By Jesse George Pearce

Having read your letter, and the spelling of the name "Manuel," I did not initially recognize it as describing the person I had thought of as "Manwell." It's been thirty years. As soon as I heard you speak his name, I'm hearing voices from the past: Hinckley's, seventeen years before the scandals. I had worked my way from the basement to the second floor, making barely enough to pay for food and drink. For a year, I had aspired to a beautiful woman, Samara Evangelista. In those threadbare days, I saw her rarely, usually at parties I was able to sneak into, uninvited. I admired her, though I had not yet spoken to her. Later, we did have a brief relationship. It ended the day she met Manuel.

At Hinckley's, my first big deal was thought up by a man called Lubner, who was desperate to escape the twelfth floor. He and I recruited churchgoers to pitch our clients' products and services to their fellow congregants. All we had to do was tell them we were Christian, and they were in. They were loyal and discreet. People recognized our reps as fellow church members while the complete sales agenda remained concealed. The "pitch" went like this: We gave reps top-of-the-line grills for a backyard barbecue, a loaded SUV to drive to Sunday service, expensive suits and dresses, a broker who "earned them a bundle," a doctor who "saved their life," a lawyer, mechanic, butler or maid. Whatever it was, their neighbors and friends bought ten, twenty, a hundred of them. I can't begin to remember everything we sold. I know one church shut down over the effects the ladies of Society Confidential Inc. had on its men. Our biggest fear was we'd be found out. But when we were, do you know nobody said a word against us? In fact, our people started doing business out in the open, inside the walls of churches, and everybody was happy because they were cutting deals and making money. The reps lived so far above their means, if only by appearances, they didn't care that we weren't paying them. Hinckley's was happy. The lawyers were happy. It ran its course and was easy to shut down. We took back the stuff from the reps and kept it for ourselves, out the instant the well went dry, just like you're taught. Lubner gave me a good cut because I did the stuff he didn't want to touch—I pressured the reps to earn, I managed the books, I was the one who went to church services until I heard hymns in my dreams. When it was done, I finally had enough for an apartment, car and bank account that would get Samara's attention.

She said she liked to come over to my apartment, even though it was small, because she could drink as much as she wanted without worrying about the consequences, namely blacking out and doing something stupid and embarrassing. She hated waking in the morning with no memory of the night before. With me, she said, she woke knowing everything was fine. She did not know what she had done or said. She never asked and I never told her. Even when she insulted me and called me “errand boy,” it seemed ungentlemanly to describe how, usually around two-thirty or three, she would rant and weep about her abortions. I would try to hold her. She would push me away. You couldn't talk to her when she was like that. She threatened to leave if I told her she had nothing to be ashamed of. In those moments, the apple in her cheeks rotted, though it quickly passed—she would shake her hair and promptly glow. She would put on sunglasses and frown, and, once again, she was more beautiful than ever.

It is difficult to feel, in my skin, that I am the person I remember being in those days. I was always running, walking fast or standing, ready, at attention. I had very strong legs. After the churches, Mack Votto, twenty-eighth floor, they called him “espresso machine,” made me one of his boys. My job was to run and get whatever they told me to get and be on call for Mack, including whenever he required to be held over the toilet, his mouth aimed center of the bowl, making sure the cocaine vial in his shirt pocket didn't slide in along with the great Macchiavotto's intestinal rejections. I washed him and brushed his teeth. He moaned that the water was too hot and made his pulse race. I held him by the hair with one hand while placing a straw to his nose with the other as, shivering, he vacuumed coke from the bathroom floor.

Still, I bought a house, though it is amazing and embarrassing that I ever lapped at drips from Mack Votto's cup.

Samara Evangelista, it must be noted, was no mere beauty. She made beautiful women plain. Her mother had insisted that she, from age three, be groomed at spas. It was a skill and an advantage. She modeled some, but it bored her, like most things. She was tall and wore shorts, skirts, bikinis, tight pants, whatever showed off her legs. Her legs were part of every scene, as were copper-fire hair and sprinkles of freckles. The heels of her feet were as soft as her breasts. Breathing the air she sweetened made me think of Eden. For the gift of gazing upon her, you could stand the sadness.

I thought about your letter for two weeks before remembering Twelfth Floor Lubner. He was a sad, old guy, had a wife and grown kids, grandchildren. My journey to an apartment, car, house, upgrade to sportscar, to Mack and Samara, started one day in the cafeteria. I just saw Lubner liked egg salad and told him I did too. After the church deal, I brushed him off—he was an old man. One thing leads to another, and I have to scapegoat him. Mack said it was him or me. Word came from above. Lubner gets fired and, one rainy night, comes to the house, uninvited and drunk. I'm there with Samara, who looks out the window and says there's a man coming up the walk, Lubner in a dripping, grey suit. Before I know it, Samara opens the door, picks up a rock and throws it at him. It cracked his kneecap. I heard he had to go to the hospital. He falls in the grass and mud. A glass bottle tumbles from his pocket and rolls, clinking over the paved walk, unbroken. Crawling to his car, he blubbers like a burst pipe. As he drives away, rain blurs his image in the car window.

