Outside the funeral home wet, heavy snowflakes fell on an approaching incandescent Christmas while Binary stood before an open coffin with the echo of his father’s desperate screams reverberating in his head. 'Ones and Zeros! Ones and Zeros!' Binary rubbed his face with his thick, moist hands dreading the onslaught of well-wishers and empathizers. He already missed the comfort of his house; the safe, familiar walls, the cushy easy chair sitting before a glowing television, and the absence of unfamiliar people expressing uncomfortable emotions. Binary closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His shiny, sloping head was wreathed in black and gray hairs whose subatomic structure, according to his father, had no basis in a material world. Binary smoothed his black polyester suit which clung stiffly to his soft middle-aged body then pulled a comb from his breast pocket and flattened the black and gray follicles around the sides of his head into some semblance of conformity. He used to wear a toupee, but his father said it was fake; even in adulthood, and his subsequent rejection of the ideal world theory, he had to agree with the old man on this one. Binary slid the comb back into his breast pocket and paused over the man who finally left him in peace. The corpse still looked like his father. With dense, protruding brows; a wide, flat nose; and vulgar, sagging jowls that flopped irreverently on wild, drunken nights as he screamed of the profane obsolescence of life. 'Ones and Zeros! Ones and Zeros!' He would rant and pace, tearing at his smooth scalp with trembling hands. 'It’s not real! It’s none of it, real! We’re just programs in a simulation! There’s no point! There’s not even a reality! Ones and Zeros! Ones and Zeros!' He found in the end that cigarettes and whiskey, whether simulated or not, carry irreversible consequences.

“Mr. Jordan,” the proprietor of the funeral home approached Binary, slightly dragging his left foot. “If you’re ready, we can open the doors and start letting people in.”

Binary looked at the old man and nodded. As the mortician limped slowly to the front doors Binary took a deep breath. Even before he approached middle age, most people called him Mr. Jordan. Calling someone Binary made people feel uncomfortable while those who knew his father often positively refused to call him by his name; they felt as if they were validating the harm Binary’s father inflicted on him. They skirted this guilt by calling him Biny. His peers were less kind. They had always picked on him for his blunt troglodyte features, but when they finally figured out what binary meant the taunts became incessant. He would fly into a rage as the children surrounded him chanting his name. A few bullies, of the slack-jawed vein, called him Bi, like bi-sexual; as if that was any worse. But through it all he learned valuable tools that helped him exist in a material world crammed with people who punish the strange and weak. He learned quickly that screaming and bashing your own head against a wall doesn’t repel taunts but encourages them. It’s better to form an apparent shell of cynical indifference and pretend the taunts don’t matter; without a reaction mobs eventually lose interest. He learned that if you’re weaker and you punch someone stronger, they’ll hurt you; but if you bite them and draw blood, they’ll run away. He learned that, though a gentle answer turneth away wrath, comedic diversions perfectly insulate one from attack. Mostly, however, he learned that, whether in an ideal world or a material one, happiness is a fiction not to be concerned with and only when expecting happiness does one find misery. It’s best to shut down and feel nothing; to tell cynical jokes and stare suspiciously at the world. So, Binary locked himself up inside his father’s house, with only his own company and that of a raving fool.

“Biny. Hello, son. Sorry to hear about Rick.”

“Thank you, Mr. Tabor.” The old man’s wrinkled skin was pigmented in a sallow hue as if it had been tinctured by the loess he had lived on his entire life. A memory flashed through Binary’s mind of him and his older brother racing to the top of the windblown hills of Council Bluffs. They struggled up those steep, tall hills of foreign soil with their lungs on fire. His brother, John, reached the top first and began taunting Binary. John walked back down the hill verbally emasculating his younger brother, then he began shoving and wrestling Binary, who was desperate to reach the top like his brother had. Binary oscillated between wild laughter and tearful screams as he tried clawing his way to the top. He swung haymakers at his brother and kicked at his shins. When John tripped, Binary finally broke free and reached the top. He threw his arms into the air and screamed into the stiff breeze that built those mighty hills which guarded the muddy waters of the Missouri River. Binary still remembered John’s face smirking as he watched him scream at the western horizon. The memory made him smile, so he quickly hid it away alongside the other things cynicism can’t show or feel.

