Bad Jews and Other Stories

Overview


Bad Jews and Other Stories is a nuanced and comic vision of life, love, and spiritual adventurism among the determinedly secular class of contemporary American Jews. Separated from the character-building hardships endured by their parents and grandparents, unable to find a faith of their own or for that matter to believe in much of anything at all, the characters of Bad Jews and Other Stories wander through the moral landscape of their lives in a loopy version of the Children of Israel’s meandering way home. ...
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Overview


Bad Jews and Other Stories is a nuanced and comic vision of life, love, and spiritual adventurism among the determinedly secular class of contemporary American Jews. Separated from the character-building hardships endured by their parents and grandparents, unable to find a faith of their own or for that matter to believe in much of anything at all, the characters of Bad Jews and Other Stories wander through the moral landscape of their lives in a loopy version of the Children of Israel’s meandering way home. Along the way they suffer a range of antic, often absurd misadventures. And as often as not they find redemption as well as disaster.
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Editorial Reviews

Forward

Bad Jews marks the emergence of another original voice on the contemporary Jewish American literary scene—a voice that registers in often richly comic and profoundly moving ways.”—Forward
New York Times Book Review

“Gerald Shapiro casts an incisive eye over his contemporaries.”—New York Times Book Review
Booklist

“Shapiro shows his readers the way home both emotionally and spiritually with his abiding compassion and tightly wound humor.”—Booklist
Forward
"Bad Jews marks the emergence of another original voice on the contemporary Jewish American literary scene-a voice that registers in often richly comic and profoundly moving ways."
New York Times Book Review
"Gerald Shapiro casts an incisive eye over his contemporaries."
Booklist
"Shapiro shows his readers the way home both emotionally and spiritually with his abiding compassion and tightly wound humor."
New York Times Book Review
Gerald Shapiro casts an incisive eye over his contemporaries.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As Rabbi Futterman tells Elliot Suskind in "Suskind the Impresario": "if the mistake you make is bad enough, one is all it takes." This is a premise for tragedy, but Shapiro shapes it into high comedy in the nine stories in his second collection (after From Hunger). Suskind is a San Francisco publicist for Museum of the Mind. He's still despondent over his divorce, which happened 10 years ago, and suddenly his mother dies. Suskind's job is also at stake, and he plans to redeem himself in publicizing the museum's latest exhibit by organizing a bicycle-messenger race across the city. In a piquant twist, this involves him in a sex pageant the night before his mother's funeral, which leads to another bizarre but epiphanic event--all of which Shapiro orchestrates with the control of a master magician. Middle-aged Leo Spivak in "Worst Case Scenario" travels to San Francisco test marketing his goofball security goods; there he runs into Betsy Ingraham, the object of his unrequited high school passion. Miraculously getting her back to his hotel room for a tryst, Spivak goes off the deep end and winds up at her home, returning her panties to her husband. In the title story, Spivak's disreputable dad dies in Arizona. The funeral turns into a shambles, with a pine coffin (kosher, but cheap), an incompetent rabbi and Leo's impromptu eulogy. By the end of the tale, Leo is afflicted with the feeling that he'll always be a schmuck. Artist Ken Rosenthal in "The Twelve Plagues" wins a prize from a Jewish organization for his contemporary interpretations of the biblical plagues. But the prize donor humiliatingly castigates him because he has added two modern-day blights: call-waiting and no parking spaces. In Shapiro's pessimistic world, even when a character gets what he wants, it immediately evokes a feeling of doom. Brimming with keen insight into the psyches of hilarious, even lovable, losers, the wacky brilliance of these remarkable stories marks Shapiro as a writer to watch. Agent, Maria Massie. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803293120
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 325
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


Gerald Shapiro (1950–2011) was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of From Hunger: Stories, editor of American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories (Nebraska 1998), and winner of the Ohio State University Short Fiction Prize for a collection of novellas and stories titled Little Men.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Worst-Case Scenarios


Spivak leaned forward in his chair, ready to pounce. "Let me give you a for-instance," he said, and reached for the telephone that sat before him on the polished rosewood conference table. A group of elderly women sat across from him, some tapping their fingers on the tabletop, others holding their purses in front of them like shields. The air in the conference room was lush with the scent of perfume. "Now, let's just say that you're home alone," Spivak began. "It's nighttime. Very late — one, two in the morning." He punched some buttons on the phone. "Okay — the telephone rings."

