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Vol. 5, No. 3

Zilkowski's Theorem
by Karl Iagnemma

 

~

The next night, back in Boston, Henderson reclined on his battered sofa and allowed his mind to explore the horrible and fascinating possibility of being exposed as the author of Zilkowski’s Theorem. There would be a minor scandal; conversation in the coffee room at the next conference would fall to a hush when he entered. In a perverse way, Henderson realized, it would enhance his reputation. But tenure-review committees were not known for their wit or compassion.
    Yet what would it matter? At worst, his tenure review would be scathing; he would be asked to find another job. Truth was, Henderson disliked academia. He disliked the bitchy tediousness of faculty meetings; he disliked the endless discussions with self-absorbed undergraduates, who were uncertain whether they should major in mathematics or Spanish literature. Often Henderson found himself nostalgic for his days as a graduate student, days when he’d spend eleven hours huddled in a study carrel, stopping only to microwave a frozen burrito or watch snow drift past the Bachman Library windows. It had been a lonely but painless existence.
    The Russian theorists would understand, Henderson concluded idly. They would understand the concept of theorems written for the sake of romance. The Russians had an appreciation for the noble, doomed gesture, but others—the Germans, the Japanese, the Americans—who could say? Henderson willed his mind into a state of blankness. Outside his apartment window, a man spoke half of a conversation into a cellular phone. Can’t do eight hundred, the man said. Nine fifty, absolute lowest. Break my balls lowest. His life was simple, thought Henderson. He knew nothing of Zilkowski’s Theorem.
    He shuffled to the kitchen and poured a pint of milk into a saucepan, but the smell of it warming made his stomach curdle and he dumped it down the sink. He knelt, and from the far reaches of the cabinet retrieved a bottle of Wild Turkey. A gauzy film of dust lay over the bottle and made it seem ancient, an artifact from a less enlightened time. Henderson poured a tall finger of bourbon into a coffee mug and shuffled to the sitting room. He rifled through his cassettes and picked out one of Feynman’s lectures, then flopped onto the sofa. The voice of the genius physicist filled the small apartment, but instead of soothing Henderson, as it usually did, it only made him feel suddenly and painfully aware of his own mediocrity. And yet Henderson didn’t stop the cassette. Instead he got to his feet and turned the volume up—way up, blasting, loud enough for all the neighbors to hear.

 

