The Last Equation of Isaac Severy
– 1 – The Merchant
The Resurrection Cemetery sounded to Hazel Severy more like a threat than a place of peace and final repose, but as far as she could tell, it was shaping up to be a lovely service. Her grandfather’s casket, draped in white roses and gold embroidery, positively glowed in the Southern California sun. If there had been any doubts that Isaac Severy, a Catholic suicide, would receive a proper send-off with the full regalia, those doubts were now dispelled.
From her seat among the chairs arranged on the vast mortuary lawn, Hazel glanced around at mourners’ faces both familiar and strange. Her hand went to the pocket of her dress trousers, into which she had slipped an unopened envelope not an hour before. It had arrived that morning inside an overnight FedEx packet mailed from her store. Assuming it was a bill or some other piece of bad news, Hazel had groaned when she saw the package with her name sitting on her brother’s breakfast table. But when she tore open the sleeve, she found a small blue envelope with a sticky note from her sole employee:
This came for you the day you left.—Chet
It wasn’t a bill or an eviction notice. It was a letter from her grandfather; more precisely, her adoptive grandfather, the man whose body now lay in that attractive walnut box. The envelope
was one of those candy-striped airmail types, a nostalgic indulgence of his. Isaac’s name appeared nowhere on the envelope, but the address of her Seattle bookstore was written in his shaky hand. The postmark read October 16. On October 17, he would be dead.
She stared at the winged “Par Avion,” at a stamp featuring a sunflower, and felt increasingly light-headed. It was too much to take in, this unexpected missive from the dead, so she slipped it into her pocket unopened. In fact, she thought she might let the reading of it forever remain a future possibility. As long as the envelope was sealed, she would have one last communication waiting from Isaac.
She had brought the letter with her to the funeral as an odd sort of comfort, but as she sat in the unusually blistering October sun, watching her grandfather’s casket warp and buckle behind her own tears, she pushed a corner of the envelope deep under a fingernail until it stung.
The call had come a week ago. She had been pacing her Pioneer Square bookstore, hatching a desperate scheme to abandon her life, one that involved either disappearing into a country of exotic coordinates or landing in debtor’s prison. She loved Seattle, and she loved her store—in a mostly unstable life, books had been the only reliable refuge she had known—but she now owed a figure so large she was certain there must be a corresponding digital ticker somewhere, climbing upward daily like the national debt.
The bleat of her store phone had interrupted her thoughts. She picked up the receiver, mustering her usual bright greeting, “The Guttersnipe, can I help you find a book?” After a pause, the halting voice of her brother, Gregory, told her that their beloved Isaac had been found dead in his backyard. By his own hand. The housekeeper had chanced upon him that morning in his Jacuzzi, a set of live Christmas lights coiled in the water with him, one of its bulbs crushed.
Hazel couldn’t have said how long the conversation lasted—or, in her deep disbelief, how many times she had made her brother repeat himself—she knew only that when she closed up her store immediately afterward, the sun had set, and she was exhausted from crying.
But she wouldn’t be going home. Having lost her apartment in Belltown weeks before, she was now living in the narrow space behind her shop. The back room was cramped and airless, with barely enough space for her mattress. She had moved most of her things into storage, bought a mini fridge, and begun sponge bathing at the bathroom sink. She had told no one of her indignity, not even Bennet, her boyfriend of almost two years. Every night, she exited her shop for the benefit of whoever might be watching, maintaining the ritual of locking up and walking to the bus stop before doubling back to reenter her store from the alley. Better confined to the back than spotted through the shop’s windows at odd hours by her landlord. This wasn’t the first time she had been homeless. She supposed it was in her DNA. And what is DNA, Isaac had once asked, but an invisible road map of how our lives will play out? If that were true, Isaac’s own genetic GPS had sent him careening off course.
That night, as she sat cross-legged on the mattress, eyes parched from evaporated tears, she recalled a curious detail from her conversation with Gregory: Isaac had prepared two breakfasts for himself that morning, one half eaten, the other untouched. She had heard vague reports of his absentmindedness, but in her weekly phone calls to him, he had sounded as quick as ever, always armed with amusing stories, and never repeating the ones she’d already heard. At seventy-nine years old, Isaac had been remarkably healthy. He had looked no older than sixty-five, and the only ailment she had known him to have was his lifelong struggle with
migraines. Migraines ran in the family, but mental illness? Depression? Had she been so consumed with her own daily battles that she had missed something obvious? Now, as she stared at his casket, she felt a fresh stab of shame.
She removed her hand from her pocket and returned it to her lap. What if she had been the only one to receive anything that might be defined as a suicide note? As the priest appeared and began to speak, Hazel couldn’t help but study those family members around her for hints that they, too, had received a surprise delivery.
Most of the fair-skinned, light-eyed Severy clan had chosen seats shaded by the surrounding sycamores. Strange, though, how this Nordic-blooded family thrived in—even seemed to prefer—the merciless Southwest sun. It was rare for a Severy to permanently stray east of the Rockies or north of Napa Valley. Few had ever moved outside a twenty-five-mile radius of Pasadena’s Caltech. It was she alone, with the dark eyes and hair, who had succumbed to gloomier regions.
