Hi there, friend. Is this seat taken?
Your first time here, right? You gonna eat? Well, let me tell you something right now, the biscuits here are amazing. You should order the biscuits. I'm here most days, it's true, and most days I have the biscuits. She makes them every morning and they’re just divine.
Janet! Two of the biscuits and gravy, honey? And some coffee?
My name's John.
So you're a tourist? Not hard to tell. That hair on your shoulders looks like most of my students. And I don’t mean the girls. You on vacation? Family? What?
Aw, Jeez, man, I'm sorry, I didn't know. A lot of folks around here are out of work too. It's those Wall Street sonsofbitches who messed up, and it's you and me who have to pay.
So what did you do, friend?
Oh really. Which bank?
Hah! I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh. But you guys must've been pissed to be the ones that went down, while everyone else got bailed out. I bet you never got a redundancy package, am I right? Otherwise you wouldn't have taken a road trip through this dustbowl, now would you?
So let me ask you something. You worked for those big shots, you must have studied math, right? At college?
No, no, I don't mean economics. Economics is for assholes. Most of what they do is no better than picking around in the trash. I'm talking mathematics. Theory. You ever do that at college?
Yes, it's my thing. I worked up in... Well, I was a pretty big deal, actually. I had tenure and everything. Before I moved down here.
Say, friend, pass me that napkin. Let me show you a game, have you ever seen this game before? They call it Angels and Devils. Let me a draw a quick grid, and here's a nickel for you, it's your counter. You see the grid here, well, I'm chasing you around the squares. Your nickel, it can move, oh, let's say, two squares on your turn. We agree that at the start. And on my turn, I choose a square to block off.
Yes, it is imbalanced. Asymmetric. And you know what: you can never win. I can block you in, so you can't move, if I use the right strategy. And I win. But if I can't block you, then you keep on moving, forever. Or until you get bored. How do you like that, huh? Mr Big City Man. A good metaphor for you and your kind, I bet?
Alright, your former kind. I'll let you have that one.
How are your biscuits?
I told you so.
Funny thing about that game, though, is who taught me it. It was fella from around these parts, so it goes. You gotta hear this whole story, actually. I think you'd appreciate it, being a city-man-turned-traveller.
So it was when I still had tenure, and I was visiting my old mom. She lived about 20 miles east of here, before she died, God Rest Her Soul, my mom. So I took a week off from the department, flew down, obviously, then rented a car at the airport, drove out to meet her. She insisted on staying in her house. You know the type.
So there was me driving out to meet her, and this goddamned rental throws a crank, or something, and I'm stuck out on the prairie, road as straight as anything, and I'm thinking what my mom would say, which is ‘what all my fancy number theories were doing for me now, now I'm stuck out there with car trouble.’
But folks around here are good people, they'll help you out. You know that, you've been hitching rides, right? And soon this big blue truck pulls up, says he'll take me some of the way. And I say thank you, that's very kind, and haul myself and my bag up into the cab with him.
But you know, the road was so straight and the mountains, they're so far away, and I guess I might have slept for a little while, and didn't see which roads we took, and suddenly this guy is telling me he's turning off, and I should just shuffle up the road to the junction there, and get myself another ride. And then there's a cloud of dust and he's outta there, so I take myself up to the intersection, and sit myself down on my suitcase.
Now let me tell you friend, that crossroads was in perfect alignment. Ninety degrees to each other, those roads, not one degree more or less. You could have calibrated a perfect square by that road, I reckon. And everywhere I looked was just that true road to the horizon, no trees or nothing, and I swear I was alone out there on the highway.
And you know how it goes, sitting all alone on the road, when you think no-one’s watching, you do weird little things. So I decided to see for myself just how straight the road was, so I laid myself down on the tarmac, to get my eyes as close to the ground as possible, and looked out along the highway, along those white lines. And it was still dead straight. Couldn’t make out a crinkle or a bump. Nothing. I even saw some ants, down there with my nose on ground, and they were walking in a perfect straight line too. I spent a couple of minutes just lying on the road, looking at those ants crawl by.
And then, this is the part where you just have to run with me, friend. I heard a noise. A cough. And I rolled over and saw an old man sitting on my suitcase. He was the dirtiest guy I’d ever seen, overalls made more of dust than cloth, and these lines that hacked across his face, I don't know if they were scars or just wrinkles. And he sat there, perched on my suitcase, looking at me.
Well, you can guess what I said! And it wasn't pretty. I almost died right there, lying on the tarmac in the centre of the junction, that's how shocked I was. Imagine if some old-time farmer just sneaking up on you and sitting on your backpack there.
But he says for me to come and sit down next to him, and that's what I do because, well, I can tell there’s no arguing with this guy.
So haul myself up of the road, and I sit down next to him, and he pulls out a piece of chalk, and draws a grid like the one on your napkin there, and he shows me the game that I've shown you. Only we used a can for the hopping.
And of course, I start talking about my tenure and the math behind the game, how it’s probably incomplete. And you know what? He takes that chalk, and starts writing equations right onto the middle of the highway. It was a messy scrawl but, well, I’m a professor, I could make out the symbols. And he wrote out the proof, that the can and the nickel can always win. I mean, they can always survive the chase. It was beautiful. We theorists see beauty in the proof.
So of course I ask him how he can do that, where he studied. But he just shrugs and says here, he studied here, on the road. This is a pure place, he says, between his coughing. Not tainted, he says, and wipes his nose with his sleeve. At this intersection, in the middle of the prairie, he can write things like this for travellers. This is where the knowledge lives. Where it begins.
And then he says to me, I've seen your kind before, John. You're not the only scholar that has come to me for help. All kinds, he says. Italians. Indians. The last one was a Brit, he says. I gave him Fermat, he says.
But you know what, at the time I didn't think about the last bit. Instead I was thinking about how he knew my name without my telling him, and suddenly I'm worried he's been following me from the airport or something, which I guess I knew was stupid but at the time you don't think straight, you know?
So all I said was, I'm not here for help, my rental died, I just need to get a ride into the town.
And he just says, too bad. I had a nice one for you.
But I just backed away, and once I was off the intersection, I turned and ran up the highway. Left my suitcase there. When I ran out of breath I turned around of course, but I couldn't see him anymore.
Thing is friend, I can't find my way back to that crossroads. I've driven that way many times. Even tried to walk it once. But there weren't road signs or anything that I could remember, just that intersection. I’ve never found it again.
Say, you're a trustworthy type, even though you were a banker. Just swear to me that if you pass a crossroads that seems so straight to be mathematically perfect, you'll come back this way and tell me? And if you see a guy with a can and a chalk and a dusty shirt, you’ve just got to come back and find me. Promise me that you will? I ask all the travellers to promise me, you see. The truckers, and the guys like you, I make them all promise.
Because I need to go back there, friend. I need to go back for my proof. He had one for me, a nice one he said. I need to go back to that junction.
Robert Sharp lives in London, where he spends his days campaigning for the free speech charity English PEN. In his spare time he teaches bad habits to his kids, and runs an unfocused and under-read blog. His novella, The Good Shabti, is published September from Jurassic London and Sabrina Press.