Chapter One

1

How well do you ever really know somebody else?

It depends.

With some folks it might take years to understand them. Others you may not fully comprehend in a lifetime.

But where a few unique individuals are concerned, you can learn all you need to know in a single night.

Just ask Christopher Taylor and Samantha Gibbons, two high school students from the small town of Summerville, Georgia. They'll tell you.

2

"So what does that guy actually do?"

Just about any conversation regarding M. Coopersmith would include this question sooner or later, usually sooner. But a lot of people have a hard time confessing they simply don't know something. They can admit they aren't sure, but clueless? That's not so easy.

So if you were to visit Summerville, Georgia, and ask the man or woman on the street just what sort of business went on at the Offices of M. Coopersmith, here are some of the answers you would likely get:

"I heard he's a lawyer."

"I heard he owns a lot of real estate."

"I heard he's an accountant."

"I heard he's a stock broker."

But nobody would be able to tell you for certain. And how could they? M. Coopersmith himself was notorious for being vague. "A little of this, a little of that," was his basic reply to the question of what he did for a living. Yes, he might throw in a bit of information on his past investments: maybe his onetime stake in a local feed store, or his former ownership of a tract of timberland in the northern part of the county. Good Southern manners usually kept the townsfolk from pressing him further. And probably for that reason, more than any other, the kindly M. Coopersmith remained a mystery. Even his first name was a matter of conjecture. Old timers remembered how a Maxamillien Coopersmith had once occupied the same small brick building, constructed circa 1898, at the corner of Bridgewell and Tanner Streets, in downtown Summerville. They just assumed this was his son or maybe his grandson now in possession of it. When these old timers were young, it seemed their parents had made reference to a certain Magnus Coopersmith who worked out of that building. So maybe this was a Max, Jr., or a Michael, or some other guy in the family whose first name started with M.

Mystery aside, there was nothing sinister in the aspect of M. Coopersmith, nor even odd. He was seldom seen in public, but longtime residents usually recognized him.

"I think that was M. Coopersmith," someone might say after he had passed by.

And yes, maybe it was M. Coopersmith: a lean man with neatly-combed silver hair, greeting pleasantly all those whose gaze he met; the nice fellow who lived in a large white Victorian house in the old part of Summerville, and who conducted his business, whatever it was, from the unremarkable building at the corner of Bridgewell and Tanner. The casual observer could have been forgiven for not noticing his workplace at all. It looked like just another house, aside from one detail: on its oak-shaded front lawn stood a post with a thin wooden sign hanging from it; that sign read, in plain black lettering, "Offices of M. Coopersmith."

Chapter Two

1

It's going to be a great night, thought Christopher Gerald Taylor as the final bell rang and the curtain fell on yet another monotonous day of school. He stuffed his Algebra book and all the papers that went with it into his backpack, then zipped it up and headed for the door.

It would be a great night because at long last his wish would be fulfilled. Not his wish to meet the mysterious M. Coopersmith; about this, he cared nothing at all. As a lifelong resident of Summerville, he was well aware of M. Coopersmith's penchant for secrecy. It just wasn't a burning desire of his, the way it seemed to be with the town gossips, to know how the man earned a living. No, what fired Chris' red-hot teenaged heart was the idea of going to the Offices of M. Coopersmith with Samantha Gibbons, the lovely junior who also happened to be his direct superior on the Summerville High School Yearbook Committee. For so very long he had dreamed of spending some quality alone-time with Samantha. And now, finally, he was on the verge of getting it. Chris had first seen Samantha in the hallway when he was a freshman and she was a sophomore. From that moment, he was smitten. Who was this beautiful girl with the long shiny auburn hair and the deep blue eyes? While there were a number of girls in his own grade who caught his attention, it was Samantha Gibbons to whom his thoughts returned most often, even though she hadn't known him at all until a few weeks ago. But Chris knew her, all right. Since that initial glimpse sixteen months ago, he had been collecting snippets of information on this alluring older woman: he had pored over his freshman yearbook and found her name; then he had looked in the section for club and team photographs and found her extracurricular activities. When he saw that she was on the Yearbook Committee, he hit upon, or at least thought he'd hit upon, a marvelous way of getting better acquainted with Samantha while at the same time padding his college application.

