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HIGHER MATH

Descant 76/7

     I was worried, and I went to see Jack as soon as I got back to New York from L.A. As I entered his lobby, Tony the doorman took me aside.
     "Mr. Scott," he said, "maybe you can help about Mr. Carlson's dog. I mean, Mr. Carlson, he don't go out anymore at all, not even to walk the dog. He just puts it on the elevator by itself a couple a times a day and pushes the lobby button. He don't even tell me when the dog's comin'. I gotta tell you, Mr. Scott, it's no picnic when a German attack dog comes off the elevator by itself lookin' to take a crap. I went out and got me a big tin of dog biscuits but I'm still scared shitless of him. So are the night men. We're not supposed to leave the door, Mr. Scott. "
     "I see what you mean, Tony. I'll see what I can do."

     Jack Carlson was my ex college roommate and best friend. Sally was Jack's second wife, and Jack loved her so much that she used to laugh and say he embarrassed her because she could not love him back enough. Sally was also my best friend after Jack, a tall happy blond who tried to help me sort out my romantic entanglements with bemused patience. It's easy to idealize other men's wives, but I remember telling Jack that Sally seemed to require so little maintenance — she was smart and independent without really working at it, and absolutely effortless to be with.
     A little over a month ago, Sally was found lying in the 22nd Street exit of the 7th Avenue subway and taken to Cabrini Hospital. Some man had been waiting on the other side of the turnstile with a knife. She lived long enough to tell the emergency room personnel that he hadn't even asked her for money or sex.
     Jack was working at home that day. When he got the call, he ran from 22nd Street and Park to Cabrini, and when he found out she was dead he ran from the emergency room to the East River and started running downtown. He ran past Little Italy and Chinatown, and I am talking here about a man in his late forties who does not exercise much. He finally collapsed around Battery Park. Somebody put him in a taxi and sent him home.

     Jack was the strongest person I knew and it frightened me to see him come unstuck like that. I really needed him back together again as whole as possible and as soon as possible. I moved into his apartment temporarily and did the funeral arrangements and made sure he was surrounded by friends. When I left for work Monday morning he seemed to be in pretty good shape, all things considered.

     I checked in with Jack at noon and got back to his place about 6:00 that evening. He was studying a book on dog breeds.
     "Mike," he said, "this city is unsafe but there are steps a man can take. Look at these magnificent animals. Dobermans! Shepherds! Mastiffs! Rottweilers! I can't get a pistol permit in this town but I can get a dog. "
     "Hey listen," I said, "let me take you out to dinner."
     "Let's order in," he said. "I'm not ready to go out in the streets just yet."

     I moved back to my place two days later but I checked in with Jack every day and went by to see him most evenings as well, often bringing dinner for the two of us. He didn't talk about Sally much, at least not to me, and in one sense I was glad because I wasn't sure I was ready yet to really get into it without breaking down.
     I guess I expected Jack to be a little better each day, as if grief was a linear process, a series of fixed steps to be gotten through, but in fact Jack's fears seemed to be intensifying. It seemed the only way he could make sense of Sally's murder was to assume that everyone was under siege. He ordered a Rottweiler from a German kennel, named it Samson, and hired a `defense' trainer through the New York Times to work with him and the dog. All this took about a month, during which time Jack refused to leave his apartment. The law firm he worked for was sympathetic, and was prepared to carry him until he felt like coming in. I was hoping Jack would feel safer when Samson's training was complete. I was looking forward to having dinner with him again in one of the restaurants we used to frequent, and maybe even laughing again, as I used to, against my will, at the preposterous sexist jokes he would tell to tease Sally.
     Samson was a big ugly brute with a bristling black and tan coat, and when Jack and the trainer were finished with him he was suspicious of everyone but Jack. With Samson at his side, Jack felt able to go out into the streets again, but he did not go back to work or out to restaurants with me or anywhere outside his immediate neighborhood. The few times I went walking with him, he put Samson on an 18 inch snap release chain and patrolled the streets around his house as if he was in a war zone. Jack's fear made him ugly. Strangers approaching him and Samson tended to steer a wide berth around them.

     Business took me to the West Coast for a week. Over the phone, Jack began to sound remote and preoccupied. He mentioned a project he was working on, but would not be specific about it. Then Sally's mother called to say that she went by to clear out Sally's things, and that Jack was acting strange. She said the entire time she was there, Jack remained at his desk, hunched over his calculator, muttering and scribbling numbers on what looked to be ledgers of some kind. She said he did not want to keep a single photograph or remembrance of Sally, and would not talk about her except to say that Sally was lost in the celestial music of the spheres, whatever that meant. She also said she feared for her life around Samson, and she finally insisted Jack keep him in the den until she finished packing Sally's things.

