fiction by Gerald Shapiro
His name tag said “Sherman Lampert (Barbara Rossovsky).” People were looking at him like he had two heads. Probably half of them thought he’d had a sex change operation. He’d be glad to go along with the idea if it would save him from anyone’s clucks of sympathy, the whole “Oh, you poor man” spiel he’d heard a thousand times (and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration) over the past eleven months. Enough, enough already with “I can just imagine the pain you’re in,” because the fact was, even he couldn’t imagine the pain he was in, and the thought that someone else might presume to understand it made Lampert almost giddy with contempt. He’d moved to a foreign country, the land of grief, and had burned his ships upon arrival, like one of the old Spanish conquistadors.
His children had advised him not to come to this high school reunion, and who could blame them? “It wasn’t your high school, Dad,” his daughter Franci told him. She spoke to him as if he had dementia. She stroked his balding sixty-four-year-old dome. She’d flown home for the weekend just to tell him this. “That was Mom’s school—they were inviting her, not you.”
“I wrote to them,” he said. “I told them. They wrote back asking me to come anyway.”
“That was very sweet of them. But what were they supposed to say? Anyway, those were her friends — you wouldn’t know anybody. What would you do there once you got there?”
“It’d be. . .unseemly,” Lampert’s son Ben added. “You’d feel out of place.”
As if he felt in place here, in the pleasant, comfortable confines of his living room, in the house he’d shared with Barbara for thirty-five years. As if he felt in place anywhere. Where had they come by this rectitude, these two children of his, this hidebound sense of the propriety of things? The rules had changed so completely. Unseemly? Who used that term anymore? Once upon a time Franci and Ben had been rambunctious brats, mud spattered, ill behaved at the synagogue, class clowns, great farters, both of them; but they were grown now, of course, out of college, launched in lives of their own. Franci, a web designer, lived with her boyfriend, Otto, a German emigré who directed music videos, in an edgy but gentrified neighborhood in downtown Cleveland. Ben lived right here in Kansas City, where he wrote crib notes on world literature for an internet cheating service, sharing digs with strangers in one of the city’s newly renovated riverfront lofts. He could have lived at home for free, in his old room if he’d liked, but he preferred this arrangement. He hardly knew his roommates, a woman who worked an occasional shift at an art gallery and a guy who did nothing at all except move his Italian sports car from one side of the street to the other on certain days of the week in order to avoid parking tickets. This was the new civility, sharing a loft with strangers, marking off shelves of the refrigerator: Ben, Leslie, Marc, along with the occasional note: “Did someone accidently drink my kefir? If so, would you replace it? Thanks!” And this was the kid who used the term “unseemly”?
Oh, to hell with his children’s kind, soft-spoken, well-meaning advice. As if feeling awful were the worst thing in the world. If it weren’t for awful, he wouldn’t feel anything at all. Everyone in attendance at the Mount Tamalpais High School Fortieth Reunion was fifty-eight—Barbara’s age. At sixty-four, Lampert felt like the oldest man in the world. Felt it, looked it, breathed it. Once Barbara had been a child with these people, these beefy, impossibly hearty folks, all of them seeming to have arrived at the Mark Hopkins straight from the back nine at some exclusive golf course up in Marin County. Before he’d ever set eyes on her, she’d been peppy, brilliant Barbara Rossovsky of Mill Valley, California: editor of the Mount Tamalpais High School newspaper, National Honor Society, pep squad, President of the French Club, Honor Roll eight semesters, Thespians, Recording Secretary of the Student Council. Her photo in the 1969 yearbook, on display near the extravagant buffet of hors d’oeuvres, showed a smiling, apple-cheeked girl with a bouffant hairdo, the ends flipped up at shoulder length. The quote beneath her name was from Kahlil Gibran. Lampert didn’t want to read it.
Her death was ridiculous: a brick had popped off the exterior of Kansas City’s new downtown library tower and had hit her in the head. It had fallen several hundred feet before hitting her. That was all there was to say. She was alive, and then she wasn’t; she was here and then in an instant she was gone. A moment, a breath. Hundreds of people on that sidewalk, crowded at midday, scurrying to or from lunch. A bright, sunshine-filled day. A light breeze. Who would have thought to look up? She’d had her purse with her, her woven leather purse. The day of the accident, after the phone call, while he was waiting for the police to escort him to the morgue in the basement of Saint Luke’s Hospital, he sat in his office staring at a wall of bookshelves, gathering in this information. He could visualize the purse, he could see it clearly. They’d bought it together on the Plaza, at Halls, an elegant store full of merchandise you couldn’t find elsewhere in Kansas City. “She could have dropped it,” he’d said to the police. “Someone might have taken it. It was an expensive purse, Italian leather. I’ll bet you that’s what happened.” The woman on the other end of the line murmured something soft and apologetic that ruled out that possibility, something about the driver’s license and other photo IDs in Barbara’s wallet. The softness, the regret in her voice pained him.
