Probabilities

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stein brings a fierce literary intelligence to bear in his first novel. This coming-of-age story isn't cast from the standard mold: from the outset, 16-year-old narrator Will Sterling has his coping mechanisms intact, with a level of insightfulness that asks for no improvement. Will's father has been dead three years, and his 55-year-old mother has abandoned ``family obligations she had once imposed to establish normalcy.'' Will does her chores and her accounting, but their lives rarely intersect as the mother dates men who are ``just a belt and a head.'' The only white boy on the Bergenville, N.J., high-school basketball team and a math genius who sees all of life's conundrums in terms of probability, Will looks for answers from Terri Kean, a 40-ish surrogate mother he visits in Connecticut, and grapples with his need to keep private his love for schoolmate Sara Glasser. The boy has a need to know about his father's past and a hunger for someone to see him into the future; once he understands this, he can begin to temper probabilities with expectations. In Will, Stein has created a funny, roll-with-it adolescent of enormous appeal, and a story that boasts both the elegance and the complexity of a geometric proof. (Aug.)
Mary Carroll
Will Sterling is 16 and "confused by nearly everything." His mid-fiftyish mom has been dating since Will's father died three years ago: she dates more than Will does! Each weekend, Will drives from New Jersey to Connecticut to stay with the Kean family because fortyish Terri Kean is his surrogate mother, mentor, and fantasy soul mate. At school, Sara is his lifesaver, but she has a boyfriend and seems to want more from Will than he has been able to give. African American Billy, whose father is also dead, and other basketball players provide male companionship for Will, who's quasi-competent on the court. The late Mr. Sterling, a scientist, taught Will lots about science, but not much about himself or life. Will valiantly tries to grasp life using probability theory, but, "All I had was intuition, which, as my father liked to say, was the enemy of probability." This first novel from Stein, a physician whose fiction has appeared in "Three Penny Review", "Salmagundi", and other publications, celebrates Will's capacity to search out the resources he needs, and the growth he experiences through coping with the cards he was dealt.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781877946578
  • Publisher: Permanent Press, The
  • Publication date: 8/28/1995
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 175
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.77 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Of course I was interested in seeing the dogs. But in truth, I was more interested in seeing the shooting, that is, the shooting of the dogs. After all the movies, TV, videos, everyone is curious to see the thing live, then dead, bullet entry and exit and all that. Not that I'm vicious, but Dr. Kuhn invited me.

    I never knew how long they would last, men like Dr. Kuhn, how long until the performance was spoiled and my mother's unnaturally steady mood was again upset. So I took the intriguing offers I was given.

    My mother had driven me over to Bergenville General to meet the good doctor, her newest admirer, at his place of business. On the way, she mentioned that he was a bachelor and not a widower or divorcee like most of her admirers were. I don't know where she found those guys, maybe at work, or through friends or in supermarkets. I don't know where she found the doctor, but his being a bachelor made him questionable and a little sleazy to my thinking; what had he been doing his whole life? Judging by her evenings away from home, I assumed she had been seeing this Dr. Kuhn for about three weeks.

    We took Mountain Avenue up to the tidy brick hospital entrance, and when we pulled up the drive to the ER she parked where the sign read `NO STANDING,' and said to me, "Well, at least it doesn't say `NO PARKING.' We won't get a ticket anyway. I have connections." The ambulances in front of us sounded like a video-game arcade. EMTs were jumping out the back doors, pumping on chests, saving lives, doing their life and death tricks, tubing hanging out of their backpockets. It gave me gooseflesh to watch the stretchers sliding into the darkness of the hospital. Hospitals had scared me since my father went into one and didn't come out. They filled me with pity and interest and made me determined to stay well forever. Sick people made me think about myself.

    We got out of the car and went inside through the power-sliding doors that popped open like a swimmer coming up for air. The place stank of cigarettes and bad fish, and my mother left me sitting in an orange plastic chair designed for the curved back of an 80-year-old while she made her way to the front desk. Around me, the sick (as opposed to the very sick who had already passed into the exam rooms) were slobbering and hissing and making ridiculous sounds, and I stared at a girl of about ten doing cartwheels right on the gray carpeting. I was sure she was going to crack some ribs.

