CALCULUS by Calvin Westra

Last to first, his girlfriend dumped him, he did not get the job, his accent sailed out the window of my car, and he sneezed harder than I’d ever seen before.

It was an incredible sneeze, the kind that has you spitting and slobbering over the windshield, catching your breath, feeling like something knocked the wind out of you.

We watched as the accent flapped over the median, through oncoming traffic, and off among the tumbleweeds.

I said, “Is that what I think it is?”

And he said, “Yeah, that’s right. My accent.”

It was a horrible accent and I’d never before heard him speak without it. It was like he was trying to imitate some British politician or celebrity or it was like he was trying to imitate someone who imitated a British politician or celebrity.

If he got too excited it went all over the place. He’d be telling a joke and out of nowhere he was John Cleese on research chemicals.

But I had never heard him speak without it so I had kind of thought it was real.

We pulled to the shoulder and searched for the accent but it was a windy day and it was clearly not coming back.

“That accent is long gone, bro,” I said and he told me he couldn’t do the job interview without it.

I told him the airport Starbucks probably would not care if he didn’t have an accent. I told him he might even be better off without it.

I didn’t have to tell him how important getting this job was because, like me, he had been wiping his ass with old magazine pages for weeks. But I told him anyway and I reminded him that earning a paycheck would mean returning to the world of luxury, of on-demand toilet paper.

He had gotten up early that morning, before the sun had dragged itself out, and he had been slamming all of our vodka and referring to it as “morning vodka.”

He had also smoked the last of our weed, taking massive hits out of the ice cream maker he had fashioned into a bong.

On top of that, we had pooled all of our change and used it to buy almost a gallon of gas.

And here we were, on the side of the highway, considering turning back.

He somehow knew he wouldn’t get the job but I didn’t believe him so I drove him to the interview anyway.

He was right, he didn’t get the job. He swore to me his whole life was over now, without the accent.

Next his girlfriend dumped him.

She called him mid afternoon the next day and told him she wanted to take a break. The last few times she had been at our apartment she had complained about things like how we didn’t have toilet paper or that he smelled pretty bad and wouldn’t ever shower, even when she hinted at it politely. He smelled like old socks (her words), ground beef (my words), and weed (objective).

“It’s the accent,” he told me. His eyes were huge and wet and red. He stared a thousand miles into the future and explained to me that without the accent all he would ever be to people was his stutter, his GED, his greasy hair, his inability to read social nuances, and so on.

He told me that I could not fathom all the things he knew about Calculus, while I sat at the desk we shared, trying to fill out my own job applications.

Hand to God, brother, I know unfa-fa-fathomable things, is exactly what he said and how he said it.

He had this job application on the desk and it had little boxes for your education: where you went, the years you went there, your graduation date, and your major. In hard to read cursive he had written his high school major as Calculus.

In reality, he never finished high school. He had dropped out because “it was just fights and bullshit.” If you didn’t want to eat shit every day you got your GED and that’s what he did.

Since I had first moved in with him, he had spent every afternoon scaring up weed at the park.

It took him all day but he could show up with whatever change he found in the couch cushions and hustle people for stems and seeds, for residue, for whatever. He would huddle over park benches and playground equipment waiting for people to pass him by. As soon as someone neared him a disconnected sentence would shoot from his mouth and straight into the mind of the person.

He could say anything he wanted. He didn’t even know what he was saying. But words slipped past his crooked and broken teeth and fluttered on the breeze, gently rocking and waving through the air until they found the right angle to slip into some bystander’s brain.

And what do you know, sure enough, that person had come to the park specifically to buy whatever stems and bullshit he was trying to sell for ten dollars or they had crossed town specifically to sell him whatever random shit weed excess they might have in a baggy somewhere on their person, for whatever change he was offering.

People served him for whatever pennies and nickels he was holding in his outstretched hand. People bought whatever weed-adjacent garbage he was offering at whatever price he named. He could talk the sun into orbiting the earth, so long as he didn’t think about it too much.

Back at the apartment, we smoked whatever he had scavenged. His fingers always spilling out of his hoodie holding “one last roach” that formed from the dust in his pockets.

“You can’t even fathom all the things I know about Calculus,” he says. He holds accumulated quantities. We smoke the weed his patience buys.

First to last, he explains to me he needs to get his accent back and then he’ll get a job and then he’ll win over his now ex-girlfriend.

He calls her, briefly manic, to tell her how he is going to track the accent down, somehow inhale it back into his being. But she never returns the calls.

He turns depressive, withdraws, sits quietly with the ice cream maker in his lap, inhaling forever and then trying to talk to me about the accent with a lung and a half of smoke tumbling out as he does.

He draws imperceptible lines between how hard he sneezed and the way the hiring manager fixated on his GED. He stuttered too much, he admits, but only because he was nervous, only because he couldn’t stop thinking about his accent jerking around in the breeze like an abandoned bag, like a helium balloon wrestled free of a toddler’s grip.

He explains scientifically how all this bullshit is because of the accent or its absence and if I have questions, he says he isn’t explaining it well, the words just aren’t there. But there is truth, he promises me, to what he is saying.

It’s the accent’s fault or the mad winds that propelled its send off.

Those mad winds or the gods who sent them.

Those gods or maybe us, the bastards who named the gods. If he doesn’t think too hard while he explains, it makes a sense too perfect for me to even write.


Calvin Westra drives safely and responsibly in a GLK 350 4MATIC with 79,000 miles on it. He last had it in the shop for routine maintenance in June of 2020.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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