These three things will happen to John Brown:
He will father his third child.
He will turn his back on a woman who loves him.
He will predict both death and disease with incredible precision, but fail to foresee the effects of his own actions.
But right now, he’s just walking to work. He’s walking to work through the snow and thinking about his sperm count.
“No man should know about his sperm count,” he says to the tree he’s walking past at the moment.
It’s a fine tree, one of his favorites. It seems young, he thinks, but it’s been about the same size as long as he can remember. It’s a pleasant tree. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet tall. Thin, lithe branches. Little pink flowers in the spring. But this morning it’s bare, along with the rest of the trees on Eighth Street.
It’s January, and John Brown is nearing his favorite part of his morning walk. One of two favorites, really. The second is the block-long stone wall of the pharmacy, which comes right up to the edge of the sidewalk. It’s painted a cream color, and it catches the first rays of the sun that make it over the mountains north and east of town.
The wall is exactly halfway to John Brown’s office, and he generally slows down there on the coldest mornings because the warmth of the sun reflects off the wall and it’s an oasis of comfort for John Brown, the last he generally feels for at least eight hours.
But he’s not there yet, on this morning. He’s passing the small preschool where he and his wife didn’t send their two daughters. It’s expensive, but it’s not fancy, and the children there spend most winter mornings lining up at a tiny hill in one corner of their play yard. They’ll slide on one of those plastic discs or even a piece of cardboard down that hill, for about five feet, until the hill ends and they run into the cast-iron fence that surrounds the property.
The whole ride takes about two seconds before they run into the fence.
Two seconds, thump.
Two seconds, thump.
They do it over and over and over.
Two seconds, thump.
Two seconds, thump.
John Brown walks slowly here, too. He envies the children, of course.
“I can still feel the thump,” he says to the cast-iron fence. “I just can’t remember the two seconds.”
John Brown is an actuary, which means he evaluates numbers and statistics and tells the insurance company he works for how much to charge certain people for their six-monthly premiums. “Age,” of course, gets a number. So does “health.” Each disease and chronic disorder gets a number, as do various vices: drinking, smoking, drug use.
John Brown didn’t invent the system, but he’s very good at using it, and once suggested that the company change the number for drug use, noting that there seems to have been a switch from marijuana to methamphetamine in the community, and the company saved an estimated $80,000 a year after that.
“Nothing is surprising,” he likes to say. “All is expected.”
He’s a member of the International Actuarial Association and the Intermountain West representative on the board of the Actuarial Foundation.
Just four people work in John Brown’s office, the others being Alice McDonald, the office manager and receptionist, and Mike and Joe, the two salesmen.
Mike and Joe are rarely around, but John Brown and Alice spend eight hours a day together, minus the hour or so she spends at lunch, either with her physician husband or her best friend Janis, who John Brown learned recently, through Alice, had just broken up with her live-in boyfriend of ten years.
“Why didn’t they ever get married?” John Brown asks today, after Mike and Joe tear in and out of the office.
“She says it never came up,” Alice replies.
Her desk faces the door, and John Brown’s faces the back brick wall, but when they swivel their seats they look eye to eye.
“How is that possible? My wife brought it up before we even started dating.”
Alice smiles wanly at this. She’s known John Brown long enough to know who is the pursuer and plotter in his relationship.
“When did they meet? Were they high school sweethearts? College flames?”
“College, I think. At least she was in college. He was one of those bad boys she was going to convert.”
“Guess it didn’t work.”
“No, it worked too well. He became a lawyer. He left her for a judge. They’re getting married this spring.”
John Brown’s wife wants to have another baby. Maggie is six and Jennifer is four and Catherine is thirty-five.
John Brown is thirty-five, too.
Catherine has wanted three girls since she was a girl herself, and John Brown believes that she has overpowered his Y chromosomes in the past out of sheer willpower alone. He doesn’t doubt that she will accomplish this goal, and doesn’t want to get in her way. But, as he said to the doctor who gave him the news, he’s shooting blanks. Joking.
“Not really,” the doctor said. “But let’s say you’re firing a machine gun, and the odds are it will take an average of a hundred bullets before one hits the target. Maybe eighty of those, for you, are blanks. It just cuts down your chances.”
