The camera follows a golf ball into the sky—blue sky, white ball, nothing could bore me more—and tracks the long curve down, the bounce onto the green, the smooth roll almost to the lip of the cup. A hush as the ball slows, almost pauses at the rim; applause as it drops. The ice in my glass has gone oval and small, thinned away, gone opaque at the center, like the afternoon. What I need is a better mind, but I’ll settle for fresh ice and strong, sanitary alcohol. Set the glass on the bar. Turn the napkin over to cover that ostentatious crest. Glance at the screen and see the same ball loft and fall and bounce and roll right in.
I can do that. Not with a club and ball: with an idea.
The wall above the lit array of bottles is dark paneling, hung with images from the wrong century. The desire for power, the wish to avoid surprise. (Yet here I am.) I crunch the last flat lumps of grainy ice and carry my empty glass down the bar, eager to feel that harsh medicinal chill, but the bartender’s gone, the enormous off-hours restaurant unsupervised.
I lean on the bar and wait. There’s a vacuum going somewhere, out in the far reaches of the room. This place doubles as a ballroom, and it’s huge. Roll back the roof, clear the tables and chairs, and a Citation XLS+ could land on the endless ugly patterned carpeting. (What’s next for the rich? Carpeted runways for private jets!)
The only other customer, a woman at the far end of the bar, gazes in my direction—more than a look, not quite a stare. Well dressed. Hair blondish, blurred. I hold my lips steady, try to force them not to falsify a smile. Maybe I fail. She looks away.
The golf match I’m not watching goes on and on, its own special expanse of boredom, not unlike the carpeting in this resort, business center, hotel, spa, bar. I’m wearing a jacket. I look like I belong. That’s what I’ve got going: I could stand on a table shouting and look like I belong. The police would be deferential when they came. They would help me down.
A man in a burgundy blazer uses a special tool to open a section of wall they fold back for the really big events. He wheels a cart up, transfers a carton onto the longest banquet table I’ve seen in years, and sets to work. When I look again he’s peeling silvery foil from a life-size stag’s head made of chocolate. The golf crowd applauds.
I can’t help smiling: Who makes such things nowadays? Is there really a market? Hollow or solid? How do they keep the antlers from snapping off? I picture a stainless modern workshop in Poland or Austria where white-smocked workers inject molten chocolate into antique forms, producing whole landscapes, villages, churches, working clocks. Why not?
The scribble on my calendar wasn’t clear, but I came out anyway—and now I’ve lost the thread of the afternoon.
The bartender must have come back: I’m holding an icy glass and the woman is laughing. Though the bar is as vast and empty as before, we’re standing quite close. Her teeth are white and wet, her lipstick color palpable, a dusky maroon without a trace of gloss. I’d feel a dry, brushed stickiness if we kissed. “Do you follow golf?” she asks.
“Not even close.” I take a sip. Another sip. “You?”
She shakes her head. Taller than average. Her shirt’s a dark chiffon, somehow both sedate and semi-sheer. Her nails match her lips. She wouldn’t be talking to me without a reason.
“If I have to pick a sport, it’s squash,” I say. “More violence, better controlled. You dominate a room, not a landscape.” But she’s suppressing a smile and then we’re shaking hands, a good long handshake. Her palms are smooth and dry, and here’s another drink!
The bartender, a pockmarked fellow in a scarlet vest, moves down the bar to give us privacy. Good man. Are we about to discuss something important? I hope she knows there’s only one thing I do well—and I’m no longer doing it. I take a deep, cold sip.
I like this woman. I like this drink. But there’s a pause, as if both expect more from me. I make what I think is a joke; she leans into me, laughing. Turns out she’s been looking forward to meeting me. So I’m not here for the carpeting, the golf, the chocolate hunting trophy. I’m here for those brown eyes with gold streaks in the irises. Or is she here for me?
“Of course you know you could do better, but I wonder if you realize how much better.” She opens her hands. “You’re a legend.”
I look down. My cuff links are tiny mazes. My wedding ring’s still there (my wife is not). Best eye in the business, she’ll say next.
She does. I have to grin. This is the woman Ted Sand insisted I meet, out of the city, quietly. (I was still in Mexico when I got the call.)
Her professional voice is authoritative, cool, and thoroughly convincing, which makes me wonder: Of what do I need to be convinced? I do have a good eye. I look the part. Maybe I could use a haircut, maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter what impression I make. Maybe being a “legend” is enough.
A boutique recruiting firm, I’m guessing. She’ll be a partner.
“Yes, but it’s a small office. Just six of us. We specialize in people at your level. The rare ones.” Her name, she reminds me with amused tact, is Dolores Fuentes.
“That would be Fuentes Dolorosas—and it wouldn’t be me.”
The illusion that I know Spanish is wearing off.
“I never cry! Not even when I was little.”
I raise my glass. Take a sip. Look past her shoulder at the room. Let it blur. Let the place cards on the banquet table dance. Don’t think of anyone you love.
