Excerpt from The Amortals

One of the interesting things about the VISTA program—Volunteers in Service to America—was that it had been dreamt up by President Kennedy in 1963 as part of the War on Poverty. To his astonishment, Everett did find this interesting, or at least he found Daisy’s interest infectious, as he listened to the animation in her voice as she described the history of her organization.

“…merging with AmeriCorps,” Daisy was saying. It had now been three weeks since he’d last seen her and talking on the phone, while tantalizing, was ultimately unsatisfying. “You would not believe what it’s like here, Everett. I have one family I work with who live in a rusted-out school bus. Four kids. And another one who live in a shack with dirt floors and no plumbing. In America!”

Everett smiled, not at the thought of children living in a school bus, which was beyond his realm of imagination, but at the sweet outrage in Daisy’s voice. He marveled that there were people who not only knew about such unfathomable occurrences but also cared deeply about them, and that he himself might be one of them. Perhaps his association with Daisy would one day confer upon him a sort of vicarious sainthood. Maybe he too would defend helpless children. He had, after all, begun to contemplate the nature of human suffering. Everyone at XBank, no matter how unscrupulous or venal they might be, was plagued from time to time with thoughts of the failure of their employer to do anything toward the overall betterment of human society. Sometimes there was some pious talk about infusion of capital to enhance industrial ingenuity, or whatever, but the truth was that most of what the financial industry did in general—and XBank in particular—was to enrich its own practitioners at the expense of almost everybody else. Or at least that was how Everett was starting to feel after some hard core propaganda from Daisy, and if he had such dissonant thoughts, then probably everyone else did too. Some people even said these things out loud, although he himself was not at the point of going that far.

“That’s awful, Daisy,” he said now, once again struck by wonder at his own newly awakened conscience. “How are you handling all this?”

“Me? I’m humbled, I guess. Reading about poverty and experiencing it are two very different things. It’s overwhelming—I keep having to remind myself that this is my own country, because it seems so foreign and almost nineteenth-century at times—but at the same time, it’s amazing how similar people are everywhere. All toddlers are hilariously egocentric, all mothers go through the same emotions at raising children. Everyone wants the people they love to have it better and they want jobs and independence. These communities are resilient and fiercely proud.”

She paused to Everett the opportunity to pick up the conversational thread with a question about the struggles of the impoverished but fiercely resilient Appalachians. He tried to think of one.

“I’m thinking about coming to New York this week,” he blurted. “It’s been awhile since I had any vacation.”

Daisy was silent for a moment, pondering the non sequitur, but she rolled with it.

“Great,” she said. “You’ll enjoy being home, right?”

“Let me come see you, Daisy.”

Another pause. “Oh. Everett, that’s crazy. I’ll be back in Singapore in a week to get my stuff from my apartment and the office, and I’ll be there for at least another few days after that before I move home. We’ll have plenty of time to say goodbye. Why would you come here?”

“I don’t want to wait to see you.”

More gently: “You know I’m in rural Tennessee. I’m not anywhere close to an airport and I don’t have any time off right now. I wish I could see you, though.”

“Look, this could work,” said Everett. “I’ve given it some thought. I think I can fit in a flight to Knoxville. We can spend the weekend together—assuming you can get to Knoxville—and then I’ll fly back to Gotham and take a night flight out. Do you have a car?”

“Everett,” said Daisy, “I have plans this weekend.”

There was an awkward silence. Everett mustered up a question.

“Is it—are you saying you have a date?”

“I do,” said Daisy. Everett felt a stab of pure pain pierce him, until he noted the tone of her voice: she sounded amused instead of embarrassed. “His name is Wolf, and he’s eight. We’re going swimming.”

Everett phrased his question carefully. “Can you reschedule, ah, Wolf? I mean, I’m flying in from the opposite side of the globe, and presumably he’s local?”

“I have a better idea,” said Daisy. “Why don’t you wait until I’m back here for good? Then we can plan better. You can rent a car and meet up with us. I bet you’ve never experienced—” she giggled, “—a real mountain swimming hole. In a holler.”

Everett folded.

“I’ll have you know,” he said, “It’s the other way round. The swimming hole and the holler—whatever they are—have never experienced me. So, yes. I’ll be there to hang with you and Wolf, if that’s what you want, once you’re really settled in. Tell the hillbillies to brace themselves.”

He hung up the phone, elated. He’d called Daisy as much as it was feasible over the last month, and she’d stayed receptive to his flirtations, as best he could tell from his position a world away. She was definitely warming up to the idea of marrying him, he could tell. If that meant a relocation back to the States, so be it. Obviously they couldn’t live in Knoxville, but there were plenty of social ills to be cured in New York. Maybe he could persuade XBank to establish a more robust philanthropic division. In the meantime, he’d visit her in the country as much as possible.

A vision of some moonlit glen, with a shimmering pearl-capped pristine waterfall at its center, ballooned up into his line of sight. He’d row Daisy out to the middle of the water—or, better yet, they’d recline on a quilt on the soft grass ringing the shore, listening to the melodic chirp of crickets, and he’d nuzzle her small nose and pull her to him and kiss her. It went without saying that there was no Wolf in sight. And she’d laugh and ask him if he’d ever been skinny dipping, because that’s what you did for fun in the country. Then she’d pull off all his clothes and he’d pull off hers and she’d race him to the water, where they’d finally, at long last—

No, wait. Even as the author of this fantasy, he was having trouble with the mosquitos. And southern ponds somehow did not conjure up images of clear sparking water; from what he’d seen in the movies, it was more like swampy mud and crawdads. Or…snapping turtles. The image of a snapping turtle attached to his nads was so fearsome he actually shuddered. There was a critter issue in this scenario. Best to reboot. Maybe Daisy was staying in a bucolic mountain cabin…

Dimly, Everett became aware that the phone was ringing.

“What,” he barked.

“Everett?” It was Rolly. He sounded concerned. “Everything okay?”

“Er, yes. Just, ah, reading one of the portfolio manager’s reports for some of our prop trades,” Everett improvised.

“They think Daiwa is long.”

“Okay, great. Listen, I think we have something going on here. Can you come up to the office?”

“Why? I just got home.”

“We have a massive problem.”

"You're going to have to be more specific, Rol."

Rolly let out a long exhalation. "We are missing," he said, "an unbelievable amount of money."