COLIN THORNTON will attempt to control his penchant for hyperbole and stick to the facts for the next 50 words. He’s been writing short stories and audio dramas for six years,. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail (x5), in Pulp Literature, Blank Spaces, Galleon, the Dime Store Review and The Jewish Literary Journal. Chapel Street Editions will be printing a collection of his short stories in 2022.
THE FUTURE OF THE PAST
A young boy on a bicycle rode through quiet city streets, wheels humming on the asphalt as he swerved from one curb to the other zigzagging down the avenue pulling rolled newspapers out of his carrier tossing them with uncanny accuracy at his customers’ front doors. The sky was still dark, but fading with the rising glow. Above silhouetted trees he could just make out a sliver of moon and the bone white spark of a dim star.
He turned off Silvan onto Rowan Avenue spooking a pair of raccoons who scurried into the bushes. He flung a paper at the Simons’ house.
Aaron Simon woke to the sound of a gentle thump on his front door followed by a sharp soprano yap from PeeWee, the family pooch. Nest by nest, birds began to peep, chirp and twitter. Softly in the distance, the faint hum of commuter traffic that droned night and day, even on weekends.
Beside him, Jocelyn snuggled deeply into her pillow, breathing softly. He slid out of bed, into his robe and slippers, eased the bedroom door shut and tiptoed downstairs.
Cayley was playing video games in the living room when he arrived in the kitchen. “Daddy!” she called out. PeeWee let loose a flurry of barks and skittered across the linoleum spinning in circles around Daddy’s ankles. Aaron raised a finger to his lips and pointed to the ceiling. Cayley nodded knowingly.
Aaron lowered his voice, “Who wants pancakes?”
Again, Aaron pointed to the ceiling this time raising an eyebrow to make sure Cayley understood.
“Mom’s day to sleep in,” she whispered.
While Aaron clattered around the kitchen making breakfast, his little girl reported all the essential schoolyard news: Mr. Barton hung her sunset painting on the bulletin board; Chitra lost a tooth; Kenny fell off his bike; Barney peed his pants.
“But that’s just boring stuff,” Cayley said, struggling unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. Aaron poured batter into the skillet and turned to give her his full attention.
“I got a gold star on my science project,” she declared. “It worked perfect. Gushed gooey all over the place just like a real volcano.”
“Well, we have a genius in the family.” Aaron leaned over the counter beckoning her closer, nose to nose. “Pucker up sweetnik.”
“Fish kiss. Fish kiss,” she squealed, crossing her eyes, sucking in her cheeks and pursing her lips into a small O.
“Save one for me,” said Jocelyn, coming down the stairs tying the belt on her bathrobe.
Aaron said, “I thought you were sleeping.”
“Right,” she said, in a tone which also said, “as if”.
“Mr. Barton has a girlfriend,” Cayley announced. “I saw them kissing after school.”
“No...” Cayley paused to consider what she’d seen. “Different.”
After a leisurely pancake breakfast brimming with spirited chatter, fresh fruit and streams of maple syrup, Aaron went to the front door to retrieve the weekend paper. “Now, if you girls will excuse me for a few minutes.”
“We’ll clean up,” Jocelyn said. “Then we can all go to the park.”
Aaron took his coffee into the sunroom, sat in his favourite chair and flipped through the paper. He skipped from photo to photo skimming the headlines and cutlines of the week’s parade of events: Another war; promises of peace; business; sports; the editorial cartoon; a quick look at the obits — and Aaron’s parade screeched to a full stop, his eyes fixed on a photo of a woman he hadn’t seen for thirty years.
The copy was perfunctory: Lynn Hampton ... short battle with cancer ... bereaved parents ... donations to ... But it was the photo that held him. He ran his fingertips over the dots of ink like they were Braille, delicately brushing them through her hair and across her cheek like he used to do so many years ago.
A flood of memories followed: cheap beer nights at the Grad House; walks along the railroad tracks; studying in her apartment; the cookies he made with salt instead of sugar; watching her get dressed the morning after their first night together; long talks about the future; and plans — so many plans.
He was jolted out of his reverie when Jocelyn reached over the top of the newspaper to push down the page. His focus widened from Lynn’s small, black and white photo to his wife looking down at him quizzically.
“What are you reading?” she asked. “We’ve been calling you.”
“The park, remember?”
“I have to go to this,” he said, gently folding the paper, laying it on a side table.
Seconds after stepping into the funeral parlour, Aaron already regretted his decision. He felt like an interloper, woefully underdressed for the room, a rumpled professor lost on Saville Row. All the Bentleys, Jags and Mercedes in the parking lot should have been a clue, but he wasn’t thinking about cars at the time, he was working up the nerve to step through the door. He ignored the curious side-glances and went directly to the viewing room, mercifully empty.
The wall of wreaths and bouquets surrounding the open casket was overwhelming. Just like Lynn, he thought, all these flowers cut from life the moment they began to bloom.
He edged closer, gingerly peering into the casket. Knowing how many years had passed and anticipating the ravages of her illness hadn’t prepared him for the shock of seeing Lynn. He forced himself to look beyond the sunken cheeks, grey hair and the permanent stillness to see the girl he once knew.
Her lavender blouse made him smile. Her favourite colour. A string of pearls and matching earrings — another favourite. He remembered lying in bed one morning, propped up on a pillow, watching her reflected in the vanity mirror as she dressed. Naked except for pearl earrings. Voluptuous and unabashed, like a woman in a Matisse painting.
His breath caught in his throat as he struggled to hold back tears.
Lynn’s hands were folded on her blouse, a rosary wound through her fingers. Yes, he’d forgotten, a church-goer — their only argument. It seemed important at the time. When he saw her empty ring finger he began to weep. Where did you go, Lynn? Where did you go?
Aaron searched his pockets for a handkerchief, gave up, and wiped his tears on the back of his hand. A couple entered the room. He backed away to give them privacy and himself time to regain his composure.
He scanned the main hall looking for the parents, eventually focusing on a man in a wheelchair and thin woman at the end of a long line of mourners.
While standing in the reception line, Aaron listened to snippets of conversation floating through the room: “so young ... in a better place ... hard on the Hamptons ... I’d never heard of Machado/Joseph Disorder ... so much to live for ... parents shouldn’t outlive their children ... ” All of a sudden he was facing Lynn’s mother.
“My deepest condolences, Mrs. Hampton,” he said. She smiled faintly. “I knew Lynn, years ago at university. We were close. Somehow we lost touch. I always hoped to see her again. Just... well, not like this.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Simon. Aaron Simon.”
A flash of shock flickered across her eyes and just as quickly disappeared. “Lynn had so many friends. I don’t recall her mentioning you.”
Pain pierced Aaron leaving him dizzy and breathless. Mrs. Hampton locked her eyes on Aaron, cold and sharp, unperturbed by any slight she may have given.
“You’re not related to the Simons in Nassau Beach,” she asked. “Commodore at the marina with that darling little yacht?”
“Must be another Simon.”
The man in the wheelchair interrupted. “Someone here to see you, Ricki.”
Like flicking a switch, Mrs. Hampton’s icy mask blossomed into a broad grin from a fashion magazine. She air-kissed the cheeks of someone more important and, Aaron noted, much better dressed than he. Looking back over her shoulder she said, “Thanks for coming, Ian.”
“Be sure to sign the guest book on your way out.”
Dismissed. Aaron couldn’t remember ever being treated so rudely. Perhaps she’d been sedated and wasn’t thinking clearly. On his way to the exit he paused by the guest book, picked up the pen and was poised to write something, but put it back on the table and slipped out the backdoor.
Riding home in the limousine after the reception, Mr. Hampton asked his wife, “Did I hear the name Aaron Simon tonight?”
Erica Hampton seethed: “What god-forsaken rock did he crawl out from under.”
“Blood pressure dear. You know what the doc––”
“As if he hasn’t done enough damage for one lifetime. I won’t let him do that to us again. Merciful Jesus give me strength.” With a quick glance at the upholstered ceiling, she crossed herself. “I won’t.”
“Calm yourself, Ricki, please. That was thirty years ago. Let it go.”
PeeWee’s ears perked up at the familiar sound of Aaron’s car — how it sputtered and rattled before wheezing to a stop, the squeaky door that closed with a hollow thud. He was waiting when Aaron opened the door, spinning around, tap dancing on the tiles, yapping.
“Shhh PeeWee. It’s me.”
PeeWee raced ahead as Aaron climbed the stairs to say goodnight to Cayley. Sound asleep, sprawled across the bed, Aaron covered his daughter with the blanket and sat down beside her.
“Daddy?” she mumbled, eyes still closed.
“Go back to sleep, Sweetnik.”
He watched her eyelids flutter and listened as her breathing dropped into a slow, steady rhythm before cupping his hand on her cheek and kissing her forehead.
“My gold star baby,” he whispered.
PeeWee leapt onto the bed and curled up in the crook of her knees. Aaron scratched him behind one ear and slipped out, closing the door behind him.
He crossed the hall into the bathroom and looked closely at the man reflected in the mirror over the sink. Hair thinning and more than a little frosty at the temples, creases on his forehead, bags under red-rimmed eyes and wattles! He’d never noticed before, but he was starting to look fifty; must be the strain of seeing Lynn in a coffin. He blinked away tears. Normally, Aaron hated maudlin sentimentality, but that night he couldn’t help himself. Scenes of Lynn keep coming back to him. Thoughts he’d put away long ago had surfaced again fresh and vivid. He splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and turned out the light.
