Hunter arrived tired at the office every day because his insomnia persisted. Gene Moore and others noticed Hunter’s performance was not up to snuff. The work was sloppy. Details got missed. Appointments were forgotten. Hunter, it seemed to his administrative assistant, Jan Towner, operated in a fog. Even his appearance lacked its customary sharpness which caused Jan to wonder if things at home were okay.
Hunter was also irritable: certainly not the same person as before the accident when he could be counted on to boost the morale of the office whenever he sensed it lagging. Now he himself was habitually moody and taciturn.
Hunter found it difficult to concentrate on his work. Instead, he jumped from task to task without discipline and could not finish the job at hand. Even the softball deals Gene had given him ran into unnecessary complications, causing added stress on other staff members. What is wrong with him? his colleagues wanted to know. Gene Moore insisted Hunter would be fine, “Just give him your patience and support,” he advised. But Gene, too, had begun to worry. Hunter was not himself.
Then one Friday, it all came to a head.
On Monday—about a month after Hunter’s return—Gene Moore gave his administrative assistant a list of invitees and asked her to organize an informal get-together to take place in his office at the end of the day on Friday. Gene wanted an open bar and a case of champagne arranged for the event, indicating it was more than a minor affair.
On that Friday, when the get-together was to take place, a deal involving a wishy-washy client who manufactures prefabricated outbuildings balked, over technical minutia, at a preliminary proposal Hunter had prepared. And the client, furthermore, refused to move forward in the process until the non-binding proposal had been fixed. For Hunter it was an irritating and unnecessary delay. He was not used to dealing with clients who were ignorant of how the negotiation process worked.
Then a prospectus for a different deal did not go to the printers as it should have which meant that it would not be ready for a lunch meeting on Monday, causing the meeting to be postponed. Then Hunter learned, also on Friday, that his primary contact at a client company had left that company and gone to another firm without anyone informing Hunter of the change. This caused an uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing situation with a deal in its final stage and a good amount of frustration for Hunter. None of it was Hunter’s fault but it seemed like nothing had gone right that day.
And all Hunter knew about the “little social event,” as Gene referred to it, was that Gene had insisted he be there. “Drop whatever you’re doing and come around five,” he had told Hunter. Hunter had no idea the social event was actually a party in his honor. So, unfortunately, with all that had happened that day, Hunter arrived at the little social event in a buzzkill mood.
Gene’s office was large and the doors open; about twenty-five people had already arrived before Hunter. A couple of members of the board were uncharacteristically present. And three or four partners were in attendance, as well. Important people from Matuka & Moore, including Glen Matuka himself, were there. And, of course, Jan Towner had situated herself at the center of it all, as was usually the case.
It seemed Jan, though only a senior administrative assistant, had a knack for getting included in the most important circles at every social event. She was, of course, a very attractive woman, though now approaching forty-five; but her looks had matured nicely; and she could keep conversation lively and interesting by charging it with a certain element of sexual energy. At that moment, she was engaged in conversation in a circle that included Glen Matuka.
Glen, these days, spent most of his time at the country club though he had not yet fully retired. He loathed talking shop at parties which was why he avoided Gene Moore who never stopped talking shop.
Jan Towner smiled and winked at Hunter as he passed on his way to the refreshment table. And though it was not an unusual gesture from Jan, it did make Hunter feel a tad uncomfortable, only because there was something in it which he could not fully interpret.
The refreshment table was a makeshift bar—a white linen laid over a folding table, complete with a bartender, wearing a white dinner jacket and gloves. Gene was expert at throwing parties; they were a very important feature of doing business. Hunter made his way to the bar and ordered a bourbon and water then walked the room without actually trying to mingle. Like Hunter, most of the invitees attending the party, had no idea what it was for. But anyone who did know would not tell since it was customary for the top person in the room (in this case Glen Matuka) to be given the honor of revealing the purpose of the gathering when the time came.
The mood of the room was casual. Everyone enjoyed having drinks on the house and a chance to flirt with the smart, young, and attractive associates of the firm, of which there were several. Hunter himself had been one of those enviable associates not too many years prior. But there was always new blood at the firm and, thus, smart and ambitious, up-and-coming young talent, ready to run with the big dogs if given half a chance. Normally Hunter would have felt energized by a party such as this but not tonight. Tonight he felt outside, outside the “bubble” so to speak. It was difficult to explain.
