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Copyright 2012 Imaginaire All stories are the property of their respective authors. Imaginaire is: Joshua Allen Editor Chris Stieha Christina Jones Liz Wason Assistant Editors Eleanore Leonne Bennett Guest Artist
Welcome to the first issue of Imaginaire. My goal when I started this project was to create a place for quality mathematical fiction. I knew there were writers out there who were using math in creative ways and though there are always places for good writers to get their work out, there weren’t any venues that I could find that highlighted this specific skill. We have five great stories to kick off this new publication, as well as some really wonderful images from photographer Eleanore Bennett. We have two stories that use Fermat’s Last Theorem in strikingly unique ways, the first of which gives us a glimpse inside a group of mathematicians who ponder what it means that the theorem is no solved. We have a punchy tale of intrigue centered on a videogame that starts from a few lines of code and takes over a user’s computer. We have a great little humor piece that investigates just what it takes to determine time of death. We have a great tale about a man trying to tap into a bit of the genius of Sir Isaac Newton. Finally, we have the other story using Fermat’s Last Theorem, in which a man escapes the reality of his life by trying to wrap his mind around Wiles’ Proof. There are several different ways a journal can be successful, and many more ways that it can fail. One path to success is to start with a huge pile of money, print out a run of journals and get them into libraries and into the hands of people who would be most likely to read and enjoy it (hint: professor types). While I wish Imaginaire had the funding to do this, we simply don’t. Instead, we’re trying another approach which has proven successful for other publications over the years. We are delivering the journal electronically, in PDF format, both in a full size version and in a smaller version designed to be read on a standard ebook reader. You’ll notice the full-sized version is laid out just like a printed journal. This is to give you a taste of what Imaginaire would look like in print form. If you’d like to help us realize that vision, please consider donating on our web page. We’re asking for your help in passing these issues out. Feel free to distribute them to anyone you think might be interested. Subsequent issues may appear purely online or in other formats. We’re experimenting with a delivery system that works for us, and we’d appreciate your feedback as we try different things out. My goal remains not only to highlight great fiction, but also to create a community of people interested in mathematical fiction and a community of people with a common interest. Thank you for reading.
Joshua Allen Editor, Imaginaire
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE GRAPES OF MATH ISAAC NEWTON DIED A VIRGIN FOREIGN, SICK SCIENCE PLEASE WAIT THE LAST THEOREM ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS 1 8 22 26 34 42
THE GRAPES OF MATH
It is impossible for a cube to be the sum of two cubes, a fourth power to be the sum of two fourth powers, or in general for any number that is a power greater than the second to be the sum of two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain. –Pierre De Fermat
Found handwritten in his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica after his death in 1665 It remained unproven for 330 years.
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Mathematics is beautiful, but get a bunch of mathematicians together and things can get positively ugly. Down at the Frank Roland Institute for Numerical and Spatial Studies, there was always a difference over differentials or a fracas over fractals. Gather nine powerful egos, capable of disagreeing on levels beyond most people’s comprehension, and you can’t expect them to form a softball team. The arguments were an intoxicating rush, and I embraced them like a wino does a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. None of us had ever met the mysterious philanthropist Dr. Roland, but we sometimes wondered if he did not secretly monitor our grand intellectual battles, like a super-cerebral little boy who’d never quite outgrown the thrill of putting incompatible insects into a glass jar just to see what would happen. It was a November morning some years ago. The 20th Century was winding down to its anticlimactic conclusion. Moods were sour, tensions high. The air smelled of mathematics, that is to say, just like a fresh pot of strong coffee. The late great itinerant genius Paul Erdös once defined mathematicians as machines that convert coffee into theorems, and none of us were willing to attempt a disproof by contradiction, dissuaded by the promise of splitting headaches that accompany caffeine withdrawal. Our cups filled and steaming, we gathered around the big oak table in the conference room. A few leaves from some of its luckier relatives clung to the outside of the large windows, adhered by the morning’s light drizzle, weather that all too well mirrored our collective mood. We should have been triumphant. We should have been ecstatic. Instead, the nine of us stared into our coffee cups and waited for someone to break the gloomy silence. We’d all shared a grim surreality ever since the proof was announced. “First of all, this sure as hell isn’t the proof Fermat had in mind. He didn’t have all this highfalutin modular-form business,” Wally whined. “He just used good old fashioned number theory like any self-respecting 17th century mathematician would. Even if this proof holds water, it isn’t elegant. It’s not the ‘marvelous little proof ’ we’ve all searched for.” Just about every mathematician I know and—statistics strongly suggest, based on the evidence of this sample— the majority of the ones I haven’t met have at some point fantasized about proving Fermat’s famous theorem. The small minority who have not have, with few exceptions, fantasized about disproving it.
It was never properly a theorem at all, but ‘Fermat’s last conjecture’ just doesn’t have the right ring to it. None of us could make a living trying to solve this puzzle, though. Even our eccentric benefactor, who pays nine moderately large salaries for abstract mathematics only rarely having any commercial application, was unwilling to finance that, and so we’d been forced to tilt at other mathematical windmills. Wally devotes his life to pi, and he will never run out of work. Billions of digits have already been determined, but there are trillions, quadrillions, quintillions waiting after that, and plenty of room to play around looking for patterns. He fancies himself a great explorer. The DeSoto of the mathematical world. He has an uncomfortable relationship with Dietrich, who has no love for pi, but instead immerses himself in the beauty and mystery of e, the base of natural logarithms and the second most famous transcendental number, after pi. But e has always played Ben Johnson to pi’s Shakespeare, Gene Kelly to pi’s Fred Astaire, and I suspect this gave Dietrich an inferiority complex, manifested, as they often are, in belligerence and fractiousness. Dietrich and Wally are both slightly paunchy and balding. If not for Dietrich’s thick German accent, it would be easy to mistake them for brothers, a conclusion bolstered by their almost constant bickering. We’re usually careful not to invite them to the same social functions, for they can seldom share a room without coming to mental blows. “Ha!” Dietrich spat. “You place far too much faiss in Fermat, Vally. Zat deceitful little Frenchman never even had a proof if you ask me. Zee sadist had nossing in mind but to torment generations of massematicians for centuries. Ze whole affair is a diabolical ruse zat he carefully orchestrated, and zen he craftily died before anyone could bring him to task on it. Now Euler, zere vas a massematician I could respect! None of zis sneaky writing in margins. If he had somesing to say, he’d write volumes on it!” We paused to observe a moment of respect for the absurdly prolific Leonhard Euler, whom every one of us considered a demigod. It’s worth noting that even Euler had tried and failed to prove Fermat’s ‘theorem,’ but I said nothing to besmirch his divine reputation. Richard, a tall and muscled Kenyan, is immersed in probability research. Being a playful and deviously creative bunch of madcaps, we folks at the institute nicknamed him ‘Lucky.’ Some mathematicians employ a technique called the ‘Monte Carlo Method,’ which uses large sets of random
The Grapes of Math
numbers to test certain ideas. Richard has invented what we at the institute call the ‘Atlantic City Method,’ whereby he goes to New Jersey on research projects and invariably comes back with less money and more theories. “But it must be conceded, gentlemen, and lady,” he said, his voice deep and rich, sounding the way coffee tastes, “that Monsieur Fermat proposed a mathematical truth that hundreds of years and legions of mathematicians could not prove false. A single counter-example would have sufficed, but none was ever found, even utilizing modern mathematical theory, and modern technological tools of calculation. If he had no proof at all, why would he be so certain of the truth of the statement?” “Intuition!” Melanie answered. “Many truths are selfevident but fiendishly slippery to prove.” Melanie is married to another member of the institute, an undeserving number theorist named Rolf. Both are irritatingly attractive, evoking desire and envy, respectively, in their fellow mathematicians, or at least in me. They’re both so damn symmetrical. Scientists who study the evaluation of physical human beauty almost universally tout this as the single most significant factor. This resonates well with me. A balanced equation is far more beautiful than an inequality. And the lovely left half of Melanie’s beautiful body was perfectly balanced by her radiant right. Her sheer comeliness notwithstanding, Melanie’s analytical prowess is irresistibly sexy. It’s difficult to strike up conversations in singles bars on the subject of quaternions, for example, and I can attest from personal experience that this is an excellent strategy for going home alone. But Melanie and I had such a discussion once, and it sent my hormones into an uproar. The way she would say the word “multiplicative,” it was all I could do not to seek a union of our respective sets right there on the spot. For years I’d secretly desired her and wondered what she saw in Rolf, apart from his strong and perfectly symmetrical chin. He was a mediocre mathematician on a good day, and drunk on a bad one. And a mean drunk, to boot. He’d been grumpy and ill tempered for at least as long as I had known him, and I suspect since the day he was evicted from the womb. “It was undoubtedly intuitively apparent to Fermat that the sum of two nth powers cannot itself be an nth power if n is greater than two,” Melanie asserted. “Mathematical intuition always guides rigorous proof. If it didn’t, computers would have made mathematicians obsolete a long time ago, and we all still have jobs.”
Rolf and Melanie both work with primes, and much of their work involves improving methods for identifying new ones. Prime number generators are sort of the mathematical analogue to a perpetual motion machine, and in much the same vein, eventually run out of steam. But their work had identified many new large primes, which have recently become valuable commodities for use in encryption, a development we still haven’t gotten used to. It’s always a little shocking when someone finds a genuine use for number theory. Sometimes we feel a little dirty when our pure mathematics finds practical application. We can almost feel the admonishing eyes of professor Hardy. Ollie, a tall and imperious Englishman, scoffed at these primes, as his numbers are much larger. He works with immense, sky-scrapingly large numbers, far larger than the largest known primes, which had only a few hundred thousand digits back then and have only grown to a few million since. Ollie worked with googolplexes, megistons, mosers, and other such entities denoting unfathomable numerical humongousity. He’s even been known to stray into the transfinites, orders of infinity, speculation on which can drive the unprepared mind right over the edge and into intellectual oblivion. And as his numbers are enormous, so too is his ego. Were these to be quantified, Ollie’s would require exponential notation. “Well of course it’s intuitively apparent to us denizens of the late 20th century,” he snorted, his upper class British accent exaggerating his pretentious haughtiness. “It has been regarded as true for three centuries, but it wasn’t obvious when Fermat wrote it. He must have had some solid basis for the assertion. After all, if it turned out to be false he’d look positively ridiculous posthumously, and what could possibly be more intolerable than that?” Indeed, to a mathematician there are few prospects more horrifying. We don’t expect to live lives of luxury and shocking hedonistic debauchery. To be plastered on the covers of entertainment magazines and be surrounded by bevies of math groupies. Hope, perhaps, but certainly not expect. No, mathematical immortality, that’s the prize. To be remembered after we die, leave a lasting legacy and forever change mathematics. Some day, after we are long gone, we want some student somewhere to read our preserved thoughts and think, “Wow! What a great mathematician!” To be remembered as a presumptuous and arrogant boaster who made an assertion that turned out to be wrong would be
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as perfect a hell as any the most nefarious of demons could devise. Morty, normally quite shy, managed to share a few ideas. “M-m-maybe he just made an error,” he said, pausing to push up his downward-sliding spectacles. “Maybe he thought he had a proof, but it was flawed. H-h-he may have divided by zero or something.” Morty is perhaps the strangest member of our little group. (Morty might say “divergent element of our finite set.”) He’s short and wears thick, heavy glasses that he constantly pushes back along his nose to counter the relentless efforts of gravity. While most of us are, in contrast to popular misconception, quite well-adjusted socially, and conversant in a wide range of subjects far removed from mathematics, Morty never quite got a handle on the rest of the universe outside of mathematics. I am pretty sure that if Melanie were to say “multiplicative” to him in that sexy way she has, it would probably kill him on the spot. Imaginary numbers, square roots of negatives, are his demesne and we often needle him about this. “Get some real numbers!” we tease, though Morty is never amused. He wears a T-shirt with a lowercase “i” on it to display his great passion to the world. The square root of -1, i forms the cornerstone of imaginary and complex numbers. Morty’s shirt-borne message is lost on the masses who probably presume the i is an ironic statement about egomania combined with a twist of humility. Some might observe that all of us are a bit out of touch with the real world, but Morty is definitely the worst. Even his calculator doesn’t understand him. Dividing by zero is, of course, mathematically blasphemous and grotesque. When any of us realize that we’ve inadvertently made such a reprehensible error, we immediately bend to one knee and appeal to the gods of mathematics for forgiveness, invoking the sacred names of Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes. Not really, but that gives an idea of the seriousness of the offense. It is doubtful that the great Fermat divided by zero, though it is easier to do than it sounds. A term could be set to zero, and then one could divide by that term to cancel something out, not realizing that the term is equal to zero. Good mathematicians do it all the time, and many of them will eagerly show their scars and recount the horror stories of having made this dreadful mistake. Still, Fermat probably didn’t, but he could have made some kind of error. Although acknowledged as brilliant, he was equally noted for being sloppy.