“No, really. I fell out of a second-floor window when I was four, smack onto the patio.” Dolores smiles. “The nanny cried. I lay there waiting to see what would happen. No angels came. No tears. When our parents name us, they don’t know who we are.”
My parents named me Stone. “Slicing an onion?”
“Sure, but that’s chemistry.” A look. “You got here early. When did you start?”
“Drinking?” Another sip. “When I got bored.”
“You don’t handle boredom well?”
“Most people don’t. One of the secrets of the business.”
I can see the whole room now. The walls have been folded back. The man with the special tool is gone. The stag’s head is ringed with blossoms. Another worker is putting out silverware. Long wax tapers wait in boxes on a cart.
Dolores has paused. I’ve missed another cue.
“As I was saying . . . you founded the agency when you were fairly young. You and your partners—Magnus Öpik, and later Darlene Woolfolk—had an amazing run, a long stretch of spectacular growth. After fending off quite a few offers over the years, you were acquired by Sir Paul Ratlins and the Précis Group. Magnus and Darlene dropped out, but you stayed on. Even after PWA took control and merged you with Olipse.”
“All of that happened. Sure.”
“I know you’ve worked with some amazing people. Emma Sardana, among others.”
“I hired Emma.”
“You hired a lot of women, in fact!”
“Most of them were very, very good.” I pick a single red-skinned peanut out of the bowl: it’s perfect. “Sometimes less experienced hires turn out best. Smart, but not fixed in their thinking. Zero fear of change.”
Netscape 0.9 had just come out. We had a dim aquarium full of coders—most of them young men hired by Emma. At the time it was high entertainment to watch the video feed of a coffee pot in Cambridge, England, or a Vaalimaa, Finland, border crossing. Industrial lighting, rain; heavy vehicles rolling into Russia. “Emma was always in high demand. She went west—Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino. Last I heard, her group had funded a plan to insert product placements into classic films, little CGI interludes called Original Character Endorsements. Not my thing at all.” Fresh drinks arrive.
Again I imagine kissing, but she’s all business—until she stands and I feel her nails on my neck.
“So . . . you had this phenomenal, sustained success, but . . . I’m guessing the company grew too quickly? Despite significant offers to renew, you walked away.”
The tournament has ended: screens are dark. The vacuum cleaner has been put away. As if enacting a religious ritual, two women wearing dark vests and ties move along the banquet table in step, lighting opposing candles in unison.
Maybe I got bored—if not with the work, with the back-to-back meetings in which we talked about things instead of doing them. Stopped listening. Began to dislike myself. Produced uninteresting work and got rewarded anyway, because of an old reputation for success. And every unearned reward brings you closer to not knowing the difference.
Dolores might be curious, but doesn’t press. A professional doesn’t care. “Do I have it right?” She’s hardly touched her drink.
I touch mine. “Sure. That’s the picture, more or less.” Hanging a little crooked, but not so much I need to straighten it. I could have stayed. Instead, I wandered off. Canceled all my meetings for the day, for the next day, for the week—and that was it.
“You’ve had a year off from the business. Have you given any thought to coming back?”
Back from the morning dazzle of snow on Pico de Orizaba? Back from the warm wind, the sheltered terrace, the drift of friends, acquaintances, strangers? Back from that L-shaped cerulean room, the nine steps down to an empty beach, in the company (on and off) of two interesting women? Back from finally starting to relax?
“I still have my sunburn.”
“I see that. But have you thought about what’s next?” She smiles. “Is there a plan?”
Sun reddens on faraway sills. Someone dims the lights, and who knows what the staff have on their minds—they’re taking up positions here and there. I tilt my glass, drink up.
“Go back to hiding sex and death in the ice cubes of bourbon ads? That kind of plan?”
Her smile is distant, maybe a bit complex. And to be fair, it might be time. Not working gets to you. We aren’t really beings of leisure—at least I’m not. I need a project.
Time to call a car. Large as it is, the room is filling up. Every candle on the banquet table is lit. Is there time for one more drink?
There is. Again I imagine kissing, but she’s all business—until she stands and I feel her nails on my neck. “Let me drive you back to the city, where we can really talk.” She pays the check and we’re off.
Air tastes of seaside, of seaweed, waters and boats, unmasked distances, dangers, unknown lives. Why hold the passenger door open for me? Lady, I haven’t started drinking yet.
The parking lot swirls away. I still have my glass from the bar. I try for a sip and clip my teeth, but manage not to spill. She drives a BMW as clean as the day it left the showroom. No music, no talk; we sit separately looking out at separate worlds, the space around each of us as precisely defined as the minimum clear space around a logo. (For maximum impact, isolate the mark from competing elements. Never crowd our logo. Always give it room to breathe.)
Wow. She’s good, though. You feel like what’s happening absolutely has to.
I doze until, afloat in a molten sunset, Manhattan comes into view.