    And it did. The ring blasted into the conference room, and the group of elderly women flinched at the sound. Spivak leaned forward and adjusted the volume on the side of the phone. He looked intently across the table at a tall, buxom woman in a navy blue dress. Her silver hair was thick and piled high on her head, and a broad streak of white shot straight up through the middle of it, rising off her forehead like a runway.

    "What should you do?" he asked her. "Should you answer it?"

    The phone rang again, just as she was about to speak. "I'd be in bed," she said. "My husband would answer it. The phone's on his side."

    The phone rang again. "He isn't there," Spivak snapped.

    "He's not?" the woman asked, smiling. "Where is he?"

    "Let's say he's dead," Spivak said, and watched her face fall. The phone rang again. "You're all alone," Spivak continued."I told you that."

    "That's a despicable thing to say," the woman said.

    Spivak bit his lip and reconsidered. "Wait a second," he said in a conciliatory tone of voice. "He's not dead, he's just away." The phone rang again. "Yeah, there you go — he's out of town, on business. And it's very, very late," he reminded her. "Should you answer it? It might be one of your children."

    The phone rang again, and again the women across the table flinched.

    "Of course it might be someone calling to see if anyone's home," Spivak said. "Someone wanting to break in, let's say. Rapists, thieves."

    "My children wouldn't call that late," the woman in the blue dress said. "They're very considerate." She brought a tissue out of her purse and wiped her forehead with it. Again the phone rang; it seemed to be getting louder.

    "They might," Spivak said. "They might need help. It could be an emergency. One of your grandchildren, maybe." He turned to another of the women seated around the table, this one thin and fidgety, wearing a red sweat suit. Her white hair was bound up in a matching bandanna. "What about you?" he asked her.

    The phone rang again. It was definitely getting louder.

    "I'll admit it — I'd be a little nervous," the woman said, and laughed nervously, running a hand rapidly up and down the loose flesh of her neck as if to make sure she was still there.

    "Of course you'd be nervous," Spivak said. The phone rang again. "Let's face it — you'd be terrified." He pushed the telephone across the polished rosewood toward the woman in the navy blue dress. "Pick it up. Go ahead," he told her. "Say hello."

    The woman gazed down at the phone tentatively, as though it might be a firecracker. It rang again, and finally she picked it up. "Hello?" she said. Amazingly, her voice rang out in the room as though she'd spoken into a microphone. Even more amazingly, it wasn't her voice at all. It was a man's voice, deep and authoritative. It sounded eerily like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    "Oh, my goodness!" the woman exclaimed into the phone's receiver, and again her words poured out loud and clear for all the women in the room to hear.

    Spivak reached under the table and fiddled with a device hidden out of sight. "Now say hello again," he instructed the woman, and this time when she spoke into the phone it was her own voice, tremulous and plaintive, that came flooding out.

    He adjusted the knot in his necktie as he settled back in his chair, then he crossed his legs and smiled. He pushed his glasses higher on his nose, and sat still for a moment, smoothing the crease in his slacks, letting the silence build a bit before he spoke. "I'd like you to meet the Flaxman Voice Transformer Deluxe," he said, "the single woman's friend par excellence." He lifted a small black box from beneath the conference table and held it in his palm like a ruby. "The six-twenty, our best seller — six men's registers to pick from, basso profundo to an Irish tenor, plus the incessant bark of a rottweiler, for those tough-to-get-rid-of prank callers." Spivak reached for the phone and picked up the receiver. As he spoke into it, he rotated a dial on the voice transformer; "Hello, hello, hello," he said, and it sounded like the rising pitch at the start of an old Three Stooges comedy. "One end plugs into the handset, the other end into any standard wall jack," he said as he hung up the phone. "A child can operate it. What do you think?" He gazed across the table at the woman in the blue dress, who still held the receiver in her hand. "You can hang it up now," he suggested gently, and she did.

    "While I have your attention, ladies," he said, "let me give you another for-instance. Call it a worst-case scenario if you like. Let's say, just for the fun of it, that you're on vacation. You're in Europe. Why not! Live it up! You're in Venice, you're on the Grand Canal, you're in a gondola, somebody's singing `O Sole Mio' in the background. You took every precaution before you left — locked every window, every door, made sure the gas was turned off on the stove, stopped the paper, had a neighbor come over and collect your mail every day. You've got light timers on in every room. You've hired a boy down the street to keep the lawn mowed. Cute little kid. You've thought of everything. Unfortunately for you, so have a couple of tattooed ignoramuses who are in your backyard just about now — and they're going to break into your house in about two seconds flat."


