By Frank N Lils
AT DAYBREAK, as the sun slowly warmed Paul’s face, he would half-wake with a roll of his head, away from his dreams. But now, as midnight approached, the expansive windows of his apartment bedroom were black and the park outside the windows was inky, its trees stripped of leaves but shrouded in fog.
Inside the bedroom, Paul slept motionless, spirited away into a dream about his Boy Scout friends, a once intimate world. They were four together, friends who had met in nursery school, boys who had formed a den in the same Cub Scout pack, and adolescents who had banded again as a patrol in a Boy Scout troop. In Paul’s dream his pals had pitched tents on the expansive green surrounding a suburban church on a cold but starry December night. Their duty was to watch over Christmas trees which they would sell the next day to fund their Scout activities for the year. With the adult troop leaders bedded down inside the church, the four friends stood outside wearing parkas and knit caps and bantered affectionately as they warmed themselves around a fire built in a metal barrel.
As sparks flew from the fire into the air, Paul’s brashest friend, Philip, remarked. “I would love to live in the woods forever, away from my family. It would be so cool, and what a perfect place to relax after a mission as an astronaut.”
William, the thinnest but sharpest of Paul’s friends, retorted. “So you could look even more like a monkey and smell like one too.” William loved to play with fire, and he threw a few pine cones and tree cuttings into the barrel. The other boys laughed.
Robert, who was easy-going and good-natured, added thoughtfully. “I would join you, if there was a lake near-by; I want to continue swimming like my older brother.”
Paul observed. “Count me in too. It would be nice if a library was within walking distance.”
“Such a nerd.” Philip said looking at Paul with a smile. “You need to join me in the weight room and add a little muscle to that stick you hang your clothes on.”
“That’s right Paul, so you can have a girl-friend like Philip.” William advised with a grin.
Robert broke in. “Paul already has a girl-friend. Why do you think he took that basket-weaving class with Claire?”
Paul replied with bravado. “One more merit badge in the bank, my boy, which puts me ahead of you by what, 6 or so? You better pay attention or you and William will age out before you finish the Eagle requirements.”
William waved his hands at Paul in disgust and said. “You sound like my mother.” Suddenly, the fire in the barrel popped loudly, startling the boys.
Paul’s dream faded as he heard the click of his furnace and felt a warm blast of air as an automatic thermostat battled against the cold advancing from outside the apartment. His bedroom was uncluttered, almost spare: there was a hand-crafted pine night stand and a matching chest of drawers, and worn oval braided rugs lay on the floor. A single print hung on the wall, an etching by Goya. There was no clock. Paul preferred to wake naturally, from a breeze during summers at the beach, or the thump of the morning paper being delivered on his doorstep, or, his favorite eye-opener, a gentle bath of light from a sunrise. Paul hated alarms of all sorts, a childhood aversion to anything telling him what to do.
Paul kept his eyes shut, drew and released a deep breath, and flipped his pillow in search of a spot to cool his head as he tried to escape back into sleep.
To calm his mind, Paul recalled how he loved to camp as a boy, first with his family, later as a scout. The main reason he had earned his Eagle rank was to prolong what was to him the magical freedom of living in the woods with friends. Resisting intense media images which promoted glory on athletic fields, Paul set out to become an Eagle Scout, primarily to remain immersed with friends in the vast peace that embraced him in the woods.
Paul also had calculated the value of this accomplishment. To earn the rank of Eagle Scout was a great personal achievement. By the time he had finished Cub Scouts, Paul had listened to his teachers’ encouraging words that steered him away from a life on stage or screen. He understood that he was an intellectual who needed a back-bone.
Paul was an ideal Scout. He was task driven. It was easy for him to accumulate the required merit badges. Although he lacked an athlete's body, Paul was mentally tough. He learned to enjoy letting his mind take control of his body. He would push himself through long hikes in constant rain or sleeping in a tent on bitter cold nights during winter campouts.
Now Paul ordered his body to relax in bed. He dozed. His mind unspooled an unwelcome memory loop, like an earworm, featuring his business colleague and good friend Simon, who had recently died.
Simon was outfitted in a red t-shirt and black shorts. He was standing under buzzing florescent lights in a weight room of a fitness club. The air was thick and sweaty.
