It's a cold and windless January night following a two-day winter storm. All across the campus of the Cleveland Art Institute a blanket of snow sparkles as if encrusted with tiny diamonds. Thick clouds blot out the moonlight and for a moment it feels that all of nature is hushed.
Suzy, Robin, and I walk the half mile to the Theta Chi frat house, a box-shaped building with dark brown vinyl siding that looks like it could be the back part of a church where the priests reside, were it not for the large wooden Greek letters hanging between the second and third floors. Theta Chi is hosting a Welcome Back keg party and all comers are indeed welcome, so long as they can produce an ID, real or otherwise, along with twenty bucks to be paid in cash at the door.
I have to go because my roommate Suzy has a huge crush on the president, and she convinces Robin and me to be her accomplices in the manhunt. But being that it's a new semester, and a brand-new year, I'm certainly open for adventure. When you're eighteen, the possibilities seem endless. At the same time, I'm feeling a bit lonely, since Craig, the guy I really like, attends college in Minnesota. We're eleven hundred miles apart, and he and I both agreed that it's best not to be exclusive with each other, at least for now.
Once inside the front door we pay our cover charge and a guy wearing a multicolored felt jester hat uses a stamp to emblazon the backs of our hands with big purple beavers. In the strobe-lit entrance hall Billy Joel blares from speakers that seem to be everywhere. The jacked-up bass causes the wooden floorboards to thump so it feels as if there's a heartbeat in each foot. The couches are pushed back against the walls and from the ceiling of the large living room hang dozens of strings of chili pepper lights that cast a crazy quilt of patterns onto the guests. Young people stand around holding big red plastic cups, occasionally leaning in close to yell something at one other. They nod or laugh and over near the fireplace a few dance.
A guy wearing a T-shirt that says, freshmen girls --- get 'em while they're skinny, rolls a fresh keg past us and catches my eye. He's heading toward a place underneath a mangy bison head where participants in a Chug for Charity contest appear to be making excellent progress.
Oh my gosh --- it's Josh! He's a junior in the art department whom I had a crush on the entire first semester of my freshman year, while he didn't even know I was alive.
After dropping off the keg he comes over and hands me a beer. "Do I know you?"
"Hallie Palmer," I reply, trying not to feel devastated that he doesn't remember my name.
We begin a shouted exchange and I remind him of the shared computer graphics class.
"Oh yeah," he says and nods.
Though whether he means that he remembers the class or me is impossible to tell. Our talk segues to general stuff like movies and families. Only the problem is that now, after so much fantasizing about our nonexistent relationship, and several beers, I'm experiencing difficulty separating the real conversation from all the imaginary ones I had with him last fall. For instance, Josh looks surprised when I talk about having nine brothers and sisters, whereas I'm thinking we covered that months ago.
I act interested in everything that Josh says about where he's from and what he's studying even though I already know all of this from looking up his campus profile on the Internet. I may be majoring in graphic arts, but like most college women, I minor in stalking.
Just when I fear we've run out of conversation, he says, "Hey, wanna dance?"
We put down our plastic cups and move to the area in front of the fireplace where throngs of intoxicated students dance to Jason Mraz's "I'll Do Anything." I'm probably reading too much into the situation, as usual, but it's as if every line of the song has a double, or even triple meaning.
When the next song begins Josh appears to be finished with the dancing part of the evening. He stands still while everyone begins jumping around to "Heat Wave." Meantime, Suzy pushes her way toward us through the closely packed gyrating crowd, carefully ducking and maneuvering so as not to disturb any of the headgear with beer cans attached to the top and plastic tubes running into the mouths of thirsty revelers. Her cheeks are flushed. "I found Ross! He's upstairs!"
"This is Josh," I lean in close and say to Suzy.
"Hey Josh," she shouts, barely glancing over at him. "Hallie, they're playing strip poker upstairs and you have to come because I don't know how to play and --- " Suzy stops midstream and looks back at Josh. "Is that Josh?" she asks me. The emphasis is code for: the guy you were so obsessed with that I thought a counselor was going to have to be brought in for an assist?
"Yes," I bob my head up and down to indicate it's that Josh.
Suzy smiles. This translates to: He's really cute and you're going to get lucky tonight!
"You said that you found Ross," I remind her.
Suzy grabs both our hands. "Come teach me how to play strip poker."
"Actually I'm not much of a poker player," says Josh, holding his ground.
"Me neither," I lie. I've been playing poker since I was seven, but why appear anxious when Suzy is going to close this deal for me?
"Please, you guys." She pulls us in the direction of the wide staircase that empties into the back of the living room. What might soon qualify as a three-alarm blaze is now roaring in the fireplace. The room was already hot and redolent of spilled beer, and now it's becoming filled with thick gray smoke.