Years ago, when he was new at the Utley School, Lampert had been taken to lunch by one of his senior colleagues in the Mathematics Department, a jovial, white-haired fellow named Putney who smelled of gin and lemon furniture polish, an odor Lampert simply thought of as Gentile. Putney had been happily married to the same woman for fifty years. Later that year his wife died without warning, a stroke and she was gone. They’d been one of Kansas City’s classic couples, legendary dancers, winners of a senior tennis doubles tournament, noted philanthropists (she’d come from money; a room at the Nelson Gallery was named for her parents). Lampert, in his early thirties at the time, about to become a new father, had assumed that this was how he and Barbara would be. Inseparable. Forever.
But then, six months after Putney’s wife died, the old fellow married again, this time to a hard-drinking widow with three grown indigent children, all of whom needed major dental work. In the faculty coffee room Lampert eavesdropped on two of the older teachers discussing the matter. “What he told me was, he just likes being married, that’s all,” one of them said.
“That’s ridiculous,” the other snapped. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying that’s what he told me. Maybe he needs someone to darn his socks.”
In the months after Barbara’s death, after the settlement from the city came through and he retired from the Utley School, Lampert settled into a shambling routine, shuffling around the tastefully appointed rooms of his house, noting every piece of artwork Barbara had hung, every occasional table she’d placed just so; he wore his pajamas and slippers all day long, sliding along the mahogany-stained hardwood floors, the Persian carpets. A housekeeper came once a week to mop and dust and vacuum, and he found himself moving from room to room, hiding from her.
In the late morning, and again in midafternoon, he drank tea and nibbled on cinnamon streusel coffee cake or blackberry scones or banana bread bought at one of the gourmet bakeries in the neighborhood. He sat reading in the old Morris chair by the bay window in the living room, his lap covered by an old, soft afghan. Light drifted across him in faded yellow shafts as the day wore on. He read novels, big, thick ones that could serve as door stops in a pinch. His son Ben, the former Comparative Lit major, had made a list of Great Books Lampert ought to tackle. He’d always wanted to read his way through the great ones, and now, now that he had no one to talk to about them, no one with whom he might share his thoughts, he was making good on that long-held wish.
He started off with War and Peace and was relieved to see that the characters seemed to be drinking as much tea as he was. Tolstoy, it turned out, had some weird hang-up about women’s moustaches. Everyone who was anyone spoke French, even though they were all Russians. And there were long, seemingly endless lectures about war and the nature of power and mankind’s fatal flaws; these came up every hundred pages or so, and stopped the action cold. Lampert finally realized he could skip Tolstoy’s lectures and not miss a minute of the novel’s drama—and anyway, whose business was it if he read every word?
One afternoon a week he set aside for answering condolence cards. There was a wicker basket of them, full to overflowing, on the mantelpiece. He wanted to answer them all. His handwriting was terrible but that did not deter him. He scribbled his thank-yous and dredged up memories, a dinner, an afternoon at the Kemper or the Nelson, an evening at the Philharmonic, so each card was personal, special. And then one day six months later, he reached in the basket to pull out another card and realized there weren’t any more left to answer. Without paying any attention to what he was doing, he’d responded to them all. When he saw that the basket was empty, he stared at it slack-jawed for a long moment. Surely there was someone else to whom he could write? But here was no one. For reasons he could not have articulated, this realization paralyzed him with grief more vivid and visceral than any he’d felt so far. It gripped his throat and he couldn’t speak for two days.
