A year after the car accident that orphaned Nick, the Bishops picked him up from his grandmother’s for a weekend at Fallen Tree Lake. Saddened by his circumstances, the financier and his wife had taken to including the son of their late groundskeeper in their own child’s outings. They also decided to see to the bright boy’s schooling, underwriting his tuition at a private institution in his neighborhood. That day, the 12-year-olds had rowed across the lake. Harry, chunky with dark crew cut hair, had done the work while Nick, a slim, sun-bleached blond a few months older than his pal, dubbed himself coxswain. Nick slapped time on the side of the boat and urged his friend to row harder. Once ashore, they explored the woods, and then wolfed down a lunch of club sandwiches packed by the Bishops’ maid.
“I don’t really want to go to Bickford,” Harry said. “But, Dad went there. And my grandfather.”
“You’re pretty lucky, if you ask me. I’d love to go to Bickford.”
Harry visualized the rowing trophies and football team photos in his father’s office, then agreed with his friend.
Neither mentioned the separation the new school term would bring.
After a long silence, Harry said, “I guess we better go back, before Dad sends somebody over to look for us.”
“Okay,” Nick declared. “Race you to the boat.”
With Harry again at the oars, they set course for the cottage. As they approached the shore, they sighted Mr. Bishop on the dock. Dressed in white trousers and a polo shirt, he shielded his eyes against the sunlight sparking off the water. The oars creaked as Harry pulled toward his father’s lakeside retreat. “This is hard. We should have taken the Chris-Craft.”
“Yeah, why did you take this bucket anyway?” Nick asked. He relished those occasions when Harry let him have a turn at the wheel of the sixteen-foot inboard.
“Gotta get in shape, if I’m going to make the Bickford crew.”
“Hey, look at your dad,” Nick said. Mr. Bishop bowed, doffed his commodore’s cap with a sweeping gesture, and waved it. Nick returned the salute. Then, Mr. Bishop climbed to the top of the diving tower at the end of the dock and raised both arms above his head.
Caught up in the exchange, Nick said, “Hey, give me an oar. Let her drift.” Seated in the front of the boat, he lofted the oar straight up. Harry laughed and joined in the exaggerated waving. Impulsively, Nick got to his feet. He planted a foot on each gunwale and, employing the oar as a balance pole, perched on the boat’s bow.
Mr. Bishop, with rapid palm down gestures, signaled Nick to stop his antics. But, thrusting downward with one bare foot and then the other, the boy rocked the boat, waggling the oar aloft like a semaphore signal.
“You better get down,” Harry said.
But the warning came too late. Nick‘s feet slipped and he tumbled backward. He struck the side of the boat and skidded into the water.
Harry assumed Nick’s fall had been a kind of finale to his clowning. Nick could swim like an otter, and Harry expected him to pop up beside the boat with a grin on his face. But, when he didn’t, Harry jumped into the water. On his second dive, Harry located Nick on the bottom and struggled with him to the surface.
He clung to the boat with one hand held his friend above the surface with the other. Harry’s father maneuvered alongside them with the runabout. They dragged the unconscious boy into the boat. During the short run back to the dock Harry crouched in the boat pressing a towel to Nick’s bleeding head. “You’re all right. You’ll make it.”
“Call Dr. Templeton!” Mr. Bishop shouted to his wife as they neared the shore.
The elderly doctor had taped a dressing to the back of Nick’s head. “Young man,” he said, “you’ve got a pretty nasty lump on your noggin, but you’ll be none the worse for wear.”
And so the Fallen Tree Lake incident passed into the treasury of do you remember the time family stories. But, more than once as the boys grew older, and the Bishops continued to generously sustain him, Nick said, “Your folks have been great, Harry. I owe them a lot. And you saved my life. Whatever happens, I’ll never forget. Never.”