It wasn’t because the people there didn’t accept him or even hold him in high regard, because they did. It was more that he didn’t want to be one of them. Or maybe it was simply that he wasn’t one of them, anymore. They had goals and irrepressible drive to reach those goals which he had lost. And this was true because he no longer wanted what they wanted: They all wanted the same things—money, status, and influence. How could anyone, by spending his life pursuing money and garnering influence, face his Council of Friends in the afterlife and not feel humiliated by the utter waste of his talents, not to mention, the gift of life itself? To Hunter, these aims, which all of the office people shared, were spectacularly superficial and uncreative.
Hunter had recently mentioned something along these lines to Mandy while complaining to her about how unhappy he was with work; that is, with the nature of brokerage work in general.
“Since when have you given a hoot about ‘creativity’?” she scoffed. “I can hardly get you to spend an hour at the art museum unless they’re serving dinner weenies and free wine.”
It was true. Before the accident Hunter had little use for creativity, except where it applied to the practical expertise of making a deal. In fact, back then, Hunter did not acknowledge the existence of creativity, per se. What he believed in was wit. And wit he had in spades.
“Who’s that you’re ogling?” came a voice behind him.
“Mandy! What are you doing here?” said Hunter as he turned to find his wife standing behind him.
“Checking up on you. And apparently it’s a good thing I’m here. I got held up but I hope I’m not too late. You didn’t answer my question, by the way,” said Mandy impishly.
“I mean, why are you here?” said Hunter. “It’s an office party—a dull, boring office party. Did you just show up? Or were we supposed to meet here for some reason?”
“You have no idea, do you?”
“Idea about what?”
Hunter looked at his wife blankly.
“You don’t know why Gene threw this party, do you?”
Hunter shook his head. Right then, however, Gene Moore appeared and, in the nick of time, kept Mandy from spilling the beans.
“Mandy! Great to see you!” he boomed. At the same time he grabbed her up like a rag doll and gave her a crushing bearhug. The bearhug pinned both her arms to her sides while, with one hand, she clutched the strap of her purse as it swung from the end of her arm like a tetherball. Then he let her go.
“Say! Since you’re here why don’t you stay. Join the party! In a few minutes Glen will tell everyone why we’re all here—what we’re celebrating. But in the meantime, we’re all just kicking back and having fun. Stay! Join us. It’ll be fun.”
“Okay,” said Mandy knowingly.
“Can I bring you a refreshment, a cocktail or something?” Gene asked.
“Uh, a soft drink, I suppose. Thank you.”
“Coming up,” said Gene. “By the way, you look terrific, Man. Stay put. Be right back.”
Gene pointed at Mandy and winked, then was off.
“So Gene invited you?” said Hunter as soon as his boss had gone away.
“Ah, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“What’s this about? This ‘little social gathering’ as Gene put it when he told me I had to show up?”
“I can’t say, now,” replied Mandy.
“But you know what it is, right?”
“Maybe— I suppose. But I didn’t know it was a surprise. Besides, you’ll find out soon enough, babe. So let’s just wait until Glen tells us, okay?”
“I wanted to be out of here in ten minutes; now I’m stuck,” said Hunter. “And whatever it is they’re going to do, I’m not up for it. I’ve had a very crappy day.”
“Relax Hunter, okay? I’ll get you another one of these. What was it?”
“Bourbon and water, no ice.”
“See you in a minute,” said Mandy and scurried off.
Mandy took Hunter’s glass and headed to the refreshment table. Hunter felt a lead ball growing and getting heavy in his stomach. Now, it dawned on him what he had missed in Jan Towner’s wink. This party is my party. What are we celebrating? Hunter asked himself. My demotion?
Mandy had just returned with Hunter’s drink when Glen Matuka cleared his throat and asked for everyone’s attention.
“As you are all aware, I’m sure,” began Glen, “a little more than forty years ago I was part of the formation of Matuka & Moore with my great friend, Gene, here, and I’ve been in this business, the brokerage game that is, for—well, to maintain some ambiguity as to my age, let’s just say: ‘a long time.’”
A collective chuckle filled the room.
“Last July something incredible happened, something I, in all my years of experience in this business, never thought possible: We, I mean Matuka & Moore, did not just break a company record for the largest deal of all times. No. We obliterated the old record!”
