Perry Kirkland

Infinity Has Teeth

I’m new to this town, having left the city.  A metropolis of commotion.  Where deep-fried hot dog carts and darkened railroad bars flanked macrobiotic diners.  Where you could see Peking ducks strung up in the windows of plush velvet lounges and clanging belly dancers twirling through Middle Eastern taco stands.  Where you had to beat back waves of alligator sweaters, orange mohawks, gingham dresses, tattooed foreheads, and madras shorts, until one day you were you and the next you’d been transformed into someone else.  There was an escalating number of choices made by millions of people, some who’d swear by the West Side, others by the Upper East, downtown, Meatpacking, midtown, Hell’s Kitchen; the majority commuting in from the outer boroughs and even from out of state--all city dwellers, none of whom chose to live within the city.  From its center we were given an overwhelming number of opportunities, each of which deflated into the same flat results.  The Wall Street Journal said I would change careers seven times in my life.  But after the first three, I gathered they all led to middle management, capped salaries and the computation of administrative data. 

I could no longer decide.

At the very least, I thought I had chosen the right lover.  He was stable, wore cable knit cardigans, plaid boxer shorts, a manual winding wristwatch.  He’d get drunk and silly over a jigsaw puzzle, which he’d glue together and proudly frame after completion.  He loved dusting and would meditate for hours over the intricate folding of an origami Cormorant and then spend hours folding a stable paper perch for his beloved paper bird.  I thought I had made the safe choice.  But after I quit my third career, I came home to find my lover slumped in a chair.  Cum was splattered all over his cuddly stomach, his gapped teeth ground into the rind of a lime, a ligature tied tightly to his throat.  My lover, killed by autoerotic asphyxia. 

All of a sudden, I needed limits.  To take away the variety that led to bad decisions.  However, this put me in a tough position.  In order to do so, I had to make two crucial choices--to relocate and go freelance.  They were decidedly the last two decisions I’d make. 

I paid a career counselor to make the first choice for me.  He called on a variety of diagnostic Scantron tests and interpretive inkblots to make that choice for him.  Based on inconclusive results, he reconstituted my advertising background into a history in publishing and inserted me into the world of literature.  Soon I was on the phone with a guy at a publishing house, who assured me that there are only seven types of plots and started me editing contemporary American fiction to make sure that number never grew. 

Then the time came for me to make a decision on my own.  I’d already decided that I needed a very small town, but within which small town would I live?  Now I couldn’t very well chose from thousands of towns across the country just to create a list of choices.  So I registered with findyourspot.com and printed the search results of a fun online survey that determined the “best small towns for me to live, work, and retire in.”  I stared at the list for days and nights, right side up, upside down, horizontally, hexagonally, diagonally, on my hands, then my toes, forwards and backwards.  And that’s when the name caught my attention.  Mirror Rim.  Palindromic.  Reflective.  Invariable.  Good as any other town I knew nothing about.  And first on the list.

So I moved to Mirror Rim.  A small town where it would be impossible to make a wrong turn.  Where there are only four existing streets that connect to one another in a square.  A town with a population the size of an extended family.  Where I wouldn’t know anyone at all.  With only one restaurant that has the town’s only bar.  With one general store that has the only super market, pharmacy, photo booth, and toy store.  With one gas station that has the only post office and adult video rental.

#

Now I’m standing at the threshold of the only coffee shop on Main Street.  Looking in at the patrons, it appears as if everybody knows everybody else.  I could be imagining it, but as soon as I take that step inside, I could swear that everyone turns to me.  Looks.  At.  Me.  In unison.  For a second.  Then the second splits and they go back to talking with one another. 

The man behind the counter is about my age.  He looks like a scarecrow with straw colored curls that are scattered around his shoulders as if the straw were stuffed haphazardly into his head.  When I ask him how he is, he responds, “Oh, sooo goood,” with an intrusive euphoria.  It gives me the willies the way he lingers on his goodness.  No one is ever that “goood.”  Or maybe his intention is to point out that I’m that sad.  I don’t know.  He does make me happy though when I look down at the foam in my cup.  It is not a stroke short of a masterpiece, the way the foam has marbleized into a picture of perfect budding leaves.  I am hesitant to drink such beauty and give the scarecrow a nod of respect and all of the change in my pocket.

