Excerpt

The Designee

T.C. Boyle

September 14, 2017 
The following appears in Issue 2 of, The Iowa Review Volume 47. T.C. Boyle has published fourteen novels and ten collections of short stories. He won the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988 for his novel World’s End, and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Tortilla Curtain in 1995. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Santa Barbara.

The Boredom

What he couldn’t have imagined, even in his bleakest assessments of the future, was the boredom. He’d sat there in the hospital while Jan lay dying, holding her hand after each of the increasingly desperate procedures that had left her bald and emaciated and looking like no one he’d ever known, thinking only of the bagel with cream cheese he’d have for dinner and the identical one he’d have for breakfast in the morning. If he allowed himself to think beyond that, it was only of the empty space in the bed beside him and of the practical concerns that kept everything else at bay: the estate, the funeral, the cemetery, the first shovel of dirt ringing on the lid of the coffin, closure. There was his daughter, but she had no more experience of this kind of free-fall than he, and she had her own life and her own problems all the way across the country in New York, which was where she retreated after the funeral. A grief counsellor came to the house and murmured in his direction for an hour or two, people sent him cards, books and newspaper clippings in a great rolling wave that broke over him and as quickly receded, but nobody addressed the boredom.

He got up at first light, as he always had. The house was silent. He dressed, ate, washed up. Then he sat down with a book or the newspaper, but his powers of concentration weren’t what they once were, and he wound up staring at the walls. The walls just stood there. No dog barked, there was no sound of cars from the street—even the leaky faucet in the downstairs bathroom seemed to have fixed itself. He could have taken up golf, he supposed, but he hated golf. He could have played cards or gone down to the senior center, but he hated cards and he hated seniors, especially the old ladies, who came at you in a gabbling flock and couldn’t begin to replace Jan anyway, not if there were ten thousand of them. The only time he was truly happy was when he was asleep, and even that was denied him half the time.

The walls just stood there. No dog barked. The water didn’t even drip.

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The Letter

The letter came out of nowhere, a thin sheet of paper in a standard envelope that bore a foreign stamp (England: Queen Elizabeth in brownish silhouette). It was buried in the usual avalanche of flyers, free offers and coupons, and he very nearly tossed it in the recycling bin along with all the rest, but it was his luck that at the last minute it slipped free and drifted in a graceful fluttering arc to the pavement at his feet. He bent for it, noticing that it was addressed to him, using his full name—Mason Kenneth Alimonti—and that the return address was of a bank in London. Curious, he wedged the sheaf of ads under one arm and pried open the envelope right there in the driveway while the sun beat at the back of his neck and people drifted by like ghosts out on the street.

Dear Mr. Alimonti, the letter began, kindly accept my sincere apologies for contacting you out of the blue like this but something very urgent and important has come to our notice and we seek your consent for the mutual interest of all.

His first thought was that this had something to do with the estate, with Jan’s death, more paperwork, more hassle, as if they couldn’t leave well enough alone, and he glanced up a moment, distracted. Suddenly—and this was odd, maybe even a portent of some sort—the morning seemed to buzz to life, each sound coming to him separately and yet blending in a whole, from the chittering of a squirrel in the branches overhead to a snatch of a child’s laughter and the squall of a radio dopplering through the open window of a passing car. And more: every blade of grass, every leaf shone as if the color green had been created anew.

The letter was in his hand still, the junk mail still tucked under one arm. When Jan was alive, he’d bring the mail in to her where she’d be sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee and a book of crosswords, and now he was standing there motionless in his own driveway, hearing things, seeing things—and smelling things too, the grass, jasmine, a whiff of gasoline from the mower that suddenly started up next door. I am Graham Shovelin, the letter went on, Operations & IT director, Yorkshire Bank PLC, and personal funds manager to the late Mr. Jing J. Kim, an American citizen. He died recently, along with his wife and only son while holidaying in Kuala Lumpur and was flown back to England for burial. In our last auditing, we discovered a dormant account of his with L38,886,000 in his name.

This is a story, he was thinking, a made-up story, and what did it have to do with him? Still, and though he didn’t have his glasses with him so that the letters seemed to bloat and fade on the page before him, he read on as if he couldn’t help himself: During our investigations, we discovered that he nominated his son as his next of kin. All efforts to trace his other relations have proved impossible. The account has been dormant for some time since his death. Therefore, we decided to contact you as an American citizen, to seek your consent to enable us to nominate you as the next of kin to the deceased and transfer the funds to you as the designated heir to the deceased.

There was more—a proposed split of the proceeds, 60% for him, 38% for the bank, 2% to be set aside for expenses both parties might incur (if any) during the transaction. At the bottom of the page was a phone number and a request to contact the bank if the above-mentioned transaction should be of interest, with a final admonition: Please also contact me if you object to this proposal. Object? Who could object? He did a quick calculation in his head, still good with numbers though he’d been retired from the college for fifteen years now: 60% of 38,886,000 was 23 million and something. Pounds, that is. And what was the conversion rate, one point-two or -three to the dollar?

It was a lot of money. Which he didn’t need, or not desperately anyway, not the way most people needed it. While it was a sad fact that the bulk of what he’d set aside for retirement had been swallowed up in treatments for Jan the insurers had labelled “experimental” and thus non-reimbursable, he still had enough left, what with social security and his 401(k) to live at least modestly for as long as he lasted. This offer, this letter that had him standing stock still in his own driveway as if he’d lost his bearings like half the other old men in the world, was too good to be true, he knew that. Or he felt it anyway.