How did Chris rate his chances with her? Well, he wasn't unrealistic. Much to his chagrin, Samantha had a boyfriend, a handsome football player in his senior year, and Chris understood that the odds of him winning her over, at least initially, were pretty steep. Chris was tall and very thin, almost skeletal by his own reckoning, with shaggy brown hair and large dark eyes, and he bore a special burden of self-consciousness over what he considered an Adam's Apple that was much too big for his neck. He played no sports and was a solid but unexceptional student. So Chris had a pretty good handle on his shortcomings, real and imagined. But he had to try, didn't he? And there were other ways he felt he could compete with her football stud. For one thing, he thought he was a pretty funny guy. Other kids, or at least other sophomores, seemed to agree. He prided himself on being conversational. He treated people with kindness. Maybe, just maybe, if Samantha saw what a good person he was, and overlooked the insignificant difference in age, he would have a chance with her...slight, yes, but a chance.

Here was the challenge: Chris would have to find an opportunity to show her just what a charmer he could be.

And here, finally, was the solution: the Committee's faculty advisor, Mrs. Huggins, had suggested that the more experienced hands on the Committee, like Samantha, pair up with newer members, like Chris, to jointly solicit ads. Then, as if by magic, Chris and Samantha had been made into a team.

Yes, magic was the only explanation.

Chris had joined the Yearbook Committee a mere three weeks ago, and the Committee's meeting yesterday afternoon had been the first he attended. Never saying a word, Chris had taken a seat at the table around which sat the eleven members of the Committee. There had been one seat left open when the meeting convened: the seat next to him. Samantha had been late arriving; Chris feared for a moment that she had quit. But then she glided into the room, and, saying nothing to the boy, took the chair beside him.

Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Huggins made her proposal, which was accepted by the Committee (as if they had a choice) and then she simply went around the table, pairing compatible students together. She got to Chris and Samantha last.

So it was magic. It had to be.

When the meeting was over, Chris turned to Samantha and stammered, "I'm...looking forward to working with you."

"Yeah," Samantha said, though her voice was non-committal, "me too." Then she pulled out her cell phone and started on a text message...or acted like she was starting one, anyway. Chris didn't know. But even if she was trying to ignore him, they were going to have to work together. They were going to have to interact. And during these periods of interaction, Chris planned to do everything he could to get her interested in him.

Most businesses in Summerville mailed a check to the Yearbook Committee. But a small minority preferred to have a representative from the Committee visit in person, to hand the money over. M. Coopersmith belonged to the latter group. It was a surprise to many people, given how reticent he seemed in dealing with the general public. But that was the way he liked to handle his contributions, and each year the Committee honored his request for at least one or two students to visit him in his office before any money was proffered.

2

Samantha had thrilled Chris earlier this morning by catching him in the hall and letting him know she would going to the Offices of M. Coopersmith at four-thirty and that he was welcome, or at least she was giving him the option, to accompany her. She had barely gotten the words out before he took her up on her offer. Now he waited in the school parking lot, backpack at his feet, anxiously looking for Samantha and hoping she had not forgotten.

Today was probably the first day that Chris Taylor had ever been glad not to own a car. Plans for getting one were in the works, of course. He was due to start his job as a bus boy at the Summerville Country Club next week, and if he could put a decent amount of money down, then his parents would help him with the monthly payments. Chris Taylor, Sr., was a tugboat captain; his mother, Francis, a Church secretary. The Taylors were a family of limited means, but Mom and Dad meant to give Chris and his two younger brothers the best life they possibly could. Although his house was close enough to school that he could walk each day, nevertheless his parents wanted him to have a car. And maybe there hadn't been one in the driveway on his sixteenth birthday, but someday, there would be. Together, Chris and his parents would make it happen.

