Stories Written After Eight – Chapter One: “Eight: Sideways to Infinity” by Kathryn Merrifield

            The
rain stopped but the streets were still reflecting the glare of lights, and the
early November evening was cold, the sort that takes a cup of green tea and
conversation to warm.
            Evelyn
took the weather as just another part of the day, the part that left her
effected.  She walked through its
puddles.  Living in Southern California
didn’t give her much variety, but she touched water as though it was a
condition that pooled around the heart, muting the vibrance of reflected colors
that could so beam right through her layered clothes.  She grew up there and never lived more than
forty-five minutes from her hometown.  In
that moment rain was about as adventurous as her soul could get and the girl
was only age twenty-four.  She was
waiting for something to happen. 
Something there could
happen.  The rest of the world could open up and let her in. 
            Leaning
over, she put her hand on the umbrella, then tilting her head to look out the
closed window, she reconsidered and left it in the car.   It was clear.  It wouldn’t rain again, at least not until
she left the restaurant.  It wouldn’t
start before she got in her car to return home.
            Closed
and locked the driver’s side door, Evelyn buttoned her rain coat which was too
thin for an unexpectedly brisk  night in
Westside, Los Angeles.  Unlike most days
it felt like mountain air with a chill that permeates the bone, biting at the
little body hairs to make them stand straight up.  It was so cold that a mountain of frost like
a white down parka must have wrapped itself around her, as the snow levels
would soon rise in high altitudes crowding out the city.  It was the canyon where she was raised – half
there and half in thos city beach towns. 
Fall.  Even California slowed
bringing in winters of Evelyn’s childhood spent North to the forefront of her
mind.
            She
remembered getting sick after a long day driving with her family to the ski
lifts in Lake Tahoe, ten hours up a route she never bothered to memorize.  High altitudes made every member of the
Radcliff family ill.  As each child got
older they lost the nausea and Evelyn’s mother found it easier to sleep through
the night.  Unaccustomed to above sea
level elevations, the adjustment to higher ground agitated the intestines and
stomach acids flowing in the bellies of little children.  It was cold but dry and did not linger but
brushed past the skin.  They made that
trip for years until her mother’s parents died and there was no home to go to.
            Evelyn
felt her stomach growl, stepped onto the curb and reached behind her head,
unfastening the clip which let her brown shoulder length hair fall in soft
waves away from her face.  Looking in the
window adjacent to the Japanese restaurant, she held the clip in one hand and
twisted her hair to the end, then swooped it up, leaving a tuft on the top of
her head then snapped the clip to hold the configuration in place.  She removed a few strands of hair from the
arrangement, one from each side of her face, to soften the style.  Each fell gracefully in the curl of a
toddler’s hair.  Not quite perfect, she
thought, but satisfactory nonetheless and so, so soft.
            Walking
a few more steps, she approached the door to Sushi, Sushi, rather repetetive,
she thought, but clear.  The sign above
the threshold read “Grand Opening.” Evelyn pushed through, then, recognized her
error and pulled the aluminum handle toward her.  She entered the empty restaurant, too small
for anything so grand to actually occur on what Evelyn knew was the first night
in business.  A small- framed Asian woman
approached her.  “Hello,” she
said, politely.  Then, two chefs behind
the narrow, maple polished sushi bar to her right greeted Evelyn in their
language.  Their enthusiasm implied in
gestures the meaning not understood in their words. 
            “Before
you sit, I want to tell you, ” the young Japanese woman said softly,
“that we only serve sushi, soup and salad, not any Tempura or cooked
dishes.  No chicken terriaki or beef, only
sushi, sashimi, soy beans and rice.”
            “That’s
okay,” Evelyn replied, “I want to eat sushi.  There’ll be four more for the sushi
bar.”
            The
woman, who seemed (by her overtly quiet demeanor) more so a girl with her clear
round face and downcast eyes nodded her head, almost bowing, and outstretched
her right, delicate hand motioning Evelyn to the chairs lined along the side of
the bar. The sushi bar was constructed parallel to the north wall.  The room was the shape of a shoe box, but
comfortable due more to the gracious hosts than could be attributed to a room
with all of its Feng Shui awareness.
            Of
the four or five chairs designated for the arriving Radcliff party, Evelyn
selected the one to the furthest right, knowing that if she sat in the middle
someone would be leaning forward or backwards to converse with someone on the
other side of her position in-between.  
Evelyn, the middle child, hated people talking through her.  It was as if she were a piece of glass that
absorbed each word  in stained smudges
and crack on an overhead projector slide sheet that was difficult to read
through innumerable marks and poorly erased lines of past classes.  All of the knights, after all, met at a table
where they determined their fate. 
Samurai’s and mountain girls and defunct families could do the same to
stay together while they quietly fell apart seated along the pine bar instead
of the round table, as they were.
            Evelyn
removed her black trench coat, rolled it up and placed it on the chair beside
her where her purse and another woman’s bag were already placed.  She ordered a mineral water and returned the
chef’s smile who stood behind the bar, removing shrimp from a metal bowl,
slicing off the tails and splitting them down the middle.  His smile was self conscious.
