Robert Shuster

a solution to the
barber paradox

the party was naomi’s invention, conceived in one of her late-night funks. The television seduced her: she made another of her calls to a nameless placeless 3am voice, who this time took her order for a beard groomer, not sold in stores. The idea had its seed. At lunch the next day, still groggy from her sleeping pill, she wrote on an index card “I do not know myself” in large magic marker letters and attached it by magnet to the fridge. Later in the afternoon, she named the party: The Mask Removed, An Examination of A Lost Face. It would be important and extravagant, she told her bearded husband Henry, with torrents of the best champagne, tables cluttered with oysters and pâté, dozens of guests in their finest evening wear, all witnesses to his once-in-a-lifetime unveiling. When the groomer arrived in the mail the following week, Naomi immediately discarded it.


A professor of mathematics, Henry had developed over the years a calming habit of assigning equations at social events. In corners, he sipped sherry and quietly observed. The hyperbola he gave tonight to Liz Nomo, one of Naomi’s former co-workers; her off-color, high-strung descriptions of behavior observed on public buses were sending her listeners into hysterics. The sine wave, at various frequencies and amplitudes, went to the manic-depressives, such as Pauline and fat Arty in Anthro, currently both in troughs. He took an integral of Physicist Ed, from 7pm to 9pm, at which time Ed, weakly smiling, would promptly leave (). The guests, in tuxedos, suits, and spaghetti-strap gowns, behaved with typical patterns of grouping and dispersion, crowding the islands of oysters, pâté, and martinis, and slyly slipping from room to room with sudden appearances, as if in some sort of Riemann space.

The guests avoided lengthy conversations with Henry, a relief to him, really; they seemed to sense that the beard removal was merely the excuse for gathering, that he would later announce something grave, like divorce or the recent diagnosis of a terrible disease. He touched his beard more often tonight, trying to gauge what its absence might mean. Hoping Naomi’s belief in the significance of its removal might be valid.


“I am going to blindfold you now,” the kidnapper said, sweeping a black silk scarf through the air in a flourish worthy of magicians. Through the windshield, Henry watched calm pedestrians pass near the car like fragments of memory. “If you try to remove it,” the kidnapper said, “I will cut both of your eyes out.”


Naomi had convinced him, playing television tricks she’d learned while under the 4am spell of blue pills and amaretto: the lure of instant metamorphosis. The 48-hour fix. Painless positive change, with a money-back guarantee.

“It wouldn’t be an accomplishment,” Henry insisted, “so there’s no reason for celebration. For a party. I’d feel rather stupid.”

“You’ve groomed it for 22 years, like a dedicated gardener who cannot conceive of removing the shrub. Like a bathroom Sisyphus in love with his task. You could have virtually a new life. You could touch your face and say, ‘I do not know myself.’ That would be an accomplishment. A cause for celebration.”

Each morning she’d added details while painting wakefulness with eyeliner, lipstick, and powder. Yesterday she told him about an actress she’d hired to read a brief paragraph, some uplifting quotation. It seemed to be getting a little out of hand.

“It helps me think,” Henry said. “It helps me focus. I don’t know if I can lose that. You like the feel of it against your skin. Even your thighs, you told me once.” But he could not remember the last time he’d even seen her pubic hair.

“You can always grow it back.”

“There’s that period of total exposure. I don’t know.” Yes, he remembered: a few weeks ago, when she was in the bathtub and he had to retrieve a mathematics journal he’d left beside the toilet. Her tight black curls clustered with tub bubbles as small as the fizz of champagne.

“I think we both need this,” she said. “It removes history. It’ll force us into some sort of new behavior. I’m sure of it.” Naomi gulped her coffee, eyeing him, then pressed her palms against his cheeks, curled two fingers under his nose, lined her thumbs along his chin, covering as much of the beard as she could. She said, “I do not know myself.”


His only joke of the entire party. A solution to the barber paradox.


The bathroom as temporary sanctuary. The solemn face he always gave the mirror, sobering, not matching the pleasant buoyancy of drink. Naomi called it his mirror face and laughed every time she caught him. He touched the sherry flush of his cheeks, then the beard, making sure. The quiet compactness of bathrooms, the orderliness of their folded towels and scented bars of soap always elicited sudden private analysis at parties, quick judgments of performance and meaning. Had he been cheerful enough? His own party, after all. Not so much a party as a quasi-tribute. He hated tributes, the false sincerity of them. But not even a tribute, was it? That presumed too much.

The beard jokes had been gathering momentum, especially among the hard sciences, who always tried to appear boisterous when standing near sociology and economics. He would use the barber paradox later; he had practiced the words as if they were a lecture. But tonight true humor seemed just beyond him, available only with the next drink or brief dialog. Outside the closed door the party operated noisily, an accelerating mob not requiring his attention. And yet, in the end, it did. There were expectations. The Mask Removed. Fancy lettering on the invitations. The guests had come for an event. They would be listening for the snip of the scissors, for water running, for the sound of the can emitting its green cream. Naomi had told them, a little proudly he thought, that he would not use an electric razor. Both at the age of fifty-two, they sometimes prided themselves on a little old-fashionedness. Naomi always proclaiming at gatherings that she knew how to make a Rob Roy. Henry sometimes admitting that he still remembered how to tie a reverse half-Windsor.

