I write this story for my friend Taylor Stein. I don’t need to tell you how strange memory is or that I can’t remember when I first met him. I have no idea where those words went but then neither do you.
In my earliest memory, he’s sitting in the lobby of the Georgia Terrace Hotel holding a magazine. His face is staring slightly up and to the right as if hooked. There is a small frown on his face and his eyebrows are raised fractionally below his preternaturally thinning hair. It’s an expression of apathy and disillusionment. I’m tempted to explain that he always looked that way, but those who know how he came to die cannot help but believe he had his numbers and their already apparent consequences burning in his mind.
When I walk to him my shoes wrap silently against the terra cotta tile. Everything is still except for my breathing (or is it his?) but I know this cannot be true. In fact, there is a sense of unreality about this memory, a small but charismatic difference between what it should be and what I remember it to be. An overwhelming impression of brightness reflects off the white marble, white grout, white blinds and white ceiling. Yet he is sitting in an armchair that seems extremely dark, even more than can be explained by contrast.
Like an ore’s vein, the feeling emerges discreetly. Yet in spite of how diligently I bore, and no matter how many times I turn the moment over in my head, I find nothing missing. It is immensely copacetic down to every detail. The concierge’s name to my left is “Jacq!” exclamation point and all. The couple behind me is arguing about the differences between a cup of doppio and lungo. A young girl is telling her friend that if you find half of a dollar bill you can return it to the bank for the other half. “What bank?”
For this reason, I know the memory to be fraudulent. At first, I imagined that this recollection was a function of reality, a gap that I perceived only in retrospect. As if among the architecture of the world there is something designed to whisper back that not all is at had seemed. This horrified me. With time it now reassures me because even if the universe may change this moment will not, which is a sad but certain hubris that causes no one any trouble as far as I can tell.
When I sit next to him the memory disintegrates. He tells me to look in the magazine at a small picture of an English princeling, a blurry bodied man pointing a flintlock in our direction and concealing himself behind a splendidly aristocratic shrub. “There’s so many stupid pictures, but this is one of the stupidest,” he says. Yet when I sit down he also doesn’t say anything but a Midwestern “ope.” Suddenly it is minutes—days, months—later and I am the one saying to him “There’s so many stupid pictures, but this one of the stupidest.”
I never, however, say “ope” in any of my memories.
Perhaps he explained his work that first day. When I think back to all the times he explained his work there is no beginning. They simply begin, typically at the bar. This is not unusual, there is never a beginning to anything he says, but as far as I know, the explanation begins halfway after I’ve sat down at the bar. If it was on that first day I met him, I wouldn’t know. Whether this is a failing on my part I can’t say but the absence strikes me as a sincere or true absence rather than a contrived one. That is, a habit of Taylor’s and not a habit of mine.
“It’s like a vast warehouse of data,” he says. The rest of the words he used I can’t, or won’t, recall but what I remember is that it constantly updated itself, compiled reports of impossible complexity and tracked meticulously changes to its own calculations. These reports it categorized according to a framework that was sensible in the haze of that late morning light though that’s not how I would describe my understanding now. It was for his doctoral thesis, which had been stretched to an impossible ninth year.
As an idea it was a solution in desperate need of a problem, but since I hardly cared what he talked about while I drank I said it seemed fine. This small encouragement was all he needed to sputter another paragraph so needlessly weighted by technical terms I didn’t let him finish before telling him that it had immense promise. I even muttered something about the practical importance of these infinite calculations, though I had nothing in particular in mind.
I don’t know what interrupted us or when. Maybe it was a waiter concerned with Taylor’s wide eyes leaning over the bar, shoulders scrunched like a gargoyle, neck visibly strained as he enunciated his mumblings. Perhaps we simply got too drunk. I have to consider that we didn’t get interrupted at all and that the dregs of that day are lost. Again, the details blur.
The day after I remember nothing. The week after I remember only one scene but it’s another moment to another story. In fact, if I attempt to remember what happened with Taylor chronologically I have nothing for you. It’s a jumble of brunches, of phrases, of recycled explanations and inebriations. The warehouse came up, as evidently it must have, and just as quickly is submerged underneath fried chicken, waffles, eggs benedict and mimosas.
Remembering the hotel itself is useless. When I try to gather around myself all the memories of those mornings in the hotel or its bar they become too innumerable to share. Every moment bleeds into the next in a preoccupying murmur of half-remembered perceptions that are neither the weight of a perspiring glass in my palm nor the kitchen’s endless aromas (though they are there, somewhere). The best I can do is write that I associate it with a feeling of belonging that is invisible but not imaginary.
I know I messaged him encouragingly afterwards, almost goading him on. He replied that he was adding new performances to hundredths of already improbably small measurements of time. This developed into weekly briefings, which I understood dimly. In these, I noted a handful of preoccupations. First, a treatment of van Helmont’s Lurianic theosophy as a theology midway through a long documentation document concerning π, and Helmont’s theory of “corpuscular” light-adapted for his array’s dynamic runtime memory commands to OS. “If he had lived among the Greeks, he would now be numbered among the stars,” wrote Leibniz.
There is a lurking question here about why I let this happen, why either of us let this happen. We found each other’s company complimentary. For me, drinking doesn’t describe how pitilessly I treated the bar. To have a sober anchor in my life was required. For him, he needed someone to explain himself to, a way to flee his loneliness.
