A Novel

Chapter 15: Pivot

Meanwhile » Elmville » Harper-Wyman » Kathy Trimble worked on conveyance instruments.

She received a panicked telephone call from Delaney:

"Kathy, Christ, good, it's you. Where the hell is Fernando?"

"Why? What do you need?"

"Don't question my questions. Don't question my questions with two questions."

"I don't know where he is. Probably at his motel."

"I keep calling him there, but he's not there."

"Maybe they're ringing the wrong room."

"No. I thought of that. Don't you think I'd think of that? I had the moron at the desk check his room. He wasn't there."

"He was probably in the shower—"

"He wasn't in the room goddammit—"

"Okay. Well then he probably went out for breakfast. He's supposed to be calling me this morning anyway, and this afternoon he's coming up to give me his report, so—"

"Forget his report. Forget his goddamned report. He can fax it to you. I want him back in Chicago immediately. When he calls you, give him that message: come back immediately."

"But Delaney, Fernando is supposed to help me with the—"

"Don't talk back to me. I don't like it. Makes me question your loyalty. You work for me, not the other way around. And you can do the work I give you without Fernando—we both know that. Do you honestly think I don't realize what's going on here? Give Fernando the message. Tell him to meet me at the Clybourne Tap tonight at eight o'clock."

He hung up. Abruptly.

Delaney: impatient, suspicious, irritable.

Delaney degrading her → not really like him → Delaney was one special bastard to be sure, but not that kind of bastard. Not before, anyway; not that she knew. Made Kathy think again about Fernando's statement the night before, that Delaney was losing his grip. Delaney had always seemed to be in such complete control, of everything, so much so that she sometimes even resented it—his refusal, for example, to share information, even information she needed simply to perform her work.

⇄ Flashback: when Dearborn Capital first recruited her, right out of college—she knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who thought she'd make a good recruit—Delaney interviewed her in New York City, and then offered her the job a week later, over the telephone, from Chicago.

She also had offers from Arthur Andersen and Pricewaterhouse. Andersen and PWC were prestigious, were real consulting firms, were career-makers. Dearborn was unknown, was private equity, was probably a dead end.

Hindsight: a dead end / a dead end. Well for Christ's sake, we all end up dead anyway, don't we?

She chose Dearborn; she chose it with barely any deliberation: it was instinct; it was Delaney—something about him. She chose Delaney over Anderson and PWC. On a hunch. No, to call it a hunch would be to credit it with more reason than the decision actually warranted. It was an instinct: a pure, raw, gut (she hated that word, but she had to call it what it was) instinct.

Stop » rewind » playback: cut through the static; something was there, something wanting to be uncovered. Something or someone? The someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Kathy? A headhunter? An underworld headhunter / talent scout?

Probably not / possibly not / possibly so / probably so.

Underworld / wonderworld / thunderworld / plunderworld / assunderworld.

They pegged her: smack-dab. She fell for it. No questions asked. Limited time only, no rebates, all sales final. Kathy: bought and paid for. Not even made; not even a lieutenant. A lowly, mercenary, expendable foot soldier in the Life. Spotted and developed, by Delaney, for Delaney.

Maybe, just maybe, she was letting her imagination tyrannize. Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than slightly-shady. Still:

She had rarely visited the firm's headquarters in Chicago, and when she did the only partner she ever met was Delaney. She traveled often for her work, frequently with Fernando, but she continued to live in New York City. Delaney actually seemed to prefer that arrangement. She sometimes felt he was keeping her away from Chicago, as if he didn't want the other partners to meet her, as if he was using her for his own personal purposes.

She was surprised, therefore, when he gave her the Elmville assignment, her first assignment ever in Illinois. Plus she found it strange that they would fly her in from New York City, rather than send somebody out from the Chicago office.

⇆ A call coming in on the PBX puts paid to the flashback:

Kathy, eager, hoping Fernando had arrived, picked up her telephone: "Yes Gertie?"

"Ms. Trimble, there's a man here to see you."

"Is it Fernando? Send him in."