Hands on the sink, the annoying bulge of his lower abdomen pressing against the porcelain. His mouth close enough to the bathroom mirror to fog an ellipse. He had agreed to everything. He would be transformed.


Liz and Ed opposites, polarizing the party, each an attractor. Liz was the kind of Japanese woman that Naomi said she found appealing—a little pudgy, a full-cheeked round face. She had plenty of energy and a bluntness that caught you by surprise. Men crowded her because she was apt to talk of sex after precisely three drinks. And plain Ed, who always parked himself in the kitchen, who was doomed to remain dedicated to his inertia, had the reverse effect, that of making anyone speaking to him feel socially superior.

A clean-shaven man Henry did not recognize stood alone near the foxtail fern, cradling a martini. The clean-shaven possessed Henry tonight; he could not stop himself from staring. All that flesh of chins and jowls and upper lips, all that exposure. The man near the fern had a friendly doggish face, deep lines in skin that seemed slightly inflated—a face Henry imagined he himself might have when the hair was gone. The man appeared to be a little uncomfortable. Probably someone Naomi had just met in her latest contract as facilitator of efficiency and focus. She would breeze into various companies, knowing very little of what they actually did, but would transform disarray into teams and flowcharts, never failing to win admiration. It was all about maxims and flourishes and the authority of the sleeveless black dress.


Blindfolded in a car. Oddly, the experience wasn’t new. Two years ago, the monumental fiftieth birthday. He had acquiesced yet again to one of Naomi’s schemes. She’d insisted that the post-dinner event be a surprise, even though he hated surprises. While she drove, he wore a sleeping-shade, but too embarrassed to be seen, he crouched low in the seat, keeping it reclined, as if he were being smuggled. After she parked, he removed the shade and looked up to see the gigantic screen of a drive-in theater, which soared with the flesh of soft-core pornography.

The kidnapper driving him somewhere, somewhere, God only knew. Blindfolded, Henry tried to take even breaths, trying to calm himself before the next surprise.


The house phone rang, interrupting his only joke of the night. A solution to the barber paradox. “There is a village,” he’d begun, “and in this village there is a barber.” Already Liz was beginning to giggle and others, like Marco and Janet, drunk and not giving a damn about the party’s meaning, were smiling. Arty was on the edge, undecided about whether he would risk the shame of not understanding. Physicist Ed had his ears perked, intent on finding fallacy. But the phone rang, and since Henry was both host and focal point he felt he should answer it so as not to appear disengaged. Disengagement, a disease these days, was a nagging fear of his, larger these days than dysfunction. He answered the phone and was greeted by a man’s voice, a little strained perhaps, asking if someone might come over and witness the signing of his suicide note, as a sort of notary public gesture. Henry immediately hung up, explaining to the joke circle that it had been a wrong number. He continued with the joke, though with somewhat less enthusiasm.


Before the bathroom mirror, he practiced his speech, producing the kind of anxiety he felt on the first day with freshmen:

“Naomi has called this a metamorphosis for me, a life transformation, a chance to know myself as someone else. It was fearful moment to remove that last bit of hair, just under the nose, but when I splashed the water on my face and felt skin, I was thrilled. The simplicity of touching your own face. It had the beauty of a proof, of sudden discovery. Ladies and gentlemen, Henry II.”

But what did he know of discovery? Over the years, he had not been brilliant. The flashes of mathematical insight had eluded him. He had admired mathematics the way one admires art in a museum. But he had never been brilliant. He had placed ambition on a topmost shelf, where it sat like a memento whose whimsical purchase you cannot recall—something you take down once a year, hoping for a little feel-good nostalgia.

Henry touched his beard and decided he truly wanted to remove it. He would be transformed. He had begun to believe this. It seemed, happily, that his students were recently surprised by what they surely saw as his new energy, his new enthusiasm for filling twice as much blackboard with Fourier transforms and group theory.

He discarded any thought of making a speech.


There is a village, small and simple. And in this village there is a barber. Of the men living here, the barber shaves only those who do not shave themselves. So who shaves the barber?

It can’t be the barber, because if he shaves himself, then he does not shave himself. If he does not, then he must shave himself, for he shaves only those who don’t. An old-fashioned paradox, popularized by Russell at the turn of the 20th century, a bit outdated in this day of electric and disposable razors.

But here is a simple solution: why assume the barber needs a shave? Like any man made silly by a paradoxical life, he prefers to dignify himself with a beard. It wasn’t much of a joke after all, wasn’t very funny. But the kidnapper laughed at the second telling of it that night. An extreme kind of laugh, eyes closed, head back, all fillings visible. “I’m perhaps a little drunk,” he said, “but I’ll look for some scissors.”


The party like a mob outside, full of expectation. The bathtub heaped with fresh ice, the green bottles like frozen creatures eager to be thawed and part of the world. In the bathroom, close to the mirror fogged at his mouth, Henry considered his options:

  • Announce that he could not go through with it, that he needed his beard like he needed his hands.
  • Reveal the face section by section to show them a goatee with sideburns, then a droopy mustache, then something Hitlerian, and finally the nude face with a dash of cologne he’d picked up the other day on a whim.
  • Remove it and secretly escape for a few hours until the guests left in bewilderment, having enjoyed his pre-event adulation and completing the change—

A forceful rush of sound because the bathroom door had been opened, then quickly shut, the sanctuary blessedly returned. But behind him, reflected in the mirror, now stood Liz, dressed in the black silky thing she wore to parties.

