Andrew Paul Grell
“Watch your step, it’s a very narrow alley with loose cobbles. You would not believe how far you are from an ambulance. Be aware of where you put your feet.” My—what? Guide? Conductor? Abductor? A tall entity in a cliched Sci-Fi pilgrim’s cloak and a voice like the serpent in Passion of the Christ—seemed to be quite safety conscious. For good reason, it seems. The alley lay mainly in shadow.
“You may feel like singing ‘cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!’” He continued.
I noticed I was not alone on this—what? Three-hour tour? Perp walk? Trip to the second location? We started walking. The walls were interrupted at times by what appeared to be freight-receiving entrances to businesses, and at others by rough-hewn “windows” as if people were homesteading their tiny living spaces by right of usucapion. How did I know that word Glancing around at my companions, I tried to see if anyone possessed a clue.Glancing took some effort in the Concourse’s narrow confines, which looked to me like a smaller version of Hoboken Street in Manhattan’s West Village. How did I know that? One woman, in a baseball jersey printed “Cherry Grove Chuckers” and a logo of a maraschino cherry with baseball seams, was familiar. Some of the others seemed vaguely familiar. I couldn’t put a name to a single face, nor could I fathom why I would be exercising extreme caution in a narrow alley which, for some reason, was called a Boulevard. The other faces were similarly glancing around, seeking enlightenment. One of the faces did more than glance at me. It called out a name.
“Pat! I know you! Can you tell me who I am?” The face was desperate, but I became less so; that was my name. Pat Olshiver. The face belonged to Kim Philby. Somehow, I hadn’t known who or where I was or why, yet I had no problem remembering the name of “The Third Man.” Connections were starting to be made within the group, names to faces, faces to identities. When one person remembered another face’s name, the memory bounced back; neutrons of memory causing a nuclear chain reaction. I turned to Kim and then to Cherry Grove. Her name was Sabina. I asked them if they remembered being on a bus. Most of us remembered being on a bus. Especially since one of us was wearing a Martz Bus driver’s uniform. We were going to the Poconos. For a wedding. This must be a dream. I remembered we would be going from Mt. Airy to Philadelphia the next day to see the Mets clinch the division over the Phillies; definitely a dream. But we were not on a mountain, there was no white gown, no baseball stadium, no Cracker-Jacks. Our—host, I think, would be the best term—led us out of the shadowy alley and we breached into a broad plaza curving in on itself. He, she, or it addressed us once again.
“I’m sure you have many questions, and I will likely be able to give you at least brief answers, so…” He was instantly cut off by eight of us clamoring to know what happened in the Mets-Phillies game. It was amazing to see our host annoyed while still wearing what looked like the cloak Spock would wear when he didn’t want his ears seen.
“That’s the least of your concerns. Cabrera reached third on a Reyes error in the 13 th and made it home on a Blevins wild pitch. 7-6 Philadelphia.” Emotions clashed. Our situation was slowly coming into focus. We were magically somewhere we couldn’t rationally be after riding on a bus over twisty I-80, but we were all bummed that the Mets couldn’t clinch. We would not be catching the rubber game, apparently.
“You’re dead, in case you didn’t know it already. A Kenworth milker, illegally hauling bootleg gasoline, swerved to avoid the last Yugo in America and collided with your bus. Milk trucks have minimal fire suppression systems. Seventy-two people died; everyone on the bus and 18 in nearby cars. The twelve of you are here because you have positive Karma balances and you get to have some say in what happens next. All of you managed to navigate the Vaitarna from headwaters to Delta; none of you were required to cross it. You can visit the shops along the Galleria and spend your Karma on what you’d like to do in your next life. To simplify this, we’ve put Karma in monetary terms. You’ve all been credited with one thaler for each year of
your life and the years of your children’s and pets’ lives, plus one ducat for every act of loving kindness, three florins for every difficult obligation fulfilled. Any questions?”
Oddly enough, the first wave of questions was about how the money worked and what a thaler was. These are the people with positive Karma balances? Presented with a chance to shape their lives, they worry about ducats and florins? I’d say I’d hate to see the negative- balance people, but likely I had when I was alive. Our host fielded the inter-cosmogony exchange rate questions and then started on the second round. The answer to everyone’s “What do I do now?” question was the same.
“Look in the shops. If you like a life, buy it. If you can’t afford it, try another shop. If you see a life in a shop and don’t buy it but then change your mind and come back after looking elsewhere, the price goes up by ten percent. So shop wisely.” A jingle-jangle sound accompanied his advice: we all had coin purses now.
While he was talking, Sabina was staring at me. She came close and in whispered harshly, “You’re my wife!” I remembered. We were on the rocks. Rocks. Ha. We were the fucking Hesperus breached by the Edmond Fitzgerald. We went on this trip to see if we could repair the damage. I don’t think it worked; there were some issues on the bus before the crash.
Me being who I am, even if I was dead, I was compelled to poke a stick into this hornets’ nest. I sucked in my gut and asked our host to provide a solution to the Goldbach conjecture. I told him that for all we know, we’re harvested brains in a matrix but that if he knew the answer, which absolutely no one on earth knew, this experience may well be real. He came close and whispered a 14-digit number in my ear and said the library computer would allow me to confirm the counter-example. Then he waved at us and slipped into a tea shop, the door of which faded until it was just a knob on a wall.
First stop, library. Patience and Fortitude, the lions, guarded the entrance. I claimed a computer, bypassed the UI, opened a shell, found a prime number list, and confirmed that Goldbach was wrong. If only I could carry this number back to the land of the quick.
The first shop to catch my eye was the pet store. For 37 ducats I could come back as a family pet dog. I would be born retired. Tempting, but not for me. I now burned to move from hacker to mathematician. I saw Kim, Sabina, and the driver outside what looked like a schoolhouse. We all went in. Junior High Strumpet was on special, and the driver took it. Poor guy. I had started out with “that” life and kept going until I realized who I was and what I wanted. After the mistakes and the missed opportunities, sadly. Sabina was still trying to patch things up. She put her hands over my eyes and walked me for a while; when I opened my eyes, we were at a recruiting station. “Let’s be soldiers,” my 87%-ex-wife said. She was the tough one. I kissed her goodbye and walked across the plaza to a shop with brick facing and an ivy- looped tower. I paid my 137 ducats and a shilling, and Vaitarna Boulevard and Concourse disappeared.
After the Fields Medal ceremony, my closest friends and colleagues corralled me in a Christ Church, New Zealnd dive; the southernmost bar in the southernmost decent-sized city in the world. We sat in the back with three bottles of Jameson and they forced me to tell them how I got the counter-example. It should have been another 30 years, even with factoring in Moore’s
Law, until it would have been found. I finally got to the punch line.
I became a mathematician but also a soldier; there was a recruitment push for cyber- warriors. I was stationed in a bunker in Yemen providing SigInt for our partners when a proxy party found us. For the first time as a military officer, I grabbed my weapon to confront an enemy. In the space between the time I pulled the trigger and when the bullet pierced his keffiyeh-covered terrorist skull, I saw it was Sabina I was killing. That’s why I drink,
and that’s why I wear a Buddhist saffron robe when I drink. I guess I received a little crumb of enlightenment…”