Professor Coll had been at the mathematics department since the dawn of the Cold War. At the time the National Security Agency was making a substantial investment in encryption and decryption algorithms to outsmart the Russians, and he was one of an arsenal of mathematicians willing to work for their country. By the early 1990s after the collapse of the USSR funding dried up. Fortunately Professor Coll was in his late 70s at that point and had earned tenure long ago. Nonetheless he did not want to retire. The thought stroke fear in him. The other older professors were really his only human contact. Everyday on the top floor of the mathematics department he’d eat lunch with his comrades in Abstract algebra and number theory. He’d attend the weekly chess meetings, and continued to mentor students through pHds. He never sought a wife or companionship in his younger days, and now he was paying for it. He consciously feared outliving his colleagues and going insane with loneliness.
But like many fears, they are somehow based in a possibility. And unfortunately for Douglas Coll this possibility did manifest itself. The 1990s dry spell in funding shrunk the size of the department drastically. His fellow elders were immune of course since they all had tenure, but many were from Europe and sought a return as they were concerned with the changes that were brought to there health plans. Douglas Coll stayed behind, and when his last remaining friend Albert Lazlo died of a heart attack at the ripe age of 84, Douglas was truly alone.
The Friday before Christmas he was studying in his office while he heard his twenty something beautiful secretary, Mary, and the other younger students and professors partying on the floor below. This made him sad, and he walked out of his office, leaving his book open to page 224. Uncharacteristic as he always treated his books like delicate artifacts.
Douglas grew incredibly depressed and stopped showing up to his office. His secretary would occasionally call his house to check up on him, but after failing to reach him over the course of a month she stopped trying. That was Douglas’s last chance to hear another voice. After that he became a true hermit. Only leaving the house to purchase food at 11 p.m. from The Seven-Eleven. Mostly tins of chili, canned fish, and vienna sausage. His last Ph.D. student had given up trying to reach him and ended up changing advisors.
Douglas new that death was coming. Everyday he’d watch the evening news and wait for it and ponder why he was waiting at all. What was it that he had been studying all these years? Mathematics… what was it? In his younger days he would have proudly responded “It’s the language of God”. No, certainly not. “God created the integers, all else is the work of man” stated Kronecker. The truth was how do you know it wasn’t just a bunch of guys jerking off with pointless riddles, accidentally stumbling upon useful applications along the way. This isn’t quite fair, after all, a substantial portion of research was and always had been funded as part of a military initiative. It hurt to think, but he felt like a cog, used and then tossed aside to die alone.
The irony was that he and his colleagues really thought they were deciphering the words of God. But it was only now in his old age that he could see that they were only deciphering their own words. They placed a formal system of rules, without knowing the consequences, and later found out a fraction of those consequences. RSA cryptography being the chief among them, and the prime engine of funding from the NSA. It’s like setting up dominoes, being consciously aware that one domino knocks the next. You may observe and understand each collapse of successive dominoes and when the last one falls you have accomplished a long chain of logical steps to get you where you are now, but you forgot where you came from. In forgetting where you came from you take these new found observations to be the word of God. But in fact you were destined to come to that conclusion the day the dominoes were set up, God or no God.
It was during the James Bond Marathon that Douglas started to feel alive again. Possibly the rush from watching James Bond had something to do with it. He felt he could go back to the office. Maybe he’d kiss his secretary for the hell of it. He had come to a minor breakthrough in his debate on whether his life was a waste or not. He had a boldness to look up at the stars and think “The answers are not out there”. He didn’t think there were answers. They weren’t in his heart, or his head, they simply didn’t exists. His life was a waste, and that’s how the cookie crumbled.
When douglas entered the department through the revolving door the security guard asked for his I.D. It had been months since he came to campus, and so the security guard had changed and no longer recognized him. Fortunately his secretary was just getting back from her lunch.
“Douglas?! I thought you might be dead! The whole department has been talking about you.”
“Really Mary? I didn’t know anybody gave a hoot about an old fogey.”
“No. We’ve been worried.”
The security guard let them pass and they rode the elevator up to the top floor where his office was.
“So did you miss this elevator.”
“Yes. I missed you too Mary.”
Douglas walked closer to her and leaned on her shoulder. He was hoping to get a kiss from her, but at age 85 he was very short, about a foot in height difference. The elevator reached the 12th floor and the doors swung open. Mary unlocked the door to his office and he followed her inside.
It had not changed a bit since he had left. The book he had left open on his desk was still open to page 224.
“So you’ve been gone for so long, I doubt it would matter if I read your missed calls at this point. But let me go see what we have. I’ll be right back.”
“Could you stay here a second Mary?” said Douglas.
“What is it Douglas?”
“Could you give me a kiss?”
Mary smiled. Her lips pressed each other as if she was going to enjoy this. She leaned in and gave Douglas a long and passionate kiss, which is quite difficult considering Douglas was in shock and was making quiet moaning sounds, not reciprocating the passion at all. Then it ended.
Douglas stood in shock as Mary closed the door behind her. Suddenly a sharp pain entered Douglas’s chest, but he didn’t have the breath to scream. Mary was out the door talking to some Grad students and was not able to hear the quiet moaning of Douglas behind his heavy Mahogany door.
Douglas fell to the ground. The pain disappeared and he could feel himself drifting into a deep sleep. His last thought’s before death were:
“There are no answers. There just is—-”
(please comment to prove people actually read this.)