Charles is running. Usually he runs around the reservoir once, maybe twice, but today he doesn't want to stop, he wants to push himself. After his second time around, he jogs down the path and onto West Drive and keeps running. It's early afternoon, the day is chilly, it looks as if it's going to rain. He can't remember the last time he ran this far, he's sweating heavily in spite of the chill and his lungs burn as he sucks down oxygen, but he doesn't want to stop, he wants to run, high on hope.
He thinks of Anne. They've been so distant lately, both preoccupied with their careers. Even their lovemaking is perfunctory. They shouldn't have bought the apartment. They overreached and they know it. Land mines of resentment dot the marriage. He hasn't been pulling his weight financially, has been distracted, irritable. Yes, envious. But that's all about to change.
Charles runs past a playground. In the distance he can hear faint strains of the carousel's calliope music. He grimaces as a sudden stitch knots his side. Age--it scares him. That low back pain that flares up after a long drive, the eyestrain after an hour at the computer, the inexorable retreat of his hairline--there's no doubt his body is starting to betray him. He picks up his pace.
The party for Capitol Offense is on Wednesday. The book has been in the stores for a week. He has a good feeling about this one. The publishing world has been ignoring him lately. It's all cyclical, though, and after the last two disappointments, he's due for a measure of the success and respect his earlier books received. He's earned it. Through some confluence of good fortune, DeLillo, Banks, and Ford are all absent from this fall's lists. There's room for him at the top. Again, after all these years.
He nears the northern end of the park, where Harlem begins. A few heavy raindrops start to fall. The park is emptying out quickly. A wind comes up, damp and cold. He runs past a wide green lawn interrupted by outcroppings of gray bedrock, like whales rising from the sea. Charles tries to ignore the blister he feels opening on his left foot. He's in great shape. Isn't he? How many forty-nine-year-old men can run like this, just keep running? He has stamina, staying power. His best years are yet to come. After things settle down, he'll lavish attention on Anne, make amends for his recent moodiness. She's been so understanding.
The rain picks up, the drops coming quicker. When he was in his twenties, he loved to run in the rain. He can still handle it. It's wilder up in the northern reaches of the park; there are patches of trees that look like deep woods. He passes two black girls huddled under an overpass, making out, their passion stoked by the veil of rain. It's coming down steadily now, blown by gusts of wind. Charles's sweatshirt is soaked.
And then his cell phone rings and he takes it out of his belly pack. Anne says it's embarrassingly Hollywood of him to take calls while he's running.
"Ray's Pizza," he says.
"I'd like a large pie with pepperoni and pineapple."
Charles laughs. It's Nina, his agent. More important, his friend for over twenty years.
"Where the hell are you, Charles?"
"Somewhere in Central Park, partner. Swimming against the current."
"In this rain? Thank God the exercise bug never bit me. Call me when you get in."
Charles can hear something serious in her voice--they know each other that well. He ducks under a tree, his body heaving with each breath.
"What have you got for me?" he asks.
"A disappointment, I'm afraid. Call me later."
"Better tell me now, Nina. I like to be wet when I get bad news."
"Well, I just saw an advance copy of the Times Book Review."
Charles crouches down and leans back against the tree.
"Some envious hack takes out his frustrations on you."
Charles hears a high-pitched screech but there's no ambulance, no police car.
"Charles, are you there?"
"Who wrote it?" he asks, ready to add another name to the enemies list.
Nina mentions someone who sounds vaguely familiar. One of those writing-program one-novel wonders?
"How bad is it, on a scale of one to ten?"
"You don't need to read this one, Charles."
"I'll call you later."
"Listen to me, Charles--"
"I'm going to hang up now, Nina. Good-bye."
Charles stands up and starts to run back downtown. Faster. By the end of the day, every publisher and agent in the city will have read that review. When he gets home, he has to call Anne and tell her. He can just hear the sympathy in her voice. The concern that masks her pity.
And then he falls--trips over himself, crashes down on his right knee, scraping flesh off his knee and his palm. He picks himself up and keeps running, ignoring the pain and the blood. He's nearing Seventy-second Street, his route home. He splashes through a rush of water pouring down a storm drain. His running shoes are soaked and he has to blink to see through the downpour. He's been counting on a good paperback sale from this one. Something in the mid six figures. The Times review probably lopped an easy hundred grand off that. He can't ask Little Miss Success to take up the slack, as if he were a kept husband. He imagines, for one brief troubling instant, hitting Anne, slapping the concern off that exquisite face. His knee and palm are pulsing with pain. He sees his apartment building rising above the trees. He runs right past it and keeps on running.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Mentor by Sebastian Stuart. Copyright © 2000 by Sebastian Stuart. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.