    At the front desk, I saw my mother put her purse up next to the clipboards with the chained pencils, lean over and say something to the receptionist whose face glowed green from her computer screen. The woman smiled, turned her mouth to a microphone, and I heard, "Dr. Kuhn to the waiting area. Dr Kuhn. Dr. Kuhn to the waiting area." A moment later, the door to the actual emergency room itself swung open and a man about twenty years younger than my mother came out in a scrub shirt and bloody moccasins, signaling for us to follow him. He had a big grin and wore his stethoscope like a tie, and the first thing I thought was: Jesus, what does a guy that young see in my mother? We went into the patient area a few steps behind him.

    There was a small group of medically dressed people ahead of me, and to my left and right, stretchers, like boats docked for refueling, were partially revealed behind a blue curtain that ran from ceiling to ankle height. Closest to the doctors and nurses there was a man tied by his wrists with cheesecloth to the railings of his stretcher. The sheet he was supposed to be on was sliding off to one side so he was lying on a plain black foam mattress, the yellow stuffing popping out at the corners. There was an old-sneaker smell coming from him. He had a bloody scab over his left eye and his lip was split. He looked across at a doctor in front of me who was writing a note, and yelled, "Hey baldy!" The doctor looked over at him briefly and returned to his writing. Then the stretcher man yelled, "Hey baldy. Who's the bitch with the brooch?" The doctor writing looked up again, turned around, saw us, stood and came over to us. He gave my mother a kiss and said to me, "Welcome to the Inn, son."

    So it wasn't the young guy. This guy, baldy, was Dr. Kuhn. He was smaller than I was, maybe five foot six, with a thick chest and sharp blue eyes. He wore a hyper bow tie that was red and pink and I suppose was hypnotizing for the sick.

    "How often do you do surgery?" I asked.

    "When it's needed."

    "Could you get me a gallstone on your next trip in?" It was one of those things that I'd always wanted to see.

    "What do you want with a gallstone, son?"

    "I want to start a necklace for my girlfriend," I told him.

    My mother whispered, jerking her head at me, "He doesn't have a girlfriend." In a sense she was right and in a sense wrong.

    "You want a calcium or cholesterol stone?" he asked me. There were beeping, whining machines rolling past us, as we stood there in the middle of the room on the shining tiles.

    "Whatever," I said. "Any interesting cases in here today?"

    He motioned for me to talk softer.

    "Behind that curtain is a man who tried to kill himself for the third time this year," he said. "Tried to shoot himself and missed again. Actually got a piece of one ear, so he needed some stitching. Behind that curtain is a gal with a seizure. And of course you see Roger over there." He pointed to my friend with the cheesecloth handcuffs.

    Then he asked me one. "You ever do any hunting, son?" which was the third time he called me that. Although he had come out looking generous from the gallstone discussion, I gave him a look that meant: Don't call me son, I'm nothing of the sort to you.

    "No," I said.

    "You've never been hunting in Bergenville?" He seemed surprised.

    You have to understand that our town is an ordinary suburb, about as wild as folded linen, that our idea of a forest is a redwood patio deck. I suppose if you stood in the middle of the basketball courts at Tryon Park and took a slingshot to a few seagulls who were lost inland, that could be considered hunting.

    I had already said "No" once and I saw no reason to repeat myself.

    "Well it just so happens," he said, "that along with chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits, there is a pack of wild dogs living here."

    "Where?" I asked, now mildly interested.

    "On the East Side."

    I had forgotten that beyond the grand homes on Pam Street there was a little tree density backing onto the golf course and the Palisades.

    "Oh yeah?" I said, not giving him much since I could tell he was taunting me. It was his personality.

    My mother stood watching us with a little bit of a smirk and a little bit of a smile, arms crossed, not sure what to make of us, but hoping that it was going well. She had on her purple floral dress and a coral necklace. You could see the moles on her chest.

    "They're called coy-dogs," he said.

    "Coy-dogs."

    "A mixture of coyote and dog."

    "That's crazy," my mother broke in. She usually let me meet her men friends in this way, allowing us to have our own conversations.

    "My dear girl," he said to her, "it's crazy only if they don't come into your backyard and growl at your dog, only if they don't follow you when you're out for an evening walk."

    He called me "son" and her "girl," which probably wasn't getting him any points with either of us. He thought he was the coy dog.

    "You're making the whole thing up," I said. "Coy-dogs. Come on. They're probably just some undernourished shepherds out on the town."

    "A mauled Canada goose was found last night near Winchester Pond. I believe the coy-dogs are responsible," he told us.

    "You're not going to shoot them, are you?" my mother asked.

