Nine Sigma

A Story

Clipper Press
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The Starbucks had one computer table, a longer rectangular table jammed up against the front window, out of reach of the outlet. It wasn’t practical for doing much work on a laptop and was usually controlled by women perched on the edge of the blonde wood chairs, watching the side walk outside and catching up. These conversations never appeared hurried and on recent days, Josh had enjoyed sitting across from the table, at the frayed end of the banquet. He wondered how they sat so casually, as if they were confident that no matter how long they tarried, some one – or some many ones – would take care of the details that comprised their days. They were always attractive and sporty, off to or back from tennis, or chic, dressed a little more warmly than the weather called for. Josh would watch them. At first he had been discreet, but over time he understood that they took no notice of him, nor would they. Today though, he was impatient. He needed the table so he could spread out some papers and do some quick work. There were three cells that he needed to adjust on his spreadsheet. The laptop rested on the top of the café table. It was squat and compact. His hand spread out on top of it looked small and thick. One nail seemed yellowish, tarnished and out of symmetry with the other nails. Olivia did not spend the time with other women that these women in Starbucks did. She was methodical during the day, he had discovered these last few weeks, going through her routine in a relaxed and confident way. He could see her gaining a kind of energy from each thing she did: the bowls out on the table in the morning, the kids shuffling down the back staircase, eye-crusted, waiting for her encouragement to walk over the bare wood floors that still carried the nights cool, hustling in a busy, amused way out the door to the car, into the new cold morning of the fall for school. He suspected that she was quieter because he was there at the table nursing his one cup of coffee. He didn’t offer to help. He stopped trying to offer anything up to the kids beyond good morning. He didn’t want to be part of the routine. He wasn’t.

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The women at the table shifted over to make room for one more chair. A new woman was walking through the door. She looked like one of his mother’s neighbors. Her hair was always big and stood away from her head with an unnatural arch. A little surge pulsed in his temple. They weren’t going to move away from the table. His idle interest in them wasn’t useful right then. He opened the laptop and rested his fingertips on the edge of frame while it came out of hibernation. The sensation of the disk drive spinning and the fan starting up made a satisfying, familiar light impression. A reflected slit of light sharply widened as the sun moved up past the brick wall of the shops across the street. Josh shifted and brushed some dust away from the top frame of the screen. The screen snapped between light and dark then settled on light again and the spreadsheet became visible. He’d worked at it over the past two weeks. The first phase was developing the logical structure for the data, the underlying architecture that would help drive the analyses of the raw data. He’d sectored the entire data set into three primary element groups. The original sketch of the data framework, lined out on a piece of graph paper, was still on his work table at home. Not surprisingly, the implemented structure underlying the spreadsheet was identical to the flow-chart he’d worked out, but it was still satisfying, in a confirming, consistent way, as it always was when he’d worked out the way to approach the data. Data changed, was inconstant, like mercury spilled out on the floor, and it was only with cautious and careful structuring that it could be channeled and controlled, put in a position where it could offer up answers. When he’d built the spreadsheet, he’d spent extra time on the formulas that would be used for the scenario planning. He knew that there would be a complex relationship between the truly variable data, the fixed data and data that he thought of convertible: elements that, in certain downside scenarios, would need to convert from fixed to variable in order to properly adjust from the decreased value of the total element group.

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He didn’t want uncertainty in his analysis. When he did the assessments in his head, he could comfortably balance the different buckets of information, consider different scenarios, but he found himself becoming dizzy and feeling pain when certain elements shifted too dramatically. The exercise of entering the raw data into the spreadsheet had been soothing. Josh was so confident in the framework, and the effectiveness of the analytical tools he’d developed, that he could just work through each of the data elements without thinking hard about each one. He’d made one important decision, though. He entered each bit of data by hand, even though he could have downloaded different batches of information. He wanted to be absolutely confident. He’d started with the fixed expenses first: mortgage, car payments, insurance, the monthly stipends to his mother and to Olivia’s parents, the home-related expenses, like housekeeping and landscaping. Then, when he’d approached the convertible costs, like the three school tuitions, the winter, spring and summer vacations. When Olivia had understood what he was doing, she’d gone through each of the pieces of paper he’d stacked in the three different folders and made little notes in purple ink on certain invoices and bills. Her handwriting looked like it was generated by a computer, it was so consistent. Suspended last week, she wrote on one. Do you want to keep this?, on another. Finally he’d tackled the investment portfolio, inputting each investment, the asset class and the liquidity and income producing features of the investment. These inputs were linked to another spreadsheet that calculate possible ranges of performance to 6 times the average performance of the asset classes over the past twenty-five years. He clicked on the second page of the workbook and changed a couple of numbers. He’d learned last night that an investment in a debt fund that his best friend from high school had started had zeroed out. The equity

