An Irrational Root
It was long ago, during my school days, when I ﬁrst encountered the square root of minus one. I remember it all very clearly: a bright globelike class hall, about a hundred round heads of children, and Plappa — our mathematician. We nicknamed him Plappa; it was a very much used-up mathematician, loosely screwed together; as the member of the class who was on duty that day would put the plug into the socket behind, we would hear at ﬁrst from the loud-speaker, “Plap-plap-plap-plap— tshshsh. . . .” Only then the lesson would follow. One day Plappa told us about irrational numbers, and I remember I wept and banged the table with my ﬁst and cried, “I do not want that square root of minus one; take that square root of minus one away!” This irrational root grew into me as something strange, foreign, terrible; it tortured me; it could not be thought out. It could not be defeated because it was beyond reason.
Now, that square root of minus one is here again. I read over what I have written and I see clearly that I was insincere with myself, that I lied to myself in order to avoid seeing that square root of minus one. My sickness is all nonsense! I could go there. I feel sure that if such a thing had happened a week ago I should have gone without hesitating. Why, then, am I unable to go now? . . . Why?
Today, for instance, at exactly sixteen-ten I stood before the glittering Glass Wall. Above was the shining, golden, sun-like sign: “Bureau of Guardians.” Inside, a long queue of bluish-gray unifs awaiting their turns, faces shining like the oil lamps in an ancient temple. They had come to accomplish a great thing: they had come to put on the altar of the United State their beloved ones, their friends, their own selves. My whole being craved to join them, yet . . . I could not; my feet were as though melted into the glass plates of the sidewalk. I simply stood there looking foolish.
“Hey, mathematician! Dreaming?”
I shivered. Black eyes varnished with laughter looked at me — thick Negro lips! It was my old friend the poet, R-13, and with him rosy O-. I turned around angrily (I still believe that if they had not appeared I should have entered the Bureau and have torn the square root of minus one out of my flesh).
“Not dreaming at all. If you will, ‘standing in adoration,’ ” I retorted quite brusquely.
“Oh, certainly, certainly! You, my friend, should never have become a mathematician; you should have become a poet, a great poet! Yes, come over to our trade, to the poets. Eh? If you will, I can arrange it in a jiffy. Eh?”
R-13 usually talks very fast. His words run in torrents, his thick lips sprinkle. Every “p” is a fountain, every “poets” a fountain.
“So far I have served knowledge, and I shall continue to serve knowledge.”
I frowned. I do not like, I do not understand jokes, and R-13 has the bad habit of joking. .
“Oh, to the deuce with knowledge. Your much-heralded knowledge is but a form of cowardice. It is a fact! Yes, you want to encircle the inﬁnite with a wall, and you fear to cast a glance behind the wall. Yes, sir! And if ever you should glance beyond the wall, you would be dazzled and close your eyes — yes —” ‘
“Walls are the foundation of every human,” I began.
R-13 sprinkled his fountain. O- laughed rosily and roundly. I waved my hand. “Well, you may laugh, I don’t care.” I was busy with something else. I had to ﬁnd a way of eating up, of crushing down, that square root of minus one. “Suppose,” I offered, “we go to my place and do some arithmetical problems.” (The quiet hour of yesterday afternoon came to my memory; perhaps today also. . . .)
O- glanced at R-, then serenely and roundly at me; the soft, endearing color of our pink checks came to her cheeks.
“But today I am . . . I have a check to him today.” (A glance at R-.) “And tonight he is busy, so . . .”
The moist, varnished lips whispered good-naturedly: “Half an hour is plenty for us, is it not, O-? I am not a great lover of your problems; let us simply go over to my place and chat.”
I was afraid to remain alone with myself or, to be more correct, with that strange new self who by some curious coincidence bore my number, D-503. So I went with R-. True, he is not precise, not rhythmic, his logic is jocular and turned inside out, yet we are . . . Three years ago we both chose our dear, rosy O-. This tied our friendship more ﬁrmly together than our school days did. In R-’s room everything seems like mine: the Tables, the glass of the chairs, the table, the closet, the bed. But as we entered, R- moved one chair out of place, then another—the room became confused, everything lost the established order and seemed to violate every rule of Euclid’s geometry. R- remained the same as always; in Taylor and in mathematics he always lagged at the tail of the class.