At first Spivak had worked on everything. He'd done fine work in focus groups on breakfast cereals, women's fashions, perfume, cruise offers, packaged noodle dinners, mail-order fruit, book clubs, and a variety of diet plans. For nearly six months he'd navigated through some pretty tricky market research for a spray-on spaghetti sauce called Pasta-Magic. He'd done focus groups for both Democrats and Republicans, for the Humane Society, and the National Rifle Association. He'd even done one for the Unitarian Church.

    But then, five years ago, his mentor — kindly, nicotine-stained old Ward LePlante, the man who'd hired him off the street and had shown him the ropes — had been felled by a massive stroke, and Spivak's career at Bowles and Humphries took a nosedive. The day after Ward LePlante's funeral, coworkers began to shun the now-mentorless Spivak in the coffee room, as if it was somehow his fault that LePlante had died. He was pretty sure the secretaries had started to leave his name off distribution lists for important office memos. One Monday he came to work and found that someone had put Krazy Glue all over his desk chair. He could have lost all the skin off his butt if he hadn't smelled something funny just before he sat down.

    But then, out of the blue, his unit suddenly inherited the Flaxman account, and Spivak's career was up and running again — a turn of events he was slow to notice. In fact, at first he'd belittled the Flaxman line of products relentlessly. "God, look at this pathetic crap," he said bleakly to his coworkers, leafing through the crudely produced catalogue of Flaxman gadgets. "Get a load of this: a pencil that tests the lead content in your tap water? Special socks that retard plantar warts? Be still my heart!"

    He even took his complaints to his creative director, a pimply boy named Berenson. "Look, this is career death. Putting me on this account — this is the kind of thing that ruins a guy's career. This is the kind of thing that happened to Pinsker, isn't it?" he asked, referring to a seventy-year-old art director who sat in a small, airless cubicle far away from any windows, doodling logos for powdered toothpaste on large sketch pads all day.

    "What happened to Pinsker is that somebody invented television," Berenson said. "The Korean War ended. Women started enjoying sex. Anyway, don't worry about him, Leo. Worry about yourself. Pinsker owns stock in the agency, the creep. I can't fire him. I'd love to fire him — he reminds me of my grandfather, who used to pinch me and poke me whenever my parents weren't looking. But that's all behind me now." Berenson stood up and leaned over his desk, splaying his fingers out in front of him. "You don't own any stock in the agency yet, do you?" he asked.

    "No," Spivak said.

    "You're a lot older than me, aren't you?"

    "Quite a few years," Spivak said. He started edging toward the door of Berenson's office.

    "Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?" Berenson asked.

    "No, I guess not."

    In the first months after he'd begun to work on the Flaxman account, Spivak gradually came to the sickening realization that his focus group work had never been as sharp. Something amazing happened to him when he was talking to groups of women about Flaxman products. For a time he desperately denied the obvious — who, after all, would want to admit that this kind of thing was his calling? — but after a few months there was no longer any way to deny the rush of adrenaline he felt when he began a pitch, "Let's say, just for the sake of argument," he'd begin, "that you've got radon in your home. Radon — you can't smell it, you can't see it — sure, the Environmental Protection Agency tells you they're not positive that radon is harmful. Hello? Come again? Not positive? Here's a worst-case scenario for you: it's killing your kids. You heard me: killing your children, silently, slowly, inch by inch, as you sit here today." And then he'd whip out the Flaxman Radon Detector Deluxe, a little tube that looked like it might contain nasal spray.

    Within eight months, over sixty Flaxman products were being focus-grouped in cities around the country, and sales were climbing steadily. Spivak found himself, after fifteen years in marketing, suddenly in the chips at last. At marketing conventions, total strangers would approach him and ask for tips. "Do that worst-case scenario stuff for me," they'd say. "Give me one — just an example." And Spivak, feeling a bit sheepish, would do it. The truth was, as awful as it was to admit it, he could do that kind of thing in his sleep. In fact, he often did.