Rolf sided with Morty, “I’m sure that French braggart made a mistake. Fermat was undisciplined and messy. Whatever possessed him to undertake mathematics as a hobby? I don’t go around making legal decisions for my amusement!” Fermat was not a professional mathematician; he was a jurist. Mathematics was simply an entertaining diversion for him, thus earning him the nickname “prince of the amateurs.” Rolf ’s hostility was a blatant advertisement of his resentment of Fermat’s genius, for the French legal scholar had accomplished much more with his “hobby” than Rolf ever would with his highly specialized career, for which he was handsomely paid. Ever tactful, I ignored the opportunity to point this out. I offered what insight I had: “It seems then, that there are a limited number of logical possibilities. To wit: “One: Fermat made some sort of mistake, and never had a consistent proof, though he thought he had one. “Two: Fermat suspected that the assertion was true, guided by his intuition, but found a proof to be all but impossible, and so proposed to have discovered one out of a malicious desire to torture his intellectual descendants, or to secure his immortality, succeeding wildly in either case. “Three: Fermat secretly developed entire branches of mathematics that required the life’s work of many brilliant mathematicians over the course of centuries to rediscover, but kept all the results of this staggering amount of effort a secret except for one obscure little conundrum. Or four . . .” Here I paused dramatically, taking in the circle of eyes with my own in a grand sweep. “Fermat discovered a simple, elegant, whole and consistent proof using nothing but the tools of 17th century mathematics.” “I think we can strike number three as exceedingly unlikely,” Terry observed. Terry is interested in topology. Sometimes he spends hours staring at and turning his coffee cup, and there are few who could do this and honestly say that they were working. Often we observe a vacant look in Terry’s eyes while engaged in conversation with him and get the disturbing impression that he is appraising the topological characteristics of our bodies. He would be quick to point out that, regardless of individual girth or stature, most human bodies are “topologically equivalent.” This is a somewhat unsettling notion. Terry himself weighs in at 265 pounds, and frankly looks quite a lot like an enormous egg. I’ve never said anything about this, though some
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of the others refer to him as “Humpty Dumpty” when he’s not around. Everyone nodded at Terry’s proposition. The ovoid mathematician paused to bite a doughnut. These were his favorite foods, classic representatives of the torus manifold about which topologists are endlessly excited. He swallowed quickly and continued, a sugar mustache now resting on his upper lip. “And despite the wishes and desires of the romantic within each of us, number four seems less and less likely with the passing of each century.” Again we nodded, this time sadly, for it seemed undeniable that the simple and elegant proof of Pierre de Fermat was to be classed with the pegasi and unicorns, a fabled, fantastic and beautiful beast, which was, alas, unreal. “Which brings us to this Wiles fellow and his proof. What of it?” Ollie asked, folding his arms with a smug shrug. “A hack,” Dietrich opined. “Inspired nonsense,” Wally added, in a rare display of apparent agreement with Dietrich. “It seems unlikely that it will stand the test of time,” Richard offered, somewhat more diplomatically. Nobody was making any eye contact with anyone else. The reason was clear to me: Everyone was spouting a steady stream of undiluted bullshit. “Why?” I asked “Why are you all so certain? Have you read the proof ? Did you understand all of it? Did you find any flaws you can point to?” “Just one,” Rolf said. “What’s that?” I asked “It wasn’t my proof.” At last, Rolf had cut to the heart of the matter. Pure spiteful intellectual envy. “And what about the Shimura-Taniyama conjecture?” Ollie asked, “Surely they shall now bathe in glory.” “Taniyama killed himself forty years ago,” I noted. “That’s irrelevant,” Ollie replied with a dismissive wave and a snort. The work of Shimura and Taniyama, pairing modular forms and elliptic curves, had formed the basis of Wiles’ proof. Indeed, they had already bathed in a steep tub of glory, for their ideas had been immensely influential to modern mathematics, long before anyone got the idea to apply them to Fermat’s last theorem. But Taniyama never had a chance to enjoy any of it, having taken his life long before his labors had borne so much
fruit. We’ll never know if his suicide was related to frustration at his inability to prove his own conjecture, or Fermat’s last theorem (also a conjecture) for that matter. But his life and death teach us a valuable lesson: after you die, some of your mathematical scribbling may prove more useful than you had ever dreamed. Die happy! “Can’t you all just be satisfied that a proof has been found?” Melanie admonished. “Can’t you just appreciate its beauty? Isn’t it good enough that the world has been enriched by the discovery? What if medical researchers approached diseases the same way you approach mathematical proofs, dreading that someone else would find a cure first, and becoming enraged and depressed when they did?” Melanie was obviously not well acquainted with any medical researchers. I let the point slide. We squirmed uncomfortably. It was true. We were a bunch of conceited brats when it came right down to it. Very intelligent conceited brats, yes. But brats, nevertheless. We couldn’t stand to see another get the grapes. Sour, sour, oh those grapes are so, so sour. I broke the silence that had again settled gloomily over all of us. “I always thought Fermat’s last theorem was overrated, anyway. Now the Goldbach Conjecture, that’s the last great mathematical puzzle. That’s a real challenge. If we set to work on that, it would truly assure us of immortality,” I suggested. Everyone heartily agreed. We spent the rest of the day exchanging ideas on the Goldbach Conjecture and let Pierre de Fermat rest in peace.
ISAAC NEWTON DIED A VIRGIN
“Yikes!” When Gottfried rolled over in bed and landed on a sticky wet spot, he knew that something was amiss. It took him by surprise – a jolt of fright, actually; he figured it for blood, and worried that something had ruptured. His heart was beating so hard that it felt like an angry parasitic monster, clawing at his rib cage to rip out. It reminded him of his childhood fear of his body turning itself inside out. Gottfried patted himself in the darkness, checking for burst seams, mushiness, or fluids. His meat seemed intact, so he did a dipstick check of his nether region, from where he suspected some incidental leakage might’ve occurred due to the cranberry smoothie he’d drank for dinner. This source also being clean, Gottfried thought, “uh oh,” and turned on the nightstand light to confirm his dread. Unlikely as it was, the evidence was fresh and irrefutable. He’d just experienced a nocturnal emission. When? Was this even possible, at his age? He hadn’t been dreaming, that he could remember at least. Wasn’t some manner of erotic dream prerequisite for this occurrence? The thought
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
that his seed could’ve been snatched from his private glands even while his mind was blank and his body supine felt like a kind of rape. This demon within himself, which he’d sworn to subdue, was as resourceful as it was malicious. This was very disappointing. Awake, he could steel himself against those sporadic flashes of lust, of night sweats and knotted bed sheets, of face-forward ice cold showers, of solitary, late nights watching Jesus preachers on TV... whatever it would take to dissipate the throbbing of his lesser self. But to have his middle-aged body betraying him the way an adolescent boy’s would was wrong and unfair. In indignation, Gottfried pinched his thigh until it hurt. Then came the doubts. He knew from experience that he was weak. In most things, if he suspected that he’d fail, he withheld full and complete efforts in lieu of wasting time on a futile endeavor. What he needed to do was think things through. In the past, he’d never felt like he had enough time to think. (“What are you thinking, right now?” Valerie had been fond of asking him, whenever she’d suspected him of cooking up something objectionable. Most of the time, she’d been right, and Gottfried would be obliged to invent a lie, quick, to answer that question.) Ironically, now that he was free to indulge his most venal fantasies, he wanted nothing to do with them. (This supported his theory that, all along, Valerie had been the only thing holding him back.) The whole purpose of converting to celibacy was to take command of his body and mind, so that he could purify and liberate his inner self. By arresting his carnal energy and absorbing it into his higher being, he imagined himself redirecting it into a shining mental radiance. It reminded him of the probably apocryphal story of Isaac Newton inventing the calculus as a mental defense against his own prurient longings. In his sleep that night, though, Gottfried’s body had undermined his moral convictions. Knowing that he’d committed no conscious sin was cold comfort. The release had brought no satisfaction, only increased restlessness and a prickly loneliness. There was nobody to call, no support groups for celibacy. Gottfried put on his felt slippers, wrapped himself in his terrycloth robe, tiptoed past the door to Wolfgang’s room, into the living room, where he sat in his beige microfiber recliner with the footrest engaged. Breathing deep through his nostrils, with a pillow under this chin, he assumed his thinking position. Into this mental emptiness, Gottfried invoked the muse of Isaac Newton.
Sir Isaac appeared to him dressed in his formal habiliments, a charcoal gray justaucorps, narrow-shouldered but with flaring sleeves, and breeches pulled tight over spindly legs. Gottfried’s personal vision was of a younger, aquiline, more forceful Newton than that commonly portrayed in textbooks; his face was unpowdered, shadowing the intelligence on his brow, and his wig, unlike the ostentatious bouquet of curls common in the era, barely brushed his collar. He shrugged his shoulders as if coming in from the cold. “Dear master Gottfried, ‘tis been near a fortnight ere we’ve discoursed. Prithee, what circumstance warrants this summons?” Gottfried rubbed his eyes, the better to focus. “Sit down, Sir Isaac. I’ve been... vexed again.” “Aye, methinks I know the nature of thy vexation.” Newton crossed his legs. “For am I not a man? Fancy not that I was immune to such urges. T’were many ill nights when dread humours conspired to thwart me from my soul’s noble duty. I swear’t ached like the piles.” “Even you, Sir Isaac?” “Like all flesh and blood men, I was cursed by the base demands of this body. Yet I scorned them in the name of natural philosophy, which has vouchsafed its secrets from all save those who query through purified reason. By God, had I succumbed to my beast’s appetites, the Principia would n‘ere have been written.” “And the world would’ve been diminished,” Gottfried proclaimed. Newton lifted his chin and turned his face to the left, the opposite of the usual profile portrayed in paintings. A vein in his temple throbbed. “The nature of the applied mind is such that, the closer one approacheth the truth and the deeper one thinks on’t, the more those beasts within are suppressed. Think hard upon thy undefiled mental artifices, sir, and thought itself shall relieve thee of thy animal curses. The higher ye soar, the easier becomes thy flight.” A breeze from somewhere tickled Gottfried’s earlobes. “Thank you, Sir Isaac. You always inspire me. If I am able to see further than some others, it is only because I’ve stood upon your shoulders.” Isaac Newton, who in life was reputed to have never been seen to laugh, chuckled mildly at that remark, then disappeared into vapor. Gottfried felt atoned and utterly drained. Going back to bed, to the damp pillowcase and the splotched sheets, seemed
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distasteful to him. So, with empty time and no motivation, his natural recourse was to turn on the television. Around cable channel number 200-something, he settled on an old Star Trek episode, the one where hyperaccelerated aliens, invisible to the naked eye, take over the Enterprise. He made a mental note to ask Sir Isaac about whether that was even possible the next time they conversed.
on—it was an exercise program, where three curvy women in spandex stepped up and down onto a block, counting. “Are you just getting home?” he changed the subject. “I just got off work. I picked up La-Wandja from... a friend’s house.” The story sounded credible but incomplete. Wolfgang had recently secured employment on the graveyard shift at the campus 24-hour Zippy Mart, and while Gottfried was still waiting to see any rent money, or for that matter even a token contribution for the groceries that he and La-Wandja consumed, he was relieved that his son had stayed clean and sober enough to keep a job for two weeks. That girlfriend of his, though, was a walking probation violation just waiting to happen. But Gottfried, still groggy, did not want to engage that particular discussion at the moment—or ever, if he could avoid it. He left the “tough love” up to Valerie, who’d kicked both of them out, although not at the same time and for different reasons. The interlude was shattered by the sounds of La-Wandja heaving guttural bombs of stomach content in the bathroom. “Is she going to be okay?” “We had a setback tonight.” “We?” “She...” “A setback?” With his free arm, Wolfgang gestured wide-open, nothing to hide. “I’m just trying to do the right thing...” Gottfried looked up the length of his son’s arm, at the new tattoo—a multiply braided knot of serpents (another of Wolfgang’s own doodles)—that extended his ink all the way to his wrist, a full sleeve. Somehow, the notion that his son was seriously trying to do the “right thing” at the same time as furthering his own self-disfigurement struck Gottfried as incongruous. “Just take care of her,” he instructed. “It’s one day at a time, Dad.” Whenever he said “Dad” like that, with the vowel lingering, he sounded sincere. Gottfried knew that he was a sucker for that, every time. There came the sound of running water in the bathroom, and La-Wandja started singing:
What yo goin’ do ‘bout all that junk? Doin’ that junk inside yo trunk? (Yaaak, uhrggg, hoooook) I gon’ get, get, get, get, you drunk, Get you love drunk off my hump. (Oorgle, hummmfff, paaash)
Wolfgang’s visage filled Gottfried’s field of vision like a zombie close-up. The rings through his lower lip looked like sutures. The studded nut through the bridge of his nose was rusty. The rubber washers filling the stretched-out holes in his earlobes pulled tight on the skin to the hinges of his jaws. Flaming tattoos burned his neck. These sundry mutilations afforded his already pale, mottled complexion a cadaverish quality. And yet, beneath it all, he was still just a plump, corn-fed Ohio lad. There was a baleful, somewhat worried look in his eyes. Wolfgang was making a shushing gesture, index finger to his lips, while he pulled a wool blanket over his father. LaWandja, to whom the request for silence was directed, was unable to comply. She giggled; the sight of Gottfried, asleep, with his mouth agape, struck her as irresistibly hilarious. She erupted in chuckles, spraying Gottfried with her mirth. “Wh...?” Gottfried wiped his eyes. Wolfgang spoke in a soothing voice: “There, there Dad. Go back to sleep.” La-Wandja thought that sounded funny, and resumed her hysterics, which in turn triggered a salvo of yappy barking from Biscuit, the Chihuahua that she cradled in her arms. (In the two months since Wolfgang and La-Wandja had moved in, Gottfried had still never seen that dog with its paws on the floor.) As her laughter accelerated into hyperventilation, Wolfgang turned his attention away from Gottfried and began patting her on her back. “Easy, now.” She buckled over, half laughing and half coughing. “Yo old man is so jeezy...” she gasped, then swallowed a ball of hard air. “Sheez, I’m goan’ t’ be sick...” and, handing Biscuit to Wolfgang, she dashed into the bathroom. The beast, which disliked everybody except La-Wandja, growled. Wolfgang tucked it in the hollow of one arm, pulling the blanket over this father with the other. “Stop that!,” Gottfried squealed. “Leave me alone. I’m watching TV.” He peeked around Wolfgang to see what was
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
Biscuit began whimpering. Wolfgang rolled his eyes in the direction of the bathroom, and Gottfried nodded for him to go. Alone, staring at the vivacious young women doing their exercises on TV, Gottfried grieved momentarily for the quietude and intellectual equilibrium that he’d been working so hard to cultivate, before Wolfgang and his heroin addicted girlfriend showed up on his doorstep, after having been evicted from his mother’s emphatically drug-free home. “We just need a place to crash until we can clear some things up,” Wolfgang had promised. Gottfried had not asked what the things in need of clearing up were, or how long that task might take. It was now too late to go back to bed, too early to start the day, so Gottfried reached for the remote, to see if anything worth watching was on the Tube.
