Darwin Hastings shouldered his backpack to be doing something and checked to see his ticket was still in his jacket side pocket. With the call for boarding, he stepped to the gate, walked down the covered walkway, and showed his ticket stub to a flight attendant who pointed him to his fifth row window seat. The empty tension of being homeless and alone captured him. He tried to appear confident and in control.
Minutes later, an older woman with smog-gray hair pulled into a tight bun leaned over from the aisle.
“I’d like the window seat, young man.”
The grating, demanding tone of her voice flustered him. He felt ashamed he wasn’t more resilient. He checked his ticket again.
“You need to step out to let me in,” she said. “There are people waiting.”
“This is my seat,” he said, pointing to the stub and not knowing what he should do.
“You can sit in my middle seat,” she said impatiently, ignoring his evidence.
“I like the window,” he said. He wished he’d been more assertive. The woman waved her hand toward the front of the plane. “Stewardess,” she yelled. Was this to be his new life? Ordered around by domineering strangers with him unable to succeed when he was clearly in the right?
The flight attendant arrived and examined tickets. “You’re in the middle,” she said to the woman.
“They told me they had no window seats but I could switch when I was inside,” the woman said.
The flight attendant leaned over to Darwin. “Would you mind?” she asked, her forced smile ready to disappear. Darwin climbed out of his seat into the aisle.
The old woman was already moving in to take the window seat when she turned to Darwin. “Would you put that green overnight bag in the overhead for me?”
He decided it wasn’t important enough to object. He lifted the bag easily into the overhead. He sat down in the middle seat and searched for his seat belt.
A grey-suited middle-aged man sat next to him in the aisle seat and slipped an expensive-looking leather briefcase under the seat in front of him.
The plane took off. At ten thousand feet Darwin reached into his backpack for earphone plugs and his digital player.
“You shouldn’t do that. It will make you retarded,” the old woman said to Darwin.
“That is ridiculous,” the man next to Darwin said in a deep, authoritative voice.
“A lot you know,” the woman said. “I’m a physician.”
“Well, those things make you deaf. And then you become retarded.”
“Not deaf if the volume is at a reasonable level. And never retarded.”
Darwin tucked the player and the earplugs back into his backpack. The man sat rigid with his back straight. Darwin straightened his spine.
“Is he your father?” the woman asked Darwin.
“I am not his father,” the man said. “I am dedicated to halting misleading and erroneous information, especially in matters of health.”
“I am not stupid,” the woman said.
“That’s arguable,” the man said under his breath but loud enough for Darwin to hear.
“Why are you traveling alone?” the woman asked Darwin. Darwin didn’t answer.
“Where are your parents, boy? In Pittsburgh?” she persisted.
“Dead,” said Darwin. “They died.” That should end the conversation.
“Oh, you poor boy. I’m so sorry. Are you going home?” “I’m going to my cousin’s. He’s a famous football player.” “You’re leaving Pittsburgh?”
The woman looked out the window into a cloud to ponder the developments.
The man read a medical journal for a few minutes. “Who’s your cousin?” he asked Darwin.
“And you’re going to live with him. With Luther?” “Yes, sir.”
“What an opportunity,” he said.
The woman leaned slightly over Darwin toward the man to give him a spiteful frown. “How could living with a football player be an opportunity? They take drugs, you know. To make them play better. It’s on the television.”
“My cousin doesn’t do that,” Darwin said emphatically, angered by her assuredness without fact.
“I don’t believe it!” the woman said.
“He’s among the best paid athletes in the world,” the man said. “Ridiculous!” the woman said. “Money doesn’t excuse performance enhancement in sports.” “You a fan?” Darwin asked the woman.
“I don’t like football at all. It’s sexist. Horridly violent. They can’t remember anything when they get older.”
“Football is no more sexist than giving birth,” the doctor declared. “If you have the skills and the capabilities, you participate. No one stops you because of your gender. Any woman who can throw a ball seventy yards or knock down a three-hundred pound tackle would be welcomed on a team,” the man said. He laughed softly.
“That makes no sense, you smart-aleck.” “Too complicated for you?” he asked.
“Well . . . it isn’t right for a nice young man to go live with a brain-damaged football player as a father substitute.”
“He’s not brain damaged,” Darwin said.
“How would you know? Sometimes it doesn’t show up right away.” She made a hissing sound.
“He’s done a lot with his life,” Darwin said, but, in fact, he didn’t really know Luther. He had seen his cousin twice in his entire life . . . years ago.
“They’re all evil. Hurting each other. Spitting. Cursing,” the woman said.
“You watch the games then,” the doctor said, taunting her.
She looked out the window. “Only the Steelers,” she said so softly only Darwin heard.
Darwin flushed with superiority. Luther was among the best. Played his college ball at LSU. He held records that only a few might break. Awarded MVP. He made millions from endorsements. He’d met the President, and hung out with the famous. And Luther was kin . . . related by blood!
