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 route."
"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 why"
"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 window.
"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."
Published by Doubleday. Copyright © 2008 by Levien Works, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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