Spivak stopped for lunch at one-thirty; after all, there was only so much terror he could strike into the hearts of elderly women on two cups of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. He calculated the morning's results: a solid B, more or less. He'd done better, he'd done worse. You learned to take the bad with the good in Spivak's line. Not everything lit them up like the Flaxman Voice Transformer. That one was definitely a keeper. Maybe it was the Gregory Peck voice that got them. What the hell — he wanted to sound like Gregory Peck, why shouldn't the average housewife? Now he sat slumped in his chair at the rosewood conference table. A turkey sandwich someone had ordered in from a nearby deli sat untouched on the table next to the telephone. Spivak gave it a wide berth: who knew what was in that thing, anyway? Turkey, mayo, tomato, lettuce — it was all a breeding ground for filth and disease. Flaxman should come out with a bacterial detection system. Carry it with you to foreign countries! Works just as well here at home! He saw it suddenly — it looked like one of those gizmos that takes your temperature in your ear. Here's the demo: stick it in a burrito down south of the border and watch the needle jump! Make a note, he told himself, but he simply didn't have the energy at the moment to whip out his miniature tape recorder.

    After he'd tossed the sandwich into a wastebasket (a simple turn-around jumper, though he thought he'd executed it with genuine grace), he stopped to figure the two-hour difference between Pacific and Central time, and then called Chicago to catch his daughter, Elena, in the midst of her Friday after-school rapture. It was one of the rare moments during the course of a week when she'd be reasonably willing to talk to him.

    "Daddy," Elena gushed, her voice soft and girlish — the same voice he'd heard her use with her new boyfriend Todd, the one with the Italian motor scooter. Spivak imagined her crouched down in a ball, her back against the knotty pine paneling in the family room, the phone cradled in the crook of her neck, hugging her jawbone as if glued there. He saw her fingers entwined in a long, curly black strand of her hair. Where had all that hair come from? Spivak's wife, Rachel, had an unruly strawberry blond mop, and his own hair, what there was of it, was a retiring shade of mousy brown. Maybe good hair skipped a generation, like Huntington's chorea.

    Lately, though, maybe the past year, two years, he'd begun to feel that the real mystery wasn't Elena's hair; it was Elena, period, the entire package. Her voice on the phone unnerved him, as it always did these days, and made him think of her legs, which in the last year or so had lost their baby fat and had developed long, sensuous curves unlike any he'd ever seen when he was her age. What the hell had been going on with puberty these past few years? Was it something in the water? Had girls been this pretty when he was in the ninth grade? Had they seemed so grown up, so terrifyingly aware of themselves?

    "Hey," he said to her. "How's life? How's school?"

    "Stupid," she said in a tone that suggested that the question, too, was stupid. "Totally. Beyond belief."

    "And your mother?"

    "Let's not talk about it. Let's be kind. Let's talk about you," Elena purred.

    What kind of a remark was that? "Since when do you call your mother it?" he asked.

    There was a long pause. "How's it going, Daddy? I miss you."

    "You doing your homework?"

    "Yeah. I'm doing it."

    "You know the deal — you pull a B-plus average this semester —"

    "We're all going to Florida this summer," she said, mimicking his voice. "Walt Disney World, the whole cucaracha. I know. That's a bribe, Daddy. Mom says it's —"

    "Hey, the world works on a series of bribes. One bribe after another. It's what makes the world go round. Tell that to your mother. Tell her Professor Spivak has spoken."

    "When'll you be home?"

    "Another couple of days. We just have one or two more of these focus groups to do, then I'm on that plane. What's it doing back there?"

    "Snowing. The dry kind — you can't even make snowballs out of it," Elena moaned. "It just flies around and gets in your eyes. Boring, boring, boring."

    "It sounds pretty to me," he said in a slightly aggrieved tone of voice. "Like one of those paperweights. What do you want me to bring back from San Francisco? How about some sourdough bread?"

    "Yuck. I'm on a diet," Elena said.

    "Diet? My little girl?"

    "Daddy," she complained. And then her low voice purred mischievously again: "I'm not so little anymore." He heard her intake of breath, as though she'd surprised herself by saying it.

    My God, he thought, she was fourteen years old: where in the name of God had she gotten a voice like that?


