Story Excerpt

The Whole Mess

by Jack Skillingstead

The kid in the duck-hunting hat reached across my desk with a folded sheet of yellow graph paper in his fingers. “I think you will find this interesting, Professor Dunn.”

I took the paper and opened it. A mathematical equation, meticulously printed in black pencil, marched across the sheet. It began: {C-cosmo} + {C-astro} and at first glance appeared to be headed toward Gleiser’s multiverse modification of the Drake equation. But it diverged wildly and without resolution.

“What is it, Mr. Whitfield?” I asked, not quite looking at him.

“Something I believe only you can finish.”

“I see. Stump the prof. I’m not a cosmologist, you know.”

He shook his head, rejecting my rejection. Daniel Whitfield was big as a linebacker, though nothing about him suggested athleticism. Freshman-aged, but not a freshman, he had been auditing my combinatorial topology class at the University of Washington, and he was becoming a distraction. Each day he showed up in his absurd red-and-black duck hunting hat with the ear flaps turned down, sat in the front row, and stared at me. Whitfield never removed his hat or his camel hair coat. A silver ballpoint pen protruded from the outside breast pocket, and feathery gray streaks stained the lapels of the coat. Cigarette ash, I guessed, smelling tobacco now that he was sitting so near.

“I’m not trying to stump you,” he said. “You’re looking at the most important work you will ever do.”

“Is that right?”

“You want to know what it is?”

“Not especially.” I resumed placing folders into my briefcase, which is what I’d been doing when Whitfield entered.

“It’s an incantation,” he said.

“A what?” I met his eyes briefly and looked away.

“You concede Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis?”

“No.”

“You don’t concede it? That’s in direct contradiction to what you’ve—”

“I concede the MUH, but I don’t agree to this discussion.”

“I risked my life to bring this to you.”

“Mr. Whitfield, please.”

Whitfield pointed at the paper. “It’s ancient. When they found it, the final expression was missing, deliberately removed. Once that expression is restored, the world changes. I’m confident it won’t defeat you, Professor Dunn. I’ve studied everything you’ve published since your student days at Harvard. Very unorthodox. This problem requires a particular genius.”

I was inclined to laugh, but Whitfield’s intense and utterly humorless stare “defeated” me, as he might have put it. Genius. I hated that word.

“Very interesting,” I said. “In any case, I’m late for class.”

I tried to hand the paper back, but he waved it away. “That’s yours.” He stood, almost knocking his chair over. “Goodbye,” he said, hunching his shoulders and turning away. His brown Oxfords, so big they were almost clown shoes, scuffed across the carpet. He left the door open on his way out. A certain percentage of my students fell within the Asperger’s spectrum, a common affliction found in the narrow population of mathematical obsessives, prodigies, and, especially, “geniuses.” Whitfield’s apparent insanity made him an outlier, though. I started to crumple his silly paper but stopped, gave it another look, and slipped it into my briefcase.

*   *   *

Daniel Whitfield did not return to class. But his equation, or as he called it, his incantation, became my hobby and then my obsession. And of course Whitfield had known it would happen that way. Night after night I sat up late in my West Seattle townhouse drinking endless cups of lemon tea (I’d long ago put aside the single malt Scotch that had led me astray in my university days and afterward) while scribbling out my attempts to solve the Whitfield equation. At every impasse, and there were many, I reached for the guitar I kept leaning against the bookcase next to my desk. Music, like everything else, is mathematical. Fingering random scale variations sometimes loosened that part of my mind seeking non-linear solutions.

My obsession became relentless. For the first time in my experience I saw more than the purity of mathematics. The equation was trying to tell me something—a story, almost in the manner of ancient hieroglyphs.

*   *   *

In a dream I found myself standing before a blackboard, my back to the classroom. My hand worked furiously, the nub of chalk clicking against the slate. As always, the final expression eluded me, and I threw the chalk down in disgust. An odor of brine and corruption, half sea and half sewer, filled the classroom. I felt a looming presence and became afraid to turn around and face my students. Instead I picked up the chalk and resumed work. That was the message of the dream: Finish.

*   *   *

The next day I was crossing the lower campus with my briefcase and coffee, walking quickly to make my first class. Lisa, a young woman whom I liked but knew only slightly, an administrative assistant in the dean’s office, was walking toward me on the otherwise deserted path. A brisk October wind swept maple leaves into the air between us. “Hello, Professor,” Lisa said. I met her eyes glancingly, started to reply, and the solution to Whitfield’s equation appeared in my mind with all the urgency of a fire alarm. It happened that way sometimes. I stopped, put my briefcase down, and fumbled for a notepad and mechanical pencil. The solution felt tenuous, and I didn’t want to lose it.

Lisa said, “Are you all right, Professor? Here, give me that.”

She took the coffee from my hand. I mumbled something, my head down. Printing quickly, I transcribed the completed equation in tightly crabbed symbols and numbers, then reviewed the result, moving my lips and thus speaking the incantation. It was solid.

