fiction, Kleins Bottle, Science fiction, story, tale, topology
Dr. J. Clarence Thompson shuffled thorough his unfolded shirts. He glanced at the clock. “Crap!” he muttered, “I’m going to be late. Next time, I’m going to put my shirts away so I know where to find the one I want.”
He muttered to himself a lot since he had been “retired” from his job teaching topology at nearby Kansas State University. “Damn. I’m going to be late for my tee time. Maybe I should call…hold on. Here we go.” At last Dr. J. Found the green and gold Hawaiian shirt he had been looking for. Some of his other golf shirts restricted his movements. He had enough trouble staying in the fairway. “What the hell? What’s with this shirt.”
Let me explain. Dr. J. Had a habit of removing his shirts so that at least one, and sometimes both sleeves were inside out. This time though, the shirt was twisted in some very odd way. Like the whole shirt was inside out inside one of the sleeves which was itself inside out.
“This kind of crap always happens when you’re in too much of a damned hurry. I should have just gotten up earlier. Or, skipped breakfast. But that never works. What the hell is wrong with this shirt?”
Without really meaning to, he scrunched his eyebrows together and clenched his teeth. He hated being late for a tee time. He snorted ruefully. “Shouldn’t really be that hard for a topology professor. Ex-professor,” he reminded himself. “This is ridiculous. The shirt…Okay…the sleeve is inside the shirt but he shirt is inside the sleeve that the…Hey, Jenni…Oh, crap.”
He had promised himself to stop talking to his deceased wife. Or, to use her name any more than necessary. Every time he thought of her, it pained him. Stupid skiing accident. He pursed his lips together tightly. She liked golf. At least that’s a safe sport. You don’t break your neck running into a tree.
Dr. J. thought back to a time he had landed in the woods a few yards off the fairway. He had decided to try hitting the ball toward the hole rather than taking the easy way out and chipping it out onto the fairway. A wasted shot, he had thought. Instead of streaming through the small gap, the golf ball had hit a tree and whizzed back inches from his head. He now lay 40 yards farther from the hole. But he tried it one more time with exactly the same result. Finally, he had “taken his medicine” and chipped out into the fairway. Triple bogey despite some nice putting on the green.
“All right then. Let’s take this one step at a time. I pull the sleeve out this way…and … WHAT?!”
Dr. J. stared at where his left hand should be. It. Was. Not. There. But…there was no blood. “How could there be? I haven’t cut himself. But where the hell is my hand!? Call 911? And say what? They’ll put me in the looney bin for sure. It doesn’t feel like my hand is gone. But maybe it is a phantom limb phenomenon. No. It can’t be gone.”
He snapped his fingers. He felt his fingers snapping. But there was no sound. “There!” he shouted joyously. “I hear it. But…how can it take that long for the sound to get here.”
“I need a beer. Jennifer? Can you… oh crap, that’s right. Stupid skiing accident. Damn her! How could you be so thoughtless?! Beer? I need whiskey. I will pull my hand out with my other hand. Then, I will call Carl and tell them I can’t make it. Twisted my ankle. I’m not going to tell them about … this. I just need to calm down and think this through. What is that damned racket? No wonder I can’t think straight.”
In the background, CNN was interviewing some random “man on the street” and Mister Random was saying: “He’s the only politician who tells it like it is. He doesn’t pretend to be all politically correct. You know? He’s truthful.”
The reporter put the mike near his own mouth and asked, “How do you know he’s truthful?”
“He’s told us! He told us to watch out for — no offense — but you work for the fake news! You guys are all liars. He’s the only source of truth. It’s refreshing.”
Dr. J. glanced at the TV and saw the reporter trying hard not to let his feelings show on his face as he asked again, “And the way you know he tells the truth is that he says he tells the truth?”
Dr. J. had long ago discovered that when you were absolutely stuck in solving a problem, that it often helped to think about something completely different for a few moments. He shook his head at the hapless fool being interviewed on TV. A vivid picture formed itself in Dr. J.’s imagination. He saw a large orange “picture” of a Klein’s Bottle. Of course, it wasn’t really a picture, just a children’s illustration. Of course, the “logic” of the interviewee wasn’t really a Klein’s Bottle. It was simply a circle that fed itself forever. The hapless fan had no more idea how foolish his circular reasoning was than the eddy at the end of an oar worries about … well … anything. Water doesn’t worry. It is being pushed about by external forces. In the same way, this “fan” had been manipulated into going in a circle. Dr. J. recalled an illustration in a Scientific American article he had read about ants following pheromone trails. Normally, the ants coordinated marvelously with each other and found their way home without a hitch.
But you could turn them into a death cult. Lay a circular trail of pheromones and the ants would follow each other in a circle until they starved to death.
“Okay, enough of that. Back to the problem at hand.” Dr. J. had begun muttering to himself again. “How do I get my hand out? Maybe if I reach in … like so … from the other side.”
Carl had worked hard to convince the rest of his threesome to come with him. Carl was popular but Dr. J. was difficult for most people to deal with. But they did come, because, as Carl explained, we look out for each other at this age. It wasn’t like Dr. J. to simply forget about their regular Thursday early tee time and not even call. There was no knock at the door, but the apartments at Happy Acres afforded only a few places to hide an extra key. Carl opened the door. Something, he was sure, was amiss. But what?
They searched the apartment and found no note, no hint of where he had gone. Carl also noted that Dr. J. had left the thermostat set at 72. He would never leave it that hot when he was out and about.
After an hour’s search, they called the police who very politely explained that if they wanted to file a missing person’s report, they could, but that, in his experience, the person always turned up shortly and most of the time, they turned up alive. Not always, but almost always. In any case, police policy forbid them from searching for him or indeed, doing any real investigative work for 24 hours.
Carl excelled at being persuasive. After all, he had been in the 100 percent club his entire career at Megamax. But he could not move the police officer into action. He put down the phone and realized he had no idea what to do either. He felt sure something was wrong, but he couldn’t really put his finger on anything in particular. Dr. J’s house looked as it always did. It did seem odd, come to think of it, the way that shirt is all folded in on itself.
“Hey, guys, come take a look at this weird shirt.”
Ben put a very serious look on his face and said, “That’s it! He’s in the pocket of his own shirt!”
Then, he and Avram began laughing uproariously.
Carl joined in the fun himself. But he still persisted. “Okay, okay, very funny. But it — I mean if you were going away for a week or two, would you leave your shirt lying on the floor, all twisted up like this?”
Ben chuckled. He could see a great opportunity to ham it up. And in the process, he’d jolly Carl out of being worried over nothing.
“Yeah, here, I’ll solve the mystery. The mystery of the twisted shirt! Watch this folks! I, Ben Sherlock, will place my hand into what appears to be an ordinary shirt!”
That turned out to have been a huge mistake. As were all the successive rescue attempts.
What could be better? A horror story.
That cold walk home.
How did I get here?
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