Essays and Stories by Rachel Fain

Base 12

By Rachel Fain

I woke up this morning thinking about base 12. Base 12 sounds like a pulpy sci-fi book or a wilderness way station. It could be a hot new band or a cool new restaurant. A plot twist on “Lost.” A haute cosmetic line. But base 12 is not any of these things.

Base 12 is a mathematical concept.

Yes, I woke up this morning thinking about math. I’ve always liked math, I confess. I was so pleased after high school; I wouldn’t have to take any more math, ever again. That lasted one semester. I missed it. I missed math.

Anyway. I guess I still miss it sometimes. This is further evidence, as if any were needed, that I am my father’s daughter. Dad is a Math Person. When I was in school, I’d call him from my desk at home, while doing my math homework. He would explain to me, not just how to do it, but why it worked that way. I remember describing to him in meticulous detail the complex Venn diagram I was trying to decode. I remember the excitement as it all became clear.

So what is base 12? Well, the numbers we use daily are in base 10. We count from 0-9 in the “ones” place; then we move to the “tens,” which allows us to count to 99. The third place over is called “hundreds.” We use base 10 without thinking about it.

Computers use base 2, binary numbers. I first learned about binary code at the science museum in Boston. There was an exhibit about… computers, I guess. I have no idea what it was about. All I remember is a backlit black panel with white lettering. It explained base 2. At 7 or 8 years old, it was a bit confusing, but Dad helped me understand, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Here is what I learned: In base 2, you can only use “0” and “1.” When you reach 2 you must move over a place. Thus in base 2:

0 = 0                This is pretty straightforward.

1 = 1                Easy, right?

2 = 10              With only “0”s and “1”s at our disposal, we’ve gone as high as we can in

the “ones” column, so we move over to the “twos.”

3 = 11              One in the “twos” place plus 1 in the “ones” place equals 3.

4 = 100            We maxed out the “twos” and move on to the “fours” place.

5 =                   I’ll let you fill in 5.

And that’s how computers talk to each other. Okay, it’s much more complicated than that, and I really have no idea how computers talk to each other. If that horrible screeching the dial-up modems made is any indication, I’d rather not speak computer, thanks.

Which brings us to base 12. I woke up this morning trying to remember how base 12 works. In base 12, we count to 11 in the “ones” column, before moving over to the “twelves.” Which means – and this is where I got a bit uncertain – which means that we must invent two extra digits, one to represent 10 and another for 11. Let’s call them T and E. So, base 12 looks something like this:

8 = 8                15 = 13            22 = 1T            This where it starts to get strange.

9 = 9                16 = 14            23 = 1E

10 = T              17 = 15            24 = 20

11 = E             18 = 16            …

12 = 10            19 = 17            34 = 2T            Are you following this?

13 = 11            20 = 18            35 = 2E

14 = 12            21 = 19            144 = 100        Go ahead, take the leap with me.

This was me, this morning. I even wrote the numbers on the wall of the shower as I continued to puzzle it all out. The tiles make wonderful columns. It lends itself well to math – the shower, I mean. And singing, of course. The acoustics are great in the shower. And that’s math, too.

So this morning I was thinking about base 12, which, according to my dad, isn’t very useful. The IT guys (or gals) at your office likely are conversant in base 16 and even base 8 – something to do with there being 4 bits in a byte. In base 16 they use A, B, C, D, E, F to stand in for 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Yes, Dad explained this, too. Granted, I knew nothing about it this morning, but still it leads me wonder, why 12?

I have always loved the number 12. It is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. When you double it, it’s divisible by 8. Tripled, it divides by 9. How cool is that? I often think about divisibility. Like, what’s the smallest number divisible by all the numbers up to 10? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not small at all. Five and 7 mess it up. So 12 comes pretty close. In the realm of manageable numbers, that is. Magical.

And that smallest number divisible by the rest: 2,520, in case it was weighing on you. I guess I’m a Math Person, too. I love you, Dad.

Jury Duty

By Rachel Fain

Unlike most people, I want to be on a jury. I’ve been summoned at least four times, but never made it to the box. Until this time.

I am Juror 7. I am sitting in a criminal courtroom with 29 other prospective jurors. The judge is a man in his 50s, not humorless, but mostly businesslike at this stage of things. He explains that the cadence of his speech is a bit slow so the Mandarin Chinese translator can keep up.

The defendant is a 30ish Asian woman, slim, dressed in muted colors. The translator is for her, so she is, presumably, Chinese. She is accused of prostitution. Two undercover police officers will be testifying against her. Both attorneys are women. I’m certain this is not a coincidence.

