by Emily K. Murphy
Though I lived in the legendary town of Calculus, it was some time before I had the pleasure of having a dress made by the Misses Spratt. They were the premier dressmakers in town who served even the great Lady Taylor Maclaurin, making them well-known throughout the Mathematics region. Such fame entitled them to sell dresses at whatever price they deemed fit. As a child, my family could never spare enough for a Spratt sister dress. But after getting my own job in the Calculus post office, my pocket money increased, and I decided to get a creation from the Spratts.
I stood outside the store, admiring several wide-skirted dresses in the window. I thought Lady Taylor must have ordered a dress recently, because the window casement had a fresh coat of red paint, and there was even a new engraved sign above the door: “Ǝ A Style ∀.” The old one read, “There Exists a Style for All.” Why the Spratt sisters felt the need to contort the letters into something unreadable I had no idea.
I entered the shop, and the little bell rang above my head. I was greeted my Miss Mil, the elder of the two sisters. I guessed at this from her growing wrinkles and thinning blonde hair, though I of course never mentioned either to her.
“Miss Maura! How pleasant to see you. Have you a parcel for us?”
“I came to see about a dress,” I informed her. “I have been told you use mathematics to make dresses, and I finally have enough money to see for myself.”
Miss Mil raised one eyebrow. “Our definition of mathematics may differ.”
I had met Miss Mil enough times in the post office to feel emboldened rather than intimidated at her scorn. “I doubt that. Everyone knows mathematics is the use of numbers to solve practical problems.”
Miss Mil snorted briefly, but was prevented from replying by the appearance of Miss Floss.
“Maura! Good to see you. How is business at the post office – well?”
“Well, thank you. And you, Miss Floss?”
“Oh, much the same.”
Miss Mil frowned at her bubbly sister. “Miss Maura is interested in purchasing a dress, Floss.”
Miss Floss practically squealed. “Oh, how wonderful!” The dark haired woman led me over to the dresses on display. “We have a new pattern fresh from Monsieur Descartes himself!”
She pointed to one dress with a wavy, wide skirt, and the most puffed-out sleeves I had ever encountered.
“I don’t believe I can afford that one.”
Miss Floss frowned only momentarily. “Perhaps we can measure you for it, anyhow.”
I blinked in astonishment. I knew Miss Floss to be silly, but this seemed a new low for her. “Why?”
Miss Floss mimicked my surprise. “Does that matter?”
Miss Mil laughed. “Miss Maura is not in the habit of using mathematics for fun, Floss. She comes from the Applied section of town.” The elder dressmaker retrieved two planks of wood from behind the counter.
“Oh.” Miss Floss’s disappointment was clear. Slowly, she helped her sister arrange the white wooden planks; one flat on the floor and one vertically behind it so they formed an L between them.
“I think I can afford this one,” I declared. I pointed to a long-sleeved dress whose thin skirt fell neatly into a parabola. I glanced at the one Miss Floss had wanted, and decided, “But perhaps with a wave on the bottom?”
“And that brings sine and cosine into the equation!” Miss Floss declared, clapping her hands together. “Brilliant!”
I must have contorted my face in an odd manner, because Miss Mil felt the need to say, “I’m afraid Miss Maura does not think sine and cosine belong in a dress shop.”
“I said no such thing,” I countered. I was in the habit of contradicting whatever Miss Mil said, but now I realized she had actually spoken truth. I did not think sine and cosine had any place in making a dress. I struggled to justify myself. “I…was merely wondering…how you use sine and cosine to make a dress. My mother only uses a measuring tape.”
Miss Floss smiled at me. “Step on the co-ordinate plane, and you shall see!” The younger dressmaker guided me to the wooden planks. They each had a faint grid pattern on them, with the centermost vertical and horizontal lines painted over in a thick black.
“Stand at the origin, please,” Miss Mil directed, vaguely pointing at the planks. She was busying herself with meter sticks and pencils, so I turned to Miss Floss for help.
“That’s where the black lines meet,” she explained, pointing to the exact center of the grid on the floor. I stepped on. “Really, Mil, we don’t have to be so obtuse with young customers.”
Miss Mil raised an eyebrow. “I was merely being accurate. Such notions as co-ordinate axes and trigonometric functions and origins cannot be understood except by their proper names.”
“Yes…well…” Miss Floss failed to finish her sentence, and instead took a pencil and began to trace the edge of my dress as it brushed the wooden plank on the floor. She narrated to me, “I am now tracing your skirt in order that we might get the proper radius.”
I glanced between the dress on display and my own shabby garment. “Is not the skirt wider than mine is?”
“Of course. We will add a decimeter to the radius all the way around.” Almost to herself, Miss Floss muttered, “How much more fabric, then, would we need?” The dressmaker paused, looking over my skirt. “You’re currently wearing about six yards, and then if we add a decimeter more of area, we must subtract your current area from the larger area…”
“Floss, do attend to the task at hand,” Miss Mil directed. Miss Floss sprang into action again, this time tracing my shadow on the plank behind me. Miss Mil came forward. “I do apologize. My sister is of the tendency to solve whatever math problem that happens to materialize in her brain, whether or not it is pertinent.” Miss Mil began to trace tangent lines to the two circles her sister had drawn.
