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As She Climbed Across the Table (Jonathan Lethem)


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  I paced campus until dark, then stalked back to the apartment. When I saw the blind men were home I got into my car and drove off campus, found a bar, and deliberately had a drink with a woman.

An interesting woman, as it happened. She was dark-haired and tall, with a penetrating gaze and a smile that didn't show her teeth. She was sitting alone, sheltering a glass of red wine. I told her my name was Dale Overling, and asked if I could sit at her table. She said yes.

"You're not from the campus," I said.

"No."

"Not affiliated."

"No."

"Not a graduate of the school."

"No. No connection."

"You can't imagine how much that turns me on."

"Buy me a drink."

The bar was tame and suburban, a fifties cocktail lounge not yet refurbished by student irony. It was nearly empty, a weekend place on a week night. I'd picked it for its distance from campus. But when I flagged the waitress it was a girl I recognized, a dizzy undergraduate, costumed in yellow apron. Her eyes met mine and I froze her with a look of dread, willing her not to blow my cover.

"Take this wine away," I said. "Bring us drinks. Margaritas, salt on the glass. Bring us six of them. Line them up on the table."

"I can bring you a pitcher."

"I want a line of drinks. I want to see the glasses accumulate. Don't take away the empties, either."

She flickered away, pale and mothlike in the gloom.

"You're a very self-assured man, Mr. Overling," said my companion, her smile flickering.

"Dale, please. And you're a very perceptive woman, Ms.--?"

"Jalter, Cynthia Jalter."

"May I call you Cynthia? You're a very perceptive woman."

"Thank you."

"I like to walk into a bar and find a perceptive woman sitting alone. It excites me. It doesn't happen that often."

"I'm flattered."

"And the fact that you're not from the campus, that takes it over the top. Because there's nothing that excites me like the idea of perceptive, intelligent women living in a university town yet having no connection with the school. Just living in the same town, right there, not needing to have anything to do with it. The idea of the intelligent woman in the university town. What is she? Why is she there? It's a stimulating idea."

"You must be from the school."

"Me? No, no. It's true, I'm visiting the campus, I'm a consultant. They fly me in. I spend a lot of time in towns like this, being flown in, flown out. I've got enough frequent flyer points to send quintuplets around the world. But I hate these big university schools. They're big rotting carcasses. Rotten in the center. If I didn't just fly in, consult, fly out, I couldn't live with myself. As it is I take a hotel off campus, eat off campus, and go to bars and look for intelligent people who have nothing to do with the school. Those are the people to talk to in any situation. The ones on the edge, the outside."

"Like me."

"Exactly. They offer me a room on campus, you know. But I take a hotel. And I rent a big shiny car so I stand out. The American campus is crawling with these little brown and grey and buff-colored Peugeot cars and little Japanese cars. I get a big bright American car so they know I don't care. Bright red if I can."

It didn't matter if Cynthia Jalter didn't believe me. At that moment Dale Overling was truer than I was. Heartier, more substantial.

"I sit in a bar in a different city three or four nights a week," I said. "I always order the same things. I should write a guide-book. A browser's guide to tequila drinks in college towns."

"Non-fiction bestseller list," said Cynthia Jalter. "Position two, holding strong for months." Her smile was pursed.

"No. An underground guide, a xeroxed thing. Little tattered copies passed from hand to hand, with annotations, disagreements scrawled into the margins."

"Published under a psuedonym."

"Right. Professor X."

We drank. Mostly I drank. I need to bolster the courage I'd already shown, as if it were borrowed in advance against future drinks. Cynthia Jalter sipped.

"Bigger gulps," I said. "There's a lot of drinks here."

She only smiled.

"Don't be so smug. We're in this together. I can only run the show for so long, then I'm going to need your help. Drink up."

I finished one and put it aside, and took up the next. The sharp salt clung to my lip. I didn't bother wiping it away.

"You're probably wondering why I don't ask you what you do," I said. "The truth is I'd rather not know. It's probably something pretty dry, that's a safe guess. Despite your lack of connection to the school."

"It's a safe guess."

"And you'd rather not tell me, am I right? You like watching me do these verbal bellyflops. And the more enigmatic you are, the further out on a limb I have to go."

