Drew Hagel was going to be late for the banquet. He knew it the moment he pulled out of the parking lot and saw the stationary line of traffic on Federal. He'd wanted to leave the office no later than five-thirty, allowing himself plenty of time to make the six-mile drive up to the historic village. The roads could be tricky at this hour, and finding a parking place near Country Day during a school function would be next to impossible. Thirty minutes would guarantee he wasn't late. In fact, he'd probably get there early. That was all right, giving him some time alone with the Mannings. The invitation to join their table had been a piece of rare good fortune; he had every intention of savoring it.
But just after he'd finished packing, there was a perfunctory knock on his office door and in walked Andy Starke. He seemed friendly enough as he performed his usual sly, loose-limbed greeting, though his eyes were ominously grave. They had been exchanging phone messages for the past week--or more accurately, Drew had been avoiding the other man's calls--and now Starke had taken it upon himself to force the issue with a surprise visit. There was no escape. Starke had the look of a man owed serious money as he lowered himself into the chair opposite the big oak desk. Moments like these made Drew wish he hadn't let Janice go. She'd have sent Starke packing with little more than a ferocious look. She was smart and loyal, and she'd learned the business under Drew's father. Unfortunately, her loyalty hadn't extended to working without a salary.
"I was just in the neighborhood," Starke said.
A low-voltage joke: His bank was two blocks away. It was only by careful maneuvering that Drew had avoided bumping into him on the street.
"Been trying to get hold of you," he continued.
"Sorry about that," Drew said. "Things have been hopping."
Starke's expression briefly registered the office's sepulchral stillness.
"Glad to hear that. Anyway, thought I'd stop by and save you a call."
Drew nodded, ceding control of the conversation.
"How's Ronnie?" Starke asked.
"Good. Well, you know. It's getting to be something of a load."
"She still working?"
"She's going to try to give it another month."
"Great. It's her senior banquet tonight. In fact--"
"Senior," Starke said, refusing to be rushed. "That must freak you out."
"I don't know if I feel too young to have one her age or too old to have babies on the way."
Starke nodded at this, his chin jutting in rumination, as if this were some nugget of profound wisdom. And then he got down to the matter at hand.
"So. Drew. I was sort of under the impression we were going to get us some of that long green last week."
"Andy, what can I tell you. This lawyer in New York is dicking me around on an escrow."
"So what's the deal?"
"Next week," Drew said before he'd really thought about his answer.
Starke began to nod, that long jaw still jutting.
"Next week's good. It's not last week, but then again it's not the week after next." He sighed. "You know my problem here, right?"
Drew nodded. Starke told him, anyway.
"This is the third month you've missed. Bells and whistles time. Sixty-day delinquencies are supposed to go to Collections. I've held them off this far but ..."
"I've got about five sales in the works. Honestly. Tell them that."
"I have been telling them that."
"Andy, come on. This is me you're talking to."
Starke didn't appear to take much comfort from this information.
"So I can tell them next week for sure?"
"Yes," Drew said. "Absolutely."
It was a minor lie; he'd be able to give the bank its money in a little less than a month. Starke stared at him blankly, then gave a capitulating smile. They talked for a while about sports and the economy and Shannon's decision to attend Oberlin. Although the tone was friendly, Drew couldn't help but feel there was something punitive in the way Starke lingered. Finally, he slapped the chair's weathered arms and stood, scowling for a moment, as if he'd just eaten something disagreeable.
"Hey, and Drew, for future reference?" A note of offense had crept into his voice. "A little respect. Return your calls."
Drew gave him a minute to clear the building before rushing from the office, his leisurely procession across town now set to be a mad scramble. As he rode the building's groaning elevator, he fought off the temptation to be angry with Starke. The man was only doing his job. He'd been a good friend to Drew, arranging the loan and then its extension. And he'd clearly been responsible for the bank's leniency so far. They'd known each other for the better part of a decade, working together on the financing for dozens of sales, meeting for regular drinks at Bill's Tavern. Drew wished he could tell him how good everything was about to become, though Starke would be furious if he knew what he'd done with the money. He would just have to keep stalling him for the next few weeks. After that Starke would be happy. The credit card people and the bursar at Oberlin; the contractors and the obstetrician. Everybody would be getting his due.
