The Kestens, Joan and her daughter, Amanda, arrived at Northwood's admissions office at 3:00--fifteen minutes early--and then were kept waiting beyond their appointed time. Mr. Stemmler, the admissions director, his redheaded secretary explained, had to take an important call.
Brochures on the school's various majors were piled on a demilune table against one wall; Amanda leafed through them while Joan, working on her nails, listened unobtrusively through the closed door to Mr. Stemmler's murmuring voice. She wanted to get a sense of Mr. Stemmler, to gauge him before she met him. After numerous interviews, she'd found it paid to be prepared.
Now and again he broke into what sounded like a rather excited German. His name was German, as was hers; perhaps it would be a point of conversation if discussion lagged, which it had at several other schools. Each time, she'd felt her daughter's chances of acceptance diminishing.
When at last Mr. Stemmler was done and came out to greet them, he was tall, silver haired, handsome, and apologetic, and Joan found herself not minding the delay. He took his time introducing himself to Amanda, clasping her hand in both of his, and Joan used the opportunity to study him and his office. With each personal detail she took in, the long, elegant fingers, the scent of his aftershave--Old Spice--the pleasant swirl of pipe tobacco hanging beneath the paneled ceiling, her sense of his refinement grew stronger.
He made them immediately comfortable, seating them in a grouping of leather armchairs--Amanda directly across from him--and served them coffee himself. Before ever mentioning the school, he talked about the town the college was situated in and the surrounding mountains and forests. His voice, which had a slight Germanic accent, was cultured and melodious, and Joan realized she'd been lost in the sound of it when she found him discoursing on the joys of hiking in the nearby woods, a subject she wasn't sure how they'd gotten on. Her eyes had been straying over the green banker's lamp on the massive cherry desk and the black walnut bookshelves.
"There are places in the woods no other human had been to in over a century," he said, and went on to add that many loved the area so much that they were in no hurry to leave. "Some," he said, looking directly at Joan, "never do."
Joan felt her neck beginning to blotch and was grateful for her turtleneck. Smiling, she looked away, and noticed on his desk a photograph of a girl who was about Amanda's age and who bore a striking resemblance to Amanda: the same thick black hair, the same blue eyes, the same restrained smile. Only the shape of the girl's face was different, oval where Amanda's was more triangular. She assumed it was his daughter. Was she a student here? Before she could ask, Mr. Stemmler surprised her by snapping his fingers and standing.
"But enough about the hiking. You came to hear about the school, no? Though for me the two are inseparable." He went around to his desk, where he fiddled with the picture, light glinting off the glass as he turned it, and then came back with Amanda's application, which he opened and paged through. For a few seconds Joan was left looking at an upside-down photograph of her daughter, attached to the front of the folder.
"Ah yes, here it is," he said, marking his place as he sat. The old radiators throughout the building clanged noisily with steam. He closed the file, looked up at Amanda, and smiled.
"Now Amanda," he said, resting his hands on the application. "Hydraulic engineering is your interest, is it?"
"Yes." She sat forward in her seat.
"Good." The radiators banged especially loudly, interrupting him. He waited until the noise subsided and then said, "The gods seem to be interested in it, too. An auspicious sign. Please. Tell me what you know of our programs."
Joan recognized the move as an attempt to sound the seriousness of Amanda's interest, to discover whether Northwood was the college she really wanted to attend or simply another one on a list of dozens. She hoped Amanda recognized it, too, as the manner of her reply would reveal more than all of her essays or recommendations. "I know a fair amount, actually," Amanda said, and Joan felt herself exhale.
Amanda began ticking off items on her fingers: that students could get a B.A. or a B.S., or, if they stayed an extra year, an M.S.; that within the major, she could direct her studies toward waterways management, water-rights management, or water treatment; that there was a canal.
"A canal?" Joan said, resting her coffee cup in its saucer. "Oh yes. I read something about that, but I can't quite remember it." She put her hand on Amanda's arm. "Forgive me, but I'm getting the school catalogues mixed up. My memory's not what it used to be."
Not true, strictly speaking. She remembered the canal, but she wanted Amanda to shine.
"Perfectly understandable, Mrs. Kesten," Mr. Stemmler said, watching her. His fingertips strayed around the edges of the application file, coming to rest at last on the picture of Amanda. "It happens to us all. But the canal is what makes us unique."
"It runs from the edge of the campus up to the St. Lawrence," Amanda said, and went on to detail the history of its opening in 1857--when loggers still swarmed through the local woods--and the school's involvement in its construction and maintenance, sounding so much like something from the catalogue that both Joan and Mr. Stemmler laughed with pleasure.
"Correct," he said. "And you have come at just the right time. Tomorrow afternoon is the last day we will use it this year, before shutting it down for the winter. Our Autumn Festival." He rose and found them each a brochure.
"Every autumn we have a tradition," he said, standing behind Amanda as she scanned the brochure. She was looking at the pictures of the canal and of the students operating the locks or captaining the boats. "The seniors get to take the last boat through it each year, which will be tomorrow afternoon. Classes are canceled after the noon hour, and the entire campus is involved. You are both invited, of course, as guests of the school. In the summer, we run tourists on it, to give the students practical experience and to make money for the school, but that last boat is just us. I hope you will come." He clapped his hands in anticipation, and he seemed so excited about it--which they both knew was a good sign--that they immediately agreed.
