SUBSCRIBE OR FOLLOW

Aug 112013
 

by Lawrence F. Farrar

fiction,short story

What inspired Everett Finch to submit an item to the “1970 Class Notes” remains a mystery to him to this day. In any case, one spring afternoon in 1995 he settled himself at his computer and composed an entry for Alumni Jottings, his Fremont College alumni magazine. In that submission he informed classmates–sort of–about his activities over the preceding twenty-five years.

His comments were brief: Greetings to all you 70ers. From what I read in this column, everybody seems to be a doctor, a lawyer or Ph.D. physicist somewhere. Way to go. As some might remember, after we departed the old quad, I managed to get drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. Wasn’t there long though, as things were coming apart. No war stories to report. Came back and entered my father’s clothing business (Finch’s Menswear) and later on became the president. We have three stores in Southern California. I’m still married to Sheryl, and we have one son, Kyle, who is trying to be a musician in New York. Been in the same house in La Jolla for the last twenty years. We keep busy with golf and travel (last year we made a river cruise in France). We haven’t had much contact with classmates over the years, so if any of you find your way to sunny California, we’d love to have you stop by. Ev Finch

It had been a selective truth telling. Finch had, for example, omitted the facts that he’d been discharged from the army for lack of aptitude; that, deeming Finch incompetent, his father had clung to the company reins until the very day of his death two years before; that Sheryl was involved in a long-standing liaison with a golf pro ten years her junior, and that Kyle had bounced in and out of drug rehab programs since he was fifteen.

Finch was slight man, with languid bluish eyes and sallow skin absolutely unaffected by San Diego’s eternal sunshine. He was given to chinos, button-down Oxford shirts, and buckskin shoes. A vulnerable person, by no measure could Finch be described as a hard charger. He would like to have been one–indeed yearned to be one–but he wasn’t. No matter how deeply you might have probed into his nature, you would have chanced upon no hidden reservoir of assertiveness. He smiled and nodded, or sometimes just nodded, and pretty much went along with whatever others suggested, a foible people–notably his wife–happily exploited.

When he was alive his father had declared that, when they handed out gumption, his son never reached the head of the line. Finch yearned to prove him wrong, to demonstrate he had the moral fiber to stand up for himself. But, his inability to cope with his wife’s affair, his son’s run-ins with the law or even the destruction of his flower beds by the neighbor’s Spaniel lent credence to the claim. He could just as well have written in his Class Notes submission: My life has been one of invincible mediocrity.

The flame of ambition had never burned brightly; it had made no purchase on his soul. Truth be told, rather than concerning himself with his clothing business, management of which he ceded to Paul Medwick, a former clerk in the San Diego store, Finch preferred to putter in his garden. This despite the fact his roses burned and his orchids drooped. Typically, after sending off his electronic missive to Alumni Jottings, Finch had strolled out to inspect his less demanding herbs. Rosemary, sage, and basil all appeared to be prospering. Perhaps, he thought, he ought to have mentioned his green thumb in his Class Notes submission.

When the alumni magazine rattled through his mail slot, Finch immediately scrutinized his own entry. He rarely saw his name in print and liked the feeling it produced. Establishing him as a class member in good standing among his successful peers, the piece gave his life definition, realized a vision of himself as he hoped to be.

Nonetheless, he doubted many classmates remembered him, and he considered it unlikely anyone would respond to the suggestion they stop by. He dropped the magazine on a coffee table and forgot about it, forgot about it, that is, until a Saturday afternoon two weeks later when a jangling telephone intruded on his contemplation of the surf teasing the beach below his house.

“Is this Everett Finch, Class of 1970?” The male caller’s tone was familiar, even if his voice was not. “Nick Devlin here.”

Nick Devlin? Finch’s mind ferreted through his memory bank–but found no deposit.

“I’m afraid, I don’t recall . . .”

“Come on, Ev. You must remember me. Lived right down the hall from you sophomore year. You forgotten all those beer-pong games?”

Finch recalled no beer-pong games, and the man’s name simply didn’t register.

“You say we were in the same dorm?”

