An excerpt from The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford
The annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF had become a kind of rowdy reunion, bearing, increasingly, the muffled bonhomie of a great funeral. At the Omni’s and the Sheraton’s dueling bars, aging dignitaries gathered over strong drink and weak gossip. Vincenzo planted himself at the Sheraton’s superior bar, occasionally reading briefs in the comfortable chairs of the adjacent lobby, but otherwise holding to a tight orbit. The younger attendees still handed out business cards, as if there was some angle to be had, as if someone would remember, as if it meant anything to be remembered.
This being 2005, it wasn’t lost on anyone that there hadn’t been a major economic catastrophe in five years. Except for Argentina, and that didn’t count, because their central bank was just too inept for words. So maybe everyone was starting to feel like they’d gotten it right, after all. The proceedings felt buoyed by a confidence that had been absent before, especially during the troubled ’90s when there was a lot of talk about hegemony, a word that hadn’t really seemed to exist before, but suddenly became so ubiquitous as to be immediately exhausting. There, in the ’90s, crises came huge and frequent, each scarier than the last. Executives sharing elevators exchanged wide-eyed looks, as if pining for a return to the relative sanity of the Cold War.
Suspicious of this new tranquility, Vincenzo believed it was all the more important to remain vigilant. There was always, anyway, a lurking danger to DC’s autumn months. The city’s summer torpor lifted unevenly, unpredictably. In the fall, you’d leave your house in a winter coat, scarf, and gloves, scrape ice off the windshield, and by lunchtime you’d be rolling up sleeves, turning up the air conditioning.
Despite the unpredictability of September, the meetings were fine. Everyone was fine. The protestors didn’t even seem as upset. What else, after all, was there to say? In Latin America, things were great, more or less. The World Bank’s programs were going swimmingly—and though he was in charge of the region, Vincenzo knew he deserved zero credit for it, truly. No one deserved credit. The medicine had finally taken. That’s all. The emerging markets were now actually emerging.
“It’s almost on autopilot,” he said to halfhearted chuckles from the crowd. His panel was in one of the larger halls at the Omni. Although it was in a way the more stately hotel, the Omni had much less event space and always felt subordinate, slouching into the valley of Rock Creek Park. The room had only filled halfway. Then, during the Q&A, he glanced at the clock, saw there were eight minutes left. And what had been said? Nothing. Nothing much was ever said, but they had really said nothing this time. People were transfixed by their phones, at least one of the reporters up front was doodling. She was attractive, or she was young and healthy, and that was attractive. And his recognition of the predictability of his anguish at her boredom was almost as painful as his anguish at her boredom itself. Could it really be so ghastly and predictable? Yes, it could.
Afterward, he and his co-panelists had a half-hour break before reconvening in a boardroom upstairs for a closed-door session with delegates from the major Latin American economies, namely Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, who wanted to explore their evolving relationship with the wealthy countries that had for so many decades been either—depending on whom you asked—bailing them out of self-inflicted disasters, or shoving them into disasters and then charging them a premium for a bailout. In any case, these countries were less feeble, now. Something had clearly shifted underfoot. It was time to have a frank conversation.
+ + + +
Vincenzo was leaving the first meeting when Cynthia, whom he hadn’t seen in at least ten years, approached with that mischievous squinting grin. Maybe she’d been embarrassed of her teeth as a kid, which were in fact a little crooked, but she always hid them with her lips. She’d left the World Bank for some leadership role at IADB years ago. Now here she was, edging toward him with that odd smirk, saying, “Oh my God, he’s alive!”
Setting his briefcase down on the chair, he grabbed her by both shoulders and kissed her on her cheeks and then held her back, as if to appraise her. “How the hell are you?” he said, and they hugged.
“I hate being back here,” she said into his shoulder. “I can’t walk ten feet without running into horrible old ghouls like you.”
He grinned and they separated. “But you live here, right?”
