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Fiction #271
(published March 23, 2006)
Beastly Numbers
bt Kevin Coyle
[W]oe to you, O[h] [E]arth and [S]ea, for the [D]evil [sends the beast with] wrath, because he knows [the] time is short! . . . [L]et him who ha[th] understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is [S]ix hundred and sixty six.

—Revelations 12:12, 13:18 (Revised Standard Version, as altered by Iron Maiden in 1982)

"What's that number again?"

Sam knew that Ralphie expected an answer. Ralphie's pocketknife hung poised and ready to finish carving the inscription into the baby-blue paint lining the interior of the boys' room stall. But Sam kept quiet. He feared that Mister D'Angeles—their surly, burly history teacher—would burst onto the scene at any moment and haul their asses to the principal's office.

Squatting on his haunches, Ralphie rotated his head to glare sideways through the open stall door at Sam and Crazy Eddie, fellow eighth-graders who stood near the white porcelain sinks mounted on the far wall. Ralphie's long horse-like face showed his impatience. "Well?"

In a hushed voice, Sam quickly repeated the seven digits.

Ralphie used the blade's point to chip at the paint below the phrase, spelled out in crude block letters: "FOR A GOOD TIME CALL SUZIE."

From the ink-stained pocket of his green Catholic-school uniform pants, Crazy Eddie pulled out a leaky pen. He caterwauled into the pen as though it were a microphone. "Eight six seven five three oh nah-eeh-ah-ine! Eight six seven five three oh nah-eeh-ah-ine!"

"Cut it out, asshole!" Ralphie shouted. "You'll make me mess up!"

"Shhhhhh!" Sam shushed him. "Somebody will hear you."

Crazy Eddie dropped the pen and began playing air guitar, his right arm swinging in great circles, his jet-black mullet whipping from side to side with the spastic shaking of his head. "Eight six seven five three oh nah-eeh-ah-ine!"

"Dammit!" Ralphie jabbed the knife at his handiwork. "Look what you made me do!"

Sam approached, filling the stall's threshold with his flabby physique, and put his hands on his wide hips. He read over Ralphie's shoulder the amalgamation of Suzie's telephone number with that of the "Jenny" of Tommy Tutone infamy. "Why'd you write that about Suzie?"

Ralphie molded his right cheek around an exaggerated wink. "She's been around the block a few times."

"You mean to Frank's house?"

Ralphie laughed. "That's not what I meant. But I'm sure she's been there, too."

After a moment, Sam's eyes lit up with understanding. "Ohhhhhh."

Still singing, Crazy Eddie hopped around in circles like a demented Easter Bunny.

"You know," Sam noted as he crossed his arms over his belly, "if you take the digits from that song and put them together in order, they make a prime number."

Ralphie pivoted on the balls of his feet and stared up at Sam.

"Yeah, it's true." Sam chuckled nervously. "Also, if you take the first seven prime numbers, square each of them, and then add them all together, the sum is six hundred sixty-six."

Ralphie squinted at him and said nothing.

Sam polished his eyeglass lenses with the tip of his clip-on necktie. "You know what that number means. Right? Well, you can translate that number into Roman numerals by taking the first six numerals and putting them in order from largest to smallest—DCLXVI. Coincidence?"

Ralphie shook his head and groaned. "You are such a geek!"

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been a month since my last confession."

Sam sat in a folding chair and averted his eyes. The makeshift confessional had been intended for use as a storage closet for athletic equipment. But when the Diocese ran out of money to build a proper church for the parish, the school reluctantly converted its half-finished gymnasium to that purpose. A giant wooden crucifix hung from a boxy metal frame bolted to the church ceiling. The frame bore a striking resemblance to a basketball backstop.

Father O'Leary cleared his throat. "Go on."

With his hands folded in his lap, Sam went through the motions of "Here is the church, here is the steeple." He coughed. His round face flushed. "I've had . . . impure thoughts."

The priest's chair creaked as he leaned forward. Hesitating, his voice cracking, he asked, "What sort of thoughts?"

Sam squirmed in his seat, his eyes fixed on the priest's penny loafers. "About girls."

Father O'Leary let out a heavy sigh. "Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph! That's a relief! Say three—no, make that four—Hail Marys and you'll be good to go."

Sam filled his mouth with a heaping spoonful of farina mixed with applesauce and tried to ignore his mother yelling at the radio.

"That's disgusting," she howled as she pantomimed the Sign of the Cross. "How can they get away with broadcasting such filth? That awful song should be banned!"

The song in question was "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John. Sam's mother had been ranting about that song ever since its debut the previous year. She had even caused some controversy at the last PTA meeting, demanding that the school change its dress code to prohibit girls from wearing the neon wool-knit leg warmers popularized by the music video.

"You know what that song's about." Mother spun around so violently that Sam almost choked on his breakfast. "Don't you?" She placed both hands, palms down, on the kitchen table. She lunged toward Sam, the pink plastic curlers in her hair trembling. "It's about sex!"