If any of the family had received a letter from the dead, their expressions betrayed nothing but ordinary grief. Only Gregory, seated across the aisle, his two-year-old son passed out on his chest, noticed her studying the crowd. She wondered why they weren’t sitting together, considering they’d arrived in the same car. Their separation across the aisle suddenly seemed significant to her, emblematic of a gap that had been widening between them the past couple of years. Having a child did that to a person, certainly, but with Gregory, it sometimes felt as if he were being steadily pulled away from her by a source of gravity she couldn’t identify. Her brother gave her a sad smile and returned his attention to the homily.
“Who died?” Hazel’s grandmother, seated beside her, asked no one in particular.
“Isaac Severy,” Hazel whispered, as if he were a mutual acquaintance.
“Everyone’s going these days,” Lily mused. “That’s what happens when you reach a certain age. It’s one long ghoulish parade.”
Hazel gave her grandmother’s hand a squeeze. She was struck by how pretty she looked, even though she was wearing what appeared to be every necklace she had ever owned, and her eyes had been emptied of their former intelligence. Lily Severy had once been a celebrated translator of Spanish literature, but her mind had faltered in recent years, and for the past few days, she had alternated between anguish over a loss she couldn’t quite place and a dreamy fascination at all the activity around her. In her more lucid moments, Lily did appear to be aware that she’d been married to a mathematician, though the details were muddled. At the elderly care facility where she now lived, she liked to educate her nurses on her husband’s invention of calculus. “You know, it wasn’t that German fellow, like they all say.”
The next two hours were a warm broth of tears and praise served up for one of the most beloved academics in Southern California. What seemed an endless procession of Caltech colleagues and students took the microphone and spoke of Isaac’s unearthly level of brilliance, not only in the mathematics department but also in diverse disciplines touched by his acrobatic mind. They spoke of the equations he had created for Caltech’s Environmental Sciences, such as the ones that could anticipate the complex movement of oil spills, the ever-changing paths of migratory birds, and the erratic pattern of melting ice in the Arctic. They spoke of his ferocious curiosity and of his heart. “He wasn’t just my hero, he was my friend.” There were allusions to Sir Isaac Newton, for whom he had been named. A fitting kinship, joked one of his Jewish colleagues, for here were
two Isaacs who despite all evidence to the contrary simply must have been Jews.
Just as Hazel was growing restless, her uncle Philip, Isaac’s eldest child, stepped behind the microphone. Philip was a lean, delicate man with hair so light his eyebrows were nearly invisible. As a result, he had a perpetually afflicted look, as if he were under constant assault from light and dust. Today his eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark glasses, but that didn’t stop him from squinting every time the sun struck him at a certain angle.
He unfolded a piece of paper with his long fingers before peering up at the gathering. “As many of you know,” his fragile voice began, “my father had passions that went beyond mathematics. There was almost nothing that did not interest him. He was a devout scientist, but he was also a religious man who grappled with the entire idea of faith.”
He then read Emily Dickinson’s “This World Is Not Conclusion,” a poem Hazel remembered well from college, and one that was now making her feel some real affection for this uncle whom she had seen often while growing up but still barely knew.
After struggling through the final stanza, Philip withdrew quickly, leaving behind a restlessness that lasted several minutes. Hazel shifted in her chair, inadvertently catching the eye of Philip’s younger sister, Paige, seated half a row down, her stout body swathed in black silk. In her prime, Aunt Paige had been a brilliant political statistician, but she’d apparently done little with her talent in recent years, and her standing in the family was now one of a recluse and grump. She had never married, but there was a grown daughter somewhere—Alexis, was it?—whom no one ever saw. Whether Alexis resided north of Napa or east of the Rockies was anyone’s guess, and Hazel didn’t spy any likely candidates here today.
At last, the queue behind the microphone shrank to zero, and a few people stood. But the sound system gave a startling buzz, calling attention to a young man who appeared before them as if by conjuring trick. He didn’t speak right away, taking his time sifting through bits of fuchsia-colored paper. Hazel found something about the man instantly arresting. He sported the beard of a woodsman but was otherwise dressed in the shabby welfare-academic vein. He cleared his throat and spoke in a vaguely British accent.
“Good mathematics is generally impossible to read aloud,” he began, “but why should that stop us?” He laughed nervously, and when no one joined him, he resumed. “A proof, as many of you know, is a number of true statements leading to a logical conclusion. Proofs are the cornerstone of mathematics and are really meant to be seen, not heard. If, for example, I were to read aloud Andrew Wiles’s famous proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is a hundred fifty pages, by the way”—another laugh—“we’d be here for days.”
“Who is this guy?” a woman in Hazel’s row asked.
“However,” the man continued, “what I have here is not a real proof—only fragments scribbled on these cocktail napkins—but what if, as a kind of tribute, I read just a scrap of his work? An everyday bit of fluff floating around his head, so that we might have some idea of what it was like to be Isaac Severy? So I hope you’ll indulge me while I read this bit of ‘ordinary’ mathematics: Let dx over dt equal A times x plus f of x plus epsilon times g of x . . .”
Hazel had a strange urge to laugh. Yet there was something soothing about the cadence of his voice as he delivered this long chain of letters, numbers, and symbols. Isaac would have liked the absurdity of this moment, and she suddenly missed him terribly.
“Is he reading an equation?” someone behind her whispered. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Hazel didn’t take her eyes from the man as he continued his recitation, but her hand had wandered to her right pocket. She slid her fingers inside, over the crispness of the envelope, and before she knew it, she was running a fingernail along the lip until she could feel a thin sheet of paper within. Almost without thinking, she had broken the seal, and now there seemed to be no retreating from Isaac’s letter.