Goodbye, Base Eight

Goodbye Base Eight by Jeremy Hanson-Finger

This is how human beings construct meaning when they talk to each other:

I make a statement: “You are a fantastic person.”

You make a statement according to what you understand from my statement: “I am involved with someone else. He is studying to be an engineer. He is smooth and precise and brilliant.”

I compare my understanding of your statement with my original statement in order to judge whether your perceived interpretation matches my intent. I make another statement that incorporates an attempt to correct any errors: “That does not stop you from being a fantastic person.”

You compare your understanding of my statement with your original statement in order to judge whether your perceived interpretation matches –

***

We work in a factory that makes small black tubes. I pick up a finished tube from the conveyor belt and hand it to you, and you use zip ties to attach it to a card with lots of small words printed on it.

This process does not happen every day. Some days Susie hands you the tube and some days I hand Mark the tube. I am not as happy on those days. Some days it is the weekend and nobody hands anybody any tubes at all, except the janitors. They sit around handing tubes to each other when they’re not sweeping, but those are sloppy white tubes that glow orange at one end and make you giggle after you put them to your lips and breathe in and count slowly to five.

I think the tubes you and I and Mark and Susie hand each other go in a Honda. I am not sure what kind of Honda. Once you thought it went in a Honda lawnmower, but then my Honda lawnmower broke and I took it apart in my basement on a sunny afternoon and there were no black tubes in it. I saw black wires and black matrices of polycarbonate but no tubes. I had no idea what the black wires did or the black matrices of polycarbonate, so I just bought another lawnmower. It cut the grass so I knew it was working.

***

You live on 42nd Street and I live on 52nd. There are ten blocks between us. You live in an apartment. I live in a house. It would take me ten minutes to walk to your building, and then, in all probability, another five minutes to get to your door, factoring in the wait for the elevator.

It would take less time if I could take the tube. This is the tube that goes under the ground and lets people on and off sometimes in between the blurred streams of light. Unfortunately, it does not stop between the block North of my house and the supermarket where I go to buy tuna and other things to put in my body.

I have never been to your apartment. What I know about it comes from looking at a map of the city and extrapolating from your description, the rate at which I normally walk, and the acceleration of other elevators in which I have been.

***

I do not know why you do what you do. I tell you that you are fantastic and you tell me you are involved with someone else. The input is that you are fantastic and the output is that you are involved with someone else. How that information is processed is a mystery to me.

***

I stole one of the black tubes from work today. While Mark was outside giggling with the janitors, I put it in my pocket instead of putting it aside on his tray. I have feelings of guilt and shame but I am ignoring them. My resting pulse is much higher than normal. I wonder what I can do with the tube. I will spend Saturday providing varied stimuli for the tube and hoping to elicit a response.

***

None of the stimuli that I provided the black tube with resulted in any reaction. I had to bury the evidence.

I went into the basement and took my shovel from behind the Honda lawnmower, then dug a hole next to the porch. It was dark out. There is only one street lamp on my block, so some houses are always in shadow. Once a car went by and its lights reflected off my raised shovel but the probability was low that the occupants were looking for anything that I was hiding. I finished filling in the hole and rested the shovel against the white lattice under the porch. I did that in case it was windy overnight and I needed to smooth the dirt in the morning.

What would you think if you saw all this?

***

It wasn’t windy overnight, so in the morning I brought the shovel inside. The ground was moist. The loose dirt would set and soon it would be indistinguishable from the rest of the soil.

I thought I wouldn’t have to feel shame and guilt anymore, but on the tube ride to work I started to think about how long it would take the device to decompose under the ground.

It looked like it was made of plastic so it would probably take a couple of thousand years. I knew it took plastic that long to break down from a TV program about seabirds and the clear netting you find on pop cans.

At least I could only feel guilt and shame for a maximum of sixty years and then I would decompose. The remaining one thousand nine hundred and forty years were irrelevant.

It took one thousand nine hundred and forty years to get from a very important carpenter being nailed to a cross to six million people who weren’t even alive at the time being set on fire.

