When the devil moves in next door to Cooper Smith Cooper’s house, Cooper doesn’t know what to make of him at first. But when the unexpectedly neighborly Scratch helps the unemployed actuary find a job at a local insurance company with the help of some inside information into the activities of Death, Cooper decides the old devil might not be so bad after all.
The only problem, Cooper thinks, is how to conceal from his fellow actuaries his newfound ability to perfectly predict the time and place of people’s deaths. And then, there is also the small matter of the screams of his recently deceased neighbor coming from Scratch’s basement furnace to consider.
AN EQUATION OF ALMOST INFINITE COMPLEXITY is a sardonically funny debut novel from J. Mulrooney.
* * * * *
Dean was brilliant, handsome, exotic, and accomplished. He had come from the Wharton school of business to do a doctorate in mathematics, something that was continually interrupted by consulting engagements during which some Fortune 500 company would fly him to an office in Texas or Washington DC or Seattle or Silicon Valley and pay him $75,000 for two months while he figured out some problem that, apparently, no one else could figure out for them. When he was not studying or working, he was a good enough trumpet player to substitute in the opera company orchestra (an aunt was on the board) and sometimes played professionally in theater pit orchestras. He was also the love of Thisbe’s short life.
They had surprised each other. He was not interested in art or aesthetics or greatness, he did not seek the love of women. He was only driven to succeed in all he did. She was not interested in a new boyfriend or business or the second-tier musicians who hung about the edges of professional theater. In some ways, the attraction each held for the other was inexplicable. Yet for two years, they carried on a scorching love affair, Thisbe completely under the domination of this egoist. Dean’s friends and relations said, “A music student? He could do better.” But when they met her, they saw that she was alert and intelligent and lovely and admitted that there was nothing not to like if she was Dean’s choice. “She’s young,” they would say, “but so quick. And so charming.” For their part, Thisbe’s friends—musicians, students, bohemians—were fascinated and appalled by Dean. “Is he nothing but a success machine?” they would ask. Then they would meet him. He would turn his handsome sad-eyed intensity on them and listen carefully to everything they said, returning well-considered and interested replies, and they too found nothing to dislike.
With Dean, Thisbe felt she had found the other half of her own soul, someone who could complete her. Her life before him evaporated like a dream forgotten on waking. She had been living with Julius at the time, and she left all her things in his apartment and never went back for them. Even the friends who had warned her of Julius’s mediocrity and infidelity were surprised at how perfectly Thisbe forgot him. “He’s a nice guy,” they would say in defense of Julius, but someone used the word “irrelevant,” and that stuck too.
While everyone likes their friends to be lucky in love, Thisbe and Dean were too much. Their togetherness, their intensity, their indestructible delight in one another was hard to take. “When they invite me, I feel like they don’t really care if I say yes or no,” said Meghan Evans, and everyone knew what she meant. Abby Bruler, younger but sharper, said the same thing more precisely: “It’s as if no one else is in the world but them.” They were destined for marriage, or, if that was too old-fashioned for such an heroic couple, at least for some lifetime arrangement.
But as the first year waned and second waxed, there was a change. Where before the two had been inseparable, each seemingly made more gloriously themselves by the other, signs of a more ordinary love appeared. This was noted with approval. Thisbe and Dean might bicker; or Dean might decide not to cut his business trip short. He would spend an extra night in Seattle to avoid taking a redeye. Instead of two weeks in Bora Bora for Christmas, they stayed home so that Dean could work on his thesis. Thisbe’s friends began receiving phone calls from her again, sometimes even when Dean was in town. “It’s more realistic,” said Meghan Evans.
Because Thisbe’s friends believed that, after an initial peak, the love affair was subsiding into something more solid and steady. They had, they told each other, seen it before. The lovers lose the first overwhelming fascination and their relationship dwindles into something more regular. There was a certain satisfaction in this since no one likes to have their middling infatuations exposed to the unforgiving glare of real love. But in predicting for Thisbe and Dean the stability of an average love, they were all wrong.
