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Authors: Yôko Ogawa

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Psychological, #Sports

The Gift of Numbers (6 page)

BOOK: The Gift of Numbers
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"Okay," said Root. "But I don't see how I'm going to do it.
What other way is there besides just adding them up?"

"Who'd have guessed you're such a quitter," the Professor
scolded. "Giving up before you've even tried."

"Fine. I'll try. But I can't promise I'll figure it out before the radio's
done. I've got a lot of other stuff to do."

"We'll see," said the Professor, and he rubbed Root's head as he
always did. "Oh!" he said suddenly. "I've got to make a note." He
took a sheet of paper, wrote out their agreement, then clipped it to
his lapel. There was something smooth and controlled in the way
he held the pen and wrote the note, so different from his usual
clumsy manner.

"But you have to promise to finish your homework before the
game comes on; and to turn it off during dinner; and not to disturb
the Professor while he's working." Root nodded grumpily as
I listed each condition.

"I know," he said, "but it'll be worth it. The Tigers are good
this year, not like last year and the year before when they were in
last place. They even won their first game against the Giants."

"Is that right? Hanshin's having a good year?" the Professor
said. "What's Enatsu's ERA?" The Professor looked back and forth
between us. "How many strikeouts does he have?" Root waited
for a moment before answering.

"They traded Enatsu," he said at last. "That was before I was
born, and he's retired now." A jolt shot through the Professor and
then he was still.

I had never seen him so distressed. He had always calmly accepted
the way his memory failed him, but this time was different.
This time he couldn't ignore the facts. Seeing him this way, I even
forgot to worry about Root, who had received a shock of his own
at causing the Professor such pain.

"But even after they traded him to the Carp, he was the best in
the league." I hoped this would reassure him, but this new information
distressed him even more.

"The Carp? What do you mean? How could Enatsu wear anything
but the Hanshin pinstripes?"

He sat down and rested his elbows on the desk, running his
hands through his freshly cut hair. Tiny clippings fell on his notebook.
This time it was Root who rubbed the Professor's head. He
smoothed the mussed hair as if trying to undo the trouble he'd
caused.

 

Root and I were quiet on the way home that evening. When I
asked him whether the Tigers had a game, his answer was barely
audible.

"Who are they playing?"

"Taiyo."

"You think they'll win?"

"Who knows."

The lights were out in the barbershop and the park was empty.
The formulas the Professor had scratched in the dirt were hidden
in the shadows.

"I shouldn't have said those things," Root said. "But I didn't
know he liked Enatsu so much."

"I didn't know, either," I said. And then, though it was probably
wrong of me, I added, "Don't worry, it will all be back to normal
by tomorrow morning. In the Professor's mind, Enatsu will be
the Tigers' ace again and he won't remember anything about the
Carp."

 

The problem that the Professor had posed to Root proved to
be almost as difficult as the one that Enatsu had presented for all
of us.

As the Professor had predicted, the man at the repair shop said
that he had never seen such an old radio and that he wasn't sure he
could fix it. But if he could, he said, he would try to have it done in
a week's time. So every day, when I got home from work, I spent my
evening looking for another way to find the sum of the natural numbers
from 1 to 10. Root should have been working on the problem,
too, but perhaps because he was upset over the incident with
Enatsu, he gave up almost immediately and left me to find a solution.
For my part, I was anxious to please the Professor, and I certainly
didn't want to disappoint him any more than we already had.
But the only way to please him, I suspected, was through numbers.

I began by reading the problem aloud, just as the Professor had
insisted Root do with his homework: "1 + 2 + 3 + ... 9 + 10 is 55.
1 + 2 + 3 + ..." But this didn't seem to be much help—except to
show that a simple equation could conceal a terribly difficult
problem.

Next I tried writing out the numbers from 1 to 10 both
horizontally and vertically and grouping them by odds and evens,
primes and non-primes, and so on. I worked on the problem with
matches and marbles, and when I was at the Professor's house, I
jotted down numbers on the back of any piece of scrap paper, always
looking for a clue.

