What an Answer’s Worth by Tyler Plofker

I found the note, transcribed below, stuck in a yellowing copy of Jacques the Fatalist, borrowed from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library a few months ago. I submitted it to the online magazine you’re now reading because it seems to be what the author would have wanted—to make sure the contents continue on.

The note wasn’t dated or signed, but it looked fairly old (semi-brown, stained in parts, and wrinkly, but not falling apart).

I tried googling but couldn’t find anything about the author or his story. Without a full name it was hard to even think of what to search though, so maybe I missed something. In any case, as will soon be obvious, I don’t think there’s any truth to what the guy’s written. At least with respect to the central claim. But even considering what he says to be false, I think the thing remains interesting as a kind of peek into his mind.

I stuck the original note back into the book before returning it.

The Note

They say I’m delusional. And I do not blame them for thinking so. I would probably agree if I was in their position and them in mine. But I know what I saw.

I remember it all in vivid detail. Twenty years ago to the day.

I have now set forth to put the events and consequences of that day to paper. So that when I am gone this can be found and read and understood. It cannot be lost.

If you find yourself reading this, read with care. Read with the understanding that what I write is true.

You will have to deal with the implications in your own way.

***

The morning was bright and brisk, and I found myself on the tree-lined trails near 85th street, Central Park, meandering here and there to pass the time. Absent were the loud crowds, families, and tourists that littered much of the grounds; in their place, a smattering of joggers, romantic partners, smokers, and raccoons. The sun presented itself on the ground as a collection of shapes and stripes.

It was my thirtieth birthday and I was looking forward to a small dinner with friends that night, which my fiancée had set up.

Moving deep into the wood, I made many turns without coming into contact with anyone or anything. I was alone with my thoughts and, as I didn’t have much to think about, I was really and truly alone. So it was a bit startling when I spotted him.

Near the end of a winding pathway, much the same as all the others, a man sat cross-legged. He was [in] the grass off the edge and wore a tattered plaid sweatshirt with checkered pajama bottoms. Both red-black. His beard and socks were gray, and what looked like soot covered his face and the back of his hands. A pair of shower sandals laid at his left.

With each step I became more comfortable. This was not a man strung out on drugs or in a state of frenzied excitement, or some mad beatnik. He was calm. His gaze remained fixed ahead even as my feet rustled in the fallen leaves. A black notebook rested in his lap, and he stroked the cover with a dirt-coated thumb. In front of him, a cardboard sign was dug into the ground. It read:

$10
For
The Answer

“Ten for the answer… The answer to what?” I asked, smiling at him.

He remained as he was. Like I had not said anything at all. Then a slow churning of his jaw. His voice began as a broken croak before evening out some, like the gears of his throat were moving back into place. “Why there is something. Why there is not nothing.”

I laughed. A homeless philosopher!

“Well I didn’t realize you had it!” I pulled out my wallet, smiled, and handed a ten-dollar bill to the man. He slowly extended his arm, grabbed the dollar between his pointer finger and thumb, and pulled it back at the same speed until it arrived safely in his pocket. It was as if he was a children’s crane machine game.

He leaned his head toward his lap and began flipping through the pages of his black book, every moment or two clearing his throat. Birds fluttered from the tree above while wind shook the branches.

I smirked and began to move away. “I can see it another time. No big deal. Have a—”

“Here.” He threw his arm out with the force of a punch, holding the book open from the top. There were black scribblings on the left page, the right completely blank. Stepping over, I leaned down. Just absolute nonsense. Lines and circles, black dots of varying sizes, squiggles and geometric patterns. Nothing. “Cool, th—”

“Closer. Do not let your eyes waver from the page. Do not look at the grass or trees behind it, or myself. Closer.”

Feeling stupid and a little uneasy, but not wanting to anger the man, I took another step and leaned in, my face now a forearm’s length from the page. Still, of course, the same useless lines and dots. “Incred—”

“No. Closer. You have to be here.” He moved his free hand right in front of the book.

Fine. To be done with it. Kneeling down to one knee, I pushed my face just inches from the page. My breath stopped.

It was what he said.

It was what he said. It was what he said. It was what he said.

Without straining, without any effort on my part, in a moment, less than a moment, less than time, it all flowed into me, it all made complete sense, it was so obvious, so plain. Impossible to imagine not knowing it, to imagine not knowing such a simple truth. Then he shut the book and I lost it. Completely.

