Paul A. Toth

Somewhere in the Realm of What Could be Expected

You walk around a thing long enough, a rock, for instance, you forget it's a rock. You learn new information: Rock = diamond = love = eternity. The picture gets bigger, deeper. The information pool spreads, leaks into rivers. The rivers sprawl. Take a human being. Complicate the math. A friend: Algebra. Girlfriend: Calculus. Wife: Theoretical physics. That is, Eternity - (love + diamond) = people and objects dissolving, pouring through my fingers. The odds my wife Nellie was humping someone else, or being humped, or was half-humper/half-humpee, stood about even, at least according to the poll I conducted in the men's room of Lewis & Phipps Public Data Systems. Yes, Nellie had fallen in the river of information, but I gave the push.

My concern began about the time I decided to retire. It became important for me to know whether she was faithful, although I had suspected she was not for many years. After all, when I retired, we would spend days on end together. I might live another twenty odd years. If my suspicions proved true, well, it mattered now in ways it didn't before. You see, the plain of my life shifted, so that where once the eastern skyline mattered, now the western ruled. You see how we're tricked? You have to see this. It's important to understand. I want you to know.

I was a proofreader at Lewis & Phipps Public Data Systems. I only read the reports. I had no training in statistics. Oh, I had some jumble of knowledge, a mish-mash of this and that. It went something like this: "The rules of the sample integrate the people in the sample and all the people in the population. The population and all the people in the population and all the people in the people in the population and all the characteristics for all the people in the sample of the population must know the characteristics for all the people in the population to be sampled. But first we must know some characteristics of all the people in the sample."

It may not mean much to you. Understandable. I, however, absorb. That is, given a certain amount of information over a certain amount of time, I will assimilate that information and learn -- not as one might learn in a classroom, but through, again, absorption.

In this case, I learned a particular method of polling that suited my needs. Accordingly, I would conduct my poll in the men's room of Lewis & Phipps Public Data Systems. If I spent time alone, thinking about my wife, and became utterly lost in the question, then, of course, my best hope was to poll a similar population and see what they made of the situation. Of course, I couldn't run around the offices discussing intimate details, so I would confine my inquiries to the men's room:

Harry, urinating: "How's your consumer confidence, Lloyd?"

"I'm quite confident about the economy."

"And your fear of violent crime?"

"Very low. Harry, give me the odds a wife cheats these days."

"The ladies? Between ten, twelve percent."

"Twelve percent, huh? One in ten, roughly?"

"Roughly, Lloyd. What makes you ask?"


"You Republican or Democrat?"


"You'd think I'd know by now. Well, you keep a low profile. Gotta run."

He zips and leaves just as Sam exits a stall, toilet paper clinging to his shoe. "Independent, huh, Lloyd?"

"You bet."

"Well, that's Lloyd for ya. The loner. What's your religious affiliation, Lloyd?"

"Methodist. Where's that fall in the way of national norms?"

"Oh, somewhere in the realm of what could be expected."

Sam exits. Mitch enters.

"Look who's here," Mitch says. "How's it swinging, Lloyd?"


"How's it hang?"

"They say consumer confidence is down."

"Down? It's in the shitter. Every indicator's down."

"Every indicator?"

"Means nothing. People say anything and everything sooner or later."

"So what's the point of asking?"

"You live on a racetrack, you place bets. Things move fast these days."

"Well," I said, "I like it slow and easy."

"Bet that's what the old lady says."

"Nellie? She's faithful."

"Sure she is."

"Jeez, Mitch."

"Well, you asked. What's she do all day while you're at work?"

"I don't know. Sometimes she smells like beer when I get home."

"Beer? Well, believe what you like. That's best."

I kept my ears peeled and eyes open. Sometimes votes in the poll came involuntarily, in chance comments, cast-asides, in far-flung opinions and low-flying humor. At other times, I put the question directly and the answer came the same. By my last day of work, the question remained undecided by popular opinion of men who used the Lewis & Phipps' bathroom. I knew to expect this from a pamphlet we sometimes gave dissatisfied customers, entitled, "Errors in Polling." As I remembered, it went like this: "There are enough disasters in theoretical calculations, in sampling, enough disasters in theoretical calculations, including refusals to be called erroneous, that if journalists are the least bit interested -- the least bit interested! -- and alas most are not, then well might they ask: How undefined and unrefined. How unrefined the undefined."

From this I ascertained I needed to sample an outside population. I decided I would celebrate my last day's work at the pub that stood between the bus stop and my home. The occupants of that bar's bathroom would decide the issue once and for all.

