NOVEL EXCERPT: from FORGOTTEN CITY

– from my novel set a year before the 2008-2009 market crash, an investigative reporter finds out damaging information about one company selling risky investments

———-

Night was falling when Rossi pulled into the gravel lot next to the giant Victorian house with the office and lounge and two looming gables. Across the street the three floors of a restored brick factory held the rooms based on themes ranging from Saturday Night Fever to the Etruscans. Down the sloping field at the side of the house came the steady, liquid song of a running stream. Rossi took their pull bags out of the trunk and they rolled them up the ramp.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” Caroline said when Rossi had the key card in his hand.

“It’s a surprise,” he said. He hadn’t told her what to expect. He hadn’t known what she would think. “You’re going to like it. I just know you are.”

Not much longer after that they were in the room with the soft blue walls, etched glass fixtures and sparkling Tiffany-style tiles. Caroline was staying positive. Humored as well. “I’ve been in plenty of hotels, but nothing like this. It’s a first for me.” Her roaming eyes continued to scope it out. Never, she went on, would it have occurred to her he’d take her to a place like it. It was a bit of playfulness she hadn’t recognized in him.

She was at the desk unwrapping a Godiva chocolate, one of the sweet welcomes left for them next to the postcard greeting Mr. Rossi; they hadn’t forgotten his previous visit. “Nice to have you back!” the handwriting on it said. He opened the bottle of syrah he ordered with the room. Touching glasses, he said, still selling it, “Come on, admit it, you dig it the most.”

“I thought you’d be more of a lodgey, brown wood guy. With the big spa and tacky cocktail lounge with a moose head over the fireplace.”

“I was one of those once. I suppose I have to give it up to Anne for expanding my horizons. Making me realize idiosyncratic isn’t so bad. Strange is good. Very strange can be interesting too. That’s about all I can credit her for. Maybe I’ll aspire back to paneling and ugly wallpaper.”

“Don’t do that. Not for me at least.”

“I was joking. Believe it or not, this is the most popular hotel in the area. And since we were heading this way, why not?”

“Where’s the steak place you mentioned? You put that idea in my head so… Unbelievably delicious steak, you said. It’s been a while since I sat down to one of those.”

“Meat Me’s. Cute huh? Free range cuts. Roasted potatoes and veggies. Locally sourced. Run by a graduate of the Culinary Institute. Everyone wants to eat their food.”

“That includes me. So let’s go. This wine’s making me hungry.”

“I was thinking we do that tomorrow. It’s a-ways from here. I say no more driving. Tonight we go around the corner to Common Ground. It’s fine. Fine enough to keep us out of the car the rest of the night.”

The lights of a living room came on as they passed by it on the way to Common Ground. A mild wind blew in their faces. A bag of almonds was all Rossi had eaten since lunch at Nakai, munching them at his desk mid afternoon. His mind focused on the menu as he remembered it from two years ago. Pasta and barbeque ribs and quesadillas. Not top quality Culinary Institute grad food, but better than standard bar food as he knew it.

“If we’re having steak tomorrow I’ll go with either pasta or a quesadilla. Still pondering that important First World matter.”

“Same here. Go easy on the colon, is what I say, even if this is supposed to be a vacation, mini as a vay-kay it is.”

“Mini is the right word. We’ll be back at it Monday.” Rossi checked his wrist as if looking at a watch. “That’s about three hours from now.”

“I have a few things to get done tomorrow. Sorry. Not many, but I’ll need to take care of them.”

“Aces of Spaces never rests.”

“Some clients email me at midnight expecting an office to go to seven in the morning. Thankfully there’s nothing like that going on tonight.”

“You take care of whatever. I’ll be out on my run.”

The spinach and mushroom quesadilla and pint of a local IPA restored Rossi. There in the Common Ground’s low, dusk-like lighting he began to see how much he’d missed out on over the past year. That his first weekend out of New York with a woman not named Anne had been a move waiting for him to respond to.

