Joe Langston is the embodiment of all that the American work ethic is supposed to produce. He is a good man. A loving husband and father. A competent and dedicated executive. Little can he know that now, just as he is poised to reap the rewards of a lifetime of professional devotion, the values on which he has built both his personal and his business life are about to be rocked to their foundation.
By the people he trusts most. The boss he admires. His best friends. Even his family.
Beginning with the day he expects to be welcomed into the boardroom of one of the world’s richest conglomerates, Leviathan’s Scales is the story of Langston’s perplexing fall from grace, his banishment to a remote small town in the Mississsippi River Valley and the heartbreaking defiance through which he regains his zest for life. It's filled with unforgettable characters, including the stern and disheveled old Texan.who is Langston's boss and mentor, the sly and manipulative executive who enjoys toying with Langston's life, a delightfully vulgar transplant from Chicago who gives Langston new insights into the nature of friendship and many more.
An excerpt from Leviathan's Scales
“I’m sorry, Mr. Langston,” Lori’s voice was a curious mixture of pity and perturbation. “Mr. Nye is still away.”
“Lori, come on. First, again, call me Joe. But just tell me where he is or when he’ll be back.”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t … I just don’t know … I can’t say.” She hesitated a moment. “You know how he is.”
“I thought I did. Lori, it’s been months now. I know you’re sick of me calling, but, and here it’s I who am sorry, but I’m not going to stop until I talk to him. At least tell him that.”
“I have, Mr. Langston. You know I have. He promises to call you back when he can.”
“That’s all I can say.”
“Okay, just tell me this. Has he said anything to you? Anything at all that gives you some hint about why I’m here. You know everything he does. All I want, Lori, is a little explanation. It’s not really all that horrible here, to be honest. I’m not angry. Well, not much, not anymore. But I just don’t understand. Can you give me just a little idea of what I said or did? Can’t you or won’t he tell me anything about why this happened to me?”
“Honest, Mr. Langston. Mr. Nye said he’ll call you when he can. That’s all I can say.”
These conversations were getting more difficult each time. She had learned to watch for them on caller ID and let them go to voicemail, but in the midst of a surge of work at her computer, she had picked up this call without looking, realizing too late the difficult position in which she’d put herself.
“Just some idea of how long I’ll be here. My wife’s trying to go back to school and start a new business, and we have no idea where to do all this, or how to afford it. My family’s totally disrupted. Can’t he just give me some idea …?”
“I have to go, Mr. Langston. I really do understand. I’d help if I could. But all I can say is…”
“Yes. Yes. All right. But you know I’ll keep calling.”
“And you’ll keep ignoring me on caller ID, won’t you?”
He could feel her blush over the phone line.
“Why’d you take this one?”
“Mr. Langston …”
“… I wouldn’t try to avoid you.”
“Lori.” There was a smile in his voice.
“I wouldn’t.’ She smiled, too. “But sometimes I do pick up the phone more reflexively than others.”
“I knew it!” Joe laughed. “It’s not your fault, Lori. I know. I’m sorry to keep hounding you. You don’t know how lonely and awkward this feels. Forgive me someday, okay?”
“You know there’s nothing like that. I’m just doing my job.”
“And you know one day you’ll be doing it for me, don’t you?” Now it was teasing that she heard in his voice. It was impressive how comfortable he could make her feel even when she could tell he was at wit’s end. “And I’m not going to hide behind you, Lori. I’m going to take people’s goddamned phone calls.”
His voice had grown slightly out of control.
“Mr. Langston …” Now there was a note of pleading mixed with resignation in her tone.
“And, then you’ll have to call me ‘Joe.’ It’ll be an order.” The smile was back in his voice.
“Right,” she returned hers, “Until then, I have to promise you that Mr. Nye will call you back as soon as he can.”
Joseph B. Langston
June 1, 20—
The boys have just left for a local night out. I’m not sure how to describe this day. More than I could have hoped for I guess. I can’t say Rob and Ted are ready to move here after one day, but I think they’ll take a favorable report back to Mom, Ted especially.
The first hurdle was just the logistics of getting them here. Janet stayed home in San Francisco with Vicky. She had reports to finish for school. It wasn’t all that convenient for Rob and Ted to visit, actually. They both have summer jobs, Rob stocking shelves at Wal-Mart and Ted answering phones and cleaning cages for a local vet, so they had to take off Friday. That especially hurts Rob, who needs to earn as much as he can for school. Saving money is a major theme for Janet and me, too, of course, so we flew the boys into O’Hare on a direct flight, rather than having them fly to St. Louis and then hop on a 12-seater to the Quad-Cities. They didn’t get to Chicago until five o’clock. They managed to squeeze a weekend’s worth of clothes into a single carry-on bag each, so we didn’t have to wait for luggage, but it was still nearly six before we were all hugged out, squeezed into the Mercedes, slipped through a fast-food drive-through and speeding back westward on I-88. Rob rode shotgun and Ted spread out in the back seat. I watched their eyes widen as we put the hustle of the city quickly behind us and seemed to forge ever deeper into something they must have thought approached the vacuum of space. Interstate 88 is a desolate stretch of federal roadway, a ride they might compare to the long drives on wine country vacations along I-101. Except that even when they’ve been on expressways outside San Francisco there always have been other cars and trucks on the road. In their experience, there’s always been a feeling that, even if you were seeing only countryside and not a lot of houses or towns the highway had a sense of purpose. Some town or event somewhere was attracting cars like yours to the road. But I-88 gives you a different feel, something almost Steven King-like if you’re prone to superstition. We were part of a streaming swarm of cars, trucks and vans as we headed almost directly into the setting sun last night. But virtually the moment we reached Aurora’s western border, and I mean the moment as if there were a white starting line stretched across the highway, the traffic melted away behind us like a spectral mirage. We were suddenly alone on a flat, empty highway. To say we were surrounded by nothing feels misleading for to be surrounded is to suggest some material presence all around. But for us, as the gold of the late afternoon blended into purple evening and finally star-sprinkled night, there was only a feeling of eerie isolation. I watched the boys’ expressions turn from the exhaustion of travel into stunned mystification. I tried to distract them with questions about their summer jobs and Rob’s preparations for Stanford, but though it didn’t remotely qualify as small talk, there was only so much of it any of us could muster.