“It could have been anyone walking along that sidewalk, Sherman.” This was Rabbi Morris Federbusch, Temple B’Nai Jehudah, speaking—the man who’d blessed Lampert the day of his Bar Mitzvah, still intoning, as if he were reading from a stone tablet. They were at the Brooklyn Deli on Troost Avenue two weeks after the empty basket crisis, sitting at an ancient formica table Lampert had occupied with his parents on many a Sunday morning when he was a child. He could see himself now, staring wide-eyed at the age of six as his parents ate smoked tongue. Federbusch nibbled on a piece of halvah, crumbs everywhere. Lampert stared at piece of herring in sour cream on toast. Nearby an elderly Jewish woman with whiskers, bent over like a question mark, was complaining loudly to her plate about the smoked sable. “I won’t tell you that God works in mysterious ways,” Federbusch continued, “because this isn’t the time for such nonsense. Do we really believe that God ‘works’ at all? I mean, really. Of course God works in mysterious ways, because the essence of our lives is the mystery of existence. What I know is this: what happens, happens.” When had Federbusch become such an existential big thinker? And was this the best he could do? As if no one had taken note of the mystery of human existence before. As if he had to say it or it would never get said. Rabinowitz, one of the Brooklyn Deli’s owners, rolled a multitiered tray of torpedo-shaped loaves of caraway rye out of the kitchen, and their arresting aroma swept across the deli. He was a weary man, with heavy-lidded eyes and thick lips pursed perpetually into a grimace. Gravity weighed on him. He had a wooden leg and walked with a pronounced limp, so the rolling tray of bread loaves rattled as he pushed it along the linoleum floor. “This is not the hand of God I’m talking about here,” Federbusch continued. He waved dismissively, as if ordering the odor of the bread to keep its distance. “It’s simple random happenstance. You know more about that than most people.”
And it was true, Lampert did. He’d done serious work on probability theory back in the old days, when he was young and brilliant; he was a graduate student in mathematics at Berkeley, one of the great Oskar Sternwald’s accolytes. Another life. Sternwald, who accepted very few students into his inner circle, had pronounced Lampert a young man of great promise. He’d pulled strings to get Lampert’s first paper, a brief examination of random variables in a Markov chain, published in Probability Studies, a noted journal in the field. And this was before Lampert had even passed his comprehensive examinations!
“What are the chances of such a thing happening?” Rabbi Federbusch asked. “A brick falling from the sky. Factor in the wind at that altitude, the number of people on the ground. You’re the expert. You tell me.”
Now a man in a seersucker suit approached him, gazing intently at the name tag. “You’re not Barbara Rossovsky,” he said. His tone was sharp, accusatory; he’d uncovered an imposter in their midst. He swirled what might have been a gin and tonic in a highball glass.
“No. I’m her late husband,” Lampert said. “I mean, she’s my late wife.”
“Oh, no . . . Barbara? She passed away?” the man asked, his voice full of wonder.
“My God. My wife wouldn’t come. I couldn’t get her into the car. Literally. It was like trying to get the cat to the vet. I came anyway, though,” the man said. “I’ve been looking forward to it. I missed the thirtieth. I can’t remember why. Something came up. Then I got the booklet telling what everyone was doing, and I felt like a fool for not coming.” He scratched his head, then drank deeply from whatever was in his glass. “So . . . Barbara Rossovsky. Goddamn. It’s unbelievable. How long were you married? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“And you came to her high school reunion? Wow. That’s really something.”
“They invited me,” said Lampert. “This wasn’t my idea. They urged me to come.”
“I was crazy about her in high school. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but what the hell. She was my very first kiss. Prom night. I’m telling you. That was some kiss.”
Lampert stared at the man’s name tag. “Steve,” he said.
“That’s right, Steve Box, Class of ’69.” The man offered a limp hand to Lampert.
“I’m Sherm. Glad to meet you.” And he was, in a mild way. Well, okay, maybe “glad” was too strong a word. He liked the seersucker suit, anyway. Throckmorton, the headmaster at Utley, a pompous, lobster-faced prig, was known for them. Seersucker suits and bow ties.
“So how’d you and Barbara get together? You don’t mind my asking, do you?”
“We were at Berkeley. I was doing my Ph.D., she was a sophomore, I was her math tutor, it was the fall of 1970. Crazy times. Once I met Barbara, things changed, I don’t know how to explain it. I’d always thought I’d be a mathematician. Since I was a kid. I was good at it. But then after a while, we got married. We moved into student housing. Berkeley was going crazy, I wanted to stay out of the draft . . .”
“I still remember my lottery number: one hundred. I thought for sure my ass was going to a rice paddy. But then it didn’t happen.”
“So just about the time Barbara was due to graduate, this job came through at the Utley School in Kansas City, and for some reason, I can’t remember why, it came with a deferment. Amazing—a job, a deferment from the draft, and we could live cheaply in Kansas City—so that’s what we did. And I could teach math. Anyway, that was the end of my Ph.D. program.”