After the drink service, the old woman placed her trash on Darwin’s tray to clear her table to work a crossword puzzle she had torn out of an in-flight magazine. Darwin held his tongue.
“Don’t you have family in Pittsburgh?” the woman asked without looking at him.
“My aunt,” Darwin said.
Aunt sent him to private school and gave him a bedroom in her house after his mom and dad died. He’d looked out for himself, too. Had to. Aunt didn’t cook much and he got his own meals. And she rarely talked to him. She was widowed a year after her wedding and had lived alone for forty years. Although she was not mean, she had an easily surfaced irritation with life and Darwin had quickly learned to avoid her dark moods. But she had loved him; he was sure of that. Now she had lost her lower left leg to diabetes and had to be transferred to a nursing facility for assisted living. She worried about Darwin. She insisted only illness would make her break the vow she had made with his mother as teens to always take care of each other’s family, no matter what happened. A vow Darwin had heard every time the two sisters met in his presence, or at least it seemed that way. Aunt had wept when he left this morning. She made him promise to return for the holidays . . . her expressionless face denying that they both knew that was unlikely.
“Are you in school?” the man asked.
“What do you want to do?”
“Go to medical school. My father was a doctor.” “What kind?”
“You a good student?” “Yes, sir.”
“Top of the class?” “Yes, sir.”
After the plane landed, the man stood, got his bag from the overhead, and leaned over to Darwin, “Don’t remember anything that desiccated witch said,” he whispered. “Luther Pinnelli is a great man.” He shook his head. “Luther Pinnelli,” he said louder in a tone of respect and wonder. “It will be great for you. And you’ll be a great doctor.” He handed Darwin his professional business card. “Call me if you ever need help,” he said. “We live in the Hamptons close to Luther. Almost walking distance. I’ll be in touch.” He walked down the aisle. Darwin looked at the card. “Adrian Malverne, MD, PhD, MBA, FACS.”
Darwin got out to let the old woman leave first. “Don’t grow up to be rude to mature women,” she said as she turned up the aisle. Darwin retrieved her bag for her and then, with his backpack, followed her into the terminal. He found his baggage at a luggage carousel and waited. Luther’s private limo took him from the airport to the Pinnelli mansion.
The electric motors of solid iron gates whined as the limo passed the guardhouse to enter the estate and then curve among stately oaks along the quarter-mile drive. The limo stopped in front of Luther’s mansion next to four Corinthian columns supporting a pediment portico that towered two stories; the limo driver opened the car door for Darwin and then carried his bag to the entrance. Darwin waited alone before paneled double-doors. The limo left. He pushed the button that rang the chimes.
The uniformed maid let him in without greeting and departed to the back of the house through a swinging door at the end of the foyer the size of a horse barn; the house was tomb quiet. Darwin scanned the mostly abstract artwork on the wall. The most prominent framed oil painting was panel-truck-size and had violent slashes of dark violet splashed with red and yellow on a coal-black background. It commanded Darwin’s attention.
A middle-aged woman with short brown hair and a thin, efficient smile walked up, her footsteps on the oak flooring echoing in the hall. “I’m Mrs. Thomas, house manager.” She looked up at Darwin through myopic glasses, not unfriendly, but with a tinge of disinterest.
“I’m Luther’s cousin,” Darwin said.
“I know who you are. Luther is not here.” She tugged at his sleeve. “I’ll show you your room.”
She walked in front of him to the north wing of the ground floor, through the kitchen and the laundry facility. She stopped at what had been a utility room. The room was bare except for a rolled up mattress on the floor with a hand pump for inflation, a stack of folded faded linens, and a blanket.
“There’s a toilet down the hall just before you get to the kitchen.” She led him back toward the foyer. She pointed to two closed double-pocket doors. “That’s Granny’s quarters. She demands absolute silence.” She pointed to a door at the back wall of the foyer. “That leads to the basement gym and rec rooms. Luther parties down there sometimes. You can watch TV there . . . when someone’s not using it.” She pointed to another door in a corner. “When you want to bathe, that leads to the pool. Use soap only in the cabana showers. You can leave your swimsuit in one of the lockers. Leave towels in the bin.”
“I don’t have a swim suit,” he said.
They walked through the kitchen into a back hall that led to an external covered walkway that led to the freestanding garage. “This is the best way to get to the pool without walking through
the house. Find something to make do. Or swim at night with the lights off when no one can see. Luther hasn’t approved any expenditures for you.”
Not even a bathing suit? Darwin expected money from his trust distribution. Aunt had told him. He would always be grateful for her dependability. She had never failed to meet his needs.
“I’ll need to get my allowance,” he said to Mrs. Thomas.
Mrs. Thomas led Darwin back to his room. “Get settled in,” she said. “I’ll leave a note for Andre that you’ll be in the kitchen at six o’clock for your first meal. He’s the chef. Do you have a watch?”
“Set it on Eastern.” “Pittsburgh’s on Eastern.”
“And don’t call me ‘ma’am.’ I’m Mrs. Thomas.” He looked away, hesitant now to speak.
