Upon first reading the Volume 5, Number 3, May 1972 edition of Princeton University and The Institute for Advanced Studies The Annals of Mathematics, Richard Knebel1, associate professor of Mathematics at ‘A Distinguished University,’ closed his eyes and revisited, decades earlier, the cold and distant stare of his mother.
Around campus where he was well known and somewhat disliked and not without reason, he circled indifferently, his face blank and unreadable, stopping only to buy coffee and loading it with milk and sugar and sipping with a gesticulated rasping sound, despite having no particular love for coffee or the matter of the intense heat of the morning. It was 82 Degrees in Massachusetts. The sun was general.
He did not give notice to his students that there would be no classes that day nor inform his peers that he would not be available in his office or instruct either of how they could reach him if such a need arose. Standing in a quiet area of the campus with his unwanted coffee he looked like a visitor who was lost or somewhat absent in thought, a father perhaps of a student, a graduate student more fitting with his age, decked out in what was a reasonable attire for attending such a prestigious university, even if it was not by invitation to study or lecture but more the simpler pleasure of coming to experience the pride over ones noted child who was now walking these halls and was flying the flag so to speak for a family back home somewhere in a small town of cornfields and football and a noted church fete, a town with two learned men, the pastor and the doctor, both of whom upon learning of the young man’s extraordinary progress, had begun to call in more often than before and take tea, occasionally a meal or a late port and talked in the sly but curious way that the educated have over the non, of the young man and his potential, eager to understand his direction without making those who held faint understanding of the details feel inadequate. It was after all their child and they were merely observers of this coming of age.
When he was a young child, an infant, before he could walk, he examined the primitive toys which his father had crafted for him in his work shed with what could only be interpreted as an abnormal sense of precision, and this precision was duly noted by his mother who even though a fastidiously clean women would allow the toys to litter the floor of her home, to be walked upon and cracked and repaired by her husband and admired by friends and neighbors who stopped in and were soon shown the serenely beautiful calculation of her young infant as he gripped spheres like planets and long blocks like the foundations of empires and smashed them together with the dexterity of a child half his age. A surgeon he would not become.
His mother was known to have a first rate intellect and had devoured many books within her earlier years had found herself wanting in later life to be nothing more than, as she put it, a useful person, but never indicated the specifics of that usefulness nor mentioned to those who on the receiving end of their pleasantries why they had earned such gracious attention or what they could do in their own to pay it back. When she was twenty two she graduated from another distinguished university and seeing no place for herself in the high roads of academics sought out a position in advertising and worked, as was customary, until her first pregnancy which removed her the corporate ladder and left her somewhat alone, at home, raising what became four infants balanced on a diet of warm milk, intellectual pursuits and severe beatings.
It was then at that moment, feeling again the whipped sting of the cane against his reddening skin, that Knebel kicked back the gears in the car and accelerated faster along the freeway, overtaking most of the traffic, shouldering giant trucks as if they were the toys of his youth and continued in the miraculous way that he saw the world, all lines and order, towards his destination and intent. It was his father ironically who was the better of the parents, even though he had left when the oldest girl was only ten years old and Richard nine. There was no explanation given why he turned his back on his family, although he never considered the economic burden placed upon him as a result of the divorce anything but a result of due cause. He admitted in passing, before he died, that it was his fault the marriage failed, and although he never cheated on his wife he had wanted to several times, and although he loved his two eldest children with, as he said, more warmth than the sun, he came to detest the two youngest girls, whom he claimed were forming traits which began to resemble demonic constructs at root in his very home. When asked to explain further, he just smiled, and as they were drinking beer at the time ordered one, and said they were turning into their mother, sinking half the bottle and ordering another. He had been an engineer, worked in aerospace, and that was the day he was let go from his job in Wilmington and had come down to discuss the possibilities of Arizona or New Mexico as a ‘neat’ place he could retire to. He was fond of the word ‘neat.’ Two weeks later while driving his friend Bobby to the airport his heart gave out, somewhat unexpectedly, and caused a fatal pile up from which no one could assign any blame.
It was during his first years at university that Richard had begun to fixate on the idea of perfection and it was this idea that lead to his first hospitalization, or what he called the beginning of the internments. There were seven in all, of roughly equal length, brought on by the various measures of life, which force stress upon the body and mind. He had seen a ghost in the corridors that had spoken to him, and he referred to this later when speaking to the assigned therapist of a colored music coming from this spirit, and that this music manifested itself in odds shapes and patterns that he believed could be decoded by a fierce and concerted devotion to its primary notes. Tone-deaf, he believed them to be C, D and F sharp. The second and third happened in a similar way and it was only on the fourth occasion that his mother, being his only guardian, consented to a pharmacological answer, which, when kept as routine as routines often do, warded off the spirits, the cloud warriors, the incessant whispers of what he termed the godly dreamers who tempt you to madness with the half theorem and the quarter proof. Perhaps it was no surprise that the therapist was pleased when the mandated sessions finished.
