CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming


It's 1960. You can tell because everyone's hair looks funny.

"Mother of Hell," groans Fleuve. Her hair is long and straight and black, clumped into ropes by smears of vomit that steam in the winter morning air. Her knees shudder and then buckle. She hits the pavement and retches into the slush-clogged gutter.

The passersby give Fleuve wide berth. Nobody offers her help. They avert their eyes. They assume she's drunk.

When she's recovered her breath she steadies herself against a newspaper box, then checks herself in a shop window reflection. The other girls have loaned her their best, so she almost looks as if she belongs in this part of the city: overcoat, stohl, scarf, fur-trim boots, matching purse. She looks respectable, except for the stringy bile freezing into her hair. And, of course, except for her race.

She unfolds a scrap of paper, glances at it for the tenth time. She searches for the address through the haze of swirling snow, the bustle of rumbling trolleys and fin-tailed cars, the sparkling screen of tear-clung lashes. She feels like all the people who refuse to look at her are staring...

The doctor's office is so clean it looks like a movie set. The people waiting there look like actors from breakfast cereal commercials, rosy-cheeked kids fussing at the hem of mother's skirt. The nurse at the desk looks up and offers Fleueve a sort of mock-apologetic half-smile. "I think you're looking for..." she starts airily.

"Doctor Fleischer," Fleuve finishes.

"I'm sorry, we're not taking new patients at this time."

"I have an appointment. A quarter after nine. It's arranged."

The nurse purses her lips dubiously. "Is that so?"

It is, and soon enough Fleuve is pinioned in one of the waiting room's cruel wooden chairs, staring down blankly at a copy of the National Geographic Journal on her lap. There's a great white shark on the cover, roiling out of the surf, its mouth stained by prey. A new wave of nausea tugs at Fleuve's throat. She coughs tightly, eyes winced shut.

She's called. The nurse escorts her to a cold examination room. "Get undressed," she says, tossing a cotton gown on the table. She pauses on her way out, lingering half-turned at the jamb. "Everything in this room is accounted for, naturally. We'll notice if anything goes missing."

"Thank you," Fleuve whispers, then burps behind her hand.

The doctor doesn't speak during the examination except to give orders: breathe in, breathe out, turn over, unclench. His voice is crisp and expressionless. His hands are firm and dry, his instruments frigid metal. Fleuve swallows back bile as her stomach bucks. She does her best to comply quickly, and to gasp quietly or bite her lip when need be. She stares at the ceiling tiles, counting the holes.

In his office Doctor Fleischer sits behind a wide desk and studies his own notes. Fleuve sits opposite him, legs crossed and eyes down. He flips a page in her thin file. "Your breed tends to obesity," he says abruptly. "Considering that fact of your physiology you're far too skinny. You're eating for two now, and that means doubling up on protein. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Doctor Fleischer."

"Do you know what protein is? I'm talking about meat."

"Yessir. I try to eat, sir, but I get sick."

"Do you smoke?" he asks, taking out an ivory and pearl cigarette case.

"No thank you."

He chuckles, then lights his cigarette with a match. "I wasn't offering you anything, Miss Mississauga, I was asking a medical question."

"I'm sorry, Doctor Fleischer."


"Nossir, I don't smoke no cigarettes."

He makes a note. The back of his hand is hairy. Fleuve takes quick stock of where she will direct her vomit if she's overcome. She decides on a tin trash can beside the desk. The doctor breathes out a long, thin stream of smoke and then puts his pen aside and folds his hands on his blotter. "I won't be surprised if your bloodwork comes back showing malnutrition. You simply must make the attempt to rise up, Miss Mississauga, and take care of yourself properly. I know the disposition of your race doesn't make that easy, but this is Dean Willoughby's concern as well as your own."

"Yessir. I'm really grateful to Dean for arranging this here with you."

"You should be grateful to Dean for more than that. I understand he's putting you up, and seeing to your groceries? I've advised him, medically, on the correct course of action but as I'm sure you know he takes his Catholicism very seriously and therefore will not listen. Thus, it is up to us -- up to you in particular, Miss Mississauga -- to look after this situation in a way we can be proud of. Don't you agree?"

"Of course, Doctor Fleischer. I never wanted end it."

"That's fortunate considering Dean's stance," the doctor concedes. "The point is that we need to get you eating again. Now I'll tell you candidly that nine times out of ten the main culprit in morning sickness is simple feminine hysteria, but in extreme cases science does have some options."

"Like what, Doctor Fleischer?"

"Drug therapy. Have you ever heard of Kevadon? Of course you haven't. It's based on thalidomide, a very powerful relaxation agent developed in Germany. The prescription isn't inexpensive, however, but the results can't be argued. I'm going to recommend Dean get you on it as soon as possible. If I know him at all he'll meet you at the pharmacy with his chequebook if you want to call him now."

The doctor pushes his black telephone forward on the desk, but as Fleuve leans in to take the receiver he blocks her hand. "Dean Willoughby has been my patient for twenty years. His wife is my patient. His kids are my patients. So before we do this I need to know something, Miss Mississauga: I need to know, honest to Christ, whether this baby belongs to him."

"Sure," says Fleuve. "Sure it's his. It could only be his, sir. I swear."

The doctor looks her in the eye, hesitates, and then draws away from the black telephone and sits back in his chair. "Go ahead," he says, gesturing at the receiver with the short end of his cigarette. "I'll begin the paperwork."

She dials in the numbers. The line clicks and whirs.

"Hello? Dean? It's me," whispers Fleuve. "Is it alright to...? Alright. Yes, yes I'm here with him now. I'm in his office." She pauses, cocking her head as she listens. She lets herself smile when she tells him: "Doctor Fleischer says he might have a drug that can help me. Ain't that swell?"

She twirls her long hair, unconsciously flicking aside flakes of dried bile as she smooths out the knots.

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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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