The bedroom light was on, Jocelyn still reading in bed. He slipped in beside her and she put her book aside.
“So, who’s Lynn Hammond?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, sliding down into her pillow, turning to face him.
And so he told her about a chapter in his life that she’d never heard before. Lynn was his first love. It was love at first sight, back in his university days. They were inseparable. Shared everything — classes, clothing, friends, parties, dreams. They were going to get married, they talked about it often...
“Then one day she disappeared. I looked everywhere. Called our friends, called the student union, the police. The registrar’s office said she’d left the university with no forwarding address. I called every Hampton in the Toronto phone book — hundreds of them — nothing.”
Jocelyn snuggled in closer, put her hand on his sex stroking him gently.
“Bottom line: She dumped me. Get over it. Move on. New chapter. But the hurt didn’t go away. I couldn’t get used to it, so I turned it off. Buried myself in work. Drank too much in my sophomore year, but got over that nonsense. Graduated. Got a teaching position. Wrote papers, marked papers, published, lectured. The university was my cocoon, my sanctuary.” He paused to reflect on times gone by. “This was twenty years before we met, twenty-five. I never saw Lynn again until tonight.”
“I remember the first time I saw you,” Jocelyn said. “My freshman year, first day in class, young and naive.”
“You were up front in that ratty leather jacket. Aaron Simon written on the blackboard. I fell in love the moment I saw you. I felt like I already knew you, that we’d always be together.”
“I love you, Jocelyn.”
They kissed. And kissed again, longer and slower. She pushed her leg across him, sliding on top, guiding him inside her. She leaned down to nuzzle his cheek. “And I love you,” she whispered, “Professor.”
Jeff Stubbs finished his coffee, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and tossed the empty cup down among the clutter of empty fast food bags littering his front car seat. Once tall and muscular, his physique had begun to sag. Buttons on his shirt strained to remain closed, his belt uncomfortably tight.
He pressed the security button at the gate and waited until a thin, metallic-sounding voice said, “Can I help you?”
He smiled into the camera lens. “Jeff Stubbs to see Mrs. Hampton.”
“You’re expected, sir.”
With a clunk and a soft hum, the wrought-iron gate swung open.
Stubbs drove slowly down a long leafy lane, catching glimpses of the vast lawn and gardens between mature trees. He parked in front of a pillared mansion. Twin stone staircases rose above the courtyard, curving upwards to a large portico. He pressed the doorbell and turned to gaze over the balustrade at the rolling green vista, thinking that he should have brought his golf clubs.
The door opened. If the butler was unaccustomed to greeting visitors as rumpled and disheveled as this, it didn’t show.
“Follow me, sir.”
Stubbs had only seen houses like this in movies. “I bet Queen Elizabeth would live like this,” he said, “if she had money.” His quip was ignored.
Stubbs was ushered into a large, elegantly appointed parlour. Daylight poured through the billowing curtains filling the room with the scent of lilac, casting long rectangles of light on the carpet. He lumbered towards an elderly matron perched on a pink velvet settee. “Mrs. Hampton,” he said, looking directly into her eyes, “Jeff Stubbs.”
She allowed him to shake her hand and gestured to an empty chair. “I have a problem, Mr. Stubbs. I’m told you can solve it.”
“Who’d I owe a beer to?”
“That doesn’t matter, Mr. Stubbs. What does matter is a man called Aaron Simon.” She waved a boney finger at him. “Write that down: Aaron Simon.”
Stubbs flipped open a notepad and clicked his ballpoint. “Irish or Jewish?” he asked, smirking at his own joke. The pun was either too subtle or too insignificant to be acknowledged. Since charm had failed him he decided to forsake his usual casual affability, nix the jokes and stick to business.
“Double-A R-O-N,” she said.
He wrote it down.
“He’s a school teacher somewhere in the city. I believe Mr. Simon plans to extort money from our family.”
“What makes you think so?”
She turned away from Stubbs and stared through the curtains into the garden.
Stubbs waited until her silence became uncomfortable. “Must be something. A rumour, a phone call, a note?”
She wove her fingers together and propped them under her chin.
“I’m working for you, Mrs. Hampton.”
Another minute passed.
“Intuition,” she said. “He showed up at my daughter’s funeral all weepy and gushy about his good-old-days with Lynn.” She looked like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “God I hate sensitive men, spineless wimps the lot of them. Pray you’re not one of those.” And after a quick scan, said, “No, I think not.”
Stubbs stuck to business: “Intuition?”
“We are a wealthy family, Mr. Stubbs, I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Stubbs nodded. “Now that Lynn is gone, everyone she’s ever known, dated or worked with is suddenly a long lost friend looking for a handout. Aaron Simon is the first up to the trough.”
“How can I help?”
“Start by finding out everything you can about this... person. We’ll proceed from there.”
Stubbs closed his notepad, tucked it into his jacket pocket.
“Our family has a reputation, Mr. Stubbs, a public profile. I would prefer that this matter be kept quiet. Can you do that?”
A quick double tap on the door and the butler entered the room. “Telephone for you, Mrs. Hampton. Miss McHugh’s office.”
Irritated by the interruption, she waved Stubbs out of the room and took the call.
Dawn McHugh was concerned about one particular detail in Lynn’s will. Minus ten percent to her favourite charities, Lynn left her half of the Hampton Family Trust to her child. “What child?”
“We’ve been through this, Dawn. I told you, Lynn never married.”
“A child she gave up for adoption?”
Mrs. Hampton repeated, “There is no child. Lynn was ill, not thinking clearly, the Trust remains with the family.”
“No Dawn. If you open the door on this... incident, every low-life reporter in the country will drag our name through the mud. I will not allow our family to be turned into a circus sideshow.”
“I understand how you feel—”
“—but as Lynn’s lawyer, I am required by law to implement her last wishes.”
“I forbid you to pursue this. That’s the end of it.” And hung up before Dawn could respond.
When Mrs. Hampton emerged from her sitting room Stubbs was waiting in the foyer. “You still here?”
“I didn’t know we was done.”
“Done until you come back with what I asked for.”
The butler opened the door, waited for Stubbs to leave, closing it with a gentle but firm click behind him.
On her way back to her parlour, she asked the butler to tell Mr. Hampton that she’d like to see him.
“He’s lunching at the club, ma’am. Left fifteen minutes ago.”
The Granite Club was an exclusive oasis of wealth and privilege — dark oak paneling, stained glass windows, private lounges, original Group of Seven paintings on the walls and a six-figure annual membership fee.
Sitting on the south terrace overlooking the ravine, an old man in a wheelchair was having lunch with Dawn McHugh. Mr. Hampton pushed his plate aside and said, “Lynn’s oncologist phoned.” Silence hung between them while she laid down her utensils and dabbed her lips with a crisp linen napkin. Nothing more was said until the waiter had cleared the table.
Mr. Hampton explained that Dr. Winnock found a discrepancy in Lynn’s file, putting air-quotes around the word discrepancy. “In one report, she had a child. In the other, she was childless. The cancer that killed Lynn, Machado/Joseph Disorder, is hereditary. If there is a child, that child must be found and warned.”
Dawn shook her head. “Erica was crystal clear when I phoned her: Back off!”
“I’m eighty-two years old, Dawn. I can’t walk, can’t breathe, can’t sleep at night, can’t remember what I did yesterday, and my sweet little girl — young, beautiful, intelligent, everything to live for... What is the point, Dawn? What’s the bloody point?”
Across the terrace, Dawn noticed a dapper white-haired gent pull a chair out for his wife, waiting until she was comfortably seated before easing her chair closer to the table.
“Relationships,” she said, turning back to Mr. Hampton, “friends, family. It sounds trite and cliché, I know. The point, to answer your question, is how well we care for one another. All we have is each other.”
Mr. Hampton reached across the table, gently squeezing her hand. “How long have we known each other?”
“Your parents were great friends,” he said with a wistful smile. They raised their glasses, silently toasting good times gone.
Mr. Hampton put down his glass and looked intently at Dawn, eyes glistening. “This is my family trust,” he said. “Ricki married into it. She guards it fiercely, but I control it. Letting her whisk Lynn off like she did is the biggest regret of my life. I will not fail her again.”
Three explosive sneezes in a row shook an avalanche of grit loose from the basement rafters. The fourth rattled the cobwebs and sent all the spiders scurrying for shelter.
Only two things could send Aaron down into his dungeon of a basement: Nuclear war, or a quest to find a family relic too good to throw away and not important enough to keep upstairs. He was hunting for that relic.
A bare bulb dangled from a naked wire cutting hard-edged shadows into the sprawling jumble of old toys, tools, bicycles, unused wedding gifts, cross-country skis and books — boxes and boxes of books he knew he’d never read again, but kept, just in case. How, he wondered, can three people accumulate so much crap?
An hour later, he’d found it: a faded, red velveteen box, the size of a shoe-box, with ornate hinges and a matching gold clasp.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Aaron sponged years of dust and grime off the box and took it into the dining room where Jocelyn and Cayley were waiting.
Blotched with mould, faded and dull, the box laid on the table in front of Aaron. He hesitated, fiddled with the latch, ran his finger tips around the edges feeling the nap.
