by Robert Freeman Wexler
Brown's wife left--when?--already two or three months
ago. He had
explored her geometry so thoroughly in the three-room
still found her superimposed over everything. In the mornings
face covered the walls and landscapes of thick hair draped
furniture; evenings, her voice taunted him. She erupted
ears in pink and green surges. He could do nothing. She
unwanted. Yet, what feeling did that squeeze from him?
Nights were the worst. When he got into bed, hours passed.
thrashing sleeplessly he chanted, silently, over and over:
I am a man
with an indifferent heart. But even his indifference was
for one would think that a man with an indifferent heart
able to sleep. One night, he crawled out onto the fire
howled with laughter at the absurdity.
Food became inessential. Water served as breakfast. A
snack of two glasses had to carry him to the next morning.
couldn't work. A five hundred page art history manuscript
hired to copy edit remained on the table with the rest
of his mail,
Sometimes the phone rang, but he never answered. It wouldn't
him. All calls had been hers.
On a rainy day he sat on the fire escape; on a sunny day
inside. Then for a time, he sat outside on a sunny day
and inside on
a rainy day. His apartment had two fire escapes. One overlooking
airshaft, the other above the street. Sitting on either
He ignored the layers of smells rising from the Italian
frying calamari, baking lasagna, and later, after closing,
broken bottles, rotting food.
Some say humanity is easily crushed by circumstances.
Others laud a
person's ability to survive. In 1852, a group of Cheyenne
and wiped out the small, West Texas settlement of Harrisonburg.
42-year-old seamstress named Emma Golden, who had recently
St. Louis and had never before lived outside of a city,
walked over five hundred miles to Amarillo, with no food
and only a
small water bottle.
When she reached the town, limping, holding herself up
with a branch
found in a dry stream bed, she claimed to have been helped
disembodied woman's head. This head, she explained, appeared
second day, motionless, staring to the west. It showed
her the ten
ways to survive, she said, and she never spoke about it
When the temperature dropped toward freezing, Brown wore
sit on the fire escape. He'd learned long ago the layering
techniques needed to maintain comfort in a variety of
evening, as he sat on the street side while sleet fell,
his wife and her new lover walking below, hand in hand.
into Di Francesca's. How easy it would be to climb down
escape, enter the restaurant, and confront them. Consider
a crime of
passion--what jury would convict him of killing his wife's
But Brown felt no passion. What would be a crime of indifference?
There had been a time, after they first moved into their
tenement, when they'd made love in every room, on the
floor, the kitchen table, in the narrow entryway. He'd
expect this life to continue. They'd been close, he thought.
called him her copain.
Brown's wife took an older man for a lover. This man had
the first to profess his love for her while she and Brown
together. Her need to be liked was a desperate thing,
and to fulfill
it she'd perfected an ability to comfort people, to make
worthy of admiration. They assumed this attention existed
alone, and worshipped her for it. This had never bothered
she loved him, not these others. Though after she left,
he'd merely been a long-term project. When she said she
his tears surprised her. She'd told him he didn't care.
left, his tears stopped, proving her right.
He took out his dictionary and turned to indifference.
definition: Absence of compulsion toward one thing or
described his life perfectly. Thirty-five years--why had
it taken so
long to figure out? Aloof, detached, not showing feeling
interest, apathetic. He possessed all those things.
He looked at the next entry. Indifferentism: the belief
religions are valid. Yes! That was he. He'd always said
everyone is right or everyone is wrong. Indifferentism
had no color.
He was an Indifferentist.
# # #
The universe is alive, each particle unique yet connected.
Lisa and nuclear waste, baseball and rain, dogs and fear.
Brown fit? After a time, he came to believe that his life
a progression of notes on a piano. He had only to find
1. Thirty-five years
# # #
On a Thursday, a man's head materialized in the middle
living room. Brown knew it was Thursday because his watch
day. He needed to know the day; an event as significant
arrival of a head in his living room must be marked, but
looked at his watch in so long it took him hours to find
felt like hours, of course; he had no way of telling exactly
after he found the watch, and by then it was too late.