“So . . . the . . . what did you say? The Utley School? “
”Kansas City’s answer to Choate. Small classes, good field trips, semesters abroad, that kind of thing. I taught math there for thirty-five years, then I retired. And then the invitation came in the mail, Barbara’s fortieth reunion. Long story short, that’s why I’m here.”
Six million dollars. That was what Kansas City, Missouri, paid in damages following Barbara’s death. Criminal negligence, the court ruled. Ezra Samet, Lampert’s friend since kindergarten, now a fabulously successful lawyer who advertised on local television, handled the entire matter, and kept Lampert insulated from the mess of the details. The story was page one news in the Kansas City Star for a week. It turned out the architects who’d designed the downtown library tower had never built a library before, and hadn’t thought to estimate the weight of the books and the stress that weight would put on the façade of the building. The city, trying to save a bit on architects’ fees, had bought the basic blueprints from an outfit in Shanghai. But they were plans for an office building, not a library. Heads rolled in the City Planning Commissioner’s office. There was a general public outcry, letters to the editors, candlelit vigils, demonstrations in front of City Hall, none of which Lampert took part in at all. “I feel terrible,” he confessed to Ezra as the proceedings wore on.
“Don’t feel terrible. It’s not about you, it’s not about the money. We’re teaching those bastards a lesson. It’s about the city’s obligation to keep the people of Kansas City safe.”
“I’m not a jury, Ezra. Don’t try to sell me anything.”
Lampert unplugged the telephone and television and didn’t get out of bed for what seemed like many days. And in the end, his only task was to endorse the six-million-dollar check and deposit it with George Copley, the stunningly boring man who’d been handling his and Barbara’s meager investments all these years.
Lampert had been raised by working people (his father moved pianos for Goldschmidt’s on the Plaza until his back went out in his late sixties; his mother typed memos for the Wasserman insurance agency); all his life he’d wanted, in the vaguest possible terms, to be rich, though he would never have used the terms “wanted,” or “rich,” and would have denied the whole business hotly if questioned on the matter. In fact he tried to never talk about money at all, and prided himself on not knowing the price of a quart of milk or a dozen eggs. Raising a family on a teacher’s salary, even the relatively generous wages paid by the Utley School, wasn’t easy, but Barbara had a little money of her own, and one way or another everything got paid for. Vacations meant a yearly flight to San Francisco, where they stayed with Barbara’s family at their large and comfortable house high in the hills above Mill Valley for a week and Franci and Ben got to gorge on Dungeness crab cocktails on the boardwalk at Fisherman’s Wharf. When Franci took piano lessons, it was Goldschmidt’s on the Plaza, Grampa’s old employer, who arranged to have the fee waived; Ben’s short-lived foray into Jewish summer camp was financed by the good will of their synagogue. Their house was in the Country Club district south of the Plaza, a weathered century-old Craftsman bungalow built in the grand style, faced with locally quarried limestone; it had been paid for with an inheritance following Barbara’s grandmother’s death. But beyond that there’d been nothing much beyond the shabby genteel life of a semi-academic and his family. A few inherited paintings, some rugs from her grandparents’ house; what could they have afforded on their own? They’d stewed over college funds for the children, over a new furnace, a new roof, a new car, budgeting each month’s expenses with the lip-biting concentration of a four year old trying to color inside the lines. Until now. Now, all of that was over—now that Barbara was gone. At sixty-four, widowed, alone in the world, Lampert was rich.
Steve slurped the ice cubes from his glass into his mouth and crunched on them with great energy. A small, gray-haired woman who’d had too much to drink sidled up to him and purred, “Steve Box. Wow. I would have known you anywhere.”
Steve straightened up and smiled broadly. He glanced at the woman’s name tag. “Wow yourself,” he said. “Peggy. Peggy Krause. Gosh.” He turned to Lampert. “This is Peggy Krause. Remember Peggy?”
“How could I remember Peggy Krause? I don’t know anyone here.”
“Of course,” Steve said. “That’s exactly right. I don’t know what I was thinking.
“You sure do look familiar,” said Peggy. “I guess you had more hair in high school.”
“Sherm was married to Barbara Rossovsky,” Steve said. “Remember Barbara?”