Jocelyn and Cayley shot each other quick side-glances and turned their attention back to Aaron, waiting for him to open it. Jocelyn gently placed her hand on her husband’s back between his shoulders. Cayley watched. And waited. Aaron took a deep breath, flipped the latch and opened the box.
Inside, half a dozen strips of black and white photographs from a 4-for-$1 shopping mall photo booth looked back at him: Lynn and Aaron mugging for the camera, making goofy faces, faking kisses, nibbling earlobes...
He examined each shot on the first few strips, fanned through the rest and passed them to Jocelyn. She gave one to Cayley.
“You have hair,” Cayley blurted.
Aaron grinned sheepishly.
“Is that Mommy?”
While Aaron thumbed through the contents of the time capsule, Jocelyn explained to Cayley that Daddy had another life before they came along.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” Aaron asked Jocelyn.
“Not at all.”
One at a time, Aaron removed memories from the box: two ticket stubs for a Bob Dylan concert at Maple Leaf Gardens; a pair of keys on a fob; a book of matches from a forgotten hotel & restaurant; a roll of peppermint lifesavers; and a thumb-sized dinosaur. When Aaron rolled the tiny T-Rex across the table sparks shot out of its snarling jaws. Cayley eagerly took Rex.
Aaron removed two more black and white photos. One of Lynn as a baby, standing in her crib, hands on the rungs like a prisoner in a jail cell. The second, a candid shot of her playing French horn in the university orchestra, relaxed and focused, unaware of the camera.
He was surprised to find a chapbook of poems: Awakenings by Aaron Simon. He opened it, read a few lines, laughed to himself shaking his head side to side. A photo dropped out from between the pages, a polaroid of Lynn behind the wheel of a convertible. Pale skin, high cheekbones, auburn hair piled high rimmed with sunlight, her head tilted slightly away from the camera, self-conscious about being watched. He passed the photo to Jocelyn.
“What was she like?” she asked.
“Details Aaron, details.”
“Kind of shy,” he added. “No, not shy, reserved. Cool on the outside, warm inside. And well-dressed, always. Always elegant. I never saw her wear blue jeans, not once. And religious. Oy! Mass every Sunday.”
While Aaron talked, Jocelyn picked up a postcard of a sandy beach, palm trees and turquoise water. On the back, a block of neat handwriting, small letters in precise parallel lines and four Xs beside Lynn’s signature.
“Doesn’t seem very nice to me,” she says, “dumping you like that.” She put the card back on the pile and looked into the small leather case Aaron had just handed her. It contained a matching gold pen and pencil set. The barrel of the pen was engraved: Tell us a story, Aaron. On the pencil: Love Lynn.
Nearing the bottom of the box, he removed an eight inch length of hair, Lynn’s ponytail, neatly clipped and carefully bundled. He raised it to his nose, closed his eyes and inhaled.
“Do you still think of her?” Jocelyn asked.
“Not until yesterday.”
Next morning, parked half a block down from 207A Rowan Avenue, Jeff Stubbs began his surveillance by washing down his breakfast takeout with a big slug of coffee. He knew next to nothing about Aaron Simon: Name, address, that he taught somewhere in the city. And the fact that Mrs. Hampton suspected him of sinister motives.
The sun was low, shadows long. Men and women hustled down the sidewalk heading for the streetcar stop two blocks away. A yellow school bus stuttered up the street, stopping every few houses to pick up kids. The door at 207A opened. A young girl in orange leggings skipped down the stairs followed by a balding, middle-aged man wearing a leather backpack.
Stubbs downed the last of his coffee and picked up his camera. “Well hello, Double A, R.O.N.”
He watched the young girl join three others waiting for the school bus, discretely snapping a few photos of Aaron and his daughter. A hug, a kiss, one last wave and the bus pulled away, drove past Stubbs and down the street.
Aaron checked his watch, turned to the house and called out something Stubbs couldn’t quite hear — sounded like Joss or Joff — Jock? He jotted the time down in his notebook — 8:10am.
Aaron checked his watch again. He’s late for something, Stubbs figured. A young woman emerged from between the houses pushing two bicycles. How young, he couldn’t say, somewhere around thirty, difficult to say, but much younger than Aaron, no question.
Stubbs slouched down in the driver’s seat as they pedalled by. He watched them in his mirror for a few seconds before pulling a hasty U-turn, grinding his undercarriage on the curb. This is futile he thought; a bulldog chasing a greyhound. He cursed under his breath and hit the gas.
Within minutes Stubbs had broken every traffic law on the books in a frantic pursuit of two cyclists riding through the narrow back streets of downtown Toronto. He lost them at Bloor Street. His eyes darted past the crosswalk, the stop sign, and across six lanes of traffic, speed scanning the crowds of pedestrians, hunting for the object of his chase. Behind him, a driver honked, and honked again, then wheeled around Stubbs’s car pausing long enough to give him the finger before hanging a left onto Bloor. And that’s where Stubbs caught sight of his target — turning off Bloor heading south down Philosophers Walk. He remembered that lane from his cop days; a narrow, tree-lined path that ran from the museum into the heart of the university campus. A hangout for students during the day, junkies and hookers at night.
Stubbs tore around the corner and down University Boulevard, snapping his head to his right at every gap between buildings hoping to spot one or the other on their bikes. Trapped in three lanes of traffic, he drove into the Queen’s Park roundabout all the way around the circle and back the way he came. At the last second he cut across three lanes — more horns, more fingers, more curses, and rounded the loop again until — how lucky can a guy get? He found them! Standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. Again, Stubbs saw Aaron look at his watch. Definitely late for something. They kissed, waved goodbye, she went south and he disappeared between two squat concrete office buildings.
It would cost him, but he had no other choice. He parked illegally and chased Aaron through the campus on foot.
Stubbs was wheezing heavily, nursing a cramp in his side, when he spotted Aaron locking his bike in a rack in front of a three-storey red-brick building. Albert College etched in the stone archway over the stairs. A safe distance behind, Stubbs followed Aaron through the heavy wooden doors and listened to the sound of footsteps climbing a staircase, a key in a lock, a squeaky hinge, and a door with a window that rattled when the door closed. Stubbs climbed a few stairs, close enough to read the sign on the pebbled glass window: Aaron G. Simon, Ph.D. Classics. Classic what?
Halfway down the stairs he heard a doorknob turn and that same squeaky hinge. Aaron was behind him, coming down the stairs. With nowhere else to go, Stubbs turned to the receptionist in the lobby: “Have you got one of those, um, menus?” She looked at him quizzically. “You know,” he stammered, “shows all the courses and stuff.”
“A syllabus,” Aaron said as he rounded the corner, strode past Stubbs, across the lobby and through a door marked Keith B. Quinn, ME, MBA, Ph.D, Dean
A stern, anorexic looking woman sat behind a desk staring into a computer monitor when Aaron walked through the door. “He’s running a few minutes late,” she said. “Shouldn’t be long,” and turned back to her computer screen.
Aaron closed his eyes, took a moment to lower his blood pressure. She continued typing.
Aaron was pacing the anteroom when the Dean’s office door opened. Felica Almada emerged, barely acknowledging Aaron on her way past. Something about her hasty exit piqued his curiosity, but before he could pursue the thought Quinn waved him into the office.
Quinn apologized for the delay and announced that he had another meeting in fifteen minutes. Aaron was eager to skip the superficial chitchat and get down to business. “Have you made a decision yet?” Quinn shook his head no. Aaron continued, “I’m not trying to push you out or anything, I just think—”
“Stop right there. You’re Dean material, Aaron, I know that. But we do have a protocol” — the change in Quinn’s tone aroused Aaron’s suspicion — “I can’t go to the Board with one name. That would reek of favouritism. To be a bona fide search at minimum there have to be two candidates. Transparency and all that. You know what Boards are like.”
Last week, Aaron was the leading candidate to fill the vacancy when Dean Quinn retired at the end of the semester. Foolishly, Aaron let his imagination run away with him only to hit a pothole in the road. Now it was a race. “Can I ask who?”
Casually, Quinn said, “Felicia.”
Quinn nodded and began sliding files into a leather briefcase.
“Not much of a contest,” Aaron said. “More potential, than experience—”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about.” Quinn snapped the latches closed on his case. “Sorry Aaron, I’ve really got to go. You have a brilliant future here. I’m with you. Be patient.”
Back in his office, Aaron wondered what could possibly qualify Felicia Almada as Dean of a children’s day care let alone the leading liberal arts college in Canada? She knew she was in the running, that would explain her frosty greeting when they crossed paths outside the Dean’s office. When did Quinn tell her? Aaron was eminently qualified for the job: He’d been published in prestigious journals; students liked him; his lectures drew respectable crowds; he had administrative skills — perfect for the job. And what did she have?
One thing Aaron knew; fussing wouldn’t change anything. He took a moment to collect himself, looked out the window to calm his nerves, and there, sitting on a bench under the tree out front of the college was the same man who was looking for the syllabus, having a smoke. Strange fellow Aaron thought, and then gathered his papers for his first class.
Dawn McHugh and Sister Marie walked together down a long hallway, their figures back-lit by the glare of early morning sunlight bouncing off polished floors. The echoing footsteps reminded Dawn of when she was a student in a Catholic girls’ school. It was just like this: tall rooms, embossed tin ceiling tiles, dark wooden wainscoting, painted concrete floors with a glossy wax patina. Spartan, functional, orderly, and for reasons she couldn’t explain, comforting.
