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Dear Grantham Community Members,
Welcome to the twenty-fifth year of the Grantham Adult School! As in years past, we are delighted to offer a wide range of classes to meet the needs and interests of the community. Our instructors include noted scholars from Grantham University, as well as artists, artisans and business experts residing in the area. Above all, we at the Adult School believe that education does not end with a diploma. Hence, our motto: Education: the Wellspring of Life.
Iris Phox, President Grantham Adult School
Education: the Wellspring of Life! Ben tossed the thin booklet on the coffee table in his living room. It joined a stack of library books, fly-fishing paraphernalia and an empty bag of Doritos. "What the hell is a 'well-spring' anyway?"
"What was that? I wasn't listening," said Huntington Phox, co-founder with Ben of Garden State Global Venture Capital. He sat in a cracked leather armchair kitty-corner to Ben's couch and was absorbed in reading a company prospectus. "Reading" perhaps was stretching it, given the way he kept bringing the report closer to his aquiline nose before moving it farther away and then closer again.
The nose, by the way, matched the rest of Hunt's lithe patrician body, a body honed by generations of breeding for playing polo or sailing in the America's Cup. Somehow Hunt seemed blithely unaware of this fact, whereas Ben never forgot it, especially in comparison to his own physique. That could best be described as bruising, the kind of hulking form fit for felling trees or working on the loading docks. It was blond Mayflower vs black Irish. Day vs night.
"Oh, for the love of Pete!"Ben slid aside a stack of magazines and uncovered the magnifying glass he used for tying flies. "Here. If you refuse to wear reading glasses, at least use this. Otherwise, it's too painful to watch." He tossed the magnifying glass onto Hunt's lap.
Hunt lowered the report. "It's not that I refuse to wear reading glasses, it's more that I refuse to believe that at thirty-five I'm showing any signs of aging. I have to live up to my image after all, and something like reading glasses just doesn't fit the look." The tone of his voice was self-deprecating.
"Well, I hate to tell you. Not only are you going blind as a bat, you're also more tired these days. So much for your theory of remaining an ageless golden boy," Ben teased.
"You've noticed that, too?" asked Hunt. He set his jaw but after a pause, he settled his features into his usual devil-may-care expression. "You know, Ben, you're the only person I know who gets nastier in retirement. It's a good thing you're my friend, not to mention a hell of an investor," he said, effectively changing the topic of conversation.
"I wouldn't exactly call you a slouch, ol' buddy. Just because you didn't grow up a street fighter, doesn't mean you don't know how to mix it up with the big boys."
"Such praise. Please, it'll go to my head, and it's already filled to the brim with such trivia as how to tie a full Windsor knot and the proper use of a finger bowl." Hunt waited while Ben chuckled, then said more seriously, "Let's just agree that we both know how to spot a financial opportunity when we see one, and that Ribacoff & Riley rued the day it lost us."
Ben shook his head. "R&R rued the day it lost you. It rejoiced up and down the Street when I left." R&R was considered the most aggressive mutual-fund company on Wall Street.
"Says you," Hunt said.
"Says everyone else on the Street."
Hunt rested his hands on overstuffed arms of the chair. "Ben, you and I both know that you didn't have to take the fall for the rogue traders in your group. And anyone who really knows you, knows you're completely honorable."
"Honorable, maybe, but not above fostering a climate of cutthroat competition that encouraged people to do whatever it took to make money."
"That's called capitalism. Now, can we get back to the business of making us richer, and forget about the whole rotten world out there?" Hunt grabbed for the magnifying glass and for the first time noticed the flier that Ben had been reading. "Is that what you were talking about before?" He picked up the pamphlet and held the round lens up to his eye, magnifying it to scary proportions.
Baby blues that perfect didn't need to be any bigger, Ben thought. "Yes, that's it. And if the introduction to the flier isn't ridiculous enough, you should see the attached note."
Hunt lowered the magnifying glass. "Let me take a wild guess. My mother?"
"Your mother." Ben picked up the corner of the booklet with the tips of two fingers. "I should really get the barbecue tongs to avoid direct contact."
"It can't be that bad."
Ben dipped his chin. "This is your mother we're talking about."
"Please, what an accusation. After all, you're talking about a woman who is both president of the garden club and chairs the capital campaign for the new Grantham Hospital. A woman so exalted by the local community she has won the Rupert L. Phox Award, named after my grandfather by the way, for being the outstanding Granthamite three years in a row? Wait." He held up an index finger. "On second thought, you're right. This is my mother you're talking about. Get the tongs. Better yet, get a face mask and bug spray." Then he flopped back in the chair and chuckled heartily. "So what does my mother want now?"
Ben flipped open the pamphlet and peeled away a Post-it note stuck to the page. "It seems Iris thought it would be a… a—" he read from the message "—'a nice gesture of community goodwill' to speak at the first session of this class."
Hunt smiled. "I like that. 'Nice gesture.' Very ladylike but also unmistakably insistent."
Ben frowned. "Ladylike my you-know-what. Imperial command is more like it."
"So what class did she have in mind?"
"Well, she'd hardly pick flower arranging. No, it was something to do with investing."
Hunt bent forward again and placed the magnifying glass atop a pile of books on Etruscan art. He pursed his lips and strummed his fingers on the edge of the table.
