Fiction Issue - FIRST PLACE: What Have I Done to You That You Beat Me These Three Times?

A donkey turns out to be a real smart ass

Like every great tragedy in Barker's life, this one had started out as a way to make easy money, and wound up in much the same fashion, glancing the surface and yet never fully penetrating the crooked man's better conscience.

In the 30s, he'd spent 40 days at the county jail for stealing an entire flock of chickens from a neighboring farm. He was apprehended red-handed only hours later, after foolishly returning for a bag of feed. A later stint as the assistant to a roving band of pickpockets had ended up costing him money, when the three lean men suddenly turned against him in an alley one night near Savannah.

His final attempt at a life of crime, a foray into the traveling sale of medicinal spirits, had landed him first in the drunk tank, when he made salacious advances toward a park bench in broad daylight, and later in front of the judge, when an entire ladies auxiliary guild in Madison went temporarily blind from the noxious liquid he was peddling.

Some years ago, Barker had been reduced to going straight, scratching an honest living out of the impossible patch of Georgia clay left to him by his impossible patch of a Georgian father, god rest his soul, the son of a bitch. And yet some inner aspect of the man, at once reflected and reinforced by the ever-hardening angle of his jaw, inevitably bristled against the strictures of decency and lawfulness, driving him ever onward in pursuit of that which he believed was rightfully his: the dollars in strange men's pockets, the coins in ladies' purses. The thing he resented mostly was his having to ask for it at all.

What he needed this time around was a scheme that would sell itself, do the work for him. Something legal, something clean he could charge people to see. Something people didn't even know they wanted to see, until they found out they might be charged for the privilege of seeing it. Something with an element of showmanship.

Unable to transcend his own brutish nature, Barker was soon working out an idea which essentially amounted to armed robbery, when the plow he was steering suddenly collided with a rock, causing both himself and his weather-beaten donkey to fall in tandem to their knees against the earth.

"Stupid jackass!" he spat, and then laughed, in case it had been clever.

The animal snorted with displeasure through its wide nostrils, and struggled to dislodge itself from the collapsing soil underfoot. In doing so, the donkey struck its hoof three times against the rock.

1 ... 2 ... 3 ...

Barker froze in place, his face suddenly acquiring a far-off blankness, an involuntary slackening around the eyes and mouth that indicated an internal disconnection from the larger world. In these moments, he was like a morphine addict being handed a fresh prescription.

Barker had a plan.

He'd heard the men conversing once in the barbershop on the square, going on and on about a horse on foreign soil who was astonishing the learned and unlearned men of Europe alike with its indisputable powers of mental conjuring and arithmetic. Barker's donkey had to be as smart as any other farm animal, and excelled at stomping, that much was clear.

"Hey donkey!" The donkey looked suspiciously over its shoulder, as Barker laughed at his own genius. "What's one plus one plus one?" He calculated in his head until he arrived at the answer a few moments later, and then chuckled again, assured of his coming success.

The beast of burden stopped abruptly in its tracks, neither looking forward nor back, nor side to side, its ears twitching thoughtfully, as if lost in concentration.

"Go on, get!" Barker shouted, giving the animal a sharp kick in the gut. He was eager to start sorting out the specifics of his latest ploy. The donkey shook his head violently, as if letting go of some sudden, hopeless aspiration. Together, they finished plowing the field, Barker laughing quietly to himself all the while, the donkey plodding constantly forward, already moving, albeit unknowingly, in the direction of his fate.

That night, Barker calculated the figures. The startup costs would be minimal. All he really needed was to do was give the donkey a good once-over with a stiff-bristled brush, and paint a bright red banner with the words: Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, Professor of Mathematics. Barker barely remembered how to count to 10, and signed his checks with a mere approximation of handwriting, but was undeniably possessed of a finely articulated passion for wealth, and the relentless acquisition thereof. In that, he was expert.

Besides, he figured, the donkey would do the rest.

After giving some thought to the relative teachability of a donkey, Barker set to work training the poor beast, day in and day out, until together they had arrived upon a shared vocabulary of subtle gesture, rhythmic stomping, and mutual disdain. In a few short weeks, Barker felt confident that the animal's abilities were more than sufficient for public demonstration, and resolved to follow the smell of money wherever it should lead them.

The act they had worked out involved Barker reciting a question at random from a list of equations, which he had solved in advance with the help of a slide rule, and both sets of fingers and toes. The donkey would begin slowly tapping its heavy hoof, 1 ... 2 ... 3 ..., until it reached the correct answer. It was Barker's job to then discretely lower one eyebrow, twice lick his lips, and wiggle his left hip in a counterclockwise fashion. This was the donkey's unmistakable cue to stop counting.