“Right. Plus we had two or three classes together, late night bull sessions, some great fraternity parties. Anyway, I spotted your invitation in the 1970 Class Notes. Passing through and thought it would be a kick to stop by and chat about the old days.”

Stop by? It had been a throwaway line; now, as if struck full force by a coastal landslide, Finch experienced the crushing weight of obligation. “Well, perhaps if you would like to come by . . .”

“Sounds great. How about this afternoon? I’m at a hotel right here in La Jolla. Got a rental car. Sure I can find you.”

“This afternoon?” Nonplussed, but, unable to conjure up a plausible reason why the man should not come by, Finch said, “Okay. Perhaps in an hour or so?”

“Terrific, Ev. I’m practically on my way.”

Finch fidgeted by the phone. Unease enveloped him like the smog that drifted down the coast and scarped the hills above his house.

—–

When Finch unlatched the front door, an involuntary bolt of distaste raced through him. A thickset man peered in at him from behind aviator style dark glasses. Caught in the sunlight, the man’s sparse hair, whatever its original hue, shone absolutely black, as did his pathetically thin mustache. His outfit–rust-colored trousers supported by a white belt, polished white shoes, a blue polyester shirt, and ill-fitting gray sport coat–offended Finch’s haberdasher’s eye, as did the gold neck chain that finished off the ensemble. Devlin looked like he’d twirled right off a 70’s disco floor.

“Long time, no see,” Devlin said, extending his hand. “How goes it, Ev?”

“Fine. Nice to see you,” Finch replied, conscious as they shook hands of the jeweled rings glittering on the man’s pinkies.

“Well, no point standing here gabbing on the step,” Devlin said. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“I thought we might go out on the verandah–I guess most people call it a deck nowadays. We have a nice view of the Pacific,” Finch said.

He guided his visitor through the living room. Devlin paused and raised his glasses; his deep brown eyes roved across the polished wooden floor, the mission style furniture, heavy and dark, and the California-themed paintings and prints (clipper ships off Point Loma, mission padres saving the heathen, and desert landscapes) that festooned the walls. Passing through a sliding door, they stepped out onto the deck where Finch gestured to one of the canvas-covered chairs at a glass-topped table.

“Please. Have a seat . . . Mr. Devlin.”

“Come on Ev. No need for all the formality. It’s Nick. Just good old Nick.”

“Were you really in my class? I don’t seem to remember . . .” Finch showed an expression of puzzled geniality.

“Yep. I was a transfer. Came after the freshman year.” Devlin again lifted his glasses and gazed at the ocean. “You’re right. Great view. I bet it costs a mint for a house on the water like this.”

In fact, tour guides often pointed the house out as representative of Southern California’s Spanish colonial architecture. Sited behind low walls and surrounded by a palm studded garden, the Finch home displayed a white stucco exterior, a red tile roof, and arched windows.

“My family’s had this place for years and years, but I gather it is rather expensive to buy a home in this area now.”

“Rather expensive? There’s the understatement of the year. Ev, old buddy, you’re living on the Gold Coast.”

Finch considered his shoes. “Perhaps you would like a drink.”

“I was wondering when you’d ask. Scotch on the rocks would suit me just fine.”

Finch went into the house and fetched a bottle of Chivas Regal, two glasses and a bucket of ice. Carrying these items on a tray, he rejoined his guest, who was now leaning on the deck’s rail observing surfers dancing in on curling waves.

“Great,” Devlin said. “I see you brought the bottle.”

Finch poured them each a glass. His visitor obviously wanted it; and Finch, already feeling pangs of inviter’s remorse–if there was such a thing–needed it.

“Welcome,” Finch said and raised his glass.

“To the good old days,” Devlin replied and downed his drink in two convulsive gulps.

Finch hesitated. “Yes. To the good old days.” Whatever they might have been.

“Say, Ev, you wouldn’t have any snacks would you? Nuts or something. I missed lunch and . . .”

“Oh. My apologies. I should have brought something with the drinks. Usually my wife looks after these things. How about some chips? I think we have a nice avocado dip.”

“Speaking of the Mrs.–am I going to have a chance to say hello?”

“She had a golf lesson this afternoon. Expect her home any time.”