Out the window the wind whipped up some dust in the parking lot and blew it around in a funnel. When it died out, Caroline looked at him and said, “So how did that issue at your job work out?”

“It went underground. Or almost. No one’s mentioned it again. Not to me, anyway. But get this, I was taken off the project I was on. They told me to put it on the back burner. It got replaced with another one that’s going to, believe it or not, it’s preposterous really, take me right to Futures. The SEC’s in there wondering why there’s no updated paperwork on their systems? All the stuff is old. They can’t understand it. I get to give it a refresher. That’s what I do. It’s my new title. The Refresher Man.”

“You really think you’re going to run into some big secret you’re not supposed to know about? Would they have an outsider doing that if they thought there was a chance?”

“I got the feeling they don’t know what I already know. I really have no freaking idea. Tom didn’t seem to think anything of it. Rich, the guy who put that report in my face, he wasn’t in the meeting. It all seemed straightforward enough. I go off this to do that. It happens all the time. Something urgent comes up, I get put on the job. I fill up some paper. Send a batch of files over that way. That’s it. I pretend I know nothing else. I go back to my other project. Maybe it’s no big deal. Honestly, I don’t know. This is why I never wanted to work for one of those places. To keep out of shit like this.”

“But there you are, in it.”

“There I am, in it up to my chin.”

Rossi went back to his food. Had he made any sense? Was he boring her up there, in the country, on their mini vacation?

Caroline said, “Do you really want to do it? Do you have to?”

“The new project? Sure I have to. If not, I go find another place to work. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to cut my ties there.”

“I get it. You like the place, but as a mercenary, not an embedded operative.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” he said. “But let’s do this, how about we put that away. We’re on this time out, right?”

“Except for those few things I have to do.”

“Unlike you I can’t bill up here. I have to be in the office. Those are the hours that count. And only those hours. They keep tabs on everything I do. Every door I use my ID to go in and out of. The number of keystrokes I type. The number of pages and names of the documents I print. The monitoring starts the moment I walk in there. I’ve given up all my rights as an independent human being to become a corporate slave. And when I’m out of there the NSA steps in to track all the rest. In my other role I’m a corporate citizen. In my real life I’m Winston Smith.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“It’s not?”

“Unlike me you’re not on it seven days a week.”

“True.”

“Unlike me you’re making some real money.”

“I’m doing okay. You are too.”

“I’m doing all right. I’m planning to do better.”

“Do me a favor, just let me in on the IPO. That’s all I ask. No matter what happens to us I want to get a thousand shares at the issue price.”

“I’ll have to think about it. If that ever happens I’m going to have a lot of friends.”

“You know that many people?”

“I would if we went public.”

“Who took you to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s room? Who did that?”

“You did.”

“And…”

“And I’ll think about it.” Caroline closed off the sentence with a smile.

They walked down the slope, across the field of grass with the beds of flowers in full bloom. To their right the lights of the Sudbury’s office and sitting room cast a dull glow. In one of the windows the back of a man’s head was visible. They came to the stream, its watery song continuing into the night. They stood at the edge, taking in the bubbly flow rolling over the rocks. It had been a while since Rossi had inhaled the calming smells of clean country water and damp earth. He put his arm around Caroline and she moved into him.

“You know,” he said, “we don’t have to live in the city. It’s not mandatory. But we voluntarily shackle ourselves to it. Why do we do that? Why?”

“For whatever reason,” Caroline said. “Maybe we just like it. I do and you do too, I think.”

“Right, we live there to live there. We choose to. When it’s time, we’ll leave.”

“That time might come for you. I don’t see it ever coming for me.”

“A friend of a friend whose wife might be, is I guess, in the CIA, told him to sell his place and get out of New York soon as he could.”

“That soon?”

“Like today.”

“You think she was being serious?”

“Sure I think that. The nuclear option’s always a threat.”

“I suppose they know more than us.”

“The CIA? Do we want to know what they’re up to?”

“I sure don’t.”

“Kansas is safe.”

“Which is why we don’t own property.”

“Better for a quick getaway to Dodge.”

