quīnquāgintā sex by Riley Winchester


My mother looks for my father every day. Depending on who you ask, he’s in different places. He’s not lost, he hasn’t run away, he hasn’t disappeared. It’s a different kind of search. My mother looks for my father every day not in body but in spirit. She’s been looking for over five years now.


Before my father’s organs destroyed themselves with cancer, before his body was scarred with tumors and stripped of muscle, before bones outlined every angle and turn of his once sturdy, olive-skinned canvas, before his eyes were jaundiced and sunken in like ships at the floor of the sea, before his cells were soaked in opioids to kill the pain, and before he took his final shallow passive breath lying comatose in a hospice bed, he made a promise to my mother. He promised her that once he made it to the afterlife, he would give her a sign, and that sign would mean it’s all real—Heaven, eternity—and he made it there and he would be waiting for her. The sign, they agreed, would be the number fifty-six—the number of my father’s old police cruiser, and a sign random and uncoincidental enough for my mother to have no doubt that it came from her dead husband.


 Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:

Preserve justice

    and do righteousness,

for My salvation is about to come

    and My righteousness to be revealed.

Blessed is the man who does this,

    and the son of man who takes hold of it,

who keeps from polluting the Sabbath

    and keeps his hand from doing any evil.


June 2020: my mother tells me about fifty-six and her search. I had never known before. She had kept it all a secret.


My mother looks for fifty-six everywhere—obsessively, tirelessly, desperately. She looks for it on the sides of police cruisers, on public transportation, on company vehicles, on license plates, on airplanes. She looks for it on coins, on her receipts, on the price ticker at the gas pump, on the TV, on social media, on the games she plays on her phone, anywhere the number may be and my father’s spiritual presence alongside it as its harbinger. But she sees it nowhere.


Why is she doing this to herself?


I look through an old website dedicated to biblical numbers. It’s clunky and most of its links don’t work—it looks like it was created in the late aughts—but I find a page dedicated entirely to the number fifty-six. There are eighty-two comments on the post. The top comment is from an anonymous user, posted in late 2013, and titled “This can help all of us.” In it they describe how they feel as if fifty-six has been haunting them for years. They can’t seem to escape it; it shows up everywhere they look. Recently, however, they’ve turned to God and it’s gotten better.


Perhaps the waiting is killing her.


I scroll down.

A comment posted by another anonymous user, this one titled “56 ?”, reads:

So I lost my nephew and at his funeral they told us to close our eyes and let god speak to us and I swear I heard him tell me 56 and I’m not sure what he means by 56 but it’s almost been 56 days since the funeral but I’m so confused


I find a book titled The 150 Most Important Bible Verses in my sister’s bookshelf of abandoned books from her childhood. I immediately flip to the fifty-sixth verse in the book. Corinthians 4:18:

We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.


Eternal, the last word echoes, eternal.


I too start to look for fifty-six. I think I’ve been doing it unconsciously ever since I heard about the promise.


I think I do it for my mother.


Beat writer William S. Burroughs is considered the first person to believe in the twenty-three enigma—a belief in the cosmic and preternatural significance of the number twenty-three.


Perhaps she is searching for an assertion of faith.


Burroughs claimed he knew a ship captain named Clark who bragged that he had sailed for twenty-three years without an accident. Then on that very day Captain Clark’s ship got into an accident, killing him and everybody else aboard. Later that evening Burroughs heard on the radio that an airplane had crashed in Florida. The captain of the plane was also named Clark, and the flight was flight number twenty-three.


I Google “flight 56” out of curiosity. The first result is Azerbaijan Airlines Flight 56.


Azerbaijan Airlines Flight 56 was a passenger flight from Nakhchivan to Baku. Fifty-two people died when it crashed on the night of December 5, 1995.

The date sticks out to me.


My father died December 6, 2015.

Almost twenty years to the very date.


An investigation into the crash determined that it was caused by defective spare parts used on the plane’s engine mounts.


And even if he did die on the twentieth anniversary, what would that mean? He had no connection to it. He’d never been to Azerbaijan—probably couldn’t even spell it or spot it on a map.


It would have only been a coincidence of dates and numbers. Nothing more.


I read more comments on the biblical numbers site. In a comment titled “56 demonic dream” a user named Jen writes:

I had a dream last night. In it I was running and some was saying Kill all 56 and get that bitch (me) to [sic]. I saw a bloodied evil looking dog (unsure of what type) on a leash and he was trying to get off the leash to get me. I am a little afraid of this dream but not enough to stop me praying to God. I have this battle between God and the devil my entire life. God pulls me to the right and the devil to the left. So far God has always won but I have often wondered what and who I was.


Since my father’s death I’ve had only one dream about him. When I woke from it, I was so stunned I went straight to my journal and wrote down every detail I could remember. The date of the entry is January 9, 2020.