            In
a strong Japanese accent, the chef to his right, who was clearly the authority
said, “What would you like?” 
His speech chopped up words like it was a Ginsu knife.
            “No,
thank you.  I’ll wait,” Evelyn
replied.  “I’ll just have my water
until everyone else gets here.”
            The
Japanese woman who greeted her at the door, a man with a mustache and another
closer in age to the young woman and much taller than the cultural norm, stood
watching from the kitchen entrance, a door frame where a white panel of thick
linen fabric hung from a rod above. 
Japanese inscription was painted on in black and the partition split
down the middle, the place where those eager faces appeared.  It was all new and they were eager to please.
            Evelyn’s
father appeared at the entrance.  He was
just under six feet, heavy, dark skinned with sideburns of brown and highlights
enhanced under the overhead fluorescent bulbs. 
He wore a button-down plaid oxford 
in blue, green and white with navy blue pants buttoned around the large
girth of his stomach.  He had gained some
weight since the purchase of these pants in particular and they clung tighter
than his size would allow.  Ahead of him
and slight was a boy, ten years old, scanning the room with expectant
eyes.  Close to his chest he held a
book.  Evelyn remembered something an
acquaintance once said: 
            “I
think people act most like themselves in the kitchen.”  That person was a teacher from a cooking
class she took in high school at the suggestion of her mother before dropping
out.  The lifespan of all such plans was
usually short especially in the pastimes of her youth.  Evelyn’s intention was to enhance her
culinary talents but the idea ended the way most things did – incomplete.  She did not want to be like her mother,  a woman without the taste for raw food and a
fabricated sense of adventure.  It was
like performance art, living.  Painting
eventually was living, when she got there.
            Seeing
the two approach, Evelyn pushed her chair behind her with the backs of her
knees.  “Hi,” she said,
witholding, then looked down at the boy who was still trying not to smile.  “Hey Leland,” she said and rubbed
the top of his head then squatted down to hug him.  “What’s up?”
            “Nuuu-thing,”
he said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, the melody of a bored if aloof
ten-year-old little brother. 
            “How
are you doing Tootsie?” Evelyn’s father asked as he kissed her awkwardly,
on the forehead. 
            “Good,”
she said, looking down now.  The man
never failed to make her uncomfortable. 
She placed her left hand on Leland’s back and said, as he looked over
the chairs, “Sit next to me, here.” 
Evelyn pulled out the chair and 
pointed at the book, “You brought your homework.”
            He
moved in front of the chair, wiggled out of his jacket, which he flopped over
the back and propped his book on the sushi bar using it as a podium. 
            Evelyn
asked him in her most nurturing tone, “What are you studying?” then added,
“Can I help?”
            But,
he already had his dulled pencil in hand held at the crook between thumb and
index finger, and was writing on a sheet of paper.  Along the left margin of the paper were large
numbers listed in pencil from one to twenty, then equations spelled out as one
hundred and sixty eight plus three hundred and forty equals the sum in
question.   An answer written with the
proper figures carried over, noted on the paper to trace the problem
solving.  All on a sheet Evelyn
remembered from her own school days. 
Those edges bordered this child’s thoughts and each equation was in a
perfect, wide line.  There were tight
even spaces between them.  It’s true that
the budding artist had a flair for math and the boy needed anything but help in
the matter.  Even his pencil was
sharpened.
            She
let her father order as he always did, trusting his sensibility since he invited
her into the world of eating raw food sixteen years prior – salmon, tuna,
yellowtail, eel, an inside out roll and soft shell crab.  A bowl of rice and adamame to share.  Leland would have rice and seaweed wraps and
dried fish flakes.  Leland always made
his own.
            Evelyn
was overcome with sympathetic understanding at the process and while Leland did
not need help the attentions of both she and her father accompanied him through
the first half of the assignment before the first plate of rolls was served on
the small wooden trays.  The heart pushed
the mind backward with such a small thing. 
A very, very very small thing. 
Numbers came easily to him, as simple as raw food.  Evelyn did not understand such things easily
because she could not and perhaps that was more the reason for her
sadness.  Giving up required a lesser
toll on her emotions and her mind.
            Years
passed before her mother could say, “Learning disabled” in her daughter’s
presence.  What was most difficult was
explaining the girl’s fondness of painting and the rapid pace at which she
constructed images.  It was a push
against the block in her mind that could not tolerate the precision of numbers
and so expressed itself in the boundless possibilities of color.   Not so lonely, then with them.
            Leland
made her feel less that way because he was young and did not judge her.  Because, he was only half her brother and
because Evelyn understood his mind.  She
watched him, half smiling.
            “Leland,
what do you want to be when you grow up?”
            “I
told you.”
            “I
forgot.  I’m sorry.”
            “I
want to be an artist,” he stated, confident though his eyes remained on the
page.
            “I
thought you wanted to make movies.”
            “You
wanted to be a painter.  I’m an
artist.  Artists make movies.”
            “You’re
right,” Evelyn said.  “What have you done
lately about being an artist?”
            “I
haven’t done anything lately,” he said, cavalier.  “I’m only a kid.  I can’t make movies yet.”