“Life is for the living.” Simon said earnestly. “And death is for the dead.”
Simon’s eyes were locked on a lithe muscular woman dressed in black yoga pants and a maroon hoodie who was standing next to an empty water cooler. Paul was seated nearby on a work-out bench, pushing a bar loaded with weights slowly up over his head and then lowering it down.
Simon continued to cajole the woman. “Unless you live for the moment, you may regret having watched while others enjoyed themselves. There is no greater success than squeezing the most from each second of every day. I mean, who doesn’t love adrenaline rushes when your heart races and your senses flush to a glow? Imagine living all the time with that same excitement and heightened sensitivity! Why settle for half a life when you can choose a full life of passion?”
Paul looked over at Simon and began to count under his breath: “One, two, three, four...” Before Paul reached counting to five, the woman shook her head, took a step back away from Simon, and rebuked Simon loudly.
The woman said. “You are so reckless! Reckless is too strong a word. You are so superficial. So you are going to spend your life sucking the marrow out of every bone and leave what for the rest of us? Pull yourself away from the mirror, pretty boy.” The woman ended her sermon but remained rooted in front of Simon.
Simon turned to Paul and asked. “Houston, do we have a problem? Am I really such a bastard?”
This question was Paul’s cue to step in to the conversation. Paul set the weight bar into its resting position and replied to the woman. “No, I would say it is a matter of perspective. Perhaps we could continue the conversation over lunch. There is a new farm-to-table place that has opened around the corner. I know the owner.” He smiled at Simon, then at the woman.
The woman replied. “No thanks. You could use the extra time with the weights.” As she walked past Simon towards the locker room she said over her shoulder. “Nice tag-team boys. Better luck next time.”
Simon winked at Paul and said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I need to run, some work to finish at the office.”
Paul bolted up in bed. A sharp text alert had tolled from his phone which lay on the night stand next to his bed. Paul did not share his number with many people. His prejudice helped him to separate the wheat from the chaff. Paul snatched the phone and glared at the screen. His client needed some information. Bob apparently was hard to reach. Paul punched in a call on the phone.
When his call connected, Paul skipped a formal greeting. “Bob? Look, I know you are crushed. Please pay attention and send Leroy the financial spreadsheets he needs. Or at least ask one of our analysts to do it.”
“Sorry, Paul, it was next on my list.” Bob replied. “I sent the analysts home at nine last night, as required by the firm’s new rule requiring them to leave after twelve hours at work. I’ll take care of sending the spreadsheets now. Sorry for the trouble.”
Paul squeezed his forehead with his hand, then balled and flexed the hand. “I designated this deal as an exception to the new beauty-sleep rule. Our analysts knew in advance that the policy would not apply.”
Paul ended the call abruptly. He threw his phone on the blanket at the foot of his bed. Bob was doing his best, Paul told himself. But Paul knew he would remember this foot-fault, come bonus time at Cabot Young, where he and Bob worked as bankers. At Cabot Young, you had to be all in or not. For Bob and the bank, it was always better to know sooner rather than later.
Paul lingered in bed, looking at the park. The view usually re-charged him with happy thoughts of childhood. Those memories powered him through his work as a Cabot Young banker. Today Paul felt sluggish. He stared silently for a few minutes at the park in the pre-dawn darkness. The late autumn mist floated like smoke among the thicket of bare tree branches reaching upwards from the forest below his apartment.
He retrieved his phone and asked: “What do I have on my calendar today?” The phone’s speech recognition software replied in a female voice: “Today, you take the air shuttle to attend the memorial service for Simon. After the service, you will attend a reception. You have reservations on the shuttle after the reception and will return to your office to complete Project Midnight Sunrise, including meetings with Compliance and Legal. Drivers are scheduled to take you to and from the airport for the service and reception and to return you to the office.”
Unless there was bad weather, Paul was not concerned about flying back and forth. The memorial service was at ten. The reception afterwards would be brief. Paul had to return to his office no later than five. He had to send money to the seller of the pharmaceutical company that his client, Leroy, was purchasing. Bob and other younger bankers at Cabot Young would handle other minor details of the purchase. Paul would handle major issues, if any arose.