"Step right up, step right up," he crooned, having set up shop in the town square of Milledgeville, an easy mark, to be sure, Barker reckoned. His brief stint as a snake oil salesman had left the man with a lingering taste for the spotlight, not to mention a surprising knack for elocution and public speaking. In no time, he had drummed up a group of curious head-scratchers, ready to witness the uncanny calculations of this most mysterious Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, Professor of Mathematics.

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," Barker began most assuredly, passing his hat into the crowd. He then described in rapturous detail the doctor's many unique attributes, his unparalleled facility with numbers, his patriotic service during the Great War, his private audiences with kings and queens. As in all of life, lying was of very little consequence here. Already, Barker could hear the coins piling up in his chapeau.

The routine was the same in every town. Barker charmed the assembled audience with his polished stage presence, and the great Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, representing progress and intellect, stomped the people free, with his mighty hoof of knowledge, from the shackles of their disbelief.

"What's one plus two?" Barker might ask. Or, "How many times does two go into six?" Or, more impressive still, "What's left if you take 12 from 15?"

Without fail, Dr. Hawthorne would begin tapping, 1 ... 2 ..., and, just as he reached the correct answer, 3 ..., the man would begin his series of spastic movements, and the donkey would stop tapping and return his feet to their neutral position. The townspeople oohed and aahed, and there was much clapping and shaking of hands all around. And much handing over of money.

The two went on like this for some time, each quietly carrying out his end of the bargain, though with gradually waning concern for the other. Barker spent his evenings in pursuit of steak dinners and loose women, while Dr. Hawthorne frequently found himself tied up outside, alone with his thoughts. Still, he managed to derive some pleasure from the performances themselves, and this proved to be reward enough for the donkey, as effective a carrot on a stick as the equally effective, actual carrot on a stick the man used to guide themselves from town to town.

No matter where they went, they encountered no shortage of fools willing to accept as fact the falsified mental acuity of a mangy farm animal, and more importantly, willing to part with their money in order to do so. By the time they reached Macon, Barker could have done the show in his sleep, and so he would never have anticipated that a vulgar woman in floral print might suddenly cry out from the back of the crowd, bringing the performance to a screeching halt.

"How do we know it ain't no trick?"

"What?" Barker replied, caught quite off guard.

"How do we know it ain't no trick if you're the one what asks all the questions?" The crowd fell silent, awaiting Barker's response.

"Well — he's used to my voice, is all." He began to sweat.

"I say hogwash!" the woman continued, every eye in the world seeming to shift back and forth between man and animal.

"Alright, fine then!" Barker threw his hands up. "But I warn you—" He felt his bottom lip begin to quiver. "—a donkey can only know so much math!"

"Professor Hawthorne," the woman said, rushing forward as if to request the blessing of a minister. "What's the square root of nine?"

The doctor cocked his head to one side, and held it there for some time, quite obviously thrown off by the question.

"Well, go on then!" a voice shouted.

"Is ya good at math or ain't ya?" came another.

Dr. Hawthorne sighed, shook his head, and began to stomp.

1 ...

Barker knew exactly how this would play out. Without his command to stop, the donkey was sure to go on tapping forever. But how could he give the signal, when he hadn't even an educated guess as to what the phrase "square root" might imply?

2 ...

Once he was exposed and humiliated, the crowd would undoubtedly turn on him, ashamed at having been so easily deceived, and hell-bent on getting back their stolen money. They would close in on him from all sides, their voices rising, their eyes flashing with vengeance.

3 ...

He pressed his hands to his face, steadying himself for the series of blows that was sure to follow. In some ways, he'd always known this was how he would meet his unhappy end, at the hands of a violent, cheated mob of otherwise peaceful townspeople in one small Georgia place or another. In some ways, he felt awash with relief.

What Barker heard next was nothing. Silence. Dr. Hawthorne had stopped tapping of his own volition, and stood awaiting his next question. No one there actually knew the right answer, or how a square root might affect a number, and so everyone looked expectantly to the vulgar woman who, after a moment's reckoning in her own head, did proclaim, "I swanny, Dr. Hawthorne's done it again!"

The citizens of Macon cheered and applauded as they never before had for a farm animal, or at least in the last few weeks, and the mayor himself was heard to say, "Why, I do declare this donkey to be the genuine article!"

Barker was relieved, and yet, again, something inside him withdrew. He watched, still exhilarated by the terror that had filled him only moments prior, as the throng crowded around Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, draping him with a sash that read "Smart-Ass" and toasting him with horse-apple pies. The man retrieved his money-filled hat, and slipped away to count its contents in private.

That evening, Barker quietly entered the woodshed where Dr. Hawthorne was staying.

"I guess you showed me up pretty good today, donkey."

Dr. Hawthorne exhaled nervously and glanced back at the man, who wavered unsteadily in his place, his hands tucked behind his back. He couldn't decide if the man planned to praise or punish, and so prepared himself for the worst. Instead, without another word, the man tossed a heavy textbook onto the straw, and left.

Advances in Mathematics, Volume 4.