I was at the front of the neighborhood that I grew up in, where the entrance to the neighborhood and the road meet. I was with a group of people, but I couldn’t make out who any of them were. They all sort of looked like specters or just blurry silhouettes of people who looked somewhat familiar to me. We were all drinking and doing things that people do when they drink—mindless things that one would not do sober because of the mindlessness. I had a decent buzz but still had my wits about me—at any moment, if needed to, I could take a couple deep breaths and become adequately sober enough to handle just about anything. Then my dad—who, mind you, is dead and has been for over four years now—drove from the direction of my house to the entrance of the neighborhood (so he was leaving). He was confused and didn’t quite know what he was doing, where he was, or even who he was. It was how he was in his final days, when he had been administered so many painkillers and sedatives that his mind was a morass of blankness. I stopped him and tried to get him to go back home. He assured me he was fine and that he was just going to run some errands. I then sat in the car with him and continued trying to persuade him to let me drive him and the car back home and put him back in bed. He resisted and assured me that he was fine and didn’t need my help. All the while, the faceless figures continued to party and drink around us. They didn’t seem to care about anything going on between my dad and me. My mom showed up out of nowhere, and I tried to recruit her help to get my dad back home. Once again, my dad resisted. And without a fight, my mom acquiesced and said he’d be fine on his own—he didn’t need her, according to her. I tried one more time to get him to let me take him back home. But he got very serious and said, “You’re having fun, aren’t you? Let me be. Go back and have fun.” And I told him I wasn’t. I wasn’t having any fun. All I wanted was to take care of him and go back to his room and spend time with him and talk to him until he fell asleep. And even if that was the last time he ever fell asleep, I would know that I spent the final moments with him, the moments before the end, the moments that stick with us forever and seem to haunt us for the rest of our days if we spend them the wrong way. I don’t know how or why, but I eventually just stopped. I got out of the car and left. He drove off and I didn’t even bother to watch him drive away. I turned around and walked back to where I had been before. When I got back, one of the formless figures handed me a beer. I drank it. That’s the last thing I remember from the dream.


When my father’s cancer weakened his body and spirit, he was bedridden. My mother lay alongside him for hours and hours during the day and slept alongside him every night. Their bedroom door stayed closed most of the time. During the day, they talked. What they talked about, I don’t know. But I could always hear the soft silhouettes of their voices through the walls, never quite able to discern any words. Sometimes at night I could still hear their voices over the hum of my father’s oxygen concentrator.


On one particularly bad day my father was admitted into hospice care and put into a medically induced coma.


I never heard my mother and father speak to each other again.


No matter where I look, I can’t seem to find fifty-six. I’ll admit, I was incredulous when my mother first said she never saw it anywhere.


But now I understand. It’s nowhere to be found.


7 X 8, I punch into the calculator on my phone.

            There it is.

            28 X 2.

            37 + 19.


It only shows up when I create it.

            It never occurs naturally.


I read three books on Numerology in an attempt to understand fifty-six and what it means, in an attempt to understand my mother.


The books are nothing what I expect.

            The number fifty-six is never once mentioned.


Delusions of reference are when someone experiences a coincidental or nondescript, quotidian event and believes it has some significant personal meaning to it.

            Like seeing fifty-six and believing it confirms the existence of an afterlife, and that your husband or your father are there.


But what’s the opposite of it?

            What does it mean when someone doesn’t experience a coincidental or nondescript, quotidian event so much to the point that they think that is the significant personal meaning?


My family wasn’t religious. We didn’t go to church, never really talked about it.


This all changed when my father started dying.


We started going to church every Sunday and I hated it.

            I hated sitting in the stiff, suffocating pews and bowing my head and pretending to pray and looking around the room as everybody stood and sang along to the lyrics projected on the front wall. I hated the prayer requests. I hated how every week there was one dedicated to my family. I hated being the center of attention for that brief moment as everybody closed their eyes, bowed their heads, and asked the Lord to look over my family and me, to give us strength, to help us find peace.  


56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56 56


I understand it all now.

            I understand it all now and I feel selfish and horrible for how I thought back then.


“There is an order in the universe, from the atom to the solar system,” one of the Numerology books begins.

            This order, according to the book, is found in numbers.


Another book claims that Numerology is a part of your “spiritual awakening” and will help you get in touch with your “higher self and true purpose.”

            “Are you prepared for an exciting journey… a journey that will take you to the heart of your inner self?” the third book asks.


I wonder the first time my mother looked for fifty-six.

            I can recall, with detail, the moments surrounding my father’s death.


My mother and I left hospice after staying in the room with my father for five days and four nights. He lay comatose during those five days. A hospice nurse told us that sometimes patients subconsciously hold onto living if someone is in the room with them—they don’t want to die in front of someone, so their body keeps fighting, decrepitly, and it prolongs the suffering.

            So we left.

            We went home for the first time in five days. My two sisters were there, too. We had been home for no more than an hour when I was sitting in the kitchen and the phone rang. I watched the screen on the phone light up and display “Identifying.”

            I waited for the second ring, when the caller ID would come through.

            On the second ring it read, “Trillium Woods Hospice,” the name of the hospice care facility my father was in.

            I knew what the call meant.

            And I answered the phone.