No sweat, though, if it didn't happen today. His lack of wheels meant that Samantha would have to take him with her to the Offices of M. Coopersmith, rather than the two of them just meeting there. She hadn't raised the latter possibility; was that a good sign, a sign that she actually wanted them to ride together? Chris had no idea. But he wasn't about to let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Once he had made her laugh a few times, he believed she would be happy to cart him from place to place. Maybe she would even offer him a ride home tonight.

He dared to hope, anyway.

"Hi, Chris," Samantha said, finally emerging from the school's main doorway. "Ready?"

"Ready," the boy answered. "How was your day today?"

"Fine." She walked past him, no doubt expecting Chris to fall in behind her...which he did, without hesitation.

And how was my day? Chris thought to himself. Oh, it was fine. Thanks for asking.

Samantha's car was a red Ford Mustang, a sleek and splendid machine, the perfect automobile for her. A pretty expensive model too, but no problem for the Gibbons family to afford, what with her dad, Richard Gibbons, being President of the First Bank of Summerville.

Samantha unlocked the doors and the two of them climbed inside.

"This is a really nice car," Chris told her, shutting the passenger side door.

"Thanks."

Samantha cranked up the Mustang; immediately, the air conditioner began shunting air into the cabin full blast.

She's barely talking to me.

Chris felt his heart sink, just a little.

Is she going to be like this the whole time?

But maybe he was expecting too much, too soon. It would take about five minutes to get to the Offices of M. Coopersmith. There was still time to get her talking to him. He didn't want to overwhelm her with his personality. Maybe, here at the start, it was just as well that he be reserved.

"Have you ever met this guy before?" Chris asked her after they were out of the parking lot and on their way.

"No."

"Do you know anybody who has?"

"Yeah," she said, "the girl who went to his office last year."

"Who was that?"

"Her name was Molly. You don't know her."

Chris blinked in surprise. What's that supposed to mean? How do you know if I know her or not? I mean, it's a good guess. I don't know anybody named Molly at our school, but still...it sounds like you're trying to cut me off.

"Okay," he said, and looked out the window.

His heart was really sinking now.

No offer of a ride home tonight, he was pretty sure.

A few minutes later the Mustang pulled into the four-space-wide, crushed-shell parking lot of the Offices of M. Coopersmith; no other vehicle was present, so maybe M. Coopersmith walked to work each day. But Chris barely noticed anything about the lot or the building. In the time elapsed since their initial exchange, no words had passed between him and Samantha; they had driven in silence. So Chris was borderline-despondent when he got out of the car. He had pictured the two of them talking and laughing on the way over. But the talking had been minimal and laughter, not even a possibility.

At this point, he wasn't even sure if he wanted to stay on the Yearbook Committee anymore.

Samantha got to the front door of the building first, gave the knob a turn. Her brow furrowed. "It's locked," she said.

"Locked?"

"Yes. Locked." Her voice had a sharpness Chris resented. Amazing, how a crush that had built up over more than a year had evaporated in a matter of minutes. At the rate things were going, by the time they were done here at the Offices of M. Coopersmith he wouldn't be able to stand her.

"All right, so let's try this." Chris stepped forward, knocked. He felt Samantha's eyes on him but didn't look at her. "Maybe he stepped out for a minute," he mused.

"Well, he said four-thirty."

Then Chris heard footsteps behind the door. "Here comes somebody," he said to her quietly.

The door unlocked from the inside, swung out to reveal M. Coopersmith, regal in his bearing yet without haughtiness. He wore a crisp white shirt and red tie. The smile on his cherubic face, with its prominent brow and fleshy cheeks, was not wide, but he wore it with such ease, such naturalness, that one could imagine smiling was something he practiced an awful lot.

"Had I locked the door?" he said in a pleasantly deep and sonorous voice, as though his vocal cords were fashioned from oak. "I'm so sorry. I must have locked it behind me when I came back from lunch." He held out his hand to Chris. "I'm Mr. Coopersmith.

He went for my hand first, Chris mocked Samantha in his head as he shook with M. Coopersmith. Yeah, maybe it's just because I'm standing closest, but I'll bet you still don't like it. Good.