I took this opportunity to look down on her. “And your math, I suppose, is always pertinent?”
Miss Mil paused in her work, though did not look up to face my challenge. “My math is always pertinent, yes. It may not always be altogether practical, that I freely admit.” Before I had a chance to reply, Miss Mil continued, “For example, I now measure the tangent lines to your skirt bottom so that I may take the antiderivatives of those lines, producing the equation of your hem, and if I take the integral of that, I may find the area under the curve and know how much material is required to fashion a proper petticoat.” Miss Mil stood up and began to scribble on a scrap of paper. “As you can see, it is very pertinent.”
“But not practical,” I repeated. “So why do you do it?”
Miss Floss, finished with her own tracing, sprang up beside me. “Because it’s so much fun!”
“When else is one expected to use one’s mathematical skills?” Miss Mil pointed out. “When one’s job is to be a dressmaker, ordinary mathematics can become dull and repetitive.” I considered this point. Perhaps it was true that ordinary life was repetitive. But I still was not convinced that using calculus to make a dress was the proper way to liven it up. “Step off, please.”
I left the co-ordinate plane. Miss Floss attended to the vertical board, drawing a waved line in place of the straight line that marked the bottom of my skirt.
“Is that a sine or cosine curve, Floss?”
“Sine; it rises after the Y-intercept.”
The sisters scribbled away in silence, so I felt compelled to say something. “The mathematics you are doing now is more of the same?”
“Of course,” Miss Floss said. “Only this is much more intricate. The bottom of the skirt is a sine function, the rest of the skirt is a quadratic equation, the bodice is more of a fourth-order polynomial, and the sleeves are simple straight lines.”
“And whatever area we get we must multiply by two, for front and back,” Miss Mil explained.
“How will you go about actually making the dress?” I asked.
“We draw a graph on the fabric,” Miss Floss explained. “Then we replicate the equations and cut.”
“Why do you need to find the area, then, if you’re just going to trace and cut?”
Miss Floss was as stunned as a rabbit hearing a hunting rifle. She honestly seemed to have no idea. But Miss Mil was quick to answer, “So we can have the right sized fabric to cut from, of course.”
“Of course,” I echoed.
Miss Mil tossed her paper onto the counter. “These calculations are best done over tea and biscuits, but I do believe we’ve run out of biscuits.” Miss Floss hung her head in shame.
Curiosity got the better of me. “Could I try an equation?”
Miss Mil stared at me as though I had asked to run naked in the park, but Miss Floss positively glowed. “Of course! Here, let me help you.” She sat me down on a stool at the counter and gave me her scrap of paper and pencil. “This is the equation of the tangent line. Y=6x+1.”
“And the antiderivative of that is…” I suddenly found it difficult to recall the difference between a derivative and an antiderivative.
“First, you must increase the power of each x by one,” Miss Floss began. I quickly added a 2 above the x. “Then, you divide the coefficient by that same power.” I scribbled out the 6 and wrote 3. “Do not forget to do the same for the 1.”
“But there’s no x with the 1.”
“Yes, well, that means it’s the 0 power.”
I nodded, adding an “x” after the 1.
“Plus C,” Miss Mil reminded me.
Miss Floss ran over to the co-ordinate plane, and shouted back, “That was for the bodice equation, correct?” She did not even bother to glance at my confused expression. “C is the Y-intercept, and therefore is 0.”
“That’s very convenient,” I remarked.
“We try to arrange it so,” Miss Mil informed me. “The origin makes life so much easier.”
I scratched away, taking my time with the antiderivative of the antiderivative. Therefore I nearly did not hear Miss Floss say, “Mil? Do you not think we could make our lives even simpler?”
“What are the endpoints for the integral?” I asked, now immersed in math. I did not wait for Miss Floss to respond, but instead walked up to the graph and decided it was 0 and 4, where the upward-facing fourth-degree polynomial ended to form a sleeve circle.
“You need to keep going,” Miss Mil reminded me. “You only have a second degree polynomial here. The bodice has four degrees”
“And once I have finished,” I concluded for her, “I shall take the area under the curve, but that is merely the empty space outside my dress, as the equation is positive. Therefore, I shall take the area of the rectangle between the origin and the value of the function at four, and from that subtract the area under the curve to get the area above the curve.” The sisters were stunned into silence. “And then, of course, I must multiply that by four to account for my left and right side, front and back. And that should be the amount of fabric you will need.” Miss Mil nodded curtly in assent. I turned to Miss Floss. “You were right. This is fun!”
Miss Floss smiled briefly before admitting, “But it is rather…time consuming. Should we not just use a measuring tape?”
Miss Mil laughed. “The battle in the town of Calculus never is to end.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student