"No, he won't give his name, or, well, he gave his name, but—"

Kathy rolled her eyes and imagined some male pig like Dick Swinford, flirtatiously teasing Gertie. Gertie would be too ignorant, too provincial, to understand that she didn't have to tolerate that kind of treatment. She would likely even feel flattered by it. She was the kind of stupid girl who would willingly put up / put on / put out. Christ, another word to hate: "put": put / pussy / pus / putty / putz. Kathy lived in a man's filthy world. She hated it, but she also felt herself thriving in it, like something that grows best in warm-almost-steamy manure: in shit, in horse shit / human shit / shit shit. She cringed.

"Well what name does he give, Gertie?"

"He calls himself 'Mr. Esquire-Man'."

Bad, creepy chills down her spine. She cringed again. No, she flinched, as if a man had just punched her, but pulled his punch, to teach her a lesson, to teach her obedience.

Kathy never expected to see Mr. Esquire-Man in Elmville. As far as she knew, he lived in New York City. Like her, he worked for Dearborn Capital. Delaney used him as some kind of courier—a very highly paid courier, judging from the way he dressed. She dreaded Mr. Esquire-Man, despite his loutishly friendly manner and goofy, oafish appearance. He was fat, but he looked more swollen; his girth had a hardness to it—not muscular, but also not lumpy and saggy: taut and round, a body-type she had never before encountered. For example, his shoestrings were always stretched as widely as possible, as if he could barely fit his fat feet into his perfectly polished Peal perforated cap toe shoes, as if his fat feet were about to burst the shoe leather. He was always punning and making corny jokes, but there was something slightly menacing about his jokes and about him, like a circus clown.

She said, "Okay, send him in Gertie."

The office door opened. Gertie, timid, said, "Mr. Esquire-Man."

He came charging in, just as outré as ever, with a smile stretched across his pale, swollen, moon-like face.

"Hey there little lady!" Then, looking around, as if he could actually see cornfields and barns, he said "So here she is. Tell me my lying eyes are wrong! The city kitty goes country! I thought maybe you'd be wearing a cowboy hat and spurs. I thought maybe you'd really take to the life."

Kathy smiled; she laughed. She always felt that, if she ever failed to reciprocate his friendliness, he would turn malevolent, though he had never given her any definite reason for this fear.

She asked, "Did Delaney send you?"

"Who else?"

"When did you last speak with him?"

"A few days ago, I guess. Back in New York. Over the telephone. I have some documents he wanted me to deliver to you. You know, didn't want them faxed, didn't want them mailed." He handed her a portfolio. "I don't have to tell you how particular the SEC can be about what goes through the mails, and what goes into fax machines and what comes out of them." Then he winked and laughed. The wink seemed to say:

This laugh is a courtesy,

Just meant to cover

This implied threat,

Like the expensive makeup you frigid cunts like to wear:

Your naked face is a threat to me:

But you can always be blackmailed, bitch.

She checked her spinning mind: god-damn this man could put a mind fuck on her. He made her not know what was real and what was fear.

She said, "You should probably call him. I think there might be a change of plan."

"Oh, there are no changes to the plan. The details might change, but the plan abides. Yes, little lady, the plan abides, abides with me, and abides with thee."

"But he told me so himself, Delaney did. Just today."

He shrugged his large shoulders. "Maybe. Maybe some details have changed, but not the plan. Trust old uncle Esquire-Man on that one. Seriously. You can take it to the bank: the plan abides."

As he stood there talking, she, for the first time, consciously understood, and accepted, the fact that her work was essentially criminal. Whether or not Delaney was a gangster, her work was crime: she took business transactions that would otherwise be illegal, and made them legal, or rather made them take on the aspect of legality—no, more than just take on the aspect of legality, but be buried so deeply in aspects of legality that the true illegality could never be excavated by any prosecutor, certainly not excavated cleanly enough to satisfy a grand jury. If, then, her work was essentially criminal, did that make her a criminal, and did that make Dearborn Capital a criminal organization? Or was there more? Christ, of course there was more; there always was more. Forms, contracts, records, dividend receipts flashed across her mind: other companies, organizations, families, individuals. . .the Pedrosas, even—relatives of Fernando, she had always assumed, without ever actually giving the question serious thought. Who were the Pedrosas really? What were the Pedrosas really? How did Fernando come to work for Delaney? Was Dearborn Capital part of a crime syndicate? The premises seemed disappointingly sound. There was a contrapositive somewhere in all of this that would set her mind at ease. . .or was there? Mr. Esquire-Man: how does one spend years working for a firm that employs somebody like Mr. Esquire-Man, and only now ask herself about the true nature of that firm? But the answer to that question was too obvious: money, the money: it can make you believe anything, if, slowly by slowly—yes, slowly by slowly—it eases you into something in such a way that moving steadily forward is far and away the easiest, the most logical, course of action.

