The following is excerpted from the first chapter of Let There Be Light.
The Night, What it Does to You
Monday, February 6th
“Joseph Vargas-Stern. Holy crap! What a pleasure.”
“Mr. Van Rensselaer-Kauffman. Equally a pleasure, my friend.” Joseph squeezed Sol’s shoulder.
“Have you ever met my wife, Rachel?” asked Sol.
“I don’t think I’ve had the honor. So nice to meet you,” said Joseph.
“You, too,” said Rachel.
“And wow. You did well for yourself, man, and, could it be, a little Sol—and a little Rachel on the way?”
“One month to go, hopefully,” Sol said.
“That’s amazing! You’re going to be a dad! That’s insane! Congratulations!” Joseph’s smile rippled through his body. When questioned later by the police about the night’s events, what Sol most clearly remembered was that reverberating smile: Joseph radiating joy, at him, at Rachel, beaming for them. Joseph said, “Wow. It’s been a hell of a long time. What great luck to run into you. Do you live in the city?”
“No. We live back in Berkeley. We’re old.”
“No. Come on. Can’t go wrong with Berkeley. It’s wonderful. So what are you up to these days, besides, you know the good stuff,” he smiled and inclined his head towards Rachel’s gravid midsection.
“Oh, just that,” smiled Sol, immediately wincing as Rachel pinched his side. “Ow! I’m a Post Doc in History at Cal.”
“I’m an actuary,” said Rachel.
“Badass,” said Joseph. “I love math. Computer Science more. But I do miss math. I’m in Tech. Hey, will you two please join us?” Turning to the round wooden table behind him, he said, “Sorry to be so rude, everyone. These are my teammates: Estelle, Arvind, Anya, and Nic. Team, this is Sol and Rachel. Dear old friends.”
Sol shook each of their hands, and they shook his hand with alacrity. Rachel tugged on Sol’s elbow. Sol said, “Thank you so much for the offer, but this is actually our date night. And we never come into the city. So we’re going to be anti-social in the corner over there. Can we grab a drink sometime though, Joseph? I’m happy to come into the city one night to meet up.”
“Sol, my friend, it would be the greatest of joys. What’s your number?” Joseph unfurled a smartphone the size of an encyclopedia, and zipped his finger across it like an autograph.
“Nice to meet all of you,” Sol said to three smiling faces and one pale, vacant stare.
“It’s like somebody’s putting my lungs in a vise and squeezing,” said Rachel.
“That sounds terrible. I’m so sorry,” Sol zigzagged his index finger gently along her neck, goose bumps rising to his touch.
“Your kid better be fucking cute.”
“Without a doubt. Put your mind at ease. Step up, Adonis.”
“That’s an acceptable starting point.”
“Glad to hear it!”
“He’s got a lot of answering to do. Ow. God. He’s kicking me in the bladder and the ribs at the same time. How is that even possible? God. Stop that.” Rachel jabbed at her belly with trident-like fingers.
He lifted her feet onto his lap and swirled his knuckle into the soles.
“Oh. Yes. Exactly. Thank you.”
“It’s all your fault, you know.”
“Yes, you’ve made that very clear.”
“As long as we’re on the same page.” She arched her back, her impressive hump rising.
“It was awesome to see Joseph. I haven’t seen that kid since high school. Or earlier. I’m not even sure. Maybe middle school.”
“What’s his story?”
“He grew up with us. Went to Berkeley High. He came to Ohev Shalom for high holidays and stuff. You might recognize him if you saw pictures. He was always there with his dad: tall guy, light skinned, shaggy black hippy hair.”
“That really narrows it down.”
“Fair. I don’t think his mom’s Jewish.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She wore a crucifix,” said Sol.
“She wore it to shul?”
