“I'll take Norma upstairs,” he told her. “You go ahead. The faculty is probably paralyzed up there, waiting for your orders.”
Ann contained her fury. She gave Norma's hand one last squeeze, then went off to join the party.
Upstairs, the removable wall between the two middle school classrooms had been taken down, making space for a main banquet room with an auction stage. Ann made her way toward the head table, past parents and student volunteers, waiters with trays of salads. Chadwick was talking to one of her sophomore workers, David Kraft, who sported a brand-new crop of zits. Poor kid. He'd been one of Katherine's friends until last summer, when Katherine gave up friends.
“Excuse us, David.” Ann smiled. “Duty calls.”
“Sure, Mrs. Z.”
“You going to spot those high bidders for us?”
David held up his red signaling cloth. “Yes, ma'am.”
“That's my boy.”
She maneuvered Chadwick toward the faculty table.
“How's Norma?” he asked.
“She's right, you know. Your idea stinks. Boot camp school? It absolutely stinks.”
“Thanks for the open mind.”
“Things aren't complicated enough right now?”
They locked eyes, and they both knew that Katherine was not the foremost question on either of their minds. God help them, but she wasn't.
Ann wanted to be responsible. She wanted to think about the welfare of Katherine and Mallory. She wanted to think about her school and do the professional thing, the calm and steady thing.
But part of her wanted to rebel against that. Despite her wonderful little girl, her successful husband, her ambitious plans for Laurel Heights, part of her wanted to shake off the accumulated infrastructure of her life, the way she suspected Norma would, if their roles were reversed. Norma, who had become as much her friend as Chadwick was. Norma, the woman Ann probably admired more than anyone else.
Ann was thinking, Don't say anything tonight, Chadwick. Please.
And at the same time, she couldn't wait for the auction to end, for all four of them to get somewhere they could talk.
Ann felt like two different people, slowly separating, as if the Ann on the surface were a tectonic plate, sliding precariously over something hot and molten.
And right now, the Ann underneath wanted an earthquake.
Even blocks away in the dark, Katherine could see the trees—four huge palms, much too tall for Oakland.
They made her think of Los Angeles—trips to visit the Reyes side of the family every other Christmas, her father always looking for excuses not to go, her mother tossing dishes and slamming pots around the kitchen until he agreed.
Katherine used to think a lot about L.A., about escaping, moving in with her cousins. Her cousins knew how to have fun. They knew the best Spanish cuss words and where to score dope. Their fathers weren't goddamn teachers.
But running away wasn't a fantasy she believed in anymore.
Katherine curbed the Toyota in front of the house. She stared up at the night sky, a few stars peeking through the mist and the palm fronds. The palm trees would die tonight. As huge as they were, they weren't designed to withstand this kind of cold. The freeze would turn their insides to mush. It made Katherine sad to know this with such certainty.
When she was eight, she and her dad had planted morning glories in the backyard, her dad telling her not to get her hopes up, the San Francisco climate was really too cold for them. But over the course of the summer, the vines had overgrown their cheap metal trellis and bloomed with a vengeance—red, purple and blue flowers like a mass of alien eyes. Every day they'd crumple, every night they'd reopen.
“Don't they ever die?” Katherine had asked.
Her dad smiled, cupped his fingers gently around her ear. “I don't know, sweetheart. I thought they were ephemeral. I guess they're not.”
Katherine hadn't known what ephemeral meant. Her dad never explained words, never watered down his vocabulary. But she liked the sound of it.
Eventually, the weight of the flowers made the trellis collapse. Her father had moved the beautiful, broken heap of metal and plants to the side of the toolshed, and still the flowers kept blooming for weeks, without their roots, not realizing they were dead.
She'd completely forgotten Mallory. They must have been sitting in front of the house for minutes, Katherine staring up the sidewalk at the dark windows, the open front door. She must be freaking the poor kid out.
“Yeah, Peewee. Sorry.”
“The animals. The faces.”
“They're just decorations, Peewee. You've seen them before.”
But Katherine looked up at the house and thought— Mallory's right. The place is kind of creepy at night.
It would've been a normal West Oakland house—a little two-bedroom with yellow siding and a shingled roof—except a former man-of-the-house, an amateur sculptor, had encased the outside in swirls of weird metalwork. Instead of burglar bars, the windows were smothered under fancy iron vines. Cut metal silhouettes covered the walls—wild animals, African-style masks, big-butt women scolding little porkpie hat men. A steel-pipe Santa Claus sleigh with reindeers permanently decorated the roof.
Katherine had loved the metalwork since the first time she'd come here with her boyfriend—God, let's be accurate about that, ex-boyfriend. How he'd found the place, Katherine didn't know. It was much too cool for him. The sculptures reminded Katherine of the clock parts in her grandfather's closet, as if the wheels and gears had been taken out and planted and allowed to grow wild.