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market had dropped 12% the day before as well. Risk was outside of the historical range. He toggled back to the front page of the workbook. There was one cell populated. The category header was Terminal Date. He pressed the macro button. The black pixels switched smoothly, like one of the billboards he’d watched from his hotel window by the Liffey during his weekend in Dublin the fall before. March 27, 2009. His blackberry buzzed and an appointment box popped onto the screen. Rogers Xmas Party it read. December 20, 2008. He shut the computer. The structure was perfect. He felt a disconnected pleasure. His fingers felt numb. When he walked out from the coffee shop, he bumped against the back of the big-haired woman’s chair, lightly he thought, and he slipped sideways through the door, feeling the frame against the side of his belly, not noticing the silent gasp of the woman as her coffee splashed against the veneer of the table, brittle brown, dotting her splayed fingers, staining her white stockings.

The wheel of the Mercedes was wide and sturdy in Josh’s hands as he turned left out of the parking lot to head down to Greenwich Avenue. Olivia had asked him to stop at Richards to pick up some jewelry that Anastasia, her personal shopper, had set aside for the party tonight. Anastasia had told Olivia that her friends had been coming in for the past two weeks to set merchandise aside for the Rogers party. The selections were not as exquisite as in past years, but Anastasia had selected some special things for Olivia early. Josh liked how Olivia looked when they went out to dressy events. She frequently wore a simple black dress – he knew it was a prestigious designer – and the dress was cut in a slumping neckline that conservatively showed the her breasts and set off her shoulders. While she got ready, he would lay in the bed in his stocking feet to wait, and watch her in the mirror at an angle as she stood at her sink. She would

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move with the same quiet efficiency she had when she put the glasses back in the cabinets, or ran a clothe along the chef’s knife before she cut vegetables, or as she opened a band-aid for one of the kids. In that moment as she got ready, while a stillness lowered around him like a sheet falling in slow motion onto a bed, Josh would stop thinking and let his mind catalog, unconsciously, all the things that he had earned for his family: the earrings lining the maroon felt of the jewelry box; the thick pile Turkish rug that run under his bed; the 500-thread linen sheets and the eirder-down pillows from Norway; the WII and Playstation and X-box and American Girls dolls and Calico Critters and shoes and lamps and rugs and everything else that filled his children’s room; the certificates on the walls from their school; the snap-shots from their vacations; a folder, in the kitchen, in the file drawer next to what the designer had called the “occasional desk,” where he and Olivia had tucked away clippings from travel magazines and tear sheets from magazines like Unique Homes. The dream home folder, for when they would buy their second home. He turned left on Greenwich Avenue. The turn was a little aggressive, he realized even as he accelerate across the traffic into the top of the slope of the Avenue, and he slowed down to compensate and the car behind him had to stop sharply and the driver leaned on the horn. Josh looked back quickly, but felt too disoriented to see who the driver was. He couldn’t remember hearing a horn on the Avenue before, and wondered if his turn hadn’t been reckless, rather than careless. The Avenue sloped steadily down to the bottom, where Richards was, the exclusiveness and luxuriousness of the shops increasing as you got lower on the road. Josh had a sudden thought: the Terminal Date. What was it? The ride down the Avenue always made the side of his head hurt: he looked straight ahead to watch for the stop and go traffic, but had to keep his eyes open wide so that he could avoid any cars backing out of their spaces. Every block traffic police stood in the middle of the crosswalk, on small white circles, with white gloves on their hands, stopping and