I choose a seat next to a woman and her table, adjacent to a much older man and his table.  They exchange “a look” when I place my coffee down and wedge my hips into the tight path of wooden chairs before collapsing onto the booth.  The booth deflates a little with a “hiss.”  They exchange another “look” that reads like a “No Trespassing” sign.

The woman catches my eye.  She is what people would call “attractive” and I think I might like to look like her in ten years.  She is dressed like the old man though.  I can’t tell if this is intentional.  She wears jeans that are just as saggy and shapeless.  They’re not indigo or stone-washed or anything.  Just denim.  Denim held up by a brown leather belt that is tied into a knot rather than buckled.  And they’re both in faded, pilling flannel shirts.  Hers green, his red.  She does wear eyeliner to accentuate her brown cocoa eyes and silver dolphin earrings that jump through the shiny waves of her fine hair.  She also covers her face with a baseball cap and wears clunky white walking shoes that match you know who’s.  I procrastinate an hour trying to figure out whether this woman is the old man’s daughter, personal assistant or what might barely pass as a trophy wife. 

The floorboards of the coffee shop creak each time someone passes.  I lose myself in the wall of photos lit from below by the fireplace.  They are a tribute to all of the patrons who’ve died within the coffee shop.  The founder is on that wall donning his captain hat.  His pet sea turtle is stuffed and hanging upside down from the ceiling, a cigar dangling from its beak.  My lover was a member of a sea turtle patrol.  He’d fly once a year to watch the hatching of the eggs in Michoacan, Mexico, fiercely battling off encroaching predators.

Two old women, one with a cane, and both with white curls, ask if anyone is seated at the table next to me.  They would be more appropriately matched with the old man on my other side.  I motion my hand welcoming them to the table.  You could shoot darts through their curls, the type set by big cylinder curlers and never brushed out.  They set up the Scrabble board they brought with them and start playing.  I want to pet these old ladies like two poodles.  I wish to have a friendship like theirs when I’m older.  Or perhaps now.  I could really use such a friendship now.  Like I had with my coworkers during my second career.  The way our cubicles opened up to one another in a form of intimacy.  The way our chairs would wheel together in private conversation.  The way we knew each other’s favorite type of pens and wouldn’t think twice before giving away the last of our staples to someone who needed them more.  Wait a second.  One of the ladies just played “exray,” followed by “bote,” “tung,” “harpune,” and “eternitee.”  I begin to suspect these ladies are cheating.  I think that’s sweet.  Old friends would never challenge one another.

A young man approaches me.  He tells me his name is Texas, a nickname he acquired because his brain is like the scientific calculator.  Texas asks to share my table since every other seat is taken.  I pause for a second and his expression turns into that of a baby’s, unable to read all the nuances of an adult’s face, about to cry for lack of a better form of communication.  “You can take my extra chair,” I articulate clearly.  Perhaps too clearly.  He’s not an actual baby.

I bury my nose in my papers.  I debate whether the use of “of” disrupts the flow of the sentence.  I edit with a maroon pen.  I think it’s less threatening to writers.  Not quite red, the color of their blood, sweat and tears splattered all over their work.

Texas looks up with “adopt me” eyes, the most eager and pawing of an orphaned litter, and asks what I do.  I tell him I’m an editor.  He nods with an enthusiasm that says “me too,” but then he says he’s a mathematician.  He asks me if I know there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible ways to arrange a Rubik’s Cube?  He has to write this question down on a coffee napkin so I can visualize the number.  "No, I didn’t," I respond.  Even though I kind of do know now.  But that’s really so limiting, he mourns.  Texas is studying infinity.