Drew's pleasure at this thought evaporated when he saw the wall of cars at the parking lot's exit. Traffic in Totten Crossing was getting worse with each season. Twenty years ago the only obstacle to traveling from one end of Federal to the other was a solitary flashing yellow, fooling no one as it winked with jaundiced indifference at the occasional drivers. Now there were a half dozen lights on the town's mainstreet, programmed by a suite of remorseless Scandinavian software to slow everything to a sluggish crawl. As Drew waited for a space to open, he briefly contemplated a shortcut through one of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, a route he remembered from boyhood bicycle journeys. But these streets had changed as well, reconfigured to be terminal, twisted into cul-de-sacs or blocked by steel security gates. Passing through was no longer an option.
Someone let him in. Traffic started to move. Drew popped open his briefcase and removed a few shortbread cookies. He was hungry, and there was no telling what they'd be serving at the banquet. As he rolled forward, he allowed himself to believe that the delay wouldn't be so bad. Fifteen minutes, tops. These functions never started on time. People would be slow getting to their tables; the kids, giddy with spring, would horse around. Shannon and Ronnie would certainly be there by now; his daughter would stay at school, while his wife finished work with her four o'clock bulimic. Their presence would cover his lateness. In fact, a late-but-not-too-late arrival might be good. Drew pictured himself making his way across the crowded dining hall, nodding to people who wondered where he thought he was going, answering their questions by taking his seat at the thirty-thousand-dollar table just a few strides from the dais.
But then traffic came to another stop, blocked this time by the bad intersection of Federal and Totten Pike, the old post road crossing that had given the town its name three hundred years ago. It would take ages to get through, especially if you wanted to make a left. There were at least two dozen cars ahead of him. By the time the intersection cleared there was only time for three of the turning cars to get through. He looked around for an escape route, quickly determining that if he cut behind the dry cleaners, then through the Cumberland Farms parking lot, he could bolt across the pike and take one of the unbarri-caded lanes to Old Totten Village. It was risky--people wouldn't exactly be falling over one another to make room for him once they saw what he was up to--but if he didn't take a chance, then he would certainly show up unacceptably late. Come on, he thought as he slid a last chunk of shortbread into his mouth. Make a decision. Be bold. You're supposed to have changed--prove it. Be the new Drew Hagel.
He made a quick left, cutting off an oncoming Audi. The driver flashed his high beams, a wagging finger of light that suggested he was one of the transplanted European bankers seen frowning over the sausage selection at Earth's Bounty. The alley behind the shops looked more like the Totten Crossing of Drew's youth: flattened beer cans, teeming Dumpsters, and smudges of crushed mammal. He took another deep breath and plunged through the stalled traffic on Totten Pike. After that his plan worked perfectly. The back streets were clear. He made it to Old Totten within two minutes.
Although the settlement's brick buildings had closed to tourists for the night, the road was lined with cars that had spilled over from the Country Day lot. The senior banquet was a big pull. Only a handful of misfits failed to attend, a group that might well have included the Hagels if not for Quint's invitation. Like everything else at Country Day--the silent auctions and benefit performances and class trips--the banquet could rapidly empty Drew's already thin wallet. The idea was that groups of parents would band together, creating "table totals" that would determine their proximity to the platform from which student awards would be dispensed. Ten years ago this naked elitism had been nothing more than a rumor; now it was explicit policy. As things stood, Drew could barely make the minimum of two hundred dollars per seat, a donation that would place him in a far-flung Siberian exile with the financial aid crew. With Shannon about to graduate, there was no reason to spend an evening on the fringes of conspicuous consumption. The Spring Fling auction had been bad enough, with Drew's sole bid on a weekend at somebody's place on Martha's Vineyard beaten by an offer that was five times greater. It would be better not to go at all.
Then Quint had called. Or rather, it had been his assistant, asking the Hagels to join the Mannings at the banquet. Drew had haltingly replied that he wasn't sure how much he could contribute, remembering that last year's top tables had gone for something like thirty grand. For ten seats. There was a chilly spell of silence.