“We have two more hours of this?” Rob said after one particularly long silence, with the blocks and spires and cones of suburban corporations now well behind us and not a single other vehicle appearing in either direction. “How much corn can people eat?”
He was looking at the vast fields of hip-high, Kelly-green corn stalks that now appeared in the distance on either side of the four-lane highway, alternated only by occasional vast acres of huddling soybeans that traced the soft contours of the prairie, as did the corn fields, in sharply regimented rows.
“Actually,” I said. “This isn’t for people to eat, at least not like you think. Most of it is feed for cattle, or is sold to be turned into corn syrup, and I guess we do eat that.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Teddy said sleepily from the back seat. “It’s in just about every product you buy at the grocery store.”
“Well, maybe that’s why we need so much of it,” I said. “Imagine this stretching hundreds of miles, maybe a thousand miles, to the south, north and west, all the way through Iowa and into Kansas and Nebraska.”
I told them about the growing market for ethanol, but, of course, they were both way ahead of me again, and they began a small argument over whether corn oil would ever be a legitimate supplement as fuel for internal combustion engines or whether engines could be adapted to handle its gooey residue.
“Who do you get to put money in your bank?” Teddy asked me after a while. “I haven’t even seen a gas station for forty miles.”
He was right. If there were gas stations or fast food restaurants at the occasional exits we passed, they were set far back from the roadway and out of sight. I wondered that they didn’t at least put up those tall signs to attract the eye of passing drivers, but considering our solitary drone in the gathering darkness, I assumed there just wasn’t much of a market.
“We have plenty of customers,” I laughed. “We’re going to pull off the expressway up here in about half an hour or forty-minutes and head north. Then, you’ll have a chance to see the various little towns we’ll go through.”
Rob just shook his head. I changed the subject to something I thought more appealing to their interests.
“We’ll have to get to bed as soon as we get home.” I looked reflexively at each of them as I said that word. “You’re not going to believe what I have set up for us in the morning.”
In the rear view mirror, I saw a brief wave of mock terror sweep across Teddy’s face.
“A fox hunt.”
Teddy’s terror turned to near revulsion. But I was prepared.
“A fox hunt?” he shot back. “No, Dad. I don’t think so.”
“No, trust me, Teddy. It’s not like you think.”
“We’re going to dress up like little tin soldiers and chase some poor fox through all this corn. Dad, that is messed up on so many levels.”
Rob, although not normally the adventurous one of the two, turned his head toward me at an angle that betrayed intrigue along with his skepticism.
“No, no. Hear me out.”
I knew before I set this up that Teddy, in particular, would never go for anything he thought might result in harm to an animal. But Ed Huizenga, (whose cousin Peter Housenga, he’s Ed’s mother’s sister’s son, the sisters were Buikemas, One married a Huizenga, pronounced HYE-zen-gay, the other married a Housenga, pronounced HOW-sen-gay, – Yikes, I’m starting to think like a local! – But you had to know, didn’t you?) had sold me on the hunt as a chance to expose the boys to something they might think of as more cultured. Housenga owns a horse farm where he stables a couple dozen thoroughbreds and pleasure horses for people who have the kind of time, money and inclination that allows them to drive two or three hours to get here and take a two- or three-hour ride through the countryside. Ed said he’d followed along on a couple of hunts himself and he’d always found it to be a generally relaxing morning horse ride, punctuated by a couple of bursts of galloping adrenalin. In fact, he’d described it as more of a lame excuse for a jaunty horse ride through the countryside.
“My cousin has about 300 acres of pasture and woodland at his place over toward Galena outside a little town called Elizabeth,” Ed had told me. “Mostly, it’s a bunch of rich guys, well, they’re not all guys, four or five women too, from Chicago and Dubuque and the Quad Cities who dress up and ride their fancy horses up and down the valleys. If your son likes animals, he’d love this. The horses are these beautiful, well-trained animals with the look of a proud thoroughbred and the personality of a working quarter horse, and they spend all morning chasing around a pack of smart hard-working dogs that pretty much don’t have a chance in hell of catching a fox.”
“They don’t actually catch the fox?” I asked.
“They go out every couple weekends in the spring and again in the fall, and I don’t think Pete’s said they ever actually caught a fox. They get on the scent, and the dogs go crazy and go racing up and down the hills, but they almost always come up empty. The foxes are smart. They lead these guys all over the countryside like you’d pull a chew-toy back and forth in front of a dog at home in the living room. If they ever do even see one, Pete says, it’s because it’s old and sick.”
“Do they carry guns?”
“Nawww,” he scoffed. “Of course not.”
“What happens if they do catch a fox?”
Ed snorted. “Hah. They probably wouldn’t know what to do.” Then after a pause, “Well, actually, the first thing they do is call off the dogs. If the dogs get ‘im first, they’ll grab ‘im and tear ‘im all to pieces.”
“I thought the dogs were well trained.”
“They are, but they also really want that fox.”
“I guess so.”
“Plus, they’re probably pissed that the little bastard dragged ‘em all over the county like a pack of idiots.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” I smiled. “But I’m not going to take a chance on my boys seeing a helpless little fox get torn limb from limb.”
I gave him a look that said he must be nuts.