Peggy looked befuddled for a moment. She emptied the dregs of her wineglass, then stared at Lampert for a long moment, then read and reread his name tag. Then she looked back to Steve for help. “Wait a second. He didn’t go to Mount Tam?”
“Only in my dreams,” Lampert said. In truth he’d attended DeLesseps High School in Kansas City, where he graduated third in his class of six hundred. It was a good school in its day, even distinguished; now it was closed, shuttered, had been closed a decade, in fact, a victim of white flight to the suburbs. The building, red brick with imposing limestone columns, had been turned first into a charter school, then a magnet school, and finally into a book depository for the Kansas City School District. Plywood covered the shattered windows on the first floor. It wasn’t even a mile from his house. Franci and Ben had gone there, and had taken classes from some of the same modestly talented teachers Lampert had studied under when he was a kid.
“What’re you doing here?” Peggy asked him.
“That’s the question of the hour, isn’t it?” Lampert replied.
“Well, are you in luck. I’m a grief counselor. Fifteen years experience.”
“What?” He couldn’t have heard her if she’d shouted at that moment, because nearby, a group of reunion-goers were exploding into laughter.
“You ever talked to a grief counselor?” Peggy demanded. Her voice was loud now, a piercing soprano shot through with indignation. “A good grief counselor can change your life.”
“No, not really. I mean yes. Just the one time. Some friends tried to get me to go to one of those groups. Solo Mio, it was called. Group Therapy. Those people were so sad. I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t stand being around them. Nice people. But they wouldn’t stop crying.”
“Of course they were sad. They were grieving.”
“Well, yeah. I see your point. That’s very true.” Lampert smiled, but it wasn’t much of a smile. “It must be hard, being a grief counselor. Everyone you deal with is in the dumps.”
“I was laid off in May,” Peggy went on. “Too many jumpers, they said. God, I could use another glass of wine. Couldn’t they, like, walk around and refill our glasses?”
“Six in six weeks. The Golden Gate Bridge. All of them my clients. My patients. It was awful. Nobody jumps off facing the ocean, did you know that? They all jump facing the city. That’s a fact. When the first one jumped, that was Robert, he was H.I.V. positive and going blind as well, and I told myself that’s okay, he was going to do it anyway, and maybe I’d slowed him up a little, maybe he’d given himself an extra six weeks because of me, but then when the second one jumped, that was Francesca, that one I didn’t see coming, I mean she had a lot to live for, she’d just landed a new job and her parents had laid off her about her boyfriend, and her former husband was finally out of the picture because he was over in Afghanistan on his second tour and couldn’t bother her anymore, except on the phone now and then. So that one really floored me. And then it was like the floodgates just opened up: Ian, then Ingrid, then Michaela, then Chris, boom, boom, boom, boom, four in four weeks, and my supervisor called me in and said they’d been reviewing my work and it seemed clear that I must be doing something wrong. My technique. They thought it must be a flaw in my technique. They said they were worried about relatives filing lawsuits. So I was out. After fifteen years.” She upended her wine glass, hoping for a dribble to parch her thirst, but there was nothing. She looked at Lampert longingly. “That’s my story.”
“That’s a hell of a story.”
“I worked for the state,” Peggy said. She snapped the word “state” like a flyswatter. “I’d always thought if you worked for the state you could never get fired. Well, I was wrong.” She stared at Lampert as if accusing him of something. “I’m still a licensed grief counselor.”
“Maybe once the economy picks up . . .” Lampert offered.
“Yeah, right.” She rolled her eyes. “Then everyone will be happy.” The word “happy” sounded like a curse. “Anyway, you ever need to talk, just let me know.” She looked at her glass again. “You’re not a jumper, are you?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.” A jumper? Lampert? No.
“I know there’s another glass of wine around here,” she said, and walked away.
A short, beefy man with a thinning head of gray hair cut in a Sonny Bono shag ambled toward Steve Box, but his gaze was fixed on Lampert. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Were you at Mount Tam?” He adjusted his glasses and gazed at Lampert’s name tag. “You’re not Barbara Rossovsky.” He turned to Steve. “He’s not Barbara Rossovsky.”
“No,” Lampert said. “I’m not.”
“No, you’re not,” The man said, as if on auto-repeat. He stepped back a bit and assumed a thoughtful pose for a moment, then approached Lampert, standing quite close to him. “I could have sworn you looked like a guy I was lab partners with in chemistry.”