"You would be Mr. Manning's guest, of course," she said, her voice stiffening.
He'd tried to sound cool as he accepted, though he was secretlyelated to receive such a gesture from Quint. It had been almost three months since they'd last spoken, and Drew was getting worried. He'd directed a few guarded remarks at Shannon to see if she could find out anything from Jamie, though he had to be careful, since his daughter didn't know about his involvement with Quint's fund. She hadn't been able to tell him much. Quint was busy. What else was new? Drew had called the Mannings' house a few times on the pretext of getting a tennis game together, but the messages he left on the machine had gone unanswered. All sorts of dark scenarios had begun to play through his mind, especially once he stopped being able to meet the hefty payments on his equity credit line. And then Andy Starke started calling and Drew felt the first faint stirrings of panic. He was getting ready to make an unannounced visit to Quint's office when the banquet invitation had come through. There was nothing wrong at the fund. Quint was a private man. He was busy. In a few weeks it would all come good. Forty-four percent. A hundred and ten thousand dollars of clean and absolute profit.
Drew's elation had been tempered by the prospect of convincing his wife and daughter to attend. To his surprise, both had been pushovers. Although Ronnie would hate the thinly veiled parental warfare that was sure to take place at a senior awards ceremony, she was eager for the chance to improve her relationship with Shannon. The fact that Quint was paying didn't hurt, either. She was scheduled to be on call but promised to switch with a colleague.
Shannon also agreed without hesitation. Until recently it was doubtful she had any intention of celebrating her time at Country Day. After trying on just about every kind of relationship with her classmates--petulant rebellion during her freshman year, pathetic stabs at conformity as a sophomore, her startling ascendance to the class's vanguard while dating Jamie Manning as a junior--she had finally settled on utter alienation. She'd missed the cotillion and the senior trip to Nova Scotia, and Drew never heard her speak about her classmates at all, never heard her talk about a single subject she was studying.
But everything had changed in the past few weeks. His daughter had become an enthusiastic member of the senior class. Drew had been shocked by the transformation, especially after having heard somany bitter diatribes about the school's stupidity and superficiality Shannon began attending parties, staying late after school, taking day trips to the shore. Much of this time seemed to be spent with Jamie, leading Drew to wonder if they were seeing each other again. Whatever the reason, she'd finally found her place at Country Day. When he told her that they were going to the banquet after all, she accepted without hesitation. And so it was set. They'd all be going, guests of the Mannings, whose table by the stage was reachable only by a long walk across the crowded floor.
As he feared, the closest open parking space was several hundred yards from the school. He strode quickly along the swept dirt path fronting the restored houses, each bearing an embossed brass plaque chronicling the slaughter and deprivation that had been visited upon the settlers. Country Day had started as a slightly cranky alternative school shoehorned into the village's drafty old meetinghouse, but over the past few decades it had spread into a complex of new buildings. There was currently a new science center in the works, beneficiary of tonight's largesse. They'd need the room; the school's waiting list now numbered well over one hundred, even though the tuition had nearly doubled in the four years since Shannon had enrolled.
Drew moved through the school parking lot, packed tightly with North European steel. He was finally able to relax when the main building came into view. People were still arriving. He paused between two cars to catch his breath, his eyes coming to rest on a familiar black Lexus in the next row. It was Carrie Manning's. There was someone in the driver's seat. Drew moved a few lateral feet to confirm that he was looking at the unmistakable sweeping blond hair of Quint's wife. He waited for her to get out so he could accompany her into the dining hall. But she appeared to be staying in the car. He wondered if she was on the phone. That was all right; he could wait out a call. If you arrived with Carrie, you were by definition on time.