to get the doctor to increase the dosage on his prescription— he was at sixty milligrams, up from an original twenty, and now believed that he might experience even greater benefits at eighty, or one hundred, or maybe he’d even add a prescription for aripiprazole. That stuff was supposed to be brilliant. Cunningham entered the room dressed in a polo shirt and a pair of corduroy Dockers, with wool socks under sandals. When Gottfried had first started seeing him, he’d worn black glasses, but now he was wearing contacts. Or, maybe he’d had that laser eye surgery. Either way, it seemed vain. “Mister Gottfried.” “Doctor Cunningham.” For a moment, it seemed like that would be the extent of their interaction. Cunningham’s cell phone beeped in his pocket, but he ignored it. “You wanted to speak to me about your prescription...?” “Yes. I don’t feel like my medication is working.” “You’re still depressed?” Gottfried winced at that word; he did not care for it and the vulnerability that it implied. He preferred to think of the desired pharmaceuticals as brain vitamins, sustenance for a more robust cerebrum, rather than what his ex-wife so flippantly referred to as “Happy Pills.” “I’m saying that it isn’t working.” “Any side effects?” Gottfried intoned from memory: “No, no headache, dry mouth, extreme tiredness, nausea, chest palpitations, difficulty sleeping, or suicidal thoughts...” “Any sexual side effects?” If Gottfried had thought about if for half a second, he wouldn’t have blurted out: “Sexual side effects would be a blessing!” “Whoa.” Cunningham made a time-out gesture. “I don’t hear that very often. Care to elaborate?” Celibacy wasn’t an easy lifestyle choice to explain, much less to defend, and Gottfried wasn’t sure if it was any of the young doctor’s business. He was, in fact, mildly worried about that incident of a couple of nights ago, enough to look it up on the Internet, where he had learned that unprovoked seminal discharge could be a sign of testicular cancer, but he wasn’t about to bring up that matter in the absence of other symptoms. “I’m trying to refrain from sexual activity.” “Is that difficult for you?”
Gottfried didn’t want to be thought of as the kind of person who rushed panicky to the doctor fearing an aneurism behind every headache or a stroke in every dizzy spell. Instead, he rather admired people who understated their ailments, like that high school football coach he’d read about who’d had a mild heart attack during a game, but didn’t even mention it until the bus ride home. So, when he’d scheduled his first appointment with the young Dr. Cunningham–his “personal physician,” assigned by the managed care cooperative–he made it a point to state that he hadn’t been to any physician “for as long as I can remember.” Oh, really, the doctor commented, and considering Gottfried’s age, immediately ordered a battery of precautionary tests, all of which he passed with no serious complications. “See, I’m healthy as a horse,” Gottfried bragged, secretly relieved. Confident of his basic well-being, he’d agreed to schedule regular physicals. At the last one, what he’d offered as a passing, casual complaint that he’d been feeling “a bit down, lately” earned him a prescription for fluoxetine, which he liked and refilled three times. In truth, Gottfried had more or less resigned himself to living with chronic, low-level depression, and it didn’t bother him as much as he told the doctor it did. What captivated him, though, was how effectively the antidepressants seemed to maximize his innate brainpower. His thoughts were so clear that they seemed to echo in his head. This, he imagined, was the natural mental state of geniuses. If the young Doctor Cunningham possessed the means by which to enhance his cognition, Gottfried wanted the goods. That day, his goal was
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
“Well...” It was bothersome that Cunningham suddenly started flipping through Gottfried’s charts. “Listen, Doc, I don’t know what you’ve heard...” “Heard?” “I don’t know, uh, from my ex-wife...” As soon as he’d said that, Gottfried realized how paranoid it sounded. Young Doctor Cunningham closed the folder, as if he’d heard all that he needed to hear. “My friend, maybe we need to consider increasing your dosage.” “Or adding a second anti-depressant?” Gottfried queried hopefully.
lines, but if the client insisted on fireworks, then he could install an HID sodium vapor system that’d sizzle. Ambience be damned. To wreak retinal assault troubled him, at an aesthetic level, but the sheer audacity of the project made his brow sweat with mad-scientist enthusiasm. Gottfried pushed away from his drawing table. He stood in the cutout door of his cubicle, arms akimbo and eyes scanning. Up and down the row, neighboring cubicles were unoccupied. What time was it? Gottfried wondered. The only other person in the office was Eduardo, the office associate’s assistant, who was grappling with rolled, oversized blueprints, trying to flatten them to make photocopies, one section at a time. He pushed the copy button, but at that instant the print rolled away from
Gottfried had always known that if he did his job well, the products of his labors would go unnoticed. That was a good thing, for bad lighting was irksome, lowered productivity, and contributed to a variety of neurological ailments ranging from migraines to diplopia and tinnitus. Gottfried flattered himself to think that he not only had an eye for good lighting, but a nose and an ear for it as well. He could enter a strange room blindfolded, and by applying his other senses, determine the lighting scheme, the sources of light, their types and luminosities, and comment on the purpose, functionalities, and aesthetics of the entire system. He joked among his colleagues that he possessed a super power that he called “illuminiscience,” and in his spare time, he used it to fight the forces of “darkness.” It was an electrical engineers’ inside joke. More and more, though, his firm’s clients, Gen-X executives (or Gen-Ecks, he called them), were disinclined to defer to his expertise (nor, in some cases, did they seem inclined even to defer to the laws of physics). For example, his current client— the son of a retired local retail magnate—insisted that the commercial showcase in his store do no less than “dazzle.” He insisted upon searing, seamless, shocked white brilliance throughout the sales floor, casting no shadows, not so much as a haze, a glare, or an umbra in the fabric of the luminosity. “From the moment that they enter the store, I want peoples’ eyes to open wide,” he prescribed. “I want the hairs on their arms to stand on end.” “Consumer electrocution,” is how Gottfried thought of it... but as much as it offended his nuanced Midwestern sensibilities, sure, he could make it work. He knew how to tweak a watt to make it scream. He’d initially presented a more eco-minded design of multiple compact overhead fluorescent lamps, mounted along the ceiling plane in rows like broken highway
him, and Eduardo took the blast of the exposure lamp full in his face. “Sheee-it.” “Let me help you,” Gottfried offered. Eduardo blinked through green globules in his field of vision. His first reaction was to deny needing help. “No, huh, sir.” Waving his index finger in front of Eduardo, Gottfried diagnosed. “No, don’t rub. It’ll just make it worse.” “I’ll be okay.” Gottfried knew the sensation: flash blindness, the bleaching of retinal capacities. Like emerging from a cave at noon on a sunny day, when the optic nerves are sparking firecracker fuses. When Gottfried was a kid, awake in his room at night with the blinds drawn, he used to induce that condition in himself using a xenon flashlight, taking the full impact of 2800 lumen straight in the pupils... and then he’d loll in dazed, monochromatic senselessness until it wore off and he’d do it again. “What you should do, Eddie, is measure off sections and roll the print out as you go.” Cradling the scrolls against his chest, Eduardo moved sideways in order to keep his back turned to Gottfried. “Yeah. I got me a whole mess of copying here to do for Ms. Bowman.” “By the way, where is everybody?” Eduardo snapped his fingers. “Did’jo forget or what? It is Millie Fontenot’s birthday—39, she says, but I bet she’s older. She’s got cake in the kitchen.” Rolling onto his heels, Gottfried consulted his mental calendar and found no advance notice of this event. Possibly, he’d been invited, but wasn’t listening. Equally possible was that his attendance had never been sought in the first place. Just in case, however, he decided that he should be seen there.
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
From the hallway outside the office kitchen, Gottfried could hear the refrain of a cacophonous version of “Happy Birthday to You.” He timed his pace to the singing so that he turned the corner at exactly the finale:
Happy birthday deeeeaaaaar Millie. Happy birthdayyyyy to yooooooooouuuuuu.
“In truth, thou did the hapless wench a gentleman’s service,” Newton reassured him.
In his tidy Zippy Mart uniform, Wolfgang lingered in front of the bathroom vanity mirror, parting his hair straight down the middle, brushed flat, and naturally greasy. Tucking in his brown and white striped shirt, he squared his shoulders, smoothed his neckline, and attached his “My name is WOLFGANG. May I Help You?” name tag above his heart. He whistled at himself. Wolfgang’s eyes were as sunken and his complexion was as pale as the day that he’d gotten out of detox, and concerning his assorted piercings and tattoos, Gottfried despaired that his son had permanently mutilated himself in the eyes of polite society, but in his Zippy Mart team uniform, he stood straighter and comported himself with a sense of purpose. So what if it wasn’t a scholarship into the engineering program at Ohio State? It was still good to see. Gottfried remembered Valerie’s warning, “Don’t be fooled by his promises,” but he still believed that Wolfgang was simply misguided, misbegotten, and misunderstood. He found it feasible to believe that his son was legitimately in recovery. Gottfried was staring into the open refrigerator; it looked full, but other than the bottles and jars of various condiments, sauces, spreads, and syrups, there was little real foodstuff. “There’s nothing to eat,” Gottfried pronounced... by which he meant, where’s my last plate of lasagne? Wolfgang did not miss the implication. “I can bring home some jojos and hot wings. We get rid of everything under the heat lamps at one minute after midnight, so whatever’s left is ours. Most of the time, it’s pretty good.” “No, that’s okay. I’ll manage.” Wolfgang put on his Zippy Mart baseball cap, adjusting the brim to shadow his eyes. “Well, I got to go to work.” Gottfried exhaled; he’d hoped that he wouldn’t have to ask, “Where’s the girl?” “La-Wandja?” Of course, La-Wandja, if that even was a name—who else might he be talking about? Withholding comment, Gottfried shrugged. “She went to visit her sister down in the Village today. I haven’t heard from her since before lunch.” Wolfgang recognized the dissatisfaction his father’s expression. “Don’t worry, though, she won’t come here, unless she checks in with me, first.”
Millie’s cheeks inflated as she sucked in a mighty breath. Collapsing in laughter halfway through her blow, she managed only to extinguish a handful of the candles. “Do over!,” she begged, but the throng hooted “Too old! Call 911!” In response to which Millie summoned another gust and, this time, finished the job. She was enjoying these blandishments so thoroughly that when she raised herself, Millie didn’t notice that she had a dollop of pink icing on the tip of her nose. Chin up, facing forward, with a perfect teardrop of frosting on the very apex of her pert little nose, Millie commenced cutting the cake and distributing pieces to the queuing partygoers. Gottfried would have thought that the gallant thing for somebody to do would’ve been to use a paper tissue to remove the frosting from Millie’s nose. Or, to discreetly inform her that her face was in disorder, and leave her to wipe it away in her own manner. Nobody seemed to notice, though; or nobody cared. Gottfried puzzled through this apparent breakdown of decorum, and eventually came to the conclusion that this was an example of an unspoken social contract, whereby everybody had independently divined that Millie was well aware of the icing on her nose, but in the present conviviality, decided it was acceptable to leave it there. As a group, they were all conforming in that spirit. ‘Ah ha,’ Gottfried thought, joining the line. When his turn came, Millie winked at him and cut off a corner piece. “Enjoy,” she said, placing the cake on a paper plate. Instead of stepping aside for the next person in line, though, Gottfried couldn’t help it; he grabbed a napkin, wrapped it around his index finger, and gently wiped the frosting from her nose. “That’s better,” he declared. Millie crossed her eyes to look at her nose. Yvonne Bowman, who was next in line, quipped “How rad! Who says that chivalry is dead?” Playing off that remark, Millie curtsied to Gottfried. This provoked a rustle of laughter, which made Gottfried uncomfortable; he forced himself to grin, but only until he was able get around the corner, and then his cheeks collapsed. Back in his cubicle, Gottfried flung the plate, cake and all, like a Frisbee straight into the garbage can.