“You were taking so long,” she said, inspecting her bangs when she saw herself in the mirror. “Either a puddle on your floor or I had to come in.”

“There’s another bathroom upstairs.”

“Well, I was worried. I was imagining suicide or something,” she said, laughing. “You’re a grump.”

“I’m having doubts.” Liz was still fussing with her hair. It was the kind of hair, gray-streaked and thick and Japanese, that you wanted to smell and coil around your finger.

“You’re having doubts. God, it’ll be the most extravagant anti­climax in the history of extravaganza. I’ve had three of Naomi’s martinis and must squat.”

“It seems so plainly ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

“What does it mean, Henry? It’s all a little odd, so planned, even for Naomi.” She kissed him, the moon of her face suddenly there and gone. Then promptly slid her pants down to her knees, plopped herself on the toilet and peed, hissing. “I shaved, too, for summer. The bikini paradox, eh?”


The agony of Ravi’s discourse on quality assurance in the computer industry. The soothing sing-song of his Indian accent, like a lullaby, but another tedious justification of dull employment. One of Naomi’s friends, bearded himself to hide bad skin. Henry wondered how many similar party monologues he’d endured. Added up over the years, a colossal waste of time. It was depressing, discouraging, like reading those magazine statistics on how much of your life you spend sleeping or slouching on the can or waiting in line at banks and bakeries. An hour’s worth at every one of these gatherings, which seemed to occur once a month or so on average, over the span of—up to now—25 event years. What was that? Twelve and a half days. Losing almost two weeks of his life. What he could have done with that time. In truth, probably little. Without brilliance, what do you do? Sit on the sidelines, warm the bench, attend these events hoping to form connections—intellectual, spiritual, sexual, egoistic—that always dissatisfy somehow. Still, he was intent not to waste effort these days on the trivial; in the mornings he could no longer bring himself to discuss, even briefly, the weather or a local news item with his colleagues. The words would not come out, and instead he felt a sourness in his stomach, a knot of impatience. How little time was left for logic, for decent thought.

The phone again, a blessing this time. Henry threaded sideways through conversations and drinks, pats on the back, arm squeezes, more beard jokes, and snatched the receiver after the fifth ring. It was someone asking for directions, a voice he almost recognized, but he was too distracted to ask. Vectors, scalars, the coordinates of a landmark. The simple mathematics of finding your way. He prided himself that so few people ever got lost with his directions.


An open bottle of pinot noir, floating half-submerged in the bathtub ice, tinting the water red. Henry ran his hand through it, making currents the way he’d done as a child. The three-masted galleon Pinot Noir, tragically gashed by ice, 120 drowned. The swirling flotsam of two corks and an olive.


The party had been Naomi’s idea, an attempt to recover what she feared was irretrievable. She remained awake until all hours of the night, designing the invitations, compiling lists of those who would receive them, and establishing an ambiance for the house. In the late hours, she slipped into bed radiating the heat of the obsessed; Henry pulled the sheet between them to protect his skin from searing.

By lunch the next day, when her sleeping pill had faded, she called him at his campus office, describing the latest details from her cell phone. (He could rarely identify her location from the background noise—never simply traffic or voices, it often sounded like misaligned machinery or the whimpering of some exotic animal.) Every room in the house would be used, she insisted: it would give the sense of a new openness, the mask removed. Champagne on the bedroom bureau, martinis in the living room, a different liqueur for each closet, the bathtub filled with ice and stocked with beer, vodka, and wine. Candles would flicker next to photographs of themselves, separate and together, from childhood to the present, displayed like artifacts, signifying passage and transformation

At 9pm, he would enter the bathroom and begin clipping; by 9:30 he would be finished, smooth-faced, newly born. He worried about his sensitive skin, about the red splotches that would surely mar a face that hadn’t been scraped in so many years. But Naomi had this worked out, too; if there were problems, he would lightly knock, a signal that he needed her to apply a few dabs of makeup here and there. Then he would emerge, holding a small wooden mask before his face, and glide into a candlelit room, where the guests had gathered in a circle. An actress would read something joyous. Then he would lower the mask, and there would be lengthy applause.


He remembered a test that Naomi had found in one of her self-help books when he’d first met her. A game of trust, she’d said, of self-awareness, of your affinity with your own mind. She had used words like affinity and he’d found them attractive.

She asked him to close his eyes. He was not to open them until she gave him permission. He was not to ask any questions; he was merely supposed to wait, in silence. When permission came, she asked him to guess how long they’d been closed. He’d been correct, he remembered, within 11 seconds, an accuracy that Naomi found distressing. Everybody else, she said with growing annoyance, assumes something ridiculous like ten minutes because they cannot bear to keep themselves in darkness, to construct a world in their minds, and to be watched by someone with vision

The kidnapper seemed to be taking an awful lot of turns, no doubt to conceal the path. Blindfolded, Henry knew that he and the kidnapper had been traveling now for about 17 minutes. He tried to guess at the average speed, and plotted the vectors. Left, right, a thirty degree angle, a 180 degree spin, a 10 percent gradient. He felt them accelerate, and move onto what sounded like the highway.

