Digging to China
A feeling of déjà vu nagged Hunter Durrell as he crossed the Xaneria lot. It seemed like a dumb thing to be feeling. Of course he had been there before. Twice a day for three years, going to and coming from the cube farm. Then it hit him. Spring. The smell of turned over earth. Dogwood blossoms. A trace scent of last night's rain. In the sky-blue distance, a tractor downshifted, and Hunter’s eyes teared. He had forgotten the world, and here it was forgiving him, reminding him it was still there.
He had to get out more.
Inside the cube farm, breathing institutional air, he was ambushed by Prudence raising a pallid hand as she rolled her chair into the aisle. "Stop in the name of Howard Roark."
Prudence needed to get out more, too. And quit dreaming in code. There was no fix for her endlessly looping algorithm.
"Mr. Feld was here," she informed him.
"He was looking for you. You're supposed to go to his office. Don't log in. He specifically said don't log in, just go."
Mortimer Feld owned Xaneria. By himself. They said he used to have a programmer’s brain, until a business model ate it up. Hunter could think of no reason Feld would choose to talk with him. He rode the elevator to the penthouse floor. The only time he had been up there was to attend the Christmas party, when Feld made a speech about the interfaith nature of software development. Muslims were encouraged to play in the company sandbox. So were the LGBT crowd. Feld gave the impression of having worked really hard on the speech. Not everything came easily to him.
In his white mega-office Feld wore dark. He was bald, and the black turtleneck made his head look like an egg with feelings. Hunter recognized the hand-wringing that was his trademark. Most people at Xaneria considered it an affectation. Why were bosses, in general, such asses? Why couldn't you work at a place where you respected management, you looked up to them and learned useful things from them?
“That solution you came up with,” he told Hunter.
“On the variable ray project. Now that was a brilliant piece of coding.”
“Have a seat.”
The executive suite was huge. The sole owner of Xaneria Software gestured to an arrangement of leather chairs and small sofas in the middle distance. The two men sat with an austere glass table between them. The flowers in the vase sitting on the table had been trucked in from somewhere far away. If flowers could look arrogant, these did.
Hunter nodded. He had no idea what Feld wanted from him but did not have the sense he was in any sort of corporate trouble. He had buried a few jokes deep in the code on a project or two, but everybody did that; it was like signing your name. Anyway Feld wouldn’t care about such small things.
“Hunter Durrell,” he said again. “You know, you’re fortunate. You have a great name.”
What a wacky thing to say. “Thank you.”
“Now my name, Mortimer Feld, it doesn’t come close to yours. In terms of coolness, I mean. I noticed Hunter Durrell on an email the other day and it made me wish I had a name like that, a name people could admire.”
“Sir?” It was definitely unhip to call the CEO sir, but Hunter was losing any poise he might have walked into the suite with.
“You follow me, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“It’s logical. I own the company. You’re my employee. A fair and reasonable trade.”
“Mr. Feld, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
A flash of irritation showed on Feld’s smooth pale face. A storm warning, but the sky cleared quickly.
“I’m proposing that we trade names.”
“I’ll be Hunter Durrell, and you’ll be Mortimer Feld. You get an extra ten grand a year, and I’ll throw in a cubicle with a window. There’s one down on your floor that is currently uninhabited, if I remember right. It looks out on fields. Some farmer owns the property out behind us. Very restful, having a view. It increases productivity, although trust me, that does not enter into my thinking on this. This is all about the name.”
The conversation, which was mostly a monologue on Feld’s part with an occasional sputter of confusion from Hunter, went on for longer than it should have. At a certain point Hunter felt his resistance weakening.
“Let’s say I accepted the… the arrangement,” he said cautiously.
Feld perked up. “Yes, by all means, let’s say that.”
“How would it work?”
Feld shook his head. “Easy as pie. All you have to do is say yes. I’ll take care of the details.”
Which he did.
Hunter was not a hundred percent sure he did say yes, but by the time he got back to the cube farm he was Mortimer Feld, at least on the Xaneria campus.
“What did Mr. Durrell want?” Prudence asked.
“Say that again.”
“Don’t be so touchy, Morty. You have to admit it’s unusual, being summoned to the CEO’s office before you even log on. It’s… unfathomable. Us lowly peons can’t help wondering what the fuck.”
