T = 1- [f(n) + (o) + (w)]
where T = time
There’s My Sam, standing shirtless in the boxcar doorway, watching the forests and lakes shoot by. Hands on his hips, sunlight whitening his body. I call him the half-naked hobo king of Canada.
No way, he shouts. Not Canada, just Ontario. Ruling more than one province would be way too much trouble.
His voice, his laugh, carries over the rush of the train. He holds his arms out wide, tilts back his head, says something about swallowing the sky.
Careful, I tell him. Remember to chew. Don’t choke on those clouds. You’ll be picking rainbow out of your teeth for weeks. Indigo gets stuck worse than corn on the cob.
There are no clouds, no rainbow. The color blue owns the morning sky. But this is how My Sam and I see things now, amid the thrill of illegal freight-train travel: the sky becomes breakfast. We measure, discuss and admire the sights and sounds in nonsensical and amusing ways. It’s delightful.
It’s called imagination, teases My Sam, and we laugh.
That’s me at the far end of the boxcar, hair tied in two loose braids, fingertips smudged in black marker. The inside of our boxcar has become my blackboard, my traveling laboratory. We roll west and my formula goes with us, rows of numbers unfolding across the walls.
We only wanted to do something different, My Sam and I, riding boxcars from Quebec to Calgary. Crossing Canada as stowaways on the back of a freight train—land blurring by, wheels clunking along the tracks, air sweet with pine, hay and dew—and it never grows old, not for a second. But somewhere between Quebec and Ontario something else happened, something more thrilling than the ride itself: I discovered how to stop time. Almost. My formula still needs fine-tuning. I’d thought it was a matter of getting T down to zero. I hadn’t considered, until now, a further possibility. Imagination, playfulness, laughter—all could contribute toward negative T: time folding back upon itself.
I study My Sam in the doorway. Hard and lean, he has the build of a man who uses his body daily. Shadows pool in the ridges and valleys of his ribs, his muscles. He looks younger this morning than the morning before. I see him years ago, our first nights together.
And me? I ask My Sam. What do you see?
I slide off my shirt, step out of my jeans, shake out my hair. The warm wind catches it and whips it around.
I see spilt amber honey, he says. I see wildflowers. I see me, the luckiest of all the worker bumblebees.
Imagination, laughter, desire. So many variables. Every time I grasp what’s happening, there’s more.
Sort of like life, says My Sam, taking me by the hips.
At a sharp bend in the tracks, the roar and groan of the train rises to a shriek.
Mathematics, I’ve always said, can be very exciting stuff.
* * *
where f(n) = function of non-normalcy
My Sam, back in high school, was Sam my chemistry lab partner, who one day eyedroppered a trail of ethanol into the shape of a heart, added our initials, and struck a match. The flames danced blue and buttery on the black countertop. I clapped, he blushed. We both got detention. We kissed afterward, with tongue, while waiting for our mothers to pick us up. But Sam didn’t become My Sam until the night of our five-year reunion, when his stubble left me raw all over. We got married a few months later. Now we rent a small house in the same town where we grew up. I teach math at our old high school. My Sam tried teaching history, but hated working inside. He’s happier as a roofer. His scent is sawdust and asphalt and compressed air. He runs his hands along my legs and I’m sliding down an unfinished banister. I like him rough. Sometimes, though, I want him gentle, just to make sure he still knows how.
And what do you want? I asked My Sam, one night on the couch.
My Sam is made of mountain, sturdy and grounded and dependable, but not always accessible. Whole slopes can remain hidden for days in passing mist and storm.
Just this, he said, and pulled me closer.
A good thing to want, our life together. I couldn’t complain. Not until I began examining and quantifying the various elements.
When I scanned for specifics, such as what we had for supper one particular Sunday, or what we’d watched on TV, or how exactly we’d made love, or who came first—I couldn’t recall. Our happy, normal life had swollen with nonmemorable memories. Pleasant contentment, I decided, was a function of normalcy: everything staying the same. If not contained, our lives were going to slip by and we wouldn’t even notice.
I doubled-checked the equation of our marriage, hunting for a miscalculation, a careless error. When I couldn’t find one, I began worrying the problem was larger than any single variable. My Sam and I were supposed to make one another’s lives better, not speed them up or flatten them out. Maybe the entire equation was flawed. Maybe My Sam and I would simply run our course.