The judge asks each juror some basic info about marital status, occupation and jury experience. He asks our views on prostitution and if we have “any answers” to the questions on a sheet we were all given outside the courtroom. (These are all about impartiality and connections to law enforcement and lawyers.) I think his phrasing is odd. We all have answers to these questions; it’s just that some of us have only “no” answers. It’s the yeses he is concerned with, so I guess if the answer is “no” we don’t really have answers.

About half the jury pool has friends or relatives in law enforcement—both on the “law” and “order” sides of things. A few have had bad experiences with the police. Two have been victims of a crime. No one thinks this will adversely affect his ability to be fair and impartial in this case. Juror 5, however, insists that she thinks the police are always right, no matter what, because she is afraid of them. She says she never disputes her tickets because she knows she cannot win. The judge tries to discuss this point with her logically and fails.

The defense attorney appears to be in her 40s. She is wearing a brown, longish flared jacket unbuttoned over dark trousers and a white shirt. She has 10 minutes to question the jurors. She seemed almost timid during introductions, hard to hear—but not anymore. Now her style is rather professorial. I imagine this is what it’s like to be in law school. She speaks quickly and her sentences are a bit meandering and complicated. She starts by explaining an idea and then segues into a question. I have to pay close attention to figure out if my answer is yes or no. I feel badly for the people whose English is poor. She asks me a question, and I say, “Absolutely,” feeling lucky that I followed her Byzantine thought process. Her questioning seems random, but I’m sure it is as well-planned as it can be in the short time she had to prepare.

The prosecutor is younger. She had seemed very confident in her dark pantsuit, short jacket buttoned all the way, but now a few cracks are showing. She stands at the lectern with her notes, where the defender moved about during her turn. She even rests her head on her hand at one point. Her questioning goes very quickly. I do not think she used her whole 10 minutes. She tries to ask us if verbal testimony would be enough, or if we would require a tape recording for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge cuts her off, saying she is asking the jury to make a judgment about evidence before we hear it. I feel a little bit sorry for her—but just a little. I wonder fleetingly if this is intentional, to garner sympathy from the jurors.

Jurors 9, 12, 19 and 30 all profess trouble with the English language. Most have been in the US close to 20 years. They say they cannot read. They have all taken a US citizenship exam—in English. They have trouble answering the judge’s questions. He is clearly trying to determine if they are using this to get out of jury service. Jurors 19 and 30 claim they cannot treat both sides in this case fairly. Nineteen cannot explain why, but talks in circles, similar to what I have heard my Russian and Armenian neighbors do. Thirty says it’s because she’s afraid she will not be able to follow the proceedings. After a sidebar consultation with the attorneys, the judge only dismisses Juror 9.

Her chair seems to be cursed—or blessed, depending on how you look at it. The next 4 jurors seated there are all dismissed.

Juror 2 has pink hair. She’s wearing Doc Martin 10-eye boots and a black leather jacket. She’s a dog walker and believes prostitution should be legal. She is dismissed by the prosecution—no surprise there.

Juror 3 is an actress. Nobody familiar. She sees prostitutes as victims. She doesn’t think the courtroom is the right place to help them. She is dismissed by the defense—I am shocked by this.

Juror 24 is a first year medical student. He is wearing very ripped jeans and drips attitude. But when he speaks I am impressed. He thinks prostitutes are often victims of sexual abuse or other childhood trauma. He is dismissed, too.

Juror 29 is an administrative judge. He is the only juror wearing a tie. I had to look up what an administrative judge is. According to thefreedictionary.com, he is “a professional hearing officer who works for the government to preside over hearings and appeals involving governmental agencies.” Oh. I was not around long enough to see if he was cut. He may be one of the few jurors left.

Juror 7 is a writer. She wears funky glasses and sips compulsively from a pink water bottle. She explains that while she believes that people should be free to do as they choose with their bodies and sexuality, prostitution holds so many opportunities for exploitation that she is not sure if legalizing it is a good idea. I am dismissed by the prosecution. I am disappointed but not surprised.

There is a consistent parade of jurors out of our courtroom. Within 15 minutes of being dismissed, I am heading for my car. I hear from Juror 24 that there are only a couple of us left. The judge is sending for more jurors. We wonder at the number of jurors who have been cut, but these musings don’t get very far. We get to the parking structure and part ways. I wonder if any of these people might have become a friend, if we had served together. I will never know.

Moving Day

By Rachel Fain

Shelby sat on the floor, hugging her bent knees, staring blankly at the boxes when she should have been packing. Moving again—new house, new friends, new school. Her features hardened as she thought about it, mouth tightening and eyes narrowing in an effort not to cry. Standing weakly, Shelby tripped through the cardboard maze, barking her shins on the loose flaps of the unsealed cartons. She reached a pile of stuffed animals and scooped up a furry armload, ignoring the bite from the scrapes on her legs.