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry,” he assured me. “The closest they would ever, ever, get to an actual fox is to chase him into his hole, and if they do that, game’s over. They ride back to the stable, have a little champagne, tell some lies and go home. I’m telling you, if your kids like animals and the outdoors, they’ll love this. They’re not gonna catch a damn fox. The only ones they could possibly get would be something old and tired and stupid, but like I said, they haven’t got one in all the years I’ve known about them.”
“Yeah. Just my luck Teddy’ll be the first one to come upon the dogs chewing up little Foxy Loxy.”
“Trust me. Ain’t gonna happen. It’ll just be a nice fun ride in a country pasture. Pete owns five or six head of his own, including some sweet, gentle little mares that you and your boys can ride. It’s about two hours in the morning dew with the sun coming up over the hills and the birds and the squirrels. It’s really, really cool. You should try it. I guarantee you’ll love it.”
He didn’t tell me about the hundred-dollar-per-rider fee until I’d promised to do some research on fox hunting on the Internet. Then he promised he could persuade his cousin to knock half off the charge. I did my research and talked to some people around town. I called Pete Housenga and talked to him for a while. Then got the names of a couple of scheduled hunters, including one of the women, and asked what they thought. The woman I talked to, an ob-gyn from Rockford, assured me she would take her own kids on a hunt and plans to when they reach their teen years. Finally, I decided to give it a try. Truth was, I was kind of predisposed toward the experience from the beginning. I like doing new things and I’ve always wanted to ride a horse beyond one of those sleepy animals you sit astride during “trail rides” at country tourist traps. Although I’d never even remotely considered it before, a fox hunt had a romantic allure. And, I knew Teddy would love the chance to interact with the horses and dogs, if we could just get over that little hump of the fox’s potential dismemberment. As for Robby, I figured that even if he’d mounted a token objection he would go along with whatever I could persuade Teddy to do. He’s pretty much willing to try anything, though he might sometimes require some coaxing. If I could get Teddy to buy into this, Robby would fall in line without a word.
I described the conversation to the boys as we pulled off I-88 and onto Illinois Highway 52 at Dixon. They were pleased to see the lights of an actual town, even if it was only for two or three miles. They were not, however, easily sold on getting up at 5 a.m. to go chase a fox.
“It’s a horse ride,” I said. “Teddy, you’ve always loved horses. Don’t you want to know what it feels like to gallop across the prairie.”
“And fall on your ass,” Rob scoffed. “Dad, you’re nuts.”
There was that word again, this time openly spoken.
“My assistant at the bank says they have some real gentle horses that’ll be just fine for beginners. Come on, how often would we ever get a chance for something like this back home?”
Rob and Ted looked at each other warily, apparently in some sort of mental game of macho sibling adolescent chicken. Teddy put up the fierce resistance I’d expected, but I parried with every response Ed had given me along with several I’d picked up in my research and conversations. Finally, I could see him weaken. He really does love horses or at least the idea of them.
“We have to get up at 5 a.m.?” he said finally.
“We’ve got to be saddled up by dawn. They start out with a little sip of champagne, sparkling grape juice for you two, and a toast, and away we go.”
“We use those funny saddles?”
“Most do, but Ed said his cousin will let us use traditional Western saddles since we’ll just be following along.”
“What about the clothes?” Rob chimed in. “Do we have to dress up in those red and brown suits?”
“They’ll have helmets for us and riding boots we can borrow. We might look a little out of place but we can wear jeans and regular sport shirts if we want, whatever you managed to squeeze into those bags, and, if you don’t have a shirt you like, you can borrow one of mine.”
“You promise we won’t kill a fox?” Teddy asked, finally.
“Can’t promise,” I said. “But they haven’t gotten one in three years at least. Ed told me that, and just about anyone I talked to who knew anything about it agreed.”
“They better not get one tomorrow either.”
And I might as well tell you now we didn’t. But we had a helluvan adventure.
My house has three bedrooms and I use one as a study. Rob and Ted slept together in the remaining bedroom, tired enough when we finally reached home not to complain too much about having to share the queen-size bed that practically fills the small chamber but for an old pine chest of drawers I bought at a recent auction, not unlike the one that had closed out Earl Roeser’s working life. They were not at all pleased when I roused them in the unfamiliar dark, but they’ve both always been good risers. They dutifully climbed into polo-shirts, aptly named considering the occasion I pointed out impressing no one but myself, and jeans and trudged out to the car behind me, coughing, spitting and shaking their heads in a mixture of wonder and disgust.
We stopped by The Busy Corner, where George Stephanos was already up and working in the kitchen though only two farmers sat in a booth sipping coffee. He came out from behind the kitchen window and I introduced Rob and Ted, careful to use the more mature nicknames rather than the “Robby” and “Teddy” I still often use with them alone. We found seats at the counter. George pretended to be gruff with the boys but asked how they liked their omelets. And he made sure the breakfasts were stuffed fat with peppers, ham and feta cheese. They said little but responded with polite smiles to a stern impromptu lecture on the value of family. They ate their eggs and toast quietly, but I could see they were impressed as we finished without lingering, then drove to Pete Housenga’s to be introduced amid the rich aromas of manure and hay and horseflesh to our mounts and our scheduled morning companions. Pete Housenga was an accommodating if not indulgent host, bringing us our horses one by one. All three of our horses were mature mares. Fat spits of pungent brown chewing tobacco punctuated his words and movements. He showed us how to step up into the saddle and guide the animal by laying the reins across the back of her neck in the direction we want her to go. My mount was a large, mostly amber-colored Appaloosa named Dee, with pink eyes and dappled black-and-white hindquarters that appeared to have been splatter-painted by Jackson Pollock. Rob rode a bay quarter horse just slightly shorter at the base of the neck than he was tall. The bay was named Twinkles for reasons we would discover having to do with the unusual movement of her hooves when she trotted. Ted’s ride was also a bay, though tending a bit more toward brown than Twinkles. Her name was Josephine, which did little to feed Teddy’s efforts to assume a Marlboro Man persona. Pete seemed to sense his disappointment and offered terse reassurance.
