Multiples of Four

Marie Schutt


Before I find what I'm looking for it dies in the sun.

I can feel the small absence as it happens, a little pop, a spike in pressure. I turn around to go home.

I imagine the death of a man in the news, the shaky footage and scarcity of details, a hunt through the forest for parts. I think about a hunt for what I'm looking for, but I'm already looking. A hunt seems too much. A hunt seems redundant.

In front of my house is the scene of a terrible car accident, so I keep walking. There are parts strewn across the sidewalk. I am on foot so I pass carefully. I can't see any of the victims, but I can see their car, actually unrecognizable as a car, now a twisted heap of metal and glass hugging a thick gnarled tree. There are paramedics and policemen and many onlookers, standing around with expressions of horror on their faces. The nausea of the universe flows through them and out of their mouths. Or maybe I imagine that. I look a little as I walk by but I don't want to stay.

A little ways away my foot kicks up against a shiny white high-heeled shoe with a little spot of yellowish dried blood in its hooked heel. Probably from a bad blister. Probably healed over by now.

The sun is coming out intermittently, passing in and out of clouds, and when it does come out it irritates my scalp a little. I have an irritable scalp. But it's a little too cold in the shade. I finger the cell phone in my pocket that I can use to call anyone. There are four phone numbers in it. Things that go missing are different from things that cease existing.

Cottonwood trees release their seeds, tossing them out onto the wind. They'll end up in corners, stuck on wet things, fringing the grills of the neighborhood cars. On a summer day it's nice to have the illusion of snow. I cross the street and my house is now a block behind. The sun comes out and stays out.

I see a girl hula-hooping in her front yard and stop to watch. She doesn't notice me at first, she is so intent on the hula hooping, on moving her hips to get the physics right. Her eyes are closed and her face is pinched in like she's doing something difficult and painful and waiting for the payoff at the end. But she doesn't get it and gravity wins.

The hoop drops to the ground and her face pops open, disappointed.

She bends to pull the yellow hoop from the grass, snatching it angrily, and then she sees me standing there. She's surprised and then angry again. "Did you see?" she demands. I shrug and walk away. "How long were you standing there? Were you watching me?" she shrieks and I walk faster. Soon she is three houses behind me, five, ten. I can understand her embarrassment.

While I walk I think about how to rearrange my day. I no longer need the hours I'd set aside for searching. Sandy probably needs that prescription refilled. I hadn't checked the weather before going out though. And I don't have one of those cell phones that can do that. The pharmacy has a TV. Doesn't it? I head for the bus stop.

On the bus I marvel at this unexpected trajectory: a morning begun in the dirty moss between the trees, now an interlude on a crowded bus lurching toward noon.

A hula hoop, body parts, pills for Sandy.


While I wait for the prescription to be filled I go to the dollar store across the street. There is always something good in the bargain bin.

A box of cartoony valentines surfaces: eighty-nine cents for forty-eight cards. I remember the days back when there was a card for everyone, even people I didn't talk to. I tuck it under my arm and keep looking.

I buy the valentines and a Coke and walk back over to the pharmacy. The girl at the counter has freckles and shiny yellow nails. She says it's almost ready.

"Have you ever witnessed a car accident?" I ask her.

"No," she says, "but I did see a horse born."

"Well," I say, "Okay. Unexpected. I like that though. I open with disaster, you parry with the miracle of life." She laughs good-naturedly, her nails tapping against the touch screen. I'm feeling good, witty, about to ask where she's from when she says, "Sign here," and swivels the screen to face me.

She eyes the pink box still tucked under my arm. "Wrong time of year for those," she says. "Stocking up?" It's more polite than what I imagine she's thinking: How could you possibly have anywhere near forty-eight people to think of on any day of the year?

I think about the world that has inflicted this on me. I smile. "Yep," I say. "Saved a whole ten cents by shopping smart. It adds up." She hands over the skinny, crinkly white bag. The pills clatter inside like excited seeds. She says, "You're all set."


Kernels are hard to find in the woods. Applying logic, it would seem one could track down clusters underground, like ant eggs, with only a little natural knowledge to suss out details like maturation and potency. But one doesn't apply logic in the woods. One tries it in a city, and one can get quite far with cross streets and ascending avenues, but at one point or another we all, figuratively, wrap a car around an old tree. And the tree surprises us when we encounter it in the city. This city doesn't have them anymore, though, and outside the pharmacy there is no shade, so I stand for a moment sipping the Coke to keep cool.

There are a few hours left before my shift starts. I wonder if the car accident has been cleared up yet. It already seems like something that happened yesterday.

I realize I forgot to check the pharmacy's TV for the weather. I decide to go home.


The accident is mostly cleaned up when I get back. Little chunks of glass glitter under the slanting sun.

In the kitchen I pull the pills out of the prescription bag and tuck the bag into a drawer. (That unavoidable crinkling is like bees screaming from torture, Sandy says, intolerable.) I pad down the dark hall to her room. All locked up, as usual.


No answer. I rattle the pills. No answer. I lay the tiny bottle on the carpet in front of the door.

In the den I open the box of valentines and upend it over the coffee table. With the lights off a dark orange dinge hangs in the room. I'd almost had it, today. But it had been morning and I was too slow. I shake my head and raise a sheet of punch-out cards up close to my face to read them:


Each square has a bashful purple owl with goggling eyes printed on it, wreathed in hearts and question marks. I put them down and look at the dusty TV. It might be five already. Sandy might get hungry.

Let her sleep. I can think of forty-eight fucking people before my shift. I hunt through the couch for a pen and unearth an ancient Sharpie. Its sharp, mushroomy smell fills the room.

Today I got closer than yesterday.