    He ignored this question. "In fact, I've been asked by the town council to capture them. My next-door neighbor is on the council. She's very competent. I had never heard of the problem, but when I did, naturally I offered my services."

    "Why even bother with them?" my mother asked. She took off her pink frame glasses, and let them hang from her neck on a thin pink strap. When her glasses came off it meant that she was concerned.

    "We have concluded that the dogs are a hazard."

    "You're not going to shoot them," she said, this time a bit hesitantly.

    "You have to think of the safety of children."

    Then I knew what was what. Once the old packaging—"the safety of children"—came up, gross torture of the animals would be next on the agenda.

    "I bet the people reporting this haven't seen any wild dogs, only wild children," I said, trying to lighten things up a bit.

    It didn't work. "The Animal Shelter has failed to control them with traps. They say the adult dogs won't go near the traps, they're too smart, and all they've caught are a dozen puppies." He was serious about his mission. It troubled me that this healer would be out there killing puppies. His hands were down at his sides, but now they met in front of his belt and started squeezing, pumping, like a heart.

    "Many people support us."

    "So you're going to shoot them," I said. I have never much followed my mother's line of thinking, but this was an exception. She seemed on the right track. Of course the difference between us was that I wanted to see the shooting and she would want nothing to do with it.

    "Many people support us."

    I realized he still hadn't really answered the question, just like every doctor I'd ever met, and this question wasn't even about doctoring. But of course he had answered it, with the "safety of children" line.

    "I'd like your son to join me on the hunt. I am going out with two animal control specialists."

    She looked right at him and said, "Absolutely not." My mother is actually pretty tough sometimes.

    "He will be paid $200 for each dog captured."

    I said, "Absolutely."

    "He will not be allowed to go hunting."

    I just stood there and watched. She had just rooked me out of 200 big ones or up. There was no point in whining, though. Wouldn't work and it wasn't my style. Plus, I was interested in watching my mother in this conflict. Always a pleasure to see her disagreeing with one of her admirers.

    Then he looked at me. "The hunt is tomorrow morning. Seven A.M."

     I wasn't sure what he meant by giving me the exact time. And most Saturdays I left town anyway. But I thought that I'd stay around and see what happened. He gave my mother another kiss, as if to say, "Back to work now," although this time she gave him only her right cheek. The drunk on the stretcher called out, "Hey honey, tell baldy to shut up, and you come over here and help me with this itch."

    At home that night, I took up Dr. Kuhn's case. First because I wanted to go and second because it was a good chance to shake up my mother some.

    I said to her, as she served her six-minute specialty, flounder baked with a can of vegetarian vegetable soup on top, "Don't you believe in the public welfare?"

    The edges of the fish were brown and the veggies slopped onto the aluminum foil that lined the pan. It was like I had just woken her up; she had no idea what I was referring to. "Like rabies. Like the dogs will get infected and spread the disease to people."

    "It's ridiculous. No one has been attacked."

    "You have to think of the safety of children ... and pets," I said. It was revolting but I said it, adding "pets" to make it more revolting.

    "You are not going out shooting guns."

    "Think of the negative impact on our wildlife."

    "No guns."

    I don't remember much about what else happened that evening anymore. I think I stayed in and watched basketball on TV and fiddled with a few equations. I'd been thinking about the old Monte Hall problem, the three-curtain problem, where some hysterical woman contestant was offered her choice of three curtains, only one of which had a real prize behind it, the other two giving away bogus items like ceiling fans or wooden legs. Monte stood there after she made her choice and, depending on her pick, offered her maybe a thousand dollars instead of her curtain. She stood there uncertain as could be, looking at the ten hundred-dollar bills in his hand under her nose and struggling with a real-life probability problem. If he was offering money she must be on the right track; or was he tricking her? Should she switch her pick? The solution to the problem was actually quite complex, and our math class had been working on it extra hours like some kids would go out and do grounder practice. The poor sucker on TV had no clue how to think it through so she just guessed and usually ended up with audience sympathy and a prosthesis.

    I keep track of my mother's men friends by matching them to probability problems I'm working on at the time I meet them. For instance, Monte's three curtains, Dr. Kuhn's ER curtains.

    My mother had a different voice when she was around one of the men who had passed through our life in the past two years. It was a lesser-intensity voice, almost like a young girl's, almost baby talk. She had that voice, and she was cheerful and reasonable when she was distracted by her dating. She left me alone. My mother wasn't exactly husband-hunting; she was a realist and silly dreams didn't enter into her assessments of men. But she had this urgent need to think of herself in terms of who she was with, manwise, and although she knew this was ridiculous, I believe she did not know how else to think of herself. She didn't long for a life different from what she had—that was too complicated—she just liked company.