It took many years for him to understand that it was as much a drug to him as the others who had sat around in the patients ward and shuffled feet in cotton and wrapped themselves warm in gifts of home whose scent, motherly, brotherly, even the faint hint of dog, is depleted in the sterile and often silent environment of the loony bin. His mother did not visit him while he was inside, but she was always there to collect him upon release and for a numbers of weeks would be considerate and kind and dismiss the notion of illness or sadness or incompatibility and resort again to her usefulness, biding time until she could release her great problem, that being her son, back into the world once more. He was lucky, he knew, that he had supporters at the university, and some of them held some degree of power and saw a little of themselves in their youth in Richard. He had been warned on a number of occasions that his days were running low and only so much could be expected from the faculty and the students, only so much patience they said, as much as he had to offer. As much as they wanted to keep him. It was today, upon reading of the breakthrough made by an unnamed mathematician at an unidentified fellow university in a field similar to his, upon a similar path to him, arriving at the exact conclusion he had hoped to arrive at, but doing so sooner, and much more elegantly, that he knew there would no longer any second chances for Richard Knebel.
He felt illness coming upon him, without malice, just a gentle settling. What it was he did not want to know. At night was haunted by a disturbing dream, wherein wild dogs set upon him in the twilight of an Alaskan summer. He was down an alleyway between those small colorful houses that you see on postcards and was coming back from a personal moment when his guard was down and it was this spent relief that caught him unaware, and shook by the teeth and tore chunks from him and savaged his face. Not wanting to admit that he had made the mistake of being out without protection he refused to have the wounds treated, and so continued with his life, sitting in cafes struggling with eggs and coffee as they leaked from his cheek.
Richard had purchased a pistol some months back. It was a .32 caliber revolver and although he had little experience with weapons he obtained and fired over one thousand rounds in a few months, cataloguing twenty-six failures to fire. Despite this commitment to improving himself upon the weapon he was never more than an average shot, unable to relax the muscles in his hand and fingers or stop himself from flinching slightly upon firing. His best grouping was thirteen inches at twelve feet. This revolver sat loaded, rumbling underneath the seat upon which he sat.
Not that it was the case he wished to be so accurate. He had decided months ago that the pistol would be used only on himself. It would be pressed to his temple and the trigger pulled. It was only this remarkable day with his mind balanced on the cliché of breaking down that forced this unnatural course of action upon him. Yes, the thoughts of his mother. Yes, the thoughts of failure. Yes, he was going to drive to that other university, walk into the classroom of that other professor and shoot him in the chest, once, maybe twice. He would not add a coup de gras, a tap to the head, a finishing moment. He would leave the rest of it up to chance. Then he would turn the gun on himself and be done with the entire system.
He drove for twelve straight hours, emptying himself into a water bottle he had found amongst the notes that accompanied him wherever he went. He enjoyed the clutter, he believed it made people think more of him and kept his office as such, untidy, littered with proofs in his neat scrawl, books piled upon the desk and in the corner of the room and neatly stacked on the one chair his visitors would use, and when asking them to sit he would watch as they collected them and deposited the heap on the floor by their feet. The shy ones would look to them when avoiding eye contact and he imagined them impressed.
It was night before he finally stopped, emptying his bottle and filling the tank at a gas station that seemed to him on the edge of a desert. There were coyotes in the distance. They were singing to him.
He remembered clearly, a young man again, gauging the propensity for stress fractures of a wooden beam that ran across the height of the garage, a room he seldom visited and thought cool and filthy. He had fashioned a noose and wrapped it carefully above and positioned a chair in the center of the room, underneath what would be his falling position. Despite, or perhaps because of, the concentration he placed in its arrangement he found himself standing, staring at the device, the means. He claimed at first that he had not heard his mother approach but admitted later that he is fact had, and rather than dismantle the construction had instead waited for her to come upon them both, and communicated the disappointment he had felt with her reaction, devoid of caring, dismissive of the attempt as farcical attention seeking, and with a voice rising to inquisition the question of why he had not carried out with his original intent. Speaking later, after the fact, he spoke first of an erection followed by the warm relief as he wet himself at which point his mother fell silent and threw a towel, also wet, from a pile sitting on the dryer.