“If it’ll make you feel any better you can call her Joe,” he said, squirting a fat blob of brown saliva into the dust at Josephine’s feet. “She’ll respond to ‘bout anything.”
He walked back toward the barn and the other arrivals, who had begun pulling into Pete’s long gravel drive in fitful waves in tastefully unpretentious luxury cars. We busied ourselves with patting our horses on the neck and practicing guiding them around the stable yards using the techniques Pete had showed us. A comfortable orange sun floated up from behind the low hills and dark trees and a cacophony of birds swelled to shape the morning with sound, the sharp caw of crows, the calming hoo-HOO of a barn owl, the resonant whistle of several cardinals all intermingling with pitches and strains too numerous and jumbled to isolate and identify. Pete’s house was a two-and-a-half-storey white wooden structure painted white with tall windows and black shutters situated among a mix of oak and hickory trees at the top of a hill leading into a deep valley to the south. As the sun began to paint the morning with a hundred shapes and shadows you could look out across multi-colored fields of tall grass, a meandering creek and small forests and copses of green-leafed trees sprayed haphazardly along rows of undulating hills. It sounds a little stupid, I know, but I was reminded of the roughs, fairways, woods and greens of a golf course, only one that was in its shaggy infancy before some skillful designer had come along to cut back its unruly forests and comb its open hills into neat, refined pathways. A woodpecker hammered away loudly at some distant, resonant tree trunk, and the sonorous rattling swept toward us in swells of echo the likes of which I was only recently becoming accustomed to.
“Wow,” Robby said pulling back on Twinkles’ reins and letting the echo sink in. I hadn’t previously thought that any sound could get his attention if it didn’t come from an iPod, but now he was rapt in the discovery of a pleasure entirely new and unimagined. “That is awesome.”
He and Teddy looked at each other and listened for a good long time. Eventually I saw them smile and laugh together as they began slowly and erratically to prod the horses in small swirls around the grounds and gain an understanding of their movements. They were gentle horses, and smart. But kind too, I thought, for they could tell that we were novices and reacted willingly to our halting instructions. We at first took little notice of the regular hunters, and the hunters, dressed as the boys had predicted in red jackets, brown English riding pants and calf-hugging black boots, took little notice of us. I alternated my attention from the panorama of the countryside to the boys to the huddling experts who greeted each other with comfortable familiarity. They tugged at their saddles and tested their bridles. They rubbed their horses on the nose and massaged their thighs and fetlocks and, between greetings and laughter with their hunt-mates that began to compete with the growing sounds of the house and the barn and the nearby nature, spoke to them as with long-missed children.
Shortly, there came a new sound. A large truck pulled into the lot, bringing with it a sharp, and here I mean that in a musical sense, a sharp howling and barking that introduced a nervous dissonance to the hitherto peaceful calm of the morning. There were eight or ten dogs in the truck. They were fine, healthy looking animals of apparently varying breeds but all emanating the intensity of professional athletes eager for the championship game to begin. A single handler brought them out of the truck and held them together, struggling at times to maintain control, with a fistful of leashes.
I asked the boys if they were ready for this, if they were liking it yet.
“Do we have a choice?” Ted replied. He and Rob shared a conspiratorial glance as their horses jostled slightly with the appearance of the hounds.
Pete Housenga began walking toward us again but motioned for us to gather with the formal huntsmen. Beside him an alert teenage boy rode a palomino gelding, upright and alert, with a bearing that was welcoming but not.
“This’s my son,” Pete said. He spat a dark wet bubble into the dust. “He’s gon’ stick with you all, help you out if you get lost er left behind.”
I waved from my perch atop Dee, attempting to look more comfortable than I was. I introduced Rob and Ted and the three of them shared polite grunts and nods that I presume passed for appropriate greetings in the sometimes arcane language of teenage boys.
Bill, I wonder if sometimes at night after the family dinner whether gruff old Pete Housenga doesn’t also call him “Billy”, let his dad walk back toward the center of a large clearing a few hundred feet from the barn. On the riding grounds the handler had collected the dogs and was urging them to stay still for just a few minutes longer. Like us, Bill sat in a Western-style saddle and was dressed in what Rob called “civilian clothes.” He wore blue jeans torn in one knee, a fading Eminem t-shirt and a pair of dusty cowboy boots. On his head, also like us, he wore the small caplike helmet that strapped under his chin familiar to fox hunters. There was in the look a studied incongruence of the formal riding cap with his otherwise thrown-on casual garb. It emphasized to me, and probably the boys, how out of place we must appear. In our polo shirts and fresh denim jeans, we displayed neither Bill’s natural comfort nor the proud uniform of the regular riders. The ill-fitting riding boots Pete had scoured the barn to provide for us couldn’t have improved our image. Bill let his palomino take a few halting steps in our direction then waved us to steer our own mounts toward the clearing where dogs, horses and colorful riders were gathering in a tight circle.
The riders, some mounted, some standing alongside their horses, all held a clear plastic wine glass in one hand, and Pete’s wife Alice carried a green bottle of champagne from person to person, filling each in turn until all were served. As we four approached, she found glasses for us as well and switched to a bottle of sparkling grape juice for our sons. She offered champagne for me but I waved it off and said the grape juice would be fine.
From the midst of the group, standing next to a shiny black thoroughbred, a round little man with a ruddy face and dark gray eyebrows who I’d guess to be about ten years older than me raised his glass. The group turned silent and everyone copied his motion, as we did theirs.
