ZERO ONE ZERO ONE ONE ONE
One little boy.
One hula hoop.
One toy train.
(Three cars, one engine, one caboose.)
One broken plastic elephant.
Two dirty shoes on two dirty feet.
A million microbes of mud.
Subtract one little girl.
By one bullet.
From one car.
From one gun.
By one bigger boy.
(Not yet a man.)
“You’re a man now.”
Two parents. One funeral. Fifteen tears, shared almost equally.
(Seven and one-third, seven and two-thirds.)
One little boy. Standing over the ghost of perfection. Perfection, once dead, does not age or get into trouble… it is stasis… it is like a photograph, taken at a good moment, and it cannot be reached because it is a pause, a fake, a construct, a statue. It is frozen Cheese. It makes no sense. It is worshiped. It is practiced. It is replicated in perpetua. It cannot be reached with two dirty sneakers and three broken rail cars and one (metaphorically) dead elephant (even with his trunk and tail missing, he can still trumpet—if you make him).
One little boy pondering metaphors, pondering absolutes, understanding only mud.
Subtract one little girl, one little coffin, two new shoes—couldn’t afford the shoes last week, but they will be the last shoes, so why not two new shoes, don’t want scuffs in the new coffin—subtract one favorite dress, one favored doll, two hair bows, one place-marker.
Even after the funeral, not everything is ready. The gravestone’s not ready and won’t be for six months—should have bought ahead of time.
“Everything that lives, it dies, can’t avoid it. You think not, you sit back here a while. Buy at birth, save yourself a lot of headaches.”
“With what money?”
“You never know if they’ll need that college fund but everyone needs a good headstone.”
“…” One mouth staying closed.
“Well, you’re not exactly wasting that college fund, but she’s not exactly using it as intended, anyway, is she? Kids. I got three of my own, so I know. They never live up. To expectations, I mean.”
“…is this the only tombstone maker in town?”
Subtract the frown, subtract the anger, subtract the void in the eyes in the lonely eyes behind the counter holding one charge slip holding endless days of one man immortalizing rock.
Add one sigh, a dash of forgiveness, pulled out of the bag of exhaustion.
One father walking away.
One man, subtract the father.
Can’t subtract the father; he will never be solely just a man again. It is like a brain tumor: leave it, remove it, however you do it, the impression remains.
One father with a rock, a chisel, an old-fashioned notion.
One letter at a time.
One boy. One very little boy. One. Even two shoes are technically singular: one right shoe, one left shoe. Everything is one until it’s zero—or negative one—because it leaves behind an emptiness. “Can I go out and play?”
“No.” State it firmly.
“No.” Do not panic.
“But it’s good to play outside. They said so on TV.”
“Play in the basement.” Offer alternative solutions.
“There are not.” Do not lose your temper.
“It’s scary down there.”
Down there, here, there, everywhere. All one place. The same place. This place. No place. Empty space. Zero.
It’s scary everywhere, but do not cry in front of the child; he won’t understand. One tear falls, regardless. Heedless. Remorseless and cruel, the way the tears don’t listen to reason, they don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. But do not scare the child; he does not need to understand the world is careless.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s scary, the way you smile.”
There are no toys left. No unbroken—
There is one. One toy.
One hula hoop. One unbroken hoop. So then…
Is it a toy?
Lying in the dirt, it is not fun, not played, not spun, twirled, or whirled.
One little boy standing over the hula hoop, staring at it, trying to remember what it is for, why it is there, why he sees it, why no one touches it. It is a sad hoop and it is a poison.
What is it for?
What is it, asks the anthropologist, a thousand years hence, digging with brushes, finding a pink plastic loop. What, then, has the boy, the girl, the family, the bullet, the boy-now-man, the world left behind? It is curious. It is smooth. It is residual.
It is endless.