But still. Thirty million dollars, give or take. Certainly there were places he’d like to visit—Iceland, for one, the Galapagos, for another—and it would be nice to leave his daughter and his grandson something more than a mortgaged house, funeral expenses and a stack of bills. There were stranger things in this world—people won the lottery, got grants, prizes, estates went unclaimed all over the place, and it wasn’t as if he was desperate. A voice warned him against it, but what did he have to lose? The cost of a phone call?

 

The Phone Call

The phone picked up on the third ring and the first thing he heard was music, a soft trickle of music that was neither classical nor pop, but something in between, and for a moment he thought he was being put on hold before the music cut off abruptly and a deep crisp voice—so deep it surprised him—swelled inside the receiver. “Yorkshire Bank, PLC, Graham Shovelin speaking. How may I help you?”

He’d rehearsed a little speech in his head, along the lines of establishing his authority as the person solicited rather than soliciting, but it deserted him now. “Um, I,” he stuttered, “I, uh, received your letter?”

There was the faintest tick of hesitation, and then the voice came back at him, so deep he couldn’t help thinking of Paul Robeson singing “Old Man River” on one of the old 78s he grandmother used to play for him when he was a boy. “Oh, yes, of course—delighted to hear from you. We have your number here on the computer screen, and it matches our records . . . still, one can never be too careful. Would you be so kind as to identify yourself, please?”

“Mason Alimonti?”

“Mason Kenneth Alimonti?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, well, wonderful. We’ll need verification of your identity before we can proceed, of course, but for the moment, since we’re just beginning to get acquainted, I am satisfied. Now, what do you think of our proposal?”

He was in the living room, sitting in the armchair under the reading lamp, using the old landline phone his daughter told him he ought to give up since the cell was all anybody needed these days and she really didn’t know anyone, not a single soul, who still paid for a landline. But for something like this—an overseas call—he somehow felt better relying on the instrument he’d been using for thirty years and more. “I don’t know,” he said. “It sounds too good to be true—”

The man on the other end of the line let out a booming laugh, a laugh that scraped bottom and then sailed all the way up into the high register, a good-natured laugh, delighted, a laugh of assurance and joy that proclaimed all was right with the world. “Well, of course, it is,” the man boomed, and here came the laugh again. “But sometimes we just have to accept the fact that luck has come our way—and be grateful, Mr. Alimonti, kick up our heels and embrace what life brings us, don’t you think?”

For a moment, he was confused. He felt as if he’d gone out of his body, everything before him—the loveseat, the houseplants, the blank TV screen—shifting on him so that it all seemed to be floating in air. The phone was in his hand. He was having a conversation. Somebody—the man on the other end of the line—wanted something from him.

“Mr. Alimonti—you there?”

“Yes,” he heard himself say. There was something odd about the man’s accent—it was British, proper British, Masterpiece Theater British, but the syntax was off somehow. Or the rhythm, maybe it was the rhythm. “Why me?” he asked suddenly.

Another laugh, not quite so deep or pleased with itself as the last. “Because you’ve lived an unimpeachable life, because you pay your debts and you’re as solid an American citizen as anyone could ever hope to find. Oh, rest assured we’ve vetted you thoroughly—as we have each of the nine other final candidates.”

Nine other candidates? The receiver went heavy in his hand—molded plastic, but it might as well have been cast of iron.

“Am I hearing surprise on your end of the line, Mr. Alimonti? Of course, you understand, we must protect ourselves, in the event that our first choice doesn’t wish to accept our offer for any reason—and I can’t really imagine that happening, can you?—but as you are the first on our list, the single most qualified individual we’ve examined to date, we have to say—I have to say—that we are delighted you’ve contacted us ahead of any of the others.”

He felt a wave of relief sweep over him. The phone was just a phone again. He said, “What next?”

“Next?” the voice echoed. “Well, obviously we have to make certain that you’re the man for us—and that we’re the men for you too. Do you have any question about the figures I presented in my letter to you? You agree that a sixty/thirty-eight percent split is equable? You’re content with that?”

He said nothing. He was back in himself, back in the moment, but he didn’t know what to say—did the man want him to negotiate, to quibble over the way the money would be split?

“Again, let me anticipate you, Mr. Alimonti. You are wondering, no doubt, what’s in it for us?” The laugh again, but truncated now, all-business. “Self-interest, pure and simple. If this account has not been claimed within a five-year period, the whole of it goes to the government and we receive nothing, though we’ve been the guardians of the late Mr. Kim’s fortune for a quarter century now. We need you, Mr. Alimonti, and that is the bottom line. We need an American citizen in good standing, with an unblemished record and absolute probity, to be the designee for your fellow American, Mr. Kim.” A pause. “Otherwise, none of us receives a shilling.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Oh, nothing really, not for the moment. We’ll need banking information, of course, in order to transfer the funds, and our solicitors will have to draw up a contract so as to be sure there are no misunderstandings, but all that can come in time—the only question now is, are you with us? Can we count on you? Can I hang up this phone and check the other nine names off my list?”