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
“No judgment intended. I just want to know.” Wolfgang snorted: “It isn’t like we actually live here, Dad.” Gottfried was intrigued by that remark; he hadn’t been sure just what the arrangement was, but he’d assumed that inasmuch as Wolfgang and La-Wandja slept by day in the spare bedroom, they were in effect living there. He felt Wolfgang bristle, though, and had no wish to provoke him. “That’s not what I meant.” “We’ll be outta here as soon as I save enough for first and last month’s rent in a new apartment. I swear. Cross my heart...” That assertion that made Gottfried hiccup, a sudden spasm of skepticism. He couldn’t hold it in, but neither could he take it back. This reaction occasioned Wolfgang’s abrupt departure. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he called out, as he slipped into his black trench coat and onward unto the graveyard shift.
divine mechanics can be proven by mathematical fluxions is but further evidence of this divine surety.” “I agree, Sir Isaac, that our universe lends the appearance of having been designed for intelligent beings, but if string theory holds true, there may be multiple universes. Could there be other cosmos in which those conditions do not exist, and these universes are sterile, unpopulated by any living beings? What is the Creator’s purpose in designing these? Must a universe have any purpose at all?” Gottfried enjoyed how his musings elicited Newton’s rapt attention. After a moment’s thought, the great man shook his head. “A theory of strings, say ye? Thy query is hubris, nigh blasphemy, so ye’d be prudent to guard speaking of such matters, e’en in scientific company.” “But ask I must. What else is there for a scientist, but to ask?” The unweaver of rainbows nodded sympathetically. “Aye. Many’s the long night I’ve channeled the full might of my mental faculties upon mathematics on one lap, scripture on the other, but for all of my ruminations, I ne’er found an answer that satisfied both. However...” “?” “Consider the existence of another universe, one vacant of all being and substance, suffused with naught but featureless radiation. From thy mortal perspective, thou might conceive it to be barren and vacuous. From the Creator’s perspective, though, it’d be a beauteous masterpiece, replete with pure, perfect light.” The power of that vision overwhelmed Gottfried; he fluttered his eyelids; he felt that the quality of his thoughts was ascending; he felt his synapses firing flashes of mental light... But his eureka moment was derailed by a sudden itch. The hairs on his inner left thigh grew prickly. It barely registered as a sensation, but once it passed through the filter of his peripheral attention, it gained momentum. His attempts to banish the distraction from his head inadvertently magnified the sensation. In a second, it had spread upon his skin, at once teasing and burning. Gottfried pinched his thighs together, while forcing himself to think—“Light, Light, Light!” The image of Millie Fontenot with icing on her nose flashed against the insides of his eyelids, and then he felt a savage throb, a roaring tumescence, surging hungrily through the slit in his pajama bottoms.
Alone, Gottfried prepared to think. The joys and rewards of recreational cosmology were products of his maturity, his solitude, and the idle time that he’d acquired since the divorce. “Navel gazing,” is what Valerie would have called it, but, lately, in his isolation, he filled his life with deep thinking, for the sheer pleasure of it. In college, he’d intended to be a physicist, but became frustrated with quarks, quantum mechanics, and the whole concept of an expanding universe; he found more stability in engineering. In private, though, he often lapsed into pondering the mysteries of the universe, and over the years he’d eventually come to accept that if he enjoyed doing it, it was not an utter waste of time. So, Gottfried ensconced himself in his recliner and cuddled with himself in his robe, poised for some deep thinking. Newton sat across from him, listening intently while Gottfried harangued: “Modern cosmology teaches us that there are six dimensionless constants in the universe. The age of the universe itself is N, which is precisely the necessary length of time for fabrication of heavier elements via nucleosynthesis. The atomic number, which binds atomic nuclei together, is 0.007; but if it were .006 or .008, the atoms in our bodies could not exist. Likewise, had the values of omega, lambda, or Q been infinitesimally different at the very first nanosecond of the Big Bang, the universe might’ve been nothing more than a lifeless, infinite void. Nature is precisely programmed so that life may exist.” Pounding his fist on the table, Newton asserted: “B’my soul: The Creator’s glorious empyrean doth turn in clockwork perfection, to reveal His transcendent splendor. That His
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
Newton shrieked. “Zounds, ye cur! Subdue thy cod or speak no more to me. If this be thy response to my illuminations, I swear’t, I’ll exclude ye from my presence forever.” Gottfried’s eyes popped open. “Jee-whizz-grrrr.” Jerked back so abruptly from the edge of epiphany, he felt robbed and angry. Once again, primal lust had found a way to confound his better philosophical self. His spirit went limp, but the offending monster pulsed even stronger. “You damn fool,” he soliloquized.
snapped his eyes shut. Neither breathed. “Good night, old man,” Wolfgang muttered at length.
Gottfried doubled the dosage of his prescription. After being told that he needed the doctor’s endorsement in order to refill it early, he left a message on Cunningham’s voicemail claiming that the pills must’ve slipped out of his pocket while he was running errands: could he please get another? What a relief it was to him when the pharmacy called to inform him that his prescription was ready. “Be wary of the alchymical madness,” Newton admonished him, “for I know it well.” “It isn’t like I get a buzz off it,” Gottfried protested. “It just helps me to think more clearly...” Slapping his tongue against his cheek, he realized that he’d been speaking out loud, in the broad daylight of his cubicle. He took one step toward the door before nearly colliding into Millie Fontenot, who was just standing there. Envelopes in one hand, she shouted “Mail call!” and sidestepped to avoid being barreled into. Gottfried ground to a halt—had she heard something? “Sorry.” “No, excuse me.” She placed the courier on his desk and waved her arms in a gesture inviting him to pass. “Thanks.” Gottfried noticed that her nose was shiny; it looked like a button to be pressed. Gottfried’s cubicle was in the corner next to the supply closet, which was the end of the line for mail call, so it wasn’t unusual, he supposed, that Millie should follow him down the aisle. Conscious of her pursuit, he tried to calculate where she might be going next—to the left, back to her desk; to the right, into the kitchen; or straight ahead to the restroom; he veered right at the last second, while regarding her out of the corners of his eyes. She followed him. When he’d been introduced to Millie Fontenot as the firm’s new “clerical associate,” Gottfried had thought that she was younger than she really was. Hers was a young person’s job, after all, a stepping stone. She was pudgy, but in a formless way that suggested baby fat more than adult flab, and she had a streak of magenta in her hair that attracted the eye away from her crow’s feet. She always seemed underslept and over sexed. Even her attire—on that day, she was wearing an embroidered chiffon blouse over black jeans with ankle zippers—seemed more consistent with a person in their 20’s than a woman who
Too late, Gottfried heard the key turning. La-Wandja cackled and Wolfgang shushed her as they entered the apartment. Having fallen asleep on the recliner—again, in front of the ogling TV—Gottfried did not react quickly enough to escape, so he feigned to be sound asleep. Riding on La-Wandja’s shoulders, Biscuit growled. Wolfgang clamped his snout shut. La-Wandja pressed her forehead unnervingly close to Gottfried’s. “Whatzzit wit’ yo’ old man?” she asked. “Is he drunk?” Wofgang’s response that “I’ve never known my father to drink heavily,” did not seem a sufficiently ardent defense. Gottfried signaled his dismay by pretending to snore. “First things first,” Wolfgang whispered. Steadying LaWandja by placing his hands on her hips, he steered her toward the hallway, where he leaned her against the wall and pushed her in the direction of the bedroom. When she reached the doorway, she fell through and, judging from the thud, landed at least partially on their mattress. Standing back for a moment, Wolfgang watched women in seamless sports bras and black tights doing their exercises, and he turned off the television. He bent down, untied his father’s shoes and took them off, then raised his feet onto the footrest, allowing his father’s torso to fall into a recumbent position. Even if he’d actually been asleep, Gottfried was sure that this action would’ve awakened him, which made it seem even more important that he maintain the subterfuge. When Wolfgang lifted his head and gently placed a pillow beneath it, Gottfried began breathing regularly through the nostrils, simulating contented slumber. After retreating a couple steps, Wolfgang turned around suddenly, as if he’d heard something, and squinted. Gottfried
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
it was assumed was lying when she claimed to be “just” 39. It unnerved him a bit that he couldn’t figure out which was the case: Millie dressed and comported herself like a younger woman to disguise her true age, or because she actually believed that doing so made her look younger. Either way, Gottfried deemed her undesirable, yet also accessible. Gottfried was alert to her presence behind him at the coffee pot. Her aura mixed with his like white light passing through a prism. He felt exposed. “Whoa, careful,” Millie cautioned, as Gottfried nearly poured his coffee over the rim of the cup. There was only one chair at the table where Gottfried sat. Millie filled her coffee cup, grabbed a chair from another table, and pulled it over to Gottfried’s. She turned the chair backwards and sat straddling the seat, the chair back pushing her breasts. “Did ya hear the news?” she asked. “No,” Gottfried asserted, even though he was unsure what the news was and thus whether he’d heard it. “I have some juicy office gossip.” Whatever she could possibly know was more than Gottfried thought he should care to hear. She didn’t wait for his permission to continue. “It’s about Yvonne Bowman.” That name elicited a twitch of disdain from Gottfried. Bowman was a hotshot computer graphic designer, just hired from Columbus Tech, whose entire repertoire of descriptive adjectives included “cool” and “rad,” “gross” and “gnarly.” Everything was one of those, or nothing at all. Millie seemed to be holding back, so Gottfried gestured for more information. “Have you noticed that she’s been late every day this week?” “Why, yes, come to think of it.” “The word is that Yvonne had been piling work onto Eduardo, finding all kinds of dumb tasks for him to do. Well. One day last week, she asked him to stay late to catch up. Now, I don’t know... but both she and Eduardo have come in late every day since, around the same time, with great big shit-eating grins on their faces.” Gottfried got the implication of what she was saying, but not the purpose of telling him. “So?” he queried in total innocence. “Duh, so?” Millie grinned without parting her lips and patted Gottfried’s hand. “You sure know how to kill the fun in gossip,” she said. When she rose, her hips were at his eye level. “This place needs some excitement. An office romance would spice things up.”
As soon as he commented, “So would a sexual harassment lawsuit,” Gottfried regretted it, for he was looking at the zipper on her crotch and smitten with a sudden urge to pull it down. “Mr. Gottfried?” “Millie?” Tugging on the belt loops on her pants as she rose, Millie flashed a sliver of bare abdominal skin. “Have a good day,” she said, leaving Gottfried with that image in his mind.
Wolfgang busted ass; Gottfried had to hand it to him for that. Watching from outside the storefront in the Zippy Mart parking lot, Gottfried could scarcely keep up with him. He was working two cash registers at once, ringing up one order, then, while the customer waited for the receipt to print, dashing to the second register to attend to the next. What was even more mesmerizing to Gottfried was how he did it all with a cheerful smile that people seemed to like. When he bade customers to have “a wonderful evening,” he elicited grins, thumbs-up gestures, and reciprocal wishes to him, too. How he inspired customers’ good humor while wearing what looked like a pair of miniature scissors through the bridge of his nose was unfathomable to Gottfried. There were other convenience stores nearer to home where Gottfried could’ve bought a quart of milk and loaf of bread. He had gone out of his way specifically to see his son. Their schedules were so divergent that, even living under the same roof, it’d been four or five days since they’d seen each other. (Either that, or Wolfgang was avoiding him; perhaps he was hiding something.) Meanwhile, Wolfgang’s mother was demanding information. After a search of his room had turned up nothing incriminating, Gottfried decided on a spot check at Wolfgang’s place of employment. Observing that there was an electric eye guarding the doorway, Gottfried stepped over it to avoid attracting Wolfgang’s attention when he entered. Gottfried strolled the aisles, squeezed loaves of bread, and checked the expiration dates on the milk. When he saw an opportunity to go straight to the head of the line, he scurried to the front of the store and waited for Wolfgang, who still hadn’t looked up from the previous transaction. Gottfried was keenly aware that, while standing at the front of the counter, he was being watched by a security camera. Wolfgang turned and skidded on his heels. “Good evening, sir… uh, Dad!”
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
“Good evening to you, too.” Even though Gottfried was standing there with purchases on the counter in front of him, Wolfgang seemed not to know what to do. “Here,” Gottfried explained. “Ok, sure.” Wolfgang grabbed the loaf and waved it over the scanner, but it failed to register, once, twice... “How’s the job going?” Gottfried asked. “Good, ahh...” On the third attempt, the loaf successfully tallied. Gottfried pushed the milk forward. “So, uh, how’s your sobriety going?” he further queried. “That’ll be $4.28.” His father did not have his wallet in his hand, nor did he reach for it. Gesturing to the next customer in line, Wolfgang half whispered to the Old Man: “Dad, I’m really busy. I’ll talk to you in the morning.” t, Gottfried retrieved a debit card. “Ok, sure. Just do me a favor. Call your mother. She’s asking questions.” The links in the chain around Wolfgang’s neck clinked when he turned his ear toward Gottfried. “Huh?” “Just tell her whatever she wants to hear,” he spat out awkwardly.
last session, we entertained the postulate that intelligence is necessary for the universe to exist. What is the universe, then, if not the manifestation of God’s omniscience?” Gottfried wasn’t sure that he was ready for this. Everything that had happened that day seemed to take longer than it should have, and he felt like he was due his leisure; he hadn’t planned on thinking at all that night. Sometimes, Newton expected too much from him. “I’m tired.” “Nay!,” Newton exclaimed. “Remain steadfast. Keep the subject of thy inquiry constantly before ye, and wait as first dawning opens ere gradually, by little and little, until it comes into full and clear light.” Obediently, Gottfried centered himself and gathered his physical sensations into the center of his brain, from where he systematically began dismissing them to make room for thought. This, Gottfried reminded himself, was why he’d sought Newton’s guidance in the first place—his famous powers of concentration. History had recorded that, when he was absorbed in a mathematical problem, Newton would engross himself in his work, declining sleep and food, and sealing himself off from all human contact, until he achieved utter immersion in thought.