"I'm Chris Taylor," he said. "We're the ones from the Yearbook Committee."

I'm taking the lead here, Sammy baby. What do you think about that?

"Good to meet you, Christopher. Yes, I thought that's who you were." M. Coopersmith looked at Samantha now, as did Chris. The boy was delighted to see a reddening of her cheeks.

"I'm Samantha Gibbons," she announced, extending her hand.

You're really mad, aren't you? Well, too bad. You should have been nicer to me. I don't care about riding with you anymore. You can leave me after this. I can walk home even from here. I'd be glad to, actually.

"Samantha," M. Coopersmith said. "It's a pleasure to meet you as well. Please come inside." He bowed as the pair stepped into the lobby. "And welcome to my office."

So this is how it looks in here, Chris thought, gazing around the lobby, which was minimally decorated to say the least. There were couple of chairs and some generic prints of shrimp boats and flowers. That was about it.

"Can I offer you any refreshments?" M. Coopersmith, clasping his hands together. "I have tea, fruit juice, bottled water…"

"I'm fine," Samantha said. "Thanks, though."

"I'm fine too," Chris answered.

"You know, it was a young lady named Molly who came here last year. A very nice girl," M. Coopersmith recalled. "How is she?"

"That was Molly Sykes," Samantha informed him. "She graduated. She's at Georgia Southern now."

Samantha was regaining control of the visit, which was fine with Chris. He didn't want to antagonize her any more than he already had. He just wanted to get this over with and go home. "Ah! So glad to hear it," M. Coopersmith remarked, turning. "Follow me, children. I have your check in my office."

"Children," Chris thought. Something struck him as old-fashioned, even antiquated, about M. Coopersmith's way of speaking. Maybe, being the reclusive type, he wasn't familiar with how ordinary people talked these days.

They followed M. Coopersmith into his office, which boasted even less warmth than his lobby. There were no pictures of any kind on the gray walls or the imperious mahogany desk. Humming tunelessly, M. Coopersmith went to that desk, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a plain white envelope with "Summerville High Yearbook" scrawled in blue ink on it.

"Here we are," he said, handing the envelope to Samantha. "There's something you should know. I'm sorry to say that this will be my last year of contributing. I'm retiring, you see."

Retiring from what? Chris wondered, but didn't ask.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Coopersmith," Samantha said. "We've really appreciated all your support."

"I was glad to do it. But open the envelope and look at the check, will you? Just so I know it's made out correctly."

Samantha complied and glanced at the check inside. She gasped. "Oh, Mr. Coopersmith, this is way too much…"

"I thought you might be surprised at the amount," said M. Coopersmith, grinning. "But don't worry. There's a method to my madness. This check is enough to cover the next ten years of contributions for me, assuming ad rates remain the same for your Yearbook. The committee can use it in installments or all at once, whatever you please. It won't be my money after I hand it over, so feel free to decide what you want to do with it. That's because after tonight, I won't be living in Summerville anymore."

"You're leaving? Where are you going?"

M. Coopersmith winked at her. "I'll be traveling."

"You're actually leaving Summerville permanently?" Chris interjected; he hadn't liked being left out of the conversation so far.

"Oh, I may come back for a visit from time to time," replied M. Coopersmith. "But yes, I think this will be a permanent move."

Samantha asked him, "Who's going to take care of your building?"

"I've donated it to the county," said M. Coopersmith, "and I've done the same with my house. I'm sure they'll find good uses for both. I hope they do, anyway."

Chris' iPhone chimed from his pants pocket: it had received a text message. He pulled it out and saw the message was from his mother. "Excuse me just one second," he said to M. Coopersmith, purposely ignoring Samantha. "I need to answer this."

"Of course," said M. Coopersmith. He and Samantha resumed their discussion, with M. Coopersmith providing some of the possibilities for what the County might do with his property.

Chris scanned his mother's text message: "Stopping at McDonalds for everybody on way home. What you want?"

Chris texted back: "Nothing. Busy now. Will be home later."

He set the phone down on a small metal table against the wall opposite the desk. He thought she might text him back and didn't want to dig it out of his pocket again.

