Mathematics of Despair

by Carolin Messier

The Recession Became Personal

Simon added up the bills for the fifth time. Each of the first four times he’d reached the same sum, and still he tried in vain to defeat the laws of mathematics in search of a smaller total. The fifth attempt would make it irrefutable. For most people a second matching trial balance or perhaps a third would have been enough to be confident of the results, but Simon had months before ceased to act in a completely rational manner. As he hit the sum function on the data worksheet, it produced the same result as the first four times. His shoulders dropped in resignation. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. His face grew older in that instant and his body felt the stiffness of a man twenty years his senior. For almost two years, as the reality of the country’s recession became personal, he’d done everything he could think of to slow his family’s decline.  He felt as if he’d been battling against heartless gods who sat in their box seats as puppeteers manipulating the lives of so many for their own amusement. He was only a minor player in their theatrics. He’d never stood a chance, that’s what the fifth identical sum made him believe. The concern of last winter had evolved into anxiety by spring. These had driven him to action, the vision of salvation through doing. That had been when he still felt he had at least an influence over his life and future, if not complete control.

That fifth identical sum eradicated the final exertion of fight left in his over-taxed limbs and mind. He now felt only despair. It clung to him with its heaviness, like roof tar without the heat but just as black; its toxic fumes made taking a full breath impossible. He’d made no plan for this outcome; neither when he’d asked Trish out for the first time, nor when he proposed, nor when they married and moved in together, nor when they found the townhouse right on the park, not even when their beautiful boy was born. Even as he’d lost his job and took on freelance work, he’d made no plan. The necessary cutbacks in their daily living and Trish’s lack of clients hadn’t inspired a plan for what to do at this point either. It had seemed impossible, or at least so far away. He felt like a fool. He had failed. He was a charlatan who’d swindled a good woman and a lovable boy into believing in him, into trusting him. “Ignore the man behind the curtain…” was all he heard in his head. He was a sham. But he’d been so sure. People always said that his optimism was contagious; it was meant as a compliment. He now realized that this contagion was that of an infectious disease. In this case it had mutated into a deadly form that ate away at one’s life-security like leprosy eats away at once-healthy flesh. Its first symptom was to always believe the best of others and of the future. It had caused him to trust his banker about the 3-year arm variable rate mortgage when they bought at the market’s peak. It had inspired his loyalty to the company even as his colleagues were being laid off. And every month as they fell further in debt it had been the voice in his head that said, “Just get through this month; it will be better when…”

Never having suffered from depression, even during his brooding youth, Simon’s emotional immune system struggled to combat the end stage of blind optimism. He’d always been able to find his way through a problem before and come out a better man. But he’d had no inoculation of clustered defeats and recoveries to protect him from this end stage.  Unchecked, this disease of always looking to an imagined better future had festered and mutated until he now couldn’t imagine any future at all. It was killing him, and he had infected his family. Living in such close quarters, Trish and Jack hadn’t stood a chance. He was the vector that would cause the death of this living, breathing organism: the nuclear family, and with it each of its cells.

Without conscious thought or reasoning, he stood up from his desk and stepped across the ten feet of his garage-turned-home-office and reached in the storage cabinet for the speaker wire. He’d stored it there after wiring the master bedroom for sound. The whole house was wired. There’d been no reason to keep the rest of the spool, but it would make his task easier now. Good thing he’d given into his pack-rat tendencies rather than fighting against them as he usually did. He climbed the stairs towards the main floor of the townhouse and lowered the cut end of the wire on one side of the last stair just before the landing until a few feet pooled on the concrete below, then dropped the spool on the other side of the open teak tread. He pulled up the dangling length and wrapped it several times around the sturdy slab before securing it with a perfect Boy Scout pipe hitch. The utilitarian, dirty-cream of its plastic coating was out of place against the hand-sanded beauty of the wood. His socks muted his steps as he descended the flight, but he felt each one deliberately. He retrieved the aluminum ladder tucked next to the hot water heater, unfolded it, and set it by the dropped spool. Using his pocket knife, he severed the wire in equal length to the free-hanging one. After climbing half way up the ladder, he reached for the wires, held them together as if they were a single cable, and formed an open loop using a pair of half hitches. Having doubled the wire, he was sure it would hold his weight.