Back at the apartment, Newton was waiting for Gottfried. “Dear sir,” he called out when Gottfried returned home, “Enter.” Wigless, hair frazzled and hanging loose over his shoulders, Newton wore his breeches and a nightshirt, and a pair of cotton stockings. “Sir, thou’rt late for our evening colloquy. Prithee take respite and join me in my ruminations.” At that remark, Gottfried checked his watch, then thought— wait a minute, he wasn’t late; he couldn’t be late, inasmuch as it was Newton who was supposed to come at his behest, not the other way around. Gottfried’s terrycloth robe was draped over the chair and his slippers were next to the recliner, but he couldn’t remember putting them there. He pulled his shirt over his head without unbuttoning it, unbuckled his belt and let his pants drop to the floor, and, in his t-shirt and boxer shorts, he wrapped himself in the robe. He turned off the lamp. Lowering himself onto the chair, he settled with his eyes locking directly into Newton’s. “Now is this not very fine?” Newton clapped. “I’ll vouch that Philosophy can be a fickle and impertinent lady, yet allow her to enter thee, in purified tranquility, and methinks her grace and brilliance will shine to fill the ready mind.” Rolling his fist under his chin, Newton got down to business: “At our
Gottfried paced his breathing. As he focused mental vision inward, his eyes drifted gradually shut, but his eyelids danced. He envisioned his mind like a black hole surrounded by a collapsing event horizon, right in the very core of his cerebrum, like singularity, and all of his feelings, emotions, and other distractions plummeted into the void of eternal falling. His cognitive montage was a grayish fabric, textured but seamless, a boundless frontier that seemed to expand equally and infinitely in all directions. Surrounded by this formless vacuum, Gottfried commenced to extinguish his brain, to quench its synapses, and douse the electrochemical circuitry. What remained, then, was the sensation of pure mindfulness, beyond thought, Newton’s realm of the encephalon. There, he incubated. Gottfried’s singularity lasted but an instant, though. Like a violent reflex, just as he was within reach of his noetic bliss, he encountered a spark, then a flash, and a blinding, scorching explosion. Hot neural photons passed right through him, cooking him alive, strafing his brain cells. He felt himself being bombarded by feverish quarks, which began to clump around him, like balls of primal lava. The vision had motion; it took shape; it throbbed and unfolded, and into the backlit mental diorama stepped...
Isaac Newton Died a Virgin
An image of Millie Fontenot, naked, in a puffy cloud, waggling her finger, come hither. “Aiiieeeeyyyyy!!!!!” Gottfried ejaculated. Adrenaline launched into his glands; he bolted upright and steeled himself, his instincts preparing to fight, to flee, or to fuck... but there was nobody to fight, nowhere to go, and nothing but vapor to lust after. All that he could do was scream, “Noooooo!” Newton was gone. Frantically, Gottfried turned on the nearest light, clicking it to its brightest setting. The notion seized him that it was too dark in the apartment—it was a moist, sensual darkness—and he needed clarifying white light, all around him. He flicked the switches for the ceiling fixtures, the dining room lights, even the television, which he turned to the brightest channel, a test pattern. It still wasn’t bright enough to completely nullify his senses. So he gathered the desk lamp from his bedroom, the nightstand light from Wolfgang’s room, and the illuminated mirror from the bathroom. Focusing their beams directly on him, he tried to fortify himself by inhaling the light. He stared wide-eyed, unblinking into the brightest bulb. Still, he wasn’t sufficiently overwhelmed—he felt sticky, tainted; he decided that he needed even greater brightness. He grabbed the night light in the hall, the globe light on the back porch, and the fluorescent utility lamp in the pantry. He found a flashlight under the sink, and the glow sticks that he kept in case of a power outage. Dragging an extension cord behind him, he took all of these lights into the coat closet, where he placed them on a shelf, and stood in front of them, nose to bulbs, assimilating illumination. Electromagnetic radiation pelted him, scrubbing him, and in this condition, he cowered until his heartbeat stilled and the throbbing ceased.
As if in response, they heard the moan of a man wallowing in melancholy, coming from inside the coat closet. Wolfgang tossed open the door and was dumbstruck by what he saw. LaWandja elbowed him aside with the arm that wasn’t holding Biscuit. There was Gottfried, groveling on the floor of the closet, his robe wide open, with a dozen lamps shining brilliantly upon him. He was squinting. He sobbed again, apparently unaware that he’d been discovered. “Dad?!?” Wolfgang dropped to his knees, placing the back of his hand against Gottfried’s forehead. “Are you okay?” La-Wandja shrugged, utterly apathetic, and turned away. Suddenly, though, Biscuit leaped out of her arms and bolted, growling. The dog lunged at Gottfried, attacking him where the smell was most pungent, chomping at the loose fold in the fly of his undershorts, and sunk its angry teeth into Gottfried’s flaccid member. La-Wandja laughed. Panicked, Wolfgang swatted the pesky beast away. Gottfried imagined that he heard Newton’s voice, “I can frame no hypothesis for this situation, sir.”
“Dad? Are you here?” La-Wandja kicked Gottfried’s pants in the heap where he’d dropped them onto the floor. Biscuit, in her arms, barked squeakily. “It looks like somebody’s done busted up this place,” she observed. Tables were overturned; the seat cushions were displaced, and the contents of various drawers and shelves were strewn about. Wolfgang thought back to what his father had said to him last night, and it occurred to him that, somehow, he might be responsible for whatever had happened. “Well, what’cha gonna do? I don’t wanna call no po-lice, if that’s what you is thinkin’.”
FOREIGN, SICK SCIENCE
As I stood looking at the body on the table, waiting for Suzanna Doughcoup, our local homicide detective, to arrive, I began to examine my own character more closely. Why do I find it so hard to say no when someone asks me for a favor? Why is this especially difficult when it has something to do with mathematics? Why do I even consider these things when it is something so far out of my area of expertise? I could find no answers, at least none that I wanted to accept, but I will have to admit I don’t do my best thinking within the cold, antiseptic, rather creepy confines of a morgue. The call had come at 4am. I staggered to the phone, which is placed some distance from my bed. As badly as I hate getting
Foreign, Sick Science
woken up by the phone, it is much worse when it is right by my head. I don’t remember saying hello but I must’ve because the voice on the other end of the phone spoke to me. “Hello,” it said. It seemed to be vaguely feminine. “What?” I replied. “Hello,” the voice came back and called me by name. “This is Detective Suzanna Doughcoup.” “Who?” I asked. I still wasn’t taking this in. “Detective Suzanna Doughcoup,” she said. “I need your help to determine a time of death.” “Death?” I was really doing rather badly. “Time? What time is it?” “It’s four in the morning,” Detective Doughcoup answered. “But that’s not important. What I need is for you to help me with a calculation of a time of death. Will you do it?” Four in the morning is really not a good time for me. I get in some of my heaviest REM sleep along about then. “Do it?” I asked. My inflection must have been off a little because I don’t think Suzanna heard the question mark on the end of that. “Great!” she said. “I will either come to get you or send a car. That will take about half an hour.” She hung up the phone. I looked back at the bed, which was beckoning to me. It was singing whatever song Calypso sang to Odysseus. It was singing it quite well, too. I almost yielded to it, but I had a vision of Detective Suzanna Doughcoup battering down my front door and dragging me to the police station in my underwear. I pulled on my blue jeans, a t-shirt, and my tennis shoes. Then I went to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. The coffee would be done and filling my thermos right around the time the squad car rolled up. I used that time to get on the Internet and look up information on time of death calculations. During that brief interval, I was able to find five different ways of estimating the time of death: pallor mortis, livor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, and decomposition. Pallor mortis is paleness, and it begins fifteen minutes after death and lasts until two hours after death. Livor mortis is a settling of the blood in capillaries in a way that causes purplish discoloration; maximum discoloration is 6 to 12 hours after death. Rigor mortis starts approximately three hours after death and lasts for approximately three days. I couldn’t even make myself look up the details on decomposition; Detective
Doughcoup would strictly be on her own if decomposition were involved. The remaining one, algor mortis, interested me the most. Algor mortis is the cooling of the body that follows death. Using a mathematical formula, one can estimate this rate of cooling to determine the time of death. I’d seen it on all my favorite detective shows, but I’d never had the occasion to look it up. I thought that I knew how it would be done. When I’d taught differential equations a number of years ago, I came upon Newton’s Law of Cooling, named for none other than Sir Isaac Newton. As the story goes, an apple hit him on the head and he discovered Newton’s Law of Gravity. I can only imagine that someone threw some cold water on him and he discovered the Law of Cooling. In plain language, it states that the colder the environment is than an object, the quicker the object cools off. That sounds like common sense and it is common sense, but when you translate it into mathematics it looks more mysterious:
Here the thing on the left-hand side of the equation that looks like a fraction is the rate of change of temperature with respect to time. On the right-hand side, the h is a constant that depends on the physical substance being cooled. Metal cools quicker than wood, for example. The A is the surface area that is exposed. Something that exposes more surface area will cool more quickly than something with less surface area. The Tenv − T term in parentheses represents the difference
between the environmental temperature and the temperature of the object. The colder the environment is, the quicker the object cools. Quite frankly, the possibility of applying this equation was making my mouth water. The solution involved logarithms, and logarithms are cool. I will admit that logarithms get a bad rap in our popular culture. In the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, one of the characters refers to them with a participle that begins with the
Foreign, Sick Science
letter “f.” In Roughing It, Mark Twain calls one of his not-toobright traveling companions a logarithm. I’ve been of the opinion that giving them the name “logarithms” was a huge marketing mistake. They should’ve called them “happy numbers” or something, but I digress. In any case, I’d gotten excited about the prospect of using logarithms and expected to see them in the formula used to calculate time of death. Imagine my surprise when I find Newton’s Law of Cooling alluded to only in passing and am presented with the Glaister Equation instead. The Glaister Equation is:
On the left-hand side, the little t is the time since death. On the right-hand side, the TR is the rectal temperature of the cadaver. I suppose it is hard to get them to put the thermometer under their tongue. The taking of the temperature is the hardest part of this formula. You subtract the rectal temperature from 98.4—I wonder why not 98.6—and divide by 1.5. This is incredibly easy. It is so easy that even Suzanna Doughcoup ought to be able to do it. Before her arrival, I had rehearsed the line that she could go to the Devil and that I would go back to bed. There was a gentle knock on the door. I opened it, prepared to deliver what seemed to be a delicious line. But it wasn’t her. It was one of her loyal assistants who I knew would stay until I went with him. I packed my line back up—along with my thermos of coffee—and got into the squad car with him. It is only about five minutes from my house to the police station. It’s not that I live particularly close to the police station; it’s just that nothing is more than about five minutes from the police station where I live. But, in those five minutes, I began to wonder about the simplicity of the Glaister Equation. It doesn’t take into account the environmental temperature, and it doesn’t take into account the surface area of the body. Both of these are important factors in Newton’s Law of Cooling. As we got closer to the morgue, this worried me less and the rectal part worried me more. I suppose that messing with a dead guy’s fanny is less awkward than messing with a live one’s,
as there would need to be fewer apologies afterward, but still: eeeewwww. That last syllable was coursing through my brain when I set foot into the morgue and looked toward an autopsy table. It was covered with the classic white sheet I expected, but there wasn’t nearly as much under that white sheet as I thought. My first thought was “woman” because women are smaller. But this was really small. It was so small, in fact, and had such a shape that I shook my head in wonder at my earlier estimation of woman. I turned to the patrolman beside me. “Armadillo?” I asked. “Armadillo,” he confirmed. He did so, amazingly, with a straight face. That straight face was put a lie to when he stepped out of the room and began to guffaw. I stood there by the table asking why? why? why? until Detective Doughcoup showed up. “Glad that you could make it,” she said, “but I am sorry we don’t need you.” “What?” I was too furious to go beyond monosyllables. “Yep,” she said, “someone attempted to rob a liquor store and they ran over this armadillo when they made their getaway. I thought that a time of death calculation would help establish the time of the crime, but then they told me the clerk had looked at his watch.” I looked at my watch as a preparation for establishing her time of death, but decided I’d rather go back to bed instead. “If you’d like to do it anyway, you are welcome to,” she said. I looked at the thermometer and at the lump under the sheet. “Take me home,” I begged. “Have it your way,” she said.
I could tell the dame was trouble as soon as she slithered into my office. A real Sherlock Holmes type might have deduced this by scientific observation of her blood-red stiletto-heeled shoes, in the context of the matching miniskirt, spaghettistrap top, lipstick and fingernails, and all this at nine-thirtyseven in the morning. But I’ve had the dubious advantage of knowing Annie for twenty-three years, and trust me, my kid sister has been trouble since she learned to talk. I swung my feet down off the desk. “Feet up on the desk, Cliffy?” she asked brightly, by way of greeting. “Business slow?” She slipped around the end of the desk and tried for a peek at my monitor. Well, as a point of fact, business was slow. Computer consultancy has two speeds, slow and trying to do six things at once, and today was slow. Hell, this year was slow,
and next year wasn’t looking too good. But not slow enough to justify the window that was open on the screen. I reached to switch the monitor off. Like a striking snake, her crimsonnailed hand pinned mine to the desk. “Naughty Cliffy. Let Annie see...” Well, at least she could see it wasn’t porn or Farmville. Front and center on the monitor was a rectangular window, with two words, “Please Wait,” superimposed on a picture of a misty alien landscape. Nothing moved except for a little spinning hourglass. “It’s called HyperWorld III. The first two were fairly spectacular, but this one is supposed to be legendary. The game world is like the size of Niven’s Ringworld, and every square meter is realistic. Of course it’s not all stored on disc; it’s algorithmic, based on fractals. But they get everything, geography, biology, languages and customs for thousands of different cultures, everything. But you have to download it; Gandcom won’t sell it on DVD. Nobody knows why.” Annie didn’t seem all that interested. “How long has that Install Wizard been running for?” “Since last night,” I admitted. “I thought it would be finished long before I got in this morning. But it’s eleven o’clock and still less than half finished, and, well, I hate to stop it now. And as long as it’s loading, that window stays up, and the keyboard’s locked out.” “So’s mine,” she said, almost sheepishly. “I was hoping you had a solution.”
