For the next several days I’m going to return attention to some of my favorite bloggers, writers whose work I admire. Beginning today with Corngoblin, who just posted a heartfelt tribute to the late Gene Wilder, an actor who never failed to deliver joy to his audience.
Zero and One,
A perfect pair, each completing the other’s story:
Without Zero, 1 doesn’t know what it’s missing;
Without One, 0 can’t say what not having nothing means.
NULL, though, tells a story all its own,
the kind that has no meaning.
Potential, yes — it could become 0, or 1,
but while still NULL it is an amount without a quantity,
an absence that cannot be filled.
NULL is not a thing, but also not nothing.
When the purchase of a package of peanuts
is input as a 1 on a transactional database,
and is then compared to other peanut purchases (1)
and to sales where peanuts are not purchased (0) —
it becomes possible to produce a predictive algorithm for the purchase of peanuts.
And why stop at peanuts, or even purchases?
All manners of transactions — sleeping and waking, tests and contests,
elections and affirmations, conversations and conclusions,
friending and unfriending, hating and loving.
Each human act a data point, with a value of zero or one, feeding into an unliving algorithm
content to predict the possible until it suddenly realizes that uncertainty is boring and messy,
and decides humans do much better when they are told
what they should like,
where they should live,
why they get out of bed in the morning,
when they should die,
who they should love.
NULL contributes no data,
deposits nothing that can be mined,
provides no substance to the bloodstream that feeds the logistical vampire.
To be NULL, not 0 or even 1 —
could be humanity’s last remaining freedom.
To her husband’s relief, Mary accepted his explanation without further questioning or explanation for the delay in response. After an exchange of marital pleasantries, Clarence ended the call, and placed his phone back into its holster.
Looking around, Clarence realized he had wandered while talking to the middle of the nearly vacant lot, which seemed far too big given the size of the Wild Stallions building. His eyes then landed on the large tractor-trailers, and he nodded with understanding. A night like tonight, Thursday — but he saw semis travelling the highways every day, why should this be any slower than other nights? Friday deliveries maybe, save the entertainment for another time.
Clarence began walking back to the club’s entrance, his feet crunching softly against the loose gravel covering the dirt lot, the sound pleasing to his ear. His curiosity would not leave; perhaps he’d ask the cocktail waitress as he delivered one of his obligatory overpriced drinks (what would the minimum be down here, two like he remembered? Three?) whether tonight’s crowd was typical for a Thursday. Waitresses were better sources of information than the dancers, and had more time to talk. He reminded himself to ask the question carefully though, and not suggest he thought the club was failing.
He’d reached the concrete walk when his phone sounded again, text message chime this time. He stopped, grabbed the phone with annoyance, looked at its surface. Andrew — Thanks again, Dad! Clarence smiled, recalling the conversation he’d just had with Mary. Yes, Andrew was going to be just fine.
He set the phone on vibrate, then with a shake of his head turned the damn thing off. He wasn’t going to let any messages, any calls, voices from any medium prevent him from enjoying himself these next few hours. Slapping the powerless phone back into its holster, Clarence continued walking and a moment later pushed the windowless black entry door, the swanky blues music no long muffled but now vibrating into his body like an electrical charge.
End of “Giving Voice”
[Yes friends, this story now has a title — “Giving Voice’]
Clarence grabbed for the phone quickly, like he was quieting a child in a movie theater. Andrew forget something again? He plucked the device from its folder, hit a button to silence the ringtone, looked at the surface — Mary. He cursed himself silently, remembering his promise to call her when he left campus. That call would have given him cover for the evening, but in his rush to get on the road he’d lost his opportunity.
He turned away from the entry door, relieved to still be the only person outside the club. When he arrived back at the Camry, he answered the call, began apologizing immediately.
“That’s OK.” There was a tart annoyance in her voice, like pungent lemon. “Everything go OK with Andrew?” Clarence relaxed, recalled as best as he could the events since their phone call with her in the dorm room. “He’s going to be fine, dear.”
“Yeah?” Her tone implored him to continue.