Calling him Morty, was that a joke? But there was no way she could have known what he and Feld had talked about. Prudence was never anything less than an aggravation. There was no point continuing the conversation. He headed for his cubicle, which he found occupied by a new employee with copper hair and passive-aggressive tattoos.
In a daze of disbelief he walked to the corner cubicle that Feld had promised him. There was his new name on a brass plate fixed to the fabric-covered divider. All his stuff was there, too, arranged the way it had been in his old space. The picture of Nadine, his good luck talisman, stood in its denim frame next to his machine. Testing the ridiculous hypothesis he logged onto the system as Mortimer Feld. It worked. In his email in-box, 47 messages directed to him in his new identity clamored for a response. Exploring, he discovered that every file he had ever worked on thought he was Mortimer Feld. The final test: he called up his H.R. profile and was pleased to see that he was making ten thousand bucks more, on an annual basis, than he had when he woke that morning. Not a bad day’s work, from a strictly financial point of view.
Questions barraged him. How had Feld made the switch so fast, and so completely? How had he managed to send word to the Prudence echelon that henceforth the name Hunter Durrell belonged to the owner of the company? And if the name switch was real, how would Hunter – the real Hunter, astute programmer and lover of a socially committed paralegal named Nadine – think of himself? How would he refer to himself?
The only question he could answer was the last one. He had a middle name he never used. Marlon. In her early years, his mother had been a big Brando fan. It would take some discipline, but until he figured out what was going on he would call himself Marlon.
He looked out the window. A man on an orange tractor was doing something to a long field of turned up earth. Likely he was planting something. It was that time of year. A flock of brown birds settled in the tractor’s wake, diligent for seeds. The same sense of nostalgia that had ambushed him in the parking lot returned with a vengeance, and he found himself crying for the loss of something that had no name. It was a good moment to ask himself if he was going crazy. The answer was probably; the answer was almost certainly. In a little while Prudence came by to harass him, the day’s only semblance of normalcy.
He and Nadine had agreed to meet for a drink that evening at Billy Flynn’s Emporia Bar, their favorite hangout. There were lots of reasons why they liked the place. It was in an unimproved neighborhood downtown. It was frequented by storytellers of limited credibility. Draught beer was cheap, and they knew the lumps and valleys on the bed of the pool table. Just as important, Billy Flynn had a glass eye he was constantly wagering, losing and winning it back over the course of the night. To date he had not gone home without the eye, but you never knew. Marlon did not text Nadine to confirm. He was afraid she would write back a sentence that included the word ‘Morty.’ By the time he walked in and saw her at their table along the back wall, below the antediluvian Let it Bleed poster, his anxiety was about as high as he could tolerate and stay on his feet.
“Hi,” he said.
Nadine was blonde in an unassuming way. She was on the shorter side, and slightly roly poly. She had tiger eyes and a passionate conviction about the need to defend the homeless. Her clothes were a throwback that went with her beliefs: faded jeans and sandals and what the internet described as ‘traditional peasant smocks.’
“It’s spring,” Marlon told her.
She nodded. “Comes after winter, in my experience.” That was one of Nadine’s numerous virtues. You could throw anything at her and she would catch it, throw it back, make it better.
“I’ll buy the first round,” he said. “I got a raise today.”
“Say that again.”
“I meant my name.”
She scrunched her eyebrows. “Go get the beers.”
They drank a craft IPA, which was slightly too hoppy for Marlon’s taste, and he told her what had happened to him at work. She believed him; at least he thought she did. But she was less interested than she ought to be.
“It’s some sort of elaborate practical joke, Hunter. Relax. Go with it. All will be explained in the fullness of time.”
“If anybody asks, I’m happy to testify that you are the one and only Hunter Durrell.”
And she told him about a case the firm where she worked was taking on. Evidently a schizophrenic man recently turned out of a state institution was being charged with a string of felonies after holding a gun to his own head on Pigeon Avenue, threatening to take himself hostage. The incident happened three blocks from Billy Flynn’s, which gave it poignancy, and punch. Marlon wanted to tell Nadine about the strange sense of loss he had felt on and off again through the day, but compared to the schizophrenic man’s ordeal it seemed like a trivial complaint, self-indulgent, and he let it go.