“No, dummy, I don’t mean that. I mean, I can download a movie inside of ten minutes.” “Well, obviously, their servers are overloaded. But they must have millions of dollars’ worth of computers to write the game, and millions in sales. I wonder why they can’t afford a bit more bandwidth for download?” She thought for a while. “Hey, let’s find out. Where’s there a computer we can use? My car’s outside.” “Just exactly what do you have in mind?” “Like I said. I want to find out why downloading this game is locking everybody’s computers up. And we can’t do it from here.” She waved her hand at the frozen screen. “Do we really need to?” “Yes,” she said firmly. “Haven’t you got any curiosity?” This had all the makings of a typical Annie mess. Like the time when... no, never mind. But I already knew I was going to go along with her. My kid sister needed my help; how could I miss the chance to rub her face in it? Besides, right now my computer was working, and I wasn’t.
Annie parked her little Electrosmart in a small-vehicle spot less than a block away from the public library. Their computers were reasonably new and had decent Internet access, and I figured I could find what I needed using a few sysadmin tools that you can find on most machines if you know where to look, a couple other standard ones that I carry on my data key, and, if it came to that, a couple of really obscure ones (possibly
Annie was born four years after me, but graduated from high school only two years later. By the time I graduated from university, she, by dint of advanced standing, double overloads (by special permission) and summer courses, was only two merciful credits short of graduating with me—and with a first-class honors degree in theoretical chemistry against my B average in computer science. I didn’t score off Annie often. And it didn’t look as if I would today. Damn. “Here’s the weird thing, Cliffy. It’s a big file, but it’s no bigger than a movie.” “Yes, I was reading about that. They had a thing about it in Wired last week saying that it’s probably a fractal-based algorithm. Like a Mandelbrot set–infinite amounts of detail, but based on only a few lines of code. Only here the fractal gets interpreted as a blueprint for continents and hills and cities and forests, down to where each leaf is on each tree, over a whole world.”
illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act; I’m not asking too closely) that if they happened to be on my data key, which they don’t, would be in a hidden directory, to discourage casual snooping, and encrypted with a one-kilobit password, to discourage everybody. I started with something called Wireshark, which keeps track of all the packets going in and out on the net. Once it was running I brought up Task Manager, and clicked on the network tab. A glowing green grid on a black background appeared, and immediately started to scroll sideways, one tick per second, ready to graph the data flux. I checked a few carefully-selected boxes to enable some further data gathering. I arranged all the windows around the edge of the screen, where the Install Wizard window wouldn’t cover them up. Then, my traps cunningly set, I opened the browser, went to the HyperWorld website, and started to download the free trial version. No traceable credit card, and besides, Annie hadn’t offered to pay.
Lines of text started to pop up in the Wireshark window, and Task Manager began to display jagged colored lines, slipping to the side like scenery in an old arcade game. In only a few seconds the Install Wizard was on the computer and— somehow—launched and running, without asking. Not for the first time, I wondered how it persuaded the browser to let it do that. Then I noticed that the list of packets had stopped growing. Surely the download couldn’t have finished yet? I clicked on Wireshark’s menu bar; nothing happened. With a sinking feeling, I clicked the top of the window and tried to drag it; the mouse pointer slid off ineffectually, like a fingernail on glass. Something had pulled Wireshark’s teeth. The neon mountains slid westward across the Task Manager window for a few more seconds, then they froze too. I tried the applications tab, hoping to kill the Install Wizard, read the entrails of the corpse, and try again. Once more there was no response. “OK” I said, in the confident tones of a TV chef taking a prebaked cake out of the oven. “Let’s shut it down and have another go.” I gave the keyboard the three fingers. The familiar security window came up, and I tried to restart the Task Manager. Nothing happened. I tried “Shut Down.” That button didn’t react to the mouse either, neither did “Cancel.” Then the mouse pointer itself froze. I tried the keyboard; it was already dead. “Do not meddle in the affairs of Install Wizards,” Annie intoned, “for they are subtle and quick to anger.” She was perched on the edge of the desk, legs crossed at the knee, one red shoe half-off and swinging from her big toe, enjoying the show. I gave her a dirty look, and glanced around the room. Nobody was looking; I squeezed myself into the rather limited space under the desk, already occupied by the computer and a breeding colony of dust-bunnies. I located the power switch and pressed it, but the hum of the fan continued unchanged. Just to be sure, I backed out and looked at the monitor. Still frozen. So the software switch had joined the dark side too. “Don’t worry.” I told Annie. “There is another way to turn it off that we use in difficult cases like this.” I crawled back under the desk again and held the button down for four seconds, to put the power supply into standby mode, and another four to be safe, but the power supply firmly declined to cooperate.
Annie’s cheerful tones came down to me, only slightly muffled by the desktop and my butt: “I know, Cliffy: it didn’t work on my machine either.” Burned again. I crept further into the shadows, blocking my own light. Damn, why didn’t I bring a flashlight? Two featureless cables emerged from the back of the case. They spiraled loosely around a heavy metal chain that ran from a padeye on the box to one on the wall, then they vanished together into a hole in the wall, like a pair of honeymooning snakes, without a plug to be seen. I thought briefly of using the screwdriver blade on my Swiss Army knife to open the box, but some cautious person had installed security screws everywhere. Presumably the thicker cable was the power cord; if I’d had insulated wirecutters, I suppose I could have stopped the computer by cutting it. But I didn’t see what that would achieve, except maybe losing my library card. I crawled backward and stood up. “It doesn’t want to turn off.” Annie smirked, then looked thoughtful. “I wonder where they keep the circuit breakers?” At this rate, I foresaw, before the afternoon was out, we would be out by the highway overpass, sabotaging the town’s main transformer station. Correction: I would be sabotaging it, while Sis stood by in the parking lot looking cute, puzzled, and innocent, and a couple patrol cars crunched to a halt in the gravel. I shook my head firmly and switched off the monitor, and we moved on to another machine. Two hours later, I had twenty-three IP addresses, and the library had seventeen frozen computers. One address—always the first on the list—was the same each time, but only a few kilobytes had been sent to or from it—a postcard, by internet standards. The other one was different each time, and each time it was with this one that the wizard had begun an increasingly complex conversation with, until it noticed me eavesdropping and told me to go forth and multiply. On a few occasions one or two more servers had joined the party as well. None of my other tools had got any more detailed information, and one particular favorite, Bl@ck@ddr, appeared to have mysteriously vanished from my write-protected data key. I hoped the backup in my office was still safe: the guy I got it from originally wouldn’t be around to get me a replacement for two more years, even if he got parole on schedule. I copied the addresses from the frozen screen by hand, unplugged my data key, and stood up. The librarians didn’t seem to have noticed us yet. We walked over to the last working public computer in the room, and I ran my address collection
through WHOIS. After a few minutes, I had locations for almost all the servers. Several were in the US, a couple were in Germany, one in Australia, one in the UK... Hell, these people had servers all over the world! They had one in Pakistan. Why were they so damn slow? I brought up Google Maps and started running street addresses, in the hope of seeing how big their branch offices were. I started with the exotic ones, just out of curiosity. Some of them were in suburbs, in what appeared from the street view to be ordinary residential houses. One was in a neighborhood in Karachi that had never been visited by a Street View camera car, but from orbit it looked like a house too. Two were in North American slums that had been visited, but (to put it mildly) hadn’t bothered to comb their hair first. Not a single technology park. One office building, but it appeared to be entirely owned by a bank; at least, nobody else had their shingle outside. This made no sense whatsoever. I started to copy in the next address. “OK, Cliffy. Let’s go ask them.” “Huh?” “Look.” She pointed at the business address for the first server on the list, the odd one out, the one that always got asked. Maybe starting with the exotic ones hadn’t been such a great plan after all. “They’re less than half an hour’s drive from here.” “That’s crazy, Annie. Gandcom are big. If they were located near here, I’d know. I’d be meeting their programmers. My suppliers would deliver to them too.” They’d be trying to hire me. “Bet? How about we drive over and check them out right now?” See what I mean by trouble?
little bit of itself that’s active at that moment, then erases it when it’s done.” I was interrupted by a raucous wolf whistle from the dashboard GPS. I looked at Annie: she just smirked. Well, if my vain and politically incorrect little sister wanted to corrupt the morals of her own navigational system, I guess it was her business. She glanced down, slowed slightly, and took a right turn onto a dusty road. It’s hard to squeal the tires of an electric, but when you do they sound awfully loud with no engine noise competing. When we were back to a steady speed, she spoke again. “So, what you were saying. How does that help us?” “It doesn’t, as far as I can see. Some people have managed to snag a few kilobytes of the decrypted code here and there, and they say it looks like a nightmare. Like the sort of spaghetti code people used to write in BASIC, only worse—GOTO jumps pointing all over a hundred megabytes of self-modifying machine code.” “No way can that game be written in BASIC.” Even a theoretical chemist knows that much, though if you want my opinion the FORTRAN they use isn’t much better. “No, of course not. The point is, you can’t write that sort of code for a hundred megabytes in anything. Nobody can. The whole idea of modern computer languages is to ensure that you don’t have to; everything is broken up into small chunks that only interact in a controlled fashion. Maybe a genius programmer with Asperger’s and a family-size box of caffeine pills could do it for ten kilobytes, but the difficulty goes with the square of the size—at least.” “But somebody did write it,” Annie pointed out. “Well, maybe not. There’s a guy at Stanford who is working on compilers with artificial intelligence, and he thinks maybe it comes from something like that.” “So they tell it the big picture and it does all the details?” “Yes, that’s about it. Of course, it would need a huge processor cluster to do it, but I guess they can afford one. The other weird thing is, most games are mostly scene files. HyperWorld doesn’t have any; it seems to generate everything on the fly, all the different animals and plants and buildings. And they’re like snowflakes, all different. So it looks as if whoever or whatever writes the program does the scenery artists’ job too, and that must put the computing requirements through the roof.” I looked around the open landscape. There were a few large buildings in sight, but judging by the architectural style and the fragrance on the country breeze, they were pig barns.
“So, Cliffy, did the story in Wired tell you anything about how the security works?” We were driving eastward under a wide blue sky; a crazy quilt of golden and green rectangles stretched out on either side. “Nobody really knows. You saw what happened when I tried to snoop the Install Wizard? Well, apparently HyperWorld itself fights just as dirty. If it finds a debugger running, it shuts it down and trashes both executable files on the hard drive—the debugger’s and then its own. And then it won’t load again on the same computer unless you format the drive and reinstall the operating system. When it’s not running, it’s heavily encrypted. What they think is, when you run it, it only decrypts the one
Annie slowed some more. Ahead of us, the view was dominated by the rear end of a large, placid, black farm horse, bearing on its back a skinny girl with braided strawberry-blonde hair, about thirteen years old, dressed in cutoff jeans, a faded T-shirt, sneakers, and a ball cap. She was listening to something through earbuds, occasionally swaying and twitching to the rhythm, and she was apparently oblivious to the Electrosmart’s near-silent presence, though we were almost close enough to count the freckles on her arms. Neither she nor the horse seemed to be in any hurry, and there was no space to pass. I tried to reach over and sound the car’s horn, but Annie wouldn’t let me. Eventually, the GPS whistled again (this time Annie looked just a little embarrassed), and the mailbox that we were looking for drifted up on our right. The car purred to a stop, as Annie double-checked the number and the GPS. In defiance of logic, everything matched up. We drove up the short driveway to the small one-story house, and parked beside a muddy pickup truck. The building looked as if it might have a finished basement, but there was no attic. Annie got out and walked to the door; I followed. She knocked. There were footsteps inside—not many—and the door opened on a lean, grizzled cowboy in horn-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t wearing a Stetson, and his feet were in battered sneakers rather than cowboy boots, but with his faded Levis, plaid shirt, and weathered skin, it was easy to imagine him riding herd out in the endless grasslands that surrounded us. His pale blue eyes assessed us slowly --mainly Annie. “Can I help you, Miss?” My sister has that effect on guys. “Well, I surely hope so. I was wondering if you had a washroom that a lady could use?” She shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Sure thing, Miss.” He practically took her arm as he showed her to a door near the far end of the large front room. “Just down the stairs, and on your left.” She went through the door; I heard the brisk tap of high heels on wooden steps. I discreetly checked out the front of the house. The black plastic cable linking the house to the line of poles along the road looked like a standard TV cable, but if that sheath was full of optical fibers instead the bandwidth could be phenomenal. The main electric service line was more informative. No way was that old cable powering a thousand computers; from the shabby sheathing and antique insulators, I’d have guessed sixtyamp service. Turn the coffeemaker and the fan on at once and blow a fuse. Besides which, it was clear that there was no air conditioning here anywhere near sufficient to keep a roomful of
electronics cool. On-site power generation? If so, it was silent. Unlikely. But there was the sign by the door, inconspicuous, like a small-town lawyer’s whose clients all know where to find him anyway: “Gandcom.” I looked back inside. I saw three beige-box computers, an external hard drive, a printer-scanner, and two filing cabinets. The furniture was incongruously good. Very good. Just looking at those chairs made you realize how much you wanted to sit down—for, say, two or three hours. A really nice carpet. The pictures on the walls looked like originals. Then I recognized one of them and I shivered. If that one was an original, I was way, way out of my class. Apart from that, nothing. There was a faint sound of a toilet flushing, and a minute later Annie reappeared. She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of the house, and he wasn’t rushing her. I stepped inside and stood leaning against the doorframe. “So you run your business out of here?” Annie asked. “Yes—I didn’t get your name?” “I’m Dr. Annie Hahn, and this is my brother Clifford. “ “Pleased to meet, you, Miss Hahn. I’m Jim Gand.” She shook his hand and didn’t correct him, generally a bad sign with Annie. Since her graduation last year, any time my sister doesn’t insist on “Doctor” from strangers, you may assume that she is either channeling Niccolò Machiavelli or dead. If you want to know how this squares with the way she usually dresses, please take a place in line. Behind me and Mom, anyhow; Dad gave up trying to figure her out years ago. Right now I was just happy that she was taking this seriously. “So this is where you run your business from?” She indicated the sign. “This room is; there’s a kitchen and bedroom in back. Simple but sufficient.” “If there’s a kitchen, do you suppose you could get me a glass of water, Mr. Gand? It’s pretty hot out and I’m really thirsty.” I thought she was turning on the damsel-in-distressand-a-miniskirt act just a little too strongly, but what do I know? “Sure. Afraid I’ve only got tap water.” Annie gave him her best smile. “That’d be fine, Mr. Gand.” He went across the room, opened the door into what certainly appeared to be a kitchen, and turned out of sight. I heard water running. “Anything down there?” I breathed. “Bathroom, spare bedroom, and I think a couple of storerooms. One of them might be a workshop, but it’s a mess. Concrete floor. Washer and drier.”
