Short Story: A Slice of Pi


A Slice of Pi

Once again, Charles walked away from a grave site alone.  He turned one last time to view the casket, draped in the circular spray of flowers.  The last of the family and friends scattered toward their cars, some heading back to the church.  But Charles was not headed to the church, he was headed back to the lab, to the computer that whirred away in his absence.

He rotated the circular steering wheel and drove out of the cemetery onto Highway 314. Charles recounted the number of people he had lost in his life:  His parents, two sets of grandparents, a brother, two sisters, his daughter–Anna, his wife–Linda; the friends and colleagues over the years, the distant relatives whose funerals he did not attend. . . he estimated the number of people, a rough tally, maybe 31, perhaps more.  Then he started to think about how many people the dead had lost before they died and their dean, and all of the people who counted them as their loss.  The number began to skyrocket, 314, 3141, 31415. . .

A green street light switched to a yellow and to red circle. Charles slowed, then stopped, his car.  He sat at the stop light and remembered the minister’s words about how this most recent death, this person, this deceased, who was an acquaintance from the university, would now be welcomed into heaven, into God’s presence for eternity.  Charles doubted there was a heaven, or an eternity, maybe even the soul.  But he could not really explain the difference between the living and dead.  One moment we look one way, the next, another.  How could sleep be so very different from death? What accounted for the difference? Maybe, maybe, there was a soul. . . maybe that was the difference. . . maybe it was the soul, a soul, that animated the body, not a series of electrical impulses generated in a brain.  Even if that was the case, where did the soul go?  Did it, could it just evaporate?  Why did he not consider “heaven” a possibility?

The red circle switched to a green one.


Bright fluorescent lights glared on the computer monitor in the lab.  Charles walked into the room, under the harsh light and to the computer.  He read the screen:

69203767192203322909433467685142214477379393751703443661991040337511173547191855046449026365512816228824462575916333039107225383742182140883508657391771509682887478265699599574490661758344137522397096834080053559849175417381883999446974867626551658276584835884531427756879002909517028352971634456212964043523117600665101241200659755851276178583829204197484423608007193045761893234922927965019875187212726750798125547095890455635792122103334669749923563025494780249011419521238281530911407907386025152274299581807247162591668545133312394804947079119153267343028244186041426363954800044800267049624820179289647669758318327131425170296923488962766844032326092752496035799646925650493681836090032380929345958897069536534940603402166544375589004563288225054525564056448246515187547119621844396582533754388569094113031509526179378002974120766514793942590298969594699556576121865619673378623625612521632086286922210327488921865436480229678070576561514463204692790682120738837781423356282360896320806822246801224826117718589638140918390367367222088832151375560037279839400415297002878307667094447456013455641725437090697939612257142989467154357846878861444581231459357198492252847160504922124247014121478057345510500801908699603302763478708108175450119307141223390866393833952942578690507643100638351983438934159613185434754649556978103829309716465143840700707360411237359984345225161050 . . .


Charles nodded, silently, smiled a little, everything working correctly.  Pursuing Pi had not really become his life, but it was more of a quest, his little slice of heaven.  Chasing numbers into infinity.  He was not really certain why it appealed to him, but why does anyone do anything?  Somewhere, deep inside of him grew this desire to follow the unconventional path . . . one that started with 3.1415926 . . . a path that had no discernable end. He saw a beauty in the next numeric sequence.  He derived pleasure in pushing the horizon of Pi back another million digits. Some people pursued Pi looking for a repeating pattern or seeking the terminal digits.  That was not his drive.  Charles sought the purity of the chase. . . no matter how many numbers were in the known sequence, there was always another one waiting to be calculated.  If the sequence stretched into infinity, just how far might that actually be?

Charles laughed . . . why could he accept the infinity of Pi but not accept the eternity of the soul that all ministers talk about at every funeral he had ever attended?  He realized that he accepted Pi as “truth” but rejected the eternity of the soul as a myth. . . But, maybe. . . just because Pi stretched out over five trillion digits, well, that did not mean it did not terminate–sooner or later.  However, if the calculations extended five trillion digits, what is the likelihood Pi never ended? Pi did not end, even though the calculations might cease.  Just because a person lived and died, just because a life’s calculation stopped, couldn’t that life’s soul continue for eternity, like the ministers preached? Like Pi? Charles always rejected concept of a soul.



Charles read the screen as the numbers rolled past.