To find an amicable number, all you had to do was perform the
same sort of calculation again and again. If you had enough time,
you'd eventually succeed. But this was different. I was constantly
starting off in a new direction, looking for another way to approach
the problem, only to wind up at a dead end, confused. To
be honest, I wasn't always even sure of what I was trying to do. At
times I seemed to be going around in circles and at others almost
backward, away from a solution; and in the end, I was often simply
staring at the scrap paper.

I'm not sure why I became so absorbed in a child's math
problem with no practical value. At first, I was conscious of
wanting to please the Professor, but gradually that feeling faded
and I realized it had become a battle between the problem and
me. When I woke in the morning, the equation was waiting—1 +
2 + 3 + ... 9 + 10 = 55—and it followed me all through the
day, as though it had burned itself into my retina and could not
be ignored.

At first, it was just a small distraction, but it quickly became an
obsession. Only a few people know the mystery concealed in this
formula, and the rest of us go to our graves without even suspecting
there is a secret to be revealed. But by some whim of fate, I
had found it, and now knocked at the door, asking to be let in.
Though I had never suspected it, from the moment I'd been dispatched
by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, I had been on a
mission toward that door ...

"Do I look like the Professor?" I asked Root, my hand pressed to
my temple and a pencil clenched in my fingers. That day, I had
covered the back of every flyer and handbill in the house, but I'd
made no progress.

"No, not a bit," Root said. "When the Professor's solving a
problem, he doesn't talk to himself the way you do, and he doesn't
pull out his hair. His body's there but his mind goes somewhere
else. And besides," he added, "his problems are a
lot
harder!"

"I know! But whose problem is this anyway? Maybe you could
stop reading your baseball books for a minute and help me."

"But you're three times as old as I am! And besides, it's a crazy
problem anyway."

"Showing the factors was progress. That was thanks to the Professor,
wasn't it?"

"I guess so," said Root, looking at my work on the backs of the
advertisements and nodding as though he found everything in
proper order.

"I think you're on the right track," he said at last.

"Some help you are!" I laughed.

"Better than nothing," he said, turning back to his book.

Since he was very small, he'd often had to console me when I
came home from work in tears—when I'd been accused of stealing,
or called incompetent, or had the food I'd made thrown away
right in front of me. "You're beautiful, Momma," he'd say, his voice
full of conviction, "It'll be okay." This was what he always said
when he comforted me. "I'm a beauty?" I would ask, and he'd say,
feigning astonishment, "Sure you are. Didn't you know?" More
than once I'd pretended to be crying just to hear these words; and
he'd always play along willingly.

"But you know what I think?" he said suddenly. "When you're
adding up the numbers, 10 is odd man out."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, 10's the only one with two places."

He was right, of course. I had analyzed the numbers in many
ways, but had not thought about how each number was special,
different. When I looked at them again, it seemed terribly strange
that I'd never noticed how odd 10 looked lined up against the
others—the only one among them that could not be written without
picking up the pencil.

"If you got rid of ten, you'd have a number in the center spot,
which might be good."

"What do you mean, 'center spot'?"

"You'd know if you came to the last Parents' Day. We were doing
gymnastics—that's my best sport—and in the middle of the
exercise the teacher said, 'Double lines, face center.' The guy in the
middle held up his arms and the rest of us lined up facing him.
There were nine of us, so the guy in fifth place was the center, and
the lines were even. For 10 it doesn't work. If you add just one guy,
you don't have a center."

So now I tried leaving 10 aside and lining up the rest of the
numbers. I circled five in the center, with four numbers before it
and four after. The 5 stood, arms proudly extended, enjoying the
attention of all the others.

And at that moment I experienced a kind of revelation for the
first time in my life, a sort of miracle. In the midst of a vast field of
numbers, a straight path opened before my eyes. A light was shining
at the end, leading me on, and I knew then that it was the path
to enlightenment.