Finch went into the house to gather some snack items. Who was this person? He did seem vaguely familiar–or did he?

By the time Finch returned with the chips and dip, Devlin had fortified himself with another drink. “Great Scotch. Nothing but the best for you folks in La Jolla, I guess.”

“Well, I expect it’s a rather ordinary brand and . . .”

A freshening breeze set the table umbrella to rustling and flapping above their heads. Keening gulls cavorted and hung over the water. An odor redolent of salt water and seaweed rose up and engulfed the deck and its occupants.

“Always smell like this?” Finch said, making a face as if he’d lifted the cover of a garbage can and taken a whiff.

“Just the ocean,” Finch said. “I guess you notice it more when there’s an onshore breeze.

“Hey, Ev, speaking of smells, you remember the time somebody pissed on the Dean’s morning newspaper and his cat? They never found out who did it.”

Finch stared at him blankly. The story had no resonance, triggered no recollection of wet paper or damp cat.

Undeterred, Devlin pushed on. “Got a confession to make. It was me. Guess I was pretty snockered that night.” Cackling at the recollection, Devlin freshened his Scotch. “Want some?” he said.

Finch shook his head. Who was this person? And why had he brought him into his home?

“Well, what have you been up to all these years?” Devlin said. “Looks like you did all right for yourself. Yes, sir. All right.”

“I guess I pretty much said it all in the Class Notes.” It occurred to Finch that anything more was really none of this man’s business.

“Aw come on. I bet there were some hairy times over there in Nam.”

“Not really. I was a clerk in Saigon.”

“I thought you vets all had stories. Anyway, how about your business? I expect you’ve been a real entrepreneur.” He paused. “You know, Ev, these chips are pretty stale. You probably want to get rid of them.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Finch said. Why should he be sorry? Devlin was wearing on him. Finch resolved to send Devlin on his way. He would firmly respond to this man’s repellent behavior.

“Maybe you’ve got something else in the larder,” Devlin said.

Finch studied the man’s face. Removal of the sunglasses had not reassured him. Devlin’s eyes, Finch thought, belonged to the sort of person who’d help himself to coins from a church poor box. Although Finch could recall no earlier association, that shifty mien struck a vaguely responsive chord. Perhaps it was simply the power of suggestion; Devlin’s repeated assertion they’d been classmates.

“What about yourself? How has life treated you since our campus days?” Finch sought to probe a bit.

“Well, I wasn’t as favored as some of you folks.” He brushed his thumb and index finger together, the near-universal signal for money. “Had to make it on my own–if you know what I mean. Spent a little time in the Air Force; couldn’t stomach the brass and all that yes, sir, no sir baloney. Since then, you might say I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades, mostly in the entertainment industry–Atlantic City and Las Vegas.” Finch decided Devlin looked like someone who cheated at cards.

“I see,” Finch said. “Have you a family?” He was running out of things to say. He had to tell Devlin it was time to go. He’d surely fulfilled any requirement courtesy imposed on him.

“Nah. Tied the knot three times. But, sent them all packing. Footloose and fancy free, that’s me.”

There were certainly times Finch wished he was footloose and fancy free. In that sense, Devlin intrigued him. Yet, a thickening scrim of apprehension wrapped about him like a shroud.

“I hoped I might get a chance to meet the little lady. She’s bound to be a real looker.”

Finch visualized the crow’s feet, sagging underarms, ungirdled paunch, and bleached hair. “I suppose you could say that,” he said.

“I’ll bet you’ve know a few women in your day–plenty of dough, living out here on the coast.” Devlin regarded his glass like a medium summoning up images from the past. “You were a real ladies’ man as I recall. They always go for guys like you. I guess the scent of money comes right out of your skin.”

A ladies’ man? My goodness. How did Devlin come up with that curious notion?

“I expect you belong to a country club. Am I right?”

“Well, yes, but . . .”

“I thought so. You on the board of directors or anything?”

“Oh, no. My grandfather was a founding member. I just play golf there.”

“Maybe we could play a round. You could arrange for some clubs. Right?” Finch lolled back in his chair.