The kidnapper’s voice startled him: “With you in the car, Henry, I can actually use the commuter lane. The lane of privilege, the lane for companions. Companions! I feel a little awestruck just turning the wheel to enter it. Unexplored territory for me.”

“I want to let you know that I do not have my medication with me. In case you were planning something extended, something that might take a few days. I need to take the medication at 10pm. Blood pressure pills.” It was not entirely true; his doctor had recommended aspirin to thin his blood, but he thought he would try a small lie, to see where it might lead.

“Henry, we can’t think of pills now. We’re passing all those unprivileged fools in the peasant lanes. How powerful we are! In any case, I checked your medicine cabinet and your bedside table, and found nothing but anti-depressants. You’re dealing with a smart kidnapper, Henry, smartsmartsmart.”

“The commuter lane has always struck me as something of a paradox.”

“You’re aiming for distraction, Professor Henry, so you can surprise me, overpower me with your sudden leaping heft. But you know that I would kill you.”

“One assumes,” Henry said, “that a motorist can travel faster in a commuter lane at rush hour because the other lanes are gridlocked; the commuter lane has fewer cars. Space leads to speed.”

“Don’t ruin it for me. I’m really enjoying this. I’m sticking my tongue out.”

“And yet, the city encourages us to carpool. Meaning that, at some point, if the city’s program is successful and enough people decide to carpool, the commuter lane becomes as crowded as the regular lanes, and its faster speed no longer exists, and there is no reason to use it. The commuter lane works only when it’s underused. That’s the paradox.”

“Henry, the commuter lane is just another level in the hierarchy. It’s like sitting in the window seat of a white-table-cloth restaurant and watching people scurry past you on the sidewalk. It’s like descending a staircase when someone is coming up. It’s like asking for ransom. We spend our lives searching for such moments. Let’s enjoy it.”

When the car was finally parked, blindfolded Henry went over his calculations but found himself too fearful to figure out his location.


The bathroom door again! Not flung open this time, though, just held ajar. Naomi, wearing her rigid face of concern. Her dramatic sniff to announce some mild disapproval. Henry felt as if she had violated some private toilet act. He only half-turned to acknowledge her.

“I’ve just realized, ” she said in a hushed voice, “that Jim isn’t here. Should we wait? I expressly remember sending him an invitation. I even scribbled something personal on it. I expressly remember. Never got an RSVP, and that’s not Jim, is it?”

“It seems there are so many here already.” He felt some early signs of possible seething: that little ache in his bowels. He would not look at her.

“Do you think you’ll finish soon? Some guests—Marsha and Gregory, sadly—may be leaving soon. The unveiling should be for all. It would be more productive for you that way.”

“There was a strange phone call. Someone playing a prank. Heard the party noise in the background, I suppose, and got ideas.”

“Well, perhaps we should turn off the phone’s ringer then. You’ll finish soon?”

“I’m having some difficulties. I’m having doubts. Goddamn it, Naomi.” He was truly seething now. “Close the door, Naomi.”

“Oh! Jim moved. I just remembered he mentioned it last month. He would’ve been such a good witness, and it’s really too late to call now.” She rubbed his beard lightly, then plucked a bottle of champagne from the reddened ice of the bathtub. “You need this to happen. Really, Henry, we both do.”


How did brilliance emerge? What formed? Could you anticipate it? Was it like pleasure? A flood of emotion? Was it similar to standing atop a skyscraper for the first time as a child and seeing the beauty of connections and routes you never knew existed? Had there ever been a moment in his life when a different decision—taking the bus instead of hailing a cab on a particular Sunday thirty years ago, for example—might have dislodged from the muck of his mind a nugget of something brilliant?

But such thoughts, as usual, only made him morose.


As a young man in graduate school, Henry had, on occasion, tested himself for signs of insanity. His worry was not a result of any particular event or symptom. He merely believed in the possibility of his brain someday deflating, and feared that he would not detect a leak until much too late. As a way to check himself, therefore, some nights he performed a few mental exercises when he felt that his brain might be vulnerable—they began with derivatives and integrals of high school equations, their simple answers comforting, then moved onto Leibniz's Theorem, fractals, game theory. It was a habit that he had carried with him through the years like a talisman, a guardian against decline. He still performed the calculations, though more often these days as a method to fight insomnia.

But in the kidnapper’s apartment, bound by rope to a chair, he reviewed them over and over, and was gratified to discover that his fear had not negated his ability to reason.


The bathroom door again being opened. He would ignore her this time. Naomi was obsessed, another in the series of obsessions. Twelve cookbooks on Thai cooking purchased in a week, late-night letters of desperate admiration once sent to Marlon Brando, studies in witchcraft and the casting of positive spells, membership for three months in a Confucius society that met in some edge-of-the-city warehouse, Harlequin romances consumed like candy one winter. It went on and on. He admitted that he often found it charming. He envied her inexhaustible well of energy. Now it was his beard.

“I’m just about to start,” he said, a little irritated, still not looking at her and holding the scissors in a deliberate barber-like fashion. “For God’s sake.”

“I apologize for interrupting.” A man’s voice, which made Henry turn, startled and embarrassed. The man with the doggish face. He reached coolly behind him and pushed shut the bathroom door. “But I would like to talk to you.”