 

The radio came back from the repair shop on Friday, the twenty-fourth
of April, the day the Tigers were scheduled to play the
Dragons. We put it on the center of the table and sat around it.
Root twisted the knobs, and the broadcast of the game crackled
out from the static. The signal was weak, but there was no doubt it
was the baseball game—and the first sign of life from the outside
world that had made its way into the house since my arrival. We
let out a little cheer.

"I had no idea you could get baseball on this radio," said the
Professor.

"Of course! You can get it on any radio."

"My brother bought it for me a long time ago, for practicing
English conversation. I thought it would only pick up English."

"So you've never listened to the Tigers?" Root said.

"No, and I haven't got a TV, either ... ," murmured the Professor,
as if confessing something awful. "I've never seen a baseball
game."

"I don't believe it!" Root blurted out, nearly shouting.

"I know the rules, though," the Professor said, a bit defensively.
But Root was not to be appeased.

"How can you call yourself a Tigers fan?"

"But I am—a big fan. When I was in college, I went to the library
at lunch to read the sports pages. But I did more than just read
about baseball. You see, no other sport is captured so perfectly by its
statistics, its numbers. I analyzed the data for the Hanshin players,
their batting averages and ERAs, and by tracking the changes, even
miniscule shifts, I could picture the flow of the games in my head."

"And that was fun?"

"Of course it was. Even without the radio, I could keep every
detail fixed in my mind: Enatsu's first victory as a pro in 1967—he
beat the Carp with ten strikeouts; the game in 1973 when he
pitched an extra-innings no-hitter and then hit a walk-off home
run himself." Just at that moment, the announcer on the radio
mentioned the name of the Tigers starting pitcher, Kasai. "So
when is Enatsu scheduled to pitch?" the Professor asked.

"He's a little farther on in the rotation," Root answered without
missing a beat. It surprised me to see him acting so grown-up.
We'd promised that where Enatsu was concerned, we'd do anything
to keep up the illusion. Still, it made us uncomfortable to lie
to the Professor, and it was hard to know whether it was really in
his best interest. But we could not bear to upset him again.

"We can tell him that Enatsu's back in the dugout, or that he's
throwing in the bullpen," Root had said.

Since Enatsu had retired long before Root was born, he'd gone
to the library to find out about him. He learned that he had a career
record of 206 wins, 158 losses, and 193 saves, with 2,987
strikeouts. He'd hit a home run in his second at bat as a pro; he
had short fingers for a pitcher. He'd struck out his great rival, Sadaharu
Oh, more than any other pitcher, but he'd also surrendered
the most home runs to him. In the course of their rivalry, however,
he'd never hit Oh with a pitch. During the 1968 season, he set a
world record with 401 strikeouts, and after the 1975 season (the
year the Professor's memory came to an end), he'd been traded to
the Nankai Hawks.

Root had wanted to know more about Enatsu, so he would seem
more real to
both
of them as they listened to the cheers on the radio.
While I had been struggling with the "homework" problem,
he had been seeing to the Enatsu problem. Then one day, as I was
flipping through a copy of
Baseball Players Illustrated
that he'd
brought home from the library, I was stunned to find a picture of
Enatsu, and see on his uniform the number 28. When he'd graduated
from Osaka Gakuin and joined the Tigers, he'd been offered
the three available numbers: 1, 13, and 28. He'd chosen 28. Enatsu
had played his whole career with a perfect number on his back!

 

That evening, after dinner, we presented our solution. We stood
before the Professor, pen and paper in hand, and bowed.

"This is the problem you gave us," said Root. "Find the sum of
the numbers from 1 to 10 without adding them." He cleared his
throat and then, just as we'd arranged the night before, I held the
notebook while he wrote the numbers 1 to 9 in a line, adding 10
farther down on the page. "We already know the answer. It's 55. I
added them up and that's what I got. But you didn't care about
the answer."

The Professor folded his arms and listened intently, as if hanging
on to Root's every word.

"So we decided to think about 1 to 9 first, and forget about 10
for right now. The number 5 is in the middle, so it's the ...
uh ..."

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