#

That night, I realize infinity has followed me home and snuck in through the doggy door.  At first I panic.  What is infinity doing in a town like this?  But then I remember how my lover used to take in strays, litters, flocks and shoals at a time.  Regardless of whether they were rabid or had ringworm.  Crawling into bed, I cautiously invite infinity to sleep at the foot of my comforter.  Since I no longer have someone to read me stories at night or recite subliminal French lessons while I sleep, I decide to ponder the infinite universe.  I become invested in the concept, but my brain limits me.  I try to force it into overdrive.  My mind travels through and through and through its dark recesses.  But because the universe doesn’t end, I’m never able to come up with a conclusion.  My mind’s eye can only travel at the finite speed of light, so I’m never able to ascertain the infinite number of planets, orbits, galaxies, red dwarf stars, as they bolt past me in uncertain illuminated streaks.  I feel deflated.  Even if I spent every second of my life lying in this bed hooked up to an oxygen tank, a feeding tube, and a catheter visualizing the universe, I would still never be able to comprehend the network of space in which I live.  I look around my room and begin to panic.  The walls have disappeared.

#

I return the next day.  This time the LP on the old fashioned record player scratches to a halt when I cross over the threshold.  The festive buzz of the coffee shop is replaced by a static-y lapping.  Everyone stops talking.  Like one of those cowboy movies in a saloon where there’s about to be a shoot out and you can hear the spurs ominously clank against the wooden floor.  It looks like the entire town is in the coffee shop, but that’s ridiculous.  You can’t fit a town in a coffee shop, can you?  Everyone is looking at me.  Again.  Like the inhabitants of the town have formed a conglomerate, a face with a pair of beady eyes that renders a single judgment.

The scarecrow puts the needle back on track and asks what he can do for me today.  I say he can do me my regular to see if he remembers what I ordered yesterday.  He does.  When he hands me the mug, I blush.  There’s a heart in the foam.  A real heart.  It almost looks like it’s beating.  I think my heart is mimicking the foam heart, or my heart murmur is acting up, but there is definitely an arterial sputtering.  The scarecrow makes me feel generous.  I pull out my wallet and add a soft, crumpled up dollar to his ten-cent tip.  The scarecrow winks at me in return.  I have to turn my back to him; otherwise I think I might rip out my heart and give it away.

As soon as I turn around, I’m spotted.  Texas is seated at the table we shared yesterday.  He waves at me frantically with both arms.  They cross over each other.  Then split apart, almost hitting the old man and young woman on one side and the two old women with their Scrabble board on the other.  We fall back into the same formation as the day before.  Maybe it is the day before.  I can’t really remember what I had for dinner last night.  Did I brush my teeth before I went to bed?

As I take out my work, Texas looks at me.  The puppy wants to play.  He asks, “What’s infinity plus 23?”

I don’t know the answer.  Why would he ask me such things?

“It’s infinity!”

I turn away.  I look to the ancient poodles playing Scrabble.  This isn’t right.  One of the ladies just played “meth.”  That can’t be.  These are two respectable old cuties.  The type with potpourri pillows in their underwear drawers and sweet apple pies cooling on their windowsills.  What do they know about methamphetamines and the slang for it?

“Understand?  You wouldn’t be increasing the size of infinity.  What’s infinity minus 25?”

I have my maroon pen pointed at a sentence ready to swap the initial independent clause for the dependent clause that follows it.  I draw a double-pointed arrow in an arch over the words, but Texas rattles me and I change my mind, and draw another double-pointed arrow over the first double-pointed arrow, but then decide the sentence would make a better close to the paragraph so I bracket it and then draw an arrow to the bottom of the paragraph, but decide the sentence provides crucial background information that the rest of the paragraph relies on so then I have to draw a squiggly line through the arrow that moves it below.  I drop my pen to the floor.  When I bend down to pick it up, I can’t help but peak up the old lady’s skirt, it just so happens the one who played “meth,” and distinctly see the black satin of a garter belt and hungry, biting alligator clips. 

“Infinity!” Texas barks, drawing me back above-table.  “No less than infinity.”

His infinity is beginning to make me panic.  Hyperventilate, just a tittle.  I love that word “tittle.”  I would never edit out “tittle.”  But anyway, it’s too much, this infinity. 

