an excerpt from MAGIC NUMBERS

Magic Numbers

 

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, Life, Karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference.

— Steve Jobs
2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech


1

Clearer Vision

 

“Which is clearer? One…or two. One…or two.”

She presses her forehead firmly into the phoropter and concentrates on the letters. As the optometrist flicks the lenses, Nance unconsciously makes a small hum sound in the back of her throat and ponders the question.

“Umm. Two,” she responds hesitantly.

Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click-click.

“What about now? One? Or two. One…or two.”

This is the part of the eye exam Nance detests. It’s stupid, subjective and hasn’t changed since her first glasses prescription years ago. If only the doctor would take a moment to explain how this test works – wouldn’t it create a lot less anxiety? Maybe the problem wasn’t with her at all. Maybe the doctor was simply asking the wrong question: Which is clearer? Such a literal question with the expectation of a definitive answer. Nance knows there are very different interpretations of clarity. Why not ask: Which is better for you? or Which do you prefer? or Is this clear yet?

Preference? Nance has a firm grasp on personal preferences. But clarity? Clarity is another matter entirely.

Adding to Nance’s hesitancy is a magazine article she’s just read in the optometrist’s waiting room explaining how doctors frequently perform this eye test in blur mode – an intentional technique known as “fogging” – used by doctors to clarify inconsistencies in their patients’ initial answers. Similar to other life experiences, the worst thing a patient can do is attempt to outwit the professional, or believe there is some pattern to the correct answers. Any of which will negatively affect the test results.

Sensing Nance’s growing anxiety, the doctor swings the phoropter aside.

“You know, Nance, I perform this test about 4,000 times a year. I have a feel for when patients are answering the questions properly. Take a few slow, deep breaths and let’s take it from the top.”

Nance blinks her dilated eyes and smiles stupidly at the doctor before he replaces the machine and begins the test again. Idiot, Nance thinks. Four thousand times a year and he still can’t get accurate answers.

Dressed in a dove-gray business suit, silk blouse, suede pumps, her long hair swept up in a stylish chignon, pale pink pearl earrings set in sterling, with just a hint of blush and perfectly manicured nails, a very adult Nance is seated in the optometrist’s padded chair. This time, as she looks through the tiny round windows at the blurred letters on the far wall, Nance experiences a flashback.

For a moment she is ten years old, face pressed hard against the cold metal of the machine, nervous, anxious, squinting, squirming. Her short legs stick straight out into space in front of the chair, knees scabbed from her most recent bicycle wipeout, nails chewed nearly as ragged as the toes of her red canvas Keds. Her ponytailed blonde hair is much in need of a good combing, but her clothes are neat and clean: orange polyester shorts and a sleeveless orange and white gingham checked shirt.

She recalls her very first pair of pink-framed prescription glasses from that long ago exam – the result of which had to be returned because she couldn’t see through them clearly without squinting. As Nance watches her younger self struggling to give accurate answers to this eye test, she reminds her adult self to pay attention to the here and now.

Technology has advanced light-years since then – certainly there must be a more sophisticated instrument for measuring and matching eyesight to lenses by now, Nance thinks. Yet here she is once more, being asked the same question with no good answer.

“One or two. One, or two. Or are they about the same.”

Both choices are blurry and out of focus, each in their own unique way. So how is she to answer?

“About the same,” Nance promptly repeats.

Both blurry, neither lens a candidate for clearing her vision, but she does not elaborate. So the doctor moves on to the next set of lenses, which are no better than the first.

“Which one is clearer? One or two. One or two,” the lenses clicking and flicking in front of her eyes.

On it continues until Nance impatiently chooses a lens with very little improvement from where the process began. And as the appointment ends, Nance wonders if she will go to her grave, old and blind, having recently been asked, “One or two. One or two. Or are they about the same?”

Leaving the doctor’s office with a new but worthless lens prescription in hand, Nance’s thoughts return to the dilemma at hand. She doesn’t like the choices developing there either. None of the information she’s recently obtained is clear. Each new fact seems to obscure some better solution she is certain exists but has not yet presented itself.

As she exits the building, Nance crumples the paper prescription and tosses it into a trash bin in the parking lot.

Safely back in her car, she unzips her purse and pulls a small leather-bound diary from a plastic bag. The black cover is supple with age and handling. She holds it tightly in both hands and closes her eyes. She knows the opening pages by heart.

Recalling the words written neatly in small script, Nance is trying not to do the one thing she fears most, but wants most to do. Nance needs to look for someone. Someone important. Nance needs to find Merlin.

~

2

The Actuary’s Diary

 

No Home Here Lane
De Lancey, PA
January 12, 1977

My bags are packed and waiting by the door. I’m sitting here at my desk in the room where I grew up, looking out my window at the empty trees and the old grass runway. But I’m thinking about where I’m headed. Back to a place I haven’t been since kindergarten days, when Dad worked at College Park Airport, before he took the Airport Authority manager’s job here at Punxsutawney Municipal.

Most of my history is here in PA – although Dad likes to remind me I was born at one of the oldest airports in the United States where the Wright Brothers trained the first military aviators in 1909. When Mom went into labor she didn’t head for the hospital. Instead she drove their ’55 Chevy Bel Air to College Park Airport to find Dad. He was airborne giving a flying lesson when she arrived and refused to leave until he landed. By the time Dad got back on the ground, one of the mechanics had called his wife – a former army nurse – and I’d been swaddled into Mom’s baby blue cardigan with the mother-of-pearl buttons. Whenever I complain about my given name, Mom is always quick to remind me I’m lucky I wasn’t named Orville or Wilbur.

The Punxsutawney runway didn’t see its first planes until 1929, but old timers here in Bell Township will tell you the skies were full of open cockpit flying machines years before a designated airstrip made the place official. When the airfield opened just days before the big crash on Wall Street, the ceremony included demonstrations by stunt flyers, Pennsylvania’s first mail plane, parachute jumps, dances, bands, a parade, and even the Goodyear Blimp. The crowd numbered 10,000, and people stood in line to pay a dollar to take their first plane rides.