The first year back was the hardest on him as he found himself teaching in a fog, his understanding half lit. How he had maintained his position he did not know. Students queued to see him, asking questions, looking for discussion. If there was a genuine liking for him, and from those I have contacted this appears to be so, to Richard’s mind, functioning as it was, it became an ordeal, his self-loathing by now had begun to control him. Where others saw friendly enquiry, for some the first time they could approach a teacher as an adult, without fear or derision, he saw only failure, a hindrance of their progress, a dereliction of duty. He called this the absence and in the years that followed it called upon him with like an ever increasing number.
One young man who had called often Richard had begun to see as more than a student and he had clumsily asked him to join his teacher is various extracurricular activities and feeling such softness in the young man, who was open and proud of being so, had tried to kiss one evening, post drinks, the control lifted, only to be admonished in that peculiarly gentle way that some men possess, when bearing the rider of youth and position and privilege, the confidence that Richard had never felt. When the student implored him to seek psychiatric help all he could do was nod and sob, accepting the slight embrace offered and spent what was left of the night shaking and trying to hold on to himself. Thankfully it was the end of term, and he never saw the student again, and spent the summer interned once more.
As the car struggled on through the desert night he began to feel uneasy. It was the gun that bothered him, although not upon his body he felt its weight, he felt it in his hand and had imagined a dialogue where the pistol talked to him of past lives, of being entombed in the shells of others. A part of him knew that this was not real but another side of him accepted it, welcomed it even. He began to think of trials where he would take the stand and profess a grand connection to the small revolver, and doctors would stand for him and in his defense proclaim insanity, and the jurors would listen, one in particular, a woman he envisioned with grey hair and of indeterminate age, a woman with children of her own, a woman with an open heart, a free spirit in her youth, considered mad in her own way at the appropriate age, her youth wild in a conservative town, the sort who would have visited him those hospitalized moments when he was barely himself, and looked at him through the glass eyes of the medicated, and touched his hand, and said everything would be okay, and at night, alone, settling into her ritual of television would comfort herself on her decision to acquit, and say “yes, there was madness there . . . ” before turning over to wheel of fortune and thinking of her own children, of how they were in life, and feel comforted in her choices, unplanned at the time, barely a whisper.
Women had always played an important part in his life. He had known that from a young age and although never attracted to them and conscious and accepting of his sexuality he had always felt closer to the female, and worried for a time himself that it was a result of a form of conditioning that his mother had implemented to emasculate him. This had been the subject of many of his therapy sessions, both inside and out of the hospital grounds. Yet he loved her. It had felt strange to him that at his father’s funeral he felt relief on seeing his mother cry, and admitted that this indeed was a truly pathetic way to see another as a human being and he had decided on that day to see her as a better person and would strive to be better for her. He discarded his medication and began to eat healthily, took up running, focused on his students and his work and found himself, two weeks later, naked in a church before a priest who appeared to have lost his patience many years ago, and next to the priest two policemen who tried to coax him into a blanket and brought him to the car and finally to the emergency room where he lay on a trolley overnight, thinking strange thoughts and wondering if this was hell itself, or some sort of dismal purgatory.
It was his fourth hospitalization that he felt the most. Moving between ineffective medicine they had administered a course of electroconvulsive therapy, which he had himself had approved, and although he remembered very little from the experience, which I am told is not uncommon, there was an emotional vividness attached to the procedure that made it difficult for him to speak about it. He confided in me that it was not entirely unpleasant, but I did not press him on this apparent contradiction.
When exhaustion had finally come upon him Richard pulled into a motel and rented a room for what was left of the night. Feeling overwhelmed with heat he had filled the bathtub with ice and lay in the cold water, keeping the pistol nearby under a towel. Lying in the water he discovered ley lines in the patterns of decay on the ceiling of the bathroom. He did not know what direction they would carry him to, nor what secrets they hid. How many men had passed through these very walls with a similar purpose? Had they echoed the alternatives with arterial spray upon the heaven of this small, centralized world? There might be colonies of them, young and old, all races and religions, finding such directions in the plaster of the familiar, searching for each other, gathering in motels at the edge of another desert where they lived quietly and without purpose on the backs of the dead, the memories of their fathers and mothers and brothers and children, calming their decay with the occasional scream, cooling it with ice from the machine, calling out to the unseen, the animals who haunted them, much like the coyotes, pattering across the dry dust that surrounded him and calling back through the night, yes, much like coyotes, but in the end always men.
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