“You’re one of Naomi’s friends or clients? We were never introduced.” Henry touched the scissors again. “I was about to start. Apparently everyone’s waiting. The event.” He tried to laugh a little, but managed only embarrassment again.

“I’ve met your wife. Very lovely. The entire evening is a wonderful idea. But she had assumed that I was one of your friends.”

“She has so many friends she forgets who they are sometimes. Our circles don’t intersect.”

“Rest assured, I don’t know either of you. What I wanted to talk to you about—well, what I wanted to tell you is that I’m here to kidnap you.”

“Really,” Henry said, “I’m supposed to start snipping.”

“I’m quite serious about the kidnapping.”

“Naomi and her fucking games. I don’t mean to ruin the fun, but it gets out of hand sometimes. Is it supposed to be some sort of acted drama in addition to the whole beard farce? I never know what to expect anymore.”

“Well, I don’t want real drama, but if we were flamboyant about it, everyone would think we’re just acting, so that would work, yes.” He pulled a bottle from the bathtub’s slush of wine-colored ice. “An impressive selection all around. But you wouldn’t have lost the pinot if you hadn’t decided to chill it. I’m very much against chilling any kind of red. But I’m against so much. Maybe that’s why I’m suicidal.”

“Are you drunk? Do you need to use the toilet?”

“Henry, don’t you remember? You gave me directions on the phone.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They were spectacularly precise.”

“You called. Yes, now I remember. You were the one who called.” The connections in his brain began to tighten. Soggy thread pulled taut. The noise of the party pressing against the door, a crescendo of expectation leaking in beneath it. “Jim’s invitation,” Henry said, recalling his conversation with Naomi. “Sent to the wrong address.”

“It intrigued me, even in my state. I have a knife, by the way. Don’t yell or anything.”

“Don’t kill me.”

“Let me show it to you.” He indeed pulled a knife from the pocket of his pants, a bit daintily, as if displaying a gift. A short but expensive shiny knife. “I’m not going to kill you, or even nick you. But I had to have a weapon, because without a weapon there is no observable threat, and without a threat, there can’t be a kidnapping. Now, please hand over your cell phone. I cannot allow any secret emergency call.”


Blindfolded, Henry was led up a pavement, guided up stairs and into a room, where the kidnapper removed the black silk. The window blinds had been drawn. It was a small apartment, tastefully decorated, with large-leafed plants in each corner and Asian art on the walls. The kidnapper waved his knife for effect, then pulled a chair from a mahogany table, and after unwrapping a coil of rope, tied Henry to the chair.

“I used to sail as a kid, so I know all the good knots. No escaping from this tangle.” The kidnapper pulled a glass stopper from a decanter full of liquor. “I’ve always wanted to tie someone up. You figure it only happens in grade-B movie plots, but here we are. Would you like a drink?”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“It’s just rope.”

“What have you got?”

“Either accept or decline. But you won’t get too many chances to have a drink poured into your glass from a decanter. Who has decanters anymore? I think they disappeared around 1962. The world has gone to ruin and lacks class.”

“Yes, then.”

“Ice? I’m pouring Scotch. I know you’re not supposed to drink good Scotch with ice, but I like the feel of the cubes on my lips when I tip the glass.”

“Neat, thank you.” The kidnapper lifted the small glass to Henry’s mouth. It was not humiliation that he felt but rather little incursions of grief, like pin pricks. The Scotch spread its warmth across his tongue, giving some small sense of decency, calming him. He studied the rug and listened. That hissing of cars on the road outside, fairly frequent, 30 or 40mph probably. Still in the city? Naomi had sent the invitation to Jim’s old address, which must be the kidnapper’s current address. Is that where they were now? But he couldn’t remember where Jim had lived. Probably he never knew.

He wondered what the party guests were doing, how gracefully Naomi was handling the situation, if she continued to serve martinis, if she had called the police, if she believed he’d escaped his transformation as a coward.

The kidnapper leaned toward him, a curious dog. “How much should I ask for you? Ransom.”

“I couldn’t possibly tell you.”

“It’s really a question of economics, isn’t it? If you kidnap someone, you want something in return. It’s like investing. You estimate the value of your hostage, and you bank on an immediate need by others to have the hostage returned. It’s a test of your value. Really, it could be extremely educational. Am I right?”

Henry agreed, not knowing what disagreement might bring. He indicated that he would like to sip more Scotch and the kidnapper lifted the glass once again.

“This is the essential question,” the kidnapper continued. “How many people in the world are willing to give up something in order to see you again? A kidnapping is such a purely human event. It verifies existence, it validates or destroys your belief in your own worth. All those terms that have been developed: ransom, hostage, kidnapper, abduction. It’s a well-defined system, and it works. Everyone, at least once in their lives, should be kidnapped, I think. You’re a professor. You have plenty of friends who are willing to come to your home to witness the shaving of your beard. Will they give up something—money, time—to see you again? Your wife? Does the university need you back? It’s fascinating.”

“If you’re a terrorist, I want to make it clear that the world would not suffer with my absence.”

“Henry! My God, do I look like a terrorist?” The kidnapper puffed his fleshy cheeks and exhaled slowly. “Surely you’ve got a theorem or two up your sleeve? Something that makes you valuable?”

