The Mobius

© 1996
R. Michael Torrey



           When you live by the highway, it seems like the whole world is on that road goin' somewhere. It's like an entire town just up and gets into their cars every day and drives in one direction, while the town at the other end of the road lines up and drives to where the first bunch of people just came from.

           Where could all those people be goin'?

           Every day two towns exchangin' people. I mean, why can't all the people in the first town just call up all the people in the second town and tell 'em what they want done? And the second town people can have the first town people do all the stuff they was gonna do and then all the stuff would get done and nobody would have to go anywhere. No one would have to be out on that highway all day and all night goin' back and forth.

           When you live by the highway, there's always cars goin' by and cars stoppin' and cars comin' in for gas and soda and such. All those people look pretty much the same whether they're headin' east or headin' west. If I see a car with a fat old bald man and a skinny old wife headin' east, it's a pretty sure bet that I'll be seein' a fat bald man and his skinny wife headin' west real soon after. A truck load of cars would go by west and sure enough, later on that day another truck load of cars would go by east bound.

           Why don't they all just keep their own cars?

           I think the highway is like a möbius strip.

           Mama taught me about mobius strips one day.

           I was sitting at the lunch counter, after the noon rush, doing addition and subtraction. Mama was back there puttin' silverware and china in the big old dishwasher, scrapin' food people hadn't finished off their plates into Howleydog's bowl. Howleydog was outside the screen, his tongue hangin' out the side of his mouth drippin' spots in the dust and every now and then he'd whine a little, in-and-out breath whines and look around to see if anyone was gonna let him in. Howleydog usually wasn't anywhere nearby, he'uz off roamin' and chasing prairie dogs all day, but he'd always show up right after the lunch crowd left and hang outside the screen because he knew that was when he'd get his dinner.

           Billy Hawkfeather was in the kitchen, cleanin' up back there and getting things ready for the dinner crowd, and Rhonda was off that day, that's why Mama was runnin' the counter.

           Mama had piled all the fruit from the fruit bowl on the countertop and was havin' me add 'em and subtract 'em.

           "How many apples you got there?" Mama said.

           "Six," I said.

           "How many bananas?"

           "Four", I said.

           "So what's six plus four?" Mama said.

           I counted 'em up.

           "Ten," I said.

           I was only five then, I don't need fruit to do addition and subtraction anymore.

           She had me put in fruit and take out fruit. Apples and bananas and oranges. She had me subtract the oranges from the apples and thought that was real funny, for some reason.

           Anyway, after the addition and subtraction, which lasted just as long as it took Mama to clean up behind the counter, she came over and sat down next to me.

           "Take out a sheet of paper," Mama said.

           I ripped a sheet of paper out of my spiral notebook. I got my pencil out of my Black Beauty pencil box.

           "How many sides does that paper have?" Mama said. She raised her eyebrow at me and smiled that kind of crooked smile she gets when she's gonna say somethin' funny.

           "Two," I said. I looked at the paper, turned it back and forth. Paper has two sides, front and back, everybody knows that. "What if I could show you," Mama said, "a piece of paper that only had one side?"

           I looked at the paper. Turned it back and forth. Looked back at Mama. I remember thinkin' she must be confused.

           "That's impossible!" I said.

           "Is it?" Mama said, "Why?" She reached for one of the apples, smiling.

           "Because." I said, and stopped. Flipped the paper back and forth in the air. "Because it has to have two sides."

           "Why?" Mama said. Her hand hung in the air over one apple, went down on a different one.

           "Because." I said. It was so obvious, why wasn't she getting it?

           "Because everything has two sides." I said. Mama was polishing the apple on her skirt, looking at me with both eyes wide open like she didn't know what I was talking about.

           "Everything?" Mama said. She took a bite of the apple. It crunched and some juice ran out down her chin. She wiped that off with the back of her hand.

           "Well," I said, "at least two sides. Some things have more sides." I tried to think of how many sides an apple would have. That was too hard.

           "But nothing has only one side!" I said, "Specially paper!"

           "Okay," Mama said, "So you say paper always has two sides?"

           "Yes!" I said. Seemed like Mama was bein' really stupid.

           "Okay," Mama said. She started to take another bite of the apple but let go of it with her hand, stood up and leaned over the counter with the apple in her mouth. She reached down and found the scissors by the cash register. Handed them to me handle first. Old metal scissors with the black paint wearing off the handle. She reached over again and got the scotch tape in the dispenser. Sat back down and finished taking her bite of apple.