“Here’s to the fine hospitality provided by our hosts and an even finer morning provided by the grace of God,” he said in a strong gravelly voice. “May the prey be cunning, the dogs tenacious, the horses strong and the riders brave.”
“Here, here!” the riders responded, and we all downed our drinks in a single gulp and Alice quickly retrieved our empty glasses.
Now, all the riders mounted, and the houndsman led his dogs to the front of the group. He grabbed a small brass trumpet and blew a long metallic howl into the valley. Its echo returned to us with a body-shuddering shock and for a moment even seemed to silence the birds and the crickets. Then all other sounds were obscured by the insistent bleats, pleas and wails of the hounds, who went bounding down the hillside, the riders heading out at a slow trot.
Rob, Ted and I looked at Bill for a signal to join them, but he held us back with the motion of one hand.
“We ain’t part of the hunt,” he said. “We’re just gonna kinda follow along. We’ll keep up purty good, but it’d be stupid to try to keep up with them.”
“Do we just sort of walk along behind?” I asked.
“Well, for a while, but we’ll see some excitement in a little bit.”
He went on to explain that the group would just sort of wander in a tight pack for a while until the dogs pick up a scent.
“Then things get interesting,” he said.
He explained that the dogs would become single-minded in their devotion to the scent and would race along it as though pulled by a waving guide wire. The riders would pace their horses to keep up, sometimes having to press them to a full gallop.
“The dogs don’t give a shit neither whether the fox has jumped a stream or snuck under a fence or climbed a stump or whatever,” Bill said. “They follow the scent and the horses follow them. It’s actually fairly dangerous at times.”
“Are we going to have to jump fences?” I asked.
No, he explained. We would have to perk up our horses from time to time with firm kicks to their bellies to stay in range but otherwise we were along, literally, for the ride. It was his job to make sure we stuck with the hunt and didn’t get hurt. There was a light, cool syrup in the morning air and I felt fortunate, yes fortunate, to drink it in. I was in this picturesque setting, a place I would never in a million years have identified as Illinois or anywhere I’d ever thought of, for that matter, riding a calm but responsive horse with my two sons alongside me, actually not appearing to be miserable. And we were participating in, well watching mostly, but sort of participating in, a fox hunt of all things. This had to be something they would consider impressive to tell their friends when they got back home.
As the morning drew on, I will say that the sense of adventure wilted somewhat but we had, as Bill had promised, occasional fits of excitement. The body of the hunt generally ignored us, the riders appearing to be most interested in either chatting with each other at slow moments or testing their own horsemanship when the opportunities came, as they did, to coax their mounts to a light gallop and occasionally jump a brook or the remains of a sagging section of fence whose purpose in these fields must have been forgotten long ago. We stayed close enough to feel a part of the event. And we could understand the adrenalin rush when the hounds’ earnest braying grew suddenly eager.
Teddy, of course, had mixed feelings at those moments. He enjoyed the palpable thrill that coursed through the horse beneath him, but he worried often and out loud about the fox.
“It’s just the law of nature,” Bill said after one surge subsided into calm and a clear note of disappointment in the voices of the dogs. “Not just survival of the fittest, but nature’s way of cleaning itself out. These dogs got a nose that can smell bacon from here to the Mississippi River, but they ain’t about to actually catch no regular fox. Hell, this is as much a game for them as it is for us. If once in a while we manage to come up on a live one, well, it wouldn’t have been live for long anyway. It’d have to be old or sick or we’d never git that close.”
I asked if he’d ridden in many of the hunts.
“Some,” he said. “But it’s not really my thing. I like the horses and the dogs, but to tell the truth after about an hour of this, no offense, I’m ready to move on to somethin’ else.”
I could see that Ted liked Bill’s rough independence. He peppered him with questions about life on a horse farm. What do the horses eat? How early do you have to get up to feed them? Does Bill like any particular one better than the others? Does he know how to tell their age by looking at their teeth? Does it hurt to shoe them and why don’t the horses out here have shoes? What other animals does Bill own? And on and on. The two struck up a clear connection and Rob chimed in occasionally enough so that I could watch that teenage bond form that separates children from their parents’ world. And though I momentarily longed to be a part of theirs, I didn’t really mind the brief separation. We were together and they were getting something from the experience and that was enough to fill me with that little bubble burst that I sometimes think of when my heart is about to pop like a fat water balloon and wash my soul clean. That feeling, as I say, of what makes life life. Suddenly, I not only could imagine not just tolerating life here but actually wanting it; I fantasized again about Janet’s decorating and garden shop in Galena and for once, didn’t have to force myself to enjoy it. Three months is too little time here to make so dramatic a change in life choice, I know, but here outside this quaint, little town with its mind-blowing echoes and romantic vistas, I was becoming intrigued, if not hooked.
At one point, the dogs started to leap forward, scolding and cheering each other like football players on the march, and the horses instinctively picked up the pace. Bill leaned forward and picked the reins up near his palomino’s black ears and chirped, “COME-on” and looked back for us to follow. Dee and Josephine broke into a keen trot, then a slow canter, but Twinkles appeared to need more time on the runway, as it were. Her legs clawed at the turf in rapid steps and her hooves seemed to make little circle motions as she slowly gained speed in a awkward trot that was hilarious to watch. Twinkles, the source of her name now delightfully obvious, seemed unable to launch out of that fitful space between a comfortable walk and a smooth canter and no amount of Rob’s yelling “Come on, Twinkles! Come on! Come on, Twinkles! Come on!” and kicking her sides served to motivate her. I pulled up on Dee in order to stay back until Twinkles felt like taking off and joining the rest of the surging herd. Rob was fast giving up hope, his voice taking on a humorous shudder – “Co-o-o-um on, Tw-i-i-nkles! Co-o-o-um on!” – aboard the trotting horse and he kept looking down at her neck as though to find some button or lever to move her into a higher gear when she veered abruptly to the right. It jolted Rob upright in the saddle and drew him into the leafy tines of a low-hanging hickory branch that caught him square in the face and appeared to swat him like a gnarled broom flat to the ground.