Chris now re-focused on the announcement M. Coopersmith had just made. At the first lull in the dialogue between M. Coopersmith and Samantha, he cut in: "My grandfather told me this building has had an M. Coopersmith in it since before he was born."

M. Coopersmith raised an eyebrow. "What is your grandfather's name, may I ask?"

"Bertrand Taylor."

"That's interesting," M. Coopersmith said, rubbing his chin. "It just so happens that back in, oh, I think it was 1931 or thereabouts, a little red-headed fellow named Bertie Taylor put a baseball through the front window of this office. In those days there was a vacant lot across the street where the local children used to come and play baseball, stickball, and so forth. One day, quite accidentally, this kid Bertie sent a ball flying through the front window of the lobby. But do you know what he did afterward?"

"No, sir," Chris said.

"He marched right over and apologized to my grandfather, Magnus, face to face. Brave little boy, don't you think? He said he would pay for fixing the glass with his own money. He didn't try to run away or deny responsibility, as some other children might have done. He just owned up to his offense right then and there. And I have to tell you, my grandfather was highly impressed."

"He didn't get mad?"

"Oh, he couldn't have gotten mad," insisted M. Coopersmith, "not at an honest boy like that. He just told young Bertie not to worry about it. Accidents happen. This was during the Great Depression, remember. There was very little work to be had anyway, and he certainly didn't want the child's family to take financial responsibility, especially at such a dire time. So he just accepted the boy's apology and told him to get back to his game."

"That was nice of him."

"Well, it seemed like the right thing to do. At least I'm sure that's what my grandfather thought. Did your grandfather ever tell you a story like this?"

"No, sir," Chris answered, "not that I can remember, anyway."

"Tell you what," M. Coopersmith said, a sly look coming onto his face, "next time you see your old grandpa, ask him if his friends ever called him 'Bertie' when he was a boy."

Chris bit his lip. "I can't really do that, Mr. Coopersmith. He died three years ago."

M. Coopersmith's smile vanished. "Oh. Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that. Was it in the paper?"

"I'm sure it was."

"I see. Well, please give my condolences to your family."

"Yes, sir," Chris said.

After a moment's pause, Samantha said, "Well, thank you for this check, Mr. Coopersmith."

"You're very welcome."

"I guess we shouldn't keep you any longer," she added, clearly looking for an exit. Chris nodded in agreement. Although M. Coopersmith seemed like a nice fellow, he seemed to be the type who could talk for a long time about practically anything.

"You're not keeping me," said M. Coopersmith, confirming Chris' suspicion. Then, glancing out the window, he observed, "But it is getting late, I see."

As they walked out of the office and back into the lobby, Chris asked him, "So where will you be traveling to?"

"Oh, here and there," responded M. Coopersmith, dashing ahead to open the front door for the two of them, "everywhere."

Of course, Chris thought.

After a final round of goodbyes, they left M. Coopersmith standing in the doorway. "Be careful driving home," he called after them.

"How are you getting home from the school?" Samantha asked Chris as they got into her car. The thought, apparently, had never crossed her mind.

"I normally walk."

She turned the key in the ignition. "Do you want me to give you a ride?" Her tone was curt, businesslike.

"You don't have to. I mean, it'd be nice. But you don't have to."

"I'll give you a ride," she said.

Chris appreciated the gesture. Things had soured a bit, but maybe the night wouldn't end on a completely abysmal note. She didn't have to give him a ride, but she was willing to do it. That counted for something in the boy's mind. Even if his fixation on her was gone, there was a slim chance, Chris thought, they might end up liking each other a little bit after this.

So not a total loss, then, this trip to the Offices of M. Coopersmith...a trip from which, in hindsight, Chris had wanted way too much.

"Thank you," he said.

"No problem. Just tell me how to get there."

As they pulled out of the parking lot, Chris began giving her directions to his house. While he spoke, he noticed that M. Coopersmith was still standing in the doorway of his office, watching them. The old gentleman raised his hand in a final wave, and then disappeared back inside. The door closed slowly behind him.