That night he lay in bed wishing Nadine had come back to his apartment with him. But she was studying for a major exam. She had put off her law degree too many times already, getting wrapped up in cases for the firm. Also, the study of torts baffled and frustrated and sometimes enraged her. She needed to focus. He understood. Anyway she was right about the name thing, he was sure of it. For reasons of his own, which were inscrutable in the way that so much about the wealthy and powerful was inscrutable, Mortimer Feld had decided to play a bizarre joke on one of his employees. The social environment was business friendly. As CEO, he probably had the legal right.
If it was a joke, the employees of Xaneria did an amazing job of keeping it going. They stuck to the script without deviation. For the next couple of weeks Hunter was Morty to everybody at work. He was Marlon to himself, and Hunter to Nadine. Not that he saw all that much of her. She was hyper-stressed, working all day and taking classes at night, trying to keep up with the case load and her school reading. He called his mother in Kansas City a couple of times but was unable to maneuver the conversation in such a way as to force her to call him by his name. Oh, she said, picking up. It’s you. She sounded disappointed. Her health was going downhill, which naturally discouraged her. Holding a conversation with her only child seemed to take a lot of effort. He was relieved to hang up.
Prudence’s nose was seriously out of joint the morning she had to pass on another message from the boss.
“So what makes you so special?”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Prudence?”
For the past few months she had been going through color phases, coming to the office dressed in the same single color for weeks at a stretch. First it was black, then blue, and then green. The latest color was red. It did not become her, not with that pasty skin. Red made her look frenzied.
“Mr. Durrell wants to see you again.”
Marlon shook his head. He dreaded another meeting with the man who had robbed him of his name.
“You can’t say no,” Prudence pointed out. “He’s the owner.”
“Of my soul?”
She contorted her face into an expression meant to suggest he was weird, and Marlon reluctantly rode the elevator to the white suite on the top floor. The CEO – Marlon could not bring himself to call the man Hunter, or Mr. Durrell – was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt and high-priced sneakers. How that innocuous outfit underscored his status was a puzzle, but of course it did.
“So, Morty, how’s the new cube working out?”
“Lots of action in the landscape out your window. Deer, wild turkeys, vultures. You went to Princeton, didn’t you?”
“I’m a Rutgers man. Quite a good school, actually. I feel like they gave me a solid education. Of course it doesn’t have the prestige of a Princeton.”
With that, Marlon knew where he was headed. The head of Xaneria wanted to trade alma maters with him. Marlon had the sense he was being tested to see how far he could be pushed. His back went up, and he declined the offer. He was polite, of course, showing respect to the man who paid his salary.
The former Feld shook his head. “I got to tell you, Morty, I’m disappointed. Rutgers is a fine place to graduate from. But hey, no hard feelings, right? This is how it works in a market economy, which is still more or less what we’ve got in this country.”
Marlon left the office relieved but on his guard. Saying no was easier than he suspected. He got through the day with no problems, looking forward to an evening of eight ball and tall tales at Billy Flynn’s. But in the parking lot, his car had been clamped.
“Oh oh,” said Prudence, who walked out with him wearing an outfit in her new color. Tangerine. No woman on the planet could sustain a full week of tangerine, let alone two or three, which was P’s recent average. “Morty’s been a bad boy.”
The instant she walked away, Marlon called security. He had to wait forty minutes before a car showed up and then put up with a smirk on the pimply face of the company cop who answered the call.
“There’s been some kind of mistake,” Marlon told him.
After another twenty minutes, the cop agreed with him and removed the clamp from the wheel of Marlon’s Hyundai.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he said.
It was obvious he didn’t mean it, that his orders were not to mean it.
Nadine didn’t show up at the bar that night. She was studying. Marlon ate boiled eggs and drank beer and played pool with a couple of Nepalese cab drivers with emotive mustaches. He played poorly because his mind was on the dilemma at work. The incident with the clamp had not been inadvertent. The man in the executive suite who went by the name of Durrell was sending him a message.
Maybe if Nadine had been there at the bar Marlon would have stood firm. As it was, there was a slow leak in his resistance, and the next morning he asked for an appointment in the front office. He relented, for ten thousand dollars more per annum and an unrestricted right to telecommute. When they shook hands to seal the deal, Marlon saw, in the other man’s eyes, the insanity reflected from his troubled own.