On the bus home, two men sit behind me.

"So I tell her, I'm doing six and you can't wait?"


"I might have smacked her if -- hey grandpa? Turn around. This ain't the Paul Harvey show."

"Well, that's the deal with the bitches," the friend says.

"That right, grandpa?" the other one says, leaning toward me. " Is that the deal with the bitches?"

"I wouldn't know."

"You oughta know by now, gramps."

They lost track of me. Some part of me thought:

We are illustrations coming apart.
We are men exploded view.
We are nets catching gazes
Breathless in the airy view.


Thoughts like that came to me every now and then. I don't know why. Otherwise I remained stranded in my split poll, between poles, as if both possibilities were true, as if Nellie both had and hadn't hoarded diamonds she found in streets or arm-flapped her away across the Pacific Ocean or any other goddamn thing in the world.

* * * * * * *

In the end, one man would decide the poll. He sat at the bar, elbows on the counter, nursing a pint of something amber, suds on the tips of his beard. Sordid. He could wipe his mouth. It wasn't necessary, to show the world his wet gray hairs.

I tried to brush away the judgement. This was an important man. I shouldn't rush things because of first impressions. His decision might sway my marriage. He had a lot in his hands. Perhaps it was for the best if he weren't distracted by such things as wiping his mouth, which after all might free his beard, making it disappear hair by hair. Instead, he took a long drink, looked over and gave me a smile of absolute satisfaction.

"I'm doing dandy," he said. "Couldn't be better."

"Really," I said, because I didn't like his smile, nor the way he answered a question before it was asked. "I've been better," I said.

"Don't mind Fred," the bartender said, but Fred's self-satisfied grin spread wider. Fred must have been the most satisfied man in the world, and the satisfaction kept spreading.

"I don't mind," I said, "but if you're going to answer my questions without me asking them, then let me at least say a word afterwards."

"Come on, now," the bartender said. "You're new here. Where you from?"

"Right round the block."

"And it's your first time? What's your drink?"

"Coke and rum."

"It's all right, backwards man," Fred said, suddenly grasping my arm, as if I were about to float through the roof. "It's 'rum and Coke'."

"He's getting laid, that's all," the bartender said. "Big deal. I've met her. Thinks she owns the world. Thinks the sky turns blue to match her blouse. Perfect for this guy here. She'll keep him in line."

"Change the subject already," Fred said.

"It's all you could talk about five minutes ago."

"And that was five minutes ago."

"Sure," the bartender said.

Then Fred stood and headed for the bathroom.

"Well," I said, "I could have a go myself."

"You can't wait a minute?"

When I opened the door, Fred looked over. He was no longer satisfied. There was only one urinal, and I was blocking the door.

"Can't a guy piss?"

"I thought you were headed out the back way."

"There's no back way. And why would I anyway?"

"Let me ask you. It's important. I'm just trying to get an opinion, that's all. If the question seems funny, I don't mean anything by it. I'm just a reporter, really. Like a journalist."

"She don't wear a ring. Is that what you're getting at? That why I might be headed out the back way? I don't do that."

"What if she lied? She could say she's widowed. She could say she's divorced."

"If somebody lies, that's on them. I can't believe everything, can I?"

"But in your experience, most people don't lie and cheat? Women, I mean."

"Hell, I don't know. Most women?"

"You've had a few."

"A very few."

He zipped up his pants and washed his hands.

"But if you had to guess. Take a woman, any woman: Is she cheating? A random woman, random wife: Can her husband trust her? What are the odds? Pretend she's weather: Rain or shine? All I want's a number. It's just a question."

"Look, buddy, I don't know. I guess it's 50/50."

* * * * * * *

As soon as I walked into my house the question vanished, a shadow that stood in the corner so long I thought it had weight, until the sun went down.

Nellie never asked about my last day. I had a feeling she knew I didn't want to talk about it, nor about anything else. Instead, we watched TV. There was a show about World War II airplanes. We watched a lot of history. What seemed a long time ago at one point in my life no longer did.

Later, when I laid my head on Nellie's sky blue blouse, all the sky enveloped me, all possibilities, all time, everything and nothing, all that had happened and had not happened, might still happen and might never happen, until I saw the tiny gray hair of a beard fall from her cheek and drift down toward my eye. It floated, turned silver, disappeared, turned white again, back to gray, and so on, drifting, drifting. Then I blinked and the hair was gone. I could believe what I liked. It was best.

Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best American Mystery Stories. His novel Fizz will be published in late 2003. He recently completed his second novel. Visit Paul's website at