Friday, December 4, 2009


“What did you dream about?”

“What did you dream about? A mathematician pondering the Devil’s staircase—“

[Here there is some shuffling in seats, the flatulent sounds of limbs moving in leather chairs. Voyeuristic eyes would see a therapist and patient. Shelves of books, mild soft lighting, an antique feel to the raw umber floor coverings infused with Aztec designs.]

“The Devil’s staircase?”

“The Devil’s staircase? A mathematical function that is continuous but not absolutely continuous. It’s also called the Cantor function. If you looked at a graph you’d understand. It looks like a staircase hence—“

[Zooming in on the patient, the casual observer might think, here’s someone who has mathematical aptitude, who would spend his livelihood working numbers at a university. Short-sleeve pale blue shirt with thin graph lines, black-rimmed glasses too large for his face, etc. The therapist would fit into a college psychology department—straight black hair with streaks of white, gray blazer and slacks and white blouse. No glasses (but contacts). Wrinkles of age at the corners of her eyes, lips.]

“All right I get it. Now, the dream…”

“All right I get it. Now, the dream… Does my condition bother you? You appear somewhat flustered. Those lines on your face. The redness that’s showing on your cheeks. Your eyes are what could be described as, beady. Pinpoint stars from another galaxy—those suns so far away that can’t be dark suns any longer, they’re just like a light bulb shining through the gossamer curtains of someone’s living room window, the—“

[The therapist has been diagnosed correctly here as slightly flustered—a condition she takes great pains to avoid. It’s the headache pounding since daybreak. It’s the cancelled appointments, the bounced checks. In her mind the word “flagellation” keeps playing over and over. She doesn’t know why. Her mind keeps playing it, dissecting the word into the sound “fladge” and the double l’s after.]

"Please, it’s the explanation, really, that’s the problem here. It’s the dream I want to hear about. As your therapist, I’m fully aware of your condition. Your echolalia, as it’s been diagnosed, branded, stamped on your forehead, penciled onto your passport, all that good stuff.”

[Her hand over his mouth, she’s muffling the echolalist’s repeating of these words, not allowing this tic to be expressed in decipherable language, so it comes out of his mouth, into his hand, garbled, suppressed, a vomit of nonsense sound. The therapist is somewhat taken aback at herself, as she doesn’t usually make contact with her patients unless it’s a bland handshake. The patient is undeterred, still talking as if the hand weren’t there.]

“Now on to the dream. I promise not to stop you.”

“Now on to the dream. I promise not to stop you. Oh, yes, right. A mathematician pondering the Devil’s staircase. Who is then dreaming about another mathematician, a woman, who is in a city-sized grocery store perusing cheeses and popcorn and a produce section that’s like an art gallery. So she’s loading up her cart, gouda on top of manchego on top of Orville Redenbacher on top of watermelon-sized papaya, and it’s a dream so things just appear and disappear and she looks at her list and it’s a Cesàro summation.”

[The therapist puts a hand to her forehead, shielding her eyes like a visor, lets out a sigh. Fighting the urge to ask the question. The patient is silent, waiting on her, as he can see that she is fighting her verbal cue. Fladge, uh, lay, shun. Double l, not single l. She swallows, removes her hand, turns her mouth into a smile.]

"Please continue.”

“Please continue. You’re probably wondering about a Cesàro summation.” [She nods, shrugs her shoulders.] “It’s a way in math to assign a sum to an infinite series. If you have paper, I can illustrate for you.”

[Fladge, uh, lay--]

“That won’t be necessary.”

“That won’t be necessary. So she has this list that has this mathematical expression and the next thing you know she’s dreaming about a game show. She’s a contestant and the host is wearing a thrift shop sportcoat and motor oil hair and the questions involve the Devil’s staircase and she’s flummoxed, she doesn’t know the answer and feels bad because here she is, a mathematician, and she doesn’t know this standard if advanced mathematical idea and there’s money to be won and a trip to Iceland and people are watching. That’s the end of the dream. It’s recurring, like three or four times a week.”

[That ends the session. When the echolalist visits, the therapist is more likely to listen than to give advice or diagnosis, so that she’s not subject to having it regurgitated to her. Often, she’ll type it on her computer, read it aloud twice, print and mail it to his home.]

“Let’s meet next in three weeks. Remember to check on your medication.”

“Let’s meet next in three weeks. Remember to check on your medication.”

[Driving home, her mind drifts. Flagellation. Fladge, uh. Double l. She should call her husband, say, I’m on my way, in case she suddenly isn’t, ask about dinner, connect to a known mind, her husband’s sensible flat-line thoughts. The radio station goes from classical to a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. The droning signal stops. She expects that monotone male voice to come on, as it always has, but there’s a pause, filled with blank seconds, the dread that there has been an actual emergency. She fills it not with nuclear fire or the skies splitting open but rather the Devil’s staircase, Cesàro summation, fladge-uh-lay-double l. The voice speaks. This has been a test… She exhales.]


  1. Some excellent writing going on here!

    The echolalia. The patient's external utterances and the doctor's internal "flagellation"

    Just very well done!

  2. That's a tremendous ending.
    That's a tremendous ending. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) This is such a complex story it deserves multiple reads. And more mathematical training than I have.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Wow, that was one story! Interesting, quirky, well written.

  4. Wow -- I am impressed by your ability to weave such complex themes into such a short story,

    such a short story,

    and you told it almost completely in dialogue.

    Really fantastic work.

  5. That was quite some trip into another person's thoughts!
    Love how you use the text within square brackets to set the scene, like in a play - and, thinking about it, if you did not include the square brackets themselves, it would change the tone, IMO.
    The anxiety in the last paragraph is palpable

  6. you had me at 'flatulent sounds of limbs moving in leather chairs.' I wanted to stop reading to look up echolalia but the I was gripped by the story... and the story explained the word to me, not by definition but by showing me! The biggest critique in any writers group is 'show, don't tell'. You mastered the show.

    This as an amazing read. You should get paid for this one... and more than double digits! (smile)

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

  8. I truly felt her frustration. I really enjoyed this, and I can't wait to read more of your work

  9. Well, neighbor, I read this three times.

    That's how much I liked it. Lush prose, but clean at the same time.

    Liked the other stuff you've pubbed, too. I'll be back. Peace, Linda