Hafiz explained to us that,
given Mr. Findley’s unexpected absquatulation to Costa Rica,
he would be teaching the class for a little while.
Then he let go of a stack of books
from about eighteen inches off the desk
and when they landed
the sound they made was so big
it damn near blew the back wall of the room off.
After the dust settled, he winked at us.
“Mr. Findley,” he said, “was the Set Up Man.”
It was time for the Big Guns.
He told us the origin of the word Algebra
was the “reunion of broken parts”,
but on account of the fact that we
took that fact sitting down
he flung his shoe across the room
and dismissed us for the rest of the day
The next day he began by saying
there is practical algebra,
like Mr. Findley had used to keep the dean preoccupied-
the kind you can use to figure
out how much fuel to buy per week if
it takes one quart of fuel to cut up
one tree into sellable parts and
you have property that yields a
hundred trees per year-
but then there is Real Algebra.
Then he winked at us.
We hit the floor instinctively,
but no footwear was forthcoming.
“As an aside,” he said, “the Beloved
asked me to spend some time with
physicists over the winter. Those
are people who have taken a solemn vow
to abstain from dividing by zero.
Very devout, these people.”
“I have great respect for them, but…
(He liked to heighten the suspense.)
“…that is not my way.”
“The secret to Real Algebra,” he offered,
“is to divide by zero every chance you get.”
We jumped up and applauded,
but he jumped up on his desk and
cautioned us to be respectful.
He said a coefficient was something
you could put into words, like “mechanic”
or “butler” or “shyster.”
He said a variable was something that
could be anything- like you or I… an infinity.
Multiply them together, and what do you get?
We looked around like unwitting savants.
A mechanic who can fix anything, he said.
We jumped up and applauded.
He said Creation was a vast, holy equation
without any numerical solution, so why bother?
Only something endless like a being
can crawl inside of it
the whole mess out.
That, he said, was Real Algebra.
For our final exam, he asked us
an important question:
“Do you still believe there’s any meaning
to the term ‘broken parts’?”