           "Okay," she said, crunching and dripping, her words all appled up. "Cut some strips of that paper for me. Careful now, like I taught you."

           "I know," I said. I put the paper down on the counter and held it flat with my left hand. Slid the bottom blade of the scissors under the edge of the paper and started cutting, sliding the scissors along the counter. I got one pretty straight strip cut and started on another. The last strip was harder because the paper was smaller then, not so much to hold onto. But I got it cut alright. Mama held her hand out and I handed her the scissors, handle first.

           "Good," Mama said, "you're getting better at cutting every time!"

           "Thank you," I said. Mama said it was polite to say thank you after someone gives you a compliment.

           "Okay," Mama said, "paper has two sides, right?"

           "Yessss!" I said.

           "What if you make a circle?" Mama said. She took one strip of paper and turned both ends up until they touched.

           "Put some tape there, Sealy," Mama said.

           I pulled a piece of scotch tape off the dispenser and stuck it on the seam, my little hands next to her big hands, our fingers both pushing against the tape and the paper and each other.

           "What about that?" Mama said. She held it up and looked through it at me.

           "It's still got two sides." I said. "The inside and the outside."

           "Okay." Mama said, "so if I draw a line on the inside, it won't ever get on the outside?"

           "'Course not," I said.

           Mama put the paper ring down so the paper was flat but loop stuck up. She held it in place and reached and got my pencil and put the point on the inside and started drawing a line down the middle of the paper, rolling the paper as she went. She rolled the paper all the way around until her pencil line met up with itself again.

           "That's how you draw a straight line that ends where it starts," Mama said. "It's the only way."

           I didn't think about that very much then, because I was still wantin' to know about the one sided paper. But later I tried to draw straight lines that end where they begin and she was right; that was the only way.

           Mama held up the paper ring.

           "There's no line on the outside, right?" Mama said.

           "Right," I said.

           "Why?" Mama said.

           "Because you only drew on the inside." I said. "To get a line on the outside, you'd have to draw on the outside."

           "Okay," Mama said, "and I'd have to lift my pencil up to do that, wouldn't I?"

           "Yeah," I said.

           "So that means," Mama said, "If I put my pencil down and draw a line, I can only draw a line on one side of the paper without picking my pencil up and turning the paper over, right?"

           "Right!" I was so glad she was finally getting this.

           "Okay," Mama said, "But I want to try something."

           Mama picked up another strip of paper and turned the ends up to each other. I reached for the tape. But then she turned one end around somehow and when I put the tape on, our fingers pushing against each other, it wasn't a real circle anymore. I mean, it was still kinda round, and you could still see through the middle, but with that twist in there, it looked all strange.

           "Okay," Mama said. "How many sides?"

           "Two!" I said, "Inside and outside!" I was practically yelling, but that loop of paper was making my stomach feel funny.

           "Alright." Mama said. "You draw the line this time."

           She put the loop on the counter in front of me and handed over the pencil.

           "Put the pencil down on the inside, like I did." Mama said. "Draw a line real slow right down the middle, and don't ever lift the pencil from the paper until you get back to the beginning of the line."

           I started drawing like she said. Mama helped me keep from folding the loop, we had to keep moving the twist so there would be a flat part on the counter for the pencil. I had drawn I figured about half way around when that pencil line came up at me on the outside of the loop!

           "Ahhh!" I said. I almost dropped the pencil. I tried to think where I'd made the mistake, where I'd lifted the pencil up. "It's okay," Mama said. Her voice had that laugh in it. "You're doing fine."

           "But it's on the outside!" I said. I was still drawing the line really slow with Mama helping roll the paper, but I kept looking up at her.

           "Watch the paper, Sealy," Mama said, her voice was happy and quiet. "Keep watching."

           I looked back at the paper while I drew the line down the center of the inside and it kept coming up on the outside. There were wobbly spots where I'd looked away, but still I hadn't gone over the edges and hadn't lifted the pencil one time. Then I saw the beginning of the line again, back on the inside. I drew my line and ended it right back at the beginning and there was that paper with a line on both sides only I had only drawn the line on one side. I kept turnin' that paper 'round and 'round in my hands, twisting it, and turning it, and trying to see how it worked.

           "How many sides, Sealy?" Mama said.

           I think the highway is like a möbius strip. Like a piece of paper with just one side, and if you get on that highway and head in one direction and don't ever get off and don't ever turn around, sooner or later you're gonna come back to where you started. Even though you got to see both sides, you're still gonna wind up in the same place.