By Sam Thayn
The math was fuzzy, and he hated fuzzy things—even small puppies and tabby cats. There were a few dozen chalkboards here under the skylight and hanging decorations from the last student dance, and they were crossed with every figure and symbol modern science could muster. They were chronological, too; he’d warned the janitors who swept and mopped literally underneath his feet—no, literally—
“Will you, Martha?”
“I’m sorry, Professor. I’m sorry, but they asked me to—”
“I know,” he said, without looking down or back or anywhere but at the fuzzy math. “I know what you’re doing. Do it when I’m not here.”
She went away. He saw the dust floating down from the skylight and tried to ignore it, pushing the chalkboards together and taking command of the only chair in the room. The problem wasn’t the people, he realized desperately. The problem was the number of people. He had pulled out a chunk of hair over this epiphany just moments ago—no, literally—and had left it scattered behind the last row of chalkboards, where Martha would no doubt be found shortly.
“The problem isn’t the people,” he murmured. No, the formulas had made that very, very clear. “The problem is the number of people,” he elocuted to no one in particular. He stood. “Specifically, the uneven numbers.” He stopped, looked up at the skylight, eyed the two entrances carefully, and coughed. He flipped the center chalkboard, where all other chalkboards met, and sat down again.
He studied the lines of the formula more rigorously than ever before, advancing through them like a man in a labyrinth: turning carefully at every corner, minding each trap with ginger steps, leaving brain crumbs with which to find his way back, and then tumbling out at the end with the proverbial piece of cheese. “The uneven numbers.” He began to chew on his lip, to gnaw indulgently at the rich layers of flesh there, being careful not to and yet hoping most certainly to draw blood, just the tiniest dot of red, into his mouth. The better to think with, he thought, and laughed into a dry coughing chuckle. He slapped his jacket pocket and fished out a Ricola, the middle of many, and began to suck. He’d leave his lip for later, for first there was the problem of population. Then countries and culture. The language variable alone had filled up the last three chalkboards with nonsense. He’d have to get an aide to rewrite them—but no! He’d leave it only to himself. What if the fool wrote a zed in the wrong place? Or dotted the wrongeuch? No, no, there would be none of that. Only his careful looping lines and his perfect equations, rowed and columned and laid out in meticulous fashion across twenty-eight chalkboards. No, twenty-nine he had pushed out into the hall. Bothersome twenty-nine, with its bothersomely dangerous final formula. He resigned to pull it in again, give it a final look, consequences and results be hanged. Perhaps he had overlooked something? But there was no “perhaps” about it. He had and he knew it. He pulled twenty–nine into position and sat.
“The population of people,” he reasoned aloud, “and the language variable, squared by the root value of the culture variable, divided by latitudinal geometry, multiplied by the matrices of age and the risk factor of disease and accident, calculated against the several factors of facial symmetry, weight, and weather dispositions, means it’s one to one. To one.” He perspired. “To one. To one. To?” And there was the remainder, the impossible remainder. “One,” he said, “is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, two can be—”
“Ah ha!” He stood.
“Professor?” She blushed. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’ve made it clear I don’t want to be disturbed.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“You surprised me.”
“What can I do for you, Miss Lee?”
“I’ve just brought some soup,” she said quietly. “I know you’ve been staying late and I’m sure you’re hungry.”
The Professor and twenty-nine chalkboards stood in perfect, angry silence. Miss Lee stepped into the now-dim glow of the skylight and set a Tupperware bowl of soup on the chair. “I’ll just put that there,” she said. “You must be hungry.” His objective eye followed the new art teacher’s shortly cut hair, her large eyes, her full lips, her perfectly-sized philtrum. There was something mathematically symmetrical, he conceded, in her finely formed face.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “Thank you, Professor, that’s very kind. You didn’t have to say that, you really didn’t—” She began to trail off unintelligibly.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“Oh, of course you didn’t,” she said. She smiled and left a lingering hand on the bright silverware on the lid of the Tupperware bowl of soup. “I’ll just be going now.”
Her small hand left the spoon as delicately as if it had been his own (hand, not spoon), and she retreated, looking longingly for moments too great before turning and swaying away.
“Miss Lee,” he said crossly, as she reached the threshold of the south exit.
“There’s one for every other one of us in the world,” he said. “But one.”
“I’m sorry, Professor?”
He gestured at the chalkboards with a new, a really curiously new, resignation. “When you take it all into account,” he said, “when you take every variable into account, there’s only one person on earth for every other one of us. But one.”
She stared. “Oh, I teach art, Professor. I couldn’t possibly know anything about your formulas.”
“It’s not hard,” he said, marveling at the tenderness this newfound resignation inspired in him. “There are 3,159,257,182 men on earth right this—” He flipped open his watch, tapped it, looked at the skylight, back to those eyes. “—this, well, ten seconds ago. Another baby boy, most likely a boy, is being born just now. And just now. But there are only 3,159,257,180 women on earth just ten seconds ago. And another girl. In three, two, now. Just now. But two men have died, and one woman. Just now. And another is born, just now.”
He drew a chalky circle around the “one” at the bottom of the twenty-ninth chalkboard. “This one right here, however, remains. Births, deaths, disease, incompatibility, calamities, car accidents, cancer, and every imaginable variable have been accounted for and there will always be one more than another. One more of us than any other one of us. Always.”
Miss Lee stared, dropped her hand from the wall and held it with the other. “That’s what this all means?”
“That’s what this one, in particular, means,” he said, tapping a nub of chalk against the twenty-ninth board. The formula looked stark and cruel against a now-rising moon, filtering through the skylight with a whitish glow.
“And the ‘one’ at the bottom, that’s the . . . what? The remainder?”
“That’s the remainder.”
“And who is the remainder?”
“Who is the remainder, Professor?”
He set the chalk on the sill of the twenty-ninth chalkboard, put his hands in his pockets, and looked into the night overhead. “One is the loneliest number.”
“Two can be as bad as one,” she sang.
They heard the distant rumble of thunder and waited for the sprinkling sounds of rain on the rooftop. “I suppose I’ll just leave that there,” she said. “You really must be hungry.”
“Thank you, Miss Lee.”
“Are you sure you want to stay here?”
“Yes, I’ll be here. Always just right here.”
He turned and watched for a long moment, a moment that went on until the rain came, darkening the glow of the skylight over his flat, emotionless face. And she too watched him for a moment more before she slipped into the darkness of the door, leaving him one and two no longer, the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.