Dr. Hawthorne later regarded this as a defining moment in his life, during which his present and potential selves snapped into perfect alignment, beckoning him toward a predetermined future. He cautiously nudged open the book. Page after page was filled with an alien language of symbols and figures, each perfect conclusion leading to the next, in an elegant, interconnected chain of arguments both solved and unresolved. He settled into a hay-strewn corner with the book, fully committed to unraveling the mysteries of this strange text laid out before him like a puzzle.

What Dr. H.E. Hawthorne lacked in opposable thumbs, he more than made up for in sheer ambition. The same kind of obsessive, single-minded drive and clarity of purpose as has fueled nearly every scientific discovery and artistic contribution since time immemorial. Within a few short months, he had devoured every volume in the series, numbered four through infinity. He memorized obscure theorems and solved exceedingly complex equations in his head, before stomping them out on the ground.

1 ... 2 ... 3 ...

As he grew more and more adept in his subject, the demands of Dr. Hawthorne's touring and lecturing schedule likewise intensified. He had gone from seedy street corner demonstrations to respectable town hall forums, where he would submit himself to questioning by whichever local math whiz the county had to offer.

"What's 6,429 times eight?"

Without hesitation, Dr. Hawthorne would begin stomping his hoof, in time to the unstoppable beat of evolution. Four hours later, he would have tapped out the correct answer, 51,432, much to the astonishment and wonder of the crowd, who conceded with applause that the donkey was, in fact, the genuine article, and hurried home with the idea of teaching the family cat some basic addition and subtraction.

After touring extensively through the state that fall, Dr. Hawthorne was named "Georgia's Most Promising Mathematician," and was awarded an honorary degree from the technological institute in Atlanta, thereby solidifying his doctoral status, as well as his pre-eminence in the field of theoretical calculations, invisible numbers, and that ever-elusive Haygood Theorem.

Having considered it from every angle, the man realized he had no choice but to follow the academic position being offered his companion. After all, it was an Ivy League appointment, and the salary was more than they'd ever earn on tour. And so they moved North, where the weather is harsh and extreme, and the people even more so. Neither the climate nor the locals agreed much with the man. Dr. Hawthorne, on the other hand, found himself engaged and invigorated by these conditions, and was mostly thankful he no longer had to perform in public, for the uneducated, inebriated masses. Rather, he was encouraged by the university to go deep within himself, to follow his own interests, to perform, for the first time in his life, for his own benefit, and by extension, for the benefit of Western civilization as a whole.

The professor's determination and focus sharpened, even as the influence of his companion receded farther into the background. It was clear by now that the man was no longer a helper, adviser, confidant to the doctor, but rather, someone who had given him a crucial bit of assistance at a significant moment in his life, and whom he had formally surpassed over the course of his sudden, meteoric rise to fame. Sometimes they would go days, weeks without seeing each other. Still, even in his more sympathetic moments, Dr. Hawthorne couldn't let himself feel guilty for the distance between them. He was close, very close, to solving the Haygood Theorem, which would demonstrate for once and for all the mathematical reasoning behind the relative goodness of hay, and simultaneously assure his promotion to tenured professor. He was so close he could taste it.

After teaching back-to-back seminars in Donklidean geometry, Dr. Hawthorne dismissed with the flick of an ear the coterie of adoring graduate students who hung on his every stomp, and hurried back to the abandoned potting shed near the mathematics building, which served as his office. Just another few nights, and he would finally arrive at the solution. Heck, it could be tonight, if he got a good rhythm going.

He just had to keep pushing, keep plodding forward.

It reminded him of all those years spent pulling the plow on that tiny plot of Georgia soil. How far he had come since that difficult time, when he was forced to rely entirely on his body as a means of interacting with the world around him. How different his lot appeared, free as he now was to conjure entire civilizations of numbers, and then beat them with his hoof into being.

The light burned brightly in the potting shed where Dr. Hawthorne worked and slept. Naturally, he would still be up, prepping the next day's lessons, grading exams, conducting his own scholarly work. The man could hear the grunting and tapping of an animal galloping in place toward the future.

"Are you stayin' up much later?" the man suddenly spoke, breaking the meditative silence into which the professor had fallen. His breath was shaky and uneven, a dead giveaway of trouble, had Dr. Hawthorne been paying attention to the subtle visual cues which had gotten them both into this position in the first place.

"Ain't you even gonna look at me?"

Dr. Hawthorne could smell the liquor hanging on the man's lips, and so shook his head dismissively and returned to his work, a habit which the professor had recently acquired, and which infuriated his former friend. The man slowly lifted the shovel from its place against the shed wall and, concealing it behind his back like an offering, approached the good professor, already regretting each step as he took it and yet knowing there could only be one solution to this particular problem. He raised the blunt instrument high into the air, and began to count.

1 ... 2 ... 3 ...

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