Prose

Hal's Tales

Coherence

Where Hal independently invents the flow theory.

At the Muse

The techno beat of the main dance floor was muffled in one of the basement rooms at The Muse. The discretely placed amber lights barely broke the darkness, leaving the room submerged in a warm dusk. Three large deep couches almost fully covered the close walls of an indefinite colour. On the couch across from Hal, a young Japanese man was flanked by two pretty girls. His biceps stretched the short sleeves of his khaki T-shirt and he had his arms wrapped around the girls’ backs. Surprisingly refined facial features of the Japanese were in a stark contrast with the rest of his body, making him look like an aristocrat on steroids. The girls were wearing thin white tops and jeans mini-skirts. Despite their overt sexuality, the Japanese man had an absent expression on his handsome face, looking more like a bored attendee of an anthropological museum on a Tuesday morning than a Tokyo heartthrob in the middle of a Friday night.

Hal observed all of this involuntarily while feeling the pleasant warmth of his girl’s legs that she had casually thrown over his own. Her name was Amy and she was steadily regarding Hal with large eyes gleaming with the sincere excitement of an infatuation onset. Hal mindlessly stroke her lower back with his fingers and, despite her immediate and positive response, felt almost as absent as the Japanese jock across from him. Amy purred in his ear, kissing him gently on the side of his cheek. Her shiny hair touched his and he felt the subtle fragrance of an expensive French perfume.

And then, with chilling clarity, Hal realized that he cared nothing about her. His caresses were purely mechanical. The revelation made him feel uneasy but he was unable to stop reflecting. He saw clearly that his whole visit to the club was nothing more than going through the motions without a shred of emotional engagement. Strong guilt immediately set in as Hal felt deceptive towards Amy. He drew closer to her face, almost touching it, and looked her straight in the eye. She slowly closed her eyes and held her breath, expecting a sensual kiss. Unable to bring himself to kiss her, he awkwardly pecked her forehead, quickly got up and, looking down at his own feet, rushed out of the room. He ran up the narrow stairs, pushed his way through a tight wall of bodies rhythmically bouncing to a deafening bass, swung the club doors open, bolted onto the street, looked up the overcast Tokyo night sky and only then slowly exhaled.

Hal marched away from the club, hearing the beat getting fainter behind him. Afraid that Amy might follow him, he turned into the first dark alley and made his way around tiny cars parked millimeters away from their owners’ house walls. A faint street light shone at the end of the narrow street and he soon reached its warm incandescent glow. Dead silence set in around him, making the ringing in his deafened ears all the more apparent. He stood motionlessly, soaking in the cold December night. The crisp fresh air tickled his nostrils as he slowly regarded the formless shapes barely visible at a distance. The guilt gradually lifted up and Hal briskly headed for his hotel whose neon roof sign shone brightly above the hotel’s 25 floors.

The Critic

Hal was slowly walking up what felt like a thousand steep steps, leading up to yet another temple. The steps started under a massive gate whose dark brown wooden frame was topped with a thin layer of snow, like sugar icing on a massive chocolate cake. He looked up and saw only more steps, rising steeply before him. His mind wandered off, diffused and pursuing several trains of thought at once.

As usual in such cases, his inner Critic sprang into action, arguing with Hal in his head.

What are you doing here, Hal? the Critic faked a friendly surprise.

Walking up the stairs, can’t you see? snapped Hal.

Yeah, I see that. But what are you REALLY doing here, freezing your butt nine thousand kilometers from home? the Critic was positively in a friendly mood today.

Hal paused on the stairs, thinking up a killer answer to that, and then realized that he does not really know why he is in Japan. His first visit to this country was like a honeymoon on an exotic planet. He was excited, everything just clicked and the whole experience was positively charming. But now, two years later on his second visit, he felt lost. The charm was completely gone. This time there was nothing but slow traffic, rigid insincere people, a permanently overcast sky and the wind that consistently managed to chill him to the bone, despite a thick core-tex windbreaker.

What? No answer? Really? the Critic sounded triumphant. Hal bit his lip and just pressed on, ascending the infinite steps.

When he finally reached the top of the trying stairs, he paused, catching his breath and slowly looked around. Low trees were thoroughly covered with snow, meshing together and forming a massive maze of trunks and branches. Through this white chaos, Hal saw a small building, standing alone in a distance. Covering his face, he pushed his way through and soon came to a small clearing, right in the front of the building. It was too small to be a temple, thought Hal, more like a shack.