My dad was there that day. He still brags that he was the only person who didn’t pay to fly, since he was only four years old and rode on his father’s lap. Meanwhile, as the story goes, my grandmother Esther required smelling salts to revive her when she learned her thrill-seeking husband had taken their only baby high into the sky. Dad claims this moment as his earliest memory: sitting on his father’s lap in the front of that open cockpit with the pilot sitting in the back; looking through the struts and up at the wings then down at the autumn trees all red and golden-yellow; feeling the chill wind in his hair and on his face and the warmth of his father’s arms wrapped tight around him. He wanted the flight to last forever. From that day on, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, never again would he answer, “A Pennsy Railroad engineer on The Horseshoe Curve!” Instead he said, “I want to be a pilot and fly a DeHaviland Moth just as soon as I’m tall enough so they’ll let me!”

Despite my origins, my first memory has nothing to do with planes, airports or flying. The setting is back in Maryland before my parents returned to my father’s Pennsylvania hometown.

In my earliest memory I am counting. I am three years old and sitting in a brown wooden high chair. We are in a restaurant. It’s the restaurant where my parents had their first date; a place we frequented throughout my preschool Maryland childhood. It’s an Italian restaurant named Ledo Pizza. I am counting the square tiles on the ceiling. Leaning my head back against the high chair I think the yellowing ceiling tiles look like pats of butter; those butter pats that, in my childhood, were delivered on little white squares of waxed cardboard with the sides folded up like a tiny tray. In my memory, I count all the tiles on the ceiling. Then I count them again (816). Then I count the tiles that march around the edges of the room, like a picture frame. I remember my tiny self, counting the sets of rows in both directions. Before my fourth birthday, using those ceiling tiles, I taught myself that length times width equals area – although I did not yet know those terms. Unlike my dad who needed a plane to fly, I soon discovered that numbers could lift me off the ground.

Now I am retuning to the town of my first memory. Although I will likely make a pilgrimage to Ledo’s, the reason for my return to College Park has little to do with pizza. I am leaving home for the first time to pursue my graduate studies in statistics, mathematics and the actuarial sciences, and I will begin preparing for the actuarial exams. I am returning to my father’s alma mater; the place my parents met; where my dad first called himself an aeronautical engineer.

Yesterday my mother told me she had heard her first actuary joke. She was astonished to learn there was such a thing. I assured her I was aware of actuarial humor and asked where she heard it. “From Mr. Ritter. I ran into him at the drug store. He asked me what you planned to study at the University of Maryland. When I answered ‘actuarial science’ he said I should tell you this joke. Although I’m not sure it’s very funny.”

I was not surprised to learn that Mr. Ritter, attorney at law – and the brunt of many lawyer jokes – was thrilled to tell a joke about another profession. I’ll record his joke here for posterity and when I kiss Mom goodbye and carry my bags out to the car, I’ll promise to send her every actuary joke I encounter, which should help her laugh through her tears as I depart.

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

Three men are sentenced to die by guillotine. The first man steps up, places his head in the lunette, the executioner releases the blade and miraculously the knife stops inches above the man’s neck. The king proclaims, “Under the laws of our country, if the guillotine fails to do its job, you are declared free.” The first man jumps up and runs down the stairs into the arms of his family. The second condemned man takes his place. Again, the guillotine blade stops just above the man’s neck. Again the king says, “Under the laws of our country, if the guillotine fails to fall, you are declared free.” The second man gets up and rushes to embrace his lover. The third man, who is an actuary, puts his head in the guillotine hole, looks up and says, “I think I see the problem….”

University of Maryland, College Park
January 21, 1977

We have a new President. Jimmy Carter was sworn into office yesterday. He broke with the traditional inauguration dress code of his predecessors. He wore a regular business suit and tie. No formalwear. In his address, he talked about moving into the future, ever mindful of the lessons of the past. The press says our country’s era as a scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation has come to a close.

He took the oath of office as “Jimmy” not James. After the ceremony, he walked the entire parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capital to the White House, holding hands with his wife and little girl, and cheered by the crowds. When they arrived, he said it was time to go in and take a look around. Apparently, Carter had never been inside the White House before. He said he was going to be a different kind of President. I guess he means it.

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

A New York City actuary visiting Iowa during the Iowa caucuses asks a local politician, “So, what’s the death rate around here?” The perplexed politician considers his answer. He squints at the sky and rubs his chin. He clears his throat. Then he smiles. “Well son, around here I’d say the death rate’s about one to a person.”

 

University of Maryland, College Park

February 2, 1977

This grad program might kill me. Out of respect for my kindred spirit, Punxsutawney Phil, I am finding time for a brief journal entry. Phil saw his shadow this morning, predicting six more weeks of winter. My studies have me buried deep in a hole until spring. I’m beginning to feel like a shadow with no body, possibly no soul. Clearly, if I live through this demanding grind, I’ll not see the world again until near summer. With any luck the sub man and the pizza delivery girl won’t lose my address; the electricity won’t go out too often; and the water will continue flowing from the faucet.

Hopefully, someone will tell me when spring semester is over. Completing two majors in three years at State College was demanding but it was nothing compared to these courses. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? Oh, right. For the laughs.

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

How many actuaries does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But first it takes ten years to pass the exams.

 

University of Maryland, College Park

April 30, 1977

Without the package from my mother, this birthday would have passed unnoticed. My cave-like existence of study-class-eat-study-sleep (when I’m lucky), then REPEAT, has left me little time to meet people; and all my classmates must live this same existence to pass these courses. A handful of people here might recognize me, a few might know my name, but nobody knows today is my birthday. Outside of my grades and scores, I feel myself becoming invisible.

Why do I feel so old? I am only 22.

Exhaustion does strange things to a person. When I fall asleep at my desk I often wake with a start, having dreamed that I am disappearing. Classes end next week, followed by final semester exams. So tonight there is no time for celebration. I’ll acknowledge another year of life by having a beer and eating one of my mom’s chocolate peppermint cupcakes carefully packaged in the box from home. I’d be insulted by her inclusion of new socks and underwear, but their timely arrival means I won’t need to do laundry this week. Thank you Mom!

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

An actuary is someone who invites an accountant to his child’s birthday party for entertainment.

 

University of Maryland, College Park

June 1, 1977

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

What is the difference between an introverted actuary and an extroverted actuary?

