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The Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapter 3: From the Fiftieth Floor

Excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1987 by Tom Wolfe. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Sherman McCoy walked out of his apartment building holding his daughter Campbell's hand. Misty days like this created a peculiar ashy-blue light on Park Avenue. But once they stepped out from under the awning over the entrance . . . such radiance! The median strip on Park was a swath of yellow tulips. There were thousands of them, thanks to the dues apartment owners like Sherman paid to the Park Avenue Association and the thousands of dollars the association paid to a gardening service called Wiltshire Country Gardens, run by three Koreans from Maspeth, Long Island. There was something heavenly about the yellow glow of all the tulips. That was appropriate. So long as Sherman held his daughter's hand in his and walked her to her bus stop, he felt himself a part of God's grace. A sublime state, it was, and it didn't cost much. The bus stop was only across the street. There was scarcely a chance for his impatience over Campbell's tiny step to spoil this refreshing nip of fatherhood he took each morning.

Campbell was in the first grade at Taliaferro, which, as everybody, tout le monde, knew, was pronounced Toliver. Each morning the Taliaferro school dispatched its own bus, bus driver, and children's chaperone up Park Avenue. Few, indeed, were the girls at Taliaferro who did not live within walking distance of that bus route.

To Sherman, as he headed out onto the sidewalk holding Campbell's hand, she was a vision. She was a vision anew each morning. Her hair was a luxuriance of soft waves like her mother's, but lighter and more golden. Her little face—perfection! Not even the gawky years of adolescence would alter it. He was sure of that. In her burgundy school jumper, her white blouse with its buttercup collar, her little nylon backpack, her white knee-high socks, she was an angel. Sherman found the very sight touching beyond belief.

The morning-shift doorman was an old Irishman named Tony. After opening the door for them, he stepped outside under the awning and watched them depart. That was fine . . . fine! Sherman liked to have his fatherhood observed. This morning he was a serious individual, representing Park Avenue and Wall Street. He wore a blue-gray nailhead worsted suit, custom-tailored in England for $1,800, two-button, single-breasted, with ordinary notched lapels. On Wall Street double-breasted suits and peaked lapels were considered a bit sharp, a bit too Garment District. His thick brown hair was combed straight back. He squared his shoulders and carried his long nose and wonderful chin up high.

"Sweetheart, let me button your sweater. It's a little chilly."

"No way, José" said Campbell.

"Come on, sweetie, I don't want you to catch cold."

"N O, Séjo, N O." She jerked her shoulders away from him. Séjo was José backward. "N-n-n-n Ohhhhh." So Sherman sighed and abandoned his plan to save his daughter from the elements. They walked on a bit.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Daddy, what if there isn't any God?"

Sherman was startled, bowled over. Campbell was looking up at, him with a perfectly ordinary expression, as if she had just asked what those yellow flowers were called.

"Who said there isn't any God?"

"But what if there isn't?"

"What makes you think—did somebody tell you there wasn't any God?"

What insidious little troublemaker in her class bad been spreading this poison? So far as Sherman knew, Campbell still believed in Santa Claus, and here she was, beginning to question the existence of God! And yet . . . it was a precocious question for a six-year-old, wasn't it? No two ways about that. To think that such a speculation—

"But what if there isn't!" She was annoyed. Asking her about the history of the question was no answer.

"But there is a God, sweetie. So I can't tell you about if there isn't.' " Sherman tried never to lie to her. But this time he felt it the prudent course. He had hoped he would never have to discuss religion with her. They had begun sending her to Sunday school at St. James' Episcopal Church, at Madison and Seventy-first. That was the way you took care of religion. You enrolled them at St. James', and you avoided talking or thinking about religion again.

"Oh," said Campbell. She stared out into the distance. Sherman felt guilty. She had brought up a difficult question, and he had ducked it. And here she was, at the age of six, trying to piece together the greatest puzzle of life.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, darling?" He held his breath.

"You know Mrs. Winston's bicycle?"

Mrs. Winston's bicycle? Then he remembered. Two years ago, at Campbell's nursery school, there bad been a teacher named Mrs. Winston who braved the traffic and rode a bicycle to school every day. All the children had thought this was wonderful, a teacher who rode a bicycle to school. He had never heard Campbell mention the woman since then.

"Oh yes, I remember." An anxious pause.

"MacKenzie has one just like it."

MacKenzie? MacKenzie Reed was a little girl in Campbell's class.

She does?"

"Yes. Only it's smaller."

Sherman waited . . . for the leap of logic . . . but it never came. That was it. God lives! God is dead! Mrs. Winston's bicycle! No way, José! N O, Séjo! They all came out of the same heap in the toy box. Sherman was relieved for a moment, but then he felt cheated. The thought that his daughter might actually have questioned the existence of God at the age of six—this he had taken as a sign of superior intelligence. Over the past ten years, on the Upper East Side, for the first time, intelligence had become socially correct for girls.

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