Autumn 2017 / Short Story and Poetry Contest
The Mathematician

Finalist in the U of T Magazine Short Story Contest


Even before the policeman at her door had a chance to say anything, one of Deb’s arms began jerking uncontrollably. Then her neck joined in with its own spastic movements, knocking the wallet from the cop’s hands. As he bent down to pick it up, her other arm almost knocked it back out of his hand. She had to hold onto the door frame to keep from falling over.

Once they were seated on the couch, she told him that her involuntary movements were a side-effect of her medication for Parkinson’s. She didn’t say advanced Parkinson’s because she hadn’t given up all hope yet. “It was early-onset,” she said. “Rare, but not unheard of. I’m like a female Michael J. Fox.”

They established that it was her dad’s wallet and he explained that Danny Burns had been pronounced dead at Toronto East General Hospital only two hours before. A witness heard him call out for help before he fell to the sidewalk outside the Pape subway station. The official cause of death was unknown. The policeman told her he’d buzzed repeatedly at apartment 406 before noticing that another Burns lived in number 402. She laughed and said, “And that’s just this floor. My mom lives on the tenth. The owner jokes he’s never collected so much rent from one family.”

The officer’s eyes narrowed and he frowned. Her lack of emotion obviously unnerved him, but then how could he have known she’d been anticipating the knock on her door her entire life?

***

On Saturday, after the funeral, she found the energy to get breakfast at Ted’s Diner, the local greasy spoon. This had always been her dad’s day at Ted’s. Apart from the grocery store, Ted’s was just about as far as she dared venture from her apartment alone. At only forty-two, she was like an old lady with severe arthritis. Most mornings, she had to wait a full forty minutes after waking to get out of bed. It took the Levodopa that long to kick in after an entire night spent without her meds.

“So sorry about Danny, Miss Deb,” said Ted as she made her way toward her favourite booth. He came out from behind the counter, chubby arms outstretched for a hug, and she surprised herself by hugging back. They pressed together, his ample paunch soft against her sunken belly, for the entire time it took his wife Sophie to wipe down the table and pour her a cup of coffee. It was now Sophie’s turn to console. She took Deb’s twitching fingers between her own soft palms and squeezed.

Deb slid into the booth and reached her unsteady hands towards the coffee creamers, rattling the saucer as she did so. Embarrassed, she looked to see who’d noticed, but the diners continued staring at their plates, the overhead television, the free newspapers, and so she went on with her clumsy attempt to remove the seal of the creamer with her stiff fingers.

Ted placed her breakfast plate on the table: one poached egg on a piece of rye with another toast halved and stacked on the side. He took the creamer she was still fumbling with and emptied it into her mug.

“Forgot to say. You just missed your mom.”

Deb raised her eyebrows, but Ted just shrugged and gave menus to an elderly couple at the adjacent booth.

Ted knew as well as she did that her mom never breakfasted here on Saturdays because of dad. Mom was clearly making the most of her new freedom.

 

 

When she was eighteen, and already out of the house, she still made a habit of coming back to her childhood home every Saturday morning with two garbage bags full of dirty clothes. It was the year she’d begun noticing a weird fatigue in her right foot. It eventually turned into a slight drag. Still indiscernible to others, this was her first Parkinson’s symptom.

One day, she’d just emptied the first bag into the washing machine when the screen door squawked with a long drawn-out whine. She knew this sound from trying to sneak in after curfew. Her father crept stealthily past the laundry room and into the den. She went to the rec room to watch TV while she waited for the first load to wash.

Moments later, he was yelling and kicking the filing cabinet. When her mother came downstairs to see what all the commotion was about, he hurled the small safe that was no bigger than a loaf of bread against the wall, just inches from her head. The wall cracked open. School pictures of Deb and her brother Jason tumbled off a shelf and made a messy pile on the floor.         

Somehow she scrambled back to the washing machine. Opening its lid, she returned her clothes, now soapy and soaking, to the garbage bag, and fled the house as if it were on fire.      

Her dad had opened the safe expecting to find his mother’s emerald ring and matching necklace, but her mom had already pawned off all the family heirlooms to pay the bills. And just like that, his hopes of paying off his gambling debts collapsed like the shelf in the den.

Her parents never spoke again.

 

 

Deb had finished emptying her father’s bedroom and she was almost done in the kitchen. Jason would help her bring the garbage to the downstairs dumpster later, when he got off work. They had until the end of the month to clean everything out of the apartment.

In every room, she made three piles: garbage, garage sale, and keepsakes. She’d once seen Oprah’s professional organizer, Pete Walsh, de-clutter a garage this way. She’d had less than spectacular results in her own closets, but dad’s kitchen was noticeably tidier.

