I'm on my way into the post office to mail off a love letter, when a name on a black-bordered funeral announcement tacked to the bulletin board sponsored by a local mortuary catches my eye. There's still time to make it to Ben's memorial service, but I choose instead to stroll to the edge of town, to the peeling farmhouse where the founder and lone follower of Ben Buddhism used to soak up his share of sun.
A few chickens peck disconsolately at some scratch among the scraggly weeds in the yard, eyed by a weary mare who remains in her pen, untethered, even though many of the rails are missing and she could easily step right out. Perhaps the sight of so many lawns depresses her. As the rotten old farmhouse has been slowly slipping back into the earth, new ranch-style homes on concrete slabs have been sprouting up, like boletus mushrooms after the first rain. Unlike the mushrooms, which prefer the shade and acid soil under evergreens, the houses require the removal of the trees before proper germination can take place. Nothing obstructs the view down the road to the fat white feather of steam billowing above the squat lumber mill, perched on a cliff beside the sea, half a mile away.
I climb the treacherous steps up to the porch where Ben sat in the same place every afternoon there was sun, leaning back on two legs of his stool. Winter and summer, he wore the same coat, a faded fake suede job with a collar of matted fur. He buttoned it up to his leathery gizzard and watched the housewives in Spandex out power-walking to keep their figures, immobile except for an occasional blink of his hooded eyes.
"No doubt about it," he said to me once, "a zero's the thing to be."
It's easy to find Ben's favorite spot. There are two scars dug into the boards of the porch by the stool's legs. I match up the legs and scars, sit down, tilt the stool back and rest my spine against the wall.
"You can roll. Any place you stop is as good as any other place. You have no top to worry about, no bottom. Your end is your beginning. Can one say that? Can two?"
According to Ben, people were in awe of the big, but without zero, they couldn't count past nine. Those bigger numbers were unable to keep track of themselves, lost their footing. Without zero, the speedometer needle would have nowhere to go when the car was motionless, water would have no idea when it should turn into ice.
A woman in headphones appears, one Ben surely would've pointed out to me as a "looker," a "9, or at least an 8.5," her shock of honey-blond hair tamed by a rainbow headband. She clutches small barbells in her fists, pumping them in time to her workout music. She doesn't glance in my direction. She probably doesn't know that the crackpot old coot of a farmer has passed away, that his lizard eyes are no longer leering at her as she jogs past.
I imagine zeroes mating. A zero lying on another zero makes an eight. As soon as the guardians of morality realize how obscene eight is, it'll be banned. Special chips will be installed in televisions to prevent minors from seeing naked eights. Decks of cards will be bowdlerized, children no longer able to play Crazy Eights on rainy afternoons.
After a while, eight will topple over from lack of support. A fallen eight makes infinity. Then the censors will learn from some Kama Sutra of zeroes that they can also mate side by side, as well as in missionary position, and infinity will also be banished.
The zeroes will go underground, live in catacombs like the early Christians. They'll go down, if not forth, and multiply. Gradually, the world will become depopulated, for no matter what number a zero chooses for a mate, the product is always zero. And when threes and fours and all the others are extinct species, zeroes will come out of their hiding places and inherit the earth.
"But how do you get to be a zero?" I wanted to know.
"Simple subtraction," was the answer the sage of nothingness gave. "You lose things."
At first you lost the usual things, like a hat or a heart, a watch or money on the stock market. Some might even be found again. Ben, for example, lost his virginity and a laundry ticket on a blind date. Months later, when he discovered the ticket in a girlie magazine, he went to reclaim his shirts, which had way too much starch in the collars. His neck broke out in a rash. Flakes of skin peeled off.
Then, according to the unwritten scriptures of Ben Buddhism, you begin losing more unusual items. Your childhood, say. It happens while you're graduating high school or marrying a girl cute as a button or burying your parents. You forget the time your pants fell down in a dream and you refused to leave for school until your mother punched a hole in your belt to make it tighter. No chuckling over that one now. It's gone.
But you're not a zero yet. Losing things still upsets you. High and low you hunt for your childhood, up in the rafters of the barn, down by the slough, under an apple tree. The fruit looks suspicious. If you hadn't already lost your childhood, you might recall the afternoon you ate so many green apples your parents thought your wicked tummy ache was appendicitis and rushed you to the doctor.
You press on with your search, growing more frantic the more you look. You think maybe you catch a glimmer of your childhood in a corn stalk. What if an ear of corn kidnapped your childhood and is holding it for ransom? Silk by silk, kernel by kernel, you tear the ear apart, right down to the cob. It never confesses.
"One potato, two potato, three potato, four," it says. "Three potato, two potato, one potato, none."
Your wife hears the corn counting up your losses in the barnyard and thinks you've lost your wits.
The bliss of zero, however, is still a long way off. You still want the missing to return, the wonder drugs to work. You still have to pull up in your driveway one day, your mind on other things, only to discover that a vagrant cloud made off with the best years of your life while you were out scouting for your childhood. You roam fields of wheat, accusing the sky. In the meantime, your wife runs off with a slick sewing machine salesman.
"Finders keepers, losers weepers," drones the cloud.
About that time, you finally realize that sooner or later, everything is bound to turn up missing -- childhood, a favorite cat, a wife, a fence post, a doughnut hole, a taste for oysters. They're like the breadcrumbs those incurably deluded optimists Hansel and Gretel left behind in the forest. You knock off early for the day. You sit on a stool out on your front porch. You rock yourself, gently, as if you were a baby in a cradle.
The jogger in headphones returns, running in the other direction, gliding by in long, graceful strides. Roses have bloomed on her cheeks. A cascade of bright hair has shaken itself loose from the headband. From this angle, it's clear that Ben would have to use one of his precious zeroes on her, give her a "10," if he were still here, rocking back and forth, sucking on his empty pipe, wondering what happened to the pouch of tobacco he's sure he put in his shirt pocket.
The plume of steam from the mill blushes in the rays of the setting sun. The smell of meat barbecuing drifts across Ben's yard. The chickens potter back to the chicken house, and the horse, munching oats at a trough, stares fixedly at nothing.
Or maybe it's not nothing, but strangers dressed in the black capes of shadows arriving to pack up the last of the light. They fold up the light in the yard into neat little bundles and tuck it away in an invisible box. Then they make their way towards the porch. When I get up to leave, I bump my head on the lid of night they're pulling down over the earth. The horse whinnies.
"Nope," I can hear Ben saying, "the old gray mare never was what she used to be."