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starting the traffic and adjudicating when pedestrians could cross the street. When he drove down the Avenue with Olivia and the two kids he could barely hold onto his patience. They would yell and shriek about cars pulling back, or point to open parking spots just as he passed then, or roll down the windows and offer tiny bottles of Poland Spring to the traffic offers. In March, that was when they would run out of money. It was unthinkable. Literally, unthinkable. When he had sat down with Grimson, in the large conference room at the back of the office suite that looked out on the large fountain with the white concrete retaining wall, Josh had thought about the levels of probability that had been worked into their investment model. It was complete to Six Sigma, he had told Grimson. “What does that really mean, Josh?” Grimson had asked. His eyebrows flared as he spoke, and he leaned in, an unruly lock of hair crossing his brow and a maddened glare in his eyes. His thick accent carried the rough, uncompromising flatness of the Australian farm he’d grown up on. “It’s a failure rate of 3.4 parts per million. 99.9% accurate, John,” Josh said. Grimson looked down at the binders on the table before him. “These are terminal accounts, Josh. They’re all gone. Two point seven billion dollars in terminal value. We don’t have them. You’ll have to go to Nine Sigma, then, won’t you, because maybe then you can figure out how we might have seen this fuck of a train wreck coming, don’t you think?” “The likelihood of calculating those variables was infinitesimally low, Brian,” Josh started. “An adjusted model would suppress returns…”

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Grimsom seemed to be hardly breathing, sitting with his long legs spread wide, his knees butting up against the table, his shoulders out over his thigh, thickly strung along his protruding spine. “There’s no returns, Overbay. No more fund. You’re fucked. The fund is fucked. The capital is sunk. Terminal. Fucking outsized, down in the fucking shithole terminal. You lost ALL the fucking MONEY!” He towered over Josh and struck him on the shoulder with his open palm “Get the fuck out. Now.” “My paperwork.” “Get out. There’s nothing.? When they sat down the next evening in the kitchen over tea, he hadn’t tried to describe the empty sensation he had experienced as he walked down the hall, looking to his left at the glass wall overlooking the fountain, a sensation that was the air had gotten thin, as if he were at the top of a mountain, and that he was turning cold. He hadn’t even told Olivia about Grimson’s yelling: the only fact that warranted discussion was that Boyle had promised to pack up his papers and bring them to Josh over the weekend. Olivia listened carefully, placed her hand behind his elbow and leaned to his side. They were quiet when he finished. “You’ll have to get some new suits,” she said. “We’ll go look next week.” He turned left at the big granite façade of the Greenwich Financial Center and took the ticket from bundled-up attendant. When he said “Happy Holidays,” a cloud of mist formed over the top of his scarf. The windows of the store each had one large wreath, with a bold red bow, hung in the center. The effect was simple and elegant. The impression was of intense civility. He’d first encountered this image of Christmas when he had come to New York after college and stood across Fifth Avenue from Saks. He’d watched the people walk in and out with

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excitement and confidence, carrying big bags, wearing plush and engulfing overcoats, clean hats and gloves. They were able to sacrifice utility to protect against the cold…doors would open for them, crowds separate slightly in understanding. He had imagined then this moment now: standing inside the entrance of Richard, before the tables stacked with soft cashmere sweaters and scarves, the racks crammed with Italian overcoats and English walking coats. The corner to the left of the entrance, where the suit and sports coat overflow typically was stocked, had been converted into wrapping stations. Women clustered around the table waiting for their gifts to be wrapped and placed in gold-leaf bags on the rack at the end, as they sipped on hot cider and espresso from the mini-bar near the registers. Josh waited just inside the door. He’d spent many tens of thousands of dollars in this store easily. The staff made it an easy and simple place to shop. The key was to wait and let them find you, to stand in a relaxed and expectant fashion. He removed his gloves and stuffed them into his pocket. Terese was by the jewelry counter talking to young man. Josh waited. When she caught sight of him, she gestured to another woman behind the counter, who stepped into the same space Terese vacated as she stepped out into the aisle and began walking toward Josh. Her hair slipped down across her cheekbone as she smiled, and she lifted it back into place and held her hand by the side of her head as she walked purposefully toward him. She was confident and steady on her heels. As she came near him, she shook her head back, her hair falling away from her brow and neck, baring skin and the bright looseness of her smile. “Josh, it’s so good to see you, Olivia will be so pleased,” she said as she slipped beside him, wrapped her arm inside his and pushed her body into his side. Something striking, Josh thought. Something exceptional, that she’ll always want and can mark what a time it was once,

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that’s what I’ll do, now, as he returned Terese’s smile with his own wan grin.

