“Excuse me, ma’am,” a deep, male voice intoned.
Diane looked up from the abstract she had been working on, her mouth packed with cookie. She saw the usual tower of paper directly in front of her, on her guest’s chair that no guest could actually make use of, with a pair of arms spilling out unnaturally from either side. Diane flinched instinctively but then peered more closely.
The arms were wearing the sleeves of a blue denim shirt, terminating with slightly podgy brown-skinned hands. One hand was adorned with a thin, gold wedding ring.
Reality re-asserted itself and she realised there was someone standing behind the tower. Diane swallowed the rest of the cookie before it was good and ready, and barked out at the denim arms, “Yeah, what do you want?”
“Hello, ma’am. My name is Earl,” the response came.
“Well, god darn it Earl, why don’t you stop hidin’ behind this paper here?” she hollered. Having cursed spontaneously she chastised herself aloud, “Shit, girl, gotta quit that sorta talk.” Following that, she made a mental note to put two dollars into the cookie repository.
Earl stepped into visibility. He was a bald man of average height and average build, with an average denim shirt and an average pair of denim jeans. Diane was desperate to identify something unique about him but had to be satisfied with his hands, which were a bit too swollen for the rest of his average body. He was actually more identifiable as a pair of arms than he was as a complete human being. She did not think of him as African-American, because that just was not PC, and she wanted to be clear that she was definitely a member of the liberal and tolerant community that would shout down, harass and hound out of town any British professor that used the word blackboard. Particularly British professors that were overweight and unsightly. Look, she wanted to say to Earl, I have a whiteboard.
Although she also found Earl unattractive, another one of her snap judgements that would be set in stone for the rest of her days, his face was well meaning. It was graced with a pair of gentle, innocent eyes that seemed as if they would not even harm a pair of gentle, innocent flies.
“That’s a whole lot better,” she said to the stranger now out in the limelight. “Howdy.”
“Morning, ma’am. A friend of mine told me to look up something called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theory.”
Diane felt that this man had never studied in his life and maybe never even read a book. She was intrigued and said, “It’s a theorem, Earl, but I’ll let you off easy for now. Go on.”
“Well, ma’am, I’ve had a fair look around your library downstairs and I can’t make neither head nor tail. In all my years since school, I’ve only read one book, the good book, you know.”
Diane was pleased that she was almost dang perfect with her guess about the book reading. “Earl, I sure am surprised you came all the way to our library to answer a question if you’re not much of reader.”
Earl looked down at his shoes suddenly, searching carefully for something that could not be found. He scratched his shiny scalp for a moment and then replied, “A good friend mentioned it, ma’am. I’d like to know what He meant by it. Would you please give me a bit of your time and explain the theory to me?”
Diane said, “Earl, buddy, it’s not some god darn theory, it’s a theorem.” Three dollars. “That’s to say, you see, it’s more like a fact. The last thing I need is someone in my office telling me mathematical proofs are just theories like evolution. I already had my gullet of those people.”
“Sorry, ma’am, meant no offence.”
She wondered if she really did look like a ma’am. “That’s okay, it’s nice that someone is taking an interest other than some freshman coming in here begging for more time on his assignment. I’m sorry, they say, I got to drinkin’ Diane, I clean forgot about it. I tell them they’re not going to sweet talk me out of a demerit, flashing their beautiful white smiles at me.
“Anyways, you see, there are actually two theorems but I think I’ll just get right to the point. What Gödel showed was that there are things in mathematics that can’t be proved but are true. That’s to say, truth ain’t the same as provable. Like I can’t prove that the British professor down the hall, Professor Jane his name is, is a racist but that doesn’t make it any less true.”
“You bet your bottom dollar it’s true. And it’s provable.”
Earl spoke the next sentence slowly just in case he was not crystal clearly understood. “You can prove… that there are things you can’t prove?”
“You bet your bottom dollar.”
Earl mulled this over, adopting a pose reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, and then came to his conclusion. “I have a question, ma’am.”