~

Czogloz and Marya’s condominium was on Commonwealth Avenue near Kenmore Square, and as Henderson peeled off the I-93 exit ramp he locked the doors, as he always did when he drove into the city. On the porch, listening to the muted chime of the doorbell, he found himself unhappily reviewing his recent conversation with Czogloz. He’d been taken advantage of again: enlisted to help pacify the woman who’d dumped him, by the man she’d dumped him for. That woman! Not only had she lured him into writing her dissertation, now she was punishing him for doing it. A bitter taste rose in Henderson’s mouth, and he spat into the cluster of violet tulips alongside the porch. And people like Czogloz get National Science Foundation grants, he thought, while Henderson has to beg for research funding. He had subconsciously slipped into the third person, as he did during moments of severe anxiety.
    The door opened and there was Czogloz: wearing faded jeans and a yellow polo shirt, looking decidedly more relaxed than he had in Akron. Behind him stood Marya. She had shrunk slightly, it seemed to Henderson, and her hair had darkened from iced-tea brown to near-black, but otherwise she was the same woman he remembered with such painful specificity. She was wearing an orange blouse and a short black skirt, with sheer purple tights—an oddly sexy, Marya-like combination—and the sight of her, standing before him, caused in Henderson a warm, liquid rush of desire. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and beamed at Henderson as he stepped inside.
    “The brilliant scholar arrives! It’s great to see you, John.” She took him by the shoulders and kissed him, right cheek then left, a one-two combination that left Henderson dizzy. “Come in, please—everything’s ready.”
    Czogloz led Henderson through a quick tour of the condo—unremarkable, save for a dim, musky bedroom strewn with tangled heaps of clothes, which Czogloz hurried past—then ushered him into an airy dining room with polished oak floorboards and a bay window. The room bore unmistakable traces of Czogloz and Marya—a framed mathematical journal offprint, a stereo cluttered with worn, sleeveless records—and the sight of such objects in close proximity piqued Henderson’s displeasure. It was a warm evening and the windows were thrown open; the faint nasal rhythms of a Red Sox broadcast drifted in from a neighbor’s television. Czogloz offered Henderson a glass of murky red wine, and Henderson downed it in three swallows. “You must be mortgaged to the hilt,” he said to Czogloz. “Not bad for an assistant professor.”
    “The basement floods,” Czogloz said, “and the radiators are temperamental. Other than that...we’re happy.”
    Marya appeared from the kitchen with a tray of golabki. Golabki—a rush of intense sensation filled Henderson’s chest, so suddenly that he thought he might sob. The memory of a particular August night came to him: golabki and the same thick red wine; he and Marya dining crosslegged on the floor, in the languorous heat, in their underwear; a scratchy Monk record blasting from the bedroom. That woman! He took a seat at the table and speared one of the cabbage rolls with his fork and bit it in half.
    “I hope it’s not too spicy,” Marya said. “I remember you liked spicy.”
    Henderson turned to her. “So. Czogloz—Miklos—has told me about your conversion. I would say I’m happy for you, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate.”
    Marya looked at Henderson with tender curiosity, like a child examining a small, injured animal. “Same old John. You never did like small talk, did you?” She sipped her wine and grinned. “I know, you think it’s just one of my silly ideas. It’s not. Truly.”
    “I suppose you want my approval for your ‘announcement’ in the J.A.M.? I suppose that’s the purpose of this dinner?”
    Now Marya laughed, and shot Henderson a wry glance. “John, please—I would like your approval, yes. I won’t deny that.”
    “My approval,” Henderson said. “Let me see: you publish a retraction, walk away with a clear conscience, and I get...what? Mocked by the tenure committee. Shunned at conferences.”
    “You get my gratitude,” Marya said, covering his hand with hers. “You get the knowledge that you’ve made me happy. That’s all I can offer, John. What else do I have?”
    “For God’s sake,” Henderson said, suddenly—infuriatingly—thrilled by Marya’s touch. “Do you really think this is necessary? Think of all the fools with Ph.D.s, and you, an intelligent person who deserves one! It’s a victimless crime.”
    “No crime is victimless,” Marya said, with a shrug. “When you find religion you begin to understand that.”
    Henderson shook his head in disgust: Marya had changed. She seemed duller, less spontaneous. And her accent, which had once sounded so alluringly foreign, had flattened into a quasi-American drawl. Beside Marya, Czogloz was staring out the bay window with a vacant, terminal expression on his face. Outside, the Red Sox broadcast had increased in volume, the surflike roar of the crowd washing over the commentators’ chatter; it was tied at three in the fifth inning.
    They finished the golabki in silence. Czogloz cleared their plates and emerged from the kitchen with bowls of steaming bigos, and when he departed to fetch another bottle of wine Henderson rested his elbows on the table and stared at Marya. “So now you want to be forgiven,” he said. “I thought you people had priests for that.”
    Marya shot him a quick, tight-lipped glance. “It’s a matter of conscience,” she said quietly. “I did awful things, John. Cheating on you. Plagiarizing. Calling you in the morning when Miklos was gone. It wasn’t right.”
    “It was nothing. Nothing happened! We talked about control theory, which—last time I checked—is not a sin.”
    “It was wrong. I was wrong to treat you the way I did.” She nodded matter-of-factly, as Czogloz returned with the wine. “For several years I was very unhappy.”
    “And now you are happy,” Henderson said.
    Marya looked up at him, the expression on her face gliding from suspicion to resentment to tenderness, all within a half-second. “Yes,” Marya said. “I’m happy.”
    Henderson started to speak, then shook his head and swallowed a long gulp of wine. He wanted Marya to be happy, but not this way; sneaking into happiness through the back door of religion was too easy, a fool’s bargain. He felt a surge of angry restlessness. He downed the rest of the wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
    “OK, fine. I’ll make you a deal.” Henderson motioned toward the open window and the chatter of the baseball broadcast. “If the Red Sox win, you have my blessing. Publish your retraction. Ruin my career. Be happy. But if the Sox lose—sorry, Marya. I guess you’ll just have to live with your conscience. Like the rest of us.”
    “John! What are you—what do you mean?” Marya asked. She and Czogloz were staring at him with horrified expressions on their faces. “Please, John, do this for me. For our friendship.”
    “Henderson,” Czogloz hissed, “this is too important to trivialize. For all of us.”
    But Henderson leaned back in his chair and shrugged. For so long he’d played by the rules, and lost; now he was willing to give fate a chance.
    Czogloz stared at the television in the corner as if it were a strange contraption he’d never seen, then slowly flipped through the channels until he found the game. They moved their chairs around the table and watched in silence: the Red Sox scored in the sixth and eighth, but the Tigers tied it with a three-run homer in the top of the ninth. The game was tied at the end of nine innings, and went into extra innings. Marya sat forward in her chair, hugging herself in concentration, but Henderson found himself unable to focus his attention. He felt as vacant and detached as the Hood Dairy Company blimp on the screen, drifting high above the ballpark. He drank a third glass of wine and then a fourth, watching the dusk deepen through the bay window, the streaky pink and orange of the horizon recalling for him the freakish aurora borealises he’d seen so often at the institute. At one point he became aware of Czogloz studying him, but when he glanced over Czogloz turned away.
    The Tigers eked out a run in the top of the eleventh—a single, a wild pitch, two sacrifice flies—and in the bottom of the inning the first two Red Sox grounded to the shortstop. A desperate rumble rose from the crowd. “What now?” Henderson said, to the side of Marya’s face. “What happens now? You go ahead with more confessions, you make yourself feel better, then what? What about the people around you? Forgiveness doesn’t come so easily, Marya.” She didn’t look at him. “Religion has as many unanswered questions as mathematics,” Henderson insisted. “Wait and see.”
    Just then the volume leaped to a roar, and the camera panned sharply upward; Henderson spotted the ball arcing high above the stadium, a brilliant streak against the grainy sky. The ball seemed to hang motionless for an instant; then, as if swatted by an invisible hand, it began to plummet. Marya clapped her hands together in astonishment. The Detroit right fielder sprinted back to the warning track and then to the wall, and as the ball cleared the fence he leaped, his glove reaching back into the bullpen, then stumbled away from the fence with his glove held high. He’d caught the ball; a moan escaped from the Boston crowd. The Detroit right fielder pumped his fist, and flipped the ball from his glove into his bare hand. He trotted slowly toward the dugout.
    Czogloz released a hiss of breath. “I closed my eyes. I’ve always hated that aspect of sports, the tension.” He seemed to want to say more but stayed quiet. On the screen, players were shaking hands with one another and shuffling toward the dugouts.
    Henderson sat with his arms crossed over his chest. He turned to Marya, who seemed to be staring at something just beyond the television set. Her lips were drawn into a thin, determined line, and her hands were clasped, as if she were praying. “If I were a cruel man,” Henderson said, “I’d point out a moral here.”
    “But you’re not cruel. You’re generous and intelligent, and kind.” Marya took Henderson’s hand. “You’re not cruel, John. Are you?”