            “You’re
right again.  You’re just so good at
everything Leland.  What about those
pictures.  Have you drawn anything like
that lately?”
            “No,”
he said, then looking up at Evelyn, “What about you?”
            It
was the first time Evelyn disengaged her eyes from the boy.  “I haven’t done anything either,” she said.
            “But
you’re old,” he said, his eyes still locked on her.
            She
laughed, but still couldn’t reconnect with the boy. 
            “You’re
lucky you’re so good at everything,” she said.
            “Not
as good as you,” he said, a bit shy that time.
            “You
think so?” Evelyn asked, shocked.  “How
do you know?”
            “I
saw your pictures.  Didn’t I,” he asked,
poking Father with the eraser end of the pencil. 
            Father
cleared his throat before speaking and gave a look to Leland that produced the
effect he was looking for.  He put the
point of the pencil back on the paper. 
Father’s expression was ordinary, boredom mixed with obligatory
interest.  “Evelyn is a good artist.  I told her that.  I told her she was.”  His heavy eyes widened as the sushi chef
placed the wooden tray with several pieces of sushi on it, in front of Evelyn
then did the same for Father.  Leland put
down his pencil and began to work on his own concoction of rice, seeweed and
dried fish flakes that he shaped into a roll while Father and Evelyn ate.
            Carefully
yet with the mindless precision of an expert, she took the shiny coral piece of
salmon between the two bamboo sticks and placed it in her mouth.  She savored and swallowed what felt like
butter down her throat.  She could not
help but smile at the chef behind the bar, working diligently as he sliced the
paper thin sheet of seaweed.  Eating like
this was like being kissed after a long wait.
            Her
brother ate between math problems. It was new material for Leland but, unlike
Evelyn, the boy did not cry in his frustration. 
After one or two rolls, he ate from his bowl of rice with a fork in his
left hand and went back to writing with his right between bites while Evelyn
thought of those hours with the cross-hatched graph of multiplication tables
that the teacher told her to memorize. 
It was a plastic toy with shifting tiles that, once pushed away,
intersected at the sum of two numbers listed vertically on the left side and
horizontal at the top.  It took her one
day in a corner to figure it out. 
            Years
later, she remembered the graph and those that gave her trouble were those she
remembered most.  Eight times seven:
fifty-six.  Her favorite was six times
eight and all of eight’s tables.  In the
case of division she would carry a calculator. 
It was the only number that came together twice – eight was – like
second chances and sideways became infinity. 
Memory lasted longer than Evelyn cared for in packaged recollection in
the stories that her mind allowed her to visit twice and more.  It was the only thing real enough that
managed to remain and became a measure of importance beyond classroom
ability.  She and Leland saw this so much
the same – the world as it was layed out in her memory.  Like 
those little division squares shifting around only they were pictures.  Evelyn’s pictures came out skewed.
            Age
eight.  It was the year she learned how
to ride a bike without the training wheels and the same year that she learned
how to tell time.  She had no reason to
know what the time was.  There were
things she didn’t know and did not care to know.  But at eight, this block in her mind became
evident. Embarrassing.  Like a forced
bloom age made her look at the clock. 
Evelyn the Late Bloomer, her mother called her as though a more
palatable way to address what she herself had no way of understanding.  Little girls have no need of time.  Children know which moment they are in
without counting, see time as boundless because there is so much that it will
never end.  Infinity.
            Looking
at the long row of numbers Evelyn asked, “How many problems do you have to work
on, Leland?” 
            He’s
numbered all thirty three lines by then but only filled in the answers to
twenty five of those.
            “I’m
almost finished,” he replied.
            “”But
you’ve numbered it all the way down the page. 
Almost to infinity.  “You know,
numbers are the only thing that go on forever. 
They’re the only thing of the kind.”
            “No
one can count to infinity,” Leland said.
            “I
know,” Evelyn replied.  That means you
can’t divide by it either.”
            “Why?”
Leland asked.
            “Because
forever can’t be torn apart.”
            He
sat thinking about that, deconstructing it. 
His eyes were fixed on the wall behind the bar like he was trying to
untie a knot.  Leland thought just as
much as Evelyn though his perception through aqua-blue eyes was a blatant
contrast to hers:  sepia oil on a
palate.  Sky set against the earth.
            One
day her mother lifted the antique kitchen clock off the wall, at the time still
oblivious to her slow-mindedness but slowly catching on.  The glass enclosure was intentionally missing
from the cherry wood contraption, the face painted with roses.  A brass pendulum swung silently back and
forth but stopped when she took it from the nail in the wall.  Evelyn sat at the kitchen table while her
mother spoke, shamed. 
            “Mrs.
Hanover said that you don’t know how to tell time yet.”  The tone implied that Evelyn had deceived her
in some way.  “Here,” she said,
presenting the clock to her daughter sitting in one of the oak chairs placed
around the round kitchen table.  “Learn.”
            Rain
drops splashed against the storefront window pane, in sight only by a turn of
her head over her shoulder.  Sipping from
the cup with no handle, her hands were warm.

            Evelyn
Radliff started counting.