Everyone broke into applause and cheers. Then—
“Carr! Carr! Carr!—” a circle of brokers began chanting as heads turned and smiling faces found Hunter where he stood near the back.
“That’s right! That’s right!” shouted Glen above the jubilation and held up his hands. The room settled into laughter and cheery banter before giving way again to Glen Matuka.
“You’re beating me to the punch,” he said to another round of laughter. Then all of the smile lines in his face faded as his expression turned relaxed but introspective. That face was the reason Glen Matuka had been such an effective broker all of his career: It was always one hundred percent persuasive. One never doubted that what Glen Matuka said was the truth. And his reputation was that he was incapable of duplicity.
“All of us are endowed with gifts,” continued Glen, “and we learn to make use of our gifts towards certain ends. And with time we might even achieve virtuosity within some orbit of life-mission or calling. That is what I have done. But it has taken me a great deal of time and a fair number of blunders to get where I am today. And I am still learning.
“There are a few people, however, who are different. Yes, they have gifts like you and me but they have an extra ingredient and it is this extra ingredient that sets them apart. What they have is genius which in the root Latin means: ‘an attendant spirit present from one’s birth.’ This spirit-guide, if you will, facilitates that person in learning, to such an extent that learning becomes elegant, effortless, and quick. And therefore it takes these few extraordinary individuals only a fraction of the time, it would otherwise take you or me, to become masterful at whatever work they set their minds to. These special people are rare. But we have one among us.
“To be quite honest I could not imagine the possibility of forging a deal between Millin and Blackmoor. These were two companies so hostile towards each other that—well, just suggesting that they sit down at the same table seemed an absurdity. And there were a hundred other reasons why a Millin-Blackmoor deal would never work. But guess what: one broker saw through the hostility and understood the dynamics at work in both companies and had the audacity to suggest such a deal and why it must work. Frankly, I had no confidence the deal would get off the ground. But then, I don’t have that special ingredient of genius that I just spoke of. But lucky for Matuka & Moore, one person among us does. I suppose you all know which person I’m talking about.” Glen smiled and lifted an open palm towards the room.
“Hunter Carr!” came a shout from someone in the audience.
“That’s right,” said Glen. “So now, let’s show Hunter our sincere appreciation, shall we?”
Applause and cheers exploded and rocked the room. A small group of colleagues mobbed Hunter, shaking his hand, slapping his back, and hugging his neck. Hunter, at that moment, was the hero of Matuka & Moore.
“Folks! Folks!” said Glen. “Before we break out the champagne and get on with the party we have one more small formality. Gene has something he’d like to share. Gene?”
The throng around Hunter thinned enough for Mandy to steal a look at her husband. The image she saw sent an electric shock through her gut. He was not doing well. His face had blanched and conveyed the expression of a man, just given a prison sentence of thirty years in Sing Sing. Mandy had only seen Hunter look like this one other time and that was right before he passed out in the delivery room as Greta was being born. Her first impulse was to rescue him. But how could she? She could not just run to him, grab his hand, and pull him from the room to safety. He was the doyen of M and M, the center of everyone’s attention and admiration. But at the same time Mandy felt deathly afraid something terrible was about to happen. Maybe he would just faint, she thought, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. If he fainted he could still be everyone’s hero, though, perhaps, one of less Olympic stature.
The next sequence of events seemed, to Mandy, to happen in slow motion but, at the same time, very quickly. Gene Moore stood before the group and made a couple of comments about Hunter and the Millin-Blackmoor deal which, compared to Glen Matuka’s eloquent tribute, sounded coachish. But very soon after that, Gene called Hunter to the front to present him with one of those oversized, fake checks; this one’s dimensions were about three feet long by eighteen inches wide and represented the commission Hunter had earned on the famous, record-breaking deal. The fake check was written for the amount of $435,000.00. Everyone oohed and awed then applauded and cheered as someone took a photo of Glen and Gene holding one end of the fake check while Hunter held the other. Hunter’s face was still pale and he could not smile naturally. He truly looked like the cliché, deer-in-the-headlights, during the photo op.
Gene Moore said something to Hunter, into his ear as everyone applauded after the photo was taken. Mandy saw Hunter say something in replay and shake his head.
