Paul walks into the kitchen, a blue rep tie hanging unknotted
around his neck. Because he's got his nose in a pamphlet, he bumps into a
kitchen chair. The chair groans across the terracotta tile floor and sends a
painful report through his knee and up his thigh. Carol looks over at the noise.
Split annuities. Tax-advantaged cash flow and principal
protection. How to sell the concept hasn't really stuck yet for Paul, but
he's got to get into new products now. He sits, reaches for toast that's gone
cold. Variable whole life; yearly contributions to a policy that pays a death
benefit but turns into an IRA-type retirement instrument at age sixty-five, is
what got him into this neighborhood. He broadened his base, reached a new level
of clientele. He made a solid conservative play and bought a house that he could
carry the monthly nut on during his worst month, by virtue of his commissions on
those policies alone. Now the plan was to have no worst months.
Paul chews toast. Feeding himself right-handed, he presses
his gut with his left. It yields. Thirty-five years' worth. It was a cut slab
through age thirty-one, but for the last four years he's let it slide. At
six-one, he'd been lean, a runner, for most of his life. Then he got a bone spur
on his heel. Doctors recommended he get it cut out, but the surgery meant a long
recovery, so he decided to run through it. They said it wouldn't work, that the
thorny spur would continue to aggravate the plantar fascia, that it couldn't be
done, but he'd gotten the idea it could. Mile after grueling mile he kept on,
until something changed and yielded, and the thing wore away to nothing. Then
his job did what pain could not and stopped him in his tracks. He started coming
home tired in a different way from any manual labor he'd done in his youth. A
few scotches a week became a few per night, so he could sleep. That, he
suspected, added the first girth layer. He switched to vodka, which helped, but
he was out of shape and he knew it.
"Paul, I'm worried." Carol stands over him. He looks up. A
shadow lies across her face. "Did you see Jamie outside?"
"He's not home and I didn't hear him come in from his
"Maybe he left for school early...."
Her face radiates a dozen questions back at him, the most
pleasant being: What kid goes to school early?
How can a grown man be so damned dumb? It leaps to the
front of her mind. She feels guilty for it immediately and pushes it away. But
it had been there.
"No, you're right," he says. He gulps coffee, pushes together
a pile of insurance pamphlets, and stands. "Maybe his bike broke down." Carol
looks at him with doubt, not hope. "I'm already late, but I'll drive his route
and look for him on the way to the office. Call me if he shows up. I want to know
"Call as soon as you see him. Call as soon as you can. I'll
try the Daughertys'. Maybe he's over there."
"Yeah. That's probably it." Paul gives her a peck and heads
for the door. It's like kissing a mannequin.
Paul's blue Buick LeSabre traverses the neighborhood. Streets
that had been empty quiet an hour ago now hum. Minivans tote children to school.
Older children pedal in packs. Kids, older still, drive four to a car to the
high school. Joggers and dog walkers dot the sidewalks.
Paul coasts up in front of a miniature stop sign held by an
aging woman with white hair and an orange sash across her torso. She waves a
group of eight-year-olds across the front of the Buick as Paul lowers the
"Do you know Jamie Gabriel? Have you seen him?"
"Not by name," she says, years of cigarettes on her voice. "I
know the faces."
"Have you seen a paperboy?" Paul asks, wishing he had a
picture with him. "His bike might have broken down."
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