Suzy is giddy with excitement, turning back and smiling every few seconds as she directs us to the second floor, and then up a narrow staircase that leads to a refinished attic. Eight kids are lounging around on oversized pillows in a dimly lit room with a lava lamp in the corner and music wailing from a CD player on the floor. Everyone is still fully dressed, and if the loud laughing and joking is anything to go by, no longer fully sober. A guy wearing khaki shorts, a frat house T-shirt, and a cowboy hat shuffles a deck of cards. There's the faint but distinctive aroma of marijuana, though given that the one hexagonal window in the room doesn't open, it's impossible to tell whether the scent is from tonight's group or previous parties.
"Are you outlaws here to play poker or are you delivering the pizza?" says the guy nearest the boom box, whom I recognize as Ross, Suzy's big crush.
Everyone laughs uproariously at this stupid joke. Suzy releases our hands and I come out from behind her. A girl named Jennifer and a guy named Kevin, both of whom I recognize from my freshman dorm, say, "I didn't know I was going to play against Hallie Palmer," and "Now things are really getting exciting."
It's not unknown for me to sit in on a dorm game and clean up a pot or two. Most of the kids aren't exactly strong opponents to begin with; however, they usually drink while playing, giving me an even greater advantage. People who booze while they bet tend not to fold nearly as early or often as they should.
The cowboy-hat guy calls for a game of five-card draw with deuces wild. Ross announces that we all have to start with our shoes and socks either on or off.
Jennifer holds up her hand and says, "We didn't decide about underwear."
The four guys yell "no" to underwear while the five women shout "yes." "I'll do odds or evens with one of the girls," states Ross. The girls could argue this but they don't because some secretly want to play down to the nude. Let's face it, a girl doesn't join a game of strip poker unless she likes one of the guy players or she's incredibly drunk.
Suzy volunteers to throw out fingers against Ross, promptly loses the underwear option, and then conveniently remains sitting next to him.
Picking up my cards I find a pair of sixes and a wild two. With the chance to replace two cards, this means the prospect of four sixes! Though I don't receive another six or wild card, an ace comes my way. Kevin's three sixes made with a wild two have only a queen high and so I'm the winner. The others good-naturedly remove an article of clothing and throw it into the center of the circle. After four more rounds I've lost only my pants, while almost everyone else is down to their underwear, and Jennifer has also lost her bra. The girls nervously alternate puffs on cigarettes with long sips of beer. Between the cloud formed by their cigarettes and the stream of smoke rising from downstairs, the room is becoming more than hazy, and so I don't know how much we'll actually be able to see when people are fully naked.
Mr. Cowboy Hat, whom I've since found out is named Justin, is the first one required to throw in his underwear, but removes his Stetson instead. The girls cry foul.
"You'd better show us more than your side part!" exclaims Christine.
"There's no rule against hats," insists Justin. "You could have worn one."
"If that's the case then my ring and necklace count as articles of clothing," argues a braless Jennifer.
The more those two bicker the more everyone else roars with laughter. Between Josh placing his hand on my knee every few minutes and the good cards that keep coming my way, I decide that this must indeed be my lucky night.
"Hall-ie . . ." I hear my name echoing somewhere within the swirl of music, shouts of laughter, and a gauzy but pleasant alcoholic haze.
It can't be. It cannot be the voice that boomerangs through the garden at the Stocktons' and calls me in for dinner at the end of the day.
Sure enough, Bernard Stockton, my longtime mentor and summer employer, crawls toward the circle on his hands and knees, panting with exhaustion. Oh no --- could there have been another breakup with Gil? They've seemed so happy since getting back together and adopting the two little Chinese girls. Or worse, maybe something terrible has happened to Olivia and Ottavio on their trip to Italy. A plane crash?
Bernard drops to the floor as if he's been crawling through the desert and finally reached an oasis. Covered in a heavy down parka with a scarf wrapped around his neck and carrying a fleece hat in hand, sweat pours off Bernard's face, his eyes are rimmed with red, and he's gasping for air. But something else is odd. Those aren't his usual gabardine wool winter slacks. They're navy blue silk pajama bottoms! Bernard never goes out of the house unless he's immaculately dressed and every salt and pepper hair is in place.
"Bernard!" Whatever is he doing here, right now?
"Heavens to Betsy Bloomingdale." Bernard begins coughing uncontrollably and pounds his hand on the floor while catching his breath. "I'm tipsy and tripping and dying of asphyxiation without having imbibed nor inhaled." Bernard raises his head an inch. "And possibly betrothed --- some woman thinks I'm George Clooney and kissed me solidly on the mouth. She has eyes like cherry strudel and appears to be riding high on everything but skates."