Mr. Tabor looked over the body and shook his head. “Rough way to go.”

With an internal grin Binary thought about the things that people say in regard to specific kinds of death. Cancer is rough, a painless yet abrupt passing is tragic, a homicide doesn’t make sense, cut down in the line of duty is courageous, dying in one’s sleep is their time, and suicide is as vague as possible. One thing remains constant through any death, save murder/suicide, is that they’re in a better place now. “Thank you, Mr. Tabor,” Binary said, mustering a half-smile that he’d have to summon throughout the night.

As Mr. Tabor left, a gray haired old woman with a disconnected gaze in her eyes walked up to Binary and wrapped her arms around him. “Ah, Biny. I’m soooo sorry about your dad. He was such a good man.”

“Oh right,” Binary thought. “Everyone also becomes good when they die.”

“Well, he’s in a better place now,” she said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Armentrout. He always liked you.” It wasn’t true. Rick Jordan hated almost everyone, holding them in the distrustful glare common amongst strangers looking out across a world they can’t believe in.

“Ohhhh,” Mrs. Amentrout exhaled. “He was such a lovely man.”

Binary wondered why he lied to make her feel better. She meant nothing to him.

The hour hand slowly worked its way back up the face of the clock as the well-wishers multiplied. Binary smiled politely while making little quips. Throughout the night he noticed a few people who menacingly paused over the coffin, silently gloating over his father’s death. They had pompous, indecorous eyes. With chins held high and a glare running from their sharp pupils past the sides of their nostrils, they stared at the old man. Not one approached Binary, but each one did turn their head and nod to him before walking out. A knowing glimmer twinkled in his eye when he met theirs. They shared a communion in the old man’s death; a vindication that they had outlived the fool who disregarded their existence. Rick was not a shut-in like Binary; he was much too restless and needed space in which to rage against his false reality. He slept with married women, taunted and fought jealous husbands, stole from honest men, and tormented his unloved son. What else can a man do when he doesn’t believe that anything around him is real; that all existence is an immaterial construct interacting only with our own consciousness? One might think he were a lesser god bound in deep space with only the dim figments of glimmering mortals to play with.

Binary suffered the evening chore of shaking hands with mostly strangers while wondering why so many people showed up. He observed the supposed mourners. They walked up to him, said their words, and then passed in front of the coffin. Some crossed themselves, others simply paused, but most gathered in little clumps around the funeral home and engaged in private little conversations. They would grin or throw their heads back and shake their smiling faces from side to side during the punchline of some amusing anecdote about the old man. Binary shook his head as he thought to himself, “They’re gathering to see the village idiot one last time.” His cynicism was, once again, reinforced. Then he thought about his role in the idiot’s illusionary world and the idiot’s role in his material world. He never did understand why his father allowed him to stay or why he never split like his older brother. He assumed it was one of those situations that persist simply because no one goes through the effort to end it. Inertia is a potent force that often binds us to others within obsolete social constructs.