“Well the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon rainforest only counts to two.  Any number after that is just called 'many,'" I say, trying to put a maroon slash through infinity.  Yeah, sometimes I know things.  I look to “myself in ten years” for support.  She and the old man are saying the same thing to each other in disagreement.  “That’s incorrect,” they say in sync.  “You’re wrong,” they accuse each other simultaneously.  “It happened in 1948,” they concurrently contest.  “Me in ten years” has cut my hair like the old man and I am wearing glasses like his--those old watchmaker circular kind that make your eyeballs look like they’re pushing against your face, trying to slip out of their sockets.  She now looks more than ten years older than me.

Texas is panting.  “Well, did you know that 2 and 3 are separated by both a finite number, 1, and an infinity of numbers?”

#

Later that night, infinity sneaks in once more.  I am frustrated at having to take in such an expansive roommate.  But am resigned to the fact that infinity is my bosom bully.  I eat macaroni and cheese while reading about the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea and what Aristotle described as his “arguments against motion.”  I am fascinated by this passionate logician of paradoxes, who according to Plutarch, after a failed attempt to assassinate the despot Demylus, “with his own teeth bit off his tongue [and] spit it in the tyrant’s face.” 

I tuck myself into bed with Zeno’s description of the runner.  I envision myself at the start of a marathon, limbered up with an oversized number safety pinned to my chest and fuzzy, brightly colored bands wrapped around my head and wrists to catch all of the sweat I’m about to expend.  I’ve never run before, but if I wasn’t born me, I’d have been born someone else who was constantly jogging.  Jogging to and from work, jogging through inclement weather, jogging with a jogging group, jogging in my jogging suit.  According to Zeno, for me to run from the start line to the finish line I must first cover half the distance, then cover half the distance that remains, then half the remaining distance again, and so on and so forth.  Since this would require an infinite number of strides, I would never actually reach the finish line, even if it lay just a few strides away.  As I run this race, panting, spitting onto the ground the drool that has started to foam around my salivating mouth, convinced that I most definitely have a hernia, I feel certain the shifty finish line is tricking me, moving back ever so slightly as I move forward.  I question this infinity and its integrity, and kick the mutt off the foot of my bed over and over and over and over and over again. 

#

The next day I worry that if I start walking from my house towards the coffee shop I’ll never make it there.  I picture the sidewalk as an open mouth with its tongue extended, dividing and multiplying in front of me with every step I take, consuming me in what results in an infinite aimlessness.  To my surprise the pavement stays still as I cross over it.  I watch my feet just to make sure and conclude that it’s going to be a good day. 

When I enter the coffee shop, everyone freezes in silent horror film screams, their mouths stretch to the top of their noses and down to the bottom of their chins, exposing the indented tops of yellow, rotting teeth, and the extension of bumpy, purpled tongues.  I wonder if I ever made it off the sidewalk.  Then business as usual.  Individual groups talk amongst themselves and then talk with other groups which then talk with other groups which creates one really large group that undulates, slapping a hungry arm out in different directions to absorb yet another group.  One massive swallowing entity.

I give up and walk into the mouth.  The scarecrow winks and beckons me forward.  He makes me my usual without even asking, before I realize I’m two cents short for my coffee.  I panic and ask the scarecrow if I can pay the rest later.  He squints at me.  Looks like he’s debating whether this “city girl” is running a scam.  He says firmly, “No go.”  I beg, “Please.  Come on.  Don’t be such a dick.”  I am relieved when he acquiesces and hands over the coffee, but when I look down at the foam it says, “Don’t be such a white whale.”

There are no individual tables available, so I ask the two ancient poodles if I may join them at the communal table located in the center of the room.  Their use of sarcastic pleasantries confuses me.  “Please feel free,” they say, I think implying the opposite of what is being said.  So I leave them to speculate on the infinite meanings behind my inflection of high note, low note, high note, high note, low note, high note, low note when I say, “Thank you for letting me join you.”  In response, they define their “How are you?” with a definite underscore of belligerence.  I am confounded by their words, even though my ears absorbed 800 languages a day within the city.