His heart was pounding in his chest, the way it did when he overexerted himself. His mouth was dry. The world seemed to be tipping under his feet, sliding away from him. Thirty million dollars. “Can I have some time to think it over?”

“Sadly, we have but two weeks before the government accounting office swoops in to confiscate this account—and you know how they are, the government, no different, I suppose than in your country, eh? A belly that’s never full. Of course you can think it over, but for your sake—and mine—think quickly, Mr. Alimonti, think quickly.”

 

A Night To Think It Over

The rest of the day, he really couldn’t do much more than sit—first in the armchair and then out on the deck in one of the twin recliners there—his mind working at double speed. He couldn’t stop thinking about England, a country he’d visited only once, when he was in his twenties, along with Jan, in the year between grad school and the start of his first job, his daughter not yet even a speck on the horizon. They’d gone to Scotland too, to Edinburgh and where was it? Glasgow. He remembered he took to calling Jan “Lassie,” just for the fun of it, and how one day, leaving a fish and chips shop, she’d got ahead of him on the street and he cried out, “Wait up, Lassie,” and every woman’s head turned. That was England. Or Scotland, anyway. Same difference. And they had banks there, of course they did, London the banking capital of Europe, though he couldn’t remember actually having gone into one. He closed his eyes. Saw some sort of proud antique building, old, very old, with pillars and marble floors, brass fixtures, an elaborate worked-iron grate between customers and tellers, but here again, he realized, he was bringing up an image from one BBC drama or another, and what was that one called where they showed the lives not only of the lords and ladies, but the servants too? That had been Jan’s favorite. She’d watch the episodes over and over, and sometimes, at breakfast, she’d address him as “My Lord” and put on a fake accent. For the fun of it.

Yes, sure. And where was the fun in life now?

At some point, when the shadows began to thicken in the trees, he went into the house and clicked on the TV—sports, a blur of action, a ball sailing high against a sky crippled with the onset of night—but he couldn’t concentrate on it, and really, what did it matter who won? Somebody had won before and somebody had lost and it would happen again. And again. Unless there was a tie—were there ties in baseball? He couldn’t remember. He thought so. In fact, he distinctly remembered a tie once, but maybe that was only an exhibition game . . . Or an All-Star game, wasn’t that it?

It was past eight by the time he remembered he ought to eat something, and he went to the refrigerator, extracted the stained pot there and ladled out half a bowl of the vegetable-beef stew he’d made last week—or maybe it was the week before. No matter: he’d been rigorous about keeping it refrigerated and in any case the microwave would kill anything, bacterial or otherwise, that might have tried to gain a foothold in the depths of the pot. The important thing was not to waste anything in a world of waste. He poured himself a glass of milk, scraped two suspicious spots from a slice of sourdough bread and put it in the toaster, then sat down to eat.

The walls just stood there. But the silence gave way to a sound from the other room, where the TV was, a long drawn-out cheer and the voice of an announcer unleashing his enthusiasm on the drama of the moment, and that was something at least. What was the time difference between here and England? Eight hours? Nine? Whatever it was, it was too early there to call yet. He was thinking he might like to endow a fellowship in Jan’s name at the college—maybe in the Art Department; she’d always liked art—and if he gave enough they’d install a plaque, maybe even name a building after her. Or a wing. A wing at least. Maybe that was more practical, really. He saw her face then, not as it was in those last months, but her real face, her true face, fleshed out and beautiful even into her seventies, and he pushed himself up from the table, scraped his bowl over the trash can and set it on the rack in the dishwasher, decided now, his mind clear, really clear, for the first time all day.

In the morning, after breakfast (no rush—he wouldn’t want to come across as over-eager), he would settle himself in the armchair, pick up the phone and make the call.

 

The Second Phone Call

Of all days, this was the one he wound up oversleeping, so that it past eight by the time he sat down with his morning coffee and punched-in the bank’s number with a forefinger that didn’t seem to want to steady itself, as if this wasn’t his finger at all but some stranger’s that had been grafted on in the middle of the night. This time, there was no music and the phone picked up on the first ring. He was all set to tell Mr. Shovelin—Graham, can I call you Graham?—that he’d found his man, that they’d grow rich together, though, of course, as a bank employee, he didn’t imagine that Mr. Shovelin would actually get any of the money, but a bonus maybe, there had to be that possibility, didn’t there? Imagine his surprise then, when it wasn’t Shovelin, with his rich booming basso, who answered the phone, but a woman. “Yorkshire Bank, PLC, Chevette Afunu-Jones speaking,” she said in a thin weary voice. “How may I help you?”

Again, he drew a blank. This whole business made him nervous. The phone made him nervous. London made him nervous. “I was,” he began, “I mean, I wanted to—is Mr. Shovelin there?”

A pause, the sound of a keyboard softly clicking. “Oh, Mr. Alimonti, forgive me,” she said, her voice warming till you could have spread it on toast. “Mr. Shovelin, whom I am sorry to say is away from his desk at the moment, instructed me to anticipate your call. And let me say, from all the good things he’s had to say about you, it is a real pleasure to hear your voice.”

He didn’t quite know how to respond to this so he simply murmured, “Thank you,” and left it at that. There was another pause, as if she were waiting for him to go on. “When do you expect him back?” he asked. “Because—well, it’s urgent, you know? I have some news for him?”