Binary shook someone else’s hand and pretended to listen to what they said while thinking of all the things that lead us to the places in which we find ourselves in. It was an icy patch on a lonely road that drove the old fool upon a bed of drunken, debauched insanity. Binary had heard stories of his father from before he was born. The son of a wealthy inventor, he was brilliant, engaging, exciting, and bold. He would talk passionately about the latest ideas and theories in physics, philosophy, politics, or religion while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee all night long. He was still eccentric, but his eccentricities were endearing, and he always lit up the faces of the people he engaged with. Though he was always ugly, his personality and brilliance overwhelmed the blunt features of his heavy face, and he managed to get an equally brilliant woman to marry him. She was ugly too, but she was also his entire world. They clicked on the deepest level and seldom left each other’s side. They could argue and agree with equal intensity; fight and love from the same heart; despair and dream in the same comforting embrace; and simultaneously excite and calm each other like the nicotine they inhaled each day. Neither could dance a lick, but they always tried. A good night often climaxed amongst some sore toes and a few spilled drinks. It abruptly ended the day Binary was born. It was a frozen February morning and his mother’s car slid into a pickup truck on an empty patch of highway 6. Twisted metal wrapped around her body as both vehicles flew off the road and down into a deep ditch. After a few hours of blood loss and untreated trauma, she was rushed to the hospital and Rick was presented with a choice. Risk the mother and deliver the son, or risk the son and try and save the mother. They say he froze stiff and didn’t speak for hours; only muttering, 'No. No. No. This can’t be. It can’t be real.' The doctors waited for his decision till it was made for him. The mother expired and the son was cut from her womb and given to a despondent father.

Binary looked out the window as the moist snow gathered on leafless trees and colorful Christmas decorations. The heavy, white blanket masked the plastic façade of an ancient celebration, while adults, desperate for the happiness of present crazed toddlers, retold elaborate myths about a fat, old man in a reindeer-driven sleigh flying through the air dispensing unfathomable joys upon all the good little boys and girls of the world. Binary almost winced as he remembered asking his dad about Santa. 'What are you, stupid?' his father replied. 'Santa’s not real...and even if he were real, he still wouldn’t be real! Ones and Zeros! Ones and Zeros!'

Binary always waited for the punchline. As if the last thirty-eight years of his life had been an elaborate joke. Oddly enough, he could have accepted that. All existence as we know it being a computer-like simulation seems very much like a trick one would pull on a child, but the reveal never came. The cruel joke continued until it became funny and Binary spent his adulthood laughing at his father. Snickering at his rants and laughing fully as the old man stumbled in his lonely revelry. He looked with cynical eyes at his material world. In his mind he knew they were all real, but they felt as fake as his father believed them to be. He was detached from everyone else and inwardly bore the lonely life of a child staring at a wall; wishing his father would stop yelling.

“Hello, young man. Sorry to hear about your pops. He was a…quite a character.”

“Thanks, Mr. Kilroy,” Binary replied as his eyes darted to the front door. In the doorway a man with a heavy, sloping forehead, canopied brows, and a low hanging crown of black and gray strands stood still and stared at Binary. “Excuse me, Mr. Kilroy.”

“Sure thing, son,” Mr. Kilroy replied.

Binary walked up to the man in the doorway shaking his head. “Hello, John. So, you did come to see the old man after all.”

John shook his head. “No, Binary. I drove through the night to see you. Let’s get a cup of coffee, hey?”

Binary nodded. “Okay, but are you sure you don’t want to see the old fool one last time?”

John shook his heavy head again. “I’ve seen him too much already.”

The brothers walked across the street and sat down at a café whose building the old mortician also owned and rented out. They sat opposite one another at a small table; their Cro-Magnon features mirroring each other. “So, how’re you doing?” John asked.

“I’m fine, John,” Binary responded relaxed and leaning against the back of his seat. “I’m surprised you made it, though.”

“Yeah.” Both men stared off for a while then John broke the silence. “He was a crazy son of a bitch, wasn’t he?”

Binary grinned. “Well, he hit the mark sometimes. Like with that stupid group you liked growing up.” John quizzically cocked his head to the side. “What you forgot already? That crazy, old fool knew Milli Vanilli was fake long before anyone else did.”

John erupted in a low, growling laughter, while Binary chuckled at his reaction. “Ha. Ha. He was right there, wasn’t he?” The roar of John’s laughter died down slowly. “What was I thinking?”

“Hell, when I think of all the trauma I endured growing up, nothing was quite as destructive as hearing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True’ coming through those thin walls.”

John roared again and wiped a tear from the side of his eye. Then in a pathetic attempt to justify past sins he said, “Hey, they were a hot band at the time.”

Binary thrust his finger at John’s face. “They were a fake group not a fake band. You didn’t see them prancing around playing fake instruments, did you?”

