Monday, May 28, 2012

"Next!": chapter 1

  1. (adj.) coming immediately after the time of speaking or writing (temporal)
  2. (adj.) immediately adjacent (proximity)

The first hundred whole numbers all decided to get their hair cut the same day at the same barber.  Since they were already numbers, they were not required to take one.  (It's considered offensive in their culture.)  Mr. Ordinal, the owner and only barber on duty at that early hour of the day, announced that they would all be served in their natural order.  One Hundred sighed.

I should tell you that odds and evens often have very different expectations and requirements for their hair cuts and so they are often serviced by barbers who specialize in one of the other.  But Mr. Ordinal was a professional of the highest order and took each client in sequence.  On the other hand, Mr. Ordinal had not counted on having such a prodigious quantity of clients in his waiting room and so he phoned up two of his specialist barbers to ask them to come in as soon as possible.  He got their answering machine and only hoped that they didn't have negative feelings about coming into work on such short notice.

Now whole numbers are such naturals at following each other in turn that it was not necessary for Mr. Ordinal to announce the name of the next client.  When he was done with One, he simply called out, "Next!" and Two's eyes lit up as he marched over to the chair.  Mr. Ordinal was no stranger to hard work, but by the time he had finished with Fifteen, he was becoming anxious for help from his specialists.  He exhaled loudly and, as if on cue, Maud and Steven stepped in.

"I'm so relieved to have you here!" Mr. Ordinal said with a sense of priority.  "Now we can really get some work done."  Much more quietly he added, "And you can take Seventeen, Maud.  She can be such a prima donna..."

While Steven took Sixteen and Maud took Seventeen, Mr. Ordinal took 5 (minutes that is) to visit with Johnny, his nephew who had just walked in for his first day of work.  He had offered to let his nephew manage the till that summer for minimum wage.  He had reasoned to his nephew, saying, "It isn't a lot of money, I know, but it's a good way to learn to interact with a variety of people.  It'll serve you well in the future."

"I had hoped you would be here at opening at 8:00 o'clock," Mr. Ordinal said.  Johnny's slightly widened eyes plead ignorance for him.  "Oh, well, we didn't really discuss hours properly yet.  We'll figure it out before day's end."  And so, Johnny began to man the till and call clients when it was their turn.  Without being told, he quickly learned that the numbers didn't mind if you just said, "Next."  They understood perfectly well what it meant.

But, mind you, there was now an added level of complexity.  Mr. Ordinal could take everyone in sequence, but Steven and Maud specialized.  But Johnny soon had the hang of it.  If it was Mr. Ordinal's turn to take a new client, he would call, "Next," and the lowest number not already served or being served would step over to the chair.  If Steven was ready for another client he would say, "Next even," and for Maud, "Next odd," and the predictable would happen.  The lowest even or odd number, not already served or being served, would step into the available chair.

At last, Ninety Nine and One Hundred were getting their hair cut.  Overall, Mr. Ordinal enjoyed his job, but to listen to these last two clients of the day complaining about their comrades was almost insufferable.

Ninety Nine would say, "You know the problem I always have with One is that when I call him a second time, he always get's this puzzled look on his face, as if maybe I might mean some other One."

"Well, what about Two?  He's always moping about being the first loser," One Hundred said, derisively.

Closing up shop that evening, Johnny and his uncle swept and put things away and got ready to lock the doors.  "Well then, will it be 8:00 o'clock tomorrow?" his uncle said, not unkindly.

"Yes, sir, uncle O," Johnny said with all the enthusiasm the wear of the long day would permit.

Mr. Ordinal seemed to think some sort of closing remark was necessary to end the day.  "You know it was a long day, but I'll say this for our clients today, they were very orderly.  It makes things go so much smoother."  He took a deep breath and smiled, but strangely.  "You should see what the days are like."

His uncle's last remark left Johnny a bit puzzled.  It sounded on the surface like a knowing remark about the sorts of things that may happen throughout the summer.  Or perhaps it was a way of saying, "You'll find out if you like this sort of work after you've had more experience."  And yet, to hear Uncle Ordinal say it just so as he did, it seemed more cryptic than that.

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