One, Two, Three, Four, Five
I donít know how it got in our house. My parents must not have yet known the terror that face provoked in me. Or else, it seemed such a laughable fear, so dismissible by grown-up logic, that no precaution seemed necessary. Or else, they thought they would throw me in the deep end and I would swim: that by dressing me up as precisely the One I feared most, they could cure me. I would walk a block in his shoes, scare up a bag of candy, and go to bed happy. And so it came to pass, on the Halloween three days after Iíd turned four, that I was encouraged to slip into the store-bought likeness of a Sesame Street monster.
The costume came in two parts. The first was the cape, a cheap synthetic
cloth with a tiny hole for a head, which my mom helped to drape on my skinny frame. The other was a paralytically stiff plastic mask, which, while it was a dead ringer for the character it evoked, somehow failed at first to bristle with the electricity of fright. So I complicitly strapped the thin elastic string to the back of my head and lowered the make-believe visage over my own. I lifted my head to face the bathroom mirror. A long second followed where nothing moved in my body, or the room, and I stood transfixed by my altered image. Then I screamed. It had happened. I was the Count.
For those born pre-Prohibition, or post-Y2K, or in a cave in Bhutan,
who arenít conversant in Sesame Street, the Count is the neighborhoodís
resident sinister purple mathematician vampire. He sports rather stubby
felt fangs, a cape and a monocle, a stiff goatee, and a roughly
Romanian accent. In a casual encounter you could almost mistake him for
just another nerdy, jovial, sexually ambiguous immigrant pagan such
as you might rub shoulders with in a junk shop on the Lower East
Side. But when he gets to counting -- thatís where things have always
gotten freaky. By three, or four, or five of something -- books,
sheep, cookies, fire trucks, whateverís in need of some reckoning --
the Count is invisibly frothing with a gleeful evil, a near-orgasmic
enjoyment of numbers, or as I may have perceived it in childhood,
a sense that he was preying on the objects themselves, snapping
them up in the blood-lusty jaws of his quantities.
Suddenly lightning flares out of nowhere, thunder cracks.
Sometimes a posse of bats starts to swarm above the Countís head,
bobbing hyperactively in the newly stormy air.
And most appalling of any of it is the laugh, the signature
aspirated cackle that signals the end of the counting,
the finiteness of the counted: ten potatoes or umbrellas,
twenty candles or pigeons. Again, it doesnít matter what has been
counted, only that it has been, and that the magic number
has been achieved, and there will be no more; cue the laughter
and the lightning. And this, I now believe, is how I first
bumped into a consciousness of mortality: first on the TV screen,
and then in the bathroom mirror, in the countenance of the Count.
Now I donít want to seem like a know-it-all on the metaphysical aspects
of the Count. Whatever part of me believes itís got a grip on his
existential or psychosexual symbolism is dwarfed by the part that
is scared shitless by that toothy purple madman. I have entertained,
though, a few choice theories about my fear of the Count.
Could I be, for example, a closet xenophobe?
Does the Countís accent, which noticeable as it is has no bearing on
the guyís fluency or expressiveness in English, secretly rouse
my suspicions? Or perhaps itís the lightning and thunder, two
elements of nature that have always made my gut remotely uneasy,
and which the Count seems to telekinetically command. Or maybe
thereís something more Oedipal at work -- the Count, with his
snappy dress and facial hair and half a pair of glasses,
was the first mythical character onto which I could
readily project my father.
A list of clinically diagnosed phobias
includes fear of puppets, fear of laughter, fear of numbers,
and fear of the color purple. But none of these afflicts me,
and no combination of factors equals the truth that my four-year-old
heart perceived in that mask.
I was among a group of five boys in my seventh grade class who got bumped
up to ninth grade math. I pretended to be surprised, reluctant.
Already the rebel poet with a Led Zeppelin patch sewn onto my denim jacket,
I had to pretend to hate math. But in truth, the proportion and calculation,
grouping and correspondence made a sort of musical sense to me.
At least, up to a point. There was always a definite bar above
which my mathlete legs would not let me jump. In fourth grade, my reckoning
skills had earned me distinction from the herd, and four or so of us got
to sit at a separate corner table and work on ďenrichmentĒ problems.
That was until I had a crisis of long division -- as in, I found it
suddenly, inexplicably impossible -- and I wound up shunned from the numbers
elite. The next time it was pre-Calculus, the twelfth-grade
course (I took it in tenth) which I miserably failed.
Two thirds of the final exam might as well have been written in Arabic.
I never signed up for a math class again.
In some late-adolescent assessment of my lifelong fear of
the Count, I decided I loathed him because I deeply disliked math.
But couldnít the converse also be correct? What if my weird
combination of capacity and underachievement was all a part
of the Countís reign of terror? What if, having hit long
division and calculus, I started to find myself a bit
over-eager to plot, and sum, and factor -- and suddenly I
looked in the mirror, and there I saw the lavender lord
who loves only numbers, numbers, numbers?
Itís been a few years since I dreamed of the Count.
Nightmares have come every so often over the past quarter-century,
but one that came out of nowhere in my late teens was perhaps
the most vivid and memorable. The Count was chasing me,
following me from scene to scene, waddling up with his entourage
of bats and spooky organ music. He followed me through a dense
crowd of people and through a totally empty house. He was gaining on me,
and he meant to do me harm. He finally caught up, and we had a brief,
bizarrely horrifying struggle, which I only escaped from by
biting off several of his fingers. In my mouth,
the Countís digits dissolved into something like grape-flavored Kool Aid.
I turned and ran.
The Count is still back there somewhere in my subconscious.
I know because I sometimes pull up clips of him these days on YouTube,
and he still gives me genuine chills. I know Iím tempting nightmares
by watching him, by writing and thinking so much about him -- but somehow
I donít believe heís out to harm me anymore. He just canít help but
be creepy, wandering through the years of my life with his beard
and bats and looking glass, sustaining himself on his own private joke:
Twenty-seven... Twenty-eight... Twenty-nine... Ha!
©2009 by Noah Kucij