Old stone walls, each piece perfectly aligned with the rest. A typical Japanese roof gracefully curved just above Hal’s head, as he stood there, somehow mesmerized by his little find. There was a door in front of him, complete with a large cast-iron ring. Without a thought, Hal reached for the ring, pulled and opened the door, which did not even creak.

The Temple

The door shut heavily behind him, shutting out the winter. Hal stood still, letting his eyes adapt to the darkness. The stale air smelled of burnt candles and Buddhist incenses. Slowly, he began to see the cozy interior of the building. A small room led to a hallway. Complete silence. Stepping cautiously, Hal entered the hallway barely wide enough for a man. He squeezed by several sliding doors, all shut. The hallway turned. Hal saw an open door. The room it opened into was surprisingly large and dimly lit with several candles. He entered and stopped, looking around.

A muffled cough came from somewhere in the room. Startled, Hal turned and barely made out a man in the darkness. The man got up with an effort. He was wearing simple clothes, had a bald head and leaned on a cane. He turned his face to Hal. He was very old. Hal didn’t know what to say so he just stood there. The man took several small steps towards Hal and stopped. His face was completely covered with wrinkles and he could not longer stand straight but his eyes gleamed with a child-like curiosity. He regarded Hal for a while and suddenly said “Hello”.

Hal was startled — not by the greeting but by the stark contrast between the monk’s aged appearance and the youthful energy of his voice. Additionally, the Japanese monk had absolutely no accent in English. Hal returned the greeting and apologized for the intrusion. The monk smiled widely and, without saying a word, pointed at the low wooden bench that Hal only now noticed. They sat in front of each other for sometime and then the monk broke the silence: “What brings you here, traveler?” Hal did not have an answer and just sat in silence.

The monk observed him attentively and suddenly asked: “Are you looking for happiness?”. Without thinking, Hal returned a quick Yes. The monk smiled and said “But it has always been with you.” Hal felt uneasy. He asked what the monk meant. The monk smiled again: “I can tell you a recipe for being happy. Always”. Hal could not help feeling that this is some kind of scam and the monk will ask for a down payment any time now. Hal’s incredulity must have come across as the monk chuckled and said: “No, it is very simple and you don’t owe me anything in return. One is most happy when one’s mind is fully on a single activity. Multitasking, self-reflection bring disaster.” With that, the monk got up, bowed deeply and went back into the darkness of the room, stepping laboriously. Dumbfounded, Hal got up as too. The contrast between the monk’s physical condition and the youthfulness and happiness of his voice was staggering. There was something about the monk that just would not let Hal discard him as an extravagant recluse.

At the Hotel

Hal opened his eyes. The neon sign above his hotel window flickered silently. Tokyo lights were shimmering outside but the double pane glass completely silenced the distant droning of the ever-present traffic. Hal turned around on his elbow. The digital clock built into the headboard showed 3:45am in soft amber. Back in the small room on the twenty fifth floor of a high-tech hotel the monk encounter felt faded and surreal. Hal listened intently. There was nothing but a subtle hiss of an invisible air-conditioning system.

Did it really happen? wondered Hal. And what did he really mean? Or was he just a crazy old man? This is all some Buddhist BS — I self-reflect all the time and I am happy... He paused and felt uneasy.

The inner Critic woke up: Really? When was the last time you felt truly, unconditionally happy?

Hal had to search his memory: Well, that time, driving the boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, gliding over the dark blue morning water, feeling the roar of the engine and all of its 260 horsepower shooting it forward, and the fresh wind ripping through my hair and seeing the deep wake... And the day before, hopping down a windy trail in a sea of golden grass, smelling the hot air permeated with pine fragrance... And the choir of cicadas...

The Critic would not give up: And were you multitasking at the time? Were you self-reflecting?

Hal answered with a surprise: Of course not... Too busy driving the boat and running down the trail, too immersed in the atmosphere...

Hal paused, startled by the realization that he, indeed, been most happy when he was fully absorbed in the moment, immersed in a video game, doing reverse circuits with his helicopter or fleshing out a new idea in mathematics, coding away in Lisp, or smashing in tennis or kissing for the first time. Hmm, the old monk may be onto something here. Excited, Hal rummaged through his memory, pulling past experiences out, tossing them, pulling more... The simple idea fully absorbed him and when he finally looked at the clock again, it was already 6:45am.