But what of the head? It appeared in the morning, in that
when the sun in its ascent splattered the wall outside
Brown was sitting on the couch, having finally begun to
copy edit the
book (because the people for whom he worked had told him
to return it
or finish it). He looked up from the pages, and there
was the head,
hovering in his living room. Though not hovering exactly--that
indicated an absence of body, whereas this head acted
as though it
connected to an unseen body.
When the head made this unexpected appearance, Brown sucked
breath and stared. His red pen fell from slack fingers.
faced Brown's couch and the windows. It occupied the center
living room. Brown didn't move, and neither did the head.
occurred to him to look for his watch, he got up, and
determined the watch wasn't in the room, he walked past
the head to
reach his bedroom. He flattened his body against the wall,
far from the head, but the head made no acknowledgement
passing. Brown could hear the breath flowing through the
nostrils, an even rhythm that he found soothing.
With his watch secured to his wrist, Brown returned to
the couch and
sat admiring the head, its thick nose, cleft chin, hair
shot with gray, long hair pulled back in a ponytail. This
ordinary head. It stared forward, as though concentrating
something in another place, somewhere other than Brown's
Perhaps that was where its body existed, in some faraway
unreachable by current means of travel. Brown liked to
car, plane--his last trip had been a week in London with
Less than a year had passed since then. Now, there was
wished to go.
The head shimmered sometimes. Eighty percent here, he
thinking back to the graphics work he used to do. Like
percent screen applied to a photograph. A little fuzzy
there. The head possessed an aura of command and he deferred
waiting, so patient in his waiting that he forgot to drink
afternoon water until his throat constricted from dryness.
But the time came when observation was insufficient. He
type to sit quietly while a head dominated his life. So
If the head did indeed connect to a hidden, standing body,
would be a couple of inches shorter than Brown. He approached
head and shuffle-stepped tohis right. Was there an eyelid
He tried a quick step the other way, nothing.
What would happen if he touched it? Reaching out with
extended like a cartoon sleepwalker, he moved toward the
half-step at a time. Somewhere among his steps and half-steps,
observed he was no longer making forward progress, though
of walking proceeded without impediment. He measured his
motion against the knob of a cabinet--one step with his
carried him beyond the knob, then the left joined the
right, but when
he tried another step he found himself starting again
from the same
place. The head remained inches from his outstretched
No more of this tentative half-stepping then. Brown lunged
head. With a thump, he hit the floor. His fingers were
the knob. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on
After a time, he got himself back to the couch and sat,
surprised how exhausted he felt from the attempt. He looked
the head. Why didn't it speak? His failure made him think
wife. She wouldn't have been surprised. Would've expected
another proof of his indifference. So little control
here...alone...inert. But these things can't trouble an
Indifferentist. He stood, turned his back on the head,
and went out
onto the fire escape.
The morning sun gave way to clouds, drizzle, but it cleared
sundown. As he sat, it occurred to him that his wife's
have sent the head to torment him; this was a troubling
He'd heard the voice of his wife's lover on the phone
once, a message
left for her as though Brown didn't exist.
"You are my wildest dreams. Missing you hopelessly but
hope," the lover had said.
"Unfortunate" was the word Brown's wife had used (via
note) when he
told her (also via note) that he'd heard the lover's message.
Brown's wife acted, in plays, TV commercials, films. The
directed her. Her face would soon appear in advertisements
forthcoming film. The anticipation of this event should
Brown with dread, with loathing for his pitiful position.
Instead...indifference. She'd told Brown he was all those
detached, unfeeling, aloof. Her words revolved through
him while she
packed, emitting silver geysers of dismay and fear, like
discursive neon glue. The weeks of her packing were the
the period of disbelief, before....
But she'd meant to hurt him with her words. That didn't
true. He hadn't always been those things, not thirty-five
indifference. Now, yes.
1. Who am I?
2. I am here to serve.
# # #
Such a fatherly head. Brown appreciated its silent presence,
though he hated to break that silence he needed to talk.
always this indifferent. Did you know my wife left me?
It's up to
me to change. I know that. But I don't know how. And sometimes,
sometimes I like this indifference. I don't think that
irresponsible, or cold." He continued in that vein, but
conversations bored him. He wanted to hear the head speak.
