The thirty hour day.
The one with the forelock keeps trying to convince me of the Thirty Hour Day. He starts by trying to convince me against the Twenty-Four Hour Day. He starts by having me admit how many hours I suppose there are--that's how he puts it: "How many hours do you suppose there are in a day?" he says. He asks it lots of times and each time in the beginning I make this big show of not answering at all, just keeping my mouth shut, but finally it's been like three or four days and I still haven't slept or even seen dark so I say: "Twenty-four. Twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours in a day."
The one with the forelock pinches the bridge of his nose like it needs pressure or it'll burst. His partner calls him the Cossack though his accent sounds South Side Chicago. Actually it's the friend who has a Russian way of talking. And a terrycloth towel wrapped up in his hand. He keeps saying, "We know you want some sleep. So just tell us what pusillanimous means."
I say I don't know.
I say I do know how many hours there are in a day, that there are twenty-four and that that's a day, that's how many hours there are in a day, but I've never been strong at vocab.
"OK," the other one says, "but that doesn't mean you're getting out of it so c'mon--what does pusillanimous mean, Comrade?"
"And where'd the other six go?" the Cossack says. We both look at him like, the other six what? "The other six hours," the Cossack says. "If we're to believe in your Twenty-Four Hour Day, then where the hell did the other six hours in the day go?"
"He's got a point," the other one says.
"Thanks, Muzhik," the Cossack says, which I guess makes at least a little bit of sense since he's got the Russian accent and all. I tell him I don't know what to say--it's a Twenty-Four Hour Day. How would six hours go anywhere? They're part of the Twenty-Four Hour Day. If there were six hours missing it would be an Eighteen Hour Day.
"Whoa-boy!" the Cossack says. He tosses his forelock back with a snap of his neck and though no noise comes out of his mouth I guess this is supposed to pass for a laugh. "Listen to this one! Trying to convince us the day is only eighteen hours! Oh, it's gonna be a long day with this one."
Before I think my mouth is open I've said, Let me guess: a Thirty Hour Day?
That's when the Muzhik gets up and wraps the towel around my neck and swings me as hard as he can against the particleboard wall next to me and there are little swimming minnows before my eyes and finally I get some sleep so deep I even dream.
II. Introduction of the Eighteen Hour Day Postulate
I wake up from my dream to the Cossack saying, "So you were propounding upon the Eighteen Hour Day Postulate." I have no idea how long I've been asleep, only that the Cossack's changed his clothes. Now he's wearing a t-shirt that says "Virginia is for Lovers" and my neck feels supported by something steely and my legs are asleep down to the toes from sleeping sitting on a kid's-sized wooden chair. I can't decide if it's worth moving them around and getting the circulation back and enduring the prickling pain of it, or if I should just leave them asleep.
I leave them asleep.
"You were going to convince me against the Thirty Hour Day by telling me about the Eighteen Hour Day," the Cossack says.
I tell him I didn't say that--that it was a Twenty-Four Hour Day, and I was only trying to get him to give up this idea that six hours were missing somewhere since they weren't missing, that my saying it could be an Eighteen Hour Day should have in its irony unveiled the unreasonableness of the conversation to begin with. The Muzhik has just entered the room and he's kind of nodding a bit. He's changed his clothes, too, and he's wearing a kelly green t-shirt that says, "Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky." The Cossack looks at him and the skin around his neck grows red and he turns back to me and says, "If you believe so much in this Eighteen Hour Day, how long would you say you've been asleep? What would you estimate is the accumulated duration of our time here together?"
Now the Muzhik's nodding along. The towel in his hand has unraveled just the tiniest bit and I see splashes of color, yellow and orange and blue. I can't see what it's depicting but it's got some print on it. I lean in but they both lean in like they've been directed by some shitty director in a movie, so we're all leaning toward each other now.
I say I don't know.
I say I don't know I don't know I don't know but could I please have some water.
They give me some water by taking off one of my socks, walking to the faucet that's been dripping on the wall next to my head all along, putting the sock under the stream, then putting the sock in my mouth. They don't talk at all while I'm sucking on the sock and when the sock falls from my mouth, the Muzhik takes it off my lap and throws it in a corner and sits back down.
"I like this Arbitrariness of the Hours Theorem you were testing," the Cossack says. "You should tell us more about that."
III. The Arbitrariness of the Hours Theorem
I tell the Cossack I'm not sure what he's talking about and I mean it. It's getting harder to follow what he's saying, but I'm going to have to give an answer sooner or later. Just as I'm about to let fly the Cossack starts in on me again.