“Don’t do it Hunter. You don’t have to,” said Mandy under her breath. Just smile and come back here; I’ll take you home she offered telepathically.
Gene Moore draped his arm over Hunter’s shoulder as he turned his attention back to the chatty audience.
“Everyone!” said Gene. “I have asked our modest man of the hour if he would like to say a few words but, humble fellow that he is, he has declined. I just want to know what all of you would like?”
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” they chanted like the throng before Pontius Pilate.
“Go ahead, son, give them something,” Mandy heard Gene say to Hunter as he gestured with his hand and gave Hunter the floor.
“Thank you,” said Hunter quietly. People shushed one another to catch the words of their hero. An uncomfortable silence prevailed for several seconds as Hunter stared at the floor. Mandy began to think Hunter would not say anything else; she was not the only one thinking it either. Then he raised his head and everyone saw his face streaked with tears. A concerned murmur could be heard, spreading from every corner of Gene’s office.
“Oh god!” whispered Mandy.
Hunter wiped his eyes but his brow furrowed even more.
“It was very touching what Glen said,” stammered Hunter. “Thank you, Glen.”
“But I must beg to differ with Glen’s characterization of me. I’m no genius. If I ever had an ‘attending spirit,’ which I doubt, but if I did, he, I am certain, has withdrawn from me because I have prayed for that guiding spirit to give me direction these past three months. But in spite of that, I remain lost.”
A more intense murmur obscured the room like a cloud.
“I cannot sleep at night,” continued Hunter. “Worse yet, I cannot forget what has happened to me. As far as this goes—” Hunter held up the fake check. “I, I—I’m afraid I can’t accept it. It doesn’t mean anything to me. None of this does.”
Hunter turned, said something to Gene Moore, and handed him the fake check. He then quickly exited the room, leaving everyone astonished and bewildered. Mandy ran to catch her husband but was delayed by the elevators so managed only to see the back of Hunter’s car as it sped away from the parking area.
Mandy found Hunter at home, by the swimming pool. He had retracted the pool cover and had opened the storage closet and taken a pool chair out and placed it on the diving platform where the diving board used to be. There he sat, elbows on knees, chin in hands, staring into the water when Mandy found him. She did not disturb him then, but let him be, and went quietly inside.
Mandy went upstairs to change clothes and give herself time to figure out what to do. She was afraid of reacting the wrong way when the time came to approach Hunter. She knew she needed to gain control of her own emotions first before trying to talk to him. Her emotions were a hot mess. There was fury and pity, reason and a great deal of fear, all mixed together, fighting each other. Each emotion wanted to take a different approach in dealing with the situation. Fury and fear favored screaming at Hunter. Pity and reason favored plumbing for answers but they were getting shouted down, inside Mandy’s head, by the other two. Finally she decided to put fury in timeout and to give reason the first crack at asking Hunter for answers. Fury was not happy.
Reason settled on a good cop, bad cop approach for the interrogation. Mandy brewed a pot of coffee and took two cups of it and a blanket with her out to the pool. It was dusk by then and the evening air felt fresh but was cooling quickly. Mandy handed Hunter one of the cups of coffee and set the other one down on the diving platform. She draped the blanket over his shoulders, all without comment. He accepted both without remark. Then she went to the storage closet, found a pool chair and set it up beside him and sat down.
“Here,” he said, offering her one end of the blanket.
“Thank you,” said Mandy and sipped her coffee.
They sat, just staring at the water, for a few minutes. Finally, Mandy broke the silence.
“Quite an evening, eh?”
A little breeze began to stir.
“I really made an ass of myself, didn’t I?” said Hunter.
“I think you frightened everyone, especially me,” said Mandy.
“Everyone thinks I’m cracking up. Maybe they’re right.”
“I’ve never seen you cry in front others before. Only recently have I seen you cry at all.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The air became still as Venus burned brightly on the horizon.
“Hunter, I don’t know what’s wrong.” A lump swelled in Mandy’s throat. “Please, I really need to know. Please tell me, okay baby? so we can fix this?”
Hunter stared into the pool like a stone idol.
“Please, Hunter! You’re not the only one involved,” pleaded Mandy.
Then the idol took a deep breath and exhaled as if coming to life.
Hunter turned and looked Mandy in the eye, but his face was still stone.
“Mandy, I’ve lived over half my life and accomplished nothing.”
