A Deceptively Simple Word Problem by Samuel Rafael Barber

Random short fiction 20.11.5, from Green Mountains Reviewhere’s the link.

Fiction as thought experiment: it’s nice to see someone else going in for this sort of thing. I appreciate the tell-don’t-show expository narrative, the abstraction of fictional components into variables and algorithms, the exploration of hypotheticals and conditionals and alternative futures and other counteractuals.

The person called “You” waits at the bench for the simultaneous arrivals of Trains A and B. They won’t just pass each other without stopping; both trains are expected to stop long enough to let passengers board — it’s a scheduled stop. You must live near this stop, the temporal midpoint between both termini, between station N’s banal urbanity and the outermost edge of civilization at station M. Maybe there are other intermediate stops. Does You live in suburbia, exurbia, smalltownia, ruralia? Are these intermediate positions rejected as mere compromises, places without qualities, each characterized only by its relative positioning on the linear continuum between pure city and pure wilderness? Being neither hot nor cold do You and the fiancé spew these mediocrities out of their mouths?

Maybe A and B aren’t the only two trains to stop here, running their perpetual relay between the same two endpoints. Maybe another train stops here as well, heading in some direction along another vector, its termini representing extreme values of some other variable besides city/wilderness. I’ve navigated these mid-course transfers often enough on European railroads to have lost at least some of the anticipatory anxiety of finding myself lugging my luggage along the platform in futile pursuit of my connection as it eases away on down the tracks. Maybe You is sitting at a bench in some Grand Central Station, with scores of trains arriving and departing every hour, heading to anywhere from everywhere.

Choice. You’s fiancé rides aboard Train A, originating at Station M. Did he change his mind about living at the outermost edge of civilization? Couldn’t he disembark, meet You on the platform, both returning on Train B to station M? Couldn’t both give urban banality a try? If someday they decide they don’t like it then they can buy a couple of tickets for Train B and head back together to the wilderness or to one of the intermediate stops, or else veer off on a different track entirely.

Fate. Both the A train and the B train stop at You’s location in precisely two hours. Presumably they run on the same schedule every day. You could wait until next week to decide which one to board, or next month. However, You’s fiancé rides Train A only on this particular day; this is the day when, in two hours, two lines of Fate are destined to merge into a temporary node, a singularity, a portal. And hasn’t You already decided by agreeing to marry; isn’t that why the fiancé is riding to meet You here in two hours, locked onto a particular course determined by You’s decision? Is this the problem with any decision, that once it’s made You’d like to take it back, as if it had never been made, as if all routes remain open to You as pure potential, sitting on the bench reading a story?

What if, unbeknownst to You, the fiancé changed his mind and Train A pulled out of Station M without him? Now You changes her mind about meeting the fiancé and gets aboard Train B, pulling in at Station M in 1 hour and 43 minutes. Stopping at the café near station M before heading out into the wilderness, You spots the fiancé in a booth having a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie.



2 thoughts on “A Deceptively Simple Word Problem by Samuel Rafael Barber

  1. Editing a passage in something I’ve written, a fiction:

    The Hamlet Syndrome – she’d read about it but she wasn’t sure if, once the fateful moment arrived, she would be able to overcome it. So many of her schoolmates had decided that the sheer act of deciding was what mattered most. Do something; do anything! Get off the sidelines and into the game! Take a stand, then forward march! Work on raising the minimum wage, build factories in India, run a homeless shelter, sell mortgage-backed securities – it doesn’t matter what you do; it matters that you do.


  2. A subsequent passage in the edit:

    “Or maybe two people starting at opposite sides of an open-air marketplace, winding their way through the crowd trying to find each other.” He dunked the teabags and carried the mugs back over to the comfy chair area of the Salon where he and Yeats were sitting.
    “One of them is traveling at two miles an hour, while the other…”


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