My Sam thought I was worrying over nothing. He was happy. I was happy. So what?
Every spring, my students grapple with the concept of multiple infinities. When I told My Sam, he struggled with it as well. How can there exist many separate sets of everything? How can one person cause infinite affection and infinite frustration? Infinite hope and infinite worry? Here’s another difficult concept: some infinities are larger than others. Not better or worse, just different-sized wholes of the whole.
So what are you saying? My Sam wanted to know. You’re not happy?
My Sam, My Sam.
My Sam didn’t see the urgency of the situation, couldn’t understand the significance of non-normalcy. Yet he realized that I needed something to change. It was his idea to ride boxcars across Canada, to the rodeo, the Calgary Stampede. The railroad tracks cut our town in two. The freight trains came through daily. We’d wait for an empty boxcar, hop inside, arrive in Calgary within the week. He made it sound easy.
I thought it sounded exciting. Exciting but dangerous.
The way I’d been talking lately, he said, it sounded like the real danger might lie in staying home and doing nothing. We’ll be careful, he promised, keep each other safe. Like we always do.
And work? My Sam, unlike me, doesn’t get summers off. May through September he’s busy framing cottages, installing siding, lugging heavy bundles of shingles up ladders. The warm months are high season in cottage country, the one time of year work comes looking for him instead of the other way around.
Good point, said My Sam. He called to leave a message with his supervisor: he’d come down with something strange, a jitteriness in his feet, a flutter in his chest, a wideness to his eyes. Very sudden, very serious. Had to be attended to right away.
Well we better start packing, I said when he hung up. This thing’s not going to heal itself.
Sleeping pads, blankets, water bottles, flashlights, thick-soled boots, a dozen peanut-butter sandwiches. Planning for a freight-train vacation was anything but normal, and as our non-normalcy rose, I already felt time slowing. f(n) was more potent than I’d thought. And we hadn’t even left. Compare that moment to this morning: rolling west in our boxcar through the cornfields of Manitoba, the warm summer wind, sweet with dawn, filling our lungs, tearing our eyes. It’s endless. A week has passed since sunrise.
I sit beside My Sam, hold him tightly. Our legs dangle out the boxcar door. The ground rushes below. Our f(n) is off the charts, I say.
My Sam grins and kisses my ear: F-in’ right.
* * *
where o = observational awareness
Long stretches of straight track, the train bombs ahead into the night. The noise is incredible. Rolling thunder. My Sam and I can’t always hear one another. But that’s fine—now that time has slowed, we have so much more of it. I work on my formula. My Sam thumbs the pages of a book he brought along. We have each other, no need for words. If we feel time speeding up, going by too quickly, we stand at the doorway and recharge. Deer wade through twilight marshes. The sun winks below the horizon. Stars tumble across the sky. Fireflies play tag in the fields. The more we observe, take in, remain aware, the more time slows, stretches thin over new sights as they sail by.
Daylight, we wave to folks at railroad crossings. One is a cop. He must have radioed us in, because soon afterward the train slows to a crawl. My Sam pokes his head out the door: red and blue lights up ahead. We cram everything into our packs, leap to the gravel, and run deep into a cornfield.
The cops don’t follow, they just yell from the tracks.
Come on out!
We know you’re in there!
Their silly cop expressions leave us weak with laughter. We lie low between the rows of corn and cover our mouths to keep from being heard. I rest my head on My Sam and look up at a shred of sky. The cops yell. We snicker. The cornstalks rustle and sway in the breeze. It’s all new to us. Our “o” soars, squeezing time to a trickle.
Look at all that corn bowing and praying, whispers My Sam.
Praying for what?
For us, of course.
I don’t think we need prayers, I tell him. I think we’re going to be all right.
* * *
where w = degree of contact with outside world
The cops give up, drive off. Our train is long gone. We walk to the road and stick out our thumbs—another thing I never would have seen myself doing. A United Church minister picks us up. He has a messy beard and smells of whiskey. He’s on his way to the hospital where there’s a wife and cancer. Goddamn right, he says when I explain my discovery regarding time.
He drops us at a railyard outside Winnipeg. We hide in the long evening shadows, listening for a westbound train.