When they left the house, the children were deployed at opposite ends of the kitchen table. Olivia’s mother sat in between with a cup of weak tea and an ice pack for her knee. She had slipped walking up the steps on a dark patch of ice and struck her knee sharply on a paving stone. The bruise was red and mottled and had destroyed the knee of her stocking. Josh had been at the table with Harrison separating the pieces of a Transformers model for his son to work on that night while they were away at the party. Each piece was connected to the central spine of the plastic mold and needed to be cut off with a sharp edge, then sanded flat with an emery board so that it could set flush against the matching piece. Josh was dressed. The plastic dust was thin and white and was settling in on the cuff of his shirt and the hair on his wrist. He felt sweaty. The sanding needed to be brisk and fine, or else the plastic nubs that remained after separating the pieces would not yield. Harrison was rattling on in an energetic, articulate way about the character and the model and where he would put it after it was done. Lily was counting miniature plastic kittens, something called Calico Critters that she had been hoarding for the past month. She was certain that she had lost one. “You’re responsible for your own things, Lily,” Josh said. “Find it and don’t whine.” Then Josh had heard Olivia gasp. She was in the front parlor. The briefcase was set on the chair. She had found the spreadsheet and knew the Terminal Date. His arms stilled against the edge of the table and a inky film spread down the back of his head, across his temples to the edge of his eyes. His chest deflated. The scrape of the front door opening was followed by Olivia screaming, “Mom!” and Josh and the two children had tentatively hurried

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into the foyer and saw Olivia in her fine dress and slippers bent over her mother, who lay on her side and clutched her knee tightly. It was awkward to lift her. She staggered for a moment. She fell into his shoulder and her hair covered his face. He could small a sweet, sugary fragrance, like cotton candy, and felt a lurch in his stomach. The discomforted feeling lingered now as he drove out from the lower reaches of Greenwich to the Rogers’ house for the party. Olivia was quiet beside him. Josh could see the silver glint of the necklace that he had brought home from Richards. The Mercedes was heavy and substantial around him. With his heavy overcoat on, his maroon scarf bunched under his chin, he was in a soft and comforting cocoon. He wore thin leather gloves and could feel the ridging of the heavy wheel beneath his fingers. When he turned, the car glided with a thick caution along the slope of the road. The party was in the farthest, most northern corner of town. The lights fell away from the side of the road as they drove away from the center of Greenwich. The ascent was innocuous, but steady; as they traveled away from the shoreline and into the back country, they climbed along winding roads. Dark patterns slipped by. The stone walls reflected the peripheral light of their car. As they drove, they could catch glimpses of clusters of colored and white lights surrounding houses set back in the trees. Christmas was only a week away. Olivia spoke. “I was so frightened when Mom fell. I saw her slip and it looked like she really hurt herself.” “She’s fine now,” Josh said. They were silent. After a moment, Olivia said, “I think she’ll need to move from her house soon. She can’t keep living alone.”

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They came to John Street and turned off of Round Hill. The old church was lit in the dark. The spire disappeared in the black. The cluster of buildings felt close and warm in the December chill. This was an old settlement that had been standing for hundreds of years. “We’ll need to build out a little suite for her by the garage if we’re going to stay in this house. Or look for something a bit bigger. We can probably find some good deals now.” Olivia paused. “Oh…look.” Two horses stood in the black, their brown skin and dark eyes aglow in the headlight beams. Josh slowed. The horses rested their soft necks on the weathered fence. They didn’t move. For a moment, Josh thought they were statues, or projections; they were so completely still. They were suspended. “They must be cold,” Olivia said.

