He had suspected he might have to spend the night in New York. The plane had left an hour late from Iceland and circled for a long time over Kennedy Airport before getting permission to land. The pilot had said there were problems on the ground with ice and strong crosswinds, and for a while it looked as if they would have to land somewhere else. But at last he began the descent, the flight attendants took their seats and those who were afraid said their prayers, promising to lead better lives in future.
Tomas, a seasoned traveler, wasn't worried. He knew there wouldn't be any flights to Chicago till the following day so he decided to go into Manhattan and spend the evening there. He liked the city and often traveled there on business, particularly when he was younger. Once there had been talk of his being transferred there, the time when Ira Taubman and Harry Poindexter decided to retire and the company worried they would lose contact with important clients on the East Coast. But the old men had prepared the ground for Tomas and their other successors and the transition was smooth. This was a relief to everyone but it gave Tomas pause for thought because the old men had always been considered indispensable. He had blurted this out to Taubman when they ran into each other at the sauna some months later, and the old man slapped him on the back with an indulgent smile and said: "No one's indispensable in business, Tomas my boy. Not even you." Having already concluded this himself, Tomas was able to join in his laughter. Taubman had always been his model, easygoing and levelheaded, never pressuring his clients. Tomas had learned from him not to push shares that he wouldn't buy himself or chase short-term profits. Taubman and Poindexter had earned respect. They phoned their clients every day, knew the names of their wives and kids, even what car they drove. Although he never got himself a computer, Taubman always had an answer ready and his desk was impeccably tidy. When the market took a dive he was the one everyone called. He kept his head, neither buying nor selling till the volatility was over. A bachelor like Tomas, he was always meticulously dressed, even after he retired. He had introduced Tomas to his tailor, a painstaking, reasonably priced man who never forgot to praise Tomas for not putting on weight.
Tomas's father had been American, his mother Icelandic. He grew up in Chicago, an only child, but moved to Iceland with his mother after his father died. He was a teenager at the time. They rented an apartment by the harbor and his mother got a job in the claims department of an insurance company. Tomas finished high school in Reykjavik but went back to the States to attend university, first Chicago State, then Northwestern. He hadn't been unhappy in Iceland, but he never put down roots there, missing his old home by Lake Michigan.
In recent years Tomas had made it a rule to go to Iceland for New Year's. He generally arrived on the twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth of December and left on January second. His mother lived in an old people's home but was still joyful and energetic. He would meet friends and relatives, inviting up to a dozen people to dinner at the Grill or Hotel Holt on New Year's Eve. His mother looked forward to this evening all year. She was always in great form and before the night was over she never missed a chance to ask her son when he was going to get married. He usually smiled, took her hand and said: "Who knows, Mom?" because he didn't want to disappoint her.
But this time the question made him stop and think. He had known it was coming yet still found himself lost for words. Recently he had been wondering whether he would always be alone. He was not young anymore and had recently begun to suffer from a sense of discontent that had never plagued him before. He had been jolted just before Christmas when he visited Taubman and the old man told him: "I talked to Maureen the other day. She asked about you. She's now living in New York."
Excerpted from Valentines by Olaf Olafsson Copyright © 2007 by Olaf Olafsson. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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