How would its voice sound? Dramatic, to match its sideburns?
learned long ago that people's voices rarely matched their
appearance. In a past job, he'd gotten to know many people
phone before meeting them, and they never looked the way
envisioned them from the sound of their voice. He supposed
was true of him. But there was one whose appearance matched
voice, and she had such dark eyes. Jane McDonald. He hadn't
of her in years. She should have been his lover. With
voice, she would have prevented onset of this indifference
eliminated his passion.
He took his breakfast water onto the street-side fire
felt bad excluding the head from his company, but he didn't
share every moment with it. The head would understand.
worked out an easy relationship so far, and the head wasn't
roommates go. He took up little space. Somedaythough,
want to invite a woman home, and how would he explain
Little likelihood of that. He didn't know any women and
how to meet one. What had he done before he met his wife?
have had friends, but he couldn't remember any names.
about Jane McDonald again, but years had passed, and she
halfway across the country. She'd no doubt forgotten him
He sipped his water. Not that an Indifferentist cared.
He looked through the open fire escape window at the head,
glanced away, embarrassed, but the head gave no indication
had read the lie in Brown's thoughts. "I do have friends,"
"I checked my messages this morning. Sam asked how I was
Frank. So did Kari. But I can't talk to any of them right
Mathematics lives in a land of mystery and wonder, a universe
to our own. Its explorers win few accolades from popular
Those who need to refine and enrich the concept of number
rewards in the work itself. Consider Bernardo Bolzano.
the University of Prague in 1796; he studied philosophy,
Bolzano liked to say, "my special pleasure in mathematics
particularly on its purely speculative parts...I prized
part of mathematics which was at the same time philosophy."
is best known for his work on infinity. He argued that
promising approach toward an analysis of the infinite
mathematical. In Paradoxes of the Infinite, he asked:
instance, would not agree that the length of the line
unlimited in the direction aR is infinite?" His paradox
idea that not all infinite sets can be considered equal
to their multiplicity. "Instead, some are larger (or smaller)
others, that is, one can encompass the other as a mere
conversely, one can be a mere part in another)."
Bolzano also speculated on the connections between mathematics
beauty. He originated formulas tied to hair color and
likelihood of beauty, both male and female, coming from
a variety of
economic and educational backgrounds. His theories on
with his socialist and pacifist views and criticism of
doctrine led to his being fired and barred from further
Late in life, he began to work in clay, sculpting busts
of men and
woman based on his mathematical models, rather than from
At times, Brown wished for a female head, a head of such
beauty he would sit in awe, and not the typical beauty
of film or
fashion, but someone special, with features that mesmerized.
would he like in a female head? Red hair. He'd never dated
with red hair.
One morning, as he sat contemplating the head, he realized
it must be
hungry, and he felt ashamed for having neglected its needs.
his watch. Friday. What did Friday mean? Instead of returning
the head, he opened the window and stepped onto the fire
Such a lovely view of the airshaft today, and the opposite
Friday. He would prepare a Sabbath meal for the head.
done that on his own, though he'd grown up with Sabbath
prepared by his grandmothers, sometimes by his mother.
he cook? Chicken, always chicken, then perhaps roasted
salad, green beans, and of course, challa. He'd light
He still remembered the prayer. The things memorized in
He would have to buy groceries though; it had been so
long since he'd
gone out. Now that he'd made this decision he dreaded
what he would
find out there. So many people, up and down the streets
on missions that defied his understanding. They pushed
blocking the sidewalk. Something occurred to him--feeling,
dread--his first post-indifference feeling!
The recognition of his dread gave him the necessary strength.
could go outside.
# # #
The familiarity of Met Foods calmed him: the wilted produce,
aisles crowded with boxes, the cashiers chatting in Spanish.
Everything he required could be found here. Forgetting
forgetting he'd come for Sabbath meal ingredients only,
he darted up
and down the aisles, filling his shopping cart. He read
squeezed tomatoes. He stood in front of the canned tuna,
decide which variety to add to his cart, but no no no,
what he'd come for. Up and down the aisles again, returning
everything but his Sabbath meal items.
# # #
Throughout Brown's life, cooking had given him pleasure.
cooked, he became transformed. He lost his inhibitions.
the life of his meal in search of the greater good flavor.
crossed the boundaries of ethnic seasonings without fear.
gathered on the tops of his spice jars.
These were his most-used spices (aside from salt and pepper).
