Happy Numbers


The discovery of the existence of Happy Numbers, on a July Tuesday morning last year, made Kevin McCormack smile and laugh. In fact, it simply put him over the moon – someplace he hadn’t been for a quite a long time – and very well may have brought him back to life. The previous seven months had not been kind to Kevin. Having lost his job, wife, kids, and French bulldog, Bruno, he’d fallen into depression. His days were spent trolling mundane websites, looking at pictures of friend’s vacations, usually wondering how and why people go places. His diet consisted of mostly tortilla chips, imitation cheddar cheese, Jiffy peanut butter and Smucker’s red raspberry preserve sandwiches, and a wonderfully rich, delicious homemade hummus. Kevin didn’t make the hummus. His neighbor, Paul, made a huge batch each week and offered a Tupperware to everyone in the Brooklyn brownstone.

Kevin’s finding of Happy Numbers was made quite by chance. He was nine hours, six minutes and seventeen seconds into a Google spiral that had landed him on the Wikipedia page for the number 32.

Along with learning that 32 is the atomic number of Germanium, that Thirty Two is the fourth album by English indie rock band Reverend and The Makers, and that it is the number of black or white squares on a chess board, Kevin read that 32 is a Happy Number – he couldn’t help but continue the spiral and visit the Happy Numbers page.

A Happy Number is defined by this process: Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits, and repeat the process until the number equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle which does not include 1. Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are Happy Numbers, while those that do not end in 1 are Unhappy or Sad Numbers.

Kevin chuckled aloud over the lack of sense any of that made to him. His fingers scrolled through the page he was sure had to be a joke, excited to learn all he could about these Happy Numbers. There were diagrams and examples. There was a list of every Happy Number between zero and one-thousand. There are one hundred forty-three of them. Forty-Four is the tenth. It was there Kevin lingered for a moment. The number stood out to him. “Forty-four,” he said out loud. “Forty-four.”

And just like that, Kevin woke up. The cloud that had been following him lifted, just a bit; just enough for him to remember three days earlier had been his birthday. His 44th birthday. He’d forgotten. He looked around the dank apartment that used to be littered with toys and clean laundry and happiness. It wasn’t a mess. It wasn’t in shambles. It was dark. The only light he’d turned on in the last four months was the desk lamp next to his computer. (4 is a Sad Number).

“If a number is happy, then all members of its sequence are happy; if a number is unhappy, all members of the sequence are unhappy.” Resonance. Understanding. And somehow hope.

He asked himself over and over who came up with this ridiculous designation of number and how. Was it some lazy, stoner mathematician grad student whom while studying at some middle-child university was able to bullshit this into validity? Kevin laughed thinking about this PhD candidate stumbling into a lecture hall and presenting Happy Numbers to the doctoral committee. Drawing the breakdown of the number 19 on a rickety dry erase board.

12 + 92 = 82

82 + 22 = 68

62 + 82 = 100

12 + 02 + 02 = 1.

While still laughing, he attempted to rationalize any use for this process. For what could it possible be used? Which, he then realized is most likely why the numbers are Happy. He wondered if he were able to break himself down to 1, to remove all meaning and purpose from what he originally was, would he then be happy?

His phone rang and he lunged towards it, excited to tell whom ever it was about Happy and Sad Numbers. He was marveled. He’d never before given a thought to how a number might feel. And knowing that some are Happy and some are Sad gave him comfort and companionship in his mourning.

“Hello?” It was the first time he’d picked up the phone in eighty-three days. (83 is a Sad Number).

The automated saleswoman had a very pleasant voice, but it left Kevin no opportunity to share the life-changing word of these moodfull numbers. He hung up and shuffled across the room. He threw on his jeans and flip-flops and a t-shirt that said “Say Cheese.” He didn’t even think about the fact that the t-shirt had been a gag gift from his eldest on his 42nd birthday. (42 is a Sad Number).

It was hot and humid outside, which frequently bothered Kevin, but he was on a cloud nearing nine. And he couldn’t be stopped. (9 is a Sad Number). Into the corner pub he bounced, exalting as he entered, “You’re lives are all about to get better.” The announcement would’ve been better received had there been more than three people in the pub – and were two of them not employees. (2 and 3 are Sad Numbers)

“What can I get ya buddy?”