A tired-looking Chevy Malibu crept into a space at the farthest end of the Crestwood Country Club parking lot, as if trying to conceal itself from the BMW’s, Mercedes and Lexuses that dominated the place. Harry Bishop, now a slim man in his early forties, stepped out. He slicked back his thinning hair, adjusted his tie, and smoothed the sleeves of his dark suit jacket. He inhaled deeply, squared his shoulders, and set off toward the clubhouse. The paneled walls, the members’ photos, the leather furniture, the brass fixtures—it all transported Harry back across the years to the day when, as a small boy clutching his father’s hand, he first entered the lobby of the San Francisco club.
“I have an appointment with Nick Gilbert,” he said to a skeptical clerk stationed behind a lobby counter.
Harry knew he looked haggard. Laughter and slamming doors in the motel where he stayed the night before had denied him sleep.
Surely, Harry thought, the clerk could not detect the frayed cuff—it was hardly noticeable—or the shiny seat of the trousers. And, with Harry’s shoes flat on the floor, the worn soles remained invisible. Perhaps the scrutiny came because everyone else was wearing golf clothes. The man scrutinized him over the top of his glasses, and said, “Oh, yes, your reservation is for 12:30.” He glanced at his watch. “But, it is only 12:15. I believe Mr. Gilbert is on the putting green.”
Harry had feared he might show up too early but he also had not wanted to be late. He had aimed at being punctual without appearing overeager.
“Would you care to wait here in the lobby or would you prefer to go into the dining room?”
“I’ll wait at the table if that’s okay.”
“Right down that corridor. Our hostess will seat you. Please enjoy your lunch.”
As Harry made his way along a carpeted hallway a sound from long ago snatched his attention. A billiards room. He hadn’t heard that for a long time.
Summoned by the hostess, a waiter guided Harry to a table in a slightly elevated space, like that of a dais for some minor potentate. Through the polished windows, he took in the groomed landscaping, bursting with floral color and greenery.
“Would you like something to drink while you wait?” the waiter asked, disdainfully.
Harry ordered a seltzer water and took in the dining room. It had been a long time since he’d sat at a crisp white table gleaming with china, sparkling with crystal. It was impressive and, he admitted to himself, intimidating.
The place thrummed with conversation, leavened by the tinkling of cutlery. Well-heeled men outfitted in golfing attire and white shoes, sat comfortably in twos and threes and fours, laughing and eating with gusto. They quaffed Cognac, smoked cigars, and made confident gestures with their hands. Waiters in white jackets glided silently among the tables.
This was the world Nick Gilbert, son of the Bishops’ gardener, now inhabited.
So much had happened, so much time had passed. Would the old intimacy that once bound the friends together still be there? Harry counted on the prospect that it would.
A tall man, once blond, now gray at the temples, and thick at the waist, approached the table. Affluence come to life, Harry thought.
Nick Gilbert greeted him. “Hello there…I hope they’ve treated you all right.” He beckoned to a waiter. “Robert, bring my friend here a refill of whatever it is he is drinking. And bring me a Scotch on the rocks.”
Harry rose to his feet, but when the men shook hands, Nick drew back. Harry wished he’d dried his perspiring palms.
“It was good of you to see me, Nick,” he said. “How many years has it been?”
“Fifteen? Twenty? Let’s sit down. I’m afraid I only have forty-five minutes.”
Once seated, Nick returned waves, smiles, and greetings from what seemed to Harry to be a procession of deferential men.
When the waiter returned with the drinks, Nick ordered club sandwiches without asking Harry what he wanted. “Just like the ones your maid used to make for us. Remember?”
Harry didn’t. “Okay if I smoke, Nick? Most places don’t allow it nowadays.”
“Go ahead. Everybody else does. Thank God, a habit I never picked up.”
When Harry fumbled with a book of paper matches, Nick produced a lighter and with a flick of a thumb lighted his guest’s cigarette.
After a deep drag, Harry scanned the table, only to discover there was no ashtray. Nick smiled indulgently and nodded to a waiter, who provided one.
“Well, Harry, what have you been up to all this time?”
“Little of this, little of that. After San Francisco, mostly still on the West Coast.” Harry paused to take a quick puff on his cigarette. “I guess the last time I talked to you was at my father’s funeral.”
“Yeah. It was pretty rough for you,” Nick said. “The way he went out.”