Grief again, building in his chest. He felt himself redden, grow hot. Or was it rage? It was difficult to identify its source. He struggled against the temptation to provoke the knife. “In mathematicians brilliance strikes early. When you’re twenty, thirty. It didn’t strike me. So I’ve become an educated observer. An observer of beauty, nonetheless. And since ninety-five percent of the world cannot see the beauty of, let’s say, Riemannian geometry, it’s a privilege that I don’t forget. If you’re really going to request a ransom, you need to call someone—my wife preferably—and tell her I’ve been kidnapped. So she doesn’t worry that I’m dead.”

“But worrying about death is the essential ingredient in this. There’s still the threat of death because I have a very sharp knife.”

“Then you need to initiate the worry.”

“Yes, of course you’re right. I have the lovely invitation right here.”

“Use my cellphone so she knows that you’ve got me.”

“Yes, you’re right again.” He punched in the numbers. “Tell me what else you consider beautiful.”

“A proof,” Henry said. “A paradox.”


“I shaved, too, for summer.” Liz on the toilet, peeing. The hiss of women, almost disgusting, but he hadn’t been so close to it in years. She smiled, pointing to the bare triangle between her legs, a little drunk he guessed. A fan of Naomi’s martinis.

Henry stupidly slid over and kissed her, mouthing the flesh of her upper lip, tasting pricey gin. It was a privilege they gave each other only at cocktail parties. He couldn’t remember exactly how it had started, who had started. They’d met two years ago at something Naomi had put together, after Liz had downed precisely three drinks. It only went as far as extended kisses and fondles, clothed, in a kitchen or a bathroom or a darkened back yard, always unsatisfying. Later, his hurried masturbation, a safety valve for dismay.

“What’s tonight all about, Henry? Really.” Liz reached for the toilet paper and dabbed herself like a painter. “Are you going to make some awful dramatic announcement later?”

Henry retreated to his reflection, already regretting the kiss and so desperately wanting another that his fingers on the sink pressed themselves to the color of porcelain. “Promise me we’ll walk to your car together,” he said.


“Maybe suicide is just something that flares up every once in a while,” the kidnapper said, “like a virus. Henry, I feel so common. Two things everyone wants to do at some point in their lives is open their own business and commit suicide.”

“Do you want me to talk you out of it?”

“That’s what I’m supposed to want. But maybe you should do the opposite. Talk me in to it. Convince me that it’s the best thing. Who’s to say? We should go Chinese and break open a fortune cookie. I tried to make them once, but they turned out all rubbery. There is failure wherever you turn, crouched on its haunches like a leopard.”

“I’ve sometimes imagined the perfect fortune cookie.”

“Crisp, lemony, and funny.”

“Perfect in its accuracy,” Henry said. “Inside, written on a highly coiled piece of paper three miles long is the human equation. Hugely complicated, formed from a branch of mathematics not yet known. But crack the cookie open and it’s there, describing human behavior. Sub-equations that describe individuals. What would we do with it? Given some initial conditions (your birth) and some boundary values (your living environment) we might be able to predict your suicide and understand how to prevent it. Or understand that we cannot. The perfect fortune cookie.”

The kidnapper slapped Henry hard enough to make his cheekbone sting. “Let us all enjoy the future as a mystery,” he said.


Henry left the bathroom thinking of the knife, the knife just behind him, held in the kidnapper’s pocket. And yet, thinking, too, that he had been saved from minor embarrassment, from a celebration that hadn’t been right from the start. Where was Liz? He wanted somehow to tell her he could not manage the stroll to her car because he was being kidnapped, wondering for an instant how to indicate abduction in sign language, but remembering both the knife and the fact that Liz didn’t know sign language either. Near the hallway closet, he walked past a bewildered couple—two more whom Naomi had once organized into a task force, he vaguely recalled—who seemed to have been preparing for an escape in a search for their jackets. Their bland bored faces floated before him like party balloons you wanted to smack.

“Left my aftershave in the car,” Henry said, surprising himself with his eagerness to get the lie to work. “New stuff I bought today. Can you believe it? The absent-minded professor.”

“I’m afraid we’re going to miss it anyway,” the young wife said, looking at him just long enough to flash the close-mouthed smile of apology. “The babysitter—”

“Not to worry,” Henry said, more to assure himself. Across the room he instantly spotted Naomi by the beacon of her earrings, as big as saucers; thankfully avoidable, she was cheerily making a martini for another goddamn pony tail. They’d come back in fashion.

Henry was supposed to leave immediately because his kidnapper was suicidal and said that he might be unpredictable. A statement that predicted uncertainty, which made the kidnapper seem more calculated than irrational. But because the knife was right behind him, Henry was not arguing. He slipped out the kitchen’s side door, pointing to the microwave clock when plain sullen Ed, his back like a magnet on the fridge, asked him uncomfortably for the time.