“Shoot.” Diane was actually enjoying talking to one of the lay people.
“Are you sure this ain’t a theory like evolution?”
“Bullcrap.” Four dollars. “The word you’re looking for, Mr. Earl, is conjecture. This ain’t no conjecture. It’s the honest God’s truth, which has been proved.”
The man returned to his puzzled pose, pensive, almost constipated. After the puzzled phase, he moved into the tortured phase. After the tortured phase passed, which lasted a good twenty seconds, he switched to despair. The man’s face, Diane thought, was a rainbow of expression. How cute.
“Wouldya like a cookie, Earl? I got these home-baked specialities from one of my students. He said they were organic, nice and tasty they are.” Diane proffered the cookie jar that was full of cookies and not the one that was full of cookie dollars.
Earl did not seem to notice the offer. “I get what you’re sayin’ an’ all, what I don’t understand is… sweet aces, why would He do such a thing?”
She made a mental note of the phrase “sweet aces” thinking that it was a wonderful phrase that would not cost her one cursing dollar per use. However, she had to ask, “Sorry, you lost me there, Earl. Who do what?”
“God. Why would He do such a thing? It’s like He put a spanner deliberately in the cogs of science.”
“Earl, buddy, it’s stuff like this that makes the universe interesting! I’m no believer, no real scientist can believe in any of that religious hokum you know, but if I was then I’d probably say he’s made plenty sure we can’t work everything out.”
Earl seemed even more despairing after she said that. “Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t believe that. That’s not what it means, that’s not what it means at all.” He shook his head several dozen times, which Diane believed was either vehement disapproval or an attempt to unscrew his head from his shoulders.
“Shit, Earl, I thought you religious types were keen on belief. So, then, what do you think it means?” Sweet aces, five dollars down!
Earl responded to Diane’s question by entering into a baffling dialogue with himself. “He said… He said He had already seen to that… already seen to what?”
Diane was not sure if she wanted to know what Earl was talking about. Perhaps Earl was about to start speaking in tongues or get out the Good Book and start making proclamations based on Psalm 743 Verse 912 that Yea We Shall Walk Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death And We Shalt Fear No Shit.
“My hat!” he cried out suddenly.
Diane may have been an incredibly sharp mathematician capable of making startling logical connections between even the most distant of theoretical concepts but found herself at a loss. She asked, “What in Sam Peckinpah has Gödel and God got to do with your hat?” She considered that a hat would have added a much-needed quirk to Earl’s average appearence. Then she imagined the paper tower wearing a hat. A bowler hat. A British bowler hat.
“Sorry ma’am, I think I left my hat downstairs! My wife got it for me, I couldn’t even think of losing it – I have to go get it!” Earl disappeared behind the paper tower again and never came back.
Diane took out another cookie and started munching on it. They were pretty good cookies, although they smelt a little funny, and had a knack of making Diane feel mellow. She cursed less when under the influence of the cookies and that was how she convinced herself she was not addicted to them.
Why would he do such a thing?
She wondered if Earl had found his hat and whether Earl had found the thing he had come to her to find. Maybe he was looking for a truth or a belief. Or proof of something. You could spend all day asking questions that did not have answers. There was a word for that: procrastination.
Diane placed five dollars in the cursing cookie jar and reflected on the problem that you could never know which questions did not have answers. She had seen smarter colleagues devote years of intense effort to the inconclusive and illusory. No-one could write papers on “Some Shit I Labored On For Seven God Damn Years But Nothing Came Out Of Except This Inconsequential Lemma, Sorry”. Failed insight could lead many a decent scientist down the longest and darkest blind alleys, to the smelliest and dirtiest of red herrings, along the zaniest and craziest of wild goose chases. Scientific faith and religious faith; she found the comparison unpalatable but there it was, like dog crap on the sidewalk.
Diane wondered if the organisation of her insubordinate paperwork was a problem without a solution. There was only one way to find out.