"The sum is what things add up to," my father continued. "Everyone wants his or her life to add up to something. All the people in this cemetery, all the people that we're walking on, they all did lots of stuff, hoping to make the sums of their lives go higher and higher and higher. Maybe a few of them had sums that were very high, most of them had sums that were not so high. In every case, the gravestone is like a nail on that sum—not like the nail on your thumb, actually, but like the nails in a roof, the nails that say: no, house, you're not going any higher. Gravestones are like nails on a person's life, keeping the sum from getting any higher."
Often, he couldn't tell exactly at which level to speak to me, and so said things that made no sense on any level.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Okay. In a baseball game, there's a score, right? At the end of the game, each team has gotten a certain number of runs. The sum that I'm talking about in a person's life, that's like a score."
Something was stirring in me, a mature and morally serious version of the most childish emotion of all: impatience.
"Dad," I said. "What is the epiphany machine and where is my mother?"
"I'm getting to that," he said. "So the sum of one's life is the sum of everything you've done. And as you get a little older you start to realize that sooner or later you're going to end up here, in this cemetery or one exactly like it, and you want to make sure that your sum is as high as possible. The problem is that life is more confusing than a baseball game. In a baseball game, a run is a run and that's that. In life, sometimes you're not sure what counts as a run. Also, you don't know what the teams are. Or whether you're even playing. Sometimes you think you're playing and you're actually just sitting in the stands, watching other people play."
"Okay. All this means that you have to make up your own way of scoring. You have to decide what's important. For a lot of people, it's money. For a lot of other people, it's some kind of religious fulfillment. You know what the most important thing is to me?"
I shook my head. I knew what he was going to say, but I wanted to hear him say it.
"You are the most important thing to me. So whenever something good happens to you, or whenever I see you smile, or whenever you learn how to do something, that's like a run for me. When something bad happens to you, that's like a run for the other team. That's why I had to do what I did just now. Even though I didn't really hit you—it was really just a love tap, wasn't it?—I still felt horrible while I was doing it. I felt much worse than you felt, believe me. But the epiphany machine is very bad and I have to do whatever it takes to keep you safe from it. It's the sort of thing that could cause you to lose the whole game."
"I'm saying that figuring out what's important in life and how to go about getting it is very difficult. Sometimes you get confused and you get tempted to just let other people make the rules. And some people are really happy to make the rules for other people. Adam Lyons, the man who runs the epiphany machine, is one of those people. There was a time when I let myself get confused enough that I let him write those words on me that you know aren't true."
"The epiphany machine writes things about people on their arms?"
"Exactly, my brilliant boy! I figured out that the machine was wrong. Your mother, on the other hand...well, Venter, it told her that she ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST. You weren't born yet so she didn't know what matters most. Then you were born and she abandoned you."
"Why did she listen to the machine if you didn't?"
"That's the first question you should ask her if you meet her."
"I don't ever want to meet her."
"That shows that you are a very smart boy."
If I had actually been a very smart boy, I probably would have kept asking questions. At the very least I would have recognized his persistent flattery as a shutting-down of my curiosity no less violent than the slap. But I wanted his praise more than I wanted the truth.