June 7, 2020: “The Golden Mean” by Matthew Baker

Happy Sunday, Story366!

The Karen relays this story quite effectively over on her FB page, but here’s my take on what happened, anyway.

Karen was on a two-day writing retreat at a local hotel, and because we didn’t think it out, she didn’t have a car and we had to pick her up today. On the way back, I stopped at an ATM on the main drag through Springfield, and Karen, being the observant, caring person she is, noticed a homeless person lying in a blacktop parking lot across the street. It’s well over ninety degrees today in Springfield, and over the course of the lengthy transaction, the guy hadn’t moved. We drove across the intersection to check on the guy and found him alive, but barely responsive.

Soon, other people came to help. Another guy, who’d been hanging out further down the lot, in the shade, came over. This guy seemed to know him, seemed like he also was homeless (but later rode off on a new mountain bike and said he had to get home). He was able to rouse the guy, who was clearly not of right mind, be it from heat, dehydration, some sort of intoxication, or mental illness. Or a combo of any of these. The guy didn’t want to get up, either, so this other guy dragged him from the sunny blacktop to the shaded sidewalk in front of a mattress store. That’s when another guy pulled up, a young dude, and helped with the relocation. My oldest boy and I fetched the guy’s things—roller suitcase, gym bag, a baggie of food, a gallon of water—and put them next to him. Another woman pulled up at this point, said she was an EMT, and pointed out that the guy had a terrible wound on his neck, a blistered burn or some sort of infection—it was nasty. Karen called 911 and was talking to the operator while that first helper guy, the mountain bike guy, was able to get our boy upright, sitting against the building and drinking something.

All of a sudden, the previously passed-out guy leapt to his feet, insisted—in a kind of wayward gibberish—that he was okay. He also claimed he was a ninja and started Bruce Lee-posing, mixing it with random dancing.

The EMT lady left at that point, said he looked okay if he was dncing, but Karen was still on the phone with a 911 operator. The guy was making his way around the lot, still ninja-posing, rifling through his stuff, arguing with us in the same indecyperable gibberish.

He also started to get aggressive. We all moved to the far side of our car, keeping him at a distance, and before long, he was looking for a knife in a taped-together sheath on his belt—Karen told me his knife was stuck in the ground where we’d found him. At that point, we got into the car, Karen told the 911 people he was threatening us—he called me a bastard. They told us to keep our distance, but stick around until the ambulance arrived. Which we did. Once the guy had some professionals looking after him, we drove off.

So, lots to think about here. We’re glad we helped this guy—he might have died otherwise—and we’re glad we showed our boys that this was the right thing to do, that people have value and we all need to look out for each other. Sure, it got weird and a little ugly when the guy tried to attack us—good thing his knife wasn’t in the tape sheath, eh?—revealing the nonsensical results of drugs or schizophrenia, another good lesson. We also don’t know what happened to the guy, but a couple of EMTs were on scene, and really, we know he was going to end up somewhat better than when we found him. Maybe he ends up, passed on on blacktop, in another lot, tomorrow. Maybe he gets help for that burn/infection. Maybe _______.

Today I read from Matthew Baker‘s collection, </hybrid creatures/>, out in 2018 from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series. This is my first shot at Baker’s work, who also has another story collection out already, an award-winning children’s book, and a lot of credits in the comics industry. So, here I go, Matthew Baker.

The lead story, “Coder,” is about this college kid who was a computer hacker on the side until he figured out that the world’s leading hacker, Sensei, lived just blocks from the university. After camping out on Sensei’s front porch for a day, like some kind of ninja origin story, Sensei lets him in and takes him under his wing. At the story of this story, however, Sensei has been missing for weeks and our hero works to try and find him, plus attract the attention of a certain teaista, at whose shop he frequents between hackings.

“Movements” is about a conductor whose husband, Beau, has just died. Half the story is spent with her remembering Beau and their complicated relationship. The frontstory places her on a roof, where she’s locked herself by accident, the door to the stairwell closing behind her. Eventually she is joined by  Mel, a DJ, who came along and did the same thing. The two talk about music, about life, and eventually, about Beau.

The story I’m focusing on today is “The Golden Mean,” which is a mathematical term for a special ratio, kind of like the pi of ratios, a ratio that shows up in nature a lot, forming everything from rivers to seashells. The story’s about Tryg, a kid who spends his weekdays in the city with his mom, stepdad, and half-sisters, a place he genuinely enjoys; weekends he’s out at a farm with his dad, stepmom, and half-brothers, a place he genuinely hates. In fact, he spends most of the weekdays, which he should be enjoying, dreading the fact that the weekend will soon come and he’ll have to go to the farm. It’s basically what I do every summer, from around June 1 onward, dreading the end of summer and the restart of the new semester. So, Tryg, I feel you.

Anyway, Tryg, if you can’t guess, like’s math, so much so he thinks about math in everything that he thinks. He doesn’t look at people or places or tasks so much as themselves, but instead, formulas and statistics and other math-related things that I forgot about twenty-five years ago. Math dictates his life; it makes sense.

What we come to find out is only a hint, if that, as to why Try prefers one place over the other: his half-siblings. Tryg finds his half-sisters more amicable, even sweet, even … attractive? His farm-living half-brothers, however? They’re rough and tumble, the physical type, kids who drag Tryg into the brush for games that get them dirty, scraped up, and away from the safety of math and the computers, etc. To note, both sets of families seem to really like Tryg, treat him well—no abuse, nothing like that. His mom’s family, their situation, just lets Tryg be Tryg. And really, isn’t that what we all want?

I’ll point out that Baker likes using irregular characters in stories, just like in his book’s title. Tryg uses a lot of math symbols in his interior monologue. Our conductor’s story is split into section headings, mimicking the structure of an opera (I think …). And “Coder” includes a lot of html, which I actually know and understand, making the story seems like a program, the code for a website. I like this inclusion, as Baker shows restraint, strikes the proper balance, just enough of this to make a point, not enough to be distracting or gimmicky.

</hybrid creatures/> exhibits characters expeirencing great loss, great separation from the things, from the people, that make the world make sense to them, be it a dead husband, a mentor, or a comfortable space to be themselves. This leaves these protagonists in a state of anxiety, of self-exploration, and of growth, their circumstances forcing them to change. Matthew Baker is excellent at depicting these journeys, these trials, in his perfectly enjoyable debut, another collection already out and waiting for me to discover.