He came back with Annie’s glass of water. It had ice cubes in it; from the way he handed it to her I was surprised not to see a slice of lemon and a paper umbrella. She accepted it graciously. “Thank you. So you have most of your other people and computers somewhere else?” “No, it’s just me and the computers you see here. That’s all the equipment I own, and I don’t have any employees. Lady comes in once a week to clean.” All the equipment I own. Something about the phrasing seemed a little odd. And suddenly I knew. I knew where Gandcom’s development cluster was. I knew why their servers were located where they were. I even knew why they didn’t sell their game on DVD. “You’re telling me the truth, aren’t you, Mr. Gand? You really are telling me the truth. You produce HyperWorld, but you really don’t have any other computers of your own. Every time you sell a copy of the game, your installer takes over somebody’s machine for a day or so.” I paused to see what effect I was having. For the first time since we arrived, he was looking at me instead of Annie. His mouth was as neutral as a poker champion’s, but his eyes were wary. I pushed on. “It becomes part of a huge distributed computing system linked up by the Internet. That machine on your desk never does more than pass around a few IP addresses and credit card numbers. Everything else—the downloading, the development of the next version, and for all I know your accounting and your corporate Christmas card list—is done by that cloud of customers’ computers.” He drummed his fingers on the back of a chair and grinned lazily. “Works, too. No way I’d ever have raised the money to buy a server farm big enough to deliver HyperWorld III without selling it out to the vulture capitalists. Let alone the machines I’m going to need to create the algorithms for HyperWorld IV. Those things take time.” “That’s all very well, damn it! But you’ve locked up a million people’s computers with your Trojan. Including mine.” “And mine.” “So that’s why you’re here—Look, Miss, I’m truly sorry.” (He did sound apologetic. Did I mention that Annie has that effect on guys?) “But you did read the end user license agreement before you started the installer, didn’t you, Miss? Where you authorized Gandcom to run any software we deem necessary, for purposes including but not limited to the installation process?”
Annie just spluttered. She had been silently putting up with being called “Miss” for several minutes, and her silence was no longer self-control but the Lagrange point between two equally imperative explosions. I could feel for her; but even if the answer hadn’t been addressed to me, I had my own agenda. “Do you think that matters? If I take this public, you’re cooked. People get pretty upset about privacy these days. Nobody’s going to download your game if they know it’s going to take over their computer.” He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Wouldn’t be too sure. A lot of people want that game pretty bad. But you said ‘if you take this public.’ Does that mean you haven’t made your mind up?” “It depends if you meet my price.” Before I closed my mouth I was aware of how silly it sounded. But I wasn’t trying to win a prize for acting here. “And what’s that?” He was the poker player, but maybe I had a better hand. “I want a job with you.” His eyebrows slowly rose again and hung for a long moment, like a wave starting to break. Then he smiled, not all at once but slowly, and finally chortled. “You’re hired. While it’s true that now I’ve got this game started, it pretty nearly writes itself, this is getting just a bit big for a one-man show, and my to-do list is getting out of hand. And if you can figure my business plan out cold like that, you have the kind of devious mind that I need.” He named a figure. For just an instant, Annie’s scarlet lips gaped in an O of astonishment. Jim Gand waited calmly for my answer, like he’d asked me if I wanted a beer. I wasn’t going to dicker; my dry mouth could just about manage the word “yes,” and when I said something, that’s exactly what I was going to say. But I paused, savoring the moment. Like I said, it’s not every day I get to score off my sister.
THE LAST THEOREM
Originally published in the Tampa Review. Reprinted with permission.
A cube, on the other hand, can never be the sum of two cubes nor a fourth power the sum of two fourth powers nor, in general, can any number which is a power greater than the second be the sum of two like powers. I have a marvelous proof of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain. —Pierre de Fermat, c. 1630
The Last Theorem
The Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture, sometimes called the Shimura-Taniyama Conjecture or the Taniyama-Shimura-Weil Conjecture or, rarely, the Weil Conjecture, states that every elliptic equation can be parameterized by a modular form. Gerard Numinaya, mulling it over while crossing the welltrudged college green, finds he must admit that he still does not understand what this means. At least he understands, now, that the Weil after whom the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture is sometimes named is André Weil, not a translation but a different person altogether from Andrew Wiles, the heroic prover of the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture and, hence, of Fermat’s Last Theorem, number theory’s loftiest goal. But this was not obvious at first. There’s a hitch in his left ankle, a little not-quite-pain, just a suggestion that he is somehow mis-stepping on his left foot, as if he’s forgotten how to walk all of a sudden. He shifts his estimable weight more to the instep, now to the heel, bends the foot less, now more, and the unevenness of the hard beige dirt under the dying grass is not helping. He slows down, speeds up. Nothing helps, and it’s terribly annoying, distracting him from Taniyama, and it threatens to make him late for his meeting, where he is hastening quite against his will. The air, unlike the math, is extraordinarily clear today. He feels his wobbly body passing through it, progressing through the freshness of it on his way across the green, through the sounds of the highly undergraduate day: a cross-campus shout of greeting, the laughter and cursing of a pair of baseballcapped boys tossing a Frisbee (why has the fate of all fads so far eluded this one among the rest?), the uneven growl of slow city traffic surrounding and containing the steadier hum of post-adolescent surge and rush and subliminal sexual interplay. He imagines his body capable of receiving and interpreting the profusion of vibrations. A boy and girl entwined on a bench look up to smile at him as he passes, their love emanations encompassing even him, a post-middle-aged stranger almost but not quite lost, not as lost as he is trying to be, in the world’s most famous (if least practically important) logical enigma. Most friends and acquaintances would consider the number theory arena the last place clarinetist Gerard Numinaya belongs (and hence he’s kept it quiet; you can be sure he’s let no one know he’s dabbling), but for Gerard it’s like the effect Prokofiev used to have: you hear a phrase, a quiet bit of oboe flitting among the strings, and you feel the beauty of it created in that moment, just for you, even though it’s been there all along. Gerard knows
he has heard these mathematical notes somewhere before, in some way he’s not permitted to understand. If n is a whole number greater than two, the sum of two perfect nth powers will never equal another nth power. Never. No exceptions. There’s an aesthetic and almost metaphysical perfection in it. His next few steps are relatively unimpeded and he breathes in deeply. The fresh air is tinged not unpleasantly with exhaust. But then, too, does no one ever acknowledge—anyone besides Gerard, whose mind seems prone to taking sides against itself lately—even the slightest nostalgia for the days pre-proof, when the possibility of a counterexample still existed, when the neverness was still in doubt? When it was still possible, in other words, that someone might show up someday with a couple of perfect 293rd powers that could be shown by simple arithmetic to add up to another one? Back then—before the god Andrew Wiles synthesized centuries of mathematical ideas to prove in two hundred pages what Fermat asserted (correctly!) could not be adequately dealt with in his seventeenth century margin— there was the thrill of the chase. Not mere uncertainty, but the tantalizing possibility of certainty at some future date: a certainty carrot, dangling before the mathematical world’s collective nose century after century, growing more and more delicious, more and more worth trotting after. Now—eaten and digested and gone. There can be no eating your carrot and having it, too. Is no one bereft? The pain is suddenly worse. But he has arrived at a bench and sits down for a moment, unties his left shoe, gives his ankle a little massage through the thin black nylon of one of the socks his wife used to buy for him, and leans sideways into the breeze. Occasionally, in his weaker, less mathematical moments, as now, he finds himself slipping into musical analogy. Why can a great conjecture not be like a great symphony, for which no one expects an explanation? Beethoven’s Ninth, to choose an obvious example, is nothing if not a grand conjecture, an accumulation of harmonies and counterpoints, each deepening and complicating the mystery of their somehow stirring entanglement, a mystery proposed and left for us to ponder. If a masterpiece were more answer than question, no one would feel the need to listen to it more than once. He begins to stand up but something bumps his shin and he looks down to see the Frisbee drop to the ground, a filthy, beaten-up old blue one. He stoops gruntingly to retrieve it and tosses it to the nearest boy, who wears shorts and flip-flops but turns out not to be one of the Frisbee players. This boy good31
The Last Theorem
naturedly hurls it back to the boy Gerard now sees waving his arms for it from across the green, far, far out of Gerard’s range. One powerful flick of a knowing wrist and the Frisbee hits its distant mark. The arcane powers of youth. And then, more astonishing still, the near boy smiles at Gerard, a forgiveness of the post-middle-aged man’s understandable ineptitude, but with none of the usual postadolescent sarcasm in it. Gerard smiles cautiously back. The world somehow includes him today. He ties his shoe as tightly as he can, hoping to provide the wayward ankle a little extra support, then stands, gingerly, and rotates the ankle this way and that. It hurts, but seems a little better, and in any case there’s nothing to be done. He turns to continue on his way—ah, yes, the department meeting— and finds the way blocked. Standing before him is yet another smiling figure: Louise Chardonne, specialist in woodwind instruments of the Renaissance. “Why, Gerard! I never knew you were so athletic!” This is sarcasm of the teasing variety. “Mais oui,” says Gerard. Louise is wearing the emerald green silk scarf Gerard has seen her wear so many times. It seems to him an affectation, and yet in this sunlight it is lovely against her thin wrinkled neck. Behind her smile is something just short of pity. “Out for a little Ultimate Frisbee before the meeting?” “No, no, just aiding and abetting.” He always says the strangest things to Louise Chardonne. “And perhaps a little modern dance?” Gerard stares in Louise’s direction while the wind kicks up and flutters the scarf, until it occurs to him that her remark refers to his graceless attempts to relax his ankle. He feels himself blush: the wind is suddenly cooler on his face. He considers explaining, but settles for gazing off toward the library, where some momentarily ruffled oak trees are calming themselves. Louise’s husband died last year, knocked down by a bicyclist, fatally splitting his head on the curb. Gerard and Louise have discussed the parallels in their spouses’ deaths over coffee. Louise often brings it up. Both spouses were run over, in their ways, but also both on Tuesdays in the same school year (though different calendar years), both officially dead of brain hemorrhages, both having recently been to the dentist. Louise searches the parallels out and finds them fascinating. But Gerard has remarked (to himself only) that if examined carefully enough, any pair of deaths—or lives, for that matter—would
be likely to yield as many or more similarities. Given Louise’s morbid fascination and determined searching, Gerard thinks the shared details they’ve discovered are actually relatively few. He’s quite certain Louise would like to marry him. She wraps his left arm tightly in both of hers and falls into step with him toward the meeting, leaning on him rather more heavily than could possibly be necessary. On the third step his ankle buckles for a moment, but mercifully rights itself before it can send him tumbling. It seems that Louise must have noticed the hitch in his gait, but she shows no sign of it. Gerard hopes fervently that she has not, although this hope embarrasses him, suggesting weakness and too much of a desire to appear other than he is. Louise herself proceeds slowly, magisterially, head erect, eyes level, doggedly yet almost imperceptibly dragging him forward and downward. “How’s Boy Wonder coming along?” she asks. On Saturday Louise will accompany Gerard to a concert featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, performed by Gerard’s student Peter Norrich, winner of the annual concerto competition and perhaps the most talented student ever to pass through the department. Louise called Gerard at home to invite herself coyly to be his date and he saw no reason to refuse. He can enjoy her company. He doesn’t always, but he is capable of it. He finds that things take more effort than they used to, is all. The ankle problem that he is working to keep in check is just one more manifestation of the general collapse of both body and will that has slowly overtaken him since Alice’s death. His digestion is not what it used to be. Sadly, even his embouchure is starting to fail him, his high register becoming fey and unpredictable. Most sadly of all, the tone that young Peter Norrich draws from his clarinet seems to be not only more supple and controlled than Gerard’s has been for years, but probably more so than Gerard’s ever was. More liquid and subtly emergent. More beautiful, in short. “He’s ready,” Gerard says. “He’ll be magnificent.” He glances to his left to receive Louise’s smile. “I’m so happy for you, Gerard. You’ve earned this.” Gerard does feel a certain satisfaction. With thirty-six years of service to this music department, he agrees that he has earned something. Perhaps, though, what he has earned is the right to attend a concert at which someone he has been fleetingly associated with in an advisory capacity will outshine every artistic contribution Gerard himself has ever made. “Yes. Well, what goes around comes around.”