“No. I’d see her at summer camp. It was the summer before high school, after 8th grade, I think. He and I went to Camp Creation together. We were strikers. Ran all over everybody. One day our team won 15-0. Man, it was great. After that they started putting us on opposite teams every time though. We’d do whatever we could to end up the same team anyway: fake injuries, showing up after the teams were made and subbing in. It was awesome. I was fast and he had really good control. We also both did terribly talking to girls. Soccer was our place to shine. When we were younger we had karate class together, too, I think for six months at some dojo on 7th near the Bayer plant. But maybe I’m misremembering that though. Anyway, he’s a super fun dude. As nice as they come. I’m so glad we ran into him.”
“What does he do?”
“I’m pretty sure he’s in tech now. I heard through the grapevine. Made a ton of money or is about to or something.”
“Does he want to make a donation to the Kauffman family daycare fund?” She asked.
“Could be. We should invite him to the bris.”
“Oh, please no. What are we up to now? 800?”
“No. Seven hundred ninety-five, tops. Don’t worry.”
“I don’t care. I just won’t be there.”
“For sure. That won’t be an issue at all. The whole community will be asking why I’m up there talking about a baby named after Rachel’s father, a pillar of the community, while Rachel is a no show. No rumors to worry about whatsoever. Sounds foolproof.”
She mashed her feet in Sol’s face. “Knead more.”
Tuesday, February 7th
It wasn’t yet first light when Samson poured himself an Aberlour and opened his UC Berkeley Law Alumni Magazine. He flipped to the Alumni on the Move section. Ten fucking classes since his own. Thousands of students marching as he had in regal cap, gown, hood, posing for photos, the world treading underneath their feet. Samson pictured Professor Gould, his Constitutional Law professor shaking Samson’s hand, and with the Campanile rising behind him clanging in soundtrack saying, “Teaching you makes me feel good about the work I do. I’m so grateful you’re going back into the real world to elevate the law.” Mark Twain could live on a good compliment for two months. Samson had been hanging onto that one for a hundred.
Samson read how Ruth Abernathy had been appointed a District Court judge in New York City. Floyd Cuthbert received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his poetry and now lived outside DC as a National Laureate, also teaching business and government leaders how to leverage creative dialogue for complex problem solving. Jerome Davidson had made partner at Bunten Allstrom Vadick & Jogger, and recently won a $100 million case on behalf of Facebook. Allison Dean was now General Counsel at Cargill and led a team of 45 lawyers. Morgan Deveney, already a partner at Christensen Gameen, a premier white shoe firm, was lead litigator in the Apple v. Film Industry case, and had won the $2 billion judgment.
Jesus. Morgan. Good for that guy. At least he wasn’t a jerk. Two fucking billion. Samson imagined his news story: “Samson Hayes: Local cop. Recently arrested a 21-year-old shit bird for murder of a 20-year-old over his posting his new hat was “Hella Weak” on Instagram. Dumped by his fiancée. Pays for sex. No kids.”
John Easton worked at the Environmental Defense Fund and had protected three million acres from developer encroachment. Roger Frome was promoted to Chief Operations Officer of Amazon Web Services where he oversaw 25,000 employees and provided infrastructure to millions of companies. Lisa Funderbunk’s non-profit, Hand and Deliver, had now expunged the records of 5,000 at-risk youth, trained them in top vocational skills, and had a 98% success rate keeping those kids both out of jail and off welfare. Danny Gold’s technology startup, which he’d grown to 400 employees, had been acquired by Yahoo where he now was Chief Innovation Officer.
Samson refilled his Aberlour and surveyed his dining room: the hardwood floors were scratched as if whipped. Black scuffs streaked the hallway walls like skid marks from three years ago when Bethany had moved out all their nice furniture. The incandescent bulb dangling from the fraying black cord outshone the faint dawn outside. Mildew flourished in three of four ceiling corners.
In his garage, Samson loaded his barbell with its usual 115 on each side. He paused, added extra tens.
Down it came. Deep breath.
He couldn’t lift it.
