Mathemagics

Copyright 1996

by Margaret Ball

Prologue

        Over the years he had formed a habit of checking Vera’s underwear drawer for unsuitable objects. No matter how often he explained to her that a habit of nibbling on sweets would only exacerbate her weight problem, she regularly concealed boxes of chocolates in the underwear drawer and he as regularly threw them into the trash. Here, too, he found the worldly magazines like Redbook and Good Housekeeping that she sneaked home from the supermarket and the sleazy dangling earrings that he had explicitly told her to throw away--so unsuitable for the wife of a man of God. Hiding these things under her panties was Vera’s little act of childish rebellion, and he didn’t begrudge it her; women had to be allowed their trivial outlets. And at least she had better sense than to complain when her inappropriate possessions disappeared.
        But this! Boatright drew the book slowly out of its hiding place. Raised gold foil letters shrieked out a title against a scarlet background: Love’s Tender Promise. Beneath the letters were two half-naked figures entwined in a shameless embrace, the woman with her eyes closed and leaning back in the arms of a blond brute whose intentions were all too clear. . . .
        This time Vera had gone too far. Here he was, as head of the American Values Research Center, fighting the good fight to keep smut off the bookstands and out of the schools, and she was betraying him by smuggling the stuff into their own home! He couldn’t just pitch this thing into the garbage can; this time, sterner measures were called for. He would commit this book to the flames. And he would leave the little pile of ashes in the middle of the patio, to let Vera know exactly what he thought of her latest transgression.
        Box of matches in one hand, book in the other, Bob Boatright marched with almost military precision towards the flagstone patio where he barbecued steaks on weekends. The September sun glared down on his head, almost hot enough to burn the book without help; already the long Texas summer had turned the grass around the patio to clusters of dry, shriveled stalks. He dropped the book on top of the barbecue grill and held a match to its lurid cover.
        The match flickered and went out.
        No doubt that glossy stuff they put on the covers made the books harder to burn. No matter; the pages inside would go quickly enough. He had only to lay the book face open on the grill . . .
        It fell shut again as soon as he let go of it.
        Bob Boatright’s lips narrowed to a thin, determined line as he wrestled with the book. Eventually he was able to wedge the back cover and pages 301–346 under one of the greasy wires of the barbecue grill, the front cover and pages 1–30 under another wire, cracking the spine and leaving pages 31–299 fluttering wantonly in the warm September sun.
        “Now,” he said, and again applied match to paper.
        Page 218 burst into flames most satisfactorily, blackening and curling as it burnt until nothing could be read but a few words right at the spine of the book. Pages 216 and 219 also caught fire, but burned only halfway into the book before slowing down to a grudging smolder. The pages between them slowly blackened. A breath of wind fanned the grill and small blue flames burst up for a moment, then died down again.
        The pages must be jammed together so tightly that there was no oxygen for the flames to consume. Boatright found a branch in the grass and poked at the book, first gingerly, then more firmly. Each prod was rewarded by a brief spurt of blue flame and the sight of a few more pages blackening.
        Sweat rolled down his forehead and spattered his glasses. He looked at his watch. He had been standing in the September sun for nearly half an hour, in front of a blazing fire-- well, no, not exactly blazing, that was the problem. It was taking forever to get rid of this one miserable paperback. How had Hitler managed those famous book-burnings of the thirties? Wrong, of course, a different thing entirely, everybody knew the Nazis had been evil; still, Boatright thought wistfully, they knew how to get things done. Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Hitler burned thousands of books. Well, hundreds anyway.
        What was their secret? No half measures, that was it! “Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. Deuteronomy 7:5,” Boatright intoned. He grabbed the can of fire-starter fluid and sloshed its contents liberally over the book, the grill, the ground, and his shoes. Then he backed away and threw a lighted match into the middle of the barbecue grill. Flames shot up.
        And around.
        And all over . . .
        The untended stretch of weeds between the patio and the neighbor’s fence, golden-dry from a long Texas summer, blazed up more gaily even than page 219. Boatright watched in horror as the fire reached the neighbor’s new wooden fence. The sun-dried boards crackled and blackened in the heat; a gust of wind swept a shower of sparks over the fence to catch the dry grass next door. There was a clanging sound in Boatright’s ears, a howling that seemed to come from all directions at once, as if Satan Himself and a hundred devils were mocking him.
        Actually, there were only three fire engines. But Boatright never noticed when the devilish howling of the sirens ceased; he was being pushed out of the way by large, crude men in protective gear, who shouted orders at one another and dragged heavy equipment across Vera’s autumn garden and soaked his shoes when he didn’t move out of the way fast enough.
        And when the brush fire had been reduced to a soggy black mess covering most of the Boatright backyard and the two neighboring yards, the men who’d put it out spoke very crudely to Boatright himself.
        “What kind of a damn fool burns trash outdoors after a four-month drought? Haven’t you ever heard of the fire ordinance? Oughta write up a citation, but I don’t have time for the (obscenity) (obscenity) paperwork. Anyway I figure it’s gonna cost you enough getting that fence rebuilt for Miz Riggs. And you are gonna pay for it, right, you (obscenity) (expletive) jackass?”
        Bob Boatright nodded and croaked agreement.
        When the men had gone away again, he waded through soot and mud to satisfy himself that he had at least cleansed the world of one filthy thing that day. The charred, vaguely rectangular lump on top of the barbecue grill could no longer be considered a book . . . could it?
        When he picked the thing up, greasy ashes covered his hands, fell away in clumps and stained his pants.
        The pages of the book were a blackened clump of ashes, but the lurid cover leered up at him, charred but still indecent: wisps of pink and scarlet, lush female flesh and floating veils. Boatright crumpled it in his hand and marched toward the back door just as his wife opened it.
        “For mercy’s sake, dear,” she exclaimed, “whatever is going on? Was there a fire?”
        Vera’s powers of reasoning were apparently undiminished. She could recognize a charred backyard and a burnt fence when she saw them.
        “Are you hurt? What happened?” She looked down at the blackened object in his hand. “And what have you done with my book? Darn it, Bob, I hadn’t finished yet! Now I’ll never find out if Maura married Kenneth and reformed from smuggling!”
        “You’ll be better off not corrupting your mind with such filth,” Boatright said. “What if our little Becky had found it? Did you ever consider that?”
        “But what have you been doing? It looks like the whole backyard is gone.”
        When tried beyond endurance, even a decent Christian man can yell at his wife. “It wouldn’t burn!” Boatright shouted, and stalked past his wife into the house. His feet left sooty prints on the beige carpeting.
        

Copyright 1996 by Margaret Ball

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