That guy was full of it, says My Sam. No way he was a minister.
Minister or not, I say, he was pretty excited about my formula.
Probably he wants to get things over with quickly as possible, says My Sam.
I grow quiet, imagining the desire for less time, not more.
The sun sinks. A train rumbles into the yard, squeals to a stop. My Sam looks one way, I look the other. No flashlights, no yard cops. All clear. We hustle along the tracks, find an empty boxcar, heave ourselves up and in. A minute later, the sharp hiss of the airbrakes, a sudden jolt, and we’re off. We high-five. We’re getting good at this.
My Sam stretches out for a nap in the corner. I uncap my marker. Four fresh walls to explore new paths, new ideas. It doesn’t take long to catch my mistake.
It seemed like common sense: contact with the regular, outside world would bring regular, nonobservational reality back into the equation. The high-paced lives of others would taint our precious, slowed time. It’s the reason I insisted we keep our phones off until Calgary. Only now I have to cheat. The minister has given me an idea. A new theory that needs testing.
Careful not to wake My Sam, I sneak to the opposite corner of the boxcar and call our neighbor, Mrs. Mamont, who’s offered to water my garden while we’re gone. She answers and wants to know how we’re enjoying the coast (she thinks we’re vacationing in Nova Scotia). She can hear the roar of the surf over the phone, she says. It sounds magnificent. Are we having a ball?
It is magnificent, I say. We are having a ball.
Then I ask about Mrs. Mamont. I ask about her and I listen.
The tomatoes ripened overnight, she says. They’re about to burst on the vine. Other than that, same old, same old. No news, good news.
We say our goodbyes. I switch off the phone, anxious to rework my formula. I had “w” completely backwards. The minister who wanted to hurry things along, the fact that Mrs. Mamont’s last few days have slipped by like nothing, that my tomatoes have ripened overnight: each new testament to the outside world’s steady passage of time will make our own days balloon outwards in comparison. I’m sure of it. Our time will slow, ooze like spilt honey. Our mornings will split open even wider than before, exposing their hidden fibers. My Sam and I will have conversations that span seasons. Our gazes and touches will unfurl and stretch, enjoying the kind of space ordinarily reserved for entire lifetimes. We’ll forge a new infinity, My Sam and I.
I rush to wake him, but something makes me pause. Our train is roaring through the moonlit prairies of Saskatchewan. Pale light spills through the open doorway, washing over My Sam. Legs crossed at the ankles, hands folded behind his head, he rocks to the gentle sway of the boxcar. He’s smiling. Sometimes he laughs in his sleep. Sometimes he laughs himself awake. Once I asked him what was so funny. He didn’t know, couldn’t remember, just felt happy, that’s all. I wonder what else he doesn’t know he knows. This slippery thing I’ve been trying to figure out—us, our lives together, empirical happiness—has My Sam known all along?
I tap my marker against my thigh. Back in Quebec, right after we hopped our very first train, I said we should extend the adventure. Skip the rodeo, continue through Calgary, ride our boxcar into the Rockies. Mountains and tunnels, bears and eagles, glacial streams of sapphire water. Maybe we can find something up there, I said. A missing variable. Maybe we can slow time even more, stop it for good. Maybe, My Sam said. But then again, maybe not. He spread our blanket in the corner of the boxcar, took my hands, guided me down beside him. I rested my cheek on his chest and listened to his heart. I remember the door at that moment—a perfect parallelogram of blue sky. Then the wind caught a strand of my hair and tickled his nose. My Sam laughed, which made my head bounce on his chest, which made me laugh, which made him laugh harder. And if there were an instant where T reached zero, where time stopped completely, maybe that was it—the two of us, bouncing and rolling in laughter together.
Another tricky mathematical concept: for any experiment, the sum of all probabilities of all possible outcomes always—always—adds to one. But tonight, when I wake up My Sam in our moonlit boxcar, he gets it right away.
Those are our kind of odds, he says, smiling sleepily.
Exactly. We keep trying. Eventually we can’t go wrong.
Nick Fuller Googins’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Oxford American and elsewhere. He mentors young-adult Palestinian writers through the program We Are Not Numbers and lives in Venice Beach with his wife and two skateboards.