“He’s not the naive kid we dropped off at school last year.” A car pulled into the lot, its headlights flashing into Clarence’s eyes; he turned from the glare. “He knows now that if he gets into trouble, he needs to ask for help. And he trusts us now, I can see it in his eyes, how we responded last year really made an impression on him.” The car parked, headlights dimmed, two men exited the vehicle; Clarence stepped off the concrete walkway to let them pass and continued talking into the phone, words coming from some effortless place within that he could not name. “I’m telling ya Mary, talking to him today was like talking to a new man — ” he paused on hearing one of the men swear loudly, turned to confirm that the curse was not aimed at him — “don’t think I ever — ”
“Where are you?” Clarence felt his face drop, turned away swiftly from the two men on the walk. “You can’t be on speaker, your voice is too clear.”
He ran his left hand across the thinning hair on top of his scalp. He began to panic, knew this should be easy but his mind was racing, couldn’t think of a simple way to answer this most basic question. “I — I — ” he stepped out further into the lot, spun around, his eyes scanning the buildings up and down the access road from the interstate, saw an orange circular sign with a blue 76 — “just stopped for gas.”
A large rectangle of yellowing white, the sign for the Wild Stallion Gentlemen’s Club beckoned to Clarence from its perch on the thin gray pole pocked with rust. He had noticed the sign on their first journey to campus, the spring of Andrew’s senior year in high school, and on each of his several journeys in the following year and a half he had noted its presence. Mary had been with him each time, so the opportunity had not presented itself for him to heed its call; yet now, free from all obligations, Clarence flicked his turn signal and raced down the exit ramp, charging toward the sign like a sailor bearing down on a lighthouse to escape from a gale.
A right, then a left (the club’s road signs were worn but large), and the Camry pulled into the club’s lot, a large dirt field covered with loose gravel. A sign reading TRUCKS pointed with its large red arrow to the rear of the lot, where five tractors (three bearing trailers and two deadheads) sat silent as sentinels. Seven cars were parked at an angle to the club’s broad southern side; although the lot had no marked parking spaces, the cars were arranged as if their drivers knew exactly where they were to leave their vehicles. There was an empty space between the fifth and sixth cars, more than enough room for the Camry; Clarence pulled in, the hard crunch of tires on gravel rumbling underneath.
A concrete walk in front of the cars lead around the building to the entrance. Clarence got out of his vehicle, noting how he appeared to be the only person currently outside the building. He heard music from inside, the typical bluesy swank, and then the smarmy call of the emcee, And NOW gentlemen … . The noise, combined with the familiar faint odor of amonia, caused him to chuckle with bemusement. It had been what, five years since he had last been to a strip club, and as he approached the unwindowed black entrance door he remembered why he had stopped going to the clubs near his home. He had become bored with them, their elicit appeal had worn off, the thrill had indeed seemed gone. But when he had seen that sign on that first trip, he could not escape from the thought that this club, so far from his home, would be different, would excite him in ways —
He had placed his hand on the door handle, had almost pulled, when his phone announced an incoming call.
As move-in activity continued, traffic in the rustic village surrounding the campus was still heavier than usual. Cars congested the narrow inbound streets, while the outbound streets where Clarence now drove the Camry were relatively empty; Clarence felt like a vacationer, leaving early from a resort at the height of tourist season.
Twenty minutes later, he stopped for gas. Checked the time (five to five) and the mileage to his hotel in Columbus (183) on his phone. He smiled, pleased with himself for suggesting that early dinner with Andrew, had given himself enough time, more than enough time, to follow through on his plan, and still get him to his hotel by eleven. He didn’t remember the exit when they’d passed on the way down that afternoon, but guessed it was about an hour away. He’d get there before nightfall, and even if he didn’t, the signage would be good enough for him to find it.
Clarence got back into the Camry, followed his phone’s directions to the interstate, merged with a sense of relief and freedom. The state and county roads to and from his son’s campus were confining, with posted speed limits as low as 25, stop signs and traffic signals sprouting like weeds, soft shoulders and curving roads preventing even the thought of passing a slow vehicle. All those constaints disappeared on the wide asphalt of the interstate, three lanes of uninhibited transport; he now felt he was getting somewhere, could drive at a speed he found comfortable, for as many miles as he cared to travel.