Manipulating interlaced fingers on his lap, Finch hesitated. “I really don’t play much anymore and . . .” Finch shuddered at the prospect of having to introduce this man to someone in the pro shop.

“Hey. I get it. Say no more. I’ll take a rain check.” Devlin’s expression was one of hurt bravely borne.

“Yes. Perhaps another time.”

Devlin was again filling his glass. “They doing any hiring? You know–like maybe a greeter or starter, something like that.”

“Are you looking for a job?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have to be at your club. Maybe you know somebody at one of the hotels or . . .”

“Is that why you . . .” As determined as he was to avoid being manipulated, nonetheless, Finch felt he was being led along like a poodle in a show ring.

—–

“Everett. I’m home.” Sheryl Finch called from inside the house. “Whose car is that in the drive?” She sounded more accusatory than inquisitive. A moment later she came out to where the men were seated.

“Sheryl, this is Nick Devlin. He says we went to college together,” Finch reported.

“Hi, Sheryl. Ev’s a real joker. I didn’t just say so; it’s a fact. Of course, we were in school together. Anyway, nice to meet you. Any wife of Ev Finch is a friend of mine. Get it? Any wife of . . .”

“I think Nick was just going to leave, so . . .” Finch said.

“No way. I’ve got plenty of time. Don’t get a chance to connect like this very often.” He rested his hand on Finch’s shoulder. “Old pals. Right?”

Finch edged away, and Sheryl looked perplexed, but camouflaged her reaction with a welcoming smile. Surveying the table, she said, “Would you like some cheese and crackers or perhaps some cashews or . . .”

“That would be great,” Devlin said. “All Ev came up with are these chips and this green dip–whatever it is.” Quality reservations notwithstanding, he had pillaged the entire tray.

Once Sheryl reentered the house, Finch said, “I’m really afraid I can’t help you find a position. I don’t even belong to the Rotary anymore and . . .”

“Gottcha. But, you know what they say. Networking’s the coming thing.”

“Networking?”

“Yeah. Talking to people you know–or somebody they know–people who might lead you to a good situation.”

“I see.” Finch concocted an image of a network, focusing on the word net, something in which he might become entangled.

Sheryl reappeared, still sporting her golf togs. Devlin eyed her up and down and then said, “Looks like you two must have been married for a long time. Ev’s just been telling me what a great wife he has.”

“He has?” A look of astonishment seized control of her face. Astonishment not just that her husband might say such a thing, but astonishment that he had offered an opinion at all.

Devlin happily crunched through a handful of crackers, mounding them with Brie and chasing them down with slugs of Scotch. “Damn. That hits the spot,” he said. Then, in near seamless transition, he said, “Where’s the facilities? Need to make a pit stop.”

“Right through the living room; there’s a guest bathroom just off the foyer.”

Sauntering past Sheryl, Devlin winked and said, “I told Ev his wife must be a looker.” Then he disappeared into the house.

“Who is he? Why is he here?” Sheryl said. She took short, quick puffs on a cigarette.

“I told you. He said we were in college together. And, I . . . well, I guess in a way, I invited him.”

“What does that mean?”

“I ended my Class Notes entry with a kind of invitation for people to stop by, but I didn’t think . . .” It had been, Finch concluded, a regrettable benefaction.

“Well, he’s uncouth . . . to say the least. Show a little spunk. Send him away.”

“I’m trying. I really am.”

“Try harder. I’m running some errands.” She ground out the cigarette under her heel on a patio stone. “He’d better be gone when I get back.” Moments later the front door slammed.

“Where’s the little lady” Devlin said when he reappeared after an extended absence.

“Oh, she had some errands to run. Said it was nice to meet you.”

“I doubt that. Hate to tell you this, Ev, but I can’t say she came across too well. How did you end up with her anyway?”

Finch nervously cleared his throat. “Come now. That is an inappropriate thing to say.” There had to be a limit to how much of this he could tolerate.

“Hey, Ev. I call them as I see them.” Devlin delivered a smirky smile.

Finch absorbed this in silence. Neither man spoke. Time dragged, as if governed by an hour glass stocked with moist sand.