Lampert looked at the ceiling. It was decorated with a mural, the theme of which seemed to be the taming of California: many oxen, teams of them, plowing and pulling and snorting. There was a mural much like this one at the Missouri state capitol building in Jefferson City, which he’d seen when his seventh grade class went there on a field trip many years ago. He remembered the teams of oxen plowing the fields and so on.
He could go upstairs right now and get into bed in his very nice, plushly decorated room at the Mark Hopkins and take a pill and wake up in the morning and fly back to Kansas City and be done with it. That’s what he could do. And that’s what he was going to do. Franci and Ben had been right, of course they’d been right, and he’d been a fool not to follow their advice. When you had the money, it was just so easy to call up the travel agent and say, “Get me a flight to San Francisco, and book a room at the Mark Hopkins, will you?” It was too easy, in fact. Rich people probably got themselves into trouble all the time just because they could do things at the drop of a hat that ordinary people couldn’t even consider. No one had explained any of this to him. Ezra Samet, his old friend from kindergarten, should have attached a note to the check for six million dollars. “Don’t make any sudden moves,” it should have said.
The man with the Sonny Bono shag tugged at the sleeve of Lampert’s jacket. “I mean, you look exactly like this guy. Older, but the same guy.”
“You know,” Lampert said. “You’re right. I admit it. Fact is, I did go to Mount Tamalpais High. And yes, we were lab partners. I was older. You were, what, a sophomore? I would have been a senior then.”
“I can’t remember. It was a long time ago,” the man said.
“You can say that again.”
“I can’t believe it’s you. You were such a great guy. You got me through chemistry. Remember Mr. Albino? I don’t know. Albinoni. We called him Albino. He wasn’t an albino. In fact he was one swarthy son of a bitch. I was terrified of him. Remember that guy? “
“Albino,” Lampert said without conviction. “Who could forget that guy.”
“Everybody said he was this great teacher, he won all these awards. Fat lot of good it did me. I mean I was flunking. I didn’t have a clue.”
The man turned on his heel and strode away purposefully, only to stop after a few paces. He turned around. “Goddamn! I am just goddamn amazed to see you here. Fantastic.”
“I didn’t know you went to Mount Tam,” Steve said into Lampert’s ear. “You didn’t tell me that. I thought you said you were from Kansas City.”
“I changed my mind. Who was that guy? Just in case he comes back.”
“Bob Halvorsen,” Steve said. “He’s a wacky dude. I was president of our literary society, and Bob was sergeant-at-arms. He never did anything. I don’t know what a sergeant-at-arms is supposed to do in a literary society, but whatever it was, Bob didn’t do it.” He paused, as if lost in thought. “You changed your mind?” he asked. “What does that mean?”
“I’m confused,” Peggy said. She’d returned and now put a hand on Steve’s arm. “Can we go somewhere and talk?”
Steve looked at her and licked his lips. “I’d like nothing more. Let’s get together for the first dance, hey? There’s going to be music later on.”
“Could we talk before that?”
“Sure. I just have to say something to Sherm here, and then I’m all yours.”
To Lampert she said, “You could really use some counseling. No kidding.”
“The problem is, I live in Kansas City, see.”
“That’s not a problem. I work through e-mail and over the phone, too. Available twenty-four-seven. I don’t have a card. Peggy Krause. Ask them at the welcome table. They have my address. Remember: grief, my friend, is a disease.” She drifted away languidly.
“I drove all the way over from Walnut Creek? For this?” Steve said. “So I might get lucky later on with Peggy Krause? God, that’s a miserable drive. Any bridges in Kansas City?”
“Not very many. Nothing anybody would want to leap off of. It’s not that kind of city.”
“Well, let me tell you something. I don’t care what time of day or night, it could be 3:30 in the morning, driving over the Bay Bridge is ridiculous. I mean forget about it. I could have crawled across that bridge on my hands and knees faster than traffic was moving. Thank God my wife didn’t want to come. She’d be upstairs now, popping Valium like mints and ordering room service.”
The noise level at the reunion had swelled, and it was hard for Lampert to hear anything, hard to put together a thought other than regret. “Maybe I ought to take off,” said Lampert. “It’s two hours later, Kansas City time. And I’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow morning.”
Long ago, when he was young and brilliant and knew nothing at all, working toward his Ph.D. at Berkeley, he’d spent three years of his life coolly surveying the odds of various human events, so immersed in the theory of probability, the sheer play of it, that for days at a time he completely lost track of the fact that events were real moments in time. The probability of anything—anything at all—could be expressed as a fractional value between 0 and 1. This held true for flipping a coin: heads or tails? Or rolling a pair of dice. Or driving down Wornall Road with your eyes closed. Or strolling along a downtown sidewalk, whistling a tune from South Pacific, thinking about lunch with your husband, where you would have, as always, the hearts of palm salad.
