Variations by Mary Lynn Reed


Jackson taps his mechanical pencil against the cash register, counting the slow but steady stream of customers flowing through this Rite Aid, on this Saturday afternoon, in the middle of this July. He's been reading about the Calculus of Variations, its connection to the wave equation. He thinks about the beach, the way sand feels between your toes while you're watching the surfers and wishing you could swim. It's not for a class or a project or anything required. He just picked up this book from the library to keep his mind going through the summer, while he's working long shifts selling tampons and diapers and bags of candy. 

A young Hispanic guy in baggy jeans and a white T-shirt steps up to the counter, pushes a six-pack of Trojan Magnums across, nods at Jackson.

"Hey," Jackson says, with a smile. "The 12-pack is on sale. Much better deal."

The guy taps the six-pack and shakes his head, No.

Jackson just stocked that aisle. "Seriously, dude. It's only $9 for the 12-pack and this is $7 for half as many. You should get the better deal."

The guy looks down, shakes his head again, nudges the six-pack forward.

Jackson has a notebook under the counter. He tears a piece of paper out and writes the math down. "Look," he says. "If you bought two of those it would be $7 x 2 = $14. But the 12-pack is only $9. It would save you a lot of money."

There's something sad in the guy's expression now, and Jackson wonders how well he speaks English. Maybe this isn't a math problem. Maybe he doesn't understand.

There's dirt under the guy's fingernails. His T-shirt is spotted with grass stains. He looks like he's been outside all day. There's probably a truck waiting out there, with a lawn mower and an edger and a gas-powered leaf blower.

The guy touches the six-pack again, and finally says, "Just this. Okay?"

Jackson crumples up the paper, rings up the purchase, and says, "That'll be $7.24, with tax."

The guy hands him a twenty-dollar bill. Jackson shakes his head.

"Have a good day," Jackson says, handing the guy his change.

After the guy with the condoms is gone, it gets quiet in the store and there's time for Jackson to sit on the stool behind the counter and pull out the Calculus of Variations book. He reads the words and skims over the more complicated equations. He feels compelled to stare directly at things he doesn't understand. He runs his fingers across the smooth constellation of mathematical symbols, reading words like maximize and minimize and optimal control. Just a tiny glimmer of insight is all he's looking for today. Just a small amount is enough.



Mary Lynn Reed's fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffinLitro Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and Wigleaf, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Maryland, and she is co-Editor of MoonPark Review.

Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Mary Lynn on the Orson's Publishing blog.