Hal sat up in bed, feeling the pleasant warmth spreading slowly over his body. The Critic was quiet and Hal smiled contently. He felt as if he had just figured out a tricky and very important puzzle. The satisfaction was subtle, yet pervasive and powerful. An external observer would have noticed the happiness on his face but there was no one in the small room to see Hal. The sun rose over Tokyo.

On the Shinkansen

It is really trivial!, thought Hal reclining in a deep seat of the Shinkansen. With a soft whistle, the bullet train was picking up speed, escaping the packed multilevel infrastructure of Tokyo, extending far above and below ground. You cannot force yourself not to self-reflect by reflecting on your thoughts. And whenever you monitor your thinking, you automatically multitask. So the only way not to multitask is to engage every faculty of your mind in a single task.

This realization was so simple that Hal now wondered how he had managed to blunder through the forty years of his life and not see it. This is why people like extreme sports — these intense activities absorb them completely, not leaving any mental resources to step out of the moment.

Taoism finally made sense. The way of non-action simply meant being in the moment and doing without trying to observe oneself. Emptying oneself and stilling the mind are also about avoiding self-reflection. Real sharpness comes without effort. Yes! Of course, it would, if one does not tell oneself to make effort but simply does instead... observed Hal. He was drunk with the realization but too absorbed in it to observe his excitement.

To London

With a soft hiss, as if exhaling, the train came to a stop in the giant terminal of Kansai airport. Hal effortlessly picked his small duffel bag from the overhead compartment and, with a light smile, walked towards the international terminal. The thrill of the chase fully engaged him. The credit card machine at the British Airways counter beeped and, with a quiet whir, produced a receipt. Hal signed it at once and was soon in possession of a mint ticket and a freshly printed boarding pass for his flight to Heathrow.

The 767 was flying through the night, looking like a giant beehive dimly lit from the inside. Hal felt giddy and focused at the same time. The excitement filled his body. He leaned back in his chair and looked at the glowing hands of his watch. It was two in the morning. He felt pleasant light tingling in his limbs and sank into dreamless sleep.

The double beep coming from the overhead console woke him up. The captain turned on the seat belt sign and a slender red-haired stewardess announced landing in 20 minutes. Taking delight in her British accent, Hal straightened up in his seat and looked outside. Rain drops were running horizontally across the porthole. The plane shook violently, dropped down through low patchy clouds and London came into view at once.

The idea of seeing her came almost 24 hours ago. It instantly snapped him out of his Tokyo melancholy and indifference. It gave him a purpose and a focus. It absorbed him and he spent the last day and night in high-speed trains, shuttle buses and extended-range jet airliners. The inner Critic has been silent but Hal hasn’t even noticed that. He was too engaged in the pursuit to self-reflect.

At the Bank

Hal stepped out of the tall black London cab a block away from her work. The lunch hour just started at Gemeinschaft Bank and countless business men and women were rushing through the light drizzle that filled the low London sky. The human streams were heading in all directions, colliding, splitting up and merging. Hal picked up speed, merged with one of the streams, left it rapidly and confidently walked towards the receptionist.

A pale freckled woman looked up from her desk, cluttered with sticky notes, telephones and computer screens. Obviously thinking of something else, she mechanically greeted Hal. He cheerfully asked to see Sana, holding his breath for the answer. An eternity must have passed. The receptionist dully announced that Sana is not in today. “Will she be in tomorrow?”, Hal asked, feeling his stomach drop. “No, sir, she is on vacation for a week”, the receptionist replied flatly.

The setback served only to maintain Hal’s focus. He walked out of the lobby and merged with another stream of businessmen. The crowd carried him to a food court where it split up into multiple queues ending up at various fast food counters. Hal ended up in a queue to a fish-and-chips place. Two women in front of him were chatting lively. Standing right up against them, Hal listened unintentionally while regarding the surroundings.

“... and he was like such a cool bloke, you know the type.” “Oh, yeah, Deb, he sounds like such a jock...”

Hal was losing focus and started self-reflecting. The inner Critic jumped at the opportunity: And so, my boy, this will teach you not to buy expensive airplane tickets on a whim! You thought you thought of everything, huh?

“...and I was out last night,” continued one of the women in front of Hal, “with this new girl, Sana...”

Instantly snapped Hal out of his reflections, Hal listened intently.

“... and she told me all about Russia! My dear — what a country!” The other girl looked with a surprise “And she told me about the guy she met on the Internet and...” “Oh, no, not one of those. A perv, surely!” “No, no, Sana said he is a nice guy out in Iceland. He does something with computers.” “Yawn”. “But Sana is completely crazy about him — she took off to Hawaii this morning to see him!” “I thought you said he was in Iceland? I don’t...”

