Winter 2004 [Premiere Issue]
Escape Velocities ▪►Jim Snowden - Part 1 of 7
From the Desk of Henry Ellis
August 25th, 1985
Iíve started this up again because the damn thing is back. Thereís nothing I can do about it. Itís returned, and I have to start this thing again. Prove that the equation xn+yn≠zn where n>2. Iíve got to go back and work on it. Itís been five years.
I think I can take it.
I looked around for a long while for my old notebooks. Imagine spending your last summer week digging through your house for an old Mead loose-leaf binder. My hands are covered with paper cuts from all the packing material Iíve mined. I never let the parents find out, of course. They donít need to know. Iíve put them deep enough in hock for counselors and therapists as it is. Christmases were thin for three years because of those leeching motherfuckers.
It isnít so pathetic, really, my digging for my old words. After youíve walked up the hill to stand on the big chalk T that stands for Tooele, there isnít much else to do for entertainment here. The bishop who lives next door lets me shoot baskets in his yard. He thinks heíll convert me and Iíll wind up the math genius of the 6th Ward basketball team. It got old the second week of June.
Thatís Utah for you.
Anyway, I stopped looking for the notebooks this afternoon. It really didnít matter whether I found them or not. It was just something to keep me occupied. I canít just stare at a problem for hours. I need an activityó some purely nonmathematical pastime, or I flip out.
Thatís why Iíve started writing again. Itís my way of keeping the noise level down in my head (until my mom graduates law school and moves us to a place where I can get some hard drugsóand for any Mormons reading this, Iím not talking about caffeine, you schmucks). After I get all the regular bullshit this place dumps on me out on paper, I can work on Fermatís bullshit.
He never did solve his own theorem. Iím convinced of that. His "no room in the margins" comment was just a dig at mathematicians. Having lived in this shit pit of purity for six years, I know how he must have felt. You know what the last lines of the school song here are?
Here we will stay until we die / Forever and forever in Tooele.
Whatís shocking is that talk like that doesnít lead to a higher suicide rate here. Therapists used to tell me that I had serious adjustment problems. I think if you can adjust to Utah, that is a serious problem.
Anyway, Fermat never got anywhere with the theorem. He didnít have the theory behind him. He didnít have Gerhard Frey and his bizarro world elliptical equation to work with. (His articles paper my walls. Itís his fault Iím on this kick again. If I have to be carried out of here, blame him, not me. If itís true for Judas Priest fans itís got to be true for me, right?) He didnít have Sophie Germaine and Euler and Galois and on and on.
Imagine being that brilliantó that right-on about so much, and not getting it. Itís kind of like being the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. Yeah, you were great, but you never won the big one. Imagine the guy who almost figured out relativity, whoever he or she was. Imagine this poor bastard, following the same logic Einstein followed, with elevators and bicycles and trains and lightning bolts. Imagine heís worked for years struggling with the math and then he turns around and hereís this patent clerk taking all the gloryó just because our hero went to bed early one night or decided to take in a stage show (or whatever geniuses did in 1905).
This is kind of like my Algebra II teacher, Mr. Call. (I know. Iím taking Algebra II. I was doing abstract algebra at Cal Tech when I was eight. Thank you, therapists. Thank you so much.) The poor guy almost made it to the space shuttle program. You know the deal. The Teacher-in-Space thing that President Hood Ornament recommended last year. He wonít pay the poor bastards any more or hire a few so they arenít teaching classes the size of Madison Square Garden, but heíll shoot one into orbit. Like that treatment did anything for dogs and monkeys.
Sorry, I digress.
Thing is, Iím not all that impressed with the space shuttle. I remember when I first heard about it. I asked my mother whether it could take us to Mars (the place that NASA claims weíll go by 2000 or so). She said no. I asked her if it could take us to the moon, the site of our glorious future moonbase and observatory. She said no. I asked what the fuck it did do. She said it went into orbit. News flash: WEíVE BEEN IN ORBIT! Since then, Utah has sent Senator Jake Garn up so that he could throw paper airplanes in the cargo hold and fart around with ant farms and crystals. It just doesnít do anything for me. All the good NASA projects are on hold, like the sign on the north side of town that says COMING SOON: TOOELE VALLEY MALL. The signís been there since Ford was President. Dear NASA, wake me when you FUCKING DO SOMETHING!