One thousand nine hundred and forty years is a long time to wait for payback.

***

I didn’t have to wait that long.

“Product larceny:” my paycheque said at the end of the day, “minus twenty cents.”

Twenty cents being how much it cost the factory to make it, I supposed. That made sense. The factory made many tubes, and each one was very small, so they couldn’t be that expensive.

“Should I return the product?” I asked on my way out.

“No,” said the payroll officer. “It’s useless now.”

***

When I got home, I stopped at the porch steps. Now that they knew I had stolen the tube, I could just throw it out. I had buried it well, however, so it didn’t seem worth the time.

The dirt was still in place but now there was something that hadn’t been there before. I bent down to examine it. It was green and it had two broad leaves.

I don’t have a garden. I just have a lawn and a uniform patch of dirt. Had a uniform patch of dirt, rather. Now I have a patch of dirt with something green in the middle.

Was it a weed? Was it connected to what I buried last night? Did the black device leak some sort of fertilizer? Was a potential green sprout contained inside every device?

I wondered these things.

***

 I didn’t know the answer.

***

I haven’t seen you for a couple of days. Yesterday Susie handed you the tubes, and I couldn’t find you during the 30-minute lunch break. I even waited for you in the hallway after the bell rang but eventually, like everyone else, I stopped salivating and went back to work.

***

Today I saw you. Your engineer dropped you off just as I was walking across the parking lot. He kissed you, reaching as far as his seatbelt would let him in order to wrap himself around you. In situations like this, usually my breathing stays the same and so does my heart rate.

This time, I felt an expansion in my chest. A ring of wedges, like a windmill with all the blades turned around. That was how I imagined it.

After your engineer finished kissing you and drove away and you saw me and walked over the wedges didn’t reverse but they stopped and I could feel every edge.

“Hi,” you said. “I haven’t seen you in a long time. What’s new?”

I wanted to tell you, but what would you think? I had never come up with the answer. Your lawn was spotless, I imagined. I still hadn’t seen it. You probably didn’t even have a patch of bare earth, and almost certainly not one with a green stem and now eight broad leaves that turned lazily toward the sun.

“It has been a while,” I said. Then I asked what was new with you.

“Honestly,” you said, “I know I’m supposed to play the game and always say ‘fine’ but today I don’t feel like it.”

Your eyes are hazel, and now they were shading toward the green side of the spectrum.

It couldn’t have been your clothes because you always wear the same dark blue coveralls I do. It couldn’t have been the weather, because the sky is also always blue. The airplanes that seed the clouds with silver nitrate before they get too close to the city account for that.

“You should do what you feel like doing,” I said.

“It’s only a game anyway.”

“Right.”  I didn’t know quite what you meant when you talked about games but I trusted you.

“Life with the engineer is becoming unbearable,” you said.

“In what way?”

“His smoothness and precision and brilliance are making me uncomfortable.”

“Does he talk down to you?”

“Yes,” you said. “He talks about differentials and logarithms. What can I talk to him about? I don’t even know what the black tubes do yet. Have you figured it out?”

“No.”

“And I can’t talk to him about music because he just doesn’t get it. He likes Bach and Beethoven because they’re so mathematical. Listen to that Fibonacci sequence, he says, but I can’t hear it.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“Shoegaze.”

“Shoegaze?”

“It’s a British style of music from the 1980s and 1990s. It’s called shoegaze because the musicians had so many electronic boxes at their feet that they were always looking down.”

“What does it sound like?”

“Layers of guitars with lots of feedback and reverb. Lots of white noise beneath really melodic vocals. The words are usually pretty hard to understand, though.”

“Hmmm.” I wished I had something more intelligent to say. I added some more reverb to the hum.

“Do you want me to make you a mix tape?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’d really like that. It’d make the smoothness and precision of the tube ride more bearable.”

Then we handed each other tubes in silence for a while. The wedges were expanding again and it was hard to speak.