"I would guess your Arbitrariness of the Hours Theorem would go something like this," he says. "To some extent the whole concept of time doesn't have a fixed value. We affix a certain numerical value to the number of hours we want to have in a day, and then we quantify the hours in a day accordingly. And so while you've lived your whole life with the expectation that there are twenty-four hours in the day, when you suddenly learn there are thirty hours in a day, you'll have to reconcile those two competing facts both intellectually and emotionally. Though you'll reject it at the outset because of your emotional response--you've grown attached to the Twenty-Four Hour Day! How could you not? You like the expression twenty-four-seven a lot more than you do thirty-seven, which because of its syntax actually is ambiguous--at some point you'll have to slow down and take the idea on intellectually.
"So eventually you'll say: Why couldn't there be a Thirty Hour Day? If I could handle it aesthetically couldn't it be just fine? At first I was afraid that this would change my day, but my day can't change. It's always a day. It's just the descriptive tool we use to evaluate the day that's changed. So: could I just spread the twenty-four hours over a larger framework of the exact same day, making it into a Thirty Hour Day? How would I craft an equation to make this work? What is the relationship between thirty and twenty-four? By what number are these two integers most easily divided?"
The Cossack stops. He's not asking this last question rhetorically.
Two, I say, and the Cossack just smiles for a really long time. Then the Muzhik gets up from the crouch he's in, walks over, puts the towel around my neck, and slams me into the wall so hard I go straight back into the dream I was having when he knocked me out last. Here's how it started:
IV. The Dream I Had
I was thrown back to my garden one afternoon a number of years before. My father-in-law was in town, visiting my wife and me the week after our first baby was born. Her parents were so happy to see the baby. They held her head up so it wouldn't loll on her loose neck and kissed her sleeping cheeks. Since he was a very young man my father-in-law had always had something of an obsession with plants, and even with his granddaughter in our house, when there was a lull in the day you could tell he was thinking of being outside. He could walk me out in our neighborhood where in front of their brownstones Brooklynites grew small gardens and tell me what was a hydrangea, what was a peony, which kind of antique rose was which kind of antique rose. To please him I'd started a garden in our back lot, and I wasn't doing much of a job, so while my wife nursed Eve we walked around and my father-in-law told me what was what. "That one's a butterfly bush," he said. "Keep it pruned. These lilies will come up next season tall and beautiful--they have a vermilion bloom. Keep them watered." I told him I'd been pulling them up thinking they were weeds. "Don't," he said. "They're not weeds."
V The Six Second Second Consideration
Diamond patterns arise in the skin around the Cossack's eyes and his lips draw back toward his ears.
"Back to your Theorem," the Cossack says. "We could spread twenty-four hours over a larger day framework, thus the Thirty Hour Day. But again, what is the relationship between thirty and twenty-four? By what number are these two integers most easily divided? It's hard to know having just met you how skilled an arithmetician you are, but we'll go with your answer: two.
"Quickly we cut it in half and we've got a Twelve Hour Day and a Fifteen Hour Day. And from the look on your face, I think you already want to revise your answer: both are divisible by three. You should have said six to begin with, which would mean that if we'd started from the correct answer to your question rather than doubling the length of a second as we would with your divisor of two, we'd sextuple it and have a new Six-Second Second, and a discussion over whether it's inherently at its most basic a Four Hour Day, or a Five Hour Day. But more important, since you should have said six and instead have said two, we'll have to deal with that."
We both look at the Muzhik, who is now just looking down at his iPhone. The music from Tetris emits from it.
"Glasnost!" the Cossack yells and the Muzhik startles and drops his phone so that it makes a solid sound and skitters across the floor. "Perestroika!" The Muzhik looks at his partner, stands up, throws my chair back so my head slams on the concrete and I'm facing the ceiling and he wraps the towel around my neck and picks me up by it and all I can think while he slams me against the wall as hard as he can, swinging me by the orange-and-yellow-and-blue towel, is how badly I wish I'd passed out this time so I could at least get back to my dream.
"Surreptitious!" the Muzhik yells. I say nothing and he slams me against the wall. "What is the antonym of infernal!" Again I say nothing and he slams me. "Spell desiccate!" This time I try, quickly, while he holds me next to the wall and this grants me a very brief reprieve and I say d-e-s and then between that and when I say the second s I can tell I've got it wrong already and he slams me against the wall harder than ever but I stay conscious the whole time.