Over the next months, everything crumbled away. Dean became distant and aloof with Thisbe. He refused to come out when her friends were going to be present. If he did run into her friends, he was openly contemptuous, calling chubby well-meaning Meghan Evans a “fat pinko parasite” and stylish Abby Bruler a “gold watch socialist” who “wouldn’t know a workingman if he raped her.”
Thisbe’s initial promise as a performance major evaporated, in part because the obsessive focus required for musical glory had transferred to Dean. There should have been no shame in this. As Julius had pointed out years before, practicing six or eight or ten hours a day, as violin majors are apt to do, smacks of an unbalanced mind. But as her friends realized, this was a disappointment to Thisbe, who had hoped for greater things and who, such a short time before, had shown promise of achieving them. It was therefore with a particular shivery thrill that they discovered that Dean, arguably the cause of her disappointment, mocked her in her decline. She fell out of the performance program and graduated with the commonplace cum laude in music education. At a party celebrating the end of Thisbe’s four years, Dean referred to her revised major as “the refuge of the talentless.”
Dean’s comments caused a sensation among her friends, who were delighted to think ill of the man who had aroused their suspicion all along. Their gossip, stifled by the perfect love in their midst, now burned up the phone lines. Dean was a control freak. Dean was an egoist. Dean was bipolar. Dean had deep psychological problems that manifested themselves in a desperate will to succeed and an initial charm, which later turned into bitter resentment against regular people for the normal, well-adjusted lives they led and he never could. Dean was a jerk, a goof, a nut, a screwball.
The breakdown came on a stormy night in June, when Thisbe waited two hours for Dean in a restaurant, leaving numerous messages on his cellular telephone. She gave it up and went home in the rain to shower and weep in front of an old movie on television. Dean called.
“Oh my God, I was so worried. Please don’t ever do that again. Don’t let me not know where you are like that…”
He cut her off. “Please don’t call this number again. My cell phone is for work.”
“I know, I know. It’s just that you hadn’t called and I was so worried…”
“I don’t know what you were worried about. I didn’t come because I don’t want to see you anymore. I would appreciate it if you would stop bothering me.”
She could not speak, for despite the difficulties of the previous months, she had not yet admitted that she was to lose him. His words stunned her. She felt a growing panic, but fought against it. She realized that he would hang up if she did not say something, so she quickly said, “Dean, wait.” She was surprised at her tone, which was commonplace and controlled.
She succeeded, because he did not hang up. He said, “Yes, what is it?” He was impatient.
“Are you having a bad day? I don’t want to put any pressure on you, you know that.” Without thinking, she had adopted the tone of a mother speaking to a peevish child. She was pleased, realizing as she spoke that any other tack—emotional appeals, anger, sarcasm—would have ended the conversation immediately. “I just want what’s best.”
“Hm,” he said in a way he had, thoughtful and amused. She felt her words had made an impression. “You may want what’s best, and then again you may not,” he said. She realized that he was mocking her: she wanted what was best, meaning him. “The fact is that I don’t want you. I would appreciate it if you would stop phoning. In fact, I would appreciate it if you left me alone completely.”
“Dean–” and now she could not stop the emotion pouring into her voice. Though the night before she had told Abby Bruler all about Dean’s recent inattentiveness and even cruelties, she realized that she did not care, that she loved him and wanted him no matter how he behaved. “Oh Dean, I–”
Again the brutal interruption. “Please stop this emotional nonsense. That sort of thing never helps. I have no time for you now.”
“Nothing about you is of any interest to me. Please respect my wishes and leave me alone. Goodbye.”
“Dean!” she fairly shrieked.
He hung up.
When Meghan Evans heard about Dean’s final break with Thisbe, she said, “That man sold his soul to the devil a long time ago.” As we shall see, gentle reader, she was absolutely right.