Sister Marie was in charge of St. Jerome’s Orphanage. She pushed open a large, wooden door into a cavernous room. Dawn tilted her head back astounded by the scores of boxes stacked on row after row of metal storage racks.
She turned to Dawn, “You know, I can never remember if these are filed alphabetically or chronologically.”
Dawn looked horrified.
“Relax,” said Sister Marie, pulling out a drawer of index cards, “I’m a better librarian than comedienne.”
Five dusty hours later, Dawn had Lynn Hampton’s file in her hands. She opened it cautiously, as though peeking into a private diary.
The file contained Lynn’s admittance papers printed on St. Jerome letterhead: contracts signed by Lynn, witnessed by Erica Hampton; a photo of Lynn; time of birth, weight, blood type, gender/female; a tiny ink imprint of a baby’s foot; and background research on the adoptive family — all dated 1983. There were half a dozen letters from the new parents to the nuns at St. Jerome’s writing about life with their sweet little girl. And photos — birthdays, Christmas morning, splashing in the bathtub, baking cookies with Mom. At the back of the file was a yellowed newspaper clipping, brittle with age, dated January 1991. The headline read: “Crash Kills Young Parents.”
Handing the clipping to Sister Marie, Dawn said, “She’s been orphaned twice.”
Dawn watched her read, saw her eyes sadden. A minute later, she placed the clipping gently back into the file folder. Looking at Dawn, she said, “You should know that finding this file is the only part of the process that will go quickly. Reconciliation is a delicate matter.”
Dawn was examining the tiny footprint imprinted on the birth registry — tiny and perfect.
Sister Marie spoke as she gathered the material together, “I’ll send a memo to Father Julian, he’s a stickler for paperwork. After I answer his questions, he always has questions, he’ll write the Bishop, essentially passing on your request. In due time, his staff will consider it. It’s procedure. To my knowledge they’ve never rejected a request. In turn, the Bishop will rubber stamp their recommendation and authorize releasing the personal information, by letter to Father Julian. Either he or I will contact you.”
The Sister shook her head. “Difficult to say exactly.”
The sun was sinking behind the trees when Dawn pulled out of the parking lot at St. Jerome’s. It had been a long, emotionally exhausting day and she still had a two-hour drive back to the city.
All afternoon, she’d been filled with nostalgia for the days when she and Lynn went to school together.
It started while she was walking down the hall with Sister Marie. Each echoing footfall conjured another memory. Things she hadn’t thought about in years bubbled to the surface, vividly detailed: birthday parties, swimming lessons, sleep overs, backyard barbecues, those ugly school uniforms, Sister Jacinthe’s painfully embarrassing sex-ed classes, the Christmas her family spent in Acapulco with the Hamptons.
If Dawn dropped dead tomorrow, and the highlights of her life flashed before her eyes, Christmas in Acapulco would be in that movie. Two 16-year-old Catholic girls off their leashes for the first time — drinking Margaritas, smoking marijuana with brown-skinned boys on the beach, sunbathing by the pool at the Hilton, mariachi bands, cliff divers, the night they gave all their pesos to an old woman begging on the street.
Their parents never suspected, of course. Dawn’s mom might have enjoyed a puff or two on the beach with the boys, but Lynn’s mother was prude to the core, a category-five control freak. For her, the only evidence of civilization in Mexico was a Catholic church around every corner.
Dawn and Lynn were the best of friends back then, as tight as two plied strands of wool. Then, virtually overnight, their paths split. Lynn went to U of T, Dawn to McGill in Montreal. Instead of seeing each other daily, it became once or twice a year. A crack became a chasm, weeks turned into years, and a friendship that was once strong and tight, unraveled.
There were boyfriends, summer jobs, articling, marriage, divorce, a second marriage — worse than the first. Next thing she knew, twenty years had passed and Lynn was on the phone wanting to get together for lunch. Over coffee and dessert, she asked Dawn to be the executor for her estate. Six months later Lynn was dead.
Mr. Hampton insisted that Dawn call him the minute she left the Orphanage. Any news, good or bad, he wanted to know.
On the plus side, she’d found the child’s file. What worried Dawn was managing his expectations, not getting his hopes up. Finding the girl would take time — weeks, months, possibly years. And Mr. Hampton didn’t have years. Instinctively she knew that corners would have to be cut. Not ideal, but doable.
She called Mr. Hampton on her car phone.
He answered first ring. After giving her account of the day, she said, “Don’t worry, Richard, I always have a Plan B. And Plan B has a Plan C.”
For the next two weeks Stubbs strip mined Aaron’s private life looking for anything unorthodox or inappropriate that might verify Mrs. Hampton’s suspicions. From Aaron’s morning bowl of cornflakes to his midnight walk around the block with the dog, Stubbs watched and kept notes.
He photocopied clippings from the U of T student newspaper — a photo of the Dramatic Society in 1983, another from a particularly raucous Halloween party in one of the frat houses, 1983; a student profile in ’84; and a literary review about Aaron’s first book and a successful book launch in ’92.
He found the book in the university library: Rhetorical Devices of Romantic Poets. Tried to read it, didn’t understand a word. Masquerading as a headhunter for a recruitment agency, he pursued his inquiries with dozens of students at campus pubs and coffee shops — nothing even vaguely suspicious.
By Stubbs’s account, Aaron Simon’s schedule was as tight as a dentist’s: Up at 6am; Cayley on the school bus at 7:30, bike to Albert College 8am; office work until 9:45; classes from 10 to 3; home to meet Cayley after school; an hour in the park with the kid and the family pooch; make dinner; Jocelyn home at 5:30; clean up; family time; and two hours of class work before bed. Stubbs photographed Aaron through the window, his face illuminated by the glow from the computer screen. Two exceptions: Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 5 while Aaron played squash, his wife took the girl to piano lessons. And once a week Aaron joined Jocelyn for lunch at her campus bookstore, The Attic Owl.
One morning, after the Simons had left for the day, Stubbs picked the lock on their back door and spent the morning snooping through Aaron’s home office photographing everything on his cell phone. He flipped through his rolodex, his day timer, dug into his garbage pail, checked the internet history on his computer looking for suspicious bookmarks. On a shelf beside a bust of someone named Joyce, Stubbs found a red velvet box. Inside, a bundle of someone’s hair, a clipped ponytail perhaps, a tiny plastic dinosaur, two concert tickets — no evidence of blackmail there. In two hours he’d found nothing incriminating. For a moment, he considered leaving a post-it note for Aaron suggesting he get a better watchdog, a friendly note Aaron might find a few months hence, signed, A Friend. A perfect prank, and he was tempted, but decided against it. Time to go. He slipped out the back door already planning his next move.
Several blanks in the Aaron Simon file had to be filled before Stubbs could report back to Mrs. Hampton, and that required specialized help from his nephew, Donny.
Donny was a budding computer nerd by the time he sauntered into kindergarten, a hard-core hacker before he was old enough to shave. His high school friends called him, Damage. His mom was the only person who insisted on calling him Donald.
How Damage financed his lifestyle was a mystery to Stubbs and he didn’t really want to know. That his 19-year-old nephew could pay cash for a brand new, 1500cc BMW touring bike while Uncle Jeff drove an eight-year old Chevy just proved the point: the kid was good. And right then, Stubbs needed some of that expertise.
Grunge music almost knocked Stubbs over when he opened the side door to the converted garage Damage used as an office.
“Yo! Uncle J.” Damage hollered over the din. He picked up one of a half dozen remotes cluttering his desk and dropped the music to a dull roar. With his other hand he passed Stubbs a smouldering joint, “Serious Thai-stick.”
Stubbs took the joint and dropped it into a glass of stale cola.
“I need your expertise,” Stubbs said. Damage exhaled a lungful of smoke. Stubbs held his breath and waved away the cloud. They dickered over the price, settling on one thousand dollars.
“So, who’s our victim?”
“Double-A R-O-N Simon.”
The thought that there were legions of hackers out there as good or better than Damage gave Stubbs chills. All the kid needed was a name, a few cross references, and the victim’s privacy ended. Horrifying to think about, but amazing to watch and in Stubbs’s business, a vital asset.
Within ten minutes Damage discovered that Aaron Simon’s U of T pay-cheque was on automatic deposit. A few keystrokes later his entire financial history unfolded — mortgage payments, line of credit, magazine subscriptions, dental bills, prescriptions, the size of his RSP, an education fund for the kid — everything.
Damage was unimpressed. “Neanderthals,” he said. “Like why not just lay out a fucking red carpet.”
“Gimme some history,” Stubbs told him. “As far back as you can go. Nobody can be this boring. He’s got a secret hiding somewhere.”
“Everybody has a secret, Uncle J.” Damage fired up his bong, inhaled a lungful of weed, “Except you and me of course.”
By 2am Damage had produced a 100-page full-colour profile of Aaron Simon’s life, including the photos Stubbs shot inside the house, at Albert College, and the daily romps through the park with the kid and the little mutt.
Stubbs reached into his jacket, pulled out his wallet and dropped a wad of cash on his nephew’s keyboard.
“You caved too soon, J-bird. I woulda done it for seven-fifty.”
“And I would have gone to fifteen hundred.”
