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Neumann's Journey Part III: Neumann’s Paradox

Neumann wasn’t enjoying his coffee. It seemed hardly warmer than the fluid from a sink of dishes and, though his experience in that regard was admittedly limited, he suspected the taste was comparable as well. It was incapable of dissolving the sugar to his liking and remained bitter even as a thick layer of silt collected at the bottom the cup. Neumann dipped a finger in and stirred the contents briefly just to prove the point, then stuck the finger in his mouth and grimaced. The expression was intended to convey his dissatisfaction with the flavour, but no sooner did he make the gesture than he began to worry that it might be misconstrued as a look of pain—as though he had foolishly scalded himself with his antics. Neumann thus felt obliged, in order to correct any possible misunderstandings, to repeat the whole charade: dipping his finger in the cup and stirring the contents with a careful expression of weary boredom before gently tapping his finger against the rim and casually blotting it on his napkin. He was careful to hold off on the grimace until after he sipped the coffee with a spoon. For anyone perceptive enough to observe his actions, Neumann’s meaning could not have been plainer.

Neumann had been to the restaurant many times before and while the service was never satisfactory, he had always received his coffee without complaint. But to Neumann’s great misfortune, his waitress had decided that day, in an apparent attempt at improving her efficiency, to carry the pot around with her as she moved from table to table. The intention was commendable and Neumann applauded her initiative, but the execution was patently inept as none of the benefits of the new regime came Neumann’s way. On the contrary, the waitress appeared almost reluctant to fill his cup in a timely manner, and found more and more cause for delay the nearer she drew to his table. Neumann could not be certain of course, and he would never give voice to his suspicions, but he was alert to the possibility that she was involved in a plot to frustrate him personally. He could see no other explanation for her consistent inability to fill his cup before the contents of her pot had grown tepid and unpalatable.

Neumann would have liked to get up and leave, but was constrained by a scrupulous sense of justice. Having ordered the coffee, he was committed to paying for it, but he refused to be coerced into paying more than it was worth. One of the few redeeming qualities of the otherwise inexplicably congested establishment in which he found himself and, indeed, the lure that drew Neumann to its cramped surroundings, was what the sign on the window touted as a ‘bottomless cup’. This, Neumann mistakenly believed, was certain to afford him unassailable control over the amount he paid for his beverage, as it was in his power to lower the effective price simply by increasing the amount he consumed—and in the past he had successfully reduced the cost to mere pennies per cup.

It was true that the worse the coffee tasted, the less value it would offer and the more he would have to swallow in order to ensure that he didn’t overpay, but Neumann was confident that he could drink his money’s worth even if it took the better part of the morning. He never imagined that he would be condemned to spend an entire afternoon in increasing discomfort and despair of ever being able to achieve his modest aim. But he had failed to consider, and was only now beginning to recognize, that the more he drank, the less willing he was to attach any value at all to what he consumed.

Neumann did the math in his head: if that first unpleasant cup were esteemed at even half the price he was committed to pay—a very generous estimate indeed—and every subsequent refill were only half as alluring as its predecessor, the incremental value would recede as quickly as he could empty his cup, and he could fill his belly till it ulcerated and still not get his money’s worth. It was still too early to panic, but Neumann could feel his chest tightening and it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the pain that was growing in his side. He felt as though he had been transported to some Promethean hell. He stared resentfully at his napkin, conscious of the fact that it was willpower alone that sustained him, and this knowledge only hardened his determination.

The waitress returned with a half-empty pot. Neumann could see that the greater part of its warmth had already vanished but it was still producing some steam and he allowed his hopes to rise. He pointed to his cup just as the waitress was stopped by an elderly gentleman in the adjacent booth. It was unclear at first what disturbed the elderly gentleman, for he remained bent over his menu and said nothing, appearing unaware even that the waitress was standing next to him—though she could hardly have done otherwise while his bony talons clutched at her sleeve. After some moments, however, the elderly gentleman looked up and gravely informed the woman of his fear that poached eggs were nowhere to be found on the menu. It was the waitress’s unhappy duty to confirm the elderly gentleman’s suspicions, which she did with apparent regret, inquiring whether he might not enjoy a soft-boiled egg instead.

Neumann was well positioned to see the look of confusion on the elderly gentleman’s face as the waitress repeated in a voice better suited to his impaired hearing that poached eggs were not on the menu and that perhaps he might enjoy a soft-boiled egg instead. Neumann could not account for her extraordinary patience and watched in disbelief as she allowed the elderly gentleman to instruct her, haltingly and with progressive uncertainty, in the art of poaching an egg—apparently under the impression that it was the waitress’s unfamiliarity with the dish that kept it off the menu.

