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Prime

She had to possess the secret code.

He had removed the number where he lived, prying off the digits with a simple kitchen knife he got from room service. B-something…523?…By Steve Erickson

He had removed the number where he lived, prying off the digits with a simple kitchen knife he got from room service. B-something…523? Numbers were a kind of theology for him, so he was bothered at first they weren’t a more auspicious 001 or 600, at one extreme or the other of a discrete numerical spectrum, especially since it was the last door in the ship’s living quarters, at one extreme of a long discrete corridor. Then he realized it was just as well—no one would miss a number like B523.

The B was for B Deck, one level above D Deck where the engine room was, four levels below the Promenade and Sun decks where the tourists were—in the bowels of the ocean liner, then, though he didn’t suppose B really stood for bowels. That’s the thing about letters, they aren’t precise, and yet, he raged inwardly, we’ve turned over to them all the meanings, large and small, of our lives. There was no telling when anyone last stayed at this far point of the ship, where the long corridor of wood-browns and nautical blue-green carpeting narrowed and then coiled in on itself like a snake; after stocking the room with food and goods for several days, one morning he checked out at the front desk on the deck above, returned to the room, removed the number, and opened all the way to the outer threshold the stateroom door that now looked like any other wall to anyone on the opposite side. The view from the other end of B Deck’s quarter-mile corridor could barely be called a trick of the eye: People don’t know how to see in numbers let alone think in them.

Permanently moored, the boat hadn’t sailed anywhere in half a century. The sea beyond the porthole was indistinguishable from the sea yesterday and the sea tomorrow, time not demarcated in terms of place or its passage; even numbers need an equation, like words need a sentence. Maybe his real sprint against time, he thought, was with himself, his mind losing its capacity for exactitude: One more way that fate hates me. The stateroom’s walls were covered with calculations; sequences circled, additions and divisions scrawled their way round the etched deco mirrors preserved from the 1930s when the British liner had crossed the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool and Southampton, and then the Channel to Cherbourg before returning to the States. “One more way fate hates me,” he seethed again, this time out loud, “and loves Mitchell Champlain!” that impostor—every equation he ever wrote, I wrote first. Adding two and two, I got to four before he ever reached three …and he gets the fame.

“What,” said the Famous Woman a few feet away, in the room with him, “are you talking about?” Her eyes blazed at him angrily. For weeks he had plotted how—on the occasion of her highly publicized and anticipated appearance up deck, surrounded by photographers and tweeters and digitarazzi—he would lure down into the ship’s bowels the Woman Most Famous in the World For Nothing Other Than Being Famous, who, he just knew, possessed the secret number to fame, celebrity’s clandestine code. 

He had to interview her; she would complete the equation. Then, just when all his planning seemed to no avail, by chance she wandered down to B Deck all on her own, her PR agency’s makeshift green room just a diversion away from B523; one fortuitous turn and she wound up in the corridor outside—maybe fate was throwing him a crumb after all—where he had beckoned her for an autograph, then locking the door behind her.

Where was the numerical value he assigned to fury?

She was swathed in a smart, glitter-flecked dark gray top, color coordinated with the sea, with a small hand-bag just big enough to contain a clandestine code, a secret number. He admired how she had mastered the art of public composure even in the midst of her fury now at being involuntarily detained by him. Where was the numerical value he assigned to fury? Was it the 113 written in green marker next to the stateroom’s wall heater? “The prime number for anger is 113,” he told her, “the highest prime three-figure integer followed by the greatest total of composite integers representing the highest percentage of the original prime. In other words, 14 composite integers follow 113 before you come to the next prime of 127, 14 representing…. ” Did it mean anything that he had written 113 in green? Shouldn’t the number for anger have been written in red? My God, he swallowed hard, mesmerized by the horror of this self-revelation: Red, green—I’m becoming enmeshed in…in…adjectives.

Perfectly framed as she was in the stateroom porthole, the waves of her dark gray top splashing against the dark gray of the ocean behind her, she continued to glare at him. “What,” she said in an almost civil tone of voice, “is the number for fucking moron?” before delivering a kick to his knee, her aim 15 inches higher.

“I’m not a moron,” he winced at the blow.

“Whatever.”

“I’m a brilliant man,” he insisted.

“How much is it you want, brilliant man?”

“What?”

“I’m not always worth what people sometimes think.”

“Uh,” he said—did she think this was an abduction? “Six million from television, I read. Not counting whatever your family….”

“Way more,” she snapped before it occurred to her she had just contradicted herself and that this information might not improve her situation. The factor of vanity, he wrote in a notebook, trumps that of self-preservation. “I don’t want money,” he said.

“No?”

“It’s not about money.” Is there a name for that—the sense of being so impervious to consequence that she can’t help saying the wrong thing—let alone a number? She shook her head, murmuring to herself, “My god, that fucking video is going to haunt me till I die,” almost forgetting he was there at all, and he said, “The video?” leaked, he remembered now, by an ex-boyfriend six years before; his brow furrowed. “Right, the Famous Video,” he said again. “But do you really think it was the video?”