You asked me to describe Manuel's appearance, and I felt certain I would be able to tell you, but I can't. When I try to picture him, all I see is blurry, wet Lubner. Even so, I know I saw Manuel, face-to-face, at Tom Barker's pool party, where I had planned to ask Samara to marry me.

This is the day you have asked about.

I don't know how Manuel got into a party at Tom Barker's. A brick wall bordered the estate and an iron gate blocked the entrance, unless your name was on the list. Plus, Tom wasn't a guy you messed with. He didn't have an office, but he was always around when things got hot, the face the top floor searched for. Manuel's name must have been on the list, along with those of the people in the group that followed him around, but I don't know how. I don't know who would have vouched for him. His group, they were paupers. Their sandals and denim were frayed.

It had been a hard week for Samara. The weekend before, at a wedding reception for the son of Hinckley's top lawyer, she had drunk too much and embarrassed herself. I wasn't there. I was out looking for coke for Mack Votto. As Samara described it, she woke, alone and naked in a stairwell. Some heartless young women from the reception found her there, unconscious. They took pictures and sent them to everybody. The stories going around were that she dashed off with a busboy for sex in the stairwell; that she dashed off with a busboy, who led her into an ambush in the stairwell, where he and his friends raped her; and that she wandered off by herself, passed out in the stairwell, and was raped by men, who and how many would never be known, including to Samara.

No one answered her calls that week, except me. She stayed three nights at my apartment. She told me I was her only friend. When she wanted to give up and hide from the world, I convinced her to go to Tom Barker's pool party the very next weekend. In her American-flag bikini, I told her, at least she would be immune to shunning, which made her smile. About the pictures, I advised her to state simply that she is not ashamed of her body or anything she's done, and to say the rotted cunts who took them screw in the dark, to hide their faces. (One of them was the daughter of some treadwater dud thirteen floors below Mack, who was having an affair with his fat secretary. I took care of him in less than a week. To do to him what I did to Lubner, all it took was Mack's signature. Also, I hired a dick to video him with the secretary and mailed it to his wife. As for the daughter, a few months later, around Christmas, a bum jumped out of an alley, knocked her to the pavement, and snatched her purse. You would've thought that would've been the end of it, but that crazy bum had a pair of cable cutters he used to take the daughter's pinky finger. It was tragic. Young women like that can be sensitive about their looks. Two others were involved in distributing the pictures. The next summer, one drowned while boating on the lake. Two decades later, the other's own daughter, a high-school valedictorian, was rejected for admission by every Ivy League college, favors earned with phone calls, steak dinners, vacations and, for one particular dean of admissions, two prostitutes.)

Samara went to Tom Barker's pool party with someone else, Chadley Engstrom, thirty-seventh floor, hair curl, son of the top-floor, southwest-corner office. When I arrived—stag—she was at the bar. I had a ring in my pocket, seething with the anger young men believe justifies violence. I was the one who had comforted her, when everyone else was laughing and scheming. From the bar, I followed her through a flower garden, to the pool on the other side. Like a waitress, she carried a tray of drinks to Chadley and his buddies, who lay in chaises longues. As she served them, they grabbed her breasts and buttocks. She smacked their hands, but only half-heartedly, jokingly. The women across the pool snarled. Samara, in dark sunglasses, grinned at them. Chadley examined the crowd, found me and raised his whisky glass.

This is certainly the person you have described, although there are scant few in the history of mankind less worthy of saving than Chadley Engstrom. Having money all your life, you take it for granted. When you've been poor, and you finally get a little warmth in your pocket, you honor it, covet it, love it. Chadley crumpled hundreds and tossed them at bartenders. So bored was he with wealth, he drank with bums under bridges. How happy they were when Chadley came marching down, wearing a fuchsia sweater, cigarette dangling from his lips, sockless in loafers, his arms full of salami, baguettes and whisky. The bums and the bridges were smelly and wet. Samara said Chadley relished deep inhalations, the more spoiled, the better.

One day, a bum wiped snot on Chadley's hand. They said the bum laughed, that he wasn't right in the head. They said Chadley shattered the whisky bottles and cursed as he stomped away. Everybody thought that was the end of it, guessing they'd probably never see Chadley again, until an hour later—someone complained of a gasoline smell, and there was flash. Chadley had come back, in a black jacket and hat, doused the slow-witted bum as he slept on the ground, and set him ablaze. The bum on fire spun around and knocked over burn barrels, screaming prayers for mercy. He fell on a patch of broken pavement and died. No charges were filed. A few weeks later, I, myself, saw the county prosecutor (later to become our state attorney general) walking out of the top-floor, southwest-corner office. You should have heard Chadley at parties. The only part of the story he enjoyed telling more than the part about torching the bum was the part about beating the rap, thanks to daddy.