Felicia Almada was in the midst of teaching a class when Aaron slipped into the lecture hall. Several students noticed the change in Felicia’s expression and turned to see who had caused the interruption. He settled down in one of the few empty seats in the back row. No way Felicia could avoid him any longer.
Aaron scanned the room — a full house. He was surprised and impressed, perhaps a tad jealous. It had been a while since his lectures drew standing-room-only crowds. Her material, however, was beyond old; no one taught Joseph Campbell anymore. But he realized that it wasn’t her material that held her students’ attention, it was her style. There was an easy flow to her delivery, as if she was having a conversation with each individual rather than reciting bullet points. Students were engaged. They asked questions and questioned her answers, tossing ideas back and forth like a game of mental ping-pong.
Soon enough the class ended, the room emptied. Felicia and Aaron were alone.
“Nice turnout,” he said, rising from his chair, slowly descending the stairs towards her. She accepted his compliment knowing there might not be another for a long time. Aaron took a seat in the front row. Felicia took another, leaving one empty seat between.
She said, “Do you want to start or should I?”
“I’m puzzled, Felicia. How can the Board possibly consider you as Quinn’s replacement? You have style, granted. Students seem to like you; kudos for that. But your publication record is microscopically thin which tells me you’re either a bad writer or irrelevant — strike one. No other universities have invited you as a guest lecturer or visiting prof — strike two. You’ve only been here two years. You haven’t even run a department and you think you’re ready to run the whole college? Being Dean requires a specific set of job skills and I just don’t see them on your CV — strike three. I don’t get it.”
“That’s because you don’t know me.”
“I’m the future of the College. You’re what, fifty, fifty-five? Consider that ageism if you must, but you’ve passed your best-before-date, Aaron.”
“So, that’s it, style supplants experience?”
“You want it straight? Fine, I’ll tell you. Middle-aged white guys like you have been running this university since the earth was still cooling. You’ve had your shot. Keith wants me because I’m fresh air.”
“Keith? Sounds a little cozy.”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, a brief aside but enough for Aaron to see colour rise to her cheeks. She raised her eyes back to his. He waited, stretching out the silence until it felt awkward. Finally, she said, “As long as we’re being so candid about it, professional courtesy and all, why you and not me?”
“In a word, experience. I know this college inside out. I’ve been here since you were learning your ABCs.”
“Loyalty is only a plus for dogs.”
He let the insult pass. “Point is, I have more experience in every area that matters: administration, public relations, fundraising. I’ve written four books, all of them still in print, published dozens of papers, guest lectures, an international reputation and an impeccable personal reputation.
“That’s not what Keith told me.”
“Really? You talk about me with the Dean? And when do you have these conversations?” He watched her closely, waiting for an answer. “You’re blushing again, Felicia.”
Abruptly, she rose from her chair, went to the lectern and began sliding papers into her case. The door banged open. A small group of chattering students came in. Felicia was relieved to have this conversation with Aaron interrupted, hopefully terminated. Expecting a different professor at the front of the class, one of the students asked if they were in the right room for Rhetoric 101. They were. She went to the white board and began erasing her Woman As Temptress notes.
“Really Felicia, if you want to be the harbinger of the future, give your students some new material.”
Cayley rolled the dice, moved her piece past Go, collected $200, passed the dice to her dad and waited. And waited. Waited far too long. “Dad!,” she pleaded, ”It’s your roll.” She solicited Jocelyn’s help, “Mom?”
“Sorry,” Aaron said. “Distracted. I saw that guy again, tonight, in the park.”
“What guy?” Cayley asked.
Jocelyn ended that conversation before it began. “Alright, bath time!”
Cayley groaned in protest. “Not fair, I was winning,” and stomped up the stairs.
Listening to the girls’ bouncy chatter and the muffled gurgle of water filling the tub calmed Aaron. He was home. Secure. His girls were safe. His family together. All was well on Rowan St. — except it wasn’t. Nothing he could see clearly, just a nagging feeling that things seemed to be going wonky lately and he didn’t know why.
He poured himself a soda, came back into the living room, sat on the couch. Always alert to the sound of the fridge door opening, PeeWee was soon on the couch beside him, staring expectantly. Aaron rubbed the dog’s ear gently. Felicia’s comment about dogs and loyalty came back to him. Something wrong in that scenario, too. And for the umpteenth time he tried to understand why Ms. Almada was in the running for a job she was manifestly unqualified for. A job that was his to lose. A job he’d been working towards for his entire tenure at Albert College.
And what about that guy hanging out at the college? A stranger built like a truck driver, an old football player, or a cop. First he saw him in the lobby asking for a syllabus, then outside on a park bench, once in university library and tonight in the park.
PeeWee and Cayley had been racing around, burning off energy. On the far side of the baseball diamond PeeWee started barking at a stranger — barking and barking. Cayley practically had to drag the dog away. Same size, same build, it was the same guy alright, this time with a camera, standing in the shadow under the oak tree pretending to be photographing birds.
Aaron turned off the living room lamp and pushed open a crack between the curtains just wide enough to peek outside. He scanned the street, every bush, every parked car, every opening between houses, the face of every stranger walking by.
“I think you’re being paranoid,” Jocelyn said, sneaking up behind him. “But no more talk about strangers in the park in front of Cayley, okay?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
She snuggled in, placed her hands on his thighs and pressed against him. “Besides, maybe he’s looking for me, not you.”
He kissed her half-heartedly. “This... situation at the college is gnawing at me too.” He shook his head side to side and asked, “What’s Felicia got?”
Jocelyn didn’t hesitate. “She’s probably sleeping with him.”
“Come on Aaron, you teach this stuff: The Sirens sing and men turn to jelly.” She raised one fist over her shoulder proclaiming that “Pompom Rules!”
Oddly enough, that possibility had not occurred to Aaron. “Keith Quinn? Mister protocol? The boardroom politician? No, no, no. Emphatically not. There must be another explanation.”
First thing the following morning, Stubbs gave his report to Mrs. Hampton. Stony faced, she flipped through the pages of the document. “This is useless,” she said, throwing the file on the floor.
Stubbs dug his fingernails into his palms determined to hold his temper. ”Guy’s clean, Mrs. Hampton.”
“I don’t believe it,” she insisted, springing off her settee. She paced the room swinging her arm in a wide arc encompassing the common folk outside, “Everyone has something to hide, Mr. Stubbs — everyone!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “He surfs porn on the internet, does drugs, diddles boys, gambles—”
“—He doesn’t even buy lottery tickets,” Stubbs interrupted. Extracting a photo of Aaron from the jumble on the floor, he pushed it toward Mrs. Hampton with the toe of his shoe. “He’s a boring, middle-aged academic. Teaches Classics at the university, gives lectures nobody understands, writes books nobody reads, owes sixty-seven thou’ on a duplex in The Annex. One kid, Cayley, a girl. Only thing he’s done outta line is marry a student half his age.”
Abruptly, Mrs. Hampton stopped pacing, snapped to a halt like a hooked fish at the end of the line. Turning to face him she said, “I thought that was taboo these days, teachers, you know...” she stammered and flapped her hands, “boinking students.”
“I think boinking students is a fringe benefit. They don’t get paid much.”
She narrowed her gaze, studying him, sizing him up, a look that had convinced Stubbs he was about to be fired. Then her expression changed. A smirk became a half smile. Inexplicably, she became suffused with a soft glow Stubbs could only identify as joy. Puzzled, he waited for an explanation.
“You’ve given me an idea Mr. Stubbs.” She sat at an antique writing desk and pulled a check-book out of the roll-top drawer. “This has been most entertaining,” she said, “but we’re finished now. How much do I owe you?”
Across town, about as far from the Hampton’s gated estate as one could possibly be, Dawn parked on a side street in a part of Toronto known as The Punjab. Bearded men in turbans and women in brightly coloured saris filled the sidewalks. Punjabi pop blasted from speakers mounted above every store front. The night air was heavy with the aroma of spiced lamb kebabs and roasted corn cobs smeared with lime and chilli salt. A gnawing growl in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast ten hours earlier.
A Mercedes parked in The Punjab was a rare sight. Curious pedestrians peered into the tinted windows to see who was driving, or if someone carelessly left a wallet on the dashboard, but all they could see were neon reflections.
Watching in her rearview mirror, Dawn spotted Shruti, half a block away, wearing a blue leather jacket carrying a motorcycle helmet. She opened the passenger-side door and slid in placing the helmet on the floor between her feet.
Dawn checked her watch, “On the button.” Shruti grinned, her smile radiant against brown skin.
Without preamble, Dawn handed her former McGill roommate a file. She opened it, pulling out papers one by one. As Dawn explained her predicament, Shruti studied the pages, lingering over a photo of an eight-year-old girl who’d been orphaned twice. “I need to find her,” Dawn said, “and conventional sources take too long. Everything’s in the file.”
Shruti reached into her jacket, removed a thick envelope and handed it to Dawn. “My uncle in Mumbai needs an immigrant visa — same reason.”
Dawn didn’t think that would be a problem.
“So,” Shruti said, “one for one, quid pro quo?”
“At least let me buy dinner, I’m starving.”
Tedious, unavoidable and never-ending, paperwork was the cornerstone of academia and a perennial curse on every professor. Four piles on Aaron’s desk were organized by category: one for college admin; another for student work; a third for correspondence; and the last for research. Each stack roughly arranged in chronological order with the freshest documents on top, fossils on the bottom.