An introverted actuary stares at his own shoes during a conversation, while an extroverted one stares at the other person’s shoes.

I slept for long stretches this week following end of spring semester. My stormy dreams were filled with cyclones and twisters of swirling numbers, probability formulas and life tables. Awoke today feeling like I’ve returned from the dead. A brief break now before the summer semester. The sky is blue, there’s a wonderful rare breeze and I’m committed to shedding my geeky pale skin to some summer sun exposure. I will bike until I can pedal no more. To keep my brain from resorting to random calculations, I’ll sing as I ride along. Today I give myself the gift of escape: A day to leave behind all thoughts of this actuarial science masters program and indulge in some joie de vie! I vow to avoid all things math. My watch stays home; I will not count my change; I’ll focus on fun, beauty, and frivolity. I’ll even take a book of poetry with me to the park! 3, 2, 1…here I go! (Damn…the numbers again.)

***

Merlin ends his morning bike ride with a detour into Greenbelt Park. Within the park’s perimeter Merlin heads for the grassy knoll where the view lays waste to any lingering memories of his cold, lonely, sunless semester. On this first Saturday in June, the University’s year-round student population is out in force. Scattered across the wide green expanse, students sun themselves, picnic, nap and read. The perfect summer day has drawn them here to worship a bright blue sky where a light breeze stirs the supple young leaves and carries nature’s perfume.

Merlin dismounts and walks his bike onto the lawn amid the summer-clad youth strewn across the grass. Moving, mingling and lingering; singles, couples and groups; they appear to Merlin like colored glass marbles reflecting the sunlight. He pauses briefly and watches them, resisting the urge to sort and count. The mixed sounds of portable music, laughter, quiet talk and public mating rituals swirl and linger in the humidity. He carefully maneuvers his way among bodies and beach blankets fully intent on settling into this vein of student humanity. Finding a spot that feels right, he sets the kickstand on his bike as he eases the daypack off his shoulder and extracts his book of Shakespeare Sonnets.

Then Merlin’s eyes find Nance for the first time. She is stretched out face down on a blue beach towel. She is reading. Her feet are bare. Her blonde hair is luminous in the sunshine, draped around her face. Her skin is just slightly less pale than Merlin’s own. She is quite still. Only her left foot is in motion at the end of her raised lower leg. It rotates slowly in a counterclockwise direction. Elbows on the ground and her tiny chin resting in her hands, she has a small book open before her. She wears an ice blue satin halter-top and white hot pants. She appears focused on what she is reading and oblivious to everything around her. In four beats of his heart Merlin sees nothing but her.

Although Nance appears to be absorbed in the text of her book, she has read the same sentence multiple times and still cannot recall what she has just read. Instead, she’s thinking about the curved patch of ground that meets her belly. She imagines it is the earth that’s breathing, not her; the slight movement of the earth is forcing the air in and out of her lungs; and without the earth’s nearly undetectable expansion and contraction, her body would be still and lifeless. It is not a new fantasy. Nance was five when she first conceived of the resuscitating planet during a trip to the beach. Each summer the sensation replays itself when she ventures outside and lets her body make contact with the earth.

In a cloudless sky, Nance detects a shadow across her book. She looks up and knows a man is standing over her, but she cannot see his face for the glare of the sun immediately behind his head. Sitting up, she raises a hand to shield her eyes and reaches for her shoes.

Then a voice says, “The Marble Faun, Volume 1. You may be the first person I know who’s actually read that book.” Nance looks down and sees her slim green volume has closed and the title is visible.

“Unlikely,” she replies. “First, you don’t know me. And second, the jury’s still out as to whether I’ll ever finish reading this book.”

“Oh, you will,” the man replies. “Trust me. You’ll want to know how the mystery ends.”

Nance catches her first clear view of Merlin’s face, his eyes and mouth smiling down at her. She sees he has a book in his hand. “And what are you reading, may I ask?”

He collapses beside her on the grass at the edge of her towel and she notes that his long blue jean clad legs are not an illusion. Without directly answering her question, he opens his book and runs a hand through his end-of-semester shaggy hair while he half reads, half recites from the page:

Not marble, not the gilded monuments

of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;

but you shall shine more bright in these contents…”

“No! Oh please no! Not Shakespeare…” Nance interrupts.

“You don’t like that one? I thought you would – keeping in the theme of marble statuary and all. No worries, let’s try another,” Merlin flips pages and begins again:

Shall I compare thee to a summer day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date…”

“Stop. Please. Not another word! English majors are all alike!”

“Me? Oh no. I’m not an English major. I just like sonnets’ numeric pattern sequences and the cadence of the rhyme.”

“Ohhh.” Nance groans. “Seriously. I know you’re an English major. I’m an English major – you can’t fool me. Who else would be toting around Shakespeare’s sonnets, for heaven’s sake!”

“An actuarial student,” Merlin replies. “Really.”

Merlin and Nance spiral into a back and forth discussion of Shakespeare’s poems and plays and the merits of British versus American literature in general, with much intellectual bantering and joking.

Then Nance checks her shoulders and groans as she touches her red skin. “This has been fun, but I need to go. It’s time for me to get out of the sun and find a tall cool drink of water.”

“Sure,” Merlin replies, sensing his own exposed pale but less tender skin.

Nance starts to fold her towel, then stops and turns back to Merlin who is returning his book to his pack.

“I have to ask. Before you go. You said you were an actuary student? To be honest, I’m not sure what that is. I feel stupid asking, but I’ve learned it’s more stupid not to ask about what I don’t know.”

“Ah,” the corners of Merlin’s mouth turn up just a bit as he looks down at his sneakers and thinks about his answer. A dark red forelock falls across his brow and, watching his face, Nance is momentarily smitten.

“I’m in an actuarial science graduate program. It’s an advanced mathematics field that combines advanced calculus and probability, life tables, world population, mortality statistics….” Merlin looks up at Nance to see if he should keep talking.

“Ah. Sounds…”

“Dreadful. I know. I should have given you the short cocktail party answer I’ve been practicing.”

“Which is…”

“Actuarial science is the study of life and death.”