"What?" Ben asked.
"Now don't jump all over me. The sins of the mother should not be visited upon the son, but—"
"But?" Ben didn't like the way this was going.
Hunt raised his hands on high, a definite save-me, save-me gesture.
Ben wasn't buying it. "Speak quickly before I inflict extreme pain."
"Hear me out," Hunt said. "Did you ever consider that she might be trying to be helpful? Trying in her own warped way to keep you from living the life of a hermit?"
Hunt sank back in the chair in exasperation. "My God, Ben, except from playing piano after hours at some neighborhood bar, you've just about cut yourself off from civilization. Do you have any normal contact with the outside world?"
Ben wet his lips. "I occasionally go grocery shopping when I forget to put something on the list for Amada."
"C'mon. I'm serious. Look at you!"
Ben was dressed like a reject from an Army-Navy store—worn jeans, overly washed T-shirt and scuffed work boots held together by knotted shoelaces and duct tape.
Hunt swept his hand around the room. "And look at where you live. In a cabin in the woods! It's… it's practically Little House on the Prairie! This from a man who had a loft in Tribeca that graced the cover of Architectural Digest!"
"It's not a cabin. It's an eighteenth century stone cottage."
Hunt looked around in disbelief. "So that's what they call bastions of damp rot now?" He scratched his head.
Ben scowled and looked away.
"Okay, let's leave aside the discussion of real estate and get back to what's really bugging you," Hunt said. "Tell me, what's so bad about lecturing a bunch of retirees? It's just one night, and they're probably hard of hearing anyway."
Ben snapped the course booklet shut. "I don't care if half the audience comes with their seeing-eye dogs. My life, as you well know, has recently become complicated enough. It's hard enough just trying to make it through one day at a time, and I don't need the added hassle of lecturing a bunch of strangers on, on—" he flipped open the booklet to the page with the sticky note "—on the 'Fundamentals of Personal Investing,' this damn course your mother's so hot on."
From beneath a pile of books on classic racing cars and Civil War history arose the sound of a ringing cordless phone.
Ben stared at the ringing pile but didn't make a move.
"Aren't you going to get it?" Hunt asked.
"The phone hasn't been exactly kind to me of late." Ben narrowed his eyes and finally dug it out. "Yes?… Oh, Amada, what's up?… What do you mean he wasn't there when you went to pick him up? I thought you said he was going to his friend Vincent's house to study?" Ben nodded as he listened. "Sorry, sorry. Okay his friend, Verjesh. So where is he? Does Verjesh know?"
He crooked his elbow to read his Breitling sports watch, one of the few vestiges of his former high-flying lifestyle. To his surprise, the time was already seven-thirty. "No, he doesn't? Well, he couldn't have gotten far." He ran his hand through his hair. "What's that? He's got his bike? And Verjesh said his backpack looked full?" He paused. "You don't think… All right, all right. I'll handle it. You just go on home."
Ben rang off. "Sorry, Hunt, but we'll have to continue this discussion later. I've got to head off on a search party. What a day. First your mother. Now my son!"
"You know, dear, it's only natural to be nervous," Lena Zemanova said to her granddaughter standing nearby. She had to raise her voice to be heard above the torrential rain that lashed at her stalwart frame. It was a dark, February evening, making the downpour cold and menacing, a real Horatio Hornblower moment in land-locked Grantham, New Jersey.
Katarina Zemanova wrestled with locking her grandmother's ten-year-old Corolla while simultaneously trying to open her own umbrella. Like clockwork, the over-the-shoulder strap of her Coach briefcase chose the exact same moment to slip down, thereby crushing her left wrist. She might never play the violin again, Katarina ruefully acknowledged, not that she ever did, mind you. Whatever. She pressed the small button on the remote again—and again—but when the car refused to lock, she gave up and bent forward to do it manually. That meant her umbrella tilted back, which, as fate would have it, allowed a sudden burst of wind to pop it inside out. Oh, yeah.
Katarina closed her eyes and bit back a sigh. To think that she had once been an accomplished multitasker. The only thing more awkward that could possibly happen would be if her headband slipped down over her eyes.
Her headband slipped down over her eyes.
Life was not meant for the faint of heart.
Katarina pushed it back on her already soaked head, and blinked in despair, the raindrops beading on her lashes. Once upon a time, she had had her two hundred dollar coiffure professionally washed and blown dry before work each morning. Once upon a time was a mere four months ago. How quickly times change. Merely thinking "whatever" was a little more difficult the second time around.
"Really, Babicka, I'm not a delicate flower," Katarina said to her grandmother.
As a young bride, Lena had left what was then Czechoslovakia to come to live in New Jersey. Despite a passage of fifty years, certain Old World connections, especially Slovak phrases and vocabulary, lived on, including the Slovak word for grandmother, babicka.
"Of course you're not a delicate flower. None of the Zemanova women are delicate flowers," Lena said. "Still, if you'd wear a proper hat instead of carrying one of those overpriced gizmos, you wouldn't be soaked to the bone." She tsked at Katarina's Burberry umbrella. Unlike her granddaughter she wore a sensible, eye-popping yellow rain slicker along with a pair of high Wellington boots. With a few tweaks here or there, she could have modeled for the figure on the Morton's salt container.