"Kimberly," everyone says in unison.
Jennifer grabs a T-shirt off the mound of clothes in the center of the circle and covers her bare chest. Otherwise the group doesn't appear bothered by the adult intrusion, at least after making certain it's no one from the dean's office or else the campus police on the prowl for underage drinkers.
"Hallie, I've been searching absolutely everywhere for you. Come on --- we have to go!" Bernard doesn't so much as say hello to the rest of the kids, which is totally unlike him. "I don't want you to be alarmed," he says in a voice that suggests I should be very alarmed indeed, "but your father had a heart attack."
Huh? My dad --- a heart attack --- impossible! He's young and strong and not even forty! I sit there stunned.
With a certain amount of dramatic huffing and puffing Bernard rises to his feet. "We must go to the hospital now!" He enunciates the words as if talking to someone who can only lip read.
Not knowing what to say I stand up and walk toward him like an automaton. It's only when I reach the door that Bernard says, "It's rather chilly outside, you might want to consider pants."
Josh has anticipated this and dug my jeans from out of the clothing pile. After handing them to me he retrieves my socks and shoes from the corner of the room.
I quickly dress and we head toward the main floor. The entire house is now chock-full of people partying, swaying to music, and propped up against walls, their outstretched legs blocking the hallways and stairwells. Bernard is pardonnez- moi-ing every step of the way through this obstacle course while towing me along behind him. We finally reach the front door, but it takes another moment to push through a crowd of rowdy women who claim to have paid earlier. The heavyset doorman is effectively blocking their entrance and shouting, "Show me your beavers!"
Bernard looks questioningly at me. "Hand stamp," I explain. But it's too loud to hear anything, and so I hold mine up to Bernard's face and he nods in understanding.
Once we're outside Bernard continues to yell as if he's still competing with the music. "Gil is waiting in the car with the girls. I've been to so many different parties I don't even know where I am anymore."
"What did you park in front of?" I holler back, though it's quiet now but for a few shouts coming from a late-night snowball fight across the quad.
"There was a sculpture out front --- like a giant toadstool."
"That's the science building," I say. "It's supposed to be a molecule or something."
I hurry Bernard in the correct direction and the fresh air clears my head slightly. "Is it serious?" I ask.
"I'm not sure. Your sister Louise phoned." We've been jogging for a few minutes, and it's not so easy to catch our breath. "You . . . can . . . call her . . . from . . . the car."
I locate the maroon Volvo that Bernard recently traded for his vintage silver Alfa Romeo parked across from the science building with its engine running, the exhaust puffing a cloud of gray smoke into the cold winter air.
The girls are asleep in their car seats in the back and I climb between them while Bernard dives into the passenger side. The moment I pull the door closed Gil shoves a cell phone in my ear and puts the car into gear so that we jump away from the curb.
My sister Louise is frantic on the other end of the line. "Hallie? Is that you?"
"Yeah," I exhale heavily.
"Thank God they found you! Please go to the hospital right away and find out what's going on. I'm stuck here with the kids. Every time the phone rings I practically faint." Louise sounds as if she's starting to cry, and that it's not for the first time over the past few hours. "I woke up and the paramedics were flying down the stairs with Dad on a stretcher and Mom threw a coat over her nightgown and yelled for me to watch the kids. Reggie's been screaming bloody murder. I finally gave him a bottle of regular milk. It'll probably kill him. Tell Bernard and Gil that I'm sorry to have woken them up, but I didn't know what else to do."
"No, it's fine." I'm suddenly feeling incredibly sober.
"I got hold of Eric about an hour ago," reports Louise. "He's taking a bus from Indiana."
"I'll go to the hospital, find out what's happening, and then call you right back." I click off the phone and let my head tip over backward.
"Don't worry," says Gil. "The new hospital has a terrific cardiac unit --- state of the art."
"How old is your dad?" asks Bernard.
"Both my parents are thirty-nine." It's easy to remember because I just have to add nineteen to Eric's age.
"Oh, that's young," says Bernard. "He'll be fine. They can do quadruple bypasses and even replace valves with animal parts. We eat too much ham and bacon and then the surgeons give us pig aortas. It's one giant recycling system. If your heart can't be salvaged, then they just throw it away and stitch in a whole new one."
I certainly hope Bernard is right, but I fear that he's just trying to make me feel better.
Excerpted from THE BIG SHUFFLE © Copyright 2011 by Laura Pedersen. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Big Shuffle
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 387 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0345479564
- ISBN-13: 9780345479563