 

~

The next morning Henderson reclined in his stained leather chair, stirring a mug of coffee with the gnawed end of a ballpoint pen. It was not yet seven o’clock, and the Walter H. Layton Mathematics Building was quiet. Henderson had never been in his office quite so early, and was surprised at how much he enjoyed the deep, luxurious silence; soon the first graduate students would arrive, unshaven and reeking of last night’s stir-fry, then the undergraduates with 8 a.m. lectures, then the staff assistants and UPS men, and the building would begin to exude its normal levels of tension and haste. Henderson sipped his coffee and studied the dusty vectors of sunlight arrayed across his desk. It occurred to him that he would miss his office, if he were asked to leave. It was the only place at the college he felt truly at ease.
    The mailbox icon on his Unix desktop was blinking: one new message, from Czogloz, time-stamped 2:17 a.m.
    Dear John, it began, and Henderson paused, momentarily taken aback at the sight of such a personal greeting. I am writing to thank you. You have made Marya very happy, and therefore you have made me very happy. A great weight has been lifted from her: she sits now at the table composing a menu for our wedding, which will be in May, and the smile on her face is truly wondrous. I have no words to describe it. You will be invited to the wedding, of course, and I hope you will attend.
    The editor of the J.A.M. has agreed to publish a brief note in the December issue regarding the “misunderstanding,” as he terms it. I regret this. I regret also that Marya has drafted a letter to the regents of the Institute asking that they revoke her Ph.D. I was unable, finally, to discourage her.
    I must tell you that Marya believes you possess great kindness. I told her this is not true—I hope you understand. Because it is not true, is it? You are not kind. Marya claimed that your recent generosity was proof of the spirit working within you. I did not have a response to that statement. It seemed—dare I say?—plausible.
    I am too tired to write more, but must thank you again for what you’ve done. I do not completely understand why you’ve done it, but am grateful nonetheless. Thank you.
    Your friend,
    Miklos
    
