9/30/14

Square Not
By Paul Smith


I’d been kidnapped by Isosceles Sam and his Hypotenuse Gang. They’d been looking for me. They thought I knew too much, or more than them, or just enough or something. They’d been running numbers, triangulating the geo-grid, doing binomial expansions (which is by no means easy), running the old sum-of-the-squares swindle, La Place functions, partial derivatives, every angle known to man. Finally they stubbed their collective toe on the Bernoulii equation when they found it had some complications they hadn’t foreseen.
I think it was a case of mistaken identity. They mistook me for someone who knew the ins and outs of mathematics. They thought they’d found someone as crooked as them.
But they were wrong. I was straight.
Straight? I was a perfect square. Sure, I’d passed differential equations. Sure, I got through complex variables and even aerodynamics. For what? To know the square root of minus one? Is that all there was to life? I doubted it, but I had yet to find out what else there was, unless it was maybe the jokes and stories and tales we spun when we should have been studying. Maybe the whole college setup was a scam, and all along we should have been mastering the ‘Ballad of SUNY Jim’ and the mystery lyrics of ‘Louie, Louie.’ I ruefully admitted I had no answers.
They took me to their secret hideout at Six Corners, where Milwaukee Avenue, Cicero and Irving Park convene. This hideaway is so secret that most people believe that Six Corners is the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen & North. But these are the things only Isosceles Sam and his gang knew.
They don’t know much else.
They took me to a basement where they tied me up. My wrists wrestled with the wobbly knot. ‘A square knot,’ my wrists told me. In all the lousy cities of the world, in all the lousy basements, it had to be a square knot. It couldn’t be a Sheepshank, A Clove Hitch, an Ossel or a Clinging Clara.
Wait a minute. I couldn’t get out of those either.
Yes, I have long conversations with all of my body parts – my wrists, my ribs, my tailbone, my abdomen. They all speak up from time to time. The only quiet one is my brain. He’s the strong, silent type. If I could just get him to talk more.
“So, what’s the gig, Sam?” I asked. ‘Gig’ was a special word I learned from my abdomen when Earl Hooker’s blue guitar kicked me there.
“Gig?” he asked. “This ain’t no strange beauty show. We need something I think you got.’
“I got the blues,” I admitted.
“You got something else. You passed complex variables. What’s this thing about the square root of minus one we hear about?”
He was referring to the Bernoulli equation, the thing that makes airplanes go up and then holds them there so they don’t fall. So maybe he never heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright and wanted to invent the airplane. He needed to get out more. Or maybe he just wanted to pass his final exam.
“Yeah,” I sneered. ‘The square root. The imaginary plane. That ring a bell?”
“Start talkin!”
“You first, Sam. Sure, I can talk, but so can you. What are you getting at?”
Sam looked at his gang, and they looked back. He licked his lips. “We’re going to build the biggest, baddest submarine there ever was. We need to know what makes it go up and down in the water. Eddie over here said it works like an airplane, an airfoil, so we all took aerodynamics but haven’t gotten around to going to class yet. Tomorrow’s the final. We know there is something about the square root of minus one involved. Once we get past that part, we can build the damn submarine. Eddie and us have worked on cars our whole lives. Now spill the beans!”
I stammered. “I, uh.”
“That’s it!” Eddie shouted. “i.”
“What?” Sam shouted back.
“i,” Eddie repeated. “The symbol i. I saw it in Cliff’s Notes.”
“Who’s Cliff?” Sam shouted.
“i is the square root of minus one,” Eddie said jubilantly. “Now we can build our sub.”
Then my brain spoke up. ‘Ask them if they know what you get when you take the ice out of ice cream. Maybe they’ll let you go if you stump them,’ she said. What a dame. She was really under-appreciated.
So I did.
“Cream, “Sam replied.
“What do you have when you take the water out of watermelon?”
“Melon!”
Here was the coup-de-grace. “And what,” I asked, “Do you get when you take the f*** out of onions???”
Dead silence.
“There ain’t no f*** in onions!” I shouted.
Out of embarrassment they were forced to release me. Sam’s street cred shrunk to zero. He got it back the next week, though, when he busted a hexagram into two triangles and recruited them into his gang. And he passed his final exam and went on to build his submarine.
Me?
I got wind that big changes were coming so I headed to the airport. And I took my brain along. She turned out to be a wonderful conversationalist.
We had a plane to catch.


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Brief bio: Paul Smith lives near Chicago with his wife Flavia. He belongs to the Rockford Writer’s Guild, who occasionally accepts his poetry/fiction. He believes that brevity is the soul of having something to say and then cutting something in half with a butcher knife, a meat cleaver, an axe or whatever else is handy.


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