But she wasn't on the phone. She was weeping. Not crying--that was too mild a term. There was an abandon that went far beyond tears. Drew could see her shoulders heave, a sight made all the more strangeby the fact that he couldn't hear anything through the car's soundproofing. He stood perfectly still, uncertain whether to approach her or walk away. Something must have happened. One of her sons had been hurt. Quint had died in a car wreck. But if her family was in trouble, she wouldn't be sitting alone in a school parking lot. She'd be at the hospital; she'd be working the phones or huddling with lawyers. Whatever was provoking her tears was none of Drew's business. He slowly backed away from her car, his eyes locked on her the whole time to be sure she hadn't seen him. Once clear, he beat a retreat back to the swept dirt path, only daring to sneak a look at the Lexus as he neared the school's front entrance. Carrie was still in the car.
Drew stepped into the lobby, checking to see if his own wife was waiting for him. He was desperate to tell her about what he'd just seen. Carrie Manning had been the topic of much conversation between them, especially after the overwrought dinner parties they'd attended up on Orchard last fall. The resulting verdict was that she was a handful. She was lively and beautiful and had been genuinely pleased when Shannon and Jamie dated, but there was something vaguely out of control about her that didn't quite fit with the rest of Quint's world. The bare feet at the school picnic. The community theater dramatics and Amnesty International fund-raiser. Spending all that money to turn the decrepit Garden Theater into some kind of vintage movie house. And the wine, the extra few glasses she had whenever the occasion presented itself. Ronnie had an explanation for her behavior, saying that control freaks like Quint often attached themselves to volatile personalities, especially those who, even after three kids, still looked great following the maitre d' to a corner table at Le Cirque.
Drew could see that his wife was not in the lobby. She was probably already in her seat; her feet had been swelling recently. He joined the slow migration into the cafeteria. A low-frequency hum of parental expectation filled the big room. There were about thirty large round tables, draped in white linen, each bearing candles, their eerily unwavering flames reflected in the neatly arranged cutlery and glass. People had begun to sit, the scrape of chairs on the parquet floor like the lowing of some hungry herd. At the far end of the room was theraised platform with its dais and table covered with neatly arranged trophies and plaques and citations. Drew couldn't see which of the tables beneath it was the Mannings'; there were still too many people milling around for him to get a clear view. On the wall behind the platform was the Country Day mural, painted over each year by the graduating class. This year's was a lopsided multiethnic throng, big on vibrant colors and sly fashion references. The faces were strong and smiling, though what was most notable were the eyes, which all bore the same jaded, slightly vacant expression. It was impossible to say whether this was by design or simply marked the limits of the young hands that had drawn them. Either way, the effect was jarring, as if the people at the banquet were being watched over by a race of giant, disapproving children.
He passed by the outermost table, two hundred bucks a seat, fifteen people instead of the usual ten, a life raft of parents and their resentful offspring. Drew's rightful place if not for Quint. It was so near the exit that the stream of hip-checking guests made it seem to sink into the parquet floor. Drew moved past them, still too preoccupied with the sight of Carrie in tears to savor the moment. Quint's table came into view as he reached the hall's center. Jamie was the first person he saw, seated next to his friend Jazz Mahabal. Both of them were up for several awards, most notably Jamie, who was one of the favorites for the Carswell. Their conversation was being watched by Jazz's parents. Godeep was Quint's jolly, terrifying general counsel; Drew had never exchanged more than simple greetings with Sonia. He wasn't even sure she spoke English, a suspicion enhanced by the matching lavender sari and bindi she wore tonight. Ronnie sat next to her, locked in earnest conversation with Quint, who listened with a slightly canted head as he ran his finger idly around the rim of his water goblet. Drew felt a momentary pulse of panic; he didn't like the sight of his wife talking to Quint. But he soon put his worry aside. Quint wouldn't be telling her anything about their business. Shannon was nowhere in sight. Drew figured she was table-hopping before things got going.
Quint was the first to notice him, raising his chin slightly in greeting, though he kept his attention focused on Ronnie.
" ... and then the losers wind up with me," she was saying.
Drew slid into the closest empty seat, misjudging the distance slightly, his bulk rattling the glasses and knocking a dusting of pollen from the floral centerpiece. The table's occupants all looked at him.
"Talking about me again?" he asked his wife in tones loud enough for everyone to hear.
The joke fell flat.
"Ronnie was just explaining how she thought all this competition was a bad idea for kids," Quint explained.