2. Cumin seeds
4. Jalapeño flakes
A month or so before his wife left him--before his life
before he knew it would change, for he'd had no warning
approaching--he'd gone away for a week. When he returned,
that a jar of whole coriander had appeared on the spice
wife had never used it before; her cooking consisted of
seasoned with an Italian spice mix. He wondered why she'd
coriander. When she left, it was the only spice she took.
# # #
Back home with his groceries, Brown glanced out the window.
begun to fall. He opened the jars of his favorite spices
each in turn. Once, each separate scent would have elicited
emotional response: oregano-wistfulness; cumin-contentment;
rosemary-sexual passion; jalepeño flakes-inquisitiveness.
months, the spices had been dead to him. Today, he thought,
something might be returning.
He squeezed lemon onto the chicken and rubbed an herb
blend into its
skin; he felt happy, and this new happiness engendered
more, until he
laughed at his indifference.
He felt gratitude toward the head, which had brought this
into his life, and focused his energy on preparing the
the aroma of roasting chicken filled the apartment. He
mashed the potatoes. He blanched the green beans, then
in olive oil. He set candlesticks on the coffee table.
everything attained its optimum of readiness, he fixed
himself and the head and carried them into the living
recited the prayer and lit the candles. Was this prayer
be done by a woman? There must be allowances for solitary
involving one man and one mute head.
Contrary to Brown's usual cooking style, he had refrained
tasting during his preparation; after going so long without
food, he'd waited for this moment, with everything finished
arranged on the plate, as though he'd become two different
One who prepared the meal and one who consumed it. He
chicken wing to his lips and bit into the crunchy skin;
taste rose through him, petals flowered outward into realms
by clash or despair. This was how to prevent the end,
to beat back
the forces of indifference!
One of the candles sputtered; wax dripped down its side.
at the head. Its food would remain untouched, a prophet's
waiting, forever ready.
An air of mystery surrounds the life and artistic career
Meisner. Many things are known: the deprived early childhood
replaced as a teenager by an ascension into high society
widowed mother married the industrialist Bernard Levy;
attempt at a career in professional baseball; his apprenticeship
Robert Henri. But so much remains unchronicled. No photographs
exist. Fortunately, there is the art itself, and his few
Meisner painted cityscapes. Angles fascinated him: clean
abrupt breaks. Formlessness terrified him. He determined
because representation of organic matter dominated the
art world, he
would refrain from painting it. He felt landscapes and
be arrogant, a form of appropriating the natural world.
In a lecture
he once said, "Vanity causes us to lay claim to earth
and trees when
architecture should be trumpeted as our greatest achievement."
March 2, 1924, while painting a collapsed warehouse in
Jersey, he cut himself on a jagged scrap of iron. Tetanus
Death followed. No clean edge there.
Brown carried the dishes into the kitchen. On his way
back into the
living room, a sharp object jabbed his heel. He sat down
his foot to look--a glass sliver. Months ago, he'd shattered
wife's picture, slammed it down on the desk where it stood.
flew everywhere; most he'd found and disposed of. He removed
splinter and stared at it, as though it held the key.
Then the head
spoke, its voice a raspy thing, vocal cords scored by
trauma, a voice that demanded an audience.
"The flame fans the fates, darkness infests your sight."
Outside, the snowfall had stopped, leaving a dusting on
sill and fire escape railing. The couch, the uneven shapes
old plaster walls, flowed in and out of focus as they
themselves in his wife's image. All this time he'd sat,
to her absence, yet obsessed with traces of her presence.
They'd met three years ago this day, he realized. They'd
the shapes of others, oblivious to all but themselves,
there, life became a fairytale existence in which she,
flowered dress, played the part of star. He wondered whether
would ever know what had been real.
The head spoke again. "Rain consumed the burning holes
the edges. The clash of armies could never haunt us as
it did that
night of tattered refugees. Your heart opened, gushing
of black and silver. Your undulating nature allowed respite.
clouds swelled along the horizon, obscuring hill and plain
The head knew him better than his wife ever did; Brown
mouth to tell the head that, but changed his mind. The
ever responded to his earlier attempts at conversation.
of this breakthrough lay elsewhere, in his cooking perhaps.
on the couch with his back against an arm, where he could
both the snow outside and the head.