We recalled Plappa, how we boys used to paste the whole surface of his glass legs with paper notes expressing our thanks (we all loved Plappa). We recalled our priest (it goes without saying that we were not taught the “law” of ancient religion but the law of the United State). Our priest had a very powerful voice; a real hurricane would come out of the loud-speaker. And we children would yell the prescribed texts after him with all our lung power. We recalled how our scapegrace, R-13, used to stuff the priest with chewed paper; every word was thus accompanied by a paper wad shot out. Naturally, R- was punished, for what he did was undoubtedly wrong, but now we laughed heartily — by we I mean our triangle, R-, O-, and I. I must confess, I, too.
“And what if he had been a living one? Like the ancient ones, eh? We’d have b . . . b . . .” a fountain running from the fat bubbling lips. The sun was shining through the ceiling, the sun above, the sun, from the sides, its reﬂection from below. O- on R-13’s lap and minute drops of sunlight in O-’s blue eyes. Somehow my heart warmed up. The square root of minus one became silent and motionless. . . .
“Well, how is your Integral? Will you soon hop off to enlighten the inhabitants of the planets? You’d better hurry up, my boy, or we poets will have produced such a devilish lot that even your Integral will be unable to lift the cargo. ‘Every day from eight to eleven’ . . .” R- wagged his head and scratched the back of it. The back of his head is square; it looks like a little valise (I recalled for some reason an ancient painting “In the Cab” ) . I felt more lively.
‘You, too, are writing for the Integral? Tell me about it. ‘What are you writing about? What did you write today, for instance?”
“Today I did not write; today I was busy with something else.” (“B-b-busy” sprinkled straight into my face.)
R- frowned. “What? What? Well, if you insist I’ll tell you. I was busy with the Death Sentence. I was putting the Death Sentence into verse. An idiot — and to be frank, one of our poets. . . . For two years we all lived side by side with him and nothing seemed wrong. Suddenly he went crazy. ‘I,’ said he, ‘am a genius! and I am above the law.’ All that sort of nonsense. . . . But it is not a thing to talk about.”
The fat lips hung down. The varnish disappeared from the eyes. He jumped up, turned around, and stared through the wall. I looked at his tightly closed little “valise” and thought, “What is be handling in his little valise now?”
A moment of awkward, asymmetric silence. I could not see clearly what was the matter, but I was certain there was something. . . .
“Fortunately the antediluvian time of those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys (or what were their names?) is past,” I said in a voice deliberately loud.
R- turned his face to me. Words sprinkled and bubbled out of him as before, but I thought I noticed there was no more joyful varnish to his eyes.
“Yes, dear mathematician, fortunately, fortunately. We are the happy arithmetical mean. As you would put it, the integration from zero to inﬁnity, from imbeciles to Shakespeare. Do I put it right?”
I do not know why (it seemed to me absolutely uncalled for) I recalled suddenly the other one, her tone. A thin, invisible thread stretched between her and R- (what thread?). The square root of minus one began to bother me again. I glanced at my badge; sixteen-twenty-ﬁve o’clock! They had only thirty-ﬁve minutes for the use of the pink check.
“Well, I must go.” I kissed O-, shook hands with R—, and went to the elevator. ,
As I crossed the avenue I turned around. Here and there in the huge mass of glass penetrated by sunshine there were grayish-blue squares, the opaque squares of lowered curtains, the squares of rhythmic, Taylorized happiness. On the seventh ﬂoor I found R-13’s square. The curtains were already lowered.
Dear O-. . . . Dear R-. . . . He also has (I do not know why I write this “also,” but I write as it comes from my pen), he, too, has something which is not entirely clear in him. Yet I, he, and O-, we are a triangle; I confess, not an isosceles triangle, but a triangle nevertheless. We, to speak in the language of our ancestors (perhaps to you, my planetary readers, this is the more comprehensible language), we are a family. And one feels so good at times, when one is able for a short while, at least, to close oneself within a ﬁrm triangle, to close oneself away from anything that . . .