Odometer

— Chris Ames

Carol is trying to remember all the numbers she knows by heart. Well, no. She’s baking a pineapple upside down cake from as close to scratch as you can get without inventing the universe.

Opening the recipe, she skims the first paragraph with her finger looking for what temperature she should set the oven. Upon learning it is, in fact, 350°F, she thinks, “Of course. I knew that.” Shaking her head, Carol lights a match and holds it in the pilot until it makes that delightful sweeping noise, like shaking out a long sheet.

In melting the butter and sprinkling the brown sugar and slicing the pineapple into rings, Carol can’t help but wonder, “Just how much am I holding up there?”

Well, there’s the easy stuff. The ones you jot down in little boxes on government forms to renew your license or file for divorce. Placing cherries in the center of each pineapple ring, Carol hums her address, license plate, and social security.

In a medium bowl, she beats the remaining ingredients with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, whistling her ATM number, bank account balance, and car mileage to the tenth degree.

Scraping the bowl constantly, she sings the phone numbers of her immediate family, computer password at work, and locker combination at the YMCA, where she has been an on-again, off-again member since her last New Year’s resolution.

When Carol was younger, her father would sneak tastes of the cake batter with his finger. A rather squeamish and particular child, she would refuse to eat straight from his hand. Setting the oven to 400°F, her mother would laugh and say, “It’s an acquired taste.” After all these years, Carol still isn’t quite sure she’s learned how to stomach men.

Sampling the mixture with a slim, silver spoon, Carol pours the batter over the pineapples and sets a timer for 60 minutes, otherwise known as an hour. Some numbers do this—be two things at once—and those are harder to remember. So, she recites the variations of her weight, age, and frequency in which she visits her family.

Carol has a coworker, David, who’s a real history buff. He knows the year of everything. Halfway through an accounting meeting, David interrupted the presenter to announce it was, in fact, Bastille Day. His remark hung in the air for a moment, then passed with purposeful silence—the auditory equivalent of flatulence. Everyone went back to crunching the numbers.

It’s not that she doesn’t remember those types of things as well, it’s just that they fall into a category of dull mathematics. Sticking a toothpick into the center of the cake, Carol could list the Trojan War, the signing of the Constitution, or the first few digits of pi, but what would be the point? “Music is the most interesting way to measure time,” she thinks. “I have to remember to tell David that,” then dances a little one-two step.

To know something by heart is to know it so deeply, it’s more an act of feeling than thinking. When asked, “How many times have you been in love?” every number (including zero) is technically correct, even if misremembered.

Knowing something in the gut, on the other hand, is an entirely unreliable method of recall. The stomach is a bed of self-interested living things that will tell you whatever benefits them in that moment. Be it calories, alcohol percentage, building height, or roller coaster speed—never trust a number from the gut.

Carol takes the cake out of the oven, places a heatproof serving plate over the top, and flips the pan upside down in one fluid movement. God knows how many times she’s made this gesture. It’s here that she realizes she’s out of ice cream—a mortal sin. For what is cake if not a vehicle for dairy? Throwing on a coat, she exits her apartment and pops down to the 7/11 to grab a half-pint, counting the 13 steps down the stairs.

She navigates her way through the tight aisles of 3-minute dinners and instant coffee until she gets to the mini fridge at the back. While the cashier rings up the total, she digs through her purse for exact change. On the counter, there’s a small display of energy drinks promising 8-hours of productivity.

“What’s in those things?” she asks, waving off her receipt.

“Mainly ones and zeros,” he says, shooting the paper into the wastebasket behind him.

Outside, the stars push their way through the night fog. At some point, Carol knew the names and distances of some of them. And maybe even something about how the light is already dead or hasn’t arrived yet—but that’s really more of a David thing. Not knowing doesn’t make the night sky any less beautiful.

Just before she enters the lobby of her apartment building, Carol gets a text from her ex-husband, or at least she thinks it’s him. While she doesn’t have it memorized anymore, it’s the only unknown number that texts her. She should know better. Still, she reads it: “do you know what today is?”

To know something inside out is to study it so thoroughly, you could disassemble and reassemble it with ease. It’s relatively easy to take apart a VCR. When it comes time to put it back together, the upper drum assembly and full erase head and supply-spool brake will all still be there as you remember them.

However, it’s impossible to know other people inside out because their insides don’t stay the same. At best, you can know people like the back of a hand. Not your hand, exactly, but perhaps the hands of your barber or dentist.

In the lobby, Carol instinctively goes to check the mail but there’s a problem. The mailboxes all look different. Well, no. It’s rather they all look exactly the same. As she scans the rows of tiny metal cubbies, her specific number seems lost. She motions toward #106—or wait, #109. Is that right? Her left hand starts to go numb from holding the ice cream, so she switches hands and thinks, “Probably just bills anyway.”

On the way up the stairs, Carol counts 12 steps, then stops at the top of the flight. With her phone gently buzzing in her pocket, she heads back down to the lobby, spins around and tries again. This time, she counts aloud to the scritch, scratch, scritch of her worn down slippers rubbing against each carpeted stair. Meanwhile, the ice cream starts to melt. Tiny sheets of ice flake off the lid, and its once-rigid shape begins to soften in her grip.