“God no, I slid over to the UNDP and they put me in Brazil, hence—” and she waved vaguely at the room. The new job was, strictly speaking, a step down, which was probably why she hadn’t broadcast the switch. She’d gone meaty and middle-aged. A sexless pall had fallen over her, as it did most of them, as it had, no doubt, him. Back when they’d had their affair, when she was on mission in Peru, she had an impressive body for a mother of three in her forties, and her aura was distinctly sensual. She radiated low-frequency sexual enticement. There was something in the body language, the way she sat down so slowly, how long she held your hand during a handshake, the over-determined eye contact. Even her coy grin seemed dangerous. You just knew she was a pervert. Now she was—what?—probably in her late fifties. More battle horse than colt. The carnality had dimmed. Or maybe it was still there, and his sensing mechanism was damaged. Worse still, maybe she just didn’t turn the signal on for him anymore.
“Look, we should have a drink,” he said. “I have another meeting.” The last of the others were filing out.
“I’m going to be at that meeting.”
“Oh—the one upstairs?”
“Yes. We’ll go to the bar at the Sheraton after?” she said.
She smiled a little, then added, “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, don’t think that.”
He snorted. And then he slowly drew a deep breath, shook his head, looked away.
Since he didn’t deny it, she said, “Do you still want to have that drink?”
He paused for effect, looked her in the eye and said, unconvincingly as possible, “Of course I do.”
She chuckled humorlessly, no doubt weary of men like him.
It was only once they were in the elevator going up that it dawned on him that this wasn’t really a coincidence. She didn’t have a good reason to be at either of the meetings. No, she was angling for something. Maybe a job.
They were not alone in the elevator, but he could smell Cynthia’s perfume, too sweet, too conspicuous. So much honeysuckle; it brought back a sour stain of guilt, all the worse now that he’d lost the reason for that guilt.
Perhaps sensing where he was, she said, “How’s your kid?”
He squinted at her. This not mentioning of his wife—he didn’t quite know what to make of it. Maybe she hadn’t heard? Probably she had. Either way, he wouldn’t bring it up. “She finished college and is in New York.”
“She’s a waitress,” he added. “Lots of tattoos.” She smiled in the repressed way people do in crowded elevators, in the way she did always. “Your husband?” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “Great.”
He nodded. But she wasn’t wearing a ring. There wasn’t even a tan line.
+ + + +
The problem was that Peru shouldn’t have been invited to the meeting upstairs. Peru’s growth was too gestational. As if to underscore this, their delegate was dour in a shapeless sports jacket and khakis, while everyone else wore suits. But this was the era of inclusion. Eastern European countries were tumbling into the EU and the field was everywhere more open, more noisy and confusing.
Not long after they had settled in, the Peruvian delegate set forth with a question, a statement really, about the Bank’s commitment to global emissions reductions. The question was odd for a variety of reasons, not least that Peru would take up this non-Peruvian issue so passionately.
And here it was, naked and crazed, the hobgoblin of their era: fairness. A muddle-headed man, the delegate also produced a subordinate question about the long term viability of the petroleum-based successes, which seemed like a weird dig at Brazil. Of course, he just wanted to show that he was formidable, but it was far too confrontational. Anyway, he was on the wrong subject.
Pablo Rendón, running the environment directorate at the Inter-American Development Bank, and an old friend of Vincenzo’s, had talked environmental policy downstairs. He’d said what was to be said: they were forging ahead despite the maddening intransigence of the USA.
But the question was out, and there weren’t many people in the room, so they had to address it.
“Look, the growth is real,” Vincenzo said. Cynthia sat away from the table against the wall, and Vincenzo was distinctly aware of her. “Oil or no oil, those countries are buying time to develop more sophisticated economies, and they’re using that time well. That’s my impression. Peru, your GDP comes from minerals, so it’s—”
“But I’m talking about values, Sir,” the man said.
“Values?” Vincenzo shrugged, as if amused, and scanned the room incredulously, but no one met his gaze. Many of them also looked bemused, even Cynthia. Pablo, an Argentinean who adored Scottish Whisky—and was visibly hungover—rolled his eyes and glanced out the window. They were on the fourth floor with views of Rock Creek Park, the sloping grass and the twisting roads, the snaking strip of forest. It was hard not to stare out the window. Noted for his pretty ice-blue eyes, Pablo was dull, had the suspicious languor of a lizard captured at midnight in the desert. Vincenzo stared at him, hoping he’d awake enough to put the delegate in his place, but apparently he’d spent all of his energy that morning.