“Wow. You’re right. That’s definitely much sexier.”

Merlin chuckles.

“I really need to go.”

“Right. Wish I could offer you a ride somewhere, but…” Merlin gestures toward his bike.

“It’s fine. Mine is in the rack at the edge of the field.” Pushing his own bike, Merlin walks along with Nance. He catches himself silently counting his steps, subconsciously calculating the linear distance to the access road.

As they approach the bike rack Merlin’s face brightens. “I can offer you some shade and a cool drink. I live less than five minutes from here.”

Nance, unlocking her bike, quickly declines. “Thanks, but I don’t live all that far away.”

“Sure. I understand. Another time?” He flashes a charming smile and starts to mount his bike. “But if you’re heading back toward Route 1, why not make a quick stop at my place. I’m right off Greenbelt Road. I can lend you Volume 2 of that book you’re reading. I picked it up at the Riverdale Bookstore. There’s a great inscription penned in the front dated 1884 that I think you might appreciate.”

Nance shoots Merlin a look of cautious distrust. “Maybe some other time. Out of curiosity, does your Volume 2 look like the match to this one?” she asks, holding up her small antiquarian book.

“It does.” He stands poised over his bike, beaming happily.

Nance secures her towel and book under the cargo clamp on her bike. “But if you’re really headed out Route 1, I wouldn’t mind riding together. To be honest, that narrow stretch of Greenbelt Road…it makes me a little nervous when the traffic is heavy.”

“Why don’t you lead then?” Merlin offers. “I’ll ride behind and give you a buffer.”

As Nance starts to climb on her bike, The Marble Faun dislodges and falls to the ground.

“How about I put that in my backpack for you until we get down the road a bit. Then you won’t need to worry about losing it in traffic.”

Nance hands Merlin the small book, “Thanks, that would be great.” She pushes off and the slight breeze immediately catches her long hair making it dance out behind her. Merlin follows. By the time they exit the park onto Greenbelt Road, he realizes he is not doing a very good job watching the traffic. Instead, he is mesmerized by Nance’s white shorts, the blue tails of her halter top trailing down her lower back, and that shiny golden hair.

While her friends might describe Nance as aloof, skittish and overly cautious, her behavior is driven more by personal anxieties than by any notions of superiority. Her shy and timid nature is the result of fearing both the known and the unknown and so she frequently worries about getting herself into trouble. The seeds of her personality were formed long before the recent ghastly headlines about the Son of Sam killer in New York City. Even as a small child she always hung back and watched for a while before trying something new.

A memorable example unfolded at a seventh grade party where she was ridiculed for refusing to play spin the bottle. Not a popular choice at that age. But why should she play? At thirteen, Nance could count on her thumbs the number of boys she’d kissed. She frequently told her girlfriends that she was interested in quality, not quantity. There was a tiny bit of fear in her refusal to join in, but mostly her decision to not play the game was dictated by what she wanted – and what she didn’t want. She preferred private intimacies, not public ones. And she liked her kisses attached to an established mutual attraction. There were definitely a few boys in the spin the bottle circle who she might have enjoyed kissing. But there were a whole lot more she’d prefer not to. So that settled it. Embarrassing? Yes, but if life let her do it all again, she would make the same decision today.

Nance has a history of sniffing out dangerous young men. Two years of college have already provided plenty of experience fending off aggressive blind dates and recent advances from boys she’s known since elementary school. Adding to Nance’s anxieties in recent months are news stories about developments in the hunt for the .44 Caliber Killer, lately dubbed the Son of Sam. Although far away in New York City, the news stories and concerns about copycat killings are enough to frighten even Nance’s wildest party girl friends.

Nance is not a risk taker, but there is something familiar about this young man following her on his ten-speed down Greenbelt Road. Although initially cautious, it’s as though she knows him, or should know him. That easy familiarity influences her decision to do something she normally wouldn’t consider – she agrees to detour to his apartment for a drink of water and to see the Hawthorne volume. Contributing to this choice is a bladder ready to burst.

She is fully aware of the dangers inherent in accompanying a stranger into the privacy of his apartment. However, her decision is propelled by fear of a missed opportunity that outweighs any fear of this person. She does not feel threatened in his company. She intuits that he is what he appears to be: a potential new friend. She trusts her instincts and makes a judgment about Merlin…without even knowing his name. Which reminds her:

“My name is Nance Elliott, by the way. What’s yours?”

“It’s a pleasure, Nance.” Merlin grins at her again as he unlocks his apartment door, then turns and extends his right hand. Nance stifles a snicker as she reaches to shake hands with this charming geek; his grip is firm, brief and sincerely friendly. Then he swings open the door to the apartment for Nance to enter.

In that first brief formal hand-to-hand touch, Nance is caught surprised. Businesslike and formal, the two-second handshake grabs her attention – as though something important has occurred. So silly, Nance thinks as she crosses the threshold. It was nothing. Still, for some reason the contact has brought to mind a magician’s sleight of hand; the moment when a coin is produced from behind a child’s small ear, causing shivers of excitement and tingles down the spine.

Nance surveys the room. The building’s onetime attic has been converted into a top floor loft. After a quick glance around, Nance points to the door most likely to be the bathroom and Merlin nods. She crosses the room and goes in, closing the door behind her.

Merlin moves quickly to the kitchenette area, takes out his one large drinking glass, fills it with water twice and downs both glasses quickly. Then he rinses the glass under the tap rubbing the edge with a sponge under the running water.

Meanwhile, in the small cube of a bathroom, Nance surveys a relatively clean but cluttered space. Recently washed socks and a T-shirt hang over the shower rod. There are towels dangling from hooks on the wall and gray sweatpants hang on the back of the door. One small window high up the wall lights the space, and on the windowsill sits a petite cactus in a clay pot. Washing her hands she notes the top is on the toothpaste tube. She resists the temptation to open the medicine cabinet.

From his dorm-size refrigerator Merlin removes an ice cube tray, puts ice in the clean glass and fills it again with water. When Nance emerges from the bathroom, Merlin hands her the promised cold drink.

“Thanks. That’s great.” She takes a long swallow. “Aren’t you having any?”