That at last appeared to give Twinkles the inspiration she needed to shift to a run and she leaped forward and began to gallop riderless toward her colleagues on the hunt. I rushed Dee over to Rob and jumped off to see how badly he’d been hurt. He lay groaning and swearing, alternately holding his left elbow and feeling for cuts on his cheeks and forehead. Ted turned Josephine around and galloped over to us like a veteran ranch hand. At first he fought to contain a nervous laugh, but when he saw his brother was evidently all right, he broke into open ridicule.
“Co-o-o-m-me o-o-n, Tw-i-in-inkles!” he mocked. “Co-o-o-me o-o-n, Tw-i-i-i-nkles.”
“Fuck you,” Robert laughed back. “Stupid horse.”
I asked if his elbow was okay.
“Yeah, I just landed on it funny,” he said. “It was those branches that hurt the most.”
“And your pride,” Ted added.
We looked toward the hunters to see Bill trotting back toward us, leading Twinkles by the reins, her legs and feet displaying their trademark churn.
“I know, I know,” Rob said. “Gotta get right back on her.”
And he did after brushing himself off.
Bill was smiling, but he avoided even a hint of Ted’s mockery with an air of something that struck me as mature professionalism.
“I think they holed ‘im up over on the other side of that hill,” he said, throwing his head in the direction from which he’d just come.
“Holed him?” I said.
“Yeah. When the fox gets tired of this shit, he finds his hole and scampers in. The dogs freak out and start clawing at the dirt to get in.”
Indeed, we could hear their frantic clamor in the distance.
“But the handler gets hold of them and pulls them out, and that’s the end of the party.”
“That’s it?” Ted asked.
“Yep. Now it’ll be back to the barn. Have some meatballs, crackers and cheddar cheese and another glass of champagne, then leave the mess of horses for me to clean up and put away.”
He said we might as well turn back to the barn ourselves and wait for the rest to return, a suggestion that met with no resistance. But there was a slight surprise.
“Need us to help?” Ted asked. “We can help you with the horses.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Bill said. “Dad pays me. Besides it’s a lot of work. Saddles got to be put away, every horse watered, brushed and then watered down before being put into their stalls. I won’t be done ‘til after lunchtime.”
“If we help, it might be sooner.”
“Or later.” Bill looked suspiciously at Ted. “But, shoot. I don’t care. If you all want to help me I won’t turn it down.”
Ted looked at me and Rob, who was still rubbing his elbow. Rob shrugged as if his favorite phrase, “whatever”, was too much work to say. I said I’d planned lunch in Savanna but I didn’t mind hanging out longer if they didn’t. And so our romantic fox hunting adventure ended not with a bang or a whimper but a shrug. We partook of the meatballs, cheese and sparkling grape juice, though I did opt for the champagne this time. I made it a point to seek out Dr. Sharon Waitsman, the ob-gyn who had counseled me on the phone about this operation and chat politely for a while about the morning and the experience. And Ted made it a point to seek out the houndsman and pepper him with questions about the qualities of his dogs, their backgrounds and care, as they were loaded back into the specially designed bed of the pickup truck in which they’d arrived. Then the sonata of the morning turned suddenly into a bland functionary, and rather warm actually too, early afternoon interlude. We helped Bill and Peter Housenga collect the horses, after loving, airport-like hugs and coos from their departing owners, and then walked them back to the barn. We removed their saddles and replaced their bridles with a harness and lead rope, took each for a slow circular walk of 50 or 75 yards around the dusty riding pen, hosed each down and then posted them in separate stalls with a fat slice of hay. The Housenga’s family German shepherd wandered aimlessly about the sidelines of our activity, getting more attention from Ted, and two or three barn cats scampered around us with the usual feline indifferent curiosity.
Robert could clearly have done without this unexpected addendum to the morning. He kept pulling out his iPhone and tapping messages, apparently to someone back home, or playing word games. But he dutifully handled his share of the load and joined in the empty conversations that held us all together. He later said he’d had fun despite his mishap in the saddle. Though both he and Ted agreed they didn’t care if they ever joined another fox hunt, it was clear they had not been bored on their first morning in my new town. And for Ted in particular, I could see that the experience had been much more than not boring.
“I’m glad we did this. Thanks, Dad,” he said, as we headed toward a lunch at the Ram’s Head in Savanna.
“Me, too,” I told him.
When we’d first planned for the boys to come visit, I’d considered getting tickets to a Cubs or White Sox game in Chicago. Something I knew they’d identify with and that might seem as familiar as a Giants or 49ers game. I’d imagined impressing them with the majestic skyline of Chicago and a tour of the lake and Soldier Field and the Magnificent Mile. But I worried that that wouldn’t give them much of an honest picture of where the family could be moving to. I guess a fox hunt in Elizabeth isn’t all that honest either when you come down to it. But it was real. And it gave them at least a taste of country life here. And frankly, for Teddy especially, at least, I don’t think they’d remotely trade a familiar afternoon at a baseball game for what they did and saw this morning.