Mr. Esquire-Man just stood there smiling. Finally he said, "And do you have anything for me?"

"Was I supposed to?"

"I guess only you would know. I just thought I would check, before flying back to New York."

"You're flying out of Chicago?"

"Where else?"

"Will you be seeing Delaney?"

"He did not request a meeting with me. You're asking a lot of questions. Don't forget that our job is to do. There's a wonderful purity in that, isn't there? Like Ivory soap. We do; we make things happen." He glanced at his wristwatch, and said, "I think I will take my leave now. Always a pleasure."

He departed as swiftly as he arrived, leaving her to question whether the visit had even been real. But the document portfolio he had delivered lay before her on the desk, proof that the visit had indeed happened.

Fernando did not call until after lunch, and she gave vent to her pent-up frustration as she asked him, "Fernando, where the hell have you been? You said you'd call me this morning."

Almost dismissively, he responded, "Oh I just slept in later than I expected. Sorry about that."

"But Delaney has been trying to call you in your room, and he said you weren't there."

This news seemed instantly to extinguish his cocky insouciance: "Delaney called me?"

"Yes, and he said—"

"That's strange. Well I did step out a few times. I went jogging; I bought a newspaper; I had lunch. What did he want?"

"He wants you back in Chicago immediately. You're to meet him tonight at eight o'clock at the Clybourne Tap."

"But what about my report on Juarez?"

"He said you could fax me your report. Look, he was completely panicked and impossible to reason with. He snapped at me for asking even a couple questions."

"I told you he's losing his grip, but you—"

"Fine, maybe you were right; who knows. That's all I can tell you."

Fernando said, more cheefully than she would have liked, "Okay then, looks like it's back to civilization for me! I'll send you a postcard when I get there."

Deeply disappointed, she said, "So that's it I guess."

"Guess so. I'd better get moving if I'm going to be at the Clybourne by eight. I'll call you tomorrow," and he rung off.

Kathy clutched the telephone receiver, holding it against her chest, almost as if, by refusing to place it back onto its cradle, she could keep Fernando from leaving. She stared at the fluorescing green characters on her P1 phosphor monochrome computer monitor. Fernando was gone. No kisses goodbye, not that she had the right to expect any: it was she who had resisted Fernando's attempts to turn their relationship into something more emotionally binding than sexual intercourse and business. She wanted to give Fernando more, and wanted more from him, but she knew that, if Delaney discovered the true nature of their relationship, Delaney would fire her, not Fernando. The unfairness of that double standard elicited a stubborn competitiveness in her, since she knew she was better than Fernando. She had an MBA from Wharton; Fernando had a high school diploma. But Fernando also had his family: the Pedrosas. Delaney spoke of them in almost reverent tones.

Kathy loved Fernando, but she was also jealous of him, of his maleness and his wealthy family with all their connections. No matter how excellently she performed her job, Delaney would always prefer Fernando over her. Every success seemed to come so effortlessly for Fernando, in part because he had so many people, herself included, helping him along. He was the kind of man who made one want to help him.

She was already beginning to feel desperately lonely again. She had been expecting him to stay at least a few weeks, to help oversee the transfer of Harper-Wyman's assets to Chicago and Juarez. She could, as Delaney had observed, perform the work herself, but she had eagerly anticipated Fernando's arrival and his presence. His departure, after less than a day, left her worse than disappointed. She felt abandoned, and hated being in Elmville. Was ever a place so isolated? On all sides, the town was surrounded by cornfields, the relentlessly rational geometry of which made them appear unnatural, or denatured—uninhabited and uninhabitable. Like the goddamned surface of the moon, nothing but giant machines ever ventured out into those fields. Soon the corn would begin to brown; soon it would be dead. She would be surrounded by death. Worse than death, the tilled fields would look like giant, open wounds in the earth all winter long.