Still, Mr. Call is dead-solid impressed with the whole idea of sending a teacher into space. He talked about it so much the first day of class that he hardly had time to tell us that tardiness would cost us 1% of our grades. He wasnít trying to impress us with the fact that he was nearly chosen. He was excited, thrilled, and probably hoping that the sixteen teachers between him and STS-25 would come down with mono at the last minute so he could take his ride. He told us he got up early to watch every launch, and nobody watches those anymore.
There is one other thing.
Thereís this girl. Nothing good ever got started with that, but there it is. Thereís this girl sitting next to me. I donít know how to describe her, except to tell you how sitting next to her, just sitting next to her, made me feel. When I was six, I was hanging out in the office of a professor friend of my dadís. There was an unfinished modular series problem on the blackboard. It was Gaussian. I didnít know that at the time. My dad told me later. Anyway, I went up to the board and finished the problem. I just looked at it, felt this instant link. I didnít just perceive the pattern. I was a part of it. I was the part that moved the problem to its solution. I worked it out on the board while my dad and the professor stood there watching. I was right. But thatís not even the point. I was in those equations. You couldnít separate us.
I felt the same with this girl. She was the resolution of a Gaussian modular series equation.
Ainít that poetry?
Not that it matters. I know what this is. Itís transference. Therapists told me all about it. Iím not really connected to her, and thereís no way that Iíll solve her. Sheís a pretty girl who can set her sights on quarterbacks and class presidents. Why should she stick her hands in the back pockets of a guy who talks to himself in hallways? Besides, sheís probably a Mormon. If we ever did start talking, sheíd probably try to convert me and then Iíd have to kill her and bury her body under the big chalk T.
In front of her was a big lump of a guy who looked like one of my cousinís mashed potato statues. His chin just sort of merged into his chest. He wore a denim jacket and jeans with the telltale white circle in the back pocket indicating an intimate relationship with chaw. I figure he must be from Erda, and the mere fact of having to live with twenty brain-dead, Pabst-Blue-Ribbon-drinking motherfuckers forces him to dress like that.
The other kids in the class are the usual college bound/honors suspects. One is the daughter of the Junior High Principal, Mr. Killoworth. Sheís surprisingly thin, given her family background (her parents could easily be mistaken for the two fat guys who rode the tiny motorcycles in the Guinness Book Of World Records. Maybe that fate awaits her still.). Another couple are the children of Mormon bishops. Three are teachersí kids. Thereís one guy whoís from Pennsylvania with whom I should be friends but am not, for some reason. I donít know. Anyway, most of them are also in either my AP Computer class or my Accelerated English course.
The first exam is tomorrow. Itís just a diagnostic test, to see if you know everything you need to know to start the course. So itís a freebie A to anyone whoís been awake the last three years.
Tonight Iím going to try to put the cute girl out of my mind. Sheíd never go for me anyway. Sheís probably going out with some GQ Mormon guy. She parks her hand in his back pocket and he does the same with her as they cruise the halls. I know you might say that Iím selling myself short, and you may be right. But when nobodyís buying, itís hard to sell long.
Besides, Iím moving next year. My motherís finishing law school and then weíre so out of here. I donít want to get tied down to a girl.
It should be a good class.
August 26th, 1985
The big exam has come and gone. I aced it. (Natch.) I usually donít like to say anything for fear of jinxing it, but in this case Iím sure I brought my brain with me when I attended the exam, so Iím sure I did all right. Everyone else seemed pleased and sure of themselves at the end as well, so it looks like no one will resent me for blowing the curve this time.
August 27th, 1985
Youíll never believe this.
There are some things you see in life that are impossible to describe. I remember the first time I looked at Jupiter through my telescope and made out the yellow cloud bands and the Great Red Spot. Itís hard to say why seeing it through a 4-inch refractor has more meaning than seeing a big picture of it in Life magazine. The magazine photo is better, clearer, larger, closer. But placing it on the photoplate and printing it next to Princess Di reduces it to the explicable. The planet is the princess is the country singer is the televangelist. Just another thing. But see it through a telescope, and the tiny image is impossible to describe. You have to see it yourself.
It was a different yet similar feeling that I had today in class.
I walked in and all the tests were laid out on our desks for us. Mr. Call occupied himself with the board. I glanced at him for a second just because he was moving, then turned back to the rows of desks.
On my way to my desk, I had to pass Derrickís. I swear I didnít mean to look at his exam. I glanced at it the same way I glanced at Mr. Call, just to note its presence before I moved on to my own business. The glance showed me a grid of red ink on top of which was a circle. Inside the circle was a 2.
A number 2.
