I Don't Know, Stop Asking Me Math Questions

James Warner


“Did you feel that?” my daughter asked. The table at which we sat playing chess was shaking as if covered with cell phones set to vibrate. Our chess pieces were sliding gradually onto adjacent squares, into a formation that actually looked more impregnable than the defense I'd been putting up. I looked under the table to see if the dog was humping one of the legs, but there was nothing there except figurines discarded from an aborted claymation project.


“Maybe just an earthquake,” I said, looking up at the bookshelves to see if they might topple down on us. But seemingly only the table was vibrating. My daughter moved the chess set to a bench in the kitchen and shifted the pieces back into position.


“Your move,” she said.


Ten minutes later, when I ceded defeat, the table was still shaking and had risen a few inches off the floor. “We needed a new table anyway,” I said. “Help me take it out onto the street. Maybe somebody in the neighborhood wants a vibrating table for their boudoir.”


With some effort we were able to push the levitating, bucking table out of our apartment into the corridor. Once we got it into the elevator, however, the table violently slammed itself against the walls, pushing buttons randomly. It would have been dangerous to get in with it, so I proposed we let it ride up and down in the shaft for a while, and hope the building manager would not guess we had put it there.


My daughter said this would be irresponsible.


“We should wait on the ground floor,” she said, “and lasso it with some kind of rope and drag it outside.”


“But if it gets out on the street it could kill someone,” I said.


“Maybe we could set fire to it,” she said.


We decided instead to 'fess up to the building manager what was going on. But when he opened his door on the third floor, we saw that all his tables were doing the same thing. Clearly I had failed to see the whole picture here, as so often happened when I played chess, when I invariably formulated brilliant strategies with enormous obvious holes in them that guaranteed crushing defeat. Only recently had I noticed how this also applied to all other aspects of my life.


The building manager had recently lost his job as an untenured superstring theorist for claiming he had psychokinetic woodbending powers—yet it was clear he had no more idea what was going on than we did. “Run across the street,” he suggested, “and see if the same thing is happening at the Laffing Sal Saloon.”


My daughter and I ran down the backstairs—plaster falling from one of the walls where a table was banging its way through from the other side—past the laundry area and recyling bins, and out across the street.


“Do you know what?” my daughter asked, her expression horrified yet fascinated.




“I don't know, stop asking me math questions,” she said. It was her catchphrase, and she liked to spring it on me. The way she told it, everyone in sixth grade needed a catchphrase.


A refectory table slammed repeatedly into the side of a camper van—I put an arm around my daughter over-protectively, but she gently shrugged it off.


The bouncer at the saloon bar wanted to see her ID, but I explained that she was twelve but slightly dyslexic, which came to the same thing as being twenty-one, so he waved us through. The bouncer had a dayjob counseling autistic people and was also working on a Ph.D. about how to synchronize poltergeists, yet it was clear he too had no idea what was going on.


From inside the club came the sounds of rumbling and snapping and power amplifier distortion. Wednesday was open mic night.


There was a high stage, which none of the bar tables had cleared yet, where the musicians were gathered, watching the tables slam around the mosh pit area then describe graceful arcs through the nineteenth-century barroom interior, like the vertebrae of some otherwise invisible plunging eel.


“Awesome,” my daughter said.


It had taken her till the age of twelve to reach the point that we were about evenly matched in chess. My only advantage over her now at the game was a longer history of failure, better enabling me to remain emotionally detached when things weren't headed my way. It was poignant to think that, within another year, I would not be able to defeat her at all, and that the easy part of her upbringing was almost over. For a while you can carry your kids on your back in a sling, then you can push them along the street in a stroller. Then they catch hold of some flying table and maneuver themselves up onto their feet—or at least this was what my daughter had managed to do while I'd been introspecting.


My ex-wife had a theory that never made much sense to me about balancing exercises being good for dyslexia, and certainly our daughter had impeccable balance. Some of the musicians applauded as she sashayed back and forth through the air along a terrifying parabola, like a skateboarder on a halfpipe ramp. I noticed she was wearing earrings. When had she gotten her ears pierced?

She had the same look of gleeful concentration as the time she first stood up on a surfboard. Shouldn't she be wearing a safety helmet?


By now the sirens had begun. With each arc my daughter rose nearer to the high window, as if to catch a wave and ride it out of my life forever. The two sides of her face registered completely different expressions now, and yet both were sad.


A different table cleared my head by millimeters, ruffling my hair.


I tried not to imagine her falling, but when she did fall it was no big deal. The table she was riding hit a wall, its legs snapping off like tent poles in an avalanche. She lost her balance, and the bouncer broke her fall. He politely helped her up, and started sweeping. My daughter watched as what was left of her table shot out a high window.


The bouncer had the look of a guy who'd had to get through the first year of middle school without ever finding his catchphrase. “Could this be the start of the Singularity?” he wondered.


“No such luck,” the building manager said, having come across the street to get a drink.


By the time the firefighters arrived, all the tables had buffeted themselves to pieces. The firefighters cordoned off our street and, once it was clear things had died down, agreed to categorize what had happened as a freak weather accident.


Our street was scattered with broken glass and fragments of masonry, and hovering dust. Back home, my daughter and I removed a few splinters from each other with tweezers. String theory dictates that the universe will never be smaller than the size of a string, a fact I found obscurely comforting without understanding it.


I put my daughter's bicycle helmet near the bed, in case she needed it later. We played more chess but I was distracted by a vivid sense that we were reenacting a brutal slaughter involving rival armies from thousands of years before. Every now and then, my daughter glanced distrustfully at a piece of furniture. The dog watched us skeptically, perched on his haunches surrounded by claymation figurines arrayed as if for battle.


“Can I get a tattoo?” my daughter asked. I said getting a tattoo was saying a deliberate no to thousands of years of civilization, and a decision like that should probably wait until she was at least thirteen.


A radio announcer claimed we had experienced a mini-cyclone. She sounded like somebody trying to convince herself. She reported a mailman down the street from us had been knocked unconscious by a billiard table.


My daughter and I stalemated each other, and she went and lay on her back on the piano stool, her eyes closed as if she was willing it to fly. “Did you feel that?” she asked, and I looked around wildly for a moment.


“Feel what?” I said.


Read Next: Shes Dying, He Said by Marge Piercy




James Warner is the author of the novel All Her Father's Guns. His literary criticism has appeared on HTMLGiant, OpenDemocracy, Identity Theory, and The Rumpus, his short stories in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online and elsewhere. The story "I Don't Know, Stop Asking Me Math Questions" originated during a live writing tournament at the San Francisco reading series Portuguese Artists Colony.


This story was originally published in Issue #15 of The Literarian