At the entrance to the house, Olivia reached the door with a broad smile on her face just as Josh set his foot on the bluestone portico. The light was multi-partite. The fixtures burned a soft yellow, like a candle. The rust of the shake shingle was accented by the light. Around the columns of the entrance tiny white lights were wrapped in pine garlands. The lights burned sharp and isolated between the needles. Along the side of the courtyard, raised up on a low stonewall, the hollies were wrapped in hundreds of white lights, buried deep inside the leaves. The wind lifted the branches and tapped them softly back and forth so that the lights seemed to shimmer and move like a long cloak. Josh looked beyond the hollies into the deep black beyond the house. No lights were visible. He had not been out into the back and wondered at how empty and dark it could be. He felt drawn to the wash of nothingness.

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Through the windows at the side of the large country doors, he could see shapes and as the door opened a roll of warmth and a gush of sound unfurled around him. The heat rushed out and mixed around him with the cold, enveloped him as he stepped into the foyer and carried the door closed behind him. The crisp air crystallized for a moment, and Josh pulled the lapels of his coat closer together before sliding one sleeve off. He was in a momentary eddy. Olivia had stepped further in, under the archway to the living room, where she was smiling broadly and talking excitedly with a pair of her friends. The foyer was alive with light and energy and sound. Four singers stood at the steps across from the front doors. They were smiling and began to sing quietly: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. They stood just beside a Christmas tree filled with bright colored lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. The decorations were perfectly placed. In the center of the foyer, a giant conch was filled with dozens of lime green glass balls. Small votives were set around the conch, and atop the crown molding: dozens of votives that generated small, insistent flickers of lights. The room was crowded with people. Josh could see that the crowd spilled over into the living room: past the expensive dresses and the linen couch and the foam-green rug he could see a fire flickering. He imagined it would be warm and quiet there, even in the middle of the fracas. A long lighted bar was to the right of the door and Josh fell in line. One of the domestic staff took his coat. He looked to Olivia, who gave him a furtive glance and a quick smile. She was already holding a glass of wine. Where had she gotten it from, he wondered. He didn’t know any of the people standing by him at the bar, so he shrugged his shoulders and arched his eyebrows, then rubbed his hands together. The sound was energetic and bubbling. He could feel his senses subside. He stood more heavily on his feet. He clasped his hands together.

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“Your drink, sir?” the bartender asked. Josh looked at the setup along the bar. The highball glasses, champagne flutes, martini shells all captured the light dancing about the room. The bartender had short silver hair that was brushed down flat along his skull. “A martini, very dry,” Josh said. He felt a touch on his elbow. “Josh, great to see you, quite a party.” He turned to see Bill Keogh, another lawyer who had worked on a couple of deals with his firm. Keogh had children in the school with Josh’s. “Grimson here yet?” Keogh asked. Josh shrugged and reached over for his martini, thanking the bartender, who said to him, “Don’t worry, sir, I’ll make sure we keep your drink going during the evening.” Josh moved toward the archway to the living room. Keogh walked just beside him. He was drinking a Budweiser, with a napkin wrapped around the neck. He had long, slender fingers and well-manicured nails. Josh looked at his drink napkin: “Party Like It’s 1929!” was imprinted on the green paper. Keogh was telling him a story about his oldest son, who was an inveterate cut-up at school. Keogh was energized by the boy’s antics, his strong spirits. Josh looked around the room to find Olivia. The women were beautiful. Magnificent, really. Their dresses were sleek sheaths that hugged their hips, bared their arms and shoulders. They were confident in showing the taut span of their chest, the swelling of their breasts, the slope of their thighs into their calves and the crisp heels that pushed them forward and up in one swift and compelling motion. Josh was short and static among them.