Everyone, Charles thought, dies.  His life was made up of terminations. Life has a termination point.  Perhaps that was the beauty of Pi to him:  there was no termination point . . . No end . . . The one thing in the universe, in all universes, perhaps, that did not end.  Life ended: Pi did not.  Life ended: the soul lives on?  For eternity?  When Linda died, the minister had the same spiel–her soul entering Heaven for eternity, joining Anna’s soul, both waiting for him.  He knew it was for comfort that the ministers repeated this mantra.  What else could they say?  “Life is full of sound and fury?”  That would never work.   He grabbed a piece of paper, an envelope he fished out of the wastebasket, and doodled: Soul ∞ Pi.

He looked at this, then rewrote it: Soul Pi.  Soul infinity equal to Pi.  

Charles realized that he had appropriated a little geometry into infinity.  He laughed, but then stopped, thinking . . . If the soul is eternal, if Pi is infinite . . . Folding the envelope, he stuffed it into his shirt pocket.



How many people have died, ever? he wondered.  He Googled the question and a dozen sites came up with the answer.  Skimming through six or seven of them, he discovered that they all relied on a paper written by Carl Haub.  Most of the time, Charles would research Haub, read the original paper, study the methodology that was used to arrive at an answer, but this time, he was only interested in the number.  How many people had died before Anna, before Linda?  Haub estimated the number at 108,000,000,000–one hundred and eight billion.  That included the all of those currently living and in the process of dying. How many had died before Anna and Linda?  Charles did the math.

The computer beeped.  It’s calculation passed 5 trillion digits.



If there was a soul, souls, where would they all go? Where could they reside? Where do these ministers think all of those hundreds of billions souls go?  Charles remembered a conversation, many years ago, with an old Baptist who took him out into the night sky, pointed to an area toward the north that was not sprinkled with stars.  “There,” the old man said, “that is the pathway to heaven.  When you die, your soul floats there, toward God’s Heaven.”  He remembered shaking his head then, and he shook his head now at the memory.  “Still absurd,” he muttered.  “Still absurd.” Yet again, he wondered.  What might the physical dimensions be?  Enough room for 108 billion souls, plus more to come, plus however many more souls might exist or ever had existed in the universe . . . If such a place did exist, it would have to be infinitely expandable.

Charles looked at the clock: 3:14.  It was time to go.  He paused the computer.  Turned off the lights, walked out, leaving the door open.


Pulling into the driveway and shutting off the engine, Charles got out of the car. He walked empty-handed, the first time in a long time with no work to do that night, across the drive toward the front door. Walking past the basketball hoop along side the driveway, he paused, remembering.  Shooting baskets with Anna, playing H-O-R-S-E.  Most of the time, he would let her win, she was only eleven. The ball, that finite sphere, was made up of an infinite number of circles (plus two points, he reminded himself).  The ball arched through the hoop, a circle.  And each game ended with a hug and a high-five. Four years ago the games ended in the hospital: leukemia. . . there were no more high-fives.  He reached out, opened the mailbox.  Some junk mail, a couple of catalogs that were still being sent to his wife, even though she died two years ago. When the empty mailbox closed, the address, 3141, was visible from the street, which was a cul de sac.

He went into the house, dropped the mail onto the table, sat on a chair at the table, and looked out the window.  He and Anna and Linda would sit at this table and watch the squirrels play in the trees.  Anna and Linda were gone, but the squirrels remained. Two squirrels chased each other around the trunk of an old oak tree.  Charles brushed his hand against his shirt pocket and felt the folded envelope.  Pulling it out, really without thinking, he pressed the envelope flat on the table. He got up, filled a water glass at the kitchen sink, and sat down at the table, sipping the water and watching the squirrels.  When he picked up the glass again, he noticed the round water ring on the table, traced it with his finger, put the drinking glass onto the wet circle.  The squirrels chased around the circumference of the tree.

How many times had the squirrels chased each other around the circumference of the tree? he asked.  How many squirrels?  How many other trees?  How many other squirrels.  A squirrel may remain in a limited area during its lifetime, but how many miles in the circumferences of trees did they actually travel? Different trees, different diameters, different circumferences, how could a person even begin to calculate or even estimate that?

Pi, he thought as he took another drink of water, a mathematical constant.  Not variable, except in the infinite variations of the sequence. . . perhaps that is the irony of Pi.  No matter how large or how small the circle, Pi was constant. As the sun shifted, light fell into the kitchen and onto the table and onto the unfolded envelope.

Soul Pi.  Soul infinity equal to  Pi.

