- The Youth of North America
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[End Page 119]
Walter had just concluded the first week of a two-week adult program he was leading in Barcelona when he and his colleagues, a woman in her midthirties and a man in his late thirties, both junior to him in every sense of the word, decided to take themselves out on the town. It had been an exhausting seven days of complaints and demands, and they figured they’d earned a night away from their group. It wasn’t an easy job, this task of glorified tour guide, and while Walter had created the “immersion” itinerary of cultural seminars and field trips, he was grateful to leave it to Pete and Carina to enact the details, although sometimes he sensed that they wondered if they even needed him at all. Really, he just wanted to get out to a bar and drink without interruption. Also, he was interested in the France-Germany game.
They agreed to meet at eight pm at their three-star hotel, a venue they’d agonized over for months before finally signing the contract. When he and Pete had arrived that first day at the Splendido, after a dozen hours of travel, one of the participants had stepped right up, without a word of greeting, and said, “You know, the rooms are awfully small.” Then she informed them that some of the group had already kidnapped the desk clerk and were scavenging the floors for the largest available quarters. That was the type of group it was, and this was the type of hotel—not four stars, not two—borderline. Even the neighborhood could be characterized as open to interpretation, on the wrong side of the pedestrian boulevard, the hotel’s back to a steady commerce of pimps, prostitutes and dealers, its façade smiling toward the tacky glitz of the Rambla.
Walter was first to the lobby—he hated to be late. He used to enjoy making people wait five or seven minutes and suffer a little respect and dependence and impatience, but eventually he came to understand that everyone’s time was valuable, everyone’s time was finite, and for the last ten years—maybe nearly thirteen, maybe this had dawned on him when he’d turned forty—he’d been more than punctual. He sat on a sturdy but austere couch in the middle salle—the first salle had no seating, the third salle was the oversized restaurant that provided only a cafeteria-style breakfast—and looked appraisingly at the patchy ceilings and the skeletal chandeliers and the mass-produced wall art. Three stars. He checked his watch. They still had four minutes. He’d give them eleven, and then he’d head out, because his other minor transformation was that he’d wait, but never for more than a fixed amount of time. Seven minutes on a Saturday night with a nine pm kickoff was fair enough. [End Page 120]
Reflexively he felt in his windbreaker pocket for his cell phone. He had none—it was one of his perks as the director, to be able to escape the grid from time to time. There were others, too—he did no morning work, leaving that tedium to Pete and Carina (but he covered all the evenings, except for tonight), and he was not to be on the front line for complaints (ha to that), and they’d made sure to give him a room with a real desk—but the freedom from the cell phone was extraordinary. Rather than unnerving him, it gave him a weird peace of mind, as if nothing terrible could actually happen until they’d managed to find him.
The electric glass doors opened on the staircase from the second floor, and out tripped Pete, wandering as if he had no definite assignation, pulling his phone from his hip pocket for the latest crucial news.
“Hey, Walter,” he said in his trademark monotone. It was one of his careful affectations, never to appear riled or excited, and Walter kind of loved him for it. Walter could...