By Paul G. Tremblay
Like a lot of kids, Tommy hated math. Tommy really hated it.
Evidence: his D minus minus minus average in sixth grade math. He hated his pencil and clear plastic ruler that had inches and things called ‘centimeters’ What the heck was a centimeter, anyway? Sounded like a nasty bug etched on both sides. He hated his notebook, his workbook with the stupid math-puzzles and math-games, and math textbook where complex beasts like long division chewed the pages. Tommy hated his teacher and his classmates—they were too smart.
So being a bigger kid than most, he took out his frustrations on them with his fists.
Yup, all of his problems were because of math.
And they were about to get much worse.
On the two and half mile walk home from school—possibly another reason, besides math that is, why the kid was always a grump—Tommy cut through the park. A small wooded area with two well-manicured paths that wound through the greenery. Right smack in the middle of the park was a collection of black, metal benches that looked like big dead spiders. The benches were usually empty as most kids were too scared to sit on them.
But today there sat a man.
There were quite a few things odd about this stranger. He didn’t look very big. The man was probably only half a head taller than Tommy. And he sat slumped with his hands mashed into pasty white cheeks. The man dressed in black, the same black of the benches. Black pants and a billowy black overcoat and a black hat. Tommy couldn’t remember the name for that type of hat, but his grandfather wore one like it.
No matter, Tommy was more interested in the man’s glasses. Scratches filled the lenses; some up and down, some horizontal, and some diagonal. But the scratches looked almost fake. They were too straight, as if someone drew them in with a ruler.
Ug, he hated rulers!
And equally as weird, each lens was shaped like a stop sign
“My glasses intrigue you, little boy, I know it’s true,” the man said.
Tommy nearly yelped with surprise. But it wasn’t the man’s singsong voice that startled him. No.
Tommy had sat next to the man on the bench without realizing it!
Tommy stood quickly, as if he’d sat on a tack, and stuffed his hands into his pockets.
“Oh, yeah,” he said and stepped away from the bench.
“Octagons, my friend. Each lens is an octagon. I thought you should know that before you’re gone,” the man said. And he cackled like a crow.
Math! Jeez, now it was even following Tommy home. Math, math, math. Everywhere. Tommy’s anger and hatred for all things math surged. He’d never punched an adult in the face. God knows he’d hit every math-geek in the sixth grade. And Tommy wanted to slam this guy. A grown-up math-geek. Tommy clenched his fists, turned, and walked toward the man with octagonal glasses.
“What are you, some kind of goof math teacher?” Tommy’s voice dripped with venom. He imagined his hard little fist pulverizing those funny-looking glasses.
The man ignored Tommy’s rude question.
“An octagon, my friend, is a perfect shape, a shape perfect until the end.” The man smiled, displaying chalk-white teeth.
Was this man making fun of Tommy? Did he think Tommy was so dumb that he’d never heard of an octagon?
“You’re wrong, mister. My teacher says a circle is the perfect shape,” he said, satisfied that he was able to remember something that his teacher had said.
Even if it was only stupid math.
“No, octagons are much more pleasing. From each point—and a point I’m sure we’ll discuss before your leaving—on my octagonal shaped glasses, I can draw 5 diagonals! You say diagonalize 7 more times? Why one finds, a total of 19 distinct lines!” The man spoke impossibly fast and without breathing. He waved his thin talon-like hands in the air as if performing magic.
Tommy was completely lost.
Diagonals? What the heck were those, anyway?
“Whatever. You must’ve been a math-geek as a kid, I bet. HA! It all means nothing to me, mister,” Tommy said, proud of himself.
The man groaned as if he’d been punched in the stomach. Tommy turned to see the man’s eyes sharpen to a point and his wormy lips quivering.
“It’s elementary! Well, don’t you see? 5 and 19 are primes. Primes that excite me every time! Why, 5 plus 19 is…” The man paused and wrote his equation in the air with a finger as long as a snake. “…24! And what rhymes with that number?” The man looked to Tommy as if waiting to hear the greatest words ever spoken.
Tommy fiddled with his sagging backpack, frustration rising again. Oh man, I shouldn’t have to answer math questions on the walk home, he thought.
“Um…err…um…4?” he said.
The man whooped and clapped.
“Excellent! I could not have asked for a more prudent student. Now, this isn’t the best of my tricks, but 24 divided by 4 is 6.”
Tommy, unimpressed, said nothing.
“No time for slumber, because 6 is a perfect number. Take your fingers and count 1-2-3, you see, they each divide 6 without a doubt, 1-2-3 strikes your out! Add them together, 1 plus 2 plus 3, and you’re back to six easily.”
“What’s up with the rhyming? What are you, a poet or a math-geek?” asked
Tommy. Beat him up, he thought. He’s not that big. When the other kids in school hear that I even beat up an adult math-geek, I’ll rule the school!
“Neither and both, both and neither. Mathematics is poetry and poetry is mathematics. The patterns and rhythms of poetry are as dependent on numbers, as say, geometry. You see, numbers are code for life, the language of chaos and reason, they describe simple equations and the complexity of seasons. So, while not my profession, numbers are my passion.”
The man stood from his bench and was bigger than Tommy had originally thought. Black coat swirled in a suddenly howling wind.
As much as he wanted to mash the stranger, Tommy secretly wished the man with octagonal glasses was his math teacher. Oh he’d never admit it, but Tommy knew that this guy would be more exciting than old Ms. Sliderule.
The early spring sun was setting behind the park’s trees, throwing pink and orange on the new leaves. It was getting late. Tommy unclenched his fists, as he probably couldn’t beat the man up anyway, even though he was a math-geek. And Tommy didn’t want to miss the last afternoon cartoons for math in the park.
The man spoke as though he was reading Tommy’s mind. “Wait! There is so much more to confide,” the man said while walking toward Tommy. “An octagon, my friend, has 8 sides. Here it is, now, the key to everything that you wanted to know about everything that you wanted to know!” The man threw his arms into the air as if signaling touchdown. “Push 8 onto its side and you have…YOU HAVE! Sweet infinity! Every number, large and small, positive and negative, containing, yes even containing the Divinity…oh, the simple looping symbol of infinity.”
Confused, Tommy said, “I don’t get your point.” Tommy knew that infinity meant never ending numbers, counting and counting forever. But was this guy saying that numbers were divine?
The man smiled and now talked in a hushed tone. “And there’s the crux, the beginning of it all, there is nothing so small, a point. In fact, a point has no size at all! A point is just a position or place, yet without the point, there is no octagon, circle, sphere, or even space.” The man’s voice grew louder again. “Not even a simple line can exist nor persist without an infinite string of points, and that’s the amazing thing, because a string of points is an infinite string of NOTHING!
“You see, Divinity is turning a bunch of nothing, into infinity…” The man closed eyes and breathed deep. “That is what I want. I need an infinite amount of points to create what I want.
“And all I want are lines, and my lines are Divine.”
Tommy looked at the scratches on the man’s glasses.
Except they weren’t scratches.
They were lines.
The man took off his glasses and his blue eyes danced in his sockets. A smile bared his chalk-white teeth again, only it wasn’t very friendly.
“You’re crazy,” Tommy said, staring at the engraved lines that were now glowing on the lenses. And he was very afraid
“And, my friend, I’m sorry to say that I’ll be taking your point today.”
The man reached for Tommy.
Tommy saw bright light pouring from the glasses, then the long black-cloaked arm, but felt nothing.
And then, Tommy was nothing.
Nothing but a point.
A point on a line on one of the lenses of the man’s octagonal glasses.
The man carefully traced that one line of the particular lens with a long fingernail, and said, “My line, how divine.”