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voodoo euclid

by Michael Kandel


Brains and jocks, in any high school, I guess, share this mutual contempt and maybe mutual envy, but from a distance always, since they don't associate. I'll tell you how they associated once, two years ago, at Madison. A brain and a jock happened to be in love with the same girl, Mary McPhee, and maybe I was a little in love with her myself. She sang Sandy in Grease and had this wonderful bouncy hair.

Now usually when a brain and a jock square off, it's over in a second, right? Mesomorph football player creams ectomorph who is holding books and wearing thick glasses. But Barry Finster, that's the brain, turned the tables on John Peterson, our track and tennis star. He accomplished this with plane geometry.

It was my fault, I guess, using the phrase "love triangle." Barry was complaining to me that if he talked to Mary, she always stopped listening when John came by. I'm not a brain myself, but Barry would confide in me because I'm more of a string bean than he is and gawkier, almost seven feet tall, from my pituitary problem. If I'm not careful in doorways, I bang my head. So when I said "triangle," he got this funny look. Of course, brains are always getting funny looks in the middle of conversations, since they don't have social skills.

Next day, Barry is acting furtive, so I follow him and see him making a mark with a pencil here and there in the school. I go up to one mark and find it's a letter of the alphabet, a capital A, a D, that kind of thing. Some of the letters are primed. Barry also writes on a piece of paper that he sneaks into Mary's looseleaf binder and then another into John's jacket pocket when they aren't paying attention.

Barry catches me watching him and tells me, off in a corner, smugly, that he was up half the night studying theorems and figured out an amazing fact about coordinates and relationships. He chuckles like Igor, mutters, makes three dots in the air, and says, "QED."

Anyway, John Peterson starts having a problem with his location; he's on his way to the cafeteria for lunch but ends up in the boiler room, for example. He's puzzled, and it's strange to see puzzlement on that handsome, confident face. After a while he's ragged and dazed, like a white rat in a mean experiment.

Then he's horizontal when he should be vertical, or at an angle, and at the worst times. I look for Barry and see him making those three dots in the air behind everybody's back. Before you know it, John's home sick or seeing a shrink, and Barry is talking to Mary more successfully.

I did some thinking and went up to Barry after school, Friday, and told him I'd report this to Mr. Green if he didn't stop, because it was an unethical use of mathematics. He gave me an Igor look.

In American History the following Monday I stood up to answer a question about the Louisiana Purchase and was a dwarf, flapping around in my clothes. The bastard had made me half myself, three feet and change, maybe that's bisection in geometry, I don't know. It was so embarrassing.

I got Barry to change me back by promising to keep my mouth shut, which I did, not wanting my coordinates and relationships messed with anymore, but I can talk about it now that Barry's gone off the college, MIT.

You have to be careful with brains, I learned. They fight dirty.


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Michael Kandel is a translator of Stanislaw Lem (e.g., The Cyberiad, Fiasco), an at-large editor for Harcourt (e.g., James Morrow, Ursula K. Le Guin), and an author (e.g., Captain Jack Zodiac, Panda Ray). He is currently translating "one helluva bravura novella" by the young Polish writer Jacek Dukaj: The Iron General. Kandel works 9 to 5 at the Modern Language Association, dealing with squinting modifiers, dangling participles, unclear antecedents, and faulty noun-verb agreement.

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