She reached for the handle of her dad’s cutlery drawer and missed. She missed her mark another two times before she got hold of the drawer’s tiny silver knob and opened it. Inside were plastic forks, spoons, and a lot of chopsticks. At the back of the drawer, she found a heap of credit cards. Their discovery jogged her memory of a recent conversation. She liked to drop in on him once a week for chamomile tea. When she leaned in to plant a farewell peck on his stubble, he’d pulled away. His entire face flushed a deep red. “Don’t worry if the collection agencies call. You and Jason won’t have to pay my debts.” She squinted at him. “What do you mean? Are you sick?” He moved away and she knew from experience that was all he would say.

Deb turned toward the living room but froze in the doorway. It was all about finding the right ‘cueing technique’ to trick her brain to cooperate. She imagined there was a line just in front of her feet that she had to step over and was able to get herself moving again. She plopped down on the couch and examined the coffee table. Her own was free of knick-knacks now that she was in the habit of falling and knocking things over. His was a muddle of Sudoku puzzle books, old photos used as coasters, crushed beer cans, unfinished crossword clippings, highlighters, pens, and scribbled lists. A fire hazard. She flipped through a dog-eared book, Journey through Geniuses: The Great Theorems of Mathematics, noting the highlighted passages and margin notes. As a child, she’d tell anyone who would listen that he was a mathematician. He mostly scowled when she asked for help, but sometimes, if she caught him in a good mood, he could be convinced to solve a few word problems with her. All those Sunday mornings, propped up by pillows, with her math textbook spread over her lap, trying to figure out at what speed a plane needed to travel to get to Calgary in four hours.

Of course, the problems that dad wanted to solve were about calculating the best odds. His passion was betting. What were the chances of throwing two dice and arriving at a total of four or that the Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup? Before he dropped out of university, he’d taken a course in probabilities and he was soon applying its principles to poker, roulette, and just about every casino game that ever existed. Was it his love of probabilities that turned him into a gambler or his love of gambling that fueled his passion for probabilities?

She’d always thought she would become a professional photographer. During her high school years, there was nothing she loved more than getting up early on weekends to walk the dog down by Frenchman’s Bay. They’d take the ravine paths behind her house to the marina. At the water’s edge, she’d watch the mist rise, imagining herself sailing away on any one of the sleek sailboats that slept against the docks. She liked taking pictures of the fishermen who cast their lines from on top of a bridge. It was one of these photos that a teacher encouraged her to submit to the National Geographic photo contest for high school students. She won second prize.

What a thrill living was then, when her body was strong, and every spare moment was taken up with the next photograph. When her only concern was the silky curve of the Canada goose’s long neck. Should she lay down in the cattails or stand back at a distance to best catch its silhouette in the setting sun?

Oh, what she would give to spend one more day as she once had without her shaking hands.

Deb paged slowly through the math book, glancing at pictures of famous fathers: Newton, the father of calculus, Diophantus, the father of algebra, and Pascal, the father of probability.

What was the influence of a thousand random factors on one person’s life? What if her dad had been dealt a different hand?

She pictured a man, blond hair cut close to his head, standing in a line-up of eager graduates, waiting to receive his diploma. This man went on to write a series of well-received books that made mathematics more accessible to the public. Years later, he stood next to a woman in church, blue eyes beaming as he professed his love to her before a priest. Wearing a silly mustache and slightly older, he held a red-faced baby daughter. Proudly, he patted the couch where he wanted his girl, now aged ten, to sit beside him. His long arm pulled the freckle-faced girl closer so that they could both see the page in the math textbook which lay open on his lap. Now an adult, this woman walked effortlessly at eighteen. She didn’t shake at twenty, at thirty, and was still not trembling today.

She placed dad’s math book back on the table. If only she could stay within the safe space of this daydream, but her thoughts kept returning to the last time she saw him — to the day that he died.

He’d knocked at her door after lunch. She saw him through the peep-hole. It wasn’t the first time she pretended to be out. She had her own problems. Parkinson’s was an old person’s disease, and she was young. The medication was already failing her. Her exhaustion was real. His aches and pains were self-inflicted. He could still medicate his high blood cholesterol, his high blood pressure, and he could definitely stop his drinking and smoking.

“I know you’re home,” he said, his voice shaky. “It’s really important.” But she’d heard it all before, too many times to count.

Yet, in hindsight, something had sounded different. So that now she imagined that the bags under his eyes were more prominent, the skin looser, his eyelids more swollen. When he’d taken a step closer to her door, she’d sprung back, thinking he must have seen her. She had concentrated on keeping her muscles perfectly still, desperate for him to leave, wondering if he could sense her resentment through the closed door between them.


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