He was hunched over his desk reading an outline for post-grad thesis on The Hero in Axial Mythology when someone knocked on his door. Before Aaron could answer, Keith Quinn barged in.
Habitually prim and buttoned-down, the Dean looked like a whipped dog. Sad eyes, stooped shoulders, tie loose, collar unbuttoned. He looked at Aaron surrounded by stacks of paper and said, “Who did you piss off?”
Aaron’s head snapped back. “Excuse me?”
Quinn went to the window, leaned on the frame and shook his head. “You’re not going to believe this.”
Aaron laid down his pen.
“How long have you been married to Jocelyn?” Quinn asked.
Quinn sighed, “I should have retired last year. Twenty-twenty hindsight.”
“What’s this have to do with Jocelyn?”
Quinn turned away from the window, rested his palms on the sill and looked at the ceiling. Aaron watched closely, unsure of where this conversation was going.
“I just got a call from the Chancellor,” Quinn paused for emphasis, “about you.”
Aaron leaned forward.
“One of the university’s largest donors, and when I say large, I’m talking nine figures large.”
“Whoever this person is, and there can’t be many with that kind of cash, he or she has decided that professors having sexual relations with students is out of step with the times, a disgraceful abuse of power, an affront to all women, grounds for public censure, immediate dismissal, public flogging and it wouldn’t surprise me if flaying, castration and immolation were also on the list.”
“Precisely. You. By name. Which brings me back to my original question: Who have you pissed off lately?”
Aaron stood up. “But we’ve been married for ten years,” he said. “We have a house, a kid. Why me? Why us? Why now?”
“You tell me.”
Aaron rubbed both hands across his balding pate until it occurred to him that Quinn hadn’t quite finished. “There’s more,” he said.
Quinn heaved a heavily burdened sigh, “You’re no longer being considered for Dean.”
Aaron’s head dropped, his fists clenched and in a voice barely above a whisper said, “Fuck.”
“That was the original problem, wasn’t it?” Aaron scowled at Quinn.
Tamping down his temper, Aaron said, “You’re telling me that the beautifully packaged and hopelessly unqualified Felicia Almada is going to be our new Dean?”
“Sun Tzu, The Art of War: ‘Never underestimate your opponent.’”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“She has a unique skill set.”
“Obviously she knows how to get what she wants.”
“The fast track to the top.”
“She is focused, I’ll give her that. Disciplined. Imaginative. Indefatigable,” he added with the slightest hint of a grin.
Neither said a word, each pursuing private thoughts until Aaron broke the silence. “Ironic isn’t it, I lose the job because I married a student and Felicia Almada gets it because she’s screwing the boss.”
Quinn made a croaking sound like he was choking on something. He turned his gaze aside, unable to look Aaron in the eyes. In that moment Aaron knew Jocelyn was right, he could see it in Quinn’s face. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“And technically against University bylaws.”
Quinn raised his open palms casually shrugging off Aaron’s rebuke. “Well, you know how it is, anything strictly forbidden is commonly practiced.”
Aaron flopped into his chair, shaking his head in disbelief. “This is like the bloody Spanish Inquisition all over again.”
“I’m sorry Aaron. It’s out of my hands.”
“How did you find her?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Meaning you don’t want to say.”
Dawn and Mr. Hampton faced each other across her rosewood boardroom table, papers strewn between them. “Erica’s going to fight you on this,” she said.
Dawn wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. His face was drawn, dark shadows under his eyes, his wheeze more pronounced. Dawn waited. He pivoted his chair away from the table and wheeled to the window. It was a sunny, mid-September day. A northwest breeze had cleared the yellow haze that usually cloaked the city. A dozen sailboats tilted into the wind and sliced through the whitecaps rolling across the lake. Far off on the southern horizon, a smudge of mist rose from Niagara Falls. Gazing into the distance helped Mr. Hampton focus his thoughts.
“As I see it,” he said, turning to face her, “we have two challenges: Money and cancer.”
Dawn nodded and let him continue.
“Instant wealth can turn a person’s life inside out. Not can, will. A stock goes stratospheric, an unexpected inheritance, a windfall at the casino. We’ve all heard about big lottery winners blowing millions of dollars in a delirious binge and ending up broke.” He wheeled around to face her. “At the very least, we have to hire a financial planner.”
Dawn wrote a note in her day timer.
“The second challenge,” he said, in a voice suddenly weak and shaky, “is cancer.”
Wheezing softly, he wiped a finger under each shadowed eye pausing to regain his composure. Eventually he said, “Dr. Winnock told me that prescreening is the only defence against a hereditary cancer. The child has to be told. It’s the only decent thing to do.”
“We have a third challenge,” Dawn added. “The press.”
Reluctantly, he acknowledged Dawn’s point.
“There’s no avoiding it, Richard. This is a newsworthy story. Not just nationally, internationally. The Hampton name will have them swarming the gates.”
Dawn outlined her strategy to control the media onslaught. “An exclusive interview with one source. We prescreen the questions. Anyone picking up the story a day later will appear like they’re eating the crumbs. And then, seclusion, until the media moves on to the next story.”
In spite of Dawn’s confidence, Richard knew that any attempt to predict or control the media was futile.
After a three month hunt, many hours of strategic planning, and thirty years of regret, it all funnelled down to one phone call. Dawn moved from the boardroom table to the chair behind her desk. “And Erica?”
His voice was firm. “Make the call.”
She picked up the phone, pressed seven digits and waited. After three rings, an answering machine clicked on. A woman’s voice: “Hi there. You’ve reached five three three, eight zero zero three. Leave a message and we’ll get right back to you. Wait for it...” BEEP
“Hello. My name is Dawn McHugh, Abrams, Watt and McHugh. Our firm is handling the estate of Lynn Hampton...”
From his perch on the back of the living room couch, PeeWee spotted Aaron riding up the driveway. He raced around the corner into the front hall. Aaron had barely stepped through the front door when Cayley skidded to a stop at his feet.
“Daddy! Daddy! Kenny broke his arm the ambulance came they took him away there was a siren—”
“Kenny! Next-door-Kenny! He fell out of the chestnut tree — the branch broke, he cried and everything, the teachers got mad and yelled at us—”
“—Whoa whoa whoa stop, Cayley, stop. Take a breath.” Cayley gulped, fit to explode like her A+ volcano. “Are you okay?” he asked. She nodded. “Is Kenny alright?” She nodded again. “Good.” He reached under her arms and hoisted her up to eye level. A sharp twinge in his lower back told him that his little girl was growing up fast. She wrapped her arms around his neck tightly. Snuggled in his arms, their faces inches apart, he said, “And you learned what?”
“Climb thicker branches, and not so high.”
Cayley squeezed her eyes shut, puckered up and demanded a fish kiss for her cleverness.
After that emergency had passed, Aaron dropped his back pack on the floor, hung his jacket on a hook and traded his shoes for slippers. He went into the kitchen, pulled a soda from the fridge and joined Jocelyn who was sitting at the kitchen table slicing tomatoes for a salad. He apologized for being late.
One glance was all she needed. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. The weight in the tone of his voice told her the tomatoes could wait.
“You picked it,” he said, “PomPom rules.” And told her about his meeting with Keith Quinn. When he got to the part about being disqualified from the race for the Dean’s job, she reached across the table to squeeze his hand.
“This is political correctness run amok,” she said. “I don’t care what they say. I love you. We love you. We’re a team.” She turned towards the living room and called out, “Right Cayley?” Cayley said something that sounded affirmative but was too muffled to hear clearly.
A tear slid down Aaron’s cheek. “What is going on out there?” he wondered aloud. “Is it just me or has the whole world gone crazy while I wasn’t looking?”
He got up, took two cookies out of the cookie jar.
“You need a break,” Jocelyn told him. “A leave of absence, a sabbatical. Wipe the slate clean. Tabula raza time. We can afford it.”
After his miserable day the thought of a year-long sabbatical was beyond tempting. Somewhere sunny and warm, with a sandy beach, palm trees and clear turquoise water. A place where they could swim with the turtles, learn to speak Spanish, eat lobster on the beach at night. There was another book rattling around in some neglected corner of his mind. Six months in the Caribbean might give him the time he needed to put it on paper. Someplace cheap and clean. “What about the book store?” he asked.
“Oh! I almost forgot. You got a message, a phone message today from... from?...” She pulled a scrap of paper out of a pocket and read her scribbled note. “From Dawn McHugh. A woman Dawn, not a man Don. Something about Lynn Hampton’s estate.”
“Why would they phone you?”
“Ask them. They want you to come to their office Thursday.” She passed the scrap of paper across the table.
“This Thursday?” he said, reading the note. “Richmond Tower, two-thirty.”
“Sounds like she remembered you after all.”
With all the turmoil at the college, Aaron found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm for the appointment. “Why don’t you come with me? Who knows, maybe I’ll get my Zappa records back.”
Thursday afternoon at twenty past two, Jocelyn paced the street-level lobby in Richmond Tower comparing the time on her watch with the clock on the wall. Aaron’s sense of time could be elastic, but surely he wouldn’t be late for this.
At two-twenty-nine, she got on the elevator, pressed forty-five and muttered something under her breath as the door closed.
She stepped out of the elevator, walked through the hushed lobby to the receptionist sitting beneath a large corporate logo on the wall.