The new change was effected with the same remorseless speed as the first one had been. When Marlon went back to his computer he found an email to his personal account from the Rutgers development office. Can we count on you this year, Mortimer, to continue the generous support you have provided in previous years? Marlon deleted the message. He checked his H.R. profile. Sure enough, the salary bump was already reflected in the file. So why the feeling of emptiness? He looked out the window. When they were kids, his best friend Rich had told him that if you dug deep enough into the earth, you would come out in China. That was what Marlon had the urge to do now, walk out to the field and dig deep.
Thankfully Nadine took the night off from her studies. They met at Billy Flynn’s, where for a change of scenery they sat at the bar. Marlon told her about the university alumni switch, and the money it made him. He wanted her to feel outraged and say so. But she took the whole thing in stride, to the point that Marlon had the sense she was humoring him, and he changed the subject. She bet Billy that he could not guess which state had the highest annual rainfall. He guessed wrong (the correct answer was Hawaii), and Nadine sat there at the bar eating a tuna melt with the glass eye on its own small plate next to the sandwich. Billy’s luck was rotten that night, and Marlon and Nadine both thought she was going to walk out with the eye in her pocket. But the proprietor of the Emporia Bar won it back betting he could chin himself ten times on a bar in the doorway to the johns. He was flabby and smoked. Nadine took the bet and lost.
She put a hand on Marlon’s arm. “Let’s go back to your place.”
That was exactly what he wanted to hear. They made love and slept with their arms wrapped around one another to keep from drowning. I want to dig to China, he heard himself whisper. Saying it felt good, and the muscles in his arms clenched as they gripped a shovel.
Nothing changed for the next month. May arrived with its handcart of fresh flowers. In the parking lot at Xaneria, the fragrant air brought back Marlon’s childhood. His father was away a lot, selling various products. He remembered his mother as kind but distant. Somewhere she had read that swallowing a spoonful of dirt gave kids immunity to certain diseases. She never minded that her son was obsessed with the earth, with dirt and sand, grass and weeds. He and Rich lived coated in mud, constantly digging, digging, digging. Now he watched corn plants sprout and rise from the earth in the farmer’s field and wished he were one: that rooted and green.
In June he was summoned again to the front office. The specious Hunter Durrell wanted to know how he was doing.
“I’m all right.”
“No side effects?”
The CEO shook his head. “Don’t pretend you’re obtuse. You’re not.”
“Is that why you wanted to see me, to ask how I was?”
What he wanted, it turned out, was Marlon’s childhood memories. Not all of them, just a judiciously selected handful. His first sexual experience, for example. Riding on the back of a Harley, the driver drunk, on a winding country road. The moment he discovered he was capable of sin. Marlon did not ask why Feld wanted his memories. He would not have believed him. For no cogent reason he agreed, on the usual terms, and wound up dictating his intimate past into an intimidating recorder over a period of several harrowing hours, at the end of which he felt dirty. His bank balance fattened.
This time he did not bother to tell Nadine. He never got the response he wanted from her when he talked about work. Anyway she was chin deep in summer courses. Another six months of applied self-control and she would have her law degree. With the degree, she could do a lot more to protect the unprotected. He respected her commitment. He envied it.
Marlon had an ironclad right to telecommute but seldom exercised it. If he stayed home he questioned his sanity. At work in the cube farm, he was able to distract himself. When he couldn’t, Prudence stepped in and did it for him.
Over the course of the strange summer as the corn plants grew tall and tasseled ears swelled in their husks, Marlon agreed to more deals. He surrendered some old friends, people he had lost touch with, for the most part. (Rich was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar and had sworn off the internet.) He gave up his favorite uncle, and his Hyundai Sonata with 65,000 miles on it, although why the car was an object of CEO desire was beyond him.
Everything he gave away increased his salary by ten grand, but Marlon recognized that something else was at work. It was no longer a rational calculation, if it ever had been. It was a slo-mo plunge over a cataract he could neither see nor hear but knew was taking him down. After he lost the car he did try to talk with Nadine about what was happening. She listened. She believed him, or seemed to. But she thought he had built up the CEO in his imagination into some sort of authority figure against whom he was blindly struggling, for reasons that reflected no credit on him. Damn the psychobabble. He was on his own.