There was still the matter of lunch. At a Guatemalan diner on Twenty-fourth Street, Spivak sat at a table by the window so he could watch the parade of passersby. Sunlight striped into the diner through the window blinds, reminding him of Elena, and of the snow falling in Chicago. Two thousand miles away, snow was falling; Lake Michigan was frozen from shore to shore. Thinking of it, looking through the window blinds at the sunny winter afternoon, he felt suddenly displaced, as though he'd been evicted from his life and was tumbling through ether, through nothingness. This was what children were for, Spivak told himself: sooner or later, they made you think you'd stepped off a ledge into thin air. He sipped a Calistoga water and ate an order of cheese pupusas and pastalitos accompanied by a sharp, vinegary cabbage salad. A group of Hispanic female impersonators merengued down the sidewalk past his window; a woman carrying an infant on each hip walked by, followed by two more children attached to her waist with short lengths of rope; traffic slowed to accommodate a funeral procession, complete with large placards bearing sepia-toned photographs of the deceased and a marching band full of doleful trumpets and tubas; a burly brown-skinned fruit peddler rambled through the crowd on the sidewalk, hawking bananas, mangoes, plantains, and papayas. He happened to catch Spivak's gaze for a moment, and held up a banana in what Spivak assumed was an obscene gesture.

    And then, just as he was eating the last of his pupusas, a woman walked by, her pace quick and determined. Middling height, brown-blonde hair, square shoulders and a thoughtful, resolute cast to her features. A lavender blouse and what looked like a floral-patterned batik skirt. She wasn't in Spivak's line of sight for more than a second, but he recognized her instantly: Betsy Ingraham, the girl he'd never had a snowball's chance in hell of dating in high school — twenty-five years since they'd last seen one another and now here she was, walking down a street in San Francisco, half a continent away from De Lesseps High in Kansas City, Missouri. He realized in that instant that she'd never really been out of his thoughts, her face never far from his mind's gaze these past twenty-five years.

    Spivak was out of his chair in the next breath, racing for the diner's door. "Betsy!" he yelled out.

    "Excuse me!" the cafe's proprietor cried from behind the cash register. Spivak hastily whipped out his wallet and threw a few bills on a nearby table. Then he raced down the street, dodging through pedestrian traffic.

    "Betsy," he cried again. And this time, the woman with the resolute features stopped and turned around.

    "Betsy," he said in a panting voice. He tried to smile at her, but the utter lack of recognition in her face wiped the attempt off his lips immediately.

    "Do I know you?" she asked.

    "Yes! Leo Spivak! De Lesseps High, class of sixty-eight!" he said. "I mean, no, we didn't know each other." He gulped for air. What the hell, they were so far away from that world, cut free of it in time and space. "I knew you. I was in love with you," he said. "I mean absolutely mad for you. It was pathetic."

    She looked at him intently then, shielding her eyes with her hand as though they were standing in bright sunlight, though in fact they were in deep shade under the awning of a video store. "Leo?" she said.

    "Spivak. We were in Advanced Placement English together. Mrs. Menotti's class, senior year. My paper was on F. Scott Fitzgerald."

    Still she looked at him without a spark. "Leo Spivak," she said. Then she shrugged, a flick of her shoulders. "Hello. Do you live here now?"

    "No, no, I live in Chicago. I'm just here on business. You?"

    "In the Sunset district — it's out by the ocean. I've lived here since college. What kind of business?"

    "Oh, nothing very exciting. Marketing and advertising, that kind of thing." He always hated it when people asked him what he did for a living. If he'd only been able to say something like, "Oh, I run a nonprofit organization devoted to saving starving African war orphans," or something like that, he might have had some chance to feel good about himself. As it was, what was he going to say? I scare elderly women to death? That's my job?

    Betsy lowered her hand from her eyes. "Oh, advertising. That must be very exciting," she said, and smiled at him. She was still gorgeous, her skin smooth and lightly tanned, her eyes bright blue. Her eyebrows were dark and heavy, unplucked, and this feature, which he'd never noticed in high school, somehow made her even more beautiful to him now.

    "It's a living. And what about you?" he asked her.

    "I'm a lawyer — legal aid for the homeless, mostly."

    There it was — one of those starving-African-orphan jobs! He should have known; in high school Betsy Ingraham had worn her hair long and straight like Joan Baez and played the guitar in the yearly variety show; one year she sang "Kumba Ya," another year "Blowin' in the Wind." She wasn't just beautiful, she was noble, too. Spivak could hardly stand it. He bit his lip. "That's very admirable," he said.

    "I hate it, actually," she said. "Homeless people are pretty depressing. Most of them are crazy. I spend a lot of time talking to people who think that God talks to them through the toilet — that kind of thing." She shifted her weight and adjusted the jute bag that was slung over one of her shoulders.