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The women smiled and laughed. Each crinkle of their eyes, juicy jump of their mouth, sent a little tremor through Josh that made him withdraw, pull into the hood of his eyes, the bulk of his chest. He could feel their motion as if it was a lunar pulse permeating the room. Another man joined Josh and Keogh: Tom Cooper, a short, shiny man with a prominent forehead that was permanently wrinkled with a quizzical smile. Josh nodded to him as Keogh backtracked on his story to fill in key points that Cooper had missed. Olivia was standing by the living room tree with three other women. Two were in short black dresses and the third was in a silver sheath that clung to her body and turned her into a dancing smile. Olivia was smiling brightly. She laughed and waved her hair off her head in a loose wash, her mouth wide open and her eyes sparkling. The woman she was talking to was the hostess, Terri. Her hair was blown away from her face, framing her features in a striking blonde halo. Josh watched her move. She was electric, graceful, whole. The women around her relaxed into her, as if her energy was a soft wash of heat that left them soothed and excited in the same moment. He wondered what her skin would feel like. He wondered at the burst of presence he recognized in his wife. A waiter appeared with a fresh drink. Josh wasn’t aware of finishing the first. As he relinquished his glass and sipped from the other, the crowd began to shift and stir. A fresh, snappy beat pulsed from the speakers set in the corners. The dj had begun to play. In the foyer, Josh saw a tall man with rounded shoulders and a thick middle shepherd the carolers to the far archway. That was the host, Terri’s husband. Josh never found conversations with him comfortable: the man was insistent and gleeful, with questions that seemed to make more of things, or look for things, that Josh didn’t think made sense. A stir went up. The music shifted into an old tune, something that Josh might remember his grandmother listening to in her parlor, moving lightly along on her stocking feet, her thin hair tinted by the evening light reflected off the buildings across the street, her lips curled in a smile that

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forgot her frustrations, that remembered her lost husband, that was feminine and sensual in a way that a young boy could recognize, could yearn for in an uncertain way, could find refuge in, but couldn’t quite understand. A flapper song. Five young women paraded into the room. They wore short little flapper dresses with tassels at their chests and fringe. They had silver skull caps and cute curlicues of hair at their temples. They wore heels with open toes. Their lips were bright red and pursed. Their fingers were splayed at their hips. All I want to do is dance with you. They turned in unison and began to dance, bursts of energy and enticement. Josh knew the song: it was from Singing in the Rain, Olivia’s favorite movie. He watched her at the side of the room. Her mouth was slightly open. She held her hands at her side. Her fingers moved slightly. The rest of her body was slack. She was transfixed and in that moment emptied of herself. She looked slight and worn. The girls closed to a loud round of applause. People pressed around Josh. They smiled and talked excitedly. Men looked at each other with restrained grins. The girls would stay, Josh knew that from other parties, and dance with everyone. The men liked that. They were young and attractive. Their wives approved. They were fun to watch. As another number started, Josh shifted his body back through the crowd. He saw one of the girls step forward with a microphone and begin to dance. Her hair was long and brown. It fell across her eyes and pushed at the crinkled ends of her smile. She was dusky and strong. Her hips levered, she kicked to the side, and pushed one hand ahead, palm open. She began to sing.

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Josh had a fresh drink and stood in the foyer by the bar. The vodka was shallow in his body. He could feel the tips of his fingers, the pressure at the corners of his eyes. He firmed his calves, pressed his feet down and flex his chest. He settled into himself. Grimson stepped out of the bathroom. Seeing Josh he broke into a wide smile and walked over, wringing his hands as if he were drying them, or as if he were filled with intense excitement. “Flapper tunes, Josh! That’s great, isn’t it? Really good to see you, man,” Grimson said. Standing, he towered over Josh. He reached one hand to Josh’s shoulder. “Rough business today, I know. It’s a rough business. But it’s all going to be fine, you know. It’s just business, man.” Josh froze under his touch. Grimson leaned into him in a familiar, cowering way. His eyes were bright and narrow. His grin was thin and ragged beneath his scruffy mustache. He was flushed and breathy. Josh could smell him through the heat and closeness. “When you need something, come to me. You’ll figure out the things. We’re off to Jackson for the holiday. Get some relaxing in, man. You’ll need it. “ Josh tried to narrow his eyes and transmit anger and disdain. He searched for the sensation of his muscles in his lips and felt slackness. Olivia approached them. Her lips were pursed. “Olivia, Merry Christmas,” Grimson said as he leaned over. He embraced her fully, bending down into her body and enveloping her in his arms. Olivia leaned into him for a moment, the bend of her body and the torque of his shoulders merging to swing her hair free from her

