What Smith Knows

(First published in Far Enough East – Issue 6 – Fall 2014)

Smith took the subway to work. During the ride, he’d pick out a single woman. He would imagine that he was her fiduciary. Or accountant.

A young woman made her way to the back of the car where Smith sat. She timed a practiced stutter-step to the sway of the car, swinging from pole to pole.

Smith sat clasping his briefcase with crossed arms. He knew that, statistically, this would attract the most women to his seat. The young woman settled in next to him.


She was petite, and pretty. She had long, flaxen hair, like a crow’s back.  He’d glimpsed her eyes, dark and wide, between a thin, upturned nose, a mole to one side.

Beauty mark.

She had bangs. They did not make her look as young as Smith expected, though she was at least five years his junior.

The young woman took a tablet out and settled it onto the bag on her lap. Smith knew that if he was not there, she would not have exposed the device to the public so. That, and the way he held his briefcase, was why she’d chosen to sit next to him.

From one glimpse, Smith could see that she was editing a photograph of another young, and very pretty woman, sitting on a beach alongside a small child. The woman had dreads, and they hung down and alongside the child like a cape. Both were smiling.

The woman in the picture had a tattoo of prominent scales on her calf, some highlighted in a keen, emerald green. Was she a mermaid? Did she beach herself to give birth? Or was she abducting this human child? Daytona Beach? Gilgo?

The young woman next to Smith was adjusting the color of the ocean in the background. She tapped on a toolbar and brought up a histogram. She made adjustments. She took a long look at the results of each change she made.

Color temperature.

The woman in the seat next to Smith smelled nice. He wondered how often a young woman just like her, a professional with a graphics background or artistic talents, with raven hair and bangs, who smelled nice, and was her age, had travelled alone on this line, and busied herself with the work she carried on her lap. Statistically speaking, considering the age of the IRT, it was in the hundreds of thousands.

They were alone in the car now. Though their 118 companions were still in view, they made no sound. The rumble of the car’s undercarriage faded. The whiff of the third rail’s ozone mingled with the sharp, plastic-seated sweat of humanity and a century’s tunnel grime withered and just the scant lavender notes of her perfume breathed into the space they shared.

Smith’s fondest pastime was calculations in a variant of his own creation of an area of statistics called dynamical systems. These expressed the time dependence of a point in geometric space.

He was intrigued with the idea of how many people who ever lived, and how many occupied the exact place on earth that others had. He was one of 7 billion people alive right now, but over 108 billion had lived before him. That much Smith knew.

He had a regular dream in which he was floating just above the streetlights on Broadway. Below, shoulder to shoulder and just a half step apart, row upon row of people, millions in view, marched from out of the horizon. The rows disappeared evenly ahead in the distance like corn before the reel of a harvester.

Sometimes, the people shared a common aspect. Millions of upholsterers. Or plumbers. Or homemakers. He called it ‘vita in loco’ from what his concept of Latin meant ‘life in place’. It was a nonsensical theory, he knew this. But a single life had a value, however infinitesimal, whenever lived.

He liked the Virgil quote on the ‘Heart Stones’ for sale in the museum at Ground Zero: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

The stones were $39.00 each. The sight of them had made him uncomfortable but the clerk at the counter had kind eyes. Smith imagined that the work environment there was ennobling, and the clerk’s kind eyes suggested that the museum’s management was principled. The cruel calculus of these ventures demanded steady and robust funding, and he allowed that statistically, without contributions beyond his single entrance fee, the place, like the towers, was doomed. The kind-eyed management got the profit from the sale, but at least he got a rock. After his visit to the museum, he took it to the Esplanade and carefully dropped it into the Hudson in the waning light.

Smith also knew, logically, that he had no chance with the young woman next to him. That was fine, as he’d long before grown accustomed to the long odds against such encounters. For the moment, he just enjoyed her nearness, the glimpses at her work.

She did not know that she, in turn, had glanced at his phone as he’d busied himself with a puzzle. She liked the title, ‘Regress to the Mean’. Smith did not know the young woman missed her father, a career statistician.

At Canal, the young woman left. A young man paused in front of the open seat. He was white, with dreads remarkably like those of the young woman in the photograph. Smith considered the dreads.

Statistical anomaly

“This taken?” the young man asked pointing to the seat.

There was a post-it note, certainly left by the young woman.

“Oh, go ahead,” Smith offered, taking the note. On it was a phone number and a woman’s name.

Later that day, when he called the number, it rang at the Maintenance office of the George Washington bridge.


Smith knows now, however, that the young woman’s name was hers.


(Photo by the author)