Swallowing hard, Sam hid behind his glass of orange juice.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession."

Father O'Leary, in full clerical garb, stood at the front of the classroom with his hands folded behind his back. Chalk dust marred his black sleeve at the elbow where he had brushed against the blackboard. "Your teacher asked me to talk to you today about my missionary work. Let me start by asking you a question: Do any of you know what it feels like to go hungry?"

At the center of the neat block of columns and rows, Sam slouched at his desk. He glanced at his fellow students to either side of him. When nobody made a move to answer the pending question, Sam tentatively raised his hand.

The priest scowled at him. "When was that, young man?"

"I-i-in the afternoons," Sam stammered. "When I get home from school. I have a snack."

"Sam's always hungry," Ralphie jeered from somewhere in the back row. "That's why they call him 'Tubby Two Tons!'"

The classroom erupted in laughter.

Sister Catherine darkened to a shade of purple the color of wine. She rapped her ruler on her desk and shrieked, "Silence!"

Father O'Leary closed his eyes. He rubbed his graying temples with callused fingers until the pandemonium died down. "Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph! I've never met a gaggle of hooligans as supercilious and spoiled as you children! I didn't ask if you've ever been hungry—I asked if you've ever gone hungry. Don't you understand the difference?"

Sam slid down further, his stomach pressing sharply against the desk's edge.

From the seat behind him, Crazy Eddie leaned forward and whispered in Sam's ear. "He called you super-silly!"

In the front row, Suzie's hand shot skyward.

Wearily, Father O'Leary acknowledged her. "Yes, my child?"

"I understand the difference." Suzie folded her arms beneath her budding breasts. She swiveled in her seat, riding the desk sidesaddle, and threw back her dirty-blond feathered mane so she could beam down her nose at her classmates.

"I'm sure you do," Father O'Leary replied deadpan. He paced the length of the narrow space between the blackboard and the first row of desks. "And I'm quite confident than none of you children have ever experienced true hunger before . . ."

Sam gawked at Suzie's bare knees jutting from under the hem of her plaid pleated skirt.

". . . the kind of hunger that lights a fire in your belly . . ."

He studied her rounded calves, flexed and bulging.

". . . swollen and distended . . ."

He gaped at the nape of her neck, her skin so taut and fine.

". . . insatiable. . . ."

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been a week since my last confession."

"Hey, there's Suzie," Crazy Eddie said. "Why don't you ask her to dance?"

Sam followed his friend's pointing finger across the school's darkened cafeteria to where Suzie stood in a circle of giggling girls. Sam quickly turned away, pretending not to notice her.

Ralphie slapped Sam on the back. "C'mon, what are you—chicken?"

Sam could barely hear Ralphie over the disc jockey's three-foot-tall speakers, which at the moment blared the J. Giles Band's "Centerfold."

Crazy Eddie took up the song's whiny chorus, making it a taunt. "Nah, nah, n-nah-nah-nah, n-nah-nah-nah-n-n-nah-nah-nah!"

A huge grin split Ralphie's horse face. "I'm gonna go tell Suzie that you like her."

Before Sam could object, Ralphie shuffled in his patent-leather Capezios across the empty space serving as a dance floor. Horrified, Sam watched him go. Spinning speckles of light, thrown by a mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling, made Sam dizzy.

Ralphie stood before the fluorescent-clad girls and said something. Suddenly there was a burst of movement—the girls flailed their arms, rocked on their heels, covered their faces with their hands, and stomped their feet. Despite the music, Sam could hear all the shrieking. Then the girls, in unison, turned and leered at him. He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry.

The girls parted like the Red Sea—two wave fronts receding to either side of Suzie. Slowly, she made her way toward Sam. He fought the urge to vomit.

To steady his nerves, Sam ran through the multiplication tables in his head. He knew that any piece of music—even the Top Forty stuff the DJ had been playing for the past hour—could be distilled down to its basic mathematical elements. But he also knew that something would be lost in the translation—some level of meaning to which he was tone-deaf. At least that's what his piano teacher had always told him. Even Sam would concede that his piano playing, though technically proficient, invoked all the emotion of a ticking metronome.

"Hi," Suzie said. Like most of the eighth-grade girls, she stood a head taller than him.

"Hi." He buried his hands deep in the pockets of his black Members Only jacket.

The DJ started a new record: "Endless Love," a ballad by Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie.

With nowhere to run, Sam asked Suzie, "So . . . do you wanna dance?" His voice sounded like the tweeting of birds in his ears.

Suzie blushed, a fitting contrast to her heavy navy-blue eye shadow. "Sure."

Sam led Suzie to the center of the dance floor. Together, with his hands on her hips and hers on his shoulders, they rocked stiff-legged, back and forth—one-two, one-two.

Aware of the parental chaperones stationed at strategic locations, Sam tried his best to observe the "ruler rule," keeping at least twelve inches between himself and his dance partner. But once other couples joined them, Suzie pulled him closer. His forehead mashed against the gold nameplate hanging from a chain around her neck, leaving a mark.