By the time Deborah finished the sentence, Hal was already walking out of the building. He waved in a cab and, getting in, shot a decisive “Heathrow” at the driver.

Honolulu

The strong scent of the tropical flowers in the warm humid air hit Hal in the face as he walked out of Honolulu International airport. Brilliant white clouds in the cerulean sky. Hal squinted and headed for a lonely payphone on the side of the terminal. With a quick motion, he picked the heavy phone book chained to the telephone and flipped through to the hotel listing in Honolulu.

With a fistful of quarters in his pocket and a complimentary British Airways pen in his hand, he has been dialing through the mid to inexpensive hotels for the last half an hour. Airport patrons were running by, chatting on their cellphones. No one bothered him. “Good Afternoon, Best Western The Plaza Hotel!” a melodic voice on the other side greeted him. “Sana Kan, please”, Hal asked matter-of-factly, for the thirty fourth time. The silence lasted for a while. “Sir? Yes, I will connect you now”, she cheerfully came back. Hal hung up the receiver and left the booth.

Sana

He had been sitting in the lobby of the Best Western for three hours now. His body was aching after nearly two days of straight travel. Having crossed twenty timezones, he no longer knew if it was time to sleep or time to have lunch. He was sipping his ginger ale, drained and uncaring. Two overweight men were sitting at the bar, talking loudly a Southern drawl. A football game was on a large plasma TV above them. The men were presently discussing the cheerleaders.

Hal’s energy was gone. Nothing left, even to self-reflect. The inner Critic had long disappeared. Hal held the empty glass in front of him, lazily noticing the cold air blowing down from above. He was fading, catching fewer and fewer cheerleader comments. The game, the bar patrons, the droning of the air-conditioner were all merging into white noise.

Suddenly, he saw motion out of the corner of his eye. A slender girl walked across the lobby towards the elevator. She was wearing a brilliant white dress that started below her suntanned shoulders, stretched around her chest, tightly hugged her waist and ended just below her hips, revealing long legs. Hal did not have time to parse his observations. In an instant he felt fully awake. Getting off the spinning bar stool, he made a beeline for the elevator. Almost missing it, he turned sideways and snuck in between the closing doors. The girl pressed the button for her floor, the elevator obediently chimed and she looked up at the only other passenger. The next moment she cupped her mouth, suppressing a cry.

Before Sana stood Hal. He had not shaved for three days. His bloodshot eyes were wet, shining with triumph. He embraced her tightly, ran his fingers through her hair, looked closely at her face and, then, without a word, lost himself in a kiss.

He was happy.

The Discount Factor

Where Hal gets to see the non-discounted future.

On The Train

Hal was idly gazing at the dirty browns of the dreary French countryside, stretching to the horizon under the ragged low clouds. The TGV train car was swaying lightly, carrying him away from Paris at some 200 km/h. His mind drifted to the morning in their room at the Best Western — the image of Sana, still in bed, devastated by the sudden news of his departure. Propped on her elbow, she regarded him with unblinking wet eyes. Her body under the thin hotel sheets was still except for the rapid rhythm of her breathing.

Hal leaned back against the tall airplane-style seat with a red-on-white TGV logo under his head. Under the seat stood a small attaché case. He felt its corrugated aluminum surface brush against his leg. Hal recalled chasing Sana around the world. How much fun it was! The globe was spinning under him as he racked up time zones from Tokyo to London to Hawaii... And the triumphant meeting in Honolulu—how happy he was in her embrace... And how short-lived the following paradise. Was there any way to foresee it?, Hal kept wondering. If I only knew...

For the next fifty kilometers Hal wondered how his life would have been different had he known the future. Would I have pursued Sana? God No! The train car jolted slightly and the attaché case reminded him of its presence. What about being an academic?... He paused. Probably. Albeit I would have done things differently. So very differently... Yes, it would be positively great to know the future, he concluded.

Without warning a terrible shock wave ran through the train. Before the sound of a collision reached his ears, he saw the front wall of the car imploding rapidly towards him, smashing him in the face. He instantly passed out.

