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SISTER CITY (Coffeetown Press, 2021)




Zero. The starting point, the baseline void of zero. A mathematical concept of nothing that is, in fact, something extremely powerful. The idea of zero allows its Mayan originator, a tattooed wizard atop a limestone pyramid in the buzzing, tropical jungle two thousand years ago, to think about time in a big way. The Short Count and the Long Count, going forward with lots of zeroes. The implied trajectory of cyclical return in base twenty, seen graphically in the shape of the numeral itself, a shell, an orb, that mirrors the shape and motion of its true creator, the Sun. Ever proceeding, ever returning.

Thus ruminates retired Professor Ignacio Morales, muttering under his pipe-smoker’s breath. He lectures math students in his head during his afternoon walk beside the old city wall of Ciudad de la Gruta. On the shaded side of the street, it is still over ninety degrees. He proceeds through the west gate and on out around the Jaguar Pyramid. “For some, zero is a lucky number. For others, a negative description of their personality.”

His former students joke about Ignacio Morales’ attempts to attach psychological import to numbers, especially in his annual Double Zero speech on the eve of the university’s major sporting event, the Sister City soccer game against Southwest Hoosier State in Cave City, Indiana. The gringo goalkeeper always displays a red double zero on his jersey, in direct provocation to his Mayan opponents.

The professor pauses to wipe his perspiring forehead. He clears his throat and fantasizes about a lecture on the complexities of Riemannian zeroes, a fresh wand of chalk at the ready. His suit and trouser pockets contain stubs of the stuff. He imagines the ancient mathematician scratching equations into the ground with a spearhead, surrounded by admiring warriors, or using precious cacao beans as counters. Ignacio deems himself a worthy descendant, though only one quarter Maya on his mother’s side (if such really matters to identity).

The afternoon sun shines down from atop the Jaguar Pyramid with a polynomial force of the fifth degree. The professor reaches for the handkerchief in the pocket of his linen jacket. He dabs his rheumy eyes.

“Buenas tardes, señor.”

“Hola, mi amigo.”

“¡Qué calor!”

“¿Cómo va?”

“Muy bien, gracias.”

Ignacio smiles and acknowledges the daily greetings from the turbulencia in the street. Neighbors in folding chairs and shop owners waving from behind their counters and the hammock vendors with their carts. Laundry flapping on the balconies. His neighborhood is an architectural relic of the 19th century henequén boom, an era when nearly all the marine rope in the world was made from Yucatán sisal, before the advent of synthetics.

Ignacio steps carefully on the broken sidewalk, shuffling along with his cane, a modified pool cue with a silver handle attached. The cane is a gift from his late friend, Delmar Butz of Cave City, Indiana. Oh, how he misses Delmar, that colorful boob.

Ignacio doffs his straw hat to the tamale lady at the corner of Centennial Park, to the nurses smoking cigarettes outside the cancer clinic, to the one-eyed operator of the shoeshine stand at the bus station, whom he has known since childhood, but can’t remember his name. He pauses to avoid a loud motorcycle, stacked high with birdcages, and a priest carrying a floppy fish in butcher paper. He eases around the line of schoolchildren at the Meteor Museum. Ignacio waves to the aproned cook, a distant cousin on his father’s side, reading a magazine in the alley behind the bakery, Pandemonio. The place is popular with the university crowd.

Every day at 4 p.m. or thereabouts, Ignacio stumps through the palmas-lined avenues of his ancestral city with the blinking, bemused gaze of a reclusive, intellectual bachelor who has just emerged from eight hours in the dim, teak-panel study of the Morales mansion. Rumor has it that the professor is working on a grand equation. Using the Mayan numeric system, the shell zero and the dot and the bar, he is attempting to solve the end-times mystery of 2012. What was supposed to happen? What might still happen? The expat regulars on the sidewalk stools of La Sombra Azul, the barrio’s busy cantina, catcall their interest:

“Cracked the secret yet, professor?”

“Would a tequila help?”

“Betting big on the Reds this weekend.”

“We miss your beisbolista friend.”

The professor pauses and bows and summons his lecture voice: “I grieve for Delmar too. Gone twelve years now. My heart still aches for Delmar Butz. And, as for my research, gentlemen, please trust that should there be a breakthrough, you will be the first to know.”