A meditation on the number 4

My birthday is this week, and as my annual gift to myself I’ll be abusing my status as a blogger to post some indulgent and/or ridiculous things I have written and never shared.

Here’s a stream-of-consciousness freewrite that was a warm-up exercise at a Ministry of Playwriting meeting. The first sentence was given to me, and the rest was free association:



The Greeks showed the relationship between square and odd numbers like this: Two squares, two odd numbers. In a ring. It’s a death-match. The Roman Emperor is watching, even though he hasn’t been invented yet. It starts with 5 versus 9. Obviously, nine wins. No contest. Then comes 23 versus 16. 23 wins. We think we’ve got a pretty robust system for predicting the winner worked out and the Emperor is getting bored when the third match comes on. 4 versus 87. Get this: 4 WINS. Everyone cheers. The bloody corpse of 87 is dragged from the arena… or rather, the 7 is. The 8 is so mangled that it has to be cleaned up with a shovel and a bucket.

4 is our new national hero. 4 plies the strings of the drummer’s guitar and dances with beautiful women in the street at a parade in its honor. 4 is everything you wished to be yet failed to attain. 4 is the new God.

Athena is angry. She is being neglected. All she’s got is a product-placement deal with Nike, and nobody’s paying attention. Luckily she’s the god of combat or some shit, so she challenges 4 to a fight to the death.

Not surprisingly, Athena wins, and everything is once again right with the world.

And yet sometimes, when I count 3 plus 1 bandages in the bathroom cupboard, or 2 plus 2 otters at the zoo, or 5 minus 1 moaning coeds on the Betamax™ videocassette, or maybe I’m just dialing 4-1-1 or 214-2404 on the phone to talk to my disemboweled grandson, I think of the power of the number 4.

4 is the square of 2, and the square root of 16. It has a loving family of other numbers who always do their best to keep it clean and healthy. And the number 4 killed my father. It was a hunting accident. It’s all for the best, I suppose. He was a horrible man, and all the stupider for taking a numeral along on a hunting trip. What happened was the gun slipped… and it landed at an odd angle… and 5 shots rang out. 4 of them pierced my father through his heart.

At his funeral, we had the undertaker cut him up into quadrants. We buried him in 4 coffins.

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