Now, they’re out with Bill Housenga and some other kids from around here. Bill told them he had a friend in Chadwick, a small town 15 minutes south of Mount Carroll that he hadn’t seen since school let out for the summer. The boys were both high school wrestlers who trained at a club out of Savanna High School and often worked out together. Bill said they just wanted to get together to “chill” for the night and didn’t have any specific plans except maybe to get something to eat and see who else they might run into. He asked if Ted and Rob wanted to come along. I thought the plans sounded a little vague, which he admitted they were. But he said that’s how kids spent Saturday nights around here most of the time. I didn’t want to put the boys on the spot in front of Bill so I said it would be okay with me, figuring they could back out later in the afternoon if that’s what they really wanted. But they didn’t want to back out. Rob said he was curious about what anyone could possibly do for fun around here on a Saturday night and Ted said he liked Bill and thought he could be fun. I had lined up a play at the dinner theater George Stephanos was trying to get up and running, but I figured that since the fox hunt worked out so well, they’d had enough local culture for one day. Bill picked them up in an old Grand Am about eight o’clock. They were going to head to Savanna for something to eat and then swing by the bowling alley in Milledgeville. I know none of them is old enough to drink, but I made them promise anyway that there’d be nothing like that. Bill laughed and said his father would “literally kill me” if he found him drinking and “literally run my dead body over three times with his pickup and feed me to the hogs” if he found him drinking and driving. That seemed assurance enough for me, and I let them go.
Janet rubbed her left arm as if to sandpaper away a chill. She let her glance focus on a small cluster of young men and women chatting with the hostess at the small oyster bar at the front of the Elite Cafe. Their bodies were dark silhouettes cut out of a bright watercolor splashing with gold, gray, blue, and surging with the passing of bodies outside the restaurant's large storefront window. It was early evening, mid-summer. Greg must arrive soon or they would not be able to finish dinner in time for the opening of the show.
It was Springsteen. God, would Joey be jealous. Springsteen. It was exciting, even if it was Alan Strand she had to thank.
She and Joey had seen Springsteen many times over the years, but a Springsteen concert was always a rare and special treat. For Joe, it was something even more than that. Like his love making, music could never be simply entertainment for him; it was something spiritual and engrossing. Even when it was light-hearted, he took it seriously and he often gushed over memories of live performances by his two heroes, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen.
The performers excited Janet, too, though not nearly in the fashion nor to the degree they moved her husband. So, she had had less of a problem resigning herself to missing this particular Springsteen tour than Joe would have, even if he weren't stuck in the Illinois backwoods unable even to get scalped tickets for a Chicago show. Then Greg shows up with a pair of seats, 12th row center, and for the Saturday night performance when the boys were out of town visiting their father. She could leave Vicky with Concha, she wouldn’t have to tell Teddy and Robby and she wouldn’t have to tell Joe. Not that she minded telling Joe, nor that he would have been jealous of her attending with Greg. Envious, yes, but not jealous. They may not tell each other everything, that they both acknowledged, but they did not lie to each other so there was never cause for the brutal suspicions of an angry imagination. That had been the underlying foundation of their love and marriage. But now to tell Joe she was seeing Springsteen with Greg, as though they were just friends sharing mutual good fortune, would have cut too close to the bone of deceit. Not telling him left the deception out in the range of a flesh wound. It seemed so much more considerate to think of it that way.
She wasn’t hurting Joe by sleeping with his best friend. She was protecting him from the hurt of knowing it.
That reasoning was becoming common amid the complicated muddle of impromptu excuses that were overtaking her life. At first, these little dates with Greg, and the physical trysts they had worked into, were supposed to be just a lark, experimentation, a chance for two friends to explore each other in exciting and sometimes refreshing ways. They carried an added allure for Janet whose sexual experiences were limited almost exclusively to Joey and who harbored a titillating curiosity in the rich variety of Greg’s adventures with women. She originally had no trouble even discounting these exploits as cheating, though she found herself telling Joe less and less often about outings with Greg.
In a short time, she had become uncomfortably facile at the art of suppression. Only two months ago, she would not have harbored even the notion of not telling Joe about any event or activity in her life. When she and Greg had first started hanging out regularly to keep each other company she had told her husband of every trivial date. He had shown not the least twinge of jealousy; he was glad his friend was helping her keep her spirits up during this troubled period. Now that their dates were no longer trivial, she found it hard to bear Joe’s unconditional trust; not because she feared him asking uncomfortable questions about details she could not go into, but because she knew he wouldn't ask those questions. She found herself telling him less and less about activities with Greg, except to slip in occasional harmless acknowledgements to avoid suspicion of the sudden omissions. With time she had found discretion so easy to adopt that she often withheld from him things that did not directly lead to Greg. She had not mentioned attending Vicky's preschool play for instance, even though Joey would never think to ask if Greg had gone with her nor to care that he had. She had not talked of watching Robby's heroics on the soccer field during a couple of games. As she noticed her feelings for Greg beginning to extend beyond the physical she also found these deceptions feeling more necessary. The awareness of that sometimes sliced through her chest like hot wire. Her defense against guilt was a sharp ability to avoid thinking about it. Without thinking about it she had managed not to let Joe know about the tickets Strand had pulled out of nowhere. Without thinking about it she knew she would not tell him about seeing tonight’s show.
She concentrated on the faces bobbing across the large canvas behind the oyster bar and sipped absently at a glass of ice water. At last, Greg's appeared in the fluid mosaic and she rose for a polite kiss on the cheek as he entered the restaurant. This was, after all, a favorite haunt of all three of them, and it would do no good to have some regular customer they hadn't noticed seeing something he might feel honor-bound to pass along.
Greg apologized for being late and quickly gestured to a waitress to bring two bloody Marys.
"I am so fucking pissed off at that bastard!" he said, tossing his napkin into his lap.
"Which bastard would that be?" Janet crooned.
"Strand. That fucking asshole's been in the office all week 'observing.' Actually, he's been interfering and micromanaging. I'm telling you, I don't know how Joe dealt with it."
"Actually, I don't think he had to all that much. You know, Strand was technically his boss, but he always reported directly to Walter, or at least ever since we came to San Francisco."
"Well, he reports to Strand more than technically now, oddly enough, yet the bastard feels he has to drive me crazy. I don't know how Joe manages to be so lucky."
