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Leo had told me that entropy was a measure of disorder, and that disorder was always increasing. I recalled his enthusiasm about the concept one wet day when I was the only customer in a second-hand bookstore on South Street. After an hour of indecision and waiting for the rain to stop I finally came across an old physics textbook that seemed readable. It had, at least, some interesting photographs. When I presented it for payment, the girl behind the counter put down her own book and looked at mine. She raised her eyes quizzically and asked me if I really wanted to buy this.
I nodded that I did.
“Are you sure?” she asked, “After an hour searching, looking at practically every single book we have in the store, are you sure that this is the book you want to buy. Are you sure?”
She was close to my age, and she was a pretty girl with short black hair, and I presumed that she was trying to engage me in banter rather than insult me. But I had spoken to nobody that day and I had become too lost within my own thoughts while searching to find a witty reply.
‘I’m just in a mood to read some physics,’ was all I could say, and wondered if my looks were close enough to handsome to compensate for my lack of humour. I wished I’d put on a clean shirt.
“Nobody is ever in a mood to read some physics,” she told me. “You’ve got to have an ulterior motive. There’s got to be some reason for you to buy this. We only have this book because we bought it by mistake. We leave it out there just to fill up the shelves.”
I said that I really thought I was in a mood to read about physics.
She shook her head, with mock concern for my welfare.
‘Sometimes people think they’re in a mood to read some physics,’ she said, ‘But that doesn’t mean that they are in a mood to read some physics. You’re going to go home and open this book and look at it and then put it down and wonder why you bothered buying it. And then you won’t have anything good to read. Why don’t you take your time and have a look for something better?’
It occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure that she was attempting to engage me in banter. She could simply have been mocking me for her own amusement.
‘I’m going to go with the physics book,’ I insisted.
She paused for a second and then said that if I was sure, she couldn’t stop me but that she could not be responsible for my later remorse.
I paid and thanked her and assured her that I would not be remorseful, and she smiled a little uncertainly and I left.
I crossed the road to a café and leafed through the book and wondered if I ever would get around to reading it. And I tried figuring out her uncertain smile. I decided that it contained a trace of embarrassment and that this could only indicate that she had not been mocking me but that she had in fact been attempting to engage me in banter. And if this was the case, I had to accept that I had failed to respond in anything approaching a manner that she might find encouraging.
I had no real friends in the city. I had, in fact, no real friends in the country. I should not have been rejecting any overtures of friendship and I should not, in particular, have been rejecting any overtures of friendship from pretty girls.
My coffee arrived and I added cream and wondered could I walk back across the road and attempt to undo the damage. Could I apologise and explain that I had only just figured out now that she had been trying to be friendly to me and that I had failed to respond and that I’d like another chance. I could say that if she wanted to be my friend then I would very much like, in turn, to be hers. I could stress that if, in particular, she wanted to form some sort of sexual relationship with me that that would be most welcome.
I wasn’t going to do that.
But the situation was perhaps not entirely beyond rescuing. I decided that I might return in a day or two. As if looking for another book. And possibly I could then engage her in conversation as I had just now so clearly failed to do. I could admit to failure in my attempts to read my previous purchase. Admitting, perhaps with a rueful smile, that she had been right might endear me to her. “Nobody ever wants to read a physics text-book,” I would tell her. “I should have listened to you.”
I was pleased to have a plan.
I drank my coffee and turned back to my book and sought out the pages on entropy.
The writer outlined a scenario whereby a pack of cards are thrown into the air and let fall and are then picked up and tidied again into a pack and turned over one by one on to a table. We would all accept in such a situation that any pattern we observe in the cards would be entirely coincidental. We would not be shocked to see maybe two aces turned over one after the other. But we would be very surprised to see three or four aces do so. The idea that we might find the cards all arranged in their suits, for example, and in numerical order, would be ridiculous. Such a thing would never happen.
And this was the idea of entropy. That disorder is more probable than order and that disorder is always increasing.
I was very lonely.
I had come here following work, and work kept me busy most days. But there were still evenings and weekends.