Before that moment, I hadn’t even thought about the question for some two decades. It was something children pondered. Yes, the kind of thing one bandied about in grade school—right next to “What is the meaning of life?” and “Does god exist?” and so on. An unsolvable little mystery. But after seeing it…

“That was… I don’t even know how—what. Please, please let me see it again, I—”

“That is all I can show.”

“Here, here, just once more, a quick look.” I dropped another ten-dollar bill onto his lap.

He brushed it off. “That is all I can show. You can only see it once. Why there is something. Why there is not nothing.”

“Why?”

“You can only see it once.”

“No, but why! This has to be known… This, this, this, how do you have such a thing?… Let me copy it. Yes, yes, let me have my own. It will be quick.”

The man uncrossed his legs and rose without the use of his hands. His head was about level with mine. He smelled of nothing. Opening his lips, he revealed two rows of black and gray teeth, his gums almost purple, and laughed through his nose. “No.”

Without thinking, I lunged for the book in his hand. He pivoted away and used my own motion to push me to the ground, then sprinted through the trees. My hands and knees scraped, I took off after him, dodging trunks and logs, crashing through bushes, trying to keep his body in vision. He turned back onto a maintained path and I followed, probably forty yards behind. At the fork he turned right—but when I arrived there was no sight of him all the way down. “Fuck fuck fuck!” I rushed through the woods, shouted, sprinted in every direction, ran back to where we had met. He was nowhere.

My heartbeat slowed and I began to feel myself an idiot, a loon, chasing a homeless man over scribbles. Was I going insane? I tried to convince myself the whole thing was nothing, that I had just been confused. If it was real how could I have forgotten it? All the pieces must have fallen into place just perfectly to deceive me, like a magician’s hypnosis show; a random occurrence, one in a million. That’s what it must have been. I thought I saw something I didn’t.

Convincing myself it was merely a delusion, I returned to my apartment and lay down for a nap. I slept a dreamless sleep until being awoken by my fiancée returning from her exercise class some hours later. But while I listened to the water patter against the shower floor, my mind, could you believe it, drifted disobediently back to the notebook. There was a circle to the right, two, two circles to the right…

She stepped out of the bathroom with a towel around her chest. “You ready?”

“I’m not feeling very well… Could we just stay in, eat here?”

“Oh, what’s the matter?”

“Just my head… Pounding, pounding headache.” This was not a lie; my head was actually in great pain. The worst headache of my life. Across the entire surface of my skull, I felt an immense, burning pressure, like my brain was inflamed and swollen and pushing out from the inside. There was no ulterior motive for the cancellation.

She stepped over, leaned down, and gave me a kiss. “Of course, let’s eat here. I’ll call and cancel.”

We ate and talked. Much of the conversation I forget, or never heard. To be honest, I’m not even sure the dialogue represented above is exactly how it was said.

My fiancée threw the food we couldn’t finish into tupperware and placed the dishes in the sink. I lay back down on the couch. She sat beside me, put my head in her lap, stroked her hand through my hair. “Six more months.”

My sleep that night was restless and fragmented. I dreamt continually of the man. The same dream over and over. I would walk up to him, just as I had done that morning, but when he showed me the page, it would swallow me whole. There was [the rest of this sentence is completely unreadable, three words which look like little squiggles… sorry]. As I moved into the book—white enveloping my vision—I would awaken, sweating. Every hour or so this same pattern.

In the morning, my headache had mostly subsided and I dressed to begin the workweek. I walked to the office without so much as a thought about the book. My sleep, even if broken, had seemed to remove its pestering image. But once at my desk, I struggled to keep my attention on work. I felt uneasy, restless, like there was something else I should have been doing. For that whole week my work product suffered. I got very little done. And what I did get done was wrong: debits and credits unbalanced, inaccurate expense recognition, errors of addition. But as the mistakes piled up, instead of focusing closer on my tasks, my mind began to return to the man and his book.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember what his answer was, but that I couldn’t even make one up. There was no story I could tell myself that answered the question in any satisfying way. Is there a God? What happens after death? What is the meaning of life? Responses can be conceived for all of these. Yes, No. Nothing, Heaven. To reproduce, to be kind, and so on.

But why is there anything at all? Again, I couldn’t conjure even a fake answer. Nothing that did not immediately fall in on itself. Any speculated cause required its own and, as such, was just restating the problem. And so how could I have been confused there in the woods? How could it have been a deception, when I could not even deceive myself?

I began to spend lunch breaks roaming Central Park, running over to the spot where I had met him, hoping he would show up again in the grass. During the weekends, I read philosophy; the man couldn’t have figured it out alone, surely the diagram was envisioned by someone else. But all the scientists, all the physicists, all the philosophers, provided nothing even as meaningful as my own useless thoughts. Most came to the same conclusion Bertrand Russell did—”I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.”—with less or more flowery language, less or more dependent premises. And this was the most satisfying “answer” among their piles of dreck.