“Oh. I already did,” Merlin answers quickly and turns to sort through a stack of books. “Let’s see now. I promised you a book…” His voice trails off as he begins searching.

She sips the cool water and walks around the room as Merlin crouches down moving volumes from one stack to another. The entire back wall is a series of jalousie windows extending from chest high up to the tall ceiling and set in a deep windowsill. Below the window is a tattered but clean sofa. Against one wall an imposing old and scarred partners desk hunkers. It’s covered with piles of notebooks and amidst the paper clutter there’s an art deco brass desk lamp.

She notices the makeshift coffee table, then realizes there are small improvised tables strategically positioned all around the room constructed entirely of old books stacked compactly and topped with a selection of second-hand game boards. Nance recognizes Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Clue, Sorry, Mouse Trap, Scrabble, Risk, Checkers and Candy Land. There’s a large glass fishbowl on the coffee table filled with dozens of dice and game markers. By contrast, off to one side is an elegant Backgammon set ready for play. Even a bookshelf against one wall is constructed of books and wooden two-by-fours.

On the walls there’s a poster of the Milky Way galaxy and an enlarged photo of a space launch. A large bed neatly made up with a green and blue batik bedspread and multicolored throw pillows anchors the far corner of the room. The carved wooden headboard has an Asian design with intricate cutouts and many square feet of flora and fauna detail.

Stepping closer to the desk, Nance examines several printed tables of numbers carefully tacked up on the walls along with an assortment of College Park area restaurant menus. A Ledo Pizza menu catches her eye.

“Ah. Ledo’s,” Nance says. “I’ve been going there since I was little. Are you a fan?”

“You could say that. My parents went there on their first date. So the menu is a bit of nostalgia for me. I have memories of sitting in a highchair at Ledo Pizza. But I haven’t been there much recently. They don’t deliver – and with my studies and all….” Merlin nods toward his desk as his voice trails off. “There’s seldom time for everything I want to do.”

“So we’re both Ledo Pizza babies. Isn’t that fascinating? I wonder if we were ever there at the same time. I can almost imagine us in our highchairs at adjoining tables with pizza sauce smeared across our little faces.”

Merlin laughs.

“Baby Nance and Baby…” Then Nance remembers he hasn’t told her his name.

“Hey! I still don’t know your name!” her voice tetchy.

From his kneeling position where he has been searching through stacks of books, Merlin gives Nance a mischievous grin.

“Ah yes. My name.” He pauses but holds Nance’s gaze eye-to-eye across the room. “At parties I’ve been known to make new acquaintances guess before I tell my name. I’ll let you guess, too. You get three guesses. I usually encourage people to take their time.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. My first name is what you’re going for. I’ll share my last name with you later.”

“Suddenly I feel like the Queen in the Rumplestiltskin story. This is silly.”

“Is that your first guess?”

“What?”

“Rumplestiltskin.”

“NO. Wait. Is it?”

“No. But it’s a lukewarm guess. The fictional literary vein is a good one to mine.”

“What?”

“Also, you get to ask one question before each guess.”

“OK. Let me think. Fictional characters. Hmmm.”

“You get a free question here.”

“Hush! I’m thinking.”

Without speaking a word, Merlin, still kneeling, places the book he is holding onto the Risk board at the edge of the coffee table and stands up to his full height before folding himself back like a jackknife to sit on the sofa.

“OK. Here’s my question. What was your mother’s favorite fictional story when you were born?”

Merlin chuckles. “You are clever. What if I tell you I don’t know?”

“Then I’d say you’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know for sure. But she has a fondness for legends, both British and early American.”

“Like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?”

“Exactly. My, you’re good!”

“Good has nothing to do with it. I’m an English major, remember? Hmmm. Let’s see. What about Arthur? Is your name Arthur?”

“No. Not Arthur. Another question before your next guess?”

“I suppose I should think for a minute. Certainly a loving mother wouldn’t name a child Ichabod! So I suppose my question is: Does your mother love you?”

“Very much.”

“Alright then – are you Lancelot?”

Merlin laughs. “Do I look like a Lancelot?”

“No. I guess not.”

“Remember what I said to start? I encourage people to take their time. So why don’t you think on it a bit more before your last guess.”

“OK.”

“In the meantime, let me show you this book.” Merlin pats the sofa cushion beside him as he picks up the tiny volume he’s placed on the table.

Nance moves to the sofa and sees that Merlin is holding a small book that looks a lot like her copy of The Marble Faun.

As she sits down next to Merlin, he says, “I think this is the match to your book.” He shows her the similarly worn green cover and carefully turns the book in his open hand so she can see the decorative embossing and typeface on the front, back and spine.

“Where’s mine?” Nance asks. Merlin leans down beside the sofa and extracts her copy from his backpack, then hands it to her. With each of them holding a book, they examine the two volumes. “They do look like a pair,” Nance says as she finds herself studying Merlin’s beautiful slim hands and long fingers, his nails clean and neatly trimmed. They look like the hands of a pianist, she thinks, and shivers undetectably recalling her hand briefly enclosed in his when they shook hands outside the door.

“Yes. The only difference is mine is labeled Vol. II and yours is Vol. I. As I mentioned earlier, mine came from the Riverdale Bookstore. Yours?”

“Yes. Mine, too. But whatever made you buy it? I mean, why this book?”

Merlin laughs, his open hand motioning to the stacks and stacks of books in his apartment. “I suppose you could ask that question about any one of these books.”

“Now you’ve made me feel stupid for asking. However, it seems like quite a coincidence. We both buy matching volumes of a two book set that’s nearly one hundred years old a week or so before we meet for the first time.” Nance’s voice trails off as she begins to feel slightly uncomfortable with a passing thought: Could this guy be some sort of stalker? Did he see me buy this book and then buy its mate; follow me home then track me for a few days waiting for the right moment to approach me and…

Merlin reaches into the bowl on the table, pulls out a handful of dice and lets them spill from his hand onto the Clue board section of the table. “I could give you all sorts of mathematical examples right now about coincidence and probability – after all, that’s what I’m studying – but I’m missing some key facts. For example, the number of books in Riverdale Bookstore, the average number of customers per day, how frequently we each shop there – that sort of thing. So let’s ignore probability for the moment. Why did you buy this book? Was it an impulse buy or were you actually looking for our friend Nathaniel Hawthorne?”