Paul slid out of bed. He walked from his bedroom into his exercise room. The room was an open space located between his bedroom and the kitchen. It enjoyed more views of the park.
Today was a cardio day. Paul stepped over the 5 and 10 pound barbells arranged neatly around an exercise bench. He retrieved his running shoes from under the bench. He set his phone down on the bench and picked up a pair of wireless headphones. As he exercised, he would listen to a podcast sent by Faye, his assistant, every weekday morning at 4 am.
The podcast was a collection of business news and industry updates. The stories were collected by an automated search on the internet. Faye would edit, then dictate the news into a podcast. Occasionally, she added a random piece on sports or entertainment news. It was her irritating but affectionate effort to recast Paul as a person engaged other than by work.
A few minutes later, Paul was outfitted in a sweatshirt, running shorts, and gloves. He took an elevator to the lobby of his building, stepped out of the front door, and crossed the street to the park. He started a slow jog towards the rising sun which was already burning away last night’s fog.
ACROSS THE PARK from Paul’s apartment, Posy swayed in her pajamas in the warm, golden glow of her apartment kitchen. She was wearing wireless headphones, listening to her favorite wake-up song. She put a tea kettle on the stove to boil.
As the water warmed, Posy shimmied to the dark dining area of the apartment. She stopped in front of a tall glassed hutch cupboard that safeguarded the china and crystal that Posy had inherited from her mother. Posy slipped her arm around the side of the cupboard and rolled a hidden light switch with her forefinger. The interior of the cupboard lit up as beams of white descended through the glass shelves and reflected off the glazed platters and etched wine goblets exhibited on the shelves.
Posy lightly opened the middle door of the cabinet and retrieved a china tea mug from a bottom shelf. Before she closed the cabinet door, Posy stroked one of her favorite pieces in the cabinet, a fluted bowl of milk glass on a short pedestal. Placing a hand gently around the bowl, Posy heard her mother’s voice telling her why the bowl was special. It had been a wedding present to Posy’s grandmother, the only one her parents could afford. Posy’s mother told her that Grandmother Dubcek had used it as a candy dish, filling it to the brim with her favorite gum drops and red and white peppermints at Easter and Christmas. Those were the only times that there was candy in Grandma D’s house. Posy lifted her hand from the bowl and closed the cabinet door.
After her mother had died, Posy continued to use the white bowl as a centerpiece only on those two holiday occasions, for her own sake and for the sake of her younger sister. Posy also saved another piece in the cupboard for these special occasions, a large round plate that was tinted blue. The blue plate was a piece of Depression glass. Grandma D had crisscrossed the city to stores giving this blue china away, if you bought something from their stores. Grandma D collected an entire set. She eventually gave most of the set away as a wedding present to her cousin, Posy's Aunt Betty, whom Grandma D’s family had adopted. Grandma D couldn’t bear to part with all of the glass pieces, though, and this was her favorite serving plate.
Posy turned off the light in the cabinet and swirled back to the kitchen. In the kitchen, Posy removed the kettle from the gas burner and filled her cup with steaming water. She took a used tea bag from a caddy and floated the bag into the mug to steep, then smiled at the memory of waking as a little girl after a deep sleep to the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen. Dressed in her nightgown and slippers, Posy would walk downstairs to the kitchen and find her mother, wearing an apron dusted with flour. On the butcher-block table in the kitchen there would be a fragrant cinnamon apple breakfast pastry resting on the blue glass plate. When she slept well, Posy often dreamed of herself wearing an apron dusted with flour, as her own daughter joined her in a kitchen to share quiet good-morning moments.
Posy rubbed her eyes. This morning Posy was exhausted. Posy shook her head to clear her mind. She had stayed too late last night at a bar with friends. Actually, these were friends of friends, a pack of Republic Football Association (RFA) players. The players tagged along with a teammate, Jess Brooden, a linebacker on the local professional football team. Jess was dating Posy’s roommate. Posy had remained late at the bar because she knew it would be the last time she would see Jess and his posse. Their mangled fingers upset her and their erratic emotional outbursts alarmed her. When the team returned from its out-of-town game next week, Posy would not rejoin the gang that had captured her roommate. Furthermore, she would move out of her apartment soon to live by herself. Posy possibly could bump into her roommate and RFA friends around town after she had left. But she knew that their friendship was finished.