Every new topic he explained to me ended up relating back to the program’s core ability to categorize and sort through vast amounts of data and that as the program tracked this data it could use that function to track itself in an infinite itemization. As we exchanged messages he became more and more grandiose. A message boasted that he could fill Fort Knox in “sixteen minutes and change.” By comparison, Edmund Gettier’s paper on knowledge concerns only three equations. Abel’s proof of the Abel-Ruffini theorem, first theorized by Babylonians, is a mere six pages. Simple math, he concluded, tells us whose genius has produced more.
I didn’t know what to make of that, and I still don’t, but I know I assumed a little pomposity was inevitable. Some people said they were visionaries just to say it. It gives a personality to the way they live. He wasn’t like that so I didn’t let it annoy me.
I don’t remember when we lost touch. Perhaps I don’t want to. It’s easy to say that the bubble burst and reality kept out by an unfathomable lye crashed into us. We grew up and became different people and it’s very hard to forgive someone for changing. The temptation is there but I can’t say it because we didn’t. I didn’t even realize it was happening.
The last I remember of him is his hands waving from underneath the bar’s finish. I mean this specifically. I don’t remember his actual hands moving, but I remember the distorted reflections of his hands slamming again and again into the barrier between him and me. Why I remember this more than what I saw when I raised my eyes ups up, as I must have done for hours, days and even weeks at a time, I can’t say. Perhaps his hands waived the whole time and I don’t remember it. But those hands remain, only partially obscured by the white rims of old pints and the red circles of cocktails.
Naturally, I might have been more present if I had known it would be the last of its kind. But I did not so I was not. Weeks, or months, later at a crowded brunch the conversation turned to who had last seen Taylor. I didn’t say anything because it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Someone spoke up and told us that his thesis defense failed. There were hard questions about his program’s value. He replied with fascinating but irrelevant details about Judaic Kabbalists, Seventh Day Adventists of Waco and numerology.
I imagine his face, staring upwards and to the right as if caught by some hook, barely acknowledging the faculty. But perhaps this is the Georgia Terrace Hotel infiltrating into places it shouldn’t be. When I imagine him again there is another picture but no less imaginative, a living sculpture of Pilate (Aetius’s adapted for this purpose) muttering “Quod scripsi scripsi.”
But even this is too dramatic. He went home to cut along his wrists’ brachial arteries and write a suicide note. When he tried to write he was distracted by a Netflix documentary about plastic lids. His note started well but segued into a list of archaic Greek poleis with seventeen well-drawn American flags at random intervals along the page. Using my friend’s login I noted that the documentary stopped at twenty-one minutes and forty-five seconds. It’s paused on an image of Jack Clement’s Solo Traveler Dart Container Corporation plastic coffee lid. A bleeding Taylor calmly pressed the green ‘A’ to await whatever might come is an image that will not leave me.
The note begins “For when there is contradiction, of the two proposals only one is true.” It’s a temptation to read into this something of his coming death but the superstition about last words is the result of absent-mindedness. There are no words that do not turn over in our hands every time we look at them. I mention this because I cannot contradict any divergence by other readers and listeners who sat there in silence but I know any difference if held to be absolute is a lie.
For the record, I don’t blame the faculty. The failure might’ve been productive. Even Newton complained that defending Principia took away from his other studies.
But history also tells us what Newton’s other studies were. After Principia Newton built off of the Clavis Apocalyptica, a numerological interpretation of the Bible, and Francis Potter’s Interpretation of the Number 666 (whose six hundred and sixty-six page is blank and it is written on page three “ is an exquisite and perfect character, truly, exactly, and essentially describing that stet of Government to which all other notes of Antichrist doe agree.”).
I see his suicide as part of a system we cannot escape, a naturally-occurring centrifugal governor correcting irregularities almost before they become evident. Imbalance in creation can never reach a conspicuous magnitude because it would make itself felt by extinction. He and his program were no exception. There was a regulator, an apparent one, though this was not obvious to him. Perhaps this is why all three monotheistic religions claim that the spider’s house is blasphemy, since it assumes that human beings are self-sufficient. (That this is a landscape of the mind and not a true landscape is irrelevant since many imaginary landscapes, like a San Diego postcard, are evoked as a true landscape: longboards, palm trees, sand.)
What I do know is that Taylor erected vast and evidently inextricable parentheticals, in which brevity and practicality seemed like scorn. With monastic persistence, something that no machine or business could adequately reproduce, he made an instrument of numbers and subjected it to intense scrutiny. He saw a structure that if it fell then it would fall like the sky smothering us all.
And this is why I volunteered to help clean out his apartment when he killed himself, to honor an echo of something faded by impulses I saw from a critical distance. Death comes with a lot of chores and I felt responsible.
As I sorted through his things, I saw the alkahest myth underlined in John Webster’s Matallographia, Philalethes, Milton’s “arcane mystery” of musical spheres and an imagined court transcript from Chrysomalus’s posthumous trial for Bogomilism (whose body was disinterred for the occasion in 1140). In equal parts naturally and gratuitously were pages of Newton’s heretical history of Rome (where an angel describes a Copernican solar system into Numa’s ear) made into paper mache balloons with PVA glue and fabric decoupage.
I noticed a mirror took up the top third of his west and east walls. Without any real insight, I thought about my friend and whatever impulse might have prompted him to put them there. As my thoughts wound down I let myself see the mirrors for the first time. Between the two angles, nothing was falling in but only reflecting their own beams of light in some horrific descent. Something about the repetition made me realize what I was remembering like breathing–beginning and rebeginning, over and over, again and again. It was Taylor’s words. They came back to me. They were not a koan, a parable, a rune or incantation; much less a croon or hymn but very close to a chant. Then it struck me as a mantra. An inculcation of his obsessions and perfections and imperfections that followed me out of the room like an epiphany.