The funny thing about grief and the moments right after a loss is that they’re never what we want them to be.

            They’re never as deeply and darkly poetic as we’d wish, as we’ve seen in Hollywood and in fiction.

            Perhaps the boy, after seeing his father’s corpse in the hospice bed, steps outside and the rain clears and a rainbow appears and paints the sky off in the distance and it glimmers off the boy’s eyes and it reminds him of some metaphor about something beautiful after something ugly and tragic.

            Or when the widow is spending her final moments with her husband she sees a chickadee outside the window land softly on a frail little branch hanging from a snow-coated sugar maple, and a small plume of snow dusts off it and falls whimsically to the ground, and the bird rests there so serene and so at ease with the world, and the widow takes it as a sign that the bird represents her husband and how he’s at peace now in someplace beyond.


But it’s never really like this.


We were in a McDonald’s drive-thru.

My mother, two sisters, and I had just visited my father for the last time. We visited only his body. He had been dead almost an hour before we finally saw him.

            After we said our final goodbyes to the last remaining vestige of my father, we left hospice to let the nurses take care of his body. Outside, the snow was pushed into uninspired little piles that had splatters of gray matter on them. The sky looked tired, and the wind was flapping just cold and just hard enough to wet your eyes and piss you off. Everything about it was so gray.  

            I don’t know who said it, but someone finally broke the silence of the car ride and said that they were hungry.

            We all sort of nodded, tacitly said, “Me too, yeah.”

            There was a McDonald’s up ahead.


We waited at the second window for our food to come out.

            “Dad’s dead,” my younger sister said, “and we’re at McDonald’s.”

            “Not our fault he died around lunchtime,” my mother said. “Besides, who says what we should be doing? There’s no manual for mourning.”


I wonder if she looked for fifty-six on that McDonald’s receipt.


I wish she had found it in that moment.


Little did I know Numerology mostly deals with birth dates and single digit numbers.

            Death is of little significance to Numerology, and so is fifty-six.  

The books only serve as a distraction.

             I start decoding myself using Numerology.


I’m a ruling number eleven, which means my life’s purpose is to “guide humanity into the emerging age of awareness.”

            Other ruling number elevens include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Prince Charles, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sir Edmund Hillary, and John Glenn.

I’m a day number six, which is the number of creativity.

My life path number is two, my destiny number is seven, my soul number is three, my personality numbers are four and twenty-two, my attitude number is three, I have no karmic debt.


Has this been about me the whole time?


There’s a warning at the back of one of the books that reads, “I encourage you to observe numbers everywhere, but know that Numerology can become an obsession. Always use Numerology to complement your life and offer divine insight and guidance.”


 It was the summer of 1993 and my mother was standing on a pier in Lake Michigan when she first saw my father. He and a friend were coasting through the channel in his piddly little speed boat when my mother’s friend turned to her and said, “Those guys are cute, we should get on their boat.”

            My mother hesitated, let out a nervous laugh. She was innocent, demure, didn’t take many chances in her twenty years of living.

            “C’mon,” her friend said, and she jumped into the channel and started swimming toward the boat.

            After a couple seconds of trepidation, my mother rushed over to the ladder on the side of the pier and descended into the water. She swam after her friend, after the boat, fighting to keep her hair—a delicate almond curtain that hung just past her shoulders—out of the lake and dry for when she met the two mystery men on the boat.

            By the time she reached the boat, her friend was already on and talking to my father’s friend. My father helped my mother up on to the boat.

            “I’m Randy,” he said.

            He was tall; she only came up to his chest. She looked up at him. His face was sharp and faintly reddened by the sun.

            “I’m Tara,” she said.


Sometimes we create our own signs.


The story behind the story:

After I learned about my mother’s search for fifty-six, I thought I didn’t think much of it. But, as evidenced by the essay, I was proved wrong. It seemed to creep up on me unconsciously: I too couldn’t find the number anywhere. In a half-hearted attempt to find meaning, I dove into books on numerology. I found nothing relevant to fifty-six. With no leads and no meaning, I knew I had to write about it. Before I did any writing, I filled pages with research. Numerology, numerical symbolism in religion, the afterlife, historical obsessions, historical numerical obsessions, the number fifty-six itself, my parents, my father’s final days. I excavated all the information I could. With each thread of research and personal memory, the essay started to find its shape. I found more questions than answers, which I think is the chief role of the essay as a form.
From there, I knew I wanted to write a segmented essay—a form I’ve never used—as I thought it best reflected this loose, schizophrenic search for a random number. The segments, to my surprise, didn’t see much reordering. I moved some around for balance between research and the personal, but for the most part segments remained where they were originally drafted. It seemed to come together naturally, a rare feeling. In the end, of course, nothing was answered. But I’d ike to think it provided some clarity into my mother’s search. It’s not crazy; it just needed a structure.

Riley Winchester is from Michigan. His essays and stories have appeared in various publications. 

 “quīnquāgintā sex” was first published in Ligeia Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart.

Header Photo by James Homans on Unsplash

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