Three of us watch Mears enter the diner and make his way between the two rows of tables. His shadow, cast long by the late afternoon light, rolls over the chairs and tabletops of one row. The front window takes up most of the wall and we can see in clean outline the name of the place, Chuey’s, overlaid across the green tile floor. With us we have a man who changed the i to an a so that his name became a palindrome. He is our only hope.
Mears takes your name. As soon as you say it, he speaks it in quick echo, and it is now his and no longer yours. We don’t know what he does with it or what it does for him, but we do know what happens to those he pilfers. The three of us here and the rest of our group back in the downtown warehouse know what happens when your name is stolen.
You notice nothing until your name comes into play, when somebody asks for it or you have to write it. Or, worst case, when somebody calls you by a name you don’t recognize. And not only do you not recognize the sound, you no longer recognize the speaker. You vaguely remember a time, just a moment ago, when maybe you did know them.
From there it only worsens. The constant experience of lost or vague recognition forces you to stay away from those who induce that in you, those who repeat that unrecognizable sound over and over in desperation, their expressions furrowing deeper into worry and anxiety. You cannot be present with anyone who believes they know you, those who grab your sleeve, take hold of your shoulders. You have to find a place to live where a name is not required, where identity remains irrelevant. Eventually you lose your job and have to find another one where no one knows you, where a name stops mattering right after you sign your contract. Where you are only a number.
And mirrors become terrifying things, framing a confused stranger who begins gasping for air, as though he is submerged in clear shallow water. We roam downtown, careful to avoid dark windows, the still water of inactive fountains, shiny black planes of public sculptures.
Our only real solace happens in the moment when you notice another one like you, another Mears victim. You notice how they look at you, how they try to recognize you, like a long-lost childhood friend who happens to cross your path in a crowd, on a sidewalk. A friend who no longer knows your name and efforts to remember flinch along their body, a half-lifted hand, a faint squint in the eyes, parted but soundless lips.
That’s how we manage to gather, to come to live together in our warehouse, those with jobs for the nameless pooling their wages for the whole group.
We still have our memories. We’re just not in them anymore. Any time we go back, we have to re-insert ourselves into whatever event, action, or image we are trying to recall. We don’t participate. We are audiences for our own memories. And everybody in them is a stranger of course, save for those memories that formed after our names were taken.
197 once reads to us from a book about memory and the senses. He often reads to us after the evening meal. He is the only one of us who is willing to risk the dangers of reading for any significant length of time. What happens when we read books, especially novels and poetry, is a kind of possession. You read long enough about a character’s sensations, thoughts, feelings, dreams, fears, and desires and you are lulled into thinking they are you, your nameless absence filled with paper counterfeit. Character names appear on the page as word jumbles, and in your head they clatter like broken toys. For days after, your brain is scrambled with all of this. You forget your prime. Sometimes a group of us will have to gather and rescue such a victim who sinks too deeply into the illusion, begins to spiral downward. We take turns gently bracing their shoulders. We quietly converse to one another about a chosen topic, a successful street harvest that day, a newly invented warehouse game, one of 191’s recent paintings, or plans for a fun outing.
For some reason, 197 is inured to this book effect. We think maybe he reads without thinking and imagining, like riding a bicycle without any thought to balance or adjust. The letters move his lips and tongue but do nothing to his mind. He can think of flying kites while reading an adventure scene set in a catacomb. We think he was probably that way before Mears took his name. That gives us strange hope—that we might still be what we were before.
The palindrome idea was five’s. We were on stakeout at the lakeshore and we saw Mears identify his mark, a woman crying while she fed some geese pieces of her lunch. Mears, dressed in a suit, pretended he was some kind of park official and warned her about feeding geese potato chips. Then he pretended to be surprised that she was crying. In his apology he asked for her name. He knew all kinds of sly ways to get people to say their names. She told him it was Ava. He just nodded and walked away, never echoing the name back to her, not taking it. At first we thought that maybe the crying, the wave of emotion inside the woman, was what protected Ava.