“Well, I can only hope it’s the good news all of us on Mr. Shovelin’s staff have been waiting to hear,” she said, her voice deepening, opening out to him in invitation. “Rest assured that Mr. Shovelin has given me full details and, in my capacity as his executive secretary, the authority to act on his behalf, though he’s—well, he’s indisposed today, poor man, and you can’t begin to imagine what he’s had to go through.” Here she dropped her voice to a whisper: “Cancer.”

This hit him like a blow out of nowhere. Jan’s face was right there, hovering over him. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.

“Believe me, the man is a lion, and he will fight this thing the way he has fought all his life—and when he returns from his treatment this afternoon, I know he will be lifted up by your good news, buoyed, that is . . .” Her voice had grown tearful. “I can’t tell you how much he respects you,” she whispered.

What he heard, though he wasn’t really listening on an intuitive level, was an odd similarity to the accent or emphasis or whatever it was he’d detected in Shovelin’s speech, and he wondered if somehow the two were related, not that it mattered, really, so long as they stayed the course and checked those other nine names off the list. He said, “Please tell him from me that I hope he’s feeling better and, well, that I’ve decided to take him up on his offer—”

She clapped her hands together, one quick celebratory clap that reverberated through the phone like the cymbal that strikes up the band, before her voice was in his ear again: “Oh, I can’t tell you how much this will mean to him, how much it means to us all here at the Yorkshire Bank PLC . . . Mr. Alimonti, you are a savior, you really are.”

He was trying to picture her, this British woman all the way across the country and the sea too, a young woman by the sound of her voice, youngish anyway, and he saw her in business dress, with stockings and heels and legs as finely shaped as an athlete’s. She was a runner, not simply a jogger, but a runner, and he saw her pumping her arms and dashing through what, Hyde Park?, in the dewy mornings before coming to work with her high heels tucked in her purse. He felt warm. He felt good. He felt as if things were changing for the better.

“Now, Mr. Alimonti,” she said, her voice low, almost a purr, “what we need you to do is this, just to get the ball rolling—officially, you understand?”

“Yes?”

“We will need your banking information so that we can begin transferring the funds—or at least cutting you a preliminary check—before the Royal Fiduciary Bureau for Unclaimed Accounts moves on this.”

“But, but,” he stammered, “what about the contract we were supposed to—?”

“Oh, don’t you worry, darling—may I call you darling? Because you are, you really are darling—”

He gave a kind of shrug of assent, but nothing came out of his mouth.

“Don’t you worry,” she repeated. “Mr. Shovelin will take care of that.”

 

The First Disbursement

Once the banking details were in place (within three working days, and he had to hand it to Shovelin for pulling strings and expediting things), he received his first disbursement check from the dormant account. It was in the amount of $20,000 and it came special delivery with a note from Shovelin, who called it “earnest money” and asked him to hold off for two weeks before depositing it in the new account, “because of red tape on this end, which is regrettable, but a simple fact of doing business in a banking arena as complex as this.” The check was drawn on the Yorkshire Bank PLC, it bore the signature of Graham Shovelin, Operations Director, and it was printed on the sort of fine, high-grade paper you associated with stock certificates. When it came, when the doorbell rang and the mailman handed him the envelope, Mason accepted it with trembling hands, and for the longest time he just sat there in his armchair, admiring it. He was sitting down, yes, but inside he was doing cartwheels. This was the real deal. He was rich. The first thing he was going to do—and the idea came to him right then and there—was help out his daughter. Angelica, divorced two years now, with a son in high school and barely scraping by, was the pastry chef at a tony restaurant in Rye, New York; her dream was to open her own place on her own terms, with her own cuisine, and now he was going to be able to make it happen for her. Maybe she’d even name it after him. Mason’s. That had a certain ring to it, didn’t it?

That evening, just as he was ladling out his nightly bowl of stew, the phone rang. It was Shovelin, sounding none-the-worse for wear. “Mason?” he boomed. “May I call you Mason, that is, considering that we are now business partners?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He found that he was smiling. Alone there in his deserted house where the silence reigned supreme, he was smiling.

“Good, good, and please call me Graham . . . Now, the reason I’m calling is I want to know if you’ve received the disbursement?”

“I have, yes, and thank you very much for that, but how are you? Your health, I mean? Because I know how hard it can be—I went through the same thing with Jan, with my wife—?”

The voice on the other end seemed to deflate. “My health?”

“I’m sorry, I really don’t want to stick my nose in, but your secretary told me you were, well, undergoing treatment?”

“Oh, that, yes. Very unfortunate. And I do wish she hadn’t confided in you—but I assure you it won’t affect our business relationship, not a whit, so don’t you worry.” There was a long pause. “Kidney,” Shovelin said, his voice a murmur now. “Metastatic. They’re giving me six months—”

“Six months?”

“Unless—well, unless I can qualify for an experimental treatment the insurance won’t even begin to cover, which my physician tells me is almost a miracle, with something like a ninety percent remission rate . . . but really, forgive me, Mason—I didn’t call you all the way from England to talk about my health problems. I’m a banker—and we have a transaction to discuss.”

He didn’t respond, but he was thinking of Jan, of course he was, because how can anybody—insurers, doctors, hospitals—put a price on the life of a human being?