    My God, she's even amusing, Spivak said to himself. I never knew she was amusing. A moment of silence went by, and he felt the thread between them begin to slacken. "This is sure wild, isn't it?" he said, and mopped his brow with the back of one hand. "I mean seeing each other here after all these years."

    "Oh, it's not so wild. Two years ago I was in Chinatown to buy fish for dinner and I saw Brad Pettybone. I hadn't seen him since senior prom. Remember Brad?"

    Remember Brad! Who was she kidding? Brad Pettybone, class salutatorian; Brad Pettybone, all-state wrestler; Brad Pettybone, the lead in The Music Man, the senior class musical — the only guy in school to have a noticeable cleft in his chin. Spivak was amazed that the name still conjured up such a wave of longing and envy and regret. Brad Pettybone had probably groped Betsy Ingraham big-time, back when groping was as good as it got. Spivak's imagination fastened itself on the image of the two of them, Brad and Betsy, somewhere quiet and dark in Kansas City, some glade in the forest primeval, a few crickets providing the only background noise to cover their slurping adolescent kisses in the front seat of a T-bird. God, what it must have been like!

    "Leo?" she said. Passersby jostled them on the sidewalk, and they moved closer to the video store's windows.

    "Oh, yes. Brad," Spivak said. "Sure I remember him."

    "Coincidences aren't that rare, really. It's a small world."

    "Tiny," Spivak agreed.

    "Well," Betsy said, and looked at her watch. "Well, it was awfully nice to see you."

    "Are you married?" he asked suddenly.

    "Yes, yes I am. Two children, a boy and a girl," she said. Her eyes wandered away from him, and again he felt the moment pulling apart, going dead on him like an overfed goldfish. What the hell was he doing? What did he want?

    "I am, too. One daughter," he said. "My wife's a CPA."

    "Congratulations," Betsy said, and smiled. "That must make it nice at income tax time." She looked at her watch again.

    "Betsy Ingraham," he said, nodding his head like a dummy. "Betsy Ingraham. This is amazing. So tell me, what's your name now? Your married name, I mean."

    Betsy seemed to be nibbling on something inside her mouth. She looked away. "You're not going to call me or anything, are you?"

    "No, no, I just want to know!" he said. He laughed gently to show the innocence of his intent, and shook his head as if to say, What a loony idea! "Hey, that was high school, okay?" he said.

    "Wexler," she said. "My husband's name is Arthur. He works at a science museum here in the city. Look, I really ought to be heading off. This is my one free afternoon all week, and I've got a ton of errands. It was great to see you." She looked flustered, as if she might be running through a short list of conversational closers: See you soon, Keep in touch, Have a nice day. None of them seemed appropriate, so she said, "Well — so long." There was a split second just before she walked away, when it seemed likely that they might touch: shake hands, if nothing else, or perhaps exchange air-kisses, maybe even — could it be? — hug briefly. But he hesitated, waiting for her to make the move (he, after all, had already leaped past the bounds of propriety with that idiotic declaration of high school infatuation, hadn't he?), and the moment passed.

    For a moment, a breath or two, Spivak stood watching the back of her head as it disappeared amid the crowded bustle of pedestrians. Then he ran after her again, caught her half a block down the street, and whirled her around by an elbow, feeling the soft washed silk of her lavender blouse. "Okay, look," he panted. "I said I was in love with you all the way through high school. It wasn't love, exactly. I mean, maybe it was love, but it was something else, too. I wanted to fuck you — I didn't even know the word fuck at the time, but I wanted to blah-blah you in the worst way possible. I'm talking about explosive sex, lots of it, the kind that breaks furniture. The kind where you look at your watch and it's Tuesday all of a sudden. The kind that makes you feel like something has happened to you, for God's sake. Call me crazy, but that's what I'm talking about."

    The stream of pedestrian traffic parted around them like water around a rock. They stood there, the two of them. Spiyak heard the echo of what he'd just said, as though a tape delay inside his head was playing it back for him. What was he thinking of? What was happening to him? He was afraid to look at her, afraid she'd be looking at her watch again.

    "Where's your hotel?" she asked after a moment of silence.


He couldn't help himself; he knew it was tacky, but he simply had to know. "So how was it?" he asked. Betsy lay face down on the bed, her head underneath a pillow. She said something, but the words were muffled. After a moment he lifted the pillow and said, "Would you repeat that?"

    "I said it was nice. You talk dirty a lot."