So it fell to Vincenzo:
“Mister,” he said, “Your question is vague and we have a lot of business ahead, so I don’t know why we would start—”
“I’m concerned about the indigenous communities in the Amazon basin.”
“Because they have money now?” Vincenzo snapped. “That’s what’s destroying them? They have medicine and education and—”
“Have you even met these people?”
“No, why would I? I’m not a politician. I don’t shake hands with people who work on oil rigs in the jungle. I’m not the pope, or something.”
People chuckled, but Vincenzo didn’t like his own tone, didn’t care for his own line of argument. It was true, and it wasn’t true. A more important question was why the US was more or less denying climate change and refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol. There were other valuable questions, too, about carbon swaps and so on.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Cynthia pick up her phone and start typing. Collecting himself, he went on: “These people in this forest, they must want to be part of modern society in some way if they are showing up at these oil drilling platforms. But you here, in this room”—he gestured at the glinting chandelier above—“you are going to decide that they should remain in loin cloths eating rodents and dying of the common flu?”
“You’re making a decision, too,” the man pressed, “deciding that taking them from their community and putting them in these jobs on oil rigs—you’re saying this is good.”
Vincenzo groaned. “Let’s just—I know you haven’t been here before, so maybe you can just let things transpire naturally.” Again, he hated his own tone, knew his condescending lines would be echoing in his head for days. “We should talk about this, but it’s too complicated for today.”
The man glared at Vincenzo. And still no one came to Vincenzo’s defense. No one said anything. What were they afraid of? Cynthia was still typing on her phone. So, with a rising voice, he said, “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation, instead of the meeting we had planned to have, but if we must! Let me see—history!
“For many thousands of years, the world has been moving from being a barbaric and brutal place filled with people who roam the woods with blades and clubs, to a place where people pull four-course meals from their freezer and zap them in a microwave. Is this sad? Yes, it’s tragic! Really! We have lost our souls, and I do believe this. Is it beautiful, too? Yes, it is beautiful. Babies don’t die from simple illnesses. We can talk face-to-face to people who are on the other side of the planet, we fly from here to Europe in half a day. We live in a time of miracles. So these people in the Amazon will do horrible work for Exxon for a generation or two. They might destroy that part of the jungle. Yes. They might be miserable. Yes. But they might not be miserable. It doesn’t matter. And yes, it does matter. We lose and we win. I don’t know what’s right, but, uh”—he looked at Cynthia, who had put down her phone, now, was biting back a grin. “Look,” he said, “this is capitalism. We happen to think it works, and that’s why we are here. We have hope that this will work out.”
He looked around the room, and there it was: life. People were awake! Not just Cynthia, but the rest, too—everyone was sitting up a bit straighter. For the first time all day, the first time all week, they were listening. Even Pablo seemed to have been roused. Not that it mattered, it was just a bit of throat-clearing before the real meeting began, but still: here they were, all awake together for one wonderful moment in that gleaming conference room.
+ + + +
Two hours later, at the Shera-ton’s vast bar, he and Cynthia parked in a pair of stools, the afternoon light gloaming at the distant window, and she told him about Brazil, her residence, and so on. Apparently, she’d been unfairly pushed out of her last job. Neither mentioned their families. It was an hour before she finally got around to the thing that she’d sought him out to discuss.
The Bank had tried a series of partnerships with private mobile phone providers throughout Latin America to get more cell towers built in impoverished underserved areas, but the mobile phone companies had not been incentivized properly and the rural customers hadn’t understood how to partake. With no existing infrastructure, the phone companies hadn’t been able to market the program, weren’t even sure where to sell their products. Ultimately, it was still too expensive to figure it out. They’d hoped to get internet to tiny schools in the Amazon, mobile phones to doctors far from hospitals. It could have been great, but it wasn’t great. The tranche was small and the debt soft, so Vincenzo cut everyone’s losses and killed it. In each country, the money was rolled into the general project fund—a bureaucratic purgatory for failed ideas.
Cynthia wanted to try it again in Brazil through the UNDP. But Vincenzo had been so adamant in mothballing the phone tranche that no one, especially the companies, would be interested in taking it up again. Not unless he made a big production of endorsing her reinvention of the program. Due to her own nonperforming grants, she’d had budget overruns, and now it was clear that if she didn’t allocate her leftover money by the end of the fiscal year, they’d cut her budget accordingly.