“What I need you to do, Mason—Mason, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Good. I need you to deposit twenty thousand dollars American in the account we’ve opened up at your bank, so as to cover the funds I’ve transferred to you until they clear. You see, I will need access to those funds in order to grease certain palms in the Royal Fiduciary Bureau—you have this expression, do you not? Greasing palms?”

“I don’t—I mean, I’ll have to make a withdrawal from my retirement, which might take a few days—”

“A few days?” Shovelin threw back at him in a tone of disbelief. “Don’t you appreciate that time is of the essence here? Everyone in this world, sadly enough, is not as upright as you and I. I’m talking about graft, Mason, graft at the highest levels of government bureaucracy. We must grease the palms—or the wheels, isn’t that how you say it?—to make certain that there are no hitches with the full disbursement of the funds.”

There was a silence. He could hear the uncertain wash of the connection, as of the sea probing the shore. England was a long way off. “Okay,” he heard himself say into the void.

But it wasn’t a void: Shovelin was there still. “There are too few men of honor in this world,” he said ruefully. “Do you know what they say of me in the banking industry? ‘Shovelin’s word is his honor and his honor is his word.’” He let out a sigh. “I only wish it were true for the unscrupulous bureaucrats we’re dealing with here. The palm greasers.” He let out a chuckle, deep and rolling and self-amused. “Or, to be more precise, the greasees.”

 

A Problem With the Check

Two weeks later, he was on the phone again, and if he was upset, he couldn’t help himself.

“Yes, yes,” Shovelin said dismissively. “I understand your concern, but let me assure you, Mason, we are on top of this matter.”

“But the people at my bank? The Bank of America? They say there’s a problem with the check—”

“A small matter. All I can say is that it’s a good thing we used this as a test case, because think of the mess we’d be in if we’d deposited the whole sum of $30,558,780, which, by the way, is what our accountants have determined your share to be, exclusive of fees. If any.”

He was seeing the scene at the bank all over again, the cold look of the teller, who seemed to think he was some sort of flimflam man—or worse, senile, useless, old. They’d sat him down at the desk of the bank manager, a full-figured young woman with plump butterfly lips and a pair of black eyes that bored right into you, and she’d explained that the check had been drawn on insufficient funds and was, in effect, worthless. Embarrassed—worse, humiliated—he’d shuffled out into the sunlight blinking as if he’d been locked up in a cave all this time.

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“Just what you—and I, and Miss Afunu-Jones—have been doing: exerting a little control, a little patience, Mason. The fact is, I am going to have to ask you to make another deposit. There is one man at the R.F.B. standing in our way, a scoundrel, really—and I’ll name him, why not? Richard Hyde-Jeffers. One of those men born with the gold spoon in his mouth but who is always greedy for more, as if that were the only subject they tutored him in at Oxford: greed.”

“He wants a bribe?”

“Exactly.”

“How much?’

“He wants twenty thousand more. Outrageous, I know. But you’ve—we’ve—already invested twenty thousand in him, the greedy pig, and we wouldn’t want to see that go down the drain—do you use that expression, ‘down the drain’?—or watch the deal of a lifetime wither on the vine right in front of our eyes.”

Shovelin was silent a moment, allowing him to process all this. Which, he had to admit, was difficult, increasingly difficult. Nothing was as it seemed. The house slipped away from him again, everything in motion, as if an earthquake had struck. Spots drifted before his eyes. The phone was cast of iron.

“I promise you,” Shovelin said, his voice gone deeper yet in a sort of croon, “as I live and breathe, this will be the end of it.”

 

The Flight to Heathrow

He’d never been comfortable in the air, never liked the feeling of helplessness and mortal peril that came over him as the great metallic cage lifted off the tarmac and hurtled into the atmosphere, and over the years he’d made a point of flying as little as possible. His most memorable—and relaxing—vacations had been motor trips he and Jan had taken, usually to one national park or the other or just exploring little out-of-the way towns in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia. The last flight he’d been on—to Hawaii, with Jan, to celebrate their golden anniversary, or was it the silver?—had been nightmarishly bumpy, so much so he’d thought at one point the plane was going down and he’d wound up, embarrassingly, having to use the air-sickness bag. He couldn’t help thinking about that as he found his way down the crowded aisle to his seat in economy, both his knees throbbing from his descent down the jetbridge and his lower back burning from the effort of lugging his oversized suitcase, which he’d randomly stuffed with far too many clothes and even an extra pair of shoes, though he was only staying two nights in London. At the expense—and insistence—of Yorkshire Bank PLC.

In the four months that had dragged by since he’d first received the letter, his expenses had mounted to the point at which he’d begun to question the whole business. That little voice again. It nagged him, told him he was a fool, being taken, and yet every time he protested, Graham—or sometimes Chevette—telephoned to mollify him. Yes, there was graft, and yes, part of the problem was Graham’s health, which had kept him out of the office at crucial junctures in the negotiations with Mr. Hyde-Jeffers of the Royal Fiduciary Bureau, but he needed to have faith, not simply in the Yorkshire Bank PLC, but in Graham Shovelin’s word, which was his honor, as his honor was his word. Still, Mason had posted funds for fees, bribes, something Chevette called “vigorish,” and beyond that to help defray Graham’s medical expenses and even, once, to underwrite a graduation party for Chevette’s niece, Evangeline, whose father had been run over by a bus and tragically killed the very week of his daughter’s graduation (Mason had been presented with an itemized bill for the gown, corsage, limousine and dinner at a Moroccan restaurant that had cost a staggering $1,500). All to be reimbursed, of course, once the funds were released.