    After one man disappeared and before another showed up, and if I couldn't escape quickly enough when I saw her coming, she would rant about "men" to me. They were impossible, cruel, hysterical, they expected to be taken care of ("when I have a son to look after," she'd throw in), they made promises and spent too little, they were moody, bossy, bad dancers, they reeked of cheap cologne. They had been single so long they had forgotten how to treat women.

    When I overheard her talking to herself she would say, "The thing is not to care," or "Don't expect too much," or "You don't need that kind of company." "I have more energy than they do," was her most common complaint and I had no doubt about it. Some of them were old men, just a belt and a head. For a woman in her 50s who was a little overweight, she never stopped moving. She couldn't even sit through a whole meal; she always cleared away my plate before I was finished.

    She, her newest man, and me always made a strange mix when we first met. She had roles for all of us, of course. I was meant to be her pet and also some sort of protection for her, a high-school-aged representation of her responsibilities; the man was an insider, the new confidant, but also a stranger; she was the centerpiece, the excuse for all this fun, the main attraction.


    At 6:45 A.M. the next morning, Dr. Kuhn's black Mercedes convertible parked in front of our house. My mother and I were both up, edgy, retreating from conversation. I watched through the window as he got out in his camouflage khakis, duck hunter hat, lace-up black boots.

    "Hunting season," I said back over my shoulder.

    The knocker sounded on the front door. My mother stayed on her seat in the kitchen and I went for the good doctor. He was opening and closing his fists when I opened the door.

    "Morning," he said to me in passing, and then he was by me like he knew where to find her.

    He went past the stairs, probably following the smell of toast. He had never been to our house as far as I knew.

    "On your left," I yelled after him. I stayed where I was.

    "I'm going to take your son hunting," he said to her in the kitchen.

    "I've asked you not to," she said quietly.

    "He's old enough to decide for himself," he said.

    "I disagree." This was not very sophisticated of her to say with me in hearing range.

    "I'll take you two out to dinner tonight," he said.

    "I don't think so." I didn't know why she was mad at him.

    As he turned from her, I could hear the squeak of his boots, and he was back next to me a second later.

    "How are you feeling, son?"

    "Life's always a surprise."

    "Never plan ahead," he said. "I don't even buy green bananas anymore. Let's go."

    I had on Converse hightops, jeans, and a black turtleneck. I threw on a jean jacket. It would have been mean to say "bye" to my mother, so I did.

    In his Mercedes he said, "This will be like the War."

    "Which war?"

    "The Pacific Theater."

    I was quiet, and he got the point.

    "World War II," he said. I calculated that that made him high 60s. He seemed in good humor. He drove fast, but I'd never been in a Mercedes and it cornered pretty well. He seemed satisfied with his own thoughts so I left him alone. It was a cold day, sunny, with high clouds and a glare. It had been a February with snow that melted quickly. I had the feeling that something important would be happening that day. It would be a day that I'd remember.

    He had brought a plaid thermos and he offered me some of its contents as he unscrewed the top. When I declined, he poured himself something red, said, "All for one and one for all," and tipped back the plastic cup. His fingers actually looked dainty on the tiny handle.

    We drove to the East Side. Beyond the estates, the woods backed onto the golf course on one side and the Palisades on the other, with its drop to the Hudson River, New York City beyond.

    "What do you like to do?" he asked as we were about to come to a stop.

    "I like math," I told him. "Probability." I figured he was an educated man and would himself have an interest in probability.

    "Never studied it. A lacking I suppose, but never stopped me." He turned off the motor and electronically unlocked my door.

    "How will we hunt them?"

    "It won't be hard."

    "How do you know they're here?"

    He didn't answer me.

    We got out of the car at the end of the dead end, the trees in front of us. He was walking fast and I noticed for the first time that he was bowlegged. That's when I heard the choppers overhead. And then I noticed a jeep pull up behind us, its cargo area a cage. I thought of my mother for a moment and wondered why she didn't want me to go and I realized how little I knew her in some ways. Two big guys got out of the jeep in blue jumpsuits and farmer's caps but I wasn't given an introduction and that pissed me off. The doctor came back, offered me a rifle, and told me the plan.