Escape from the Wreck

He woke up to the acrid stench of burning plastic. Thick yellow smoke obscured the surroundings. Hal’s mouth was filled with something warm and salty. He tried to get up but his foot was caught in the ripped metal of the floor. He bent down to free it and noticed white ash covering everything. The attaché case was missing. Hal twisted himself out of the rubble of plastic and metal and, coughing furiously, groped around. His right hand felt a ball of sticky wet pulsating snakes. Hal recoiled, tripped, got up and rushed on. A cut on his cheek. His sweater caught. He pulled hard, feeling the sweater rip. He could not see what he was stepping on through the smoke but felt that he was climbing over piled luggage. The smoke momentarily parted and he saw a ragged opening torn in the side wall of the car. Without thinking, Hal jumped through, hit the embankment and rolled down the gravel, coming to rest against a dry thicket.

He slowly got up and looked back. The damage was catastrophic. Crumpled like the bellows of an accordion, the train cars were impossibly propped against each other. Many were burning, yellow smoke billowing out of the broken windows. The grounds around the railway were strewn with debris and personal belongings. The silence (Hal could still hear only ringing in his ears) made the scene look even more surreal. Feeling weak in his knees, he backed away from the scene, perversely unable to take his eyes off it. Almost tripped, he noticed his attaché case, now dirty and dented! Hal lifted it up, suddenly felt very weak and fainted.

At the Hospital

He opened his eyes: regular white panels of the ceiling above. The naked fluorescent tubes buzzed unevenly, in contrast to a medical monitor which steadily beeped at regular intervals. Lifting himself up, Hal slowly looked around. The small hospital room housed two beds. The bed next to him was empty. Hal thought he saw a dark stain on it. Blood? Suddenly he felt the cold air pumped in by the invisible air-conditioning system.

The door opened and a male nurse walked in. He looked tired and rushed. Hal could not follow the nurse’s French but realized that he was being discharged. He clumsily got off the bed and followed the nurse through a maze of corridors. Walking unsteadily Hal felt numb, witnessing the commotion throughout the hospitals, doctors and nurses, their masks on, rushing into operating rooms; some urgent announcements coughed out of the PA system.

Still numb, Hal robotically signed a series of forms given to him by the front desk clerk who spoke broken English. The last form was to sign off for his personal effects which consisted of his dented attaché case. Feeling lost and overwhelmed, Hal walked out of the hospital and hailed a cab, a dark blue Škoda Fabia.

At the Hotel

He checked into the first hotel in sight and climbed the creaky narrow staircase. The key with a roughly cut wooden fob opened a tall door. Hal slipped in and locked the dead bolt behind him. Finally alone, he sat down at the tiny old desk, carefully placed his attaché case onto the desktop and, with measured movements, popped both latches. The contents were in disarray, the packs of bills mixed up with his notebook and travel documents. Some packs broke up and the euro banknotes were spread inside the case like autumn leaves.

Hal found himself automatically arranging the escaped bills into packs. Picking up another 100-euro bill, he suddenly saw prescription glasses poking out from the pile. Hal paused and then cautiously picked the glasses out. They were of a simple design but high quality. He ran his finger over the arms and the frame and then put them on. The picture didn’t change, the lenses were plain. Hmm... The hospital must have thrown in the glasses by mistake. I ought to go back and return them. Damn. What hospital was it? Jean Claude? No... Jean-Pierre something. Damn...

He took the glasses off and went to the kitchenette to grab a drink from the fridge. Having poured a glass of orange pop he leaned back in the chair and looked at the glasses on the desk. Soft warm breeze entered through an open window and rustled the white curtains. Hal picked up the glasses again, played with them in his hand and then put them on.

Something had changed. He could not tell what, but the room appeared somehow different. Perplexed, Hal reached out for the glass of fizzling drink and almost dropped it. The yellow bubbly was now black, heavy and slimy. It didn’t fizzle but was full of moving bone-colored dots. Hal looked closer: they were small worms and they were alive. Disgusted and confused, he cautiously put the glass back on the table careful not to spill the repulsive fluid. His eyes hurt. Hal took the glasses off, rubbed the eyes vigorously, looked backed at the drink and froze: the drink looked bright yellow again. It innocently bubbled in a foggy glass. Just a normal glass of a chilled carbonated drink on a hot summer afternoon. Hal felt cold sweat on his forehead. The room suddenly became very quiet. He heard the irregular noises of the fanless fridge.

A pigeon cooed in the gently rustling acacia tree outside Hal’s room. A bell tower tolled five o’clock and the curtain moved under the dry summer breeze. Hal was sitting back in his chair, steadily regarding the innocent-looking glass of pop as if it were full of a deadly virus. His lips felt dry, but he could not bring himself to even touch the glass, let alone drink from it.