It was Graham who’d suggested he come to London to see for himself “how the land lies,” as he put it. “After all this time, to tell me that you don’t have absolute faith in me, my friend—my friend and partner—is to wound me deeply,” Graham had said, pouring himself into the phone one late night in a conversation that must have gone on for an hour or more. “You hurt my reputation,” he said in a wounded voice, “and worse than that, Mason, worse than that, you hurt my pride. And really, for a man in my condition, facing an uncertain future and the final accounting up above, what else is there for me to hold onto? Beyond love. Love and friendship, Mason.” He’d let out a deep sigh. “I am sending you an airline ticket by overnight mail,” he said. “You want your eyes opened? I will open them for you.”

 

Two Days in London

If the walls just stood there back at home, he didn’t know it. His life, the life of the widower, of the griever, of the terminally bored, had changed, and changed radically. Graham Shovelin himself took time off from work—and his chemo—to pick him up at the airport in a shining maroon Mercedes and bring him to his hotel, all expenses paid. Of course, there was a little contretemps at the airport, Mason, exhausted from a cramped and sleepless night and at eighty no steadier on his feet than he’d been at seventy-nine or expected to be at eighty-one, had mistaken this heavyset fortyish man with the shaved head and hands the size of baseball mitts for a porter and not the Operations Director of the Yorkshire Bank PLC. But then he hadn’t expected him to be black. Not that he had any prejudices whatsoever—over the years he’d seen and worked with all types of students at the college and made a point of giving as much of himself as he could to each of them, no matter where they came from or what they looked like—but he just hadn’t pictured Graham Shovelin this way. And that was his failing, of course. And maybe, he thought, that had to do with Masterpiece Theater too, with the lords and ladies and the proper English butler and under-butler and all the rest. So Graham was black, that was all. Nothing wrong with that.

The hotel he took him to wasn’t more than a twenty-minute drive from the airport, and it wasn’t really a hotel, as far as Mason could see, but more one of these bed-and-breakfast sort of places, and the staff there was black too—and so were most of the people on the streets. But he was tired. Exhausted. Defeated before he even began. He found his bed in a back room and slept a full twelve hours, longer than he could ever remember having slept since he was a boy at home with his parents. In fact, when he finally did wake, he couldn’t believe it was still dark outside and he had to tap the crystal of his watch to make sure it hadn’t stopped.

He lay there for a long while after waking, in a big bed in a small room all the way on the other side of the world, feeling pleased with himself, proud of himself, having an adventure. He pushed himself up, fished through his suitcase for a pair of clean underwear and socks. Just then, an ambrosial smell, something exotic, spicy, began seeping in under the door and seemed to take possession of the room, and he realized he was hungry, ravenous actually. Vaguely wondering if he was too late for breakfast—or too early—he eased open the door and found himself in a dim hallway that gave onto a brightly-lit room from which the odor of food was emanating, a room he took to be the kitchen.

He heard a murmur of voices. His knees hurt. He could barely seem to lift his feet. But he made his way down the hall and paused at the door, not knowing what the protocol was in a bed-and-breakfast (he and Jan had always stayed in hotels or motor courts). He gave a light knock on the doorframe in the same instant that the room jumped to life: a gas stove, spotless, with a big aluminum pot set atop it; a table and chairs, oilcloth top, half a dozen beer bottles; and someone sitting at the table, a big man, black, in a white sleeveless T-shirt: Graham. It was Graham Shovelin himself, a newspaper spread before him and a beer clutched in one big hand.

 

The Explanation

“Really, Mason, you must forgive me for any misunderstanding or inconvenience regarding the accommodations, but I am only acting in your best interest—our best interest—in putting you here, in this quite reasonable bed and breakfast hotel rather than one of those drafty anonymous five-star places in the heart of the city, which is where Mr. Oliphant, President of the Yorkshire Bank PLC, had urged me to put you up. And why? To save our partnership any further out-of-pocket expense—unnecessary expense—until we are able to have the funds released in full. Tell me, have I done right?”

Mason was seated now at the table across from Shovelin, a bowl of stew that wasn’t all that much different from what he ate at home steaming at his elbow while a woman who’d appeared out of nowhere provided bread and butter and poured him a glass of beer. She was black too, thin as a long-distance runner and dressed in a colorful wrap-around garment of some sort. Her hair was piled atop her head in a massive bouffant and her feet were bare. She was very pretty and for a moment Mason was so distracted by her he wasn’t able to respond.

“Just tell me, Mason,” Shovelin repeated. “If I’ve done wrong, let me know and I’ll get in the car this minute and take you to the Savoy—or perhaps you prefer the Hilton?”

He wasn’t tired, that wasn’t it at all—just the opposite, he was excited. A new place, new people, new walls! And yet he couldn’t quite focus on what Shovelin was saying, so he just shrugged.