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shoulders, creating the sudden picture of him breaking her in two, or, at the same moment, sweeping her up in his arms in a tight and intimate embrace. “Olivia,” Grimson said, as if he had forgotten his initial welcome. “Good to see you, Olivia.” He let her free from his grasp and leaned back, stroking his beard and looking around the room. The glance seemed to Josh at once lost and predatory. He focused on the skin beneath Grimson’s eyes: trenches of skin and shadow, looking blue-black in the dim light, empty and potent like the deep dark that rolled out beyond the big house to the unexplored yard. As Grimson strayed away, Josh inventoried his sensations. His feet felt sturdy and planted, permanent. His calves were still tender. His shoulders were fresh and energized. His lips were dull and senseless. He could focus with great acuity and intent, he felt, with the shine of his eyes. Olivia brushed her hand along his sleeve, against the soft cashmere of his blazer, along the outside of his forearm. He had a meager sense of the touch. He looked at her. She turned away. A bleak smile played on her lips. She walked toward the living room. From the back of the hall, he heard the clatter of the dancers as they pranced away. Their number was over. He caught a glimpse of the singer as she trailed along after the girls, a big smile playing over her face, her hair in a jumble along the back of her shoulders, the mike trailing behind her like a loosely gathered baton. Josh turned to the dining room. Beyond the long dining table, he could hear the clatter of silver and dishes; a pair of women walked through a broad opening with plates of food. He realized that he felt hungry, understood in an emphatically linear way that he could use food to offset the muddy tingle of the vodka.

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As he walked into the kitchen, he encountered the dancers. They stood all in a gaggle of sleek long legs and heels, short skirts and fetching cleavage, hair straight and close to their cheekbones in an old style. They were filled with giddy energy. They smiled broadly and chattered excitedly, leaning in to each other in a familiar and bubbly way. Josh was thick and diminished beside them. They towered over him. “Muffin, we’re going to get changed into our dresses real quick, OK?” one of them called out, and four of the girls clattered through a door and down the flight of stairs. Josh was left standing next to the singer. She had a glass of champagne. She looked directly at him. He raised his eyebrows. “Muffin?” he said. “I know, so lame, right,” she said with a big grin. “My name is Millicent. My mom thought Millie sounds like a maid’s name. So she gave me a strippers name instead.” The young woman held open her arms, champagne flute in one hand and microphone in another, and made a slight curtsey while shimmying her chest in a quick, elastic motion. Josh was silenced. The moment overwhelmed him with arousal and suspicion. The movement had been so instantaneous and skilled. “There’s a lot of women in this town called Muffin,” Josh said. She smiled and sipped her drink. Josh drank from his and considered the moment carefully. He felt in control. Her eyes were shiny, like a protective film covered them. She was cock-eyed, off center, but sturdy and right there. Her smile grew and then she giggled and leaned in against him. “That’s here. I’m not Muffin from Greenwich. I’m Muffin from Chelsea. It’s different.”

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“I liked your song,” Josh said. “What did it make you think of?” Muffin said. “Can you describe it?” “You all looked very beautiful, I thought that,” Josh ventured. The girl tucked the microphone between her arm and her breast and circled Josh’s wrist with her fingers. They were long and firm. “What did it do to your pulse? What did you think when you listened? Did you go anywhere?” Josh tried to think of the question, what it could mean, what it meant to the girl named Muffin to ask and what it would mean to answer. He was not facile with following the path of his emotion, of describing how he felt. He could sense that there were paths that the describing of emotion might walk him down, but he didn’t have confidence in his footing nor his bearings on that walk. One time when they were first married, he and Olivia had dinner with a couple that they had become friendly with in their building. The other couple was recently married as well, and they were filled with a bubbling newness about everything. At dinner, they had asked Olivia and Josh about the way their life together had changed with marriage. The woman, who was like Olivia in her simple and undemanding looks, proved to have a vast vocabulary of feelings. She and her husband talked about their marriage like it was a organic experiment that shifted and evolved and surprised them every day. “I don’t know how they’ll manage when they have children,” Olivia had said when they got home. “I don’t know what they thought they were talking about,” Josh answered. The young woman was lost to him for a moment, retreating in his silence into her own thoughts. He could see her eyes narrow and sensed her distance. “I’m sorry,” Josh said. “I don’t really know what you’re asking.” She saw him again.