“And an event like that will lower property values.”

“Among lowering other living things.”

“We’d be safer in Brooklyn. And how often do you hear that?”

From that they turned and went back to their room. When Caroline came out of the bathroom Rossi opened his arms and she let him squeeze her. The food and drinks hadn’t inhibited his urge for sex. Nor Caroline’s, he found out in the next moments. It was as if a final glass of amaro and the splitting of a chocolate torte back in Common Ground hadn’t been a closing to the night but a continuation of it. They stood next to the bed clinging to each other until he broke away and fell back on the mattress, settling on it with a single bounce.

Rossi said, “I think Holly Golightly would approve of what’s about to happen. She was definitely a horny chick. No way she’d let a night in a room with a guy go by without a little badda bing.”

“It’s my understanding she only went out with rich men. Or am I making that up?”

“No, I think you have it right. But exceptions can be made. She must have made a few of those in between the guys with the cash. That’s how I read into it.”

Caroline was still standing. “I’m between rich guys.”

“I kind of figured that.”

“Did you really?”

“Since I’m between rich women, of course I thought the same about you.”

(2016)

SAN FRANCISCO, 1986: from TESTAMENTS

You walk on the rose-colored strip of concrete that starts on the sidewalk, goes under Memo’s big black awning with the street light shining on it. It stops at the two heavy wood doors inviting in all of Central Ave. You pause long enough for Walt to nod you inside even though he knows you. Past the doors, music’s coming out of Cleanhead’s alto sax bright and fast. He’s no miniature presence up there leading the thing, on the bandstand in the center of the room positioned so you can see the musicians playing no matter where you sit. Even at the bar where the long mirror reflects them so you don’t have to spin in your stool to watch.

This is where Jimmy puts us last time we were together. Ten Spot. Center of the strip that was the center of things itself in L.A.

We’re on the sidewalk. I’ve been playing here most of the two years since I got out of Chino. Fourteen months for possession. Wind that never stops comes off the Bay whipping at us, blowing at our shirtsleeves and pantlegs. People rush past, hurrying out of the buildings to live their own lives a while. It’s the time I usually make most of my money. But it wasn’t right to tell Jimmy this after so many years gone by since the last time.

He still had those big smiling eyes that always made you want to smile with him. I think they blessed him in a way some others we knew back then weren’t. Gave him a good feeling about himself. Helped him see through the difficulties to what was important.

Things have changed with him. He still goes to a club now and then when he can get away from his family. He gave up the life; going to the after hours places where they serve you booze in coffee cups, and the police coming round not to inspect it and arrest you all but to be paid off. He has a job selling building supplies, and seeing the quality of the clothes he’s wearing no need to tell me it’s going well.

Anyway, Jimmy says, Central Ave’s no longer the place we remember. Clubs are closed, boarded up, torn down, graffiti painted everywhere. All of them: Last Word, Alabama, Casa Blanca. Even Dolphin’s, where you could buy records, drugs and booze twenty-four hours a day. Nothing’s taken their places except poverty and trouble. It’s all here, he taps his head to indicate whatever we remember is all that’s left. The scene’s moved up near the valley and it’s not the same one we knew.

I get the picture, I say. Same way everything’s going, though I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this.

Money men are in on everything, Jimmy fills in the answer for me. Everywhere you go you need lots to have a good time. We needed it too, but nothing like now.

He thinks about what he just said, about money. His looks down to my paper cup with the change and some folded ones. That’s when I remember it’s there, and I get the urge to kick it across the street.

Instead I say something funny about it. How I come out here once in a while to play, to try to get the feeling back. But the voice I want to convince Jimmy that everything’s all right with does anything but that. He’s known otherwise since he picked me out on the sidewalk with my trumpet, blowing a sound not near like it was when we last saw each other. Street playing was all he needed to know to figure out the story we didn’t talk about. Eyes told me just what else he knew about me too, everything that’d gone on since I saw him in L.A. almost twenty years ago, at Ten Spot. Wondering how a man’s life comes down to this?

