Benjamin Kessler

Paper Kimono Man: acrylic and charcoal paper sculpture, 9 x 12 in. Celeste Goyer

Numerology

          The year my sister and I went to live with Grandma Brinbaum—please, she insisted, call me Safta—is the same year I retook fifth grade. 

          “It’s because you don’t apply yourself,” my sister said, older than me by three years and keen to let me know it. In our shared bedroom at Safta’s condo I could see her training bras pinched beneath the lid of the laundry hamper, hanging out like brightly-colored tongues. 

          I was a year removed from my classmates, considerably taller, and hailed from across the country. As a result, I found myself in the company of misfits and together we would cloister ourselves in the far corner of the cafeteria during lunch and conspire.

          “You seen this?” Mike Morgan asked, sliding his chunky calculator across the table. The number 5,318,008 appeared in cropped black lines across the display.

          “So?” Jake Adler replied. He removed his used up chewing gum and stuck it onto his carton of 2%.

          I couldn’t see the significance either, though that wasn’t uncommon, according to my sister, who often referred to me as “the brainless wonder.”

          Mike Morgan fluttered his hands like a magician then slowly spun the calculator around with the tip of his finger. “Gentlemen.”

          It was revelatory. What before had been a meaningless string of numbers was now transformed into that most wonderful thing: “boobies” spelled out in liquid crystal.

          “That’s amazing!” Jake Adler said, already folding a fresh piece of gum into his mouth. “Where’d you learn it?”

          “My older brother. There’s more.”

          We spent the rest of lunch and all of the following recess watching Mike Morgan make naughty words appear on the screen. There we were, huddled near the broken swings, giggling profusely. Seeing the words—smut, my mother would have called it, had she still been in the picture—ignited a crackling in my brain. We were speaking in ciphers. Fours were secretly h’s, threes covert e’s. An eight was a b but also an a if you weren’t picky. We only stopped when the recess attendant nosed in on our profane tribunal. 

          “No scheming over here, okay boys? Back to class now.”

          When I got home, Safta’s familiar beechwood incense filling my nose, I cornered my sister in the kitchen and showed her what I had learned.

          “That’s baby stuff,” she said. “So immature,” and she went back to staring through the microwave door.

          So instead I showed Safta, though only the most innocent of the variations: 07,734—“hello.”

          “How’s that now?” she asked, holding it close to her face.

          “No, like this.” I turned the calculator over. “See?”

          “I suppose. Though you shouldn’t take this so lightly. They have more power than you realize, numbers.”

          I didn’t realize. My sister always said Safta was a bit woo-woo—you know, she told me, witchy—and I assumed this comment was simply a bit of her armchair mysticism.

          She set the calculator on the side table, next to an ashtray overflowing with spent cigarettes, and lifted up the sleeve of her dress. “You look,” she said, her Americanized Polish accent bleeding out. She pointed to a row of numbers inked onto her skin: five faded digits in blue smeared by wrinkles. “This was my number and I will never forget it. Don’t be flippant.” I tilted my head, tried to ferret out the coded word, but it was nothing to me, just a scramble of consonants that made no sense.   

          She pulled down her sleeve, point clearly made, and asked if I wanted grilled cheese for dinner. Of course I did. Who wouldn’t? 

          The next day we were doing math sheets in homeroom and the teacher passed out calculators from a yellow plastic tray. Mike Morgan looked at me and smiled, a memory of our shared secret. Between filling out times tables I pecked 3,104,558 onto the screen: “asshole.” Though it failed to bring me the same joy as yesterday. I tried another word but it landed with a disappointing thud. Jake Adler showed me “hellhole” from across the room and I forced a smile. Turning back to my desk, I placed my thumb over the small solar cell that powered my calculator and watched as the numbers slowly faded into nothing.