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“Oh, it’s silly. I sing all the time, you know. I love it. And when I know I’m going to sing for people, I think out how I want the song to go, where I want the feeling to take me, and I’m hoping that everyone else goes somewhere to. I mean, I want it to make a difference for them, in that moment. It’s my plan, you know?” In his answer, Josh felt the space around him narrow and become clear. “I think so. You build a framework for the song, and then you put all your emotion into it. That creates all kinds of different outputs, a different one for each person, and you wish you could know whether those outputs fit your framework.” Muffin smiled. “Wow. You just made me feel like Millie,” she said. “Is that a good thing?” Josh asked. He had his bearings back. He felt strong. “I’m not sure. It’s not a common thing, right? But I think I know what you’re talking about. I think that’s it.” Josh lay his hand on her wrist. She was warm. The tension in her face slacked; her lips paused in mid-smile. The music got louder around them. Beyond them, in the kitchen, people were eating and talking, leaning in to each other, standing against the big marble island. He drew the young woman toward him slightly. She leaned down. “Do you know what Six Sigma is,” he asked. She shook her head. Her hair brushed against the side of his face. He leaned onto his toes. “Six sigma is the way that you eliminate risk. You get every bit of information that you can, and you put it into a big spreadsheet, and you

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run simulations and models against all kind of different ways that things can turn out. When you’ve got the risk at six sigma, it means that in 99.9% of the times, you know how it’s going to turn out. That’s what you’re looking for….you want the Six Sigma on your singing, right?” “That’s freaky,” she said softly. “Yeah.” “But that’s not it anymore. That’s not what I was thinking about. Now you’re looking at Nine Sigma.” She smiled at him. They leaned in. He could feel her heat. “Nine sigma is when it’s all fucked up. Something happened that you didn’t put into your model. That never happened before. That you couldn’t forecast because it wasn’t in the delta of probability. Just like you can’t tell how everyone is going to feel. Someone is feeling the fucking end, right then, right when you’re singing. When you’re in the beginning or middle of something.” “You were feeling the end?” she asked. Josh leaned back and looked up into her eyes. They were soft and foreign. He felt his eyes begin to well up. “I was looking at the end,” he said. “The whole thing. At the end.” “Wow. That is really freaky…” She drew away and stood up. “That’s cool. Nine,” she said. Josh felt a firm grip on his arm. He turned and saw Olivia. Her eyes were narrow and cool. “Come Josh. It’s time to go home.” She circled his wrist with her hand and led him to the foyer. The silver haired bartender held his coat. His hosts said goodbye to him.

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Olivia had the keys in her hand, was brushing her hair away from her throat. Josh tried to stand still beside her. He couldn’t make out the sound. He saw Grimsom in the living room, standing with Keogh. Grimson looked impossibly tall. He realized the door was open and Olivia was tugging at him. He felt the cold air and stepped toward it. It braced him for a moment. He put his hands deeper into his pockets and widened his elbows. He imagined that he would right himself in the wind. The door closed behind them and the sound stopped. Olivia stood ahead of him. She was looking in her purse. The courtyard was dark. The cold was like thin rails, and Josh could feel the bitter sting on his nose and his cheek. His wife was in a frozen crystal of sadness. At the top of the courtyard, the headlights of a passing car illuminated the gates and the deep grey trunks of trees. Everything was bright and fractured, as if he was staring through a prism. Tears, he realized. Tears welled in his eyes and ran down his face. In the deep and broad cascade of the cold air that froze everything around it, he could feel his tears. Olivia turned and looked at him. Her face was sorrowful. He tried to hold out his hand, but couldn’t. He tried to pull it from his pocket, but it would not move. He tried to loosen his chest, to open his eyes, to take a deep breath. He was paralyzed. The tears flowed. He could not see. He bowed his head. He sobbed.

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