“Do I really think what was the video.”

“That made you famous.”

“I was famous before the video,” she said.

“That’s what I’m saying—it wasn’t the video,” he maintained, allowing, “I haven’t seen the video, of course…”

“Yeah, sure you haven’t. Are you going to unlock that door?”

“…I deduced it unnecessary to study personally, though perhaps I missed something,” and she looked at the door beyond him, sighed and sat in the nearest chair, casually tossing aside the $10,000 handbag and deciding to wait out the moment, since all the moments she was ever in belonged to her. He was thinking frantically, his knee still throbbing from when she kicked him; with no room to really pace, he swiveled one way and then the other as if caged with nowhere to go. “Fate hates me,” he sputtered to her, “these days I miss things. The numbers of my life get…softer, less exquisite—the days I’ve been here…I don’t know how much time I have to find the code before the numbers melt altogether.”

On her lips, the larva of a question: The code? dying before it grew wings. He peered toward the porthole beyond her, beyond which was always the same damned sea: There, that one wave in the distance, beneath the swooping gull—I saw that same wave just three days ago. The same insolent curl, the same arrogant trajectory: Fate is leveling all the variables. When all variables become absolutes, he railed to himself, math dies! What’s the point of having been the golden boy at MIT all those years ago if all that fate offered in return was scorn in the form of an unruly career at NASA, an untenured position at a state college, colleagues sailing by—all the damned Mitchell Champlains of the world in the jetstream of my influence, gathering prizes and grants and profiles in glossy magazines?

“And then I got it,” he explained to her, “then I realized that amid all the geometric calibrations of my life, I had overlooked the most obvious, the one that explained everything. And that is that fame itself is a number, that fame itself is a secret code. And that,” he smiled for the first time in weeks or months or years, or maybe for the first time in his life, “that’s where you come in,” and before his smile she shrank a bit, as though she would sink in somewhere between the decks of the ship.

“Oh,” she answered, having finally grasped that she should pretend everything he said made perfect sense.

On her lips, the larva of a question: The code? dying before it grew wings.

From the earliest moment that he was aware of his own ambition—was he 23? 17? 11?—he had rejected one of the lessons on which experience kept insisting: that part of being great is being lucky. He couldn’t accept that fame was just a chain of signals, a conspiracy among the unfamous to emulate each other emulating an otherwise arbitrary totem. Fame begets fame; the more famous you are, the more famous you become; and there is no bending the world to one’s sense of destiny—which would mean that people of original gifts and tireless energy are utterly subject to whim. Hoping to glean the code, he had pored over studies regarding fame’s logarithms. The closest the texts came, however, was criteria by which fame might be gauged, not what causes the effect of fame; and those studies presumed not just a valid correlation between achievement and repute but the validity of an achievement that could then be objectified—the number of planes, say, shot down by a pilot in World War II.

But what if the value of the achievement is zero? Then what is to be distributed?  Zero is nothing, technically not even a number but rather occupying a place where a number should be. He moved back toward her on the chair. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “What is it that you think you’ve actually accomplished in your life?”

“Accomplished?”

“What is it that you think you’ve actually done? What merit accounts for your renown?”

“Renown? Merit?”

“How did you become one of the most famous women in the world when there are a thousand women, probably a hundred thousand, worthier of attention?”

Her mind raced. “I…was a model? I’ve been on TV?”

“Being a model didn’t make you famous,” he answered impatiently, “being on TV didn’t make you famous. It was the other way around. Being famous made you a model. Being famous got you on TV. So how did you become famous in the first place?” He opened his notebook again, poised his pencil and looked at her expectantly.

She was dumbstruck. “I’m…a businesswoman? A brand?”

“You haven’t achieved a single thing irrespective of a fame that already was present before any achievement. What you’ve achieved isn’t anything that garners fame, rather your fame is its own achievement, having garnered itself. Your fame itself is your genius, not a word I use lightly. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“No.”

“I learned long ago that everything is a number. I learned long ago that everything is data. Chromosomes may be labeled x and y but that’s just an error of assignation—binaries got it right with 0s and 1s.  Chromosomes could, should, have been labeled 5s and 7s, the highest prime single-digit numbers. That up there?” pointing at the walls of the outer stateroom covered with numbers, “that’s you. That’s your data. That’s you translated to the splendor of numerical precision.”

She looked at the walls.

“Right there,” he pointed around the corner of the doorway at 8÷11x(x + 5)2=104.727, craning his neck to her vantage point, “that’s your father who successfully defended the famous football player who killed his wife—with the exponent of 2 signifying, of course, your alliteratively named sisters, all assuming I’m correct that the x factor in conjunction with the coefficient +5 is the number of years the wife and the football player who killed her were married…I’m afraid these things always involve postulations that are less than certain. And there,” pointing at another equation, “is your mother leaving your father to marry the famous Olympic athlete. Your rich blonde friend—”

“Ex-….” she firmly corrected him.