VI. The Five Hour Day
The Muzhik is finally done and he puts me back in my chair and sits me up. I'm facing the Cossack again. A bunch of my saliva has ended up on his chest so now the area around the word "Lucky" on his t-shirt is darker than the rest.
"We really want to help you to get these answers right," the Cossack says. "So back to it. How many hours are there in a day?"
I'm willing to concede that yes, of course, there are thirty hours in the day, or at least there could be, sure, of course there could be if there was a longer second. The Cossack looks over at the Muzhik who again picks me up from my seat and swings me against the particle-board wall while yelling "insuperable!" and "spell pachysandra!" and "enervate!" and sits me back down again.
I say, Why? What did I get wrong? What did I get wrong? There's sweat dripping into my eyes and I can taste blood on my upper lip where it's cracked from the swinging.
"It's not obvious?" the Cossack says. "We're strict Darwinians, the Muzhik and I. We believe in the inexorable movement of all things toward progress. And while you're still back trying to convince us you believe in the Thirty Hour Day, we're already convinced of the Five Hour Day you taught us about only minutes ago." I think to make a joke about how many minutes that might be but this time I don't say anything. "Now you've made us believe in the Five Hour Day, my friend. And if you can just make us believe that you understand the Five Hour Day, maybe we'll be making progress. So how many seconds are there in our new second?"
The Muzhik is touching the touch screen on his iPhone and making a face like nothing's really going on on it. The Cossack seems to take no notice of him. His forelock is directly in front of his right eye but this doesn't seem to bother him. I close my eyes tight and say: Six. There are six seconds in any given second in the new day, just like the Cossack said. I open my eyes and see that the Cossack is all smiles. He looks up above my head and nods and just as I come to realize that the Muzhik isn't in his chair any longer I feel the chafing of terrycloth against my neck again and as soon as I hit the wall I'm out.
VII. More of the Dream I Had
"Don't pull them," my father-in-law said. "They're not weeds." We were both quiet for a moment. My father-in-law had a way of drawing things out of you when you were talking to him by saying very little--there was a kind of preternatural confidence to his being so silent. He was bent over with a trowel, turning over my soil. I wasn't going to say anything at all but something about the sharpness of his tone and the quiet that followed made me feel I needed to fill the blank space. "I just thought they were weeds," I said by way of explanation, though I'd already said the same thing at the beginning of the conversation. I didn't want to say it again, but I didn't know what else there was to say but the truth. "OK," my father-in-law said. "But anything is a weed if you don't want it there. A rose is a weed if you're trying to grow grass." "Really?" I said. "Is that true? I always thought a weed was particularly deadly to other plants, or grew too fast, or was a special kind of plant." It was like I couldn't stop talking even if I wanted to. My father-in-law just looked at me and went back to aerating my soil.
VIII. The Five Hour, Six Second Second Day
"Let's get down to basics once more," the Cossack says. "You were trying to tell us all about how many hours there are in the day in this fantasy world where you live. Why don't you start from the beginning."
I go to open my mouth but find my lips are so dry they're crusted shut. The Muzhik sees this--he doesn't have his iPhone anymore--and he gets up and puts some water on my sock again and puts the sock to my mouth. It unseals my lips. I tell them I get it, I had a long dream when I was passed out even with the lights on and I'll tell them about it, I lie and say that I dreamed of just exactly what they wanted me to know, I get it I get it: Five Hour Day, Six Second Seconds. I believe in the Five Hour Day, the Six Second Second. I always have. It makes perfect sense.
The Cossack looks at the Muzhik and the Muzhik looks at the Cossack and they roll their eyes at each other. The Cossack does that thing where he runs his left index finger around his ear while pointing at me with the index finger of his right hand.
"Whoa-boy!" the Cossack says. "Listen to Einstein here with his own Theory of Relativity! What do we get next? You gonna dispute that energy is equivalent to something other than relativistic mass times the speed of light squared? Are objects in your world suddenly going to fall at less than thirty-two feet per second? Oh, he's a slippery one, this guy, trying to convince us against the Twenty-Four Hour Day."