Drew shot her a look. He couldn't believe she was saying this. She had to know Jamie was up for the Carswell.
"I don't know," Drew said tightly. "They seem to handle it."
Ronnie didn't register his cautionary tone.
"I just think it's crazy to single out certain young people for praise," she continued. "I see the fallout from that sort of pressure every day."
Her words brought a brief silence to the table, conjuring images of damaged youth, the stupefied and sullen who wound up in her office. Drew looked at Quint. If he was offended, he wasn't showing it. Jamie, too, was unfazed, his handsome face maintaining its customary slack affability. Still, Drew wished there were a subtle nullifying gesture he could direct toward his wife, some private code he could deploy to stop her from pursuing the subject. But the code was something he'd developed with Anne. You didn't get codes the second time out. Everything had to be stated.
"But isn't this competition just preparation for life?" Godeep Mahabal asked in the rolling British accent that seemed perpetually on the verge of laughter. "Part of the education we are all paying for so dearly?"
"For the winners, maybe," Ronnie persisted. "But not the losers."
"I'd have thought it would have been especially instructive for them," Drew said.
He'd intended the remark as a conversation-ending quip, but once again no one was laughing. This was all wrong. He had to stop this before it got out of hand. Nothing came to mind.
"Sounds like that camp Mom sent us to," Jamie said.
He looked at his father, and Quint smiled wryly, causing Drew towonder how much gentle mockery they would be directing toward Carrie's pretensions if they knew she'd just been weeping in the school parking lot. Drew was also struck by the likeness between father and son, the pale blue eyes and black hair and strong jaw. According to Ronnie, this was where the similarity ended. Jamie, she said, lacked his father's strength and intelligence and adamant determination. She continued to say so even as he placed fifth in his class and was accepted early at Duke and captained the squash team to a winning season. When Shannon broke up with him last fall, she seemed almost relieved.
"It was this sort of New Age place," Jamie was saying. "Lots of singing and lentils. And all the sports were noncompetitive. I remember this one game: They gave us this big, mushy ball and said, okay, get going. Play."
"There weren't any rules?" Jazz asked.
"Only that there couldn't be teams and nobody could keep score. Anyway, everybody argued for about ten minutes; then a bunch of guys started playing smear the queer."
"What on earth is that?" Ronnie was aghast.
"One person runs with the ball and everybody else tries to tackle him. I guess technically they were following the instructions. It was every man for himself, and there was nobody keeping score."
"Didn't you play?" Godeep asked.
"Not at first," Jamie said, his voice growing a little quieter. "But then somebody threw me the ball and that was that. I got pounded. I started to cry and so they stuck me with it again and I got tackled even harder. I remember, there were all these kids on me; I couldn't move my arms or legs. I kept on crying and they wanted to give me the ball again and so I went and hid beneath my cabin for the rest of the afternoon. That night I called my folks to come get me, but I guess I was there for the duration."
His eyes were focused on the table in front of him, lost in unhappy memory. The story had cast the table into a sudden, uneasy silence. Drew could see Quint's smile waver.
"So did you have to play again the next day?" Ronnie asked softly.
Jamie looked up. He noticed his father's gaze. His troubled expressiondisappeared, replaced by that self-confident smile Drew could never bring himself to like.
"No, this kid from Putney got his arm broke." He shrugged with a late-night comic's timing. "After that we did a lot of hiking."
Drew joined the laughter, but Ronnie only smiled politely, aware that she could no more convince this table of the evils of competition than she could persuade a congregation of fundamentalist Christians of the emptiness of hell. In the brief silence that followed Drew realized that his daughter was still nowhere in sight.
"Shannon here?" he asked Ronnie.
"I haven't seen her."
"Did she call or anything?"
Ronnie shook her head. This baffled him. She'd have called if there was a problem.
"Has anyone seen her?" he asked generally.
No one spoke. He turned back to Ronnie, who shrugged, having long ago given up on playing an active part in her stepdaughter's life. Drew looked around the dining hall. Nothing. He turned his chair slightly away from the main table and speed-dialed her on his cell phone. He got her voice mail.
"Strange," he muttered as he hung up.