“Yes, I’m sure you know I didn’t handle it too well. Especially when my mother died so soon after. Nick, you didn’t think he embezzled that money, did you?”
“Shooting himself made a lot of people believe the jury must have been right.”
Harry flinched. “My dad always said you’d go far–and I guess you have. Medical devices, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. Along with software, real estate, agribusiness, even a TV station.”
“He thought a great deal of you.”
“I wish it had really been that way, Harry. But it really wasn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was just a charity case. Your parents got to pat themselves on the back for helping a poor, troubled orphan. My grandmother used to say, ‘The Bishops might act nice, but don’t be fooled; they look down on you.’ I knew she was right.”
“What? That’s not fair, Nick. Both my parents were very high on you. They’d be so impressed now. I’m impressed.”
Nick’s face stiffened. “Impressed? Really? Don’t try to patronize me. You’re hardly in a position to do that. Harry, your parents patronized me. You were the shining star. Oh, they said all the right things. But…”
“How can you say that? They wanted the best for you. They sent you to private school!”
“Yes, but I wasn’t good enough to go to Bickford with you, was I?”
Harry‘s hands were shaking.
“I was a project for them,” Nick said. “Anyway, all that support dried up when your father killed himself.”
“For me, too, Nick. The creditors got it all.”
Nick glanced at his watch, regarded Harry with detachment. “So what can I do for you?”
“I just couldn’t cope. Hard to imagine, huh, Nick? Harry Bishop, Bickford School, college drop-out working in a window factory, picking lettuce, doing roofing, and a lot of the time just on the bum, looking for handouts.” He paused and with eyes downcast, Harry said, “Like I am now. Nick, I need a job. I really need a job. I’ve been a supervisor in a brewery for the last five years. Was due another promotion. Then this recession came along. Anyway, my wife’s working part time in a supermarket, and I’ve—”
“In a supermarket? Really?”
“She’s a fine woman, Nick. Really got me back on track.”
“What are your qualifications?”
“I can manage people, get things done, I can…”
“I heard you did a lot of drinking,” Nick said.
”I’ve been sober for ten years.” Harry felt a drop of perspiration slide down his back and hang there.
“Why did you stay away for so long?”
“I told you, Nick. I was going through a rough patch.” He lit still another cigarette.
“Let’s put our cards on the table. Does the fact figure in here that I’ve done well and, candidly speaking, you haven’t? Or is there something more?”
Harry ground out the cigarette he’d barely begun. “I guess at first I still had a few shreds of pride. I just couldn’t bring myself to ask for help. From you or anybody else.”
“You sure that’s it? Embarrassed? Even when you weren’t making it yourself, you still couldn’t quit feeling superior.”
“No, Nick. It was never like that with me. And neither was it with my father. I always thought you and I were close. That’s why I…”
“You want to know something, Harry? I took whatever crumbs came my way from the Bishop clan. But, I felt like a stable boy let into the manor to entertain the noble’s son.”
“I never knew…It wasn’t that way at all. Please believe…”
Nick took a long swallow of Scotch. “Look. I have to get going. Send your resume to my HR people. But it’s not promising.”
Harry hesitated, “Don’t you think I deserve a little more consideration than that? For what happened at…”
“Fallen Tree Lake? I wondered when you’d bring that up.”
“I’ve never expected anything in return, but…”
“Harry, I’ve long made it a rule not to mix my business life with my personal life.”
“But, you wouldn’t have any life at all—business or personal—if I hadn’t…”
“Don’t think I’m ungrateful. But, we were kids and it was one incident in a series of, I don’t know, life experiences.”
“Harry, you really only did what was expected of you.”
“Even though I saved your…you won’t…”
Nick nodded to a golfer tapping his watch with a forefinger.
“I guess you don’t think much of me, do you?” Harry said.
“Maybe now you know how I felt.”
“You weren’t going to help me when you agreed to meet me today, were you? You just wanted me to grovel.”
“I really have to go now. But if you’d like me to walk you to the…”
“I should have left you right there on the bottom. We all should have.”
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