Janet frowned. Greg quickly returned his focus to Strand.
"Anyway, Strand’s the guy who gave me these tickets. Yet, he's the guy who kept me at the freakin' office until six o'clock with this stupid argument over whether we should be converting yen to Deutschmarks. So, I'm sorry. Do we still have time to get something to eat?"
"I think so. Just don't ..." Janet looked up to see Strand himself striding out of the streetscape.
Seeing her look of surprise, Greg turned his head and cocked it quizzically when he noticed his tormentor.
"Alan," he recovered. "I'm surprised to see you here. We're just getting ready to order something before the show."
"The show? Oh, yeah, Bruce Springsteen. You have the center-section tickets, don't you, Greg? And you're taking your friend's wife along? Naughty, naughty."
Janet and Greg tried to laugh as if everyone knew Strand’s remark was a ridiculous joke. No one was fooled.
"Thanks for asking, Greg, but I've got to catch a flight back to Miami tonight, though they do fix a pretty mean blackened chicken here as I recall. No, really, I just wanted to talk to you about a couple of accounts I was looking at that gave me some trouble.”
“Yeah. One is this million and a half we have in federated funds on Amex. I wonder if we shouldn’t think about putting that money into one of a couple of IPOs announced this week. You know, we’re really undervalued in Internet holdings.”
Greg tried not to look dumbfounded as he searched for a response. He could not believe that Alan expected to debate this issue here. Now. But he had to admit the expectation was right in keeping with the man’s behavior over the past few weeks.
“That’s okay,” Strand answered for him. “I don’t expect an answer now. I just wanted to give you something to think about. I’ll call you from Miami tomorrow night and maybe we can talk it over.”
“Sure, Alan. It just seems kind of like a subject we should give more time to than a hurried chat before a rock concert.”
“Of course it is.” Strand glanced at Janet. “Of course it is. I just wanted to prepare you, that’s all. Oh, and I wanted to ask you about one other little thing I came across the other day. Do you know anything about equipment transfers to China in the Asian Division?”
Greg sucked in his stomach.
“Not much,” he said. “What’s up?”
“There’s this strange notation on one of our invoices. It looks to me like we transferred some sort of corn picker over there paid for with money out of your division.”
“I don’t know, Alan. You know how fucked up that Asian Division is. They’re always asking for special favors. It’s possible they worked out some sort of deal with Joey or maybe somebody even slipped something past me when I was getting adapted to the job. Is it a big deal?”
“Well, it’s not the end of the world. Just three hundred thousand, but it does seem curious to me.”
“I’ll look into it tomorrow.”
“Would you? It may be nothing, but God, I’d hate to think it was some sort of fraud. Christ, if someone could slip three hundred thousand dollars past us, who knows what else may be going on? Anyway, I appreciate your attention to the matter.”
He stood and prepared to leave.
“Janet,” he said. “You are looking as beautiful as ever. You know, Joe and I have a meeting this Friday. I’ll be certain to tell him how well you’re doing without him.”
Janet smiled pleasantly.
“Please do,” she said. “And I’ll tell him the same about you, Alan.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re all doing okay in spite of things, eh?” he said. “Even Joseph.”
“What do you mean by that, Alan?” Janet thought Strand was making fun of her husband’s misfortune, and she rose instinctively to defend him.
“Oh nothing. Nothing. Please don’t take offense. I just meant that you and your friend Greg here seem to be handling Joe’s absence quite adequately and Joe himself seems to be doing okay with his new help. Jesus, when this all first came about, I thought it might create some problems, but it’s looking to me like everybody’s handling things just fine.”
“What do you mean his new help?” Janet pressed. “Alan, don’t be so goddamned coy.”
Strand’s voice lost all hint of humor and grew sharp and acidic.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t mean to be coy. I assumed Joe knew how well you and Gregory are … getting along. So, I naturally assumed you know, too, about the stripper he hired as a bank teller.”
“What? Alan, what are you trying to insinuate? Why would Joey tell me about every person he hires? And what difference would it make if his new bank teller had been a stripper or a cheerleader? You are such an asshole.”
Strand raised his eyebrows and looked from Janet to Greg.
“From what I hear, Janet, it seems to matter to some people in the town that within your husband’s first week, a strip-tease dancer was seen helping him into his motel room and within two months got herself a job as an administrative assistant in his bank. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. I may be an asshole” he labored over the word and drew out its sibilance “but you folks all seem to work pretty fast yourselves.”
He turned and walked casually toward the door.
“Enjoy the concert,” he called back.
“Hello, Mr. Langston?”
“Yes, um, Mr. Langston. This is Lori Appicelli.”
“Lori! Hey, I knew you’d call. Walter on the line?”
“Well, no. Mr. Nye is not available right now, bu...“
“Why am I not surprised.”
“But he has a message for you.”
“He’ll talk to me, finally?”
“He wants me to arrange a flight for you to meet Mr. Strand in San Francisco right after the July board meeting. He thought we could set you up to be with your family for a week after the July 4th holiday.”
“You? Not Strand’s secretary?”
“I only know that …”
“Yes, I know, Lori, … that Mr. Nye asked you to set up the meeting. Will Walter be there?”
“He did not tell me that.”
“Well, all right. The board meeting is on the First?”
“Yes, but of course, it’s in San Diego.”
“Of course. Well, please let Mr. Nye know that I, of course, will arrange my schedule for whatever he needs, but that I do have commitments for the job he’s asking me to do here.”
“I’ll give him the message. Did you want to fly in on the Third?”
“Sure, Lori. Set me up.”
“I’ll call you when the flight arrangements are complete. It’s not easy to get you in and out of there.”
“I got in easy enough, let me tell you.”
“Um. Yes. I’ll call you later this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Lori. Bye-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Langston.”