The waitress nodded throughout this lecture with what must have been feigned comprehension—for there was certainly nothing of sense to be divined in the elderly gentleman’s spittle-laden ramblings—though she remained attentive even after his rheumatic fingers lost their grip on her sleeve. Neumann stared with open curiosity, unable to predict how the drama would play out. It was strangely compelling, but at the same time Neumann wished he could turn away, for throughout the presentation the elderly gentleman was unable to keep his prosthetic teeth from sliding off his gums and the sight was making it that much more difficult for Neumann to enjoy his coffee. The waitress seemed to notice none of this, however, for she merely nodded and waited until the elderly gentleman sputtered to a close with a vague waving of his hands. When it was clear that the he had no more to add, the waitress explained in a voice well suited to his evident senility that poached eggs were not on the menu and promised to bring him a soft-boiled egg instead. She then completed her circuit of the diner, pausing just long enough to wordlessly top up Neumann’s cup before returning to the counter to dump the acrid vestiges in the sink and put a fresh pot on for the next round.

Neumann wasn’t certain he had the strength to finish his drink, but neither was he ready to concede defeat. He tried to collect his thoughts, but began to squirm from the growing pressure in his bladder. He would have liked to empty it but was unwilling to accept the risk of leaving his table for someone else to claim in his absence. His discomfort, he noticed, was aggravated by what felt like a finger poking at his groin. Neumann would have been surprised indeed to discover any fingers probing about that region, as his own were already accounted for, and he would have emptied his bladder on the spot, had he ever found the fingers of a stranger nestled in his lap. Of course, he found nothing of the sort, and quickly traced his discomfort to a rather less fantastic source. Neumann reached into his trouser pocket and scooped out a handful of miscellany, among which he recognized a tiny rubber mackerel, something that resembled a petrified toad, and the crumbs of what was once a small but perfectly formed maple leaf he’d meant to stow among the pages of his dictionary, for future rediscovery. In addition, he found the presumed source of his discomfort, an aluminium tire gauge, along with a crumpled silver envelope covered with what appeared to be a paper doily.

Neumann brushed the leaf crumbs from his hands and slid the tire gauge into his shoe. One by one his other treasures he secreted in various pockets until only the envelope was left for closer inspection. Neumann observed with pleasure that it was made by hand. The shiny foil was pasted onto a folded sheet of construction paper and the whole ensemble artlessly stapled together. The opening at the top was covered with a triangular flap of paper lace and sealed with what appeared to be a price tag. It resembled the handiwork of a third-grader, constructed at a teacher’s behest, perhaps in honour of Mother’s Day. Neumann could see, however, that it was not addressed in the clumsy hand of a child; the calligraphy was too accomplished, set down in a style so ornate, so festooned with decorative embellishments as to border on the illegible. The black ink had run blue where something wet had soaked through Neumann’s pocket, but Neumann could still read it well enough. He could see that it was not addressed ‘To Mommy’; it was addressed ‘To Occupant’, to him.

Neumann glanced up and saw the waitress approaching with a full pot of coffee. He no longer expected her to stop at his table and in any case no longer had much interest in drinking. She paused on her way by, however, and began pouring before she realized that Neumann’s cup was still full. It did not escape Neumann’s notice that her eyes were directed at his envelope. Her reflexes, however, were quick—certainly better than Neumann’s—and she was able to stop herself before the cup overflowed. Neumann was less successful. In his bid to ward her off and snatch his prize to safety in a single gesture, he managed only to swat the cup with the envelope and send the coffee into the adjacent booth, where the elderly gentlemen was still bent over, slurping the runny yoke out of an eggcup. It was a testament not only to the gentleman’s diminished awareness, but to the tepidness of the coffee that he failed look up until the fat brown drops rolled down his beak and onto the runny yoke. By that time the waitress had already run to his aid, her high-pitched apologies drawing the attention of all the customers who hadn’t turned to look when Neumann’s cup hit the floor with a crash. The elderly gentlemen didn’t appear to know why he was being smothered with a damp and sour tea towel, but he submitted without complaint and went back to his eggcup as soon as the opportunity afforded itself.

As Neumann sat there waving the damp envelope and taking in the sudden activity, the waitress returned, still apologizing in a loud and embarrassing soprano, and began mopping the coffee off his table. Despite the unwanted attention her actions drew, Neumann was satisfied to see the industriousness with which she took her rag to the splattered coffee. But when she took a threatening step toward Neumann himself, he quickly rose to his feet, and when she reached out he retreated toward the door. Each time she tried to dab him with her filthy towel Neumann backed up a little more until finally, his back pressed to the door, he turned and darted from the building, the waitress still shouting apologies at his back.

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Go on to Neumann's Journey: Part IV

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