“I take that to be accord, then?” Shovelin boomed. “Happily, happily!” he cried. “Let’s toast to it!” and he raised his glass, tapped it against Mason’s, and downed the contents in a gulp. His eyes reddened and he touched one massive fist to his breastbone, as if fighting down indigestion, then turned back to Mason. “Now,” he said, so abruptly it almost sounded like the sudden startled bark of a dog, “let’s get down to business. This lovely lady here, in the event you haven’t already divined her identity, is none other than my executive secretary, Miss Afunu-Jones, who is taking time out of her hectic schedule to devote herself to your comfort during your brief stay. She has my full confidence, and anything you feel you must say to me you can say to her and she can handle any and all inquiries . . .” His voice trailed off. “In the event . . . well, in the event I am, how shall I put it?, indisposed.”

Mason felt his heart clench. He could see the pain etched in the younger man’s face and he felt the sadness there, felt the shadow of the mortality that had claimed Jan and would one day claim everyone alive, his daughter, his grandson, this man who’d reached out across the ocean to him and become not only his friend but his confidant.

Shovelin produced a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “Forgive me for injecting an element of what, pathos, into this little party meant to welcome you to our land, and I know it’s not professional”—here he employed the handkerchief again—“but I am only human.” He looked up at the woman, who hovered behind them. “Chevette, perhaps you will take over for me, and give Mr. Alimonti—Mason—the explanation he’s come for—”

Chevette, her eyes filled too, pulled up a chair and sat beside Mason, so close their elbows were touching. She took her time, buttering a slice of bread and handing it to him before taking a sip of beer herself and looking him directly in the eye. “We will see this business through to the end, believe me, Mason,” she said, her voice soft and hesitant. “We will not desert you. You have my word on that.”

“About tomorrow,” Shovelin prompted.

Her eyes jumped to his and then back to Mason’s. “Yes,” she said, “tomorrow. Tomorrow we will take you to the central office, where you will meet with our president, Mr. Oliphant, and iron out the final details to your satisfaction.” She paused, touched a finger to her lips. “I don’t know that all this is necessary, but as you seem to have lost faith in us—”

“Oh, no, no,” he said, fastening on her eyes, beautiful eyes, really, eyes the color of the birch beer he used to relish as a boy on family jaunts to Vermont.

“But the explanation is simple, it truly is. What I mean is, just look at us. We are not wealthy, we are not even accepted by many in white society, and I’m sorry to have to repeat it like a mantra, but we are diligent, Mr. Alimonti, diligent and faithful. The fact is, as my—as Mr. Shovelin—has told you, we are dealing with corruption, with thieves, and all the unconscionable holdup in this matter is to be laid at their feet, not ours, Mason, not ours.” And here, whether conscious of it or not, she dropped a hand to his thigh and gave him the faintest squeeze of reassurance.

 

Unfortunate Circumstances

The next day, his last day, and not even a full day at that, as his plane was scheduled to depart at 6:45 in the evening, he was awakened from a dreamless sleep by Chevette, who stood at the foot of his bed, softly calling his name. She was dressed in the sort of business attire he’d envisioned when he’d first heard her voice over the phone, she was wearing lipstick and eyeshadow and her hair had been brushed out over her shoulders. “Mr. Alimonti,” she said, “Mason, wake up. I have some bad news.”

He pushed himself up on his elbows, blinking at her. His knee throbbed. He seemed to have a headache. For a minute he didn’t know where he was.

“Unfortunate circumstances have arisen,” she was saying. “Graham has had a seizure and they’ve taken him to hospital—”

He fumbled to find the words. “Hospital? Is he—will he?—”

She made a wide sweeping gesture with one hand. “That is not for me to say. That”—her eyes hardened—“is in the hands of the insurers, who keep denying him the lifesaving treatment he so desperately needs. And we, we are but humble bank employees and we are by no means rich, Mason, by no means. We’ve exhausted our savings . . . yes, we, because now I must confess to you what you must already have suspected—Graham is my husband. We didn’t want to have to tell you for fear you might think us unprofessional, but the cat is out of the bag now.” She caught her breath. Her eyes filled. “And I love him, I love him more than I could ever put into words—”

He was in his pajamas in a strange bed in a strange place, a strange woman was standing over him and his heart was breaking.

“Please help us,” she whispered. “Please?”

 

The Flight Back

He’d given her all he had on him—some eight hundred dollars in cash he’d brought along for emergencies—and written her a check he’d be hard-pressed to cover when he got home. As the expenses had mounted, he’d taken out a second mortgage and depleted his retirement account so that things were going to get very difficult financially if the funds didn’t come through soon. But they would, he was sure they would, every minute of every day pushing him closer to his goal. Chevette had tearfully assured him that Mr. Oliphant would see things through, whether her husband survived his emergency operation or not. “Truly,” she told him, “he lies between this life and the next.”

It wasn’t until he’d buckled himself in and the plane was in the air before it occurred to him that he never had gotten to meet Mr. Oliphant, see what an English bank looked like from the inside or even sign the agreement Graham had kept forgetting to produce, and now—he felt his heart seize again—might never be able to. He had two drinks on the plane, watched bits of three or four jumpy color-smeared movies, and fell off into a sleep that was a kind of waking and waking again, endlessly, till the wheels touched down and he was home at last.