“Kaferine?” Mallory said. “Let's go home. Okay?”
Katherine was shivering, her teeth going like a telegraph machine.
She fingered her necklace—her old birthday gift from Daddy. She hated that it was such a talisman for her—so important for calming her nerves, but it had been, ever since he gave it to her, as if it held some of his strength—the silent determination of a giant.
She was crying now. No control over the tears. She had to get inside before she broke down completely.
“I'll be back in a minute,” she told Mallory. “You want to listen to the radio?”
“No thank you.”
“Sure. Listen. Good song.”
She left on the music, and got out of the car. She imagined her dad's voice, This isn't over, Katherine. I want to talk about this when I get home.
And Katherine felt that frantic, just-before-the-darkness smile tugging at her lips. Ephemeral, Daddy. It means dying too soon.
The cold turned her breath to steam as she hurried up the porch steps.
John Zedman fucking loved it.
Just walking through the locker area, the housing commissioner, the supervisor from District 1 and the head of the biggest construction company in town had gone out of their way to shake his hand.
Last year? Same auction. Same John Zedman. But would they talk to him? No way.
It'd been as if the smell of burning ferry engines—the aura of grease and fried pistons that came home on John's father every day from the Embarcadero wharf—still lingered on John's tuxedo, an unwanted odor that came from his pores, straight through the $500 cologne, announcing, I am not a member of your club. I do not have your cell phone number. My wife does not lunch with yours—she only teaches your kids.
That last part was what John hated the most. Because these people—the hell what John thought—to them, there was absolutely no difference between a teacher and a maid. Consuela from Guatemala. Ann Zedman from Laurel Heights. Whatever. You work with my kids, hold their future in your hands? So does my housekeeper.
No matter how John tried, the other parents had always looked at him through the lens of his wife's job, not his. To even see him, they had to make a conscious effort. Saying hello to him was not something that occurred to them, the way he had to think to say hello to the school custodian.
But not tonight. Tonight the richest guests were introducing themselves, telling him that they were remiss in scheduling that lunch. Surely they'd talked about it—when was it, last month?
And John smiled, knowing they were full of shit, but loving it.
Three months since John Zedman made his first million-dollar commission, and he'd been on a roll ever since. He would wake up at night, go to the bathroom, stare at the new Buddy Rhodes concrete counters, the gold sink fixtures, and he would tell himself, “You're a millionaire. You're a goddamn millionaire, John Boy.”
This week, with a $1.2 billion redevelopment deal in the bag, well, John Zedman had arrived. He was never going backwards. His daughter would never know the smell of grease and burning axle rods.
He walked through the banquet room, and every step was on air.
He thought about his old neighborhood, the south side of Potrero Hill. Most of the smarter guys, the ones who lived past eighteen, had all joined the Army or the mob. John had come close to choosing between those paths himself. Even getting where he was today—he'd done some rough things. He'd taken care of problems, some of them recently.
He wondered what the mayor would say if he knew John was carrying right now—the weight of a .22 tugging at his tuxedo coat like a child's hand, nagging for attention.
John had to smile.
Fuck it if he'd made some mistakes. Made some enemies.
He'd been talking to some of his friends at the polo club—they said you could buy a bodyguard, ex–Mexican military, for a couple hundred a month. A friend of a friend had this number. And damn it, but John was liking the idea of a guy behind him, a little muscle to make people sweat. Hell, everybody had bodyguards these days. The Baptist preacher downtown, the local radio talk show host.
It wasn't about being nervous. Not at all. It was about showing your influence. Making a statement.
Twenty feet out, John saw the dilemma coming—Chadwick standing alone by the cash bar, and beyond him, chatting with the city comptroller, was Hays MacColl, biggest developer on the Peninsula, one of the movers and shakers behind the China Basin waterfront.
John needed to walk past Chadwick, give him a smile and a punch on the shoulder maybe, and go talk to MacColl. Test the new power.
Chadwick was looking forlorn. Goddamn, but put a powdered wig on the guy, and he could be George Washington—that same square jaw, that look of sad dignity. John figured it was some kind of genetic karma that the guy taught American history—like people evolving to look like their dogs. Chadwick was the right height, too—six foot eight. John had never thought of himself as short, until he became friends with Chadwick. Then, by comparison, people had started to call him “the shorter guy.” Soon, he was a little man.
He should walk past.
The Chadwicks had been their friends . . . well shit, Ann and Chadwick since high school. All of them, socially, since Ann hired Chadwick, back in what—'82? The same year Katherine had started kindergarten downstairs.
The friendship had been nothing but trouble ever since. Like business and friends, education and friends didn't mix. You teach their kids, you see how they raise them—it changes your perspective. Like, Katherine. Christ. John hated himself that he'd let Mallory stay at their house, even though it would've hurt Chadwick's and Norma's feelings if he hadn't, sent the message that he didn't trust his daughter with theirs.