And so it was clear, the man generated it himself. I began leaving for lunch earlier and coming back later; I’d spend two, three, four hours poring over the woodland. Within a month, I was let go from my position.

Home life became strained. I had already skipped many wedding-related meetings to read the aforementioned works of philosophy, and then, without my income, the whole thing was forced on hold—not that I was bothered by this.

My fiancée cried often. She tried [to] get me to look for work, even took a second job so we could keep rent. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. I realize how I must sound to you. But you have to understand: I had tasted it, I had understood, and I needed to get it back. It was all that mattered.

Prior to the encounter, I was oblivious. Worse than suffering, I did not even know I should be suffering. But having been made absolutely certain an answer exists, certain it is there to be found—having been shown it, only to have it stripped away—the yearning was unavoidable, necessary. Exposed to the universe’s great secret, I was made ill in its absence. The only cure, its return.

And so, with the philosophy exhausted, I spent my days trying to replicate it instead. I bought dozens of blank notebooks, trying every combination of the shapes and lines, moving pieces ever so slightly from page to page, crossing them out and attempting radically new combinations. Was it there, or there? How many lines? A triangle?

I would hide these works before my fiancée returned from work, hoping to prolong our relationship, to keep from a fight, to allow myself to stay in the apartment for as long as possible. By the time she got back, I’d have a newspaper in hand, circling the classifieds, telling her about the leads I had checked that day. This process sustained until one afternoon, due to sickness, and completely unbeknownst to myself, she was released early from her duties.

She stepped inside our apartment to find me at the kitchen table and my work strewed across it, spilling onto the floor. Her confusion quickly turned to screaming and tears, as I tried to explain what I was attempting to do. She shouted at me, slammed her hands against the wall. I remained calm and reiterated what my goal was. Lowering herself to the ground, she sat cross-legged and began to sob uncontrollably. She picked a paper off the floor and stared at it while the tears continued to flow from her eyes, stared at it for five, six minutes. Then she crumpled it, compressed it with both hands, her forearms bulging, her face becoming red, before opening her grip and tearing chunks from its body, throwing them in every direction. It was useless to me regardless. She left that night.

Without her income, I considered a job, something which would allow me to keep the apartment and continue my project. I tried cashier at the local grocery. But I only made it three months before quitting of my own volition. There simply was not enough time to focus on the drawing, or the searches through the park. And so I left, lived off my savings for a few months, and then moved to the street. I asked the other homeless whether they recalled ever seeing a man like the one I had: a man with dirty thumb and black book, with gray socks and gray beard. And all of them had. But it was never the same man.

After years of searching, I thought it best to travel elsewhere—certainly he could have moved, must have moved. I began to hitchhike from state to state, spending time in every one, poking through parks, farms, cities. A decade melted away. But there was nothing. No sign of him. At that point, I moved back to New York, and have remained here since. My time is spent entirely on the replicas now, I barely move except to draw.

Here is a recent attempt (please see the following page):

[Photo above taken with my phone.]

It is the closest I have. Perhaps something can be built off it. But as of now, it is nothing. Absolutely nothing. Superficially similar, but completely without meaning.

I try to tell people. To tell them it is out there. To tell them it exists. But they simply move away, shield their children, laugh. Again, I do not blame them. But I am not insane. I know what it was. Please. You see what it has meant to me, you see what I have given up—and so you see it is the truth. Work off the attempt I have given you. Explain it to family and friends, have them make an effort as well. It is only a matter of time and trial; the pattern exists, it is out there. It must be found. You now know everything I do. I beg you: do not let it die.

*END OF NOTE*

That’s it. Again, I stuck his note back in the book before returning it, so if you want to poke through, I assume it’s still there.

I tried my own “attempt” (just some doodling during a Zoom work meeting) a week ago, half feeling it would be nice to honor the guy’s wishes, half as a gag. I recommend trying it—it’s what he wanted and it’s a fun little thing. I’ve actually done some more “attempts” myself since then; it’s been kind of addicting playing around with the combinations. Give it a go.

Tyler Plofker is a writer in NYC. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Maudlin HouseIdle InkDefenestrationBear Creek GazetteSublunary Review, and elsewhere. In his free time, you can find him eating sugary breakfast cereals, laying out in the sun, or walking through the streets of New York City in search of this or that. He tweets badly @TylerPlofker.