“Sorry. Sorry,” John said through a rolling laughter. “They were a hot group.”

Binary chuckled a little more. “Well anyway. I’m going to open the will tomorrow. I have no clue what it says, but I’ll split it with you fifty-fifty.”

“Oh hell. Keep it,” John said, shaking his head while pushing down the last of the laughter. “You took care of him when no one else would.”

“You sure?” Binary asked. “There’s still quite a bit left over. A few mill that he’d didn’t blow through, anyway.”

“No. It’s yours.”

“Huh.” Binary pulled his chin slightly toward his neck and pursed his lips. “I figured that’s why you came down.”

“No. I came to see you.”

“Yeah, what about?”

“Nothing in particular…I guess. I know I disappeared after I turned eighteen and…uh…I guess I’ve been thinking about that lately. But…I don’t know…not even that really.”

Binary nodded his head expecting John’s hidden motive to be revealed at any moment, but it never was. The two men talked and laughed catching each other up on their lives. After an hour they went home and each slept in their old rooms. John blared “Girl, You Know It’s True” on his old cassette player while Binary yelled and kicked the walls like he used to when he was nine. The next day, Binary threw dirt on his father’s coffin alone then had dinner with John. He offered him half the loot again, but John shook it off without concern. They were so busy laughing about the old man calling Jimmy Swaggart a fake that they burnt the spaghetti sauce and went out for a burger instead. At the restaurant the waitress, whose mother had been close friends with their mother, expressed her sympathy for their father’s passing. She smiled sweetly with kind eyes whose authenticity even Rick couldn’t assail. Both men nodded their heads and softly thanked her. When she walked away, Binary’s eyes unconsciously followed her back to the kitchen. Their conversation stagnated and they sat silently twisting at their napkins till Binary screamed out in his father’s familiar, despairing tone, “Ones and Zeros! Ones and Zeros!” Both men exploded into raucous laughter again while their neighboring patrons either stared blankly or smiled at their joviality.

“Ones and Zeros!” John parroted with a poor impersonation.

They ate their burgers no longer talking; just drawing in the calm of the familiar. When John finished his hamburger and was mopping up the last of the ketchup with his fries he stared quizzically at Binary. “Why didn’t you ever change your name?”

Binary smirked. “Got used to the attention, I guess.”

John shook his head. “No, seriously. Why haven’t you changed it?”

Binary shrugged his shoulders. “No big reason, you know. First you have to think up a new name, then you have to go to the courthouse and have it officially changed. The worst part is you have to spend the next year awkwardly correcting people. Like Mikey Reynolds when he came home from the army and asked people to call him Michael. It was an awkward year for him, you know. The whole thing would be weird. I figure it’s just easier to stick with Binary.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” John replied. He thought for a while. “But if you moved it might be worth it.”

“Where would I go? Council Bluffs is the only place I’ve ever known.”

“Grand Junction isn’t too bad. Sheryl and I would love to have you.”

Binary looked off to the wall. “I don’t know, John. I’m getting too old for a change.”

“Sure. Sure. Come for Christmas at least.”

“I’m not good at long drives, John.”

“Take the train. Get a sleeping unit. Hell. I’ll buy the ticket.”

Binary shook his head but said “I’ll think about it.”

After a deep breath John stood up. “I have to be going. I should have left this morning.”

Binary stood up and shook his hand. “Have a safe trip.”

“I will.” John put a stocking cap on and acted like he was going to leave but paused. “You know all he was doing with his crazy ‘ones and zeros’ junk was shutting down. How’s that any different than you? You never really got going, you know. Even as a kid you were pretty shut off from things. I guess I was too wrapped up in my own stuff to care, but I should’ve and I do now.” John rubbed his wide, thick mouth with his meaty hand. “Take it for what it’s worth. I miss you and I’ll send you that train ticket.”