“I have ideas for how to fix it,” she said. She had begun to lay out her ideas when he stopped her.
There was no way he’d agree. It was a nice idea, in theory, but it was unseemly. If it worked, he’d be drawing attention to the fact that the UNDP succeeded exactly where the Bank failed. If it failed, they’d all look foolish to their Brazilian counterparts. In any case, he’d be letting a different organization plagiarize the Bank’s work. Still, it was a nice idea, in theory. In a better world, maybe.
To change the subject, he said, “Where are you staying while you’re here?”
“Vincenzo, I re-married.”
“Then why aren’t you wearing a ring?” he said and cast an eye at her hand.
“I could ask you the same.”
+ + + +
Later, back at her hotel room, they had sex, and it was about as exciting as running on a treadmill before breakfast. She had put condoms on the bedside table, as if there were any danger of pregnancy, or STDs. They didn’t use them, thank God. Still, his mind wandered as he stared at her body beneath him, her breasts spilling over her rib cage, sloshing like half-filled sacks of water. She had insisted on leaving the lights on, which was a terrible idea for people like them. Despite her best efforts, the whole thing was just carpentry. There had been more passion between them when they hugged earlier. But he had to see it through. Her milky belly, the familiar but foreign manner that she had with him, her feeble groans—he observed it all from the far side of a very great chasm. Eventually, just as he was about to fake an orgasm, something happened. The depleted hormones, or synapses, or was it a dormant part of the soul?— whatever had been absent so far came back to him, lit up all at once. He grabbed her hips and she squealed.
Finally, when he finished and collapsed beside her, pant-ing, his pulse throbbing in his skull, she gasped, and burst out laughing. “Wow,” she said. He grunted, nodding in agreement. “That was impressive,” she said. He nodded again. It was im-pressive—life, again, had just been hiding somewhere, waiting for its invitation.
Afterward, once he had recovered, they put on the hotel bathrobes and opened a bottle of pinot grigio. There was little left to discuss.
She again talked about her career, now more philosophical. She talked about being a woman with power in Brazil, of all places. And then she gave updates on her new husband, her old husband, and she even told him about her kids. She didn’t, fortunately, show him any pictures. The marriage was in trouble, she admitted, but she thought they’d get through it.
Later, sitting at the table by the window, he said, “Look, you know that the tranche is dead for a reason. I understand you need to make a grant, but I can’t encourage you to take on something I’ve just fought to shut down.”
She stared at him for a long time. “It has potential.”
“No. We have evidence that it’s terrible. I have reports, so many reports, you wouldn’t believe. Look, I understand why you want to play Frankenstein, but why can’t you try to revive one of your own corpses?”
“You killed this prematurely.”
“And what if you succeed? What if you make it work? Can you imagine?”
“No one is watching, Vincenzo.”
He shook his head, sighed. He wished he were home. Wished he wasn’t home, too. What he wished, in fact, was that he was in a different home, someone else’s home, with someone else’s life. “They failed,” he said again.
“Things change,” she said.
He groaned. The half-finished bottle was open on the table, losing its chill. They’d never finish it now.
“When are you going to retire?” she asked.
“I plan to die at my desk.”
She sighed, and then said, “Your wife. I was sorry to hear—”
He nodded. No one liked to say it, so they left it incomplete. The absence of the absence. Maybe they thought it would sting him to speak of her death, but no, this was worse—everyone working together to erase her. And of course Cynthia had known. There had been enough meetings by now, enough gatherings of this jet-lagged clan at hotel bars. By now, everyone knew.
He glanced over at her on the bed, arms crossed, the bulky hotel bathrobe. Outside, DC was empty, awash in the sickly orange light of a thousand failing streetlights. It was his turn to talk. “It was . . .” he said and halted, searching for the next word and nodding until, eventually, he stopped nodding.
Peter Mountford celebrates the release of The Dismal Science (Tin House Books) with a launch on Feb. 13 at Hugo House. He also reads Feb. 27 at Chop Suey as part of an event hosted by Tin House Books, Wave Books and Tumblr during the AWP Conference. Excerpt © 2014 by Peter Mountford.