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Excerpt from Human Capital by Stephen Amidon. Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Amidon. Published in October, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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. We'll, you know. It's getting to he 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. Seventy 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 main street, 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 unbarricaded 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 secretly elated 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 so many 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.
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