“My husband has an appointment with Dawn McHugh — Aaron Simon. I’m Jocelyn.”
“Yes, they’re waiting for you.”
“Well... my husband is running late. He’ll be here any minute, I’m certain.”
“Everyone’s in the boardroom. I’ll take you now and bring?...”
“...Aaron when he arrives.”
They walked to a glass-walled meeting room. The receptionist knocked three times, opened the door, stepped in and introduced Jocelyn to Dawn McHugh. Jocelyn apologized for her husband’s delay, assuring her that he would be along momentarily.
Dawn introduced the couple sitting on the far side of the boardroom table: Richard and Erica Hampton.
The way Mr. Hampton tilted his head when he looked at her reminded Jocelyn of PeeWee. She smiled at the thought.
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Lynn?” he said.
“JOSS-elyn. Nice to meet you, Mr. Hampton.”
He turned to his wife, “She looks like Lynn.”
Jocelyn suspected the man may be going a little senile and let the comment pass. In contrast to his grandfatherly demeanour, his wife was sharp and rigid, dangerous as a piece of broken glass.
“So, you’re Jocelyne OU-lit.” she said.
Instantly, Jocelyn felt defensive. She tried to lighten the mood with a standard joke she’d used in the past. “ooo-LETTE,” she said, “emphasis on the last syllable, like the car.”
“Car? Whose car? What are you talking about?”
“ooo-LETTE like, cor-VETTE.”
Mrs. Hampton scowled at her husband, and shot the same look at Dawn before turning back to Jocelyn.
The meeting had begun poorly. Dawn tried to lighten the mood by offering everyone something to drink — coffee, water, juice or something stronger. Both Hamptons declined. Jocelyn looked at her watch. How she wished Aaron would hurry, wished she’d stayed in the lobby, wished that woman would stop staring at her.
Mrs. Hampton kept on. “Jocelyn oooLETTE from Saint Boniface in Winnipeg, correct?”
Jocelyn felt a hollow chill. “How do you know that?”
Before Mrs. Hampton could answer there were three knocks on the door. Aaron strode in, apologizing for being late with a feeble explanation about student tutorials. His tempo slowed and volume faded as he recognized the man in the wheelchair. And beside him...
Mrs. Hampton slammed her hands down on the boardroom table. “You!?”
In an instant, the calm, joyful family reunion Dawn had planned so carefully had fallen apart. Tension filled the room. Mrs. Hampton glared at Aaron. Jocelyn looked to her husband hoping for an explanation. Aaron’s eyes shifted back and forth between Mr. Hampton and his wife. The receptionist, still standing in the open doorway, looked to Dawn for instruction. Dawn tried to catch Mr. Hampton’s eye, but his attention was focused on Aaron’s wife.
Ignoring the surrounding turmoil, Mr. Hampton spoke directly to Jocelyn, “I can’t believe we found you.”
Horrified, Mrs. Hampton stared at Jocelyn, barely able to comprehend the puzzle pieces she’d just put together. “You’re Lynn’s daughter?” she said, slowly swivelling her head towards Aaron. “And he’s... your husband?” All the colour drained from her face, her eyelids fluttered, veins on her temples throbbed visibly. She rubbed her forehead and collapsed.
Jocelyn and Aaron cabbed home from the lawyer’s office. They sat in silence staring out the windows at nothing in particular. Both knew their lives would never be the same again. And what about Cayley; how to tell her? Would she understand? Would she care? And when the story got out, as it inevitably would, how could they protect her from the slurs, the gossip and the schoolyard taunts?
They arrived home in time to meet Cayley as she got off the school bus. Aaron cooked dinner. Cayley practiced her piano. Jocelyn went upstairs to lie down.
Dinner was quiet and awkward — conversation limited to terse requests to pass the salt, not feed the dog at the table and finish your milk. Several times Cayley asked why everyone was being so weird. Unconvincing answers only aroused her suspicions. She watched TV until bedtime.
Jocelyn curled up in bed with Cayley, PeeWee squashed between them. Aaron tried to sleep on the living room couch, but spent most of the night watching the ceiling fan go round before finally dropping into a shallow sleep just before sunrise.
If anything, breakfast was frostier than dinner the night before. The waffles were mushy. Juice warm. Fruit still frozen. Smoke poured out of the toaster and set off the fire alarm. The whistling kettle shrieked like a tornado. Jocelyn broke a dish and used a bad word. The phone rang and rang, no one interested in picking up. Eventually the answering machine clicked on: “This is Dawn McHugh calling for Jocelyn Simon — ”
Jocelyn snatched the phone from its cradle. “What do you want?”
“I apologize for how things went yesterday,” Dawn said. “It was... it was, unexpected.”
“Ya, you could say that.”
“Nonetheless,” Dawn pressed on, “we still have to discuss Lynn Hampton’s — your mother’s — will. There are documents to be signed and other information I’d rather not discuss on the phone. Think about it Jocelyn, and call me, please.”
Jocelyn wrote a number on a pad by the phone and hung up.
It was after seven-thirty. She warned Cayley to stop dawdling or she’d miss the bus. Aaron jammed lunch into her backpack and met her in the front hall. Looking up at him, waiting expectantly, Aaron delivered a hasty and entirely unsatisfactory fish kiss. Cayley protested, but Aaron spun her around and gently pushed her out the door. Bursting with frustration and confusion she turned around and yelled: “Crabby apples!”
Alone at last, Aaron and Jocelyn could finally talk. Aaron jerked his head toward the phone. “What’d she want?”
“Something about your girlfriend’s will.”
“She called me, not you.”
“Then you deal with her.”
Standing by the kitchen window, Jocelyn stirred sugar into her tea. “What are we going to do?” she asked, as much to herself as to Aaron.
He reached out to give her a hug. She pushed his arms away.
“How did this happen?” she wondered. “Yesterday we were a normal family, now we’re living in a fucking Greek tragedy.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“How can you say that, Aaron? I can’t make love to my husband because he also happens to be my father. That’s not so bad?” She waited, expecting an answer that didn’t seem to be forthcoming. “Well say something! You’re the goddam professor. Where’s that university-sized I.Q. when we need it?”
“Don’t take it out on me.”
She flopped down on a chair and cupped her hands over her face. “I know. I know. I know. I’m sorry.”
Aaron just stood there, stunned. Numbness aggravated by a throbbing headache.
Looking up through her fingers, Jocelyn said, “I think Cayley and I should go back home—“
“This is your home.”
“—stay with Aunt Gisèle for a while. Jesus Christ, how do I explain this to her?”
Aaron’s face flushed. He jabbed his finger in the air and yelled. “You tell her it’s not our fault.”
Jocelyn yelled back, “Then whose fault is it?”
Sitting in his wheelchair, Mr. Hampton looked out the window over the sprawling lawn and gardens surrounding his home, A storm was coming. Dark clouds lined the horizon, white threads of lightning flashing beneath. The wind whipped the trees from all directions. Leaves and broken branches littered the ground. All he wanted to do was help fulfill his daughter’s dying wish and now this...
An unfamiliar car stopped at the front gate. Intuitively, he knew who had arrived and told the butler to show Mr. Simon into the study.
Several minutes later, Aaron shoved the butler aside and burst into Mr. Hampton’s study bristling with rage.
The butler kept a wary eye on the visitor while addressing his employer, “Shall I stay, sir?”
“Thank you, we’ll be fine.”
In spite of Mr. Hampton’s assurance, the butler gave Aaron a hard, scrutinizing glance before leaving.
Mr. Hampton gestured to a wingback chair for Aaron to sit, then wheeled across the room to a trolley covered with bottles and crystal glasses. “I wonder if you’d care to join me for a drink, Aaron. This isn’t going to be easy.”
Seeing the old man in a wheelchair, frail and vulnerable, yet perfectly calm, began to drain the adrenaline from his nervous system. Aaron accepted the offer with a nod.
They sipped their drinks in silence, neither knowing where to begin. An extraordinary concatenation of events had turned them into adversaries. Under different circumstances they would be in-laws having a drink in honour of a family milestone.
The door burst open. Mrs. Hampton’s voice hit Aaron like a slap in the face, “You bastard!” she screamed. The glass fell from his hands and shattered on the floor.
“You ruin everything you touch?” she said, in a voice filled with sarcastic distain.
“I could ask you the same question,” Aaron snapped.
“Ricki, this isn’t going to be very producti—”
Mrs. Hampton ignored her husband, still focused on Aaron. “None of this would have happened if you’d just kept it zipped up, but noooo.”
Aaron turned to face her. “We were in love. You had no right.”
“I wasn’t about to let our daughter ruin her life with a...” she choked on the word as if it was rancid, something foul to be spat on the floor, “...a schoolteacher.”
“You pompous, sanctimo—”
“—with a big vocabulary, and not two cents to rub together.”
Mr. Hampton interjected, “This isn’t about money.”
“It is when you haven’t got any,” Mrs. Hampton countered.
Aaron tossed it back at her: “You mean poor like you were before you married up. Did you keep it zipped up?”
“You’re not getting one cent of our daughter’s money,” she vowed. “Nothing!”
Although Mr. Hampton spoke quietly his words cut through the crackling tension in the room. “Too late,” he said, “it’s done.”
Mrs. Hampton whirled around to face her husband. “What? You’re siding with this... this...”