***

The stem wasn’t so delicate anymore and there were many more leaves. First two, then eight, now sixty-four. It took me a while to count them but it was sunny outside so I didn’t mind.

It’s always sunny outside.

Two, eight, sixty-four. Base eight just like the machines at work. I don’t know who invented base eight because it was around long before computers. I remember hearing about a tribe in Chile – somewhere in South America at least – where they counted in base eight, not base ten, because they counted the spaces between the fingers, not the fingers themselves. I liked that.

***

I put the cassette in the deck and powered on the amplifier.  The blue-green light that illuminates the radio frequencies painted the wall behind the sofa.

There was a crackle in the background as well as the usual tape hiss. She must have recorded this song from a record. The case said that the song was called “Loomer.”

Soon the plant would be big enough to cast a shadow on the white wall of the house.

Tiptoe down to the holy places, sang the woman on the tape.

Behind her, a wall of guitars fuzzed, but fuzzed sweetly.

I couldn’t make out any of the words after that but the first line in that honey voice kept recycling over and over in my head – growing and breaking down and growing and breaking down and growing and breaking –

***

 The plant was brighter green. Today was Saturday. I tiptoed down in my bare feet to see it several times. Now there were seventy-seven leaves. Goodbye, base eight.

***

What did you think of the tape?” you asked.

“I loved it,” I said. “Especially the first song. I didn’t know noise could be more beautiful than information.”

“Now you know.” You adjusted your overalls. “My Bloody Valentine is such a terrible name, though.”

“But if noise is more important than information, who cares about the name? If you don’t think about the meaning, it sounds pretty good.”

You laughed.

“Do you have any other songs by them?” I asked.

“I have the LP. Do you want to borrow it? It’s 180-gram vinyl.”

“I don’t have a record player.”

“I know where you can find one for not too much.”

“Where?”

“Take the bus with me from work instead of the tube and we can get you one. Then you can borrow the LP.”

***

 The main organizational strategy in the shop was the pile.

Underneath strata of yellowing sheet music, the proprietor found a turntable with a burled wood veneer. I paid for it with cash.

***

“You want me to help you set it up, right?” you said.

***

Outside, the plant was crawling up the side of the porch. Slowly, too slowly for me to see it of course, but I could feel it, feel those rooty tendrils moving millimeter by slick millimeter, their green xylem turgid with water from the ground.

***

I told you that I would need to purchase some LPs now that the record player was working. You pulled a pink cardboard square from your bag that said My Bloody Valentine on it.

“Wait, you–”

You winked, a shutter snapping up and down. I swear your eye was greener when you opened it again.  Or maybe it wasn’t a shutter – was instead a flower closing at night and blooming in the morning again from the point of view of something that lives a very long time and moves very slowly.

***

I looked at your feet. Your output was so sudden I didn’t know what else to look at. I wasn’t sure what input had caused it but that didn’t really matter. I wondered what I could do to increase the output’s amplitude.

“I’m up here,” you said. “What are you doing?”

“Shoegazing,” and then we both started laughing – giggling, even. You rested your head on my chest, out of breath and red in the face.

The wedges withdrew and collapsed but they’d done their job.

There was a space inside me. You are about thirty-two inches around the hips, thirty-six at the bust. I decided there was just room enough for you since my chest measures forty inches and my waist thirty-four.

***

The plant tangled upwards, the leaves spread like fingers. I could hear it against the white stucco now, hear the leaves unfolding, straining toward the sun’s heat.

***

This is how human beings construct meaning when they talk to each other:

I make a statement: “I want you.”

You make a statement according to what you understand from my statement: “I want you too. I want you right now.”

I compare my understanding of your statement with my original statement in order to judge whether your perceived interpretation matches my intent. No further communicative action is required.

————————

Jeremy Hanson-Finger attended Carleton University, where he wrote his MA thesis on dirty bits in postmodern American novels. He now lives in Toronto, where he is a production editor for John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. during the day, and co-edits the online literary magazine Dragnet by night.