    "I've never done that before in my life. Did you like it?"

    "It was okay."

    "Which part? I mean which — what?"

    "I'm not going to say any of that."

    He leaned down to the pillow. "How about `I'm gonna suck your tits'?" Silence. "How was that? How about `Ride me, baby, ride me'?"

    "Stop it." She pulled her head out from under the pillow and sat up, not looking at him. "I've got to go," she said, talking to her watch.

    "Wait a second — wait," Spivak said. "Hold it. We've just spent twenty minutes here. Twenty minutes. I've been waiting twenty-five years for this — it's like a dream come true for me. It can't be over in twenty minutes."

    Betsy turned to him and put a hand on his arm. "Look, it may be a dream to you, but I've got errands to run," she said. "It's no joke — I really do."

    "Just give me ten more minutes. And for God's sake, whatever you do, don't put on any clothes."

    She sighed. "Can I go to the bathroom, please?"

    "Of course you can. Call me Leo, will you? That's a particular turn-on for me, don't ask me why."

    "I'll be right back, Leo," she said, and walked to the bathroom. He watched her backside as she covered the ten feet or so to the door, the sway of her legs and her ass, the dimples behind her knees. The bed was a mess — they'd really had at it. Wow, this was something. His eyes ranged over the bedclothes, the crumpled sheets, the lavender blouse and batik skirt in a small heap on the carpet. Room service — that was it. He'd call and order up some champagne — what the hell! He'd pay for it in cash, that way it wouldn't show up on the hotel bill, Rachel wouldn't ever have to know.

    My God, he thought. What I am doing? Rachel's face was before him suddenly, fragile and luminous and forgiving. What are you doing, Leo? she asked him. What kind of a putz are you being? He sank back against the headboard of the bed, put a hand over his eyes, and took several deep breaths. Okay, he told himself. This is pretty bad. This is definitely the worst thing I've ever done in my marriage. This is a lot worse than lying about the dented fender on the Oldsmobile. This is worse than what I did with Suzy Chudnow under the table at the company Christmas party two years ago, because then I was stone-drunk, for crissake, and anyway, we were just kidding around. It was also worse, he realized, than that time in Florida at the convention, because that time nothing went on, it was a little hanky-panky above the waist, a little slappy-hands below the waist, and a couple of kisses that threatened to pull his lips right off his face, but other than that nothing went on. Yes, this one was really bad, no doubt about it.

    But it could have been worse. He could have fucked one of Rachel's best friends, for instance. He could have fucked her sister, for that matter, he told himself, and believe me, she'd do it, too. That sister of hers — don't get me started on her. Talk about predators. Or Rachel could have been in the hospital, let's say, for an operation, and he could have fucked her night nurse — now that would have been unforgivable. That would have been beyond the pale. Or he could have fucked somebody at home, in his own bed, under his own sheets, somebody — oh my God — somebody from down the street, one of those women from the neighborhood watch committee. That was off the map, a sin of unthinkable proportion. Don't even talk about it. A felony, a capital crime. This was bad, all right, but it wasn't that bad.

    Betsy came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. "Take that thing off, will you?" he said, and miraculously, she dropped the towel to the floor. "Stop right there!" he cried. "Just stand there a minute! Don't move." She stood still. "You're gorgeous," he told her.

    "Thank you," she said, and bit her lip. "Can I move now?"

    "Yes."

    She moved toward the bed, her skin glowing in the lamplight. "Listen: I want to meet your husband," Spivak told her as she lay down beside him. "I want to meet Arthur."

    "You what? You're kidding."

    "I want to meet your whole family, in fact."

    "Absolutely not," Betsy said, and got up. "Where are my panties?"

    "Absolutely not, Leo," he reminded her.

    "Help me find my panties, will you." She flung the crumpled sheets off the bed, "What am I doing? Goddamn it, where are they?" She quickly slipped on her bra, then her blouse and her skirt. At each stage of the process, Spivak uttered soft little yelps of protest, but Betsy seemed not to be listening. When she was dressed she got down on her hands and knees and peered under the bed. "Help me out here, will you?" she asked him. "I've got to find my panties."

    "We could all have dinner together. You pick the restaurant."

    "Are you kidding?" Betsy said, her voice muffled by the mattress. "You're crazy, you know that? Goddamn it, they have to be here somewhere."

    "Listen. Just listen to me. Do this one thing for me and I'll never bother you again," he said. "I won't call you, I won't even think about you. I'm not kidding."