Back in the warehouse, resting on found pillows and couches, we discussed other possibilities. He just felt sorry for her. They were too close to water. He didn’t like the taste of the name. After that suggestion, that’s when five got the palindrome idea. Palindromes were Mears’ kryptonite. We find a person with a palindrome for a name and use them as bait and maybe that ends Mears and allows us to begin again. The first main challenge with this plan was convincing or tricking the palindrome into cooperating. Mears was very good-looking and personable. His eyes were green and sympathetic, his smile ironically self-effacing. So this challenge will become easier when we reveal Mears to the palindrome. The second challenge was how to get Mears to unwittingly echo the palindrome name after he heard it. After all, he did hurry away from Ava. So that’s when five realized we needed to find someone with a name not commonly written as a palindrome. We searched every public listing we could think of—white pages, attendance sheets, volunteer groups, race results. Eleven found him, found him on a list of competitors in a city-wide Scrabble tournament. When we asked him how his name came to be spelled that way, he told us his folks were word-game buffs, that they played those games every evening instead of watching TV. He changed the i to an a to honor his parents when they agreed to pay his way through college. He knew they would love that change, that little game within a name.
In the diner, we watch Mears scan the room, then take a seat at the bar. As usual, he orders a glass of beer and watches the effervescence gather beneath the foam. He turns and scoots the glass to catch the sunlight, a light almost the color of the beer. As usual, he never drinks the beer. We have been watching him for a long time. But we cannot say for how long, because one of the things you steadily lose without a name is your sense of time—time passing. We know it’s been a while. We can anticipate every gesture, every destination, every decision in Mears. When he rubs one eye, he has begun figuring his mark. When he rubs both, as though he is weary, he has decided. When he licks his lips, he is about to feed.
He watches his beer and licks his lips. The waitress thinks he’s about to finally drink his beer. But we know otherwise. Eleven touches five’s shoulder. From the other side, seventeen places a gentle hand on five’s forearm. Even though Mears has not looked directly at our palindrome, we know he has taken the bait. Five breathes steadily through softly parted lips. We are careful not to look at Mears, to stay behind our menus and pretend cellphones and focus on our palindrome.
When we first started finding each other, started gathering together, started keeping house in the abandoned building twenty-three had discovered, started pooling our wages, we knew we would have to find some way to differentiate. There were too many of us, each with particular roles, to go by “hey you” and “woman” or “man” or “girl” or “boy.” We tried names that were also nouns, verbs or adjectives: Rose, John, Hamlet, Foster, Merry, Red, Hill, Fortunata. We tried words that were not names. We tried descriptive phrases: She combs her hair, One who will listen, She laughs when sad, Other than that, Persists nonetheless. We finally resorted to the obvious—numbers. And we found that those who chose prime numbers maintained their labels, held on to a fragment of identity, a quantity only divisible by one or itself.
All of us are now primes. We see and feel our forms as the lines, curves, angles, and intersections of our numbers. At least it’s something. And in groups of primes, we discover that we can sense some commonality which gives us something more—a kind of shared self. With eye contact, we connect and separate at the same time. In these prime groups, eyes serve as our mirrors, our only reflections.
Fifty-three is best at this, the elusive color of her eyes pulling you, their unwavering guise pressing. Held between this intrigue and chary, you can at least measure your thoughts as your own, sense that maybe once you existed within a membrane exclusively yours, permeable yet containing. For as long as she gazes, you believe you can someday be that way again. Several times later, as you lay on a found mattress and search the dimness of the warehouse rafters for memories, you can recall the way fifty-three received you with her eyes. And for a moment you feel that way again, believe that way again.
If we did not do something, this would go on forever. We realize this one evening when the waning light throws shadows over the warehouse floor, forming squares on the concrete. We play a game we devised that is something like foursquare but you can’t use your hands and because the boundary lines are formed by shadows of the window frames, they are constantly shifting with the lowering of the sun.
While standing in line to wait for her turn, 191 wonders aloud what the last prime number is. I mean, she asks, how many of us can there be?