“I’m a fan of Hawthorne and the rest of the nineteenth century Massachusetts writers. I’ve been a Riverdale Bookstore customer since I was a kid. These days I lose myself there a few times a year. I love old books. This little gem was hiding between two worn paperback copies of The Scarlet Letter. I decided this would be my summer splurge. It was Hawthorne’s first novel, you know, and I’ve never read it. I didn’t realize I only had half the story until I got it home.” Nance runs her fingers across the embossed cover as she speaks. “But I’m an English major. What’s your excuse?” These last words Nance enunciates with an accusatory edge to her voice.

“This one was sitting at the register when I was paying for my books. I’ve become a regular customer.” Merlin pauses and shrugs as his eyes sweep over the books piled around the room. “While the clerk was ringing up my purchases I picked up this one and ran my hand across the front, then opened the cover and saw the inscription.” Merlin carefully opens the small book and holds it toward Nance for her to see the fading script written long ago in a perfect and delicate hand. He recites the words from memory as Nance reads them.

“For Emily – May you one day love me as much as your beloved Italy.

I will miss you dearly and steadfastly remain,

Thomas

September 12, 1884.”

Listening to Merlin’s tenor voice, Nance allows her suspicions to recede and she relaxes. “Wow.” She takes the book from Merlin and silently reads the words again.

“I couldn’t resist. The inscription was a little story all by itself. It made me wonder about the relationship of these two people and what Italy must have been like a hundred years ago. And I thought my mother might find it fascinating. She’s quite a romanticist.”

“I see.” As she returns the book their hands briefly touch. Again she feels some energy in the contact and quickly pulls her hand back, then flips through the first pages of her own Volume I, all blank. “But if this is a set, why do you think the inscription was written in Volume II?”

“I wish I knew. I guess that’s part of the mystery, the attraction.”

“Speaking of mysteries, I have one more guess about your name.” Nance meets Merlin’s eyes and realizes he has moved closer, looking at her intently.

“You still have one more question you can ask first.”

Nance fixes her gaze on Merlin’s face before she asks her question. She wants to see his reaction. “Do you like your name?”

Merlin starts to answer but hesitates. Then pensively he replies, “There was a time when I was younger that I didn’t like my name. But not any more.”

“Is it Nathaniel?”

Merlin reaches over and gently takes the book from Nance’s hand. He places it on the table and places his own volume on top of hers, carefully aligning the spines. He runs his fingers delicately across the cover, tracing the two embossed circles of flowers. Then he reaches over and very slowly, very gently takes Nance’s hand in his own. Looking into her eyes he says, “An excellent guess.” Then he bends and kisses her lips so softly, it feels like a butterfly wing.

Nance shivers and catches her breath as Merlin strokes her open palm and fingers with the same deliberate motion as he stroked the book cover. Then he moves to kiss her again. This time his lips linger a moment longer and Nance feels goose bumps tingle across her skin. “So I’m right then? It’s Nathaniel? Or do you go by Nate.”

Merlin’s third kiss is more thorough, and he strokes Nance’s soft hair as he encourages her lips to part for him. She responds and begins to feel aroused by this gentle stranger. He pulls back and looks at her face, then lifts to his lips the hand he’s been holding and kisses her soft knuckles. “No, not Nate,” he answers honestly.

He stands and purposefully draws Nance to her feet facing him. She is a good half-foot shorter than he, Nance realizes as he steps close and bends to meet her lips again. This time she returns his kiss as his fingers move slowly through the length of her long hair, his warm hands pausing on the bare skin at the small of her back. His hands are so warm Nance imagines she will later find his handprints tattooed there forever. He gently pulls her into him and their bodies meet. She is aware of the firm swell in his jeans as his hands travel briefly over the back of her shorts, then return to her bare sides. She rests her hands on Merlin’s shoulders as he caresses the silky fabric holding her breasts. His thumbs roll slowly across the blue silk three times and her body responds.

Nance pulls her lips away and leans back to catch her breath. This is happening too quickly she thinks. I just met this man. I don’t know this person. But her body is winning out over her good sense as Merlin’s hands move back around to the knot in her halter-top. Merlin hesitates. He takes a deep breath and places his hands again in the small of her back. As they kiss Nance senses her body turning to liquid and yearning to know this man better. She is aware that if they continue, their bodies will consume one another.

“I should go,” Nance says. “I don’t know what came over me; I mean, this is crazy, we barely know each other…I need to go.”

Merlin lets Nance pull away from him and move toward the door. As she reaches for the knob, he reaches for her book. “Nance, wait.” She turns, prepared now to deter his advances, but he has not followed her to the door. He’s holding up her volume of The Marble Faun. “Don’t forget your book,” he says kindly as he runs those amazing fingers through his tousled forelock.

Each takes a few steps toward the other. They meet in the center of the room. “Thanks Nathaniel,” Nance says quietly taking the book from him. Again their hands make contact and again she feels an electric current run through her, searing her feet to the floor while her brain screams for her legs to run away.

“It’s not Nathaniel,” Merlin grins.

Nance sobers and frowns, “What? But you said…”

“I said it was an excellent guess. I never said it was correct.”

“Oh no. This is bad. Kissing a man whose name I don’t even know. I need to leave.”

“OK. I understand.”

Nance opens the door wide and a burst of warm air rushes into the apartment. It is filled with tiny flower petals from the blossoming trees outside. In reaction, she closes her eyes and faces back into the room, slamming the door shut. The tiny petals cling to her hair and litter the room like confetti. As she opens her eyes Merlin grins and says, “Of course if you want to stay a little longer, I’d give you three more guesses.”

She cannot help herself. She opens her mouth to tell him that she’s not that kind of girl and he’s an arrogant ass if he thinks she’s going to stay…but before she can tell him any of this, she finds herself back in his arms, his hands in her hair, their lips and loins pressed firmly together. Her last sane thought before surrender is that her body has won the argument, and she is lost in Merlin’s embrace.