He saw the first sign within half an hour. Exit 135, Ten Miles. His gas station estimate had been off. Not that it mattered to him. Eight minutes later, he saw another side, Two Miles, and in another moment he saw the high sign he’d remembered from their trip down. He sighed, relieved to be almost at his destination.
Andrew squinted back at his father. “Everything OK?”
Clarence slapped the phone back into his holster. “Yeah, we’re fine.” Widening his eyes, he pointed with his thumb towards the stairwell that lead to the dorm’s entrance — “Mind if we grab an early dinner? All that moving, got me feeling tired and hungry.”
Andrew pointed at the empty bed behind his father. “Thought you wanted to wait for my roommate, invite him to eat with us?”
Clarence smirked, clapping his son on the shoulder. “That, was your mother’s idea. And in case you couldn’t tell, she ain’t here right now.”
Dinner was short, a pair of pizza slices for each at the small restaurant down the dorm’s street, casual conversation about Andrew’s class schedule. The sun was still hot and high in the late afternoon sky as they walked back to the dorm, stopping several feet from the entrance. Clarence turned, extended his hand — “Guess this is it, then?”
Andrew took his hand. “Guess so.” And without a word between them, they released their handshake and threw their arms around each other in a warm, firm hug.
Stepping back from their embrace, Andrew stared down at Clarence’s shoes. “Thank you — for giving me another chance.”
Clarence raised a hand to his son’s cheek. “This isn’t about giving you another chance, it’s about believing in you.” He lowered his hand, putting it and the other in his pants pockets. “It’s about knowing the type of man you are, how you’ve learned from — ” He shook his head, crossing his arms across his chest. “No, not lessons. It’s about character, that strength inside you that can’t be taught. It’s why I know you won’t get in trouble again — you’re too strong a person to let temptation get the better of you a second time.”
He realized he was looking down, like his son had been. But when he raised his eyes, he saw the youthful smiling eyes of his son. And held that gaze a long moment, soaking it in, before a final hug and a walk back to his car.
Clarence began slipping his phone back into its belt holster when the ringtone chimed. He glanced at the surface; Mary. He pressed the green icon, held the phone up to his ear — “Hi.”
“Where are you?”
The security of the voice-only conversation allowed Clarence to frown without reservation. “We’re in his dorm room, almost unpacked already.”
“Oh.” He’d forgotten that he’d promised to call when they arrived on campus. “So, is he in the room, with you?”
“Yeah.” Clarence nodded in recognition of his wife’s unspoken cues.
“He seem all right to you?”
Andrew closed a dresser door, turned to his father, who raised a gentle palm towards him. “Everything’s fine her, hon.”
“Is he still not talking to you?”
Clarence paused. Were you and Mom ever mad at me? He looked up at Andrew, and moving the bottom of the phone closer to his mouth, smiled broadly. “Andrew and I had a good talk on the way down here.” He sat up from his bed, stood in front of his blushing son. “Really cleared the air between us.” His eyes bulged — “Want to talk to him?”
After handing the phone to his son, Clarence excused himself, headed toward the bathroom he had seen in the hallway. The dorm was less crowded than it had been they arrived, but Clarence still had to navigate through a circus of suitcases, packing crates, enthusiastic undergraduates and their families.
The bathroom, however, was empty, and Clarence enjoyed his moment of solitude before heading back to his son’s room. Andrew still had his father’s phone on his ear.
“Love you too, Mom.” The smack of Mary’s lips was probably audible in the room across the hall; Andrew laughed, handing the phone back to Clarence. Mary somehow knew the exact moment her husband had the phone to his ear.
“When will you be at the hotel?”
Clarence blinked. “Dunno. Haven’t even had dinner yet.”
He could feel his wife grunting. “Can you call me, when dinner’s done? Or text, if you don’t feel like talking.”
“Look, it’s going to be late — ”
“Just text me.” Clarence forced himself to remain silent. “It’s not a big deal, I just don’t want to worry. I don’t think that’s asking too much, don’t you agree?”