“Ex-rich blonde friend who also was famous for no reason at all, she’s over there…a lot of exes,” he noted to himself, remembering the ex-boyfriend and writing semantic exes not to be confused with empirical x’s. “It all ends there,” he pointed at the end of numbers a couple of feet away, “with y. But what is y?”

“I….”

“It’s the secret number of fame. Or renown, or celebrity or whatever you want to call it. The Famous Video…”

“Can we stop with the video?” the Famous Woman moaned.

“The video might be considered to represent an achievement, but its notoriety still is rooted less in achievement than in persona. In other words you didn’t become famous for what you did in the video, rather what you did in the video became famous for the fact that you did it.”

“That’s what this is all about? Making yourself famous?”

“Not this,” he retorted with some annoyance, “not this like, like…shooting a famous rock star to be part of his fame,” and he began pacing again; outside the porthole the darkness of evening began to fall, and damned if it wasn’t the same darkness as last evening’s darkness, damned if the fade of the light wasn’t the same fade as last evening’s fade. “I don’t want to be part of your fame, I don’t want to be part of your data. You hold the key—as the woman most famous in the world for nothing other than being famous—to the y factor. To the secret code of fame itself.” There had to be a number that explained why Mitchell Champlain was Somebody and he was Nobody—the y factor in the shed of a tear (assuming she ever shed a tear), some inexplicable bit of psychic DNA that would verify life’s objectivity and banish subjectivity from the equation, that would prove the smiles of fate aren’t that capricious and are marked by statistical certitude.

He tumbled into a maelstrom of words, those fluttery little two-way mirrors.

But then once the y factor was isolated, what would he do with it? It wasn’t something he could inject. It wasn’t something to which he could strap himself and absorb like an electrical shock. Back and forth he paced; over and over he ran his fingers along the walls in search of an invisible number in a braille deciphered by his fingers alone. The closer he felt himself getting, the farther the number receded from him, like the view that dollied out and zoomed in from the end of a long corridor on a moored ocean liner. He became so lost in his pursuit, stalking the fugitive y, that for long stretches of time he forgot the Famous Woman a few feet away on her cell phone, her eyes tracking him back and forth in his caged circling as her manicured nails punched out the text on her phone. He kept stalking the fugitive y until finally he couldn’t stand anymore the tapping of her foot on the wall next to her, growing louder: “Would you stop?” he finally said. He realized just how dark the stateroom had become.

He turned on the light. She blinked up at him, her foot still.

“Thank you.” Tap tap tap, came the answer—but her foot hadn’t moved. “Could you please stop making that sound, however you’re making it?”

Tap tap tap, growing louder. “It’s not me,” she coolly informed him as he realized the tapping had gone on awhile now, until finally it had followed her voice into his cognizance. He gazed at the room around him as though someone else must be there, until finally it occurred to him the tapping came from the corridor—at which point it was too late, and four security officers already were making their way through the hole in what not so long ago had been the door.

A few minutes later—standing in the outer corridor for the first time in longer than he had been able to keep track of, as the officers surrounded him and his hands were cuffed behind him—his eyes locked on the door and the bare outline of B523, gouged away by the kitchen knife he got from room service.

So I remembered the number correctly after all, he thought to himself with a fleeting satisfaction lasting just long enough for him to feel before the subsequent comprehension—and then he tumbled into a maelstrom of words, those fluttery little two-way mirrors of communication that only reflect off each other, words being good for nothing but confusion. Mulling how the secret code, the y factor, had tattooed its presence on him all along, he was left only with more questions than answers: But wasn’t the room random? Might not it as easily have been a different room with a different number? Is there a number for caprice? A prime, of course, 523, itself made up of the first prime numbers, unless you count 1.

Unless you count 1: By the time she finally surfaced from the stateroom through the hole in the door, the corridor of the ship had filled with people. Greeted by the explosion of photographers’ flashes in the distance at the corridor’s far end, she emerged as the prime number of fame embodied, her honed sense of presumption regained, a presumption of the world’s rightful transfixion with her; ship’s officers and personnel held her hand, gawking and practically standing at attention. She looked at the rest of them as if she expected nothing less. She looked at him as if she expected no other outcome than this. “Well, well,” she said, familiar faint smile curling at the corner of her mouth, “well well well well well, brilliant man. Now you know what?” she stepped up to him, face inches from his, “now do you know what happens? Now,” she said with a shrug of her head at the photographers over her shoulder, “now I go up on deck and a thousand more cameras flash. Now I go up there more famous than ever. Now for a moment I’m the most famous person in the world, the most desired person, the person a billion people wish they were. And now you go up there and, for a second, for a split second, you’re famous for nothing other than having had something, anything, to do with me, before you disappear forever, before you’re forgotten forever, before nobody even remembers you enough to try and remember what they ever remembered about you. Then you become the most unfamous forgotten nobody who ever lived. You know what the number for that is?” relishing the question almost as much as the answer. “Zero.”

“Zero,” he explained, “isn’t technically a number. It occupies a place where a number should be.” He said, “It’s nothing.”

“There you go,” she answered.


Steve Erickson is the author of nine novels, most recently These Dreams of You. He has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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