It could not be a coincidence that the September day on which the farmer harvested his corn became the day Marlon finally said no.
He was summoned to the suite.
“You want a scotch?” the owner of Xaneria asked him when Marlon came in. “I’ve got a single malt that will make you weep tears of joy.”
“I have to tell you, Madge is a lovely person. You’re going to be very happy together. She’s a good wife, and a wonderful mother. She keeps herself in shape, and she reads all the time. She’s in Christ I don’t know how many book clubs.”
The idea was to exchange Madge for Nadine, and thankfully for his self-respect Marlon gave him an unequivocal no.
The former Mortimer Feld was taken aback. “What, my wife’s not good enough for you? Believe me, Madge is a classy individual, and loving. You won’t regret it.”
It was as though Marlon had smacked him in the face. He pulled away with a jerk. “Who do you think you are?”
Now there was a question screaming out for an answer. None came. All Marlon could do was keep saying no. The boss was furious by the time he closed the door on him.
“We’ll see,” he muttered.
It was a threat. There was no doubt in Marlon’s mind that it was a threat. It was the middle of the morning, but he made his way to the parking lot, waved at the farmer on his orange tractor, and drove the RAV4 he had bought to replace the Hyundai downtown to Billy Flynn’s. It took him a cup and a half of low-grade coffee to make up his mind. He would get his life back.
The trick, of course, was making that happen. First, he needed his name back. No more Marlon. He also needed to quit his job. And he needed Nadine. She was the only person who really mattered. If he was lucky, she might some day agree to marry him, once she mastered torts and passed the bar.
“What’s my name?” Hunter asked Billy.
Billy was groggy from overindulgence the night before. He poured a shot of rum into their coffee and grinned. He stirred. Damned if he could remember the name.
“My name is Hunter,” said Hunter. “Hunter Durrell.”
“I knew that.”
“Never mind. I need a witness. You’re going to be my witness.”
Billy could not help being a bartender. Part of being a bartender was reinforcing your customers’ inclinations. He nodded hard and said, “Damn straight.”
Hunter took out his phone. He composed an email to the HR department at Xaneria. Before he sent it, he handed the phone to Billy and told him to read what he saw on the screen.
Billy squinted. His head hurt. He read. “This is to inform you that I, Hunter Durrell, quit. My resignation is effective the nanosecond you get this message.”
“That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?” Hunter asked Billy.
“Clear as a cow bell on Sunday afternoon.”
“Good. I’m calling Nadine now.”
“Call her, man. I’m telling you, that’s what you got to do.”
But Nadine did not pick up, and there was something wrong with her voice mail. She never deleted anything, so her mailbox might be clogged, but Hunter had a bad feeling.
“Have a shot for the road,” Billy offered. “On me.”
“Can’t do it.”
Billy was impressed with his discipline. “Wow.”
Hunter drove to the law firm, where they told him Nadine had taken the day off. That was fishy. He knew for a fact she had no class today, nor had she mentioned any special plans. He went to her apartment and knocked. No answer. He had a key. When she traveled, he watered her plants. He went in with an overwhelming longing to touch her, caress her, be held by her.
No dice, no trace.
He knew Nadine’s habits. She was not the type to sit in a coffee shop with her computer. She liked to spread her stuff out, and did her studying at home. Also, she was good about answering her phone. She seldom put him off. He wandered around the apartment, going room to room inhaling her scent by the lungful. In her bedroom, picking up a hairbrush from the dresser he choked up. He had no idea what was happening. But as he sank onto her bed like an old man on spindle legs it came to him. Feld had dissed him. The owner of Xaneria Software had gone blithely forward as though Hunter had agreed to the mate swap. Somewhere in an upscale neighborhood in the city, a good mother and active book clubber named Madge would be waiting for Hunter’s call. Somehow, and this was the real mystery, Nadine had been persuaded to abandon him.
A sense of outrage strangled Hunter, a beast with bad breath gripping his throat. He jumped up from the bed but could not shake off his tormentor. Here was the galling truth: Mortimer Feld had betrayed him. By enticing Nadine away he made a joke of the agreements they had so painstakingly negotiated. And why? There was only one explanation. He was forcing Hunter to admit he was a powerless schlub, rubbing his face in the filth of his weakness. What kind of employer got his kicks from humiliating a low-echelon employee? Sick. The man was a sadist.