Jimmy remembers it better than me, who can’t bring up the night at all. Ten Spot was a favorite place of ours. I wasn’t playing and we were having a good time, is what he says about it. A really fine time.

What I remember most was the high living, avoiding nothing that came our way. Drugs. Booze. Women. And there were plenty of those around. Even on a day off, no gig to go to, most of us couldn’t stay away from the round-the-clock action that made you feel you were missing something if you weren’t in it. If you were looking for something to do that’s where you went to find it in all of L.A. Everyone came through there, all the big names on the West Coast and from the other coast and spots in between.

We talk another while. Somewhere in it I bend slow. Take my horn and hat up from the sidewalk. Jimmy saw the pain I get in my legs and stomach. But I didn’t stop like I would’ve if he wasn’t there. Got down later to get them. There’s plenty in the cup, and could’ve been more. It’s been a good day and I want to go spend some of what I made. Weather’s still warm enough for people to relax to stop and drop something in it. I stuff it all in my coat pocket with some change already there. Turning, I start to leave. But Jimmy wants to say more. Ask the questions he hasn’t got to, that I’m not going to let him. The answers are there for the picking and all he has to do is reach a hand out to grab them.

Wait, wait, Lewis, here, take something, Jimmy says in the voice that makes you think it’s coated with molasses. His fingers slip a twenty from a wallet that has more of em in there. A bill that big comes my way once in a year, I guess. Much as I want to take it, need it, I say thank you, say I can’t accept it.

The hug I give him is quick, like you do to someone from long ago you went through something with but don’t know so well anymore and will probably never see again. Then I’m off.

Same old Lewis, Jimmy says to my back. Makes me feel good he does that. Remembers the Lewis back in L.A. I can feel him still standing there. Twenty still out waiting for me to pick it from his fingers. Damn, I coulda used it.

On the way to my rooms over in Mission I keep thinking how it’s been years since I spoke to someone from then. And I hadn’t been in any hurry to. You can’t hide in the world. Someone always comes along and finds you, even in your weakest moment. Maybe only then, when you’re down low and it’s difficult to get up at all. I’d left L.A. when I come up this way to prison. Folsom. Worst I ever been in. The bottom of the world. When they locked me up seven-and-a-half for stealing money and hurting a man. Left all of them, I mean. The people I knew. Ones you thought the most of. Like Jimmy. He looked better than ever, like the years hadn’t worn him down but made him into the person he was supposed to be, and what happened twenty years ago helped construct it. I was happy for him. In business instead of hurting himself and everyone close. I wished the best for the rest we knew, but you know better than to think everyone made it out all right.

Jimmy had been surprised to see me playing on the corner. Same one I always play on. Where people know me. Market and Fifth. When once I played on stage and in a studio. Gave me a look like he’d never expected to see me again. That told me all I needed to know about the talk going on about me. They’d been thinking of me in the past only. Not the present. And it’s not something I’m so disappointed about.

I keep wishing Jimmy never saw me. But something he said comes. That makes me feel good. I know he wanted to pick me up with it and I wanted to wait to think about it some more.

What did he call them? My testaments? That prove I was one of the best.

Lewis, in two recordings you did more than many do in a whole life of playing. Jimmy smiled, eyes dropped to the sidewalk. My best shoes needed some fixing but they were polished. I shine them every day before going out. I want to look good for the people who stop to listen, who appreciate what I’m playing even though it’s not my best, who give me something. You’re still someone even though you’re on Market and Fifth and not in a big name club.

What I felt I played. What I wanted to say you heard. That’s all I could tell Jimmy. Same as now. Though there’s a difference.

He already knew that.

(1998)

OFF THE END OF THE BENCH: from SEVEN SEVEN SEVEN

9/11 was another topic Larry and I talked about that night in Edison’s. It was a connection every New Yorker who’d been down there that morning had with each other no matter what their take on the Administration’s response to it was. So unreal and dreamlike it seemed in the months and years after it happened. So mind-boggling. When I looked up at the skyline the missing towers were always a reminder of that tragic day. But slowly things got back to normal. Slowly the rebuilding started. Slowly the emotional blow faded and daily life again prevailed. Other unavoidable things came up that made me forget what I saw and how I felt.