Binary nodded his head without making eye contact. Actual emotions are tough for cynics to feel. John walked off and Binary sat back down. He stared blankly at his last French fry and slowly began feeling the weight of loneliness creep over him. He quickly threw a twenty down for the meal and left. He drove home at his normal pace of ten miles an hour under the speed limit, but inwardly he was desperate again for the walls that hid him for the last thirty-eight years. He pulled into the garage and walked inside the house. He expected to be calm, but the unction of the familiar refused to soothe him. He tried to sit and watch TV but was soon pacing the room in the same agitated manner his father had paced for nearly four decades. Loneliness is a funny thing. In all his years of being alone, he was never lonely. Now at the end of the brief twenty-four hours enjoying an actual connection with his brother, he felt lonely. He felt his heart beating like an empty drum in his chest believing for the first time it should be filled. Binary walked the floor feeling his life steadily crushing him. His past; his future. This lowly unending mire, the slow rot of stagnation. Even here that hereditary, growling hunger for life roared in him. His soles beat the floor madly as he thought of this potent life churning wildly under a gray blanket of cynicism. He had played the cynic for so long that he had convinced himself he didn’t care. The illusion was stripped bare and he stood naked before himself desperately wanting life; needing it to be real. Needing to feel it, live it, and submit to its awful power. The comforting tar-stained walls shrunk around him as he felt his caged spirit rebel against the norm he had been living.

Binary raced out the door, jumped in his car, and drove off. The feeling of a better time carried him to the foot of the same hill he and his brother had raced up almost three decades before. He stepped out of his car and began climbing up that silty, sandy soil. His atrophied, home-bound body struggled up the sharp hill with that old, happy memory thick in his mind. His heart raced while his lungs sucked heavily and muscles burned in lactic acid. The soft, wet, snow-covered loess caked on his shoes and worked beneath his fingernails as he clawed and pushed his way upward while slipping back. Binary wheezed and his chest heaved as he fought with everything in him to keep pushing on, but his body gave out and he kneeled trying to catch his breath. He looked back to check his progress. Distances blurred in his fuzzy mind labored with the task of desperately sucking wind. He struggled to his feet and heaved onward up the heavy slope. He found a felled tree near the top and rested his plump body on a dry spot. The rough bark of the lifeless middle-aged oak tore his slacks as he scooched back and leaned against a wide branch that ran perpendicular to the round trunk. There heaving for oxygen on that steep slope Binary looked down into that long winding river feeling the chemical release of pain and struggle; a euphoric calm that follows each storm. He sat there knowing that though this potent life may thrash you, we are not meant to hide from it but to contend with it. This earth, whether it’s material or subatomic lines of code, must grind beneath our fingernails and clog up our pores, for we are of it and it is of us. It may be painful, but the body is built to heal and life is designed to persist. Life is change, and change is forced by pain; making a safe, sheltered little life in stasis renders it obsolete. From his perch on those high hills that overlook the great plains of the West, he pitied his father’s inability to accept life and despised his own refusal to. The memory flashed through his mind of his younger self screaming into the wind. He was small and weak, but he felt proud and strong. He had defeated his brother and gravity, defied the bold wind, and taunted the expansive West. He was now older and wiser but no fuller, no truer of a person. Binary stood to his feet and followed the memory of his younger self’s lead in a brash race down the sloping loess. He turned his body sideways and skipped downward. Excitedly, frantically he threw his feet down the hill below him trying to keep his body, which felt in freefall, upright. A stupid, hearty, unconscious smile brightened his face as he huffed, wheezed, and hooted his way down. Binary’s right foot crashed into his left and his soft, heavy torso rounded over his legs then his legs over his body. The falling human carousel of flopping arms and legs, shrieks and laughs rolled down to the flat earth. Binary lay there bruised, cut, embarrassed, and laughing with intermittent moans. “Ohhh. Ha. Ha. Ahhh. Alright, John. I’m coming,” he said, flat on his back, smeared in cold mud, looking up into the silent night that was littered with the glimmer of ancient light from distant raging flames.

About the Author

Michael Hall

A construction worker from Iowa currently living in Colorado.

Read more work by Michael Hall.