Posy shut off the kitchen lights. Leaving her tea mug behind, she headed to her bedroom. Posy grabbed her travel bag from the floor and threw it on her bed. Posy rummaged in the bag, looking for her cosmetic bag, but instead unearthed a small black velvet jewelry box. She opened the box and discovered a set of brass collar stays and a pair of square stainless steel cufflinks engraved with a single letter, R. She snapped the box shut and tossed it into her wicker wastebasket.
She removed her earphones and tossed them on the bed.
She walked around her bed to retrieve a hairbrush from her bureau and dropped it into the bag. Posy glanced back at a photograph of her eleven year old nephew, Harry, on her bureau. Harry had been excited when Posy told him that her roommate had started to date Jess. Harry was a huge football fan but slight in build and was born with a weak heart. He had never played football himself. Being around professional players or watching games live were passions for Harry. Posy liked to spoil Harry.
Harry would be angry that Posy had cut off contact with the RFA players. Posy knew that Harry being upset was better than being afraid. Jess scared Posy. She had experienced the fire of his rage and carried a scar from the burn in her stomach. She had feared a repeat of an episode in their apartment last week, when Jess had smashed a glass coffee table. She had not expected another incident to have occurred so soon.
Earlier in the evening, seated at a table in a bar near her apartment, Posy had been looking at her sports watch as her roommate and RFA friends ordered another round of drinks. Posy was distracted, concerned that she had not packed her travel bag yet, though she hoped she might be able to sleep on the airplane shuttle flight she was scheduled to take in the morning. Posy’s focus returned when she heard a loud voice from the bar, near the table where she and her friends sat.
The voice came from a very drunk man, who was waving his finger in the general direction of Posy’s friends. “The RFA should have banned you cheaters long ago. How pathetic, to blame equipment malfunctions on the ball boys, guys who barely earn the minimum wage while you millionaires sit out a game when your toe hurts. Try getting a real job.”
Jess laughed and pointed back at the drunk. “If you can’t handle the liquor, go home, little man.”
This challenge simply enraged the drunk who brayed. “Tough guy, except on the goal line. Nice stop against the Bulldogs.”
Jess stood up and walked over to the drunk and said “Do you want to say that again?”
“No” Posy urged as she placed herself between the two men. Putting her hands on the chest of Jess, Posy reasoned. “Just ignore him. You know: sticks and stones.”
Jess grabbed Posy’s arms and yanked her aside, putting his face directly into the face of the drunk. “Let’s take a walk.”
A police officer employed by the bar suddenly appeared and addressed Jess. “Let me take him for a walk instead.” The officer grabbed the drunk by the shoulder and twirled him towards the door. With a push in the man’s back, the officer said “Time for some night air. It works wonders.”
As the officer walked out of the bar with the unruly fan, Posy turned to Jess, took his hand, and whispered. “Jess, for your own sake, save the anger for the field.”
Jess had looked at her with an intense stare and said. “Posy, no need to be afraid. We can take care of ourselves.”
Posy heard an electronic chirp from the room next to her bedroom. Posy usually was awake at this hour because of her job. She was a stock analyst following companies located outside the United States for her employer, Bloodstone. Bloodstone was a large corporation that invested money in the stock market for other people. Posy often had to monitor news and events in China, Japan, and Hong Kong. Posy’s job was to sell stocks and bonds of foreign companies to her clients, so she had to be an expert in explaining the many reasons the price of these investments rose and fell.
She wandered from her bedroom into her home office. The room was lit by the blue-white glow of several computer monitors set to record the market swings in the East while those in the West were dark. Posy sat down and scanned the monitors. She rubbed her right wrist, where Jess had grabbed her. Posy looked at her sports watch. She stood up and went to close the door to the room so as not to disturb her roommate. Turning on a lamp near the computer screens, she walked into a closet. Posy emerged wearing white tights and a blue and silver top, then began a series of stretches to loosen her calves and quads.
As she stretched, she put on an earpiece and said: "Call Cecelia, using Facetime."
"Calling Cecelia" her phone responded.
In a few seconds, her call was connected and her colleague's face appeared on one of Posy’s computer monitors.
"Cecelia, I love those earrings. Are they new?" Posy asked in greeting.