The wind dropped as if a plug had been pulled. I looked up. A maple leaf see-sawed out of the air and landed on the others. The atmosphere became electric. Lisa looked at me. I saw fear in her eyes before I quickly glanced away. Behind her on the path a ragged hole opened like a rough doorway or the mouth of a tunnel. Its face rippled with an oily iridescent sheen. The hole expanded and acquired depth. An elephant could have passed through it.

For a moment I couldn’t credit what I was seeing. The brine-and-sewer stench familiar from my dream wafted out of the tunnel. Instinctively, I took Lisa’s arm and pulled her back, only to stumble over my own briefcase. She grabbed hold to keep me from falling, and we ended in an awkward embrace.

A shape moved inside the tunnel, something huge, dragging itself toward us. My flight response seized me, but I couldn’t move. Lisa and I held onto to each other like children. The ground shifted then, like an elevator that stops too sharply inches below the next floor. The sensation was so startling I looked at our feet, expecting to find us standing in a sinkhole. But we stood on the ordinary path, and the air was moving again. When I looked up, the tunnel and whatever had been about to emerge was gone.

“What was that?” Lisa said.

I shook my head. A monumental change had occurred, but I couldn’t identify it.

Lisa patted my sleeve. “You can let go of me now.”

“What? Oh—”

She handed me the coffee. My hand was shaking, and I hoped she didn’t notice. I looked at my watch and received another shock. The watch I had strapped around my wrist that morning had been a simple drugstore Timex. Now I wore a stainless steel Mont Blanc with Arabic numerals and three sub dials. I had never seen the thing before—except that I had seen it before. Of course I had. It had been a gift from, from . . .

“Professor?”

“Something strange is happening.”

She laughed shortly, a response I couldn’t interpret. But I never was good at decoding human beings, looking into their eyes, unraveling motivations. Only the reliability of numbers had ever made sense to me.

“Do you feel all right?” I asked.

She thought about it. “All right, but different.”

“Different how?”

“This is going to sound odd.”

“Go ahead, please.”

“I feel like I don’t know whether I should tell my insurance company about the scrape I put on the fender of my Fiat in the parking garage this morning.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Professor Dunn, I don’t own a car.”

Now I made myself look into her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

“I don’t own a car.”

I looked away again, my mind trying to bend around oblique corners. It failed. “I’m going to my class.”

“What about what just happened?”

“I don’t know.” I walked away, disoriented and more frightened than I would have liked to admit. Lisa came after me.

“I’m staying with you,” she said.

Teaching was out of the question. My students would be elated when I dismissed them. Lisa hovered at my elbow when I entered the lecture hall. It was a large class, almost a hundred undergraduates—and they were all listening to a man I did not recognize lecture from the podium. He noticed me in the back and lifted his chin, as if to ask my business. I thought I must be in the wrong place. But when I withdrew to the corridor I saw that I’d opened the correct door.

“What’s wrong?” Lisa said.

“I’m not sure.”

I slipped my glasses on and read the schedule attached to the wall. It was my number theory class at my hour, but someone named Ethan Kriegel was teaching it.

I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes.

“Professor Dunn?”

“I have to think.”

The door to the lecture hall opened. Ethan Kriegel, I presumed, stepped out and addressed me. “Dr. Dunn, did you need to speak with me?”

“No. Yes. Why are you teaching my class?”

“Your class? But you assigned it to me.”

“I don’t assign classes. What are you talking about?”

Kriegel smiled uncertainly. “I’m sorry, Dr. Dunn, but—”

“I want to know what the hell is happening,” I said, my fear translating to anger. Kriegel stepped back.

Lisa touched my shoulder and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait.”

An identity began to surface on Kriegel’s features, like a face slowly floating to the surface of a murky pond. Of course I knew Ethan Kriegel. I was head of the math department and he was one of my best people. This was his class to teach. I ought to know, since I had assigned it to him myself. I lightly touched my forehead with my fingertips, as if the answer to this mystery might be written there in braille. Somehow I had moved into a different life, one that still belonged to me, but diverged significantly from the one I’d known.

“I apologize, Professor Kriegel. Please return to your class.”

Feeling nauseous, I turned and walked away before he could reply. Lisa stayed with me, and I was glad of it. Outside I sat on the steps and took deep breaths. Lisa sat beside me.

“I feel sick to my stomach,” she said.

“Me, too.”

“It’s like a different life happening to me,” she said. “I’m remembering all kinds of stuff that I know isn’t true, but somehow it is true. The car thing is just one of them. What’s happening to us?”

“I don’t know, but I think he’s going to tell us.” I pointed at a man crossing the quad and headed straight for us. It was Daniel Whitfield, still wearing his duck hunting hat and camel hair coat. He was grinning like a demon. Maybe he was a demon.

Whitfield climbed the steps and stood before us. “You did it,” he said. “Congratulations.”

“He did what?” Lisa said.

“Unlocked eternity. The New Age of the Masters is already spreading across the infinite.”

“Your damn equation,” I said.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist it. And once the incantation is expressed there is no un-expressing it.”

“All we want is to get back to the place we started,” I said.

