Arriving twenty minutes late for lunch, Joe sees Clarissa and Jocelyn Kale across the restaurant and notices that Clarissa remains in her “elated” mood. Jocelyn, who has just been “appointed to an honorary position on the Human Genome Project,” greets Joe, as does Clarissa, who kisses Joe once again with passion. As the three take their seats and Clarissa begins to open her presents, Joe notices, at a nearby table, a man “whose name [he] learned afterwards was Colin Tapp,” sitting with his daughter and father. Joe recalls, cryptically, that if he “registered at the time the solitary diner who sat twenty feet away,” it “left no trace in [his] memory.”
Joe is perplexed by Clarissa’s elation and the passion with which she greets him, as her behavior is illogical given the fact that the two of them are quarreling. Yet Clarissa does not experience emotions according to the dictates of reason; rather, she simply feels what she feels in any given moment. Joe, meanwhile, continues the scientific business of analyzing the way his mind works, noting here the relationship between awareness and memory.
Jocelyn gives Clarissa a brooch representing the “double helix” of human DNA, which once belonged to Jocelyn’s deceased wife. In the meantime, Joe speculates that he may have first noticed Colin Tapp and his family at the nearby table only then, as Jocelyn began telling a story about the discovery of DNA. As Jocelyn talks, Joe begins to feel restless, and he wants to tell Clarissa the story of his police interview. Jocelyn continues to tell his story about DNA, however, and Joe finds his attention wandering once again to the people at the nearby table.
Jocelyn Kale seems to straddle the line between Joe’s rationalism and Clarissa’s emotionalism. His gift to Clarissa is a token of his work as a scientist, yet it also has a deeply personal significance. Joe’s awkwardness and disengagement from what is passing between Jocelyn and Clarissa is a result of his inability to control his own emotional experience.
When Jocelyn speculates that the model eventually built to illustrate DNA was “too beautiful not to be true,” Joe seizes on the word “beauty” and offers Clarissa his own gift, recalling John Keats’s famous line, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The gift is a “first edition of [Keats’s] first collection,” published in 1817, and Clarissa “squeal[s]” in delight upon receiving it.
Joe’s gift is his attempt to enter Clarissa’s emotional realm. Though he arranged to purchase it before the intrusion of Parry into his life, the book of Keats’s poems nevertheless comes to represent a peace offering: a signal that Joe wishes to understand and relate to his wife.
Even as Joe narrates these moments, he finds himself returning once again to the Colin Tapp party seated at a nearby table, about which he now wonders if he has, in memory, “invent[ed] or elaborate[d] details.” Joe knows that he had an approximate sense of his neighbors’ respective ages even at the time, but, still, he cannot be sure how much he knew then, rather than “discovered later.”
Joe continues, with his scientist’s mind, to attempt to decipher exactly how his thinking worked at any given moment. Less obvious to him is the fact that the Colin Tapp party becomes something of an obsession for him, removing him from the present moment of Clarissa’s birthday lunch.
At Joe’s own table, Clarissa has taken up Jocelyn’s story about the discovery of DNA, in which “young men [were] oppressed, put down, or otherwise blocked by older men.” Clarissa has turned the conversation to John Keats, who, in Clarissa’s telling, was once rumored to have had a dispiriting encounter with the older poet William Wordsworth. As Clarissa explains why that encounter most likely never happened, Joe listens carefully. Yet had he stood up at that moment, he tells the reader, he would have seen two men entering the restaurant and could, perhaps, have persuaded Clarissa, Jocelyn, and “the strangers at the next table” to flee.
Even in recollection, Joe remains disengaged from the events at his own table. Rather, his mind is on the various logical sequences that might have unfolded had his behavior been different at any given moment. Given the events of the next few minutes, however, Joe is right to direct his attention elsewhere. Clarissa and Jocelyn are discussing historical oppression; Joe is experiencing the repercussions of violence in the present moment.
Instead, Joe recalls, he allowed his mind to wander as the two men made their way through the restaurant. He pondered the nature of human mortality and the fact that everything Keats ever “sens[ed] and thought” is now “gone,” and he considered whether to tell a related story about the rejection, by an older publisher, of the first draft of a famous novel.
Because Joe’s powerful intellect is flawed, he was unable to control his thought processes even in what he now sees was a crucial moment. Rather, he gave in to the emotional matter of Keats’s (and his own) mortality.
At that moment, however, Joe sees the two men who have been making their way through the restaurant pause in front of the neighboring table, at which Colin Tapp and his family sit. The men are wearing latex masks, which Joe initially believes to be facial burns, and one of them pulls out a gun and fires at Colin Tapp. Though Joe initially misunderstands the situation—he sees the gun as a “wand” and wonders if the men are “crazy members of [Tapp’s] family come to embarrass [him]”—he soon understands what is happening. Before anyone can act, and before the man with the gun can shoot Colin Tapp again, fatally, the solitary diner whose presence Joe saw or sensed earlier leaps forward to intervene. How, Joe wonders, had he failed, until that moment, “to recognize Parry?”
Emphasized in these paragraphs is the necessary incompleteness of human knowledge, which casts doubt on Joe’s (or anyone’s) ability to act in a purely rational manner. Even as events are occurring, Joe must attempt to aggregate data into a coherent narrative. Yet the speed of the action and the insanity of the events in question combine to prevent Joe’s doing so. Joe cannot act on his knowledge because his knowledge is wrong: he sees burns and a wand rather than masks and a gun. This suggests that perfectly logical behavior is ultimately untenable.
As Joe realizes that the two men are hired assassins, he simultaneously understands that he, Clarissa, and Jocelyn have been the intended targets. Because the neighboring table also contained two men and one woman, the assassins have attacked them by mistake. Yet Joe doesn’t feel even a “flicker of vindication” now that Parry has indeed revealed himself to be violent. Rather, he sits in shock like everyone else as two waiters rush forward to assist the wounded man.
That Joe feels no vindication at having been right about Jed Parry indicates the extremeness of the terror that Parry has caused. Any logical conclusions Joe might have drawn about what has happened are interrupted by shock—an involuntary physical and emotional response on Joe’s part.