“I see,” Catherine said, as they drove home from the doctors office.
John Brown wondered if she did.
“We’ll just have to step it up,” he said, and gave her as lascivious a smile as an actuary can muster.
Catherine didn’t smile back.
“John, why don’t you come to lunch with me and Janis,” Alice says. “She could use some time with a man who’s not the devil.”
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” John Brown tells her.
So he calls Catherine and says he’s staying in town for lunch and she says that’s just as well because Jennifer’s been having trouble at preschool and she wants to spend some time there today to see what’s wrong.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” John Brown says.
“I’ll see you tonight,” Catherine says.
“Where are we going?” he asks Alice.
“I figured we could go to the burrito joint. Tapatio hot sauce always makes Janis feel better.”
“Me, too,” John Brown says, and they lock the door and head downstairs.
The cold air hits them when they reach the street, and John Brown looks up as they’re walking. The sky is a dingy gray. He coughs.
“There’s Janis,” Alice says, and the two of them hurry across the street to join her. She’s leaning against the wall, crossing her arms to fend off the cold.
At the restaurant, they stand in line for a few minutes, and Alice and Janis talk about their weekends, their work, while John Brown hesitates behind them. Fajita steaks and chicken snap and sizzle on the grill. John Brown and Janis order fish. Alice gets a veggie.
“This is one of the best meals in town,” Alice says, dousing her burrito with Tapatio. “It’s better than the real thing.”
“Oh no,” Janis says. “Once, when I had just finished college, Tom and I took a bus to Mexico City. It took us like four or five days to get there from Phoenix, but we stopped for a few hours in a little town called Ceyala, and the only place to get anything to eat was a little taqueria run by an old woman. It was right out of the movies. But she made this chicken molé that is still the single greatest food I’ve ever eaten. The sauce tasted like warm chocolate, and the chicken, which she must have slow-cooked for hours, just fell off the bone. I wanted to stay there forever.”
“Why didn’t you?” Alice asks.
“It gave Tom violent diarrhea.”
“Serves the bastard right,” Alice says, and she and Janis laugh and laugh.
“Want to grab a beer tonight?” John Brown asks out of the blue, and Alice and Janis look at each other like they don’t know whom he’s talking to.
“I can’t,” Alice says. “The Doc needs his din-din.”
“Oh,” John Brown says. “That’s okay. I should get home anyway, I guess.”
“I’ll go,” Janis says. “I could use a beer.”
Catherine was one of those waitresses you just can’t keep your eyes off of. At least John Brown couldn’t. She was tall, thin. Long brown hair that she kept in a ponytail. A twenty-percent-tip smile.
John Brown was celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday at the Lamplighter, his new girlfriend was treating, and they sat at a table near the fireplace. It was a stuffy restaurant, old leather and steaks, and John Brown didn’t like it that much, but this new girl was a local and shared the general misperception that the Lamplighter was a nice place to eat.
Catherine, by that point, had grown to hate it, which was one of the first things she and John Brown would talk about. Though not that night, Catherine wouldn’t even notice John Brown for another three months.
John Brown noticed Catherine, though, and the new girlfriend noticed that he noticed, and it didn’t turn out to be all that great of a birthday evening, but John Brown will always remember it as his favorite.
This isn’t the biggest town around, and it wasn’t hard for John Brown to be in the right few places at the right times.
Young actuaries don’t look all that different than young doctors or young lawyers, and in his mid-twenties, John Brown was making a lot of money he didn’t know how to spend, so he put his faith in a young woman at the Bon Marche department store and became a sharp-looking individual.
“I like your tie,” Catherine said to him one day at the coffee shop.
“Oh,” John Brown said, stuttering. “Thanks.”
He hadn’t worked up the nerve to talk to her yet. This was messing up his plan.
“I’ve seen you around here a lot. Are you a lawyer?”
“No. More like an accountant, only not so edgy.”
“I’ve seen you at the Lamplighter,” John Brown said. “But I’ll be honest. I can’t stand that place.”