The week after Larry introduced me to the sweet, rich flavor of buffalo burgers Richard sent me to a conference at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale. He’d been travelling a lot those weeks, to San Francisco and Chicago and London, and spending three nights in Arizona wasn’t as appealing as he’d thought it would be when he registered for it.

“Which is why I’m sending you as my replacement,” he said jokingly. “Not that I think a Boston guy can do that, but someone has to pinch hit for me and you’re the last player left on the bench.” But I had the feeling it was intended to be just as much a treat for my being a good, obedient dog around there. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. He said, “See what you can pick up and put something together for me. I’ll let a few people know you’ll be out there so you don’t feel like a party crasher.” I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to pick up, if anything, but I didn’t press him for clarification, and I’d make sure to take notes I could develop into a couple of pages to cover my ass with in case anyone was interested in what I’d done out there. I also felt a rush of gratitude. It was just what I needed at the moment, to get out of New York a while and set my eyes on a completely different landscape.

I said bye to Lucy early that morning and sensed relief like a release of air coming from her that I’d be gone the next three nights. It didn’t bother me she felt that way. All the emotion between us had been expended and the thinking done and there was only to recognize it was time for one of us to make a move out the door and soon enough that would be me. By the time my plane landed at Sky Harbor and I took a taxi to Scottsdale I’d put all that behind me like a desertion from a war that was no longer worth fighting.

The ATIP Operations Conference & Exhibit wasn’t the first professional conference I’d been too, but it turned out to be the most extravagant by far. It took place in April, 2007, when all the borrowed money had people so flush with cash and giddy with the expectation there’d be more and more of it that it seemed impossible it would or could come to an end a little over a year later, when the high risk game of Hot Potato would play out and the resulting losses would be staggering. But no one knew that then, or they didn’t care to know, and if they had any idea something bad like that was lurking in the afternoon shadows they weren’t saying anything. Why spoil the fun of a pleasant, air-conditioned dream on someone else’s tab? Why not create more risky financial products few people understood or knew the value of but intended to profit from? Why not believe the value of your property and retirement fund would continue to go up forever? Why not buy a home with a value ten or fifteen times more than you made in a year and fill the bathrooms in it with ten dollar bars of soap that would make you smell nice when you came out of the tub?

In theory, I went there to hear financial industry analysis and investment advice from key business leaders from Standard and Poor’s, the U.S. Treasury and The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation. In theory, attendees like me would get insights and tools to identify opportunities for new, efficient operational models at a time of tightening financial regulation. The list of speakers that would provide that was impressive: the Chairman and CEO of one of the country’s biggest banks; a New York Times columnist and bestselling author; the senior partner of a firm that provided tax reporting solutions to multinationals. I had no idea why a former Commander of U.S. and International Forces in Afghanistan was making an appearance and what he was going to talk about, but that was a speech I wasn’t going to miss.

In theory, ATIP would provide me with knowledge I’d pass on to Richard and use for my work at Beal and elsewhere. In reality, as a consulting Business Analyst, even a long-term one at a highly respected company, I had little interest or need to be there. But I didn’t quarrel the slightest with Richard’s decision to call me off the end of the bench, and the next Monday I took an early flight with a business class seat out of LaGuardia and got to Scottsdale in plenty of time to register and look through my ATIP Orientation Packet that included folders of written material, advertisements and an ATIP t-shirt, neatly folded and a medium, as if the organizers knew that was the size I wore.

At seven that evening I crossed out the name on the tag the packet had also provided and added my own and stuck it to my shirt and went down to the Welcome Reception out on the patio. It was still over a hundred degrees and there were people splashing around the pool and dunking in the two spas. Large fans and mist spraying systems had been set up in several areas to keep the attendees cool. I accepted the glass of champagne offered by one of the waitresses roaming around with trays in their hands and then I went looking for a tag affixed to a man named Edward Donahue.

