaching Paris, his trance is broken. The pace of life quickens. There are many pedestrians and bicycles and traffic becomes louder, more unpredictable. He turns a corner and looking ahead he smiles. The omniscient father, he says, “There’s the Arc de Triumph, almost to the minute of what I expected”

Mary is excited; “It’s perfect, let’s go down the Champs Elysees and around the Obelisk before we go to the hotel.”

Minutes later, in the circular traffic flow, Sam’s mind is momentarily possessed by concerns; the lecture on triple integrations in polar coordinates in the first class, only two weeks away. “What can I do in the first two minutes of the class to make an impression?”

Mary screams, “Sam look out!”, as she reaches back to push Sarah into her seat. The taxi does not expect the Mini to change lanes in the heavy traffic circling the Place de la Concorde. Before Sam can hit the brakes the cars collide.

Airbags explode, Sam’s head hits the side doorframe. When he looks up he sees a man opening Mary’s door, her nose bleeding. Looking back, the kids are wide-eyed but appear unhurt.

“Are you all right?” the taller of two 20-something girls, out of breath, is talking rapidly to him, in English, through the open window.

“Yes I’m fine,” Sam and the kids open doors, the girls direct traffic around the Mini.

Traffic noise and exhaust fumes add to the confusion as Sarah gets out and looks around. She focuses on a face she has been looking at for two hours, an older gentleman at the curb looking in their direction, “Mary, that’s the man on your book.”

The old man is turning away as Mary, over the cacophony of blowing horns and French drivers yelling at each other, answers, “You’re right that looks like the author.”

Quickly they all make their way to the curb.

Sam’s world has been shaken. In the instant after Mary screamed, he had seen the cab about to hit them. He had felt fear. Unconsciously, he is now pushing those thoughts out of his consciousness. In a lifting fog, he thanks Jimmy, the American serviceman, Amy, the tall girl, and Jill, Amy’s friend. Sam turns and, speaking English, tries to deal with the angry cabby and a stuffy, bureaucratic, police officer. Jimmy is trying to help and not appreciated by either Frenchman.

Amy had seen books on the floor and the soccer ball and asks, “Can we get your things out of the car for you?”

Glancing over at Sam and Mary says, “Amy thanks, but I think we’ll leave everything in the car for now.”

Amy hesitates then smiles and replies, “Hey, I have an idea. If Sarah and Billy would like to, why don’t you meet us tomorrow in the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower. We’re going to kick a soccer ball around with some guys we met yesterday.”

“Mary I want to do that, I want to do that. Mary, will Daddy let us?”

“I don’t know Sarah. Amy thanks, if we get sorted out we may see you there tomorrow.”

Later in the cab to their hotel, Sam, trying to appear calm, is saying, “I just can’t believe we crashed, feet from the obelisk and you think the author of the book was walking by?”    

Sam doesn’t respond to Sarah’s questions about tomorrow, “How unlikely is that, there’s got to be less than a one in a million probability. The crash paralleling the book’s ending, although only the car died, the author at the scene, and Sarah being invited to knock soccer balls around with her new BFF Amy.”

Mary obviously had played this game before, “Ok so maybe he lives around here, not so unlikely. Soccer in America is huge for girls, so really not that unlikely they both play, and you in a foreign country, driving from the curb this week and on the wrong side of the road last week.”

“Yes, I see your point. I guess those facts could mitigate for a skewed distribution of outcomes. I mean yes, you are probably right.”

Listening, Sarah, as usual, blocks out her father and his “number talk”. Her head starts rocking side to side as she loses herself in the mesmerizing music of Taylor Swift.

The next day they do go to the park to meet Amy. It is a beautifully treed and landscaped area with benches and several playing fields, the Tower rising up behind it. After about 15 minutes playing with Amy, Billy whispers something to Sarah, she giggles and walks across the field to Sam, “Daddy will you kick the ball with me, I mean the sphere?”

Behind Sarah, Mary opens her eyes wide, cocks her head to the side and stares directly into Sam’s eyes. Sam for once takes his cue, puts down “Entanglement” and hugs Sarah. “Well it’s not a perfect sphere but let’s see if we can kick it into shape.” Sarah reaches into her pocket, takes the Nano and ear buds out, and puts them on Sam’s book. They run onto the field as Mary is reaching for a Kleenex.

Links to “Committed?” and “Monolithic”


5 Responses to “number talk by jmforceton”

  1. jadamthwaite February 28, 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    I really like the way you linked this to the other stories… this was especially nice because I didn’t realise you were going to until you did! I also like the image of the ipod on the book at the end. I feel like this is becoming a bigger and bigger story.

  2. phoenix.writing March 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    I enjoyed the connection at the end; throughout the story, it seems as though while Mary has learned how to speak to Sam, Sarah and Billy are getting by by ignoring as much as possible. “Kicking the sphere” shows that they’re engaged after all, and that Sam is making an effort too. ^_^

    • jmforceton March 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

      Yes, you are right. I was trying to show Sarah disliking his obsession with math topics, not the math itself, and wanting more of that attention for herself.


  1. “answered questions”, paris, may, 2004 by jmforceton « the character project - March 14, 2010

    […] – week 9  “Pregnant? Thoughts” , week 8  “Number Talk” , week 7  “Monolithic” , week 6 […]

  2. obélisque, page 424 by jmforceton | the character project - May 20, 2010

    […] Link to more closely related episodes   Monolithic &  Number Talk […]

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