The Algebra of Chance


The Algebra of Chance

David Meischen

Oma and Poppa gaze into the diminishing light of a day at midcentury, eyes as if startled to have come this far, between them a glass-pedestaled cake in tiers of white topped by a number in crystallized sugar—50—behind them family members clearly conscious of aperture, shutter, film, among these Valerie, six months a bride, and beside her Elwood, tall, handsome, radiant, young. From here they look like one set of variables in a three-part algebra problem—a point of departure, a destination, the distance between. Read closely; parse the givens; set a clock ticking. And arrive some two dozen years later: Valerie and Elwood stand behind a cake that says 25, a daughter and three sons, all grown, arrayed around them.

First of the sons, I consider my sister, her invisible presence, five months before she was born, among the smiles backing Oma and Poppa, though my mother didn’t know the child she carried on January 27, 1947, would be her only daughter. And what about me? I study my parents at eighteen and twenty-two, see myself—my father’s mouth, my mother’s smile—waiting just outside the frame, my entrance certain as Uncle Ewald, his absence an erasure among survivors, the living celebrants of fifty years.

See him there?—inside the deep porch shade, beside the door of the board and batten house they stepped out of to pose for us, afterimage of the beloved bachelor son, uniforms hanging in the closet, pipe and ashtray at his bedside, there behind the farmhouse windows, biding. A single cell briefly in place inside Oma’s womb, a random sperm among the myriad discharged at the instant of ejaculation—a chance collision brought Uncle Ewald into the family story, left him an immune system that weathered childhood illness, the hit-or-miss dispersal of 1918’s deadly flu, and so on until January 7, 1945, when fluke landed a mortar shell in an army kitchen somewhere in Belgium, Uncle Ewald calmly peeling potatoes until a split second before the flash that killed him.

Not one of us was meant to be. Even seconds before the merging of two cells that led to me, I was not in the picture. Another sperm cell could have got there first. Or none at all. Out of happenstance, a family assembles itself. A child arrives. Another. The ones dumb luck lets in the door. We sit for photographs anyway, make—of the flux we are given—equations, the selves we cannot imagine otherwise.