Hours pass but there is still light in the sky when Nance once again becomes aware of a world beyond the bubble of bliss that is Merlin’s bed. It is one of the longest days of the year as summer solstice approaches. Merlin breathes rhythmically next to her. The bed is in a shadier part of the loft. A handful of pillar candles cast dancing light over this corner of the room. Facing the headboard, she notices the intricate detail. A thousand carved leaves and flowers of every imaginable bloom twining together – willows, camellias, palms, ferns, dogwoods, orange blossoms, azaleas, magnolias, fruit trees, chestnut, oak, elm – and carved among all the foliage and flowers are dozens of songbirds and twice as many animals peering out or looking for one another. Rabbit, lion, deer, fox, wolf, boar, mouse, gator, monkey, elephant, bear, badger, horse, porcupine, rat, giraffe; the flickering candlelight adds subtle motion to each living thing.

“Wow,” Nance barely breathes the word in a worshipful whisper. Merlin reaches over and gently touches a dimple in the small of her back and recites:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will soon new pleasures prove,

Of golden sands and crystal brooks,

With silken lines and silver hooks.

Where like a pillow on a bed

A pregnant bank swell’d up to rest

the violet’s reclining head,

Sat we two, one another’s best.

Nance rolls over to look at Merlin. They lie face-to-face on their sides, propped on opposite elbows.

“This is so magical,” she whispers.

Merlin’s fingers slowly trace her hip, an expression of calm pleasure on his face.

“Tell me your name.”

Without hesitation he replies, “Merlin,” his eyes sparkling in the candlelight.

“Oh my. Honestly?”

“Truly. I don’t lie,” he says as he traces the letters of his name on Nance’s thigh. “Do you remember Magic Squares?” Merlin asks Nance as he continues his invisible secret writing on her bare skin.

“Ummhh,” Nance groans and rolls onto her stomach.

“Those math worksheets with number-filled boxes and some boxes left blank? Usually the math curriculum includes them in fourth or fifth grade. The object is to solve for the missing numbers.” Merlin’s voice sounds reverent and dreamy to Nance as his finger outlines small boxes on her back.

“In fourth grade, math made me nauseous,” Nance mumbles into the pillow. “I loved book reports and geography and Stuart Little, but not math. My mother hung a multiplication tables poster on the back of the bathroom door – I’ve been chronically constipated ever since.”

Merlin laughs. He appreciates the humor even though he doesn’t share the sentiment. He continues, “I loved those Magic Squares. I made bigger and bigger ones to solve, eventually the size of my bedroom floor.”

“You must have been lots of fun in fourth grade,” Nance teases.

“About the same as now,” Merlin answers, using his index finger to write the numbers into the invisible boxes he has drawn on Nance’s shoulder. “Of course, there were no naked women on my bed back in fourth grade.”

Nance snorts with laughter and flips over to see Merlin’s face; his eyes crinkle and he laughs with her.

“Magic Squares were an important part of my mathematical evolution. They were the genesis of my belief that every person has a Magic Number. I believe our lives are made purposeful in solving for it and discovering it. And once we know it, using it to our fullest advantage.”

“Then in my love of words and literature I truly must be a lost soul for all time. I’m doomed if my success and happiness are dependent on some math answer that’s either right or wrong.”

“Others can help you find it.”

“Seriously, Merlin. Why should I care about my Magic Number? What good or use would it be to me?”

“Well,” Merlin pauses here, contemplating how far to take the discussion at this early, yet accelerated point in their relationship. He looks at Nance with an intently serious expression. “What if I told you that your Magic Number might lead you to ecstasy, with a capital E? Help a person attain the perfect sexual orgasm that so many only dream of attaining, the satisfaction the Rolling Stones sing about.”

“Then you might get my attention. But really Merlin – numbers and sex? I had a boyfriend once who told me he counted dead babies in his head to forestall premature ejaculation, but otherwise…”

“Oh lord, Nance; that’s disgusting. That’s not what I’m talking about!”

“Anyway,” Nance hugs the pillow under her chin and smiles dreamily at Merlin, “I may have just experienced my perfect orgasm.”

“Then maybe,” Merlin grins wickedly, “I’ve discovered your Magic Number.”

Another hour of the day slips away toward the horizon without the young lovers’ notice.

“OH, Merlin!” Nance exclaims, as they both lie on their backs breathing heavily.

“It’s nice to be on a first name basis.”

“Where did you learn to do that?” Nance demands, ignoring his comment.

Merlin’s memory dives deep into the details of the answer to that question – an answer it would be unwise to share with the woman currently in one’s bed.

He had spent a summer before college graduation house-sitting for a professor who was on a one-month trip abroad with his young family. The professor’s home library was extensive with bookshelves covering an entire wall in each of the common rooms of the house as well as the master bedroom (687 books in all). In addition to the classics, the bestselling books of the 1970s were well represented by The Pentagon Papers, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (which had kept Solzhenitsyn’s historic work August 1914 out of the number one bestsellers slot), The Exorcist, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Whole Earth Catalog, Jaws, Watership Down, Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (also kept out of the number one bestseller spot a year later by that same damn seagull book!), I’m O.K., You’re O.K., All the President’s Men, Love Story, The Bermuda Triangle, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The 1970s was a period of new sexual freedoms made possible by the wide availability of birth control pills, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision, and the serious loosening of social mores. In that too brief decade – a decade bracketed on one side by women’s liberation and the free love movement, and on the other side by the discovery, naming and ferocious spread of the AIDs epidemic – being young and virile was a gift not recognized until it was too soon gone.

The library wall in the master bedroom housed books of Rod McKuen poetry, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, The Sensuous Woman, Body Language, The Total Woman, Once is Not Enough, The Sensuous Man, Open Marriage, and The Story of O. No doubt sequestered from the curious eyes of the professor’s small children, the bedroom bookcase also included a coffee table size volume of the Karma Sutra, and last but not least, the holy grail of this horny decade: The Joy of Sex.

That same summer Merlin enrolled in an introductory history course at the local community college. His objective? Get a 3-credit course out of the way at a lower cost per credit than his university studies, then transfer the credits to satisfy a basic requirement without wasting his regular semester hours on subjects outside the 400-level mathematical sciences. The class instructor, a teaching assistant, was only slightly older than Merlin. During the six-week course, while housesitting and reading his way through the stimulating book collection at the professor’s house, he began to fantasize about the attractive TA as he sat in her class.