“I’m not siding with anyone,” he yelled, slamming his fist on the arm of his wheelchair struggling to control his temper. “I’m ill, Ricki. I’m ashamed. I’m grieving over Lynn and I’d like to get to know my granddaughter before I die. We have a great-granddaughter. They’re family. They’re part of us. We’ve ruined their lives and I will do whatever I can to set it right. We’re responsible for this mess, Ricki. Us. Aaron is the victim—”
“—Him!?” she screeched. ”This... fornicator and... good God, his own daughter, it’s unspeakable.” Aiming her fury back at Aaron, “What’s the little brat call you Aaron, dad or granddad?”
Aaron had enough. He stalked past her heading for the open door. “I don’t want your money you nasty bitch. Leave it to Jocelyn. She’ll need it for fucking therapy!” He slammed the door behind him, rushed past the butler, through the foyer and out the front entrance.
Seconds later, Mrs. Hampton burst into the foyer spewing a torrent of slurs and obscenities against Aaron, his race, his gender, his immigrant parents, his profession, his miserable existence on this planet.
Halfway up the stairs to the mezzanine she staggered. Swaying on her feet, she clung to the bannister, moaning, yet still lashing out at Aaron in an incomprehensible garble. The butler rushed to her side, catching her as she crumpled.
Mr. Hampton wheeled into the foyer, but was stymied by the staircase. “Ricki!”
In the three days since the meeting in Dawn McHugh’s office, Jocelyn had barely slept. She felt raw, vulnerable, confused and angry all at once, and resented that someone — anyone — could destroy her life so completely. The only person who could help her sort out the mess was in her kitchen, sitting across the table, struggling to make conversation, trying to find a way past the awkward chilliness between them. Jocelyn watched her warily.
Looking back from the other side of the table, Dawn was astonished at how much Jocelyn resembled her mother — the same silky complexion, same eyes, same jawline, even the casual motion of tucking her hair behind her ear with one finger was identical to a gesture of Lynn’s.
Jocelyn couldn’t wait any longer. “So how did this all happen? And skip the legal bafflegab, just tell me.”
“A meddling mother with good intentions and bad judgement.”
Dawn’s answer was fast and clever and a little too slick for Jocelyn. “You’ve rehearsed that answer.”
“I knew you’d ask,” Dawn replied.
“Pardon me, but I’m new at this. I’ll try to be more of a challenge, not quite so predictable.”
If anyone had good reason to be short tempered, it had to be Jocelyn. Dawn waited silently until Jocelyn was ready to continue.
“Who are these people?”
Dawn told her that the Hamptons were Canada’s sixth wealthiest family. Over three generations they had built an international network of businesses — real estate, retail, finance and pharmaceuticals. They were smart, hardworking and had prospered enormously. With wealth came responsibilities; hospitals and universities were the main recipients of Hampton generosity.
As for the meddling mother, Dawn called Erica Hampton a relic from another century. A strict, by-the-book, Catholic. Heaven and Hell. Fire and Brimstone. Thou shalt and thou shalt not. She controlled, she dominated, she manipulated, whatever was necessary to embellish the family name. A pregnant and unwed daughter did not fit that image. The possibility that her daughter might elope with a low-life jewish poet with no hope of ever supporting Lynn was inconceivable.
“There’s no way she could have foreseen this — me marrying Aaron.”
“No that was chaos at work. When the gods get bored, they use us as entertainment.”
Jocelyn’s scowl softened. “You sound like my husband.”
“My Classics prof at McGill, that was one of his favourite lines. Seemed appropriate. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be flippant.”
Jocelyn accepted Dawn’s apology with a hint of a smile.
“I knew your mother very well,” Dawn said. “We grew up together.”
Curious, she leaned closer, so Dawn continued.
“For what it’s worth, I know she loved Aaron. Her letters were full of him. She would have married him. I’m sure of it.”
“Why didn’t she?”
“Erica. Lynn never could stand up to her mother. Erica gave you away, Lynn wasn’t strong enough to hold on.”
Jocelyn pushed open a window. A cool breeze filled the room with the musky scent of fallen leaves. She made another pot of tea while Dawn examined the gallery of Cayley’s paintings tacked up on the fridge door. After a few minutes Jocelyn said, “Okay, so what’s in the will?”
Dawn pulled a sheaf of paper out of her briefcase and put on reading glasses. The glasses were an unnecessary prop. She knew every line of that document by heart. “Minus donations to her favourite charities, Lynn has left you her half of the Family Trust.” She peered over the top of her glasses to watch Jocelyn’s reaction. “Four hundred and twenty million dollars.”
The words hit Jocelyn like a punch in the gut. “Four hundred million?”
“Four twenty,” Dawn corrected. “Richard, Mr. Hampton, your grandfather, will not contest the will.” She peeled back a corner of the top page to show Mr. Hampton’s signature. “Richard is a good man, Jocelyn. He’d like to get to know you. Make up for... lost time.”
“Four hundred and twenty million dollars?”
“There’s more.” Dawn said. The change in Dawn’s voice gave Jocelyn a chill. Dawn pulled a second sheaf of paper out of her case, held it for a few seconds, adjusted her seat, took a deep breath. “The cancer that took your mother is hereditary.”
Jocelyn’s face went ashen.
“There’s a chance you may not get it. The doctors know what’s in your DNA. They know what to look for. Regular checkups, early detection, better diagnostics and better treatment—“
“What about Cayley. Is she?...”
“I’m not a doctor.”
Jocelyn raised her mug with both hands feeling the warmth seep into her palms. How pretty the steam looked curling up through a sunbeam. How she wished she could float away on the swirling spirals and disappear into the clouds, put this mess behind her.
Neither spoke for a good long while until PeeWee started barking at the front door. The clock on the wall said 4:00 — they’d been talking for four hours.
Whatever was about to say when he came into the kitchen was forgotten the moment he saw Dawn McHugh sitting in his seat at their table. His eyes flipped back and forth between the two women as he tried to make sense of the scene. He sat up on the counter and stared down at Dawn. Jocelyn couldn’t tell if he was at a loss for words — unlikely — trying to be polite — even less likely — or was going to reach into the kitchen drawer for the sharpest knife. He turned his gaze to Jocelyn and jerked his head at Dawn.
Dawn pushed both documents across the table to Jocelyn, snapped her briefcase closed and stood up. “I was just leaving.”
Two months later, Richard Hampton phoned Aaron to invite him to his club for a talk. Aaron declined. They agreed instead to meet at a hole-in-the-wall tavern close to Aaron’s home. The room was dark when Mr. Hampton rolled up to the table, the air thick with the scent of alcohol and greasy fried food. Aaron had a full glass in hand and an empty one on the table in front of him.
Undeterred by the strange environment, the frigid awkwardness or the raw contempt emanating from Aaron, Mr. Hampton offered his sincere apology for the mess he’d created and the lives he’d ruined.
Aaron ran his finger around the brim of his glass until Hampton finished. “It was her, wasn’t it? Your wife.”
“We’re both to blame.”
“Jocelyn tells me she’s sick.”
Aaron raised his glass: “A toast to karma,” knocked it back and gestured to the waiter for a refill. Mr. Hampton ordered a lime and soda.
Mr. Hampton agreed, “You have every right to be angry—“
“—but you’re not the only one trying to adjust. Erica’s in a coma. She’ll probably spend the rest of her days in the hospital on a machine. You think that’s easy?”
“I bet you built that hospital. Your name on a big brass plaque in the lobby. Am I right?”
Mr. Hampton ignored the dig. When enough time had passed he asked about Jocelyn. “Is she still living with her aunt?”
Aaron looked up suspiciously, “How do you know that?”
“I know she’s worried about Cayley.”
“We both are.”
“You have your priorities set ri—”
“What do you want, Richard?”
“I’d like to invite you, Cayley and Jocelyn to Nassau for Christmas. We have a house there. A nice place. A sandy beach, a yacht. I thought I would discuss it with you first.”
“We’ll need separate bedrooms, now. Sure you have enough room?”
“I’ll sleep on the couch.”
For some reason the thought of the sixth richest man in Canada sleeping on the couch struck Aaron as funny. He laughed louder and longer than appropriate, his face blotchy and florid, flushed with booze.
“I hear you’re on sabbatical,” Mr. Hampton said.
Aaron stirred ice cubes with his finger. “Indefinite sick leave, quote unquote.”
“People... ” Hampton paused to organize his thoughts, leaving no room for misunderstanding. “People envy my wealth,” he said, “my success, my lifestyle. I’m respected, connected, consulted, a pillar of the community — that’s what they say. In spite of all that, I failed my only daughter. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I’m eighty-two now, and I know I won’t live long enough to ever get over that mistake.” A line creased his brow, eyes brimming with tears. “You know how that feels?”
While Aaron drained the last of his drink, Mr. Hampton turned to watch the kids on the street through a grimy window. A group of young boys holding skateboards were clustered around some young girls, chatting them up, posturing, hustling, doing the ritual dance. He turned back to Aaron. “You have any plans?”
“Try and get my life back.”
“Take my offer, Aaron. Stay as long as you want. Cruise the islands. Go fishing. Relax. Create some memories. Start living again.” A long pause followed. “Say yes.”
“It’s all about money with you, isn’t it?”
“No. But if you’ve got it — and soon enough you will — use it wisely. Make better choices than I did.”
—— THE END —--