Henry watched the kidnapper speak on the telephone to Naomi, connecting with an existence that seemed now not to exist. Strangely, he could not conjure a picture of Naomi as savior. He tried to imagine her organizing a posse, or dropping off the money the kidnapper would certainly demand, but had to fight the persistent flashes of heat that were beginning to evaporate grief and coalesce into rage, which he didn’t understand at first. But it was the kidnapper’s Asian art—round women making tea or coddling emperors—that gave him his clue: the missed opportunity of seeing Liz to her car. Missing that! His fingers pressed on her blouse, in the groove of her back. Well, he would say, here you are, safely escorted once again. Or something equally dumb and routine. Their routine. Then working his not-so-sly way down, into a small airspace, a forefinger slipped between skin and panty elastic, its tightness like a warning to go no further, but going further. His forefinger’s tip nudged and wedged into that upper notch of her warm plump ass, wedged there for just a moment, until the kiss stopped. The rage of missing that, a needle of pain.

The kidnapper sadly stated that he was not able to convince Henry’s wife of any kidnapping, citing the lack of menace. She had hung up the phone, exclaiming about a prank. He would try again later, and asked for the location of any private moles or blemishes.


The kidnapper gently laid white towels across Henry’s lap and around his neck. He brought the scissors to Henry’s face, touched his chin to angle back his head, and began to snip, the hairs falling like small insects on the towel. If the scissors were to enter his neck, Henry hoped it would be quick, like anesthesia. But the kidnapper’s breathing had that even, determined quality, all of it through his nose. The peaty smell of Scotch on his lips. The scissors chirped. Henry’s face lightened and cooled. When the kidnapper rubbed his face with shaving cream, Henry felt again the incursions of grief. The razor slipped along his cheeks, the kidnapper’s fingers gently stretching skin. The intensity of his breathing, still through his nose. All of this reminiscent of childhood, of being fussed over, of being held captive in the tub by parents intent on establishing a basic level of cleanliness. His father on the toilet, watching, smoking, the rapid fire jokes that Henry at that age never understood. The joke-making had not been genetic. Only the hair-line, the angular nose, the need for precision. His mother rubbing the shampoo into his scalp, laughing at the jokes (sexual, Henry guessed now) while she sang. To think of them now, the songs seemed supernatural. Something about blackbirds and a pie. Onward Christian soldiers. Pack up your troubles in the old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.

The kidnapper wiped Henry’s face with a second white towel, then dabbed his ears, neck, and nostrils. “Would you like a mirror?”

“I’m not sure.”

A kiss came to Henry’s forehead. “Your beautiful bare face, hidden for years, and I am the first to see it. I feel like Howard Carter discovering King Tut. This is momentous.”

Henry murmured, “I do not know myself,” trying out the words. He felt a strong need to weep, then something close to nausea.


Henry turned his wrist under the ropes to look at his watch. He would give the kidnapper ninety seconds. “It’s a test of trust,” Henry said, “and of awareness, and of your comfort with darkness.”

“I’m in love with darkness,” the kidnapper said.

“Close your eyes. I will tell you when you can open them. You must keep them closed.”

“You’re thrilling me.”

Henry did not know what it might accomplish but assumed that anything contributing to calmness was to his advantage. But overwhelming him now that fearful sensation of disengagement he got when he watched someone sleep. How when Naomi slept late after another all-night episode, he studied her face for signs of love, or insanity, or beauty, or hopelessness, his eyes going blurry then refocusing on her nose, mouth, earlobes. It was then that she ceased being Naomi and became instead something he could barely comprehend, just as when he repeated a word over and over it lost its meaning and became a separate, pure sound unconnected to anything known. She was the pure sound of breath. Of living. Nothing more for a moment. But with each breath, each little snore, there were probabilities gradually escaping, rising between them. The historic probabilities of meeting and marrying. The untested probabilities of committing violence, of splitting, of dying before the other.

He studied the kidnapper’s doggish face for signs of insanity and found none. Numbers rose between them. How close was he to pain or boredom or escape?

“You can open your eyes now,” Henry said.

“Is the world different? Am I a mere mortal?”

“This is the question: how long were your eyes closed?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Henry.” He sipped his Scotch, letting the ice cubes fall on his lips. “I was enjoying it. I was imagining that you had kidnapped me.”


“I want you to make a phone call,” the kidnapper said.

“Unless you untie me, you’ll have to dial.”

“My God, Henry, that’s what I miss. Dialing. Putting the tip of your finger into those holes and pulling each number over. Calling meant something then. And the sound of that dial coming back. It was the sound of possibility. I miss it, Henry. Now it’s those beeps that reduce it all to just a number. It’s just a number now. I’m falling into an abyss, I think. But listen to me. I want you to speak to a friend of mine. Tell him that you’ve kidnapped me. Ask for ten thousand dollars. I want you to sound serious and somewhat menacing.”

“You’ll have to tell me your name to make this work.”

“Yes, of course, you’re right again. It’s Ken. Can you believe it? You’ve been kidnapped by a man named Ken. Ask for maybe eight thousand, I think. Everyone should be kidnapped, and now it’s my turn.”

The kidnapper put his cell phone on the speaker setting, and then dialed his friend’s number, holding the phone close to Henry’s mouth. “Be menacing,” he said as Henry strained to listen to the rings. But it was a machine that answered, with a catchy tune, and a voice that said, “I can’t come to the phone right now because I’m handcuffed to the bed, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

The kidnapper, clearly disappointed, ended the call. “I’ll dial again and this time you’ll leave a message. Tell the bastard to leave the money behind the dumpster at Enriqué’s Cafe. I just thought of that, but it sounds threatening, doesn’t it? We’ve had dinner there once or twice.”