Okay. It’s about four-thirty, and John Brown can’t work anymore. He rarely goes out for a beer these days. And never with a woman. And here’s a secret: John Brown has had a crush on Janis since he met her five years ago. They’ve never had a real conversation, not without Alice around anyway, and it’s not something he thinks about all the time. But every once in a while.
“So where are you guys meeting?” Alice asks, jerking John Brown out of his guilty reverie.
“You sure you can’t come?”
“I’m sure. This will be good for you, John Brown.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll bet you haven’t spent any time with a woman who wasn’t me or Catherine for ten years.”
“Maggie and Jennifer.”
“I stand corrected.”
John Brown doesn’t like that he’s two-for-ten in the sperm department. And it’s not for all the macho-guy virility reasons. It’s just that that’s something his body used to be able to do, and now can’t. It makes him wonder what else is going wrong. He reads about the basketball players who die of heart failure in their twenties, and the celebrities who come down with old-people diseases in the prime of their lives, and he imagines it all happening to him.
It doesn’t help that he knows all the statistics.
Eighteen of 100,000 people will die of Alzheimer’s. Almost eighteen million Americans have asthma. Close to three million have kidney diseases. Almost one-third of all deaths are caused by heart disease. White people are more likely to die of lower respiratory diseases than blacks or Native Americans. Southerners are more susceptible to epilepsy, though no one knows why. Death, John Brown knows, is expected.
It used to be worse, this hypochondria. John Brown once put himself in the hospital for a week after he cleaned out the shed in his backyard. He thought he had contracted the Hanta virus from the mouse poop he’s swept up. He was so convinced, he suffered from all the symptoms—fever and muscle aches early on, a wet cough and shortness of breath after a few days. He even exhibited some of the rarest displays of the disease—headaches, chills, dizziness.
The doctors themselves didn’t believe the blood tests until five had shown, without a doubt, that John Brown was not dying.
“You’re driving me up a wall,” Catherine said to him in the hospital.
John Brown knew that a part of Catherine felt the same way about his latest problem.
“Just try,” she would say.
Or, “Think babies.”
Maybe it’s a guy thing, John Brown would joke, but thinking babies doesn’t necessarily get the job done when it comes to sex.
“Tell me about your little girls,” Janis says, and John Brown is both relieved and disappointed in the safe tack of the conversation.
“Maggie is her mother. Tall and skinny. Beautiful. Smarter than me. She started first grade this year and spends half her time getting As on everything and the other half getting in trouble. She tortures the boys. Plays soccer with the Girls’ Club and swims at the Y.”
“What about the other one?”
“Jennifer? I don’t know yet, I guess. J.B.’s great, don’t get me wrong. She’s already learning to read. Says and does everything her sister says and does, which drives Maggie nuts. She’s a little person, but she’s not quite herself yet. This first year of preschool helps, but I think kids start to define themselves when they’re out from under their parents a little bit. Catherine’s not ready to let go, though. She keeps hovering at the preschool.”
“You folks doing okay?” the waiter asks.
“I could use another. John?”
“Me, too. So I pass another preschool every morning on my way to work,” John Brown says, staring at the bottom of his near-empty glass. “And all winter long, the kids slide down this tiny hill and run into the fence. Two-second ride, slam into the fence. Two-second ride, slam into the fence.”
He pauses to drink the last of his beer, and the waiter brings their new ones. Janis hasn’t stopped looking at him.
He picks up the full beer and sips at the top.
“So?” she says. “What does it all mean?”
“I want my two damn seconds.”
John Brown tried way too hard to impress Catherine for their first date, but she thought it was cute, and it was the first time she got a glimpse at just how much money a young actuary really makes.
He didn’t want to seem boring, or stodgy, or all those things his career decision made him fear. So he rented an empty warehouse, hired a crew to put up white Christmas lights, and then made a simple olive oil and garlic pasta and grilled salmon. He hired a string quartet, positioned on the other side of the large cement room, so the music would echo throughout the building and he and Catherine wouldn’t feel awkward with the musicians so close.
That was when he learned that Catherine had gone back to school after dropping out her sophomore year. She was aimless, she said. Now she knew what she wanted to do. She was getting her degree in psychology, graduating in the spring, and had already applied for a master’s program in social work.