Darwin surveyed his bare storeroom. Through a small window at shoulder height, he could see the pool. Shelves on the two windowless walls were cleared, but stains and crumbs remained on the bare boards, and rags—and a dustpan—cluttered the bottom shelves. The floor was clean but the walls and shelving had residual dust and grime with light and dark patches where the paint had not faded from items not removed for years. Darwin found his bags . . . carried by he knew not whom from the front of the house . . . stacked next to a trunk shipped by freight from his aunt’s house weeks ago. The inflatable mattress, bed linens, and a blanket were untouched. He sat on the trunk. He missed Aunt now. He refused to let moisture run from his eyes; he wiped it away. Not knowing what his future might bring, or how he would shape his own destiny left him with a new sense of insecurity and apprehension.
When would he be back in school? School was easy for him, and he enjoyed learning. He must see Luther to get some of his money. Aunt gave him a regular allowance—and extra when he needed it— from what his parents had entrusted to her for his upkeep until he was of the age when he could fully access his inheritance and trust fund. As his new guardian, surely Luther would give the same. That would be the first thing he’d do tomorrow. Talk to Luther.
His parents were dead a little more than five years now. He missed them. He cherished the idyllic memories, filtered by time, of his loving parents, of the love they had for each other and for him. He yearned for the comfort of love he’d lost. With luck and hard work, he thought being with Luther would open opportunities to be a family again.
He unpacked, stacking his shirts and socks and underwear on the cleanest shelves along the wall. He hung his pants and jacket on wooden pegs and twisted wire hooks behind the door. He placed his toiletries on a shelf nearest the door, so not to forget on his way to the half bathroom. He inflated the mattress, applied the sheets, and folded the blanket so he had two layers. Then he lay down to wait for his meal.
Early the next day Darwin explored the grounds. The pool and cabañas dominated the back of the house. Fifty yards from the pool near the twelve foot walled enclosure that surrounded the property were three, two-story, townhouse-shaped, connected apartments. Behind the garage and covering most of the land at the rear of the property were a putting green, a driving range, and three holes of golf designed in a rough triangle with the short-hole at the base near the wall.
When he thought the time was appropriate, he went to find Luther. He found only Collette the maid, who said Luther had not been home in days, and that they didn’t expect him until after the Dallas game. He found Mrs. Thomas, the house manager, in her office on the ground floor of her town-house quarters.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Thomas said, looking up, her finger hooked through the handle of a coffee mug on the desk in front of her.
“I was wondering about my parent’s money. My aunt sent it to Luther.”
“I’m the house manager. I’m not responsible for your money,” she said, obviously put off by his intrusion.
“Where do I find out?” “Ask the accountant.” “Where is he?”
“He works in the city with the agent and manager of Pinnelli Enterprises.”
She looked at him for many seconds, deciding what she was willing to do. “Sit down,” she said, looking away with exasperation.
He was very close to her in the chair in front of her desk; her look seemed far more hostile than her aloofness of yesterday.
She flipped through a Rolodex and called the accountant. Luther would be the appointed guardian by bank trustees as of the first of the month, she said, in accordance with the provisions of the wills of his parents. The bank in Pittsburgh would transfer funds monthly for Darwin’s care. Yes, Darwin would have to talk to Luther about details. Luther would be responsible for disbursement of Darwin’s allowance money until Darwin was of age when he could control his inheritance through the trustees in Pittsburgh. Only then would all fund distributions come directly to him.
“How do I get to talk to him?” he asked. “Now that is a problem for all of us.”
Darwin lowered his head and stared at the floor.
Mrs. Thomas sighed and stood to indicate his time was up. “Look, I have my regular meeting with him next week. You come and we’ll get him to make some decisions about what I should do with you.” He sensed less antagonism now, a sort of toleration of a new responsibility.
He still had $48.38 from what had been given to him by Aunt when he left Pittsburgh. But how would he get toothpaste and batteries? And where? And the fifty dollars he had hidden in the lining of his trunk wasn’t enough for emergencies. He’d have to figure out a way to build a reserve.
“What about school?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, now with irritation again. “I guess I’ll have to find out how to get you into a public school in town.”
“I went to Carnegie Academy Day School.”
“You can’t get into private school here. Luther is a social inadequate. The neighbors think of him as a cultural gorilla.”
He gave her a questioning frown.
“He’s big, hairy, inarticulate, crass, and unpleasant to be around.”
“He looks good on TV,” Darwin countered.
“Look. The men in this neighborhood get pedicures once a week for poolside charisma. The women drink herbal teas in porcelain cups they claim to have been used in the palace of Marie Antoinette. Most of them don’t know how much they have in the bank and resent nouveau riche bums like Luther. You’re his ward. There is no possibility he can get you into private school. So don’t even think about it.”
But he needed the best education at the best schools to get into a quality college and medical school. He didn’t complain; this wasn’t the time to bring it up. But he’d have to solve the problem soon.