Cecelia gave a little wave and turned her head from side to side, showing how the earrings swept gently across her jaw line. Cecelia replied. "They are new, a gift from Ray. Actually, I pointed them out when we were shopping last week, and being the observant fiancé, he picked up the hint."
Posy smiled and said. "Lucky girl! They are fabulous. I may have to borrow them sometime."
Cecelia responded. "Of course, when you visit. We could shop at the store where I found them.”
Posy replied. “Thanks for keeping your offer open. I should take you up on that. I would love to see Hong Kong.”
Cecelia replied. “I have told you that the food is terrific. And you would love the jewelry shops here. The place where I bought these earrings has a lot of pieces that would be perfect with that outfit you wore last night. From the photos your friends posted, you looked like you were having fun. What was the occasion?"
Posy smiled slightly and said. "I will have to remind my roommate not to post so many photos. No occasion, just friends gathering for a drink to wish the boys well on their game this weekend. How are the markets faring today?"
Cecelia shrugged. "Still in a holding pattern, waiting for China to do something about the level of its currency. Officials keep sending mixed signals, though nearly every analyst I have read believes a devaluation is inevitable."
Posy replied. "Sorry, sounds a bit boring for you but it will make writing my morning report a snap. Just change a few words from yesterday. By the way, I think there will be an opening on the Hang Seng Index team here in the city. I mentioned your name to the manager of the mutual fund, and she sounded very interested."
Cecelia replied. "Thanks, Posy! Ray and I would like to return stateside after we're married."
Posy laughed. "I know. We're saving a place for you in book club. Sorry to say, I need to go, if I am going to be on time and meet my riding buddies."
Cecelia replied. "Talk tomorrow. And good luck with your fundraiser."
Posy removed the earpiece, put on a white reflective windbreaker, and wheeled her bicycle out of the closet. She grabbed her helmet from a hook on the inside of the closet door and walked silently to the door of the apartment. Looking out of the front door’s peephole, she opened the door and led her bike into an elevator and pushed the ground floor button. A minute later, she was outside on the sidewalk in front of her apartment. Wheeling the bike into the street and jumping on, Posy started pedaling toward the park and waved at her three friends who were waiting for her near a corner intersection.
ADAM SAT IN A continuous arm Windsor chair tapping his foot and looking through the kitchen window of his white-walled urban loft at the thick overcast clouds blocking the stars. Some would consider the dark sky as threatening, but Adam found it comforting. Adam was unnerved by perfect weather that remained the same from day to day, the monotony of which he considered a shallow seduction, a dangerous affair to distract one from the relentless change and unpredictable nature of life. Adam had returned to the city to enjoy moments like these, a luxury afforded by his success as a writer of television scripts that lived on in re-runs and syndications and that supplied a stream of annuity checks that flooded Adam’s bank account.
Adam uncoiled from his chair and stretched slowly, a habit he was absorbing from his daily yoga classes. He bounced from the kitchen around a corner in his loft and landed in a chair in front of his computer that rested on a simple brown wooden table, facing a large widow. A row of healthy plants lined the windowsill and created a wall of green behind which the computer keyboard, monitor, and typist were hidden from the outside world.
Adam swayed in his chair as he surfed to a website titled Not Daily. He nodded and smiled, pleased to see a new posting on pharmaceutical companies in his column, which was called The Looking Glass. As an accomplished author, Adam always enjoyed seeing his words appear in wider circulation. He liked having conversations published that he had conceived in private. Exposing his thoughts was risky, however, because the sting of rejection remained constant; success provided comforts that were momentary while the ridicule of an audience walking out on him would be indelible.
Adam pulled his cursor down through the website to skim the section of comments beneath the new column when his cell phone rang. Glancing at the screen of his phone, Adam kept scrolling through the comments as he answered. "Hi Mom, how are you?"
His mother said. "Rise and shine honey! How is your weather today?"
Adam jumped to another page on his computer, displaying a weather forecast, then said. "Overcast and the temperatures are falling. I think we will have snow this evening."
Adam's mother warned. "Remember to lay out your gloves and hat."
Adam clicked on a link on the weather report to watch a video of dog caught in a flood as he answered "I will Mom. What are you and Dad doing today?"