Could it be from the train accident? I was out for some time. How long? Couldn’t have been more than 10 – 15 minutes... The first responders hadn’t even arrived by then. No. Something is very wrong here.

Hal got up and walked to the bathroom to splash his face with cold water. He then grabbed his light leather jacket and headed out to get some dinner. He slipped he glasses into his rear pocket and gave the drink one last look. A droplet of condensation ran down its side. Hal decidedly shut the door and walked out of the building, taking in a deep breath of sweet evening air.

The Discotheque

It was dark when he finished his dinner. Reluctant to return to his tiny hotel room, Hal slowly walked down a narrow cobble stone street. His thoughts returned to the treacherous glass. Unsettled, Hal absentmindedly followed the street which was now flooded with a crowd of party goers. The girls appeared to wear a de facto uniform: black mini skirts, high-heeled platform shoes and tight white t-shirts. The guys were uniformly muscular, had dirty blond hair and wore bootcut jeans. Their chiseled tanned faces were fashionably unshaven. Hal felt old in this company of twenty-some-year olds. He saw a basement door with deep muffled drum-and-base coming from the inside, slipped a fifty into the bouncer’s hand and entered the club.

This was an 80s styled retro place, complete with a disco ball, laser smoke and the music that would have been at home in an early Seagal flick. Seating himself down at the bar, Hal slowly looked around. The club was still filling up, the patrons streaming in through the narrow entrance. The bright red and blue lights rotated on the ceiling, flashing in synchrony with the deafening percussion, as if an army of police cars laid siege outside the club. Half a dozen girls were dancing on a slightly raised floor, each attempting to outdo the others with her disco skills. Hal glanced over them, slowly sweeping the rest of the audience. A few guys, already noticeably intoxicated, were sitting by the dance floor, pointing at the girls, shouting something to each other, drowned by the music.

He twirled the glasses in his hand and then, on the whim, put them on. The young dancers were gone. Instead Hal saw a dirty dark room with a number of seniors sitting at their tables. The women’s skin was pale and wrinkled from a lifetime of heavy makeup use. They visibly strained to hear each other despite raising their voices. One of them coughed furiously. The muscular jocks became overweight men with profound hair loss. Their beer guts were hanging out. Their eyes were sunk in the sockets. Some were holding cheap cigars in their fat ring-covered fingers. His mouth agape, Hal slowly looked around. A retirement home disco night... I will be damned. He looked down at his ginger ale and froze – in front of him was a dark-green thick slimy liquid slowly twirling in its glass, seemingly on its own accord. Its foul stench reached Hal’s nostrils. He flinched and the glasses slipped off his nose. The disco scene instantly returned. The song changed to “One Way Ticket” and the girls were imitating a choo-choo train, their bodies rhythmically pulsating. This must have inspired one of the drunks to climb onto the stage but he lost his balance and fell back onto his buddies, to their great amusement. The girls blew kisses to the fallen guy. Feeling a total stranger, Hal made a dash for the exit, grabbing the glasses off the table.

At the Bistro

A broad shadow of a palm tree covered Hal’s entire table. A detachment of pink ragged clouds was marching in the azure sky. Warm breeze gently rustled the palm tree leaves above Hal. It was a perfect lunch on a perfect day. Too perfect. As if it is making up for the yesterday’s nightmare... reflected Hal, working through his seafood eggs Benedict.

A large bearded man in his mid thirties was sitting behind Hal. Smugly playing with a Bimmer key fob in his hand, he was lazily conversing with two giggly young companions. Casually leaning back in his chair, the man wore pastel colored striped summer shorts and a loose T-shirt with a reproduction of the “You are leaving the American sector” sign. There was an air of superiority about him as if he were a Bohemian artist on a benevolent visit with the regular folk, mildly amused at their plainness. Or perhaps he is just certain of the fun later this evening... Hal smirked and turned back to his meal. The egg Benny tasted good.

On the other side of Hal sat a very tall slender man wearing a black leather jacket and matching pants. He was reaching down under the table and Hal could not see his face. He finally straightened out and set a motorcycle helmet down, taking up most of the tiny table. A Harley Davidson in rural France? Bonus points, dude! smirked Hal. The man turned towards Hal with a polite cultured smile. He had a long and narrow face with refined features. A biker prof? wondered Hal picking up the last piece of the Benny. His neighbor presently produced a worn-out book and started reading through it in concentration. Hal glanced at the title and stopped chewing: “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” – a classic from the 40s. The summer breeze suddenly felt chilly. Cautiously and slowly Hal reached for his jacket on the back of his chair and felt the glasses in the inner pocket. He held them for a few moments, ran his finger against the satin steel of the frame, hesitating. As he was putting them on he felt a shove from behind and instinctively turned around. The Bohemian fellow was still there but he was now completely bald, showing shiny overly tanned skin. His beard was shaggy and gray. The two girls were nowhere to be seen. He put down an empty Scotch glass next to his Porsche key fob. He must have accidentally hit Hal with his elbow.