Unable to see the way back over Snowy and Frisky, Hephzibah and Elton, Shelby charged heedlessly into the maze. She stumbled and tumbled hard into stiff corners and rough edges, adding a bruised hip and elbow to her catalogue of injuries. She lay motionless in a heap on the floor, listening for footsteps. No one came.

Shelby started to cry, angry at the boxes, angry at herself, angry at her toys. She sat up and hurled them across the room at the waiting box. Onetwothreefour. Elton hit with a kunk and slid down the wall. Hephzibah and Snowy pmphed into the animals already packed away. Frisky made a small groaning noise as he umphed to the floor beside the box.

Stricken with guilt, Shelby stared over the cardboard battlements at her loyal friends. Her tears renewed and redoubled as she crashed back to the box. Blinded, she reached down and picked up the nearest toy. She was still wrapped around Frisky, the black bear’s fur matted and wet, when her mother came into the room.

Those Meddling Kids, With Apologies to Scooby Doo

By Rachel Fain

“Did you hear that?”

“What?” “No.” “Shh!”

“I’m listening…” Claudia hissed, louder than she intended. They all froze. The air conditioning hummed. There was a faint buzz from the overhead lighting.

After a few minutes of squinty-eyed, purse-lipped concentration, Adam shrugged. “Nope. I must have imagined it.”

Claudia glared at him. Jane looked thoughtful. “What did it sound like? Or, well, what do you imagine it sounded like?”

“I don’t know… it was like a scrapey-thud. Or a jingle-smack. Or maybe a whiffle-whomp?”

“Dude,” said Mitchell. “I hear that all the time.”

The others turned to Mitchell, expectant. He smiled back and blinked at them blankly. Jane stared at him as if she might see the answer through his skull. When this proved unsuccessful, she prompted, “And…”

“Huh? Oh! It’s the sound my bike makes when I take a dive on the Boardwalk.” Mitchell spoke with absolute certainty.

“And did you fall off your bicycle a few minutes ago?” asked Claudia.

“Uh, no. I mean, I don’t have—”

“And do you think someone else might—”

Adam cut in. “Claud, stop it.”

“What? I’m just trying to establ—“

“Enough. Leave him alone.”

“It’s okay, man. She’s right. If there is someone riding a bike in here, they’re in loads more trouble than we are.”

“That’s not what I—“

“Shh. Did you hear that?”

“Oh, no. Not you, too, Jane.”

“I heard the whiffle-whump.” Jane’s voice rose to a barely audible squeak as she spoke. “Like Marley’s Ghost is walking around wrapped in chains, only… if Marley were made of books.”

“Yes! That’s it exactly.”

Whiffle-whump. The sound caught Claudia mid eye-roll. “No way…”

“Way.”

“Um, dudes? Ya know that mummy’s curse thing? The one I told you about? The one you all laughed at?”

“Mitchell, you saw that in a cartoon! It wasn’t even this library. That one was in Alexandria—in Egypt!”

“Yeah, but you said the Alexandria library was destroyed a while ago, and that sign back there said this one has lots of scrolls and stuff, just like in the cartoon.”

Whiffle-whump. It was getting closer. They looked wide-eyed at each other for a moment, before simultaneously screaming and taking off in search of the nearest exit, each in a different direction.

The Real Lady Gaga

By Rachel Fain

Her name was Evelyn Macie Silver, but I called her “Gaga.” I didn’t find this at all embarrassing until a helpful relative scoffed at the name when I was in my 20s.  Until then, I liked it—no one else called her that. It was special.

Gaga was from the South—one of four Jewish families living in Laurel, Mississippi. She called me “Sugarfoot,” had a drawl, flattened a bit by decades in New England, and impeccable manners. I visited her back East, and she took me to Carr’s for lunch—all dressed up and very proper, a real lady, just like her. I always ordered petit fours for dessert. The tiny cakes were my favorite part.

When I was 12, Gaga told me I was beautiful. She said that everyone goes through a period in life when they are at their most lovely – she thought my time was now. I tried to be pleased, but her pronouncement worried me. If I was peaking at 12, I could be downright ugly by 30. I tried not to dwell on it; she was proud of me.

We spoke on the phone weekly. As she aged, she became more and more vague, confused. One Saturday I called her at the nursing home. “I’m in Bermuda, visiting Aunt Libby,” Gaga told me. After a moment’s hesitation I asked her about her trip and the weather in Bermuda. It was one of the most wonderful conversations we had that year.

The last time I saw her, she was in her bed, at the home. She didn’t know who I was, but realized she was supposed to know. Her Southern manners would not allow her to admit she couldn’t place me, so she asked lots of questions, trying to figure it out. I gave her as much information as I could, wanting to help without letting on that I knew she didn’t know me. “You’re very beautiful,” she said. I thanked and said, “It runs in my family.”