Conversation ensued, though Drew found it hard to track. He was worried now. How could she possibly make herself late? The kitchen doors flew open; underclassmen emerged with big trays. Drew was frozen with indecision. He wanted to search for his daughter but didn't have the slightest idea where to start.
And then Ronnie's beeper sounded. Shannon, reporting in, though it was strange that she hadn't called him on his cell phone. He watched as his wife read the message, her ginger eyebrows elevating slightly.
"Is it her?" he asked, a bit too loudly.
Drew felt a fresh pulse of angry confusion. Ronnie was supposed to have traded off her call duties. She beckoned for Drew's cell phone, and he watched in growing desperation as she called her service. Though no one else was paying attention, Drew felt as if this were theonly thing happening at the table. She hung up and nodded once to him. Meaning she had to go. Drew couldn't believe this. First his daughter was a no-show, and now his wife was leaving. Several thousand dollars' worth of chair space, Quint's gift to his family, was about to empty before his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Ronnie said to Quint. "I have to deal with this."
"You don't have to apologize, Ronnie," Quint said. "It's what you do."
It was such a gracious comment that even Ronnie, not the world's greatest Manning fan, was momentarily struck by it. She stood laboriously, her thin frame weighed by the bulk of her pregnancy. Drew went to help her, then trailed her until they were just out of earshot of the table.
"I thought you were going to get someone else to cover for you tonight."
"I tried," she said. "But I couldn't find anyone."
"Well, yeah, but this looks bad, just walking off like this."
"I'm not just walking off, Drew," she said patiently. "I'm going to see someone who is having serious difficulties."
"It's just ... I mean, Shannon being late and now you going."
"Drew, relax. Everyone knows why I'm going. And Shannon will show up." She put her hand on the side of his head. "Don't get yourself all worked up. It's just a silly little dinner."
Drew watched her walk off with the splay-footed gait she'd developed in the past few weeks. She was right, although that didn't change the fact that the night was turning into a disaster.
"I'm sorry about this," he said to Quint as he returned to the table.
"It really isn't a problem at all. An emergency's an emergency." He looked around. "I'm starting to think my own wife has abandoned us, too."
Drew suddenly wondered if he should have told him about seeing Carrie in the parking lot. But the moment had passed. It would look strange if he said something now.
"So, it's been a while," he said feebly.
"Crazy times," Quint said. "We've been incredibly busy."
"I've missed our games."
"Yeah, we've got to try to get those going again."
"That would be great," Drew said, patting his gut. "I've got to do something to take care of this."
"Well, the babies will keep you running. When are they due, anyway?"
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the food, breaded chicken and wild rice and broccoli, all of it covered with a coagulating beige sauce. There was no appetizer. People wanted to get to the prizes. Drew dug into his food with joyless efficiency, swallowing with only minimal chewing as he brooded on the humiliation of his family's abandoning him. When he was done, he looked around and saw that everyone else was still in the early stages of consumption. Sweat lined his scalp and his stomach churned. He checked the table to see if anyone else had noticed his gluttony. Quint had begun speaking to Mahabal in a quiet fiscal undertone; Jamie and Jazz were laughing together. Only Sonia was looking at him, her face fixed with a gentle, opaque smile. She'd seen him wolf down his food, but he couldn't tell what she thought about it, this stranger with a dot in the middle of her forehead, born in a land of starvation and now mistress of a three-million-dollar Colonial. Turning away from her gaze, Drew was struck by a terrible thought: He had no business at this table. His presence was a mistake. His eyes wandered to the mural, those giant children staring down at him with their eerie scorn. Telling him that he didn't belong here. At least his wife and daughter had the good sense to stay away.
"Ah, here she is," Quint said.
Drew turned, desperate for it to be Shannon. But it was Carrie. She smiled merrily as she arrived at the table, though Drew detected the signs of her weeping around the edges of her eyes. Stranger still was the presence of a pronounced welt on her forehead. Her husband and son looked at her, then exchanged a glance.
"So," she said as she slipped into her chair. "Are we having fun yet?"
HUMAN CAPITAL. Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Amidon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.