Those years were far behind him now, but being here reminded him of them. Did he regret leaving Berkeley without the degree, consigning himself to a career at the Utley School in Kansas City, living a life with Barbara so ordinary that sometimes, late at night, when they totted up the mundane details of their existence, they were reduced to a kind of sad laughter, the laughter you reserve for a joke you’ve heard a hundred times before? Well, no. No, no, not at all. He had been loved, and had loved. It had been a good life for both of them. Barbara had been Mother of the Year twice in P.T.A.; she’d volunteered in at-risk schools, teaching reading to kids who often came to school hungry; she’d organized neighborhood fundraisers, stuffed envelopes for the Democratic Party, taken gourmet cooking classes at Williams Sonoma on the Plaza. She swam two miles five days a week at the Y, raised two children who adored her, played mah jongg and made her own gefilte fish and presided over a New Age Passover seder every year. When he looked at it, the picture of it, like a film in freeze frame, he saw a balmy evening, a neatly mown lawn, a big front porch with comfortable Adirondack chairs, a small pitcher of bloody marys, the strains of music, something soft and stately, drifting out through the screen door, and the two of them, he and Barbara, sitting in silence, just listening, sometimes glancing at each other, occasionally holding hands.
“Hey, everybody!” Bob Halvorsen shouted. He held a cordless microphone but it didn’t seem to be turned on. “Hey, listen up! Sherm Lampert is here! Remember Sherm? The guy saved my ass in Albino’s Chemistry class! This is one incredible goddamned human being.”
“Shut up, Bob!” someone shouted. “Stick a sock in it!”
“Let’s hear it for Sherm Lampert!” Bob insisted. “Listen to me now! Let’s give it up for a guy who went out of his way—” and here he broke down in sobs. Steve Box and others gathered around him and patted him on the back, but Halvorsen angrily shrugged them off. “Can we get a round of applause here, please, for crying out loud?” he cried in a drunkard’s fervor, but no one applauded. Instead, people drank and ate hors d’oeuvres and draped themselves over one another in long, soft, languid hugs.
Lampert couldn’t help himself; Bob Halvorsen put him in mind of the “drunkard’s walk” problem in Markovian probability, an assignment he’d given his seniors in Advanced Mathematics at the Utley school for many years: a drunkard, leaning against a lamp post, begins to walk; each step covers a yard, and he takes one step every second; so how far away from the lamp post is he likely to be in, say, five minutes? It sounds easy enough to reckon, but it isn’t. Each step is random (he’s drunk, remember), and while to some extent every step depends on the one he’s taken just before it, it’s also in and of itself unpredictable (remember, he’s drunk).
He lived in a foreign land. He’d beached his ships there and had burned them. He thought of Barbara’s purse, the day they’d bought it on the Plaza, and then had dinner that night, a rare splurge, steaks at Plaza III, baked potatoes, creamed spinach, a bottle of good claret. Somehow that day had brought him to this one. You start out at Hall’s in Kansas City, in the handbag section, and then today you end up in the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, a drunkard’s walk from there to here, rife with improbability at every step.
He didn’t wave good night to anyone. He walked through the lobby, past the buffet tables and the clusters of Mount Tam alums eyeing each other and embracing while they picked at the sushi, the shrimp cocktails, the bruschetta, the miniature pizzas. Outside, breathing deeply, standing by the valet parking attendants’ lectern, Lampert happened to glance up at the dark sky, where he’d hoped to see fog rolling in from the Pacific, white and mysterious, as it had his first night in San Francisco, so many years ago. Out of nostalgia, he’d hoped the air would be thick and moist—but tonight it was balmy, the sky was clear, though the circular drive in front of the Mark Hopkins was so brightly illuminated that it was impossible to see any stars. But then, at the periphery of his vision, just at that instant, a shooting star streaked across a black corner of the night sky above the city: a comet, perhaps, or a bit of space debris, an asteroid, just a fleeting pinprick of light, there and then gone in an breath. There, and then gone. The beauty of it would have lifted your heart right out of your chest, if by some chance it happened to catch your eye.
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This essay is featured content from the Spring 2012 issue.
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