“Have you ever heard of a Happy Number?”

“That a drink?”

Kevin laughed and ordered a tall frosty ale. He grabbed a napkin and asked if he could borrow a pen, and much like he imagined the fictional grad student writing the breakdown of the number 19 on the dry erase board, he did so on the napkin.

“You see? 19 is a Happy Number.”

The bartender, whose name was George but introduced himself as Jim, perused the chicken scratch and quietly nodded, as a bartender would.

“And you know, you can cube them too. But there’s no different label for that. They’re still just Happy. They aren’t, say, Jubilant, which I kind of think they should be.”

George shrugged and feigned interest, but his attention was more focused on the new waitress, Rebecca, who was mistakenly refilling the sugars with salt. Kevin’s excitement blinded him to George’s lack of concentration. Nonetheless, he’d finished his beer and his explanation, which meant it was time to move on.

“Thank you. And remember, if Numbers can be Happy, so can you.”

George didn’t hear him. He was busy listening to Rebecca explain that she hadn’t eaten sugar or salt in three years, since she “decided my body and the environment are more important than flavor, that’s why I didn’t know the difference.” She would only work at the corner pub for six more hours.

Kevin beamed as he glided down the city sidewalk. He saw everyone differently. He saw every thing differently. He smiled at an old woman who was impatiently waiting for her dog to go; he shook the hand of a young man handing out information on the environment; he lingered in front of a chocolate shop and let the aroma massage his nostrils in the most glorious way.

He caught glimpse of himself in the dark, tinted window of a bank and smiled, taking in the stubble and wrinkles he accrued in the dark. “Forty-four… One.” The two, suddenly, were meant to be together and his singular lifestyle, which was thrust upon him, made sense. At forty-four, he was meant to become one, as that was the only way he could be Happy.

Quickly turning and hailing a cab, he knew where he had to go. He knew whom he needed to tell.

His hands shook as he paid the young cab driver and climbed out of the green sedan. A soft breeze cooled the humidity for a moment and the scent of fresh flowers followed it. He walked through the large stone entrance and heard the murmurings of others around, but couldn’t see anyone. And though it had been a while since he’d visited, the path to their gravestones was engrained in him.

He cleared some fallen leaves from the front of the large marble slab. He ran his fingers along the names of his wife and daughters. And he closed his eyes and lingered on the fading memory of what their hugs felt like.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been here more. I’ve been… in the dark. I miss you. And this morning I found something that, I don’t know, made me see again. It’s just me now. And I can be Happy again, because one is Happy.”

He wasn’t sure if they would understand, but he explained, in great detail, how he came to this revelation. He was sure they’d be glad to hear it. So he talked and talked. He reminisced and smiled when he told the story of his youngest’s first birthday, when his wife attempted to bake a multi tier cake that collapsed into itself. He sang her favorite song. He kissed her name. And he allowed everything that was to simply be.

The breeze woke him and the soft dusk light sent shadows racing across the open lawns. He closed his eyes once more and in his head, said goodbye to each of them.

The walk home was quiet and peaceful. Walking from 79th street back to Park Slope, he made sure to only walk down Happy streets, taking Seventh Avenue all the way to 13th Street.

He turned on all the lights when he got home and set down the newly purchased groceries. He looked around and thought about moving or redecorating. He would never do either. He wandered to his computer, still open to the fantastic pages about Happy Numbers. Those pages would remain open for nine months, six days, four hours, twenty-two minutes and eight seconds, all of which are Sad Numbers. He stared at the screen for a moment, and smiled as he read his favorite part aloud.

“The origin of Happy Numbers is not clear. Happy Numbers were brought to the attention of Reg Allenby (a British author and Senior Lecturer in pure mathematics at Leeds University) by his daughter, who had learned of them at school. However, they may have originated in Russia.”


One response to “Happy Numbers

  1. This is brilliant! I am already going nuts wondering what happens at 9 months, 6 days, 4 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds Does it switch to a happy number ay 9 seconds? Has his grief changed. Cliffhanger.

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