by Benjamin Matvey
At the very top of the stack of moving boxes that loomed over Mary and Stanley Swain’s newly arrived couch a small box was precariously perched. Mary was not concerned. She was cozied up on the couch in the sweater her friend Julia had knit her as a going away present, with a book about James Joyce’s daughter at her feet. Her thoughts were on her unringing phone. She had sent out résumés to all of Philadelphia’s academic libraries two weeks before they moved but she had heard nothing back. She had worked in a university library since she was 19—ten years of library service at State College—and she didn’t want to have to change careers. She wasn’t sure she knew how to do anything else.
But then again, she thought, Philadelphia might be a chance to enter a new stage of life: “adultish still newlywedded wifelihoodedness” she called it to herself. Things simply had to move on and to mark the occasion she quit smoking pot (a pastime that long preceded her library career). She had had her last lung-bursting hit at her going-away party one week and four days earlier. She hated how much she missed it.
Ring ring. The new phone’s electronic rattle jolted her from her drowsy contemplation. She recovered and leapt at the phone. As her hand reached the receiver, her right elbow inadvertently punched the lowest box of a stack. She heard the horrible sound of cardboard scraping against cardboard and just as the top box fell she reached up to stop it. Instead, she bunted the box, inverting it, causing the contents—papers and a tiny pencil sharpener filled with shavings—to rain on her head. The empty box landed almost soundlessly on the couch.
“Hi, Honey.” It was her husband, Stanley.
“Hi, Honey. How is professing?”
“I just finished my second class and already the students are asking me the big—I-studied-for-years-to-come-up-with-those-kind-of-questions—questions.”
Cradling the receiver under her chin, Mary tried to gather the spilled contents. “I’m sure they just read your book over the summer. You know Ivy League kids.”
“Well, no. I pretty much don’t.” Stanley laughed, alluding to his kidhood in the boonies of central Pennsylvania. “I think they might be a separate species.”
Mary had arranged the papers in a collage beneath her. Below the tax forms, and medical receipts, one paper stood out. It had “Mensa” written in gold letters across the top, and a white sticker that read “Stanley Edward Swain.” Mary smirked, thinking of the brilliant man on the phone—University of Pennsylvania’s newest, sexiest Sociology professor—and whatever vain impulse had led him to get certified. She felt impish glee as she hastily opened the report before her respect for her husband’s privacy had the chance to dissuade her.
That night Mary stared into the hair on Stanley’s neck as she cursed too many lattes and too little exercise for her sleeplessness. If they had made love she was sure she would have worked off enough energy to sleep, but Stanley plummeted into bed like a dead moose, and she didn’t have the heart to wake him. Each sleepless minute gave her too much time to fret about her vanished résumés, to wonder if sexlessness would curse their once frisky relationship, and, worst of all, to do the math.
The number in the report looked appallingly low to her at first. Perhaps she was deceived by soap operas where—if an IQ was mentioned at all—it was cartoonishly high. (“Only I, with my 240 IQ, can stop the wedding of Bo and Hope.”) She had dashed through the whole packet and discovered that Stanley’s numbers were really quite good. Not quite good enough for Mensa, but very respectable.
But she couldn’t repress the memory of another number, her own number, which resided in her brain along with every phone number, birth date and pin code she had ever heard. It had never meant anything to her before; it was just some even three-digit number her mother once gushed about. The number didn’t sound that exceptional. But the Mensa papers reminded her of what a “standard deviation” was. It was a jump on the Richter Scale, the difference between the middle of the bell and the deeply plunging edges; between the very end of the curve and virtually vanishing off the charts. And her IQ was only a handful of points shy of being two standard deviations above her husband’s.
She moved in close, pressed her nose into Stanley’s vertebrae and reminded herself that she didn’t believe in IQ and, if anything, the results showed how totally off the whole evil, corrupting, bigoted system was. She resolved never to think about it again.
She fell asleep two hours later.
Stanley diced scallions as Mary carried two wine glasses into the dining room with one hand while she read a paperback in the other. Six days of sitting at home and sending out résumés to increasingly distant suburbs had passed, and Mary was reading Mismeasure of Man—a book by Stephen Jay Gould about the dark history of social “science” and “intelligence” tests. Meanwhile, the Swains were having their first dinner guests: Professor Davis and wife.
Stanley sprinkled the scallions into the baby spinach and sighed. Mary knew he wanted to tell her to put the book down as their guests would arrive any minute, but that he wouldn’t. After she placed the next set of glasses on the table, she closed the book and tossed it onto the coffee table to mix with Scientific American as appropriately literate reading.
Stanley started humming a Bluegrass tune when he checked the venison, which had been slow roasting in the oven for hours in a port wine and rosemary sauce. The sage potatoes lined the meat, the apple tart was on deck, and the grape tomatoes were cut in even halves. He was in the zone, and Mary was relieved for the lack of chatter. The conversation in her head was enough.
She badly wanted to smoke some pot, but instead she opened up the wine (a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, which really meant nothing to her) and poured herself a full glass. Despite the humming, a single twitch of her husband’s eye told her that he wanted her to let the wine breathe and hold off until the guests arrived.