“Oh, you wouldn’t like that one anymore. It’s already very much transformed. There’s been a regime change. But don’t worry, it will catch up with you here soon enough. In fact . . .”

He swept his arm toward the quad. A dozen or so students crossed on their way to or from class, backpacks slung over shoulders and cell phones in hand. The air became still as the air inside a sealed tomb. An oily black oval rippled into existence above the bricks. It acquired depth, became a tunnel. Lisa and I stood up. A purple and pink tentacle unrolled from the tunnel, picked up a young woman in a red sweater, and flung her screaming into the air. The other students scattered, screaming and shouting. Lisa said, “Oh my God, oh my God,” and ran back into Maier Hall.

Daniel Whitfield climbed the last steps and stood before me, unconcerned by the chaos. “It’s pointless to run. The Masters will appear in every iteration, eventually. You’ve provided the access that was lost for so long.”

I was barely listening. A nightmare had dragged itself out of the tunnel and into the light. More of its kind crowded the tunnel’s mouth. The first to emerge made directly for me, using its tentacles to pull and hump forward at surprising speed. I stumbled back, terrified, and seemed to step into a depression that hadn’t been there a moment before. I flung my arms out for balance. And with the abruptness of a channel change, the quad resumed its mundane aspect. A dozen students crossed the bricks with backpacks and cell phones—including the young woman in the red sweater whom I’d seen die only moments before.

Daniel Whitfield had vanished. I stood alone at the top of the stairs.

And I didn’t belong there. The University of Washington had been my home (some would have called it my hideout) for fifteen years. Yet now I felt like an intruder, and I knew I had side-slipped into another “iteration,” one very far from the world I was used to. My Timex was back, but this time my clothes had changed. Instead of my customary tweed jacket I wore a brown leather coat over a gray hooded sweatshirt. I reached up and removed the baseball cap I hadn’t been wearing a moment ago and stared at the Seahawks logo. I touched my face and discovered I now wore a full beard.

After a moment I replaced the hat and descended the steps in a daze, my dirty white sneakers feeling strange after years of loafers. This iteration’s identity slowly rose to the surface. By the time I reached University Avenue and the six-year-old Ford Focus I’d left parked there, I knew perfectly well that I didn’t belong on campus, except as the slightly sad figure I now inhabited, a man well past thirty ignorantly in search of entry into the higher-education structure. My appointment with the admissions counselor hadn’t gone well. I was woefully under-qualified, and my paltry community college credits were non-transferable.

The whole thing was an ironic counterpoint to my original arrival, a decade and a few iterations ago, when I was the over-qualified applicant for a teaching position that would ensure insulation from the cries of Genius! that had hectored me since grade school. Now I fell short even as an aging freshman looking for validation in the form of a degree in the humanities.

Yes, the humanities.

In this sorry version of myself I no longer possessed (or was possessed by, as I used to think) the special aptitude for mathematics that had defined my expectations and my misery for as long as I could remember.

*   *   *

I still lived in West Seattle, but no longer in a townhouse with a view of Puget Sound. The Ford took me home, like a dog who finds his way back from the wilderness. My body knew where it lived, even if my immigrant identity remained largely lost. Presently I found myself parked before a tan building with three cracked concrete steps leading to the lobby door. Flaking gold letters on the glass spelled Franklin Apartments. I turned the engine off and held the little bundle of keys in my open hand, waiting to recognize the proper one. Eventually I did.

The deeper I penetrated this iteration, the more familiar it became. The studio apartment enclosed me like the arms of a sisterly spouse in a sexless marriage. The trestle kitchen with its old-fashioned appliances and stale odors refreshed memories of countless Campbell and Tortino feasts. The unmade sofa bed told its story of grim bachelorhood. I’d lived alone in my townhouse, too, but those rooms had been neatly (obsessively so) maintained, and my rich intellectual life acted as counter-balance to my inevitable loneliness.

When I saw the computer, I had to wonder whether I’d time traveled as well as side-slipped. Instead of the sleek MacBook Pro I was used to, a boxy anachronism sat on my Ikea desk. The CRT monitor alone must have weighed forty pounds. I reached for my cell phone, but it wasn’t in my pocket. A Swedish Health Cooperative calendar on the kitchen wall informed me I still occupied the year 2017. Looking at it, I remembered why I had the calendar. SHCC employed me as a phlebotomist. That is, I spent my work days drawing blood from the arms of patients sent to the lab by their physicians. I shuddered at the thought, while simultaneously feeling cranky gratitude for the job. After all, I’d gone to school for the certification (my untransferable credits) and was lucky to be making seventeen dollars an hour. Never mind the periodic panic that I was wasting my life, the kind of panic that had sent me to the UW campus that morning.

The land line began ringing, startling me with its piercing electronic trill. I lifted the handset from its wall-mounted cradle.

“Please, God,” Lisa said, “tell me this is Professor Dunn.”

For a moment, I almost couldn’t breath. Emotion compressed the air out of my lungs.

“Hello?” Lisa said

 

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Copyright © 2016. The Whole Mess by Jack Skillingstead

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