    Henderson reread the message, then clicked “delete.” He switched off the computer. He leaned back in his chair, feeling vaguely certain that he should feel good about what he’d done—or what he’d allowed to happen—yet he did not feel good. For who, in the end, would benefit? Marya. Czogloz, by extension. And Henderson—as usual—would be left worse off, lower down, unhappier. Was it possible to find happiness in its pure state, unalloyed by sorrow? Sometimes it seemed so, but often Henderson was convinced it was impossible. Happiness was a zero-sum game: for one to become happy another must find despair. For so long, Henderson had been on the wrong side of the equation.
    With this thought in his mind Henderson took a small padded envelope from his desk drawer and printed Czogloz’s university address on it, then stuffed Marya’s pink panties inside and stapled the envelope shut.
    Outside, the sun had risen above the computer-science building and a breeze was stirring the newly fallen leaves. Four students in identical blue T-shirts and khaki shorts were strolling down West Street, untroubled by the early-autumn chill and all it implied: syllabuses, homework, exams. New junior faculty, new emeriti. Tenure reviews. Arrivals and departures. Henderson watched them for a moment, envious of their cheery indifference, then hurried north, toward the faculty parking lot.
    Driving across town, he switched on the radio but didn’t bother tuning in to any particular station. He parked near the mathematics building of Czogloz’s university and inside found an inter-campus mailbox. He hesitated for a moment—the envelope resting on the lip of the mail slot, the panties’ weight almost imperceptibly slight—then dropped the package in and double-checked to make sure it had reached bottom. No return address, no postmark, the monotonous blocky printing; Czogloz might suspect who’d sent it, but he’d never know for sure. Fine, thought Henderson. Let him wonder.
    He hurried back to his car and drove, past the edge of campus, past the Portuguese neighborhood, to where the houses possessed a faded shabbiness. On a whim he turned down a leaf-strewn, deserted side street. He felt a dark tugging, of something like remorse, but he put it from his mind. He parked the car and began to walk, past a laundromat, then a bank, then a fish market. Across the street was a church, a steepled stone building with broad concrete steps and a bright stained-glass window above the doors. A homeless man in an army-fatigue jacket was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette. A sign near the sidewalk read JESUS SAVES SAT 6 SUN 9 1030 1215.
    Henderson crossed the street and climbed the steps and pulled open the tall, heavy wooden doors. Inside, sunlight filtered dustily through rows of high windows and settled over the empty pews. The air smelled of incense and old, moist stones. He took a seat in the rearmost pew and stared straight up at the graceful geometry of the vaulted ceiling. It was a gorgeous place, he had to admit: the emptiness, the silence, the warm, dense air like a blanket draped over his shoulders. Somewhere outside a car alarm squealed, the sound muffled and hollow in the cavernous church.
    He recalled a story he’d once heard, about Euler’s “proof” of God’s existence to Diderot: , so God must exist. Ridiculous, of course. But then there was Pascal’s argument: that reasonable men should believe in God, because the potential payoff of heaven so far outweighed the risk of hell. Henderson sat with his hands clasped, biting his lower lip. If Pascal had known probability theory, he thought, he could have formalized his argument. It was a shame.
    A young priest walked down the aisle carrying a pair of ivory candles, and Henderson found himself trying to catch his eye. The thought occurred to him that he, John Henderson, could join the priesthood. His body quivered at the thought, a sharp rush of fear and excitement. They took anyone who applied—wasn’t there some rule? Look at me, Henderson thought, his gaze fixed on the priest’s downcast face. He could join the priesthood and spend entire afternoons thinking about faith, about forgiveness. Yes. He could stand before a congregation, and tell them what it meant to be lonely and full of fear. Look at me, he thought. Please. Look at me.
    But the priest hurried past, his cassock rustling softly.

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