I take out my author’s latest chapter and get to work rewriting a couple of problem sentences, focusing on, “All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.”  As I contemplate what I want my maroon pen to do, I notice one of the old ladies tracking me out of the corner of her eye.  From her expression, I can’t tell whether she’s going to lash out or I am.  But I do think under the current construction the writer’s ideas are not being properly emphasized so I shift the order to “Mankind lives enveloped by the lines of a whale, born with halters around their necks.  Mortals only realize the silent, subtle and ever present perils in life when they are caught in the swift, sudden turn of death.”  The old lady coughs for my attention and asks me to move my coffee away from the Scrabble board.  I do.  Then I get concerned that the glut of language is convoluting the author’s message so I abridge the sentences to “Men live enveloped in whales.  When caught in death, mortals realize the perils of life.”  The old lady interrupts me again to tell me my phone is crowding the Scrabble Dictionary.  I move it. But then I get frustrated.  I don’t think that’s really what the author is trying to communicate at all.  So I change the passage to, “All born caught in halter necks that not so subtly envelop their whale-lines present a peril to life.  We mortals silently realize they should be put to swift and sudden death.”  I don’t know.  Is that the essence?  I carefully put my maroon pen down and think hard.  I think even harder.  I squint my eyes, purse my lips and clench my fists and think harder.  As the words begin to fall perfectly into place with an enlightened understanding of the author’s purpose and the precise position of the words, the old lady interjects and tells me my maroon pen is raping their plastic Scrabble hourglass.  I quickly write down, “All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.”

I don’t know if it is a trick of the eye, but the old ladies seem to be shifting closer towards me without any apparent movement.  Their proportions are warped as if I’m gazing at their reflections from within a convex mirror.  When an individual table opens up, I move.  Even though it is next to Texas.  After I pack up all of my things and settle down in my new seat, the ancient poodles yell across the room, “Were we too loud?”

At first Texas seems sedate.  He glances at me calmly without saying a word and returns to his formulas.  “Me in thirty years” and her old man are seated on my other side.  Her face looks like someone has sucked out all of the moisture with a vacuum leaving her with the skin of a prune.  I lean in a bit closer.  Her cocoa eyes now appear to have cataracts with a milky film that obscures the vibrancy of her irises.  She can’t see me moving around her face.

Texas startles me, now wanting to make up for lost time, “Did you know that two to the infinity is more than infinity?”

Oh, no.  There is something larger than infinity.  “Me in thirty years” can’t help me now.

“And two to the two to the infinity is larger than that,” Texas adds, wagging his bottom in his seat.

“I have nothing to say,” I say, and turn back to aged me.

I detect a forest of grey nose hair protruding from nostrils that have grown and been disfigured into ancient caves.  Even a few bristly whiskers jut out from her now cleft chin like jagged rocks.  She looks like she’s had a really bad night.  Perhaps she’s more than thirty years older than me.  She picks her nose and lodges a bugger on the bottom of her table, mirroring the movement of the old man.

#

That night I lock my door.  I make a pact with myself not to think about infinity, but that thing larger than infinity bores into my brain like a bug and begins pushing on its walls to expand the interior.  As if my limited mental capacity is a space issue rather than a blockage caused by functional constraints.  “Larger than infinity’s” imposed remodel gives my brain an ache and I wonder if it’s planning on expanding my interiority through a deck off the left side of my skull.  It’s excruciating.  A brain can’t physically twist and stretch and wrap and curl itself around a concept.  Can’t “larger than infinity” empathize?  The pain of it all!  I scream, but it’s not like anyone can hear me from an infinity away.  And it’s not like “larger than infinity” has ears.

That’s enough.  I get up and tear through my fact-checking collection of medical journals.  I diagnose myself with a life-threatening case of chronic Apeirophobia, the Greeks’ crippling fear of the infinite.  Just my luck.  Apeirophobia is incurable.  How did I contract this?  It’s not like I’ve been to Greece within the past year.  I place the back of my hand to my forehead like my lover used to do when I was sick.  Yes, it’s definitely a bit balmy.  I barely make it back into bed.  Clutching my sheets up to my chin, I remember Emperor Marcus Aurelius and realize it’s all over.  He defined infinity as “a fathomless gulf, into which all things vanish.” 