Edward Donahue was the Executive Director of Global Technology at one of the largest computer services companies, the name of which I won’t mention though its three letter acronym was known worldwide. I’d found him in the packet and looked over his photo and saw he had an economics degree from Cornell and an MBA from Wharton and that the subject of his Tuesday afternoon presentation would be “Reducing Capital Investments in Applications, Operations and Information Technology Infrastructure.” And even if it wasn’t stated, I had no doubt the best way to do that would be by partnering with his company. Richard made sure to tell me going to it was the one thing I absolutely had to do for him. “Make sure you say something after it,” he said, “to let him know you were there and heard what he had to say.”

I recognized Edward Donohue before I read his tag. He was standing with three others by a huge potted cactus. Each had a glass of champagne in hand, and they appeared to be involved in a rather amusing conversation. One man was brown-skinned with black-rimmed glasses and an athletic build. Another man with graying hair was around sixty, tall and hunched. The lady with them was in her thirties, I assumed, wearing a white shirt and pastel-green shorts. Edward Donohue was dressed as if he had just come off the golf course, in a pink Izod jersey and tan slacks, and maybe that was the main focus of his appearance at ATIP, to spend the late mornings on the course a quarter mile down the street, a few power-broker foursomes that would provide some friendly competition and get a bit of business out of the way at the same time.

“Richard told me you were going to look me up,” Edward Donohue said in a voice that was assertive even when it was involved in easy conversation.

“As his stand-in, he said it was the first thing I should do,” I said.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Edward Donohue said, and I could tell he meant it as a joke.

“I think I’m up to it,” I said. “But don’t tell him I told you.”

“Well, I’ll let him know you stopped by to say hello,” Edward Donohue said. “He made sure to tell me not to make you an offer so I guess I’m prohibited from doing that.”

The tall, hunched man’s name was Jack. “Then maybe I will. What kind of money you looking for, Robert? I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Well now, I think that number just went up,” I said, and there was laughter all around. After it settled down I humped my shoulders, and added, “Hey, Richard doesn’t have to know anything. What happens in Scottsdale can stay here far as my thinking goes.”

“That’s the case with most of these conferences, isn’t it Ed?” the lady who’d introduced herself as Eileen Foster joined in with her own comedic bit. She had an attractive smile and appeared fit, a runner or avid bike rider, or one of those types who did yoga before she went to the office and then spent an hour at night in aerobics class that was followed with a vegetable, a green salad and a cup of herbal tea before she poured the wine.

Not knowing if custom permitted my staying there with them, I made a little nod and said I’d see them around over the next few days. Edward Donohue told me to be sure to sit at their table the following night and before I left them and moved on to the trays of catered food I thanked him for his kind gesture. After that, I ate and hung around a while among the chatter and networking, then I beat a hasty retreat up to my room and took a beer out of the mini bar and clicked on the t.v. and found the Celts-Bulls game which was just about to tipoff.

The next day the Hyatt’s giant ballroom was set up with tables with white cloths and shiny plates and silverware and seating assignment cards. I found the card with my name on it on a table near the stage. There were two men sitting down and Eileen Foster was hovering around, a glass of something in her hand that looked a lot like sparkling water.

“What’s this, no champagne?” I said.

“I’ve been waiting for it, but I’m afraid I’ll be going without tonight, unless I want to pay for it myself, and that wouldn’t be very smart business,” she said.

“I’m a lot like you. Once a standard like that’s been set I expect it to continue and can never understand why it doesn’t.”

“They like to start these off with a bang and end them with a bigger bang. They make a good impression and send you back feeling you got your money’s worth,” she said, happy, it seemed, to have someone to talk to while she waited for her colleagues to fill the table. In fact, I noticed from the cards, she’d be to my right and I also thought I heard a movie line coming out of her mouth that wondered if I wanted to buy her a glass of bubbly and then maybe we might get famous with each other from there?

But that wasn’t about to happen, and I said, “And the rest is filler to make sure you stick around for the whole thing?”

