After dominating the southwest in the high school Math Team competition for three straight years, we had finally found the unsolvable math problem. At first, separately, we each thought it was a fluke. We were missing something. There was an obvious answer right in front of our noses, and we’d be laughed at by the others for missing it. But slowly, a whisper developed: I’m stuck. I thought I had it but it’s a dead end. It’s a trick question.
Not one of us could crack it. Not Joe Gemelli, whose father had been the head of the math department at Berkeley. Not Peter Gibbon, whose dad’s job was so secret that even we, masters of gossip, had no idea which department he worked in. Not even Mrs. Feeny, our favorite math teacher, who volunteered her Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to coach our team. She’d pulled out the answer key after we initially hit the wall, and we heard her cursing under her breath as she worked. This was part of why we liked her. We also liked her because she managed to explain things to us without making us feel stupid, and because she drank Dr. Pepper out of the can when the rest of the teachers drank stale black coffee.
We slaved over the problem for all of the Thursday meeting, all of the Tuesday meeting, and all of the next Thursday, trying to get to the answer in the book. We worked alone, or in pairs, or, for a while, all as one. Once, Jennifer Goldfarb thought she had it, but she was off by two decimal places, and no matter how carefully we looked, we couldn’t find where she’d gone wrong. Joe suggested that the answer key was wrong, but we rejected this idea—it was the easy way out. Laziness. Casting the blame for our difficulty elsewhere.
We didn’t want to show it to our parents—we had our pride—but after four days, an unsolved math problem was more painful than asking for help, so we took copies home with us, stuffed into backpacks or folded into perfect, neat squares in our pockets. We didn’t bring the loose-leaf notebooks we’d filled (we’d filled entire notebooks in those hours of trying), preferring to make it look casual. Some of us tried to pass it off as a challenge: we solved this. Can you? Jon Finke just left it lying around, knowing his father wouldn’t be able to resist. Jennifer Goldfarb took her nearly-completed proof to her physicist-father and asked him point-blank to spot her error. Katie Brooks’s mother, the chemist, took one look and pronounced it a job for her grandfather instead. “You can bring it on Sunday,” she said. “Let him take a swing at it.”
We found each other in school on Friday, and no one had yet cracked it, though our parents were busy at the lab, and to be fair, most of them probably hadn’t given it much attention. But we were growing excited at the prospect of a new discovery. If none of us could solve it after days of trying, there had to be something there, some breakthrough to be made. “My Dad took it to work with him,” Peter Gibbon whispered into several people’s ears during the day. We were supposed to understand this to mean that it was being taken very seriously. Perhaps the solution, when it finally arrived, would be the key to some invention that would save us all. Some of us believed it, and some of us just thought that Peter Gibbon was trying to get us to like him, because a lot of us felt sort of awkward around him. His clothes were very expensive, and his hair always looked wet, when the rest of us were lucky if our socks matched.
Saturday, we forgot about the math problem. We were just kids, after all, most of us between 14 and 17. We had other plans: we rode bikes, or wrote poems, or hitched into Santa Fe to shop for tapes and T-shirts and candy. Joe Gemelli locked himself in his room with some magazines borrowed from his father’s dresser drawer. Ryan Scarselli helped his mother bake and decorate a cake for his aunt’s 47th birthday.
There was one exception. Lorelai Halbroker had not put the problem aside. She’d worked on it Friday night until she couldn’t keep her eyes open, then set her clock radio for 5:30 to get the maximum Saturday time in. When her mother rose at eight to make pancakes, she had already worked her way into three of the same dead ends we’d already explored. Poor Lorelai. She was always doing things like this, but it never got her anywhere the rest of us hadn’t gotten already. Still, she was a nice girl. We liked to have her around. If we’d been honest with ourselves (though few of us were, at that age, or later), we might have said that she reminded us how exceptional we were, and that that felt good.
Katie Brooks spent Sunday working on her grandfather’s old car, which he was teaching her to repair. It wasn’t until Sunday evening, when the formal family dinner was almost at a close, that she remembered the folded piece of paper she’d meant to bring to him. She was nervous; though we would’ve all liked to believe that it was someone in our house who would crack it, Katie had the most legitimate claim. She had two parents and a grandfather who had serious, code-word jobs in the lab. Her family had lived here longer than any of the rest of ours.
After dinner, while Katie’s little brother did the dishes, Katie ran for her backpack to retrieve the folded paper. She brought it to Adam, along with a cup of black coffee and a silver spoon, arranged on the saucer just the way he liked it. “I’ve got a math problem,” she said.
“For school?” He took the coffee.
“Math Team,” she said. “None of us can get it. Not even Mrs. Feeny. It’s been a couple of days now.” Oh, how we would’ve liked to be in that room when she told him that! We knew about Adam Brooks. Some of our parents had been fired by him, or at least severely reprimanded. We’d seen him around, with his wild white hair and his faded clothes. We’d seen his name in the local paper, or heard him snapping at the mailman or the janitor or anyone else who showed a hint of laziness. We wanted to get close, but we also wanted to stay out of the way.
“Give it here.” He took the paper, slipped his reading glasses from his pocket onto his nose. Four minutes passed, and he neither moved nor spoke. The rest of our families, upon receiving such a challenge, immediately took pencils to it. They began sketching out possible solutions, choices for the route by which they might penetrate the puzzle. Mostly, they were retracing our own failed steps. But Adam just stared. Katie grew uncomfortable. Was he solving it in his mind, and any minute now, he would casually spit out the answer as though it were the easiest thing in the world? She hoped so, and hoped not at the same time. The rest of us, if we had been there, would have hoped only for the easy answer; by now we just wanted the problem solved, the solution explained, and if it was the genius of the town who explained it to us, all the better. But Katie, no matter how unlikely she knew it to be, wanted to work on it with him, making perhaps one small contribution to every four or five of his. She wanted the battle to play out in her presence, aloud. The silence grew. Perhaps he was growing frustrated. Perhaps our intractable problem had opened in him a pit of despair.