Seven answers. He’s the only one of us who can truly shape his body into his prime, into himself. We envy him. And five knows that’s exactly why seven chose his particular prime.
The number is infinite, he tells us, causing the game to pause, the line to collapse. There are an infinite number of primes, he explains. Yes, we think that’s not possible because after so many numbers accumulate, there would have to be more dividers. But that’s not what happens, he says as he crouches and begins to draw on that section of the floor designated for our chalk art.
Assume otherwise, he says, looking down as though he were addressing the gray surface. Then in blue chalk he writes out the proof on the concrete:
P = p1 x p2 x p3 x … x pn + 1
We gaze at the equation. The shadow lines on the floor slide with the lowering of the sun, stretching the boundaries of our game. There can be an infinite number of us. Mears can live forever. If we do not do something.
It took some doing to find the one who is our only hope, to sift through all of those public lists. It took even more doing to convince him that we were not insane and that we needed his help. We explained the risks. He finally went for it, we think, for the play, out of nostalgia for those TV-free evenings with his parents. Maybe he saw us as a living word game. And there was something forlorn about him, dreams lost even though he was still young enough to find new ones. He did not appear to fear losing his name, his bearing in life, his self. We worried about that recklessness. We worried that he wanted our plan to fail, wanted Mears to win and strip this self-made palindrome of memory and soul.
The evening before we were to execute our plan, our palindrome sits within the circle of us listening to 197 read a story about two lovers whose paths keep failing to cross, who forever circle each other like hawks in the sky. Our palindrome interrupts.
Wait, he says and points to our reader. You’re 197. Then he points to the woman sitting next to him on the found sofa. And you’re 199. How can that be? How can primes so high be that close to each other?
Seven answers. There are an infinite number of primes. He opens his hands toward all of us, acknowledging that we all know this now. But, he says, clasping his hands, there are also an infinite number of primes only two numbers apart.
He crouches and with blue chalk writes the proof on the concrete floor.
The chalk makes a soft sound on the hard surface, rhythmical but varied, the steady beating of wings. After a moment, 197 resumes reading the story about the lovers and from time to time we steal glimpses of the blue proof on the gray floor.
The diner seems to go quiet as Mears stands and faces in the direction of our palindrome. We imagine we can hear the fizz of his abandoned beer. Eleven’s hand continues to rest on five’s shoulder. From the other side, seventeen gives a hopeful squeeze to five’s forearm. And five breathes steadily through parted lips. We continue to pretend with our dead phones while throwing side-glances toward our palindrome. The other diners sip their coffees, idly stir their frijoles with forks, carving parallel grooves. Everything appears normal to all of them. They have names. Most are thinking about their past, the rest their future. We hide in their present.
Mears ambles toward his target as though he is remembering, a considering tilt to his head, hesitant strides of varied lengths. Our palindrome pretends not to notice as he plays his part with an ease that worries us. It might be that ease that comes with recklessness. As instructed, he pretends to scroll through his phone with one hand while fingering the condensation on his bottle of tamarindo. The key to baiting Mears is to blend the right balance of innocence and inquisitiveness. We test this several times with hired subjects, warning them not to utter their names. We take in those who fail to heed that caution and those who don’t believe us and just want our money. We give them prime numbers and full care, find them new jobs, show them the ropes.
As rehearsed, our palindrome counts to thirteen and glances at the oncoming Mears, then returns to his phone screen. He then counts to seven and repeats this glimpse, adding a lift of his chin. We set down our pretend phones and watch like night animals.
Mears uses the new-in-town routine, politely interrupting with an apology. Our palindrome is careful not to be too receptive. He simply stills his hand above his phone and sips from his bottle of tamarindo. He listens to Mears finish the opening to his act by asking for recommendations for places to visit. Mears is smooth. He says he trusts our palindrome’s judgment because he has the imagination to dine in a place like this, a place where the food is much better than the price and décor. Where things are made from scratch.