“My name is Henry,” Henry said after he heard the beep, and suddenly thought that he shouldn’t have used his own name, but it was too late now, “and I’ve kidnapped Ken. If you wish his return, leave eight thousand dollars in the dumpster at Enriqué’s Cafe.” He looked at his kidnapper for approval, and added, “He has a deep laugh, enjoys ice against his lips, and misses the rotary dial.”


“Now I will untie you,” the kidnapper said. “The leopard is advancing.”

“So I’ll be free to leave?”

“Your wrists must be sore. But I really don’t want you to leave.”

“I’ll do as you say.”

“The end is nigh, Henry. Best of luck discovering that elusive brilliance.”

The kidnapper carefully unknotted the rope, apologized for the marks on Henry’s wrists, and disappeared behind him. For several minutes, Henry remained in the chair, not budging. Could he leave? His arms and legs felt luxuriously buoyant. The gurgle and splashing of water from a tap, from down the hall. A bath being drawn? Or was it a diversion? Was the kidnapper merely hiding somewhere, ready to stab him as soon as he attempted to flee? Henry turned his head, creaking the chair. No movement from a wallpapered hallway. Where was the knife? That tap was at full force now. He shifted in the chair, creaking the legs again. Despite his buoyancy, he could not bring himself to stand. A sudden anti-climax. The kidnapper taking a bath, and he could not escape. How long had he been here? Were the police looking for him? There, he stood. Shakily. Careful not to make too much noise. His wrists aching. Bracelets of pressed blue skin. A tightness in his throat, the grip of panic. But the kidnapper did not rush out. The bathwater had stopped, and now distantly splashed.

Trembling, Henry approached the nearest door, which he assumed was the exit. It opened, like a practical joke. He moved beyond the door and found himself in a carpeted hallway. This was the moment. He was going to get away, relatively unharmed. So easily? He tiptoed quickly down the stairs, then stood somewhat dumbfounded just outside the building’s entry way, on the sidewalk, trying to gauge the time and his location. Well past midnight, surely. No one followed him.

He ran for half a block. Apartment buildings rose on either side of the street, massive walls of lives who knew nothing of what had just happened to him, would never know. He passed manicured shrubbery, placid parked cars, a solemn fire hydrant. The obliviousness was a comfort. In fact, the energy he felt in his limbs, the warmth in his gut, was something like joy. A natural reaction, perhaps, to trauma and acute anxiety. He had escaped the kidnapper, he had escaped the knife, he had escaped the goddamn party.

The air felt strangely cool against his face. Beardless! His cheeks and jaw and neck all smooth and fragrant. He had been transformed. Yes, yes, it was joy he felt.

He stopped, panting. He was tired. But also, he was thinking. A mathematical equation had entered his brain. A simple equation involving a bathtub and a knife.

x = Bth + Knf

He stood there, panting and thinking before the oblivious world. A taxi slipped down the street. Coming around the next corner, a man with a fedora was taking his miniature schnauzer for a late-night walk. The solution came to him. An obvious solution, and yet he had taken too long to figure it out. His joy drained out. His skin burned with idiocy.

He sprinted back to the building from which he’d just escaped, back to Ken. At the door, frantic, he pressed every apartment buzzer until someone was foolish enough to open the door for a stranger. “Locked myself out,” he gasped into the intercom.

Ken’s apartment door was just as Henry had left it, ajar. Henry pushed it open with force. “Are you in the bath?” He yelled this. “It’s Henry! Are you there? Ken!” The words were coming up like bile. Into the living room, past the Asian women, then into the steamy bathroom. His first impression: it was avant-garde. Ken’s head half-submerged in ruby-colored water. His knife on the tiled floor. It was avant-garde, it was nudity in a tub with pinot noir. It wasn’t.

Henry felt like retching, pressed fingers to his smooth jaw. The sweet smells of bath scent and blood were thick in the steam. As he turned away, a shock in the lightly fogged bathroom mirror. His shaven face—the bare upper lip, exposed suddenly, flattened without its hair, as if in a grimace of embarrassment. Henry fell onto his knees, weakened. He knelt beside the tub, his hands on the rim, one finger just touching the steamy reddened water. Ken’s doggish face like a lump of putty now.

Later, after he called the police, Henry forced himself to do the sanity exercise: high school equations, Green’s Theorem, Leibniz's. The convergence of . They calmed him. They calmed him.


The party had been Naomi’s invention, conceived in one of her late-night funks. She had crawled into bed at some ungodly hour. He noticed the bedroom clock’s lighted red numerals and was instantly annoyed. She was a furnace of obsessions. He pulled the sheet between them to protect his skin from searing. “At lunch today,” she whispered, “I heard a man on the street saying, ‘I do not know myself, I do not know myself.’” She would often say crazy things after taking her pills, just before drifting off. Last night there were a dozen limousines circling a giant sombrero. “I bought you a beard groomer from that shopping channel,” she continued, “but now I have a better idea. Henry, we’ll have a party.” He pulled again at the sheet and began to fade back into sleep, slipping over his own jumbled thoughts—tomorrow’s lecture on imaginary numbers, the possibility of kissing Liz at this party, and a sudden solution to the barber paradox that might make a decent joke.

Winner of the 2013 Winter Anthology Contest