Finally, he spoke. “It’s late and I’ve got data to review. Maybe another time.” He pocketed the folded sheet of paper and went to his study. If we’d been there, we would’ve urged Katie to object. We would’ve demanded more information: Do you think you can do it? Do you have any ideas? Were we on the right track? But Katie had grown up around Adam Brooks. She knew not to push him.
That was it, we all agreed. It was time to give up. We had no more resources at our disposal. Word circulated through the hallways, into the different classrooms, some of us in English class, some in science and history and French, in different grades. Maybe there had been some mistake, a misprint, but we didn’t think so. We’d been bested. We’d move on to other problems. We’d still win the state championship, and have a crack at nationals. For now, we had pop quizzes and research projects and college applications to worry about.
When we arrived in Mrs. Feeny’s classroom for our Tuesday Math Team meeting, it was as though we had all witnessed some terrible act of violence, and didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore as the people we had been. Joe Gemelli and Peter Gibbon seemed to have had some sort of fight, and were on opposite sides of the room, refusing to look at each other. Katie Brooks and Jennifer Goldfarb were side by side, reviewing their scores from previous exams, digging up the extremely rare problems they’d missed. Jon Finke had his dirty sneakers up on the desk and was reading a comic book. Ryan Scarselli was doing biology homework. Mrs. Feeny stayed at her desk, her head down, her face flushed. She was supposed to be our leader, and she had no answers for us. It was from her that we’d gotten the fateful problem to begin with. She’d even considered calling off the meeting that day; none of us felt like getting back to work on a new set of problems, even with the championship coming up next month. But home would be no better. How could it be that two short weeks ago, we had been an invincible problem-solving machine?
When he appeared in the doorway, our hearts sped up. Adam Brooks. Had he really come to sit beside us at our small wooden desks and explain away that complexity that had stumped us? It would be the career day we’d never had, because of course, we had no career day in Los Alamos. Nearly everybody’s parents worked in the lab, in one capacity or another, and many were not at liberty to tell a classroom full of squirming kids what they did all day.
“Adam?” Katie said, part pride, part embarrassed whisper. She had never seen him during a weekday afternoon; he never left the lab until at least six, usually seven or eight, and she’d never known him to take so much as an hour off for a dentist’s appointment. The dentist opened on Saturday if Adam Brooks needed an appointment.
“Katherine,” he said, with a nod in the direction of his granddaughter. It was clear that he hadn’t come to see her. “And you must be Mrs. Feeny.”
“That’s right, Dr. Brooks. It’s an honor. Have you come to—would you like—” We marveled at our beloved, tough-skinned teacher, stammering like a schoolgirl. But Adam Brooks ignored her. He went to the blackboard and began to write. After a few lines of forceful scribbling, his stick of yellow chalk snapped in half. Mrs. Feeny went scurrying over to him to provide a new one, but he waved her away, having already picked up where he left off with the bigger of the two pieces. We sat, our mouths open, watching. Before our eyes, he was solving our math problem. None of us had thought even of the first step he was taking.
“What’s that you just did?” Lorelai said after Adam had begun a third column of silent writing. Our ears burned in the silence. We would not have dared to interrupt. We didn’t know: was she oblivious to the power he wielded, or was she just that brave? Either way, we were glad she’d asked; he was moving fast, and none of us had followed it, not even Katie Brooks, his own flesh and blood. We told ourselves we’d remember to be nicer to Lorelai.
“Fatou’s Lemma,” Adam said, without turning around, without even stopping the frantic movement of his chalk. “Ask your teacher. I haven’t the time.”
“I’m sorry,” Lorelai said. “It’s just that there are some things in there that we haven’t had before, and—”
“Be quiet, god damnit,” Adam snapped. He filled up three and a half of the four panels of blackboard at the front of the room. Our mouths hung open. Our eyes were fixed on the stream of symbols. He circled the answer at the end—the one that had eluded us—with a screech.
“Voila,” he said. “Knock ‘em dead, kids.” He turned to leave.
“Dr. Brooks,” Mrs. Feeny said, “We can’t thank you enough. Would you mind just walking us through your—” but Adam didn’t stop to answer her question. He didn’t even seem to hear her. He was already out the door, pulling it closed behind him.
We looked at Katie to help us interpret what had just happened—she could’ve been our new queen—but she looked even more baffled than the rest of us. She hadn’t known it was coming.
“Would it have killed him to write it down and make copies?” Mrs. Feeny said, under her breath, to no one in particular. Our eyes drifted back to the door he had left through. It usually stayed open during meetings. We were wondering, vaguely, whether we could chase him down and learn something more. We were wondering if he would ever come back.
A sound came from inside the room. It was Lorelai. Her face was scrunched up so tightly we could barely see her eyes. She had been holding in her tears and finally she had let go and begun to cry.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make him mad.”
“Sweetheart, it wasn’t you,” Mrs. Feeny said. We considered this. If Lorelai hadn’t voiced our confusion, maybe he would’ve stayed.
“It was,” she said. “Nobody else interrupted him. I shouldn’t even be here.” Our faces burned. Our shoes pinched. Our palms sweated.
“Yes, you should,” we told her. “If anyone should be here, it’s you.”
“Solution” is an excerpt from the critically acclaimed novel Lost, Almost, published in November 2017 by Engine Books.
Header photo by edfungus, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Amy Knight by Richard Whitmer.