Marcie Evans, the young instructor, soon began to notice the intent way the tall young man with the beautiful dark auburn hair studied her as she lectured. The other students barely looked up as they either read or took notes, or napped. At first Marcie was impressed that she was doing such a good job that she had engaged this young student’s attention. But after a few more classes, she began to sense it was not the material or her teaching techniques he was studying. Instead, she was beginning to feel as though he was undressing her with his eyes…but no; that was just silly. Egotistical and irrational. She attempted to shake off her feelings, but found it difficult to ignore the intensity of his eyes as he watched her. Although her mind was telling her one thing, much to her shock her body was telling her quite another.

Before the halfway point in the compressed semester, Merlin was regularly chatting with Marcie during the break and walking her to her car after class ended. By the fourth week, she was in his bed. By the time Merlin’s house-sitting job ended, he’d not only read and reread all the addictively appealing books on the professor’s bedroom shelves – memorizing all the best parts – he had also practiced much of it with a beautiful young willing partner who, as it turned out, was clearly more experienced if not more knowledgeable than Merlin. Together they were ready and eager to explore the joys and ecstasy that can be accomplished with two young bodies, sexual willingness and awareness, and a shared understanding of a summer fling fueled solely by sexual attraction.

They practiced and perfected techniques: Florentine, vionese oyster, pattes d’airgnee. They became very experienced lovers. To say Merlin was bedding Marcie was a euphemism. Their creative lovemaking took place in every room of the professor’s house and moved out onto the swing-set in the back yard one moonless night. They made love so many times Marcie lost count, but Merlin knew.

And then it ended: the history course, the housesitting gig, the relationship and the single topic focus on sex. It was time to move on. On their last day together he gave her a mood ring. Marcie smiled and said, “I’m giving you a B in American History, but you earned an A++ in sexual satisfaction. I fear you’ve ruined me for other men. How will anyone else ever measure up to what we’ve had these few weeks?

“No worries,” Merlin replied. “You’ll teach them. Your instruction – both in and out of the classroom – is bound to make the world a better place.”

The compressed version of this memory speeds through Merlin’s brain in the fractional second after Nance asks him, “Where did you learn to do that?”

In response, Merlin wisely chooses a shorter answer.

“Oh, I read a lot.”

Nance dissolves in a series of snorts and giggles.

As the sun finally begins to set outside the jalousie windows, Nance rouses herself from Merlin’s magical embrace. She stretches, combs her fingers though her hair and reaches for her clothes.

“I have to go.”

“Yes, I know. You said that before.” Merlin, still reclining on the bed, extends his arm toward her so that she can take his hand.

“Sadly, I can’t stay. Don’t think I wouldn’t like to stay here forever! But there’s no one else at my place this evening to feed the cat.”

“You’re not serious,” Merlin replies. “You’re abandoning me for a cat?”

“Also my father will be phoning me later – it’s a weekend thing with him. So I have to be there or he’ll go nuts worrying. And if that happens I’m in hot water.”

“I see.” Merlin releases her hand but does not get up. He pulls the sheet up to his waist. “Shall I come with you?”

“No. Oh no. Absolutely not.”

“Well that’s quite emphatic. I could sneak in after you turn out the lights and go to bed.”

“Trust me, it’s not a good idea. Anyway, Carrie hates strangers.”

“Carrie?”

“The cat. Her name is Carrie.”

“As in Stephen King’s Carrie?”

“Yeah. You don’t want to mess with Carrie. The last time I forgot to feed her, I arrived home to find a small bedside lamp knocked on the floor. The shade had popped off and the switch must have clicked on when it fell. The hot bare light bulb was smoking and tiny flames were dancing around the lamp on the nylon carpet. Carrie was in the corner hissing at me. If I hadn’t come home when I did, the place might have burned to the ground.”

“OK, Nance, OK. Clearly you need to go tend to your vengeful telekinetic cat. When will I see you next?”

“Soon. I’ll be back.”

Before Merlin realizes it Nance is dressed and heading for the door.

“Wait!” He jumps from the bed and sprints the few long strides to the coffee table. “Don’t forget the books.” Standing naked, he hands them to her, bending to kiss her goodbye. “And don’t forget me,” he whispers in her ear. “The full name’s Merlin McHenry.”

“I won’t. How could I? I promise, I won’t forget.”

Then she is gone.

 

University of Maryland, College Park

June 2, 1977

Assuming my recollection of yesterday wasn’t just a dream I had last night, then yesterday was the best day of my life. Real love? Love at first sight? Now I believe. Not just attracted and lustful, but fascinated and painfully distracted. I woke to the scent of her hair left on my pillow, and checked to confirm that my Hawthorne volume is missing. One long blonde hair on the sofa was concluding evidence that: she was here; yesterday was real; and I’m in love. Her name is Nance.

When I was fifteen, I asked my father, “How will I know when I’m really in love?”

“Oh, you’ll know! Trust me boy, you’ll know.”

“But how?” I persisted. “How will I tell if it’s the real thing?”

My mother, standing nearby, gave me a look I’ll always remember, “Real love is like chicken pox, Merlin. One day you wake up and it’s unmistakably there. Not only will you know it, you will feel it. You won’t be able to wish it away or ignore it. Others will likely see it on your face. It may even make you itch.” My dad laughed at her last point. “However, the difference is that discovering real love can be both painful and joyful at the same time. Chicken pox fade; real love doesn’t.”

My dad added, “The rash fades, but like real love, the virus that causes chicken pox stays in your body’s nerve cells forever. And you may have a few scars.” Then my parents exchanged a meaningful look and kissed.

I recall telling them real love no longer sounded particularly attractive or inviting, and shuddered at the thought of it happening to me. “Swell, guys. That’s just great,” I replied sarcastically. “Makes me want to go get the True Love vaccine ASAP.”

Of course they laughed at me; then I informed them that if they thought their description might result in me becoming a monk or something, not to count on it.

So it seems I am in love. Truly, what do I do now?

TODAY’S ACTUARY JOKE

Actuaries never die; they just get broken down by age and sex.

 

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