With that settled, Mr. Stemmler, directing many of his comments to Joan, went on to discuss Northwood--its internships and dorms, the new equipment in its old labs, the possibility of financial aid--and by the time he was done it was late afternoon. He set up Amanda's classroom visits for the following morning, then introduced them to the student tour guide, who was waiting in the outer office.
Her name was Becky, and Joan recognized her as the girl in the picture. In person, the girls' resemblance to one another was even more noticeable; both tall and pretty, both with the same bobbed hair--they might have been sisters.
"Your daughter?" Joan said, and then added, "I saw the picture on your desk," when Mr. Stemmler looked surprised.
"Oh no," Mr. Stemmler said. "No. Becky is no relation, though I think of her like a daughter." He rested his hand on her shoulder and smiled.
Becky returned his smile, and then told them a bit about herself. She was from Plattsburgh and, like Amanda, loved hydraulic engineering. As Mr. Stemmler gave Becky some instructions, Amanda whispered to her mother, "A hydro who isn't a dork. This is definitely the place for me."
Mr. Stemmler walked them all to the door, Amanda's file under his arm. "This is the perfect time for a tour," he said. "The school is at its most striking at this hour."
He stood gazing out the window at the bare trees lining the walkways, silhouetted against an amber sky, and at the rectangles of yellow light thrown from the brick buildings onto the leaf-covered quad, and then turned to Becky. "We want them to see our best side, my dear."
Joan and Amanda exchanged a quick, thrilled glance. He shook hands with both of them, giving Joan's a strong squeeze, and let them go. Just before she turned away, Joan thought she saw him wink at her.
That night, back at the town's small hotel, they splurged on room service. Over dinner, they discussed Amanda's chances, agreeing that Stemmler had been quite encouraging. They'd visited a dozen schools in New York and New England--five alone in Boston--and Northwood seemed to be the place for Amanda, but the question was, would she get in?
As she had countless other times, Joan found herself wishing that her husband was still alive. It would have thrilled James to see their daughter so excited about choosing a school, and yet he would have known the precise tone to take in order to encourage Amanda without setting her up for disappointment, something Joan found difficult to do. And she would have liked to ask him: What was she to make of Mr. Stemmler's winking?
At 11:00, just as Joan was falling asleep, the phone rang. She turned the bedside light on and took a moment to regain her composure before answering.
"Hello?" she whispered.
She recognized the voice on the other end--cultured, male, accented--as Mr. Stemmler's, and with a rush she remembered the pleasant tobacco smell of his office and the scent of his Old Spice. She pulled the covers tightly around her, as if he could see her.
"I am sorry to call so late," he said, "but I wanted to make a suggestion for tomorrow."
"This is not meant to be forward, but as Amanda is going to be busy with her classroom tours in the morning, I would like to offer you my services."
"Oh," Joan said, blushing up to her forehead. "I couldn't impose on you."
"No imposition at all," he said. "Might you be intrigued by a hike?"
"Why yes, I would," she said.
"Good. There is a short trail just outside town that leads to a fascinating cave. The cave is behind a waterfall, which freezes in the winter. You can see this for only maybe another month. Would you be interested?"
"Oh no, really Mr. Stemmler. You must have work to do." She wanted to get up and pace, but Amanda, though turned away, had obviously been listening, and now, at the mention of Mr. Stemmler's name, her body became extremely still.
"Ah, but here is the beauty of it," Mr. Stemmler said, and she found herself taken again with his voice. "I will be working, to insure that the parent of a prospective student has an experience she will never forget." He paused so long that Joan found herself leaning closer to the phone, as if willing him to go on. "What time is Amanda to go with Becky tomorrow?"
"At nine, then, I will stop by. This will give Amanda the chance to ask me any questions that might have arisen during today's tour."
Amanda smiled at her when she hung up the phone.
"You've got a boyfriend."
"Well, if it's not true, Mom, how come your face looks like a tomato?"
"Hush now, and go to sleep."
Amanda rolled over and pulled the covers up, so only the thin straps of her nightgown and her pale, freckled shoulders were visible. "You too, Mom. Sounds like you'll be having a big day. Just don't do anything to embarrass me."
After a shower and a quick breakfast, Joan waited for Mr. Stemmler's call, at first calmly, and then, as 9:00 came and went, while pacing. She'd dressed for a casual hike: sensible shoes, long silk underwear, jeans--which she was proud to still fit into--a turtleneck, a wool sweater, and an anorak. To her credit, Joan thought, Amanda neither teased nor tormented her; instead she put on a good show of being interested in the local paper, from which she was reading an entire article aloud.
Joan appreciated that Amanda was trying to distract her, but listened only intermittently to the story while watching the clock and waiting for the phone to ring. The article concerned the seven-year anniversary of the disappearance of a woman whose daughter now attended Northwood. At one point, realizing that Amanda had paused for longer than usual, she stopped beside her daughter's chair.
Amanda glanced up at her. "Sorry," she said. "I was just rereading this. Wasn't Becky's name Thibodeaux?"
"Becky. Our guide. I think her name was Thibodeaux, and that's the name of the woman who went missing." She pointed at the newspaper.
Joan checked her watch. It was 9:15. "You'll be able to ask her in half an hour."
"I'm sure it was," Amanda said, bending over the page. "How horrible. Going to school at the place where your mother went missing--who'd want to be reminded of that every day?"
"Well, maybe it's not that bad," Joan said, squeezing her shoulder and then beginning to pace again. "Perhaps on some level it's a comfort to her."
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