I wrote an email to Leo, explaining what a truly pitiful character I had become. I expanded on the sad reality that within a few short days I had become fixated on a girl that I had hardly met and that the only reason I thought she might possibly be interested in me was that she had mocked me. But then again, it occurred to me while I was writing, she was the closest human connection I had made in two months. Why not try. She could only reject me. And even if she was to do so in some singularly humiliating fashion, perhaps involving laughter and public derision, so what? Even if her rejection of me was to be recorded by a candid camera and saved for broadcast on local TV that evening, nobody I knew would see it because I knew nobody and nobody knew me. I could pretend it had never happened.
I left the email unfinished and went and showered and put on various shirts and attempted to gauge their impact by looking in the small mirror above the bathroom sink. I was unconvinced by all of them but settled on one and set out walking and found myself going by a clothing store and decided to have a look at myself in one of their mirrors.
The shirt would not do. It was old and clung too tightly and accentuated my gut. I examined the stock and found a polo shirt I thought might work. But then I regretted my choice of jeans. I looked around and checked through the window on the path outside. Nobody was wearing jeans. I wondered if they had become unfashionable. I bought some new trousers. And shoes.
So then I had to go back to my apartment to drop off my old clothes. And it was a warm day and I felt a little sweaty and had another shower while I was there. And I added some more to my email to Leo. Saying I would now at least look good for TV. And then I made a coffee and drank half of it and told myself that I was just stalling and that I was being a coward and I left it unfinished.
I walked down to South Street certain that she would not be working again and stared through the window as if browsing for a while before going in. There was an old guy in the Grateful Dead Tee shirt working the counter.
I wandered between the shelves and thought I might as well buy myself a book now that I had come this far. The truth was that the girl had had a point and that the physics text book was not engrossing. I picked out a thriller and went to the counter to pay and the old guy in the Grateful Dead tee shirt had gone to the office, and then I heard conversation from through the door and the girl with the short black hair came out, still talking over her shoulder and picked up my book and named a price, all without looking up.
Deflated I rooted out a few dollars from my pocket and thought of saying nothing but reminded myself again that I had nothing to lose.
“You were right,” I said, attempting a rueful smile, and she looked up at me for the first time, clearly confused.
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“You were right,” I told her, my smile fading, hoping she would show some flicker of recognition. “You told me I‘d picked out the wrong book a few days ago. And you were right.”
“Oh, OK,” she said, taking my money. She counted out the change onto the counter and thanked me.
I hesitated, scrambling for some witty remark with which to engage her. She smiled at me in a friendly manner, but not an encouraging one.
“I hope this is a little better for you,” she said.
“I hope so,” I agreed and took the money and left.
When I was finished with work that evening, I went to a bar near my apartment and ordered a beer and watched some sports on TV with the bartender. They showed a clip of a tennis game that had been played somewhere that day. It was a game of doubles and didn’t involve famous people but they were showing it because at one point in a rally, a player had stretched for a shot and, though he managed to make the shot, had fallen over. In returning this shot, one of his opponents had also fallen over, in a manner that mirrored the first fall. The bartender was leaning back against the bar watching it with me and chewing on a toothpick, and when a third player fell as well, he raised his eyebrows and when the fourth fell so that all four now formed a large white letter X against the red floor he laughed and said, “How about that?”
“How about that?” the sports reporter said, echoing him.
I commented that it all went against the concept of entropy.
He turned around and started pulling a beer and asked me what had I said and what was that about entropy. I told him what I’d been reading and he told me about some chemistry course he was taking in college because he had thought for a while that maybe he wanted to be a chemical engineer but that he didn’t really like the idea any more.
“It’s all just facts, you know,” he said, leaving the filled glass on the bar in front of him and idly examining the froth that rose to the lip before receding.
“It’s all just facts,” he repeated. “No stories. I got tired of that.”
About Tom Tierney
Tom has been published before in the Stinging Fly, Southword, Personal Bests and New Irish Writing. He is currently studying for an M.A. in Creative Writing in D.C.U. (in Dublin)