m. h. burkett


An apple drops.

The F train leaves Coney Island at 4:30 p.m. one April afternoon. Given that its entire route can take up to an hour and forty-five minutes, how long does it take to reach Rockefeller Center, a destination roughly half the distance of the train line?

Isaac Herschwitz did not care for word problems. Too often they either hinted at (or failed to mention altogether) integral elements of a problem.

For example, a train leaves Chicago traveling to Philadelphia. It travels at 75 miles an hour and departs at noon. A car leaves Buffalo traveling at 84 miles an hour to Chicago. It begins at 1:30 p.m. At what point do the paths intersect, and will the two vehicles pass each other at any point?

Isaac had issues with the premise. Nowhere was the distance nor route of either path given; it was assumed one would either look up the information or at least look at a map. But the leap from page to reality had additional implications. If real-world numbers were applied, did real-world realities? If so, then the standard speed limit of trains needed to be calculated, which was 25 mph in urban areas, 50 mph in suburban, and 75 mph through rural areas. Meanwhile traffic lights, gas stops, and bathroom breaks aside, was traffic with or against the car? To what degree does the speed limit change, and if the car chooses to speed, what time may be added if pulled over for a ticket? At what point does the car merge with the Ohio Turnpike, whose speed limit of 70 mph is maintained by the time stamp on the checkpoints? It was pointless to speed through the corridor...

Isaac preferred numbers. Even when inexact, they had defined parameters. A² + B² always = C². Three points made a plane. There was a steadiness to it, much more so than the wild-card logarithms of physics. Reality had more variables.

Which was why Isaac Herschwitz was a CPA instead of teaching math. But his was an upward trajectory: he'd been taking night classes at the community college. One day he could instruct...once he grasped higher mathematics.

An apple drops. It is a ripe Braeburn apple, firm and round. With stem removed, it is near idyllic in its proportions, save for a depressed bruise across the base.

A man leaves his office at precisely 4:27 p.m. He works on Fifth Ave. and 33rd, on the 23rd floor, and it takes him 8 minutes to reach street level. Being a block from Grand Central Station, at what time will he arrive home at Kew Gardens in Queens?

Isaac Herschwitz turned left at 42nd St., heading west and away from Grand Central Station. Why he did not use Grand Central is irrelevant information, save for curiosity. Idle speculation might jump to extreme conclusions, such as a bomb threat, which might close the terminal for security reasons. Logic might note that there is no direct line from Grand Central to Kew Gardens. Greater curiosity might instead question why an accountant might leave work early within a fortnight of tax day.

Isaac Herschwitz was an integral part of the firm. He was a ball bearing supporting middle-management cogs. But while he was a small part of the organization, his employment held inverse proportion for him. As it played such a large role in his life, only something of greater value might make him risk his co-workers' cumulative raised eyebrows.

Isaac had a date.

Sara Abel was the cousin of Isaac's classmate Henri Abel, who was trying to raise his GPA enough through community college to enroll in an architectural design school. Sara had recently moved to Queens from Schenectady and was teaching kindergarten at P.S. 99. Isaac had met her a few weeks earlier when exchanging notes with Henri. The borough had bulldozed all the cherry trees in the gardens a few years earlier after a fungus disease, then built an arboretum, then filled it with saplings. Tonight would be their first date, a picnic beneath the fresh cherry blossoms.

A ripe Braeburn apple drops from a hand. It falls at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared for 1.3 seconds. When it strikes the scuffed shoe below, in which direction will it roll, assuming the apple has no imperfections?

Isaac strolled past Bryant Park, nearing the 42nd St. Station. He could have boarded the subway there were it not for the zombie apocalypse. A flash mob had gathered for a Zombie Walk, an official parade of blood-encrusted made-up enthusiasts. The dead mixed with working stiffs, happy hour splashing against the graveyard shift, resulting in a discomfiting crush of bodies around the station entrance.

