“He went to Harvard, too,” Bill added. “Before the Rhodes Scholarship, he had a full ride at Harvard.” My wife and Bill’s wife were still scraping the stuffing and turkey and cranberries into the mismatched plastic containers we’d carry into our offices for lunch for the next three days. Even though Bill technically still held the offer from Dewey, they had him holed up at Brookings for the time being. The hiring partner had called it a “developmental associateship”, which was a stretch even for Dewey, especially since they would go under not six months after that.
The point is that Bill wasn’t above taking his lunch into work, which was one of those small things that helped me feel not so acutely the professional distance mandated by the fact that he had gone to Chicago while I had only gone to Saint Louis. But whatever professional distance occasionally manifest as between us seemed slight when compared to the distance between either of us and a Harvard undergrad who later became a Rhodes Scholar.
“I think I knew that,” I lied. I couldn’t let on that I didn’t know that, since anyone who knew anything would have known that. “I don’t really think we really care that he’s not technically an alumni. If he agrees to speak, that’s all we need.”
We were speaking as obliquely as possible about him. It was as though our ability to further the conversation depended on speaking about him while never actually mentioning who it was we were speaking about. To name him would be unseemly. Vulgar, even.
I said, “He’s been hard to get a hold of. Others in his office have been more responsive.”
Bill and I hefted the folding table up onto its side and folded the legs under before preparing to slide it under the futon sofa.
“Personal staff tends to be kind of insular,” I continued. “I imagine they get requests like this all the time from different groups. But I’ve had more success with committee staff.”
Bill’s kid crawled over in his onesie to watch what we were doing.
“Are you looking to get staff,” Bill asked, “or are you trying to get their boss to come and speak?” He lifted his son and the two fell back onto the futon. Bill bounced his kid up and down on his knee. “I could talk to him on Sunday when I see him next time. He’s busy, but the conference isn’t until May. I think he’d consider an invitation to speak.”
This was good news. A personal invitation would almost certainly yield better returns than my email solicitations, notwithstanding the care I took in crafting them. Still, I hated asking for favors on Sundays—it felt like a violation of the spirit of the Sabbath, even if it was the most convenient.
Bill said, “The only thing is he seems really sad all the time now.”
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” I said. “My sister-in-law got divorced this summer. It’s been hard for her to go to church. I guess it’s good that he’s at least going.”
Bill didn’t react to this. He seemed to care less about whether the Rhodes Scholar was going to church than the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar and was sad all the time. Bill didn’t really seem to care if people went to church, at least not in the same way I did. I guess that’s the perspective you bring with you when you get baptized as a teenager—as Bill had. I think I knew even then that Bill had checked out of going to church. Maybe his silence was his way of weighing the religious distance between us. But it was a distance that somehow authenticated our friendship. Maybe the professional distance performed the same function for him in authenticating our friendship, but since I was the junior partner in that relationship, I’m just speculating.
My wife perked up at the mention of her sister. “Are you talking about the guy who just left? The one who brought the corn?”
Now I regretted not sampling the corn.
“Yeah,” Bill said. He was now rolling a ball back and forth with his son, cheerfully oblivious to what was obviously a soiled diaper. “Twice divorced in the space of a decade. He’s basically a leper.”
Bill’s wife now took the opportunity to take a break from the dishes herself. “But at least they didn’t have kids,” she said. “It would just be so much harder with kids.” She picked up her own kid and pulled out the wicker weave basket from the cube shelf that stashed the diapers and wipes. Both the basket and the shelf were from Ikea; we had the same ones in our apartment, but in the birch color.
I wanted to bring the conversation back to strategy. “I think it would be great if we could get him, as well as my Bishop. They both serve in the same role for their respective bosses. Of course, one is in the Senate, the other’s in the House.” The important thing was that the composition of the panel could withstand the lowest degree of scrutiny. Since most of those in attendance would be undergrads, it wouldn’t be that high of a bar to clear. But I wanted to make sure that the speakers—whom I had not yet confirmed—would note the attention to detail. They were my audience.
“If we can’t book him this year, then maybe next year,” I continued, now more to myself than to anyone else in Bill’s living room. “I get the sense that if he declines this year, then we’re laying the groundwork for future conferences. He’s the kind of guy who we’d love to get now. He’s clearly going places. Even if we’re just setting ourselves up for the future, we should make the invitation. It can’t hurt.”