Charles looked at the envelope, got up to get more water.  Sat down and looked out of the window to see that the squirrels had disappeared.  He picked up a pencil, and then wrote: the eternity of the soul is equal to the infinity of pi  Pausing, he looked at the phrase.  Then, he made another notation: ?  He stood up and left the room.


Water pushed out of the shower in tiny circular columns, onto Charles head, rinsing out the shampoo and punching his back.  The water was warm.  He looked down at his feet and watched the water and the suds circle around the drain and disappear into a different kind of round infinity–the diameter of the drain, the radius of the drain, the water swirling around the the interior of the drain’s circumference, creating its own ever-shrinking tornadic radius and circumference until it surrendered to the linear pull of gravity.

He closed his eyes and recited his notes on the envelope:

Soul Pi.  Soul infinity equal to Pi.

the eternity of the soul is equal to the infinity of pi  

He opened his eyes.  “Maybe,” he said aloud, “maybe that is it!”

He turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, and without drying off, put on his robe and quickly walked to the bedroom. On the dresser, next to the photo of his wife was a yellow legal pad and a pen. He half-wrote, half-talked outloud: “Pi is infinite.  The soul, if it exists, is infinite.” He paused.  “Pi extends throughout the universe.”  He looked at the photo.  Two years.  He did not think that he believed in a soul, but he also did not want to believe that she was dead, gone, eliminated from existence, or Anna, either. .  “But where?  Where might their disembodied souls reside?  Everything comes to an end, that is a principle that is beyond dispute.  But a soul?”

Charles picked up the paper and pen and walked into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.  He took it to the kitchen table, sipping the hot brew as he walked, sat down, looked out the window.  The squirrels had not begun their chasing. He set the cup on the table, tapped the side of it.  Brown waves rolled from the exterior to the interior of the cup and back out again.  Ever-changing circumferences; ever changing diameters and radii; a constant 3.14. . . He grabbed the pen, and added to his note, Pi is a constant of the universe.  The soul is the constant of the living being.  He finished drinking the coffee.


The computer lab was empty.  The computer, the Pi machine, still whirred away.  Charles turned on the monitor and the screen filled as the latest digits scrolled up it.  Charles paused the scrolling, and the computer kept whirring, calculating, extending the series. Charles studied the screen:




He noted one line seemed odd:


He highlighted the line.  Reformatted it, all bold


And undid his formatting


The bolded 8 remained.

He looked at the screen, then the digit, only that digit, turned to a 6 then back to an 8. Then to a 6 and an 8.

Charles did not understand.  He checked the connections to the monitor, looked for other flaws in the screen.  The connection and the monitor were fine.  The 8 continued to shift: 868686868686868686868686868686868686 . . . He checked the math of the sequence.  The correct number was the 8.  But why the shifting number? Why the flashing 8 6?  It was as if the number was winking at him.  

. . . 868686868686868686868686868686868686 . . .

Charles left the lab puzzled.  Went outside, walking past the smokers who sucked on little burning circles of red, and headed for a walk across campus.

He thought about his wife.  If she were still alive, he would tell her about this at dinner.  She would listen, smile at him, and reassure him that he would figure it out.  Then, she would wink at him–her reassurance that everything would be ok.  Usually, she had been right about that.   It had been a long two years, treatments, in the hospital, out of the hospital, feeling better, feeling worse. It ended at home.  She was in the bed. He was by her side, holding her hand.  They waited, both of them.

She opened her eyes, looked at him and whispered, “It will be all right . . .” She winked, she closed her eyes, and it was over.

Charles returned to the lab and sat down in front of the monitor, watching the winking 8.

. . . 868686868686868686868686868686868686 . . .

He pulled out his notes and spread them out on the desk, before the monitor..

Soul Pi.  Soul infinity equal to Pi.

the eternity of the soul is equal to the infinity of pi  

Pi is infinite.  The soul, if it exists, is infinite.Pi extends throughout the universe.

Pi is a constant of the universe.  The soul is the constant of the living being.

Soul Pi.  Soul infinity equal to  Pi. The eternal soul would need an infinite place to reside. . . He looked at the winking 8.  He knew, but he did not understand; he understood but he did not know.

. . . 868686868686868686868686868686868686 . . .

“Hello, Linda,” he whispered.

Then the screen flickered again . . . a different line jumping out at him.

153710112746809778704464094758280348769758948328241239292960 5 82948

He recognized the high-five. “Hello, Anna.” he smiled.


Mark Schillerstrom teaches English at Johnston Senior High School.