Paul Lamb – THE INFINITE REGRESSION OF JERRY C

The first thing you need to know is that Jerry C always follows the rules. We were sitting in a line of cars when Jerry C gave me hlatest, rules-based safety tip. There was an accident ahead, which was probably what prompted his thought – or gave him the excuse to bring it up – and all of the cars had to merge into the left lane since the right lane was blocked. Jerry C signaled and got over as soon as he had a chance, but several cars sped past us on the right to merge farther ahead at the last possible point. They slowed everyone’s progress by jumping the line. Jerry C scowled at these rule breakers.

Jerry C was an engineer. If ever there was a problem, he would engineer a solution. To Jerry C, all manner of things eventually yielded to math and analysis and the underlying order inherent in the universe. The traffic congestion before us was such a problem, and sensible merging – plus a measure of civil patience – was the solution.

“When driving on the highway,” Jerry C intoned as we waited, not so much giving advice as stating a rule that ought to be obvious to everyone but sadly isn’t, “it is best to follow the car ahead of you at a safe distance so you can leave sufficient stopping space should there be trouble. Did you know that when you are driving 65 miles per hour you are covering nearly 96 feet per second? I’ll bet the average person never even considers that.”

I doubt that he had done that bit of math in his head just then; more likely this was a factoid he carried around, eager to present as soon as an opportunity allowed. That’s another thing about Jerry C you should know. He thinks he sounds spontaneous, but it’s obvious that he’s rehearsed his words and just waits for the opportunity to use them.

“A prudent driver adheres to the four second rule,” he went on. “The four second rule directs that you observe the car in front of you, and when it passes a given object, say a road sign, you allow at least four seconds to go by before you pass that same road sign yourself. If you get there sooner than in four seconds, you should slow down. And if you take longer than four seconds to get there, well, you’re probably keeping an even safer distance from the car ahead of you. No one can be faulted for that.”

There is always generosity in Jerry C’s voice when he gives advice. He’s saved you the trouble of figuring out such very sensible and useful things, you see, and he’s happy to share them with you because he wants you to be as enlightened as he is.

Two more cars sped past us on the right as we crawled along toward the accident.

We were meeting a new client at a hotel by the airport, and I let Jerry C drive since I didn’t want to listen to him kibitzing about my driving. You can understand why, I’m sure. Of course, Jerry C means well, and his advice is always prudent and worse, correct, but he’s so myopic about it, so fixed in seeing things only from his perspective, that all you can do is nod, perhaps tell him he is right, and try to change the subject.

We had been trying to meet with this client for months, but the timing was never right. Jerry C had begged off several opportunities, saying he had to get this or that finished before he could start on a new project. He always had a long list of valid reasons why he couldn’t meet, and he was fastidious about finishing one thing before starting another. But somehow he had finally managed to get ahead of his sequence, and we were able to schedule a meeting with the client.

We also managed to get ahead of the accident without too many more cars cutting the line and soon found ourselves on the highway, our twenty-mile trip to the airport finally underway.

Jerry C slipped in behind a semi and, adhering to his own advice, allowed it to get well ahead of us. More than a mile had passed before he was even up to the speed limit because he regulated his acceleration to put the semi precisely four seconds and the right amount of space ahead of us.

Jerry C was like this about everything in his life, which you’ve probably figured out. All had to be done in its proper order. He was so often late finishing projects that I began fudging our promised delivery dates to build in a buffer for his anguished sequencing. Before he could do this, he’d insist, he had to get that done. And before he could do that, he had to have this other thing completed. Jerry C could come up with an impressive string of steps, all perfectly ordered, all perfectly valid, that governed his progress toward any goal. There was no arguing with his logic. All you could do was leave him alone and wait for him to nibble his inexorable way through it. But most of all, you would never want to put anything between Jerry C and his goal because then he would have to figure it into his sequencing.

To Jerry C, every process – whether professional or personal – could be broken into constituent parts, be analyzed, and often get reassembled into a more efficient and productive sequence, but a sequence nonetheless. I’m not sure that Jerry C ever walked across a room without first analyzing the steps he would take to do so.

And if it wasn’t his own business that he broke into parts and reassembled, it was yours or mine. Few things made Jerry C happier than to see a problem you had, often one that you were blithely unaware existed at all, and solve it for you. Once his analysis of your personal business was complete, he would generously make known his solution, explaining how you should most expeditiously implement it, then gladly oversee as you did so, offering advice and further adjustments as necessary.

He would ask no thanks for this, taking as his reward the satisfaction that one more part of the world was better, more orderly, more under control.

At the moment, as he was telling me about a mutual friend’s problem meeting women and the best solution for it, a car cut in front of us in the ample space behind the semi. Jerry C grumbled as he let off the accelerator to slow until he could reconstruct the proper four-second gap behind this interloper.

“Now where was I?” he asked once he had the universe in order again; he couldn’t pick up the thread of our conversation at just any point of course.

Yet no sooner had he returned to his discussion of the best solution to our friend’s relationship problems than another car slipped into the prudent gap before us. Jerry C slowed again, putting us well below the posted limit as he waited for the required space to develop.

And I’m sure you know the sequence of what happened next. Another car slipped into the space Jerry C was building ahead of us. Jerry C grumbled and slowed again. By then we were hardly doing forty miles per hour, and Jerry C had to brakes to slow us sufficiently. This caused the car behind us to swerve into the other lane. The driver laid on the horn as he rocketed past us and then cut abruptly in front of us.

Jerry C braked again. And another car slipped into the space. We were down to twenty miles per hour – on the freeway – but Jerry C was going to adhere to his rules. Jerry C was going to be a safe driver. Cars were zipping past us on the right and left, and every ten seconds or so, another pulled into the gap Jerry C had continued to create. We were within a sequence Jerry C had not intended, and he had to solve it.

When Jerry C had the car down to walking speed, I got out and thumbed a ride to the airport hotel. That was a month ago.

Jerry C might still be out on the highway, still on his way to the airport. I suspect he’s driving in reverse now, doing his utmost to keep the prudent gap between him and the cars that keep slotting themselves in ahead of him.

*   *   *

Paul Lamb lives in Kansas City, but he escapes to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Little Patuxent Review, Danse Macabre, Midwest Literary Magazine, The Platte Valley Review, Crossed Genres, Wanderings, and others. He keeps a writing blog called Lucky Rabbit’s Foot (http://www.paullamb.wordpress.com). He rarely strays far from his laptop.

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