Monday, December 5, 2011

Whippoorwill


The little girl Emma told her father that she hadn’t worried for a second, because her friend Zach was “an expert at worrying. He took care of everything, Daddy.”

Introducing himself as Henry, the man asked Zach the best place to send a box of Omaha steaks as a thank-you gesture.

(Click here for the first episode; here for the previous one.)

“Not necessary,” Zach said. “Besides, I’m a vegetarian.”

“Are you sure?”

 Zach waved good-bye to Emma and recalled one-upmanship Midwestern style: out-nice the other guy.

The airline had retrieved his carry-on, which was dropped at his feet while a doctor took his blood pressure for the fourth time. Zach signed a release and before he could call a taxi, UNO’s President Larry Blount rushed into the hospital. He drove Zach to his big, cheerful home and asked if he could use a drink.

“Yes, I suppose I could. Thank you.”

“Wait, have you eaten? My wife’s spending two weeks at a spa in Texas but I can grill a few hamburgers.”

“The airline treated us to sandwiches,” Zach said.

Sitting outside, they sipped Hennessy XO.

“Good for the heart,” Larry said, “and the soul.”

And Zach said, “That whippoorwill sounds very close.”

“I keep old branches and thistles in the yard and one comes every summer. Are you familiar with birds, Zach?”

“I used to be, when I was a Boy Scout.”

“That’s right. Eagle and NESA—noticed that on your CV.”

“Most people probably don’t list such an early position, but to this day being an Eagle Scout is my finest achievement.”

“Exactly how I feel, Zach. The BSA is very big here. You know—the Scott Foundation.”

“Oh, yes.” Zach certainly should have known about it. He knew that Omaha supported a symphony, art galleries, museums, an opera, and dance companies. And he knew the Fontenelle Forest Association’s range of biodiversity: over two hundred species of warblers.  How had he overlooked the Scott Foundation, whose name seemed to be everywhere?

The committee meeting was at four p.m. What would Zach enjoy doing? Walking in the forest.

Among the oaks and hickories, Larry told him that he’d seen bald eagles the last five winters. “One year I watched a nest. Ever seen bald eagles in flight, Zach?”

 “Never. When I was a kid, they were still endangered.”

The men were bird-watching until they happened to zoom in on an attractive, slight woman right in front of them listening for woodpeckers. She jumped to her feet and Larry said, “Zach Severins, this is Kristina Marius.”

An hour later, driving back, Larry explained that Kristina taught environmental biology and was very popular with all the students. “Especially this year with the tuition protesters, which is curious because she’s related to all of Omaha’s well-to-do.”

“You mean, Warren Buffet?”

Larry didn’t know about that, only that she was a prominent board member with every enterprise, for profit or non.

What had impressed Zach was her smile. Kristina’s eyes scrunched up, each one curving symmetrically with her mouth. Her eyes and hair appeared to be the same color as her sprinkling of freckles.

Hours later, when Larry issued Zach into the committee meeting, there she was, wearing a turquoise dress and a Navajo squash blossom necklace. Her wispy light brown hair was twisted up elegantly. She stood; the others didn’t. And smiling the same sweet, funny smile, she extended her hand. “Good to see you again, Zach.”

Everyone wanted to hear about the plane’s crash landing. Zach tried to discuss his ideas for urban planning and cleaner transportation.

Finally, the committee acknowledged that his partnership with the Younger Institute’s Director of Development counted as a plus. That in itself was a pleasant surprise. But Larry used it to address Zach’s over-the-top compensation. Ostensibly speaking to Zach, he said: “As you all know, we’re striving to fulfill the growing demand for education and committed to becoming a leading research center. But when we raised tuition last year, we faced a small but vocal group of protesters. Luckily, Zach’s extremely good at raising capital and nurturing long-term development.”

That evening at a very good restaurant, Larry confided that Zach could count on becoming dean and administrator. “Naturally, I would never tell you if I weren’t certain.”

Before driving him to the airport the next morning, Larry showed Zach the Missouri River. The morning sun on the water reminded him of the yearly canoe trips he took with his son Matt—last year being the exception. 

Flying straight from Omaha to visit Vida and the babies, he mapped out a canoe trip on the Delaware River. Three days, three nights: If he and Matt started from Milford Beach, they could land at Kittatinny Point. The trip would include white water excitement without pushing them. For once, Zach wanted adventure without strain.

Matt, however, wouldn’t answer his phone; he had even turned off his voice mail. From his apartment, Zach tried his old home number, because unless Beth had updated the phone, it wouldn’t flash his name.

Matt said, “Hey,” but before Zach said anything, the boy breathed irritably. “No, Dad, I haven’t found a job. Mom thinks something might turn up where she and Wren work out.”

“That’s not why I’ve been trying to reach you, Matt.”

“Yeah? Well, I won’t start as a trainer or anything. Probably laundry.”

“Matt, I’ve mapped out a three-day canoe trip for us—whenever you’re free.”

“Let me check with Mom. I need to know she’s safe.”

 “Matt, she’s looked after you your whole life. Why wouldn’t she be safe?”

“Last year, some guy slugged her. Know anything about that, Dad?”
  
“Matt, did your mother say I hit her?”

“She’d never say that, no matter what you did to her.”

“Ask her, Matt. As I recall, last year she underwent some serious dental work.”

“Is that what you tell yourself? Dental work?”

“Matt—you know…” Zack didn’t say out loud the words making him twitch. Faster than he could grasp, little Emma and her powerful sense of mortality rose in his mind.  So—permit Matt his hostility. Be glad he loved his mother.

“Can I book the trip for July?”

“Make it August.”

“Any three days you’re free, Matt.”

“Fine.”

“Promise?”

“I said, fine.” His son hung up.

(click here for the next episode)

2 comments:

Dan Leo said...

“I said, fine.”

Which so rarely means fine.

kathleenmaher said...

That's true, although I hadn't noticed exactly. "Fine" almost never means "fine," unless you're saying how you feel or how your Thanksgiving was.