John Brown thought that was noble, but acknowledged that he probably couldn’t ever work with people like that. He was a numbers guy.
“But those numbers affect people’s lives,” she said.
“Yeah. I try not to think about that.”
The walk home from the Interlude Bar and Grill is not too different than the walk home from John Brown’s actuarial office. Only this time, it’s about five hours later than normal, he’s drunk, and he keeps thinking about the way Janis’s thin fingers curl around a beer glass and hold a cigarette. He tries to think of Catherine’s fingers, before the house and the girls. She used to paint her nails with a clear polish, and she kept them just a little long, so the white tips would stand out from the pink in a small half-crescent. She even kept them up through the house—a fixer-upper—and the kids. But she started to bite them about two years ago, when she and John Brown weren’t sure what was wrong. Now they’re unpainted and coarse, but John Brown never thought about it. Not until tonight.
“Fingers,” he says to the pharmacy wall.
He puts his hand to the stone and it’s cold.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he says.
The sky is a dirty gray, and it’s sinking.
John Brown coughs into his hand, and stops for a minute in front of the preschool. He leans on the cast-iron fence and looks at the little hill. There’s still snow on the ground—there hasn’t been any sun to melt it—but the kids have worn their path down to the dirt. Even in the summertime, nothing can grow here. Their sleds shine it down to clay.
“Good night, hill,” John Brown says, and he turns toward home.
Morning, as always, is a zoo. Maggie can’t find the drawing she’s supposed to bring to school. Jennifer has her shirt on backwards.
John Brown moves slowly through the chaos.
“Go look in your room,” Catherine says, pulling Jennifer toward her.
“I looked in my room already.”
“Go look again.”
Maggie storms off.
“Arms up,” Catherine says to Jennifer.
“But I like it this way.”
“Come on, J.B., listen to your mother,” John Brown says. He’d given Jennifer the same nickname he’d had as a boy. She likes it, and looks at him and smiles. She raises her hands.
“Thank you,” Catherine says.
“No problem,” John Brown replies.
“I was talking to Jennifer.”
Without really trying, John Brown ends up eating lunch with Alice and Janis three times this week.
“Tell me about the insurance biz, John,” Janis says.
“This will be interesting,” Alice adds.
“Not much to tell. It’s all numbers. Statistics. It’s all a matter of what’s likely to happen.”
“Probabilities,” Janis says.
“Probably,” Alice adds.“John doesn’t deal with people,” she says.
“No?” Janis asks.
“Just numbers. And mostly ones and zeros. Pretty much everything is all mapped out on the computer these days. You learn a bunch of stuff in grad school you never have to use.” John Brown says.
“But when the power goes out, people still need insurance,” Alice says.
“And John will be there,” Janis says.
John Brown smiles at her. And she smiles back.
He thinks about lunch at night, and is glad that Catherine is ovulating.
“Are you thinking babies?” she asks him, in the middle of it all.
Six out of ten men will have an extramarital affair. Four out of ten women. So though John Brown has never really gone out looking, his first dinner alone with Janis doesn’t surprise him.
She talks about being lonely, and scared, and that it seems like she blinked and she’s thirty. He nods knowingly. Says he still feels he has more in common with his girls than with most grown-ups. She laughs and finishes her glass of wine. Most would start to wonder. So many clichés. But John Brown knows. People are as predictable as numbers.
All is expected.
So John Brown doesn’t wonder at the timing when his wife and two daughters pack their bags to visit her parents for a few days.
“Are you sure you can’t come, Daddy?” Maggie asks.
“Your father is busy,” Catherine tells her.
“Numbers to crunch,” he says.
“We’ll miss you.”
“I miss you already,” he says, and he picks the two up and swings them around until they start screaming.
“Great,” Catherine says. “Get ’em all riled up for the three-hour drive.”
John Brown grabs her and pulls her off the ground, too.
“Maybe I’ll come down Sunday for dinner,” he says, a little surprised at himself.
“Mom and Dad would like that,” she says.
John Brown remembers how Catherine seemed to get more beautiful each day she was pregnant with Maggie. Her skin glowed, flawless, her cheeks a light rose and a little fuller than normal.