The Muzhik just nods. I look over at him and for the first time I can see now what's on that towel. It's unrolled on his lap, and it's a big picture of Winnie the Pooh. Yellow skin, orange polo, and a cerulean blue sky. That Loggins & Messina "House at Pooh Corner" song they used to play at summer camp comes to mind. I don't know that I've even listened to the song but it comes back with the lyrics perfectly intact: "I've wandered much further today than I should / And I can't seem to find my way back to the Wood / So help me if you can / I've got to get back / To the house at Pooh Corner by one." The realization I'll be stuck with that song in my head for the foreseeable future doubles the pain from the Muzhik's throwing me and makes my eyes burn and my tongue feel too big for my mouth.
"What I can't see," the Cossack says, "is how if we can't even come to an agreement on how many hours there are in a day, how we're going to be able to even start talking to each other about a new topic. You'd like a new topic, wouldn't you? Aren't you tiring of this topic?"
My mouth is talking before I even know it's open and I'm saying, yes, what? What? What else can we talk about? What's a reason for talking? What kinds of things are there even to talk about other than this Thirty Hour Day?
"Wow," the Cossack says. "Wow. That's so crazy. Here I was thinking I was conducting an interrogation and here I am realizing I was so wrong! I'm the one being interrogated. This boy has truly understood his Einstein--Einstein said, 'No problem worth solving has ever been solved in the plane of its own first conception' and here we are! The Plane of Second Conception! We're past believing how many hours there are in the day, that's for sure. Go on with your interrogation, Einstein! I'll tell you anything you want to know. Shoot. Ask away."
I don't say anything. The Muzhik's got the towel wrapped around his hand but the image of Pooh's stuck on my brain and for the fucking life of me I can't stop that insidious tune in my head, "So help me get if you can / I've got to get back / To the house at Pooh Corner by one." Still I don't say anything.
"What do you have to say for yourself?" the Cossack says. "You're the interrogator--interrogate!" The Muzhik rolls the Winnie the Pooh towel tighter in his hands. I think maybe I'll just tell them my dream, maybe the only thing to do is to tell them the content of the dream I had. While I'm thinking about how I can convince them quickly enough of the effectiveness of my father-in-law's quiet demeanor, of the pink beauty of my baby daughter and my garden, the Cossack's neck grows redder and redder and the music emitting from the Muzhik's iPhone grows so loud my ear drums ache.
IX. The Definition of Vermilion
Of course I can't get the narrative of my dream all the way out in time, and the Cossack and the Muzhik can see me like they're looking into a newly washed windowpane. The Muzhik rises, his knuckles going white with the wrapping of the towel around both his hands and he's right up in my face and he says, "OK, you've got one last chance with me, Comrade. One definition. If you get it right, Friend--if you get it right."
He says friend and it's the most Russian-sounding thing he's said so far.
"Here it is: vermilion."
Before I can even think I blurt it out in one quick breath, I say, yellow yellow yellow a kind of orange-ish yellow like the bloom of a day lily! The Muzhik's face blanches for a nanosecond--which in my head becomes six nanoseconds, though what does it matter--and then he gets a big old shit-eating grin on his face before he says:
"That's right, Comrade! Exactly right."
X. The Muzhik Walls Me Anyway
The Muzhik wraps the towel around my neck and pounds me against the wall again and again.
XI. The Rest of the Dream I Had
"Really?" I said to my father-in-law as he aerated my soil. "Are you sure that's true? I always thought a weed was particularly deadly to other plants, or grew too fast, or was a special kind of plant." It was like I couldn't stop talking even if I wanted to. And I wanted to, I wanted to stop talking. I wanted to get back inside to my baby daughter with her sweet pink cheeks and her pure sweet breath and not be out in this fecund grass with all these plants I wasn't sure I'd be able to make grow. I just wanted to make things grow during that period of my life. That's why I'd even thought to please my father-in-law with the garden, and I loved it then, I did, but I couldn't ever love a plant the way I loved that sweet-breathed little rabbit inside. But I hadn't said any of that, of course, and I hadn't said anything more about the weeds, either. My father-in-law just looked at me and went back to aerating my soil. "You should go back inside and take care of your baby girl," he said. My father-in-law always knew exactly what I was thinking before I even said it, and I loved him for not making me say things I didn't want to say. That night I went to dictionary.com and sure enough what he'd said was exactly true. "Weed," it said. "Noun. A plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants." I thought to apologize to my father-in-law for doubting him--I actually planned to say something the following morning, had even planned out the speech in my head alongside a clear clean image of the early morning light busting through the scrim of morning fog, the slanting light cutting across the morning motes in the clear, clean dawn--but when I saw him with his paper and his coffee that next morning, it was obvious I didn't need to tell him anything.
He already knew.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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