     So all this worried me, 3,000 miles away, and I went to straight to Jack's from the airport without even stopping at my apartment. And then Tony tells me what's been going on with Samson, and I realized things were maybe even worse than I thought.
     I knocked on Jack's door and when no one answered I let myself in with the key I still carried. I called out as I crossed the foyer and entered the living room. Samson bared his fangs and lunged from across the room, but he stopped in mid stride at a sharp command from Jack who emerged from the hall off the living room.
     Jack beckoned me to follow and led the way down the hall to his den. He was wearing his bathrobe and a week's growth of beard; he smiled at me over his shoulder, looking relaxed and cheerful as he shuffled along with Samson at his side.
     The den was littered with cardboard containers from pizza and Chinese food places. There were three lighter squares on the wall above his desk where pictures of Sally used to hang, and they made me think of a game I'd seen Jack and Sally play. Sally would walk into the den, point to one of her pictures, and say, "Who is that gorgeous woman? You never told me about her." Then Jack would make up some outrageous story on the spot, with lots of detailed bizarre sex, and Sally would act more and more appalled until the story finally got so crazy they would both break up laughing.
     Jack gestured for me to sit. His desk was covered with sheets of paper filled with numbers. Crumpled balls of paper lay on the floor in a semi-circle around the desk.
     "I understand you've stopped going out with Samson," I said. "Tony's a little worried about dealing with Samson alone. I think he has a case."
     "Mike, I can't go out there yet. It's too dangerous. I give Tony a big tip at Christmas and I always ask about his kids but I can't solve all his problems. When I understand the pattern better, I may be able to predict the safe days. Until then, Tony has to walk Samson."
     "What do you mean by safe days, Jack?"
     "Well, it's a little complicated, but I may be on to something, I'm not sure yet. For instance, what does the number minus 32 mean to you?"
     "Nothing. Or isn't that the point where something freezes?"
     "Well," he said expansively, "there are all kinds of puzzles in this world. For example, minus 32 was the number my calculator was displaying 7 days ago when I got up in the morning. And that wasn't left over from the last time it was used. These solar powered jobs have no batteries. When the lights go out that wipes out their memory. But every morning it comes up with a new number. Sometimes positive numbers, sometimes negative. I asked Sally about it once. She always got up before I did and I asked her if she was entering numbers early in the morning just to tease me, but she said no."
     "I'm not sure I follow you completely."
     "Well, where are the numbers coming from if no one's hitting the keys, Mike? That's a reasonable question, isn't it? I mean, I began to ask myself, could the calculator be working on its own? Is it, maybe, trying to communicate with me? I mean this is absurd, right Mike? I'm just kidding around, right?" Jack was getting excited. He leaned toward me.
     "But what if I were to tell you that today is 39 days since Sally died, which means 7 days ago, the day the calculator displayed minus 32, it was exactly 32 days since she died? Minus 32, get it? And that five days before that, the calculator displayed minus 27 when I got up, which was 27 days after she died? And that the day she died it displayed zero? I remember that zero because it was so unusual. And do you know what happened three days ago, the day it displayed zero again? My one remaining high school friend died that day. That's what happened!"
     Jack got up and began to pace the den in a tight circle.
     "Now I know this probably sounds nuts to you but I've been working on these numbers for a couple of weeks and I think there's a possibility that this calculator is doing some kind of simultaneous count down on the lives of several people including Sally and myself, sort of ticking off the days remaining to each of us in rotation. I've got some of it worked out and I can take you through it if you like. I believe the safe days are the days no zeros come up on the calculators of anyone involved."
     I felt lonely and afraid listening to Jack talk. I couldn't help thinking about institutions and psychiatrists and I realized with Sally gone how very much I needed him whole and sane just to keep my own equilibrium. I began to get angry at Jack for quitting on me and going off into some weird place in his head. "Jesus," I said, "this rug is really ugly. It's always looked awful in this room. Why don't you go out and get a new rug, for Chrissake! Get up off your ass, take that killer dog if you have to, but get the hell outta here for a while and forget the goddamn calculator!"
     Samson sensed my agitation and drew back his lips in the beginning of a snarl. Jack had stopped in his tracks with his mouth open during my little speech and now he dropped his eyes and said, "I'm sure you're right, Mike. I mean, I'm pretty sure you're right."
     Jack began to laugh and shake his head from side to side. Then he began to cry at the same time he was laughing. Pretty soon he was crying more than he was laughing. "But don't you see?" he said finally, "I mean, if I can't even understand my fucking calculator..."
     I looked over at Samson who had begun to fidget and whine when Jack started to cry. He continued to watch me with his intelligent and dangerous eyes and I felt a sudden, strong kinship with him — we both wanted to secure Jack in a world without Sally and so far we were failing badly. I reached out my hand tentatively and Samson surprised me by extending and lowering his head to be petted. I had never seen him do that for anyone but Jack. His coat was rough but his skin felt fine and warm and I loved him for his fierce and unconditional devotion to Jack.

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