"You're right."

I raised my glass to her, then drank. The tequila was beginning to roil inside me.

"What's funny is I'm probably getting close. For example, I bet you're working with funding of some kind. A grant."

"Maybe."

"Yeah, you're definitely funded." I feigned disappointment. "It's all coming clear. Whatever you do wouldn't be possible without a major-league grant."

She laughed. The first time I saw her teeth, I think. "You're a very self-assured man, Dale."

"You said that already. You haven't said much, and already you're repeating yourself. I like the way you say my first name, though. Dale. I should say yours more. You're repeating yourself, Cynthia."

"You're repeating yourself, Dale"

"Right. Very good. That's the kind of contribution I'll need from you here on. Because I can't go on like this. It isn't possible. You're going to have to come down off your heavily-funded pedestal and muck around in actual conversation with me here."

"I'll think about it."

"You're wondering how I sniffed you out about the grant. Well, I'm a consultant. I specialize in feasibility studies. Feasibility and viability, two very important words. To me they're like pronouns or conjunctions: he, she, it, and, feasibility, viability. So I just sensed the aura on you, the data accumulating."

I'd finished a margarita. I picked up another.

"This is actually very lucky for you, Cynthia. I could help you. I don't mean anything has to happen between us. I just mean because I feel like it, because I like the aura."

"Tell me more."

"I specialize in Nobel prizes. Nobel consulting, I call it. Basically I come in, evaluate the work that's being done, and grade the Nobel potential. I help the client see what's holding it back, keeping it from breaking into Nobel-caliber work. No reason not to work with the prize in mind. Anyway, that's my credo.

"It's fascinating," she said. Her smile was skeptical. Sweetly skeptical.

"For example here in your town I'm involved in a real dilemma. What we have is a very viable experiment, something quite exciting Nobel-wise, and it's being headed up by a known quantity, a previous winner, in fact. But the project goes awry, turns up an unexpected result. It's still exciting work, but out of control. The prize committee likes it clean and simple. They like you to come up with the result you predicted. So I've had to go in there and say, you're off the board, guys. You're no longer in Nobel territory. Good luck with the work, but I'm sorry. I don't feel it. I don't smell it. When I look at good work I can smell the prize, I swear. And in this case, the aroma's evaporated."

At that moment my words went sour in my mouth. Invoking Lack, I'd brought Alice to mind.

I started measuring my distance from the exits.

"But enough about me," I said weakly.

Cynthia Jalter smiled, more sympathetically. She found my faltering charming. Dale was more likeable tongue-tied. But in my drunken way I resented her now.

"Is something wrong?" she said.

"I'm fine. It's these damn flights. I'm all screwed up. It's four in the afternoon for me, or four in the morning. I should be running laps now, according to my schedule. Do you want to go outside and do some jumping jacks?"

"You don't look like you want to do jumping jacks."

"You'd be surprised." I opened the shirt button at my throat. Serious trouble was close.

"You look like something's worrying you."

"Actually, there's a woman, Cynthia. If you have to know. I'm a little torn up about it I guess. That's why I wanted to meet someone intelligent and perceptive like yourself. I'm sorry it isn't working out. Maybe I need a glass of water."

"Stay there, Dale. I'll get you a glass of water."

"A glass water would be nice. Of."

I drank in a panic, both hands around the glass, hoping to dilute the contents of my stomach to digestiblity. I felt heat and pressure building up in my ribcage. A fire or disaster inside. When I looked up from the glass I seemed to be peering through the eyeholes of a loosely fitted mask. I blinked, and the air was spangled with phosphenes.

"I'm in sort of a situation," I explained carefully. "My heart is being broken, very gradually, so I hardly notice it, even. I mean, it's difficult to pinpoint the exactly moment it actually exactly happened. If it has yet."

"I'll drive you home," she said.

"Not home," I reminded her. I wish I could remember the name of that damn hotel. All the same. Sunset--Mountainview? Bayview? Lodge? Inn? I thought I had a matchbook." I feigned a search, turned my pockets inside out, dropping change on the floor. "No such luck. Mountain Lion? Sea Lion? Are we near the mountains or the sea?"
 
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Excerpted from As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 1997 Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.