To our surprise, our palindrome is equally smooth. He contemplates for a moment, then remarks on the odd nature of “made from scratch,” wonders aloud how that expression came to be.
After this, he makes eye contact. Mears explains that it dates back to the late eighteenth century, when the word scratch referred to the starting line drawn in the dirt before a race or a cricket match. This scratch in the sand was where things began. Starting from scratch meant starting from the very beginning. Made from scratch meant preparing the dish from the primary ingredients.
We remind ourselves to avoid getting entranced by Mears’ voice, invested in his words. We roll our shoulders and re-focus. Mears, with just a slight wave of hand, asks to join our palindrome’s table. Our palindrome replies with a silent gesture of his own, a brief opening of his hands toward the empty chair. He is too good at this. We begin to worry that he is a plant, sent to infiltrate us by a suspicious Mears. We fear what the two of them might have in store for us. What more could be stripped of our entities? What form of value could remain? As it is, we are empty enough, hollow and spent as seashells.
Five feels eleven’s hand grip his shoulder, seventeen’s grasp of his forearm become less hopeful. Touch is perhaps the most intimidating sense for us. It’s like smoke curling off a snuffed candle, with that odd point of emptiness between the wick and the gray rise. As you pass your fingers through the wisps, you almost sense the difference between the smoke and the air. Whenever fifty-three brushes her thumb along the tender underbelly of five’s wrist, the smoke thickens and the space retracts for both of them. To calm his nerves, five thinks of this as he watches.
Our palindrome continues with his smooth play. He waits for Mears to settle in the chair across the table. Well then, he says. Perhaps we should start from scratch. He pantomimes drawing a line on the Formica surface between them. Then he looks and waits as though he’s opened with his knight rather than a pawn.
Mears offers his hand for shaking and says his name. Neither man overplays his position. Mears does not directly ask for a name, just maintains the handshake and eye contact, letting his own name resonate. Every time, he uses a different first name. Our palindrome also waits, extending the handshake. We wonder if Mears is suspicious. Maybe he is onto us. But then he bites.
And yours? he asks.
The sound carries softly, the two syllables of a heartbeat. As usual, Mears relishes this moment before the echo and inhales as though he can savor the bouquet.
Well, Davad, he says, lips parted to say more. But he loses his voice.
At first, he blinks in confusion, and then his eyes go wide and still in realization. We recognize the expression. It is the same one each of us wore the second we realized our names had been taken, the same one we see whenever we mistakenly see our reflections in a mirror, that panicked stranger gasping for breath just below the surface of clear water.
Mears stumbles away from the table. He slumps and looks down and back, like someone who has dropped his keys while walking. He turns in the direction of this downward look. And he keeps turning like this as he slowly twirls his way toward the diner’s exit, an old dog chasing its tail. The palindrome inside him slides back and forth, d to a to v to a to d again and again, a sling hammer within his skull.
We watch the way you might watch a dust devil make its way across your path, lifting then dropping, lifting then dropping, until it loses substance and collapses from view. It’s still there, you know, but there is nothing for the wind to carry.
When we turn to check on our palindrome, we find that he is gone. The surface of his table is covered with a thin layer of salt. In the salt he has etched the number 239, what he would have chosen to be if our plan failed.
Back in the warehouse, together we do feel a sense of fulfillment, that we did ourselves and the world a favor. For a while, we feel something close to elation, divers rising to the surface along with the bubbles of our breath.
Working to defeat Mears gave us a sense of purpose. We lost that and were left to search for something new, inward and outward. About half of us pack our things and leave, feeling ready to try again. They are all later primes, ones who haven’t been here that long and grown used to our ways. We don’t remember our names. We don’t remember anything new. But I can tell you that I am Five, one of the first. And that somewhere along our timeless line I fall in love with Fifty-three. The lines and curves of her shape match mine, but there is more to her.
Seven composes proofs on the concrete floor, known ones in blue, speculative ones in green. Those of us who remain understand that eventually the entire floor will be covered, that some of the green will change to blue, that the equations somewhere along the line will have to start overlapping. That this will be our home.