“No, the rest is cheap white wine and broiled chicken with rice and carrots. There may be a roast with potatoes too, if that’s the kind of thing you like eating.”

With a little more conversation I found out she’d had a good day. In the morning she’d gone to the Fitness Room and then swam thirty laps. After that, she sat in on the Exhibit Hall Luncheon that had the simple, straightforward theme of “A Look Ahead.”

More and more people started coming in and soon the seats at our table were filled and we were served what the menu called New American Cuisine, or what I thought of as quite fine food that was so good I see no reason not to list my selection: shrimp, watercress and mango salad; beef tenderloin; wild mushrooms; fingerling potatoes with whole grain mustard dressing; mesclun greens with balsamic vinaigrette. There was no overcooked roast beef as Eileen Foster had mentioned earlier, though there was a fine tarragon chicken piccata with orzo pasta she’d ordered and seemed to enjoy eating up.

“I’m originally from Milwaukee, the suburbs, a place called Elk Grove,” Eileen Foster said as we forked our food. “I was such a wild kid my parents never thought I’d make anything of myself. Another case of suburban rebellion, I guess. I went off to Madison to polish those particular skills. What my parents never understood was it was that part of me that’s the reason I’m where I am now.”

“I looked over your bio and must say it’s quite something. Quantitative analysis and operations research at Sloan. Pretty nifty. They must be proud of you.”

“I work hard and keep the focus and it seems to get me where I want to go.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to the panel you’re on. Infrastructure, risk and efficiency. That’s a lot of territory to cover.”

“It’s not my topic, but I have a few things prepared to say.”

After dessert, a fresh fruit tart with vanilla tarragon syrup for me, tropical fruit and berries with sorbet for Eileen Foster, more wine arrived and our plates were cleared and Edward Donohue pushed back from the table, stepped up to the stage and gave the opening introduction to the proceedings we were presumably there to listen to even more than to eat the fine food and drink the Gold Medal California syrah. He settled behind the podium and spoke in a voice that boomed out at us, “Tonight you’ll hear diverse views about the latest regulatory reforms and operational developments that your firm will be able to benefit from. You’ll get a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent legislation on operational matters and how they might affect profits. You’ll get clear insights into future industry trends and business process enhancements…”

At the end, Edward Donohue walked back to our table with a smile on his face and a nod here and there at the people he knew who were up out of their chairs clapping. When he got back and sat down we hailed his speech in glowing terms. It was another proud moment for him, of the kind he was used to, I could tell, and he reveled in it for a moment before he threw out a few jokes at his own expense: “For those of you who don’t know me so well I’ll let you in on a little something. That’s the first time I didn’t have to  pull my notes out in a panic. Isn’t that right Jack?”

“I’m not going to say anything about what you might have or might not have in your pocket,” Jack said, and he drew a laugh with that.

I woke at eight the next morning, a little hung over with food and drink and called room service and ordered a pot of coffee. “That’s all I’d like at the moment,” I said into the phone a second time, and when it came I doubled the total on the bill before signing it.

Out on the balcony the sky was blue, a deep unblemished blue and I sipped the coffee intending to go to the Fitness Center once I was fully awake. I had hopes of running into Eileen Foster, who’d have the same goal in mind, to sweat out the syrah, the fat and the sugar. Sitting there, I went back and forth on calling her. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, called a woman with the intention of getting together to do something that didn’t include Lucy. It was always better to work out with a partner: I’d use that pitiful starter line and add ‘at least that’s what I’ve read in the magazines I pick up around the gym when I’m looking for a distraction that can’t be loaded on my iPod’.

“Up for some time in the Fitness Center?” I said into the phone. Eileen Foster sounded sleepy and I wondered if I’d woken her?

“I need to get moving eventually,” she said, and suggested a run outside was a better idea. “Can you give me a half hour?”

She was late, but not enough to be disrespectful, when she met me outside the Hyatt’s sliding front doors. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t make you stand out here for too long?”