After a longish spurt of self-righteous vitriol, a fresh insight collapsed Hunter onto the bed again. This time he lay down. A blanket was folded at the foot. He wrapped it around his shoulders and buried his head under a pillow that smelled of Nadine. This was what he had sunk to: he was more outraged at Feld’s breach of faith than he was at losing the woman he loved.
Shame seeped into him, and he experienced self-loathing, not the simulacrum of remorse he usually indulged. He moaned. The sound was not theatrical, it was real release. His body surrendered to convulsions.
All these months he had put the blame on Feld. And yes, the man was guilty as sin. But Feld’s skullduggery did not matter, at least not compared to the ugly truth Hunter had been hiding from himself. He was as bad as his boss was, as culpable. From the beginning, he had been all too willing to give himself away, piece by piece. He was as reprehensible as Mortimer Feld.
Disgust led him to a decision. He would turn himself in for treatment. There was no reasonable explanation for anything that had happened to him since the first day Feld called him to the executive office. Events remorselessly followed their own illogic, sweeping him along. He agonized trying to make sense of the senseless, when the problem was in his own head. If he surrendered voluntarily, the odds of being cured went up. Didn’t they?
For years he had driven past a medical arts building whose signage drew attention to the counseling practice of Furst & Furst. He parked in the lot. Making the decision to get help was a relief. Really it was his civic duty. For all he knew, he might be a menace to society. He put up the windows of the RAV4. Then put them down again, aware of the toad inside him pressing up against vital organs. It was hard to think.
Out behind the office building, an empty field was doing its best to hold back development. There were autochthonous trees, self-reliant bushes, independent high grass. In a trance of dim expectation, Hunter walked to the edge of the field and waded into the grass. Grasshoppers. When was the last time he had thought about grasshoppers? It was late in the year for them. They belonged to high summer. They had only stuck around, pinging from one green blade to the next, to change his mind for him. Fight it, they were saying in their acrobatic body language. You may be nuts, but don’t give up. He went back to his car.
Breathe in. Stay on track. Find Nadine.
He called Feld’s office. Feld’s P.A. told him the boss was away. It took time and a little cunning, but he was able to worm out of the P.A. that Feld was meeting someone at a hotel downtown in the Allen Forge district, the city’s swankiest. With a little more persuasion Hunter got the name of the hotel and drove there fast.
At the reception desk of the Allen Forge Arms they told him no one by the name of Hunter Durrell was registered. No Mortimer Feld, for that matter, and no Nadine Broward. The clerk was more accommodating than you expected to find in an age of organized fear. On a hunch Hunter asked him, “What about Sally Lightfoot?”
Sally Lightfoot was Nadine’s Seminole great-grandmother. According to legend, she singlehandedly stopped a crowd of Florida crackers from burning down the family farmhouse. She was handy with an axe and split open a marauder’s skull to show she meant business. She had always been Nadine’s heroine.
Twenty bucks to the clerk and Hunter learned that Ms. Lightfoot was staying in room 707. But of course it was not Nadine who answered his knock, it was Feld.
“Everything was going fine until you decided Madge wasn’t good enough for you.”
Hunter was tired of his former boss’s sense of resentful entitlement. “Where is she?"
Feld opened the door, and Hunter stepped into a four-hundred-dollar-a-day room with too many mirrors. The paintings on the wall looked original, and hard to understand. The temperature of the air was just what your skin wanted it to be. Feld was in his privileged element. Why had Nadine given away to this man the secret of her great-grandmother? At Feld's insistence, Hunter accepted a shot of boutique rye.
"I was sorry to hear you left our employ."
"I need to see Nadine."
Feld's bald head shook in simulated sympathy. "That’s not going to happen."
"I'll call the cops."
"And tell them what?"
When Hunter paused, Feld came after him. "You know, I don't understand you."
"I love Nadine Broward. That's not hard to understand."
"You've already given up so many things of value. Your integrity, your memories. There's not much left of the original man. So I'm baffled. Why not go all the way? Make the trade."
"Nadine for Madge, is that what you're saying?"
"Nothing could be simpler."