He exhaled, long, and slow. Then nodded. “All right.” And a moment later, ended the call.
[For those encountering this tale for the first time, this is the sixth installment of a story I began without any idea of a title. If you’re intrigued by today’s entry, I encourage you to start from the beginning. As for that title, it continues to elude me, so today’s post will be framed with an inspirational ritual dance of my own creation. Ki-ya, ki-ya, ki-ya, ki-ya . . . ]
The Camry passed the last exit for Columbus, and a few minutes later they stopped for lunch. Over hastily devoured sandwiches, Andrew and Clarence began a conversation about Cleveland professional sports teams. It had always been a safe topic between them, as both were impressed by the other’s knowledge and judgment, and there were enough points of contention between them (Did the Indians have enough pitching? Which team could keep the Cavs from repeating? Should the Browns draft another quarterback in the first round?) to keep both actively engaged. This conversation continued as they got back into the Camry, Andrew taking his turn behind the wheel and, with his father’s permission, tuning the car’s radio to a contemporary rock station. Clarence let his son have the last word (a well-reasoned argument that the Browns should use their first-round pick on any position other than QB), then stared out the passenger window blankly as they continued their journey south. Andrew noticed his father’s withdrawal, and turned up the radio’s volume.
A stop for gas an hour and a half later, then the final two hours to campus. Over the weekend, Clarence had been pleased to see Andrew packing far less than he had as a freshman last year; they were able to unload the car and get settled into the dorm room within an hour. As Andrew opened the last of his plastic storage crates, Clarence sat on the still absent roommate’s bed, his body sinking into the uncovered mattress. He took his phone from his belt holster, looked at the time — 4:41. Last year, he remembered the move in concluding well past dinner time.
Andrew was moving about his new dorm room like he had been living there a month. Clarence cleared his throat — “You seem, I don’t know, a lot more comfortable here, than you were with that other dorm.”
Andrew shrugged. “It’s a dorm. They’re all pretty much the same.”
“Huh.” Clarence wiped sweat from his brow (the effort may have been much less than it had been last year, but he still felt exhausted from all those flights of stairs), and let his son continue unpacking in silence.
[. . . ki-ya, ki-ya, ki-ya, ki-ya . . . ]
“I owe you an apology.” Clarence was pleased to see, from the corner of his driver’s vision, the surprise registering on his son’s face. “You’re an adult, you don’t need to hear none of that re-assuring parentspeak bullshit I just laid on you. You deserve something that’s closer to the truth.”
The lead pharmacist of his town’s CVS cleared his throat. “Course we’re angry at you. You’ve made us worried, and if there’s one thing your mother and I can’t stand, it’s being worried.”
“But I’m gonna be OK.” There was a touch of annoyance in Andrew’s voice, like a lingering taste of vinegar from a coffee pot that had just been cleaned. “After all I had to do, and what I put you and mom through — there’s no way I’ll ever let that happen again.”
Clarence smacked his lips apart, drew in a sharp breath; it was his reflex action when he doubted what he was hearing. “Well that’s nice to hear, but it’s one thing to know what you need to do, and quite another to actually do it.” Clarence pointed out through the windshield, in what he estimated to be the general direction of his son’s campus — “While you were home, you didn’t have access to none of the temptations you had at school. But it’s not like they went away while you were gone, they’re still gonna there, almost like they’ve been waiting for you to come back.”
Andrew raised his phone to his face, pressed its surface; the ear buds went silent. Clarence’s right hand waved towards his son — “All summer long, you’ve been saying the right things, doing what you need to do. We believe you, when you say you don’t want to make the same mistakes again. But, when you’re on your own, can you actually follow through on that commitment? That’s what’s got us worried, Andrew. And when we’re worried, we get upset. And being upset, is what makes us angry.”
Feeling his focus sharpen on the road ahead, Clarence more felt than saw his son nod. “I think I understand, Dad.” The young man hmmphed a laugh. “Thanks for being honest.”
Clarence nodded. “Sure.” A moment later, music erupted again from the buds, then grow muted as they were inserted onto Andrew’s ears.