John Brown would watch her until she became uncomfortable.
“What?” she would ask.
With Jennifer, there were a few scares, some bad warning signs, a doctor’s cautions. But John Brown never doubted for a moment that anything would happen. Catherine was too strong, too vital. Those months she was pregnant were some of the best of John Brown’s life.
Right now, Catherine’s period is late for the first time in more than a year. It’s just been a couple of days, and though he knows better, John Brown gets a little excited.
That night, John Brown and Janis make love in her apartment downtown. He’s been there a couple of times around noon, but never for very long. When he thinks she’s asleep, he pokes around, checks out the fridge, takes in the view, pages through the Hemingway and Plath on her bookshelves.
“Yin and yang,” he says to the books.
He turns and watches Janis on the bed, resting her head in the crook of her arm, her slender leg half covered by the sheet. The pangs of lust and melancholy seem distant and familiar, and he starts to realize why so many men risk so much for these feelings.
They’re not in search of something new. They want something they had a long time ago. The feeling of something new, back when it was really new, and exciting, and beautiful. And even if it’s still beautiful, it’s rarely exciting and it’s never new. And John Brown is no different, he wouldn’t expect to be.
It’s not that he never got his two seconds, he thinks. He just wants to feel them again.
“Hey,” Janis says.
“Thought you were asleep.”
“That why you were talking to my books?”
“Guess so,” he says.
When John Brown gets home to change clothes he sees the message on the machine. It’s Catherine, crying, on her cell phone. She saw the first signs of her period in a gas station bathroom halfway home to her parents’ house. John Brown steps into the shower and the water runs hot over his face until his cheeks are puffy and red and he can’t stand the searing pain.
He gets in the car, and drives to her parents’ house for Sunday dinner. They talk about the President, and the do-nothing Congress. Catherine’s father tries to talk John Brown into playing golf again.
John Brown has done the math. The odds are with him in the long run. Twenty percent isn’t bad, he knows that. A person has a 20 percent chance of being Muslim. That’s common. Twenty percent of fifteen-year-old girls have had sex. Twenty percent of Americans are obese. John Brown sees pregnant teenagers and fat people every day.
But he and Catherine have tried for a year, and even if he just counts each month as one chance, that means he should have connected 2.4 times with Catherine’s eggs. And he hasn’t.
He has had sex with Janis three times.
And a funny thing happened the second time.
And if John Brown knew about it, he’d calculate the odds somewhat like this:
- That it was one of two days of her peak ovulation: one in fifteen chance.
- That his sperm would get there: one in five chance.
- That his condom would break: three in twenty-five chance (typical use).
- That he would be doing this at all: three in fifty.
Compounded, John Brown would say, those just aren’t good odds. Something like one-ten-thousandth of 1 percent. Not good. Not good at all.
He doesn’t know, though, and neither does she. She will learn in three weeks, on a Tuesday morning, from a home-pregnancy kit she’ll buy for twelve dollars at the Target near the mall. She will sit in her bathroom and stare at the sweatpants gathered around her ankles, and she will make a decision.
“John, I’m meeting Janis for lunch, want to come?” Alice asks John Brown that Tuesday.
“Oh, no. I’ve got work to catch up on.”
“You sure?” she asks. “I don’t think you guys have seen each other for a while, and you seemed to hit it off so well.”
She pauses for a moment, and then spins her chair around so she can face John Brown.
“Did I tell you? I don’t think I told you.”
“What?” he asks.
“She ran into Tom a few weeks ago.”
“Yeah, he’s still getting married, but they slept together a couple of times. And you won’t believe this, Mister Odds.”
John Brown knows enough to realize Alice suspects something might have happened. But he knows enough not to ever say anything about it. Something like 95 percent of all court convictions are based on confessions.
He knows enough about statistics to know, without a doubt, that Janis is telling the truth. And sometimes, no doubts are all a man needs.
“I’ll say hello for you,” Alice says, and he realizes he hasn’t said anything.
“Yes,” John Brown says. “Do.”
As Alice stands to leave, the phone rings.
“I’m ovulating,” Catherine says.
“Babies,” John Brown thinks.