A tide of pressure was rising in Hunter. The little red ball bobbing on it was panic. The only thing that mattered was finding Nadine. Do what it takes.
"Forget Nadine," Feld insisted. "You two are no longer an item. But you can talk to her, if you like."
"Take the trade. Say yes, and I'll get her on the phone. You can talk to her until your lips fall off, for all I care."
It was a critical moment. Hunter knew just how critical. He took the deal.
And then Nadine wouldn't talk. Feld called her. He held out the phone so Hunter could verify her voice. Then he put the phone back to his ear, mumbled something in response to which Nadine told him she would never speak to the original Hunter Durrell again. She meant it.
Feld killed the call. As an embodied concept, as the prototype of a human being, Hunter Durrell was already dead.
There was a lot to be said for the big lake. The way sunlight at different angles changed the color of the water. The way it fed and frustrated the seagulls. The lift and drop of the waves. And the beach, of course. The sand was good for digging.
Late afternoon, Hunter left the beach and walked slowly back toward the hotel. Winter had relaxed its grip. The snow was mostly melted, leaving behind puzzle-piece islands that would not survive the week. Robins stood in the sunlit grass exuding a sense of expectation. In town, away from the lake, the wind was only breeze.
It was too early in the season for the ice cream shop on Plum Street to draw much custom, but as Hunter walked by there sat Prudence in a leatherette booth. She was eating a banana split and recognized him. He wished she hadn't. He went inside.
"You look different, Hunter."
She called him by his real name. Feld must have discarded it.
"I am different."
In the months since Hunter had walked out of the Allen Forge Arms, he had gone to seed. He put on weight. He quit caring how he looked. Disheveled was his new normal. He needed to do his laundry more often.
"You want some ice cream?"
"No, thanks," Hunter told her, but he sat down. A waitress brought him coffee he didn't want.
"You dropped off the face of the earth," Prudence said.
"I had my reasons."
"You missed all the excitement."
"Mr. Feld sold the company. He moved away, nobody knows where. The Feld era at Xaneria is a fading memory."
The news should have stirred Hunter. It didn't. His indifference was as big as Antarctica, and less likely to melt.
"What are you doing here?" he asked Prudence.
"The new management team encourages us to take leave. They're big into work-life balance. We're more productive that way. Hey, that girl you used to hang with, what was her name?"
Hunter shook his head. He had not been in touch with Nadine; his shame went too deep.
Prudence told him, "I saw her at Billy Flynn's the other night."
Was she alone? he wanted to ask but did not. He drank his coffee.
Under Xaneria's new management, Prudence had improved. She was less sarcastic, and more self-aware. Her color scheme was more varied. Hunter told her it was good to see her, because it was. He walked back to the hotel.
Thanks to his bargains with Feld, he had enough cash in the bank to vegetate. At some point he would stop vegetating and begin drifting. Past that, he had no plan. For now, he liked the off-season ambience of the little town. He liked being close to the big lake. He kept reminding himself to do laundry.
A week after he saw Prudence, he was on the beach on a mild afternoon that had a sense of ease about it, a sense of play. Sandpipers scuttled, challenging the breaking waves. A dog ran after a young boy in old sneakers. Thin fast clouds made the shapes of wild animals. Hunter had picked up a small shovel at the hardware store. He was digging a hole high enough on the shore that the waves could not get at it.
As the hole went deeper, the job got tougher. He was deciding he needed to widen it before going any deeper when the boy with old sneakers brought his dog over and asked him what he was doing.
"Digging this hole."
"How deep is it going to be?"
"Pretty deep, I think."
"Okay if I dig for a while?"
He seemed to be a practical kid, more interested in digging than talking. He had an old-fashioned face with freckles and a quiescent expression suggesting he had never betrayed anybody, least of all himself.
Hunter told him, “The sand is packed pretty tight.”
Hunter handed him the shovel, and with his first strike at the sand the kid hit a stone. They both liked the sound of resistance it made against the blade. The dog ran off after birds it could not catch. The boy worked for a while, throwing himself into the job, not saying anything.
When he stopped for a breather he told Hunter, “I think it’s pretty deep now.”
Hunter nodded. His turn. He took the shovel from the boy and went back to work. He had a sense, now, that he was getting close to the bottom. It was a good feeling.