Hal sat very still, expressly feeling the glasses on the bridge of his nose. He inhaled deeply through his nostrils, slipped the glasses back into the inner jacket pocket and left the bistro without even looking at the biker.

Back in the Room

Hal opened the door to his room and cautiously peeked inside. The orange pop glass was nowhere to be seen. Housekeeping had also done up the bed. He sat down at the desk and opened the top drawer. There was a stack of travel brochures. The top sported a page spread showing a chain of bamboo huts standing over the impossibly transparent water. Their shadows were clearly visible on the ocean’s white sand bottom. The huts were connected by wooden bridges, extending far off the atoll’s beach. An attractive model dressed in ethnic clothing was smiling invitingly. MALDIVES, Hal flipped through the pages. A happy family, smiling enthusiastically through the snorkeling masks, looked at Hal from the center spread. He pulled the glasses out of the jacket and put them on. He barely recognized the ad: heavy dark clouds hung low over a wall of rain. Waves of the murky water rolled over the rickety bridges. Palm trees bent under the heavy wind. Something stuck out of the brochure – a credit card statement tallying the vacation expenses. Hal whistled in surprise when he saw the bottom line and promptly took the glasses off. The credit card statement vanished and the beautiful model seemed to wink at him.

Well, there is always work. Mathematics will always make sense for it is self-contained. It does not depend on fashion, commerce or politics. Hal smiled to himself, as if he had just discovered a secret sanctuary from the chaos of the world. He opened the attaché case and placed a few papers on the desk. Working through the pages, he heard the steady drip of the coffee maker. Soon the bold coffee smell wafted through the room. Hal grinned with pleasure, getting up to grab the mug.

Four hours have passed unnoticed. The shadow of the window frame has crept across the room, now touching the desk. Satisfied with the progress, Hal got up to stretch and walked to the window. Pigeons were still cooing in the acacia trees. A gust of wind brought a sound of children playing in the distance. Sipping the coffee from his mug, Hal looked down at the rental Lancia Delta Integrale parked across the street. Anticipating a fun evening drive, he turned back towards the desk and glanced at the glasses. Still holding the coffee mug, he casually put the glasses on and looked at the papers on the table. The formulæ looked unchanged, just as he expected. Feeling smug, Hal flipped a few pages and got to the bibliography section which was now full of numbers scribbled in the margins, next to the referenced papers. Startled, he realized that they indicate the number of citations to the papers. The numbers were disconcertingly low. Anxiously, Hal flipped the page to get to his own papers. There were zeros next to them. Nobody cited his work. Hal took the glasses off and slowly leaned back in the chair. Write-only memory... The hidden fortress of mathematics no longer felt untouchable. The nagging question of purpose loomed over it. He grabbed his jacket and left the room.

The Town

Hal crossed the street, discretely pressing the unlock button on the key fob in his pocket. The pearl white Delta chirped twice. The door closed with a muted thunk, shutting off the summer afternoon. Feeling the snugly Recaro racing seat against his back, he turned the ignition. The engine woke up with an uneven growl. Moving the shifter into the first gear, releasing the clutch and depressing the accelerator merged into one swift motion. With a loud squeal all four wheels slipped over the cobble stone. The car lurched away from the curb as if shot from a cannon. The tachometer arm swept the dial, kissing the red line. The throaty exhaust note of punctuated by the Garrett turbocharger rose to a high-pitch scream, Hal dropped it into the second gear, the wheels gave a momentary slip and the sound echoed off the sleepy stucco facades.

Windows rolled down, Hal was cruising along the Azure coast. The white fence poles trimmed the twisty mountain road. He enjoyed the clockwork precision of the Delta, the raw unrefined power of its engine, the sticky grip of the wide summer tires and the flawless operation of the Torsen differential. The car was becoming an extension of his body and he could barely tell where he ended and where the marvel of the Italian automotive industry began. The bibliography was not even a distant memory. Hal’s cares dissolved in the warm wind roaming freely through the boxy cabin. He felt the familiar smell of a beach camp fire. He was coherent.