"Two brothers farmed their father's land. One loved the
honored it; one preferred the sea but feared change. And
worked the harder?
"Not the one who loved the land, but the other, for his
change drove him to desperation and made him seek his
approval over his brother's."
Brown looked down at the candle, thinking through the
"Rain falls regardless of whether the garden needs it,"
said, then its gaze returned to that faraway point.
Brown blew out the candle and walked into the bedroom.
So much had
happened this day that he didn't think he'd be able to
sleep, but it
seemed the head's phrases had contained a powerful metatonic,
sleep claimed him as soon as he lay down.
He woke later, calling out in the night, and lay in bed
heart thumping. A nightmare, was all, but one so startling
it immediately. He got up and walked past the head to
where he lay with his eyes open. The only thing he could
the dream was the sight of his wife's face filling the
though formed by sky and cloud. He needed to escape her.
remained on the couch, closing his eyes, and eventually
# # #
Brown sat on the couch, looking out the window. He'd finished
art history manuscript and was preparing to take it uptown,
office of the publisher. Heavy snowfall mounded on the
and fire escape platform. He leaned closer to the window
to see the
sidewalk, now buried beneath the white sheet.
What would his wife be doing now, in this snowstorm? He
thought about herso concretely in a while. Now he felt
a sudden urge
to call her, but what would he say? As a teenager, he
friends occasionally spent their afternoons making crank
dialing the numbers of popular girls in the school and
be someone else. He picked up the phone and punched in
"Hello?" she said. Brown couldn't believe he'd actually
The whole time they were together, he'd never reached
her when he
called, only her voicemail. What would she be thinking
Wondering who was calling, wondering.... "Hello," she
Brown clicked off the connection. He glanced back at the
wondering what it thought of his prank.
Half an hour later, he hit redial. Again, she answered.
He held the
receiver up to the head and waited, but the head did nothing.
"I know it's you," she said. "I've got that thing that
number of the person calling. If you're not going to say
don't call me." She clicked off.
She knew. Brown started crying. He hadn't cried when she
now huge, wracking sobs tore through him. He pushed his
the couch's pillows and cried. Unable to stop sobbing,
through his sobs. Nothing had been fair...what did she
couldn't exist to fuel her needs. He had needs. But what
Indifferentist need? No, he wasn't that. He had lust,
and...what? What did he have besides lust and fear? When
up again, the head spoke.
"Where have we been, in this field of stone? Once there
were more of
us...." The head scrunched its eyes closed as though attempting
drive out images it feared. "Once...." Its voice faltered.
waited. "You," the head said, and its eyes popped open,
Brown's. "You must never!"
Brown waited, but the head said nothing more. Its eyes
its private distance.
# # #
Brown left his building. He'd called the publisher to
tell them he'd
bring the manuscript in tomorrow, after the snow had been
It had taken intense concentration to leave the necessary
message, but having done so pleased him. Now he was free
for the day.
He walked downtown through the snow. He'd never seen so
much snow in
the city. No taxis roamed the streets, no pedestrians,
stores. He traversed the streets alone. The mounds of
made walking difficult, but the cleanness of it all, the
whiteness, thrilled him. He walked through the undulating
of snow-covered cars. His footsteps crunched the loose,
and he concentrated on the sound, step-crunch, step-crunch,
the texture. As he turned a corner he saw four Chinese--three
and a man--grouped around something in the snow. Together,
reached down to grasp it. Brown walked on, step-crunch,
He stopped walking. Around him, the snow filled the streets
silence. With so many ways to say goodbye, Brown had chosen
indifference and a frozen life. Contrary to what his wife
he'd cared about her, had wanted their future together,
but his life
with her had numbed him in a way he'd only now begun to
break out of.
He started crying again, though not the painful sobbing
night. All around him, people lived and died. He'd always
that, but today it had more significance. Significance
On his way home, the winter world took on varied aspects:
of sun on snow, people emerging to dig out cars or shovel
the fluttering of pigeons nonplussed by the weather. Soon,
would begin again.
He ran up the stairs to his apartment and flung open the
head had left his living room. From the shelf he took
atlas, having decided to travel to whichever nation the
Originally published in Full Unit Hookup #1.
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