Hank doesn’t know how he knows it, but in the fifth or sixth year of shuffling and shuffling and shuffling–into insanity, if only his brain could please break down, but it ain’t doing that because he’s just mind, no brain to break no more–he knows that some Polack scientist type name of Czepiel figured out how many shuffles there really were in real-life terms.
Figured out. Or will figure out. Or will have figured. Or something.
Hell with it, Hank thinks. Grammar ain’t nothing but a set of normative conventions meant to elicit understanding within a certain formal framework–
“G––––– IT, NOW!” he screams out loud, if that has any meaning here. All he knows is that the Polish fella said the stuff Pip had put into Hank’s head years earlier: The Grand Canyon. The Pacific Ocean. How many steps around the whole Earth, the size of which Hank never had cause to think about during his time there, let alone the inclination.
How many seconds in a billion years. How far to the Sun. How thick a single playing card is compared to that distance. The numbers representing these quantities–and they aren’t just numbers to him, they’re there in his mind as real and understandable as how much liquid is in a fifth of Kentucky bourbon or how far you have to shoot across a table to get one right through the heart. He feels every one of the 131,479,714 feet around the Earth. He gets the 4,285,499,671,020,330,553 grains of sand to fill the whole Grand F––– Canyon, almost exactly the number of grains of sand in total from every beach on Earth. And he can taste as if they are his own salty tears in every one of the 14,154,222,310,112,329,449,800,401 drops of water in the deep off the coast of California across most of the lousy planet.
That’s a big dang distance. That’s a lot of sand. That’s a lot of water.
As his hands go and go, he also knows exactly how many pasteboard playing cards it takes to reach from the dusty ground of Deadwood to the surface of that nuclear fireball (he has only the barest inkling of what that is, but he feels with dread that he’ll understand it in time) called the Sun: 1,453,177,440,000,063.
That’s a lot of cards.
One shuffle, one new arrangement, every single second. In one year there are 31,557,600 seconds, which is then exactly how many arrangements Hank went through in that year. In a billion years, there are 31,557,600,000,000,000 seconds, so 31,557,600,000,000,000 different shuffles.
That’s a hell of a lot of shuffles. Hank would never have thought there could be that many of anything, forget about different ways a 52-card mix could come out. But that ain’t nothing, he knows now. It’s so little compared to the big picture, you can’t even see it using the eyes of God.
Keep shuffling, sucker, he would say if there was anybody else doing it. And as you’re shuffling, take one single step every BILLION years. That’s ONE step, pal.
So every 31.5 million billion hands of cards, you take one step. Then another billion years, another 31,557,600,000,000,000 shuffles until you can take another. Then again, and again, and again, 43,826,571 steps to go once around the planet.
He figured this out in his first three years of shuffling, alone, in silence except for zip-zip-zip and the sound of his own intermittent crying and screaming. It took him that long to see that he was going to be shuffling for at least 43,826,571,000,000,000 years. For convenience’s sake, he started calling this a “round trip.”
The next year he started thinking about sand.
Thanks to Pip and his magical finger of torture knowledge, Hank knew there were those 14 followed by 24 zeroes number of drops in the Pacific. And he thought he’d never stop screaming when he realized that he was going to have to keep going and going and going and shuffling shuffling and shuffling long enough to remove one single drop from the ocean for every round-trip number of years.
To completely empty the ocean would take 620,331,029,023,922,024,607,068,210,254,971,000,000,000 … years. He calls this “draining.” That many years represented a single draining.
That was, for a long time, too much to bear. He didn’t think about blasphemous numbers or the length of his living death of his white-room existence for years. He wishes that he couldn’t comprehend that span of time, but alone among men, he can, and he does.
But as the not-yet-born Al Jolson would one day say, he knows he ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He was just over five years into the job at that point, and five years compared to that hearty endless time really is nothing. There is an eternity to go.
However, slowly, slowly, after years of blocking them and thinking about booze, women, gambling, numbers start entering his mind.
No, not this again. Jesus on the cross, not this again.
But it is true. It’s happening again, this time seeing that he must start the whole process over again, refilling the Pacific, drop by drop, every one of them another round-trip of billion-year steps around the planet. It’s another 620,331,029,023,922,024,607,068,210,254,971,000,000,000 years to fill the bastard back up.
But this is what scraped at the back of his mind like a rusty buck knife: every time he drained and refilled the ocean, he could put a single playing card on the ground. After doing it again, he could place another on top of that. And again, again, every cycle of draining and filling adding another on top of those.
And when that pile of cards reached the Sun–a stack 93 million miles high, built at the rate of one-hundredth of an inch every 1,240,662,058,047,844,049,214,136,420,509,942,000,000,000 years–the entire process of stacking and unstacking would be repeated to bring the pile back down to a single card, and then no cards at all. Three quadrillion cycles of draining and undraining, each one of those cycles of 1 followed by 52 zeroes of years, for the pile to reach the Sun and back one time: 3,605,804,226,838,351,149,331,779,579,085,003,001,405,944,252,692,000,000,000 years.
Much like you, Dear Reader, Hank Hart is at this point utterly numb to the sizes of these absurd numbers. But, unlike you, he understands them. More than about 150 items ceases to make sense to a human mind; but Hank’s is much beyond a human mind, as he has no physical constraints, and Pip has given given him unlimited intellectual potential to understand how long he will be suffering … and he ain’t seen nothing yet even as far as how many more years there must be of mixing meaningless symbols around.
And there will be so, so many more for him to see are coming. It fills Pip’s heart with joy. Somehow Hank knows that even before the fat man, or whatever he was, appears again after ten years gone.
Hank doesn’t even know he’s there at first, not through his Pacific of tears.