“But how can you say that?—”
“Do you want to hear what I have to say or not?” interrupted Hunter.
“I’m sorry. Go on,” said Mandy.
Hunter gathered his thoughts again.
“Half of my life is gone and I’ve done nothing! Nothing of any real value. That’s what I realized while I was out there.” Hunter nodded towards Venus. “I thought they would give me more help but they haven’t.”
“Who would give you more help?” asked Mandy.
“My friends, out there. I thought they’d—someone—would tell me what I’m supposed to do but no one has. Half my life gone and I don’t even know where to begin or what to begin with. It’s frustrating, Mandy.”
“Did your friends expect you to just start over? Is that what they told you?”
“No, they didn’t tell me anything.”
“But it was clear that starting over was what I had to do if I came back. And I wanted to do more for you and Greta. I wanted your lives to be full and happy. I thought you still needed me.”
“Hunter, we do still need you but our lives were full and happy before the accident. We couldn’t have asked for more than you had already given us. And that’s all we’re asking for now.”
“You don’t understand,” said Hunter bitterly.
“What? What don’t I understand?”
“You don’t understand how it works!”
“Then how does it work! Please, tell me how it works!”
“Mandy, I died! That was it. The end! Whether I stayed there or came back, that was all of the old Hunter you were ever going to get. Don’t you see?”
“No! I don’t see!” cried Mandy. “I don’t see at all. You’re saying you came back but you can’t be you? Is that what you’re saying?”
At this point, fear had taken over for reason in Mandy’s head.
“Yes—No—I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m just trying to explain,” said Hunter.
“Explain, then, damnit!” shouted Mandy. “Use your goddamned silver tongue and make it clear!” Now fear joined fury and the two of them, together, had decided to deal with Hunter for Mandy’s sake.
Hunter combed his fingers through his hair and exhaled in exasperation.
“Okay look,” he said, “I’ll try to make it clear: I couldn’t just come back. There were conditions.”
“And who set the conditions?” demanded Mandy.
“I did! I set them. You don’t just come back. There has to be a good reason.”
“So what was your good reason for coming back!”
“I came back to do something important although, I admit, I don’t know what it is yet that I’m supposed to do.”
“That’s great,” said Mandy and rolled her eyes.
“I also came back,” continued Hunter, “so that you wouldn’t be without a husband and Greta wouldn’t be without a father because I somehow imagined that you both still needed me. And even though I might be a different person in the way I look at life, and everything, I thought I might still be someone you both needed and could count on.”
“Well, isn’t this ironic,” said Mandy angrily, “because we haven’t been able to ‘count on you’ since you supposedly came back. In fact, it doesn’t feel like you’ve come back at all. It feels more like you’re still out there, floating around somewhere, unable to connect with the real world. That’s how it feels, Hunter, to Greta and me!”
“Have you any idea why I cried at the party tonight?” asked Hunter.
“No, I don’t!”
“I didn’t think so. I cried because I think I knew what Jesus felt when he stood before the crowd with Pontius Pilate and Pilate asked the people who they wanted—him or Barabbas.”
“You are crazy!” said Mandy emphatically.
“Let me finish!” shouted Hunter. “How fickle they must have seemed to him because only hours before, the same crowd celebrated him riding into Jerusalem. But now they had all forgotten who he was. I realized: not you, not Gene, not Glen, not Jan, no one in that room had even an inkling of who the real Hunter Carr is and what I’m about. It makes me wonder if any of you ever knew me in the first place. Or did I just assume you did?”
Mandy sprang to her feet; the coffee cup flew from her lap and shattered on the pool deck.
“Well, aren’t we the biggest goddamned victim of the century!” she screamed. “You listen to me, Hunter Carr, and you listen good. You are not Jesus Christ, and I refuse to live like this any longer! I don’t care how many therapists you have to see before you find the right one. But, goddamnit, you’d better find one, and find one quick, and talk to him or her until you get your head on straight. And if you can’t do that, then I want a divorce. Like I said: I will not live like this, and neither will Greta!”
“Is that an ultimatum? Are you giving me an ultimatum?” demanded Hunter.
“What did it sound like, Einstein? You figure it out!”
Mandy turned on a heel, stomped into the house, locked the door, and shut out all the lights. Hunter sat numb and fuming in the dark. But he could see Venus reflected in the pool.