Several hours later he found himself entering a quaint town nestled in the foothills. One-lane streets snaked around old houses whose long shadows appeared painted on as if on a movie set. Hal pulled up to a grocery store, shut engine off and climbed out of the car, now distinctly feeling his legs again. He stretched. The car exhaust ticked rapidly, its metal pipes cooling off.

Hal headed in and grabbed a generic bottle of juice out of the refrigerator. Walking up to the register he saw an old woman. Slouching from her age, she was fumbling through the change in her wallet. Two teenagers standing behind her were making fun of her while popping chewing gum bubbles. The cashier impatiently snatched the change out of her wrinkled palm, quickly counted and demanded more. The woman was startled by her counting mistake. The cashier repeated himself, unnecessarily raising his voice. The teenagers smacked the bubble gum, not even pretending to hide their discontent. The woman reached into her wallet again looking for the missing amount. Hal stood still, feeling a lump forming in his throat. He lunged forward, roughly pushed the teenagers out of his way, dropped a twenty euro bill on the counter and gently led the woman out of be store, not waiting for the astonished cashier to dispense the change.

On the street the woman looked up to him. Her face was wrinkled beyond recognition but the wet eyes shone with appreciation. Profusely thanking him she slowly shuffled off to a narrow street, the baguette sticking out of her worn out grocery bag. Hal didn’t move. He looked at his car, realizing that he had just blown twice her monthly grocery budget on his brief joy ride. The car’s sculpted body smugly gleamed under the disappearing sun. The wide performance tires obnoxiously stuck out from the wheel wells. Michelin. Recaro. Torsen. Hal felt disgusted with his own indulgence. Uneasily slipping into the Delta, he softly closed the door and cautiously drove away afraid that the old woman would look back.

On the Cliff

It was dark when he pulled over at a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Hal sat down on the burnt golden grass and leaned back against the front wheel, starring at the waves rolling below him. The rest of the drive was miserable. He could not get the image of the old woman frantically counting the coins out of his head.

Why did I live when the entire train of people perished in an instant? Dumb luck? Hal looked up. The stars twinkled in the dark blue, as usual. Souls of those who died?... Utter nonsense. There is no purpose to this life. We rose from the primodal soup through eons of blind mutation. We blunder through our brief lives until we meaninglessly perish, our bodies merge with dust, completing the cycle. The old lady will be gone soon. I will follow shortly after. That’s all there is.

He suddenly felt dead tired. The sharp alloy rim under his back had completely cooled off and the cold metal made its presence known through Hal’s jacket. He felt outraged as if someone had given him another crack at life and he blew it driving expensive rental cars and pleasing his taste buds. He pulled the glasses out and held them in his hand. The stars reflected in the narrow lenses. A cicada choir filled the nocturnal air. Hal put the glasses on and looked around. The stars and the sea did not change. The waves still rolled steadily, oblivious of the existential drama. A fleece of constellations twinkled above.

It suddenly clicked — his wish to know the long-term effects of his actions was granted. The glasses! He slowly took them off, paused and then, swinging with all his might, hurled them into the surf below the cliff. Deep numbness overtook him. He closed his eyes and drifted into the night.

The Discount Factor

The sun rose swiftly over the horizon and kissed Hal’s face. He rubbed his eyes. Shrugging from the morning chill and covered with the dew, he got up and looked around. The Delta was missing but he did not care. He slowly walked back to the road and, squinting at the rising sun, noticed a vehicle approaching.

An old VW surfer van came to a stop and the passenger side window unevenly rolled down. The driver, a youthful middle-aged woman, rewarded Hal with a knowing smile. Her long auburn hair streamed down the shoulders. She wore no make-up. A simple one-piece canvas-colored dress hugged her slender frame. There was something very familiar about her. Trying to recall where he had seen her before, Hal’s eyes swept the van: a cup holder held a water glass with a dandelion hand-painted on the side. An acoustic guitar with a worn out shoulder strap was wedged between the front seats. A small notebook sat on the passenger seat, open in the middle. The top of the stained page was filled with scribbled sheet music. At the bottom there was a verse. Hal unwillingly read it:

The last line was underlined in red. Feeling his stomach drop, Hal looked up at the driver. A red pen sat on her lap. It was still uncapped. She winked at him and, with a grinding noise, shifted the lever into the first gear. Without a word Hal climbed in. She released the clutch and, with a strained rattle of the air-cooled engine, the van sped up along the empty road. There was only the brilliant cerulean sky ahead.