"Ohmigod," she cried. "I love this song!"

He could feel tiny vibrations in her chest as she hummed along with the languid duet. Her soft, fuzzy sweater tickled his nose, the swells of her breasts warmed both cheeks. He inhaled deeply, filling his nostrils with her scent: lilac and wool and Aqua Net hairspray. Until a chaperone tapped him on the shoulder, forcing them apart, he was in heaven.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been three days since my last confession."

"Listen, Sam," Father O'Leary said, the weight of the world in his sigh. "You really need to find yourself a new hobby. If you keep this up, you're gonna go blind."

"Listen again," Crazy Eddie insisted. "You'll hear it."

On the record player in his bedroom sat his older brother's ten-year-old copy of Led Zeppelin's fourth album. Known simply as "Led Zeppelin IV," it had four rune-like symbols and strange occult-inspired artwork inside the dust jacket. Crazy Eddie was convinced that, through "backmasking," the band had hidden secret satanic messages in the song "Stairway to Heaven." The only way to hear these messages, he had explained, was to play the album backwards.

With the record player turned off, he placed his fingertip on the vinyl disc and began spinning the turntable in reverse. The needle produced tinny zips and squirts that sounded like sinister violins accompanied by ghostly moaning and chanting in some long-forgotten tongue. Intrigued, Sam drifted closer to better listen to the bizarre symphony. Ralphie remained where he lounged on the bed, his hands folded behind his head.

"There," Crazy Eddie exclaimed. "Hear that?"

Ralphie arched a dubious eyebrow. "Hear what?"

"'My sweet Satan'—clear as day."

"Nope. Didn't hear a thing."

Crazy Eddie turned to Sam. "How about you?"

Sam shrugged.

Crazy Eddie kept spinning the album. Then he abruptly stopped. "How about there?"

"I didn't hear anything," Ralphie said. "Just gibberish."

"You're kidding me! I clearly heard the words: 'And he entered the room, and no one said boo.' You didn't hear that? Listen again." He spun the record the right way for a few seconds and then replayed it backwards.

"All right," Ralphie conceded. "I might have heard something that time."

Crazy Eddie folded his arms in triumph. Behind him on the wall over his dresser, a glow-in-the-dark poster depicted Iron Maiden's ghoulish mascot—named "Eddie," appropriately enough—who snarled with mummified lips. With quiet reverence, Crazy Eddie repeated, "'And he entered the room, and no one said boo.' That's totally awesome!"

"That's it?" Sam sputtered, one eyelid flapping furiously behind a steamed eyeglass lens. "That's what you've been blathering about for months? 'And he entered the room, and no one said boo.' You call that a secret message? What the hell is that supposed to mean? What a gyp!"

"I don't know what's gotten into you lately," Sam's mother declared for the third time. Clutching her frayed terrycloth bathrobe with one hand, she stalked the kitchen like a caged lioness. "You raise a fuss every Sunday before church. You haven't gone to confession in weeks. You've been spending all your time at the mall chasing girls. Your grades have been slipping."

Sam said nothing. He glanced longingly at his breakfast, growing colder by the minute.

Mother closed in for the coup de grace, planting herself in front of him where he sat on the vinyl-backed kitchen chair. "I had a meeting with Sister Catherine yesterday. Do you know what she told me? She said that you refused to go up to the blackboard to do your arithmetic. Refused! I want an explanation, Mister."

He looked Mother in the eye. "I can't."

"You 'can't' what? You can't explain? You'd better try, and it had better be a good one."

"You don't understand." His cheeks reddened. "I . . . I couldn't stand up."

"Why not?" she demanded. "Was your leg broken?"

Involuntarily, he squeezed his thick thighs together. "I . . . I just couldn't."

She huffed and resumed her pacing. "Well, this behavior had better stop. It's a good thing you're going to that all-boys high school next year. You'll be able to concentrate on your studies again." She paused, curling her lip into an ugly sneer. "Fewer distractions."

"Miss Spinoza, I can't see anything."

It was the third time that day that someone in Sam's freshman biology class had made the same complaint. Rolling her doe eyes, the young high-school teacher slid from where she sat on the windowsill. She sauntered between two rows of heavy wooden lab tables toward the student who had called her, her short skirt swishing with every leggy stride. She bent over his microscope, placed her eye to the eyepiece, and adjusted the knobs.

"This isn't rocket science, you know," she gently admonished the student. "You boys shouldn't be having so much trouble with this."

Smirking, the student stepped back and admired his teacher's behind. Sam noticed other boys gathering in a knot several rows in front of her, their mouths hanging open. When he joined them, he realized why. Her silky blouse had slipped a few buttons. While she attended to the microscope, she unwittingly exposed her ample cleavage to the young men's hungry gaze.

Sam rubbed his hands together and smiled. He muttered, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Oh boy, have I sinned!"

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