His mother said. "If I can pull your father out of bed, we will take our morning walk, then we have our bridge lesson later this morning. After lunch, we are going to hear a concert at the university. The school orchestra is playing show tunes. We have friends coming for a mismatch pot-luck dinner – the menu is whatever you want to use up in your freezer"
Adam felt an alarm signal on his phone and he cut short the conversation. "Mom, that sounds terrific. Sorry but I have to get ready for work."
His mother asked. "Is it another interview?"
Adam said. "Yes, it is an assignment for a major magazine, I can't tell you which one. I think this may be the one that breaks everything open for me."
His mother finished. "I will keep my fingers crossed. Good luck and stay warm. I love you, Edwin."
Edwin replied. "I love you too, Mom. Have a great day. 'Bye."
The phone call had broken Edwin's daydream of being Adam. Edwin lived in a tiny walk-up studio apartment which offered only 200 square feet of living space but boasted 10’ ceilings. Edwin stood up and folded the legs of the table he used for dining, then placed the table in a drawer under the sofa in his living/bedroom. The salary that Edwin earned as a journalist did not allow for luxuries, much less a spacious loft.
Edwin had secured his job as a columnist for an on-line magazine, named Not Daily, after submitting writing samples of his free-lance journalism, including his favorite, a no-names interview with a stock trader who provided an eyewitness account of the last frenzied months at Lehman Brothers before its bankruptcy. After being interviewed by the publisher and editor of the Not Daily website, Edwin was offered a job as a columnist. The salary was just a living wage, but Edwin would join the ranks of a stable of contributing journalists, including Adam.
Adam was the journalistic equivalent of a disruptive technology, a writer who sought to displace established news reporting and shake up the media. The initial column that Adam had posted was ground-breaking. Adam declared himself a truth-seeker whose goal was to return news to a neutral state, slanted neither with a liberal bias nor a conservative bias. Adam promised to produce investigative pieces that would expose the inner workings of the city. Adam explained that the objectivity of each piece would be crowd-sourced: each column would be open for editing, like entries in Wikipedia, provided that the public editors disclosed their identities under a verified name. After a week’s worth of editing by the public, each column would have a meter attached, and readers could vote and rate the finished column with one of three labels: L(eft) for liberal bias, R(ight) for conservative bias, or T(ruth) for neutral bias. The votes would be tallied for a day, and thereafter the column would forever be branded with one of the three letters.
Finally, Adam also promised that he would not post a column himself. Although he would author the story, after the story was complete, Adam would send the story to three people: the subject of the story, the object of the story (the person affected by the actions of the story’s subject), and the by-stander, a third party witness to the story. Only if one of these three people posted the story on-line in Adam’s column, The Looking Glass, would the piece see the light of day.
Readers loved this cocktail of social juice, journalism, and judgment. The first story posted in Adam’s column had described the dissolving marriage of a hedge fund manager and his wife and implicated the couple’s nanny as a contributing factor (though not the cause of the discord). It was unclear who had posted the story in The Looking Glass: the husband, the wife or (allegedly) the couple’s maid. In any event, once posted, the column was annotated and revised by Adam’s readers, with attributed changes appearing then disappearing. When the dust had settled and the public editing period for the column had ended, the readers had voted the column as L(eft), apparently because of the final portrayal of all women involved in the story as victims of a patriarchal society, in one way or another.
Edwin liked being part of Not Daily and looked forward to meeting Adam. For his part as a contributing columnist, Edwin used his press credential for entry to the many social events in the city, and he wrote profiles of the young and wealthy who put on the city’s circuses. After standing just outside of Adam’s limelight, however, Edwin started to consider writing about the city’s bread-making activities, stories involving the city’s business leaders, which Adam seemed to prefer. Edwin was excited when his editor asked Edwin to fill-in for Adam, while Adam took a brief holiday. The editor sent Edwin a story proposed by Adam: the unexpected death of a Cabot Young banker, Simon Root.
Risks and challenges
The biggest risk is obtaining the backing and support of others. The Kickstarter community may agree with the literary agents I contacted – Struck is not ready (ever) for prime time. If so, my bad.
Another challenge: this is a first time experiment in social capitalism. The learning curve may be steep.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (45 days)