 

Angelica Steps In

Three months later, after having missed four consecutive mortgage payments and receiving increasingly threatening letters from the bank, letters so depressing he could barely bring himself to open them, he telephoned his daughter to ask if she might be able to help him out with a small loan. He didn’t mention Graham Shovelin, the Yorkshire Bank PLC or the windfall he was expecting, because he didn’t want to upset her, and, more than that, he didn’t want her interfering. And, truthfully, he wasn’t so sure of himself anymore, the little voice back in his head now and telling him he was fool, that he’d been defrauded, that Graham Shovelin, whom he hadn’t heard from in all this time, wasn’t what he appeared to be. He had hope still, of course he did—he had to have hope—and he made up excuses to explain the silence, excuses for Graham, who for all he knew might be lying there in a coma. Or worse. He could be dead. But why then didn’t anyone pick up the phone at the Yorkshire Bank PLC? Chevette, though she may have been grief-stricken, would certainly have had to be there, working, no matter what had befallen her husband, and then there was Mr. Oliphant and whatever secretaries and assistants he might have had.

At one point, despairing, after he’d called twenty times without response, he went online and found a homepage for the Yorkshire Bank PLC, which didn’t seem to list the names of the bank officers at any of their branches. He did find a general purpose number and after having been put on hold for ten minutes spoke to a woman who claimed she’d never heard of a Mr. Oliphant, and, of course, he was unable to supply any specifics, not with regard to which branch Oliphant was affiliated with or even what his given name might be. He felt baffled, frustrated, hopeless. He called his daughter.

“Dad? Is that you? How are you? We’ve been worried about you—”

“Worried, why?”

“I’ve called and called, but you never seem to be home—what are you doing, spending all your time at dance clubs or what, the racetrack?” She let out a laugh. “Robbie’s starting college in a month, did you know that? He got into his first-choice college, SUNY Potsdam, for music? The Crane School?”

He didn’t respond. After a minute, when she paused for breath, he said flatly, “I need a loan.”

“A loan? What on earth for? Don’t you have everything you need?”

“For the mortgage. I—well, I got a little behind in my payments . . .”

It took a while, another five minutes of wrangling, but finally she got it out of him. When he’d told her the whole story, everything, the thirty million dollars, the disbursement, the bribe money, Graham’s treatments, even the two-day debacle in London, she was speechless. For a long moment he could hear her breathing over the phone and he could picture the expression she was wearing, her features compressed and her lips bunched in anger and disbelief, no different from the way Jan had looked when she was after him for one thing and another.

“I can’t believe you,” she said finally. “How could you be so stupid? You, of all people, a former professor, Dad, a math whizz, good with figures?”

He said nothing. He felt as if she’d stabbed him, as if she was twisting the knife inside him.

“It’s a scam, Dad, it’s all over the papers, the internet, everywhere—the AARP newsletter Mom used to get. Don’t you ever read it? Or listen to the news? The crooks even have a name for it, 419, after the Nigerian anti-fraud statute, as if it’s all a big joke.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“How much did you lose?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Jesus! You don’t even know?” There was a clatter of pans or silverware. He could picture her stalking round her kitchen, her face clamped tight. “All right,” she said. “Jesus! How much do you need?”

“I don’t know: ten?”

“Ten what—thousand? Don’t tell me ten thousand.”

He was staring out the window on the back lawn and the burgundy leaves of the flowering plum he and Jan had planted when their daughter was born. It seemed far away. Miles. It was there, but it was shrinking before his eyes.

“I’m coming out there,” she said.

“No,” he said, “no, don’t do that.”

“You’re eighty years old, Dad! Eighty!”

“No,” he said, and he no longer knew what he was objecting to, whether it was his age or the money or his daughter coming here to discipline him and humble him and rearrange his life.

 

One More Phone Call

The house belonged to the bank now, all of it, everything, and his daughter and Robbie were there helping him pack up. He was leaving California whether he liked it or not and he was going to be living, at least temporarily, in Robbie’s soon-to-be-vacated bedroom in Rye, New York. Everything was chaos. Everything was black. He was sitting in his armchair, waiting for the moving van to take what hadn’t been sold off in a succession of what Angelica called “estate sales” and haul it across the country to rot in her garage. In Rye, New York. For the moment, all was quiet, the walls just stood there, no dog barked, no auto passed by on the street. He was thinking nothing. He couldn’t even remember what Jan looked like anymore. He got to his feet because he had an urgent need to go fetch a particular thing before the movers got hold of it, but in the interval of rising, he’d already forgotten just what that particular thing was.

So he was standing there in the ruins of his former life, a high desperate sun poking through the blinds to ricochet off the barren floorboards, when the phone rang. Once, twice, and then he picked it up.

“Mason?”

“Yes?”

“Graham Shovelin here. How are you?”

Before he could answer, the deep voice rolled on, unstoppable, Old Man River itself: “I have good news, the best, capital news, in fact! The funds will be released tomorrow.”

“You’re”—he couldn’t find the words—“you’re okay? The, the treatment—?”

“Yes, yes, thanks to you my friend, and don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I’m weak still, of course, which is why you haven’t heard from me in some time now, and I do hope you’ll understand . . . but listen, we’re going to need one more infusion here, just to assure there are no glitches tomorrow when we all gather in Mr. Oliphant’s office to sign the final release form—”

“How much?”

“Oh, not much, Mason, not much at all.”

__________________________________

This story originally appears in The Iowa Review Volume 47, Issue 2




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