He held the 295 pounds just above his chest. Taking shallow breaths, he surveyed the length of the bar. Thinking, “You can’t stay like this. It’s going to crush you. The longer you delay the harder it’s going to get. It has to get up. You have to get it up. You have to!” He shoved it as hard as he could, but it did not budge.
Samson imagined Jerome Davidson, his long sharp jaw, sitting behind a gargantuan desk with a view of downtown San Francisco and the Ferry Building, savoring his $100 million victory. Jerome, chauffeured in town cars to speaking events, opining to hundreds of young minds about litigation strategy. Samson pictured Jerome sitting on his barbell.
“Get off!” He sucked in two short breaths, his hands constricted the metal, and he shoved Jerome away.
“Hunh!” He grunted. “There you go! There you go!” He sucked in, filled his lungs, inflating every last alveolus like a bursting grape. Then he let the steam drain from his triceps and his chest.
He lowered the bar again, and pictured Jerome in the classroom, eleven years ago, at the top of the lecture hall chuckling loudly with his pals while Samson tried to take notes, fueled by espressos, trying to clear his mind of the previous night’s images that refused to be cleared, clinging like tar in his memory: the naked sexual assault victim, her arms and legs tied with thick rope, contusions coating her like boils, down in an apartment on Channing St.— while Jerome and co. had probably been drinking on Telegraph Ave. just five blocks away.
“Get off!” Up went Jerome again.
Then Samson saw Lisa Funderbunk in class, logical and compassionate analyses pouring forth whenever the professor called on her. And now she was helping 5,000 kids, five thousand of them! Fixing them. Actually fixing them! Samson imagined staying up late to get her elected Mayor, Governor, President, calling donors in a back room, running security near the podium, whatever she needed. His arms relaxed, and he restored the barbell to the rack.
His red leather briefcase, decorated with decade of black, white, and grey rips, came with Samson to the office that morning. “Good Morning, Barnes.”
“Morning.” Barnes mumbled from the other side of the cubicle.
“Toast with jam?”
“You know me.”
“Consistency is the path to wisdom,” said Samson.
“Who’s that, Lincoln?”
“Nailed it.” Samson peeked over the cubicle wall. “What’re you working?”
“Arson on Solano. Failing boutique. Another clothing store like it on College went into a charred hole a few months back. It’s the owner collecting the insurance. Crushed by e-commerce, desperate, etc. Golden age we live in. You?”
Samson opened his desktop file. “Auto body shop robbery I caught yesterday.” He opened his summary notes: “Typical shit bird job. Suspect pattern and description matches a Henry Williams, PFN #HQB498, CDC L2274, on parole as of Jan 17th. I need to call the lab when they open to confirm the doorknob print matches.”
“Same old shit,” said Barnes.
“As the world turns, my friend.” Samson settled down behind the tall cubicle. He paused to take in the items thumbtacked to his cubicle walls that he hadn’t updated in years: a photo of him and his parents at his law school graduation, a summary of report filing abbreviations he no longer referenced, a list of department phone extensions, a crayon Thank You card from then 6-year-old Keanna Jones for saving her and her mother’s lives during a home invasion, a printout of the email naming him Detective from five years ago, a handwritten quote from Lincoln: “I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” His two UC Berkeley diplomas rested on the corner of his desk, where despite the ill-lit office the gold frame still amplified the color of the seal’s gold leaf.
Samson’s landline rang. The handset was worn smooth from three decades of palms and also came with an invisible grime that coated his palm, pulling on his flesh. “This is Detective Hayes.”
“Yeah, this is Sergeant Valdez. Officer Ortega needs a detective down on Eighth between Delaware and Hearst. Thirty-year-old male, Hispanic. His mom found him dead in his bedroom this morning. Possible OD, but Ortega says there’s a couple WSB bangers hanging around the house so we want to be sure. Name’s Joseph Vargas-Stern.”