(Several months before Tom Barker's party, I nearly carried out a plan to murder Chadley. That guy wouldn't look at you, except to sneer, and didn't respond or react when you spoke, and the one time he does, he calls you "pauper" in front of everybody. I followed him thirty-eight hours, when he stumbled out of a bar and passed out in an alley. I got as close as unsheathing my Bowie, but in the end, it was merely an angry moment. Also, I was unsure whether a passerby had seen me duck into the alley, something that would not have deterred my father, as you know. He would have knocked me around pretty good for not going through with it, but he spent eighteen years of his life in prison and look at me: never so much as a parking ticket, dining with senators, because I control rage and violence, I tame the beast that rises from the fire.)

At the party, Samara spends the day with Chadley, while I droop around the bar. Nobody says anything interesting. What amuses them, confuses me. What constitutes a conversation to them, leaves me with the uneasy feeling that they are either desperate or depressed, or both. And sure, I talk business, but I can't keep up with the money boys today, watching Samara come back to the bar, filling trays for Chadley's crew—six times.

One lady remarks that my flesh is hot, the ears and back of the neck, purple. She takes my wrist and checks my pulse.

"You should be drinking water," she says, taking a glass of tequila from my hand and setting it on the bar. She coaxes me onto a barstool and motions to the bartender, who sets a tall glass of ice water in front of me and takes away the tequila.

I drink the water, turn to the right, and am face-to-face with Manuel. I see his clothes and hair, hands and sandals, but his face is not his own. It is Lubner's, blurred by the rain.


You spoke his name and I started hearing voices, distant and dead. Days passed before I realized what they were, and only then did I begin to put it all together. This Manuel guy was no choirboy. The next time Samara comes to the bar, he does something I can't do all day: talk to her.

They sit at the end of the bar, two stools away. I take the ring out of my pocket, ready to push him aside and confront her. I halt at her expression: a radiant smile. Talking to him? Her tranquility is alarming, the absence of a frown. Her sunglasses set on the bar top, and her eyes shine like an ocean under the sun. I couldn't have asked for better had it been her response to my proposal.

I do not hear much of their conversation. He asks her for a drink. He says the words "five fathers." Samara frowns, but the shine in her eyes does not fade. She wraps a white towel around her body. What are you telling her?

"Tom! Better do something!"

Glass shatters behind the bar. Noise comes from the direction of the pool, a man bellowing, heavy splashes, cheers and whistles, warnings and pleas. There is a rush of silence, followed by women screaming.

Over the pool, the sun is high and hot. It is easy to see what has happened. Chadley Engstrom's crew, in trunks, barefoot and shirtless, stands on a third-story balcony of Tom Barker's house. One of them hangs from the outside of the balcony's railing, holding on with his hands behind him, his body bent like a sail. Stoned on cocaine and booze, Chadley's crew howls at the pool, where Chadley floats, face down, motionless. A cloud of blood swells around him. There is a gash in the back of his head and blood on the bricks at the pool's edge. One by one, the crew had been leaping from the balcony, into the pool. Chadley had missed.

The crowd gathers closer. I run through the flower garden, back to the bar to alert Samara—look at your boyfriend now—but she's gone. The bar is empty. Everyone is around the pool. I catch the backside of Manuel as he disappears into the crowd. That's the last I saw of the guy.

I looked everywhere for Samara, drove around all night. They said she left town with Manuel and his people. They were some kind of cult, drifters. They didn't do anything important. They were poor. Samara didn't even come back for her clothes, and somebody joked that her closet was probably short on tunics.

The person you describe in your letter must be Chadley Engstrom. As you see, my account supports what you have been told elsewhere, though I dismiss any suggestion of magic tricks, as should you. It happened as I have told it, and I admit it's strange. I admit to falling to my knees when Chadley walked into the office Monday morning, bright, tall, skull intact. I took a breath, splashed water on my face, went back to work. I didn't ask. There's no point in these things. Whatever happened didn't do Chadley any good. That day, he helped me to my feet, asked me if I was all right, spoke my name. Later that week, he quit work. Eventually, his parents had to lock him in a mental hospital to keep him away from Manuel.

Samara and Chadley weren't the only ones. I advise you to stay away from these people, his followers. The guy was a nut who wandered into a place he didn't belong. Chadley's injury turned out to be not as bad as it first appeared—what else? Think about what has been suggested. If this Manuel guy is what they are telling you he is, then he never would have come near a place like Tom Barker's pool party. As much as we would burn bums alive before allowing one to touch us, the person you describe would rather be set on fire, wailing, begging for a single drop of water, than walk among people like us.


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