I stood there, as if I were that priest in The Omen who got the pole through his neck. I had trouble registering the concept. There was his name at the top. Derrick Raleigh. The first problem (x+4=9, solve for x), he solved correctly. But after that, his test was covered in more red ink than the Reagan Administration. The guy from Pennsylvania, Pete-something, who should be my friend but isnít, walked into the room and asked what I was staring at. Then he looked and wound up staring at it too. Little Miss Killoworth came in a second later, walked over and stared. Then Gorgeousness walked in. She stared like the rest of us. It was as if we were in some tribe on PBS thatís seeing a TV monitor for the first time.
Not just two points out of ten, or two out of twenty. Weíve all seen those before. No, this was two out of a hundred. Heíd solved exactly one problem out of fifty. Because he showed no work, my guess is that the first answer was the only one he could discreetly copy from a neighboring test; after that, forty-nine red slashes made it look like one of Jack the Ripperís dinner dates. It froze me right there on the carpet. If any of us were Catholic, weíd have crossed ourselves. I have to say itís one of the few times Iíve felt close to any of these people. Pure horror will do that to you.
Usually, the idiocy around here comes in ways that are easier to take because they make sense. Some dolt who doesnít really belong in the class decorates his test paper with an artistically-rendered question mark (a skull instead of a period, or lots of spider webs and Motley Crue logos around the curve). Itís a challenge. Heís saying that heís stupid, and who the fuck are you to change it? He takes his stupidity as a natural law. Existence itself depends on it. If you took it away, then the universe would collapse into chaos, electrons would crash into nuclei, and all would be dust. The question mark someone like that draws says to the teachers, "Can you even conceive of the monumental forces with which you are trifling?"
I hate people who are stupid by choice.
This was different. Either Derrick did this on purpose or he is seriously out of it and in need of hospitalization, and since no sane person would bother to think up 49 consecutive wrong answers in order to fail a test when he could just leave them blank, I had to believe that the answer was behind curtain number two. We stayed in a circle around the slaughtered test until Mr. Call finally turned away from his chalkboard, stomped over and broke us all up.
Gorgeousness asked, "Did you see that?"
"Yes," I said, surprised that she would speak to me. She had a voice, oh what a voice. Mathematically perfect pitch. Mozart could have used her to calibrate his piano.
"What do you think it means?"
I struggled to find something funny to say. The best thing I could come up with was something Iíd heard on a sitcom (a sitcom I hoped she hadnít seen). "I donít know. But I am afraid."
Gorgeousness chuckled. I wish she hadnít done that. Itís so hard to figure out what that kind of thing means. Does it mean she just liked the joke or that she liked me and was laughing because I said it?
The bell rang. Mr. Call said that weíd all done extremely well on the first test, just as he had expected. I suppose he felt it was impolitic to mention Derrickís score, but that was okay. He was telling the truth to all of us who were there. He noted that there were a couple of problems that several kids in the class had missed, and he would go over them before starting us in the textbook today.
As he started number 21, Derrick lumbered into the room. Tardy Ė automatic 1% penalty. There went half of his two points right there. Mr. Call looked hard at Derrick, but Derrick ploughed right through his stare and wedged himself into his desk.
When I was seven, I failed my first test at Cal Tech Calculus Camp. It was so embarrassing. Everyone else was so happy with their scores and I blew mine. I looked at the happier kids and wondered what business I had around them. I was just a hick kid from, well, letís count them up: Topeka, Irving, Albuquerque, Tucson, Fresno, Pendleton and finally Tooele. Yeehaw! And the other kids were from Bronx Science and Choate and all those famous schools where you wear uniforms and have a house mother like on Facts of Life. All the blood rushed to my skin. I was red and scared.
Now, I looked at Derrick for some sign that he felt the same way I had, but he smiled at his test, folded it four ways, and shoved it in his back pocket with his chaw. No red face, no pale face, just doughy Derrick, scratching idly at a zit on his chin and facing front. Was I facing the ultimate Farmer kid? Was he the final product, like the Terminator? The next generation, advanced prototype, tobacco-chewing, cow-tipping moron?
I donít know, but I was scared sitting there, really scared. Iím glad itís the weekend. (First week of schoolóthree days on, then Labor Day weekend. Stupid, huh?) Iíll have to go out in the backwoods with Spankey (thatís my dogís name, you pervert), and get Gorgeousness and the Idiot out of my mind.
Then itís back to work. I have some equations that I have to work through. Itís tedious stuff, but if Iím right, I might pair a prime elliptical equation with a prime mod soon. Iím following Eulerís and Germaineís idea of solving for the primes in a series first and then...aw fuck it. If I tell you, I donít have to do it, do I?
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