One thousand five hundred and ninety five feet, six inches. That was the first number Pat ever had trouble visualizing, though she memorized numbers the way other people memorized scripture or songs. When her father said one thousand five hundred ninety five and a half feet, the number had sailed away into the sky, huge and daunting, buoyed by zeroes and all its smaller parts. Sixteen hundred feet, almost. Nineteen thousand two hundred inches, less a couple, though her father would have chastised her for generalizing when precision was called for. A bridge spanning the entire East River, all numbers and concrete and granite and steel. It wasn't a bridge yet, or even a tower. Just a hellish miracle of a waterproof chamber, sunk beneath the East River, where men—and first her father, then Pat—dug their lives away.
She had studied until she understood those big numbers, but now that she could visualize them, could picture the bridge not yet built, the distance across the river didn't matter nearly as much as the inches underfoot. Her job was to dig; the numbers kept her company. She'd never been formally schooled, but her father had been a bookkeeper in Ireland, back before they had come here and he'd been forced to get a job in the caisson. Back before the caisson killed him.
"Numbers are reliable," he'd said, sitting with her in his shop back in Ballyshannon. "Numbers have power."
In Ballyshannon, he had a shop and the family had three whole rooms above it, instead of all ten crammed into one room in a sour Brooklyn Irishtown. When he taught her counting and basic sums, the numbers had climbed up off the pages and performed tricks for her. Zeroes bounced like her younger siblings, changed the nature of those around them; nines absorbed themselves in their own magic. Sixes danced with eights, muscular sevens made inscrutable music, fours twirled and twined, forming their own squares.
"Did you see that?" she had asked her father, just the one time. A two flipped backward across the table while she practiced division.
He looked up from his ledger. "See what?"
The two jumped onto his hand and leapt from finger to finger, but he didn't look down at it.
"Nothing. Forget it." After that, she didn't mention the numbers again to anyone. She wasn't sure, but she didn't think it happened for anyone else. Twenty to her father was ink on a page, or a notion in his head. It didn't shimmer before him, full of potential, ready to burst into its parts. Twenty shattered into four fives, or five fours, or two tens, or ten twos. It teemed with ones, or some lucky combination of paired threes and sevens.