Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wining and Dining the Alums

Frank McQuill smoothed the blue napkin over his lap. After ironing out every bump and wrinkle under his palms, his hands re-emerged to animate his speech.

“Invest! Build assets! Choose a worthy philanthropy!”

His long, manicured hands pirouetted around the word “philanthropy” and gave him away; if his fingers could speak, they’d say: ‘See Frank! He is a seasoned ballet dancer, an eccentric, a sensible man, poised, a grandfather. Trust him!’

Frank had invited Allen Young and his wife Rita to a restaurant in Chicago’s Greek town. Frank had just taken up the post of V.P. of External Affairs at the liberal arts college Allen and Rita attended a decade ago—they were loyal givers of a small donation, but Frank sensed they smelled of wealthy potential. The three had drunk enough dirty martinis to speak candidly. Frank, however, did not share the story of his desperate days when he lived on what he made from the wallets he snatched on subways and buses. Instead, to humanize his task of “making The Ask,” he told the story of the Minnesota farm he had recently sold. He and his wife had raised sheep for the slaughter. Once, a lamb rested his head on Frank’s shoulder as he was driving it to the slaughterhouse. “After that I turned the truck around, and we never killed another animal.”

When the waiter came around to take their orders, Frank ordered the Korinthian Special, tender lamb chops boiled to perfection.

“You know,” Frank said while chewing with cheer and gusto (no worries, the lamb did not die in vain), “the college’s performance outranks its endowment!” Allen and Rita listened, nodded, feasted, smiled.

Rita, who was unemployed and trying her hand at writing a novel, was enjoying the effects of the dirty martini and felt an urge to rest her head on Frank’s shoulder. She’d whisper ‘Baa baa!’ into his ear, then ‘Opa!’ Then she’d get up and ask him if he’d dance with her because now she was thinking of her favorite scene from the movie “Cabaret,” the scene in which Liza Minelli and Joel Grey do that “Money Makes the World Go Round” number.

The dinner ended with Frank picking up the tab. Rita promised him—as if he had asked for her hand and she were delivering her answer—that she would quit her scribbling and start a more serious pursuit of law, business, or medical school so she could give generously some day. That satisfied Frank and Allen, who was burned out being a lawyer and the solo breadwinner.

Years later, Rita sat on a city bus, her hair matting, her teeth rotting, her clothes stinking. Her hand was inching closer to the man next to her who resembled her ex-husband.

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