“I’m really surprised you claim not to remember me,” Devlin said at last. “Did you forget all about those guys in the fraternity who were ready to blackball you? Thought you were, how can I put it, not really up to their standards.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Never mind that I’m the one who spoke up for you. Told them they had you all wrong. Seems to me you could be a little more appreciative.”

“But, I was never in a . . .”

“And there was the time that professor thought we stole the answers to the chemistry exam. I suppose you don’t remember that either.”

“I only took biology and astronomy,” Finch declared. Devlin must be mad.

“Specifics don’t matter. I saved your bacon more than once. Seems to me a little bit of gratitude is in order.”

“I want you to go now, Finch said as firmly as he could. “You’ve been extraordinarily unpleasant.”

“Now, now, Ev, old boy, don’t get all riled up.” Refilling his glass, Devlin said, “You wouldn’t have any more of this cheese would you?” The man seemed as impervious to civilized behavior as an armadillo in its shell. Had Devlin no idea of the meaning of conscience?

“You are obviously confused. We were never at school together. You must go or . . .”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll be forced to call . . . the police.”

“Really? Ev, you’re the one who’s confused. You owe me plenty. You’ve just pushed it all out of your mind. It’s really pretty funny.” He chuckled in a derisive way.

Finch believed he was about to come undone. “Get out. Get out of my house!”

“Now what sort of attitude is that toward a fellow alum?”

Finch had wanted to stand up to a bully; he had always wanted to stand up to those who exploited him. And he had mustered all the resolve he could. Alas, it was no use pretending; it had proved inadequate. Nothing left, Finch felt himself crumbling. “What do you want?” he said in desperation. “What do you want?” Could Devlin be planning something rash?

“Why I thought you’d never ask.” Devlin folded his arms and gave Finch a knowing look. “Since you can’t come up with a job, how about a loan?”

“A loan?”

“Yeah. A loan. Moolah, lucre, money. M-O-N-E-Y. You know–for old times’ sake. You’ve got plenty.”

There had been no threats, no physical pressure; yet, Finch felt precisely as if he was being assaulted and robbed. Nothing mattered now except by some means, any means, to be rid of this obnoxious person. This intense desire crushed to nothingness his earlier inclination to assert himself, to challenge Devlin’s aggression.

“Yes.” Finch nodded. “Yes. That’s it. Money. I’ll give you money.”

“No checks–just cash.” Devlin brushed a clinging chunk of Brie from his chin.

Finch fanned open his billfold and extracted three one hundred dollar bills and some twenties.

“Here. It’s yours. Just go . . . Please. Just go.”

“Took you long enough.” Devlin plucked the bills singly from Finch’s hand, as if plucking flowers from the garden, then stuffed them into an inner pocket. “Well. Thanks for the invite and the snacks. And thanks for the loan,” he said. “Good seeing you again, Ev.”

Finch stared at him in dumfounded amazement, and then trailed him through the house and to the front door. Devlin trotted down the steps and hopped into a brilliantly red sports car. “Guess I’ll be on my way. Regards to the little woman.” Devlin waved, whipped around the circular drive, and vanished.

Relieved but still shaken, Finch sank into a deck chair and gazed at lingering smudges of light as the sun sank over the Pacific. Was Devlin that fellow expelled the second week of school for theft? No, that person’s name was . . . What was his name? It was all so long ago and memory so uncertain. As perplexed as when he first picked up the phone that afternoon, Finch struggled to decipher what had happened, how it had happened, how it could have happened.

Sheryl discovered the missing credit cards as soon as she came home, the disappeared jewelry an hour or two later. As for the sterling, butter knives and teaspoons, Finch surmised they’d been easier to slip into a pocket because of their size. When Sheryl denounced him, Finch nodded–nothing more.

The following month the 1970 class secretary, Annie Covington, appended a comment at the end of the Class Notes. Finch cringed when he read: We were certainly delighted to hear from Everett Finch after so many years. All you 70ers be sure and give him a call if you’re headed San Diego way. Your faithful servant. A.C.

But, none of them did, unless you count Nick Devlin, of whom no trace and for whom no record was ever found.