I’m heating up.  I roll over and try to take a sip of water but can’t seem to reach my glass.  I stand up from bed and stretch down towards the water but still can’t touch the rim.  Then I kneel on the floor at eye level and can no longer see my glass.  So I get back into bed, which appears to be gone.

#

On the way to the coffee shop, the streets are completely deserted.  I don’t pass a soul.  I wonder if I’ve already fallen and am walking on the floor of an infinite abyss.  But when I arrive the coffee shop is stuffed to the gills with townspeople.  They’re spilling out of the windows, kicking their legs on the inside, waving their arms on the outside.  People are sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people lying balanced along the tops of their heads.  You have to push through people as if they’re a nutrient rich gel that you must eat to survive.

When I place my order with the scarecrow, he has to climb over the backs of a writhing floor of customers to get to the cappuccino machine.  Searching my pockets I realize that I don’t have enough change to tip (I’ve had to do a lot of laundry lately, not to say that I’m wetting my bed when I think of the infinity monster leaping out of my closet at night).  I warn him in advance to preempt any awkwardness.  I say I’ll make it up to him.  I’m relieved when he passes my mug with a smile, but when I look down I see he’s written in my foam, “You fucking ungrateful caffeine whore.  Your junkie lips can kiss my scarecrow ass.”  I can’t believe that all of those words fit in the foam, but they do.  It’s almost a miracle.

I’m forced to join the gang.  “Me in forty-five years” and her old man, Texas, and the two ancient poodles are all seated in a cluster of individual tables with a spot for me in the middle.  As I squeeze past the Scrabble board, I notice the old ladies’ tiles spelling out words like “crank,” “cocknugget,” “twatlips,” and “ovenmitt.”  These ladies have been frequenting the post office too often.  When I accidentally make eye contact, the crinkles at the sides of their eyes suddenly fan out like an array of daggers.

As I settle into the booth, I assess how “me in forty-five years” is looking today and decide she doesn’t really look like my idea of me anymore.  She’s morphed into the old man’s identical twin, an eerie clone of Grandfather Time, perched on top of the old man’s square table with her legs coquettishly crossed, the top limb bobbing. 

Texas starts in on me confidently with “You know Mike?”

“I don’t know anyone.”

I’m mortified.  The woman puckers his lips and seductively blows the dead follicles creeping out of the mirror image of his head, “Ah, don’t hold out on me, Daddy.”  The old man’s twin climbs down into the old man’s lap, straddling his twice-broken hips, and begins grinding her pelvis in erotic gyrations, holding onto the seated man’s pants. 

“Oh, you know Mike,” dismisses Texas.

“No, I don’t know Mike,” I insist, but my lover’s name was Mike, even though he later preferred to be called Michael.

“I know.  Isn’t Mike the best?” He gushes.  “He made me this book.”

Texas shows me his journal of calculations, the type that Michael used to make.  My lover would handcraft recycled paper with dried flowers pressed into the pulp and bind the pages together with a grassy cross-stitch.

“How do you know Michael?”  I ask. 

I notice Texas is looking at me funny.  All of a sudden I see the letters of my words hovering over his mouth, floating inside of it in fact.  And he relishes the taste.  I realize that he’s been dividing my speech into an infinite number of pieces, bobbing in an array of cubes in the space between us. 

I look at the ancient poodles and watch their Scrabble tiles rise into the air, whirling around the letters of my speech.  One of the old ladies has snatched my maroon pen and is firing shots with it, taking down the letters like geese.

Then I see the words I’m supposed to be editing floating through the steam twisting out of my coffee cup, falling into a jumble.  The fragments of letters rearrange themselves in an infinite number of combinations to create new words, different words, words that no one means.  The more I try to control what they mean the more the words say something else.  Words that become lines that become curves that become shapes that become numbers that become symbols that become statistics that become landscapes that become portraits that become a singular orgasm that becomes a sweater vest that becomes teeth that become a ligature tied tightly around my throat.  And like that I vanish.