Several miles away, in another world, along the Illinois River, the clucking and warbling of shorebirds rippled the still, afternoon air, while high above in the sky geese passed by, en route to their winter habitatation.

An hour after telling Fernando he must leave, Kathy received a telephone call from Connie Swinford.

Already in a bad mood, with hours of work to complete before she could return to her hotel for the night, she accepted the telephone call anyway, because Connie Swinford intrigued her. Kathy kept hearing Connie's name in the most unexpected contexts. Just the previous week, while waiting in a car dealership showroom, she overheard a mechanic, a car salesman, and a secretary tallking about Connie. Kathy gathered that Connie had a rather slutty reputation. And yet the gossip, while certainly disrespectful, was constrained, whether by pity or fear or admiration or desire, Kathy could not tell. Possibly pity that Connie was trapped in a loveless marriage to a bore like Dick Swinford? But that interpretation did not square with the known facts, for it was Connie, not Dick, whom people regarded as important in some way. Dick was more likely the one trapped in the marriage, possibly by Connie's father, a local power-broker of some kind—the kind one doesn't encounter at Rotary Club meetings, Kathy thought, and this idea made her admire him a little: that he could become powerful in a town like Elmville without belonging to the local old boys' network, through which prestige and influence and wealth were distributed by some invisible hand.

So Kathy accepted Connie's telephone call out of curiosity, but she answered it in clipped, impatient tones, out of frustration over the situation in which she found herself, abandoned in a town she loathed: "This is Kathy Trimble."

"Hi, Ms. Trimble. My name is Connie Swinford. My husband says you were at our home last night—I'm so sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you. If you have some free time this week, I'd love to get together, maybe for lunch?"

Connie's voice possessed a warmth that surprised Kathy. Though sincerity could not be discounted entirely, it seemed more like the warmth of a generalized congeniality. Kathy did not have the impression that Connie desired to meet Kathy specifically, but rather that she just wanted to meet somebody, and Kathy happened to be the next candidate on her list. Maybe Connie spoke this way to disguise an angle, a sales pitch.

Although Kathy had no interest in buying Mary Kay, she did feel a certain sympathy with Connie. She hated to call it, as Dick Swinford had pompously predicted, the sympathy of one businesswoman for another, because Connie's business, unlike Kathy's, was one that no man would ever deign enter: like Avon and Tupperware, Connie Swinford's so-called "business" was a woman's business, not a real business, and Kathy somewhat contemptuously pitied the woman.

"Mrs. Swinford, hi," Kathy said, "I was indeed at your lovely home last night, and was sorry to hear that you weren't feeling well. It's so kind of you to call, but I should be honest and tell you that I'm not interested in Mary Kay cosmetics. I'm afraid I'm completely devoted to the brands I buy in Chicago. You know how it is with makeup—such a personal thing."

Unflappable, Connie said, "Of course. But I wasn't making a sales call. My goodness, I'm so embarrassed! I can see why you would think so, though—I bet my husband tried to get you interested in Mary Kay. Ugh! No, we won't even discuss makeup if you don't want to. I'd just love the opportunity to meet you."

Kathy smiled cynically, suspecting that she recognized in Connie the determined saleswoman. Kathy had nothing better to do in the evenings, however—especially now that Fernando was gone. Still, she was reluctant to become entangled with local society. She decided to extend as uninviting an invitation as possible, "Well, if you're free on Friday, I have half an hour or so at eight o'clock. I could meet you at my hotel for a drink." She expected Connie to decline—Connie and Dick would doubtless already have plans, a fish fry or a dance band at the Moose Lodge or a couples-only euchre game.

Kathy was, therefore, very much surprised when Connie eagerly accepted the invitation.

Kathy said, "Okay, well, then meet me at the bar in the Wagon Wheel. I'll wear a grey skirt, so you'll know me in case the bar is crowded."