Isaac Herschwitz had a different destination in mind, and as he turned north on Sixth Ave., the crowd barely registered. He was envisioning a pie chart, which he divided in two with an imaginary line, then reconsidered. He imagined a third of one-half removed...and frowned. His mother could eat leftovers. He watched his polished work shoes eat the pavement. Of course, if things went well, there would be more desserts in the future. He imagined the pie chart quartered, for those evenings when he and Sara had company or family visiting. Then, later, kids. The chart divided into sixths. Holidays. The chart divided into sixteenths. Isaac frequently projected himself into possibilities, trying them on like choosing a morning tie.

It was 5:11 p.m. when he stopped beneath the Red Hen Bakery sign, then went inside. This was the place Sara had mentioned. At the glass counter Isaac selected a small cheesecake drenched in strawberry glaze. As they tied the box, he relented and added a slice of chocolate chip cheesecake to his order. Better to stay in Mother's good graces, he figured.

An apple strikes a shoe. The imbalanced base gives the orb a natural roll; a scuff on the shoe provides traction forward. The force of the fall creates torque; the inertia rolls the apple ahead. Its course holds steadfast against the growing vibrations. The fruit rolls off the edge.

Isaac exited the bakery and continued north toward Rockefeller Center. The smell of baked goods had made him peckish, and it occurred to him he'd not have dinner for several more hours. He stopped at a newsstand across the street from the 48th St. entrance. They were out of oranges. The bananas were all brown. Isaac selected an apple from the hanging basket, paid for it, then walked across the corner. He polished the apple against his shirt and, while examining it, tripped over the curb.

Isaac placed the apple in his pocket as he fished out his pass. Riding the escalator down, he stared at the Metro Transit map, studying the clustered neon knots of trains spread out across the boroughs. It nagged at him, the planning required to lay out the tracks, the hint of logic or politics behind each destination and route. He imagined a population density map overlaying the overall transit system, then watched it shift over elapsed time. He felt on the verge of understanding something. Instead, at the bottom of the escalator, he noticed how severely he'd scuffed his toe on the curb.

The train doors binged departure notice, and Isaac hurried toward it across the island platform. He missed it but felt relief when he realized that the tracks were reversed and that he'd almost hopped the Express B train. The next F train was due in two minutes. The station was packed for rush hour, and Isaac skirted the crowd to drift toward the far end.

Isaac ruminated about speed, time, mass, and inertia. He had almost grasped it. Had he still been thinking of word problems and relationships instead, he might have inserted himself and Sara into the A² + B² equation, where he was A, she was B, and C was their future. The squared could be time, or how they improved each other, or a myriad of other interpretations. But that would have ignored the possibility of a love triangle. What if C was a jealous ex? What if Henri had an issue with the relationship? What if C² shivved A², subtracting B² through suicide?

What if one of these possibilities, or sheer random chance, were to jostle Isaac's elbow as he went to bite the flesh of a luscious Braeburn apple?

At 5:36, Isaac Herschwitz is standing on an island platform. He removes a Braeburn apple from his coat pocket and moves to take a bite. His elbow is harshly jostled from behind and the apple drops. Isaac tries to balance the two boxes he's holding while trying to catch the apple. The apple strikes his foot and rolls toward the lip of the tracks. Isaac lurches forward to rescue it, and his world turns upside down.

His flailing limbs create a centrifugal force that feels stronger than gravity. The cake boxes arc gracefully above him, their paths traced along XY coordinates with adjusting vectors. The headlight of the F train shifts toward blue as it approaches along a Z plane. The wall, track, and ceiling rotate in his vision. Brakes squeal in rising pitch. The rail map burns itself into his brain's circuitry, linking neurons in new connections. Isaac murmurs a single word:


How long does it take for an F train departing Coney Island at 4:30 p.m. and a man leaving Fifth and 33rd at 4:27 to meet? One hour nine minutes. Thirty-two-and-a-half years.

m. h. burkett has worked in poetry, short fiction, music and performance and has recently begun playing with stop animation. He has been published in Forge, Buffalo Art Voice, New Delta Review and has further works pending. He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is working on a first novel.

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