    It was simple. The two "specialists" would go off into the woods and, with the help of walkie-talkies and the chopper above looking down through the bare trees, would circle the dogs and drive them back toward us. We would walk in a ways, and lie on our bellies hiding in some high brown grass. Then we'd stand up, or he'd stand up, and shoot them. With luck, we'd get them all at one time. One big coy-dog pileup. The doctor was carrying a short black rifle with a thick barrel that the specialists had given him. He also had a belt loaded down with sausage-sized cannisters that held stun-damage in them. It didn't seem hard.

    "Do you want your own weapon or not?" he asked one more time.

    I told him no. I knew nothing about guns and was worried that I would shoot myself or him by accident in all the excitement. I didn't want to see any blood, I realized. I had no idea about his shooting credentials.

    "You're one of those wiseass teenagers, but you don't want to really take responsibility for anything, do you?"

    I didn't argue but I felt my face getting red. I really didn't like Dr. Kuhn. He was merciless.

    Under the trees the air was brown. I heard birds. We walked in about two hundred yards, him leading, and we lay down, his rifle resting on a tree stump. About six minutes later, I saw them. About fifteen or twenty. They were making scraping noises and were skinny and gray-brown. They looked smaller than I had imagined. They looked quick and brittle among the trees. And they were so close. My spit stopped. I felt my shoulders tighten up.

    Dr. Kuhn leveled his gun and fired. I felt its crack inside me. I stared over my forearms and saw a dog shudder and sink, its belly hitting the ground first. A few panicked and ran around in tight circles and the rest just stood still. He reloaded. Another crack and another fell the way the first had, paws spread. The others spun and scattered and as they did, about fifty yards ahead of us I heard other shots and I heard the doctor crack off another few as well. It didn't take more than 90 seconds.

    I was biting the sleeve of my coat. It was wet and cold against my lips. I had gooseflesh like the day before at the hospital, thinking of the dogs' new darkness. My mouth tasted of dirt.

    Standing, he said, "Gone, goodbye," like the announcers on TV say when a home run is hit. But he said it with a dry laugh. I looked at the stunned dogs, at their doggish and twisted faces, and thought: it doesn't matter. But I felt a little sick and a little guilty for being there. Then I thought of Dr. Kuhn working around illness and I didn't know how to put it next to this. I wondered what my mother saw in the man.

    "You should have got one," he said, breathing heavy. "It was great, the bastards dropping so politely like that." I could see his breath. I could see the sweat around the brim of his duck cap. He was pleased with himself.

    "I didn't need to," I said.

    "It's not need, son. It's want. Have you ever seen anything like that?"

    I said I hadn't. He was overexcited.

    "It's good work if you don't miss many," he said. Then he said, "That's 600 dollars for me and none for you." That's when I knew I didn't like him. "That's right. That's how the world works. A woman wouldn't have done this job. Your mother couldn't understand what we did here today."

    What I wanted to do was hit him. I wanted to see the great doc hunter on the ground. But I didn't.

    He drove me home, telling me the rule that the captured dogs would be held for seven days and then put to death unless someone claimed them. As if anyone would claim them.

    My mother was an optimist. She tried to see the good side of her admirers (particularly if they had prestigious jobs or were of a higher social category), and blinded herself to most of their faults. When we got home I expected her to just let our morning's adventure pass. But it didn't work out that way. Sometimes she surprised me. Sometimes she held to her own ideas. He must have thought that he could take her on, a man used to having his own way. As my friend Billy said, "There are men who talk to women and men who talk about women," and given the way that Dr. Kuhn spoke of my mother, I put him in the second camp.

    He came up to the door with me and my mother opened it before we knocked. She wasn't wearing any lipstick. She looked at him and said, "Thank you," real polite, hooked her hand around my shoulder and pulled me inside, closing the door behind me, right in his face. I knew she wouldn't apologize to me about having liked him. He might never even come up again in our conversation. It hadn't worked out the way she planned. He was gone, that I knew.

    Up in my room, on my bed, my brain finally went Whoa! According to probability theory, large effects often have meanings that can't plausibly be explained by chance. What I'm saying is that sometimes you just have to accept the large effects in your life as just that, large effects, and not get all caught up in the whole romantic idea of chance. Of course if you think that mathematics is an invasion from outer space like some of my classmates do, or my mother does, probability theory is hopeless to you. The disappearance of Dr. Kuhn let my mother's hunt continue, and four weeks later she met Lester Warner.


Excerpted from PROBABILITIES by Michael Stein. Copyright © 1995 by Michael Stein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
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