One day, our friend J.J. turns into a brick. This is good news for everyone, especially J.J. For example: buying presents is affordable and fulfilling – a silk sock or a velvet boxer – something he can cozy up to. J.J. likes it because now we have to pay attention to how smart he is because he insists we write down his formulas on a big chalkboard in the living room. It is so big there is a ladder to reach the higher-up equations when things get complicated.
J.J. is trying to solve a problem everyone’s pretty sure he can solve. We don’t know math, but we’re confident in J.J.’s abilities, especially now that he’s a brick. It is not a problem, he tells us, his voice low and professorial. I am trying to find the Euler Brick whose space diagonal is also an integer. Because he is a brick, he doesn’t have to bother with everyday distractions (eating, sleeping, brushing teeth, showering). He does, unfortunately, still have to pay his bills.
His girlfriend sits down once a month and presses buttons on the laptop because she is the only one J.J. trusts with his account information. Why don’t you just enroll in auto-pay? we ask him, but he tells us he needs something to keep his foot tethered to reality. His girlfriend snarfs in the corner and then apologizes.
Their love life is quite hard. They tried for a while, but his girlfriend told me it was like rubbing up against something painful and has taken to masturbating with her back turned while Brick pretends he’s sleeping.
We’ve started calling him Brick behind his back. It’s hard, in fact, to remember him as J.J. The face bears no resemblance. The red clay clashes with our memory of his pale, pale skin. Because J.J. was almost translucent – his veins coming through his skin like road maps – and his face still had that boyish charm – curly, blond hair around his ears that set off his blue, blue eyes. And Brick is opaque, matt, red. He is all right angles and corners. You know how looks begin to affect personality? Brick has become hard.
He’s also hit a snag in his algorithm. One morning, he has us erase the board. People we have never seen before fill the living room with a computer that rivals the chalkboard.
Why don’t you solve the problem of how to turn back into a human? we ask him.
I am not a scientist, he retorts. I am a mathematician.
Don’t you think that finding the perfect brick or whatever is a little self-indulgent?
He rolls his eyes like we have no idea what we’re talking about, which, fair. We don’t.
We take shifts sleeping. Those of us who had jobs have lost them. We are worried about J.J. who is now Brick and consumed by his work. There are thousands of pages of data to analyze. There are a million dollars at stake and another mathematician, Brick assures us, right around the corner on the verge of finding this thing. Keep up! he yells to us from his desk.
Sometimes, if you wake up at three in the morning to take your shift and the person before you has fallen asleep in a chair, fingers rested on the keyboard mid-stroke, you can hear him weeping, or trying to weep, and it makes you think about what it must mean to know you’re not human – to have that kind of awareness and be powerless to effect change. We grow old and gray, cut our fingernails day after day, watch the creases grow around our eyes. His disintegration will take time. A few molecules here and there, the softening of his corners.
He worries about it – the disintegration. He worries and worries and worries. He’s taken to having us measure his sides every morning. He worries mostly to his girlfriend who walks around with swollen eyes. Her arms are raw because she scratches them up and down, up and down whenever Brick is talking to her.
Isn’t this what you wanted? she screams, throwing mortar at his face. The saddest fate for a brick, we think, is to be stationed in a wall. We pry the spatula from her fingers and sooth her with chamomile tea. We wipe Brick clean, quickly, before he hardens.
Talia Mailman is a writer and musician. Her stories have appeared in Flyway Journal and Bluestem, and she received her Masters in Harp Performance from Boston University. She grew up on the East Coast and now lives in Texas, where she is pursuing her M.F.A. in fiction at University of Houston.