Feeling a dull wave of anxiety she hasn’t experienced since taking the SATs, Carol thinks, “If there are 13 stairs, how many steps are you actually taking? The last stair is technically just the beginning of the next floor, so does that count? Or—”

There were many tension points in Carol’s marriage, but perhaps none more salient than the act of cooking. No matter how simple the recipe, her ex managed to translate every dish into a poorly plated, smoldering disk of gray nothingness. Coming from Great Depression-era parents, Carol would still clean her plate, but she couldn’t help the twisted expressions that streaked across her face while eating.

“What did I do wrong?” he’d ask.

“Well, if you can count, you can bake,” Carol would say. “Cooking, on the other hand, is more about feeling.”

“So, what should I do?”

“Stick to baking.”

The hallway to Carol’s apartment has never seemed more unremarkable. The pattern on the carpet, a sort of casino floor plaid, stretches on forever, only occasionally interrupted by a faded welcome mat or dehydrated fern. Every twenty feet or so, there is a door with a unit number, doorbell, and peephole. Instead of feeling at home, Carol is overwhelmed by something closer to déjà vu. “Have I been here before?” she thinks, before brushing away the lunacy of a thought like that.

She glides from door to door, examining each unit number as if they were arranged in a police lineup. Nothing looks familiar. As the ice cream turns to soup in her hand, she hums her credit score, blood pressure, and favorite lotto numbers. The cake has undoubtedly cooled by now, but Carol hopes that by placing her nose close to each door, she might be able to detect the sweet notes of brown sugar or the warm, slightly fermented tinge of pineapple wafting from within.

If she had brought her wallet, she might just read her address off her driver’s license. Technically, she could knock on the landlord’s door and ask for help—but that would require facing a fact so plainly absurd it might break her to say it aloud. Even worse, she’s not certain she remembers (or if she ever knew) where he lives. Carol reaches the dead end of the hall and its collection of fire extinguishers and utility closets. Anxiety creeps into her body, and suddenly something as lighthearted as ice cream feels inappropriate. She pours the lukewarm goop into the base of a fern, where it pools and bubbles atop the dead dirt.

To know something cold is to know it with such mechanical precision, you nearly strangle the life out of it. One would never wish to know everything this way, but there are some cases—Is the door locked? Is the oven on? What time did you come home last night? Why didn’t you answer your phone?—in which the icy sting of clarity feels like relief.

To know a thing or two is a complete misdirection. In a gesture of false modesty, an individual greatly underestimates their expertise on a topic, proving their intelligence by way of negation. In saying they only know two things, they’re really saying they know everything. The punchline is that they couldn’t possibly be wrong. The joke, if there is one, is on you. It’s an awful phrase, and seemingly all the men in Carol’s life use it.

A thing or two about cooking. A thing or two about love. A thing or two about accounts receivable.

For a moment, Carol considers the unread phone in her pocket. If she were to text her ex, “come over,” the sad thing is he probably would. Maybe seeing something as familiar and well-trodden as the pale slab of his face would jog her memory. She knew who she was when they were together—she just didn’t like that person. But here, at the end of the night, she’s not sure what other options she has.

Carol hits send. Then, very calmly, very professionally, opens the utility closet and climbs inside. Leaving it open a sliver, she’ll wait for her ex and observe which door he knocks on. At that point, she can either ignore him until he leaves, or follow him inside and ride his body around the kitchen. On the idea of sex, her mind lingers for a moment. She doesn’t mind the real live action of it—the spit, the sweat, or the sound that comes from two bodies meeting, a bit like the hull of a ship slapping against the tide—but she knows the score. It won’t end there.

Hunched in the dark, she whispers her grade point average, apartment square footage, and the time she was born: 11:32 pm on a Tuesday. There’s a woman in Carol’s office named Kelly who’s convinced that your hour of birth determines your character. This same person keeps crystals on her desk and claims she’s allergic to yellow foods. Behind closed doors, Kelly is interchangeably referred to as the “dumbest smart person” and “smartest dumb person” in the office. If she weren’t so maniacally good at accounting, she would have been fired years ago. On her very first day, Carol said, “I’m just going to take a quick 15-minute break,” to which Kelly replied, “You can’t take a fast or slow 15-minute break. It’s always going to be exactly 15 minutes.” And just like that, Carol knew everything she needed to know about her.

“Some people,” Carol thinks, staring through the illuminated slit of the utility closet, “they misplace the sky counting clouds.”

Ten minutes pass, then fifteen, and all at once, Carol realizes how tired she is. It’s like the gravity has suddenly been turned up, with the full weight of the day now depressing upon her. Adjusting her position, she slumps between a shrine of fast acting, long lasting cleaning products. A translucent, hairless spider works its way across her hand, but she’s too exhausted to react. Even as it bites the loose, pink skin between her thumb and index finger, she doesn’t flinch. She has no appetite left for panic; she gives everything she has to watchkeeping.

Carol believes she hears footsteps, maybe even the sound of a door being knocked, or possibly opened, but she can’t be sure. As her conscious mind unspools into sleep, she grasps at a thought. “I was supposed to tell David something—”

In a series of fits and jerks, she loses her grip on the last known thread of the day.


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