Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quandary in Chromaticity

The bar room in Barfley's Pub was a sea of earth tones. Deep reddish mahogany tabletops varnished to a mirror finish reflected the light from the green-shaded lamps above. The low-burning incandescents washed the ceiling in emerald and the rest in a warm amber. As Joey Zetetic allowed his unfocused eyes to sweep the room, he caught flashes of copper and brass from the polished fittings. It was like watching a field on an autumn evening; a blurry one filled with metallic fireflies.

Every few seconds, the scene was gilded in silver by the headlights of a car passing the big plate-glass window.

"Wow. You look like crap."

Joey looked up. He willed his tired eyes to bend their lenses and provide him with an image he could work with. In a few seconds, he recognized the stocky man standing next to the table.

"Walt? Hey, man. What brings you down here?"

"Same thing that brought you, I suppose. This place sells beer. Mind if I join you?"

Joey stretched out a leg and nudged the chair opposite him out from underneath the table. "Go right ahead. What'll you have? It's on me."

"What's good here?" Walt asked, seating himself. "There a menu around here? What's that in your pitcher?"

"Yak Cider. It's just hard cider, but it sure beats the taste of Guinness. Hold on. I'll get you a mug."

Joey crossed the room. As he moved, he cast a whole baseball team's worth of shadows, spread out around him like the blades on the pub's lazily spinning ceiling fans. He watched his own approach in the mirror behind the counter. The bottles, on shelves just in front of the mirror held their own tiny, distorted versions of the room, some deep green, others burnt caramel or raspberry red. He flagged the bartender over and hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the pub's only other customer. The bartender nodded and handed him a clean mug.

Walt poured himself some of the pale cider. A pair of passing headlights projected a miniature rippling lake of amber through the pitcher onto the tabletop as he did. "So what's up? That little bit of exercise you got on the walk to the bar didn't seem to do you any good. You still look like crap."

"She left me," Joey said into his mug.

"Who did? Violet? Violet left you? Geez, man, that's rough. Do you mind if I ask why?"

Joey sighed. This was always the hardest part. Taking the block of facts from a relationship that seemed to make sense at the time, and trying to grind and chisel away at it until it fit into this new and updated reality.

"I dunno. It was so sudden. I guess it was mostly a difference in beliefs."

Walt swallowed a mouthful of Yak Cider. "Whoa. You're right. This is good stuff. So what beliefs didn't you two share? I mean, what would be serious enough to split you up? It seemed like, you know, a pretty solid relationship."

"I don't believe in color," Joey said.

Walt put his mug down. "What?"

"It's not that I don't respect people who do believe in color. It's just that I can't make myself go in for the whole thing."

Walt glanced around the room. Green lampshades. Red curtains. Neon signs. Brown wood, brass rails and chrome taps. The Rockola® jukebox alone was a garish monument to the screamingly obvious existence of color.

"I'm not quite sure I understand, Joey. You're not color-blind, are you? What color is my shirt?" Walt was wearing a dark blue button-down with fine white vertical stripes.

"I'm not color-blind. At least not that I know of. Which is kind of the whole impetus behind my lack of faith. How could anyone tell? As long as I can distinguish between different wavelengths of reflected light, and learned the words for them, then nobody could. Your shirt is mostly blue, by the way. Or at least that's the wavelength I was told to call blue."

Walt clapped his hands and leaned back in his chair. "That's it then! You can see in color, so color exists. End of story."

"Not quite. There is absolutely no way to tell that the way I see blue is the same as the way you see it. We may both be able to tag a specific wavelength with the word 'blue,' but the picture in my mind may be different from yours. Unless someone figures out a way to let me see through your eyes with your brain, it's impossible to tell for sure. Until then, it's all just hearsay. It also might explain why some people find certain paintings or patterns attractive, and some don't, now that I think about it."

"So that's it? Just because you can't prove that my blue is the same as your blue, you're going to give up on color?"

Joey brought his mug of Yak Cider to his lips, and held it there. He smiled over the rim at Walt. "Well, I'm more what you might call 'color agnostic'. It's not that I think its existence is impossible, but I do think that it is at least a little unlikely. Nor is it necessary. I still enjoy what I think of as 'blue' as much as I ever did."

Walt poured himself another mug of cider. "Did you want the rest? There's about half a mug in here."


"That's why Violet left you? Because you had this crazy view on color? That can't be it, man. She put up with your weirdness for this long without breaking a sweat. Why would something like that push her over the edge?"

Joey added the last of the cider to his mug and set the pitcher down. A little bit of foam clung to its sides and bottom. On each of the tiny bubbles' surfaces was an upside-down, hypertensive replica of the pub's bar room, overlaid with a shifting cloak of rainbow.

"Kids, mostly. She didn't want her kids raised without faith in color. She said that she wanted them to know of green and orange and red and blue, like she was taught when she was a kid. I can understand that. It took me years to shed my belief, and it wasn't always painless. I mean, I still have the same favorite color I did when I was little, but now I know that I really can't trust it. It kind of hurts sometimes, as you can imagine."

"And she didn't want her kids to be exposed to that kind of uncertainty, huh? Well, man, I'm sorry. But it sounds like she's standing by her old faith, and you gotta respect that."

"No, I don't. But of course I do."

"What is your favorite color, by the way?"


Walt tipped his mug back, emptying it. He smacked his lips. "Dang. This stuff really is tasty." He paused, a mischievous smile lighting his face. "Of course, how could I know for sure that I taste it the same way as you?"

"Exactly," Joey said.

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