“Not a big problem with me, I’m enjoying this bit of breeze, little as it is,” I said, and then Eileen Foster described the five mile route she’d mapped out for us on her computer.

She wore her ATIP t-shirt, running shorts and a plain white golf visor. Her hair was clipped back and she gave off the confidence and appearance of the ex high school jock she was. Out of the parking lot, we veered right and I dropped off behind her single file as we headed down a long commercial strip with a lot of traffic and activity and then past the golf course I imagined Edward Donohue teeing a ball up on and staring down the palm-lined pipeline of a long par four. After that, we came to a bend and an open area of low, dry grass and fast food rubble and where, up ahead, there was a lot of dust and noise as a construction crew was building the framework for the foundation of a large structure. The pavement was smooth and past the dust and construction we went by an office park and then the road opened up again, a rolling landscape of earthy hues that in another mile fed into an upscale residential neighborhood of housing with red tile roofs and stucco walls and entranceway arches and crisp, clean Southwestern landscaping, and the red sandstone McDowell Mountains rising behind it. The traffic was light and I pulled up next to Eileen Foster. She had an easy, loping running style and her head made a little bob every other stride.

“Hope you don’t feel crowded,” I said. She glanced over at me and smiled. I was happy to share something with her even if it was nonsense.

“Nope, not at all. Plenty of room for everyone out here.”

“With all the building going on, it doesn’t look like that’s going to last much longer,” I said. “You’ve been out in these parts before I take it?”

“Sure. Haven’t you ever been?”

“Never. But I see the attraction, even if there’s no natural water source to quench the thirst of all these people that keep moving here.”

“I expect that will be figured out. I have great faith in human ingenuity.”

We kept up an easy pace, not slow, but easy enough. The sun was bright, the air dry. It wasn’t yet hot enough to be debilitating, but my breathing picked up and when I looked at Eileen Foster I saw the focus on her face, a wrinkled determination to finish something and move on to something else, an attitude that must have helped her score the many successes she’d had up to then and that I was sure she’d add many more to.

“I’d like to get my parents to move out here when they’re a little older, it’s a nice life,” she said.

We swung off to the right, around a bend. Up ahead, above the cypress trees, the top two floors of the Hyatt came into our view. It was a mile away but it seemed we’d gotten to that point sooner than either of us expected. Had we picked up the pace that much, in a hurry to get a bottle of water at the finish line? Eileen Foster said it felt like it, but we were still a long way from Olympic medal times.

There was a lot of bustle out front of the hotel as we walked into the entrance, sweaty and satisfied with ourselves to have that accomplishment out of the way. There were still four hours before Edward Donohue’s presentation and the vendor workshops that came after it, a dead zone in the lives of a couple of conferees that had to be filled up somehow. I didn’t have any ideas for it other than getting something to drink and eat. “Well thanks for coming along, I enjoyed that a lot,” I said.

“It was your idea, I’m glad you included me in it,” she said, then added, “I was thinking I might use the spa. Would you be up for that too?”

The five mile run and twenty minute spa and the conversation relaxed us. So much so that when I saw her that night at the General Session in the Ballroom and we drank wine at another group dinner and after that occupied two chairs on the patio and talked some more, I recognized one of those convergences of events that had to be acted on in the moment or become another regret. And that’s what happened. I had one of those “why the fuck not” shrugs of my shoulders I wished I’d had more of and I threw the words out there. “Do you want to come up to my room?” I saw in her eyes and then heard in her voice the question relating to the ring on the index finger of my left hand. Without much of a pause I let her know Lucy and I were on the skids, as in something that was over. I said, “There’s a bottle of champagne in the mini bar I thought you might be interested in sharing with me out on the balcony.”

It was another pretty weak line, there was no doubting that, and I thought I saw her enjoying a laugh on the inside. A little private giggle at another awkward proposition from another guy wanting to get into her pants.

Then came the surprise, and Eileen Foster said, “I could do that, sure, I think it’s a good idea.”

And so I waved her by and followed her out to the elevators.

(2012)