    She stood up straight and looked down at him. "I should never have done this. I must be crazy. I don't even know you." She sighed deeply, put a hand to her forehead, and looked around the room again, though this time her movements were slower, and her shoulders slumped. "They walked off — my panties just skipped town," she said, more to herself than to Spivak. "They're smarter than I am; they knew better than to stick around."

    "See, that's just what I mean. You're funny — I didn't know you were funny," Spivak said. "I love that. I mean, that's better than `I want to suck your tits.' Now here's what I have in mind: just a simple dinner, something Chinese, maybe. We can order family style. Moo Goo Gai Pan, that kind of thing."

    Betsy stared at him as if he might be on fire. "Why would I do that?" she asked. "What could that possibly accomplish? Are you out of your mind ?"

    "Just this one little thing? And then I'm gone, I'm out of your life for good."

    "Listen, I'm sorry —"

    "Listen, Leo."

    "Leo," she said, "you're not in my life. We just did something, it's the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life, and it's over. Don't ask me why I did it. I don't know why I did it. As far as I'm concerned it didn't happen. This is just a bad dream, and I'm waking up. You didn't stop me on the street, we didn't come up to your hotel room, I didn't take off my clothes, my God, my God!" she said, and smacked herself in the forehead — as if killing a mosquito that had landed there. "We didn't — we didn't have sex, we didn't do anything," she continued with her eyes closed. "We weren't even in Advanced Placement English together — and we're not having this conversation." She put on her shoes and walked toward the door. "My God, I'm not wearing any underpants," she murmured in a soft, bewildered voice. She stopped at the door and turned back to look at him. "Look," she said, "no hard feelings, okay? I hope you worked it through, whatever it was. Maybe you're not crazy. I don't know. But you're very strange. I've got to get out of here, I've got to get home." She shook her head wearily and looked at her watch again. "Don't get up. And don't say anything."

    "Don't say anything, Leo," he reminded her as she walked out the door.


At seven o'clock that evening, Spivak's cab pulled up in front of an impressive cream-colored stucco house near the University of California Medical Center. It was a bungalow in the Craftsman style, with wide overhanging eaves and a generous front porch covered with potted plants. As Spivak stepped out onto the sidewalk he sniffed a salty tang riding the breeze; it was foggy here, and the air was considerably cooler than it had been downtown. He checked the address once more on the scrap of paper in his palm, and then bounded up the flight of redbrick steps to the front door and rang the bell.

    A tall, nondescript, balding man Spivak's age answered the door. He held a newspaper, and his face wore a look of sullen confusion. "Yes?" he asked Spivak.

    "I know this sounds odd," Spivak began, "but your wife left this pair of panties in my hotel room this afternoon." He held out the panties, which were of pale pink satin. "She couldn't find them when she left," he went on. "I was lying on top of them all the time. What a goofball!"

    "Excuse me?" the man at the door asked. He adjusted his glasses and stared at the panties Spivak held out to him. Tentatively, he reached for them, then drew his hand back and looked at Spivak intently. "Did you say what your name was?" he asked.

    "Leo Spivak. Call me Leo. You're Arthur, aren't you? Betsy didn't tell me much about you. You do museum work, don't you?"

    Arthur stared at him a moment longer, then opened the door wider and stepped aside, a gesture Spivak interpreted as an invitation to come inside. He thrust the panties into Arthur's hand and walked into the house.

    "This is beautiful," he said, sweeping his gaze around the polished hardwood floors, the Persian rugs, the beautifully framed artwork dotting the walls of the living room. "This is like something out of a magazine, I'm not kidding you. What taste!" He put his hands in his pockets and uttered a long, low whistle of approval. "I like it — no, wait, scratch that! I love it."

    Arthur shut the door quietly and turned toward Spivak. He held the newspaper to his chest and deposited the panties carefully on a small table in the entryway. "What did you say your name was?" he asked.

    "Leo Spivak. Betsy and I went to high school together in Kansas City. De Lesseps High. You know — Ferdinand de Lesseps? A man, a plan, a canal: Panama. That's a palindrome.

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Table of Contents

Worst-case scenarios 1
The twelve plagues 27
The tutor 52
At the great divide 76
Suskind, the impresario 111
The Feigenbaum Foundation 184
Rosenthal unbound 213
Shifman in paradise 245
Bad Jews 293
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