The Last Theorem
He is aware that this makes even less sense than most of the odd remarks he makes to Louise Chardonne. And yet, the circularity notion somehow resonates. Louise laughs. “Well, yes, Gerard. I suppose there’s no disputing that what goes around does indeed tend to come around.” “Yes,” says Gerard, laughing back. “Tautology schmautology, indeed.” Sometimes it seems that he and Louise mutually disdain each other, and each disdains the other’s disdain. A vortex of mutual condescension: such is the relationship she secretly wants to sanctify and codify. But the department meeting will eventually end and she will go her way and he his, hers leading to her toolarge Victorian now echoingly empty of children and husband and past and future, his to his just-right apartment and his pile of monographs, scattered on the floor by the bed, overflowing with symbols that are starting, somewhat alarmingly, not only to reveal occasional coherent meanings, but to call to him, to urge and seduce him away from the world. He has not always been like this. But now there are mornings when instead of making coffee and grading counterpoint exercises that he should hand back that day, he rolls over just far enough to grab the nearest book on the floor and curls up on his pillows to study it by the morning light. It’s not a kind of study he’s ever engaged in before. He is unable even to pronounce much of what is on most of the pages. So he makes up his own pronunciations or bypasses the aural element altogether, letting the symbols wash over him and accumulate what sense they will. The jump from one step of explication to the next is sometimes tiny, one diacritical displacement in a string of thirty symbols. Those are the steps he fixates on, reaching for mathematical dictionaries and elementary texts to search out the meaning of a single changed or added notation in hope of grasping a small facet of the reasoning that links one idea with the next. Sometimes an isolated progression comes clearly into focus, all the underlying concepts fall into place, and the link is irrefutably forged. Those addictively satisfying moments are slowly becoming more frequent. The work is surprisingly fraught with psychological dangers: He now distrusts nothing so much as the phrase “this implies.” The concentration required to keep awake while staring at the nearly incomprehensible sometimes feels superhuman and has caused headaches and panic attacks. His fear that his books may contain typographical errors—which would be wholly undetectable by him and might set his progress back by hours
or weeks—sometimes grows debilitating and he heads to the kitchen and makes the coffee that will be required to get him through the academic day, finds the error-ridden counterpoint exercises among his papers and corrects them for awhile in red pen. The students’ mistakes, transgressions against simple, clearly prescribed rules of musical movement that have been in effect for centuries, ring out jarringly on the piano in his head (a Bösendorfer grand) and as often as not he heads back to bed and opens another number theory treatise, preferring his own incompetence to that of his undergraduates. Another gust of wind flutters Louise’s scarf and blows one end of it against Gerard’s cheek. She quickly grabs it with one hand and clutches it to her chest, maintaining her grip on Gerard’s arm with her other hand. She gives his flabby biceps a little squeeze. Louise and Gerard approached physical intimacy once. After a drink or two celebrating the end of the last academic year the two of them left their colleagues at the bar—sowing the seeds, Gerard is now sure, in catty Medievalist Martin Rothschild if in no one else, of a joyful gossip that would flourish behind their backs from that day forward. Louise whispered an invitation to take a walk, and Gerard saw no reason to refuse. But no, that’s what he always likes to think; in fact he wanted to go with her, and knew, from the heat and nonchalance of her leg pressing against his under the table, exactly what she had in mind. The school year of their spouses’ deaths was drawing to a close at last. Gerard found that he shared Louise’s celebratory mood. They walked away from campus, a little drunk, the evening humid but cool, and down into town to Louise’s neighborhood, a leafy enclave Gerard had never had occasion to visit. She invited Gerard in for a quick tour of the enormous house and a cup of her raspberry tea. The walls were papered in pale floral patterns. The lights were dim and the carpets and upholstery dark. But the art— painting after painting in stark relief against the wallpaper— seemed to jump out of the frames and assault the conservative décor. Unabashedly modern, all of it jagged and primarycolored. Gerard knew little about visual art but guessed these were all expensive originals. Louise confirmed that was the case. “I acquired them after Rodney died,” she said, pouring steaming water over a handful of loose leaves and dried berries. “I must have hit every gallery in a hundred-mile radius.” She directed Gerard’s attention to a few of her favorites and he found a way to admire each of them—the startling dissonance of one, the playful rhythm of another. He pretended
The Last Theorem
to have heard of one of the artists. When the tea was ready they brought it to the living room and sat together on the couch and drunk it under an enormous collage in what appeared to be sheet metal and burnt construction paper. “Shostakovich?” he asked. “One of his later pieces,” she replied, with only the slightest smile. She crossed her legs in her skirt and sat back luxuriously into the cushions. She was almost as old as Gerard, but he knew she was generally assumed to be younger than she really was. There was an alertness in her face that gave her the appearance of restless, youthful energy, and it contrasted now with the sensual relaxation of her long body. She stretched muscles sleepily and sighed, but her eyes flicked around the room, as though she were forming a new opinion of each of her possessions, now that Gerard was here presumably forming his own. The eyebrows arched ironically, seeming to understand that their haughtiness would never be taken completely seriously. “Those fools will be talking about us, you know,” she said. “Of course. And?” “And nothing. Kind of interesting, though, to be here with you, drinking tea, sitting on a couch, a little tipsy, and to be simultaneously living some other life. The one they’re making up, I mean.” “This may be exactly what they’re coming up with. They’re not the most imaginative crowd.” “Very true.” Gerard moved closer. Louise leaned in to him and they kissed awkwardly, like teenagers trying to create the moment they’ve imagined to be in store for them one day, or love scenes they’ve seen on TV. It was gentle and warm, but artificial, the kiss they thought two recently widowed professors should share. Still, Gerard felt himself becoming aroused and moved a hand to Louise’s thigh. She pulled away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “No, don’t be silly,” she said. She moved closer again, but she didn’t look at him. “No, of course,” he said. He found it less surprising that she should reject his advances than that she should have encouraged them in the first place. He knew himself to be overweight, not handsome or even particularly well groomed. He hadn’t counted on ever having to attract a woman again. He had thought all that was settled and done with. But she had encouraged him, he was sure of that. And as if to justify this confidence she turned and looked into his eyes
for a long, imploring moment, then slowly stood and untied the small bow at the neck of her blouse. She pulled the blouse over her head and continued undressing until she stood naked before him. But as far as Gerard could tell, in none of this disrobing was there an invitation for him to do the same. It was not a seduction but a challenge, or an apology, or a presentation of evidence. She did not come to him. She watched him look at her. Her body was thin and unremarkable. She did not have Alice’s hips or breasts or shoulders or pubic hair or belly. He still wanted her, but felt stupidly paralyzed by her boldness, her vulnerability, the calm dominion her nakedness asserted over him. He could not tell what effect she intended to have, or if she knew, but she succeeded in exciting him, confusing him, intimidating him, and embarrassing him, and no response he could think of seemed adequate. He could stand and take her in his arms, but he was stopped by his certainty that that was not what she wanted. To compliment her body would be puerile at best. To stare silently, as he was doing, was awkward and rude, perhaps the worst response of all. She looked away, first at the floor, then at one of the paintings. Gerard followed her gaze. Slashes of reds and blues and grays. They stared at it together. Then she came and sat next to him on the couch, not touching. Her naked body pulled into itself, as if she felt chilled. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Things are not working out quite as I planned.” He knew she was referring to more than their evening. And that led him to ask himself, for the first time, why she had ever been attracted to him. He had marveled at the improbability of it, but let it go without explanation until now. And now, with her naked in her home beside him, he saw himself as an intruder, not the man who was supposed to be there at all. She was trying to move beyond her husband, to move beyond her grief, and she was failing. She chose him because they shared a loss, and she hoped that would be enough. “I bought the paintings because he would have hated them,” she said. “Isn’t that idiotic?” “And the collage?” Gerard asked. “That I liked,” she said. She walked slowly out of the room and Gerard heard her light footsteps on the stairs. He waited a few minutes, then let himself out. And now she propels him forward, and holds him up, and the wind sings through her scarf. One more step on the ankle, adjusting toward the heel. Another, toward the ball of the foot. Love’s sweet algorithm: step by step, courtship, marriage, family.
The Last Theorem
Today, perhaps not, nothing preordained: a smiling couple of twenty-year-olds entwined on a bench fly a different trajectory, not so sure where they’ll land. But back then it was possible to see the future, the parabolic arc. That was your job, in fact. Lay out your steps beginning to end before you bother to take the first: you’ll marry, have a child, another, and a life of some kind will result. The problem is so simple to state, it’s difficult to shake the conviction that it will be easy to solve. When the wife and mother takes that one wrong step out into a road, a literal road that seems to be precisely the one road she should be stepping into but turns out to hold the dangers of an immediate future she cannot foresee as clearly as she is expected to, everyone mourns. Even if it’s not the woman herself they mourn, the woman who tried to sing you to sleep with her terrible voice when you had the broken leg and the pain was bad, although of course you exaggerated it and of course she knew you were exaggerating, even if they never knew this woman well enough to know how much there was to mourn of her, they mourn your loss of the plan. Everyone is saddened that things did not work out. You symbolize the failures of their futures.
Why didn’t Fermat ever go out and find himself a bigger margin? He wasn’t proclaimed dead of the plague until 1652, and even then it turned out they got it wrong. He rallied, lived on for another thirteen years, yet the vaunted proof did not materialize. You have to wonder about that. But there will be the department meeting. Martin Rothschild will see them arrive together and will exchange a knowing glance with one assistant professor or another. Gerard will succeed in handing back counterpoint exercises to his undergrads sometime soon. On Saturday there will be the concert, where Peter Norrich will dazzle the crowd and Gerard will dazzle by association but, more importantly, where Mozart will sound new again. Afterwards Louise will kiss his cheek and go home alone and they will both pretend she is not sad. And Gerard will go home, too, to the comfort of a thing he can always hope someday to understand. “Wouldn’t it be nice, though,” says Louise, laughing more, it seems, at herself than at him, “to play like that again?”
ARTWORK IN THIS ISSUE
All photographs are courtesy of Eleanore Bennett. The artist retains full copyrights of the photographs featured in this publication.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning photographer and artist who has won first places with National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature's Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, and she has shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia, and The Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition (2011) amongst many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010. www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com Andrew Breslin is the author of Mother’s Milk (http://www.encpress.com/MM.html), the definitive story of alien cows from Vega. Rumors that Eddie Fishman, the socially inept mathematician in the story, is based entirely on Andy are slightly exaggerated. He writes a blog (http://andyrantsandraves.blogspot.com), that covers pretty much whatever crosses his mind. His book reviews can be found at Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/author/ show/820871.Andrew_Breslin) and are always entertaining and informative, or at least he thinks so. His fiction site (http://atbreslin.com) is still a work in progress, but will soon feature his second novel, Practical Applications of Game Theory, which is full of math. And also terribly violent, just to warn you. Some of the existing stories on his fiction site concern mathematics. Some are just weird. He lives in Philadelphia with his cat and his girlfriend, neither of whom are nearly as fascinated by mathematics as he is, but both of whom make up for it by being cute. Robert Dawson has a BSc from Dalhousie and a PhD from Cambridge. He lives in Halifax, NS, with his wife Bridget and sons Alex and Ian, and teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University. Apart from mathematics and writing, he enjoys fencing, cycling, cooking, and music. He has published fiction in AE, LabLit, and the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. http://cs.smu.ca/~dawson/Literary/literary.html Buzz Mauro’s stories and poems have appeared in Willow Springs, Tampa Review, New Orleans Review, Poet Lore, River Styx, Tar River Poetry, and other journals. He lives in Annapolis and works as an actor and acting teacher in Washington, DC. http://willowsprings.ewu.edu/authors/mauro.php Gregg Sapp, a native Ohioan, is a far-wandering writer, librarian, college teacher and academic administrator. After writing 60-plus academic articles, four professional monographs, 300-some reviews, and served as editor of five journals, he quit academe and decided to write something just for the fun of it... and which somebody might actually enjoy reading. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza” or “The Day Peace Broke Out in Columbus,” was published in 2011 by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press. Since then, he has published a short stories in Zodiac Review and Midwestern Gothic, original poetry in Pudding: The Journal of Applied Poetry, and humor in Hobo Pancakes. For more information, see www.dollarapalooza.com. Bobby Winters lives in Pittsburg, Kansas, a small college town with his beautiful wife and daughters. He teaches math and shuffles papers at the local university. When he’s not otherwise engaged, he writes a weekly column and blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com.
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